Category Archives: Religious belief

Feelings are not a good basis for believing things.

What is people’s relation to the truth? I would say that most people are not insanely preoccupied by ideologies, and therefore do not think about such trivial topics. To them, “the truth” can mean a lot of things, even contradictory things. People who care about what’s true and what’s not see it quite differently. To them, there is a core issue at stake: how do we know what’s true? Knowing this, we can then reject inadequate methods. The hardest challenge, then, is to remain consistent and honest.

Is it really that important to know how to find the truth? Well, I think it may be mildly useful to divide truth into categories here. For instance, there are truths that are widely known and do not require any special ability to reason. Most of our practical, day-to-day truths are in this category. There are also truths that populate the technical and scientific fields. While these truths may be under fire depending on prevalent ideologies, all that matters is that those training to take the mantle of the discipline in question understand and uphold them.

Note that I am not saying that all propositions widely believed in these categories are automatically truths. There are plenty of propositions that are widely known, and propositions that are technical in nature, which are not truths. I am speaking here only of the truths (that is to say, of propositions acquired rationally).

And then there are abstract, non-technical truths. These truths are often just as crucial to human existence and human societies, but they are not widely agreed-upon. They tend to be of a philosophical nature, simply because “philosophy” is, generally speaking, the rubric under which we stuff everything that’s abstract but not scientific. Things like epistemology (how to know), morality (the standards upon which an individual’s actions should be evaluated), ethics (how the rules of society and its institutions should be constructed), politics (the study of power, its distribution, and its application), and the origins of human thought and behavior, are included under this label. Religion is another vast area of abstract, non-technical truths (unless you delve into the mechanics of specific doctrines in an inter-subjective manner, that is to say, assuming the doctrines are true, in which case they can become quite technical).

The first two categories are generally not problematic. We learn day-to-day truths through growing up and observing adults or being taught by them. We learn technical truths when we learn a trade or a field of study. We learn how to groom ourselves from our parents, and we learn algebra from our teachers and school books. While they may be prone to errors (especially in family structures and school systems, which have powerful intellectual distorting effects), neither of these methods are particularly complicated.

Abstract, non-technical truths are another thing entirely, because they are highly partisan and therefore difficult to consider dispassionately. Take religion, for example. Most of us are indoctrinated into following one religion or the other. The question of whether God exists, or whether God is a moral standard, is not merely an issue of fact but also a worldview issue: a person may be unwilling to look at a fact, or any fact, related to this question because doing so would put their worldview into question. Questioning one’s worldview creates mental insecurity and can be painful, and we seek to avoid pain (unless doing so creates the risk of more pain down the line).

This is not, by the way, an issue of “rational” versus “irrational,” or “reason” versus “faith.” It is perfectly rational, if you want to use that word, to seek to avoid pain. Actually, you’d probably call someone a fool or a masochist if they did otherwise. People only deconvert when the cognitive dissonance they are experiencing makes continuing to believe more painful than the alternatives. Again, it is a basic moral imperative that we seek to avoid pain, so this is not too surprising.

It is these abstract, non-technical truths that concern me on this blog, and which also concern a great number of people in some fashion. It seems humans have a thirst for universal, absolute truths about the human condition. Given that fact, how best can we arrive at any sort of truth within this area?

Well, I think that you have to maintain a strict separation between what you know to be true, on the one hand, and what you feel is true, what you want to be true, or what fits your pre-existing worldview, on the other hand. In general, any personal criteria for belief are unlikely to be valid, because it is very unlikely that universal, abstract truths have anything to do with your feelings or desires. The things which have to do with our feelings and desires are usually either personal or inter-personal. You may care about what you desire, but the laws of reality don’t.

Now, there are some people who think that subjective reasons for belief are valid because, after all, we are dealing with humans, and humans are moved by their feelings and desires. What they fail to realize is that there are two different things to talk about here: the thing being analyzed and our truths about the thing being analyzed.

This is a complicated point, so let me use a pretty clear-cut example, that of homeopathy. Homeopathy is clearly absolute, laughable nonsense, but there are enough people who believe in it to sustain a flourishing worldwide industry worth billions and billions of dollars. Most people who believe in some form of alternative medicine do so on the basis of their own subjective evaluation (“it worked for me!”) or on the basis of other people’s subjective evaluations. I acknowledge that this is the case. However, that does not mean that I must accept those evaluations as true, only that the other person believes they are true.

The fact that health is influenced by subjective factors does not mean that my evaluation of that fact itself must be subjective. My belief that “health is influenced by subjective factors” is based on scientific studies about the placebo effect, prayer, meditation, and other such methods. These methods take effect in the body in ways that we can analyze scientifically, without ever appealing to the subjective domain.

I hope this illustrates my point well enough. As a general rule, we must analyze subjective effects on material systems using our observations of those material systems, not with subjective evidence. Or more simply: what we know to be true must be separated from what we feel is true or what we want to be true. The fact that the material systems we are analyzing are human-run systems does not change that fact.

For example, a few years ago I wrote a great deal about theories of price, comparing STV (subjective theory of value, generally upheld by ancaps) and LTV (labor theory of value). To simplify, the STV holds that price of a product is whatever people agree upon as the worth of the product. This is pure illogic. But they arrive at this conclusion by observing that everyone values products at different levels, and that people buy or do not buy products based on how much they desire them. In short, the evidence is entirely subjective. But we know that’s not how prices work.

Even if that was how prices worked, that would not therefore mean that we should analyze prices subjectively, for desires still come from somewhere and that must be analyzed. You see a lot of that fallacy in pseudo-feminist analysis, where desire is held as primary and therefore outside of analysis. But desire cannot be primary, as our desires are constructed by the sort of society we live in and the context we personally live in. All you’ve done is drawn an arbitrary line and said “this far and no further, shall you look.” But this is likely to convince only the incurious or people whose worldview would be harmed by looking.

This brings me to the last point, which is that we should strictly separate what we know to be true and what fits our worldview. Now, to a certain extent it is impossible to follow this principle becaue of our cognitive biases, but this should not stop us from trying to correct this state of affairs as much as possible.

First, we must acknowledge that the ideologies we believe in all have tensions and contradictions. This is true of the most absurd ideologies and the most reasonable ideologies, the main difference being that the tensions and contradictions in the former are clearly visible to anyone who thinks about it for more than a minuite, while the tensions and contradictions in the latter are less obvious and require more effort to see. No matter what you believe, it is important that you seek out those tensions and contradictions, and try to resolve them. This is a good exercise because it forces you to look at your system of thought from outside of it, and it stimulates change and growth.

Second, we must read the best counter-arguments we can find, the most credible opponents, and try to answer them. I say “the best,” because there’s obviously a lot of nonsense objections to all sorts of things. For instance, an antinatalist shouldn’t waste his time answering a hundred variants of “why don’t you just kill yourself?”, and I wouldn’t expect a feminist to waste her time answering “you must be really ugly and incapable of getting a man.” We should go for arguments which are at least sophisticated. In some cases this is very difficult. Finding sophisticated objections to anti-childism is impossible because, as far as I know, they simply do not exist. Likewise for the pro-abortion position. In other cases, like atheism or socialism, finding sophisticated objections is not too difficult (but still harder than finding stupid objections, which are legion in any case).

The spiritual quest of the atheist, in six questions.

A Chick Tract example of the fundamentalist fascination with nihilism.

Atheism, because it refuses to believe in gods, is necessarily a rejection of the religious order, which claims to be based on the will of the gods. While most Christians recognize this as an attack against traditional beliefs and values, and treat it as a spiritual war, a few are clear-headed enough to recognize that most secular people are not engaged in spiritual war against Christianity and actually try to engage “the world” instead of attacking it.

One such example is Brian McLaren in his book Finding Faith: A Self-Discovery Guide for your Spiritual Quest, which is an attempt to adapt Christian faith to our postmodern age. While such attempts are silly, because Christianity is a primitive, corrupt, fear-based religion at its core, it does demonstrate the one good thing that Christians are able to do: cut to the fundamentals of why we believe what we believe.

