Andrew Sullivan responds to me and others about his faith

Andrew Sullivan’s latest “The Intelligencer” column in New York Magazine has three subjects: Theresa May, gay jokes (he’s for them), and why atheism, like his Catholicism, is a religion. On December 9, I wrote a critique of Sullivan’s original column about atheism (“America’s new religions“), as well as giving him praise for recognizing the similarity between extreme Leftism and Rightism on one hand and conventional religions on the other.  Others, including Steve Pinker and Ezra Klein, also went after Sullivan for his take on atheism, and he tries to answer all of us.  I won’t speak for the others, but I will recount—and briefly reply to—Sullivan’s response to me. His words are indented; mine are flush left.

He makes two points. Here’s the first:

Jerry Coyne, for his part, argues that there is nothing in our genes to make us religious. I didn’t elaborate this point, but it’s rooted in the link I provided to a book, God Is Watching You, which is a pioneering work in evolutionary biology, and political science. I’d love to know what Jerry might make of its argument.

I didn’t argue that there is nothing in our genes that incline humans toward faith. I was responding to Sullivan’s claim of “genes that make us religious”, which was this:

It is, in fact, impossible not to have a religion if you are a human being. It’s in our genes and has expressed itself in every culture, in every age, including our own secularized husk of a society.

And my response was this:

Note the link in the first sentence, which doesn’t at all show that religion is “in our genes”—whatever that means. We don’t know of any “God genes”, and if by “religion genes” Sullivan means either “we like to look for greater meanings” or even “we have a tendency to accept the delusions of our elders,” well, yes, that’s probably true. But if religion is in our genes, how come so many people don’t express it? Or have those “genes” been selected out of the population of northern Europe?

Yes, of course there are aspects of our personalities and mentation—which are partly evolved and partly socialized, but all involving biology—that may incline us toward religion. One is Pascal Boyer’s notion that we’re evolved to detect agency in nature (it’s supposedly adaptive), and it’s easy to then impute that faculty to a “higher” agency. Or, as Dawkins has suggested, we are evolved to be credulous, because believing what our parents tell us helps us survive and reproduce. Combine these two and you get historically persistent and ubiquitous religiosity.

But that doesn’t mean that there are genes for specifically believing in God. We don’t know of any, nor do we really know of any genes in general that tend to make us religious. All we can do is speculate about why religion took hold, and why it was ubiquitous, which is what Boyer and Dawkins (and Dennett as well) have done. It’s all speculation! I haven’t read God is Watching You, but I’m pretty conversant with the genetics of human behavior, and I’m dubious about whether Dominic Johnson’s book gives strong evidence of genes for religiosity. (And I guess I’ll have to look at that book now, but jeez, how much can a man do?)

At any rate, Sullivan’s claim that religion has expressed itself in every culture, in every age, and so on is hardly evidence for its genetic basis. After all, so has pedophilia, a manifestly maladaptive trait. And the claim that “it’s impossible not to have a religion if you’re a human being” is flatly wrong. I am one such human, and there are many others. Finally, Sullivan doesn’t answer my question about why, if religion is in our genes and ubiquitously expressed, it’s vanishing so rapidly in the West. People can get along fine without religion. And he really needs to admit that neither agnosticism nor atheism (his definitions) are NOT religions. They’re nothing like religions. They are manifestations of skepticism.

And as for that atheism, Sullivan claims that well, it’s still kinda sorta religion:

. . . . He [Professor Ceiling Cat, Emeritus] then says that equating atheists with believers because of the intensity of their belief system is fundamentally wrong: “Most atheists simply reject the notion of God because there is no evidence for one … There is evidence that could surface that would convince many of us — I am one, Carl Sagan was another — that a divine being existed. But we haven’t seen any such evidence.”

I accept that and respect it. But this is surely a better description of what I’d call agnosticism, which in its more profound expressions, is quite similar to the doubting faith of nonfundamentalist Christians (my attempt to explain this religion of doubt is in Chapter 5 of my book, The Conservative Soul). Atheism, in contrast, is the positive denial of any God or “godness.” We can debate these definitions ad infinitum, but my diagnosis is directed more at the new Hitchens-Dawkins-Harris atheism than more agnostic varieties, prompted by John Gray’s little masterpiece, which treats these questions at the length and depth they deserve.

This is an argument about semantics, and hardly worth debating. I’ve said repeatedly, as has Dawkins and anyone with a scientific bent, that we can’t be absolutely certain that there’s no God, but the evidence isn’t there at all, so we can be nearly certain: close to 7 on Dawkins’s 7-point scale running from fervent belief to absolute certainty. But I am an atheist, and so is Dawkins, and if you don’t believe because there is no evidence, well, that’s not materially different from being absolutely certain there’s no God because there is no evidence. Those who profess atheistic “certainty” could probably be convinced of gods if there were evidence for Gods. Such folks seem to Sullivan like absolutists because they’re not scientists, and so don’t they don’t think of empirical truth as provisional.  Sullivan’s definition of atheism as “positive denial of any God” isn’t that far from the a-Nessie stand of “positive denial of the Loch Ness monster”—which of course is Sullivan’s own stand (if he’s rational). The gap between 6.9 and 7.0 isn’t so large!

As for John Gray’s “little masterpiece,” I’m not inclined to read it. After having a several-year bout with the likes of Plantinga, David Bentley Hart, Karen Armstrong, and others, I don’t want to go another round with an atheist-dissing atheist who’s also an anti-progressivist.

Finally, what about Sullivan’s claim that my “agnostic” near certainty of no God is “quite similar to the “doubting faith of nonfundamentalist Christians”? Sadly, he’s wrong here, for there’s a huge difference. While liberal Christianity may involve doubt, atheism—or Sullivan’s characterization of “agnosticism”—does not involve faith. Why is a doubt based on lack of evidence anything like accepting a divine and resurrected Jesus or a theistic god?

I’m hoping that, as Sullivan moves toward the center of the political spectrum, he comes to realize that the Vatican is one of the world’s great promulgators of “fake news.” And it’s sad for me to see a man I respect, a man whose mind can be changed about politics, remain so adamant about Jesus and Catholicism.

See you next Friday.*

*Only kidding! I’ll be here all week, folks!

 

107 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted December 14, 2018 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Sub

  2. Posted December 14, 2018 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Atheism, in contrast, is the positive denial of any God or “godness.”

    This, of course, is the oldest strawman there is regarding atheism. It would be nice if the religious finally tired of it and accepted that it isn’t true.

    But they can’t, of course, since that would leave them with no good counter to atheism.

    • Vaal
      Posted December 14, 2018 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

      I’m also reminded of what I would term The Internet Agnostic.

      This is the person who intervenes in on-line debates between, say, a Christian and an atheist over the existence of God.

      The Agnostic jumps in as the “reasonable, not the extreme” position and tells everyone “look, you two dogmatic extremes, you have no grounds for either of your positions. The fact is, whether a God exists or not CAN NOT BE KNOWN.”

      Which is, of course, as hubristic a claim to knowledge about God as the one she imagines the atheist/theist to be making. The Internet Agnostic has just told us that SHE knows the nature of any God who could exist, and that nature is to be “unknowable” and that “no one knows this God exists!”

      Funny how much such agnostics seem to know about God….

