In this video I talk about why it’s good to talk about the downsides of atheism, despite it generally being more attractive to be positive rather than negative; to make the case for something and not to merely make the case against one of its alternatives. That reason is that people often take the “cheese pizza” approach. If they think that there’s a common denominator, they will pick that to avoid conflict. By talking about the problems with atheism, it can help people to realize that there is no plain cheese pizza; that there is no common denominator.
I have previously written at some length about why atheists can’t write good stories. If you want to read a more in-depth treatment, there’s Why Moderns Always Modernize Stories and Why Do Moderns Write Morally Ambiguous Good Guys? However, for convenience, I’ve come up with a very succinct version:
Unless an atheist pretends that God exists in his story, his story is set in Hell. There are no good stories in Hell.
In a video in which a former MMA fighter accepts a challenge from a self-defense coach to fight, the comment section was, as you might imagine, lapping up the drama like a man who just walked through the desert a lemonade stand. One comment stood out to me, though:
I’m an atheist, but please God, make this happen.
In his excellent video on prayer, Bishop Barron said that studies show that everyone prays—even atheists. And indeed, they do. But it’s curious to consider when they pray, since they’re not exactly known for regularly saying their bedtime prayers. (What follows is, of course, guesswork and painting with a broad brush.)
The second biggest time, I suspect, is in cases of danger. And of course there is the prayers asking to be spared from danger. But more interesting is a reason given by the blogger Richard Fernandez, who went by the pen name Wretchard the Cat at the time. He was explaining why there are no atheists in foxholes. It’s not because people are scared. It’s because they need forgiveness.
And indeed, forgiveness is one of the two great problems that atheists face which they cannot possibly solve. As a creature in time, they cannot change the past; this means that things done wrong cannot be put right. God, being outside of time, can apply a balancing payment at the very instant of a misdeed; people can only try to make amends and try to forget. But amends do not fix the original problem, since it remains what it ever was. Only God can change the problem in the moment of its existence, since only he was there and not causing the problem.
The other great unsolvable problem which atheists have relates to what is probably the more common type of atheist prayer: hope. An atheist has precisely no reason to hope. The only way to live life, other than in despair, is in hope. We are too finite—too weak and short-sighted—to live in any way other than despair and hope. But to live in despair will probably just end in suicide; though to quote Chesterton it might be suicide using the tools of pleasure, rather than the tools of pain.
The type of prayer that hope produces is generally that of asking for life to work out according to an intelligible rational plan, or as it is more commonly known, asking for stuff.
Which brings us back to the quote with which this started. Everyone knows, on some level, that for the world to be good it must be ordered according to a rational will. It’s curious how much of the time, in a rich society, one can not think about that fact.
A skill I’ve been refining over time is leading atheists who are trying to argue with me into admitting that they reject reason. Typically by getting them to say that the laws of logic aren’t true, that reason cannot reach truth, or that logic does not describe reality. If I were fourteen, I would probably do that because it’s a game and fun to outwit them. Since I will soon be bidding goodbye to my 30s, I have a practical reason for it.
Christians have a duty to give the truth to anyone who will accept it. However, modern technology (such as twitter, comments to YouTube videos, etc) has put each of us into contact with more people than one can possibly talk to in a lifetime. Worse, there is a minority of people who love to waste other people’s time who go around looking for people whose time they can waste. Since they will merrily go from victim to victim, one such person can waste the time of hundreds; this greatly magnifies the problem for those open to talking with strangers.
As a result, it is only practical to become efficient at weeding out people who are not talking in good faith. The difficulty is that since their purpose is not honest they will try to disguise themselves as honest questioners. However, they cannot hold an actual position or there quickly becomes nothing to say. If they pretended to some particular belief they would quickly end up where actual believers of that belief did, which is at the stalemate of differing perceptions of the universe. Hindus and Christians, for example, rarely argue because they simply have incompatible starting points, and there’s not to say about that.
When it comes to trying to waste the time of Christians, a popular approach these days is “lack of belief” atheism. I’ve written and done videos about this extensively, but the short short version is that they don’t lack a belief, they only pretend to, so that they can pretend that they don’t actually have a position. But of course since they live in the world whether or not God created the world and gives it purpose is of fundamental importance and unavoidable. By living, one either acts in ways compatible with God’s purpose for the world or one acts in ways incompatible with it. If the atheist is not living exactly as if God exists—and they never do—then he is behaving inconsistently with his profession that he has no idea whether or not God exists.
When this is pointed out to them they will try to squirm out of it in various ways, but in my experience the most popular, by far, is some variation of rejecting reason. “I’m not being inconsistent if contradictions can be true!” they say, only far less clearly. They don’t want to be clear, of course, because the moment one rejects reason the game is up. There’s no point in talking to a man who rejects reason.
This is both because language is fundamentally rational, and because nothing can possibly be achieved by trying to reason a man into a conclusion when he rejects reason. No matter how good your argument, he will simply reject some step in it because he can reject any step in it as his whim.
So, to sum up, when a stranger is asking questions on the internet and especially if they’re things he should already know with a few minutes of reading if he was actually interested, it can save a lot of time to force him into admitting some unpleasant consequence of his claimed position—or lack thereof. If he actually believes it, he’ll admit what comes along with it. If he’s just trying to waste your time, he’ll try to wriggle out of it and odds are very good he’ll deny reason.
It’s not an insincere denial, and those who deny reason tend not to have much foresight.
On the internet one will run across many atheists who are speaking in bad faith. I give a technique for how to tell whether any given atheist is speaking in good faith or in bad faith. Or you can view it on YouTube, if you like:
The following is the script to my video, A Few Gumballs Short of a Picnic.
I got an email from an (I presume young) man by the name of Ken who said:
What you say about the burden of proof is very interesting to me, especially about engaging with [the] question and not just saying “you have to prove it to me; I don’t have any burden of proof so get busy proving your idea to me”: I think part of why so many atheists, and I am an atheist at this time say the burden of proof is on the one making a positive claim i.e. god exists or god doesn’t exist is because so many Christians respond to questions of how do you know god exists with ‘”well, can you prove god doesn’t exist?” “I’m going to continue to believe god exists until someone proves to me he/she/it doesn’t” Have you heard of Matt Dillahunty? He said something about burden of proof I find very compelling: He talked about the game of guessing how many [whole gumballs] are in a clear glass jar. Matt said that before you even begin to try to figure out the answer there is one thing you absolutely know and that is that the number is either and odd or even. If someone asserts that the number is even and I say I don’t believe that, that is not the same as saying I think the number is odd. The default position before you find out the answer is “I don’t know yet’. He said a god either exists or it doesn’t exist. For clarity we need to keep god exists and “god doesn’t exist” separate and examine them separately. if I say you have failed to meet your burden of proof that your god exists I am not saying your god doesn’t exist but that you have not established that it exists. It seems to me that if the burden of proof is on atheists to prove YHVH does not exist then Christians have the burden to prove that the thousands of other gods do not exist and if you set about trying to prove all those gods/goddesses don’t exist those believers will use the same defenses Christians use to defend their god claim [and will say] you failed to prove their deity doesn’t exist. I am wondering what you would say I am missing here?
This video will answer this question.
I’d like to preface my video by saying that the Christians who respond to questions about how one can know the faith is true with “how can you know it’s false” are simply not the people to talk to. Most people—regardless of belief system or topic—are simple people and simple people are not good at explaining things. This is true whether you’re talking about religion, engineering, science, art, swing dance, wine making, or anything else. Only some people are good at explaining things and these are the people you should seek out when you want an explanation. But, unlike in engineering, science, art, swing dance, wine making, or just about anything else, Christians who are good at teaching will happily teach you about the truth of Christianity for free. There are tons of free apologetical materials online and plenty of excellent books available at basically the cost of printing—and plenty of Christians will happily buy books for people who are sincerely seeking the truth.
