A-Theism, For Real?

Just read this blog by prominent atheist Massimo Pigliucci. He makes Alvin Plantinga, one of my favorite philosophers, out to be an intellectual lightweight. He criticizes Plantinga for saying that atheism is not justified by a mere lack of evidence, for, according to Pigliucci,  a-unicornism (which is close enough to atheism) is. I believe there is a misunderstanding, or perhaps dishonesty, on Pigliuicci’s part.

Pigliucci, and most of today’s atheists, define atheism differently than most theists. Atheists seem to be defining it as sort of an “a-theism”, that is, lack of belief. This grants the atheist a burden of proof advantage. Lack of evidence is good reason for this kind of unopinionated atheism.

I don’t like this definition: most vocal atheists aren’t merely non-committal or unopinionated about God. No, they really think God doesn’t exist!! They think God is improbable, ridiculous, like a unicorn, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or the Flying Teapot. They think that God needs to be opposed, eradicated. They should be more honest, I think. They should embrace the traditional definition, instead of the more recent, watered-down, a-theism*; they should deny God’s existence. And this sort of atheism does have a burden of proof, for it is making a claim.

Pigliucci does bring up Plantinga’s reply that there is a disanalogy between unicorns and God in that unicorns are known to be improbable, whereas God isn’t. I’d argue that unicorns are improbable because they are physically observable, and because of this we’d have seen one by now if they exist. None of this is true of God; there is no reason to expect more evidence for God than we have if God were to exist. On my view, at best, we have to say that God’s probability is unknown, which is not the same as saying that it is low.  This means that atheism, as traditionally defined, and as what’s really meant by today’s atheist community (yes, they are being dishonest — they ought to own their “positive atheism”) really does have just as much a burden of proof as theism, and thus an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, that is, the lack of evidence argument endorsed by Dawkins and, here, unfortunately by Pigliucci, is just another example of the argument from ignorance fallacy.

All this is missed, I think, by Pigliuicci, and other atheists, because they’re always saying, dishonestly, that they are “a-theists.” But no one can have such a stick up their butt about God and be a mere a-theist. Come on guys, own up! Besides, Dawkins, who floats the lack of evidence argument, doesn’t claim to be an a-theist anyway: he goes the whole atheist route.

Please atheists, if you really do think there is no God, own it. Don’t claim “negative atheism” or other such nonsense just to save your evidence argument. Be a man or a woman!


*I think Flew came up with the a-theism interpretation in his 1972 paper, “The Presumption of Atheism.”

Excusing the Bible?

This post is mostly me just thinking aloud. It seems that much of the anger toward and rejection of Christianity by secularists is rooted in the specifics of the Bible, and not so much against beings like God in general, or the God of Classical Theism. They don’t like a lot of the things Yahweh said and did, nor do they like the creation story (as it contradicts evolution when taken literally).  I get the clearest sense of this focused rejection when a Christian philosopher or apologist makes a general argument for God (in the classical theist sense) or a general criticism of naturalism, and his opponents change topics and start picking at things in the Bible (a perfect example of this is Sam Harris’s reply to the arguments William Lane Craig made against naturalizing ethics: see this debate).

I must admit, there’s a lot in the Bible that’s hard to reconcile with modern sensibility. In a previous post I argued for why this isn’t always a bad thing (in an ultimate sense). But sometimes I get the feeling that I’m really having to do a lot of intellectual, and ethical, gymnastics to make the Bible something I can accept.

One can always save a bad theory if one is willing to make enough ad hoc adjustments to it to handle evidence or reasons against it. Think about a paranoid schizophrenic: he may have paranoid delusions and delusions of grandeur, but when presented  contradictory evidence, he often finds some way to explain away the evidence and keep his delusions. I could think there are aliens on Mars that are oppressing the human race, and when confronted with the lack of evidence, I simply point to some government conspiracy to hide all the evidence. You get my point.

Is this what’s happening with Christians defending the Bible? What does one do when one confronts passages in which Yahweh behaves in ways that seem deplorable to moderns? We could always explain it away, given enough creativity on our part. We can find some excuse, certainly. It really is impossible to prove that Yahweh is a bad god.

