Remarks on Religion

By Daniel A. Kaufman


By now, most readers know that I am an atheist, as I do not believe in the existence of God or anything supernatural. Readers also likely know that I am Jewish by lineage and culturally and that I think God is useless both as an explanation and as a moral exemplar.

Because I can see neither reasons nor uses for God, I am interested in the fact that so many people do. And as the things I have written about this are scattered all over the place, I thought I’d gather together my current thoughts on the subject in a single piece. Initially, I considered writing a longer essay, even perhaps a short book on the subject, but the rationales for God are poor and admit of little by way of rigorous philosophical treatment, the large quantity of material purporting to provide it notwithstanding.

As Christians in the West are by far the most actively and aggressively engaged in religious apologetics and proselytization, a number of my remarks are specific to Christianity, but the things I have to say apply to any religion that invokes supernatural gods or other such entities [kami; djinni; souls; spirits; etc.].


[1] Every thought and action that we ascribe to God is metaphorical. Thinking and acting require embodiment, and God is not embodied. Indeed, a number of his alleged attributes, like transcendence and omnipresence, imply that he cannot be embodied. So, until someone explains what it means for a disembodied being to command things, make it rain for forty days, send people places, think things to himself, etc., such attributions and the narratives into which they figure are devoid of any factual content.

Several Christian interlocutors on social media [where I threw out this question] have tried to reject my “presumption” that thinking and acting require embodiment, but I presume no such thing. Mine is an empirical view, and as far as we know – as all the sciences engaged with these subjects have observed and as we all see in our everyday lives – thinking requires a nervous system and acting, in the sense of walking, running, swimming, flying, orally or manually talking, etc., requires a physiology. God has neither; can have neither, given his alleged attributes. That’s all there is, and it’s all I need.

[2] Given [1], appeals to God cannot explain anything about the natural world. I will often hear Christian apologists claim that without God, we cannot explain where the universe came from. Whether because there must be a “first cause” or the universe is “fine-tuned” or what have you, an appeal to God allegedly is necessary if any scientific explanation is to get off the ground.

The trouble of course is that in order to cause or fine-tune something, one has to be – you guessed it – embodied. We know what it means to say that “A caused B,” when A and B are physical events, and we know what it means to say, “So-and-so tuned the guitar,” where so-and-so is an actual person and the guitar an actual instrument. We have no idea what these mean when either A or B is a non-physical event or thing or when both are. Indeed, I would maintain that we don’t even know what it would mean for something to be an event and also be non-physical, but this is not essential to the point.   

[3] Because of [1]-[2], every instance of “natural theology” is at best fallacious and at worst, incoherent. Anything observed in nature is either a physical thing or event and cannot be explained by appeal to non-physical things or events. Indeed all inferences to the best explanation offered by theists should be rejected on the grounds that not only are they not the best explanation, they are no explanation at all.

[4] If you understand Cartesian Dualism and the problems with it, you should understand [1]-[3]. The same difficulties also apply to Platonism. Talk of physical things “partaking,” “copying,” “sharing in,” etc., Platonic Forms is nothing more than empty, metaphorical talk and explains nothing about the characteristics of those things, until the metaphors are cashed out.

[5] Anything that would be evidence that Yahweh or Allah or Jesus or whoever “made X” would be evidence that super powerful aliens made it.

[6] Most religious people adhere to the religion of their family and place. Geography predicts religious affiliation more strongly than anything else, which means that the most committed, evangelical Christian, if born in India, would most likely be a Hindu and perhaps, even, as committed a Hindu as he currently is a Christian. One would expect this, if religions are collections of tribal/national myths and legends. One would not expect it, if religions were forms of life and thought that engage with the fundamental realities in and of the world. Physics and chemistry are the same in Punjab as in the American South or Hokkaido. Religions are not.

[7] Given the number of religions on the earth, it is unlikely that yours happens to be the correct one, and everyone is as convinced of the truth of theirs as you are of yours. When I first moved to the Bible Belt, I was surprised by the level of confidence people had in their particular brand of evangelical or Pentecostal Christianity [some of them brands I’d never even heard of until that point] and used to think that the best thing for them would be to live in a Lubavitch or Satmar community for a few weeks, where it would become quickly evident that there were people far more religiously committed and more rigorous in their religious lifestyles than they are. [Indeed, for all their professions and proclamations of extraordinary and intense religious faith, your typical evangelical or Pentecostal seems to behave pretty much like everyone else, whether for good or for bad.]

[8] Once you move past the first Abrahamic religion, Judaism, I don’t see how you select among its appropriators. What makes the “New Testament” scripture but not The Koran? Or the Book of Mormon? Or whatever the hell the Jehovah’s Witnesses use? There’s an old Jewish joke, “Mormons exist so that Christians will know how Jews feel,” and it’s really apt.

[9] That a bunch of Iron Age texts that happened to survive and were preserved and canonized reveal the ultimate truth of reality is unlikely to say the least. And if you think such texts could do such a thing, why might it not be the ones we’re missing — or which were left out of the various religious canons — rather than the ones that have been preserved and canonized [especially given that the former is a much larger group than the latter]?

[10] Believing in supernatural beings and events on the basis of millennia-old writings and the traditions that grew out of them requires a level of credulity that if made general would be dangerous. Religious belief is a model of the bad sort of compartmentalization.

[11] As people from religious traditions all over the world claim personal experiences of deities, angels, demons, etc., having such experiences oneself provides no rationale for thinking one’s religion true as opposed to theirs.

[12] What [5]-[11] suggest is that any particular theism suffers from indeterminacy and has a serious arbitrariness problem.

[13] A common claim that apologists make is that without God, there can be no morality; that God provides the epistemic and metaphysical “grounds” for our judgments of value and obligation. Now, aside from the question of whether such grounds are required [I have argued on any number of occasions that they are not], the gods that are invoked could never provide them. The behavior of these deities, whether Yahweh, Allah, Jesus, etc., as recounted in their respective religions’ sacred texts, is miles away from what anyone normally would think of as even minimally decent, let alone exemplary. Genocide, mass rape, enslavement, eternal damnation for minor offences [according to some of these religions, a mere lack of belief is sufficient for the latter], do not constitute the behavior of a morally good being, let alone one who is supposed to serve as morality’s “ground.”

The typical strategy when confronted with the barbarous attitudes and behaviors of Iron Age deities is to allegorize all of the narratives containing them, the idea being that to mere mortals like us with such a limited vision and perspective, God’s intentions and behaviors are inscrutable. [Susan Sontag claims that this allegorizing impulse represents the beginning of interpretation, generally, in “Against Interpretation.”] But while this may address the question of God’s apparent barbarism, it creates a new problem, which is that the attitudes and behaviors of an inscrutable being are useless in providing guidance regarding human life.

[14] When one examines the great religious traditions, all of which stem from antiquity, one is confronted with what are demonstrably archaic, primitive conceptions of the universe, values, notions of obligation, the respective roles of the sexes, economics, politics, and the like. One encounters shamanistic rituals, “lock-and-key” type metaphysical formulas of the “chant these words over there on the first Tuesday of every third month, and X will happen” variety, and hierarchies of deities and angels that look remarkably like ancient monarchic and Imperial hierarchies. All of which makes perfect sense if we are talking about myths and legends in an Iron Age context. But it takes a certain amount of self-deception – or at least, a measure of psychic indolence – to look at all of this today and say, “Nope, these aren’t fascinating and often lurid elements from the eclectic, messy, often ugly history of human development, but rather, eternal truths about the nature and operation of the universe and everything and everyone in it. [And just my religion, not those other people’s.]”


Thanks to Robert Gressis who looked at a draft of this piece and helped me with some of the details, as well as sketching some potential lines of pushback.


95 responses to “Remarks on Religion”

  1. This is pretty inadequate. If you are going to do this seriously, you have to define the “God” you are talking about, and “super-natural” doesn’t help unless you define nature. And as far as that goes, you imply a very narrow version of physicalism: whatever exists is a physical event, and all explanations must invoke physical efficient causes? Can’t do most of science with that view. If all you want to do is say “my neighbors’ and relatives’ theological beliefs are faulty,” then this is fine.

  2. Sorry you didn’t like it.

  3. Matti Meikäläinen

    I generally have the same reaction to those who feel a need publicly exclaim that they are atheists that I have to those who feel a similar need to publicly exclaim their theism. In the former case, these atheists enjoy excoriating various forms of fundamentalism and, in the latter case, such theists love to bash atheists who promote various forms of scientism. In either case the targets are fish in a barrel and the arguments are no better than senseless pro wrestling trash talk!

    This essay was a notch above the usual frantic screed, I’ll give you that, but not much more than that. I think it was Wittgenstein who pointed out that religious belief, I think he meant the real thing, is foremost a disposition, a way of being. And that non-believers really have no way to contradict believers. Now, I’d love to read a serious essay that explores that point of view.

  4. Sorry you didn’t like it.

  5. So far not looking so good in terms of actual engagement with the piece. Ah well. Not entirely surprising. Hopefully it will improve.

  6. Maybe this is me reading my biases into Dan’s work – as I think there is a lot of overlap in our thinking here – but…

    When you say that to engage in the theological debate, one first has to define the goe you are talking about, it feels to me like Dan indirectly explained why he can’t do that: because the god he is talking about (really, the ones most people talk about) is always defined in ultimately anthropomorphic terms that end up being incoherent (at least to those not already committed to theism).

