The (somewhat) Godly speaks with the proudly Godless: Randal’s interview with John W. Loftus

Posted on 03/19/13 83 Comments

On April 15th God or Godless, a book of twenty short debates that I wrote with atheist John W. Loftus, will be released on an unsuspecting population. In recognition of the book’s impending release — and the cataclysmic social impact that is sure to follow — I decided to invite John into a brief conversation. I have included the conversation below and, in keeping with my tradition, I have rendered my guest’s comments in red.

Randal: “John, thanks for agreeing to do this interview. Let me jump to the first question everybody is asking: what would lead you to take on such a formidable opponent as Randal Rauser? Didn’t you worry that his acumen would destroy your reputation or were you banking on the assumption that he would show you mercy?”

John: Well, you’re funny that’s for sure. I figured I could at least be the straight man in your comedian routine. I’m happy to report you lived up to your role too. I found myself shaking my head as I was chuckling at your arguments many times. One time it was so funny I even fell off my chair.

Randal: “Ouch. I hope you didn’t hurt yourself. Anyway, this book is a fascinating exchange of twenty short debates. What I like about it (apart from the fact that I wrote half of it) is that it can be read in short bursts with sharp and to-the-point exchanges. But how about you give an even briefer exchange for us here. Imagine that you’ve got two minutes in an elevator with a Christian. What would you say to them to try and dissuade them from their Christian convictions?”

John: My head is still hurting. ;-) What would I say? I think your idea of twenty short debates was ingenious, something unique when compared to other debate books. I’d tell them the book is like a bathroom reader, you know, the kind where one short debate can be read while on the pot. It’s also like a suppository. While sitting there and reading it their faith will ooze out of them at the same time. So I merely have to tell them to read it. That’s good enough.

Let me return the favor with a question of my own. I hear you don’t think non-believers are crazy so risking a dialogue with them is worth it. Why do you think that? Do you still think that after co-writing this book?

Randal: I must admit that I’m taken aback by the question. Imagine if my response to disagreements in politics or economics or sports was to refuse to engage in dialogue with those who held differing opinions. That would be the perfect way to become an insular dogmatist. The danger is no less when it comes to one’s philosophical and theological views. The Christian or atheist who never engages in serious dialogue with people of very different convictions is in danger of ending up with a closed and insular worldview. And when that happens people often end up dismissing others who disagree with them as being either cognitively deficient (i.e. stupid or ignorant) or morally deficient (i.e. wicked). So dismissing others in this way can be a way to restore equilibrium by reassuring oneself “I really am right after all.”

Admittedly it can be disconcerting to recognize that intelligent and thoughtful people can reach different conclusions about the nature of reality, but that’s just the way things are, so we might as well get used to it. And that means engaging in honest dialogue and debate.

Now even as I say all this I recognize that you have a track record of dismissing the Christians who disagree with you as delusional. Do you still hold that view or can you recognize that reasonable people can disagree with you on the question of God?

John: The question is a good one since, as I think you would agree, many Christians think atheists are crazy perverts. You are the exception and that’s a good thing. I wanted you to speak to them about this.

Actually I think anyone who disagrees with me is wrong, and sometimes even delusional when the evidence is overwhelming against what they believe. When I say Christians are delusional on some occasions it’s actually part of the dialogue since it does have its minimal effects. Other times it’s due to my frustration at trying to penetrate the believer’s impenetrable mind. Surely it can’t be because my arguments aren’t persuasive, so they must have the problem. ;-)

In any case, when I say this I’m not saying that Christians have any psychological malaise. They most emphatically do think rationally most of the time, even when it comes to their faith. Having accepted their faith as a foundation, it’s rational to conclude, as Pat Robertson does, that national disasters are God’s judgment for our sins. The problem isn’t that his utterly ignorant conclusion isn’t rational. The problem is his faith. His faith is irrational. It’s also rational for Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church to argue that “God hates fags.” The problem isn’t that their utterly ignorant conclusion isn’t rational. The problem is their faith. Their faith is irrational. The establishment of the Inquisition was a rational action taken by the Catholic Church. The Church believed heresy was a leavening influence in society and, as such, was the worst crime of all. It could send others to hell. So they concluded that heretics must die. The problem wasn’t that their utterly ignorant conclusion wasn’t rational. It was their faith. Their faith is irrational. Once you agree with me about these examples then you can see why this is what I see in other cases of faith.

Tell me, was there any time in our book where something I wrote produced any doubt in you at all? If not, why not? If so, what was it? What would you say are the most troubling issues I wrote about?

Randal: I’ve taught at a seminary for a decade and I’ve grown up in the church, and while there is no doubt that Christians often view atheists derisively (as atheists do Christians), I can’t recall hearing the charge that atheists are “crazy perverts”. This is not to say that you can’t find Christians who might say such a thing, just like you can find atheists who say horrid things about Christians. There is more than enough name-calling to go around.

You say you think anybody who disagrees with you is wrong. Fair enough. I think the same about the beliefs I hold (which is why I hold them, namely because I think they’re true). But I also recognize that of the many things I believe an indeterminate number of them are false. And that is as true of my theological and philosophical beliefs as it is of my economic and political beliefs. We are fallible beings after all. This recognition should create a degree of humility in me and a recognition for the value of ongoing dialogue as a means through which I can begin to discern some of those errors. I hope you have the same humility about your beliefs, including your beliefs about atheism.

