Why I am not an Atheist

Peter Singer at Comment is Free has posted an article, Good God?, that is sadly all too common. It opens:

Do we live in a world that was created by a god who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all good? Christians think we do. Yet a powerful reason for doubting this confronts us every day: the world contains a vast amount of pain and suffering.

I kid you not. Peter Singer seems to think that he was the first person to notice this problem—and it really doesn’t get any better with him recounting a debate with–not Rowan Williams, not Georg Ratzinger—but, wait for it, Dinesh D’Souza. You haven’t heard of this theological titan? Me neither, and nothing about his resume suggests that that is any shame. That said, D’Souza may have been demonstrated a deep and profound mastery of theology for all I can tell as Singer proceeds to trot out all the usual tropes.

Does it occur to these people that perhaps that some Christian with an intellectual dexterity that exceeds a five year old may be living today and have lived in the past. An enormous proportion of humanity is Christian today, and some of them are quite respected for their intellect, and almost all of those people that gave us the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment were Christian. Is it credible that these people would have maintained and propagated a truly vacuous system of thought that can be knocked over in a short blog entry?

I am no Christian theologian—indeed I am not even a Christian—but even I can see that such articles are not making the slightest effort to understand that which they seek to criticize. This does not happen anywhere else as far as I know. In any other field people will make an effort to make a proper study before wading in, or if there isn’t time to do that, at least try and fake it and give the appearance of having mastered the area.

But this is not the case with a certain kind of atheist. Quite the contrary, these people seem to make a point of embracing the crudest and least reflective understanding they can find, and I don’t think this is any accident. I am only concerned with a particular kind of atheist whose belief is founded in a faith-based principle that those that believe in God are existential cowards that cling to a collection of fairy stories, lovingly propagated from the bronze age at the point of a sword.

This is truly tragic. It is as if they have been confronted with an awful choice: given a bundle of beliefs—Christian religion—are they true or false, as if deciding whether a current is flowing in a wire. Clearly you don’t want to oscillate in an unstable way on this as that could lead to mental instability, so you have to make your choice and then stick with it, and having decided that it is steaming pile of turds, it becomes important to keep the flame of faith burning. And these people have found that it sells books and projects articles up to the top of the Cif leaderboard. There is clearly a huge market for this, founded on perfect ignorance, fear and irrationality.

It is really quite tragic.

(Should anyone be really interested in a real edgy discussion between a great theologian and a sceptical inquisitor with attitude I recommend Humphreys in Search of God interviewing Rowan Williams; Christianity was never the same for me again and I now see Christianity and Buddhism as different ways of making sense of the same reality—and by extension all authentic religions and wisdom traditions.)

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27 responses to “Why I am not an Atheist

  1. Chris
    The problem of evil is not as simplistic an argument as you make it out to be. Of course it is not original, and I don’t think Singer was making any claim that he was the first to think of it. It’s an age old debate, and it is a debate that will divide believers and unbelievers for centuries to come. It won’t ever be solved by any theologian or secular philosopher.

    I’ve been a believer and non-believer in my life and I’ve noticed that there are no new arguments for or against god, just variations on the same few timeless ones. All that differs are the level of sophistication on the rationalizations for or against one’s positions on these core arguments.

  2. Thanks Robert. I have nowhere said that the problem of evil is a simple problem! Nor do I attempt to address it. My point is precisely the opposite, that Peter Singer seems to think he can deal with it and dispose of it in such a trite comment piece. I think it is an issue of tremendous philosophical subtlety that will yield insight after insight when tackled with honesty and respect (though remember I speak as a non-Christian).

  3. Wandered over, at your suggestion, from Bryan’s place.

    You’re quite right of course. It is a sort of adolescent arrogance normally only found amongst sixth form debaters to believe that one has found the truth. That it is simple. And that one is the first to notice it. The thinking that believes that mankind’s IQ has grown on the same scale as the dateline, so that we are a third more intelligent than someone living in 1500. Or some such. As if human nature has changed. As if the basic questions people ask about themselves and the world they live in has changed. As if we know any more. No, a sort of arrogant, adolescent solipsism stalks the mind of our current mouthy atheists.

  4. Indeed, Recusant (and welcome), but it is only when I set down to write this article that I realised quite what (I think) is going on. It is the very belief that these questions can be resolved in a yes-know fashion (like whether a current is flowing in a wire) that seems to be the source of the problem, and what horrible existential vice that puts people into. They have to decide whether there is a God or not and set their ethics and whole world system accordingly. It is of course likely to be equally true of the likes of D’Souza. I find it truly sad (not in the disparaging sense).

