Missing the Point on Atheism and Mass Murder

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Pat Buchanan

Pat Buchanan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Former Arkansas Governor, Mike Huckabee, speak...

Former Arkansas Governor, Mike Huckabee, speaking to a gathering at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Atheists have reacted with outrage to Mike Huckabee‘s statements (http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10151207029493634) as well as Pat Buchanan‘s column (http://buchanan.org/blog/the-dead-soul-of-adam-lanza-5428) on the role that atheism might play in such tragedies as the school murders in Connecticut. Some comments I have read suggest that atheists believe that Mr. Huckabee and Mr. Buchanan are attacking them personally or saying that atheism directly led to the school shooting. A more careful reading of Huckabee and Buchanan, however, reveals that their claims are more nuanced. The point they make, and I think they are right, is that a godless society is more likely to put the primary focus on the self and its desires. Now I am aware of James Q. Wilson‘s work on sociobiology and altruism, but more people are likely to have heard of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. Most “lay atheists,” even highly educated or intelligent atheists, may not be aware of either work, but one motive for atheism among some (though not all) atheists is the desire to be free of divine judgment in order to fulfill the desires of the self. Kant was a theist of sorts, at least most of his life, and the remains of Lutheran divine command theory kept his principle of autonomy from degenerating into subjectivism–the identical moral law, Kant believed, was given to each individual by that individual self. With the remains of Christianity removed from autonomy, autonomy becomes the right to do whatever the self desires. Now that often comes with the caveat that one can do what one desires “as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else,” but without a divine judgment it is only internal conscience developed by habituation that prevents evil personal desires from being expressed. Ted Bundy made it clear to one of his victims that without a God to judge him, he believed that he should fulfill his personal desires to murder his victims and sexually violate their dead bodies. Without a sense that one’s actions can have consequences beyond this life, including negative consequences, it is easier for disturbed people such as Adam Lanza to act on their evil desires. Now he may have acted anyway–we cannot know for sure–but the point is that with one less barrier to fulfilling personal desires, it is easier for an evil or severely disturbed person to “go over the top” and act on his twisted desires. This does not imply that all mass murderers are atheists, nor does it deny that many atheists have moral lives that put some Christians to shame. In a way, the atheist who seeks only fulfillment of the self is acting more consistently than the one who affirms a larger social responsibility to the group. I am aware that evolution recognizes the nature of humans as social beings, and that a lack of all concern for others would prevent human genes from being carried on to the next generation. Yet there is no transcendent meaning to life in atheism, and as Bertrand Russell recognized, all human achievements would be lost in the final ruin of the universe. In such a meaningless world, hedonism may seem like the best option, as with Russell, but with less stable people egoism may be the course they take. Thus the point made is a general one: a society that eliminates any deity is more likely to produce more people like Mr. Lanza that one that accepts ethical monotheism.

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Two A.M. Doubts about God

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English: This is the portrait of Mother Teresa

English: This is the portrait of Mother Teresa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Mother Teresa‘s diaries were made public, it surprised some people that she admitted that at times she doubted the existence of God. How could such a saintly woman have such doubts? When I have expressed my own doubts to others, some people react defensively or tell me I should repent and pray since doubting God’s existence is a sin. As well meaning as that response may be, it is wrong-headed.

First, it is difficult to believe that there are Christians who have never doubted the existence, or at least the goodness, of God at some point in their lives. Beyond the doubts that often come after tragedy, there are the doubts that invade at two a.m. in the darkness of night when trivial concerns of the day have dissolved and the ultimate questions come to mind. “Is there really a God? Everyone dies, everything changes. How can there be an eternal mind? If it is just mind, how can it exist at all? If God does not exist, there is no life after death and when I die I’ll be dead like Rover, all over, annihilated–no thoughts, no memories, no feelings, sheer, absolute nothingness.”

Although most people may not ask questions at that level of sophistication or have existential anxiety that intense, it would surprise me greatly if a large number of religious people had no doubts at all. If Mother Teresa had doubts, as good as she was, I am sure the average Christian has doubts.

