Category Archives: Religious belief

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?

The antinatalist fine tuning argument.

The fine tuning argument, which should be familiar to anyone involved in apologetics from either side, aims to prove the existence of God by pointing out various features of the universe which are conducive to the existence of life as we know it. So for example they will point to the cosmological constants, assume a range that constant can take, and point out that only a small part of that range permits life to exist. Or they will point to various features of physics, such as the four fundamental forces, and that large changes in those forces would not permit life to exist.

Given these facts, believers argue that it is more probable that God is the source of these coincidences than they coming about by random chance.

There have been a great number of debunkings of this argument. One fatal objection is that we really have no idea what the possible range of the cosmological constants are, and so we cannot truthfully say if the universe is fine-tuned or not. Another fatal objection is that fine-tuning actually makes naturalism more probable, not theism: if naturalism is true, we should expect the universe to be fine-tuned, but if God created the universe, there’s no reason why the laws of nature should be so hostile to life.

However, my point here is not to talk about the argument proper, but rather to question the very framework on which the argument is based: that God wanted to create life and that this was in line with his nature as standard of morality.

From the antinatalist perspective, the creation of life would perhaps be the most evil act to ever be perpetrated. In short, life entails suffering, and suffering is always undesirable. The antinatalist solution is to cease procreating and therefore cease bringing about new life which will suffer and die.

If we assume that God exists and created the universe, he was faced with one fundamental decision: to create beings that suffer, or to not do so (note that this option does not necessarily mean to not create any beings). Christians argue that it was good for God to choose the former (because otherwise we wouldn’t be here), and antinatalists argue that it would have been good for God to choose the latter (because we wouldn’t be here).

If God was good, then he wouldn’t have created beings that suffer. The fact that suffering exists is the proof that either God is not good or God does not exist.

Applying the antinatalist perspective to fine-tuning follows from there: if the universe is finely tuned to support the existence and proliferation of life, then the universe either arose naturally or was the outcome of a deliberate, profoundly evil, act. It would be better if the universe was not finely tuned for life.

And if the Christians are right that it is extremely unlikely for a “random” universe to accommodate life, then the act becomes that much more deliberate, and therefore culpable. This leads us to the inescapable conclusion that the more effective the fine-tuning argument is, the more evil God is.

From an evolutionary standpoint, the issue of suffering is explainable. Physical pain, for example, is a signal to the body that it is being harmed. Emotional pain is more varied but it is also generally associated with damage to one’s psychological well-being.

Since this is a moral argument, albeit one based on moral principles that few people would argue with (e.g. suffering is a bad thing), objections can be made in the lines of those made against other moral arguments. I’ve seen quite a few play out on atheist shows, and I want to examine the two I’ve most commonly observed.

The first common response is that atheists have no standards of morality, and that therefore they cannot declare that something is good or bad. A statement such as “suffering is a bad thing” presupposes the validity of the Christian worldview.

My answer is that the first premise is incorrect. We are all equipped with standards of morality (moral intuitions), whether we’re religious or not. We are all capable of making statements about morality like “suffering is a bad thing.” Unfortunately our intuitions are often marginalized or erased by biases, including religious bias. Christianity hinders the formation of moral standards. How can it be the source of morality if it hinders it?

The clever Christian could then reply that the moral intuitions were put “in our heart” by God. Yes, of course, once you accept the primacy of the imagination you can posit any ad hoc rationalization for any inconvenient fact of reality. But the fact remains that they are accessible to all, Christian or not, and that using them or explaining them does not require one to presuppose any Christian concept.

Another fatal response to this rationalization is the following: if the God of the Bible really did implant morality in humans, then Christianity must be contradictory, since our moral intuitions often contradict the Bible’s idea of morality, which supposedly comes from God himself. If both are true, then Christianity entails that slavery is invalid and that slavery is valid, that genocide is invalid and that genocide is valid, that rape is invalid and that rape is valid. But both cannot be true.

The second common response is that God’s morality cannot be evaluated or compared to ours because God does not exist on the same plane as we do and his morality is of an entirely different order.

Now let’s be honest here, this is an ad hoc rationalization, pure and simple. But even if we follow along, it still makes no sense. If God’s morality has no relation whatsoever with human morality, then why follow it? We are humans and need a human morality to operate on this planet, just like monkeys operate on monkey morality, dolphins operate on dolphin morality, and so on. It would be just as imbecilic to demand that a dolphin follow human morality than to demand that a human follow divine morality.

