The Four Horsement of the New Atheism

Or you can watch it on YouTube:

Or here’s the script. Bear in mind that was written to be read aloud by me. It wasn’t written to be read by a general audience, though it should be generally readable.

Having looked at each of the Four Horsemen individually—Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett—I wanted to turn my attention to them as a group. There are a number of interesting questions to ask about this group, and since it is basically defunct, but we’re still close to it historically, the answers don’t seem that hard to come by.

The first question I had was: how did these four men come to be called The Four Horsemen. I’ve heard it said that many second-string atheists aspired to be numbered among the Four Horsemen—P. Z. Myers, Lawrence Krauss, Jerry Coyne, Richard Carrier, and others—which suggests the question: what was the original selection criteria? Dawkins and Hitchens are obvious enough, and Sam Harris isn’t too hard to see, but Daniel Dennett is something of a mystery. He doesn’t really seem to be the same league as the rest—whether you’re talking about charisma or popularity. So I did a little digging, and the answer surprised me, though it shouldn’t have.

In 2006, after the success of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins founded The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Interestingly, The God Delusion was published on the second day of October in that year, so he didn’t wait long to consider it enough of a success. In late September of 2007, the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science—I love how pretentious that name is—convened a meeting of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennet which was recorded and released on a DVD titled, “Discussions with Richard Dawkins, Episode 1: The Four Horsemen”. So, in effect, they gave that title to themselves, which I find very fitting.

Though, in strict accuracy, it is possible that it was the producer of the DVD who came up with the title. His name is Josh Timonen. He was, incidentally, also the director, editor, and cinematographer of the DVD. According to IMDB his other credits are performer/writer for the soundtracks of Hallowed Ground and Safe Harbor, and he did visual effects—specifically the main title designs—for Carjacked, Never Cry Werewolf, and Hallowed Ground. Also interesting is that there is no episode 2 of “Discussions with Richard Dawkins,” though apparently Timonen did film a public discussion with Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss in 2009. I’m guessing that it’s not on Timonen’s IMDB credits because the DVD does not appear to have been published; the recording is available in twelve parts on the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science website, which still says that it will soon be released on DVD along with other discussions with Richard Dawkins. Also, the video continually loads without ever playing. Well, once again we see that only God accomplishes all things according to the intentions of his will; the rest of us only grope around in the dark largely doing what we don’t mean to do and not doing what we do mean to do.

So, our two possibilities for the origin of the name is that the group gave it to themselves or that a marketer employed by Richard Dawkins came up with the name to sell DVDs. Both possibilities are extremely fitting for a group of New Atheists; atheists rarely do anything glorious because, after all, what is glory? Money, everyone over the age of fifteen knows, is far more directly measurable. And indeed, the new atheists stand for nothing if they don’t stand for only believing in the directly measurable.

Also somewhat ironically, according to Wikipedia, which cites a 2012 video presented by the Australian Atheist Alliance—sorry, the Atheist Foundation of Australia—with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, Sam Harris, and Ayan Hirsi Ali, Ali was invited to the 2007 conversation with Dawkins but had to cancel at the last moment. Had she been able to make it, it’s likely we’d never have had the four horsemen at all, both because “horsepersons” doesn’t scan well and because “the five horsepersons” wouldn’t really be a recognizable reference. They’d have had to have been called, “half the plagues” or something like that.

This doesn’t fully explain the four horsemen, though. Why were these particular people invited rather than others? I don’t mean in the proximal sense of exactly what were the precise criteria used in the decision, but rather why were the conditions such that the decision was made the way it was? Dawkins of course was obvious, since it was his foundation which convened the discussion, but the other three raise questions.

The most obvious answer seems to be book sales. The Four Horsemen conversation took place on the thirtieth day of September in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2007; Christopher Hitchens’s book God is Not Great was published in May of 2007. Dennet’s book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a  Natural Phenomenon was published in February of 2006. Sam Harris had two best sellers, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason in 2004 and Letters to a Christian Nation in 2006. Ayan Hirsi Ali’s autobiography, Infidel, was also published in 2006. The other aspirants to horsemanship I mentioned before didn’t publish anything relevant until after the fateful conversation which crowned the four men it did.

But this only pushes the question back a little; there have been atheists writing books about atheism for over a hundred years. Why did these men become popular in the time period they did? A few pages of The God Delusion are sufficient to prove it wasn’t for the quality of their thinking or writing.

One interesting answer is giving by The Distributist in his video on why he isn’t a New Atheist any more:

[CLIP<8:23-8:43>: And you see here how the new atheist narrative really rescued the optimism and the idea of the end of history that was popular in the 90s from a lot of events that I think should have caused a much deeper cultural consideration of that optimism.]

He develops his point in some depth and I recommend watching his video in full; this clip doesn’t do it justice. But as much as he makes a very good case, I take a somewhat different view, though I think a compatible one.

As I mentioned, atheism has been on the rise in the west for a long time; in the early 1900s G.K. Chesterton talked about the absurd pretence that then-modern England was still Christian. Both Freudianism and Marxism are doctrinally atheistic, and both were popular for quite some time—Marxism is still popular—despite being thoroughly discredited over and over again. But there is a facet of Christianity which, outside of Marxist hellholes, tends to let atheists get along with Christians, which is that  Christianity recognizes a distinction between the natural and the supernatural. Edward Feser goes into this in depth in an essay called, “Liberalism and Islam” where he explains them as opposite Christian heresies, where liberalism denies the supernatural and Islam denies the natural. It’s an interesting essay where he argues that this makes them essentially invisible to each other, especially Islam to liberalism, but that’s not my concern here. More to the point is that Islam does not have any sort of mode of co-existence with atheists in the sense that it doesn’t have any secular principles an atheist could agree with for their own reasons.

As the Distributist rightly points out, the secular west became significantly aware of Islam on September 11, 2001 and was more than a little bewildered by it. This could itself be the subject of an entire video, so suffice it for the moment to point out that people who had never thought about the supernatural had no idea of what to do with a religion that didn’t think much about the natural. And you need to know something about an idea to argue against it, which because of an accident of geography, UV intensity in sunlight, and the pigment animals use to protect themselves from UV radiation, secularists were in a bad position to do. And I think this is where the New Atheists got much of their popularity from. People who could not reject Islam specifically had to, instead, reject it generally.

At the same time, I think that the Distributist is right that dashed utopian hopes make people long for an alternative utopian promise, and the New Atheism did tend to have a sort of promise of scientific utopianism. For example, Ray Kurzweil’s book, The Singularity is Near, came out in 2006, in the thick of things. Yet at the same time the New Atheists were remarkably light on actual utopian promises; they tended to concentrate on the implied utopianism of identifying a major problem. It’s all too easy for people to confuse that with having a solution.

There are, I think, other, longer-term factors which also come into play. The New Atheism movement came on the scene as the Internet was revolutionizing culture and bringing people into closer contact with strangers than they ever had been before; the same is broadly true of college, which due to explosions in student debt had been mixing people far more than they had in previous decades. At the same time there’s a heavy marxist strain of thinking—if you can call it that—which is popular in universities. And yet proper Marxism can exist in few places besides universities, in the modern west, especially so soon after the fall of the soviet union. Communism’s legacy of death and misery was too well known in the 1990s and early 2000s for it to be respectable anywhere else. Freudianism was old and largely the butt of jokes—such as people blaming all their problems on how they were potty-trained. There was no vital atheist movement. And that vitality is very important, because we live in a world which is dying. Death lurks around every corner, and indeed every corner is itself withering and decaying. Even on a basic biological level we are heterotrophs. We don’t make our own food, even in the limited sense in which plants make their own food. And even they are only converting the energy of spent star-fuel into food for themselves. The whole world longs for a source of life which is not running out, but within the world we have to settle for the second-best of finding sources of life which are running out more slowly than we are in order to feed.

The conditions were ripe for Sam Harris and Daniel Dennet to write popular books, so that when Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens added more books to the genre it became, for a time, something growing. And growth always attracts for where there is growth there is nourishment. It’s one reason why our society has grown so fascinated with youth; young people aren’t tired.

Of course the attractiveness of growth only lasts for a while; eventually growth only signifies the swarming of people looking for life to feed off of, rather than people who may have found some source of it themselves. To borrow a metaphor, vultures will circle lions with a fresh kill, and will even follow other vultures flying down to a carcass, but they have to find something once they get there or they will just leave again; vultures don’t tend to follow vultures who are leaving. This is why the saints are so important to the church; by being so profoundly counter-cultural they continually prove that there is a source of life they’ve found even though they’re surrounded by a crowd not nearly as sure of where it is.

Clearly that didn’t happen with the new atheists, and for the most part people have moved on. Christopher Hitchens died, and his tomb is still with us. Daniel Dennett is lecturing neuroscientists that they shouldn’t tell people they don’t have free will. Sam Harris has a podcast, which is a bit like having an AM radio show. And the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science has become a subdivision of the Center for Inquiry.

I’m not sure how much longer any of the four horsemen will be remembered; no one remembers any of the atheists G.K. Chesterton publicly argued with a hundred years ago. Except, perhaps, George Bernard Shaw, who’s only remembered as a playwright. Bertrand Russell is only remembered (popularly) because of his wretched tea pot, and while Antony Flew was the world’s most famous atheist in the 1970s, in 2004 he became a deist and it doesn’t seem that anyone remembers who he was any more (he died in 2010). They don’t even know that he was the one who first proposed defining atheism as a psychological state to avoid having to come up with some reason to believe in it.

