Monthly Archives: September 2012

An Interesting Dialectical Strategy for Theists

Alexander Pruss has suggested an interesting dialectical strategy for theists here. I’m not sure what to think of this strategy. At first, I thought the gambit would work better against an atheist interlocutor who relies on the multiverse theory as a response to the fine tuning argument. However, if the theist is right that God would actualize every creation-worthy world, then the theist might have independent reason for thinking that a multiverse exists. The theist could use a multiverse argument against the argument from evil, even if the atheist doesn’t rely on a multiverse argument against fine tuning. Nevertheless, it does seem as though the theist would have to sacrifice the fine tuning argument. However, as dovetheology points out in the comments section to Pruss’ post, the theist could still argue that a theistic multiverse is more probable than an atheistic multiverse. The fine tuning argument might still work if it’s more probable than the alternative: an atheistic multiverse. Anyways, it’s a very interesting dialectical move for the theist. I’m not sure exactly how an atheist should counter. I suppose one would have to question Pruss’ assumption that the argument from evil is no stronger than the fine tuning argument. The atheist could show that the probability of evil on theism is lower than the probability of fine tuning on atheism. I don’t think that’s implausible, but it would take a lot of work.

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New Responses to Hiddenness

Andres Cullison has come up with a couple novel responses to the argument from divine hiddenness. HT: exapologist.

He imagines the following scenario in support of the claim that a loving relationship does not require belief:

“Turing-Chat Rooms

Bob is lonely and begins a chat-room relationship with Julie. Bob and Julie are both grieving the loss of a loved one. Julie offers words of encouragement that no one has been able to offer Bob. Bob does the same for Julie. Then Bob’s friend Steve provides Bob with an overwhelming amount of evidence that Chat Rooms have very sophisticated Turing Machine Like programs that can perfectly replicate close, personal conversation with other humans. Bob is nervous. It is highly likely that Julie is a fake. He stops believing that Julie exists. He even tells Julie that he doesn’t believe she exists. However, he holds out strong hope that Julie exists. He says, you may not be real, but there is some very slim possibility that you are – that’s enough for me to think this is worth continuing. Eventually, they meet. They marry. Someone asks them ‘When did your personal relationship begin?’ Bob says, ‘Back when I didn’t even believe Julie existed.’ ”

This is a suggestive example. Cullison canvases various responses, including the most promising one from my perspective, namely that Bob really believes that Julie exists in a dispositionalist sense of ‘believes.’ I still think this response could be developed. I’m not sure that this scenario solves the problem of non-culpable non-belief though. Couldn’t Bob, despite the fact that he wants to believe in Julie’s existence, rationally, and thus non-culpably, disbelieve in Julie’s existence? Perhaps Cullison only wishes to say that it’s possible for Bob to engage in a loving relationship with her in the absence of belief. But I think it would be more accurate to say that a loving relationship is possible in the presence of undercutting defeaters for a belief (Julie exists) that Bob in some sense actually holds. Nevertheless, this novel strategy is something to think about.

 

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Sam Harris Getting it Right

Sam Harris, “On the Freedom to Offend an Imaginary God.”

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Simon Critchley on Mormonism

Here’s an interesting perspective on Mormonism. For my part, Mormon theology might be more philosophically interesting if it weren’t so bizarre.

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Nagel’s Review of Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies

Thomas Nagel reviews Alvin Plantinga’s latest book, Where the Conflict Really Lies. HT: Prosblogion.

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Sean Carroll on ‘Does the Universe Need God?’

Here’s a well-written article on the question of whether the universe needs God as an explanation. HT: exaplogist.

His account of fine-tuning is especially helpful.

Commentary at the Prosblogion here.

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Narratives of De-conversion

I’ve been thinking lately about my own de-conversion narrative —  to the extent I have gathered my experiences into a coherent narrative. Through conversations with a friend, I’ve been forced to give my narrative a bit more shape than I have in the past. The problem with narrating one’s own story, however, is the tendency to edit, however unconsciously, the details and ascribe to oneself motivations that are perhaps more flattering than one’s actual motivations. For example, it’s more flattering to narrate one’s de-conversion — or conversion for that matter — as a relentless pursuit of truth, a purely intellectual process. However, our motivations are usually more complex — a mixture of intellectual and non-intellectual — and I think we ought to recognize this and be as honest as possible. The problem for the de-converted, however, is that if we attempt to be honest about our narratives, Christians will interpret that as an admission that we left the faith, not for intellectual reasons at all, but for emotional, volitional, or moral reasons. Perhaps emotional pain is standing in the way of one’s faith, perhaps one simply doesn’t want to believe, or, least flattering of all, one wants an excuse to persist in sin. These are all fairly common responses that Christians give to de-converts. Most Christians don’t want to take seriously the fact that there may be serious intellectual challenges to their own faith, otherwise they might start questioning it too, and they can’t abide that. Far better to chalk it up to non-rational factors. Also common to these responses is a kind of victim-blaming mentality. Have you heard this one: ‘If you feel far from God, guess who moved’? In the Christian’s paradigm, God can’t possibly be blamed for your loss of faith. The only one to blame is yourself. The strategy seems to be to get the de-convert back into the Christian’s wheelhouse: guilt. Then perhaps the person will realize that their loss of faith is their fault and repent.