In short, if God is such a different kind of thing that humans cannot evaluate its morality, then there’s no clear reason why we should even consider following divine morality in the first place, let alone take God’s side on any moral issue. Indeed, if we cannot evaluate God’s morality, then it cannot be good or evil from a human perspective. But we can still evaluate God’s actions from a human perspective, and call those actions good or evil from a human perspective. That doesn’t require us to evaluate God’s morality at all.

The main problem with the atheist culture.

Most of what I’ve been writing on atheism has been pretty negative. This is for good reason. When we look at what we might call the atheist community, what I think should be more correctly called the atheist culture in the Western world, we see a lot of issues and problems that are only half-heartedly being addressed, such as sexual abuse and harassment, low female and POC representation, and a bad public image even amongst their fellow seculars.

I think this is all mostly a culture issue, not a belief issue. This will not be a controversial statement, as such problems occur in all kinds of groups, including religious groups.

But here’s where I diverge sharply from the dominant view: I think the main flaw of the atheist culture lies in the lack of recognition that religion is a cultural identity at least as much as a belief system. I also think that’s a big handicap for them right now and will continue to be so in the future.

Much has been made of “New Atheism.” I admit I have not read the recent atheist books: they just sound like same old, same old to me. But as far as I can tell, they still concentrate on the belief systems in dispute. There is also a strong ethical current emerging, which I am thankful for because I think addressing the ethical issues is much more effective than issues of belief. Although I disagree with the specific ethical stances adopted by most atheists, that’s not particularly important in terms of fighting religion on ethical grounds.

But the issue of cultural identity is distinct from epistemic or ethical concerns. To address the latter does not, in general, address the former. This is why Western atheism is a monoculture and has failed to attract people outside of that culture.

The culture in question is white and male, and incorporates the nerd culture, a general pro-science attitude, and an overemphasis on skepticism, logic, and linear thinking to the point of ultra-rationalism. I’ve already commented on the nerd culture, skeptic, and ultra-rationalism aspects in the atheist culture and how they lead to misogyny and racism in particular.

I don’t identify with that culture, which is why I am reluctant these days to identify as an atheist (not to mention all the scandals). Atheism itself is just “lack of belief in gods,” but when we identify we’re not just identifying with an idea, we’re also identifying with a group, and with a certain group culture.

The problem is that, while atheists are an oppressed group in one way, a majority of them, as middle class white adult men with professional occupations, are part of most prominent privileged groups. As privileged people, they refuse to acknowledge these privileges, and that’s natural: privilege is, for the most part, invisible unless you know exactly where to look. That’s not the problem. The problem is that they also hold most positions of importance and refuse to relinquish them.

It also means that the concept of culture holds little importance to them, because as privileged individuals they do not hold to culture as an important way to self-identify. People who are dispossessed, including many POC and women, hold to their culture as a way to connect with others and gain safety in numbers in a society that is rigged against them. And religion is a part of those cultures.

Because atheists are very much into ultra-rationalism, they will resist the suggestion I’ve made here and accuse me of being prejudiced, of believing that POC and women are too irrational or stupid to become atheists. But my point is that this is not an issue of “rationality” or “intelligence” at all. My point is that it’s a cultural issue. Most atheists are atheists partially because they never identified with a strong cultural background.

I believe the first step to breaking the atheist monoculture would be to increase visible diversity, so POC and women would recognize the community as being a place for people like them. All humans want to feel like the groups they join are for people like them. For privileged people this is hard to recognize because everything is catered for “people like them.”

It’s been shown by studies that showing women videos of a group where women are equally represented makes them far more likely to join the group than they would otherwise. Again, this is just common sense. If representation of POC and women, especially POC and women speakers, is raised to 50%, then more POC and women will join and start breaking up the monopoly.

The next step would be to consciously break up the monoculture and present atheism as a viable alternative to other religious cultures. I think there is one major problem with this, though: there are plenty of people who would qualify as atheists but who do not join simply because of the existing monoculture. Instead, they call themselves humanists, seculars, New Agers, spiritual, whatever. So this is sort of a catch-22 situation: like all organizations where privileged people hold the reins of power and resist the introduction of new blood, any possibility of change only lies at the end of a long struggle.

Christianity as an elitist institution.

From Mimi and Eunice.

In pointing out Christianity specifically, I do not wish to protect any other religion. I do think most religions are elitist, and insofar as a religion is defined as worship of God, all religions are fundamentally elitist by definition.