What to do? One could just “white-fist” it and hold on to the Bible, all else be damned. That is an option. Or one could liberalize the Bible: accept only parts of it, or interpret parts of it as merely symbolic, allegorical (actually, regarding the creation story, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t meant to be a scientific account, but one highlighting God’s power and authority).  One could also come up with independent evidence for God and the Bible. It would have to be fairly powerful, though, to overcome the difficulties. One could also argue, like I did, that we judge the Bible from a modern perspective, and that the modern perspective isn’t necessarily the ground truth regarding morality or reality — we can point out what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” Or one could do a combination of all of these. I think that’s what I’m doing at present; a little of all.

Why? Why all the work? Why not just forget about Christianity and turn secular? For me, I find myself frightened by the alternative: something akin to Bertrand Russell’s defiant atlas standing against the alter of chance and the ultimate purposeless ruin of the universe. Russell’s alternative has no appeal to me. There is also “the fear of God” that is in me. That fear is very powerful, and it won’t go away any time soon. There is also hope; hope of a better future life, if not on earth, then in heaven. And there is the peace that I sometimes feel when I do get close to God. At present, these are enough to motivate me to keep at this work. And, let’s not forget, there is a chance that the Bible really is, in some sense, true.

Add to this my dissatisfaction with naturalism. As time goes on, I’m finding the whole notion of the universe that is, ultimately, explainable by science unacceptable. Numbers, math, truths of logic, they don’t depend on science; science depends on them! The apprehension of a realm of moral truth: again, this is apart from science. The naturalist alternative: some form of subjectivism or relativism, some form of moral antirealism. That is, we accept that raping children for fun is neither right nor wrong, ultimately; we just happen to not like it very much as a people, and find limiting it useful. And what about the first person perspective, consciousness? The fact that it exists at all is something that seems beyond a science limited to the third person. So there definitely are cracks in the naturalist/materialist wall. But are they big enough to let the whole Bible through? That’s where I still struggle.

Zombies: A Case for God

Republished with minor edits:

Zombies are logically possible. That is, we can conceive of them. They aren’t like square circles. Philosophical zombies are human bodies that look and act just like we do, but have no experiences, no inner world. They aren’t conscious in this sense. They will tell you they are conscious if asked, by the way.  For their brain circuits are sufficient for this and any other human behavior.

A world that has complex organisms that do what we do yet lack consciousness is possible. If so, then consciousness is an added feature to a material world.  All of our survival can be explained purely in terms the evolution of mechanisms, without mentioning inner experience even once. Consciousness, defined strictly as inner experience, doesn’t have a real explanatory role.

Thus the philosopher David Chalmers thinks that consciousness is a primitive. It may be a basic feature of the universe, or at least as basic as matter and energy. It doesn’t seem explainable in terms of them. (For more about zombies and materialism, see this blog post from Phillip Goff).

“What does this have to do with God?” you might ask. Consider the Kalam Cosmological Argument: The universe had a beginning, and things with beginnings have causes. Therefore, something caused the universe. That something must be outside the universe, and that something isn’t material (otherwise it would be part of the universe).

Add to this that other features of the universe, such as the fine-tuning of physical constants for life, seem designed. Perhaps the cause of the universe is an immaterial mind.

There is a problem, however; we know that many features of our minds depend on brains. But there was no cosmic brain existing before the universe. On the other hand, consciousness seems inexplicable in terms of brains. And, for all we know, there might be non-physical ways in which to instantiate other parts of the mind. So there could be such things as minds without bodies.

It is a bit speculative to speak of such things; but regarding the beginning of the universe, and the fine tuning of the physical constants, it’s no more speculative than any of the other hypotheses floating around (especially the multiverse hypothesis). This, plus the fact that perhaps the most important part of mind can’t be explained purely in terms of physics fits better with this hypothesis than with atheistic naturalism. For not only could God create matter, He can create mind as well. Not so for multiverses. All a multiverse could do is create zombies.

Christians Should Just Admit the Bible isn’t Ethical by Secular Standards

In recent years a moral outcry has arisen against the Bible among secularists. Many of the actions/commandments in the Bible are moral abominations to them. Three noteworthy examples (or types of example): God’s command to Abraham to burn Isaac on the alter, God’s wiping out, or commanding Israel to wipe out, entire peoples, and God’s prohibition of homosexuality.