But whatever the fate of the New Atheists, I think that this appearance of vitality played a key part in the movement’s popularity, and the very fact of its fading only a few years later is key to seeing that. Things which are popular for being popular don’t last more than a few years; once everyone has jumped on the bandwagon they must do something, and if it turns out that they don’t like the music they’ll hop off again. And here’s where I partially disagree with the people who believe that Atheism+ killed the New Atheism.

For those who aren’t familiar, Atheism+ was the somewhat indirect result of what was called elevatorgate; at an atheist convention a man followed Rebecca Watson into an elevator and asked her if she wanted to come to his room for coffee and conversation. She publicly complained about this and it sparked a large conversation within the atheist community about what we might loosely call sexual morality and propriety. We might alternatively summarize it as some atheists realizing that without God to enforce good behavior, society must do it through repressive authority. This didn’t sit well with the atheists who thought that in becoming atheists they had finally thrown off the shackles of conventional morality, and long story short: the atheist community split into the feminists versus the anti-feminists. Atheism+ was created to be the feminist side, though it never went very far and last I checked the only activity consisted of a few people who got to know each other through the forums occasionally talking with each other about what courses they’re taking at school.

It is fairly incontrovertible that New Atheism was different before and after Atheism+, but I think it’s a mistake to think that Atheism+ had much of a causal effect. Just as in 2006 the time had been ripe for the New Atheist movement, by 2012 the time had become ripe for something else, because New Atheism was rotting. Actually, rotting is the wrong metaphor; it turned out that New Atheism was infertile. Once you were a New Atheist there was nothing to do but complain about God. But while supernatural movements can be eternally new since they draw their energy from eternity, natural movements must always grow old. Basically, one can only complain about God so much before getting bored. It is true that New Atheism did supply an enemy to continually fight, but one need only watch the recruiting video for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science titled, “if you are one of us, be one of us” to see how toothless this enemy is. People who don’t believe in ghosts can only be so frightened of the ghost of Jerry Falwell. At some point one has to accept that the scopes monkey trial happened in 1925; it is history, not prophecy.

Something with more substance needed to be found, and in particular something winnable—you have to be an idiot to believe religion can be eradicated in our lifetime—but equally importantly something not yet won. Refighting old fights is safe but unexciting. This, I think, is the best explanation for the bifurcation of New Atheism into feminism and anti-feminism. A civil war satisfies both criteria rather well. But as of the time of this video, which is mid 2017, it seems that the feminist/anti-feminist civil war is itself winding down. It’s too early to write a history of it; looks are often deceiving and wars often have lulls in them before surges in violence; even metaphorical wars with metaphorical violence. But it is interesting to speculate what will happen next.

Certainly the atomizing tendency of modern technology is likely to play some role. With several hundred TV channels and several hundred thousand youtube channels, the ability to find entertainment which suits one very precisely is having an effect on making more people popular, but fewer people very popular. On the other hand people do need community; they must have movements to join. But these two things do not seem necessarily contradictory; it is possible that we will see minor cults of personality largely replace more major movements. You can see precedent for this in the church hopping which evangelicals are famous for; it’s common for people to feel a lack where they are, go looking, find a new church they fall in love with—the feeling of infatuation and novelty usually being described as “feeling the holy spirit”—stay there for a while but then acclimate and return to feeling normal, at which point they have to go looking for a new church again. (It’s a far less harmful version of what some people do with husbands or wives.) I see no reason this couldn’t happen with minor cults of personality around youtube personalities, effectively depopulating larger movements.

There are of course still some elements of traditional morality which are yet to be overturned; polygamy and incest are not yet legal in the west and at some point atheists will notice that their arguments in favor of every other overthrow of traditional morality work here too. There are people who long for a race war since they have nothing else to fight about and this could have a certain appeal to some atheists; after all, evolution could be turning the races into different species. Sure, that’s got no scientific basis, but being on the wrong side of science rarely seems to bother atheists.

Oh well, as has been said, of all things the future is the most difficult to predict. Whatever does happen, though, it is very likely to be governed by the two big problems atheists can’t get rid of: it’s not good for man to be alone, and without God, they have no intrinsic reason to get together.

Until next time, may you hit everything you aim at.

The Allure of Novel Ideas

I’m currently reading the book Snapping, which was recommended to me by Max Kolbe of the Escaping Atheism Project when I had put our a request for recommendations on books about cults. It’s interesting, so far, though I’ve yet to get to the really good part (I’ve only just gotten to chapter 5), but I encountered an interesting point I’d like to discuss in more detail than it appears here:

The first steps in that direction were taken by the poets and writers of the Beat Generation, who set off to mine the rich spiritual lodes of the East.

Those rich spiritual lodes weren’t really all that rich, as people eventually discovered. Protestantism is often pretty dry, though even it isn’t monolithic, but Catholicism has a rich mystical tradition which would not have been overly hard to tap into for the writers of the Beat Generation. And I submit that one of the major reasons why they didn’t is that they knew where Catholic mysticism ended up. It ended up in Catholicism.

The whole reason why Buddhism and Hinduism and various other eastern practices seemed to be so rich with potential is that no one in the west knew where those practices end up. But of course they end up in Buddhism or Hinduism; if the Indians are not all in constant bliss, which they obviously aren’t, there’s no particular reason to believe that borrowing their practices would lead to constant bliss.

This is a surprisingly common mistake—it didn’t work for him, maybe it will work for me! Usually, I think, the result of a salesman’s winning smile coupled with a hefty does of desperation.

Online Cults

This is just some preliminary thoughts about online cults—by which I mean purely online versions of cults like those of Jim Jones, Manson, or Moonie cults. (This is related to my post In What Ways is Atheism a Cult?) What actually defines a cult is a very thorny topic; in many cases the easiest way to define a dangerous cult (as opposed to a good religion) is simply by being wrong. Which isn’t very helpful; so I was sketching out a list of possible attributes common to most dangerous cults:

1. The meaning of life is found by being a cult member, exclusively
2. Thinking is discouraged
3. Dry runs with suicide pills
4. Traditional morals, especially sexual ones, are relaxed, not in service of a stricter law, but in service of the cult itself
4.a. Traditional morals are relaxed just for fun
5. Cult members have a powerful self-assurance vastly in excess of anything they can support
6. Heavy [drug use / sleep deprivation / fasting / etc] to reduce a member’s sense of reality
7. The leader is more than just a man (often divine in the sense of having special knowledge of divine things such that he’s more important than other men)

To some degree this list (which I emphasize is still just a sketch) is avoiding those aspects of cults which require physical proximity, such as:

A. Everything living together on a communal property / the leader’s property
B. The leader gets to have sex with most/all of the female cult members
C. Rigorous enforcement through physical abuse
D. Everyone gets a suicide pill

I’m actually having trouble thinking of many items to go on the second list, though that could just be exhaustion from little children waking me up in the middle of the night several nights running. But it does suggest that the most recognizable events related to cults may not be that integral.

And in fact there is a curious relationship possible to the virality of viruses (i.e. how destructive they are): it could be that the more of the proximity-requiring traits that a cult has, the shorter-lived it is since it tends to burn through members. Many of the proximity-requiring rates above are self-destructive rather than self-reinforcing.

Anyway, this is just some very preliminary thinking-out-loud on the subject, all of it subject to change without notice. 🙂

“Skeptics” Are Amazing

This post will require a little backstory. The “short short” version  is that a friend of mine appeared in silhouette on a video of mine explaining why he wouldn’t be joining me in doing a response video to Deconverted Man’s video about me, and Deconverted Man &co thought I was faking my friend’s existence. (Skip down to “Analysis” after Deconverted Man’s video if you don’t want to see the specifics.) Here’s the video, if you’re curious:

A few of Deconverted Man’s followers (or people I believe to be his followers) showed up in the comments of that video, claiming that my friend (who wishes to remain anonymous) is really just me. This one from “Show-Me-Skeptic”:

I’m pretty sure the shadow man is the channel host. I find it inhumanly disgusting that the whole reason the “friend” chickened out is that Deconverted Man has a slight speech impediment. One that the “friend” says indicates special needs. Then the host goes on to completely straw man DM’s response, and flat out LIES about “12 valid proofs for god.” The host is too cowardly to face DM, and has to resort to gutter apologetics to cower out of a real debate.

(As a side-note, my friend mentioned several reasons that Deconverted Man reminds him of the special-needs people he used to work with and Deconverted Man’s speech impediment was not one of them.) “Username” said:

Missing The Mark You realize we can all tell your “friend” is you right? The way you take a breath and smack your lips is very distinct and noticible

Finally, “William McIntyre” said:

you went through a lot of trouble to hide in the dark so no one can see you and used a voice changer so that no one can know your voice and for what? No one cares if you lied about haveing a friend.

Actually that last one might have been posted after Deconverted Man’s video. Which said, in response to my friend’s portion of the video (in the person of a puppet):

This is deconverted man’s friend and I don’t wanna do this video either, because having both of us in the same room at the same time would be hard. We’re different people though, totally. Just trust me on this.

Btw, If you want to view Deconverted Man’s video, here it is:

And in the comments to this video “Hector Defendi” added:

Finally… His friend is Him . There is NO friend. He threw on a wig, and turned off the lights! (I have Photoshop) What a fucking LIAR!

