The Atheism Tapes: Colin McGinn (Episode 1 of 6)

I first watched Jonathan Miller’s BBC series, The Atheism Tapes, a couple years ago when it was available on Netflix. At that point I wasn’t terribly well studied in philosophy or religion, and as I feel marginally more so now, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit the collection. To that tune, I’ll plan to post all six episodes, along with a few of my thoughts, over the next couple of weeks. To kick us off, here’s the conversation between Jonathan Miller and English philosopher Colin McGinn:

On losing faith: It’s always fascinating to learn how individuals came to believe or disbelieve particular religious claims. In McGinn’s case, a required divinity course in high school sparked an intense interest in ethics and existential philosophy, which led to a brief but semi-serious relationship with the Bible. As a consequence, McGinn now says he knows much more about the Holy Book than many religious devotees – and I have to say, I’m not surprised. While I’m by no means an expert, Christians seem to make a sport out of not reading the Bible, and the ones that do seem to make another sport out of not knowing the historical context for the Bible (I’m reminded of this 2010 Pew survey, where atheists/agnostics outperformed believers on questions of “religious knowledge”). Anyway, when McGinn gets to college – a familiar tale – he promptly drops his faith. He recalls forcing himself to attend some type of religious service during this time, but immediately categorized it all as “rubbish” without much hesitation. The transition was made perhaps a bit easier by McGinn’s reading of Bertrand Russell at the same time, which served as an introduction to an ethical and moral framework unfettered by supernatural origins.

On reasons for disbelief: McGinn is asked to “surgically” articulate the reasons for disbelieving in God. He categorizes the reasons into two categories: 1) the “no-evidence” argument(s) and the 2) arguments against or contrary arguments. In the first category, McGinn’s position is simply that there is no good, independent evidence that justifies belief in any of the Christian (substitute any modern religion here) doctrine – or at least no more evidence than there is for Zeus or Isis or any other of the 1,000 ancient Gods. There is no positive evidence for theism, and as yet no theory that would need to invoke God to explain something else (the argument from design was the last solid argument of this type). In the contrary arguments category, McGinn highlights the argument from evil as one of the strongest. Very simply, if God has the following three traits – omnipotence, omniscience, and omni-benevolence – why is there rampant suffering in the world? The contradiction as implied by the traits is that God knows there is suffering, is powerful enough to stop it, doesn’t want people to suffer, and yet we have loads of suffering. The standard apologist argument is to invoke free will here (ala, God gave us free will and as a consequence we can sometime promote suffering through independent choices), but this obviously doesn’t account for naturalistic causes of suffering like earthquakes, tsunamis, diseases, etc. The only other counter is that God created it this way – and I’m putting it crudely here – to bring out the best in people. That is, suffering is here because it helps give other people perspective on life. But as McGinn rightly points out, if that’s the case, God is well…a jerk…since that answer would so obviously devalue certain lives over others.

On the ontological argument: When asked to give arguments for belief, McGinn cites the ontological argument as a “beautiful” one, but by that he of course doesn’t mean it’s at all convincing. You can find much better expositions of Anselm’s famous proof elsewhere, but just to summarize, it’s that 1) God is the most perfect/powerful being conceivable 2) Suppose this most perfect being lacked existence 3) Existence is surely a property of being perfect/powerful 4) Therefore God must exist. McGinn a little strangely claims that no one has ever been able to pinpoint what was wrong with the argument, though I thought Bertrand Russell himself did so nicely (perhaps I’m wrong). Anyway, the most obvious fallacy to me has always been that the argument begs the question, but since McGinn didn’t bring that up, I’m now wondering if that’s wrong in some technical philosophical sense. McGinn’s main problem with the argument is that things like “perfection” and “powerful” are not well-defined. What does it even mean to say the “most perfect being conceivable”? Does that make any more sense than “the most perfect football game conceivable”? You can say “the most perfect football game I’ve ever seen” but when you jump to “the most perfect football game conceivable” suddenly no one knows what you mean, including yourself. A few sentences can work that way – “the most perfect conceivable triangle” being one, since it’s well-defined.