McLaren, in suitable postmodern fashion, frames faith as a spiritual quest, a profoundly individualistic and pragmatic endeavor, in order to appeal to “millennials” and other hip young people. In the chapter “Can I Believe in Atheism,” he asks six questions to try to disprove atheism as an alternative to spirituality. These questions are garbed in academic philosophical terms in order to sound sophisticated, but ultimately they are no different from the “gotcha” questions given to us by mainstream Christians. Still, I think that their reformulation brings up some interesting points to discuss.

1. If there is no God, “the big questions” remain unanswered, so how do we answer the following questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? This question was asked by Aristotle and Leibniz alike – albeit with differing answers. But it is an historic concern.

I think the question “why is there something rather than nothing” is a linguistic trick, nothing more. “Nothing” is an abstraction, and “something” designates actual things, so they cannot be compared at all. It’s as silly as trying to compare apples with square-circles. Furthermore, we have no idea what it means for there to “be nothing.” No matter what we point at, no matter what state we experience, it’s “something.”

Why is there conscious, intelligent life on this planet…

This question is answered by the theory of evolution. This is not a possibility for a lot of Christians, who reject science except when it fits their agenda. Furthermore, Christianity fails to answer the question altogether, since “God did it” is not an answer. “God” is a label we put on questions to which we do not have the answers: as the area of our knowledge increases, the label “God” gets progressively pushed back. To say “God did it” is merely a roundabout way of saying “we don’t actually know, but I’m pretty sure my religion is the only right framework to think about the issue anyway.”

…and is there any meaning to this life? If there is meaning, what kind of meaning and how is it found? Does human history lead anywhere, or is it all in vain since death is merely the end? How do you come to understand good and evil, right and wrong without a transcendent signifier?

I put all these questions together because they highlight something that is interesting to me. I think many Christians, especially those who think about their faith a great deal, have a sick fascination with, and toy with, the idea that there is no innate meaning. Christianity deals in absolute meaning generated by a universal, abstract Creator. Like conspiracy theorists, they cannot help but believe that everything in the universe has a reason and a purpose, and therefore everything that exists has a clear innate and absolute meaning. The idea that there might not be any innate meaning frightens them, because it strips their worldview of any potency, but at the same time they recognize the dizzying mental freedom that this idea entails. They are obsessed about this idea and it has a dark allure to them, a little bit like a housewife reading Fifty Shades of Grey.

Christians often make claims like “without God, everything is permitted” and “if I was not a Christian, I would become a murderer.” Taken literally, these statements are psychotic. But I think we should understand them as a fear of the mental freedom entailed by rejecting Christian absolutism. Like a furtive reader of dark literature, the Christian does not want to know about the average non-Christian or even bad non-Christians: he wants to fantasize about the Stalins and the Hitlers (and McLaren does get into his dark fantasies about non-Christian dictators in question 3).

Meaning is the product of a mind. This does not necessarily imply that one must create something in order to give it meaning: one may give meaning to things that already exist (like how Christians superpose their absolute meanings over things that already exist). As such, the question “is there meaning to this life” can mean two things:

1. What meaning can people give to life? A lot of different meanings, as it turns out.
2. Is there any innate meaning to life? Even if a god existed, there could not be; and if there could be, it would be unknowable to humans anyway.

To explain point 2, think of a text written in English. This text has definite meaning, which can be understood by anyone who reads it and understands English well enough. Is this its “innate meaning”? To someone who doesn’t understand English, the meaning may be inferred depending on where the text was found, or it may be assumed based on words that look similar to their language. To someone living a thousand years from now, the text may be regarded as entirely meaningless. Which meaning is the “innate meaning”? One may argue that our understanding of the meaning “improves” with our understanding of the language, but that’s precisely the issue: it cannot be “innate” if it depends crucially on our own knowledge.

Furthermore, the “understanding helps decipher the innate meaning of a text” is disproven by the Bible. In this case, we have billions of people throughout history who have had the highest incentive to understand it completely, some of whom had deep knowledge of its original languages, and yet there are still deep disagreements between Bible-believing Christians on what any passage may mean. If we start from the premise that the Bible was inspired by God, and that therefore we do not, and cannot, understand the mind behind it, then looking for “innate meaning” becomes strictly impossible. And finally, the Bible being the product of a mind means that its “absolute meaning,” as attributed by God, is actually subjective, since it is dependent on a mind for its very existence.

A Christian would probably say that this is a very postmodernist approach to the question. But this book is supposed to be a postmodernist approach to Christianity, anyhow, so there is hardly room to complain here.

I do want to come back to the issue of right and wrong, since that’s a different issue from that of meaning. Christians tend to lump them together because God’s absolute meaning carries with it moral absolutism as well, God being perfectly good (whatever that means), therefore whatever God approves of is right and whatever God disapproves of is wrong (even though the things designated right and wrong vary wildly within the Bible itself). To moral realists like myself, right and wrong are not subjective, i.e. their truth-value is not dependent on feelings, whims, desires, or beliefs, but rather are a factual part of the world. Right and wrong, like all other forms of knowledge, can only be understood by looking at reality, not by believing things strongly enough.

Spirituality, as I understand it, is about finding and understanding our place in reality. It’s about relating to something greater than yourself, a universal common ground, a higher level of reality than the mundane level of our everyday lives. The staple of Christianity, and other monotheistic religions, is that they try to take you out of a spiritual path and comfort you by telling you that you are special: you were specially created by God, you have a purpose determined by God, you have the knowledge of God that no one else has, and you live at a crucial moment of the history of the cosmos. There is no curiosity about “the world” in the Bible, only disdain and separation, a retreat into one’s specialness at all times. The only desire Christians have for engaging with “the world” is in converting more people.

If you are content within atheism, what circumstances would serve to make you open to other answers?

As a question asked at the end of a series of questions about meaning and morality, this ends up being rather tortuous. Am I content within atheism… as regards to meaning and morality? I don’t really think anyone thinks of their attitude about their atheism as being dependent on answers about meaning and morality. Am I content about being an atheist in general? Sure. So what circumstances would make me more open to other answers about meaning or morality? I have not the faintest clue. How is one supposed to answer such a question? A blow to the head might just do it, but I doubt this is what McLaren has in mind.

2. If we reject the existence of God, we are left with a crisis of meaning, so why don’t we see more atheists like Jean Paul Sartre, or Friedrich Nietzsche, or Michel Foucault? These three philosophers, who also embraced atheism, recognized that in the absence of God, there was no transcendent meaning beyond one’s own self-interests, pleasures, or tastes. The crisis of atheistic meaninglessness is depicted in Sartre’s book Nausea. Without God, there is a crisis of meaning, and these three thinkers, among others, show us a world of just stuff, thrown out into space and time, going nowhere, meaning nothing.

Why don’t we see more atheists who experience a “crisis of meaning”? Well, there’s many reasons for that. The most obvious is that there is no “crisis of meaning” without God. Being liberated from the absolutism of believing in a Creator god is an opportunity to develop one’s own reasoning faculties and critical thinking, to discover more about reality, not a crisis that cripples us. It is the narrowness of the Christian worldview that is crippling, not atheism.

This also connects with the anti-naturalistic line pushed by Christians, which holds that denying God means we’re just a bunch of atoms banging around, or as in this case, “just stuff thrown out into space and time.” Yet this is clearly not true: we also have an inner life full of emotions, understanding, truths, and yes, meaning. The fact that there is no inherent meaning to anything does not mean there is no meaning. As the existentialists discussed, we create our own meanings and take responsibility for our own actions.

McLaren brings up the book La Nausée, by Jean-Paul Sartre, as the literary representation of the “crisis of meaning” (so perhaps this book is his “meaninglessness porn”?). Personally, I really like La Peste, by Albert Camus. Perhaps McLaren should read it, although it probably would not turn him on. La Peste shows the struggles of various characters as a plague sweeps an Algerian city and forces authorities to seal off the town. This book, like existentialism in general, is about people trying to follow their values and make rational decisions in an irrational universe.