As a Christian I might feel compelled to defend these actions of God. But I know that such defenses (e.g., God wiped out peoples because they were exceedingly evil and deserved it) would not only fail with secularists, but would make them question my own morality for offering such a defense.

Indeed, I would argue that there is no defense of the actions of Yahweh in the Old Testament that could work within a modern, secular moral framework. That is because of some of the assumptions of that framework. These assumptions have been with us for so long, and feel so right, that they seem axiomatic. Here are some of them:

  1. All persons have the same basic rights (e.g., from the American Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, pursuit of happiness).
  2. All of morality is to be based on these.

Things that follow:

  1. We have the right to do whatever we want, just so long as we are not interfering with others.
  2. We have the right to have our lives and property protected.
  3. No one has the right to take away our lives, freedom, or property, except as a means to protect the rights of others, and in ways approved by a government formed by the people on the authority of the people.

If these are true, Israel’s wiping out groups of people at God’s command couldn’t be justified, as no one person or society could ever have that kind of authority to kill. Prohibiting homosexuality is wrong as well; we have the right to whatever lifestyle we want if no one is hurt by it.

In addition to these, there are factual (that is, non-moral) assumptions secularists make that would make the Bible unjustifiable:

  1. There is no life after death.
  2. There is no clear, unquestionable revelation from God.

If these last two are true, no one could have the right to kill because “God told me to,” for there is no clear revelation from God. And killing a person is the worst thing you can do to someone because there is no life after death. A dead person cannot be compensated. Given all of the above, the only possible justification for killing a person would be to prevent further killings. Thus the command for Abraham to kill Isaac (and the genocides, for that matter) has no justification at all! To kill Isaac would be merely a horrible, pointless act commanded by an imaginary divine fiend.

So, at bottom, the Bible cannot be justified within a modern, secular moral framework based on the principles of modern, liberal democracies.

What can a Christian say in reply? To start, Christians cannot accept the two factual claims. As I am focusing on moral principles, I won’t argue against them here. But it’s pretty obvious that secularists and Christians must disagree on these. On to the moral principles.

First I want to admit that the secular moral principles are correct in a human-to-human sort of way. That is, they work in providing rules regarding how human beings ought to treat each other. I also think they are grounding principles for governments: we humans ought not to govern ourselves any other way. But are they the deepest truth regarding morality?

What if they are only a special case? For example, there are also principles regarding ethical treatment of animals that aren’t like the above principles. Not all secularists are vegans or vegetarians — many eat animals. They often have pets. Some visit zoos, Sea World, and other such places. They might kill household pests. They definitely allow the killing of fetuses. That is, they would agree that not all life has the above rights, only persons do. Sure, there are some rights subpersonal life forms have; we might be okay with killing pigs for pork, but we wouldn’t be okay with torturing them for fun. Still, subpersons have less rights than persons.

What about superpersons, beings with a  higher level of consciousness, ability, intelligence, emotion, and awareness than humans have? Might they be to us as we are to pigs? That is, the claim that all humans have the same basic rights might only apply to humans. If, for the sake of argument, God did exist, it seems plausible to me that He wouldn’t be at the same level of rights as human persons.

John Locke

To support this idea, consider, for a moment, the source of human rights. Two basic competing notions have been offered. John Locke, the one responsible for much of the discussion of rights behind the Declaration of Independence, claimed the source was God (so does the Declaration itself). God is the granter of rights. If so, then might he also be the revoker of rights? One thing is clear, the rights God enjoys would have to be of a higher level than our rights if our rights get their authority from God.

Thomas Hobbes

The other notion is that of Thomas Hobbes: we humans are roughly equal in ability and intelligence. Since we know that we are not strong or smart enough to dominate everyone else and keep safe, we agree to sacrifice some of our freedom by granting basic rights to ourselves and others. That is, human rights are really a contract between completely selfish people who know the limits of their own physical and intellectual power. On this view, human rights are the result of a political process, not, as in Locke, the motivation for it. If this is the case, then if God existed, He wouldn’t need to grant any of these rights, as a self-interested being, as he in no danger from the likes of us.