Analysis

There’s something deeply impressive about these “skeptics” leaping to such a strange conclusion in the face of evidence to the contrary. I re-watched the portion where my friend spoke and not only do we sound very different, we look very different in outline. He’s got long, flowing hair while my hair is quite short. Yes, this is funny that they’ve spun what one might call a “conspiracy of one” theory, but I think it’s actually quite psychologically interesting, because presumably this same sort of “thinking” gets applied to their rejection of faith.

As backstory, this friend of mine is an old college friend. We’ve known each other for over 15 years. He was a groomsman at my wedding. Unfortunately we live in different states and since I have small children while he has none, he tends to visit me approximately once a year, though that hasn’t worked out every year. And that’s what happened. Originally I only meant to push off the response to Deconverted Man’s video by a few months because it would have been a lot of fun to make fun of Deconverted Man’s recycled atheist tropes together. Then my friend saw Deconverted Man’s debate challenge and his really weird response video (filmed from the nose up) and said he thought Deconverted Man had a developmental disability like autism. I disagreed, saying (as I believed and still believe) that it’s just an odd shtick. But since I couldn’t prove my point, I actually went to Deconverted Man in the comments of either his video or mine—I forget—and asked him to confirm that he is not autistic. He refused to confirm or deny it, and said that we shouldn’t give him any special consideration. Finally my friend visited a few weeks ago, and I tried to talk him into doing the video but he opted out, giving the explanation above.

Deconverted Man was never told the specifics of how long I’ve known my friend, but he certainly knew about me trying to get him (Deconverted Man) to confirm that he is in fact neurotypical and that (I said) my friend pulled out because (in part) he (Deconverted Man) wouldn’t confirm that.

Given all this, Deconverted Man’s explanation for my friend’s explanation in my video is that I made up my friend to somehow justify why it took me so long to put out a video in which I said that Deconverted Man’s video missed the point of mine but had the minorly redeeming feature that he did understand how to use reason in a very minor case (buying clothes) and should work on building that up into being more generally reasonable. Oh, and that he completely misunderstands what special pleading is.

This paints a very curious picture of his view of human psychology as well as his approach to interpreting evidence. My story is out of the ordinary, but unusual things happen all the time and moreover people do often have friends and plans do often fall through. Furthermore, eventually making a response to a video after a year could more easily be explained by just saying, “OK, I’ve put this off long time, time to finally get it done so I can forget about it.”

If any sort of explanation was needed at all. My YouTube channel is hardly about current events; I did a video on the Richard Dawkins Foundation For Reason and Science’s recruiting video If You Are One of Us, Be One of Us when that video was more than a year old. Actually, it’s a fun video if you want to watch it:

Anyway, there was no sensible reason for me to pretend to have a friend, and furthermore you can hear his voice clearly and it sounds very different from mine. Yet these skeptics come up with the idea that I’m disguising my voice and wearing a wig in order to put on a rather strange and pointless pantomime. I don’t think it should be a shock that they reject the historical evidence for Christianity, but I do think that this gives some psychological insight into how they go about rejecting it.

What Are Christians to Make of Jordan Peterson?

Or you can watch the video on YouTube:

I should not that Jordan Peterson has identified as Christian, but in the same interview he said that he’s agnostic as to whether the resurrection happened (i.e. he neither affirms nor denies it), so while my statement in this episode isn’t perfectly accurate, I think it’s essentially accurate from a traditional Christian perspective. At mass every Sunday we say the Nicene Creed. And I think that Jordan Peterson himself would think what I said was fair from the perspective from which I was speaking.

This is All Wrong, Except Maybe “Jewish”

So I saw this recently on Twitter, and I’m in the mood to tear it apart:

Christianity:
The belief that some cosmic Jewish Zombie can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him that you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.

This is an entirely incorrect description of orthodox Christianity except for—depending what is meant—the “Jewish” part. Let’s go through it step by step, at least as long as I have the patience for it:

The belief

Christianity is a religion, not merely a belief. It is a way of fundamentally orienting one’s life. Christianity has beliefs, for example we Catholics recite many of the core ones every Sunday by saying the Nicene Creed. This isn’t merely nit-picking, because it borders too much on believe-or-burn nonsense. Christianity is about living in accordance with the truth, not merely knowing it.

that some cosmic

This makes it sound like Jesus is some sort of energy being like a marvel comic book character such as Galactus or Eternity or The Living Tribunal. Those are all contingent beings. Nope, wrong.

Jewish

As long as this means that he was a descendent of Abraham, etc. fine. If it is meant to deny that he was also a Christian, no.

zombie

A zombie is a dead body which has be animated by an evil spirit. Or if it’s a scientific zombie it’s a corpse which is walking around because the writers don’t know anything about science and have no idea how viruses/radiation/respiration/muscle activation/etc. work. This has nothing to do with a person who has come back to life.

can make you live forever

Eternal life refers to living to the full in eternity, not to never dying. This is opposed to being in hell—the “in” referring to being in a state, and the “hell” to the state of rejecting God/goodness/truth/beauty—in eternity. Not dying is, depending on what you mean by it (and how you understand the dormition of Mary), reserved for Mary and a few old testament figures. It has no relationship to the Christian faithful.

if you symbolically eat his flesh

The eucharist is not a symbol but in fact the real presence of Christ, and you really eat his flesh and drink his blood. They have the outward form of bread and wine. The Orthodox just say “it’s a mystery” while Catholics explain in somewhat more technical language that the substance of the bread and wine chance while the accidents (such as the atoms which composed the bread and wine) remain. Then we say it’s a mystery. But in both cases, we affirm that this is real and not a symbol, though its reality is not something you can detect with your eyes or tongue.

and telepathically

Prayer is not telepathy. That the one creating all things as they unfold knows everything that is happening has nothing to do with whatever sci-fi you’re thinking of with telepathy.

tell him

Nothing in Christianity depends on what you say to Jesus. This comes back to the first point; Christianity is about action. The content of faith is works; it is not everyone who says “Lord Lord” but the one who does the will of the father, etc. We accept the salvation which God freely gave to us out of his generosity by living in according with that salvation, and reject it by living as if it is not true. This is like any other gift; if someone gives you $20 for your birthday, you accept the gift by spending the money, and reject it by never spending the money.

you accept him as your master

Partially this is wrong because of the above; it’s not any pledge of allegiance that saves, but rather the living out of the acceptance of salvation. Further, this is not accepting a master in an earthly sense where one is property to another’s benefit, but rather living in according with the one who made us and therefore being ourselves to the maximum extent possible given the nature he gave us.

so he can remove

Salvation is positive, not negative. Sin is itself a privation, that is, a deprivation of part of our reality as a human being. Sin does not have a reality to itself; it is like a shadow. The act of salvation is the act of repairing us—of restoring to us that part of ourself which we have destroyed through sin.

an evil force

Sin—original or otherwise—is not an evil force. It is a diminishment of the person. It is a warping, a twisting, of that which is straight just like a broken arm is not something being added to the arm but something being removed from it. Original sin, specifically, is a hereditary problem in that one can’t give what one hasn’t got, and so a lack of perfection is passed on. This is often talked about in a positive way simply because our language works better that way; this is the same way we talk about the “shape” of a shadow despite the fact that it is the light around the shadow which has a shape, not the shadow itself.

from your soul

Again, salvation is the adding to you of that perfection which is missing, not a removal of something which was added.

that is present in humanity because a rib-woman

All women have ribs. I presume this is meant to refer to a literal reading of the book of Genesis as if it were a historical-biological textbook. It isn’t, stop doing that. It refers to God walking in the cool of the evening. God doesn’t have a body. It refers to God asking where Adam and Eve are. God knows everything. This is mythology, not a type of textbook that wouldn’t exist for thousands of years. It was describing important things, not irrelevant details. Our modern fixation on irrelevant details to the exclusion of wisdom produces nothing but misreadings when applied to anything written before several hundred years ago and many things written since. Limit your reading of books as if they are biology textbooks to actual biology textbooks.

was convinced by a talking snake

See above; the serpent is generally understood to represent spiritual powers that wish us harm, such as Satan.

to eat from a magical tree.

Magic has absolutely nothing to do with it. Again, reading the book of Genesis as if you are reading a modern biology textbook is just trying to misunderstand it. The tree in question is the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Now, what happens when you eat something? It becomes a part of you. To make good and evil a part of you means that you are doing evil. Talking about “eating from a magic tree” is on the level of reading a cartoon book made for kindergarteners. The story of the fall of man in Genesis talks about how human beings chose evil over perfection when tempted by powers which deceived them. It’s a richly complex story the exegesis of which takes many pages, but to talk about “a magical tree” is to utterly and completely misunderstand it, worse than to think that evolution is about “survival of the fittest” as if that means “everything gets bigger, smarter, faster, and stronger all the time”. It’s a complete misunderstanding on the level of a children’s cartoon book. If you can read this blog post, you can do better than that.

Why Is Determinism Attractive?

I used to assume that people believed in determinism (that human beings do not have free will) merely as a consequence to materialism, and that they weren’t really invested in it. More recently, however, I’ve come to suspect that it is determinism which they are primarily attracted to, and atheism is a way to achieve that determinism. (Not so explicitly, of course.)

