Sunday, January 27, 2008

Reasons to deconvert to atheism

I created this blog solely in response to what I considered a valid observation posted on the atheist pages of Ebon Musings, the parent site of the Daylight Atheism blog: that many theists tend to structure their belief system in a manner in which in cannot be falsified. The following statement appears in The Theist's Guide to Converting Atheists, from Ebon Musings:

Thus, in the spirit of proving that atheists' minds are not closed, I've assembled below a list of everything I can think of that I would accept as proof that a given religion is true. Also included are things that I would accept as circumstantial evidence of a particular religion's truth and things that would not be acceptable to me as proof of anything. While I do not claim to speak for all atheists, I would confidently say that any religion that could produce one of the things from the first list would probably gain a great number of

To be fair, I invite all theists to respond by preparing a list of things that they would accept as proof that atheism is true. If any theist prepares such a list, posts it on the Internet and tells me about it, I'll link to it from this page.

I judged the published atheist criteria on that website to be reasonable. Naturally, I felt compelled to offer a set of theistic criteria in response. To be honest, the list that resulted was more difficult to prepare than I anticipated and, I wager, may require clarification in the future--if only to incoporate additional criteria.

I predict that one intersting aspect of this exercise will be that atheists who read these criteria will think it obvious that I should deconvert to atheism. Likewise, theists will greet the criteria like an old friend and wonder how anyone could not believe. Such is the debate at hand.

One initial thought regarding this strange phenomenon is that we are not dealing with an exact science when we enter into the realm of metaphysics. Rather than diminishing the metaphysical as many have suggested, this may be a good indicator of how profound metaphysics actually are.

As a theist, another initial thought immediately springs to mind. Namely, that there may be a willing or unwilling supression of the sensus divinitatis occuring. As this phrase seems to infuriate or otherwise insult atheists, I have consciously avoided it in the criteria. Also, I have attempted to provide criteria that can be met in a substantive manner, instead of offering experiential criteria that could never be addressed.

With that said, I hope that atheists commenting in response will recognize my attempt at fairness--I will modify the criteria at any point at which they are demonstrated to be unfair. I also hope that they will trust that their comments are welcome, wanted, and respected. We may disagree strongly about things, but that is no reason to be hateful or condescending. When dealing with beliefs, emotions sometimes run hot. People are fervent in their beliefs; but then, that is a healthy thing when channeled properly.

PS- I apologize for the length. If the format is irritating, sorry for that too. 1st blog post ever.


“In several years of debating atheism and theism, I have made an observation. Ask any believer what would convince him he was mistaken and persuade him to leave his religion and become an atheist, and if you get a response, it will almost invariably be, "Nothing - I have faith in my god." Although such people may well exist, I personally have yet to meet a theist who would acknowledge even the possibility that his belief was in error. Many theists, by their own admission, structure their beliefs so that no evidence could possibly disprove them. In short, they are closed-minded, and have been taught to be closed-minded.” Ebonmuse—The Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists

The supernatural, atheism, theism, naturalism, God. I cannot approach these concepts with the absolute certainty that my particular belief is true. Moreover, I cannot honestly force myself to write the words “I can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that theism is true.” I am able, however, to write the words “my belief may be in error.” For what it’s worth, hopefully this admission provides one small exception to Ebonmuse’s general lament as noted above.

Yet I am a theist. How? Why? It’s a fair and reasonable question. Are my beliefs structured so that no evidence could possibly overturn them? I hope not, but I have to admit up front that I have never prepared a formal list that documents the conditions under which I would abandon theism. To be honest, the exercise was a bit more challenging than I expected.

“It is my hope that the advice presented in this article will encourage theists to view atheism as a serious, substantive viewpoint whose proponents are worthy of respect, even if they do not agree with it. The unreasoning prejudice that too often arises when people are confronted by viewpoints different from their own - theist against atheist, theist against theist - has been a substantial obstacle to peace and understanding among humanity throughout its history. We must learn to overcome this tendency and instead let reason be our guide. Only when all participants treat each other with the seriousness and respect they deserve can the debate truly begin.” Ebonmuse—How not to Convert an Atheist

C.S. Lewis wrote these words: There is something holier about the atheism of a Shelley than about the theism of a Paley. I sympathize with this thought. While the context it was delivered in would be hotly debated, the intent of the thought remains and is offered as a sort of olive branch: the notion that some theists view atheists, and their viewpoints, with respect and regard their materialism as substantive [forgive me, I couldn’t resist]. I, for one, am haunted by Meursault’s opening himself to the gentle indifference of the world. This image has several peers in literature, but not many betters, if any.

