Castles of sand Part 1 Response to Victor Shlenkin

This post is the first part of my reply to Victor Shlenkins criticism of my journey. Also see the second part of my response. Victor has a doctorate in biblical studies and his original essays can be seen here in Russian (part a, part b).

Having grown up in America, it’s very rare for me to read Russian, so on behalf of my parents, I want to thank Victor Shlenkin for his lesson in the excellence of Russian prose. My disagreements aside, reading it has been a pleasant and linguistically challenging experience. In my response to Victor Manzul, I noted we shared many points of agreement in addition to our differences, and I find this to be true with Victor Shlenkin as well. There is much we agree on, like the necessity of a robust academic approach to biblical studies and theology. I do appreciate Victor Shelnkin’s more progressive perspective to the various textual problems found in the New Testament (most Christians I talk to deny they exist). If our paths ever cross, I will gladly buy Victor dinner and am certain we would enjoy a stimulating conversation.

That said, there are also some significant misunderstandings that I hope to correct. My aim is not to “prove” atheism is true, nor to claim that my dialogue partner is irrational or foolish, but to kindly correct some popular misconceptions about the views of people like myself. Ultimately, we may not agree, but at the very least, I would hope this dialogue can help us avoid misunderstanding each other.  In the first part of this reply to Victor Shlenkin, I will focus on our key differences regarding the philosophy of atheism and theism. In the second part, I will clear up some confusion regarding the biblical and ethical issues.

1. On the purported incompatibility of being an agnostic atheist

This section of Victor’s reply was by far the most disappointing. There is a fundamental misunderstanding of the philosophy and taxonomy of nonbelief. My only hope is that this stems from the limitations of Russian philosophical vocabulary or some manner of colloquial use of these terms in the Slavic language, with which I’m not familiar.

a. Agnostics are lazy people who don’t care?

Victor artfully crafts the epistemic portrait of an agnostic. The agnostic is a tired naturalist, weary of debate and philosophy. He retreats to statements like, “I don’t know, don’t judge me, I’m busy, I don’t care about faith.” Alas, this agnostic is no less mythical than the flying spaghetti monster. The person Victor is describing is known as an ‘apatheist’ [1]. The term ‘agnostic’ includes a broad range of beliefs and attitudes and it is a huge disservice to lump these together. We start with the original Huxleyan agnostic (also known as ‘strong agnostic’ or ‘complete agnostic’), who has come to a reasoned philosophical conclusion that the answer to this question is impossible to know [2]. We also have the ‘skeptical agnostic’ who has surveyed the arguments and thinks “there are no good reasons for believing in the existence or nonexistence of God.” There is the ‘cancellation agnostic’ who thinks “there are equally good reasons for believing both theism and atheism that offset one another.” [3]. Moving down our spectrum we also find forms of ‘weak’ or ‘empirical’ agnosticism which simply state that given the best of our knowledge, we don’t have enough reason or evidence to acquire God beliefs [4]. The fact remains that conflating ‘agnostic’ with the caricature of an intellectually lazy apatheist is neither helpful nor true.

b. Atheists are dogmatic people who claim definite knowledge?

 Unfortunately, the epistemic portrait of the atheist also comes from a naiveté of the relevant philosophical literature. Victor presents a “dogmatic” man who firmly shakes his fist and shouts “I know there is no God, here are my proofs!” Of course, there probably are such people, but to conflate one possible type of atheist with ‘atheism’ is to point to Norman Giesler and claim, “This is the only kind of theist there is!” Just as with agnosticism, there is a range of atheistic beliefs, though at the very least, we can distinguish between “strong” and “weak” [5]. Furthermore, I will note that all forms of atheism are propositional beliefs, not claims to irrefutable knowledge, so I’m not sure why it’s incorrectly presented as the latter. Anyone who undergoes basic training in epistemology will quickly be disabused from confidently using such terms as definite knowledge anyway.

c. One cannot be an atheist and agnostic simultaneously?