With that out of the way, there’s one other thing which will help for us to establish before we proceed: every positive claim is convertible to a negative claim, and vice versa. This is because a double-negative is equivalent to a positive. You can say that a man is dead or not not-dead, and they mean the same thing. If you want to make it sound better, just give not-dead a name, like “alive”. This will come up in a bit.
So the first thing to say about Matt Dillahunty’s jar of gumballs is that his explicit conclusion is entirely true. To not come to a conclusion and to conclude a negative are not the same thing. To not be convinced that somebody is right and to be convinced that they are wrong are not the same thing. To not accept the truth of a proposition and to accept the truth of its negation is not the same thing.
Here’s the thing: no one ever thought that they were the same thing. What he is saying is true, but it is also trivial and irrelevant to the subject of whether God exists as it is discussed by human beings. And, to be clear, by God I mean the uncreated creator of all that is; the unchanging source of all change, the necessary source of all contingency, the ground of all being, the reason why there is something rather than nothing. I don’t care about big guys with hammers or worshipping the sun. If Thor exists, at most he is a more powerful creature than I am but still just a creature; this is utterly unlike the source of every moment of my—and if he exists, Thor’s—existence.
Matt Dillahunty’s example is about whether the number of gumballs in a jar is odd or even. Now, within the example, the number of gumballs has no practical consequence, and whether the number is even or odd has, if possible, even less significance. It doesn’t matter in the slightest to anyone. This is not true of whether God exists, however. There is nothing that matters more, and nothing of greater practical consequence, than whether God exists. It affects every aspect of life in every moment of life. And everything you do is going to be consistent either with God existing and having created the universe on purpose and with meaning, and therefore with a nature out of which flows a particular morality, or it won’t be. I talked about this at length in my video Atheist Morality, but the short short version is that morality either flows out of human nature, which can only have been given to us by a rational creator, or what you call morality is just a name for people doing whatever they want—which needs no name. The short short short version is that you can’t know whether you’re using or misusing something until you know what it’s for. In Dillahunty’s made-up example, you can ignore the question and the question goes away. But real life doesn’t go away when you stop believing in it.
In a moment I’m going to present a much better analogy for the situation human beings find ourselves in, but first, I want to point out that you can see this flaw even in Dillahunty’s example just by looking at where he stops: he ends the example before he writes his name and contact info and a number on a piece of paper and puts it in the submission box. The jar of gumballs is part of a contest (if you look up the video where he first presents this analogy, it’s explicitly part of it). And yet in the analogy he never enters the contest. He apparently just loses by not trying. Of course he couldn’t enter the contest in his analogy because if he did, the number he wrote down, being a specific number, would have to be odd or even. The only way he can remain uncommitted is by not playing the game for which the jar of gumballs was set out. Let’s be really clear here: this is a strategy to guarantee that you lose. This is, literally, a loser’s strategy.
But even if you include the parts which were left out of his analogy, a jar of gumballs just isn’t much like real life. So let’s take a different example which has the same point that the gumball example does but like real life involves skill and effort, and the results actually matter:
Suppose you are the umpire in a baseball game. It’s the bottom of the ninth inning in the last game of the world series, there are two outs, and the score is tied. A ground ball is hit and the runner on third base dashes madly toward home plate. The short stop initially fumbles the ball but the third baseman ran behind him and picks up the ball, then throws it home. The catcher catches the ball and tags the runner as he slides into home plate.
Now, one thing you know for sure is that the runner is either out or safe. The runner says to you that he’s safe, but doesn’t offer enough evidence to convince you. The catcher says that the runner is out, but also doesn’t offer enough evidence to convince you. If you simply announce that you don’t have enough evidence to make a call and so you’re going home now, this is definitely very different from calling the runner safe because you believe he’s safe or calling the runner out because you believe he’s out. For one thing, you’re going to be fired from your job as umpire and may well be hanged from the nearest lamp post by outraged fans before you make it home.
And now we come to the big problem with the umpire who refuses to come to a conclusion if the players don’t prove their case to his satisfaction. Why is he being so damn lazy? As the umpire, it’s his job to know whether the runner is safe or out. That’s the whole reason he’s on the field at all. It’s not the players’ jobs to prove they succeeded in their goals, it’s his job to pay attention to the game closely enough to know who succeeded and who failed. If he spends the entire baseball game in a closet playing video games and then throws up his hands when a call is necessary, he’s not nobly committed to intellectual honesty, he’s just neglecting his duty.
But bear in mind that this example does prove, just as much as the marble example, that there is a difference between refusing to commit to a side and committing to the negative side. Does anyone wonder why Matt Dillahunty picked his jar-of-gummballs example and not this umpire-in-a-baseball-game example?
But throwing up one’s hands and going home—in the real world this is the equivalent of freezing motionless or perhaps committing suicide—is not what people actually do. Atheists like Matt Dillahunty define some course of action as the default—they never, of course, explain why it’s the default, since they can’t, since there’s no such thing as a default when it comes to morality—and then do that if the contrary isn’t proven to them. So let’s look at that.
Suppose you decide to define “safe” as a positive claim and “out” as the negative claim then—without believing that the runner is actually out—call him “out” since the runner didn’t satisfactorily prove his positive claim. So what? You are still calling him out. That you don’t really believe him out changes exactly nothing about what you’re doing. The game will go into overtime just as much as if you actually believed your call was correct.
Suppose that you did the contrary and defined “out” as the positive claim and “safe” as the negative claim then—without believing that the runner is actually safe—call him “safe” since the catcher hasn’t satisfactorily proven his positive claim. Again, so what? The runner is still just as safe, the run counts just as much, and the team has won the game to exactly the same degree as if you actually believed that your call was correct.
Incidentally, I’ve heard it claimed that there is a rule in baseball that “the tie goes to the runner”. Several things need to be said about this. First, if you look this up, it refers not to uncertainty on the umpire’s part but to the case when the ball and the batter-turned-runner reach first base at the exact same instant such that neither arrives ahead of the other. Second, this is not a rule in baseball but rather an interpretation of the rules—which not all major league umpires subscribe to. And third, let’s ignore those first two and suppose this actually was a rule for there being a default to resolve epistemic uncertainty. Find me a case in real life where the following happened:
In a situation like above, bottom of the ninth, etc. where the umpire wasn’t paying attention and doesn’t know what happened at home plate, so he follows the default and calls the runner safe. The team manager from the team who has now lost comes up to the umpire, screaming at him that he must be incompetent, stupid, blind and on drugs. The umpire calmly tells him, “Sir, I wasn’t actually looking when the play happened and so I went with the default call of safe.”
The team manager, clearly taken aback, stammers and says, “Oh man, I’m so sorry for what I said. I thought that you actually thought that the runner was safe. Oh man. I didn’t realize that you had no idea what happened and just went with a default call. I take back everything I said about you being incompetent. Please accept my most sincere apologies for insulting your umpiring. You are a credit to your profession.”
Find me that. Preferably in video. But I’ll accept newspaper reports.
If an umpire makes a bad call because he was going with some default because he didn’t know what happened, this is not better than making a bad call because he was mistaken. It’s still a bad call, and it’s still his fault because he didn’t take the trouble to make a good call.
If you cheat on your wife with her sister but “don’t really mean it,” you’ve still cheated on your wife. If you cheat on your wife with her sister and father a bastard, that child exists just as much and has the same needs whether or not you actually believe that you should have cheated. This whole project of trying to do things without having them count is just pure cowardice. There’s no honor in doing things without thinking that you should do them and there’s even less in—if you don’t know what you should be doing—not spending every waking moment of your life trying to find out what you should be doing.
