Friday, May 31, 2013

Christian apologist Randal Rauser invites discussion

Christian apologist Randal Rauser kindly invited me to take part in a series he is writing for his blog in which he asks certain "well-established" atheists to respond to the question "Why do you reject theism and/or Christianity?" (Representative link). Rauser describes himself as aiming for "progressively evangelical, generously orthodox, rigorously analytic, revolutionary Christian thinking." I'm glad he's taking the time to engage with atheists and skeptics on his blog, whatever his purposes are, and I'm glad he took the chance of inviting me to participate.

I am assuming that he intends to publish my response to his question on his blog with his commentary, as in the representative link above, and I'm assuming that he is not averse to me publishing my own thoughts on my own blog (i.e. that I wasn't giving him exclusive blog publication rights). Since I've had some interest already expressed in this matter by some of my own readers, I'm going ahead and putting those thoughts down here also. A link to Rauser's commentary will be added when it's available. EDIT: That link is now available. Rauser's response.

For what it is worth, this piece highlights where my thinking about theism is going lately. Hopefully it's clear that it's not the "throw the rocks at the cathedral" stuff I've engaged in at times before, nor is it the same hard-line "new atheist" approach, nor is it in any way accommodationist to religion as an optimally viable mode for approaching the world. If anything, I'd classify it as being even more profoundly antitheistic than the usual fare in the genre.

Without further ado, then, here is the essay I sent to Rauser addressing the question "Why do I reject theism and/or Christianity?"

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As with many things, this is not a simple matter. After reading through examples on your blog, I realized that I'm a "complex" case with a very slow process of leaving theism. There are many instances I can think of that hold significance as having been game-changers, some that I realized at the time and some that I didn't realize until much later. I now have very different reasons than I did at various stages along this journey. Since this is about my argument, though, not a process of deconverting and the insights involved therein, I'll try to stick cleanly to your question about my reasons.

Now, I've been pretty careful with my wording so far particularly because I find fault with the wording of your question. This fact is nothing upon you, but it is revelatory of your thought processes. As a mathematician, I see something in your wording, which I realized while contemplating my response to the question "why do I reject theism in general and Christianity in specific?"

Here's the catch: in statistical hypothesis testing, we have two hypotheses, the "null" and the "alternative" hypotheses. We assume the null unless there is sufficient reason presented to reject it for the alternative, given with a level of confidence determined beforehand to be sufficient to the degree of evidence required. Particularly, it is erroneous to "reject" the alternative hypothesis--it is only possible to fail to accept it. For me, as "negative atheism," as Anthony Flew called it, is the null hypothesis, I cannot "reject theism" but can only fail to accept it. For you, as a Christian, you have worded your question about "rejecting theism" to indicate that your position takes theism as the null hypothesis. This statement is profoundly interesting because it reveals a bias--one I claim you have and yet that you might try to claim that I have.

In short, then, for levels of confidence that suit me in this question, I fail to see sufficient reasons to accept the hypothesis of theism. Since Christianity is predicated on theism, I fail to accept Christianity as well. Indeed, while I feel I could talk at length in the realm of your strength--Christian theology--to the reasons I find Christianity in particular to be unacceptable nonsense, I actually feel that it is beneath commentary entirely because (1) I see no reason to accept theism, and (2) Christian theology, as viewed from the outside, is easily dismissed even while accepting theism, as billions of Muslims, Hindus, etc., demonstrate handily.

For me, then, since I see no empirical reasons to accept theism but see billions of people who do accept it anyway, the real question comes down to "why do people accept theism?" Certainly it's not because it's true, in the usual sense of the word, and particularly not because it is demonstrably true. So here I can talk about my personal reasons for ignoring theism as being essentially irrelevant, beyond the fact that I have no reason to believe that it is true.

I don't mean to suggest that the reasons that people accept beliefs in a deity are simple, but there are rather broad categories of psychosocial needs that are met by religion with "God" as the emblematic figurehead. These needs can be listed briefly: attribution (including meaning), control, esteem, sociality (including an overarching moral framework), and perhaps a need for some kind of mysticism or spirituality. In part, on the personal level, I do not accept theism because I do not think theism sufficiently provides for these needs. In fact, I find that theism often stands in the way of meeting these needs deeply, hence my failure to accept theism resulted from a long-term search that I can now understand in light of attempting to satisfy many of these psychosocial needs for myself.

To wit, I find science does a better job of providing my basic attributional needs, i.e. explanations for phenomena. Indeed, suggesting a supernatural agent cause does nothing but leave open the question of "how?" which off theism can be worded "how does/did this happen?" and on theism "how does/did God do this?" Those questions are functionally identical although the latter contains the famous unnecessary hypothesis. For my deeper attributional needs, a sense of meaning or purpose, I'm content understanding that my meaning in life is inherently subjective and therefore up to me to create and appreciate for myself. The theistic hypothesis adds literally nothing but unnecessary, confounding, and ultimately meaningless questions to this process.

For the other needs, control, esteem, and sociality, I have other means of satisfying them as well. I find my needs for control met in the abundant evidence we have for human resilience in the face of adversity, including my own, although I would suggest that my explorations with Buddhist non-attachment were very helpful in realizing that I need far less control over circumstances than I thought I did. My sense of esteem is intertwined with these other needs and is often quite stable. As to any "spiritual" needs--which I also see as being psychological--I feel even more successful exploring that aspect of my mind without a hypothetical "God" to represent attribution for various experiences than I did when I still believed some "God" is out there.

Now morality, though, as an avenue to social cohesion, is a big kicker. It is my studied opinion that theological attempts to explain morality fail utterly in that their roots are often tied to authoritative dicta instead of real-world salience. Indeed, I often think of theism as an avenue to "morality lite," with lite meant in precisely the same way as with  "lite" beer. I'm coming to see "God" (as defined as moral perfection with agenticity) as an emblem of a conceptual ideal within a particular moral framework, whether or not this moral framework has any grounding in salient notions like care and harm, or well-being and suffering. Of course, this isn't all that is meant by "God," which is something of an amalgam of many ideas. This is merely how I'm seeing the "moral perfection" aspect. At any rate, I don't need to apply agency, divine authority, or supernatural origins to these concepts in order to achieve the goals of "being good" and meshing with the social framework into which I was born.

So, to summarize: your question doesn't technically make sense, as "rejecting theism" would only be possible if I already assumed it. I do not accept theism, though, because I see a paucity of evidential reasons to believe any such agent is required and because it has been my consistent experience that I can meet my intellectual and psychosocial needs vastly better without the hypothesis of any "God" of any kind.

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Again, I encourage you to  take a moment and visit Dr. Rauser's blog and read his response (Link). I am deeply grateful to Randal for the opportunity to have shared my thoughts on his platform and for the time he took to engage what I had to say.

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