Although atheism is foreign to Holy Scripture, it is clear in the Psalms that some of the poets had doubts concerning the goodness and faithfulness of God. Although these are resolved in most of these psalms by a confession of faith in God’s future deliverance, one psalm, Psalm 88, offers no hope at all. The end of life for the righteous and the wicked is the shadowy realm of Sheol, where the dead slowly fade away as people forget them, fading eternally without being wholly annihilated. In the Christian tradition, John the Baptist doubted that Jesus was the Messiah to the point that Jesus sent a message concerning His mighty acts to John via His apostles. The Apostle Thomas is the most famous example of doubt, and he ceases to doubt when he sees the resurrected Jesus in person.

In Christian mysticism, the withdrawal of God in the dark night of the soul (St. John of the Cross) may lead to a state in which God seems absent. Perhaps that is the state in which Mother Teresa found herself when she doubted the existence of God. This, according to St. John of the Cross, is a necessary though painful stage on the way toward union with God.

Existential anxiety is not necessarily a bad thing, as the atheist philosophers, John Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Martin Heidegger recognized, Heidegger noted that human nature (Dasein) is “being toward death,” and to fail to recognize this obvious fact of life is to live in an inauthentic fashion (Sartre would say, “live in ‘bad faith'”). Perhaps Christians to deny any doubt are not living authentically, not allowing their faith to be put to the test. Such “faith” would never stand a major life crisis. Facing one’s potential annihilation head on is a necessary step toward living an authentic life, and for some people it may be an essential step in finding true faith. I have no problem with the advice to pray about doubts — if Christian claims about God are true, He will provide comfort during times of distress and doubt.

For intellectuals, studying the classic arguments for God’s existence may be helpful, especially for those who do not have a Humean or a Kantian bias against the arguments. These serve as “preambles to faith,” as Aquinas noted, but they also can help to restore faith, at least at an intellectual level. The emotional level arises through prayer, participation in the liturgy, and helping others and treating them with respect. One’s faith will most likely be stronger, rather than weaker, after a period of doubt. Those Christians who doubt the doubters should keep that in mind.

Atheist Desperation

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The Hubble Ultra Deep Field, is an image of a ...

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field, is an image of a small region of space in the constellation Fornax, composited from Hubble Space Telescope data accumulated over a period from September 3, 2003 through January 16, 2004. The patch of sky in which the galaxies reside was chosen because it had a low density of bright stars in the near-field. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The number of new articles and books coming out that assert that the universe literally arose from nothingness without any deity reveal the desperation of atheists. They behave like individuals that assert an absurdity, thinking that if they repeat it enough people will believe it. No matter how much atheists repeat the mantra, “The universe popped into existence out of nothingness,” it will not make that claim any less incoherent. Atheists still play games with the “quantum vacuum,” even though theists have pointed out time and time again that a quantum vacuum is not mere nothingness. When Hawking speaks of a true vacuum causing the existence of a false vacuum, he is spouting nonsense. “Ex nihil, nihil fit” (from nothing, nothing comes to be”) is true today as it was in the past. Pure nothingness is just nonexistence–since it is literally no-thing, not matter, not energy–it cannot have any powers including causal powers. If the atheist tries to bring in another factor into the “true vacuum,” that brings back “something.” The atheist would be more consistent to accept the ancient idea of the everlastingness of the universe as do some “multiverse” theories. In the end, I do not think they save atheism, but at least they are not obviously self-contradictory.

Atheistic scientists often accuse theists of believing in the fantastic, in something so absurd that it cannot exist. Such claims are often salted with terms such as “Santa Claus” and “The Tooth Fairy,” as if that has anything to do with the issue of the existence of God. It is far more fantastic to believe that something arose from sheer nothingness. It is also far more fantastic to believe in an infinite number of universes in which all logical possibilities are actualized (If the traditional conception of God is logically possible, involving no contradiction, which it surely is, then I suppose the atheist would accept one logical possibility that is not actualized–but then the atheist is all about making exceptions when it suits him).