One strong reason I suspect this is that we have direct, unequivocal experience of free will. If there wasn’t a strong attraction to determinism, this experience would render anything which contradicted free will simply unbelievable. (And for many people, it does just that.) So there must be some deeply compelling reason to want to disbelieve in free will. What can it be?

Before I answer that question, I want to note that there are several belief systems which denied free will, since there is a hint to the answer of this question in that fact. Hinduism is varied, but at least according to the hindu philosophers the monism of everything being God leaves no room for individual free will. Free will implies the existence of sin, but since everything is God nothing can be sin. (Ordinary hindus probably do believe in free will, I should note.) Buddhism does not believe in free will, which is just one of its many contradictions. (By Buddhism I mean the original Buddhism of Siddhartha Gautama which was a reaction against his failure to achieve happiness as a hindu yogi; I’m not talking about more modern, often syncretic Buddhisms.) And very interestingly, Martin Luther didn’t believe in free will either. In fact he wrote a whole book about how there’s no such thing as free will. (On the Bondage of the Will. It’s a terrible book.)

Now, what do all these things have in common, and what do they have in common with materialism? They are all reductionist systems. They all posit that reality is less than it seems, in some manner or other. But curiously only two of them are atheistic; the other two are theistic. This suggests that what people really object to is not God, but other people. And indeed, that makes sense in reductionist systems. People are messy. There are so many of them, and if they’re free they’re not explicable by a small number of easily understood rules.

To be content with understanding the universe but not being able to comprehend it (that is, to stand in right intellectual relationship to it but not to be able to fit it inside of one’s head) requires humility, and more than anything it requires trust. Trusting God, specifically (which seems to me to have been Martin Luther’s big hangup). So I suspect something like the following rule is the case:

Those who cannot trust God cannot deal with the existence of their fellow men, and will seek some philosophical means of getting rid of their fellow men as important.

In practice, the really thorny part of one’s fellow human beings is their free will. Thus to any such creature who finds trust in God to be impossible, determinism will have a huge appeal.

(As a post-script, I should note that reducing men to their base instincts is merely a less rigorous way of accomplishing the same denial of free will; wherever you find a man who reduces all men’s actions to greed or lust, you have found a man who doesn’t trust God.)

Review: The Rage Against God

I just finished reading Peter Hitchens’ book, The Rage Against God. It’s an interesting book—and I do recommend it—but it’s very much not what I expected. For one thing, it’s a far more personal book than I expected. Which may well speak more to my expectations than to the book; the subtitle is “how atheism led me to faith.” But what I think I was more legitimately surprised about was how much the book was about culture.

The Rage Against God is divided into three parts:

  1. A Personal Journey Through Atheism
  2. Addressing the Three Failed Arguments of Atheism
  3. The League of the Militant Godless

Chapters 1-5 are about England’s (I suppose technically I should say Brittain’s, but I’m not sure) declining society, and how much Christianity was woven into England’s culture so that as people became disillusioned with their culture they threw Christianity out as well. In many ways in these chapters the eponymous rage against God seems to be primarily a displaced rage against parents. In fact Mr. Hitchens mentions something I’ve seen noted by many other rebels born in the generation he was: they never expected to get away with it. And they seem to carry with them a deep sense of betrayal that the adults let them get away with their rebellion. In essence, they are angry at the authority figures in their young lives for being so small. This is very specific to England, but while America did not suffer the decline of its status as a once-great power, it did suffer from the realization of how awful racism is that had a very similar effect in undermining authority, and at approximately the same time. And I’m told that other european countries had their own losses in confidence because of the authority figures who led them into devastating wars.

None of this is something I can relate to; having grown up in the 1980s there was no longer anyone left to respect so it was not possible to lose my respect for them, and I think that this is true of others of my generation as well. It is an interesting window into the atheism of an older generation, though.

Interestingly the three arguments which Hitchens addresses in part 2 are largely cultural ones:

  • “Are conflicts fought in the name of religion conflicts about religion?”
  • “Is it possible to determine what is right and what is wrong without God?”
  • “Are atheist states not actually atheist?”

The second question need not be cultural, but his answer is largely cultural, in that he draws the answers from failed societies. Which is, of a course, a legitimate and persuasive answer, but it is a social answer rather than a personal one.

The third part is a more in-depth look at what the viciously atheist regime of the Soviet Union was like, and the degree to which modern atheists seem to be calling for exactly what was done there, though without being willing to admit that it’s what they’re calling for. This is a problem I’ve encountered with atheists myself. They’re generally quite unwilling to think through their ideas and more infuriatingly often pat themselves on the back for being unwilling to do so, though usually with some sort of positive spin. But Mr. Hitchens brings up, if obliquely, a very pressing problem in a democracy, or really anywhere with changing demographics: how people behave when a minority may have no predictive value whatsoever as to how they will behave if they are in the majority. And as any even casual student of history knows, every regime requires an executive branch—whatever it is named—and that executive branch will be staffed not by the general population but by people who desire power. The question, therefore, is not what the average person will do if given power, but what they will tolerate a co-believer with power doing.

God’s Blessings on February 27, 2017

God’s blessings on this the twenty seventh day of February in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

So, I’m clearly not very good at keeping up the daily blogging. I did get a video out over the weekend, though:

It’s some commentary on Bishop Barron’s video on prayer, which is much better:

Still, he didn’t say it, so it might be worth saying.

I also put up a few videos recently about a debate challenge which I got from Deconverted Man and why I don’t debate atheists. Both drew a fair number of comments from people who, shall we say, do not appear to be rocket surgeons. (I like mixing metaphors to spice things up.) The most noticeable sort are from people who can’t seem to get that I am not trying to debate anyone in those videos. The first is me making fun of a ridiculous debate challenge (which was absurdly specific about things which needed no specificity and absurdly under-specified in the things which did). Specifically, making fun of a debate challenge from a fellow who criticized a previous video of mine as being irrational. The other is an explanation of why I, personally, don’t debate atheists at this point in my life. Very explicitly so; I say that in the first minute. And yet I got comments from people critiquing it as if it were one side of a debate.

I also got a tweet from “Mr Oz Atheist” snarking,

Wouldn’t have thought it takes a video 32 minutes long to say ‘Because I have no valid arguments’

I’ve dealt with him before and he’s not exactly the sharpest light bulb in the picnic basket, if you know what I mean. But the really curious thing is that I then got a comment on my video:

Let me help you out and shorten your video. You don’t, because you can’t provide good evidence, just logical leaps and fallacies.

Now, I have no proof that he’s one of Mr. Oz Atheist’s followers, but the timing and the phrasing is suggestive. Which raises an interesting question, even if it didn’t happen in this particular case: why do people go to following links in order to leave comments on things they haven’t watched? Unless the comments are original thoughts derived from the title (and hence won’t be very original since most everyone sees the same possibilities in titles), they have to be just parroting whatever it was they read about the video. Why would a human being think that’s valuable? Is it that their Dear Leader’s thoughts are so wonderful they must be shared, and Dear Leader has too little time to leave comments on every video he comes across? Are they hoping that they’ll be noticed by Dear Leader and get praised? Is this purely a pack instinct to attack anything perceived as an enemy? There must be some explanation, but at present I’m at a loss to understand it.

Incidentally, what is this odd obsession atheists have with valid arguments? There are valid arguments for everything. They’re the easiest things in the world to construct. Just take modus ponens:

p→q
p
∴ q

Where q is the conclusion you want and put anything at all for p. Here, with p being 2+2=5 and q being God exists:

If 2+2 = 5, then God exists.
2+2 = 5
Therefore, God exists.

It’s perfectly valid, as an argument. If the premises are true, the conclusion certainly follows from them. What it’s not is a sound argument. (A sound argument is a valid argument with true premises.) More colloquially, what it is not is a good argument.

Sometimes I’m tempted to thank these atheists for making atheism look so bad. But the thing is, all this idiocy doesn’t make me angry, it makes me sad. These poor creatures should be taken care of by people more able to think than they are; the strong should protect the weak. But these poor people have fallen into the clutches of atheists who are typically only a little bit smarter than they are and not really any better educated (as opposed to schooled) and they’re suffering from it. Pray for them with me, if you will.

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on February 16, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the seventeenth of February in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

Last night I did a hangout with Max of the Escaping Atheism project on YouTube, if you’re interested you can watch it here:

We spoke about the style of talking with Atheists (primarily what I call kakangelical atheists—atheists who want to spread the bad news), and how there are different styles and a place for Escaping Atheism’s blunt, combative style.

To give a brief summary of why, especially on the internet there are a lot of kakangelical atheists whose approach is to be very confident and very aggressive to believers, asserting in very forceful tones that they’re delusional idiots for believing in a magic sky fairy with no evidence! Etc. And I think that there is value to some people equally forcefully responding, “no, you’re the delusional idiot for thinking God is like a magic sky fairy, for asserting that there is no evidence in plain contradiction of simple fact, and for not having bothered to learn anything before spouting off about it.”

It’s not that this will convince anyone that they’re wrong, but curiously it will sometimes convince people to go do some studying, not because they are inspired to better themselves, but because having done no studying they have no reply, and so may go do some studying just to procure some better rhetorical weapons. Along the way, they may end up learning something. That said, the real important part of this is that it neutralizes what amounts to bullying. Powerfully presented confidence is intimidating; to see it on both sides reduces its effect, giving space for reason to operate. This is especially important for the young; as I mentioned in the video that forceful approach shook me a lot when I was a teenager. Now that I’m getting close to forty I tend to just reply with equal confidence and move on, occasionally amused at the names I get called for doing what the other guy just did (that is, asserting that I was right and the other guy wrong). I don’t think I’ll ever understand thin-skinned people who lead with insults. Thick-skinned people who open with insults make sense to me, but how have the thin-skinned ones not learned to moderate their approach in pure self-defense?