  7. Richard Nathhorst

    Thank you for this thoughtful piece. I find that your position on this subject is very similar to mine.
    I appreciate reading your pieces on this subject because as a scientist I was not exposed in my academic eduction to much in the way of philosophy of religion. Your work on “BloggingHeads” and now the “Electric Agora” are welcome.

  8. Really enjoyed this one, Dan! Coincidentally, I’ve been going back through some of the media I consumed in my ‘angry atheist’ days of my early 20’s (that I might write about). It is odd that I went through that phase considering that, like most atheists I talked with then, I was never religious and therefore, never really had anything – a ‘stolen youth’ or sense I’d been lied to – to be angry about like they did.

    The bit I REALLY identify with here is (2) (and yes, a lot follows from 2). I guess when I was an angry atheist, I used to frame my lack of belief (or disbelief) as a matter of reason or logic. But the more I thought about it, it wasn’t so much the logical or rational superiority of atheism as it was that I had no sense that theism or the god hypothesis did anything it claimed to do. It doesn’t explain except by replacing one mystery with another, and insisting that mysteries like “Why is there life and a world so fine tuned that life evolved?” need any explanation at all. Maybe as a lifelong atheist, I got accustomed to navigating the world without feeling those questions needed answers. But theism never erally seemed to answer them either, except in a way that seemed little better than inventing a story with bunches of loose ends only to claim the story solved something.

    The only religions I’ve ever – and it was recently – felt remotely close to are Buddhism and Taoism, but even then, it was only the secular elements that attracted me. And Taoism is abuot as close to vacuous as you can get: the way is whatever happens and we should allow whatever happens to happen even if it means not allowing it to happen because that also happens and we should allow that nonallowance. Or something.

  9. “that religious belief, I think he meant the real thing”

    Maybe, but that’s also dangerously close to a No True Scotmsan move. Don’t like the religions (that are actually practiced) an atheist critiques? Claim that he is just not engaging with REAL religions… repeat.

    “In the former case, these atheists enjoy excoriating various forms of fundamentalism”

    Well, first, fundamentalisms are fair game, no? They aren’t the only game in town, but they do own a bit of downtown real estate. Secondly, Dan does engage with non-fundamentalism. Most of the items here are non-denominational, and the criticisms would apply to many types of theism, not just fundamentalist ones. Which do you think limit themselves to fundamentalistic variations?

  10. Thank you so much!

  11. Adriana

    Well, I did like the piece.

    I can see some of the criticism may be due to your attempt to summarize previous writings, leaving the effect that some thoughts aren’t substantiated enough, such as those referring to physicalism and causes. But, since, as far as I know, “miracles” have never been proven, all observable events have causes, even if the limitations of current science may leave some gaps. And it’s been long understood that a god of the gaps is a poor justification for belief in supernatural or divine interventions.

    One of the commenters mentioned that Wittgenstein pointed out that religious belief is a disposition, a way of being. I don’t know if that reference is accurate since I don’t have the educational background to assist. But, I do agree with the concept. There are people with such disposition to engage the world with an added layer of mystery. And there are those who stick to the ground we feel under our feet and only if we are sure we’re not hallucinating or dreaming. We tend to call ourselves atheists and skeptics and that’s because labels assist in communication and self disclosure.

    This is an important writing at a time in history when this nation is at risk of losing its highest foundational values to religious fanaticism. Thank you, Dan.

  12. Matti Meikäläinen

    Carefully examine to your own statement—later In this thread: “The only religions I’ve ever…felt remotely close to …, it was only the secular elements that attracted me.” As one who does not publicly exclaim theism nor atheism, I respectfully submit that you may have missed the whole point.

  13. David Riceman

    You (and possibly many of the people you are responding to) are taking Biblical and Rabbinic rhetoric too literally. Surely you accept that Homer (and maybe even Virgil) has deep insights about human nature, even if you treat the gods-talk as metaphoric. Please offer the same courtesy to Abrahamic God-talk.
    Consider, for example, Kings II 18:25. RavShakeh (Aramaic for chief butler) says that God (using the tetragragrammaton) told him to destroy Jerusalem. This is surprising because he is portrayed as Assyrian, not Jewish. Why would the Bible attribute a false revelation to him? I would translate that phrase as “it is inevitable”, not “God told me,” and I think the Bible’s editors expected its readers to recognize that.
    That principle applies very generally.

  14. I hear you, and Dan. I just mean that, if you want to pick the low hanging fruit, that’s fine. But to criticize religion and theism in general as incoherent, you have to address the better fruit higher up too. Dan clearly intends both (e.g. fine tuning, arguments from design, natural theology). I’m no theologian or philosopher of religion, but their “God” and “nature” are not so obviously “incoherent.”

  15. Adriana

    Many writings have deep insights into human nature and use metaphor. Some of us object to the claim that some of those writings, 1. Have historic accuracy, 2. Are divinely inspired and/or 3. Reveal the existence of a supernatural being.

    Generally speaking such writings can be entertaining on a good day or be a substitute for a horror movie. 😉

  16. nannus

    I generally agree.
    What do you mean by “in the West”? The US? Where I live (Germany) the evangelicals and pentecostals are generally regarded dangerous sects, but they are not very visible (looks like most of them emigrated to the US during the 19th century). We have our own brands of crackpots here, but I think one cannot generalize this for “the West”.

  17. “Actual engagement,” you want? By your numbering:
    1. So this assumes “God” is pure spirit, unlike, say, Spinoza. A whole lot of theologians have denied that one can ascribe “acts” to God, because they are temporal. Why can’t God be the bottom layer of nature, a Ground of Being, or a Plotinian One? I am not saying there IS such a thing, but what’s incoherent about it?
    2. Again, the assumption is all causes are physical and God isn’t. (I don’t think either has to be true.) Note that physical science cannot explain the initial physical state of reality, if there is/was one. Some invoke God in light of fine-tuned constants. Whether that is coherent (not right) depends on what God is.
    3. See above. The sensible rejection of the God option is not “it explains nothing” but, we ought to accept that the physical is inexplicable and stop.
    4. Can’t see the relevance to God; but can you apply your idea to math? “Why” must the sum of the angles of the yield sign add up to approx. 180 degrees? Explanation will not be a physical event, which is what you seem to require. That is, in what sense can a geometrical structure explain? Or can’t it?
    5. This is similar to Hume, and partly right: a creator only needs to be as “perfect” as is required to explain the creation. But “X” couldn’t be “all of nature” because that aliens have to be in nature.
    6. Okay, but do you really want to say “whatever cultures disagree about (unlike math and physics) is not something anyone can be right about”? Like human rights and democracy?
    7. So if the target is now not God or religion, but My particular religion, okay, I agree. Just like most of my guesses politics or art or the best food are probably wrong. Maybe I picked the wrong spouse too.
    8. Okay, here we are really moving out of the question of “which claims are true,” into “which community should I choose to belong to”?
    9. Agreed. Most really old books that have been modified and reconstructed over centuries by vastly different folks before the modern era have to be wrong about a lot.
    10. To what is that a response? If you mean, you shouldn’t believe things because your grandmother told you to, I mostly agree. (Mine was right about drugs, but not premarital sex).
    11. Mystical experience, whatever its potential validity, has no public evidence. It can’t function in the world of inquiry. (I personally also think, whatever it reveals may be real, but not MORE real than eating breakfast.)
    12. Yes, if that is the standard of evaluation.(I appreciate that the target is clear now.) If deciding on religious belief were a matter of inquiry, which requires reasons and evidence. It is for some people, but not for others (e.g. Wittgenstein, as noted).
    13. I think the argument that religion is bad because it has caused immorality is very wrong; the same argument leads to the conclusion that human culture and language are wrong, since “religion” was traditionally inseparable from a culture. BUT I totally agree that morality need not depend on religion. Morality is likely older.
    14. Agreed. But nobody with a year of religious or biblical studies in most colleges or universities would make that claim.
    Now I need a beer.

  18. The piece seems fine to me. I’m an atheist and God means about as much to me as Santa Claus does.

  19. I appreciate the response. Seems we agree on quite a bit. My interest here was really just to summarize my current thoughts on the subject. Most of the stuff I said here, I’ve said in bits and pieces elsewhere.

    Also, my target is mainstream theism and popular religious apologetics. People that have highly fictionalized, metaphorical, symbolic, abstracted and other conceptions of religion or God are not on my radar here.

  20. Should have said ‘America.’ I’ll see about changing it.

  21. And I’m happy if people get an enormous amount out of it with regard to their lives, via some allegorical or otherwise fictionalized framework. This really only was directed at those making the sorts of arguments and conceiving of God in the ways I describe, not highly sophisticated and non-common forms of religiosity. The latter are not in my sights at all.

  22. Yes, that’s the brand of theology I’m talking about. The mainstream, popular one, which you hear trotted out by the William Lane Craigs of the world. I’m not addressing Bishop Spong style religion.

  23. Matti Meikäläinen

    Regarding your rebuttal to point #13, one might also point out that much of the genocide and mass enslavements of the last century were committed in the name of atheistic scientific socialism (Marxist-Leninist beliefs) and the deranged anti-religious paganism of the Nazis. It seems evil is an equal opportunity employer among a variety of beliefs, not just among religious zealots. One might claim that any belief about perfectibility whether in an eternal afterlife, in the appetites and needs of some deity, or merely the perfection of mankind in an earthly paradise leads straight to the killing of people. The Jacobins got pretty good at mass murder themselves to implement the General Will and “force men to be free.”