      • Sastra
        Posted December 15, 2018 at 9:11 am | Permalink

        Well put.
        That position is similar to the liberal theist’s insistence that there is no “right way” to understand God because God exists in every faith — many paths, same destination. The vast majority of believers, then — who think there’s just one path — don’t understand God the right way.

        Point out the problem there, though, and they think it’s a trick.

  3. tomh
    Posted December 14, 2018 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Well, as for evidence for god, IMO, not only is there no evidence for god, there is no possible evidence for god, that could not be explained just as easily and reasonably in another way (aliens, hallucinations, and more.)

    • Posted December 14, 2018 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

      I agree with Jerry on this; for some sets of evidence, a god is the most parsimonious and predictive explanation. For example, if there had been a god, he could have written messages to us in English in the genetic codes that he would have known we would decode and label with letters. These would have been impossible to falsify or hallucinate; anyone in the world has access to the species and could do their own decoding. The messsages could even have been personalized, naming and describing the decoder in ways that no third parties or lab techs could have known (secret birthmark, etc). The hypothesis that god did it leads to predictions about the kinds of messages that would be found by other people.

      Similarly, if there had been a god, he could have made magically-updating hard-copy bibles to keep up with current vocabulary and ethical dilemmas. If this happened to all Christian bibles anywhere in the world, all at the same time, the simplest explanation would be that there really is a god. The hypothesis leads to predictions about how bibles will change in the future, and why Korans and other books don’t change once they are published.

      • tomh
        Posted December 14, 2018 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

        And the aliens who created the computer simulation that we act in, on someone’s hard drive somewhere, could have done the same thing. In my view, that’s a more likely scenario than a god (however it’s defined) being responsible. But that’s me, others may differ.

        • mikeyc
          Posted December 14, 2018 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

          I agree. Arthur C Clarke said it best; “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

          • Conelrad
            Posted December 15, 2018 at 4:40 am | Permalink

            I thought that was just a way to generate sci-fi plot ideas.

        • Posted December 15, 2018 at 7:13 am | Permalink

          In what way would the alien that created our World as a simulation in a computer not qualify as God on our terms?

          • rickflick
            Posted December 15, 2018 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

            Perhaps his parents would threaten to kick him out of the house if he didn’t get off of his simu-station and get a job. 😎

    • Vaal
      Posted December 14, 2018 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

      …not only is there no evidence for god, there is no possible evidence for god, that could not be explained just as easily and reasonably in another way (aliens, hallucinations, and more.)”

      The idea expressed there ^^^ is almost meme-level, given I’ve seen so many atheists say this.

      But it’s a deeply flawed idea based on inconsistency and special pleading. The principle, taken seriously, even undermines the very scientific enterprise.

      Any observation we make could be consistent with the idea that super advanced aliens are manipulating us, or some phenomenon, to cause our observations. So why don’t we take the alien hypothesis seriously? Because it’s not parsimonious; postulating additional entities requires evidence.

      And everything we can observe is in principle logically compatible with “mass hallucination.” And yet, this too is generally rejected as an “explanation” for all the wild, counter-intuitive discoveries of science. Why? Because we have ways to decide between hallucination and observed reality. We generally agree on what is real by the way it differs from dreams and hallucinations – the shared consistency of an empirical experience – e.g. being able to see and touch and investigate the Statue Of Liberty, or Lake Superior or whatever. They produce reliable, persistent and consistent experience among different people in ways that dreams and hallucinations can not uphold.

      If a Being existed who created the universe, started life, who can oversee the happenings in this universe, manipulate it at will, read out minds, etc, then in principle that Being could show up in a manner that is Empirically Consistent in just the way any other real thing is empirically consistent to any observer. None of this “show up to some little group in secret and vanish” stuff.

      So if such a Being shows up, does a tour of the earth appearing to everyone, tells us how/when it created everything, demonstrates it has the power to instantly create life, planets, suns, tells us all the things a God would know about inner lives, history, etc.

      Then what basis could we warrant rejecting the claim of this Being to be God, The Creator?

      ALL the evidence we would have, would be in favor of that claim. And that’s how we accept the existence of new phenomena in every other case.

      If you would say “despite all the evidence points towards validating this Being to be who he claims, it still COULD be aliens!”

      But that is simply unmotivated in the same way it’s unmotivated by that appeal-to-aliens anywhere else in our empirical inquiry. It’s postulating “this is not what it seems” merely because you don’t want to accept how it seems. And if you posit the additional entities of aliens, you would have to show either evidence for those aliens. Or if you posit that the Being is an alien who is somehow fooling us, then you’d have to actually come up with a testable hypothesis showing this additional proposition is required to explain what we are observing.
      You can’t just postulate it “because it too would be consistent with the observations.” That’s not how good empiricism works.

      And the appeal to hallucinations would fail the same criteria. If this God’s presence was empirically consistent and publicly observable to the degree that any other real object is – from the coke can you can buy at a store, to the physical forces studied in science, then there could be no motivation, beyond special pleading only in this instance, to think that suddenly it’s more probable “everyone on earth is having the same hallucination.”

      This meme of “the appearance of a God would always be better explained as aliens/hallucination” really should be buried IMO. It’s abandoning the scientific mindset for no good reason.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted December 14, 2018 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, it seems like the secular equivalent of the Omphalos hypothesis or “Last Thursdayism.”

      • tomh
        Posted December 14, 2018 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

        “So why don’t we take the alien hypothesis seriously?”

        I don’t know who the “we” are, certainly not the scientist and philosophers who debated the issue at the Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate. Not Neil deGrasse Tyson, who put the odds at 50-50 that our entire existence is a program on someone else’s hard drive.

        “So if such a Being shows up, does a tour of the earth appearing to everyone, tells us how/when it created everything, demonstrates it has the power to instantly create life, planets, suns, tells us all the things a God would know about inner lives, history, etc. Then what basis could we warrant rejecting the claim of this Being to be God, The Creator?”

        Tell me again how you would know this Being wasn’t an alien? Oh right, because the Being told you it was a god, and aliens wouldn’t lie, would they.

        “ALL the evidence we would have, would be in favor of that claim.”

        ALL the evidence you would have would be that something you don’t understand showed up and told you it was a god.

        • Vaal
          Posted December 15, 2018 at 12:53 am | Permalink

          “So why don’t we take the alien hypothesis seriously?” I don’t know who the “we” are,….

          “We” is every sane person.

          I was pointing out that the alien hypothesis could be consistent with ANY observation we make, including ANY observation any scientist has ever made. And in these countless instances “we” wouldn’t take the alien hypothesis seriously simply because it “could explain what we observe.”

          Trump “could be” an alien in disguise, screwing around with us. But even though that could be consistent with all the evidence Trump has given us that he is a human buffoon, you won’t take that as a serious proposal. Why? Because it’s more parsimonious to go with “everything Trump does points to his being human, the alien hypothesis is unmotivated and gets us nothing more in explanatory/predictive terms.”

          It’s exactly the same with the God scenario I posed.

          It may be the case that a God exists. We should be open to any reality that can manifest itself to us. Otherwise, we are just dogmatically hanging on to prior knowledge.

          Tell me again how you would know this Being wasn’t an alien? Oh right, because the Being told you it was a god, and aliens wouldn’t lie, would they.

          If by “know” you mean some form of warranted Absolute Certainty, that’s not available to your or to me. I couldn’t simply “know for sure” this Being wasn’t an alien deceiving us. But then, YOU couldn’t establish with absolute certainty Trump isn’t an alien who is deceiving us.