The Matt Dillahunties of the world are busy trying to say that if I shoot you in the head because I believe you are a zombie, I’m crazy, but if I shoot you in the head because I haven’t been convinced that you’re not a zombie (that is, that you’re alive), I’m the pinnacle of rationality. (And since this is the internet, don’t take this analogy literally. Shooting someone in the head symbolizes, say, fornication, and “because they’re a zombie” symbolizes sex being purely about pleasure.)
Now, to come to the crux of the matter: the only reason anyone likes this irrelevant gumball example is that it sneaks in the assumption that it doesn’t matter whether God exists. Just like a stage magician getting you to focus on the hand that’s pretending to have the coin when the coin is actually in the hand that you’re not looking at, this example is purportedly about whether or not indecision is identical to disbelief, but in reality is about whether disbelief matters.
I talked about this before, but to go over it again because it’s so important: there is no truth more important to human life than whether or not God exists. I’ve also covered the practical importance of the question of whether God exists in my video Atheism Changes Everything, but just consider for a moment that if a rational, loving God created the world, we have a nature out of which morality flows so morality is not merely the arbitrary question of what people happen to approve of. We have a soul which can live past the death of the body and live with the consequences of whether we acted in accordance with our nature or against it, that is, it is possible we will go to some sort of heaven or some sort of hell, with justice actually being enforced in the end. There is no such thing as a hidden deed; it is not possible to get away with something merely because no other human beings know about it. Having a common creator all human beings are a sort of sibling; we can have duties to strangers and even to enemies. The good things in life like beauty can be true and not merely meaningless preferences.
Someone who thinks that whether these things are true is like whether the number of gumballs in a jar is odd or even has to have replaced his brains with rat droppings. Then taken the rat droppings out and burned them. Then used a hose to suck even the air out of the empty cavity in his skull so that in place of his brain there is now only vacuum.
The idea that it doesn’t really matter whether God exists is not even within spitting distance of a reasonable position. It’s not within sight of a reasonable position. It’s not on the same planet as a reasonable position.
And even on just a mundane, nitty-gritty level, practicing religious people are less likely to smoke ( https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28667475 ), to abuse alcohol ( https://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-briggs/charlie-sheen-circus-and-_b_836934.html ), and to divorce ( https://shaunti.com/2014/06/marriage-month-daily-tip-12-go-church/ ), just to name a few things (in the studies showing this, practicing tends to mean regularly attending church). Correlational studies should always be taken with a grain of salt, but does your position on whether there are an odd or even number of gumballs in a jar have that sort of effect, or even just correlate with that sort of effect?
And yet, you see this from atheists all the time. They say, “I don’t believe in God and I’m able to go on living without any problems.” Perhaps, but how do they live their life?
Just take a look at the lives of the atheists who make these arguments about how their life is unaffected by disbelief. It’s not a pleasant thing to have to point out, but when they say this, then take a look. Do they refrain from excessive alcohol, recreational drugs, pornography, fornication, adultery, gossiping, backstabbing, and so forth? Do they further spend their own time, energy, and money being generous to people who can’t repay them? Do they constantly strive for greater self-control, that all they do may be upright and good? Is their life marked by a sense of gratitude for all of the good things they’ve received, including existence, intelligence, and the opportunity to see beauty and help others?
Now, Christians fall short of these things all the time. It is a terrible shame, but it is true, that not all Christians are saints. But are any atheists saints? Just take a look at them. Is there a single atheist anywhere who hasn’t noticed that the world being a meaningless accident that only has the meaning they give it (that moment) has the implication that whatever they find hard isn’t worth doing and whatever temptation they want to give into is justified? Especially over time? Atheism is, I fear, a degenerative disease.
So take a look at the older atheists. How many of them have any sort of remarkable virtue or self-control? How many ascetics practicing self-denial do you find? How many of them have dedicated their life to helping people who can’t contribute to their patreon account? How many of them have forsworn sex so that they may dedicate all of their time to service? Heck, how many of them spend even one hour a week set aside for appreciating that existence exists and being grateful for it? Most of the atheists I know talk about how going to church once a week is such an unbearable burden that you would think they were talking about being woken up at 2am to spend 14 hours in a hot standing cell without food or water.
So yes, there is theoretically a difference between acting as if God does not exist because you believe that he does not exist versus because you merely assume that he does not exist. There is not, however, a practical difference between these two things. The difference doesn’t matter in the slightest.
Well, actually, that’s not quite true. Someone who believes he knows that God does not exist is justified in not spending time trying to find out whether God exists, since he already has an answer with which he is satisfied. Someone who claims to not know—and therefore to have no idea whether what he is doing is good, evil, or indifferent—had better be spending all of the time and effort he can spare from immediate necessity trying to find out the answer.
Consider a man holding a gun. If he knows that it is unloaded because he verified it himself (including checking the chamber), it is fine for him to wave the gun around or even to point it at someone and pull the trigger—since he knows he will certainly do no harm. A man who has no idea whether the gun is loaded is grossly irresponsible for doing the same thing and no amount of him saying that it has not been proven to him that the gun is loaded changes that he is being a bad man.
Men who exist in the world will act or not act in each moment they continue to exist. It is their first responsibility to find out what they should do and what they should refrain from doing. And there is nothing more important to answering that question than whether a rational God created the world and, if so, what purpose and nature he gave it.
Someone who tries to answer that question, even if he comes up with the wrong answer, is at least trying to be a decent human being. Someone who merely ignores the question isn’t even trying to be human.
Ironically, though perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising, it’s that latter group who seems to spend the most time boasting about how rational they are.
Until next time, may you hit everything you aim at.
I got an email from a young man named Ken who asked me about an analogy Matt Dillahunty presents about whether the number of gumballs in a jar is odd or even. I originally did an unscripted answer but a lot of people missed the point so I did a scripted video which should be a lot clearer. You can of course watch it in YouTube:
On the internet it’s very useful to quickly tell whether someone is asking questions about Christianity in good faith or just trying to waste your time. There are lots of ways, I’m going to show one easy one.
It’s this: Point out that the existence of gravity cannot be empirically verified, it can only be shown through its effects. Then see what they do.
Now, this is unarguably true. Something which can be empirically verified is something which can be directly observed by the senses (possibly with the aid of an instrument, such as a magnifying glass or stethoscope). Gravity:
- Has no color and cannot be seen*.
- Has no taste.
- Has no smell.
- Does not feel like anything. (if you push on it, there’s no resistance. Your arm might feel heavy, but the gravity itself doesn’t feel like anything.)
- Has no sound.
It is easy to discover that there is gravity, though the difficulty depends on exactly what you mean by gravity (gravity as described by general relativity is hard to discover), but it must be done by observing the effect of gravity upon things. After observing this effect one can then infer the existence of gravity, but the gravity itself cannot be observed.
Gravity is, in this regard, like observing wind purely by sight. You cannot see the wind, you can only see the effect of the wind.
This is not a controversial point, and it’s not a difficult point. If you can empirically observe something you can say what color it is, how loud it is, what it tastes like, what it smells like, or what it feels like. You can do none of these things with gravity. This is what makes it a useful test.
If an atheist acknowledges this point (and proceeds in a manner consistent with acknowledging this point), he’s probably sincere and not merely trying to waste your time. If he twists himself up into self-contradictory knots trying to fight this point, he’s just trying to waste your time.
The only reason anyone ever has for denying something which is obviously true is because their primary goal is not the truth.