Atheism is primarily about rebellion rather than reality–some people refuse to accept a God who calls their behavior to account. Atheism is a matter of human pride–the refusal to accept any mind higher than one’s own or any truths that go beyond the purview of physical science (especially physics). Some atheists, such as the late Antony Flew, were honest seekers of the truth, and he became a believer in a deistic God. Atheists who are really God-haters may also change their minds if they can overcome their hatred. There is a subset of atheists who are hard core, such as the majority of the members of the National Academy of Sciences as well as those who deign to assert that something can come from nothing. These individuals could see God face to face and deny His existence. They are like the dwarfs in C. S. Lewis‘s The Last Battle, who perceive the gold and jewels Aslan offers them as horse waste and straw. Anyone who asserts a clear contradiction in defense of atheism must be willfully blind. These same scientists will use logic and reason to attack the coherence of a theory they do not accept–yet they assert a blatant contradiction as being true. The only way I can explain that is that the scientists’ beliefs are an act of the will rather than primarily an act of the intellect. They have willed to reject God, and their assertion of contradiction follows. If asserting that something comes from nothingness is the only “argument” that an atheist gives for his position, then that atheist truly is desperate. Atheists who accuse theists of irrationality ought to look at themselves in a mirror first.

Atheism, Agnosticism, and Psychologists

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English: John Watson, founder of American beha...

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A 2006 study in Sociology of Religion found that 50% of American psychology professors were atheists and 11% agnostic, making psychologists less religious than professors in any other field, including the other sciences. What is it about the field of psychology that lends itself to a non-theistic world view? The problem seems to be that psychology remains stuck in the nineteenth century, both in its overall world view and in its naive conception of science.

The nineteenth century non-religious intellectual usually rejected belief in God because there seemed to be no role for God in a Newtonian cosmos. Although Newton himself was a theist who believed that space is the “sensorium” of God, his followers generally saw no need for God in a mechanistic universe; as the French scientist Laplace famously said concerning God, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” A world of machines governed by deterministic laws could exist on its own without any God to sustain it in existence, a fact that the Irish philosopher George Berkeley recognized despite the problematic nature of his own idealistic metaphysics. The Newtonian world seemed to leave no room for “God, freedom, and immortality,” and Kant felt forced to accept at the level of phenomena a godless, deterministic universe, but affirmed God, freedom, and immortality to be postulates of practical reason. As Kant himself eventually realized (in his posthumously published writings), his view, at best, implies that human beings must act as if God, freedom, and immortality exist, but that these things belong to the unknowable realm of noumena about which we must remain agnostic.

After Darwin interpreted biology in terms of a Newtonian mechanical world view in his theory of evolution by natural selection, some intellectuals who hated the abrogation of any spirituality from the world turned back toward Descartes‘ dualistic philosophy in which mind is free, mind can exist after death, and with God being a great Mind, the fact that matter is determined by strict Newtonian laws does not oppose freedom and spirituality. Some of these intellectuals focused on alleged empirical evidence for mental powers above the physical and for survival of death by a mind, and thus the philosopher Henry Sidgwich and the classicist turned psychologist F. W. H. Meyers founded the Society for Psychical Research in London in 1882. Later, in 1885, the American Society for Psychical Research was founded, with the philosopher and psychologist William James serving as its second president. By studying phenomena such as telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, and mediumship, these intellectuals desired to discover an empirical basis for the mind having powers beyond the standard interpretation of Newtonian laws. Although influential for a time, the Society suffered from vicious attacks from defenders of the strict Newtonian paradigm.

In England and in the United States, idealistic (in England) and pragmatic (in the United States) systems of philosophy were overwhelmed by the early analytic movement in philosophy, including the logical positivists. The Vienna Circle in the 1920s and 30s supported the position that only empirically verifiable statements or tautologies such as those found in mathematics and logic were meaningful. In psychology, the earlier open-mindedness of William James was replaced by the dogmatic behaviorism of John Broadus Watson which was continued by B. F. Skinner. Watson, influenced by the Vienna Circle, excluded all considerations of consciousness and other “unobservable” behaviors from psychology, focusing only on observable behavior as shown in stimulus-response behavior in mice and other animals. These animal “machines” were thought to be appropriate models of the behavior of “human machines;” thus both non-human animals and human beings were considered to be “automata.” God, as an unobservable entity, could have no meaning in such a world view.