The most confusing argument I found was the speculation that someone who labels themselves an agnostic-atheist holds two intrinsically incompatible positions as a result of failing to “pick a team.” It’s strange that so many Christians have never heard the term “agnostic atheism” as it is popular enough to have its own Wikipedia page [6]. The term is used in what is likely the most popular philosophical introduction to atheism in the English language, George Smiths “Atheism: The Case Against God” [7]. It’s used by many others, for example former Christian apologist John Loftus designates himself a “philosophical agnostic-atheist” in his book, “Why I Became an Atheist” [8]. Robin Le Poidevin, the president of the British Society for Philosophy of Religion, himself an atheist, writes, “it is possible to be an agnostic atheist” [9]. Michael Martin, one of the most prolific atheist philosophers of the 21st century, writing in the prestigious ‘Cambridge Companion to Atheism,’ states:The common opposition of agnosticism to atheism is misleading… agnosticism is compatible with negative atheism in that agnosticism entails negative atheism. Since agnostics do not believe in God, they are by definition negative atheists.” [10]. Simply put, an agnostic atheist is a person who (a) lacks a belief in God, but (b) does not claim this is the product of indubitable knowledge. It is a synonymous term with “negative atheism” and “weak atheism.” And because these two terms carry unpleasant colloquial connotations (negative implies angry or depressed, while weak implies self-deprecation), I chose to use ‘agnostic atheist.’ What does this mean? It means I don’t claim to have absolute knowledge of all reality, but I think there are far better evidential reasons to believe that the gods described thus far in human history do not exist than to believe that some of them do exist. For the particular evidential argument that I find most convincing, please see my response to Victor Manzul [11].

2. On the folly of arrogant faith

a. Why not believe in a different form of theism instead of rejecting it altogether?

Victor aptly notes that simply becoming disillusioned with something does not necessarily mean that that thing doesn’t exist. If I discovered my gentle grandfather was actually a ruthless barbarian, that would not disprove his existence, only change my views about his characteristics. I agree, but this is a misleading analogy. Examples like this conflate (1) properly justified belief to (2) improperly justified belief. In the first case, we start with indubitable knowledge (my grandfather exists) and show a change in perception towards this known fact (my view of my existing grandfather changes). In the second case, we do not begin with a known fact (God’s existence) and, therefore, seeing conceptual problems in our belief can serve as evidence against the rationality of that belief (if God existed, we would expect A, but in reality we see B). So while I don’t have warrant to reject the existence of my grandfather (a justified belief) upon seeing a different side of him (evidence), I do have warrant for rejecting the Mormon faith (unjustified belief) after seeing historical records of falsehood on the part of its founder (evidence).

Let’s say that I recently joined a strange fairy worshipping cult. My friend told me of an ancient song from a “book of fairies” that when sung, gives the subject a pleasant feeling, and this feeling indicates that pacifist-fairies exist. I listened to him, sang the song, felt a moving experience, and as a result I acquired a belief in the existence of these fairies that are (a) perfectly pacifist and (b) communicate their pacifism through a “book of fairies.” Later on, I surveyed the “book of fairies” and saw it better exemplified a human-authored book for numerous reasons, including that it contained stories of humans committing unloving violence and thinking fairies told them to do it. Seeing this evidence cast doubt on my faith in “pacifist fairies who wrote a loving book” and so I decided to leave the cult of fairies.

Would most people say losing my belief in pacifist fairies was warranted? Yes, of course. Would anyone complain and say that I needed to acquire a new belief in “sometimes violent fairies” or in “pacifist fairies without a book”? Perhaps those who remain in the fairy cult would. But why should I? What epistemic justification would I have for acquiring this new belief in a new kind of fairy? I have evidence that my previous belief in one type of fairy was unreliable, and no good evidence for the existence of a different kind of fairy. Therefore, until I find sound reasons to believe in “sometimes violent fairies” or “pacifist fairies without a book,” I am rationally warranted in thinking they don’t exist. In the same way, I lost my faith in the God of the Bible and I see no reason to acquire faith in a different kind of “God,” whether that is Allah, the maximally great being of classical theism, or an invisible fairy. I cannot claim irrefutable knowledge, but I can claim this is a reliable means of forming warranted beliefs.

Excluding our axiomatic or incorrigible “basic beliefs” (reliability of our senses, memory, etc.), this evidential method is how most rational people form beliefs that correspond to reality. Even if we cannot claim to indubitably know that “no version of X exists,” we can reasonably say, “I don’t believe X exists because we have no good reason to believe in X.” This is a perfectly valid inductive inference, regardless of whether X is “Yahweh” or “fairies” or “Harry Potter.” I don’t believe in any of them, and not in an arrogant or dogmatic sense, but because there is no good reason to believe. Of course, this is a tentative statement; reasonable beliefs must be open to change if sufficient evidence for X becomes available.

b. Why not use a theodicy (a theology of God & suffering) to explain all the difficulties and still believe?