  24. (0.1) I find the terms “natural” and “supernatural” to be ambiguous and perhaps set up a false dichotomy (e.g., if humans have a Cartesian soul are we natural or supernatural entities?). Trying to define “naturalism” in a way that is falsifiable is likely to face Hempel’s dilemma. From my Christian perspective, I think a Creator/creation distinction is all that is needed.

    (0.2) The purpose of this comment is to offer insight as to why I am a Christian/theist without going too deeply into all the relevant arguments. The comment will be long enough as-is.

    (1.1) I think the language we use to describe God is analogical, not metaphorical.

    (1.2) I fail to see the difficulty in understanding a disembodied being bringing about an effect. Even if you don’t believe we have immaterial minds, I see no conceptual problem with my immaterial mind commanding my fingers to type out this comment.

    (1.3) Veridical NDEs suggest thinking can occur without an active brain and nervous system.

    (1.4) An empirical approach to immaterial minds is a poor method. By its very nature you cannot directly observe the immaterial mind. Even if we assume minds are material we have never directly observed one (the problem of other minds). Your empiricism is selective. It is like someone saying his metal detector has only detected metal and concluding nothing but metal exists. I also find several criticisms of materialism in the field of philosophy of mind persuasive.

    (1.5) You seem to be making an inductive argument that all minds must be material. I’m rather skeptical that the sample of humans and animals allows you to reach such a universal conclusion. I find Louis Groarke’s (An Aristotelian Account of Induction) idea a plausible explanation of why induction is possible. It is possible when we correctly identify the nature of a kind of thing to conclude that other things with that exact same nature will act the same way. But in your example you are finding the nature of man’s mind and then trying to say something about God’s mind. I don’t think that works any more than reasoning from a man’s mind to a bat’s mind. I must also note that Groarke’s account appeals to metaphysics that are used in classical arguments for God’s existence. One and the same metaphysics makes induction intelligible and leads to the conclusion that God exists.

    (2) Here we get into the weeds of what causality means. I think causality speaks of a dependency of some kind. I see no conceptual difficulty in the universe being dependent on God in order to exist. Your point mostly stresses event causation but there is also substance causation. When modern philosophers speak about causality they often only mean efficient causality, whereas formal, material, and final causality can also be discussed. To take up your guitar example, I think it is conceivable that a ghost, say, could play a guitar. I have some idea what it would look like. The guitar strings would move with no discernible human contact and music would be made.

    (3) Because of my 1-2, I find 3 unpersuasive. One actually has to show the problem with each and every argument in natural theology to reach the conclusion you desire.

    (4.1) Cartesian dualism is not the only kind of dualism. None of the positions in philosophy of mind are airtight and they all contain much mystery. This humility with respect to the nature of the mind undercuts your 1-3.

    (4.2) I’m an Aristotelian rather than a Platonist but I don’t think Platonism is “empty talk.” As a software engineer I can understand a Platonic form as something like a class and a substance to be something like an object. It is a useful distinction to make.

    (4.3) Once formal causality is cashed out it provides explanations. It explains how more than one thing can have the same nature. As noted above, it explains why induction is possible. If naturalism can’t match it in this respect then this is a point for theism.

    (5.1) The classical arguments for God give a description of the attributes of God that are not in line with the attributes usually attributed to aliens.

    (5.2) Depending on what can be contained in X I see no reason to think aliens would be the straightforward explanation. If I lived through the exodus and the being who worked the miracles regularly identified himself as Yahweh then I’m going to conclude it’s Yahweh, not aliens. If we throw out the the straightforward explanation I’m liable to conclude you are all aliens walking around in human skins.

    (6.1) Things are complicated by the fact that religions have spread outside their original geographical boundaries. Physics and chemistry are easier to test than worldviews. This can explain the disagreement. But one should also be aware of the similarities between various religions too. They are not in complete and total disagreement with each other on all maters.

    (6.2) I wonder if one could run a similar argument against science. One’s scientific beliefs are strongly predicted by the age (not geography) in which he lives. This is unexpected if science is discovering the fundamental realities of the world.

    (7) One can make a similar statement regarding any number of secular beliefs. One can merely try to follow the evidence as he sees it. And does atheism not face the same problem? It’s just another belief about God.

    (8) You look into the evidence for each religion. I find the evidence that Jesus rose from the dead and fulfilled OT prophecies to be strong. This rules out Judaism since Jews deny these things. The Koran gets historical facts wrong about Jesus (that even non-Christians would agree with, such as his crucifixion) so it is not inspired by God. The Book of Mormon lacks historical confirmation, which the NT possesses. There are several historical problems with its account of the New World before Columbus. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are a heretical branch of Christianity. Show how their heresies are wrong and you’re back to orthodox Christianity.

    (9.1) I see no a priori reason why God has to make a revelation in line with your or my expectations. I see no reason to conclude it is “unlikely” God would make revelations in the Iron Age (or any other age for that matter).

    (9.2) It’s quite possible God’s revelation was written down in a now lost text. The Bible even refers to some lost texts. So what? We work with what we have.

    (9.3) As for extant texts that didn’t make it into the canon, one can still read them. But there were criteria for what would be placed in the canon.

    (10.1) In the case of Jesus’s resurrection I have examined the counter-arguments. Naturalism simply fails to provide the best explanation.

    (10.2) Why assume the belief in the “supernatural” is only based on millennia-old writings? Atheist doctor Jacalyn Duffin worked on a miracle case for the Roman Catholic Church in which sainthood was granted because she could not offer a natural explanation for a cure. This prompted her to look through the archives of miraculous healings possessed by the RCC (Medical Miracles: Doctors, Saints, and Healing in the Modern World). That’s thousands of cases right there with good documentation. She wasn’t able to debunk many cases. For the most part, the advance of science just makes these events all the more inexplicable on natural grounds. Craig Keener has noted surveys indicate hundreds of thousands of contemporary people have experienced or witnessed miracles. His two-volume Miracles collects hundreds of cases. He has witnessed and investigated dozens of miracles himself. He is an ex-atheist. A severe weakness of naturalism is it’s inability to explain such cases. When no natural explanation is forthcoming the skeptic resorts to denial.

    (11) I think it would depend on the nature of the experience. One can be more certain of his own experience than the experience of another.

    (12) I might agree that there is a level of indeterminacy while thinking Christianity is true. We know some things but not others. Some beliefs are more certain than others.

    (13) I don’t think the behavior of God in the Bible is the metaphysical ground of morality. I think morality is grounded in formal and final causes and that these in turn are used in arguments for God’s existence. God, of course, grounds all of reality. So there is a certain connection between God and morality that passes through metaphysics. Naturalistic metaphysics have a difficult time grounding an objective morality. Natural law is not inscrutable; it’s just demanding.

    (14.1) I don’t think the Bible intends to describe the universe in a scientific manner. Nor does it contain truths about the “operation of the universe and everything and anyone in it.” I would be curious if any Jew or Christian has ever made this exact statement.

    (14.2) I’m not surprised a text written to an ancient people would meet them where they are. Our values, sex roles, economics, and politics are all the result of circumstances that are entirely different from the circumstances of the ancient world. If our circumstances change then all those things are liable to change too. But we should not ignore how the Bible challenged the values of its day and the dark side of human nature in every age.

    (14.3) I don’t think Christianity states formulaic prayers will guarantee results. God is free to answer or not answer any given prayer. Even Jesus (Gethsemane) and Paul (thorn in the flesh) has unanswered prayers (in some sense at least).

    (14.4) There are still hierarchies. There are hierarchies in businesses, schools, non-profits, governments, etc.

    (14.5) I don’t see why the Bible can’t contain events from the ugly history of human development and contain divine revelation. A noteworthy aspect of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible is its brutally honest description of the Israelites and their failures.

    (14.6) As noted above, I don’t think other religions are completely wrong. They can contain some truths. And I’m not sure why the atheist doesn’t fall into the same boat of thinking he knows reality better than religious people.

  25. jayman777 – the gobbledegook is strong with this one.

    Incoherent when not simply wrong – “One’s scientific beliefs are strongly predicted by the age (not geography) in which he lives. This is unexpected if science is discovering the fundamental realities of the world.” To the extent that claims like this make any sense, they still makes no sense!

    Dishonest, muddled, irrational, presented as though reasonable and yet exclusive of any reasoning beyond pedantic references without any real consideration of any need for real and thoughtful discussion – just a jumble of assertions pretending to be conciliatory “arguments.”

    Despite the half-assed efforts at ecumenicism, the anti-Semitic undertone is clear when discussing Judaism. Obviously still doesn’t get what it means to live among others of differing beliefs in a liberal state.

    Demonstrates certain aspects of Dan’s arguments quite well. A real exemplar of the fundamental failures of much of religious belief.

    And atheism is not some kind of a belief about god – it means I don’t have to give a shit whether your god exists or not.

  26. Eesh. I don’t think I’ll react to this one. It’s too close to the apologist stuff I wrote the thing about. It’s not really meant to persuade you anyway, as I doubt you’re persuadable. I simply enjoy expressing things I’m thinking about in writing.

  27. Dan, as you may remember, I was once aligned with the “New Atheism;” but once it became clear that religious faith is psychologically and emotionally motivated, and reasonable discourse is useless in attempting any clarity with it, I modified my stance considerably.

