“All good people are secular” – Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins recently Tweeted that “all good people are secular,” which some religious people are taking to imply that all good people are atheists. While I can understand why someone would interpret the quote that way at first, I think what Dawkins was saying is that all good people have internalized beliefs and moral values that derive from secular philosophy.

This interpretation gains support from one of the videos on Dawkins’ Twitter feed. In response to the claim that atheism cannot provide absolute moral values, Dawkins rejects the allegedly absolute moral values that he associates with religion, like stoning people for adultery, and instead advocates values that have been thought out carefully using secular moral philosophy.

I think we should read Dawkins’ recent comment that all good people are secular in line with the views he has expressed over the course of his career, not as an unprecedented, false, and hurtful assertion that there aren’t any good people who believe in God.

Why You Should Read Philosophers You Disagree With

I think that if you are going to be arguing against a philosophical position online, then typically it is in your self interest to read something by a philosopher who has defended that position.

The main reason is that it gives you a more detailed understanding of the position in question. In an online debate, your opponent might not have the patience to type out an entire philosophical theory in detail, or, more sinisterly, he might deliberately leave certain components of his argument implicit so that you have to work harder to figure out why his argument fails. It helps to be able to say “philosophers who defend your position almost always argue ABC, which is wrong because XYZ.” This creates a presumption that you have refuted your opponent’s position which your opponent will have to try to overcome, either by clarifying how he disagrees with the way philosophers usually defend his position or by refuting the response you have made.

Another reason is that it helps you know what to take seriously. If your opponent makes an argument that looks vulnerable to an easy rebuttal, is it really a weak argument or does he have something forceful to back it up with? If you have read the philosophers who defend your opponent’s position, then it’s easier to tell which of his arguments are strong and which are weak.

Response to Coyne on the Humanities

I wrote the following in response to this post on Jerry Coyne’s blog, Why Evolution is True. Coyne said, among other things, that “science is the only game in town if you want to ascertain what’s real in our universe,” and he seemed to base this partly on the failure of the humanities to reach consensus.

I’m majoring in computer science and philosophy. I have some thoughts on this.

If you ask a philosophy professor a philosophical question, then they will say “well, first what are all of the possible positions on this issue that don’t contain explicit contradictions, and how many ways can we divide those up? what did Kant say and is that the right interpretation of Kant, because heaven forbid we ignore what Kant said? I have an intuition that this and that are true, and my colleagues have all of these other intuitions and we have to juggle them all.”

By contrast, if you ask a computer scientist a question about computer science, then they will immediately defer to reality. They will run the program or do the math, regardless of what other computer scientists have said. Quicksort is accepted because it works when we run the program, not because it’s been accepted by some authority.

This is the difference between the sciences and the humanities, in my view. It’s not that the humanities can’t make progress, it’s just that the humanities have accepted toxic patterns of reasoning that inhibit progress. I can’t help noting, by the way, that Dr. Coyne’s example of postmodernism is a perfect illustration of my point here.

Originally, the concept of philosophy was awesome. The idea of developing a way of living that is based on facts is what draws a lot of people into studying philosophy in the first place. But I think that got corrupted at some point into a sterile academic exercise.

Comments on Self Deception

There is a psychological phenomenon that I think is responsible for at least some of the persisting disagreement around philosophical, political, and religious issues. Philosophers refer to it as self deception.

The idea is that when we are attached to a position and are confronted with a criticism of it, we have the ability to push the criticism away rather than thinking about it carefully and honestly. We can do this by simply directing our attention away from the criticism or by brushing it off with some sort of facile criticism that we know on some level isn’t very good. The effect of our action here is to hide the criticism from ourselves because, after it is done, we forget about the criticism and carry on as if it was never presented.

If someone does this frequently, then their view will eventually be completely immune to criticism, because they will have hidden all of the objections to it from themselves. Their view will seem as clear and obvious as the morning sun, even though it is beset by problems on every side. Future criticisms will meet the same fate, since the person in question has established a habit of brushing away criticisms without serious consideration. (I think anyone who has spent any serious time arguing about religion or politics on the internet has met people like this.)

The problem is that to the person who has deceived themselves, their view looks exactly the same as a view that has been established. A view has been established, in general, if there are strong arguments for it and no serious objections to it. This is how a position looks to a person who has deceived themselves, because they have made themselves believe that the arguments in favor of their position are strong and the arguments against their position are weak.