Victor correctly remarks that the word theodicy is not mentioned by me, and that I make no sophisticated attempt to reconcile the logical compatibility of God and the existence of evil. In the interview, I didn’t speak of this, though in actuality, I have grappled with the issue quite a bit. However, what shook me from my dogmatic slumber was not the purported coexistence of God and evil, but something that would not qualify as a theodical question. I was disabused of my faith by the incompatibility of a morally perfect God with biblical examples of Yahweh directly instantiating or commanding imperfect deeds. A true theodicy, at least as defined by Leibniz, attempts to answer “why does God permit evil to exist?” while my question was “why would a morally perfect God cause immoral acts?

Most importantly, I want to emphasize that a theodicy is a way of rationalizing already-held beliefs, not a reliable means of acquiring true beliefs. Throughout history, many religions have constructed answers to problems posed by human suffering. Surely, no Christian would point to an ancient Egyptian theodicy as a good reason to maintain faith in the Egyptian pantheon of gods. This is because a theodicy explains away opposing evidence to an already held belief, nothing more. It simply says there is some reason – often mysterious or unknowable – which explains why the evidence looks like it supports A, but really supports B.

Alas, I don’t believe. And so a theodicy is not helpful. When I did believe, the common forms of theodicies (free will, best of all possible worlds, for some greater unknown good, etc.) did not appear to appreciate the problem well enough, so they weren’t that helpful anyway. So, we see that when Victor says that “genocide is an attack on God’s character, but has nothing to do with his existence,” he says this because he already believes in a particular version of a God. A theodicy can help him defend his belief against what appears to be serious counter-evidence, but it cannot provide evidence to me because it is pure speculation.

3. On the wisdom of doubt

a. Is it impossible to disprove the supernatural?

In another case of appropriating common philosophical misconceptions, Victor joins many other theologians in postulating that the existence of God is impervious to disproof. He states that to conclude the nonexistence of God, one has to become God and attain omniscience; therefore, it’s an impossible task. Is this true? Can we never prove the non-existence of something? Contrary to popular opinion, we can. For example, if I postulate the existence of a “square triangle” in the Amazon jungle, will scientists be mounting an expedition to search for it? No. The axiomatic impossibility of such a concept disproves it from the outset without needing to search every corner of the galaxy.

There are many such conceptual and analytic arguments that indicate that various definitions of God are impossible. For example, a God who is both loving and wishes to torture most people for all of eternity is logically absurd. Or a God who knows all things, including what it feels like to be afraid, helpless, or despaired, and yet is omnipotent, immutable, and impossible to harm. Because analytical evaluation of these concepts shows they are incoherent, we can reliably believe the nonexistence of these versions of Gods. Are such arguments accepted by professional philosophers? A survey of 800 philosophers of religion found that most atheist and agnostic philosophers think logical arguments like these are somewhat persuasive [12]. However, even if you reject a conceptual disproof of something, that doesn’t give us reason to believe that that thing is real (see more on this below).

I also want to note that it is possible to define God in such a way that the concept becomes impossible to disprove using analytic or synthetic arguments. At this point, the only position one can take is igtheism [13] or theological non-cognitivism [14], which is to say that such concepts are meaningless. Certainly there is a rich tradition of Apophatic theology (negative theology) among theists, especially among the Eastern mystics; however, I would argue that such definitions are conceptually nonsensical and that that which is the “ineffable ultimate being” is no closer to classical (or Christian) theism than it is to the Force from Star Wars.

b. If God turns out to be impossible to disprove, should we believe?