  5. Chris

    I’m not sure about the wealth of insights to be gained. I’ve been meditating on the god question for three decades now, ever since I started my slide away from faith, but I’m not sure that I’ve gained a lot of insights on the ultimate questions. The true insights come from meditating on humankind. Trying to look beyond ourselves may lead to wonder and awe, or terror and bewilderment, but little insight. It’s a puzzle and will always remain so.

    I liken the search for god to an old joke:

    A man is walking down the street at night and sees another man searching about on the sidewalk. He asks the man what he is looking for.

    “My car keys, I’ve dropped them”

    The man helps the other man search for his keys, but after 15 minutes of vain searching, he asks “are you sure you dropped them here?”

    “No”, says the other man “I dropped them over there.”

    Perplexed, the first man says “then why are we looking for them here?”

    “The light is better here” says the second man.

    Men search for god within the “light” of what they know, the personal. But god cannot possibly be found there.

  6. Thanks Robert. Of course, the wealth of insights is a subjective matter. As a Buddhist it isn’t actually my main thing, but when I listen to Rowan Williams talking, as he was with Humphreys, I hear him hitting the same points that I get coming across from my Buddhist teachers–I get the sense of something that makes deep sense. That doesn’t mean that it is going to make sense to everyone–if only it were so, everything would be much simpler. As Williams says, at the start of the interview it is about reality and a more meaningful relationship to it–definitely not a flight from reality.

    Of course for you it may be just like the man looking for his keys under the light.

    Let me return with a Buddhist story where the Buddha is likening our search for reality to a group of blind people checking out an elephant. Each gives a completely different description depending upon which part of the elephant they are in contact with. They are all right and all wrong of course. I find whole genre of articles that Singer’s is so representative of a bit churlish. So all we really learn is that Christianity isn’t for him. (Hence the choice of title modeled on a [only] slightly more sophisticated essay by Russell).

    I entirely respect people that don’t find Christianity personally useful or appealing but I am mystified by a certain kind of thinking that insists that this is an objective fact.

    So I hope you understand that none of this is a reflection on anyone who doesn’t find Christianity useful or appealing. It didn’t really work for me! (Though my early New-Testament teachings were indispensable.) My point is just to highlight how very wrong-headed is the attempt to establish it as an objective fact in the world.

  7. Hi. You have a nice space. I am new here :)

  8. An enormous proportion of humanity is Christian today…

    This is the argument ad populi, or argument from popularity. Just because something is popular does not give it any truth value.

    …and some of them are quite respected for their intellect, and almost all of those people that gave us the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment were Christian.

    Then we have the argument from authority. Because of their position or amount of respect they have, they make Christianity true? What about any kind of proof they offer? Any?

    Is it credible that these people would have maintained and propagated a truly vacuous system of thought that can be knocked over in a short blog entry?

    Then is the argument from ignorance. You can’t imagine a “truly vacuous system of thought” being knocked down by a blog entry, so therefore it isn’t true. What about Multi-Dimensional Derivative Calculus? Do you understand it? If not, then I guess it isn’t real any longer.

    Most people base their belief in God on bad logic, irrationality and blind faith.

    I’d recently had an email conversation with one of my readers about belief in God, and was basically able to sum up my point with the following…

    With all of the belief systems in the world, picking one to have faith in is simply like playing the lottery – and in my opinion, a lottery where there is no winning ticket. You hope the one you believe in is the “right” one. When, in fact, none can be substantiated.

    And remember… it’s not just about picking a belief system that makes you feel good. Each God, or system of religions, have severe punishments doled out to the “unbelievers,” in the afterlife. So, if you pick the wrong one, it’s not just a simple mistake. I mean, look at Islam and Christianity. Just choosing between those two is a toss-up. Would you rather be burned in hell by God or Allah? Or you could choose neither and take your chances on both of them, hoping that neither one of them is the “right” one.

    And if you can’t go on evidence, logic and reason, what can you go on? It’s open season on everything. Pink unicorns flying around the sun on little teapots. And what reason would you have to say that there aren’t such beings? If you say that logic, reason and science aren’t foundational for our knowledge, then pink unicorns flying around the sun on little teapots must fit into your view of reality. If you aren’t willing to subject your views to testing, that’s the kind of reality you should expect.

    Then you’d have to consider the delusions of paranoid schizophrenics. If what they believe is equally valid, because their beliefs aren’t open to scientific testing, then our world is a living hell. Whatever anyone believes becomes reality.