The point that McLaren is missing here is that atheists can adopt all sorts of systems of meaning, of which existentialism is one. He only sees crisis because he sees only the vacuum left behind by the rejection of God, not the fresh air that replaces it afterwards. All that concerns him is the despair of absolute freedom. The spiritual path is about finding out who you are, what your highest values are, and how you can bring them about in your own life. Freedom is only the first step in that path.

3. When people have embraced atheism, the historical results can be horrific, as in the regimes of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot who saw religion as the problem and worked to eradicate it? In other words, what set of actions are consistent with particular belief commitments? It could be argued, that these behaviors – of the regimes in question – are more consistent with the implications of atheism.

The problem with this statement is that there are no “implications of atheism,” apart from the rejection of all theistic positions. State Communism is not theistic, and therefore is compatible with atheism, but it cannot be “consistent” with implications that do not exist. Atheism is not an ethical or political position. Furthermore, the horrors of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot are no more or less salient than the horrors of Christianity and Christian-backed capitalism throughout history. Bean-counting for one side or the other is pointless: the point is that all forms of tyranny, including Christianity and dictatorial statism, are evil.

The question of what set of actions are consistent with particular belief commitments is an interesting one, but it seems to be more of a throwaway than anything. Indeed, McLaren should not look at that question too closely, otherwise he might come to some unsavory conclusions about Christianity as well.

Though, I’m thankful that many of the atheists I know do not live the implications of these beliefs out for themselves like others did! It could be argued that the socio-political ideologies could very well be the outworking of a particular set of beliefs – beliefs that posited the ideal state as an atheistic one.

By definition, all atheists lack a belief in God, and therefore they all “live the implications of these [atheistic belief commitments] out,” insofar as the atheistic belief commitment should be a commitment to not believe in any theistic ideology or system. No atheist believes in Christian Creationism or in divine command theory. No doubt McLaren was actually clumsily referring to State Communism, although in that case I have no idea what “the implication of these beliefs” is supposed to mean.

Likewise, I have no idea what an “atheistic state” means, apart perhaps from being a State which does not recognize theism as a basis for governance. This would presumably include the American government, of which McLaren is a subject. And yet McLaren’s own government is not busy exterminating Christians on its own soil, and it is not outlawing Christianity in any form (except in the mind of paranoid schizophrenic fundamentalists who see anti-Christian ghosts in every news story).

4. If there is no God, the problems of evil and suffering are in no way solved, so where is the hope of redemption, or meaning for those who suffer? Suffering is just as tragic, if not more so, without God because there is no hope of ultimate justice, or of the suffering being rendered meaningful or transcendent, redemptive or redeemable. It might be true that there is no God to blame now, but neither is there a God to reach out to for strength, transcendent meaning, or comfort. Why would we seek the alleviation of suffering without objective morality grounded in a God of justice?

These questions show a definite lack of self-awareness. Christianity devalues justice at a very fundamental level: the belief that Jesus Christ saved mankind by sacrificing his own life is the antithesis of what the concept of justice is supposed to be about, and the fact that salvation comes from believing and not right actions shows that there is no “ultimate justice” or “God of justice” in Christianity. The belief system of Christianity is fundamentally about denying moral responsibility and demanding that believers forego justice on this Earth in favor of the “next life.”

The problem of evil has been solved a long time ago, by Epicurus (and probably before that, even). Christians cannot accept this because it leaves evil as an opaque, inscrutable force which does not yield to their absolute meaning. Having accepted a morally perfect deity, they have no grounds on which to justify the existence of indefensible events like tsunamis, plagues, or genocides. The problem of evil forces Christians to stop treating these events like so many walls on which to hang their theoretical frames, and to look at them as actual problems, as actual things that happen to real people in the world.

What solution does the Christian offer to suffering? Ultimate justice? None to be found in Christianity. The attribution of meaning to suffering? As I said, the problem of evil has dealt with that (although, of course, many are unconvinced). Redemption through suffering? A fine philosophy, as long as one does not have to go through real suffering. But these are people who hold Mother Teresa, a torturer, a sadist, as a holy woman, and who hold a tortured man as their savior. This is the bloody esthetics of BDSM without the sexual pleasure: the worst of both worlds.

Suffering is the one issue that does not invite easy answers. Physiological or psychological, it is the one thing that the vast majority of humans are biologically programmed to evade at all costs, and we will go to extraordinary, and profoundly irrational, lengths to do so. The Christian doctrine that suffering is actually a good thing goes against our every instinct and intuition, and it takes quite a deal of religious conviction to uphold it.

Unfortunately, the existence of suffering is itself a painful fact that most people want desperately to evade, creating a vicious circle. Many people are content to simply ignore it as best they can. Christians exploit other people’s suffering for religious purposes. Any spiritual path which refuses to confront the reality of suffering is a path which is dead set on ignoring a large part of reality. Suffering is an inexorable part of life: it must not be glorified or ignored, but examined with at least as much care as we examine happiness or pleasure.

5. If there is no God, we lose the very standard by which we critique religions and religious people, so whose opinion matters most? Whose voice will be heard? Whose tastes or preferences will be honored? In the long run, human tastes and opinions have no more weight than we give them, and who are we to give them meaning anyway? Who is to say that lying, or cheating or adultery or child molestation are wrong –really wrong? Where do those standards come from?

Here we are back again with the fascination with meaninglessness. In this delirium of freedom, where God does not dictate anything, who will dictate to us what to do and what not to do? The real answer to all these “who” questions is “no one.” The truth does not depend on the opinion of any single individual, or any group of individuals. Standards do not become more or less valid based on popular approval. If the entire world declares that torturing prisoners of war (to give just one relatively recent example) is a good thing, that fact alone does not in itself make it a good thing. Even McLaren realizes this, as the rest of his point demonstrates:

Sure, our societies might make these things “illegal” and impose penalties or consequences for things that are not socially acceptable, but human cultures have at various times legally or socially disapproved of everything from believing in God to believing the world revolves around the sun; from slavery, to interracial marriage, from polygamy to monogamy. Human taste, opinion law and culture are hardly dependable arbiters of Truth.

He is essentially correct. Subjectivity is not a criterion of truth. And that is a profound argument against Christianity, whose moral standards are based on pure subjectivity, the subjective will of God (as interpreted by the subjectivity of the believer).

Human beings come pre-loaded with intuitions which apply to many different areas of thought, including morality. Humans are social animals and, like all primates, we are equipped with the mental abilities necessary to navigate social hierarchies and keep them functioning. That is why there are core values which exist in all known human societies: we all think murder, assault, theft, are things which should be avoided for a society to persist and be relatively fair. Belief systems like statism and religion come in and impose their values on the individual, distorting the incentives we’re faced with. As the famous maxim says, “it takes religion to make good people do evil things.” The main reason why societies vary so much in what they accept and what they do not accept is mainly due to these belief systems.

Christianity has not been a force for good in Western societies. It has defended slavery, it has justified monarchies, and now capitalism. It has justified religious intolerance all the way up to genocide. For these things, we cannot lay the blame on “society” but on Christianity specifically. There is nothing inherent to the nature of societies that makes arbitrary and capricious laws/social rules/social norms necessary. In general, the more a society is riddled with delusional and tyrannical belief systems, the more arbitrary and capricious it is (I think this is so obvious that it might as well be an iron law).

McLaren wants to blame the extreme freedom of atheism for the vagaries of human cultures, but many of the cultures who held the things he deplores were Christian cultures, so I’m afraid the connection doesn’t make much logical sense. Christian societies seem to be no better at preventing lying, cheating, adultery, child molestation, slavery, interracial marriage (??), or polygamy.

Like pretty much everyone in the world, religious people don’t like criticism. But to equate social criticism of religion with lying, cheating or adultery is just plain stupid. Wouldn’t the fact that Christians themselves publicly criticize other religions make them lying cheating adulterers as well?

6. If there is no God, we don’t make sense, so how do we explain human longings and desire for the transcendent? How do we even explain human questions for meaning and purpose, or inner thoughts like, why do I feel unfulfilled or empty? Why do we hunger for the spiritual, and how do we explain these longings if nothing can exist beyond the material world?