Later, the cognitivist revolution in psychology overwhelmed behaviorism, but even cognitive psychology uses mechanical models for human cognition and behavior. Computational models, connectionism, neural network theory, and even functionalism are all basically mechanical models of cognition. They have difficulties dealing with the first person perspective of consciousness and both qualia and intentionality. With such a mechanical model of nature, there is still no room for a deity. Even with the quantum revolution in physics, which seems to oppose both absolute determinism and a mechanical model of the universe, most psychologists have stubbornly held on to the Newtonian world view, leaving no room for belief in God.

Psychologists, with some important exceptions, accept a nineteenth century view of science that has its ultimate origins in the thought of Francis Bacon in the seventeenth century. The notion of one “scientific method” in which the scientist collects observations, formulates a hypothesis, and tests the hypothesis through observation has been discredited by both philosophers of science (Popper, Lakatos, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Laudan) and scientists (Kuhn was a physicist, as was Michael Polanyi, an important critic of the “received view” in the philosophy of science). Although physicists and chemists who actually do cutting edge research recognize that there are actually multiple methods in science, as well as some biologists (though some radical Darwinians are just as extreme as most psychologists), psychologists still retain an outmoded view of science and of the “scientific method.” They also tend to believe that science is the only reliable source of knowledge, ruling out knowledge via philosophy, religion, art, and literature. Scientists in other fields are not as closed-minded, and this leads to more openness to the possibility that a God might exist.

Psychologists need to move into the twenty-first century since most of them bypassed the twentieth century and stayed in the nineteenth century. They need to examine how changes in sciences such as physics have called to question the Newtonian world view and mechanistic model of the universe. They should read work in contemporary philosophy of science that challenges their naive hypothetical-deductivist system and take it seriously instead of merely dismissing it. They should be open to all empirical data, including actually reading articles on psi, instead of finding one or two “straw man” articles to attack in their introductory textbooks on research methods. Finally, they should be open to the possibility that there are other means of gaining reliable knowledge than a narrowly conceived “scientific method.” Only then will academic (mainly experimental) psychologists be open to other views than atheism and agnosticism concerning the existence of God.

The Intellectual Dishonesty of Atheists

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Atheism

As an academic sending papers out for publication, it is interesting how atheism is held to a lower standard than theism. That is, if theists used the same poor arguments some atheists use, their papers would be immediately rejected. For example, if a theist were guilty of using the genetic fallacy to attack atheism, the paper would be rightly rejected. A theist might try to argue, say, that atheism had its origin among moral libertines (which is a questionable assumption); therefore, it must be false. This is a terrible argument since it is illegitimate to argue from the alleged origin of a belief to the truth or falsity of that belief. Even if it were true that atheism originated among moral libertines, it would not follow that atheism is false. If a theist is to successfully attack atheism, the theist must first of all defend the rational nature of belief in God. Thomists would go further and use the Cosmological Argument to attempt to prove God’s existence, and rationalist theists might make use of the Ontological Argument. The theist can also answer critics of theism on such points as the problem of evil and suffering. Such debate is difficult and takes a great deal of intellectual effort on both sides.

To be fair, most atheist philosophers believe that a naive genetic argument against the existence of God, such as Sigmund Freud’s “religion as wish fulfillment” hypothesis, which states that religious people want to create a powerful father-figure, is not cogent. They admit that Freud commits the genetic fallacy. But the same atheists might appeal to religious wars or damage done to society by certain theistic religions as evidence against God’s existence. Theists, on the contrary, could appeal to the positive moral influence of theistic religions. Neither argument works to prove or disprove God’s existence. But some atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens, continue to make such a poor argument, which is basically a repetition of Bertrand Russell‘s argument in his book Why I am Not a Christian. I have seen college and university students fooled by the wonderful writing and rhetoric of both Russell and Hitchens–and then they are unwilling to see the vacuity of Russell’s and Hitchens’ arguments. If a theist were to make a similar argument, I have no doubt that Russell would have, and Hitchens would, call the theist to task. There is a double standard here–and a double standard that is intellectually dishonest.