Now, it might be brought up that one catches far more flies with a tablespoon of honey than with a gallon of vinegar. It’s a great saying, and in certain situations very true. I’m not sure of the literal fact behind the metaphor, though; I’ve seen a lot of dead flies in a bowl of apple cider vinegar which was accidentally left open. That being said, if you want to find people who responded with mild language in the face of blasphemy, I suggest you read something other than the bible. As the meme goes:

what-would-jesus-do-having-actually-read-the-bible

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on February 13, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the thirteenth day of February in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

There’s an interesting phenomena going on right now in the “skeptic community” which is very approximately the branch of the online atheist community who dislikes identity politics. An extremely brief summary of it is that some prominent members of the skeptic community gave paid endorsements to a company promoting an app/social media site called Candid. (I’m not being coy, by the way, I haven’t followed enough to know who they all are. I suspect it’s public knowledge, but it’s not relevant here.) A less prominent member of the community (going by the name Harmful Opinions) then called Candid into question as being, far from a dedicated to free speech, seeming to use an AI in order to police speech more stringently than it has been before. The truth of the accusations I don’t know; I’ve seen some evidence presented by Harmful Opinions in a video, but without tracking down original sources that’s not really different from ignorance. It’s not really relevant to me since I’ve never heard of the social media platform makes it sound like I’d never try it, so it’s just not relevant to my life.

What is relevant is that a rift in the skeptic community where prominent skeptics are being taken down a peg certainly seems like good news to those of us who are on the receiving end of their followers blind faith in the sufficiency of atheism as a worldview. And to be explicit, I believe that one part (not the whole) of the confidence that many slow-witted atheists have that atheism has all of the answers to life’s questions which are necessary to live a good life is because they see more intelligent, charismatic people like the prominent skeptics being (apparently) content living the atheist life and take their confidence from that.

So I think that there is a hopeful pleasure to be seen in this which can be distinguished from simple schadenfreude (“shameful joy”) at bad things happening one one’s enemies. I say to “one’s enemies” but they’re not really my enemies; if they’re anyone’s enemies they are the enemies of those they are leading astray. They’re not really doing anything to me. (Also I run far too small a channel for them to even know I exist, so none of them have ever mentioned me or anything like that.)

This is also something which touches on the issue of “atheists can be just as moral as Christians” which comes up less these days than it did decades ago, I think, but it still comes up because it is true that a given atheist can be personally better than a given Christian. Which is to say that the best atheist is better than the worst Christian. But as it becoming ever clearer, that’s mostly a theoretical statement. The rate at which atheists are degenerating is startling to the point of being scary. Of course, they are degenerating in the sense of coming to believe that if God is dead all things are permitted, not that if God is dead, you can get away with everything. Which is to say that they are considering worse and worse things to be perfectly moral. So if you want to murder your child in the womb after a three day cocaine bender/orgy with married people, that’s your own business and doesn’t make you any less moral than anyone else.

What’s going to be really bad is the people who are raised this way, by the way. People who were raised with morals but then overthrew them still have most of the inhibitions of their youth, at least for a few decades and often for the rest of their life. People who were raised with the idea that they can do anything they want so long as everyone consents—whatever that means given that they also don’t believe free will exists—will act very differently. It’s not likely to be pretty. Be that as it may, there may be some effect of this for the intermediate people who still have some scruples against lying (does anyone consent to be lied to? But being hung up on telling the truth is a Christian hang-up; I suppose the usual atheist approach is to not think about it). Seeing that many of the prominent atheists they look up to as living a good atheist life are in fact willing to lie and sell out their followers for money may shake some people’s confidence that atheism is in fact a viable path to a good life. So I think that greeting this scandal in the skeptic community with glee is defensible on this ground.

Though I think it’s important for Christians to be careful here; this sort of thing can very easily turn into gossiping. But that does not mean that tarnishing the good name of a villain is wrong; to uphold the reputation of a liar is to be complicit with his lies. So while great care is warranted, I do think that there is a legitimate way of receiving this news with mixed pleasure. Of course, no sin can properly be the occasion of pleasure, so it cannot be a pure pleasure in hearing this, but that truth may finally be revealed to those who have been in darkness is worth celebrating.

(And if anyone wants to draw a false equivalence between this and misdeeds by priests or pastors, the key distinction is this: no one can actually convict the atheists of having done anything wrong on atheist principles. About the most you can convict them of doing is possibly acting sub-optimally from a species-benefit perspective. Or possibly being incompetent in their self-interest. When a priest does something immoral, he can be convicted by the Christian morality he himself acknowledges. In short, the key difference is that if the prominent skeptics acted badly, they cannot be charged with being hypocrites. Which is a far greater condemnation of them.)

If you can, say a prayer for all of the members of the skeptic community, prominent and anonymous alike. They sure as hell need it.

Glory to God in the highest.

George Orwell on Penny Dreadfuls

Via a blog post by Brian Niemeier I found this essay by George Orwell. It’s mostly about the penny dreadfuls which are popular in England at the time of writing, which appears to be 1939. It’s a curious read for the snapshot of history it gives, but the whole thing is tinged with a bit of disapproval, which finally comes out in the end. It turns out that this essay was written during Orwell’s socialist phase, before he became disillusioned with socialism (I heard in the wake of the Spanish civil war). And his point in writing the whole thing was to note how conservative penny dreadfuls were, and since they were read primarily by children in the range of 10-16 years old, that his was probably very influential. So, he concluded, there should be penny dreadfuls written by socialists to promote socialism.

But there was a problem, which he noted and proposed a solution. First, the problem:

This raises the question, why is there no such thing as a left-wing boys’ paper? At first glance such an idea merely makes one slightly sick. It is so horribly easy to imagine what a left-wing boys’ paper would be like, if it existed. I remember in 1920 or 1921 some optimistic person handing round Communist tracts among a crowd of public-school boys. The tract I received was of the question-and-answer kind:

Q,. ‘Can a Boy Communist be a Boy Scout, Comrade?’

A. ‘No, Comrade.’

Q,. ‘Why, Comrade?’

A. ‘Because, Comrade, a Boy Scout must salute the Union Jack, which is the symbol of tyranny and oppression.’ Etc., etc.

Now suppose that at this moment somebody started a left-wing paper deliberately aimed at boys of twelve or fourteen. I do not suggest that the whole of its contents would be exactly like the tract I have quoted above, but does anyone doubt that they would be something like it? Inevitably such a paper would either consist of dreary up-lift or it would be under Communist influence and given over to adulation of Soviet Russia; in either case no normal boy would ever look at it.

I think that this is a fairly good description of the problem with socialists writing, well, anything. Their philosophy is so inhuman that it can’t be made appealing. But Mr. Orwell has a solution:

But it does not follow that it is impossible. There is no clear reason why every adventure story should necessarily be mixed up with snobbishness and gutter patriotism. For, after all, the stories in the Hotspur and the Modern Boy are not Conservative tracts; they are merely adventure stories with a Conservative bias. It is fairly easy to imagine the process being reversed. It is possible, for instance, to imagine a paper as thrilling and lively as the Hotspur, but with subject-matter and ‘ideology’ a little more up to date… If, for instance, a story described police pursuing anarchists through the mountains, it would be from the point of view of the anarchist and not of the police. An example nearer to hand is the Soviet film Chapaiev, which has been shown a number of times in London. Technically, by the standards of the time when it was made, Chapaiev is a first-rate film, but mentally, in spite of the unfamiliar Russian background, it is not so very remote from Hollywood… All the usual paraphernalia is there — heroic fight against odds, escape at the last moment, shots of galloping horses, love interest, comic relief. The film is in fact a fairly ordinary one, except that its tendency is ‘left’. In a Hollywood film of the Russian Civil War the Whites would probably be angels and the Reds demons. In the Russian version the Reds are angels and the Whites demons.

To put his solution more bluntly, he proposes lying. Since the philosophy of socialism is too inhuman to communicate to ordinary people, he suggests trying to make it more palatable by showing you the people who have been duped by it, who are still at least mostly human, and not the inhuman philosophy to which they have been duped. And moreover he’s talking about showing the dupes at the moment when they are least typical of the philosophy of their side. Anarchists being chased through the mountains by police are romantic because a group of people working together to avoid death in a harsh environment is romantic. But anarchy is not a group of people working together, it is at its most typical the strong preying upon the weak. (Until such time as a strong man starts protecting the weak in exchange for their supporting him, and government starts once again. To paraphrase Chesterton talking about paganism, if society ever dissolves into anarchy, it will end as all anarchy does. I do not mean it will end in death. I mean that it will end in society.)

And in fact Orwell does have some intuition of this, I think. Because the next sentence after the quote above is this:

That is also a lie, but, taking the long view, it is a less pernicious lie than the other.