The patriarchal nature of religion is well understood and a lot has already been said on that particular topic. What I want to do here is go beyond that conclusion and look at the fact that religion is inextricably bound to hierarchy and acts as a major vector of its propagation.

Whenever I talk about a topic like this, I get some benign fans of religion comment that I’m misrepresenting Christianity and that it’s really a religion of peace and understanding, that Christianity is not hierarchical at all, and that in fact Christianity is radically egalitarian because it’s all about “loving one another,” the Golden Rule, or things like that. They read the Bible very, very, very selectively.

Now, I have nothing against people who want to believe in such claptrap. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong about loving one another or the Golden Rule (although the Golden Rule is ultimately a support of the status quo). There are always religious people on both sides of any issue, including the good side, because holy texts can be made to support one’s personal position no matter what it is. But by whitewashing Christianity, they are thereby whitewashing the hatred for homosexuals, children, women, POC and Jews supported by the Bible. Liberal pick-and-choosers act as a defensive screen for the conservative hate-mongering bigots.

It has been a common observation that religion bolsters existing power structures. There are many possible reasons for that. Clearly a religion will spread much more readily if it is supported by the power structures in place (e.g. Christianity and the Holy Roman Empire).

But equally importantly, religion has probably always been a tool of cultural identity and social cohesion, therefore it must be conservative in the cultural sense (that is to say, it must always be reactionary in nature in order to fulfill the role of cultural identity). In Western cultures, where extreme power disparity has existed for a long time, this means that religions must support hierarchical thinking. In other cultures, which were more egalitarian before they were colonized or converted, traditional values may be less hierarchical, but this is not the case for Europeans.

So for us, religion is primarily a hierarchy-building and hierarchy-justifying enterprise. But because holy texts can be used to justify anything, they have also been used to justify various forms of egalitarianism; most important in this regard has been the belief that, thanks to Christianity’s innovative universality, salvation is available to all regardless of sex or race. But, and here’s the rub, salvation itself is not actually universal, only access to salvation, which means that anyone who is not Christian is still an enemy. And the demonic is beyond even access to salvation, so any group of people labeled as demonic is automatically excluded from salvation.

But these meager scraps of egalitarianism thrown to us as a consolation prize still exist within a context of universal power. We are only equal insofar as we are all subservient to God, creations of God, and made equal according to God’s plan. When God’s plan states, or is interpreted as stating that certain people (children, women, Jews, black people) deserve a lower place in the social hierarchy, then the egalitarianism goes out the window.

Equality must always give its seat over to the elitism of God-belief. It remains, as everything else in Christian “morality,” relative and conditional. God is the source of salvation, God is the judge, jury and executioner, God sends you to Hell (regardless of Christians’ delusions on that subject). Consider for example this statement from Christians For Biblical Equality:

We believe in the equality and essential dignity of men and women of all ethnicities, ages, and classes. We recognize that all persons are made in the image of God and are to reflect that image in the community of believers, in the home, and in society.

The first sentence makes no mention of the “biblical” aspect of this “biblical equality,” but the second sentence gives the game up: “biblical equality” can only be “biblical” by first acknowledging God as the ultimate cause and absolute standard, of which we are only a pale reflection. “Biblical equality” hides God as a jack-in-the-box behind its pretenses of “equality.”

Christians ignorant of history like to make ridiculous claims that Christianity eliminated slavery or that Jesus was pro-women. Given how much slavery there is in the Bible, and how slavery is not denounced anywhere in the Bible, and how slavery, you know, still exists even in Christian countries, the first claim is rather silly.

As for the second point, well, it’s interesting to note how badly Jesus talked to his own mother, treating her little better than a dog. While he gave lip service to loving your neighbor, Jesus, everyone’s favourite empty cypher or vanity mirror, never spoke up against any hierarchy, notably including slavery.

The Bible was a hierarchy manual and has been used as such for centuries. The us v them mentality has always been part of Christianity, because Christianity divides people in two categories, saved and unsaved, orthodox and heretic, good and evil.

All the major hierarchies are represented in the Bible: Patriarchy (under the guise of “complementarism” and the otherization of female biology as “unclean”), heteronormativity (promoting the death penalty for homosexuals), childism (promoting violence against children, including the death penalty), anti-environmentalism (stating that nature is the property of humans), natalism (be fruitful and multiply), statism (Romans 13), and so on.