That our observation results in a variety of conclusions in this area emerged as the most peculiar aspect of this exercise. It also warns me that most of what I offerwhich seems to be an inference to the best explanation given our (or my) observation—will most likely be ridiculed by most atheists in their heart of hearts, or at best seen as rationale insufficient as foundation for a metaphysical conclusion. Yet I expect most theists will consider it reasonable and think it does not go far enough. What an odd business metaphysics is—and the agnostics said, “Amen.”

The criteria below present a weak theistic view, in the sense that little is given as criteria to abandon a God who is omniscient, omnipresent, or omnipotent. Some may consider this a weakness, or that I purposely scaled back the potential for falsification. All would say in response is that the invitation requested criteria for abandoning theism in a general sense, and that it what I have given.

A theist’s list is more difficult to compose than an atheist’s. The atheistic list that prompted this response centers around events potentially performed by God: prophecy, direct revelation, delivering inerrant texts, disclosing scientific knowledge not known to humans, among others. For this list, I do not have the luxury of requesting “the nothing” to demonstrate its nothingness. I would predict that this list will be open to the charge that it is structured in a manner that protects my belief. I am sensitive to this charge and have tried my best to avoid it. If any atheists wish to suggest an additional criterion, be my guest. If reasonable, I will certainly add it to the list.

Lastly, by way of introduction, the majority of commenters on Daylight Atheism appear analytical in their understanding and practice of philosophy. For you deconstructionists or continental philosophers, this list is based on assumptions you may not share. Feel free to comment anyway and I will join you in a collective raspberry. Were I not a theist—or if this exercise results in a deconversion—I would be among your ranks.

A variant of the Cosmological argument sets the foundation for much of the criteria established below. Something exists. Four general categories of thought have coalesced over time to account for this existence: everything is an illusion, something came from nothing, matter is eternal (includes energy, the space-time continuum, other universes, etc.), something supernatural is eternal. If anyone can conceive of another, I would love to hear it. (Don’t respond with infinite turtle-stacking questions. The above is as far as I intend to employ the CA)

If your atheism is based on everything being an illusion, so be it. There are some things to consider here, but I don’t expect many folks will defend this position so I will not spend any time on it.

If you wish to maintain that something can come from nothing, see below first. It is common to hear this claim these days, but what is usually in view is an actual “something” in place of the “nothing.” For something to come from nothing is a logical impossibility, in direct violation of the law of non-contradiction, thus irrationality. (yes, I have heard of quantum physics)

That leaves two possibilities: matter or something supernatural being eternal. What is common with both of them is that something must be eternal. Of course one could argue a fifth position in which matter and the supernatural were both eternal. Feel free to do this if you wish since you will be affirming the supernatural in the process. Most of my criteria rely on this assumption, so I figure it is fair game to criticize this assumption as well as providing positive data for atheism in line with the criteria.

Lastly, if I understand the basic assumptions behind atheism correctly,—and feel free to bolster the atheistic view here as admittedly I cannot do it justice like an atheist would—it seems that atheism requires everything that is to be explainable by naturalistic causes. In keeping with this naturalism, humans must be no more than the composition and interaction of their material components, though we could grant a holistic conception added to the materialism of humanity: much like the interaction between the software and hardware of a computer.

Most of the criteria, then, ask this question: does theism or atheism, supernatural or natural, seem more likely given our observation? The following categories are taken directly from Ebon Musings, with minor alterations.

The first category deals with things that would absolutely convince me of the truth of atheism. If any of these were demonstrated conclusively, I would deconvert on the spot.

1. Hope, joy, love, jealousy, personality, intelligence, and the like—we observe them everyday, both firsthand and in others. Both atheism and theism account for them in their systems, however, theism has a prima facie advantage given these observations. It seems an easier task to go from an intelligent agency to a world full of these, while these observations arising from irrational matter is a bit harder case to make—molecules, atoms, energy, the space-time continuum, chemical reactions, do not exhibit these qualities yet must ultimately be their source under the atheist system. Personality appears to permeate the universe, which lends itself to theism over atheism. Were it demonstrated conclusively that these observations are more likely to obtain under atheism (not proved, mind you), I would deconvert.