This leads to a practical problem. How can we be sure that we aren’t deceiving ourselves about a political or religious issue that is important to us?

One method that might help is to sit down and explain your position from the beginning. A recent psychological study found that people who held extreme political views often became significantly less confident of their views after they were asked to explain their position step by step, listing every causal connection that their view presupposed. This is consistent with other studies that have found that people become less confident of their understanding of everyday objects like toilets or door handles when they are asked to give a mechanical, step by step description of how the object in question works.

Another method that might help is to write down objections to your position as they occur to you to help prevent you from forgetting them. Darwin allegedly used this method to avoid forgetting objections to the theory of evolution while he was gathering evidence for it.

Neither of these methods is infallible. There are people who can explain their position from the beginning and who write down all of the objections they come across who nevertheless hold absurd and disingenuous views. However, if you are generally honest, being a little more methodical might help you recognize problems with your position that you would otherwise have brushed away.

When do Atheists have to Study the Arguments for God’s Existence?

In a previous post, I argued that atheists have no general obligation to study the arguments for God’s existence in detail – that is, a typical atheist doesn’t have to review the academic literature about the existence of God to be justified in believing that God doesn’t exist. In this post, I will discuss the conditions under which an atheist is morally obligated to study the arguments for God’s existence carefully.

The first category is atheists who have an academic obligation to study the arguments for God’s existence. I know from personal experience that a philosophy major at a good school will be required to understand a number of arguments for the existence of God in order to get good grades in their classes. There is obviously much more to a philosophy degree than arguments for the existence of God, like the nature of knowledge, but understanding arguments for the existence of God is a big component of what a philosophy major has to study.

Why is this? Are philosophers just obsessed with arcane details of the past? No, there is a good reason why philosophy majors have to understand the arguments for the existence of God. A philosophy major should come away from the degree with a fairly strong understanding of the history of philosophy, especially as that history is relevant to the most important modern debates. There are certain basic things that a BA in philosophy should be able to do, like explain what logical positivism was in outline. This is in spite of the fact that logical positivism as such is almost never defended today, because it has been so influential and its ideas are still called upon implicitly by so many people.

The second category is atheists who intend to defend atheism in public, whether that is by arguing with people on the street, writing letters to the local newspaper, or having a formal debate in front of an audience. If you are going to be defending atheism in public, then you need to know what theists will say in defense of theism and be able to respond to it. This isn’t because theists’ arguments are especially cogent, but rather because they can be very tricky to unravel on the spot and there are a lot of variants on them that can add additional complexities.

This is where atheist philosophers of religion come in. Atheist philosophers of religion are not only clever, as anyone has to be to get a job as a professional philosopher, they are specifically educated for the task of developing and refuting arguments in philosophy of religion, and they have usually been writing in the field for decades. Atheist philosophers of religion can come up with much stronger arguments for atheism and much stronger objections to arguments for the existence of God than a typical layman atheist can.

Sometimes this is just a matter of laying things out more clearly than a layman knows how to do. For example, if a layman presented the problem of divine hiddenness, it would probably look something like this:

Well, if God exists, why hasn’t he shown himself to us? God isn’t loving!

Compare that with J. L. Schellenberg’s argument from divine hiddenness:

  1. If there is a God, he is perfectly loving.
  2. If a perfectly loving God exists, reasonable nonbelief does not occur.
  3. Reasonable nonbelief occurs.
  4. No perfectly loving God exists (from 2 and 3).
  5. Hence, there is no God (from 1 and 4).

This is a much clearer and more thorough way of making the argument from divine hiddenness, and if you study Schellenberg in depth by reading his book Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason, you will find that he piles arguments on top of arguments in support of his premises (which are pretty compelling to begin with, frankly).

In other cases, atheist philosophers of religion have an advantage due to their superior understanding of theistic philosophy. For example, Anthony Kenny in his book The Five Ways has argued that Aquinas’ five ways were originally based on Aquinas’ completely false scientific views about the universe, like his astronomical view that the planets moved around on crystal spheres. This isn’t the sort of thing a layman could learn without studying Aquinas in depth, so reading Kenny’s book is a major time saver.

So, there are a lot of advantages to studying atheist philosophers of religion if you intend to defend atheism in public, to the point that I think anyone who is going to defend atheism in public has a moral obligation to make some effort to research their work.