On morality coming from God: McGinn is asked to explain Plato/Socrates’ old argument demonstrating that morality does not come from God. Very simply…if God says rape is good, is rape good? Most of you, hopefully, would answer no, suggesting that God’s affirmation of some particular action wouldn’t actually make that action moral. Therefore, a particular action is good or bad independent of God. If this weren’t the case, what would we really be talking about when we referred to something as “moral” – it would just be the subjective opinion of God. So while it’s okay to say God is encouraging us to partake in moral behavior, it’s wrong (or at least odd) to say behavior is moral because God says so.

On why people persist in believing despite the reasons not to: In contrast to many who attribute religious belief to human beings’ innate fear of death, McGinn’s personal theory is that religious belief stems from a kind of cosmic loneliness that’s a consequence of a sealed-off consciousness. I’ve not heard this argument before (or it didn’t register the first time I watched these) and I’m very much attracted to it. McGinn’s of course right that it’s very hard to accept that we are alone and nobody cares. To make things worse, we humans have a certain type of consciousness (maybe it’s the only type) that is sealed off from everyone else. No one can get in our heads with us, at least not really, and this creates an existential loneliness. God, McGinn argues, is a wonderful antidote to that. He knows us in our minds, which no one else can do, and that satisfies a deep craving.

On using the word “atheist”: Like Jonathan Miller, McGinn is reluctant to call himself an atheist, since it connotes a type of “professional atheist” demeanor and is associated with negative stereotypes. He thinks it’s pretty pointless to be inveighing against a non-existent entity all the time, which the word “atheist” suggests. Instead, McGinn classifies himself as an anti-theist, which is a person actively opposed to religion, in that he thinks it’s harmful to society, individuals, etc. He names another category which he think is the way the world will eventually go – “post-theism” – or the “healthy state of mind” where you’ve put all that behind you. The ideal society, to McGinn, would be one where the question of religion didn’t really come up, or when it did, it would be in a “those silly people used to believe X” context.

I used to consider myself a post-theist, actually, but living in Texas, it’s more or less impossible to reach that healthy state of mind.


Now Available: The Unbelievers with Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss

After a long wait, the anticipated documentary, The Unbelievers, is now available on iTunes, Amazon, etc. If you’re not familiar, it follows two scientists and well-known religious skeptics Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss as they travel around the world debating apologists, delivering lectures, and having public conversations about science and reason in enormous concert halls (what makes me giddy is that these halls are all full). The best description of the style I’ve heard is a rock-documentary for scientists. The film is fast-paced, moving from hotel to hotel, city to city, event to event – and culminates during the 2012 Reason Rally in D.C., which turned out to be the largest secular gathering in recorded history (and was somehow completely ignored by the major media).

You can see the trailer below. I rented the flick last night ($4.99 in the US on iTunes) and did really enjoy it, despite being – appropriately – skeptical. I read some initial reviews, like this one in the NY Times, that seemed to focus too much on what the reviewer wished the movie had been instead of what it was (if I recall correctly, John Updike had a rule about book reviewing where he would try to avoid doing just that, no doubt because he found it annoying when his own books were reviewed that way). In order to move at its breakneck speed, The Unbelievers assumes the viewer is already familiar with the standard arguments for and against religion, and so there are no prolonged or deep discussions of the issues. Maybe a bit more character or issue development would have been nice, but that wasn’t what this film was trying to do. And no, none of the “good” arguments for or proponents of religion are featured, but the movie only covers a short tour and I think was intended to simply be an accurate representation of that small slice of time. Richard did have a debate with the Archbishop of Sydney – supposedly a sophisticated theologian – during period the film covers, but it’s pretty clear in the film (and if you watch the full debate below) that he’s far from deserving of that adjective.

In addition to the travel scenes, the movie is book-ended by interviews with a few celebrities commenting on unbelief, including Woody Allen, (the always brilliant) Ricky Gervais, Cameron Diaz, Werner Herzog, Sarah Silverman, and many more. I had assumed they would be interspersed throughout the film since their names were used so blatantly for advertising, but they come in just two small segments. Finally, if you stay through the credits, you’ll see a moving tribute to Christopher Hitchens, when the following scrolls up on the black screen amidst the music and slowly stops, right centered:

“For Christopher.”