2. Correct me if I misstate the atheist position, but naturalism appears to require that humans are not more than sophisticated machines. I have heard humanity described as “DNA robots,” the latest development in the arms race concerned with the survival of DNA. This characterization seems reasonable. If this is accurate, then our selves are illusions. Our sense of purpose and meaning is illusory. In fact, the qualities mentioned in the first criterion are grand illusions as well and only serve as sophisticated software for the DNA robot. This seems reasonable if naturalism is followed to its conclusions, and, given naturalism, I would concur.

Atheists, however, tend to forget their philosophy when they go about the business of real life. Atheists have purpose in their lives. They find meaning. They stare at the heavens just like theists. If purpose and meaning are illusions, they are darn good ones. We are all fools. Atheists themselves are only slightly less deluded than theists in this area. I can understand a man coming to the final conclusion that all is meaningless, but it is not the default position.

Again, we do not seem to get meaning from matter. Meaning is more consistent with an intelligence behind the universe. If it could be demonstrated conclusively that I was deluded in thinking that life has meaning, I would deconvert. NOTE: this is not the same as saying that atheists do not have meaning in their lives. I freely admit that they do. It might be saying that they borrow it from theism. It is also consistent to say that when I use meaning and purpose in this section, it claims that meaning and purpose are not merely human constructs, they have a connection with the universe, they reflect the way the universe really is.

3. Good and Evil, the Problem of Evil, an objective morality. If it could be demonstrated that these are illusory concepts as well, or that they are more likely to proceed from irrational matter, I would deconvert.

I have read Ebonmuses’ carrot and stick essay five times. It is an exceptional piece of work. The morality contained therein is a high standard and if everyone agreed to follow it, the world would be a wonderful place. Yet he freely admits that it is not objective in the theistic sense:

I do not mean to imply by these statements that this moral code exists independently of human beings - by no means should my statements be read as suggesting that I believe that there is a set of rules carved on stone tablets hidden in a remote mountain cave, or drawn in letters of fire floating through the ether in a Platonic higher world. On the contrary, I believe that morality is a concept created by humans for humans; morality exists because we exist.

Again, I agree given naturalism. However, if morality is a concept created by humans for humans, then each separate conception of morality created by a group of humans is equal—none has the moral authority over another, so to speak. Ebonmuse attempts to evade this uncomfortable conclusion by appealing to a principle he calls universal utilitarianism. He asks: “What is the ultimate aim of morality? What state does it seek to bring about? The answer to this should, I hope, be obvious: the goal of morality is to ensure happiness.”

To achieve this aim, universal utilitarianism is offered: Always minimize both actual and potential suffering; always maximize both actual and potential happiness.

Again, I applaud this principle. It may even be correct to state “that universal utilitarianism is the moral system that offers the greatest chance for maximal happiness.” It may also be “the most rational course for all human beings.”

The problem is not that Universal utilitarianism is a bad moral code. It is an excellent moral code. The problem is that UU assumes as its base a portion of the objective moral standard it denies exists. Ebonmuse anticipates this objection: “Universal utilitarianism is not in any way derived from theistic morality, because it is based on the fundamentally human trait of empathy.”

In response, I would say that morality is not theistic in the sense I believe is implied above. Morality belongs to every person who ever lived, not just theists, but atheists, agnostics, serial killers, and any other group you can name. Nevertheless, when Ebonmuse claims that UU is based on the fundamentally human trait of empathy, he is relying on the objective standard to judge empathy as “good.” The same thing can be said when UU is claimed to offer the greatest chance for maximal happiness. An objective standard is appealed to declare happiness as good. In this manner the objective standard of morality is smuggled in, despite the claim that UU can exist without it.This in no way diminishes the worth of UU, rather UU is established on firm ground.

And this is in fact our common experience. People, theists and atheists alike, really feel wronged when they are wronged. They use the words “should” and “ought” as if there were weight behind them. Is this common experience an illusion like the items in the first two sections? If it were demonstrated so, I would deconvert.

Moreover, the Problem of Evil is trotted out consistently as a defeater for theism. Any theist who has not felt the weight of the POE has not comprehended it. Nonetheless, the POE seems to be a problem for atheists as well. Given naturalism, evil exists only as a human construct, not as a metaphysical reality. It follows that nothing is truly “evil” in the theistic understanding of the world. However, humans, atheists and theists alike, experience it everyday, recognize it on the news, and generally deplore it. If naturalism is true, this feeling is an illusion.