The answer to that last question, I think, is pretty simple: we don’t really have a longing for something “beyond the material world.” What religions like Christianity provides is something that secular belief systems are able to provide as well, and that’s specialness. You can have specialness for all sorts of reasons which are purely material: because you have special knowledge that no one outside the group has, because you are enlightened (according to the group’s definition of enlightenment), because you have access to a wise guru who shows you the way to a better life, because you have power over other human beings, and so on and so forth.

That being said, I don’t want to say there is nothing to the spiritual aspect, I just don’t think it exists “beyond the material world,” whatever that means. I think it stems from the fact that human beings are paradoxical: we are bound to remain completely and utterly physical, but at the same time we have minds that can dwell in the rarefied air of pure abstraction. We are physically unfree but mentally free, to the extent that we allow ourselves to be. It’s no wonder that we have a natural attraction to limitless abstractions like “God” or “spirit.” We yearn for freedom from our physical limitations, freedom from the body, freedom from old age, freedom from death. There’s no need to invoke anything beyond human minds.

As for why people feel unfulfilled and empty, I think that is a result of Christianity waning: not because Christianity was doing us any favors, but because its system of meaning has lost credibility to people with modern thoughts. This has created an ideological vacuum which has not yet been replaced. We know religions are good at taking space in people’s lives, because they propagate mostly by brainwashing children or young people. It’s obvious that people who were raised with such a sense of self-importance, and then lost it, would feel like there’s something missing in their lives. Again, no mumbo-jumbo required to explain it.

The answers to our spiritual quest can be found in the human mind, not in some imaginary non-material mind that has all the answers. That’s a seductive idea, and it makes people feel special that they have all the answers, but it’s an illusion. The goal of a true spiritual quest is not to fall to illusions, but to confront the reality behind the veil. That much seems to be a constant of spiritual awareness. What Christianity has to offer is not real spirituality, it’s the equivalent of McDonalds compared to real food, if McDonalds was toxic and changed your body chemistry to the extent that you became unable to eat real food (I know, I know, it already is, ha ha). If I was a spiritual seeker, I would look elsewhere.

“You can’t prove God doesn’t exist!”

If you listen to The Atheist Experience show, or are involved in apologetics, you’ll find that one of the go-to arguments Christians rely on is “you can’t prove God doesn’t exist, therefore atheism is based on faith!”

The standard answer is that atheism is a lack of belief, not a belief that there is no God. This seems extremely difficult for Christians to understand, probably because they are stuck in the mindset that anyone who’s not a Christian must have some alternate religious worldview to compensate (and a lot of atheists are stuck in that mindset, too). This leads dialogues into one of two directions: either the Christian acknowledges the lack of belief in God and equates atheism with nihilism (because they confuse an apparent lack of worldview with an actual lack of worldview, which they equate with a conscious form of nihilism), or the Christian, due to their intellectual limitations, simply cannot understand how a lack of belief is different from a belief in the negative. Neither of these avenues are fruitful, and they both lead to frustration. This is partially why I think talking about atheism is a waste of time.

So the inevitable question posed to atheists is: “what is your proof that God does not exist?” To which atheists usually try to keep the high ground and reply that they only lack belief in God, and that it is the Christian who is making a statement about reality. The Christian is the one who has to prove that God exists. The atheist is free to disbelieve in anything that is not sufficiently justified, without having to prove anything in turn. So the atheist doesn’t have to prove anything, which is why it’s a good route to take if you’re having a dialogue.

But there is a difference between an expedient answer and an honest answer. Christians play fast and loose with the truth, and it’s hard to nail them down (pun intended). We have to resort to expedient answers in order to not get bogged down in details that just slow the conversation down.

The honest answer, I think, should be that there is no God. Of course there isn’t. We know the Christian god does not exist. We know the Greek gods don’t exist. There are no gods at the top of mountains, on the clouds, or in one of the ten to twenty-six dimensions that may or may not exist, all rolled up like an atomic swiss cake. To this people will inevitably reply, as Al Sharpton ill-advisedly tried to argue against Christopher Hitchens in their debate on the existence of God, what about the abstract concept “God”? Sharpton’s arguments failed, as these arguments always do, because there is no such thing as a “generic God” that is revealed to us by nature. The only concrete pieces of evidence we have for gods are holy books which proclaim the existence of a specific God, which can be easily disproven. These holy books are unconvincing, to say the least, but at least they are evidence. There is no evidence that someone like Sharpton can point to and say “look, here is a conception of God you can’t disprove!”

To continue along these lines, I think the perennial comparison with Santa Claus is never followed through, and that’s unfortunate. We don’t disbelieve in Santa Claus’ existence, we know Santa Claus does not exist. How do we know Santa Claus does not exist? The existence of Santa Claus is established through mythical narratives which don’t have much connection to reality. We also know that the concept of Santa Claus has evolved over time, from the Wild Man and Odin to Sinterklaas to the Santa Claus we know today. Like other myths, God’s existence is established through mythical narratives, such as the Bible or the Quran, and has evolved over time, from living and breathing pantheons to polytheism to highly abstract monotheism. Is this conclusive? It’s conclusive enough for us to declare Santa Claus, leprechauns, elves, fairies, and werewolves to be mythical creatures.

There are other strong arguments against the existence of God. The one I find most persuasive is the argument from physical minds. All the minds we know are the product of an evolutionary process and function on a material substrate, and we do not know of any minds which are not the product of evolution or which do not function on a material substrate. Therefore there is no reason to believe that such a mind could exist.

The Kalam Argument.

Christians have latched onto the Kalam Argument as a more sophisticated response to atheism. A product of the mind of theologian and deranged lunatic William Lane Craig, the Kalam Argument tries to accomplish what no other Christian argument has: make an argument that starts from natural facts and specifically proves the existence of God (as opposed to a generic designer, a universal force, or a really powerful alien being). His basic case is the following:

If the universe has a cause of its existence, then [we find that] an uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans creation is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and enormously powerful and intelligent.

How he goes about proving this is a different matter. The linchpin of his argument is the position that the personal cause of the universe, or as he calls it, the Creator, is uncaused, because an infinite regress of causes cannot exist. I will gladly concede this premise, but it does not prove the point at all. The belief in a caused Creator does not imply an infinite regress of causes. For instance, one may believe in a finite number of causes, of which the Creator is the penultimate one. One may believe in a cycle of causes which is winding down from some extremely high-energy beginning. One may believe in a pantheon of gods where the Creator is part of a divine family. One may believe in a Creator that is the product of another universe or dimension.

There are so many possibilities that there’s no point in listing them all. There is just no way to go from “there is a Creator of the universe” to “that Creator is uncaused.” And if there’s no logical path there, then Craig’s attempt at specificity fails, because it’s a chain that depends on each link being true, and the very first link is invalid.

But Christians who argue theology do not even use the argument in this intended manner. Instead, they simplify it by saying that the Creator cannot have properties of the universe, like being material or existing in time. Here is one example of such simplification:

So, space, time, and matter began to exist. What could have caused them to begin to exist?

* Whatever causes the universe to appear is not inside of space, because there was no space causally prior to the creation event. The cause must therefore be non-physical, because physical things exist in space.
* Whatever causes the universe to appear is not bound by time (temporal). It never began to exist. There was no passage of time causally prior to the big bang, so the cause of the universe did not come into being. The cause existed eternally.
* And the cause is not material. All the matter in the universe came into being at the first moment. Whatever caused the universe to begin to exist cannot have been matter, because there was no matter causally prior to the big bang.

Despite the title of that entry (“How to defend the Kalam Argument just like William Lane Craig”), this is definitely not how Craig defends these conclusions (for instance, see this handy guide written by Craig himself). For all of Craig’s illogic, this reinterpretation is far more illogical. God cannot be spatial, temporal, or material because the universe is spatial, temporal, and material, and God created it. There’s no other premise that can lead you to these conclusions.

But this is a self-defeating reasoning. For one thing, Craig argues that the Creator must be a person. But by this reasoning, God cannot be a person, because the universe contains persons. Likewise, God cannot have any other property of persons, like morality or intelligence.