    Now, I am grown old, perhaps too old to give battle against the darkness of theism; but recent history – especially the rise of Christian fascism in the Republican Party, but also the increasing influence of crueler forms of Islam and of Hinduism – I think I backed off too far too soon.

    Religion – certainly in its fundamentalist forms – is a curse, a stench of illogic, cruelty, violence, and apparently some form of inevitable authoritarianism. Children who want us all to remain in our cribs, begging Big Sky Daddy to relieve us of the burdens of confronting the world as it is, with all its problems and disappointments. I mean, I don’t care if they stay in their own cribs – it’s their offensive fear that others may believe differently, behave differently, love differently and live differently, expressed as oppression and suppression, even to the point of death, and frighteningly even legislated or judicially imposed – This is disgusting and worth combating in every sphere and at every level.

    Écrasez l’infâme! – Saint Voltaire knew whereof he spoke.

  28. Terranbiped

    Religion is a coping mechanism apparently required by many. Acquired by need or habitual from familial nurture. Is there any rational reason to believe the creator of the universe revealed the “truth” to some ascetic in a delusional haze?

    Is there an atemporal immaterial force or entity that through powers inconceivable to us created everything there is or just some local bumpkin Bolzmann Brain hovering over our planet, who knows. There is no evidence and absolutely no reason to believe either.

    That religions offer philosophical investigations on how to live is as valuable as any such attempts but unqualified certainty with a threat of bayonet or Hell is always a red flag that the argument is not self sufficient or of honest inquiry.

    If one wants truth watch the Classics Illustrated version, watch the Life of Brian and the scales will surely fall from your eyes.

    If there is a god gene it expresses itself as wishful thinking, gullibility and willful ignorance in an attempt to navigate an uncertain world. At its core it matters not the creed but that you throw your lot in with the believers. They may have the wrong mission statement but they buttress the mass delusion that there is a big daddy in the sky and squelch any doubt and insecurity fomented by materialists and atheists – the most hated and distrusted demographic.

  29. EJ, I am not trying to convince Christians. I enjoy writing about the things I’m thinking about.

  30. The problem with [1]-[2] is the idea that Iron Age thinkers were all unsophisticated. Aristotle thinking about contingency and the existence of a (single) first cause isn’t an outlier. And the nature of this first cause is necessarily going to be hard to put into human terms – the chain of argument is sparse on details, and he won’t expect the average illiterate to follow it.

    Parmenides may or may not expect readers to believe he literally visited the Goddess of Night’s abode, but the ideas he is putting forth are simultaneously mystical and hyper-rational eg that there is no real motion though there is the illusion of motion, and we can deduce this (as Popper summarizes it):

    (1) Only being is (only what is, is),
    (2) The nothing, the non-being, cannot be.
    (3) The non-being would be the absence of being: it would be the void.
    (4) There can be no void.
    (5) The world is full: a block.
    (6) Movement is impossible.

    It is the Goddess who says “…by reason alone decide on the often-contested
    Argument that I have here expounded to you…”

    Modern atheist physicists still get into arguments about Nothing with philosophers of physics.

    The ecumenical movement is the answer to 8-12, and it too has a long history, as well as numerous failures. That is, the heterogeneity of different religions hides a common core of truth, and that the differences arise where the truth cannot be reliably discerned. Adherence to such particular practices is a cultural thing that obtains classical liberal respect or tolerance.

  31. Prunella Arbighast

    I always felt there needs to be a better term than atheism for people like me. It makes it sound as if I need an ideological commitment to disbelieve in someone’s per god, rather than it be a common sense default position regarding something for which no evidence exists. In particular, I would argue it even goes beyond disbelief. I literally do not understand what it even means to ‘Believe in God’. What does this entail? Everything I hear sounds incoherent and silly. Why religion A and not religion B? It’s all just something I don’t get nor see any point in trying to get.

  32. I can only speak for myself here obviously, but most gods that have been represented in religions we know of have been represented with some sort of anthropomorphic traits: they get angry, know things that we don’t know, have powers to act on the material world deliberately, assign purpose to their creation, etc. When I hear Dan say that these gods are “incoherent,” I think that’s fait, because to be made sense of ultimateley, they need to have a sort of human-like embodiment that is usually (here’s the incooherence) denied them by their nature as gods.

    Of course, god doesn’t need to be coherent. Even as an atheist, I’ve long said that atheists are wrong to move from “no idea of god is coherent” to “therefore, this is an argument against god’s existence.” For that would wrongly suggest that the measure of what can exist is whether human brains can understand the thing, which seems unduly egocentric. But what we can say is that any god that is incoherent to humans can’t possibly answer questions to the satisfaction of humans who want coherent answers.

  33. It may be that I have missed the point. But if so, I’ve missed it so gapingly that I’ve missed that I missed it and must not understand the point enough to see it. What is the point that my reflection on religion has missed?

  34. Icahoo, here are some of my reactions to what you write. They can be summed up by my saying that some of your depictions of what god might be, to my mind, renders any god hypothesis unnecessary, unable to answer the questions that many people invoke god as an answere to, and render god impotent in ways most peoplel who invoke god would reject.

    “A whole lot of theologians have denied that one can ascribe “acts” to God, because they are temporal. Why can’t God be the bottom layer of nature, a Ground of Being, or a Plotinian One?”

    Then I’d be at a loss to see how god can be invoked as any type of creator. Creating, to make sense, has to be an act. One can (not saying you have done this) verbally dance around that and make creation something other than creation. But if god didn’t create – if it is just a base layer or substrate – why not just postulate a natural substrate?

    “The sensible rejection of the God option is not “it explains nothing” but, we ought to accept that the physical is inexplicable and stop.”

    The atheist can do that too. God, in this sense, becomes entirely unnecessary baggage to put onto our picture of the world.

    “Okay, but do you really want to say “whatever cultures disagree about (unlike math and physics) is not something anyone can be right about”? Like human rights and democracy?”

    I don’t think it is disagreement itself Dan is getting at here. It is mass disagreement paired with each party’s feeling of abject certainty in their god. If we take that seriously, that should undermine any confidence we feel that our conception of god – the attributes we ascribe, etc – is correct.

    Also, at least for the gods of Abrahamic faiths who seem to strangely want to be worshipped and ascribe penalty for declining, it makes little sense to think that those (all-powerful) gods showed us such weak evidence that they couldn’t convince a majority of the world’s population that they exist. The better explanation is that different groups in different context created different stories of god and, since no god actually exists, we can’t settle the dispute with any evidence outside the holy books.

  35. Average Philosophy Enjoyer

    Matti, if you’re advocating an essentially non-cognitivist view of religion, then that’s fine as an account of one possible way of engaging with religion.
    But that’s not what most theists, at least those who claim to have reasons for their belief, believe.
    They take themselves to be representing something real, which has causal powers that are invoked in explanations of events. And they also generally take such a being to be disembodied.
    The essay addresses this conception, which is not just a belief of simple folk but of educated academics who have made a career out of defending this stuff.
    And since you don’t seem to disagree that about that conception of religion, then I don’t see what the problem is supposed to be

  36. Exactly right. Thank you.

  37. The last point re: ecumenicalism is fine, but it’s not available to your standard, mainline theist. And again, this essay is not meant as a critique of every possible, sophisticated version of religion. It’s about the religions and religious believers we mostly have.

  38. Adrianna, you say: “Many writings have deep insights into human nature and use metaphor.”

    This is very true, and I see it directly because i’m currently profiting from reading the works of Reinhold Niebuhr, that are all built on an interesting-and-interestinlgly-Christian view of humankind. And this Chritian understanding of his seems primarily (but not exclusively?) allegorical.

    My problem is that what we might mean by “understand through metaphor” seems different than what we do when we, say, “understand through evidence” (or something like that). If I read a work that I think is fictional – for an extreme example – it might help me make senses of some aspect of the human condition in a way that is wholly different to when I read a work of empirical psychology that i trust to be an accurate report. There are things the fiction can do and things the empirics can do, and both can be useful, but they are not the same thing.

    This is sort of what throws me about the idea of a religion being presented in allegory To say that x is allegory is to imply that it is fictional or embellished in a way we wouldn’t it if were a report or chronicle. But if that’s right, it would confilct at least somewhat with the idea that the religion is true in any but a metaphoric sense, right? That is at least for me hard to square, and I”m not sure many religious people (who believe their religions to be true beyond metaphor) would want to square it.

    But I am an atheist who is admittedly tonedeaf to the sacred. So, I might e missing something there.

  39. I agree with what you say in the sense that the non-existence of god is trivially true and there is no support for theism in the sense that there are no reasons to support the idea of an indistinct, undefined, supernatural force that created the universe and cares about your behavior. Believers in “god” are never able to give any sort of coherent description of what god is and no two believers could agree on it even if they could. So god serves only as a non explanation and dead end for thought. It precludes further inquiry since no believer can say what god is or provide any evidence of its nature.Thus the idea of god is completely non-explanatory. As a result ,there is no basis for having a rational conversation about god since god has no rational basis.

    Yet it is remarkable how people leap to the defence of religion. So what explains the believers? I think it is that believers have incorporated theism into their personal identity. They don’t know who they are without their belief systems. The same process exists in the political arena. We ask how can anyone believe in Hitler, Putin, Mussolini or Trump or in Communism, simulation theory, Voodoo or flat-earthism. People believe in siuch nonsensical ideas because they absorb or adopt them from the surroundings they grew up or live in. So in cultures and countries where Christianity is not present no one is Christian. And in cultures where white supremacy, panpsychism,, idealism, Voodoo and Quakerism don’t exist, you don’t find believers in those ideologies and faiths.