If these are the only two basic kinds of options, then it seems that God would be beyond and above the rights listed above. God is not beholden to them.

But Christians insist that God is good, not merely that he isn’t violating any social contract. In other words, what would be God’s morality that would make Him this wonderful being, if He doesn’t respect our rights? From the Bible we can find two parts: a part about our relationship with God, and a part about how we humans should treat each other. Regarding the former, from what I can tell, it seems that God has both great wrath and great love. Regarding wrath, He wipes out people who deface His name in the Old Testament. He is extremely jealous when it comes to who Israel worships, and punishes them when they “cheat on” Him.

God sounds horrible here, but think of it this way: have you ever been in love? Didn’t you feel jealous when he/she flirted with (or had sex with) other people, especially when you thought you were in a committed relationship with him/her? You felt betrayed, hurt, and angry. The God of the Old Testament is a superperson in love with an unfaithful people. A jilted lover at that. Read the OT yourself with this in mind (a good example the Book of Hosea —There he promises to punish Israel for her infidelity, and then restore His relationship with her, all with rather romantic sounding poetry); it will explain a lot.

Add to this the bad things these people were doing to each other (the lack of justice we find the prophets often preaching against), and we have the reasons God punishes them so horribly.

Now as human beings, we are limited in how we may treat unfaithful lovers. Again, we have agreed to a social contract to live in a democratic society, and we need to respect each other’s basic human rights. All we can rightfully do is break off the relationship with the unfaithful partner (and maybe rant about them to a friend). As for injustice, we can point to the law, or engage in peaceful protest, or, at the very most, defend ourselves. But God isn’t limited in His rights in the way we are. He isn’t in our social contract. Democracy is for us, not for Him. God may be within His rights to destroy an unfaithful creature He brought about.

The above view of a God in love isn’t a very flattering view of God at first glance, I admit — a superperson in love with creatures so far beneath Him that He justifiably wipes them out when they are unfaithful to Him. My justification is very counterintuitive. This is because we (or those of us fortunate enough to grow up in a democracy) have been taught from early childhood that democracy is right, that all humans have basic human rights, and so forth. And I agree with this, as far as human-human relationships go. But I’m treating that as a special case here: if it is, God’s morality might be beyond this.

I maintain that God still would be a good being, nonetheless, with all of the above. The fact that God would condescend to such a relationship with us is noble. And His anger at our refusing it is justified by the fact that God is so much higher than us and worthy of us. And our infidelity is all the more punishable for this. And let’s not forget: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” God’s Son was his most beloved; he was willing to give him to us for our salvation.

What about the other part of morality: how we ought to treat each other? There are the God-given rights that Locke and the Declaration of Independence list. But God never speaks of “rights” in the Bible. Still, Jesus says, “Love your neighbor as yourselves.” In fact, Jesus captures the whole of morality in this same passage. From Matthew chapter 22:

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Modern democracies with their rights don’t go this far. Jesus commands us to love other people as much as ourselves, even our enemies. The key word here is, of course, love. It’s a morality of love, not rights. Modern ethical systems don’t mention it.

Back to the original problems. Regarding genocide, God has this right. God is still good, for God condescends to love the human race, despite its comparative insignificance and ubiquitous evil. And humans are pretty evil; when I look a the thoughts in my own mind, I know I have evil in me. So will you, if you are honest. God commanding Israel to kill, again God has the right. Add to that the view that clear revelation is possible, then Israel is also justified in wiping out groups of people (If the revelation is true, of course. Most of the killings in the name of God are not the result of genuine revelation.).

What about Abraham and Isaac? First, God has this right as creator. Second, there is the possibility of God raising Isaac from the dead. If God exists and life after death is possible (secularists assume neither is true), then God is justified in asking for this to test Abraham’s faithfulness. He could restore Isaac. And Abraham might have thought this too.

The prohibition of homosexuality is harder. Honestly, I don’t have an answer to this one, other than God finds it offensive. But again, we are talking about God, not us. Just because I might find it distasteful doesn’t mean I have the right to prevent others from enjoying it. I’m a citizen of the United States; so are they. We, as citizens, have a civil right to our lifestyles. But God is not a citizen of the United States (or any other democracy). He’s God. He designed humans to be a certain way, and has the right, as a superperson, to prohibit them from departing from it.