Any Christian who replies “but the universe did contain one person, and that’s God” (never mind how incoherent the concept of personhood is when there’s only one being) is stuck with the same ad hoc line of reasoning. Because we can formulate the objection in the exact same way:

“All persons came into being with the universe. Whatever caused the universe could not be a person, because there were no persons prior to the big bang.”

If they say this is a circular argument, well, so is the reasoning I’ve quoted. Why could God not exist in space, time, or matter? If the reason is that it’s physically impossible, well, how is a person magically existing without a material substrate even remotely physically possible? I see no reason to believe that this nonsense (a person existing without a material substrate) is any more or less impossible than the other nonsense (space, time and matter existing “before the big bang”). Who the fuck cares?

Craig’s argument assumes that proving infinite regress is impossible (a point which I do not deny, by the way) logically proves that the universe must have an uncaused Creator. Like most Christian arguments, it assumes far, far more than the evidence can bear. Denying the possibility of infinite regress does not, as far as I can tell, disprove any cosmological position currently held to be even remotely credible. All it proves is that Craig is shit at philosophy.

Spirituality: an attempt at an explanation.

This is one of those more speculative posts that I make once in a while. I don’t vouch for having great confidence in what I have to say here, but I think it’s something worth thinking about.

We talk a lot about “spirituality,” but there seems to be little understanding of what it’s actually about. Spirituality and religion seem to be related, but atheists and other non-religious can also have spiritual experiences. Some examples of the latter experiences are: pondering the cosmos, astronauts going into space and seeing the Earth, climbing a high peak, finding a fundamental law of nature, listening to a particularly complex and stirring classical piece, and so on. Religious people, on the other hand, claim that their God experiences are also spiritual experiences. What do these things all have in common?

In our post-Enlightenment societies, we operate under the assumption that “thinking” and “feeling” are basically two separate domains which have nothing to do with each other. We know that neurologically this is bullshit, but that’s the assumption behind our ultra-rational worldviews, that “thinking,” in order to be effective, must be segregated from “feeling,” and that “feeling” is inferior and should be relegated to personal matters. “Thinking” was associated with men, as an active process, and “feeling” was associated with women, as a passive process (also note the correspondence between “feeling” being only for personal matters and “women” being relegated to the private sphere).

But these experiences, I think, unite thinking and feeling so much that they force us to acknowledge their union: they involve our intellectual understanding, but they also go beyond our understanding. Our brain is made to deal with things that exist at our scale, things we can apprehend directly, like tables, chairs, cats, dogs, grass, trees, distances that go from millimeters to kilometers. We do not need metaphors to understand these basic things, as we can make mental images of them pretty easily based on our experiences. Things like time and space, which exist on a scale we can’t imagine, things like music, which is mathematical but affects our brain at a deep level in ways we do not understand, the discovery of something abstract like a law of nature, which is not directly perceivable but affects everything around us, and the paradigm shift that it creates, are all experiences which combine intellectual understanding with our emotions in an undeniable way. We are no longer able to say “this is intellectual and this is emotional.” Therefore we call it “spiritual.”

The thing you feel spiritual about has to be at your intellectual and emotional level. A person who has no interest in science would not get much from analyzing quantum physics. Someone who has absolutely no affinity to classical music would probably not be moved enough by any piece to have a spiritual experience.

I think monotheistic religions are spiritual for the same reason. The concept of God is an intellect-based concept, but at the same time it is fundamentally unknowable, mysterious: contemplating God therefore becomes a spiritual experience, because it both requires intellectual understanding and it requires you to go beyond it. It is an artificial sort of spirituality, because it is based on confusing the believer with nonsensical or contradictory statements. As such, it is more hypnosis than spirituality.

I think we have to be careful to distinguish between inducement of trance by confusion, and actual spirituality. I don’t think anyone gets a spiritual feeling by reading a confusing book, like the Bible. But the confusion and contradictions serve a hypnotic role, in that they force people to defend the contradictions and, in doing so, their belief in deepened because they have invested their own understanding into it. The spirituality of an experience stems from the experience itself. The confusion created by religious concepts doesn’t stem from the experience, but from our initial incapacity to understand it. If the concept of “God” was material and perfectly comprehensible, I doubt most religious experiences would be spiritual experiences: the only spiritual experiences left would be those that everyone can have (like pondering the cosmos, listening to classical music, etc).

If we didn’t take such care into separating “thinking” and “feeling,” what would happen? I’ve already looked at this from the political perspective. However, what I want to ask here is, would it mean the end of saying some experiences are “spiritual” and that most are not? We know for a fact that all our experiences actually involve both understanding and feeling. If we got in touch with that fact, would we stop making such distinctions and just live like whole beings all the time, involved in both thinking and feeling, instead of having these experiences we acknowledge as “spiritual” and label the rest as either “thinking” or “feeling”?

Give me your ideas in the comments.

“You send yourself to Hell!”

There is a thing that Christian apologists commonly say which, from the atheist standpoint, really doesn’t make any sense. It taunts us, like a puzzle, especially since the Christians who say it rarely even bother to explain what they mean, or perhaps they don’t actually know what they mean at all. That saying is “you send yourself to Hell!”

This is an absurd statement because, for one thing, no one knows where Hell is. So how can anyone send anything there? Not only that, but we clearly don’t have the power to send ourselves anywhere we do know about, let alone to an unknown place. Humans do not have teleportation powers. So why do Christians say such a bizarre thing?

Keep in mind how crucially important it is for people to keep the moral high ground, because of the manichean worldview: “we” are the “good guys” who only do “good things,” so any “bad thing” “we” do presents a dangerous paradox which must absolutely be resolved. The concept of Hell is no exception: the belief that good people go to Hell simply for not believing the right thing is not something a “good guy” would do, therefore this paradox must be resolved somehow.

There seems to be two main ways in which the paradox is resolved. One is to argue that people who go to Hell were all evil anyway. This is the argument adopted by William Lane Craig. And it’s so batshit insane, it’s such a sheer lunacy, that it’s unlikely to ever be widely adopted (unless Christianity ever regresses in a major way). Which is why people tend to adopt the second way: arguing that God actually doesn’t send anyone to Hell, you “choose” to got to Hell. Everyone is in Hell of their own “choice,” so there really are no innocents in Hell.

Evangelist E. A. Johnston, in his sermon Why The American Church Quit Preaching On Hell, points out how imbecilic this argument is:

God is the one who sends the sinner to hell. Do you believe that? Do you? This sad spiritual declension in the church in America has been going on for years. Years ago, I listened to a prominent leader of the Southern Baptist Convention say this, he said, “Folks, God doesn’t send the sinner to hell. No sir, you send yourself to hell, friend.” That’s what the dear boy said but he was dead wrong, friends. Dead wrong. You don’t send yourself to hell. If you had any say-so in the matter, you would run for your life away from the smoking pit of hell.

If we really had the power to send ourselves to Hell, then we would also have the power to send ourselves to Heaven. And if Hell is as bad as they say, then who wouldn’t rather use their teleportation power to get away from that place?

I know that many Christians may reply (if they read this blog, which I know they don’t) that this argument is not really about humans having some weird teleportation power, but about the “choice” to get saved or not. People who “refuse” to get saved “put themselves in Hell.”

First of all, there are millions of people who never “refused” to get saved, they just never had the opportunity to do so. Unless you are willing to join William Lane Craig in his laughable and hateful belief in “transworldly damnation,” there simply is no way to argue that people who lived before Jesus “put themselves in Hell.”

Second, I don’t believe we “refuse to get saved.” People do what they do because of their personalities and their circumstances. I can no more help being an atheist than someone else can help being a Christian, a Hindu or a Muslim. We all react to the ways we were indoctrinated as children, either by buying into it or reacting to it. Either way, we didn’t “choose” our indoctrination, our circumstances, or our personality.

But most importantly, the reframing contradicts itself: if all we do is get saved or not get saved, then we’re not “putting ourselves” anywhere. We’re all still on Earth no matter what happens.