You mention frustration at failing to “penetrate the believer’s impenetrable mind”. Here’s a great example of a point where you might begin to use the occasion of dialogue as a spotlight to illumine the inner recesses of your own belief. Is it at least possible that people aren’t persuaded by a claim you’re making because your arguments are not that good? Is this even an option? I worry that you don’t seriously consider it an option, but you should. There are many Christians much brighter than you (as there are atheists brighter than me) and that recognition should, at the very least, inculcate in the both of us a sense of humility about our grip on things.

Once you get to the point of granting a little more charity to the starting points of your interlocutor, perhaps you can then recognize that people might not only be reasonable internally with respect to a set of starting assumptions (assumptions which you consider to be absurd), but maybe even those starting assumptions are not unreasonable based on all the other things a person knows and believes. Of course this would place you in the fearsome position of having to set aside your protectionist rhetoric that attributes sweeping cognitive delusion and irrationality to your interlocutor. But the trade-off you gain of greater understanding is worth it.

Now let’s turn to your question. Did your arguments produce any doubt in me? No, sorry, you failed in that regard. But don’t take it too hard. After all, I spend a significant portion of my waking hours thinking about these very issues, so it should not be too surprising that you are not going to come up with any devastating zingers in the short compass of a book like this.

This is not to say that you didn’t put on a good show. Indeed, you did. As I said in the conclusion to the book, you presented a deflationary atheistic view of the world with admirable clarity, verve, and a willingness to bite the existential bullet of your own beliefs. If people want to get a breezy and suitably punchy introduction to atheism they could do no better than your arguments in God or Godless.

But wait a minute, I thought this was my interview. So let me reassert my prerogative with one final question. You sidestepped my question above about the elevator speech. So let me pose the question again differently. What is the one thing, above all else, that you think should keep thoughtful Christians up at night?

John: First, thanks for the kudos. I appreciate that. I’m glad I didn’t let you down. Let me echo what you said of me. If people want to get a breezy and suitably punchy  introduction to the best that Christianity has to offer they could do no better than your arguments in God or Godless.

I can answer your last question by giving our readers a little of what they can expect to find in our book, healthy, robust, intelligent disagreement.

I know I accept some propositions that are false, just as you do. There is a difference that makes all the difference between us though. Precisely because I know this I need sufficient evidence and sound reasoning about said evidence whenever consciously examining them, before I’ll assent to them. So I am the more humble person here. ;-) I think doubt is the adult attitude, the humble attitude, when examining any proposition. I am an atheist precisely because I’ve adopted this humble attitude. So as a non-believer I don’t have any beliefs about ultimate reality at all, for to have them I must positively assent to a proposition about ultimate reality. I try to think exclusively in terms of the probabilities about such matters. Faith goes beyond them in every case.

What I’m doing in our book is simply expressing doubt about the things  you believe. The reason I accepted your proposal to co-write it was to help convince believers who think they have the truth, the whole truth, to doubt their certainties. I didn’t expect to convince you. My focus is on the problem of massive ubiquitous suffering for the God of the Bible, and the God that evolved out of it down though the centuries in the hands of theologians like yourself. So if anything, what should keep Christians up at night? As Christian philosopher Dr. James F. Sennett said before me, it is this particular problem. I think it is about as close to an empirical refutation of Christianity as is possible.

Randal: Interesting. Well I guess folks can read what I think of your views of faith and the problem of evil in God or Godless. For now let me just observe that your claim that you don’t have any beliefs about “ultimate reality” is itself a belief about ultimate reality, and thus the claim is self-defeating.

 * * *

You can order God or Godless on the right of your screen, and at just over 7 bucks at Amazon that is a lot of book for your money!

This interview is cross-posted at John Loftus’ blog here.

 

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  • Walter

    So as a non-believer I don’t have any
    beliefs about ultimate reality at all, for to have them I must
    positively assent to a proposition about ultimate reality.

    That sounds more like agnosticism than atheism.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Not really, because even agnostics have beliefs about ultimate reality. For example, they believe that the evidence is insufficient to conclude either that ultimate reality does or does not include the existence of God. So in fact John simply spoke incautiously which he has been known to do at times…

      • http://www.facebook.com/david.gray.5836 David Gray

        I think this concept comes up a lot. Your comment reminds me of a conversation I had with someone who thought I was arrogant because I believed Christianity to be true. His reasoning was basically that there are many religions and experts from all of them, so we cannot know for sure which one is really true. I responded by stating that I thought his claim that we can’t know which religion is true is arrogant. After all, how could he know THAT for sure? Perhaps if he read all the Christian apologetics books and balanced them against the books from other religions, he would be convinced. (OK, I didn’t really respond with that – I was stumped at the time – but I later I thought it might have been a good response). :-)

      • Guest

        Do you think that this same concept applies to pluralists who would argue that Christians are arrogant for believing that Christianity is the only true religion?