So I did try to justify God, as I said I shouldn’t do. No doubt a secularist would not accept this justification. There’s no way she can, with her assumptions about reality and morality. But if these aren’t the ground truth, and if a case could be made for God and for life after death, then I think my justifications do have some weight.

So what this amounts to is that Christianity is consistent in its own worldview regarding how it views reality and morality. So is secularism. But these views are not consistent with each other.

I did a lot of work to come to an obvious conclusion. I did it to make a related point. The the point is regarding the fact that that secularists think Christians ought to be ashamed when God doesn’t fit into their secular idea of morality, or that God’s not fitting into this morality is a legitimate objection to Christianity. My point is that of course the Bible doesn’t fit into secular morality; it’s not supposed to.

Bottom line: God cannot be justified in a secular moral framework. Nor should He be.

A Prayer

I’m beginning to align myself with something like what reformed epistemologists believe: arguments for (or against) God’s existence are at best inconclusive. I’m not even sure where the burden of proof is, for I don’t know God’s inherent probability (God’s starting probability before any evidence is considered). But if God indeed exists and somehow brings someone to believe in Him, given that rational (warranted?) belief is belief formed in accordance with a person’s design (as given by God), that belief would be rational (if Plantinga is right; he does seem to be about this). That implies the contrapositive: a person being irrational for believing in God would imply that God doesn’t exist. The claim that it’s irrational to believe in God depends on God not existing, and to argue for the former implies that one must argue for the latter: there is no “You shan’t believe in God with no evidence, and I, the atheist, need not show any evidence for God’s non-existence .”

What about prayer? Asking God directly should do something. Maybe not immediately, but it should. I will pray.

Dear God,

I’ve been on the fence for a long time. I pray to You to reach out to me, and to anyone who prays along with me. We cannot reach You. We cannot “discover” You. You are utterly beyond us. But we have faith that You are good, and would respond to a prayer, asked in humility.

Many of us have suffered greatly in our lives, and have a hard time believing that You could exist and be good in spite of this. Sometimes it just seems that reality is an accident (even if orderly), and so are our fates: without any guidance by what is good. I don’t want to believe this, but I can’t help it.

We are helpless. Our epistemlogical reach is too limited to know what ultimate reality is. Our own logic destroys us. I can’t even prove with certainty that I’m in front of this computer right now!! Any such “proof” would have to ignore an infinite number of alternative possibilities. If I can’t even know that, how can I reach You with my own feeble mind?

So I pray that You, out of Your own Goodness, reach out to me and anyone else praying with me. If Jesus is all he said he was, reach out to us about him as well. We ask in all humility.


What about the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

FSM Apologetics

Spaghetti and meatballs: who would have ever thought that it could be divine? Here’s a statement of faith from Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster:

  • We believe pirates, the original Pastafarians, were peaceful explorers and it was due to Christian misinformation that they have an image of outcast criminals today
  • We are fond of beer
  • Every Friday is a Religious Holiday
  • We do not take ourselves too seriously
  • We embrace contradictions (though in that we are hardly unique)

Regarding Creation:

We believe the Flying Spaghetti Monster created the world much as it exists today, but for reasons unknown made it appear that the universe is billions of years old (instead of thousands) and that life evolved into its current state (rather than created in its current form). Every time a researcher carries out an experiment that appears to confirm one of these “scientific theories” supporting an old earth and evolution we can be sure that the FSM is there, modifying the data with his Noodly Appendage. We don’t know why He does this but we believe He does, that is our Faith.

We all get the joke. Most (though not all, according to the website) of the followers of FSM are atheists: Pastafarianism is a parody of creationism. But FSM is used not to merely against creationism, but theism as well. For FSM is a legitimate member of the world’s pantheon, according to atheists. That is, FSM makes about as much sense as, well, say, Yahweh. If you don’t believe in FSM, an atheist might argue, then you shouldn’t believe in Yahweh either, for the same reasons.