No matter how sophisticated a genetic fallacy is, it remains a fallacy. An analytic philosopher can dress a bad argument up in enough Ps and Qs to write ten logic textbooks, but if the argument is fundamentally unsound, all the alphabet soup in the world will not turn a bad argument into a good one. When an atheist analytic philosopher rejects a theist for calling him on what he is actually doing, the atheist is being intellectually dishonest. The atheist may even question the competence of the theistic philosopher or accuse the theist of misrepresenting him. Now it is possible for a theist, an atheist, an agnostic, or any other philosopher to misrepresent an opponent’s argument or set up a straw man to attack. But I become angry when atheists try to hide their bad arguments in a sea of rhetoric and symbolic logic, and then accuse theists of being ignorant and misrepresenting them.

It is easy to become cynical toward my own field of philosophy. More and more I see philosophers, including myself, holding cherished positions first and then trying to back them up through philosophical argument. Perhaps these great world-view issues are so emotionally powerful that one cannot avoid prior nonrational commitments that are later putatively supported by arguments. I do not want to go the postmodern route–I do believe in “Truth” with a capital “T,” but the more intellectual cheating I see in the field, not only among atheists, but among some theists and philosophers of every stripe, the more I see faith commitments as guiding people’s lives, even the lives of philosophers, whether theist, agnostic, atheist, pantheistic, panentheistic, Platonic, or Aristotelian. But if someone is intellectually cheating and is caught, he should have the intellectual balls to admit it (and this does not exclude myself).

Cosmological Arguments Based on Sufficient Reason are Flawed

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Gottfried Leibniz, who speculated that human r...

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One of the most popular family of cosmological arguments for the existence of God is based on the principle of sufficient reason. This principle dates back to at least the time of Leibniz, who used the principle to argue that contingent beings must have a sufficient reason for their existence, and that reason is God. As much as I love the cosmological argument based on neo-Aristotelian notions of cause and effect, the argument from the principle of sufficient reason fails.

Leibniz’s own argument fails, first of all, because his notion of “contingency” is only an epistemological, not a metaphysical, notion. Beings and events are contingent only from our limited human point of view. But every object and event is logically necessary given God’s preestablished harmony between the monads, the ultimate (non-spatial, non-temporal, windowless) bits of “mind-stuff” that are the basis of all being. Leibniz was such a determinist that he believed that if at time A, person B had one less hair on his head, he would literally be a different person. Thus the contingency of being is only an appearance, only a quirk of human beings’ limited capacity to know a complex world, rather than an actual state of finite beings. Leibniz’s distinction between contingent and necessary being collapses into only necessary being, and since the distinction is essential to his cosmological argument, his argument fails. A similar criticism applies to all arguments from sufficient reason that posit a necessary connection between reasons in a deductive logic framework.

A major problem with all arguments based on the principle of sufficient reason is that this principle, beloved of many rationalists, subsumes causes under reasons. But not all causes are reasons and not all reasons are causes. The cause of the late President John F. Kennedy’s death was the bullet that caused fatal brain destruction. The reasons for his death are more complex and involve the motives of Oswald, perhaps too lax security, and so forth. It is true that we talk of reasons being causes in a loose, extended sense and vice versa, but this does not imply that the distinction is illusory or unreal.

If a cosmological argument for the existence of God is to be sound, it must start from cause and effect among finite beings, with the finite causes being contingent because they do not have the cause of their existence within themselves, and therefore they are liable to change, decay, and in the case of living things, death. Aquinas’ Five Ways to prove God’s existence are examples of arguments based on traditional Aristotelian causality. Of course the arguments will have to be updated to some degree due to their statement in terms of outmoded Aristotelian science, the substance of those arguments are correct–but that discussion is for another day.