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          It would depend, I suppose. Naive pluralism says simply that all religions are true. A more sophisticated pluralism recognizes the differences between religions and ends up saying they are all false (literally) as a way of affirming they are all true in some non-realist sense (e.g. as modes of social transformation). That certainly could lead to the pluralist being inconsistent if he/she equates any truth claims about ultimate reality as equivalent to arrogance while making his/her own claims about ultimate reality. Wilfred Cantwell Smith is one pluralist who has argued in this way.

      • AdamHazzard

        …even agnostics have beliefs about ultimate reality. For example, they
        believe that the evidence is insufficient to conclude either that
        ultimate reality does or does not include the existence of God.

        Equally, one might say: Even jurors in a hung trial have beliefs about ultimate reality. For example, they believe that the evidence is insufficient to conclude that ultimate reality does or does not include the guilt of the accused.

        But are they passing judgment on “ultimate reality,” Randal, or on the arguments of the parties to the trial?

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          Your question is irrelevant to John Loftus’ self-referential dilemma. The point is that he stated his belief that he has no beliefs about ultimate reality, but that belief itself is about ultimate reality (and his lack of belief about it). Thus, it’s self-defeating. This is a simple point. I’m surprised that there has been such perplexity about it.

          • AdamHazzard

            The point his that he stated his belief that he has no beliefs about
            ultimate reality, but that belief itself is about ultimate reality…

            Randal…a statement about one’s beliefs is not a statement about ultimate reality. If I say, “I have no beliefs about whether orangutans inhabit Australia,” I’m not expressing a belief about Australia.

            • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

              Okay, this is the last time I’m going to explain this.
              John believes “I don’t have any beliefs about ultimate reality at all.”

              From this it follows that John has at least one belief about ultimate reality, namely that he doesn’t have any beliefs about ultimate reality, which is a contradiction.

              • AdamHazzard

                That’s not an explanation, and you haven’t demonstrated a contradiction. Actually, this kind of interests me — it’s as if we’re both deaf to one another. I honestly don’t understand. Why was my example about Australia not analogous to John’s remark?

              • http://www.facebook.com/david.gray.5836 David Gray

                Similiar to how the statement “There is no absolute truth” is self-defeating?

                • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                  Indeed. It’s an analogous problem.

              • Kerk

                Contradiction or not, I don’t think it’s possible in principle for a grown and sane person not to have any beliefs about the ultimate nature of reality at all. It seems unlikely from a psychological standpoint. Even children ask themselves the question “where did it all come from?” and try to answer it in one way or another.

              • Kerk

                *Previous comment disappeared*

                Contradiction or not, I don’t think it’s possible in principle for a grown and sane person not to have any beliefs about the ultimate nature of reality at all. It seems unlikely from a psychological standpoint. Even children ask the themselves the question “where did it all come from?” and try to answer it in one way or another.

              • John

                “I don’t have any beliefs about ultimate reality at all.” – is a phrase that seems to be just an acknowledgement of possessing an empty set. Stating that the empty set is composed of itself, and therefore is a contradiction, seems to be a fallacy of composition.

                • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                  But does John believe he has an empty set of beliefs?

                  • john

                    Even if he did, would it not be illogical to refer to that which is empty as containing something. It seems sophistry, as if you are confusing meta issues with the issues themselves. It seems dishonest.

                    I hesitate to try to use an analogy, because it seems your m.o is to concentrate (uncharitably) on a weakness of the analogy as opposed to what a commenter desires (though may be unable) to articulate as wisely as they might like. But something along the lines of someone believing he has no inheritance (when in fact he does not) – believing such says nothing about an inheritance that does not exist.

              • http://markkoop.net Mark Koop

                It seems to me that believing that I don’t have any beliefs about ultimate reality is not a belief about ultimate reality, but a belief about belief in ultimate reality. There’s a difference.

                • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                  Of course there’s a difference. But the belief still refers to ultimate reality by way of John’s beliefs about ultimate reality. In other words, the immediate referent is John’s beliefs. The extended or embedded referent is ultimate reality.

                  That’s why, as I pointed out, a comprehensive list of all truths about ultimate reality would include the proposition that John has no beliefs about ultimate reality.

                  • http://markkoop.net Mark Koop

                    If this is logical, then my poor brain is not grasping it.
                    If you asked me what my opinion was on Lithuania’s most powerful political party, and I told you I had no opinion, how would that statement itself be an opinion on Lithuania’s most powerful political party.
                    In the same way, if you ask me what my beliefs are about “ultimate reality,” and I told you I had no beliefs about ultimate reality, how would that statement itself be a belief about “ultimate reality?”
                    And the thing is, I at least would know what you meant by “Lithuania,” “powerful,” and “political party.” But “ultimate reality” — what a vague notion! Of course, that may be my problem in grasping your logic here.

            • http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/ John W. Loftus

              What Randal ends up saying is something like this: If I’m asked whether snakes can talk then when I reply I don’t “believe” so (or more accurately, I don’t “think” so), what I really mean is that I have a belief that they don’t talk. What this does, is to force non-believers to stand on the same quicksand as he does. You see, both are beliefs. So long as he is allowed to use that word to describe both that snakes can talk and that they can’t, then it levels the playing field between beliefs and knowledge based on the probabilities. He won’t let it go. He can’t. And to think, he wonders why I think he’s delusional and say it on occasion.

              • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                John, you show a remarkable tenacity to ignore what has been written.

            • http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/ John W. Loftus

              Let’s instead use the word “conclusion” rather than the word “belief” and grant that I’m an agnostic (for the sake of arguments). When he asks me what I’ve concluded about the origin of reality I would say nothing, that I don’t know. He would still say that is a conclusion of mine, and he would be right. But look closely at that conclusion. It isn’t asserting anything other than I don’t know. There is got to be a distinction here somewhere and I know what it is. A conclusion that I don’t know is not a positive one. It’s a negative one. What Randal insists is that my conclusion positively asserts something, which is the very thing I deny.

              • AdamHazzard

                Yes, that’s how it seems to me as well. To take another example, suppose I learn tomorrow that a new planet has been discovered orbiting Tau Ceti, Asked for my beliefs about the conditions on the surface of that planet, I would have to say, “I have none.”

                And according to Randal, that in itself would constitute a belief about conditions on the surface of the planet!

                This seems so self-evidently absurd that I’m bewildered that anyone would propose it.

                • http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/ John W. Loftus

                  Agreed. That’s why on some occasions I describe him as delusional, even if he’s quite rational otherwise. Now until he can make better sense of these words I cannot see him in a different light.

    • http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/ John W. Loftus

      It’s not agnosticism, per se, Walter. The difference is between positively assenting to a proposition and doubting it. I don’t unequivocally deny there is a supernatural being you see. Besides, even though I think the cosmos is all that exists, it isn’t a belief of mine anyway. I eschew faith entirely. I think the probabilities are that the cosmos is all that exists. Faith has nothing to do with such a conclusion. I devoted a whole chapter to this in my book, “The Outsider Test for Faith,” so I don’t expect to convince anyone here who has not read it, and even then I may not.

      • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

        But do you at least recognize that doubting the existence of God is in fact a belief about ultimate reality in which case you’re statement was false?

        • http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/ John W. Loftus

          No. No more than doubting the existence of fairies, or doubting a conclusion of a historian. if the word “belief” is equivalent to “non-belief” then it is YOUR VIEWS which are self-defeating.

          • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

            John if you are agnostic about fairies then you have beliefs about fairies. If you disbelieve in fairies then you have beliefs about fairies (namely that they don’t exist).

            If you are agnostic about whether ultimate reality is constituted as a divine agent then you have a belief about ultimate reality. If you believe that ultimate reality is not constituted by a divine agent then you still have a belief about ultimate reality.

            Whether you choose to describe yourself as an atheist or an agnostic, you still have a belief about ultimate reality.

            Your oblivious self-referential contradiction is almost as bad as a man angrily insisting “I’m not saying anything now!”

            • http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/ John W. Loftus

              No, you are playing a “heads I win tails you lose” language game that no reasonable opponent needs to take seriously Randal.

              • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                John, pointing out that the semantic content of your

                • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                  And lest anybody think this is “making a moutain out of a mole hill”, I think we should all be committed to avoiding self-contradiction and admitting our error when it is pointed out that we are engaged in self-contradiction.

                  • http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/ John W. Loftus

                    Randal, either you are defining “belief” in such a way that it means nothing relevant here, or you are arguing for a meaningless language game with the word. In either case you’re playing a footloose and fancy free “heads I win tails you lose” intellectually dishonest ploy to bring real knowledge down to the level of your faith. You will not see this as the truth until after you reject your faith, if you ever do. But then at that point you will see it clearly, and that’s all I can say here.

                    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                      A belief is a conviction in the truth of a proposition. You expressed the belief (i.e. the conviction in the truth of the proposition) that you have no beliefs about absolute reality. But that belief itself references your beliefs about absolute reality and thus it is contradictory.

                    • http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/ John W. Loftus

                      The word “belief” comes from the prelevance of the gospel in the western world. David Eller shows that not all cultures have a corresponding word since they don’t have the concept. Even among Christians he shows it has had several evolving meanings. Christians cannot agree about it today.

                      What I have is trust or confidence. These two words express what I think in terms of probabilities.

                      Your definition means nothing relevant here, for if I were to accept it then only those propositions known to be apodictically certain would not require any belief, like perhaps the cogito of Descartes. It would therefore be trivially true and irrelevant to our discussions. But if I were to accept it anyway, I can still express myself adequately, for then if I have them I wouldn’t have any beliefs that go beyond or against the probabilities. So on my account if I used the word it would produce the same result. Why not then just reject the word altogether and say we should think exclusively in terms of probabilities after all?

                      We’ve gone over this before and I don’t expect to convince you until you reject your faith, if you ever do.

                    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                      “The word “belief” comes from the prelevance of the gospel in the western world.”

                      Sorry, this is a bizarre claim. The Greeks talked about “episteme” and “doxa” long before Christianity ever came along.

                      If you have a different definition of belief than that which one finds in a dictionary, perhaps you should share it.

                    • http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/ John W. Loftus

                      I didn’t deny the Greeks might have had the same concept before the gospels. I said the reason why we have the concept is because of the prelevance of the gospel in the western world. Without the influence of Christianity who knows if we would have it at all? But we do know the leavening influence of words in the Christianized western world.