But the POE is plural for atheism where it is singular for theism. Atheism has no objective answer for the existence of good in the universe. To say that it is merely a human idea seems to contradict our most base feelings of what the universe is like. Atheists really believe some things are good. They protest. They feed the starving. They care for the downtrodden. Those who claim that good is only a human construct act as though it permeated the structure of the universe.

If it were demonstrated that good does not exist objectively or that good and evil are more likely to come from inanimate, irrational matter, I would deconvert to atheism. Please allow me to reiterate that in no way does this imply that atheists are immoral or amoral.

4. Thought—as far as we know, matter, energy, etc., do not think. If it could be demonstrated that rational thought is more likely to arise from irrational matter and causes than from an intelligent agent, I would deconvert.

It is understood and agreed that our brains are made of matter and that they think, but that is the question here, not the answer. (yeah, yeah, except for my brain)
As a corollary, the logic we are using in this debate seems more likely given theism than given naturalism. If it could be demonstrated otherwise…

5. If it could be demonstrated that Texas is not God’s country and that Aggies were smarter than Longhorns, I would deconvert.

6. Justice—along the same lines, if it were demonstrated that justice is illusory, I would deconvert. Our common humanity shares a notion of justice. It is obvious that perfect justice will not be achieved in this life. This is becoming repetitive, however, I offer this section as a glimpse of the necessity of omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence, all of which are required to accomplish the justice humanity seems to require.

7. If it could be demonstrated conclusively that the sensus divinitatis and theistic experience is the result of a “god gene” or some other natural cause, I would deconvert. Naturally, it would be difficult, or impossible, for someone to falsify my experience or perception of things, but taken in hand with the other criteria, it should be possible to make a case. I suspect many atheists will already consider the “god gene” conclusive. Based on their presuppositions, I would as well.

The second category deals with things that would not be conclusive, but that would count as circumstantial evidence. Show me one of these and I might not deconvert right away, but atheism will look a lot better to me.

1. If through science and education alone, humanity created a world where everyone was clothed, fed, and sheltered, and war became a thing of the past. This may be the lone criterion of this list that can be actualized, and it is currently possible. A related difficulty for theism would be if the world became so thoroughly evil that there was no discernable good in it.

2. Falsifying the resurrection of Christ—this would cause me to abandon the particular brand of theism I believe. If this were falsified, I might hold onto a general theism and I might not, depending on the strength of the responses above. But certainly, the likelihood of converting to atheism would increase exponentially.

3. If the compatibilist view of the will is false.

The final category deals with things that would not convince me; none of the following would persuade me to rethink my position.

1. That something could come from nothing. Nothing really means nothing—no singularities, no time/space continuums, nothing. As Martin Luther said, “Nothing does not mean a little something." If there ever were nothing, there would still be nothing. If there ever were nothing, there would not be mathematical equations attempting to persuade us that something could come from nothing.

2. Evolution—evolution provides a natural framework for atheism; however, its truth or falsity is neutral to this discussion. Biologists understand this, I think, when they make the claim that falsifying evolution does not make creationism true. It is fair game to utilize evolution to demonstrate a point in response to the above, but its existence by itself does not demonstrate atheism.

3. That religions or adherents of religions have performed evil acts. The truth of a proposition has nothing to do with the actions of someone who claims to believe it or acts in its name. I do not make the logical jump that because I am able to identify an evil act performed by an atheist, atheism must not be true.

4. That theism is ultimately untestable or unproveable—I consider the frequency of this misguided claim interesting. Everyone reading this will test theism conclusively within 100 years, most significantly sooner. Thousands tested it yesterday. Thousands more will test it today. You will most likely test it personally on an accelerated timescale when compared with the 150 years or so we have been testing the theory of evolution.

5. Who made God? comments, age of the earth, parallel and mystery religions, the claim that “before the big bang” is a meaningless proposition.

6. The Euthyphro dilemma—in my opinion there are adequate defenses to the ED (ha ha!) and even if there weren’t, where there is an intelligent agent, there is likely an intelligent solution.

7. Arguments regarding the size of the universe. Sometimes it is argued the vastness of the universe renders theism silly, other times it is the smallness of the universe that renders theism silly. Which is it, or is the game rigged?

8. Life on other planets, UFO’s.