*This is not quite 100% true as one can argue that gravitational lensing is actually directly observing gravity. The only problem with this is that no one has actually seen gravitational lensing. It has been observed in radio frequencies by radio telescopes, but humans do not see in radio frequencies. Once you have an instrument which translates what we cannot see (etc) to something that we can, you have to make arguments for why the translation is correct, and those arguments cannot be empirically verified. Thus anything which rests upon observations through translating equipment is not empirically verified by rests upon indirect observation and argument.
I got a request to look at an analogy originally presented by Matt Dillahunty, so I explain why it’s a bad analogy. (Oddly, some atheists don’t seem to understand that to call something trivial is to say that it’s true. They seem stuck on the idea I’ve missed the point that reserving judgment is not identical with affirming a negative; which is true but only important in cases where one doesn’t have to act on the truth or falsity of the proposition, which has nothing whatever to do with whether God exists.) There’s a correction or two I should note, such as the original example was gumballs instead of marbles, and in some examples he specifies whole gumballs.
(I’m coming out with a scripted version of this video which will be much tighter, by the way.)
You can of course watch it on YouTube, too:
Over at Deflating Atheism, Rob examines the quote, “For good people to do evil, that requires religion.”
I love that he tackles it by just taking it at face value. I don’t come across this quote much—it’s the sign of a complete idiot if you see someone think there’s anything to it, and I tend to avoid complete idiots—but the few times I have I just look at how ridiculous the idea is that people are naturally good. As if theft, murder, rape, adultery, lying, and so forth never occurred to anyone on their own but only came from directives they were taught!
So I found it especially fun that he demolished it from the opposite end.
I suspect everyone who knows atheists has encountered people who say that atheism does not entail nihilism, because “life has the meaning you give it”. I just want to mention a small point regarding that.
My favorite definition (more a description) of “reality” is:
That which, when you stop believing it, doesn’t go away.
It’s not a complete description, but it’s a pretty good working description, especially in our confused times. Anyway, it’s worth noting that “the meaning you give to life” goes away when you stop believing in it.
The atheist retort that atheism does not entail nihilism thus amounts to:
Life doesn’t have any meaning, but I can pretend that it does.
Which no fool ever doubted.
I’ve heard the explanation that some atheists become atheists because they want to feel smart. That never made much sense to me, but I’ve recently gotten some insight into what it might mean and I present that interpretation of the idea for consideration. You can also watch this on YouTube if you prefer:
Some thoughts on how atheism is not a free-floating proposition but instead affects every aspect of reality. You can of course watch it on YouTube, too:
One of the questions which comes up in discussions of morality is whether you can get an “ought” from an “is”. This is relevant primarily to discussions of atheism, since to the atheist everything is a brute fact, i.e. an “is” which is not directed towards anything, and therefore an atheist cannot get any “oughts” out of their description of what is. Or in simpler language, if God is dead then all things are permitted. (Note for the unpoetic: by “God is dead” we mean “there is no God”.)
There are two reasons why if God is dead all things are permitted:
- If God is dead, who is there to forbid anything?
- If God is dead, then there is no ultimate good because all is change and therefore nothing has any lasting reality.
If you argue this sort of stuff with atheists long enough, somewhere along the line while you’re explaining natural ends (telos) and natural morality, you may come by accident to a very interesting point which the atheist will bring up without realizing it. It often goes something like this:
OK, suppose that what God says is actually the only way to be eternally happy. Why should you be eternally happy? Why shouldn’t you do what you want even though it makes you unhappy?
This question sheds some very interesting light on hell, and consequently on what we mean by morality. Our understanding of morality tends to be like what Saint Augustine said of our understanding of time:
What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.
Somehow or other atheists tend to assume that ought means something that you have to do, regardless of what you want to do. It’s very tempting to assume that this is a holdover from childhood where ought meant that their parents would make them do it whether or not they wanted to. It’s tempting because it’s probably the case and because that’s not an adult understanding of ought. And it’s not because ultimately we can’t be forced to be good. (Or if this raises your hackles because I’m “placing limits on God”, then just take it as meaning that in any event we won’t be forced to be good.)
Hell is a real possibility. Or in other words, it is possible to see two options and knowingly pick the worse option.
What we actually mean by saying that we ought to do something is that the thing is directed towards the good. And we can clarify this if we bring in a bit of Thomistic moral philosophy: being is what is good. Or as the scholastic phrase goes, good is convertible with being. But being, within creation, is largely a composite entity. A statue is not just one thing, but many things (atoms, molecules, etc.) which, in being ordered toward the same end, are also one thing which is greater than their parts.
And you can see a symphony of ordering to a greater being, in a human being. Atoms are ordered into proteins (and many other things like lipids, etc), which are ordered into cells, which are ordered into organs, which are ordered into human beings. But human beings are not at the top of the hierarchy of being, for we are also ordered into community with other created things. (Please note: being part of a greater whole does not rob the individual of his inherent dignity; the infinite goodness of God means that creation is not a competition. Also note that God so exceeds all of creation that He is not in the hierarchy of being, but merely pointed to by it.)
And so we come to the real meaning of ought. To say that we ought to do something is to say that the thing is ordered towards the maximum being which is given to us. But we need not choose being; we can instead choose non-being. The great lie which the modern project (and, perhaps not coincidentally, Satan) tells us is that there is some other being available to us besides what was given to us by God. That we can make ourselves; that we can give ourselves what we haven’t got. And, not at all coincidentally, are the things which we ought not to do—that is, those things are not ordered toward being. They’re just what the atheist says that all of life is—stimulating nerve endings to fool ourselves that we’ve accomplished something.
And yet atheists complain when one says that, according to them, they’re in hell.
God, at least, has a sense of humor.
Recently my friend Eve Keneinan had a Twitter Thread in which she talked about the problems with defining Atheism as “a lack of belief in God”:
There is a problem she doesn’t mention with this definition, which is that there are no useful sentences which you can construct. In order to have a useful sentence using a word, there has to be something you can predicate of all of the things described by the word. And (ignoring the problem of rocks and krill being caught up in the lack-of-belief definition), there is nothing you can predicate of people who believe God doesn’t exist, people who aren’t sure he exists, babies, the mentally retarded, and people who’ve never heard of the concept. They’re not all tall or short, stupid or intelligent, fat or thin, nor anything else. You can say that they exist, but that’s about it. This disqualifies it as a possible definition by what should be called the “uselessness test”. That said, let’s ignore it for now.
Eve mentioned a possible way of amending this definition to avoid catching up rocks and bricks and such-like as atheists:
However, this amended definition still leaves it a completely useless definition for a different reason than the one above (which still applies). Actually, before I even get to that, there’s a problem which needs addressing: it’s under-specified. Specifically, what sort of beliefs must the atheist be capable of forming?
There are different ways of defining “belief”, but since atheists are pretty much all materialists and thus don’t believe in a soul nor an intellect (in the traditional sense), they have to define “belief” as some sort of behavioral relation to the outside world. As such, it is clear that a rat which nibbles on a block of rat chow “believes” that the rat chow is food. So we still have the problem that under this amended definition, most atheists are bacteria and funguses, followed by higher-order life forms like krill and beetles. OK, so let’s grant the atheist the ability to use a theist’s definition of “belief” such that it’s the sort of thing which only human beings have, despite there being absolutely no way for a materialist to do this at all consistently.