Here’s an analogy. Suppose a robber comes up to you with a gun and says “give me your money or you’re gonna kill yourself.” Then you refuse to give him your money, and he shoots you. Did you just kill yourself? Clearly that would be a semantic confusion. You created a situation where it was desirable for the other person to shoot you, but you didn’t literally commit suicide. To say that you committed suicide would be to blame the victim, to erase all that the robber did. Which, in this analogy, stands for God. And there, I think, is the crux of the issue.

Does atheism logically lead to non-rationality?

James N. Anderson, on his blog Analogical Thoughts, posted an entry called “Atheism, Amoralism, and Arationalism.” The entry starts from the premise that atheism leads to amorality, the absence of moral norms, and tries to draw an analogy between this rejection of moral norms and the rejection of epistemic norms. Unlike most apologists, he does not dwell on the refutation of moral norms, confining it to the following:

You get the point: the New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, are “soft atheists” because they deny God yet still want to affirm moral realism. The problem is that their position isn’t a coherent, stable one, because it seeks to affirm some phenomenon — in this case, objective moral norms — while denying the one metaphysical framework that could plausibly account for that phenomenon.

This is yet another example of the presupposionalist affection for arguments from incredulity: Anderson can’t demonstrate, or even start to demonstrate, that there’s no other framework that can account for objective moral norms, he just assumes that there cannot be one because he can’t think of one.

There are two fatal problems with this (lack of) reasoning. The first is that, if God exists, then there cannot be objective moral norms, since any norms originating in God’s consciousness would by definition be subjective. Apologists have rationalizations for this fact, but they cannot deny the fact itself. For instance, they will say that “God is necessarily good,” but whether this is true or not does not deny the subjectivity of the norms. All it shows, if true, is that God’s subjective norms are good. This is of no concern to us.

The second is that there are plausible accounts of the existence of objective moral norms. Although I am no fan of utilitarianism, it does present objective moral norms attained through abstract calculation, and it is widely known. Someone who claims to be well-versed in theories about morality, like Anderson, should already know this. As readers of this blog probably know, I support evolutionary intuitionism as the best meta-moral position there is. Others may disagree, which is fine, but to claim that there is no atheistic framework that can account for objective moral norms is laughable and only exposes the speaker as completely ignorant of moral theories.

Before I go on to his analysis of possible defenses of epistemic norms, I do want to give my own position on the subject. I think there exists moral norms as well as epistemic norms. But I also agree with Anderson that, in the absence of moral norms, then there cannot be epistemic norms either, and I agree that this presents a problem for the atheist who claims there are no moral norms. If we cannot distinguish right from wrong, desirable action from undesirable action, then we cannot distinguish right way of thinking from wrong way of thinking (since thinking is just another kind of action), desirable methods from undesirable methods. The desire to be rational is in itself a moral position, rooted in our nature as evolved, thinking organisms dealing with an uncertain world. There is nothing innately right about seeking the truth, and the proposition that sometimes it may be wrong to seek the truth is not, in itself, absurd. We see this in debates around the debunking of free will and the supposed need to keep thinking we do have free will even though we don’t; although I strongly disagree with this supposed need, I don’t think it is a priori wrong.

Unfortunately for Anderson, this is a deep problem for Christianity as well: if Christianity, by definition, cannot justify moral norms, then it cannot justify epistemic norms either. There is ultimately no way for a committed Christian to defend his beliefs: if you keep asking “why do you believe this?” and dig long enough, you will eventually arrive at a dead end. They cannot rely on commonplace methods like science, induction, or the uniformity of nature, because a Christian is committed to subjective norms and therefore cannot be committed to any of those things.

If the Christian is committed to anything on matters of fact, it’s faith. But none of them have been able to adequately define or clarify what this means. So we see them descend into complete irrationality, like the much vaunted theologian William Lane Craig, who said that, if he went back in time and saw with his own eyes that Jesus never came out of the tomb, he would still believe in the Biblical account. Observing something directly and denying what you saw: that is about as direct a statement of irrationality as you can make. And yet this is the kind of thing we should expect from people who cannot be rational.

So let’s move on to Anderson’s attempt to demonstrate that the atheist who denies moral norms must also deny epistemic norms.

Option #1: Epistemic norms are just a subset of moral norms. On this view, to be irrational is just to be immoral in some way, to be intellectually irresponsible or blameworthy. This is probably the least attractive option for the atheist, because it would mean that amoralism entails arationalism. Any difficulty in accounting for moral norms on an atheistic basis would immediately carry over to epistemic norms. (There are other problems with this option, but I won’t get into them here.)

Option #2: Epistemic norms aren’t a subset of moral norms, but they’re analogous to moral norms. This doesn’t seem much more appealing to the atheist than the first option, since it still closely connects the two kinds of norms, such that they will tend to stand or fall together. If the two kinds of norms are analogous, then presumably they’ll have analogous grounds or origins. But if atheism invites amoralism then (by an argument from analogy) it will invite arationalism too.

These two options are very similar, so there’s no point in examining them separately. As it happens, I agree with both of them: amoralism does entail arationalism. As I pointed out, this is a problem for the Christian and the atheist who rejects moral norms, but not for the atheist who holds that moral norms exist.

Option #3: Epistemic norms are deontological in nature; they amount to intellectual duties or obligations. I mention this as a separate option, although I suspect it reduces to #2 or #3. In any event, this doesn’t look like a good option for the atheist. Duties and obligations can only arise in a personal context. So which persons give rise to our intellectual duties, our obligations to think in certain ways and not in other ways? Does the human race as a whole somehow impose obligations upon its individual members? Or do some members impose obligations upon other members? If so, on what authority? Why do I owe it to you or anyone else to use my cognitive faculties in a certain way? Intellectual duties appear to be no more explicable on an atheistic basis than plain-vanilla moral duties. If an atheist could account for the latter, presumably that would go some way toward accounting for the former. But isn’t that precisely the problem?

I don’t understand why Anderson thinks this is different from option 1 or 2: duties and obligations are moral constructs, and therefore they are part of moral norms. Again, I don’t think Anderson understands moral theories very much. Anyway, what Anderson is missing, I think, is the fact that humans are social animals. As we’ll see in his answer to option 7, he seems to be totally blind to that fact, and this greatly hinders his ability to think about morality, since morality and our status as social animals are inextricably linked. You cannot discuss one without discussing the other.

Our obligations and duties (at least, the ones that are actually moral in nature) basically exist because our well-being depends on the cooperation of others in our society, not on the basis of authority. Any obligation or duty conferred on the basis of authority would not be moral in nature: might makes right is not an argument about morality, and external obligations cannot be transferred to the individual. All obligations and duties must be generated internally, or they are not actual moral obligations or duties.

Besides that, he’s right that “the human race,” as an abstraction, does not impose obligations upon its members. That wouldn’t make any more sense than to say that “nature” imposes its laws on humans. In both cases, we’re talking about, at best, linguistic metaphors. But Anderson seems to believe that his metaphor is morally relevant, and that if it does not hold, then that tells us something about morality. This is semantic confusion. Whether the “human race imposes obligations” has no relevance to the existence, or lack thereof, of such obligations.

There is a further problem with the term “personal context.” In a trivial sense, everything we know, including moral and epistemic norms, arises in a “personal context”: our own minds. So it is true that “duties and obligations can only arise in a personal context,” but this is true of everything else, including one’s particular interpretation of the Bible or divine commands, one’s beliefs about morality, or one’s trust that the Sun will rise tomorrow. If by “personal context,” Anderson is using “personal context” to mean “only comes from persons,” then the problem equally applies to Christians, whose morality comes from… a person.

Option #4: Epistemic norms are teleological in nature; they pertain to the natural purpose or function of our intellectual faculties. I think it makes good sense to understand some epistemic norms as teleological in nature. Alvin Plantinga’s proper-function epistemology is a case in point: to think rationally is essentially to use one’s cognitive faculties as they were intended (read: designed) to be used, for the purpose of acquiring true beliefs and avoiding false beliefs. But as Plantinga and others have observed, while a proper-function epistemology fits comfortably with theism, it sits unhappily with atheism. It’s easy to see why: atheism is no friend of teleology in nature. The primary appeal of Darwinism for atheists is that it purports to explain the appearance of purpose and function in nature without any appeal to final causes (specifically, without any supernatural final cause).

