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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.

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The silliness of Matt Chandler

I’ve posted about Matt Chandler before, the charismatic lead pastor at The Village Church in Dallas, TX. He’s likable, but from what I can tell doesn’t think too hard about much beyond scripture (I’m using “likable” less and less now when describing him, actually). The jaw-dropping straw-man in this video on evolution had me boiling for months, and I had avoided watching another short clip of his on YouTube called “The Sillyness of Atheism” (yes, that’s misspelled), mostly because I care less about atheism and more about reason and science denial. I was also a little worried he’d say something ridiculous and that I would end up frustrated. Hypothesis confirmed.

In the 51 second clip below, Chandler shows exactly how muddy his thinking is. The premise of the clip (and it is just a clip – perhaps he clarifies certain points before or after so I don’t want to judge too harshly) is that he cannot understand “why people who don’t believe in God are so hostile to the idea of there being a God.”

Well, that’s a pretty glaring generalization and mis-characterization of nonbelievers, a group with tremendous variety in terms of thought and attitude toward religion (there’s not even one name you can fit them under, for example: atheists, skeptics, freethinkers, agnostics, secular humanists, etc). Yes, some nonbelievers cross a threshold into anti-theism and are openly hostile toward religion, but the great majority never give God a second thought beyond studying religion as a natural phenomenon or when it interferes with civil or human rights.

Chandler jokes that the two tenets of atheism are 1) there is no God, and 2) I hate Him. He sees a discontinuity, which I think is meant to demonstrate a logical fallacy with atheism, between being angry about something one doesn’t believe in. He goes on to say, “I have never grown furious about unicorns … it’s a weird thing, all this pent up animosity toward something you don’t think exists.

But of course, Chandler’s analogy fails. People who don’t believe in unicorns (and that hopefully includes you, dear reader) don’t grow angry about unicorns because nobody believes in unicorns! If 80% of the american populous expressed a belief in unicorns, you would likely see a hostile reaction to such a belief. Heads of state don’t pray to unicorns, there are no moralities based upon ancient scriptures devoted to unicorns, laws are not influenced by followers of unicorns, children are not indoctrinated into unicorn cults before they can think for themselves, people do not constantly insist that the science rejecting the existence of unicorns is flawed, and rival groups of unicorn believers do not slaughter one another.

It is perfectly consistent for an atheist to be frustrated with religion (and it’s a frustration with religion and the tenets thereof, not with God, which an atheist obviously can’t be frustrated with). In an atheist’s mind, there is no more evidence for God than there is for unicorns – but the former (in one form or another) is worshiped by the majority of people on the planet. For the believer, I ask whether it wouldn’t frustrate you for the majority of people to suddenly start worshiping unicorns (provided the evidence for unicorns stays exactly as it is now: zero)?

Personally, I try not to be overly hostile toward religion, but one can understand why some think they have a moral imperative to be outspoken about what they see as a mass delusion, particularly one that has such an influence on society.  As Bertrand Russell said:

There can’t be a practical reason for believing what isn’t true … Either a thing is true or it isn’t. If it is true, you should believe it, and if it isn’t, you shouldn’t. And if you can’t find out whether it’s true or whether it isn’t you should suspend judgement.

Finding God In Arby’s – A Lesson in Self-Deception, Pattern Seeking, and Religious Tolerance on RadioLab

Ah, Radiolab. I just came across Season 11’s “Are You Sure?” episode themed, incidentally, around doubt and certainty. The first segment, which is what I’ll focus on here, is about religious doubt and leaves you feeling, as Radiolab often does, both fascinated and slightly melancholy. You should listen to the episode, because I’m going to comment on it below, and the summary won’t do it justice.

The gist is that this young guy named Jeff Viniard, who had been a devout believer all his life, found himself having a crisis of faith only a short while before he was to be married to his fiancé, Megan (also a devout believer – and I’m probably spelling her name wrong). Jeff was literally struck with the thought, “I don’t believe in God” while doing the dishes and was so shocked by it that his fiancé asked him what was wrong on the spot. He demurred, but a short while later explained what had happened, and, long story short, they postponed the wedding.

So Jeff took off on a bike trip across the Nevada desert, hoping to find some evidence for God. He couldn’t, and they called off the wedding (Megan was adamant she wanted her husband to share her faith). Another year goes by and Jeff finds himself still lost, still searching, having lost his faith and the girl he loved. Along the way he has a few encounters that he thinks could be divine evidence, like a minister talking to him at Arby’s and the wind pushing at his back as he walks up a mountain (really), but he still can’t make up his mind. Another year goes by and we find that…almost miraculously, all is well. Jeff had started attending church again, though still with doubts, and Megan began to cope with the fact that her husband’s beliefs would be different than hers. Jeff now says he does believe in God, though you can tell it’s not the kind of certain faith that Megan has (and you can also tell she still wants him to have her particular type of faith), but they make a choice to love each other and the wedding goes through.

It was quite a rollercoaster story, but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Jeff, even though it did all work out in the end.. It’s painfully obvious that he was essentially forced to admit a belief in God because he loved Megan, and because that was the only way he could conceivably be with her. He admits to looking for signs, which in his desperate state was clearly priming his brain to recognize false patterns (see Michael Shermer’s TED talk below this post on the funny things our brains can do). He seems so desperate, in fact, that I’m actually surprised he didn’t have a better religious experience/hallucination during his search. A proselytizing minister at Arby’s was the best he could offer up. I think his journey is an example of the depths people will go through to be with the one they love, to not be alone – which in this case is both sweet and slightly sad since it seems Jeff has forced himself into a delusion.

I wish Megan, and other believers, could learn to be more understanding of someone like Jeff’s position. Why make him go through all that? Why call off the wedding immediately? The fact is there just isn’t any credible evidence for God. If He exists, as Bertrand Russell would say, He’s gone through great pains to hide himself. So I find it silly that someone would break off their marriage to an individual they presumably loved, just because they can’t believe in the thing you believe in for which there isn’t any reason to believe in in the first place (other than you were taught to as a child and it makes you feel good).

Perhaps I’m simplifying it too much, but it seems more reasonable to me that marriages and relationships should be built on loving the other person, and not on what you each think happens after you die.