                    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                      Sorry John, I don’t see what relevance this has to the fact that you contradicted yourself.

                    • http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/ John W. Loftus

                      A contradiction, eh? So, on your account the word “prevalence” is equated with the word “origin”? Is that how you use words?

                    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                      Sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about. The point is that if you say “I don’t have any beliefs about x” that itself is a belief about x.

                    • Walter

                      What is the difference between “trusting the probabilities” and belief? If I trust the probability that my truck will safely convey me to my place of work, is this not the same thing as saying I *believe* my truck is reliable?

                    • Robert Gressis

                      The claim, “What I have is trust or confidence” is compatible with thinking that you have belief. As philosophers use the term, “I believe X” means something like, “I think X is true.” Philosophers also use the notion of degrees of belief. Lots of us say something like, “I am 50% confident that X”, which roughly means “I am 50% confident that X is true.”

                      It seems to me that you could say “I am 90% confident that there is no God”, which seems to me to be well captured by the phrase, “I believe that there probably is no God” or “I strongly believe that there is no God”.

                      Lastly, you wrote: “Robert, that is not my view at all, nor as far as I can tell, any other atheist either. Try to understand next time.” What makes you think I didn’t try to understand? Is it that you think I misunderstood you? It’s certainly possible to try to understand someone and misunderstand her. Why, when I try to understand Kant, I misunderstand him all the time!

                    • Robert Gressis

                      I see atheists do this a lot: “atheism is not a belief that God exists, it’s the lack of a belief that God exists.” I have three things to say about this move:

                      (1) It leads to strange outcomes: e.g., electrons don’t have the belief that God exists; are electrons therefore atheists? That would be an unnecessarily counterintuitive conclusion to endorse, merely because you want to deny that atheists take a positive stance about God. You could revise this to say that only things that are capable of beliefs, and don’t believe that God exists, are atheists, but that would make cats and fish atheists, and that seems to stretch the term as well. Lastly, you could revise again to say that atheism is a term that can only apply to beings who are capable of believing that God exists, but don’t have that belief. But that would make many children or people who haven’t heard about God atheists, and I (personally, anyway) don’t think that’s appropriate, though I can see someone disagreeing with me here.

                      (2) The theist can do the same thing to you: e.g., imagine I’m an anarchist. Part of being an anarchist means thinking that no existing state has legitimate authority over anyone. If you said I believed that the state has no authority, I could respond: “no, I don’t! I just don’t have the belief that the state *does* have authority!” It would be weird, though, to say that anarchism isn’t a belief. Similarly, the theist can say that theism is simply lacking a belief in atheism, agnosticism, deism, and polytheism.

                      (3) Finally, and this is most important, even if you don’t agree with me on (1) and (2): NOTHING HANGS ON THIS. I think atheists take this stance because they think this will happen: “If I admit that atheism is a belief, then some Christian will say I need just as much faith in atheism as they do in theism. But I don’t want to let them do that, so I’ll just deny that atheism is a belief, but will instead say it’s a lack of belief.” That’s not going to convince your theistic interlocutor. What you have to do instead is say that you have very good reasons for thinking that atheism is true and theism is false. Which is what you do anyway. So just do that!

                    • http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/ John W. Loftus

                      Robert, that is not my view at all, nor as far as I can tell, any other atheist either. Try to understand next time. When I say I have no beliefs you need to understand what I mean when I say it before you can ever hope to offer a critique of it.

                    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                      Well stated. I argued something similar here:

                      http://randalrauser.com/2012/05/three-reasons-agnostics-shouldnt-call-themselves-atheists/

                      I especially liked your third point.

                    • AdamHazzard

                      Robert, I think what atheists are trying to avoid is a false equivalency. Perhaps I can explain it this way: My atheism is a refusal to assent to the positive claim that God exists.

                      In other words, it’s not a belief “about God” — even to phrase it that way is to reify the object that’s in dispute. It’s a belief about the inadequacy of the positive claim for the existence of God.

                      To use the inevitable and commonplace analogy, my refusal to accept the claim that unicorns exist is a judgment on the quality of the claim, not on “unicorns.”

                    • Walter

                      Perhaps I can explain it this way: My atheism is a refusal to assent to the positive claim that God exists.

                      Perhaps, but you still have a positive set of beliefs about the ultimate nature of reality.

                    • AdamHazzard

                      And what would those be?

                    • Walter

                      Based on your comment history here I would surmise that you are a naturalist, and naturalism is a positive set of beliefs about the ultimate nature of reality. But perhaps I am mistaken and you are purely agnostic when it comes to metaphysics?

                    • AdamHazzard

                      Walter, I hope I never made unqualified positive claims about the ultimate nature of reality — I’m not even sure what “the ultimate nature of reality” means. Physicists talk about a “theory of everything” — is that “the ultimate nature of reality?” There’s something suspiciously Platonist about the whole concept.

                      I am no more agnostic about the entire concept of “metaphysics” than I am about the entire concept of “natural science.” You would have to offer me a particular claim within one or the other of those realms.