As for the reasons for not believing in FSM, they should be pretty obvious. FSM is a ridiculous being: divine pasta with meatballs creating the world is absurd. In our experience, we have never known pasta to be intelligent, or even to possess consciousness. Furthermore, all the pasta we have known has been made by people. We know of no self-existent pasta. Pasta, as we know it, doesn’t have the ability to act, let alone create. It’s just semolina and tomato paste with some oregano and maybe some cooked meat. And though it might last a couple of weeks in the fridge, it certainly wouldn’t last ages, like the FSM has.

Could the same be said of the God of classic theism? Is that being a pretty close analogy to FSM? Both are self-existent, both created the universe, both possess great power. Both possess eternal minds, are intelligent. Both are omnibenevolent and worthy of worship.

True, these analogies exist, but there are disanalogies too. FSM is made of spaghetti, God isn’t. FSM has meatballs, God doesn’t. FSM has delicious marinara sauce. God doesn’t. FSM is physical, God is a Spirit. It seems to me that it’s the combination of these properties with properties like omnipotence, benevolence, self-existence, etc. that makes FSM ridiculous*. Thus I think the argument from analogy from FSM’s silliness to God’s silliness is weak.

That is, the argument seems to be that because divine attributes, combined with the attributes of spaghetti, are ridiculous, divine attributes are, in themselves, ridiculous. This conclusion clearly doesn’t follow.

So, regarding FSM as an attack on creationism, I really don’t know what to say. But as an attack on theism, it’s just smoke. Its value for atheists is more in the line of the pleasure of teasing theists (An excuse to drink beer and dress up as pirates as well?).

* Atheists have an ad hoc move available here: they may claim that the sauce, pasta, and meatballs are of a very special, divine sort. I think that this move, to rehabilitate FSM, would have to be carried out to the extreme that the pasta, sauce, and meatballs that comprise FSM will be so unlike the ingredients we know as to make the use of ‘pasta’ and the rest deceptive. Their attempts to save FSM will only end up making FSM look less and less like FSM and more and more like God.

One Man’s Modus Ponens is Another Man’s Modus Tollens

Consider the following pair of arguments:

(1) If there is no God, then everything is permitted.
(2) There is no God.
(3) Therefore, everything is permitted.


(1) If there is no God, then everything is permitted.
(2′) It is not true that everything is permitted.
(3′) Therefore, it is not true that there is no God.

Note that (2) is the same as the denial of the conclusion of the second argument, and that (2′) is the denial of the conclusion of the first argument.

Call (1) the Dostoyevsky Premise (his character Ivan Karamazov famously claimed it in Brothers Karamozov). I suppose that if naturalism (i.e., atheism) is true, morality would merely amount to some sort of set of inclinations that had survival value and was thus selected for in our evolutionary past. The set wouldn’t have any sort of authority. It might be useful relative to the goal of survival, but that’s not authority.

Then again, a naturalist could just say that moral truths are brute truths, primitives, that are not based in anything more basic. Math/logic seems to be that way. Why not ethics? It’s less arbitrary to say this than to base morality in God’s commands, naturalists might claim.

Atheists certainly aren’t in agreement regarding (1). Some agree. Jean Paul Sartre is one of the best examples. Some deny (1), thinking that morality can be naturalized. Sam Harris is an example. (For another example of an atheist realist regarding morality, see this blog).

But suppose it’s true. The two above competing arguments come to my mind. One could argue that there is no God, so everything is permitted. Or one could argue that not everything is permitted, and conclude that God exists. The first argument is in the form of Modus Ponens:

(1) If A, then B,
(2) A,
(3) Therefore, B.

The second is in the form of Modus Tollens:

(1) If A, then B,
(2′) Not-B,
(3′) Therefore Not-A.

Both are deductively valid forms. So something’s got to give. If (1) is true, then there is a competition between (2) and (2′). Which has more behind it?

I’d definitely say (2′), given pretty near universal intuitions about basic moral values (we must not harm people unless there is justification; we must take care of our children).* The case against God’s existence is much more shaky (atheists usually don’t try to prove that God doesn’t exist anyway; they put the burden of proof on theists).

Or put it this way, there’s an argument for atheists taking on a burden of proof (given (1)) if there is a burden of proof on those who deny objective morality. For accepting (1) and (2′) implies God’s existence, and if we should default to believing in (2′), then we should default to believing in (3′).

*Psychopaths are excluded. Just because some people are blind doesn’t mean there’s nothing to see.