Evidence that there is no Evidence for God’s Existence

In this post, I will explain why atheists like myself are justified in saying that there are no good arguments for God’s existence. I will not be engaging with any specific arguments for God’s existence in this post, but merely justifying the inference from a specific atheist’s not having come across a good argument for God to the conclusion that there are no good arguments for the existence of God.

First of all, atheists who are familiar with science usually feel that believing in God is profoundly unscientific and therefore unlikely to have good arguments in its favor. There are a number of good reasons to think this.

  • Science is explicitly naturalistic, at least in methodology. For several hundred years, explanations in terms of God or the supernatural have been automatically ruled out by almost all scientists. The belief that God exists seems to be in tension with the naturalism of science in a fairly straightforward way, namely that science would probably not have set up a rule explicitly barring appeals to God if God played a significant role in the operation of the world.
  • Science uses an epistemology that is inherently hostile to belief in God. Science requires empirical evidence for every claim, and most claims that are made in science have to be supported with numerous experiments and agreed upon by all relevant experts before they are regarded as established. The belief that God exists transparently does not meet these criteria, and the success of science gives us a very strong reason to think that these criteria are the ones we should use.
  • Science has constructed a nearly comprehensive view of the world with an unprecedented degree of coherence, detail, and independent support that never appeals to God at any point. The fact that we can construct a comprehensive view of the world that is this powerfully supported without ever appealing to God is a pretty strong reason to think that God doesn’t exist.

These reasons are so powerful, especially in conjunction, that an atheist could reasonably conclude that there are no good arguments for the existence of God on the basis of these reasons alone, without doing a serious investigation of the arguments for the existence of God that philosophers have put forward. If he did investigate the existence of God, he would be justified in operating with a strong presumption in favor of naturalism and atheism.

If an atheist does consider the arguments for the existence of God, he will find ample reason to think that they all fail.

The original versions of the classic arguments for the existence of God, like the cosmological, teleological, and ontological arguments, have well known refutations which are very forceful and can be found easily by doing a search on the internet. This justifies an atheist in thinking that there are no good arguments for the existence of God because these arguments are still usually the ones put forward by theists who want to argue for their faith. If there were significantly better arguments for the existence of God, then we would expect them to spread rapidly through the theist community and come into wide use.

An even stronger reason to think that there are no good arguments for the existence of God is available to the atheist who chooses to review the contemporary academic debate about God’s existence. The arguments for God’s existence that contemporary academic philosophers put forward are typically just variants on the classic arguments for God’s existence mentioned above, and even these sophisticated variants have all been refuted dozens of times by atheist philosophers of religion. For example, William Lane Craig’s kalam cosmological argument, a variant on an argument put forward a millennium ago by Islamic philosophers, has been refuted many times in the literature, such as Michael Martin’s refutation in Atheism: A Philosophical Justification and the very detailed refutations given by Graham Oppy and Jordan Howard Sobel.

The repeated failure of theistic philosophers of religion to provide tenable arguments for the existence of God is very strong evidence that there are no such arguments, since they are in the best position out of anyone in the world to provide good arguments for the existence of God. They have been immersed in theology and philosophy of religion for decades, they can explain the ins and outs of Augustine and Aquinas, and they generally have much more familiarity with modern science than most theists do. If they can’t do it, then no one can.

To recap:

  1. Atheists have no intellectual obligation to investigate the issue of God’s existence, since having a decent familiarity with science should give them a good reason to think that there will be no good arguments for God.
  2. If atheists do investigate the issue of God’s existence, a rudimentary review of the classic arguments for God’s existence should tell them everything they really need to know about the issue.
  3. If atheists decide to investigate the issue in detail, which is well beyond what they are obligated to do. they will find only confirmation of their atheism in contemporary philosophy of religion.

This is not to say that atheists never have a good reason to study the arguments for God’s existence. There are two types of atheists who have a moral obligation to study the arguments for God’s existence: Atheists who are trying to get a degree in philosophy or have some other academic obligation to study the arguments for God’s existence, and atheists who intend to publicly advocate atheism by debating formally or arguing with a lot of theists. An atheist can also have a good reason to study the arguments for God’s existence, albeit not a moral obligation per se, if they want to become more familiar with how people thought about the world in the past.