Think about all the possible views that can account for our natural reality; there is literally an infinite array of possibilities. Perhaps there is a transcendent telepathic crocodile that is ineffable and beyond our comprehension, and it is the ultimate source of everything? Perhaps we are in a computer simulation run by a genius alien from another dimension where the laws of nature permit aliens to come into existence from nothing? Perhaps there is a metaphysically necessary creative law that simply exists and is the ultimate originator of everything? Perhaps invisible microscopic gnomes hold every atom together? Perhaps your mind is the only thing in existence, and you persist in a solipsistic cacophony of sensory experiences produced by the mind? There are billions of possibilities that can never be disproved logically or empirically, so should you therefore believe in them? Is it wise to say, “Since you can’t disprove that Zeus exists, I will believe in Zeus?” No, not at all. Most people understand that our beliefs should correlate to what is real, not what we wish to be real. Therefore, we require something that allows our mental states to correspond to states of affairs in the real world. That thing is called “justification” and usually takes the form of evidence and reasoning. This is what allows us to form “justified true beliefs” which are “knowledge.”

For the question of God, we can examine the evidence to see if that increases the likelihood of a given outcome being true. Many theologians fail to appreciate this fact: even if we cannot analytically disprove the concept of God, we can still make reasonable inferences about what is more likely given our best evidence.

Allow me to illustrate using an example. If your friend promised to bake you a cake upon your return from school, and you arrive home to see an unopened box of cake mix on the table, an empty oven/refrigerator, and a clean oven, what can you conclude? That your friend was called out before he could begin baking? Or that there is a delicious cake available to eat, hidden from sight? I’d argue that the evidence indicates the former position is more reasonable. So while you can’t conclusively prove there is no cake, because “absence of proof, is not proof of absence,” you can make a rational inference: it’s more likely that your friend was distracted and there is no cake. Finding an absence of evidence where we would expect evidence if the proposition were true, is indeed evidence of absence.

Many Christians claim it foolish to say “theism is false” without omniscience. Strangely, I have never met a Christian who uses that same premise to refrain from claiming “polytheism, pantheism, panetheism, panpsychism, etc.” is false. And yet, all of the positions, by the same virtue, would also require omniscience to irrefutably disprove. After all, would you not have to be omniscient to evaluate if your God is truly omnipotent and omniscient or is just pretending to be? Would you not have to travel the whole of reality to make sure there isn’t a second or third God hiding out there? Are you not at risk of making a naïve inductive leap without solving Hume’s problem of induction? After all, as philosopher Karl Popper noted, just because every swan you have seen is white, doesn’t mean all are white. Perhaps there are black swans out there? Perhaps there are other Gods out there? And yet, all Christians reject such ideas, and while Victor is clever enough to produce rational reasons, we can both admit that 99% of Christians don’t have philosophical arguments that disprove these views, yet have dogmatic beliefs that these views are false. This seems to be a double standard that demands epistemic humility in an opponent while allowing arrogance in yourself.

At the end of the day, are evidential arguments for atheism persuasive? Very much so. For example, the evidential problem of evil (different than the logical problem of evil) is accepted by most non-theist philosophers as a very convincing evidential argument. In fact, even many Christian philosophers think it’s a strong argument in favor of atheism [15].

Works cited

[1] “Apatheism.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 02 Feb. 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apatheism>.

[2] Russell, Bertrand. “What Is an Agnostic?” Kent State University. Web. 02 Feb. 2016. <http://www.personal.kent.edu/~rmuhamma/Philosophy/RBwritings/agnostic.htm>.

[3] Martin, Michael. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. New York: Cambridge UP, 2007. p.3. Print.

[4] Graham Oppy Arguing about Gods. Cambridge University Press. p.15. Print.

[5] Martin, Michael. p.3.

[6] “Agnostic Atheism.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 02 Feb. 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnostic_atheism>.

[7] Smith, George H (1979). Atheism: The Case Against God. Nash Publishing. pp. 10–11.

[8] Loftus, John W. Why I Became an Atheist: Personal Reflections and Additional Arguments. Trafford, 2008. p. 79.Print.

[9] Poidevin, Robin Le. Agnosticism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford UP, 2010. p.1.

[10] Martin, Michael. p.2.

[11] My response to Victor Manzul

[12] Cruz, H D., “Results of My Survey on Natural Theological Arguments.” Academia.edu. Web. 02 Feb. 2016. <http://www.academia.edu/1438058/Results_of_my_survey_on_natural_theological_arguments>.

[13] “Ignosticism.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 02 Feb. 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ignosticism>.

[14] “Theological Noncognitivism.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 02 Feb. 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theological_noncognitivism>.

[15] Cruz, H D., “Results of My Survey on Natural Theological Arguments.