    So there is little point in arguing against religions and ideologies. They aren’t rational constructions and they lack any coherent way to defend themselves. They are just a part of the believers personal identities that they have absorbed or chosen to adopt. In other words they are just tribal badges, like rooting for the yankees. People cling to them because they see themselves as members of that tribe. They are not a rational claim that the Yankees created the universe and established an objective morality of “Yankee Supremacy”.

    I like your essay but you didn’t answer the question you started with, namely “why do people believe in all of this nonsense?” I have tried to do that above.

  40. I quote: “every instance of ‘natural theology’ is at best fallacious and at worst, incoherent.” Dan did not limit himself to saying the idea of a big guy in the sky with a beard or a god being jealous or angry are nonsensical. He is rejecting any and all claims that a “God” can exist and play a role in natural existence. For that he needs (and you need) to get a little more serious. If this is supposed to be philosophy.

  41. I was pretty clear about my target. And obviously a lot of people disagree with your dismissal of the piece as philosophy.

  42. jofrclark

    “Because I can see neither reasons nor uses for God, I am interested in the fact that so many people do.”

    Maybe I missed it, but any thoughts on why you think so many people DO believe in God and the supernatural and why it persists?

  43. That’s really for the psychologists and anthropologists to answer. My main aim here was simply to gather together all my stray thoughts on theistic belief.

  44. My father was raised as a Jew and after the Holocaust, he realized that there is no just or loving Deity. How can one believe that a just and loving Deity would let 6 million people be shut up in cattle cars and sent to be gassed? How could a just and loving Deity allow Stalin’s atrocities or
    slavery? The list is long.

    Now I suppose one could a posit a Deity like Zeus in Homer who enjoys watching battles from on high, but few do that today. Zeus actually makes more sense than the Judeo-Christian God.

    I suppose that one can posit Spinoza’s God who is just the laws of nature, but Spinoza expert Steven Nadler claims that Spinoza is actually a closet atheist since proclaiming oneself an atheist in the 17th century would have been very hazardous to one’s health.

  45. My parents were raised Jewish too — my father, Orthodox — and retained zero belief in the supernatural, though our household was quite Jewish culturally.

    I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that American Christians in particular are really ignorant about other faiths and even the history of their own.

  46. Terranbiped

    What is there to know? Paul said you didn’t have to cut your pecker and you could eat pork and lobster. Skinny blue eyed Jesus died for your sins and you will meet grandma at the pearly gates. I guess he could have thrown in a family pass to Disney too, to further sweeten the deal.

  47. Okay, I must have misunderstood. So, do you claim ““every instance of ‘natural theology’ is at best fallacious and at worst, incoherent” is true? Or not? Just asking, like we philosophers are prone to do…

  48. Yes. By ‘natural theology’ is meant looking at the natural world and basing an argument for god’s existence on the natural world’s characteristics.

    My critique applies to every version of so-called “cosmological” and “fine-tuning” arguments.

  49. Thank you. That’s the point. Maybe such arguments are false, maybe not, but they are surely not incoherent (not anymore). A whole different kettle of fish from what is criticized in the rest of your piece. Efficient physical causes and temporal acts don’t resolve that one.

  50. It’s incoherent to say a non-physical super-being made the world, when you can’t cash out what is meant by ‘made’.

  51. Kevin Currie-Knight


    Man, I was also once quite impressed by the new atheists and the like. Now, I can’t stand them. And I don’t think it is because they overestimated how much religion is usually based on extra-rational factors, though per my last piece, that is a small part.

    Really, I look back on those new atheists (and what they are still trying to do) the way John Gray now looks at them: as erecting yet another secular substitute for religion. For them, as for Comte and the freemasons, that substitute is science and the substitute for faith is the scientific outlook, under which all else is to be subsumed.

    I was always – even then – too much the Jamesian pragmatist for that. To me, atheism was any worldview that did not need a god in it, not any worldview that arrived at that lack of god through a supposedly cold and hard submission of everything to (how do they say it on youtube) FACTS AND LOGIC! Facts and logic are awesome, but theists have their own facts and logic (that just looks quite different from Sam Harris’s). And atheism need not answer the same “what is the purpose” and “how did it all come to be” questions theism purports to answer… only with FACTS AND LOGIC. It can also, you know, refuse those questions as somehow illegitimate or unnecessary for living a good life. (I think the former is a category error that analogizes the world to something consciously created and therefore, question begging for the atheist.)

    But I recall my days ‘debating’ in atheist chatrooms where I was routinely called out for daring to suggest that science might not arrive at answers to the same questions theists were asking. Or daring to suggest that there were probably things about the world which wasn’t built with us in mind that we therefore wouldn’t be able to understand. And daring to suggest that it MIGHT be that without god, there really is no objective morality that can command us to do right in quite the way god can.

    Why was I taken to task for those things? Because this type of atheism was really a substitute for religion in the minds of its followers (who all loved the Four Horsemen and their sermons). So, any suggestion from me that their belief system – their atheism was a crucial piece of a belief system – threatened the belief system they really wanted to have.

    I know it is a tangent, but I find stories about recovering from new atheism to be really interesting, as interesting as the stories atheists in the forums used to tell about recovering from religion. They are variations on the same theme.

  52. Maybe so. But it would not be incoherent to say that something, say a Ground of Being, which may be partly physical, funded and led to (“caused” is fine, but “made” is unnecessary) the initial state of our universe 14.7 billion years ago. If so, something about the Ground may then explain the extremely unlikely fine-tuned constants of our observable, past-finite universe.

    The alternatives are basically two: a) the observable universe came from nothing (which really is incoherent); b) our universe is one of a very large, perhaps infinite number of unobservable universes (the totality of which is past-infinite), explaining the fine-tuned constants by the anthropic principle, meaning, ours is one of the few to generate observers.

    A Ground of Being and the Multiverse are both coherent. It should be noted that the latter is the most extravagant hypothesis imaginable.

  53. I have no idea what “ground of being” means. I suspect it’s meaningless.

    And I doubt you or any of the theists/apologists I’m talking about understand the theoretical physics well enough to make any use of it. Watching WLC debate Sean Carroll was just a painful experience.

  54. whenever the going gets tough, switch to authority and ad hominem.

  55. Oh please. What are you? 12 years old?

  56. No, I’m older. And I was not offended. I just couldn’t believe a grown man would go down that road (“I doubt you know as much as people I saw in a video debate?”). You have know idea what I know, nor will you. But the point is supposed to be the argument. That’s what makes us all equal. The “knowing” is only as good as the last argument. I thought that was your thing.

  57. I’m not a philosopher, but as a layperson, I find Dan’s arguments very convincing in this case.

  58. Terranbiped

    I always understood the alternative to religion, as espoused by the New Atheists, was not science per se but alternative means of community sans god. At least that was Dennet’s spiel. And Harris says science can inform but is not the final arbiter.

  59. kevin,
    there are dogmatists and fanatics for any intellectual position, and the internet breeds these by the bushel – ‘boxers or briefs?’ will inspire trolling slug fests for weeks. But your experience with the New Atheist phenomenon is not like mine. Nor did I ever “recover” from New Atheism, nor did I ever find in it a substitute for religion. And I think some of those “sermons” from the so-called Four Horsemen, while they were actually reiterative of arguments dating back some two hundred years, were nonetheless worthy of consideration.

    For me it was simply the case that, religious belief being an emotional commitment, there was simply no point in continuing the old arguments, whether valid or not. And I know that even among liberal-minded religious believers, including those I count as friends, their beliefs give them an important degree of comfort, reassurance, even hope.

    But the rise of religious authoritarianism in many countries, among many different religions (even, most appallingly, among Buddhists in Myanmar), and the alignment of Christian ethno-nationalists with Trumpian crypto-fascists in the Republican Party has led me to re-evaluate whether a more strident approach to religion per se may be advisable in the context. Obviously I’m not talking about de-converting believers out of their beliefs – how that happens is a personal matter, as can be expected given the psychology of belief. But I am talking about more direct confrontation politically and legally with the forces that would , if they could, end the experiment begun with the founding of the Constitution.

    The kind of ecumenicism of which David Duffy wrote is not available except in a liberal state, preferably with democratic aspirations, but certainly with a generalized civic understanding to abide by the rule of law. For Christian fanatics in America, the only rights to be enjoyed are those useful to their own faith and religious dictates – ‘freedom of religion for Christians (Jews, Moslems, atheists? not so much).’ So the liberal state and its ‘live and let live’ attitude toward private belief and non-invasive, non-violent tribal identities, is recognized as an aberration threatening to a Christian world order.

    I know that to some extent you feel divorced from American politics, that you would prefer to be left alone. I warn you that the day may come when they will not leave you alone, that the option to be left alone requires the liberal state and the rule of law.

    Ask women in the states where they will be compelled to give birth against their will whether they will be left alone; ask the homosexuals who live in states resurfacing old sodomy laws in preparation for the repeal of Obergefell whether they will be left alone. Ask Jews in counties where books on the Holocaust (eg, Maus) are being quietly removed from school book shelves whether they will be left alone. Ask the young black people who even today are profiled and under repeated police examination in certain regions what it means not to be left alone.