Krauss has a similar touching scene in the movie, where before a debate with a Muslim apologist he retires to read “his Bible”, a paperback edition of Hitchens’ god is Not Great, saying a bit longingly that  “Christopher always inspires me.” The two were good friends prior Christopher’s passing and you see immediately how much Krauss (and the entire secular movement) misses him.

The film debuted at #1 in several outlets yesterday.


Misquoting Einstein: Walter Isaacson doctors a quote (maybe)…

If you’re not already familiar with Aspen Institute CEO and acclaimed biographer Walter Isaacson, you should be. His most notable works are Einstein: His Life and Universe and the recent Steve Jobs biographies. Both get two thumbs up from me – the first actually sparked a pretty intense fascination with Albert Einstein, which has continued to this day (somewhat embarrassing example: I have a portrait of Einstein above my bed…). And when you combine that personal fascination with an equally intense interest in religion and philosophy, and you end up with someone (me) who has read pretty much every quote attributed to Einstein having anything to do with faith or lack thereof. That will be my only claim to credibility on this issue – simply  that I’ve read a lot about the subject – and so I hope you don’t find me too bold for suggesting that, in the clip below, Walter Isaacson has pretty egregiously (in my opinion) misquoted the man. If anyone can find proof Einstein said what Isaacson claims he said, I’ll be happy to retract – but until then, let the venting commence.

First, the contested quote. Isaacson claims, starting at about 2:30, that Einstein said this: “There’s a spirit manifest in the laws of the universe, in the face of which we must be awed and humbled. To me, that is the closest feeling I can have to a cosmic religion and to me that explains my faith in a creator and a faith in God.”

The first part seems to be paraphrased from Einstein’s reply to a sixth grade girl in 1936, who was asking him, “Do scientists pray?” I’m familiar with the quote, printed in full below:

Scientific research is based on the idea that everything that takes place is determined by laws of nature, and this holds for the actions of people. For this reason, a scientist will hardly be inclined to believe that events could be influenced by prayer, i.e. by a wish addressed to a supernatural Being…Every one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe – a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is indeed quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.

I take no issue with Isaacson’s paraphrase of the section above, but you might notice that the phrase, “and to me that explains my faith in a creator and a faith in God” is noticeably absent. Why? Well, my claim is that Einstein never said it – and never would have said it because it’s so incommensurate with his views as expressed elsewhere. I was actually pretty shocked upon hearing it, and began searching my main sources (mostly the inter-webs and Max Jammer’s thorough, Einstein and Religion) in vain for any quote invoking the word “creator” or “faith in a creator”. I even re-read Isaacson’s chapter, “Einstein’s God” but turned up nothing. I emailed Isaacson about a week ago (he responded to a letter from me back in high school so I’m hopeful) to see if he can give me the source, and if he can I’ll happily update this post accordingly. Until then, I’m assuming it was a misquote.

Now, why do I care? Isn’t this a small difference? No, not really. Saying something like “faith in a creator” reeks of deism or even theism, which are contrary to Einstein’s actual views, most readily described as pantheism (again, see Jammer’s Einstein and Religion). Einstein is already one of the most quote-mined figures of the 20th century, and is frequently taken out of context by both believers and nonbelievers alike. We don’t need to fuel this fire, and tacking on phrases, even small ones, is how misattributions are born.  People, particularly of such esteem as Isaacson, need to be careful when quoting others, especially those who are long dead and can’t defend themselves anymore. It’s an issue of respect and an issue of intellectual honesty – we all want Einstein to agree with us (who wants to be in disagreement with a genius?), but if there is no evidence he agreed with our views, we’ve no right to argue as such, and certainly no right to liberally paraphrase. My speculation is that Isaacson is religious in some way himself, and was, in the above clip, projecting some of his own views onto Einstein.