This sort of lying in fiction is a phenomenon we are all familiar with, I think. I suspect most people are familiar with the leftist version of it, but I’ve seen quite a lot of it from atheists, as well, where they depict atheists doing all of the bold and daring things that men who believe in something greater than themselves do, except without the believing in anything greater. (I’m speaking of western materialist atheists, here.) Unlike Orwell, whose purpose was recruiting people into a cause, I suspect that atheists tell these lies primarily to themselves, as a form of comfort.  They like to think about what they’ve given up, as if they haven’t given it up.

God’s Blessings on January 17, 2017

God’s blessing to you on this the seventeenth day of January in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

I’m thinking about doing a video about the topic of the burden of proof. This is something of a pet peeve for my friend Eve Keneinan, who has a hilarious post on The Burden of Proof Fairy and the You Have To Believe Everything Monster. The topic under consideration is usually phrased, “the person making the claim has the burden of proof”. Which, as Eve rightly points out, is a claim, so she immediately invites the claimant to abide by their own principle and shoulder the burden of proof for that claim. For some reason she attracts a lot of stupid atheists on twitter so the results can be funny. The best are the people who add “this is not a claim” to the end of their claims, as if they’re children saying, “no tag-backs” in a game of tag.

I’m not sure what direction I want to go in my video. I’m thinking of starting out talking about the burden of proof in law, which is where one man (the prosecution) claims the right to punish another man (the defendant). The prosecution must meet some threshold of evidence for his claim to be granted, while the defense may try to poke holes in the prosecution’s attempt to demonstrate this. The thing is, the threshold for what evidence the prosecution must bring varies widely. In some places merely alleging the guilt of the defendant is meeting it, and the defendant must work very hard to show that the prosecution is in error. In other places, at least in theory, the prosecution must work hard to show that he’s correct beyond a reasonable doubt, while the defense does not need to prove the prosecution mistaken, only to cast doubt that the prosecution is correct. Whoever has the harder job is said to have the burden of proof, though in truth the prosecution always must meet some threshold in order to prosecute, and a defense which merely rested without saying anything will virtually never win.

Now, ordinarily no fool ever thought that courts of law provided epistemological certainty. I think many people—possibly not just fools—thought courts generally reliable. But no one ever thought the courts infallible. I’m not sure who ever thought to try to make this practical principle an epistemological one, but certainly one meets people who try to establish it as such.  (Epistemology is the study of knowledge.) Of course, no one consistently applies this as an epistemological principle. I’ve yet to hear of the man who replied to, “Hi, my name is Brian” with “Prove it.” Or, “It’s a nice day, isn’t it?” with “Where’s your evidence that it’s a nice day?” No, in general the burden-of-proofers will just look up, investigate the natural world for themselves, come to their own conclusion, and then share it. That is, they’ll say, “yes it is” or possibly, “for now, but it looks like it’s going to rain”.

Of course what’s going on is that this isn’t a principle at all, it’s more of a heuristic. When it isn’t just an excuse to get out of thinking, that is. I wrote about that in We Are All Beasts of Burden. And that is really my main critique of the concept of the burden of proof as it is commonly used. It’s an attempt to avoid thinking while retaining the respect accorded to one who thinks. That’s almost a theme of the modern world. What is divorce but the attempt to retain the respectability of marriage while breaking the vows of marriage? As Chesterton said, our world is one wild divorce court, divorcing all things from each other but pretending not to.

And it’s that last part that I think is so especially troubling. A society which is pretending it is doing something other than it is doing is very far from recovery. On the other hand this is just restating the truism that the first step in solving your problem is admitting that you have a problem.

In any event, it is amusing to ask somebody who states the burden of proof is on the person making the claim if they have any evidence that they’re not a moron. In my experience the will stutter and be outraged that you would transgress the social norm of assuming that they’re not. It’s always amusing when people are angry with you for following their principles.

Glory to God in the highest.

The Probability of Theology

This is the script to my video, The Probability of Theology:

As always, it was written (by me) for me to read aloud, but it should be pretty readable.

Today I’m going to be answering a question I got from the nephew of a friend of mine from the local Chesterton society. He’s a bright young man who was (I believe) raised without any religion, and has been introduced by his aunt to some real, adult, theology, and has the intellectual integrity to seriously consider it until he can see how it’s either true or definitely wrong. Here’s his question:

I am an atheist, mostly due to a few primary objections I have with religion in general, the most prominent of which is that since there are infinite possible theologies, all with the same likelihood of being true, the probability of one single man-made theology such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam being true is approximately zero. My aunt … is quite convinced that you can prove this idea false [and] we are both hoping that you could make a … video about this on your channel, if possible. We will be eagerly awaiting your response.

This is an excellent example of how it’s possible to ask in a few words a question which takes many pages to answer. I will attempt to be brief, but there’s a lot to unpack here, so buckle up, because it’s going to be quite a ride.

The first thing I think we need to look at is the idea of a man-made theology. And in fact there are two very distinct ideas in this, which we need to address separately. First is the concept of knowledge, which as I’ve alluded to in previous videos was hacked into an almost unrecognizable form in the Enlightenment. Originally, knowledge meant the conformity of the mind to reality, and though in no small part mediated by the senses, none the less, knowledge was understood to be a relatively direct thing. In knowledge, the mind genuinely came in contact with the world. All this changed in the aftermath of Modern Philosophy. It would take too long to give a history of it so the short version is: blame Descartes and Kant. But the upshot is that the modern conception of knowledge is at best indirect and at worst nothing at all; knowledge—to the degree it’s even thought possible—is supposed to consist of creating mental models with one’s imagination and trying to find out whether they correlate with reality and if so, to what degree. Thus there is, in the modern concept of “knowledge”—the scare quotes are essential—a complete disconnect between the mind and the world. The mind is trapped inside of the skull and cannot get out; it can only look through some dirty windows and make guesses.

This approach of making guesses and attempting (where practical) to verify them has worked well in the physical sciences, though both the degree to which it has worked and the degree to which this is even how physical science is typically carried on, is somewhat exaggerated. But outside of the physical sciences it has largely proved a failure. One need only look at the “soft sciences” to see that this is often just story-telling that borrows authority by dressing up like physicists. It is an unmitigated disaster if it’s ever applied to ordinary life; to friends and family, to listening to music and telling jokes.

There have been a few theologies which have been man-made in this modern sense; that is, created out of someone’s imagination then compared against reality—the deism that conceives of God as winding a clock and letting it go comes to mind—but this is quite atypical, and really only exists as a degeneration of a previous theology. Most theologies describe reality in the older sense; descriptively, not creatively. It is true that many of them use stories which are not literally true in order to convey important but difficult truths narratively. This is because anyone who wants to be understood—by more than a few gifted philosophers—communicates important truths as narratives. Comparatively speaking, it doesn’t matter at all whether George Washington admitted to cutting down a cherry tree because he could not tell a lie; the story conveys the idea that telling the truth is a better thing than avoiding the consequences of one’s actions, and that lesson is very true. It may well be that there was never a boy who cried “wolf!” for fun until people didn’t believe him; it’s quite possible no one was ever eaten by a wolf because he had sounded too many false alarms to be believed when he sounded a real one. But none of that matters, because it is very true that it is a terrible idea to sound false alarms, and that sounding false alarms makes true alarms less likely to be believed. None of these are theories someone made up then tested; they are knowledge of real life which is communicated through stories which are made up for the sake of clarity. And so it is with the mythology of religions. Even where they are not literally true, they are describing something true which people have encountered. I am not, of course, saying that this is what all religion is, but all religions do have this as an element, because all religions attempt to make deep truths known to simple people. So when considering anything from any religion, the first and most important question to ask about it is: what do the adherents mean by it. This is where fundamentalists of all stripes—theistic and atheistic alike—go wrong. They only ever ask what they themselves mean by what the adherents of a religion say.

So this is the first thing we must get clear: theologies are not man-made in the sense of having been created out of a man’s imagination. They are not all equally correct, of course; some theologies have far more truth in them than others, but all have some truth, and the real question about any religion is: what are the truths that it is trying to describe? Christianity describes far more truth than buddhism does, but buddhism is popular precisely because it does describe some truths: the world is not simply what it appears at first glance; the more we try to live according the world the more entangled in it we get and the worse off we are; and by learning to be detached from the world we can improve our lot. It is not the case—as many buddhisms hold—that we must reject the world outright; we need a proper relationship to it, which Saint Francis captured in his Canticle of the Sun. The world is our sibling, neither our master nor our slave. And so it goes with all religions: they are all right about at least something, because the only reason any of them existed at all was because somebody discovered something profoundly true about the world. (Pastafarianism being the exception which proves the rule; the flying spaghetti monster is a joke precisely because it was simply made up and does not embody anything true about the world. Even the Invisible Pink Unicorn falls short of this; it embodies the truth that some people don’t understand what mysteries actually are.)

The second thing we must address in the man-made part of “man-made theologies” is that—at least according to them—not all theologies are made by man, even in the more ancient sense of originating in human knowledge. The theology of Christianity originated with God, not with man. Christian theology is primarily the self-revelation of God to man. And we have every reason to believe that God would be entirely correct about Himself.

Now of course I can hear a throng of atheists screaming as one, “but how do you know that’s true?!? You didn’t hear God say it, all you’ve heard is people repeating what they say God said.” Actually, these days, they’re more likely to say, “where’s your evidence”, or accuse me of committing logical fallacies that I can’t be committing, and that they can’t even correctly define, but for the sake of time let’s pretend that only top-tier atheists watch my videos.

Oh what a nice world that would be.