I have already refuted Plantinga’s evolutionary argument, which proposes that cognitive faculties which are a product of evolution are necessarily unreliable. What Anderson is describing here seems to be the flip-side of that argument, showing the “correct” answer that our cognitive faculties must have been designed. But this flip-side is wrong for the same reason that the original argument is wrong: while our brains were not designed for anything, including truth-seeking, there is no particular reason to believe that brains which evolved to fulfill some other function cannot also be used for truth-seeking. This argument is about as stupid as saying: pins and sharpened pencils can reset electronic devices, therefore they must have been designed to fulfill this function. No, clearly pins and sharpened pencils originally served an entirely different function, and were later adapted to the new function, much like our cognitive faculties.

There is one flaw in my analogy: pins and pencils were created, and the human brain was not. But this exposes the main problem with Anderson’s argument: it assumes that our cognitive faculties were designed for truth-seeking. If that’s the case, then whoever designed them was a very poor designer, making God look rather like a fool (the same thing can be said about the supposed designed nature of parasites and diseases). It is very clear (at least, to anyone who is not out to push an agenda) that the human mind was definitely not designed for truth-seeking, but that it was, again, consciously adopted for that purpose by human beings.

To make another analogy, our hands did not evolve to manipulate keyboards, mice, or controllers, and they were clearly not designed for those functions either. Rather, humans took an existing ability (using our fingers and hands to manipulate objects) and adapted it to new functions. Clearly our hands are not optimal, by far, for such functions (anyone who suffers from carpal tunnel can testify to that), but they are serviceable.

Option #5: Epistemic norms are subjective in nature; they’re grounded in human desires, feelings, preferences, goals, or something along those lines. On this view, an epistemic norm like one ought to proportion one’s beliefs to the evidence is true because of certain human psychological states (either individually or corporately). The problem, of course, is that this is consistent with arationalism; it basically concedes that there are no objective epistemic norms. What we’re looking for here is an atheistic account of objective epistemic norms. This option is a surrender rather than a solution.

I completely agree with Anderson’s statements here. To claim that epistemic norms are subjective (in the sense of being justified by desires or feelings) would be a surrender of rationality. So what does that tell us about Christianity? What are Christian epistemic norms grounded on? They cannot be grounded in reality, because Christians have no grounds to believe in things like science, logic, induction, or the uniformity of reality. If we exclude those, then the only methods left are subjective methods.

In the Christian world, propositions like “I feel the guidance of the Holy Spirit”, “I just can’t imagine that this life is all there is,” or “I believe that the Bible proves [insert non-literary proposition here]” are at least on an equal footing (and often, on a higher footing) as propositions grounded in reality. This is the sort of insanity that a subjectivist worldview like Christianity generates. As Anderson says, “this option is a surrender rather than a solution”- surrender to God’s will (as subjectively interpreted by the believer), not a rational solution.

Skipping option 6, because I have nothing in particular to say about it, we get to the last, and longest, option in Anderson’s list. There is much to discuss here, so it will be divided in parts.

Option #7: Epistemic norms are evolutionary norms, in the sense that they further evolutionary goals or ends; they characterize cognitive operations and processes that are advantageous in evolutionary terms. I suspect many atheists will gravitate toward this option for much the same reason they gravitate toward an evolutionary account of morality. In the absence of God, one has little choice but to seek purely naturalistic explanations of what we are, where we came from, and why we behave as we do. Mother Nature and Father Darwin will together deliver the goods.

This is another great example of the subjectivist norms of Christianity. Biological evolution is one of the most studied, and the most well understood, natural phenomenon on this planet. Based on the mass of empirical data that we have, we know for a fact that it happened. But to the Christians who reject evolution, their subjective trust in a book trumps all the scientific evidence. They then have to reframe this scientific evidence in emotional terms (“Mother Nature and Father Darwin,” dragging down nature and science to the paternal nature of God) to hide the flimsiness of their position. This is pathetic religion and even more pathetic philosophy. But he continues on more serious grounds:

The basic idea, then, is that human cognitive faculties have evolved via purely natural processes, with natural selection acting on genetic variations providing most if not all of the driving force, and epistemic norms characterize how those cognitive faculties operate to give us true beliefs which serve the ‘ultimate’ end of effective reproduction and survival. A cognitive operation or process is rational or irrational just in case it tends to produce, respectively, true or false beliefs. True beliefs promote survival. False beliefs hinder survival. Thus epistemically normative ultimately reduces to biologically advantageous.

There are several serious problems with this account. In the first place, the assumption that natural selection will tend to favor cognitive faculties aimed at truth is highly questionable. Organisms can survive just as effectively with false beliefs as with true beliefs; indeed, most organisms on the planet reproduce and survive very effectively without any beliefs.

Furthermore, as Plantinga and others have argued, evolution as a purely naturalistic process would be entirely blind to the propositional content of our beliefs (and thus to whether they are true or false). Given naturalism, only the physical properties of our brains and the physical consequences of our brain processes could have any causal influence on evolutionary outcomes. In short, evolution pays no heed to what an organism believes, only to how it behaves. As philosopher Stephen Stich (among others) has frankly admitted, “natural selection does not care about truth; it cares only about reproductive success.”

It’s funny how Anderson presents what is supposedly the evidence-based view, and then debunks it with more evidence. Talk about a straw man. Of course we are well aware that organisms can survive as effectively, if not more, with false beliefs as with true beliefs: religion is a prime example of this phenomenon. Not only that, but religion is the biggest source of other false moral and epistemic norms. So it is quite clear that the straw man account presented by Anderson is exactly that, a straw man.

As I discussed before, Anderson seems to believe that using a tool for a specific purpose must mean that this tool was designed completely for that specific purpose, and that any other alternative is an inferior explanation. But this is not rational. Our cognitive faculties did not evolve through producing true beliefs, just like our hands did not evolve through manipulating electronics or our legs did not evolve through dancing. And yet we use them for those purposes. There is no logical reason to believe that any given purpose of an organ or object must be its original purpose, and that design must be involved in that process.

But there’s a more fundamental problem here. Even if we grant that evolution would tend to favor cognitive faculties aimed towards true beliefs, an evolutionary account of epistemic norms would still fall short, for this simple reason: there’s nothing objectively normative about evolutionary outcomes. Evolutionary theory seeks to give a naturalistic explanation for where organisms came from and why they are the way they are. But it’s a descriptive theory — as must be any explanatory accounts derived from that theory (such as accounts of our cognitive faculties). From an atheistic perspective, there’s nothing objectively ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ about what evolution produces. The outcomes of evolution aren’t objectively good (or objectively bad, for that matter). They simply are what they are.

Anderson commits one gigantic equivocation in this passage: he goes from “evolutionary outcomes”/”what evolution produces” (i.e. organisms, organs, etc) to “evolutionary theory” (i.e. the actual evidence and the structured data derived from them). These two things are not the same at all. He’s trying to prove that “evolutionary outcomes”/”what evolution produces” do not inform our norms by appealing to the descriptive nature of “evolutionary theory.” Either he did not realize he was equivocating, in which case this is sloppy writing, or he did, in which case he is being blatantly dishonest.

Evolutionary theory is descriptive, like all truly scientific theories. In that he is correct. But evolutionary outcomes do heavily inform our moral and epistemic norms. To see how absurd it is to think otherwise, could you design a set of precise physical instructions which would enable all animals to move forward? No, of course not. Animals with legs move completely differently from animals with fins or wings, and even within these categories there are vast differences. The evolutionary product in every case, the organism, differs so much that designing such a set of instructions is impossible. Without knowing what the evolutionary product consists of, we cannot design “walking norms.”

The same basic idea applies to the intellectual faculties. The moral norms applicable to the individuals of each species depend to a large extent on their nature. It would be futile to apply human moral principles to chimpanzees or dolphins (in the same way that it would be futile to try to move a salmon like a buffalo). Of course social context also has a big role in this (not just in humans, as observations of other primates has demonstrated). But the fundamentals of our moral and epistemic norms lie in our nature as organisms and the way our brains work.