We now get to the problem I mentioned about under-specificity. What sort of beliefs must these beings be capable of forming? To give an overly simplistic example to illustrate the point, it is utterly uninteresting that a man whose ability to form beliefs encompasses nothing more than the belief that cucumbers exist does not believe in God. This generalizes to the real point: if a man is for some reason limited in that he’s not capable of forming a belief in God, it is not an interesting property that he doesn’t believe in God. It is uninteresting for the same reason that we don’t count a man who can’t do even 1 pushup as as physically unfit if the reason he can’t do a pushup is because he has no arms. An armless man who can run a sub-6 minute mile is still quite physically fit. And further, his being fit but unable to do pushups tells us nothing about a couch potato with arms who cannot do pushups because he does nothing all day long. In the same way, if a man has a cognitive defect where he cannot form a belief in God he is unfortunate, but he has nothing whatever in common with someone who can form a belief in God but has formed the belief that God does not exist instead.
But really, either way, this definition cannot be applied to anyone given the limits of human knowledge. We have no way of finding out whether a man is capable of forming a belief in God except that he actually forms it. And even if we retreat from that we have no way of knowing that a man is capable of forming beliefs at all (without being him). We can tell us that he does, but I can easily program a computer to say that it forms beliefs, too. Heck, one could easily write on a rock, “I, this rock, can form beliefs”. If one rejects noetic knowledge as most online atheists do and demand evidence from the one making the claim, it is impossible to know whether anyone is an atheist since we can’t know what’s actually going on inside of his head. And this is different from taking his word about whether or not he in fact believes in God, since that presupposes he’s the sort of being which could have a word to give. The amended definition of “atheism” now requires us to find out whether he’s the sort of thing which can give his word before we know whether the definition applies to him.
Of course atheists tend to take the practical solution of demanding that theists merely assume the theistic worldview at all necessary places in order to make sense of what the atheist is saying, but to then reject it wherever it is not necessary for the atheist’s statements to be other than raving gibberish. At some point I think that everyone is tempted to say of online atheism what King Arthur said of Camelot, “No, on second thought, let’s not go there. It is a silly place.”
Or you can watch it on YouTube:
In which I talk about the curious sort of just-so stories which atheists tell in order to discredit miracles without having to actually look at them. You can of course watch it on YouTube:
I’ve written about lack of belief atheism before, and no doubt will again. (Enough that I can’t pick out a particular post to link to.) To give a one-sentence history: it was a failed attempt to get out of having to argue for atheism by then-atheist Antony Flew in a 1973 essay titled, “The Presumption of Atheism“. It really should be a hint as to what the purpose of this move was when the title is saying that he would really rather win by default than have to support his position.
Stupid as such a request is, laziness is certainly an understandable temptation. What I find curious is the depths to which ordinary atheists who seized on it have sunk. Most, if pushed, will claim that their position is a sub-rational one in which their head is as empty as a rock, and therefore absolutely no rational thoughts can be expected to come from them. Though in a sense as a point in their favor, they turn this tragedy in farce by then saying that it is Christians who are irrational. I’ll give one example. It’s been in my thoughts recently because I’m working on a script for a video about it.
Lack of Belief Atheists (who I will refer to from here on out as LoBsters) love to say that “atheism is just a lack of belief, that’s it, nothing else” but do not consider that the alternatives to God not existing entail more than just the proposition that God exists. For simplicity, I’m going to restrict this to Christianity (it only gets worse for the LoBster when you include other religions). The easiest of which are moral proposition. If Christianity is true, then:
- Forgiveness is good
- Mercy is good
- Love (willing the good of someone for their own sake) is good
- Knowledge is worthwhile for its own sake
- The truth is worth dying for
- Fornication is wrong
- Adultery is wrong
- Masturbation is wrong
- Murder is wrong
The complete list would be much longer, but that’s plenty for now. If someone disagrees with any of these things, they are, by logical necessity, holding Christianity to be false. It’s a simple Modus Ponens.
P → Q
Please bear in mind that affirming Q tells you nothing about P. (Trying to draw positive conclusions about P from Q being true is called the fallacy of affirming the consequent.) Modus Ponens in one of the elementary logical syllogisms which everyone who studies formal logic for even a few days learns. So the only way that a LoBster can legitimately claim to lack a belief in whether Christianity is true is by holding that Christianity is entirely correct in all of the morality which it teaches. Well, that’s not quite true. All that they have to hold is that it might be true in all the morality it teaches. But that itself has implications for how one lives, because if an act might be fine and the upside is that it’s fun, or it might be terribly evil, the better bet is to avoid it. So by and large, such a LoBster would have to live almost as if Christianity is true since he holds that it might be.
They don’t do that, of course, but their only way out is to disclaim all rational thought on the subject, and basically on all subjects. (Except Mathematics, of course, but LoBsters seem to have studied almost no math.) It’s really quite sad. Pray for them.
Apparently there’s a popular type of video for YouTube atheists to do where they answer the question, “If you became convinced that God exists, would you worship him?” I explain what they’d actually do if they came to believe in God. You can also view the video on YouTube:
As I’ve described more than a few times, one of the big problems that modern atheists have is that they are hyper-reductionists. They will not admit that composite entities are real. If a human body is made of atoms, they will not admit that a human being is anything more than atoms. They will of course use the word “human being” in the same way that normal people do, but they will balk at any implication of the word which they don’t like. Consistency is not their strong point.
And indeed consistency is so little their strong point that they are never hyper-reductionists elsewhere. I once joked about proposing alinguism (that language doesn’t exist, only words do). It would be even more fun, I think, to troll atheists with the proposal that Science doesn’t exist. Scientists do, of course, but not science. One could go all the way, asking where it is, how much it weighs, etc. I think the most fun would be to ask for a peer-reviewed scientific paper which describes the repeatable experiment that shows that science exists.
There isn’t really a point in this, because (in my experience) atheists never recognize their reasoning applied to anything but what they apply it to. I am coming to believe that the reason for this is that their reasoning is not in fact an attempt to understand the world. If it were, they would be interested in trying to apply it to the world. Instead, it’s mostly an attempt to get out of applying their putative beliefs to the world. That’s because their beliefs are primarily cultural. Belief is part of what unites people, and most atheists’ beliefs are held in that way—as a form of tribal identification. You can see some people hold beliefs about the best football team in a similar sort of way. It’s not that they’ve really analyzed all of the football teams in the league(s?), but that loudly espousing one team as being the best has a unitive function amongst fans. You see a similar sort of thing in religious observance, where many people like the community more than they care about the actual religion. In a possibly ironic way, this applies as much to irreligion as to religion.
And in consequence, much of what the irreligious say is not an attempt to think, but an attempt to avoid thinking. Like with those who are religious for purely social reasons, it’s not an admirable thing for a human being to do.
The Distributist made a video (which is very worth watching) called Atheist Hacks:
While I don’t disagree with anything he said, I do think he was missing one purpose that the atheist hacks serve within the skeptical community. So I made this video. You can watch it on YouTube instead of listening to it, if you prefer:
The YouTube atheist entertainer Logicked made a video about a hangout I was on with Rob from Deflating Atheism. You can also watch this video on YouTube:
Out of sympathy for some of the atheists in my comment section, I should note that I also made a second response to Logicked, where I watched the rest of his video and realized that he’s a liar. As a result I’m not going to pay any more attention to this man (unless he repents, of course) because there’s no point in dealing with liars. Here’s the second video, if you’re interested:
An explanation of a sentence from my video on the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism. You can also watch this video on YouTube:
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.
Your you can watch the original video on YouTube:
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!
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.
Or you can watch it on youtube:
Good morning on this the twenty first day of December in the year of our Lord 2016.
I ran into this description of knowledge on twitter:
Which, in case twitter ever goes away, said, in reponse to my saying that you can tell which actions are good and which evil, “by all the normal methods of discovering how the world works”:
You mean my senses filtering information to my brain, which reasons and makes choices based on past experience?