The Warren-Flew Debate: Thirty-Five Years Later

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The Warren-Flew debate on the existence of God took place from September 20-23, 1976, on the campus of North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas) in Denton, Texas. Affirming the existence of God was Dr. Thomas B. Warren of the Harding University Graduate School of Religion in Memphis, Tennessee. Denying the existence of God was Dr. Antony G. N. Flew of the University of Reading in the United Kingdom. Both men have passed on now, but to this day that debate has influenced me–and is one of the main reasons I am a philosopher today.

Even as a child I was tormented by doubts about my Christian faith, doubts that continue to haunt me today. In junior high and in high school I wanted to defend the existence of God against atheists, at the time focusing on science. Although I do not agree with my position then, I fell in love with the young earth creationism of Henry Morris, Duane Gish, and the members of the Institute for Creation Research in California. I wanted to get a degree in one of the sciences–my childhood dream was to do what Hugo Ross is doing today–get a Ph.D. in astronomy and defend the Christian faith. Thank God I later recognized that young earth creationism is false–but by then I had an alternative field–philosophy. And it was the book on the Warren-Flew debate that led me into the field.

Memory fails me regarding when I received the book–perhaps it was a Christmas present. I was in the middle of the ninth grade. The first thing that impressed me about the book was its dedication by the publishers–“To all who love truth and are willing to make the search to find it.” It was truth I had always sought–what was and is important is that God exists in truth, in extramental reality. As I read on, I believed (and still do) that Dr. Warren got the better of Dr. Flew in the debate. Perhaps Dr. Flew was not ready for an American style of all-out debate rather than a quiet discussion of the issues. In any case, I admired Warren’s chart of “Chinese Boxes,” each of which Flew had to know to know that God does not exist.  The idea of consciousness arising from that which has no consciousness or intelligence from the non-intelligent still seems fantastic to me today.

This is not to say that Dr. Warren did not equivocate–many of his arguments are vulnerable to attack. Warren’s pseudo-dilemma about which came first, a human mother or a human baby, and how it is impossible for a nonhuman mother to bear a human baby misses the point of evolution. Flew noted this weakness but did not do an adequate job of refuting Warren’s point. Later, Wallace Matson in his debate with Warren offered an effective argument from an analogy with language: “When did Latin become French.” Just as it is impossible to say at what exact point Vulgar Latin ended and Old French began, so it may not be possible to determine when an ape-like primate ended and a human being was born. Despite these flaws, I admire Dr. Warren’s use of logic, his consistent evidential apologetic position, and his willingness to stick to his guns and debate the leading atheists of his day. Reading that book first gave me a love for philosophy that remained in the back of my mind and finally came to fruition when I took some philosophy classes at David Lipscomb University (although my major was Biblical languages) and especially when I took Dr. Harold Hazelip’s classes in the philosophy of religion at Harding Graduate School of Religion, Dr. Warren’s old school. By the time I entered Vanderbilt University for an M.A. in Religion, most of my courses were in philosophy as well as my thesis. By then the course was set, and I thought of Dr. Warren and his debate the day I received my Ph.D. in philosophy from The University of Georgia.

If Dr. Warren were alive today, he would be disappointed in me–he was an old-fashioned believer in the New Testament as a constitution-like document with a set pattern for doctrine and practice that he believed was only fulfilled in the present day through Churches of Christ. In 1983 the paper The Firm Foundation published Warren’s article, “The Only Christians” that argued that the only Christians were members of the Churches of Christ. The article contained a great deal of equivocation on the term “Church of Christ.” Sadly, Dr. Warren would think, if he were still living, that I am on the road to hell. He was man consistent with his convictions to the end of his life, and I admire that. But I believe that it was proper to offer a tribute to Dr. Warren for being, unknowingly, a major inspiration for my decision to go into the field of philosophy–and I thank him.

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