Anyway, this gets to a mistake I’ve seen a lot of atheists make: evaluating religious claims on the assumption that they’re false. There’s a related example which is a bit clearer, so I’m going to give that example, then come back and show how the same thing applies here. There are people who question the validity of scripture on the basis of copying errors. “In two thousand years the texts were copied and recopied so many times we have no way of knowing what the originals said,” sums it up enough for the moment. This objection assumes that the rate of copying errors in the gospels is the same as for all other ancient documents. Actually, it also exaggerates the rate of copying errors on ancient documents, but that’s beside the point. It is reasonable enough to assume that the rate of copying errors in Christian scriptures does not greatly differ from that of other documents, if Christianity is false. Well, actually, even that is iffy since a document people hold in special reverence may get special care even if that reverence is mistaken, but forget about that for now. If Christianity is true, the gospels are not an ordinary document. They are an important part of God’s plan of salvation for us, which he entrusted to a church he personally founded and has carefully looked over throughout time, guarding it from error. In that circumstance, it would be absurd to suppose that copying errors would distort the meaning of the text despite the power of God preventing that from happening. Thus it is clear that the rate of copying errors is not a question which is independent of the truth of Christianity, and therefore a presumed rate of copying errors cannot be used as an argument against the truth of Christianity precisely because whatever rate is presumed will contain in it an assumption of the truth or falsehood of Christianity. (I should point out that what we would expect—and what the Church claims—is that God would safeguard the meaningful truth of revelation, not the insignificant details. That is, we would expect that if Christianity was true God would keep significant errors from predominating, not that he would turn scribes into photocopying machines—within Christianity God places a great deal of emphasis on free will and human cooperation. And as it happens, we have some very old copies of the gospels and while there have been the occasional copying errors, none of them have amounted to a doctrinally significant difference. Make of that what you will.)

So bringing this example back to the original point, whether Christian theology is man-made is not a question which is independent of the question of whether Christianity is true. If Christianity is false, then its theology is man-made. But if Christianity is true, then its theology is not man-made, but revealed. And as I said, while men often make mistakes, we can trust God to accurately describe himself.

So, to recap: theology is descriptive, not constructive, and in historically-based religions like Christianity, theology is revealed, not man-made. So now we can move onto the question of probabilities.

First, there is the issue that probability says nothing about one-offs. I covered this in my video The Problem with Probability, so I won’t go into that here, but since I’ve heard the objection that I only discussed the frequentist interpretation of probability, I will mention that if you want to go with a bayesian interpretation of probability, all you’re saying by assigning a probability of zero to an event is that it’s not part of your model. Now in the question we’re addressing, it’s not a probability of zero that’s being assigned but rather “approximately zero”. But the thing about the Bayesian interpretation is that probability is at least as much a description of the statistician as it is of the real world. It is, essentially, a way to quantify how little you know. Now, sometimes you have to make decisions and take actions with whatever knowledge you have at the moment, but often the correct thing to do is: learn. There is no interpretation of statistics which turns ignorance into knowledge, or in bayesian terms, the way to get better priors is outside of the scope of bayesian statistics.

But more importantly, this atomization of theologies is very misleading. Among all of the possible theologies, many of them have a great deal in common. They do not have everything important in common, obviously. There are some very substantial differences between, say, Greek Orthodoxy and say, Theravada Buddhism. But for all their differences, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Baha’i, Sikhism, and several others have quite a lot in common. They all worship the uncreated creator of all that is. That’s actually a pretty big thing, which is to say that it’s very important. An uncreated creator who transcends time and space has all sorts of implications on the coherency of contingent beings within time (such as ourselves), the existence of a transcendent meaning to life, and lots of other things. This is in contrast to things that don’t matter much, like whether there is an Angel who has a scroll with all of the names of the blessed written on it. Whether there is one or isn’t doesn’t really matter very much. Grouping those two distinctions together as if they were of equal importance is highly misleading. Now, granted, there are all too many people who take a tribalistic, all-or-nothing approach to religion where the key thing is to pick the right group to formally pledge allegiance to. But one of the things which follows from belief in an uncreated creator is that this primitive, tribalistic approach is a human invention which is not an accurate description of reality. An uncreated creator cannot need us nor benefit from us, so he must have created us for our own sake, and so our salvation must be primarily not about something superficial like a formal pledge of allegiance, but about truth and goodness. And by goodness I mean conformity of action to the fullness of truth. For more on this, I’ll link my video debunking Believe-or-Burn, but for the moment, suffice it to say that being fairly correct, theologically, must be of some greater-than-zero value under any coherent theology with an uncreated creator behind all that exists. The correct approach is not to give up if you can’t be be completely correct. It’s to try to be as correct as possible.

And in any event there is no default position. Atheism is as much a philosophical position as any theology is. Well, that’s not strictly true. There is a default position, which is that there is Nothing. But that’s clearly wrong, there is something, so the default position is out. And while in a dictionary sense atheism is nothing but the disbelief in God—or for the moment it doesn’t even matter if you’re too intellectually weak for that and want to define atheism as the mere lack of a belief in God—western atheists tend to believe in the existence of matter, at least, as well as immaterial things like forces and laws of nature. So each atheist has a belief system, even if some refuse to admit it. The only way to not have a belief system is to give yourself a lobotomy. But until you do, since you have a belief system, it is as capable of being wrong as any theology is. And does it seem plausible that, if Christianity is true, if the version of Christianity you’ve encountered is a little inaccurate, you’ll be better off as an atheist?

I think that nearly answers the question, but there is a final topic which I think may answer an implicit part of the question: while there are infinitely many theologies which are theoretically possible, in practice there haven’t actually been all that many. This is something I’m going to cover more in my upcoming video series which surveys the world’s religions, but while there certainly are more than just one religion in the world, there aren’t nearly as many as many modern western people seem to think that there are. Usually large numbers are arrived at by counting every pagan pantheon as being a different religion, but this is not in fact how the pagans themselves thought of things. I don’t have the time to go into it—I addressed this somewhat in my video on fundamentalists, and will address it more in the future—but actual pagans thought of themselves as sharing a religion; just having some different gods and some different names for the same gods, just like French and American zoos don’t have all the same animals, and don’t use the same names for the animals they do have in common. But they will certainly recognize the other as zoos. American zookeepers do not disbelieve in French “python réticulé”.

And so it goes with other differences; those who worship nature worship the same nature. All sun worshippers worship the same sun. Those who believe in an uncreated creator recognize that others who believe in an uncreated creator are talking about the same thing, and generally hold that he can be known to some degree through examination of his creation, so they will tend to understand others who believe in an uncreated creator as having stumbled into the same basic knowledge.

And this explains why minor religions tend to die out as small groups make contact with larger groups. Those religions which are more thoroughly developed—which present more truth in an intelligible way—will appeal to those who on their own only developed a very rudimentary recognition and expression of those truths. There has been conversion by the sword in history, though it is actually most associated with Islam and often exaggerated in other faiths, but it is not generally necessary. When people come into contact with a religion which has a fuller expression of truth than the one they grew up with, they usually want to convert, because people naturally want the truth, and are attracted to intelligible expressions of it. And the key point is that the expressions of truth in better developed religions are intelligible precisely because they are fuller expressions of truths already found in one’s native religion. And this is so because religions are founded for a reason. I know there’s a myth common that religion was invented as bad science, usually something to the effect that people invented gods of nature in order to make nature seem intelligible. The fact that this is exactly backwards from what personifying inanimate objects does should be a sufficient clue that this is not the origin of religion. Think about the objects in your own life that people personify: “the printer is touchy”, “the traffic light hates me”, “don’t let the plant hear that I said it’s doing well because it will die on me out of spite”. Mostly this is just giving voice to our bewilderment at how these things work, but if this affects how mysterious the things are in any way, it makes them more mysterious, not less. If you think the printer is picky about what it prints, you’ll wonder at great length what it is about your documents it disapproves of. If you think of it as a mere machine, you turn it off, take it apart, put it back together again, and turn it on. Or you call a repairman. But if you personify it, you’ll wrap your life up in the mystery of its preferences. And anyone with any great experience of human beings has seen this. Especially if you’ve ever been the repairman to whom the printer is just a machine.

It’s also, incidentally, why many atheists have developed a shadowy, mysterious thing called “religion” which desires to subjugate humanity.

People personify what they don’t understand to communicate that it is mysterious, not to make it less mysterious. And they do this because people—having free will—are inherently and irreducibly mysterious.

So if you look past the mere surface differences, you will find that religions have generally originated for very similar reasons. So much so that more than a few people who haven’t studied the world’s religions enough are tempted to claim that there is only one universal religion to all of mankind with all differences being mere surface appearance. That’s not true either, but that this mistake is possible at all, is significant. Religions are founded for a reason, and that’s why there aren’t infinitely many of them.

Until next time, may you hit everything you aim at.

Good Day December 13, 2016

Good day on this the thirteenth day of December in the year of our Lord 2016.

I ran into an atheist on Twitter today who was repeating the talking point that if there were no people who believed in God, no one would call themselves atheists. This is a point as profound as saying that if human beings couldn’t produce the “b” sound, English would not use the word “blue” to name the color “blue”. Yeah, no kidding. I think it might have been news to the poor fellow that this point is barely fit for a kindergartener, and is a shameful waste of time when said to adults.