Unless I’m badly misreading the guy, he’s gone full Hume. As the saying goes, never go full Hume. Oddly, he’s also one of the people who argued with me about alinguism. If knowledge is “knowledge” by which we mean anticipation of future sense experience by way of past associations of sense experience (that’s not Hume’s definition word-for-word, but it’s close enough), then “language” would indeed not mean anything. To some degree this is just a testimony of how little atheists think about what they or anyone else says.
I think that I may do a video on alinguism, issuing a challenge to atheists to provide evidence of language to me. If I do, I’ll have a section where I anticipate the most common “evidence” of “language” so I can get those out of the way. I may even have a section at the end where I give the game away and explain that the problem is that atheists fall back on hyper-reductionism, where no composite entities are real; only the indivisible elements out of which they are made is real, and since language is not an indivisible element, this hyper-reductionism doesn’t permit believing in language. What makes this work is that composite entities have a different mode of being than indivisible entities, and consequently a different sort of reality. Because these different sorts of reality can be distinguished, one can be denied while the other is affirmed. This is appalling nonsense, of course, since as human beings they are composite entities and to deny the reality of composite entities is to deny their own reality. And yet they continue to exist.
Oh well. Atheists will frequently say that their believing in morality while being an atheist proves that morality is in no way dependent on God. I have no idea what to do with a person who is not in the habit of thinking about what he himself says. Fortunately, we can pray for him.
God bless you.
Good morning on this the thirtieth day of November, in the year of our Lord 2016.
So I came across a decent example of how internet atheists seem to be astonishingly ignorant. My friend Eve Keneinan posted this:
Which then resulted in some atheist coming in and saying this:
There are several things to unpack here, the first of which is the assertion that one can believe anything one wants without needing any reason for it. While technically true, this is just unrelated to real human beings, who in the push-and-pull of real life with other people who demand reasons if you want them to cooperate with you need to have either reasons or superior force. And if you’re getting your way by superior force, it will not be in a middle ground between individualism and collectivism. This is an appalling ignorance of how human beings actually work. It is technically true that you can hold the principle, “everyone should have exactly three teaspoons per day of icecream, no more and no less” without any sort of justification for it. But the moment you try to actually make people conform to your idea—or even just live by it yourself—you will rapidly find people demanding a good reason why they should be thus limited or compelled (depending on how much they feel like eating icecream) and in short order you’ll find them doing whatever they feel like. Yourself very much included, as people on diets so often find to their chagrin.
And if the atheist in question is trying to claim that people just naturally feel like running governments in a balance between extreme individualism and extreme collectivism, this is purely delusional. Just try to find someplace without people who don’t care what others want, they just want the government to impose stability. And just try to find someplace without people who don’t care what the rules are, they just want to do what they want to do.
Yet again we come across someone who looks around at what people largely raised in a religious setting tend to do as adults, without ever realizing that people tend to behave as they were raised, but don’t tend to raise their own children as they were raised if they differ in dogma from their own parents. And people really under-estimate just how powerful the impulse to be selfish is in children. Let’s just say it takes way more effort to produce, “OK, you can have it” than it does, “I want it.”
And then there’s “regression to the mean applies.” Pro tip: if you’re going to use technical terms, first learn what they mean. Regression to the mean is a biological concept, not a behavioral concept. It refers to things like height and intelligence and speed. A tendency among living things is for the offspring of extreme individuals to tend closer to the mean. This is because the genetic and environmental factors which lined up by chance to produce an extreme phenotype probably won’t randomly line up as well in the extreme individual’s offspring. You can kind-of-sort-of extend this concept to behavior, but behavior is often too complex to even define a “mean behavior”. More importantly, this means “mean” in the sense of, “mean of the population”, not “mean of the trait”. Thus while you might occasionally get unusually large elephants or unusually small elephants, their children will tend to be more average-sized for an elephant. It does not mean that elephants in general are trending towards a not-too-big-not-too-small size for an animal, so elephants are getting smaller while mice are getting bigger.
Secondly (or is this thirdly?) regression to the mean is in all cases only a heuristic. It is literally the opposite of evolution, where changes accumulate and children are more extreme than their parents until one eventually gets an entirely new species. (And there’s also just random mutation where maybe your child just has a membrane between its fingers and you didn’t.) Regression to the mean only applies to cases where there is some complex set of coincidences required to achieve an extreme effect and there is no selective pressure favoring the extreme effect.
Then of course the final three tweets mostly just demonstrate some combination of an inability to read and an inability to think. What kicked this off was stating that absent a force which pushes people to a mean between individualism and collectivism, they will naturally gravitate toward the extremes, which extreme depending on a personality trait which I specified. His last three tweets only state that if people naturally gravitated toward the middle, then that’s where they’d tend to end up. No kidding. The entire point of what I said was: that’s not what people gravitate towards. People gravitate towards license or protection, i.e. individualism or collectivism, depending on whether their ambition or their fears are stronger. Balancing the two requires something capable of saying yes to ambition some of the time and no to it other times; yes to fears some times and no to fears sometimes. Only dogmas can say to inclinations, “this far and no farther, here your proud waves shall break”.
There is of course a selective pressure involved. Dimwits who don’t know what they or anyone else are talking about have an easier time writing because there’s no requirement for it to be related to a complex environment (human beings, biology, what was said, etc). So it’s a mistake to draw from the multitude of insipidly ignorant, thoughtless atheists one encounters on the internet that all atheists are insipidly ignorant and thoughtless. And especially not that insipid ignorance is limited to atheists. It certainly isn’t, but in organized religions there is a check on ignorance which helps keep it from becoming insipid, specifically the organization where people who don’t know recognize that there are people who do, and will defer to them. Humble ignorance is a very different thing from arrogant ignorance; it is only the latter which is insipid. Since atheists have no organization (unless, I suppose, one is in a cult like Richard Dawkins’ cult), they tend to be left on their own. They can of course cultivate humility, but if they do it is all on them to do so, as there is no structure given to them which will tend to inculcate humility. (This is of course a thing railed against by ignorant fools, “religion teaches you to not think for yourself!” they cry, as if somehow thinking badly for yourself is superior to deferring to others. Most of the time this is probably not even sincere; it’s usually of the implicit form, “don’t let someone else tell you what to think, let me tell you what to think”.)
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.
I used to have a much better opinion of atheists before I talked with so many of them on twitter and youtube. And to clarify, it’s not that my opinion of atheists in general has gone down, only that I’ve come to realize that the atheists I had been in contact with before were a sub-set of all atheists. I had lucked into specially good ones. There are honest, decent people who don’t believe in God, but I’m coming to believe that they’re the exception, not the rule. (To be clear, each person must be dealt with as an individual, and never as merely an exemplar of a group, so whenever you come across an atheist, you must deal with him as him, and not as “an atheist”.) The longer I spend online, the more I come to believe that honest people may be quite atypical among atheists.
It does get tiring being insulted by dimwits on the internet, of course—and the average twitter/youtube atheist seems like they’d have trouble passing high school, at least if they had to take all honors classes, so poor is their grasp of entirely secular subjects—but I really don’t think that’s why my opinion is shifting. It’s really that the average twitter/youtube atheist says things which they clearly don’t mean and claims to believe things which they clearly don’t believe, and then takes advantage of the standard rules of politeness in order to try to force others into being complicit in their… if not exactly lies, then at least their reckless and culpable disregard for the truth.
Take for example the trope about “atheism is merely a lack of belief” which actually means, “I’m going to act like there’s no God even though I don’t believe that’s the case”. One could make an argument for probabilistic action—that when we don’t know something we have to operate on our best guesses—but even if that’s the route one went (and lack-atheists rarely argue this explicitly) one still has to make the positive case that the probability for action is above the threshold, or one is acting purely irrationally. Which is, in fact, what lack-atheists usually claim if you push them to be explicit. They don’t think, they just act; reason doesn’t actually work anyway; we’re just the most clever of the beasts who crawl the earth; etc. Which, OK, fine, but if one abjures all truth claims, one shouldn’t go on to make truth claims. But they almost always do, and expect to be taken seriously.