    In conclusion, I will say that, yes, I have moved away from a life of faith… faith in the supernatural. I now know where my faith really belongs. In my family and loved ones. It does me much more good in that place.

  9. Welcome zeynepankara!

    GodKillzYou: Thanks for the comment. I am not offering logical arguments to defend this or that theological position. If I were a Christian then there might be some point to that, if I were debating with fellow Christians. But this doesn’t interest me.

    I have looked at Christian theology and as far as I have looked it has struck me as making excellent sense, especially since I heard the above-referenced broadcast between Humphreys and Williams.

    My point is that these atheists critiques strike me as about as bad a philosophy as I can expect to find anywhere. Again there are no logical arguments here, just a report of my own judgment. Again, I have no interest in getting tangled in such arguments–it has been my experience that they go nowhere and are completely nonproductive.

    Given all of the above points I just offer a reality check. The sheer improbability and conceit is striking–and from a group of people who (from my perspective anyway) just don’t seem to understand at all what they are critiquing, ritualistically slaying these straw men and mutually congratulating themselves for it; indeed they appear to be systematically trying not to understand what they are critiquing. It has puzzled me, until I hit on what seemed to be happening (or at least I think I have) and now things seem to make an awful lot more sense.

    Many atheists make a huge amount of sense–John Gray for example. It isn’t atheism that bothers me, but this hunger by certain atheists to objectively demonstrate that religion is false. This makes no sense whatsoever to my mind, and when these kinds of people have gotten into (absolute) power the results have been staggeringly bad. To my mind it reflects a massive philosophical failure–but then that is just my opinion.

    I think atheists really should better understand religion. To build a world view on the assumed lack of rationality of someone else’s philosophy or religion is not a very constructive or wise strategy. To say that this doesn’t work for me, or I can’t make sense of it or even that I am sceptical of its value then fine, up to a point. But if you really are going to pontificate on other’s people’s philosophy or religion then you really should demonstrate some mastery of it.

  10. Yes, I agree. There are a certain amount of “fundamental” atheists out there. No God no matter what. I feel that many of them claim to be atheists out of anger, or as a result of not really understanding their own positions… they’re merely atheists because they “don’t believe in what they can’t see.”

    These are very weak arguments and are made mostly out of ignorance. They really have no reason for being atheist other than the above stated reasons.

    Personally, I am atheist because I can’t see any other logical alternative. Belief in a God seems, to me, an unnecessary extrapolation. Why insert God when science does a beautiful job of explaining, naturalistically, how things came to be?

    And I don’t buy the argument that God “gives us our morality.” I’ll illustrate by saying that God cannot make killing, stealing, or lying wrong. If Jesus stood right in front of you and told you to kill someone, you would know that it’s wrong, regardless of who told you to kill.

    If you didn’t, then there is something very wrong with you. Killing is wrong, regardless. Even if God said killing was okay, it would still be wrong. We don’t need a God to tell us right from wrong.

  11. For sure I agree you don’t need God for ethics–I am a Buddhist, right! one of my favourite thinkers is an atheist: I really like the writing of John Gray, even if I quite strongly disagree with some of it. Diversity is good; people should feel good with whatever works for them and if they do then they will respect and learn from people with other points of view–really quite an indispensable part of living in a world that contains more than one person. :-)

  12. “(…) that those that believe in God are existential cowards that cling to a collection of fairy stories, lovingly propagated from the bronze age at the point of a sword.”

    Very simple, very true though. I always thought in the same way. I think there`s no other reasonable and valuable way to think of the questions of fate. Everything comes to the human mind, that great greek “ratio”, the perpetuum mobile of the human beeing, that hidden “I”, which tends to be very egoistic and concentrated on itself. Why? because IT know, that there`s nothing else, nothing on ITS way, no other “THING”, or BEEING.
    It all comes to the acceptation of the loneliness. If you doubt an existence of the god, then you`re totally on your own. You become the creator of your thoughts. There are no sins, no morality, no hidden voice telling you what to do. From here we are close to J.P Sartre and his own point of view.