    I will say again, and repeat until it sinks in that it is not a metaphor, but merely reiteration of statements made by right-wingers at their political and religious conventions – we are in the middle of a cold civil war.

    ‘Can’t we all just get along?’ No.

    I wish matters were otherwise. But the United States in which I grew up, where, whatever our differences, we all recognized some common ground, is long gone. I confess with heavy heart that the Left contributed to that, especially in the wake of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, especially in the Academy. But now the existential threat is on the Right.

    However misguided the New Atheists were, they are not the enemy. Christian fascists, with their strident hate-speech, their dedication to a ‘Word of God’ that favors violence against unbelievers, their strategies to capture state governments, the Supreme Court, Congress, the White House, in order to establish a theocracy – they are the enemy.

    And while I respect your efforts at achieving a balanced, inclusive position ‘above the fray,’ as it were, I’ve come to the awful conclusion that Hitchens was probably right – religion poisons everything – even its offered comfort and hope are polluted with its awful insistence that there can be no living without it.

    But there is living without it! That’s the Good News! Spread it far and wide!

  60. I didn’t get along well with the New Atheists at all (online).

    They would say that religion poisons everything and I would point out that here in Chile the Catholic Church (for all its faults) defended dissenters (including non-Catholics, including Communists) during the Pinochet dictatorship and organized the most important human rights institution of the time, la Vicaria de la Solidaridad.

    Today the same Church, especially the Jesuits, are foremost among those who defend the rights of immigrants against rising xenophobia. The Church runs two excellent universities, one of them
    run by the same Jesuits and the other, La Pontifica Universidad Catolica (supposedly run by the Pope), is academically the best university in Chile in many disciplines. Many of the Catholic schools are better than the public schools in academic terms and less snobbish than other private or charter schools.

  61. Matti Meikäläinen

    Respectfully, my remarks are neither advocacy for theism nor atheism. In fact, I thought it was fairly clear from my beginning remarks that I was bemused regarding those who, as I said, publicly proclaim their theism or publicly proclaim their atheism. I thought I was fairly clear that, as I said, I’m on Wittgenstein’s side when he argued that non-believers really have no way to contradict believers. In other words the atheists complain that theists really don’t know how to play baseball and the theists complain that the atheists really don’t know how to play soccer. Each game has different rules. And one cannot judge one game by another game’s rules. For example, one of the more clueless atheist arguments was made by the renowned Sam Harris’ in his book, “A Letter To A Christian Nation.” He quite seriously complains that the Bible says nothing about electricity, DNA, the size and age of the universe, a cure for cancer or a useful chapter on mathematics. “Why aren’t these pages, or anything remotely like them, found in the Bible?” I kid you not! Check for yourself, P. 60-62.

    In response to Kevinck’s query “What is the point that my reflection on religion has missed?” I can only say I really have no glib answer. Or, rather, my only glib response would be something like Louis Armstrong’s response when asked to define jazz: “If you gotta ask, you ain’t never gonna know.”

  62. s. wallerstein
    there was always some benefit derived from religions and the religious. I could go over so many more instances of this than one of two available anecdotally. But I do feel we are in a civil war – right now, a war of words and political maneuvering, and hopefully it will remain at that level, although right-wingers assure us that they are prepared for actual violence. If I were to write philosophically or historically, I would more willingly embrace all the good that religious culture has brought to the world. But in the present context, I no longer have the time or the interest. Christian fundamentalists are my enemies; I expect no quarter from them, I will give them none.

    (To understand my position here better, I suggest going back to my twin essays on the English Revolution and the religious dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell into which it collapsed: and – religion provided the ground for modernity and the liberal state, but it also continuously threatens to take these down again.0

  63. EJ,

    No argument about the toxic role of Christian fundamentalists allied to the Republican Party in the U.S. today.

    My argument is with the New Atheists’ assertion that religion poisons everything, that religion is the root of all evil. I had that argument with many of them online now more than 10 years ago.

    I would point out Martin Luther King, the Quakers, the Unitarians, reform Jews, all the religious groups which have a progressive role in social change and they would insist that they were the first step towards the Spanish inquisition.

    It was like talking to John Birchers in the early 60’s, people who insisted that Medicare was the first step towards Kremlin domination.

  64. jofrclark

    We exist.
    Existence is ordered.

    All appeals to God and the supernatural have been attempts to explain these two fundamental observations within their own culture’s episteme. Science has, of late, come in to make an attempt at an explanation within its own episteme, and as far I can see it hasn’t done much better.

    There is a deep mystery to life that seems beyond us; beyond human knowing, beyond sense, beyond rationality, beyond metaphor, beyond emotion, even beyond illuminated text. It is in the face of this manifest unknowing and of our own manifest powerlessness that we humbly come to wonder about it all.

    That’s the “God” moment.

    As far as I can tell, it’s something approximating a universal human experience.
    The attempted explanations have clearly not been universal, and given all of humanity’s self-evident limitations, humility must certainly be the order of the day as we discuss the issue.

  65. I had tried to answer your question in my comment above. The answer is in large part psychological. People adopt religious beliefs as a tribal badge that becomes part of their identities. They may identify as Christian or Panpsychist or Muslim or Hindu. They don’t typically arrive at those beliefs through a rational process any more than identifying as a Yankee or Red Sox fan or as a Trump supporter is arrived at through a rational process. It’s just something believers feel they are usually based on culture, environment or upbringing.. As a result it isn’t usually possible to talk someone out of their faith. That means you can’t really have a rational discussion about these beliefs as they don’t have any rational component.

  66. “But it takes a certain amount of self-deception – or at least, a measure of psychic indolence – to look at all of this [i.e. “the great religious traditions”] today and say, “Nope, these aren’t fascinating and often lurid elements from the eclectic, messy, often ugly history of human development, but rather, eternal truths about the nature and operation of the universe and everything and everyone in it.”

    Yes, it would be very naive (or worse) to latch on to one of these traditions as it existed at a given point in time and say, “Behold — the truth about everything.” There are fanatics who take this kind of line, of course — certain well-known sects within the Christian, Jewish and Islamic worlds — but *they* are not worth addressing (at least on this kind of forum). Looking past the rhetoric, however, Dan’s real target would appear to be US fundamentalist Christians. I have only limited knowledge of this group. I assume, however, that they do not constitute a homogeneous bloc and that (unlike the time-denying or time-defying sects alluded to above) most of them embrace large chunks of modernity in their thinking and in their day-to-day lives.

    This of course leads to inconsistencies. Compartmentalization *of one kind or another* is a universal feature of our brains. Some of the greatest scientists famously bracketed out their religious beliefs but this seems to me a rather crude and avoidable anomaly. Introspection has many traps and pitfalls, however, and one is never sure that a consciously-rejected inconsistency will not generate or obscure another.

    There is the psychological aspect, and there is the cultural one. The main dynamic which I see playing out here (parts of the OP, many of the comments) — or perhaps it’s just the aspect which interests me most — is the latter.

    Dan alludes to his Jewish lineage and (secular Jewish) family culture, with its mix of attachments and aversions. For his parents — and for himself, apparently — ancestral religious practices continued to be meaningful in the absence of belief. Liberal New York Jew transplanted to alien territory (the dreaded Bible Belt). In previous times, this could have been a source of satire (a song — “Ever since the world ended” — by Mose Allison comes to mind). But I fully appreciate that things have changed: the common culture which once held America together is failing. And this is no laughing matter.

  67. J. Bogart

    So what is your take on Spinoza, if you have one?

  68. Nice to see you, Mark. Hope you are doing well.

  69. I guess I’m also finding the “ground of being” thing to be (a) not at all the type of god that, say, Christians – even the theologically sophisticated ones – would want to accept/defend, (b) inviting the question of why we’d call or think of that ‘ground of being’ god, and (c) seems to play precisely into Dan’s point; god is useless as a moral exemplar or explanation, and you seem to admit that this “ground of being’ can be neither.

    To Icahoone’s two options, I don’t want this to sound like a cop-out, but… I am entirely willing to entertain that “makes sense to humans” is probably not a good marker for deciding how the universe or matter came to be, given that we humans are very limited compared to the cosmos that probably didn’t limit itself to doing what makes sense to humans. So, the third option – which I wish were as obivous to others as it is to me – is that the answer to the question is at least possibly beyond our ken.

    Beyond that, what I can say for myself is that as entirely uninteresting as the question of cosmic origin is to me, postulating a god almost certainly only ‘explains’ by a question-begging special pleading of some kind. “All existence must be caused. So, here is an existence that we can postulate wasn’t caused. Solved.”

  70. EJ,

    Well, in the case of the latter half of your response, I’d argue that the problem is any authoritarianism that doesn’t subject itself to humiity, skepticism, or questioning. In many cases, you are right, that describes religious authoritarianism as well. It also describes thoroughly secular communism, fascism (that didn’t predicate on the existence of god), what Comte wanted to do with the religion of humanity, etc. On this, read John Gray’s excellent work Seven Types of Atheism.)

    You write: For me it was simply the case that, religious belief being an emotional commitment, there was simply no point in continuing the old arguments, whether valid or not.”

    I suppose that looking back on my friendliness with atheist communities who were inspired (as I sort of was) by new atheists, the problem is that this depiction equally applies to them. Notice how angry Harris gets when anyone suggests that science cannot give us a morality, of how religiously Dawkins holds Darwinian evolution to be. My former friends in the atheist community, I now realize, were often using atheism to serve their emotional needs left over from their breaks with religion. They spoke of reason and science the way religious folk speak of revelation and get equally angry when you dare question whether these things can really do all that is claimed for them.