And that’s the part that’s really so frustrating. It’s that they demand that one take part in their lies—what else should we call truth claims they make but don’t believe? And then sometimes they’re even more explicit. I met one fellow who claimed that Jesus said we have to take the bible literally. And here’s the thing: there is no benefit of the doubt to give the guy. If he was beaten in the head with a tire iron for two hours by a team of professional strong-men, he wouldn’t be stupid enough to think that Jesus said, “you have to take the bible literally”. Because here’s the thing about literal interpretations: they’re literal. If Jesus said you have to take everything in the bible literally, it would include what he said, which to literally mean “you must take everything in the bible literally” would have to be phrased, “you must take everything in the bible literally”. Alternate phrasings would of course be fine, “you must interpret everything in the bible literally” etc. But it would have to be clear and unambiguous and require no interpretation of any kind in order to be an instruction to take it (and everything else in the bible) as clear and unambiguous and requiring no interpretation. Even the most cursory familiarity with the bible—and if one is making claims that a book says something, one has a responsibility to find out that it said it—is sufficient to know that there are no such passages. There was literally no honest way this guy could have claimed what he did. And it seems very likely that he was lying as boldly as he did because it is rude to call him a liar. But when someone unambiguously is a liar, what else are we supposed to do? It coarsens discourse, but to treat a liar like he’s honest is itself dishonest. As Tycho from Penny Arcade said:
You aren’t supposed to call people liars; it’s one of those things you aren’t supposed to do. It seems like a rule cooked up by liars, frankly. But what if a person dissembles madly, and writhes rhetorically, in the service of a goal oblique to their stated aims? I see no reason to invent another word.
It’s really normal for Christians to go out of their way to try to make out atheists as being merely misguided, the victims of bad Christians who didn’t teach them well, etc. and I certainly get the impulse. There are some people who are like that. But at the end of the day, when somebody professes something obviously false like that we don’t have free will, or that reason doesn’t work, or whatever it is, they’re still human and still have a duty to actually investigate the world and try to be right about it and so the best case that you can make out for someone saying things like this then ignoring them and moving on is that they’re doing no better a job of being honest than you could expect of them given how badly they were raised. Which may be true, but so what? We’re not their judges. It’s not our job to judge whether they’re culpable for their lies; it’s first to not be complicit and second if possible to help them to stop lying. And I don’t think that failing at step 1 is likely to help succeed at step 2.
This is the script from my video debunking believe-or-burn. It was written to be read aloud, but it should be pretty readable. Or you could just listen to it.
Today we’re going to be looking at how abysmally wrong the idea of “believe or burn”, which I prefer to render as, “say the magic words or burn,” is. And to be clear, I mean wrong, not that I don’t like it or this isn’t my opinion. I’m Catholic, not evangelical, so I’m talking about how it contradicts the consistent teaching of the church since its inception 2000 years ago (and hence is also the position of the Eastern Orthodox, the Kopts, etc), and moreover how one can rationally see why “say the magic words or burn” cannot be true.
I’m not going to spend time explaining why non-Christian religions don’t believe you have to say the magic words or burn because for most of them, it’s not even relevant. In Hinduism, heavens and hells are related to your karma, not to your beliefs, and they’re all temporary anyway—as the story goes, the ants have all been Indra at some point. In Buddhism you’re trapped in the cycle of reincarnation and the whole point is to escape. To the degree that there even is a concept of hell in Buddhism, you’re there now and maybe you can get out. Many forms of paganism don’t even believe in an afterlife, and where they do—and what you do in life affects what happens to you in the afterlife—what happens to you is largely based on how virtuously you lived in society, not on worshipping any particular gods. Animistic religions are either often similar to pagan religions or they hold that the dead stick around as spirits and watch over the living. For the monotheistic religions, few of them have a well-defined theology on this point. Their attitude tends to be, “here is the way to be good, it’s bad to be evil, and for everyone else, well, that’s not a practical question.” For most of the world’s religions, “say the magic words or burn,” isn’t even wrong. And Islam is something of an exception to this, but I’m not going to get into Islam because the Quran doesn’t unambiguously answer this question and after Al Ghazali’s triumph over the philosophers in the 11th century, there really isn’t such thing as Islamic theology in the same sense that you have Christian theology. Christianity holds human reason, being finite, to be unable to comprehend God, but to be able to reason correctly about God within its limits. Since Al-Ghazali wrote The Incoherence of the Philosophers, the trend in Islam has been to deny human reason can say anything about God, past what he said about himself in the Quran. As such, any question not directly and unambiguously answered in the Quran—which, recall, is poetry—is not really something you can reason about. So as a matter of practicality I think Islam should be grouped with the other monotheisms who hold the question of what happens to non-believers acting in good faith to be impractical. And in any event there are hadith and a passage in the Quran which do talk about some Jews and Christians entering paradise, so make of that what you will.
There isn’t an official name for the doctrine of “say the magic words or burn”, but I think it’s best known because of fundamentalists who say that anyone who doesn’t believe will burn in hell. I think that the usual form is saying that everyone who isn’t a Christian will burn in hell, for some definition of Christian that excludes Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, and anyone else who doesn’t think that the King James version of the bible was faxed down from heaven and is the sole authority in human affairs. You generally prove that you’re a Christian in this sense by saying, “Jesus Christ is my personal lord and savior”, but there’s no requirement that you understand what any of that means, so it functions exactly like a magical incantation.
As I discussed in my video on fundamentalists, when they demand people speak the magic words, what they’re asking for is not in any sense a real religious formulation, but actually a loyalty pledge to the dominant local culture. (Which is fundamentalist—all tribes have a way of pledging loyalty.) But the concept of “say the magic words or burn,” has a broader background than fundamentalists, going all the way back to the earliest Protestant reformers and being, more or less, a direct consequence of how Martin Luther and John Calvin meant the doctrine of Sola Fide.
Before I get into the origin of “say the magic words or burn”, let me give an overly brief explanation of what salvation actually means, to make sure we’re on the same page. And to do that, I have to start with what sin is: sin means that we have made ourselves less than what we are. For example, we were given language so that we could communicate truth. When we lie, not only do we fail in living up to the good we can do, we also damage our ability to tell the truth in the future. Lying (and all vices) all too easily become habits. We have hurt others and damaged ourselves. Happiness consists of being fully ourselves, and so in order to be happy we must be fixed. This is, over-simplified, what it means to say that we need salvation. Christianity holds that Jesus has done the work of that salvation, which after death we will be united with, if we accept God’s offer, and so we will become fixed, and thus being perfect, will be capable of eternal happiness. That’s salvation. Some amount of belief is obviously necessary to this, because if you don’t believe the world is good, you will not seek to be yourself. This is why nihilists like pickup artists are so miserable. They are human but trying to live life like some sort of sex-machine. They do lots of things that do them no good, and leave off doing lots of things that would do them good. Action follows belief, and so belief helps to live life well. We all have at least some sense of what is true, though, or in more classical language the natural law is written on all men’s hearts. It is thus possible for a person to do his best to be good, under the limitations of what he knows to be good. God desires the good of all of his creatures, and while we may not be able to see how a person doing some good, and some evil things under the misapprehension that they are good, can be saved, we have faith in God that he can do what men can’t. Besides, it doesn’t seem likely that God would permit errors to occur if they couldn’t be overcome. While we don’t know who will be saved, it is permissible to hope that all will be saved. As it says in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.”