  13. Over 20 years ago, when I was drinking, I would sometimes roam the streets shouting “God is dead!” Since I was in New York City, nobody paid me any mind. I think I was like some of these militant atheists, the Richard Dawkins’s. It was as dogmatic as The Taliban. And as shallow. I used to enjoy Russell’s “Why I am a not a Christian;” now I just find it silly. For someone who was once a serious philosopher, Russell’s anti-religious articles are not even real arguments, just clever put-downs.
    You’re right, Chris — believers of various faiths have wrestled long and hard with questions such as the existence of evil and suffering. How satisfactory you find the answers depends to a large degree on what you already believe when you ask the questions. The argument “If God is so powerful, why doesn’t he stop evil” is, to me, kind of childish, a demand: “Why don’t you just fix it?” Why don’t we fix it? We’ve been given explicit instructions for thousands of years. The Golden Rule is ancient and we can find it in some form in every religion, but we choose not to follow it. Is it God’s fault that we disobey him, or ours?
    BTW, GodKillzYou brought up the image of Jesus appearing and telling you to kill someone — to borrow a Buddhish saying, “If you see the Buddha in the road, kill him.” Why? Because if you see him, then whatever you’re seeing isn’t the Buddha. Likewise, if you “see” Jesus, it isn’t him — and he wouldn’t tell you to kill someone, anyway.
    Victor Kulkosky
    http://outofmymindblog.wordpress.com

  14. This is a really excllent post. Thank you.

  15. Grin, it’s a sure bet Singer is intimately acquainted with the historically rich arguments concerning the apparent contradictions between an all-powerful and all-merciful Deity and suffering.

    Wait, if you’re a Buddhist doesn’t Singer’s argument from suffering simply supply a deeper justification for your own world view?

    Just musing. A pleasure to browse through your blog.

    hiho
    Mp

  16. If only I hadn’t spent the whole day grading finals, I’d be able to spell correctly. I mean, of course, “apparent contradictions”.

    hiho! [Corrected–Chris]

  17. Hi Chris Dornan,
    Like your blog very much.
    I have just finished a very good book that is pertinent to the “God” question. It’s Bible Unearthed by Finkelstein and Silberman, Free Press, 2000 They are both pros in the earth sciences field and write a very lucid explanation of the OT that combines Scripture and the real archaeological evidence coming out of Israel and the surrounding country.
    I actually got mad when reading many of the chapters.

  18. Mp. Well as a Buddhist the only thing I am interested in is reality. It is the same approach that any rational person would take. In my experience grown up religion is rational, so although Buddhists use the same word for reality and the teachings (Dharma) I think it applies to all religions (properly understood).

    If you check out my short article on Original Sin you will see that I see that the truth of suffering is a Buddhist way of explaining Original Sin. The Buddhists take the philosophical route and Christians the alegorical–that is their different styles. The point they are both making is that this our staring position, but by applying effort, and paying attention to wise people (an important part, and very much against the modern notion) then you can start to move towards the absolute, the divine. Both are also clear that this can be done definitively–its not a case of rising a bit only to just fall back again. This I think is important. For Buddhists it is attaining enlightenment; for Christians it is entering the kingdom of heaven or sometimes it is said achieving a unity with God.

    Nothing attractive about Singer’s argument–just highly misguided and, I am afraid to say, really feeble.

    —-

    Everyone:

    Some folks have said some kind and encouraging words. All I can say is I am pretty pleased with you too–really engaged, open and thoughtful commentary. Thanks.

  19. utopiaunderconstruction

    I don’t understand your position against the theodicy problem. You complain that Singer used it, because it is old and “crude”! Well, that’s because it’s so fundamental, and still a logical proof by falsification, that God cannot both exist and have the properties of good and almighty, at least not if “good” is what we think it is.
    You never explain why the problem of evil is insufficient, but instead point out that all those clever christians that has ever existed didn’t seem bothered by the problem of evil, so it can’t be so bad.
    I was waiting for your punchline, where you would show us why the theodicy problem fails, but that never happened. Is your main thesis here, that the problem of evil is not novel enough to be valid? And that it gets even less valid because a man called D’Souza, that is nof famous, used it? That’s really weak!

    btw, a popular argument and explanation against the theodicy problem is that : “God gave us freedom, and we failed him, WE are the naughty ones”. Clearly, if WE are evil and God created us, God created an evil and is thus not better than that.

  20. GodKillzYou

    “Why insert God when science does a beautiful job of explaining, naturalistically, how things came to be?”

    You’re clearly not a scientist then, if you believe that. A wiser scientist I know said: ” We know that we don’t know very much and that we do know is probably not true”.

  21. As a physicist, I would just like to say that I use to be an Atheist… In fact, I tried to use science to prove there was no God.

    In the end, I only ended up proving that I couldn’t prove there was no God, and had to accept that there was a strong possibility for a God.

    It takes a lot more faith to believe the Big Bang just happened – Everything from Nothing; than to believe that Something knowingly set things in motion…

    Yup, I don’t have enough faith to be an Athiest.

    In fact, you would be surprised at the number of top level physicists who believe in God….