Obviously, I don’t think much of these strategies. I mention them only to forestall any effort to distort what I’m about to say along those lines. Clearly, if you’ve read any of my other posts, you know that I do think that there are serious intellectual challenges to theism in general and Christianity in particular. These objections are not mere rationalizations of an atheism that I hold on other grounds. But even if they were, the arguments still stand on their own. That’s the beauty of rationality: it enables us to transcend our psychological frailty and get at the truth. But I’ve never claimed that my de-conversion was an exclusively rational process, any more than my original conversion to Christianity was. People tend to believe or disbelieve on the basis of more practical concerns. Does the belief ‘work’? Does it give me resources for living a fulfilled life that I wouldn’t have without it? Does it make me a better person? If you get to the heart of why most people believe or disbelieve, it will come down to questions like these.

There are also what I like to call relational considerations. I prefer the term ‘relational’ to ’emotional’ because the latter is usually chosen with the express purpose of excluding rational factors. I think this is a false dichotomy. The intellectual is never completely divorced from deep-seated relational motives. This is true of believers as well. If you ask believers why they believe, apart from intellectual considerations, they will probably say that they have a relationship with God. One of the reasons I suspect believers rationalize their doubts, as I did, is because they would hate to lose this perceived relationship through disbelief. Often, I think the ‘relationship with God’ functions as a placeholder for more concrete relationships with other people, family and friends. The cost of leaving the faith might be alienation from a community that one has been a part of throughout one’s life. So these relational considerations cannot be underestimated. De-converts sometimes leave the faith in spite of these relationships — they simply risk losing them — others leave only after these relationships have already broken down and they can ‘give themselves permission’, as it were, to leave. Either way, these relational considerations have emotional consequences, but they are not purely emotional, i.e. completely detached from intellectual considerations.

For example, the lack of a felt relationship with God, however emotionally distressing, is itself evidence against a certain type of God. If we’re talking about the Christian God who, we’re told, desires a relationship with humanity, the fact that so many people who desire a relationship with God are left without any tangible sense of God’s presence in their lives, is itself evidence that perhaps such a God doesn’t exist. Although this lack of God may be experienced emotionally, it could also be stated as an argument. As regular readers of this blog know, perhaps my favorite philosopher of religion lately is J.L. Schellenberg. More than any other contemporary philosopher, he realizes that the relational and intellectual aspects of faith, or lack thereof, are not mutually exclusive, but mutually reinforcing. This would seem to follow. If religious experience is evidence for the existence of God, why isn’t the lack of religious experience, the perceived absence and silence of God, especially in the midst of suffering, evidence against the existence of a relational God? Again, one may experience the silence of God very deeply on an emotional level, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a good argument against the existence of God.

I find that well-meaning Christian friends, in an effort to understand de-converts, gather a few case studies, generalize a few conclusions, and then fit their de-converted friend, i.e. me, into a particular ready-made category. As I said above, usually this means that I’m pigeon-holed as having some emotional, volitional, or moral reason for my unbelief. Again, most Christians don’t want to credit intellectual factors at all, because then they might have to honestly question their own faith. I suspect that is why some Christians are threatened, for lack of a better term, by de-converts, especially those who used to be strong Christians, in some cases even pastors or church leaders. Perhaps their Christian friends think, ‘If it could happen to them, it might happen to me.’ They then try desperately to understand the de-convert in a way that simultaneously explains the loss of faith within their Christian paradigm, but also distances the Christian from the experience in such a way that it’s unlikely to happen to them. Maybe I’m wrong about their motivations; I’m not a psychologist, but neither are most of the believers who attempt to psycho-analyze de-converts. I would concede that major life changes, including loss of faith, are not motivated by purely intellectual reasons. But that is not to say that there aren’t any intellectual reasons whatsoever. Also, we ought to be careful about divorcing the intellectual aspects of our narrative from the relational ones. Human motivations are complex and I’m conscious of that when relating my de-conversion narrative. I’d simply ask Christians to be similarly conscious of these complexities before offering their own narrative of others’ de-conversions.

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