As for Einstein’s actual thoughts on religion, I recommend you read Jammer’s book, but I will try to give a short summary. First, he explicitly stated multiple times he did not think of himself as an atheist (think Sigmund Freud for what he meant by atheist). He invoked God many times in public statements about the harmony of nature and the Universe (though he meant Spinoza’s God, which is pantheistic, more or less, if you can understand what Spinoza is saying), and even described himself as “religious” in a cosmic sense. All of this has been used by believers to make assertions Einstein was one of them, but that is clearly false. He was straightforwardly not a believer in a “personal” God of any sort – which means he was adamantly not a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim. He did not believe in a God who intervenes or rewards or punishes or has anything whatsoever to do with humanity. In other words, he didn’t believe in a God anything like what most people think of when they think of God. Jammer concludes that this made Einstein more or less a “practical atheist”  because what’s the difference between there being no God and there being a God who doesn’t interact at all with the fates of humanity? I get Jammer’s point, but disagree slightly – I do in fact think there’s a big difference between those two hypothetical realities (one would suggest some sort of teleological direction in nature, the other would suggest chaos and nothing more, though a pretty cool brand of chaos). Moreover, if what you care about is the fundamental truth and nature of the Universe – which I suspect is what Einstein cared about – and not necessarily humanity’s role or involvement in it, then again, there’s a big philosophical difference between those two worldviews that I imagine would play out practically in some form during one’s life. Now, if Einstein were around today, what do I think he would call himself? My guess is that with the softening of terms that has happened since his death, he would likely call himself an agnostic when talking generally (in the Carl Sagan vein), and an “atheist” when confronted about Judeo-Christian beliefs.

Of course, he’s not here, so I can’t claim he’s either of those things with any certainty…unless I doctor a quote…

John Updike on Intelligent Design

John Updike is one of my literary heroes, so I’m looking forward to reading Adam Begley’s new biography, Updike. After catching an NPR piece with Begley a few days ago, I was prompted to go and look up a Book TV interview I had once seen where Updike is asked to comment on theology and intelligent design. Anyone familiar with Updike knows religion played a role in many of his works – particularly the masterful Roger’s Version – and that he was a consistent if somewhat non-doctrinal and denomination-hopping Christian his entire life. I’ve posted the full interview below, but the section in question starts at 56:36 and lasts about five minutes.

Overall, I was a bit disappointed – as I was the first time I listened to this – to hear Updike cite arguments like the fine-tuning of the universe and the complexity of the organic cell as having convinced him there was a God. He even stoops so low as to cite Michael Behe’s book, Darwin’s Black Box, as showing there are some gaps in Darwin’s theory, and mentions that a whale’s production of baleen seems to come out of nowhere and is “not observed anywhere else in nature”.

For such an astute guy – I’m fine using the term genius in his case – it’s a bit jarring to hear him displaying such ignorance on issues that he seemed to be genuinely interested in, like evolution and Darwinism (he subscribed to Scientific American, for instance). Behe’s arguments, as you probably know, have been demolished by the scientific community. His own university even put up a statement on its biology page distancing itself from his views.  And while the fine-tuning argument gets a lot of play as the best theists have to offer, it’s still not a very good argument at all and has been deftly handled by countless philosophers and scientists. My favorite is Sean Carroll, who covers fine tuning in this debate with William Lane Craig.

The saddest part of the interview to me was when Updike admits he essentially retains his faith (through many bouts of doubt) because he’s afraid to confront a world without God or (such is implied) external purpose.

So why am I so tenacious? In part a fear…I’ve had chronic crises which I’ve made mention of in Self-Consciousness…that the choice seemed to come down to believe or be frightened and depressed all the time.

Which confirms one of my recent theories about belief vs. non-belief – most of it (like most everything) is out of our hands. We are born with and/or develop a particular disposition or ability to countenance a world without God, and it seems to crystallize at some point – very few can break out of it one way or another. Some people just don’t have the constitution to accept a God-less world, and hold onto faith by – in the words of Updike himself – “an act of will”.

But no matter – if it made Updike happy to believe, good for him. I don’t think he was in the slightest dogmatic or concerned with proselytizing. Ian McEwan, in this remembrance, describes Updike as a pretty easy-going Presbyterian that was in some ways quite close to an atheist. I do just wish he had spent more time with scientists, who could have corrected some of his wayward views on the credibility of people like Behe. I can only imagine the treat the world would have been in for had Updike turned his pen more frequently to the majesty of science.