          So what do we do? We go on what the evidence points toward, in the most parsimonious way.

          Again, it’s not merely that this Being claimed to be God, The Creator Of The Universe. It’s that the Being would have provide reams of evidence FOR that claim. As much as we could ever want.

          Now, if ALL the evidence supported the claim this Being was who He said He was, what possible epistemic motivation can you give to suggest otherwise, that despite it seems EXACTLY that this is The Creator…that is actually a false proposition? To appeal to some other scenario of ‘aliens?’

          If you are just going to say “Well we can’t KNOW it’s not super advanced alien technology pretending to be The Creator” and you think that is a good reason to not accept this Being’s claims, then to be consistent you’d have to say we can’t conclude Trump is a human being no matter how much evidence supports that proposition because “it could always be an alien.”

          But of course that’s absurd. And for that reason, it would just be special pleading to reject all the evidence for this God “because I can also say it could be aliens deceiving us.”

          A Being who shows up and tells us about Himself, His nature, powers, involvement in our history, and gives powerful evidence for all his claims.

          The most parsimonious move is, as everywhere else, to so “This is what it looks like.”

          But if you want to challenge this with “No, it’s JUST as possible this Being is deceiving us, that it’s aliens behind this” then that is LESS parsimonious and you would need to show how that hypothesis has more explanatory power, how we would test your additional hypothesis. If saying “it could be aliens” doesn’t give us any more substance, explanatory or predictive power over just “this Being is who He says and demonstrates He is” then it’s a useless addition.

          Also: We can’t take the position that everything has to be explained based on prior established knowledge (e.g. we only know of beings in X form, therefore all beings have to be of X form). If that were the case, we could never adapt to encountering undiscovered phenomenon.

          And we can’t take the stance that we must have a theoretically sound basis for a phenomenon before accepting the existence of the phenomenon. That would be a science killer, as often the observations of a phenomena comes first, it’s accepted as “a real thing” and THEN we search for an explanation to understand it’s nature.

          That’s why it would be wrong headed to insist on something like: “since we have plausible theories based on our experience of earth’s biology about how aliens could exist, but we don’t know of any phenomenon that would support the existence of a Creator God, we should always default to the aliens explanation for incredible phenomena such as ultra powerful beings.” That would be to simply shut us off to any possibility of accepting the reality of a God, should one exist and manifest. And it would be on a special pleading basis were, only in the case of a Creator Being we are going to say “we will not acknowledge that this new phenomenon is what it seems to be – we will always presume that it MUST be explained by phenomena we already know.”

          That’s just not scientific.

          • tomh
            Posted December 15, 2018 at 9:44 am | Permalink

            So, a being shows up with attributes we have never seen. One explanation is that it is a natural being from a distant world, perhaps one whose technology equaled ours some tens of millions of years ago, whose intelligence has been evolving those tens of millions of years. Well, we know natural beings exist, that intelligence evolves, and and that that amount of time is a fraction of what’s available.

            Another explanation is that it is a magical being, that it came into existence out of nothing, and created everything there is with a wave of its arm. Some might prefer the magical explanation, but I would be more inclined to accept the natural explanation.

            ““We” is every sane person.”

            Sure, if you define “sane” as those who agree with you.

            • Vaal
              Posted December 15, 2018 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

              tomh,

              You still aren’t taking on board the issues I raised.

              “So, a being shows up with attributes we have never seen.’

              Not just “attributes we have never seen” but specifically attributes suggestive of a Being who Created The Universe! And who can know all our histories, our thoughts, who can manipulate reality at His will.

              So, say a Being shows up, tells us he is “God,” and displays seemingly unlimited knowledge. And seemingly unlimited power. He claims to have created the universe. He does local demonstrations such as re-arranging mountains, re-arranging the grand canyon, even re-arranging continents, producing life from non-life right before us, creating at His whim new life forms. All of these are empirically consistent and observable by anyone as is any other thing in our experience. He re-arranges and create new galaxies, makes half the universe seem to disappear…again…all vetted by the very same observational techniques we use to establish reality in the first place.

              This Being reads our minds, tells us why he created us, and points us to a never ending stream of evidence of his particular handiwork in the fossil and geographical records.

              Literally EVERYTHING he does supports the proposition that He is Our Creator and the Creator Of The universe, and that He can manipulate reality via some undetectable force of Will. (He could even demonstrate how our consciousness will survive our deaths, if we want to bring in an afterlife to the scenario).

              Now, take two positions:

              1. This Being is exactly as He seems to be: A God who created us and the universe.

              2. This being is NOT what he seems to be. He is instead some representative of Super Alien Technology and is deceiving us.

              Clearly, #1 is the more parsimonious explanation. It’s the normal route of explanation “Things are as they seem, unless we have reasons to doubt.”

              And what possible “reason to doubt” could you have if everything this Being did survived the same scrutiny we use to remove doubt???

              We can’t confuse the body of knowledge we have with the value of the scientific METHOD for attaining knowledge. In other words, we can not be limited only by what we have “known” or uncovered in the past (e.g. we know about biological life therefore we can never accept the existence of beings who are not similarly constituted). We have to be open to WHATEVER is real – be it new forces, new forms of matter or non-matter, or beings of a nature we never dreamed could exist. And the method we use to vet is “something is real” is the usual empirical methods: appealing to publicly available empirical evidence, intersubjective agreement that a phenomenon is happening, testability by different parties, etc.

              And parsimony, where we do not adduce unnecessary entities in our explanations.

              The addition of the alien hypothesis is merely logical compatibility; it doesn’t aid explanatory/predictive power. It would be right to reject it in the case of the God Being described above for the very same reasons you would reject it in explaining the nature of your own mother. The very reason you think you know the nature of your human mother in the first place is by observation of her traits. Not by postulating alien alternatives. For the same reason, we would learn about the God Being by observing His traits, and reject any merely logically compatible “alien” hypothesis that does not lend any more explanatory or predictive power to simply accepting “This Being is as He claims and appears to be.”

              Cheers.

              • tomh
                Posted December 15, 2018 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

                “Clearly, #1 is the more parsimonious explanation. It’s the normal route of explanation “Things are as they seem, unless we have reasons to doubt.””

                Well, I guess I’m just old-school, I prefer a natural explanation to a supernatural one. And, advanced alien technology, as strange as it might seem, is still a natural explanation. An unknowable god, with unlimited powers and knowledge, who is eternal or something, is a supernatural explanation. I still go with the natural explanation. But I understand if others don’t. Heck, billions of our fellow humans today prefer supernatural explanations.

      • Nicolaas Stempels
        Posted December 14, 2018 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

        I disagree that it should be buried, and the notion it -the hypothetical alien- is fooling us somehow is not needed.
        “Any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God.” (Shermer’s ‘Last Law’). Since it is indistinguishable there is no prima facie preference one way or the other.
        However, we more or less know how intelligence came to be, by evolution. A God would have sprung into existence spontaneously ex nihilo. Much less probable than an extraterrestrial intelligence that evolved somewhere else.

        • Vaal
          Posted December 15, 2018 at 1:13 am | Permalink

          “Any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God.” (Shermer’s ‘Last Law’). Since it is indistinguishable there is no prima facie preference one way or the other.

          But there is!

          And you actually know it.

          Take anyone you love. A “sufficiently advanced” extra-terrestrial creation could, in principle, perfectly mimic a human being like your loved one.