                    • Walter

                      Metaphysics: a division of philosophy that is concerned with the fundamental nature of reality and being and that includes ontology, cosmology, and often epistemology

                      When I ask if you are agnostic on this subject, I am asking if all options on the table are equally possible to you: e.g. monotheism, polytheism, pantheism, naturalism, and probably a few more that I can’t think of at the moment. You see, what I have noticed is that a lot of atheists tend to believe that naturalism is the default position which makes no extraordinary claims, and that naturalism requires no arguments in its defense.

                    • AdamHazzard

                      I am asking if all options on the table are equally possible to you:
                      e.g. monotheism, polytheism, pantheism, naturalism, and probably a few
                      more that I can’t think of at the moment.

                      I still need a more concise question, unless you want me to elaborate a complete and self-consistent system of metaphysics, which few of us are equipped to do — not me, certainly! For instance, your question seems to suggest that monotheism, polytheism, naturalism et alia are competing explanations of the fundamental nature of reality. Are they? Do they all claim to be? Do they all have the same explanatory and predictive power? You ask whether they’re plausible: in what sense? As logical possibilities? As hypotheses? As operative assumptions?

                    • Walter

                      Let me just ask straight out, are you a metaphysical naturalist? If the answer is “Yes,” then do you not consider that to be a positive belief about the fundamental nature of reality? As far as I can tell every person belongs in either the naturalist or the supernaturalist camp, or they can claim an agnostic indecision on the subject. Both naturalism and supernaturalism entail a positive set of beliefs about reality. Agnosticism appears to be the only position where one can truly claim to have no belief on a particular subject. For instance, I consider myself to be agnostic about Jesus’ bodily resurrection. I am not a naturalist so I can’t rule it out a priori, but I am not fully convinced by the current state of the evidence, therefore I have no firm convictions one way or the other. Despite my claim of agnosticism I do lean slightly towards unbelief, which means that in reality I do have at least a weak *positive* belief that Jesus did not resurrect.

                    • Robert Gressis

                      I disagree with what you write above. I think, “I refuse to assent to the claim, ‘God exists’” could be motivated by a variety of reasons as to why. How about this: “I think that there is no good evidence for believing that God exists, and lots of evidence against believing that God exists. Therefore, I think it is very likely that God does not exist.” Does that describe why you refuse to assent to the claim, “God exists”? If so, what’s wrong with saying, “I believe that God doesn’t exist”?

                    • AdamHazzard

                      How about this: “I think that there is no good evidence for believing
                      that God exists, and lots of evidence against believing that God exists.
                      Therefore, I think it is very likely that God does not exist.” Does
                      that describe why you refuse to assent to the claim, “God exists”? If
                      so, what’s wrong with saying, “I believe that God doesn’t exist”?

                      The problem with your formulation is that my objection is solely a response to the positive claim that such an entity exists — a claim I reject.

                      Consider for instance how this clarifies the first objection in your post above: “electrons don’t have the belief that God exists; are electrons therefore atheists?” No, because electrons do not refuse assent to the claim that God exists. Nor do cats. Nor do Christians. Atheists, however, do.

                      This is subtle but important, so I’ll try to state it as plainly as possible. I cannot have a generic disbelief in anything and everything someone might call “God.” I can only refuse assent to a belief in what some individual or group actually proposes as an example of “God.”

                    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                      I doubt you follow this method of yours consistently Adam. For example, when Jim asks you “Do you believe that Al love Susie?” you don’t refuse to answer because the word “love” is defined in many different ways. You know enough how the word is used in general conversation to state your own belief on the matter.

                      I think you’re a smart enough chap to know how the word “God” is used in general conversation. It refers to a self-existent agent of infinite goodness and power who created the universe. And you can answer in a straightforward, direct manner whether you think this entity exists.

                    • AdamHazzard

                      Strangely, that isn’t the definition you offered to Ralph in your previous posts. Perhaps Ralph simply assumed he was engaged in “general conversation” with you.

                      And “a self-existent agent of infinite goodness and power who created the universe” may be what we mean by “God” in general conversation in a country with a long Christian tradition, but it might mean something else entirely to a polytheist, a Hindu, or a Manichean. Let’s not be parochial about it.

                      But if we’re being as blunt as possible: I have been offered no convincing direct or indirect evidence that what you call “a self-existent agent of infinite goodness and power who created the universe” exists, nor am I convinced by the theological/philosophical arguments to that effect. Therefore I cannot honestly or legitimately assent to the proposition that such an entity exists. (I am skeptical that it’s even possible that such an entity exists, but that’s a different argument.)

                      I take the same attitude toward many things. A belief in demons is commonplace in the world, for instance, where demons are defined in general conversation as malevolent invisible entities (with free will, if Plantinga is to be believed). Again, I cannot honestly or legitimately assent to the proposition that such entities exist.

                      But again, let me emphasize, I am not rejecting “God” or “demons,” however defined; I am rejecting the adequacy of the arguments and evidence offered to demonstrate that those beings exist.

                    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                      “Strangely, that isn’t the definition you offered to Ralph in your previous posts.”

                      Correct. In our original radio discussion I introduced the definition of God as the necessary agent cause of everything else that exists. This is the definition I assumed throughout our conversation (though Ralph seemed to forget the original definition as the conversation progressed).

                      The definition I just provided for you includes the minimal definition I gave to Ralph but goes beyond it by explicitly attributing omnipotence and perfect goodness to God. I offered you this richer defiintion here because this is a more accurate representation of what people mean in general conversation when they refer to God. But again, keep in mind that the minimal definition I gave to Ralph is contained within this richer description.

                    • Ralph

                      Bit of a low blow, Randal – yes, if you want to use your phraseology, I did “forget the original definition” but, given that you believe God to be a heck of a lot more than this original ‘minimal definition’ – namely perfect, all-loving, intervening, the father of Jesus, etc – I can easily be forgiven for having tackled what you ACTUALLY BELIEVE, not what you said very briefly in an-hour long conversation one month ago. I hope that finally I have made this point clear to you now, as I won’t be accused of dodging something that was never in fact placed in front of me.

                    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                      As I already explained I accept both definitions as true. And I introduced the minimal one so we could begin with something simple and precise to focus the discussion. If you think I have to defend the filioque (the procession of the Spirit through the Son from the Father) in order to defend theism, then you’re mistaken.

                    • Ralph

                      Exactly, you accept both definitions as true, so it needed to be made clear which characteristics and properties I was objecting to. “I introduced the minimal one so we could begin with something simple”; I’m tired of saying it so this’ll be the last time, Randal – you didn’t introduce it at all, you simply asked me to explain why I think that God doesn’t exist. Thus I refuted evidence for the type of God imagined by Christianity, not just the minimal first-cause definition you mentioned briefly over a month ago. Nowhere have you addressed this. It’s fine, I can recognise it as a fault on your behalf, as can anyone reading our exchanges – but I’d rather you didn’t subsequently tell people that I’d forgotten a key definition, phrasing it in such a way as to make me seem like an idiot.

                    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                      Well Ralph, here’s what you wrote. First you quoted me: ““Remember I defined God minimally as the necessary agent cause of contingent reality”.

                      Then you retorted “no, Randal, you didn’t. You never said that in this discussion.”

                      If you never forgot that I’d originally used this definition, why did you deny in the passage quoted above that I had used it? What am I to make of that? And why are you offended when I conclude that you did in fact seem to forget? What other conclusion should I draw? That you’re lying?

                    • Ralph

                      Oh this is getting boring. Anyone – including you – can read our exchange and see for themselves the way in which you have twisted my words and then tried to score points with commenters by painting me as a forgetful idiot.

                      I’m offended when you say I seemed to forget a single comment you made over a month ago, because you’re attempting to paint me as someone who is either a) deliberately addressing a separate because he doesn’t want to address the one actually up for discussion, or b) too stupid to remember what his opponent thinks.

                      My point is simple and I’ll repeat it yet again: in our exchange you never defined God as the necessary agent cause of contingent reality. The fact that you keep either denying or avoiding this, when you could just be a man and acknowledge it, is absolutely astonishing.

                    • http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/ John W. Loftus

                      Ralph, it is also astonishing that Randal accuses me of a contradiction. He’s an astonishing kind of a guy. I have no beliefs at all, or more precisely, I should have no
                      beliefs at all. I try to always think exclusively in terms of the
                      probabilities. I might be wrong but I am most emphatically not
                      contradicting myself. He does not even try to understand what it is I’m
                      saying. All he does is repeat repeat over and over that I do based on his flawed understanding of what beliefs are. He says he wants a
                      dialogue. How can we do this with him if he doesn’t even try?

                    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                      What motivates you to “think exclusively in terms of the probabilities” if not your BELIEF that you should “think exclusively in terms of the probabilities”? If it is not a belief then is it an emotion? A sensation? What?

                    • http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/ John W. Loftus

                      Rauser, you have just proven yourself incapable of even trying to understand. You are special pleading here, assuming your definition as fact without trying to understanding mine and most atheists, which is typical. What’s so hard in trying to understand us? I understand your view. Why is it you cannot understand even this one tiny thing about our view? Your world won’t crash down if you try, just as your world didn’t crash down when you accepted evolution or that the Canaanite genocide didn’t happen as reported? Why not be among the first on your theological block to understand us here too. Again, your world won’t crash down.

                    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                      If you want me to understand what you’re saying then please answer the question. If it is not belief that motivates you to “think” in accord with probabilities, then what is it?

                      (By the way, grammatically speaking “think” seems to be functioning as a cryptic synonym for “believe” here. Just so you know.)

                    • http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/ John W. Loftus

                      What motivates me to “think exclusively in terms of the probabilities” is that going beyond them is irrational, which is something the history of religion and science has taught us to avoid. If “belief” is equated with going beyond the probabilities, as I think is does (humor me here if nothing else) then you would surely agree that even YOU have no beliefs. Of, course that is what you think right? Because if you don’t then your irrationality has just been exposed.

                    • http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/ John W. Loftus

                      Anthropology professor Dr. David Eller: “Most of the time when we say that we believe that’ something, we are really engaging in some other activity than belief.” Eller writes that in “situations where the evidence is inadequate and the question is unsettled, it is wise for us to neither believe nor disbelieve but to wait for more information. . . if the evidence warrants a positive conclusion, accept it as true; if the evidence warrants a negative conclusion, reject it as false; if the evidence warrants no conclusion, postpone arriving at a conclusion while pursuing more information. But at no point is belief warranted, necessary or helpful.” He continues, “Belief can never be anything better than premature arrival at a conclusion (figuratively ‘jumping to a conclusion’) and can often be much worse, like accepting an unjustified and more-than-likely false conclusion.” Eller rightly concludes, “There is knowledge and there are other kinds of things—opinions, hypotheses, theories, preferences, predictions, hopes, values, and wishes—but belief quite emphatically and thoroughly has no place in our mental world.”

                      That’s my position. Now you can try to criticize it, but don’t misunderstand it.

                    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                      John, I’m asking you to explain what motivates you if not belief. I’m not asking you to quote from an anthropology professor who clearly doesn’t know the first thing about epistemology.

                      Consider Eller’s claim that “Belief can never be anything better than premature arrival at a conclusion ….” Does he believe that? If so, then it is a premature arrival at a conclusion (assuming it’s true). If he doesn’t believe it, then why is he saying it?

                      So now back to the question: if belief doesn’t motivate you then what does?

                    • http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/ John W. Loftus

                      In asking if Eller believes this you are not trying to understand. Again, you are special pleading unto him something he and I both reject. We know this. Knowledge is something that is reserved for the probabilities. Although the English language doesn’t show degrees to knowledge they an be expressed on a continuum from probable to highly probable to virtually certain. Such as saying “I know this, it’s 75% probable.”

                    • http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/ John W. Loftus

                      Stop your special pleading. Stop appealing to the ad populum fallacy too. Try to understand. It won’t hurt you.

                    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                      Ralph, you need to take your emotions out of this. I said it seemed that you had forgot a definition I provided. You denied this. I then provided evidence for that claim in your assertion that I had never provided the definition I did in fact provide. So why did you deny something that was clearly true?

                    • Ralph

                      Saying I need to take my emotions out of this is like poking me with a sharp stick while at the time saying, “You’re an idiot. Why are you getting so annoyed? Stop getting so emotional, stop getting so emotional”. I am entitled to my angry reaction to your consistent misrepresentation of me. Anything less would be slightly robotic.

                      Why can’t you get it through your head that you “provided” the definition as a single comment in a radio chat over a month ago, and NOT as a helpful introduction in the discussion we then carried out online (as you pretend you did)? That’s all you need to admit, and then you’ll realise how obviously you are misrepresenting me. But the fact that you have misrepresented me is clear for all to see.

                    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                      “Why can’t you get it through your head that you “provided” the definition as a single comment in a radio chat over a month ago…”

                      It seems, based on this comment, that you are now admitting that you did in fact forget that I provided this definition. However, you now insist that it was unreasonable for me to expect you to remember it given the time that had elapsed and the relative lack of importance of the definition with respect to the wider conversation. Is this a correct reading of your views?

                    • Ralph

                      Correct. Except that where have I ever denied that I – in YOUR loaded phraseology – ‘forgot’ the definition you so graciously ‘provided’?

                    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                      Why is it “loaded” to say it seemed that you forgot, especially since you now concede that you did in fact forget?

                    • Ralph

                      Oh for f… Because in doing so, in a conversation in which I am not a participant, it OBVIOUSLY gives the impression that – as I have made painstakingly clear to you – I am forgetful. Why does it give this impression? Because you’ve given absolutely none of the context, in order to win a tiny point. Feigning ignorance of this is undeserving of you.

                      P.S. “now concede”? I repeat: when did I deny?

                    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                      When did you deny that you forgot? When you inserted yourself into this conversation by taking issue with my claim that you seemed to forget.

                      Now it seems that your objection is that by saying (correctly) that you forgot I left it open that people might draw the general conclusion that you are forgetful.

                      I must say this is a strange objection. Imagine that I ask Smith to mow the lawn. Later I drive by the house and see that the lawn looks like it has not been cut. “It seems that Smith didn’t mow the lawn” I observe. What if it turns out that Smith didn’t mow the lawn and thus that I was correct in this reasonable supposition. Would it be reasonable for Smith to object that I still shouldn’t have offered this tentative conclusion because people might draw the further extrapolation that Smith generally neglects to mow lawns? That seems like a silly objection, doesn’t it?

                    • Ralph

                      Haha. Pathetic. Being unable to differentiate between my (i) denying that I ‘forgot’ and (ii) objecting to your using my apparent forgetfulness in order to score points, is embarrassing.

                      But I’ve wasted enough time on this now, and this is my last comment. Any reasonable person can see exactly what you’ve done, and they don’t need a stupid story about some guy mowing his lawn to draw the reasonable conclusion that you twisted (and then continued to twist) my words in order to try to score a futile victory.

        • http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/ John W. Loftus

          Let me say it this way: Let’s say science comes up with a theory of everything that explains everything. Would you still say at that point that in not believing in your God and in your religion requires faith. Now, let’s back it off quite a bit. Let’s merely say that it’s probable science leaves little room for God. Can’t you see I’m merely going with the probabilities, and that beliefs don’t increase the odds at all?

  • Kerk

    Disqus I lagging crazy. Can’t post anything. O/O