Monday, 11 July 2011

Why I'm An Atheist (In Some Possible World)

I've got some serious posts in the works but this one is just for fun. I came across “An Ideological Turing Test” on the Friendly Atheist blog. The test is all about seeing how well we understand our opposing world-views. Some Christians were asked to respond to a few questions about religion pretending to be atheists and vice versa. Then they took some genuine Christian and atheist responses, mixed 'em together and put them online to see whether we can spot the fakers. So far we've just been asked to distinguish between the real and fake atheist responses. I don't think the results will be particularly significant, but it's an interesting research idea and also a fair bit of fun. It's also intriguing that many atheists commenting on the blog couldn't believe that the Christians were able to understand atheism so well and yet not be atheist themselves!

The test got me thinking about what I find most convincing about the case for atheism and what angle I'd take if I were playing devil's advocate against a Christian. So here's how I'd respond to the questions given in the Ideological Turing Test.

What's your best reason for being an atheist?

To be honest I don't have a “best” single knock-down argument against theism. Rather I'm persuaded of a more cumulative and probabilistic case.

I believe that the facts of evolution and the facts about the extent and intensity of suffering in the world do not strictly disprove the existence of God, but are nonetheless better explained by atheism (and naturalism in particular.) Moreover the existence of God is an area in which intellectuals throughout the history of mankind have disagreed over. It seems to me that if God were real, and he wanted us to know him (as the 'great' monotheistic religions claim) he would make his existence a lot more obvious. Thus the lack of consensus on the matter counts as evidence against God's existence. Claims that persons are simply “suppressing the truth” strike me as ad hoc and counter to the face value appearance of the matter.

In terms of why I disbelieve Christianity in particular, I find that while its founding Israelite theology is somewhat distinctive from its Ancient Near-Eastern contemporaries, it is still suspiciously similar in many areas – enough to doubt the claim that it was revealed by the transcendent creator God. In addition while arguments supporting the historicity of the New Testament accounts of Jesus' life are not ridiculous, they fail to establish a level of historical certainty high enough to warrant an absolute trust in the God of Christianity. After all this God supposedly demands you to surrender your life to him, and I'd want be extraordinarily sure of the existence and goodness of such a God before I could do that. The insufficiency of the evidence available to support such a trust actually acts as evidence against the existence of the Christian God. Moreover as we venture back into the Old Testament's historical claims, we find they get more and more dubious/counter to the available evidence. 

What evidence or experience (if any) would cause you to believe in God? If you believed in some kind of god, what kind of evidence would be necessary to convince you to join a particular religion?

I would believe in God if all things considered God's existence seemed more probable than not. As for a particular religion, things get trickier. All religions seem to demand a high level of devotion which I think increases the level of evidence needed to justify. Merely believing in God doesn't require as much justifying evidence as basing your life around God. Maybe if I had some sort of unambiguous visitation from God in which the true religion was pointed out to me I'd go for it. But even then I could see myself doubting the veracity of that visitation at a later point. After all there are plenty of people throughout history who have claimed such an unambiguous revelation, but their teachings all conflict. I think if God existed he/she would know what evidence would convince me and would provide it. Maybe God will do so for me in the future? Maybe not.

When you have ethical and moral disputes with other people, what do you appeal to? What metric do you use to examine your moral intuitions/cultural sensibilities/etc?

First of all, I'm no moral relativist, I do believe there are facts about what is morally right or wrong to do. I don't claim to have a fully worked out meta-ethical account of what “grounds” those facts but I don't think the majority of religious people do either. I believe moral intuitions generally confer knowledge of moral truths but an observance of the harmful/beneficial consequences of an action can lend support or counter-evidence to a given intuition. In ethical disputes I try to appeal to the basic moral intuitions of others or demonstrate the harmful or beneficial consequences of an action to make an appeal on those grounds.

I am unconvinced of arguments that attempt to show that if God does not exist then objective moral duties do not exist. I have yet to see a theist provide an analysis of what conditions are necessary to entail objective moral duties are and then carefully explain why atheism necessarily entails the lack of those conditions. Until that is done I see no reason to abandon my belief in objective moral duties given that they are supported by so strong an intuition as to their reality.

Why is religion so persistent? We have had political revolutions, artistic revolutions, an industrial revolution, and also religious reformations of several kinds, but religion endures. Does this not suggest its basic truth?

The question of why religion persists doesn't interest me greatly but I have some thoughts on the matter. It seems clear that the human brain has an agency detector that can be a little “over-active”, allowing us to attribute natural occurrences to the intentional actions of an agent. E.g. the village is flooded and the agency detector senses that the act was caused by somebody angry. And because it takes a lot of power to cause a flood, the angry person is very powerful and thus … a god. I understand however that the theist will interpret the data differently and merely say that the agency detector was designed by God precisely to produce true beliefs about God's actions. This is part of why I think the question of religion's persistence is uninteresting. The data is inconclusive in regards to the truth of any religion.

Additionally in a lot of cultures one's own sense of identity is intrinsically bound up in the practised religion. When this is so I imagine that the falsehood of the religion appears unintelligible, for it would literally destroy who you are and would render the world meaningless. But this doesn't suggest anything about the truth of religion so much as it reveals something interesting about human culture.

Feel free to post your own answers, they needn't be as long. If you're a atheist why not think about how you'd answer from a Christian perspective:

What is your best reason for being a Christian?
What evidence or experience (if any) would cause you to disbelieve in God? Or what kind of evidence would persuade you to join another religion?
When you have ethical and moral disputes with other people, what do you appeal to? What metric do you use to examine your moral intuitions/cultural sensibilities etc?
Why is religion so persistent? We have had political revolutions, artistic revolutions, an industrial revolution, and also religious reformations of many kinds, yet religion endures. Does this not suggest its basic truth?

Try and present the most intelligent Christian response that you can!


rolo said...

Thanks Martin! Your eloquent arguments for atheism have released me from the shackles of that tyrannical myth called Christianity. Now that I'm an atheist, I'm going to spend my time cursing, fornicating, stealing from old ladies, and in general leading a life of thoughtless, amoral hedonism since there's no longer any basis for morality. Thanks Again Martin.
Rolo Baez

Martin said...

I'm glad my thoughts were contributive to your (de-)spiritual journey, Rolo. It's stories like these that make the pain of casual infrequent blogging all worth while. However I suffer some regret at your adoption of hedonism. I made it clear that I find arguments that morality hinges on God unpersuasive! Please consider accepting my stance without any rigorous thought.

Blessings (of an atheist variety)


rolo said...

But....But atheism without hedonism is like a hamburger without the burger.

Martin said...

Then enjoy your ham!