          In that sense your loved one “could” be made of alien technology, instead of being a human being.

          Does this mean you have no “prima facie” reason to assume one conclusion over another?

          If not, on your logic, you no longer have warrant to believe your loved one is human, not alien.

          But, in fact, you actually DO have warrant to conclude he/she is human. Why? Because that’s the most parsimonious conclusion. All the evidence suggests this person you know is human – every trait they exhibit is human-like. To go with the alien explanation is unwarranted to the point of being insane.
          In fact “prima facie” IS in essence the way you can make this rational discernment.
          “Things are as they seem – UNLESS we have reasons to believe otherwise” is essentially our guiding principle to grasping reality.

          It’s the same for any other phenomena we encounter.

          If a Being claiming to be The Creator Of The Universe shows up, and exhibits the type of power that suggests He could have done this, and if He gives us information about the history of the universe, life on earth etc, that we can then confirm by observation – if every bit of evidence is in line with this Being The Creator – then it is just as unparsimonious to reject where all the evidence points to instead something ELSE compatible with the evidence – “aliens” – as it is to jump from all the evidence suggesting your loved one is human to something ELSE compatible with the evidence – “aliens.”

          A God would have sprung into existence spontaneously ex nihilo.

          Well, of course, it would always be best to have an understanding of what we are prepared to accept as a “God.”

          But even the monotheists wouldn’t say God sprang up “ex nihilo.” And I don’t see how a generic Creator Of The Universe God would have to have arisen ex nihilo. (Though, that could be a brute fact about a God even if it were the case). That God could have arisen by some process in another universe or another “realm” of some sort, of the type we are not currently aware of. Or just existed in some sense “eternally” ….in a way He could explain when he shows up…:)

      • Sastra
        Posted December 15, 2018 at 9:31 am | Permalink

        You’re absolutely right. The “it could be an advanced alien messing with us” (the ‘Q Hypothesis’) would undermine all conclusions because all conclusions are tentative.

        I’ll add another element to your excellent arguments though by asking a question: what is one important distinction between a natural alien and a supernatural God? Or, more direct: what distinguishes natural from supernatural?

        In brief: the mental comes out of matter in the former, but not the latter. Or, to be specific, if it doesn’t have an evolved brain and yet thinks, feels, cares, desires, and communicates out of nowhere, using nothing, without any mechanism or process which we can discover, test, or even come up with a halfway decent hypothesis for, it’s *probably* supernatural.

        Advanced technology only “seems like” magic because it’s technology. So let’s add in actual magic. That puts another nail in the “it could be an advanced alien” dodge.

        (Of course, one can always fight any battle with semantics: put “the most advanced alien” into the definition of God.)

      • Posted December 15, 2018 at 11:32 am | Permalink

        I thought tomh was making the same point. Due to lack of evidence, the only explanations left to “prove” the existence of god are those that reasonable people dismiss out of hand.

  4. Posted December 14, 2018 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    The only useful definition of “atheist” that I’ve found is “one who lacks belief in a god or gods.” That covers everyone I know who identifies as an atheist.

    I find Sullivan’s (and others’) use of “agnostic” useless as a description. Knowledge claims about gods are orthogonal to belief. It’s possible to be a gnostic-theist, an agnostic-theist, or an agnostic-atheist. I don’t personally know any gnostic atheists (aka “strong atheists”, those who claim that gods definitely do not exist), but I’m sure there are some out there.

    Some people who lack belief in a god or gods don’t like the word atheist and prefer to call themselves agnostic. That’s fine when the distinction doesn’t matter, but it’s still useless as a descriptor. If you lack belief, you’re an atheist.

    • Barry McGuire
      Posted December 14, 2018 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

      Exactly!

      Gnosticism and agnosticism deal with knowledge claims.

      Theism and atheism deal with belief claims.

      A theist believes in a god or gods. An atheist is without such belief.

      A Gnostic claims to know there is a god/gods. An agnostic claims no knowledge of a god’s existence or non-existence

      From my perspective everyone, without exception, is an agnostic. I know nothing of a god or gods. Nor does anyone else despite their claims otherwise. Belief is not knowledge.

      I did once come upon a declared gnostic atheist though he was not at all clear about how he acquired such knowledge. I define myself as an agnostic atheist.

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted December 14, 2018 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

        What about deism – its not theism – how does atheism cover deism – is it just a name?

        • Barry McGuire
          Posted December 14, 2018 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

          Generally, the term theist applies to one who holds a belief in a personal god. Deists believe in an impersonal god and are thus not theists. And to not be a theist is to be an atheist. Deists are indeed atheists, the “a” meaning not. And there is no more evidence for an impersonal god than for a personal one.

          • Posted December 14, 2018 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

            Mr. McGuire, you write that “the term theist applies to one who holds a belief in a personal god.” This is not true. What you’re describing is called theistic personalism, which did not exist until around the time of the scientific revolution. The traditional Christian, Jewish, and Islamic view of God is classical theism, which denies that God is a person. By your definition, St. Thomas Aquinas would not qualify as a theist.

            • Barry McGuire
              Posted December 15, 2018 at 8:52 am | Permalink

              By “personal” I was not referring to the nature of god but to the claim the “he” takes a personal interest in his creation and performs miracles and other intercessions in the natural order. There are hundreds of such intercessions noted in both new and old testaments.

      • JohnE
        Posted December 14, 2018 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

        ‘There’s glory for you!’, said Humpty Dumpty

        ‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.

        Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

        ‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.

        ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

        ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

        ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘whether you or the word is to be master — that’s all.’

        Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking Glass,” Chapter 6.

        Your analysis of the Greek roots of theism, atheism, gnosticism and agnosticism is no doubt correct, but I think the meanings of many of those terms has changed through usage. People may not have a “belief” in god precisely because they don’t have any “knowledge” of the existence of god, and would likely consider themselves to be “atheists.”

        • Barry McGuire
          Posted December 14, 2018 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

          No disagreement. People who claim no knowledge of god and hence hold no belief in god are quite accurate in considering themselves atheists.

          • Posted December 14, 2018 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

            The only knowledge I have of god are of other people’s gods. If someone has direct, first-hand knowledge of god, they shouldn’t call themselves “atheist”.

            • Barry McGuire
              Posted December 15, 2018 at 8:35 am | Permalink

              Yes, indeed. For someone to claim direct knowledge of god and also claim that they do not believe what they claim to know would be a blatant logical contradiction.

  5. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted December 14, 2018 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    It is marvelous – in a bad way – what religion can drive one to think and do.

    • Posted December 14, 2018 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

      I can only think it’s insecurity. Sullivan appears to really, deeply need others belief systems to be closely matching his own, no matter what prescription is laid in front of him.

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted December 14, 2018 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

        If I was in a conversation with Mr. Sullivan I’d probably say “The results are in – religion is bogus. Get over it – you can live without it – why is that such a big deal?”

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted December 14, 2018 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

      I add Weinberg’s maxim, paraphrased:

      It takes religion to make good people do bad things.

      The “do” here, I of course mean Sullivan writing specifically the apologetic sections of his pieces. Because the rest is quite set apart. He seems a cool person.

  6. ploubere
    Posted December 14, 2018 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    For a theist to entertain the notion that they might be wrong is tantamount to losing faith. So it’s impossible to have an intellectual discussion with a theist on the subject of god.