There are more than a few atheists on twitter who are:

  1. aggressive
  2. poorly educated
  3. not very bright

It’s hard to know what to do with such people. One wants to be kind, but on the other hand the kindest thing to do seems to be to point out that such people have nothing of value to say and be best off by far if they stopped talking and went and rectified numbers 1 and especially 2 and at least took number 3 into account since there’s not much they can do about it. Their lives are being based on a whole collection of lies, and it is in their best interest by far to throw the lies and out and rebuild on a solid foundation.

And I’m not just talking about repenting and believing in God. Learning what an argument is and how to make it would be a great idea. I had to explain to one atheist today that if he holds one of the premises of his argument to be unprovable, he can’t legitimately use it as a premise in his argument. (Specifically he claimed that he didn’t rape because of his empathy, and when I asked him for evidence of his claim he asked how he could be expected to prove a lack.) This is purely secular incompetence. I also had to explain to the same person that you can demonstrate you have understood somebody else’s point by explaining it in your own words to their satisfaction. He actually asked me how he could demonstrate he had understood my point! (I made that a condition of giving him an example of the rule I was quoted as saying which is why he was talking with me at all.) He made it all the way to being an adult without ever having encountered a technique for demonstrating that you’ve understood something!

It might be his fault for being badly educated—he might have attempted to assault all of his teachers until they gave up on him—but presumably it isn’t. And yet at the same time, he’s aggressively saying stupid things on the internet and acting as if he is competent at thinking and arguing when he obviously isn’t. That very incompetence means that one can’t use reasoned demonstrations of his incompetence to convince him—that would be like trying to demonstrate to a man with bad vision that he has bad vision using sharp pictures. The fault you’re trying to communicate inherently prevents that mode of communication. You can’t convince a man that he’s deaf by shouting at him.

There don’t seem to be many options open which have any plausible chance of working besides bluntly telling such a person that he should learn how to think and argue properly, and refusing all conversation and argumentation with him until he does. It’s not nice, but there doesn’t seem to be any other way to help such a man. Until he knows his current state is unacceptable, why would he change it? This is a most unpleasant conclusion, but I believe I’ve rediscovered excommunication. It’s almost like there was a reason for it in the first place.

God bless you.

Atheism is Not a Religion

This is the script to my video, Atheism is Not a Religion. As always, it was written to be listened to when I read it aloud, but it should be pretty readable as text, too.

Today we’re going to look at a topic which a casual survey of atheist youtube channels and twitter feeds suggests is of importance to many atheists: that atheism is not a religion. Now, since the one thing you can’t convict internet atheists of is originality, I assume that this is because there are Christians who claim that atheism is a religion. Of course what they probably mean by this that atheism entails a set of metaphysical beliefs. And this is true enough, at least as a practical assumption if some atheists will scream at you until they’re blue in the face that it’s not what they believe in theory. But merely having metaphysical beliefs does not make something a religion; it makes it a philosophy or in more modern terms, a world-view. But a religion is far more than merely a world-view or a set of beliefs. As Saint James noted, the demons believe in God.

The first and most obvious thing which atheism lacks is: worship. Atheists do not worship anything. I know that Auguste Comte tried to remedy this with his calendar of secular holidays, but that went nowhere and has been mostly forgotten except perhaps in a joke G. K. Chesterton made about it. A few atheists have made a half-hearted go of trying to worship science. And if that had any lasting power, Sunday services might include playing a clip from Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. But the would-be science worshippers haven’t gotten that far, and it is highly doubtful they ever will.

Secular Humanism is sometimes brought up as something like a religious substitute, but so far it only appears to be a name, a logo, some manifestos no one cares about, and the belief that maybe it’s possible to have morality without religion. And humanity is not a workable object of worship anyway. First, because it’s too amorphous to worship—as Chesterton noted, a god composed of seven billion persons neither dividing the substance nor confounding the persons is hard to believe in. The other reason is that worshipping humanity involves worshipping Hitler and Stalin and Mao and so forth.

Which brings us to Marxism, which is perhaps the closest thing to a secular religion so far devised. But while Marxism does focus the believer’s attention on a utopia which will someday arrive, and certainly gets people to be willing to shed an awful lot of innocent blood to make it happen sooner, I don’t think that this really constitutes worship. It’s a goal, and men will kill and die for goals, but they can’t really worship goals. Goals only really exist in the people who have them, and you can only worship what you believe actually exists.

It is sometimes argued that within a marxist utopia people worship the state, but while this is something put on propaganda posters, the people who lived in marxist nations don’t report anyone actually engaging in this sort of worship, at least not sincerely.

And I know that some people will say that atheists worship themselves—I suspect because almost all atheists define morality as nothing more than a personal preference—but, at least I’ve never seen that as anything more than a half-hearted attempt to answer the question of “what is the ground of morality”, rather than any sort of motivating belief. And in any event, it is inherently impossible to worship oneself. Worshipping something is recognizing something as above oneself, and it is not possible to place oneself above oneself. I think the physical metaphor suffices: if you are kneeling, you can’t look up and see your own feet. You might be able to see an image of yourself in a mirror, but that is not the same, and whatever fascination it might have is still not worship. So no, atheism does not worship anything.

The second reason why atheism is not a religion is that atheism gives you no one to pray to. Prayer is a very interesting phenomenon, and is much misunderstood by those who are not religious and, frankly, many who are, but it is, at its core, talking with someone who actually understands what is said. People do not ever truly understand each other because the mediation of words always strips some of the meaning away and the fact that every word means multiple things always introduces ambiguity. Like all good things in religion this reaches its crescendo in Christianity, but even in the public prayers said over pagan altars, there is the experience of real communication, in its etymological sense. Com—together unication—being one. It is in prayer—and only in prayer—that we are not alone. Atheists may decry this as talking with our imaginary friends if they like—and many of them certainly seem to like to—but in any event they are left where all men who are not praying are left: alone in the crowd of humanity, never really understood and so only ever loved very imperfectly at best. (I will note that this point will be lost on people who have never taken the trouble to find out what somebody else really means, and so assumes that everyone else means exactly the same things that he would mean by those words, and so assumes that all communication goes perfectly. You can usually identify such people by the way they think that everyone around them who doesn’t entirely agree with them is stupid. It’s the only conclusion left open to them.)

The third reason why atheism is not a religion is that it does not, in any way, serve the primary purpose of religion. The thing you find common to all religions—the thing at the center of all religions—is putting man into his proper relation with all that is; with the cosmos, in the Greek sense of the word. Anyone who looks at the world sees that there is a hierarchy of being; that plants are more than dust and beasts are more than plants and human beings are more than beasts. But if you spend any time with human beings—and I mean literally any time—you will immediately know that human beings are not the most that can be. All that we can see and hear and smell and taste and touch in this world forms an arrow which does not point at us but does run through us, pointing at something else. The primary purpose of a religion is to acknowledge that and to get it right. Of course various religions get it right to various degrees; those who understand that it points to an uncreated creator who loved the world in existence out of nothing get it far more right than those who merely believe in powerful intelligences which are beyond ours. Though if you look carefully, even those who apparently don’t, seem to often have their suspicions that here’s something important they don’t know about. But be that as it may, all religions know that there is something more than man, and give its adherents a way of putting themselves below what they are below; of standing in a right relation to that which is above them. In short, the primary purpose of all religion is humility.

And this, atheism most certainly does not have. It doesn’t matter whether you define atheism as a positive denial or a passive lack; either way atheism gives you absolutely no way to be in a right relationship to anything above you, because it doesn’t believe in anything above you. Even worse, atheism as a strong tendency, at least in the west, to collapse the hierarchy of being in the other direction, too. It is no accident that pets are acquiring human rights and there are some fringe groups trying to sue for the release of zoo animals under the theory of habeus corpus. Without someone who intended to make something out of the constituent particles which make us up, there is ultimately no reason why any particular configuration of quarks and electrons should mean anything more than any other one; human beings are simply the cleverest of the beasts that crawl the earth, and the beasts are simply the most active of the dust which is imprisoned on the earth.

We each have our preferences, of course, but anyone with any wide experience of human beings knows that we don’t all have the same preferences, and since the misanthropes are dangerous and have good reason to lie to us those who don’t look out for themselves quickly become the victims of those who do. Call it foreigners or racists or patriarchy or gynocentrism or rape culture or the disposable male or communism or capitalism or call it nature red in tooth and claw, if you want to be more poetic about it, but sooner or later you will find out that human beings, like the rest of the world, are dangerous.

Religious people know very well that other human beings are dangerous; there is no way in this world to get rid of temptation and sin. But religion gives the possibility of overcoming the collapsing in upon ourselves for which atheism gives no escape.

For some reason we always talk about pride puffing someone up, but this is almost the exact opposite of what it actually does. It’s an understandable mistake, but it is a mistake. Pride doesn’t puff the self up, it shrinks it down. It just shrinks the rest of the world down first.

In conclusion, I can see why my co-religionists would be tempted to say that atheism is a religion. There are atheist leaders who look for all the world like charismatic preachers and atheist organizations that serve no discernible secular purpose. Though not all atheists believe the same things, still, most believe such extremely similar things that they could identify on that basis. Individual atheists almost invariably hold unprovable dogmas with a blind certainty that makes the average Christian look like a skeptic. And so on; one could go on at length about how atheism looks like a religion. But all these are mere external trappings. Atheism is not a religion, which is a great pity because atheists would be far better off if it was.