    So, to me, authoritarianism surely is a problem. But putting your eyes on the religious element misses the target. It’s just as bad as saying that the problem with communism was the atheistic elements. Or that the problem with fascism was its Hegelian elements.

  71. “There is a deep mystery to life that seems beyond us; beyond human knowing, beyond sense, beyond rationality, beyond metaphor, beyond emotion, even beyond illuminated text. It is in the face of this manifest unknowing and of our own manifest powerlessness that we humbly come to wonder about it all.

    That’s the “God” moment.”

    For some, surely. For myself, that is my ‘maybe keep trying for an answer if you think it’s worth it, but realize this may be approaching your and our limits, k?” moment. Maybe it is because I am now 45 where I was once 25, but he answers I often feel most secure in consist of appreciation and acceptance of the question’s intractability. We are thrown into a world that clearly wasn’t designed with our ability to understand it in mind. So, we understand what we can. And when understanding breaks down despite repeated intelligent attempts, it MIGHT be because there was never a guarantee that the world must provide answers to our questions, let alone ones small enough to fit in human brains.

    No god necessary for that. In fact, if you see things that way, god becomes a cop out.

  72. That’s the “God” moment.

    As far as I can tell, it’s something approximating a universal human experience.

    = = = =

    Er, no.

  73. Some people look into a telescope, a microscope, a sunset or into their lovers eyes and ask how can this be? There is only one relevant question. From whence came the Cosmos? Either it always existed or was brought into being. That there could be “nothing” is beyond our conceptual abilities. That something has always existed is also beyond our conceptual and experiential abilities. [The ultimate free lunch] That it was brought forth creatio ex nihilo only leads to an infinite regress. Since this question may never be answered there will always be a massive black hole sized god of the gaps to fill the minds of those that cannot cope with not knowing. As Hitchens said you’ve got your work cut out for you to bridge the gap from Deism to a personal god who cares who or how you fu*k.

  74. […] a recent piece at The Electric Agora, Daniel Kaufman summarized his skeptical views on God and the supernatural […]

  75. I have avoided looking at the Electric Agora because I know I enjoy the topics and will want to post when I should be doing other things. But, I can’t resist. Great topics as always. I am a Catholic and I will just try to offer a few quick responses that will at least give you a flavor of where my own views lie.

    First as to your premise 1. I would point out that we only experience our own consciousness. That is our experience is mental. We typically believe there are physical things causing this mental phenomena but that is not a belief based on evidence. It also I believe violates parsimony to assume there is a whole class of physical things causing our mental experiences. Now I also believe in the external physical world but I recognize that belief of mine is based on pragmatic grounds and not evidence. I believe you have said that you think there is evidence to support our belief in these external physical things. But I think we would disagree there.

    Why does it matter if we ultimately agree that there are external physical things? I think it matters because it often shows a double standard in certain atheists. I am not saying of this of you in particular. But some say if we have no evidence of X we shouldn’t believe X. I don’t think that works for belief in an external physical world. My basis is by and large a sort of pragmatic reason to believe in an external world not an evidential reason. So I am sure you would have responses etc. I am just saying that is one area I would want to push back. In sum I think the idealists have the better argument. There is a problem of consciousness coming from physical things bouncing around. But what is interesting you theorize that these physical things exist because of the mental things you directly experience. If you had no mental consciousness you would have no idea of this supposedly externally existing physical world. And then you find yourself with a problem of how do the physical things cause the mental consciousness. I don’t agree with everything Bernardo Kastrup believes. But I do think he does a good job explaining why belief in consciousness is more fundamental than belief in physical things that are out there.

    Here are a few of his videos.

    I think his view would have more dramatic implications for science than he seems to acknowledge. But that is more of a consequence of rationally examining our beliefs and thus would at best be a pragmatic reason to reject his position as opposed to an evidentiary one.

    The other issue is I think the informal fallacy of arguing from ignorance comes into play. I recognize that these informal fallacies are not necessarily proof that someone’s thinking is inadequate but instead are more of an indicator of potential pitfalls. You say “Mine is an empirical view, and as far as we know – as all the sciences engaged with these subjects have observed and as we all see in our everyday lives – thinking requires a nervous system and acting, in the sense of walking, running, swimming, flying, orally or manually talking, etc., requires a physiology. God has neither; can have neither, given his alleged attributes. That’s all there is, and it’s all I need.” Of course you have not run across any disembodied or non-embodied things using your empirical senses at all. So by definition the only entities the sciences or your senses will encounter that are thinking things (or non thinking things) will be things with physical properties. To borrow from Thomas Nagel consider if we were all blind and got around by echo location. Would we “know” there is no such thing as light that could appear to some creatures in different colors? If we understood that our senses simply do not detect this sort of entity then it would seem we should not assume one way or another on it.

    Now you might say we should not believe something unless we have good reason to believe it or something like that. And then I would say we do have reason to believe in God. Because I do not agree that belief in God or some sort of supernatural entity serves no purpose. In particular it seems necessary to make my very fundamental beliefs about objectively real morality coherent. There again we are going to run into disagreements about whether belief in objectively real morality is rational. But again that is a discussion I would love to have as well.

    I think these issues would come into play with 2-4 of your post as well.

    As for 5 I would tend to agree that God could in some ways be likened to a “super powerful” alien. I don’t agree that the alien would necessarily be “embodied” for the reasons I gave above. I would say that to the extent you think it is possible that some super powerful alien somehow had a hand in our creation you are really making a placeholder for God. How did you come to be with all these thoughts and beliefs etc etc? Was it really from matter bouncing around? If you say yes I am certain that matter bouncing around for X amount of time would eventually cause us then I would ask how many times do you think it happened that conscious creatures like us just happened to come to exist from matter bouncing around? I mean if you really have evidence that this matter bouncing around long enough theory is most probable shouldn’t you be able to say it would happen at least 15 times (or at least some sort of range of times) in a universe our size or something like that? I mean if you say oh yeah I know that is how it happened because I am sure matter bouncing around can cause conscious beings like you and I but I think it only happened once and I am not sure how – well then do you really have any evidential basis for your belief? If you can’t do that then I am going to suggest you really have no *evidential* basis to say it happened that way. You are just saying well here we are and that is my explanation! I understand there may be some arguments about after the fact probability and before the fact probability. But even there I think my point remains. Yes someone won the lottery. But we can give an estimate of how often people will win the lottery based on what we know of the number of tickets sold etc. If you can offer nothing about how consciousness like ours happened or how many times you think it happened I think you have your own empty theories.

    As to 6 I think the same is true of atheism. It is no surprise that China has many atheists compared to America. That does not mean atheism is true or false. People adopt the world view of their culture. I don’t see this as strong evidence for or against atheism. You might say well I don’t think God would want that variety but then I think you a getting into a bit of speculation. Would God ever have reason to remain hidden at all? I think there could be good reasons.

    As to 7) I would broaden it to world views including atheism. And say with so many world views it is unlikely yours happens to be the correct one. IMO people should consider/choose their world view based on evidence and practical reasoning.

    8) I think the best evidence that someone is sent from God is miracles. I explained a bit about my own view of the many God’s issue here:

    9) It may be that very helpful texts were lost but that is not a problem because I think God judges us based on what we have.

    10) There are multiple reasons to believe in God. I can’t speak for everyone but I do not believe in God just because I found an old text saying God exists.

    11) I guess it depends on the experience. If the experience seemed to be miraculous then I would think it could be evidence of God. I guess I would ask you if you would consider anything evidence of God?

    12) I agree that there are indeterminacy issues like what exactly is “God” that we believe in? But God does serve a purpose in making my core beliefs about morality coherent. So I only need to believe in a God to that extent. If you see what appears to be something move underneath a blanket you don’t need to know exactly what it was that moved under the blanket to understand that your beliefs are not consistent unless you believe “something” caused the blanket to move in that way.

    13) I agree objectively real morality can exist without God. But I don’t think we would reasonably believe we know that that morality requires if naturalism combined with Darwinian evolution are true. I have long ago adopted views similar to atheists Richard Joyce and Sharon Street. They see the problem and reject real morality opting for different views on morality. I see the same problem and choose to keep objectively real morality but reject naturalism. Thomas Nagel also saw a similar problem and sort of became an agnostic of some sort he writes about this as one of the issues in his book “Mind and Cosmos.” Another Christian philosopher that viewed the same issue and chose the theism route is Mark Linville.

    Ok but your argument is that God does not seem moral. I think you may be reading the texts in an overly literal way. Yes you correctly point out that I don’t read these texts literally. You say “But while this may address the question of God’s apparent barbarism, it creates a new problem, which is that the attitudes and behaviors of an inscrutable being are useless in providing guidance regarding human life.” I don’t think the texts become useless just because they are not to be understood literally. But I would agree that *some* texts are pretty much useless to me in that I do not know what God is trying to communicate in a certain passage or story. However other texts are clear enough. One of the issues that comes up is what did the original writers intend? I think it is obvious the writers of Genesis did not intend to be understood as providing literal history based on first hand accounts of what happened with the first two people. I suspect the Jewish writers would think anyone taking a literal history view would be unteachably stupid. But we can no longer ask the author(s) so we have to go off context in the writing itself. Historical records about how these passages may have been intended to be understood I believe tend to suggest they should have been understood non-literally. At least in the Christian tradition Origen is one of our earliest writers. But like the only reason we have any of his books (albeit a small percent of his writings) is because he was Christian and so we have lost many early Jewish interpretations. But from what I have found in early history is that it is questionable that early Jewish people read all the laws and passages literally.
    “It is of extreme difficulty to determine whether the modes of capital punishment given above, and based on the detailed discussion, mainly in the tractate Sanhedrin, reflect actual practice, or whether they were academic discussions, as, for instance, are the detailed discussions on the sacrifices.”
    If find much of the Hebrew scripture is intellectually and spiritually fulfilling when it is understood as providing a sort of thought experiment as opposed to trying to literally say this happened or that happened. That said I am no expert on ancient Jewish thought. So if you or others have better researched views than I am interested.