Debate is up! William Lane Craig vs. Sean Carroll at New Orleans Greer-Heard Forum

Good folks, the much talked about debate between William Lane Craig and Sean Carroll is now available for viewing on YouTube (embedded below). The proceedings from the second day, which you will recall included presentations and responses by two members from each side (Alex Rosenberg and Tim  Maudlin with Carroll and Robin Collins and James Sinclair with Craig) don’t seem to be available yet but should be shortly. After you watch, I recommend you check out the comment section of Sean Carroll’s post for some opinions on how he fared.

Enjoy (and post your thoughts below)!

The Main Event:

Finally, an atheist protagonist – Matthew McConaughey in HBO’s True Detective

Last week I ventured out to a hole-in-the-wall bar for an acquaintance’s birthday party, and as you do when you’re at these things, began chatting up a couple strangers. The two I spent the most time with happened to be brothers, and we got to talking about our favorite television series’. After going through the usual suspects – The Wire, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, The Shield (okay, that one was new for me…I’ve never heard anyone rave about The Shield) – the younger brother started in on HBO’s new series, True Detective, which he cautiously described as one of the better series he had ever seen. That praise of course piqued my interest, especially since several of my friends had been raving about it for a few weeks. But what really got me hooked was this stranger’s mention of the series’ overt atheism, which he described something like this:

“It’s clear the writer [Nic Pizzolatto] is a militant atheist or something, and he has McConaughey’s character go on these long diatribes every few episodes about atheism and how religion is irrational. I actually find it kind of annoying – I mean I like it because it fits with my personal beliefs – but I’m not sure how well it fits in with the rest of the action.”

So I took up the suggestion of my new-made bar friends and started binge-watching True Detective. It is very, very good – smart, suspenseful, and addictive. And sure enough, Matthew McConaughey, who stars as one of the show’s two protagonists (the other being the excellent Woody Harrelson) is indeed playing an outright atheist. Check out the clip below, which is pretty typical of his diatribes (they actually come only two or three times in the series, at least through episode five – so I haven’t found it as annoying as the bar guy made it sound):

Now I found this a little surprising for two reasons. First, for the obvious one that atheism isn’t discussed too readily on television these days. And secondly, because I was under the impression McConaughey was a seriously religious man. Where did I get that impression? From this section of Keay Davidson’s biography of Carl Sagan, discussing the film adaption of Sagan’s novel, Contact, in which McConaughey starred:

“A religious man himself, McConaughey refused to utter the one sentence that Ann Druyan had hoped would make the film: ‘My God was too small.’ The line was sacrilegious, McConaughey told her. The more she talked to him about it, the more she realized the depth of his intelligent and sincere faith; in time they became good friends.” (Davidson, Carl Sagan: A Life; page 410)

So how do you go from refusing to say a line because it’s sacrilegious, to playing an outspoken atheist on one of the country’s most watched networks? My theory is that McConaughey has matured a bit, and realized it’s fine to play characters that don’t share his own religious views. I also think the change in national climate toward non-belief has helped – playing an atheist was a pretty strange thing when Contact came out, possibly less so now. Of course, the other possibility is that his friendship with Druyan has led him toward skepticism (The Hollowverse still lists him as “appearing to be Catholic” however)…

[Update 3/3: You can go here for a recent interview with McConaughey, where he confirms he does believe in God, and watch his Oscar acceptance here (congrats!) where he also thanks God.]

How does the atheism impact the character in True Detective? Well, it is actually an isolating factor for him – the show takes place in rural Louisiana – but on the other hand the writers do associate atheism several times with intelligence. More prominently, I think, the atheism helps give his character an unfriendly edge – he’s certainly not a happy guy – bordering on nihilism. I’m a little concerned religious believers watching this will think that’s the type of personality atheism must in all cases lead to – sure you’re smart and can figure things out, but now you’re a brooding, unhappy, dismissive, lonely, and arrogant guy. But maybe I’m projecting a bit. There’s no actual reference to his character’s personality being driven by anything other than a bad, bad past.