OK, so given that, where did the evil and insane idea of “say the magic words or burn” come from? Well, Sola Fide originated with Martin Luther, who as legend has it was scrupulous and couldn’t see how he could ever be good enough to enter heaven (I say, “as legend has it” because this may be an overly sympathetic telling). For some reason he couldn’t do his best and trust God for the rest, so he needed some alternative to make himself feel better. Unfortunately being Christian he was stuck with the word faith, which in the context of Christianity means trusting God. Martin Luther’s solution was to redefine the word faith to mean—well, he wasn’t exactly consistent, but at least much of the time he used it to mean something to the effect of “a pledge of allegiance”—basically, a promise of loyalty. The problem with that is that pledging your allegiance is just words. There’s even a parable Jesus told about this very thing: a man had two sons and told them go to work in his fields. The one son said no, but later thought better of it and went to work in the fields. The other said, “yes, sir” but didn’t go. Which did his father’s will? And please note, I’m not citing that to proof-text that Martin Luther was wrong. One bible passage with no context proves nothing. No, Martin Luther was obviously wrong. I’m just mentioning this parable because it’s an excellent illustration of the point about actions versus words. But as a side-note, it’s also an excellent illustration of why mainline protestants often have relatively little in common with Martin Luther and why it was left to the fundamentalists to really go whole-hog on Martin Luther’s theology: it was a direct contradiction of what Jesus himself taught.
John Calvin also had a hand in “say the magic words or burn”, though it was a bit different from the influence of Martin Luther. Though Luther and Calvin did agree on many points, they tended to agree for different reasons. While Martin Luther simply repudiated free will and the efficacy of reason—more or less believing that they never existed—John Calvin denied them because of the fall of man. According to Calvin man was free and and his reason worked before the first sin, but all that was destroyed with the first sin, resulting in the total depravity of man. Whereas Martin Luther thought that free will was nonsensical even as a concept, John Calvin understood what it meant but merely denied it. Ironically, John Calvin’s doctrines being a little more moderate than Martin Luther’s probably resulted in them having a much larger impact on the world; you had to be basically crazy to agree with Martin Luther, while you only needed to be deeply pessimistic to agree with John Calvin. Luther held that God was the author of evil, while Calvin at least said that all of the evil was a just punishment for how bad the first sin was. If outsiders can’t readily tell the difference between Calvin’s idea of God and the orthodox idea of the devil, insiders can’t even tell the difference between them in Martin Luther’s theology. Luther literally said that he had more faith than anyone else because he could believe that God is good despite choosing to damn so many and save so few. The rest of us, who don’t even try to believe blatant logical contradictions about God, just didn’t measure up. In the history of the world, Martin Luther is truly something special.
However, since both Luther and Calvin denied that there was such a thing as free will these days, Sola Fide necessarily took on a very strange meaning. Even a pledge of allegiance can’t do anything if you’re not the one who made it. So faith ends up becoming, especially for Calvin, just a sign that you will be saved. The thing is, while this is logically consistent—I mean, it may contradict common sense, but it doesn’t contradict itself—it isn’t psychologically stable. No one takes determinism seriously. The closest idea which is at least a little psychologically stable is that God is really just a god, if a really powerful god, so pledging allegiance is like becoming a citizen of a powerful, wealthy country. You’ll probably be safe and rich, but if you commit a crime you might spend some time in jail or even be deported. I realize that’s not the typical metaphor, but it’s fairly apt, and anyone born in the last several hundred years doesn’t have an intuitive understanding for what a feudal overlord is. This understanding of Sola Fide can’t be reconciled with Christianity, the whole point of which is to take seriously that God is the creator of the entire world and thus stands apart from it and loves it all. But this understanding of Sola Fide can plug into our instinct to be part of a tribe, which is why if you don’t think about it, it can be a stable belief.
So we come again to the loyalty pledge to the group—in a sense we have to because that is all a statement of belief without underlying intellectual belief ever can be—but with this crucial difference: whereas the fundamentalist generally is demanding loyalty to the immediate secular culture, the calvinist-inspired person can be pledging loyalty to something which transcends the immediate culture. I don’t want to oversell this because every culture—specific enough that a person can live in it—is always a subculture in a larger culture. But even so the calvinist-inspired magic-words-or-burn approach is not necessarily local. It is possible to be the only person who is on the team in an entire city, just like it’s possible to be the only Frenchman in Detroit. As such this form of magic-words-or-burn can have a strong appeal to anyone who feels themselves an outsider.
And the two forms of magic-words-or-burn are not very far apart and can easily become the other as circumstances dictate. And it should be borne in mind that one of those circumstances is raising children, because a problem which every parent has is teaching their children to be a part of their culture. In this fallen world, no culture is fully human, and equally problematic is that no human is fully human, so the result is that child and culture will always conflict. Beatings work somewhat, but getting buy-in from the child is much easier on the arms and vocal cords, and in the hands of less-than-perfect parents, anything which can be used to tame their children probably will be.
This would normally, I think, be a suitable conclusion to this video, but unfortunately it seems like salvation is a subject on which people are desperate to make some sort of error of exaggeration, so if we rule out the idea that beliefs are the only things that matter, many people will start running for the opposite side and try to jump off the cliff of beliefs not mattering at all. Or in other words, if salvation is possible to pagans, why should a Christian preach to them?
The short answer is that the truth is better for people than mistakes, even if mistakes aren’t deadly. This is because happiness consists in being maximally ourselves, and the only thing which allows us to do that is the truth. Silly examples are always clearer, so consider a man who thinks that he’s a tree and so stands outside with his bare feet in the dirt, arms outspread, motionless, trying to absorb water and nutrients through his toes and photosynthesize through his fingers. After a day or two, he will be very unhappy and a few days later he will die if he doesn’t repent of his mistake. Of course very few people make a mistake this stark—if nothing else anyone who does will die almost immediately, leaving only those who don’t make mistakes this extreme around. But the difference between this and thinking that life is about having sex with as many people as possible is a matter of degree, not of kind. You won’t die of thirst and starvation being a sex-maniac, and it will take you longer than a few days to become noticeably miserable, but it will happen with those who think they’re mindless sex machines as reliably as it will those who think they’re trees.
Pagans are in a similar situation to the pick-up-artists who think they’re mindless sex robots. Because paganism was a more widespread belief system that lasted much longer, it was more workable than pick-up-artistry, which is to say that it was nearer to the truth, but it was still wrong in ways that seriously affect human happiness. It varied with place and time, of course, but common mistakes were a focus on glory, the disposability of the individual, the inability of people to redeem themselves from errors, and so on. The same is true of other mistaken religions; they each have their mistakes, some more than others, and tend toward unhappiness to the degree that they’re wrong.
There is a second side to the importance of preaching Christianity to those who aren’t Christian, which is that life is real and salvation is about living life to the full, not skating by on the bare minimum. Far too many people think of this life as something unrelated to eternal life, as if once you make it to heaven you start over. What we are doing now is building creation up moment by moment. People who have been deceived will necessarily be getting things wrong and doing harm where they meant to help, and failing to help where they could have; it is not possible to be mistaken about reality and get everything right. That’s asking a person with vision problems to be an excellent marksman. A person who causes harm where they meant to help may not be morally culpable for the harm they do, but when all is made clear, they cannot be happy about the harm they did, while they will be able to be happy about the good they did. To give people the truth is to give them the opportunity to be happier. That is a duty precisely because we are supposed to love people and not merely tolerate them. Though I suppose I should also mention the balancing point that we’re supposed to give people the truth, not force it down their throats. Having given it to them, if they won’t take it, our job is done.
OK, I think I can conclude this video now. Until next time, may you hit everything you aim at.