    • rickflick
      Posted December 14, 2018 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      Plainly said. I might differ a bit and prefer, it’s “almost impossible”. There are a few believers that do lose there faith due to conversation or reading.

    • Posted December 14, 2018 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

      I was a theist once upon a time, and it was precisely those sorts of intellectual conversations that help spur my apostasy.

      • Mark R.
        Posted December 14, 2018 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

        I can relate to this.

  7. Simon Hayward
    Posted December 14, 2018 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    A little off your central theme, but I’m not sure Sullivan is moving to the political center, at least by much. He seems more to be standing still and the balance point is moving to the right. He was a pro-Thatcher conservative in 1980s British politics which is pretty consistent with a pro-Obama Democrat in early 21st century American politics. They are both pretty conservative positions (Obama would be on the right in much of Europe). I guess you could argue that his pro-Iraq war position was to the right of that and that he has moved back from there, but he has analyzed and apologized for that part of his life enough to think that it was an anomaly.

    Agree on the religion bit, but I think he believes (at least he has said) that his acceptance of god is a fundamental part of his nature (perhaps why he feels like it’s in his genes). I just have the opposite affliction.

    • Curtis
      Posted December 14, 2018 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

      I agree that the right is moving to the right but the left is also moving to the left. We have a shift to the poles, not to the right.

  8. Mark Cagnetta
    Posted December 14, 2018 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    I would recommend the book “Atheism in France, 1650-1720” by Alan Charles Kors. He talks about universal belief being promulgated by the pious. When explorers started returning with stories of nonbelievers the attitudes of Europeans changed considerably.

    • Posted December 14, 2018 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

      I used to think aliens would put a nail in the coffin for organized (theistic) religions. Alas, I am not convinced it would do anything. The serpentine rationalizations of the faithful will put humans with God above all else.

    • revelator60
      Posted December 14, 2018 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

      I will make sure to check that out, thank you. I know Kors has written about Baron D’Holbach, one of the first modern atheists, who is also one of the subjects of Philipp Blom’s superb “A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment.”

  9. dd
    Posted December 14, 2018 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    I think a big innovation of modernism is the introduction of non-theistic religions.

    It’s pretty clear that intersectionality is a catechism, and that much of “social justice warrior” belief is a transposition from Christianity, for example, onto a secular domain. It’s why some people call this relgion “secular fundamentalism”.

    Ayaan Hirsi Ali somewhat touches on this when she notes that “bigot” and “hate speech” are secular notions for “heretic” and “heresy”.

  10. Posted December 14, 2018 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    It’s all semantics, as Sullivan has defined “religion” to mean ‘any firmly-held belief’, thus stretching it to the point of inanity.

  11. Ken Pidcock
    Posted December 14, 2018 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Finally, what about Sullivan’s claim that my “agnostic” near certainty of no God is “quite similar to the “doubting faith of nonfundamentalist Christians”?

    Perhaps because he thinks of doubting faith as non-belief with attachment to Christianity. There’s a tremendous amount of belief in belief in what Sullivan writes. See his February 22 column on Auden.

  12. Roo
    Posted December 14, 2018 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    I find this topic so interesting. I do see what Sullivan is saying about the possibility of religion being to some extent genetic. For example, the apparent link between autism and atheism would seem to support the ‘perceived agency’ theory. I also think it’s *possible that the ever controversial group selection could be a factor in religion, and that parts of religion could simply be verbalized intuitions that we are born with, regarding a need to put tribe over self when nature generally selects for selfish behavior (or perhaps this could have been born out of primate hierarchies and wouldn’t even need to involve group selection). This would be quite similar to children with OCD who come up with explanations like “The Martians make me wash my hands” (as described in The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Washing). People with OCD are not schizophrenic or delusional, but they are faced with psychologically incongruent impulses that they have to integrate into a coherent narrative somehow.

    When we get into more mystical realms, I more or less agree with Sullivan, but I think it is an important distinction to use words like ‘materialism’ or ‘dualism’ vs. ‘no God’. I think it is quite rational to be entirely agnostic about the ultimate nature of reality, consciousness, what happens when we die, and so on. And generally that is what religious scholars, to my mind, more or less mean by God – they will say that there is a ‘personal God’, for example, and then say his personality is impossible to describe and beyond all comprehension and not conceivable by our human minds. A God of panentheism, Buddhism’s ’emptiness’, and Tegmark’s ‘universe of math’ all sound relatively similar, to my mind.

    I sympathize with Sullivan’s theism (Hey, I’m a Frankenstein monster of this generation’s varied ‘spiritual’ influences – I have vague notions that it’s good for people to pray because it realigns their quarks and purifies their quantum fields or some such thing, lol. And yes, I know that makes me sound like a lunatic, but I am what I am.) People always say people turn to religion primarily because of death, but to my mind it is the problem of injustice and suffering that are psychologically unbearable without the hope of some kind of cosmic order that eventually brings true reparation and true joy to all sentient minds.

    • Roo
      Posted December 14, 2018 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

      Looks like my comments aren’t going through anymore. 😦 Peace out then.

      • Posted December 14, 2018 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

        No, you haven’t been banned or anything, so I’m not trashing anything. I’ll check the comments.

        • Roo
          Posted December 14, 2018 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

          Thank you. Sorry for jumping the gun on assuming that, I get all overly sensitive sometimes.

      • Serendipitydawg
        Posted December 14, 2018 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

        I generally refresh the page when this happens and the comment has always then appeared.

    • Posted December 14, 2018 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

      Cosmic order does not require a god. Physical laws provide order and they do not appear to be transcendent and if they are that would be metaphysics.

      People are attracted to religion because of the promise of an afterlife. I think most people want an afterlife more than cosmic order. And it’s my belief that most people would prefer both over a god. This is a bit of a paradox for most believers. If asked what has highest priority my guess they would rank: 1) afterlife, 2) cosmic order, 3) god. God is in last place…poor fellow.

      • Mark R.
        Posted December 14, 2018 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

        And when pressed about what that afterlife will be like, every person who believes in said afterlife will have a different answer.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted December 14, 2018 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

          All of ’em seem to think they’ll be reunited with their loved ones — including the ones whose loved ones don’t love each other. Gonna be a bitch of a task working out seating chart in heaven. 🙂

          • Mark R.
            Posted December 15, 2018 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

            A guy once told me he was looking forward to seeing dinosaurs in heaven. His theory was that god wouldn’t allow his creations to go extinct so he made duplicates in heaven. Apparently, heaven has every creature that has ever existed on earth! You can’t make this shit up. The God Delusion indeed.

      • Roo
        Posted December 14, 2018 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

        It’s a fair point that ‘order’ can mean many things. I mean *an order that I like*, which for the most part means there is no such thing as needless or meaningless suffering for which the victim receives no cosmic atonement. I’m not saying that’s a logical argument, only that I see how religion can be deeply appealing – and even the only thing that makes life bearable for some people – in that particular arena. Transcendental type experiences are the only framework I’ve ever found in which the suffering of sentient creatures makes *some sort of sense (in that suffering seems almost meaningless in that state, ergo, if all sentient minds come to reside in it forever eventually, then whatever suffering they endured up to that point is effectively erased, in some sense. Sort of like the ‘reality’ of a nightmare is effectively erased upon waking. It existed, but not in a ‘real’ way.)