    Cheers

  22. utopiaunderconstruction: Thanks for the comment. My problem with Singer’s arguments is that they are content-free, engaging as he is in a complicated area with shallow, and pretty vacuous arguments. He is not attempting to address the arguments of a serious theologian, satisfying himself with a line of argument that wouldn’t be out of place in a dull adolescent’s religious-instruction essay. If a preacher had assailed any area of science with such carelessness, or indeed had anyone written like this on almost any area of thought, he would have been rightly upbraided for wasting our time.

    My point isn’t that there isn’t an issue to think about here, or that there is an obvious right answer that Singer has missed. My point is that there is no attempt to engage seriously with the matter in hand. I am not a theologian, but I have seen enough philosophy, religious dialectics and theology to recognise this kind of thing, but not being a theologian I don’t see any point in writing on it. If people want to see an excellent discussion of this kind with both sides well-represented then check out the Humphreys interview with Williams (linked at the end of the article). Atheists will undoubtedly come to the same conclusion as Humphreys, and many will contemptuously dismiss Williams–but at least we see there a serious discussion between people that know their brief with each on home territory in different respects.

    I repeat. I am not saying atheists are wrong and Christians are right. (I am a Buddhist and therefore use a non-theist system myself.) I am saying that if Atheists want to pontificate in public on theology they should at least try to appear to know what they are talking about–unless they just want to sit in an echo chamber recycling babble to each other about how thick all those religious people are. If it is really a case of the latter then the rest of us ought to politely request that they go and do it in private so that we can listen to the Atheists who really have something to say to the rest of us (such as, for example, John Gray).

  23. Some people would like some engagement with the matter of Peter Singer’s article so I have posted a trailer for an article I will write in the next week or so.

  24. It takes a lot more faith to believe the Big Bang just happened – Everything from Nothing; than to believe that Something knowingly set things in motion…

    What about something unknowingly setting things in motion? Atheism doesn’t equate to a universe that came from nothing, it equates to a universe that came from no-one. There is no logical necessity that a first cause has to be an intelligent, personal being.

  25. utopiaunderconstruction

    I read Singer’s article and I don’t think it’s that bad. Indeed, he’s not a professional theologian (but a professional philosofer), and so what? It’s a blog post! It was a basic, straight forward, down to earth and unpretentious analysis of some arguments conservative christians might have to overcome the theodicy problem.

    I do appreciate that you’re buddhist, however. I myself took a 10 day Vipassana course in India and was impressed by the technique that, as I understand it, Buddhism is based on. When most religions tell you WHAT to do to make this world nicer, Buddha even told HOW to be able to do it, how to set your mind right. I really like that idea! (but I admit to being to busy to practice…)

  26. utopiaunderconstruction: I believe Singer is a sharp cookie and so forth, and his article is well written. But how can you make the judgment call that he has understood the issues? To do that you would need to understand the way the Christian theological system fits together. Now you might do, but if you did I think you would realise that he was failing to grasp the issues.

    I am all for philosophers understanding theology. I don’t think it would be necessarily easy for them to do so but I think it would be an excellent idea. professional philosophers of all people really should understand an area before they write on it and they should then pick a manageable aspect of it, one that will fit the space constraints.

    Singer may have shown that certain Conservative Christians have problems in this area. With Hagee’s rants coming under the spot light this could have been a worthy topic. But that wasn’t the way it was framed. And I really get the sense that Singer was in any case not doing justice to D’Souza’s arguments (as feeble as they may well have been).

    Singer really has to show that he has understood Christian theology as understood by its best practitioners. It is easy enough to take an area, pick a dubious practitioner, put him through the mincer while constructing your own flat understanding of the issues at hand. Other outsides can come along and look at the results 9all related from one side) and conclude Game, Set and Match to the philosopher, but he has only really show that (1) he smart and (2) the theory he has constructed is incoherent, but that theory is not the one that is understood by competent practitioners. It seems pretty obvious to me that that is just what he has done.

  27. @ Recusant

    You’re clearly not a scientist then, if you believe that. A wiser scientist I know said: ” We know that we don’t know very much and that we do know is probably not true”.

    This is the argument from authority. One scientist isn’t consensus. How do I know that this “scientist” isn’t actually Ken Ham in disguise?

    I’d hate to think that thousands of years of science have amounted to nothing, whatsoever.

    If, as this scientist says, “what we do know is probably not true,” we’d not have been able to build airplanes, design computers, make microwave ovens, etc. You get my point. If nothing we knew from science was true, we wouldn’t have a handle on how these things work. As Carl Sagan once said, “Science delivers the goods.”

    Maybe this “scientist” should learn more about science.

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