But enough of this. You should stop reading and go watch True Detective. I’m firing up episode six now…

This is not a dress rehearsal: Sean Carroll vs. William Lane Craig – Greer Heard Forum 2014

UPDATE: The debate is now available to watch here!

Well, the much anticipated debate between Caltech cosmologist Sean Carroll and theologian William Lane Craig happened this weekend in New Orleans and was – at least to me – as enjoyable as expected. The event was hosted by the Greer-Heard Forum and consisted of a formal debate between the headliners on Friday night and subsequent readings, discussions, and responses to papers by two members each from Team Naturalism (Tim Maudlin of NYU and Alex Rosenberg of Duke) and Team Theism (Robin Collins and James Sinclair). The entire ordeal was streamed live – yes I spent my Friday night and Saturday afternoon watching – and ended with a short panel discussion and Q&A.

All in all, it was an entertaining forum and I was very grateful the event was streamed. In case you weren’t one of the 10,000 people or so watching live and still want to see the proceedings, stay tuned as the videos should all be made available on YouTube in a couple of days (likely on the Tactical Faith page). I will make sure to update this post with the links as soon as they’re ready.

Now, why was I so excited about this debate you ask? Haven’t I grown tired of listening to William Lane Craig distort science in order to prop up his arguments for theism? Don’t I think these debates are really a waste of time and that no one actually leaves with their mind changed? Well, WLC is grating on the ears (and head….because of the induced face-palming), and I think I would have avoided this debate had his opponent been anyone other than Sean Carroll. You see, Sean has a few things that many naturalists (and he prefers that term to atheist as it’s more comprehensive of his worldview – and I think I agree) sadly don’t: not only does Sean have all the good arguments, he can communicate them well and is likable. That last quality seems a little shallow – yes ideas should stand on their merit not the personality of the one espousing them – but debates like this are part performance art, and it’s difficult to get people to consider your point of view if you come across as, well, unlikable. Finally, Sean is without a doubt an expert on cosmology, and could pretty easily (it was a little embarrassing actually) shut down WLC’s naive arguments hinged on misunderstandings of the literature. Finally – I said finally already so finally, finally – Sean is fairly well versed in philosophy and not as dismissive of the practice as some other cosmological experts that have debated WLC.

So who won? Well, WLC technically always loses on substance in these types of things, but does admittedly usually win on style and rhetoric. He’s an extremely practiced debater and I’ve heard tell that he even has a team of researchers who help him prepare. But in reflection – and I’m striving to be as unbiased as possible – I do think Sean Carroll came away on top. This was one of the few formal debates where I’ve seen WLC flustered and actually less organized and clear than his opponent (he’s been known to fall apart in informal discussions but hardly ever in the podium vs. podium battles). Sean repeatedly addressed specific points by WLC, clearly refuted them, and then moved on to offer his own structured arguments against theism. The most frustrating aspect was watching WLC simply ignore Sean’s corrections and refutations, and pretend as if his argument was just as good as before – thankfully Sean pointed this out and I think it was pretty clear to the audience as well.

My favorite part of the debate came during Sean’s closing remarks, when he purposely forwent the opportunity to continue refuting Craig’s ideas and instead spent time addressing the bigger questions of the naturalism vs. theism debate. Nobody becomes a believer because they think God provides the best explanation for our modern understanding of cosmology (that was, by the way, the topic of the forum) – they do so for other reasons, be they fellowship, community, a feeling of transcendence or hope, etc. So why naturalism seems far and away a more reasonable alternative to theism, particularly if you take the implications of modern science seriously, it still doesn’t help provide us with answers to those deep questions of meaning. Answering those deep questions, Sean says, is a challenge for all humanity, and to answer them we’ll need to in some sense start the conversation over. (I’m really not doing this section justice from memory so I’ll make sure to post the link when it’s ready).

In conclusion – Sean did a terrific job and I hope he continues engaging in these types of debates. You can see his own post-debate thoughts here. Also, you’ll notice I didn’t do a point-by-point review of the debate – the cosmological arguments were way too technical for me to make a competent attempt at something like that but you should have luck googling one.