        Eternal life I am kind of ‘meh’ on, I am actually a bit confused that atheists often assume this must be why believers believe. In a selfish way, I like the idea that *other people aren’t simply gone forever when they die – I don’t want my parents to simply disappear one day, for example. For myself, if I had to live with myself for all eternity I wouldn’t be thrilled and after a couple of hundred years think I would long to shut my eyes and just fall into an eternal ‘sleep’. When I was a kid I was told that heaven was going to church for all eternity, which kind of freaked me out more than anything, lol! (As an adult I’m not sure what this is meant to mean, as humans aren’t supposed to have 5 senses in heaven either, so perhaps being in church beyond the senses simply represented the transcendent to early Christians, I’m not sure.)

        • Posted December 14, 2018 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

          There needs to be a school for gods in which they must pass a test showing that their creations will not cause “needless or meaningless suffering” for createes before they can create. If there were no suffering initially, there would be no cause for “cosmic atonement”.

          A hereafter in which the dead simply went into or beneath the earth (or whatever other tradition existed) made more sense until it was modified to include notions of reward and punishment.

          The early stages of a Christian hereafter seemed to be more for the purpose of assuring the living mistreated with meaningless suffering that there would be retribution in the hereafter against the “bad guys”. How does this work when the “bad guy” was your creator?

          • Roo
            Posted December 15, 2018 at 9:41 am | Permalink

            Christian theology has ‘the fall of man’ and eastern philosophies have ‘illusion’ by various names. (I think much of the OT reads like a mythological-historical account that is consistent with that time – but the Tree of Knowledge always strikes me as an excellent metaphor for the idea that the ability to have an experience requires separation from one’s surroundings, mentally, and separation requires suffering.)

            All of them seem to posit in some way shape or form the idea that egoic impulses are the root of human problems, and even that suffering is a path to undoing this problem, if properly applied (ascetic practices are basically a regime of controlled suffering that chips away at the ego, to my mind). After this, one returns to the God or Enlightenment that was always there, if obscured. The more difficult question in that framing is why we should be stuck in such a state in the first place. Christianity’s answer is ‘free will’; eastern philosophies is something like ‘you’re totally not, it’s an illusion!’. Neither is particularly satisfying to me as I don’t believe in free will and if suffering is an illusion, it’s still one that I experience, so saying “but it’s not real!” doesn’t do much if I have a headache. But, the idea that all sentient creatures eventually chip away at this illusion and receive a reward so great that it erases all prior suffering is, again, very appealing to me.

            • Posted December 17, 2018 at 7:37 am | Permalink

              I can relate to your desire to “… receive a reward so great that it erases all prior suffering…” Especially if much of one’s life (real or illusion) has caused one to focus primarily on the pain and suffering. However, I haven’t yet encountered the description of an afterlife I’d want to spend much time in. I’d soon be bored with all the people and activities (also, vice versa)and there’s no indication that one could be selective of either.

              I’m intending to focus in the present on the parts of my life I interpret as “good” and minimize my focus on the rest. When this mortal coil has uncoiled, I won’t be reviewing the past from the perspective of this one individual. I will be looking forward to becoming atoms without consciousness that may be recycled into some other aspect, living or otherwise, of the universe.

  13. Barry Lyons
    Posted December 14, 2018 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    A while ago I had a debate on Twitter with a nonbeliever who insisted that the meaning of “atheism” isn’t semantics and that a-theism (deliberate hyphen for emphasis) does NOT mean “lacking in belief” or “without gods.” He argues that the description provided by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is correct because this is how philosophers define “atheism”. To put this simply, the SEP is saying that an atheist IS making a claim: “God does not exist” whereas I’ve always understood the definition of “atheist” to mean a person who says “I don’t believe in God”. In my view “I don’t believe in God” and “God does not exist” do not mean the same thing.

    I’d like to see Jerry, if he’s interested, examine this SEP entry. Obviously, I’d also be interested to see what anyone else in this comment thread has to say about this as well: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/atheism-agnosticism/

    • Posted December 14, 2018 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think it is the case that all philosophers define atheism that way. In fact, the article references philosophers who do not.

      There is an important distinction between belief and (claimed) knowledge that I discussed in this brief post on The Skeptical Zone: http://theskepticalzone.com/wp/the-a-word/ Defining atheism to mean only those people making the positive claim that no gods exist ignores the majority of people who identify as atheists. The two-dimensional scale of theism-atheism orthogonal to gnosticism-agnosticism is far more descriptive and useful.

      • Barry Lyons
        Posted December 14, 2018 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

        I agree with you. But here’s the funny (peculiar) thing: the person on Twitter tore into an image that’s similar to the one you provided and said it’s all wrong. Remember, the guy does not believe in God but insists we’re all using these terminologies incorrectly.

        I found a couple of blog posts by him:

        https://greatdebatecommunity.com/2018/10/17/atheism-and-bad-epistemological-images/

        and

        https://greatdebatecommunity.com/2018/12/04/can-atheism-be-true-not-the-way-you-may-think/

        • Posted December 14, 2018 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

          Oh no, not a Twitter takedown!

          Seriously, thanks for the links. I think there is some inadvertent equivocation taking place. When I say that I lack belief in something, I’m making a claim about my personal view. In the case of gods, I mean that “I have never been presented with sufficient evidence or logic to preliminarily accept the existence of such entities.” When I say that I know something exists, I’m making a claim to having empirical evidence or reason that supports the existence of that thing. The people insisting that atheism means a positive claim of nonexistence leave no useful, concise way of distinguishing between those who believe in gods and those who lack such belief.

          I’m happy to agree to a different axis than gnostic-agnostic, but I’m not going to stop identifying as an atheist. I lack belief in a god or gods. That makes me an atheist.

          • Barry Lyons
            Posted December 14, 2018 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

            I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said here.

            But Steve will maintain that the “a” in atheist does not mean “without” or “lack of”. It means a negation of theism. So to Steve a theist is a person who believes God exists, and an atheist is a person who believes God does not exist. I disagree. For me to say “I believe God does not exist” is to make a claim, and it’s a claim I can’t support.

            Steve also argues that people get agnosticism wrong. Citing the SEP: “an agnostic is a person who has entertained the proposition that there is is a God but believes neither it is true nor that is is false.” To which Steve adds (I just a found a tweet by him): “Nothing whatsoever to do with knowledge here.”

            • Posted December 14, 2018 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

              I’m starting to feel defined out of existence. Does that make me a god?

              • rickflick
                Posted December 14, 2018 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

                You might as well be.

  14. Serendipitydawg
    Posted December 14, 2018 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    Those who profess atheistic “certainty” could probably be convinced of gods if there were evidence for Gods.

    I would still suspect aliens using superior technology first.

    • Posted December 16, 2018 at 2:08 am | Permalink

      That would be a god though, at least from our perspective.

      I mean if it has sufficient power to back up its claim to godhood, then calling it anything else is just a matter of semantics.

    • Posted December 17, 2018 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

      It is very difficult to verify “omnipotence”, if such a notion is even well defined (which IMO it is not).

      Where in the arithmetic hierarchy, IOW …

  15. Randall Schenck
    Posted December 14, 2018 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    There is nothing the religious likes more than to tell an atheist what his problem is and nothing he hates more than for the atheist to doubt him. He holds everything on faith.