What is the message that religious fanatics feed to their children? That they should live in fear: fear of God, fear of sin, fear of Hell. Whether you like it or not, religion is used to keep children in line, even by theetie-wheetie liberals (and yes, even atheists sometimes send their children to church in the hopes the fear will rub off!). Fear has always been a tool used to keep people in line.

Is natalism a religion?

Is natalism a religion? This question may seem cheeky, but there is something to be said for the connection.

First, let me set aside the traditional definition of religion, which is connected to the existence and worship of a god. Although natalism is strongly associated with religious fundamentalism, one does not have to be a religious fundamentalist to be a natalist.

This definition is usually seen as overly narrow. A more interesting distinction is that between the sacred and the profane, accompanied by a moral code, feelings of awe, rituals, and a social group bound together by belief in the sacred.

But natalists have nothing sacred, you might say. Of course they do! They say it themselves: childbirth is a miracle, childbirth is sacred, childbirth is the greatest thing that can happen in your life. If that doesn’t qualify, then what does?

Procreation comes with its own rituals (marriage, baby showers, “gender reveals,” hospital-run hypermedicated births, family rituals), its own sense of awe (towards the child), and social groups based around parenthood.

There is not one single moral code revolving around parenting, although many have been proposed and continue to be proposed: they’re called pedagogy (and, as Alice Miller would say, all pedagogy is poisonous). If we look at Christianity, we can observe many different moral codes ostensibly derived from the Bible; why should natalism be any different? Whether we’re talking about Dr. Spock’s “leave babies to cry” nonsense, helicopter parenting, or quiverfull doctrines, they are all ultimately taken on faith (for the sake of the discussion, I will simply define “faith” as passive or unthinking acceptance).

But beyond faith in pedagogy, natalists share one major faith: their faith in the benevolence of life. They believe without question that nothing wrong with happen to their child, and that nothing wrong will happen to them (obviously anything that incapacitates or kills one of the two parents would be greatly harmful to the child’s well-being as well).

And this is not an assessment of risk. Have you ever heard a prospective parent rationally assess the risk of their child being born with a birth defect, of contracting leukemia or whopping cough (with all the fucking anti-vaxxers around), of dying in a car accident, of bring raped, and so on and so forth? I would be genuinely curious to hear if this sort of thing has ever happened. My guess is, it’s extremely rare.

I have already discussed the conflict between the “benevolent universe” premise and the “malevolent universe premise,” pitting Objectivists to antinatalists. While I don’t think all natalists must adhere to this sort of fanatical optimism like Objectivists do, and may be pessimists about all sorts of things, I don’t see how they can be anything but fanatical optimists about their future children. Who would reproduce if they really confronted the risks to those they are supposed to protect?

This is one difference between natalists and the religious: while natalists believe in the benevolence of life, religious people believe in the benevolence of the afterlife. I’ve already pointed out that anyone who believes in Hell and decides to have children must logically either have faith that their children will not go to Hell (by losing their faith at some point in their lives) or be depraved beyond reckoning.

But that difference aside, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to call natalism a religious movement, or at least religious-like.

But now consider a specific kind of natalism, secular natalism which justifies itself through the theory of evolution. According to this view, evolution entails that we have a moral duty to procreate, and by doing so we inscribe ourselves within an endless (or at least, four billion years old) lineage of “successful” lifeforms. We are so “lucky,” they say, to be alive, one chance out of a billion.

At this point I would say we have a full-blown religion. Granted, this sort of belief has not yet been codified and organized, but if it was, such an organization would definitely be called a religion. It tells people their place in the universe, it has a singular moral code, it has an originator of the moral code (the theory of evolution, as they mangle it).

I’m sure some smartass will reply that ho hum, antinatalism is a religion too! Why, you all have faith that life is terrible and you all worship death (or something).

But this is a misunderstanding of the comparison. Natalism is the default, like religion was (and in most places in the world, still is). It takes a lot of mental effort to get out of the religion trap and the natalist trap. This effort is an effort to deconstruct dogma and confront how badly it measures up to reality. The end product in both cases is the freedom to think, and if some people become antinatalists because of it, how is that religious in nature?

Certainly some antinatalists may operate on faith, like some atheists also operate on faith, but that’s not the defining characteristic of the position. In both cases, the defining characteristic is the exact opposite: the desire to confront reality (such as confronting life’s pleasures and pains, unlike natalists, who only think about the pleasures). And the reasoning proposed by natalists, I think, is ample demonstration that they, like the religious, are guided by one principle: the refusal to confront reality.