Anderson’s basic error is to fail to recognize that humans are social animals. Right and wrong are only necessary because individuals interact in fluid ways within various social structures: Robinson Crusoes need know-how and drive, not morality. I may be wrong in my interpretation, but Anderson seems to believe that individuals can only impose morality on each other, presumably within hierarchies (whether it’s the hierarchy of God-over-humans or any human hierarchy). But within that narrow framework, morality is pointless. All we have to guide action is power, and the application of power is not morally relevant. Obeying God’s orders, or obeying a tyrant’s orders, is not a recognition that those orders are moral, but a fear of the consequences of disobedience. Therefore the problem highlighted by Anderson equally applies to his belief system: divine command theory is descriptive (it describes God’s desires), not prescriptive (especially since, as I’ve already linked, external obligations cannot be transferred).

In a sense, his statement that “there’s nothing objectively ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ about what evolution produces” is trivially true, insofar as evolution is not a person and therefore it cannot be right or wrong in producing anything. But persons, which can be right or wrong, are the product of evolution, they are part of “what evolution produces.” The nature of the organisms produced by evolution dictates the fundamentals of what is right or wrong for those organisms. Therefore, “what evolution produces” does entail “things that are objectively ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.” This is the case under any secular moral realist theory that I know, whether they include it in their reasoning or not. We cannot dissociate our knowledge, including our knowledge about morality and epistemology, from our nature as knowers.

The most an atheist could say about the ‘goodness’ or ‘rightness’ of certain evolutionary outcomes is that they’re subjectively good: they’re good because we ourselves value them (presumably because we value things like our own survival, having true beliefs, having pleasurable experiences, and so forth). But in that case option #7 has collapsed into option #5 and the atheist is no further forward.

Here Anderson seems to be reiterating his mistake in option 3: equating the “personal context” with subjectivity. This is incorrect because it would make all knowledge subjective by definition. Knowledge doesn’t float around without context, knowledge is necessarily knowledge acquired by someone, within their personal context. The fact that we value something doesn’t automatically make it subjective: if that was the case, then all values, including those of the Christians, would be subjective, making this argument self-refuting.

I see no other clear way of interpreting this paragraph. Option 5, the position that epistemic norms are actually subjective (i.e. based on our desires, feelings, and so on), cannot be the end point of this line of reasoning, because there are a great deal of reasons why we hold certain values. Having true beliefs is not good solely because we all desire to hold true beliefs: most people (including Christians) don’t really care if they hold true beliefs or not, at least not explicitly. Having true beliefs is objectively good because (amongst other reasons) it helps us make accurate evaluations about actions and situations.

To take a clear example, the false belief that epileptic seizures are caused by a voodoo curse (a belief which still exists in certain parts of South America) may cause you to take actions against spirit possession instead of taking your loved one to the doctor, thus prolonging their suffering. The false belief is undesirable because it causes you, in this case, to take an action which you would find undesirable otherwise. Or to take another example closer to home, the false belief that homosexuals are cursed by God cause a lot of people to create hardships for their loved ones, when such hardship is wholly unnecessary and undesirable. In both cases, holding the false beliefs as true is wrong because people rely on those beliefs and act accordingly.

I suppose this entry is a peculiar form of criticism, insofar as I agree with Anderson’s main point (that a lack of moral norms entails a lack of epistemic norms). Yet his reasoning is so flawed that I think his entry highlights not only the weaknesses of Christian apologists regarding morality, but also their many projections on the subject.

The connection between religion and childism.

I’ve felt for a long time now that atheism as we know it was a dead-end, that it was being built up as a community and an ideology but that it was really neither, that we could easily subsume it into the rubric of “critical thinking” or something like that. You can only argue against castles in the sky for so long before it becomes same old, same old. While I am happy enough that some prominent atheists are starting to look into the area of ethics, and I do think there’s some promising avenues there, I don’t think that’s enough.

I think there is one major obstacle that stands in the way of a deeper opposition to religion, and that’s childism. We all know that religion, like all social constructs, begins at home, in childhood indoctrination. And there are even a few people who will go so far, who will be so bold, as to say that extreme religious beliefs and practices (like believers in Hell, anti-vaxxers, or anti-blood-transfusion JWs) constitute child abuse. But that’s pretty much it.

We need to acknowledge that any indoctrination of children about religion, no matter how well-intentioned, represents an attack against their freedom of thought: not just extreme beliefs, but all of them, not just extreme practices, but all of them. I’ve already written an entry on that subject. We also need to look at the social and political influence of religion and how it enforces conformity, especially how religious schools make religions more credible and how they participate in the normalization of religion.

This is also connected to my complain that atheists refuse to look at culturally-enforced religious belief. Culture is one of those social constructs that is enforced upon children and, for people who believe for cultural reasons, we cannot dissociate the indoctrination of culture with the indoctrination of religion. Therefore we have to talk about culture as a social construct as well.

The indoctrination of children is predicated on the childist position that a child is a means to an end, that end being the adult they will become, and that children must be raised to be adapted to society. This is why we enforce religion and culture. We have to talk about that, too.

But childism in religion is not limited to childhood indoctrination. I think it’s reflected in a much more fundamental manner in the relation between God and humanity. Most obviously, we see Jesus telling his disciples that they must have childlike faith, associating children with purity and innocence, a standard strategy to dehumanize people. The Bible also clearly sentences disobedient children to the death penalty.

But more importantly, believers see God as the ultimate father. How do they see this fatherhood relationship? Well, they see God as the owner of all humans. They see humans as so inferior to God that humans cannot figure out what is moral and what is not without God telling them, and disobedience against God’s wishes as the ultimate evil. They see God as perfectly justified in punishing humans, up to and including genocide. This is basically the ultimate form of the Strict Father morality.

While breeders would shirk at the notion that they own their children, and don’t believe that creating a new human life implies ownership of it, childism does implicitly lead to the conclusions that parents own their children, that children are inherently inferior, and that punishing children is justifiable as long as it’s “discipline.” God as ultimate father is merely a more explicit version of childism. It is pure child-hatred laid bare as self-loathing. In this context, the exhortation that believers should fear God makes a lot more sense. After all, children who get beaten regularly and are threatened into obedience (like God does in the Bible) rightly have an overwhelming fear of their parents.

Humans are irrational and cannot make decisions for themselves. Humans have no rights towards the Father, only duties. Humans cannot claim to be equal to their Father, as the Father has all wisdom and all morality. The only proper attitude for humans to have towards their Father is humility and a desire to follow its desires. Does that all remind you of something?

I’ve complained that it seems like no one can define the word “faith” in a way that made any sense. Atheists claim that “faith” just means you’ll believe anything, but people don’t believe just anything. I would think this is a pretty obvious objection. Some define faith as a lack of rationality or skepticism. But in no case can they explain why people believe what they believe. Instead they sweep it under the rug of the word “faith.”

In his book Why People Believe Weird Things, Shermer lists five reasons why people believe: consolation, immediate gratification, simplicity, moral meaning, and hope. That’s all fine, but I don’t think anyone, even Christians, would argue that faith is any of those things. Furthermore, all religions claim to provide moral meaning and hope, and yet people don’t just adopt all the religions they can find. Obviously there is a reason why they adopt a certain religion and not all others.

The answer, of course, is childhood indoctrination. The vast majority of people don’t change their religious affiliation: the most common change is of a person dropping out and becoming non-religious or non-believer (statistics saying half of people change their affiliation are highly inflated because they count Catholicism, Protestantism, and other Christian groups as all being different affiliations). What faith is really about is the fact that people who are indoctrinated in a certain religion will tend not to leave it, for many reasons (such as powerful fixed ideas and social incentives). There’s no particular reason to apply this to religion, of course, although we don’t hear people talk about faith in masculinity or faith in the upper class.

Because faith is connected to childism, it should be no surprise that atheist cannot confront it (or for that matter detect it in themselves). That’s a huge blind spot. How can we speak meaningfully about religious belief if we can’t confront how and why it starts? The same can be addressed to skeptics: how can we speak meaningfully about “why people believe weird things” when we can’t confront the source of weird belief?