  16. kurtzs
    Posted December 14, 2018 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, I’m surprised that you didn’t call Sullivan on the “Negative Fallacy.” It is impossible to prove non-existence in a complex, open system, which is what physical reality is. No known boundaries have ever been evidenced. No known beginning, as could be bounces and crunches ad infinitum of our universe and possibly infinite multi-verses, as Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and past president. of The Royal Society holds as probable.
    https://logfall.wordpress.com/negative-proof-fallacy/

  17. AnnaBanana
    Posted December 14, 2018 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    You mentioned pedophilia above (“a manifestly maladaptive trait”). I’ve wondered for a long time if pedophilia is a genetic trait. If for hundreds of centuries, males selected females who appeared strong and healthy and able to have children (and therefore young), isn’t it possible that that tendency is an inherited trait? And, if so, couldn’t many men today inherit that trait which in some men points them towards pedophilia?

    It seems to me that the trait, even if inherited, should in time die out, due to fewer opportunities for pedophiles to have children (due to modern laws, etc).

    Sometimes I think I have a rough grasp of evolution and other times I feel lost. But I would like to know what others think about this.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted December 14, 2018 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

      AnnaBanana:

      [paedophilia] “even if inherited, should in time die out, due to fewer opportunities for paedophiles to have children (due to modern laws, etc).”

      But paedophiles have children & I suspect most paedophiles do not ever act on their impulses in socially unacceptable ways [& many presumably are unaware they’re afflicted]. It is a subject of study that’s fraught with difficulty as it involves interrogating mental processes. The majority view at the moment among trick cyclists is that it’s an incurable psychiatric illness [possibly heritable to some degree] & some paedophiles can be taught to live with it.

      It is pretty well assumed that we all seek young, healthy mates & it is my guess that this trait can run awry in some people. The wrong ‘settings’ were inherited, or the ‘settings’ are corrupted genetically during development, or it’s far far more complicated – there is some evidence that mental deficits in other areas play a role [lack of inhibition, low intelligence].

      I think we are in the Middle Ages re the brain & the ‘science’ is still at the “let’s try bloodletting & if that doesn’t work a jolly good beating” stage of inquiry. e.g. DSM editions 1 through 5 read like a history of our changing cultural attitudes in parts – not medicine at all.

  18. Curt Nelson
    Posted December 14, 2018 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    Why must people insist on diluting/disputing atheism? (They’re actually agnostics and anyway atheism is a religion, too.)

    It strikes me as the weakest form of argument – eroding word meanings (religion) and accusing the other side of having the weakness (religion) being defended.

    • Curt Nelson
      Posted December 14, 2018 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

      PS If, after all we’ve learned about the world since the days of the Bible, you’re religious, your judgment is appalling.

    • Steve Pollard
      Posted December 14, 2018 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

      They’re frightened, mate. They’re frightened that we might be right. So they have to do all they can to dismiss what we say. That extends to telling us that we don’t – can’t – really believe it.

      What we need to do is reaffirm that yes, this is what all the evidence tells us. That is nothing to do with either faith or religion. To fall back on unsupported faith is a sign of weakness, and nothing else.

    • Sastra
      Posted December 15, 2018 at 9:42 am | Permalink

      It seems to me that it’s not so much fear as the motivation, but a desire to be the enlightened one, the person in the reasonable middle who isn’t all stuck up and sure of themselves. They’re fighting windmills and seeing the ghosts of former bullies.

  19. Tom Besson
    Posted December 14, 2018 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    I’m going to go out on a semantic limb and say that you don’t have to call yourself an atheist if you are a mythologist and believe that all religions are myths. Myths are defined as “Organizations of symbols, images and narratives that are metaphorical of the possibilities of human experience and fulfillment in a given society at a given time”, according to Joseph Campbell, a well respected mythologist, himself. If one thinks of gods in mythological terms, then the idea of a god is “metaphorical of the possibilities of human experience and fulfillment in a given society at a given time”. It is a representation of our experiences and dreams that we ourselves make up. To those who think their god is real, I say, “Go ahead and pull the other one.”

    • Sastra
      Posted December 15, 2018 at 9:44 am | Permalink

      You never have to call yourself anything — but a mythologist as you describe it would *be* an atheist.

  20. Posted December 14, 2018 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    It’s seems to me that the concept of the ‘absolute’ sabotages human thinking about the real world. There is nothing known that is ‘absolute’/ ‘infinite’/’endless’ etc. An unsolvable paradox created by our silly minds.

    rz

  21. Ty Gardner
    Posted December 14, 2018 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    The problem with agnosticism is that, once one no longer identifies as a theist and accepts that they do not know if there is a God/god/gods, the lack of evidence causes one to drift towards atheism. The more one looks, the more one fails to find, the more one drifts towards the idea that there is nothing there. I mean, even I will search a drawer for my keys 2 or 3 times, but I eventually pick up on the fact that they probably aren’t there.

  22. Posted December 14, 2018 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    I find Sullivan’s position on atheism as faith there’s no God that I am beginning to wonder if he and others are trolling us atheists, perhaps not on purpose. They know if gets a reaction so they continue with it. It satisfies their need to make non-theists squirm.

    Arguing that this is not how I feel seems to be a lost cause. Perhaps a better angle is to argue how belief in the non-existence of something should be the default for rational reasons. Belief in X should be driven by, and require, evidence, whereas non-belief does not.

    • rickflick
      Posted December 14, 2018 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

      I was thinking similarly. The trolling may simply be prompted by book sales and clicks. Perhaps it’s not fully intentional. And yes the burden of proof is with the believer not the skeptic.

  23. Ken Kukec
    Posted December 14, 2018 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    I thought the first and third sections of Sullivan’s “Intelligencer” piece, on Theresa May’s Brexit dilemma and gay jokes, were pretty good, anyway.

    As for the middle section replying to his critics regarding religion — for a guy who can be so clear-eyed and tough-minded on other topics, Sullivan sure is willing to do a lot of intellectual squirming to safeguard his personal need for “ultimate meaning.”

  24. Posted December 14, 2018 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    The baldness of mankind could be explained by the sheer amount of hair-splitting over “absolutely certain“. It means I have excellent reasons to believe something is the case, or not the case. It‘s however not a magic spell. I could still be wrong. And so what? It‘s often easier to be certain something is not the case. For example do we really have to hold out before we decide with certainty whether a planet somewhere is made out of cheese? Sullivan does not think clearly.

    We can actually decide this with good confidence. Cheese is made from substance out of a mammalian gland. We know that mammals only exist on earth. I can be certain, there is no cheese planet. We could allow that “cheese” means a hardened substance originating from a living organism intended to nourish its offspring, and such cheese is perhaps not categorically ruled out, but it probably never occurs the size of a planet.

    The first instinct would be to ask how does he know, there is a planet of cheese somewhere? Since there is no plausible way how he could have known about it, the person cannot even claim credit in the event a cheese planet is discovered one day. What if we knew that someone wanted to market an actual cheese, and that idea somehow was misunderstood by others and over time condenses into this strange belief? Then we also had a kind of anti-evidence, because we knew that the means of “discovery” of this idea was somewhat silly.

    God is allegedly a person in the sky and was believed to sit above spheres, for crying out loud. He emerged in a mythically active region from known previous God ideas. We know that absolutely nobody could have conceivably have communicated with the being, for there is no known method or medium how this is even conceivable. We have a ton of evidence for alternative mental states, due to intoxication, mental illness, severe (dis)stress, heatstroke, meditation or trance, or plain fabulation. The imagination of other people’s minds is also completely ordinary. When we ask ourselves what a late granny would have thought about the Chrismas tree, we in fact run her “simulation” on the same kind of (“grey”) matter that once powered the original when she saw a Christmas tree and offered her opinion.