    As a Christian I have sort of an easy response since Jesus frequently addressed many of the difficult passages of the Hebrew Bible. And he gave Christians relatively clear instructions on how we should act. I address the concerns of how the Hebrew bible here:

    14) I don’t look at the bible like Muslims view the Koran as a sort of God’s dictation. I think they were human authors that existed at a time and place and so of course would write in a way that fits the context of the time and place. I think many of the writings were profound and God did have a hand in passing these texts on but there is dual authorship not just dictation from God. As a Catholic I have 73 books in the bible. Yes there are passages in some of those 73 books that I do not understand or see why they were passed along. But I also find the book of genesis and many other passages from the bible well worth thinking about. I never got much out of scripture but as I get older I find the themes and topics are often timeless and really pretty amazing. But first you should get away from an overly literalistic view of the writing.

    Like I said this is just my own short take on some of these issues. I think there is definitely more to argue about and say and so I don’t pretend to have the last word. But I hope we can pursue these discussions further in the future.

  76. I am an agnostic, who leans toward atheism. I remain an agnostic because I don’t think there is a compelling case for atheism. Here is why I disagree with Dan’s case.
    We cannot explain why certain states of matter give rise to states of phenomenal consciousness. Despite all the work that has been done on this problem, we are no closer to solving this problem than we were four hundred years ago. We now have detailed information concerning the precise correlations between neural states and phenomenal states, but that does nothing to explain those correlations. That does not rule out the possibility that physicalism is true, but it undermines Dan’s argument. Dan’s argument is that embodiment is necessary for agency because physicality is necessary for causation. Suppose we ask Dan “Why is physicality necessary for causation?” His elaboration of his argument provides his answer: “No one can EXPLAIN how a disembodied being could cause a physical effect.” But there’s the rub — neither can anyone explain how a physical state can cause a phenomenal state, or how a phenomenal state can cause a physical state. But they do.
    So the demand for an explanation to underwrite every claim of causality is an order that cannot be filled, at least not in the present. (Incidentally, John Locke’s principal argument for the existence of God was an argument from consciousness.)
    I’m glad that Dan made the argument about “Why would you think that some ancient texts would contain the deep truth about the universe?” The reply is that these ancient texts are not the product of human speculation, but the result of an active divine revelation. And if there is a God who revealed, then you would expect that revelation to occur fairly early in human history, in order to benefit more people. The traditional theist does not overrate ancient people, but rather sees these texts as having an extra-human source.
    I have to admit that I find Dan’s argument from religious diversity very powerful — maybe compelling. But I think there is a serious worry about it. Dan’s argument is an argument from disagreement. The fact of religious disagreement is supposed to undermine confidence in any particular religious tradition. As I said, I am inclined to agree, but a paradox threatens here. As Dan knows, there are lots of very smart, well-informed people who disagree with Dan’s views about religion. People like Peter van Inwagen know pretty much everything that Dan knows on all of these issues, both in metaphysics and in the philosophy of religion. But people like Peter disagree with Dan about religion. If Dan takes disagreement among religious traditions as a defeater for acceptance of any one of those traditions, then shouldn’t he also take disagreement with his philosophical peers as a defeater for his beliefs about religion? Of course, as you think about this, you realize that equally smart philosophers also disagree about the epistemic significance of disagreement. So Conciliationism, or the Equal Weight View, threatens to be self-undermining. I suspect that it is. But then arguments from disagreement are not good arguments, and that will include Dan’s argument from religious disagreement.

    Again — in my gut, I am an atheist. But if we follow the evidence in a disciplined way, I really think that we should stop short, and be agnostics.

  77. Far more of my philosophical peers are atheists than theists. Indeed, if you look at the recent PhilPapers surveys, theism is one of the leasat popular positions among philosophers. And that includes a lot of philosophers smarter than Van Inwagen. And when you add the scientists, the skew is overwhelming.

  78. Gordon Barnes

    True. There’s a good question here about whether their opinions are sufficiently independent for the greater numbers to matter. But that’s true.
    Very briefly, I should add a point where I agree with you. I spent most of my life as a religious believer, rationalizing it in every way possible. What finally killed my faith was not Hume, or the success of science, but re-reading the Bible with an open mind. I re-read it with this question in mind: “Is this what a morally perfect person would say, if they spoke?” And as I read, I thought “No. Definitely not.” From God commanding genocide, to the Apostle Paul telling everyone to shut up and do what they’re told, it was obvious to me that this was not God speaking. That was the end of it.
    But then there is the question of the function of religion in human life. Before he died, Hitchens came to my campus to debate a Rabbi from Los Angeles. Hitchens made the case — the evils of religion — as you would expect. And it was all true. Then the rabbi got up and said “When someone dies in my congregation, that family will have a meal delivered to them regularly for months.” Hitchens’ critique leaves that out, right? And that matters, right?

  79. Ken

    Dan, apologies if you’ve already answered this question: is the non-existence of God something you know or is it something you believe? I mean you personally. If you know there’s no God, how do you know?

  80. The same way I know there aren’t invisible green goblins dancing around my garden.

  81. Ken

    so, whatever violates the law of non-contradiction can’t exist. Do you believe in electrons?

  82. Where’d you get that principle from? That’s not what I said.

    What is the point of this inquiry? When there are good reasons to think there is an invisible superbeing, I’m happy to consider them. Alas, there aren’t.

  83. Ken

    You referred to entities that are green yet invisible, a logically disqualifying contradiction. So I leaped, perhaps fatally, to the idea of the electron being both/and a particle and a wave, and I wondered if you thought that could be at all relevant to a discussion of a possible super-consciousness and what apparently contradictory traits such an entity might have. Also, they say there’s a lot of dark matter and dark energy about which no one knows much. I guess what I’m saying is, given how little humans know about the universe, how is it that you feel comfortable declaring that you know — as opposed to believe — there’s no God?

  84. I don’t hold knowledge claims to a certainty standard.

    Drop the ‘green’. I think I know there isn’t an invisible goblin dancing in my living room. Do you think I don’t know that?

  85. Ken

    I want to say that knowing is a state of feeling — an epistemological feeling — characterized by varying degrees of intensity or certitude. If someone tells me they know God exists, I take it they are telling me how they feel about the question of God’s existence. Same for the atheist who supposes himself to know that there is no God. Just because you feel certain about something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. Deluded people often feel extremely strongly about their improbable knowledge claims. That’s why I asked at the beginning if the non-existence of God is something you know or something you believe, something more like opinion than knowledge.

  86. That’s not how I view knowledge at all.

  87. David Riceman

    I think we use “know” in a special sense when we talk about God. It’s better understood as a claim about what framework a person uses to classify his mundane knowledge rather than a claim about his knowledge of the divine.

  88. Ken

    I know, I get that.

  89. I’m pretty much an empiricist at this point, with a minimalistic, Quinean conception of ontological commitment. My “Prolegomena” series, here, gives the best overview of my current views.

  90. Terranbiped

    There is empirical evidence for electrons, not for an intelligent creative entity that resides outside of space and time.

    Anyone can assert a fabrication. The onus is on them to provide compelling and adequate evidence that amounts to more than their stated beliefs and wishful thinking.
    How do I “know”, the Bible tells me so.

  91. Ken

    What about Biblical knowing, erotic affectively loaded contact with, ahem, radical otherness? Not that a sober framework wouldn’t be helpful.

  92. David Riceman

    I was referring to contemporary English usage.

    In the Bible, though, the verb לדעת, as far as I can recall, has erotic connotation only person to person. So, for example, 1 Sam. 1:19 uses וידע for Elkanah’s behavior, but ויזכריה (a root meaning to remember) for God’s. Similarly David’s dying command to Solomon, 1 Chronicles 28:9, has no erotic connotation. Compare Jer. 1:5, which also has no erotic connotation.

    Slightly differently the root לפקד has erotic connotation person to person, but it can also be construed as God contributing to pregnancy. The concept without the term appears in Kiddushin 30a “there are three partners in creating a person”; the term God
    -to-person in Gen. 21:1, and person-to-person in Yevamot 62b.
    But of course פקידה has other different meanings as well. In Num. 16:29, for example, it refers to death.

    Long irrelevant digression.

  93. Howard

    True Christians strike me as oddly impressive, having an ascetic grandeur- but, for the majority of American Christians, their faith amounts to an immortality scam- meaning, they get to be fucked up and shitty people in this life, that is sinners, and walk away from this world to an eternity of peace and joy with Jesus.
    This angle can’t be ignored- unless you think I’m overstating my case

  94. Terranbiped

    We are all sinners, knowingly or not, even “true” Christians and real Scotsmen.
    You can’t beat vicarious redemption.