    To believe in Abrahamitic religion requires an active denial of knowledge which, in every fibre, makes God more unplausible. At once, it also produces a mountain of “anti-evidence” from evolution that tell us that there cannot be people-like beings in the sky, because people are absolutely evolved dry-nosed monkeys who have faculties that were useful to survive; to knowledge about mental illness and gradual or bite-sized reduction of “soul” when people suffer strokes, dementia, coma, or when a tumor or a metal rod destroys part of their brain.

    I am therefore indeed absolutely certain there is no such thing as a God. I consider other opinions as outright ridiculous. Even agnosticism is ridiculous, or Dawkin’s Scale 6 is already preposterous. What people call God is about as plausible as a cheese planet, and for similar reasons.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted December 14, 2018 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

      I love the cheese planet part

      I’ve heard about arguments using a planet made of solid gold, and a chunk of uranium the size of Jupiter, a diamond the size of a refrigerator in your backyard…

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted December 14, 2018 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

      Also PCC(E)’s example : how do I know I don’t have wisdom teeth?

  25. mikeyc
    Posted December 14, 2018 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    Atheism is a religion like baldness is a hair style.

  26. Curtis
    Posted December 14, 2018 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    One thing that Sullivan misses is that illiberal populism has nothing to do with decrease in religiousness. In Europe, populism occurs in some of the most religious countries (Poland, Italy) to a larger degree than the less religious (France, Germany and the UK).

    IMO, populism is a response to a significant part of the population feeling left out of economic success. The solution is much more complicated than either the hard right or left want to admit.

    • Sastra
      Posted December 15, 2018 at 9:52 am | Permalink

      In the United States, populism also seems driven by a hatred of those “elites” who sneer at or reject the traditional high status of religion.

  27. bPer
    Posted December 14, 2018 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    PCC(e),

    I think you have an inadvertent double negative in the 7th block of flush-left text that reverses your intended meaning:

    And he really needs to admit that neither agnosticism nor atheism (his definitions) are NOT religions.

    βPer

  28. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted December 15, 2018 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    I think what Sullivan was trying to do is translate “god shaped hole” into the modern educated / hip / Steve Jobs language that bandies about the “word” DNA, where it is meant figuratively not literally.

    This is usually ok but he did not set things up clearly so the readers know what sense he indicates. Neither do I think he understood what he was doing, or whether he gave it much thought. An off-the-cuff transcription of talking out loud, perhaps. Again, nothing wrong with that, but the synthesis of the writing fails to form meaningful points. It’s sad he doesn’t see this. I blame religion- not Sullivan.

  29. bobkillian
    Posted December 15, 2018 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    IMHO, if you get to 6.99999999, you’re allowed to round up.

  30. Sastra
    Posted December 15, 2018 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    It is, in fact, impossible not to have a religion if you are a human being. It’s in our genes and has expressed itself in every culture, in every age, including our own secularized husk of a society.

    This could also be said about superstition, the paranormal, and magical thinking. In fact, without at least some elements of these a “religion” is only a “life philosophy.” They’re found in every culture.

    And yet it is also very “human” to overcome the simple tendencies of our childhood. Thus, they’re not foundational *to* every culture.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted December 15, 2018 at 10:16 am | Permalink

      selfishness
      racism
      homophobia
      misogyny
      anger
      hate
      etc.

      it takes some kind of work to identify, isolate, and contain these bugs in the human system. Religion is only one such bug.

      • Sastra
        Posted December 15, 2018 at 11:55 am | Permalink

        Yes, the Naturalism Fallacy — “ If it’s natural (or if it evolved) then it’s right and/or true.”

        When used as an apologetic, it resembles CS Lewis’ infamous “why would we have a desire for God if there wasn’t a God out there to desire?”

  31. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted December 15, 2018 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    Those who profess atheistic “certainty” could probably be convinced of gods if there were evidence for Gods. Such folks seem to Sullivan like absolutists because they’re not scientists, and so don’t they don’t think of empirical truth as provisional.

    Yes, of course.

    But pace Sullivan we also accept some facts as provisional based on empiricism, not philosophical speculation nee dogma that *all* facts are provisional. We observe counterexamples such as professor CC, Emeritus favorite example of water as one atom oxygen and two hydrogen, or that the human species evolved from a ancestor population – we can take that to the bank.

  32. FB
    Posted December 15, 2018 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    The question about the existence of God is philosophical, not scientific. It’s not about evidence (lack of evidence is not sufficient) it’s about reason (the existence of God has to make sense). Therefore, those that believe in a traditional God (omnipotent-omniscient-benevolent) need to prove how the existence of God is compatible with the suffering of sentient beings for hundreds of millions of years.

    • Vaal
      Posted December 15, 2018 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

      The question about the existence of God is philosophical, not scientific.

      Disagree.

      It’s a matter of contingency that if a God exists He has not provided strong empirical evidence for His existence.

      But it’s not at all a matter of necessity. Any Being with the powers ascribed to God (e.g. Christian God) could easily manifest scientifically verifiable evidence.

      And that is the type of evidence we should want before accepting the existence of a God in the first place.

      I agree though that we don’t *need* science to make the case an Omni God is implausible (re problem of suffering/hiddenness, etc).
      But that doesn’t mean God can’t in principle be a scientifically verifiable entity.

      • FB
        Posted December 16, 2018 at 10:25 am | Permalink

        If God exists and has not provided empirical evidence for Its existence, It can’t be a scientifically verifiable entity.

        • Vaal
          Posted December 16, 2018 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

          That doesn’t follow.

          It’s like saying:

          If life on Mars has not provided empirical evidence for it’s existence, it can’t ve a scientifically verifiable entity.

          The fact something hasn’t been manifest empirically doesn’t entail it *can not* manifest.

          The question about life on mars is a scientific question: if it exists, we would look for empirical verification. Until then we withhold judgement on whether it exists.
          But that doesn’t punt it directly out of the scientific realm to philosophy.

          Similarly, if God exists with the character usually ascribed to a God, it could manifest empirical evidence we could verify. The fact no such evidence has manifested doesn’t entail that therefore the question of God’s existence can only be a philosophical one.
          It CAN be a philosophical discussion, but the issue of a God’s existence is not *of necessity* philosophical and a non-scientific question.

          • FB
            Posted December 16, 2018 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

            Imagine, if you will, that the Man exists and comes around tomorrow surrounded by one hundred million angels singin’. We send the best scientists to verify His existence and they prove conclusively that He is real.

            Still we have a problem: we cannot tell if He is omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent. He could be a demon or something else.

            Only way to know: He should solve the problem of evil, which is a philosophical problem.

            Turning rods into snakes, water into wine, or resurrecting from the dead, doesn’t prove you’re God.

      • FB
        Posted December 16, 2018 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

        If God exists and has provided empirical evidence for Its existence, you cannot scientifically verify that such entity is God and not Satan.

    • Posted December 17, 2018 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      What is the dividing line between science and a science-oriented philosophy?

      (IMO, qua someone who has studied and published in but doesn’t work in the latter anymore, none, but …)


Post a Comment

Required fields are marked *
*
*

%d bloggers like this: