In February 2013 theist Randal Rauser squared off against atheist Ralph Jones in a dialogue-discussion-debate on the existence of God. The venue: Justin Brierley’s radio program “Unbelievable”. But alas, the hour was soon gone and with much else to say Randal invited Ralph to continue the discussion in Randal’s blog. So here we are, the first installment of a two-part conversation. (So you can keep track with who is speaking remember that Randal’s words are in black and Ralph’s responses are in red … not to be confused with red-letter editions of the Bible of course!)
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Randal: Ralph, thanks for agreeing to continue the fleeting discussion we had at “Unbelievable.” I’d like to start by getting a better handle on your position. Let’s say you get into the elevator in the Burj Dubai with a theist. After you push the button for the top floor you settle down for a three minute journey into the sky when he says “So you’re an atheist, eh? What’s that mean exactly and why do you take that position?” What do you say?
Ralph: Thank-you for agreeing to extend the chat, Randal. It was a pleasure debating with a real-life Christian theologian on the radio for the first time.
As to my theist elevator guest and myself: first of all, I’d be very tempted to comment on the wider implications of the notion that both of us are going ‘up’. This might or might not elicit a chuckle from the theist, depending on how polite he was feeling. After this awkward exchange I would knuckle down and address the question.
I would say that in terms of religion I define myself as two things: first of all, I would make very clear that I am an atheist – someone who believes that the natural world operates perfectly well without the invocation of any god; second, I would raise the level of awkwardness in the elevator by explaining that not only am I an atheist but I am an anti-theist. This means that I find it impossible to ignore the dreadful scars that religion has inflicted and continues to inflict on society; that, from what I observe on a regular basis, religious dogma goes hand in hand with discrimination of one form or another; and that I believe the world would be a significantly better place if religion had never been invented.
My primary reason for holding the first position is due to the man-made nature of religious texts. This is justification for rejecting an ideology like Christianity, for example, as opposed to a simple belief in some sort of vague divine creator. Given how little we currently know of our cosmos, it is probable but by no means obvious that the universe came into existence without the involvement of some ‘prime mover’ – which we might call ‘God’ for simplicity – but in my eyes it is very clear indeed that texts like the Bible (with which, given my upbringing, I am inevitably more familiar than other foundational texts) are simply banal human products and totally unconnected to the supernatural. The following are simply too apparent for the implications not to be significant: in a period in which we could objectively record and certify ‘miracles’, none ever takes place now; the men who first recorded crucial elements of the Christian doctrine – e.g. the resurrection – were writing decades after the events; the Bible is riddled with numerous contradictions, mythical tales, false claims and absurd preachments; the accounts were written during a period in which people thrived on the idea of salvation and on the telling of vivid stories; Jesus was supposed to return during the lifetime of his followers…but hasn’t. I could go on – because there is a wealth of this kind of sensible criticism out there, which you wouldn’t expect if the Bible were the perfect word of God – but I think I have made my point. To be convinced of the extraordinarily unlikely stories in the Bible is in my eyes a submission of the intellect. I always find it absolutely baffling that adults can take it seriously, and I have a great deal more admiration for the intellectual integrity of those who recognise that our problems can’t simply be solved in an afterlife or wrapped in the warm blanket of faith.
As to my second definition, again I think I simply don’t have enough time to do it justice. Every single day there is a barrage of appalling news stories highlighting religious stupidity in one form or another, whether it be gruesome clerical homophobia preventing homosexuals from attaining equal rights; women dying through denial of abortion services; or ‘faith schools’ being established. To say that religion does no-one any harm is to hide one’s head in the sand to a significant degree: these problems would not exist were it not for religion. There are of course countless believers doing good deeds all over the world, and no atheist ever denies this phenomenon, but faith corrupts the mind far too frequently and seriously for it to go unchallenged; it is not permitted a certain number of atrocities because of the amount of charity work it puts in. This is a piece of received wisdom that needs to be addressed seriously, and it is edifying to find that many are beginning to recognise this (Britain seems to be becoming increasingly non-religious). Would there exist problems in the world if religion vanished tomorrow? Of course there would. But we would be rid of a great deal of the justification for prejudice and violence, as well as being rid of the idea that there is a force up there who takes sides in our trivial affairs. Remove religion from any serious attempt to reach important decisions and you have significantly advanced the conversation intellectually and practically.
Randal: Thanks for that Ralph. That’s helpful. You’ve offered both definitions of the terms “atheism” and “anti-theism” as well as reasons for holding each position. Before I can turn to assess your reasons for holding those positions, I need to take issue with the definitions you’ve provided. You defined atheism as the position of “someone who believes that the natural world operates perfectly well without the invocation of any god.” I take it that you are saying an atheist is a person who believes God is explanatorily superfluous. In other words, that we do not need to invoke the concept of God in order to have an intellectually satisfactory account of existence. If that is what you mean then it seems to me that your definition faces a twofold objection.
To begin with, your definition of “atheist” would apply to a person who believes that God exists but that God is not necessary to invoke as an explanation of any aspect of the natural world. Even worse, your definition wouldn’t apply to a person who believed that no God existed but who nonetheless also believed that human beings could never have a satisfactory account of reality apart from God. Thus, your definition of “atheist” includes some people who believe in God and others who don’t. For this reason I’d suggest you just define atheist as “a person who believes God doesn’t exist”.
I also have a problem with your definition of anti-theism. You explain anti-theism as follows: ” I find it impossible to ignore the dreadful scars that religion has inflicted and continues to inflict on society….” The problem here is that there are many theists who also cannot “ignore the dreadful scars that religion has inflicted and continues to inflict on society.” Indeed, the way that Jesus took aim at religious hypocrisy throughout his ministry suggests that he could qualify as an anti-theist by your definition.
I would suggest that the real heart of anti-theism is expressed well by philosopher Thomas Nagel when he candidly observed:
“I want atheism to be true and I am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.” (Oxford University Press, 1997, 130)
So would you be okay saying that you believe no God exists (atheism) and you don’t want there to be a God (anti-theism)? Or would you disagree with the definitions I’ve provided?
Ralph: I think, as frequently happens with discussions of this nature, wading through a bog of semantics can really obstruct dialogue. In my response I simply assumed that the word ‘atheist’ would be familiar enough to not need defining in its most common form, and tried to phrase it in a different light. But yes, I am of course a person who believes that God doesn’t exist. I don’t think that there’s an important difference – or indeed any difference – between the following three statements: 1. I don’t believe there is a God; 2. I believe there is no God; 3. I believe that the natural world operates without the invocation of a God. These are just three ways of saying the same thing, and if you disagree then 3. can be changed to ‘I don’t believe in the supernatural’. Though I deny the existence of the supernatural, what is most directly relevant is that I do not believe there to be a God of the kind invoked by religion – i.e. one that answers prayers, casts people to Hell, suspends the natural order, operates through ‘holy’ books…
I find it hard not to be amused when Christians describe Jesus as anti-religious. He did of course object to religious hypocrisy as you say, but he also said that a) his disciples should wander the land proclaiming the good news to everyone, and b) those that didn’t follow him were damned. Right there you have two of the worst elements of any religion: self-righteousness and menacing, groundless threats. They provide warrant for all manner of harm done by the religious, and, because the speaker is supposed to be the son of God, all of those acting on his behalf arrogantly believe themselves to be in the right. Thus to equate an anti-theist with Jesus is obviously absurd because it is against Jesus, and those following his preachments, that anti-theists rally. I agree with you that many theists are able to recognise the harm done by religion, but so few recognise that it is religion, and not simply those acting in its name, that is the culprit. This is beginning to be tacitly acknowledged by a lot of religious leaders in public, with religion no longer being held up as the paragon of virtue it once pretended to be. But the consequence of this is that we see even in the religious community gradual advances toward a kind of qualified, cosy religiosity, becoming ever more like humanism – the best solution – as the days go by. Eventually there will be no need for all of the dogmas around which religion originally revolved. In other words we will soon have female bishops, because it will be recognised that it is farcical to prevent women from entering a position of authority like this; it won’t be long before the doctrine of Hell is rubbed out entirely from religious proselytising…and yet, as these facets are erased, in what sense can what’s left be called religion? The man-made and a la carte nature of the entire shambles becomes hideously apparent.
I’d disagree with Nagel in the sense that by far the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are atheists; I have always remarked upon this being the case, and it is a phenomenon that bears out across academia. Whenever I read arguments against religion I am always struck by how coherent and logical they sound; and when I read arguments in favour of religion I am always struck by how difficult it is to decipher any meaning or clarity. So I don’t at all agree with Nagel there, and I’d certainly contend that the more educated we are about the natural world, the weaker religion’s hold on people’s hearts and minds will become.
But the question of whether I wouldn’t want there to be a God is a difficult one; again the most relevant point is that if God is anything like he is supposed to be if we are to believe, for example, Christianity, then yes, this state of affairs would be undesirable. But I don’t accept the trap that theists believe is lying in wait – that atheism is founded as much upon wishful thinking as is religion – and I am always shocked that people make it, really. The desire to attain eternal life, for example, is one of mankind’s oldest and strongest desires and it is to this urge that religion panders and offers a cure. It is ludicrous to suggest that atheism, in maintaining the pretty self-evident belief that the way we behave and think in this world will have no impact on matters after we are dead, is on equal terms with a Christian’s belief that taking Jesus to be the son of God will grant them a perfect and eternal afterlife. The former doesn’t make grand assumptions and is based on the evidence to which we are privy every day, and the latter is predicated on an incurable but pitiable wish to live forever. Atheism comes to terms with unwelcome truths – there is no one divine being (or miraculous son of a divine being) through whom we are forgiven or saved; we have a very limited number of years in which we are conscious; justice needs urgently to be obtained in this world; etc. The point is that on the surface this appears to be a very bleak worldview – the reason so many people run into the warm arms of religion – but the mature realisations that are provoked as a result are infinitely more rewarding than the non-answers provided by faith. I’d agree with Christopher Hitchens in the sense that an unchallengeable ruler would be a hideous idea because none of us ever had a say in his appointment as such. If, on top of this immunity from criticism or challenge, God is anything like he is in the Bible, then I would be depressed if he existed, yes. But I don’t base my belief on this conviction; for a long time I wanted there to be a God because the concept has a very child-like appeal.
Randal: Ralph, I think it is unfortunate that you equate the provision of clear, succinct definitions as tantamount to wading through a bog. On the contrary, the whole point is to avoid wading into the bog by securing our way with clear definitions.
You balk at the idea that Jesus would be an anti-theist. Fair enough, my whole point was that the definition of anti-theist which you provided was inadequate. It really is important to say what you mean and mean what you say. Definitions do matter.
You claim that Jesus declared that his disciples “should wander the land proclaiming the good news to everyone” and that “those who didn’t follow him were damned.” And from that you conclude: “Right there you have the two worst elements of any religion: self-righteousness and menacing, groundless threats.”
Sorry, but this strikes me as a really strange complaint. If Jesus is who he says he is then his call to his disciples to spread the news of who he is isn’t self-righteous at all. So at that point you’re just begging the question by assuming Jesus is wrong. (Indeed, even if Jesus were wrong about his identity, it still wouldn’t follow that he was being self-righteous in directing his disciples to share the good news of the kingdom.)
Your second statement has the same problem. If Jesus is who he says he is then in some way our flourishing as human beings is tied to right relationship with him. In that case, it isn’t a menacing, groundless threat any more than “Make sure you get enough vitamin C or you’ll get scurvy” is a groundless threat. Your problem seems to be that you’re entering the conversation with a question-begging assumption in your own rightness and a distinctly uncharitable set of assumptions about your “religious” interlocutor.
Rather than keep begging the question and marginalizing your poor interlocutor, can you provide some reasons why you think that God does not exist?
Ralph: I agree that definitions are of course important; my point was simply that your readers don’t need to be told what being an atheist means, and I have seen far too many arguments childishly spoilt by futile victories being declared along such lines as: “Ah you don’t know but you have faith that there’s no God – well then, you’re just as religious as me!” I was simply asserting that the definitions are less important than the reasons, and I was trying to define atheism in a less boring way than conventionally understood (i.e. ‘I believe that the natural world operates perfectly well without the invocation of any God’ vs ‘I believe there is no God’). I would’ve thought that my explanations immediately afterwards fully clarified my stance.
It’s unfortunate you found my definition of anti-theism to be inadequate. It is certainly true that this is much more of a grey area in the discussion because it involves the weighing-up of religious harm and religious good. But again I reiterate that it is not enough to say that Jesus and myself are comparable in our objections to religion, because unless you claim that Jesus himself didn’t understand religion properly, and that one is only truly Christian if one filters out the bad things he said and focuses on the good, it is Jesus and religion itself against which I am taking a stance. To take my definition of anti-theism to mean a simple objection to harm done in the name of religion, is to ignore what I said about religion itself being the problem. In my view one cannot have a religion without all of the nasty bits added on; there seems always a need to condemn to damnation those who don’t follow the religion, or to condemn certain harmless behaviours like homosexuality/eating pork/displaying skin, or to create hostility between opposing faiths, etc. Harm is very often done not ‘in religion’s name’ but as a direct result of the ridiculous dogmas of the religion in question. The more religion attempts to appropriate the characteristics of what one would describe as humanism, ignoring all of the more sinister elements around which it was founded, the less like religion it becomes.
You think that if Jesus were wrong about him being the son of God, it wouldn’t be self-righteous to tell his disciples to go around telling people that he is? How on Earth do you work that out? I contend that it’s self-righteous whichever way you look at it: millions of people – like myself – are perfectly fine without being forced to listen to the doctrine of a man delusionally believing himself to be the son God; we’re also perfectly fine without this proselytisation even if he is the son of God. Now, there is every reason to think that he is very much not the son of God, and no reason to think that he is – this is not an assumption on my part, it is grounded on the evidence to which I have been privy over many years. Your suggestion that it is an assumption seems to be based on you concluding that I haven’t read anything about the issue. It is entirely up to Jesus and his followers to prove that he is the son of God; until I see this proof I will go ahead with my assertion that this claim is ridiculous, on the evidence that I have seen. Would you care to give me evidence that implies the contrary? As to the “groundless claims”: I’ve got no reason to think that Jesus is “who he says he is”, as you put it, and thus his claims are groundless to me, as well as evil, because there is no way he could possibly know that damnation awaited those who didn’t follow him. Even if I believed he were the son of God I’d need some actual evidence to suggest that he knew something about the damnation of which he spoke; I’d have no reason to surrender all of my critical thinking and simply believe everything he said. Even Christians don’t follow Jesus’ words to the letter, but they of course still maintain that he is the son of God. I’m not being ‘uncharitable’ here – I don’t think ‘charity’ is a welcome element in a discussion about truth and morality. If any side wishes to given charity, surely they are already conceding a minor defeat? I will be considerate and reasonable but I won’t disguise what I think. The person who is not being charitable is the person who thinks that someone is barred from some sort of Heaven in the afterlife for simply not believing in Jesus.
I have already listed numerous reasons I don’t believe that God exists (although admittedly I was focusing on the Christian God). Here they are repeated, along with many others:
1. The supposedly holy texts are all obviously man-made; they contain the prejudices and limited information we would expect them to, if they involved no supernatural influence.
2. These scriptures have innumerable contradictions and mistakes, again as we would expect were they to be primitive and ordinary texts.
3. We are now witness to no miracles, but in a time in which there was no objective way to record them, they were apparently happening all the time. Not to smell a rat here is incredible.
4. The accounts of the most crucial element of the Christian faith (the resurrection) were written decades after the event and, even if we were to ignore this gargantuan hurdle, they cannot be reconciled with one another and bear all the hallmarks of fabrication.
5. The reasons to believe there to be a God are too clearly founded on wishful thinking – they speak to the part of us that wants to be comforted, secure and looked after. There is no reason to think that any part of the universe, other than the humans in our lives, cares about us at all.
6. Science has eroded so many of religion’s claims – the world being created in six days; the existence of Adam and Eve; the Earth being the centre of the universe – that it is silly to suggest that it will not continue in this vein and erode them all. Science is already beginning to answer the question ‘How can something come from nothing?’ and, if there is a convincing answer to the question, there is every reason to think that it will be a natural and not a supernatural one. In the unlikely event that we don’t find an answer in the coming millions of years, in no way does this prove all of the claims on which religion is based.
7. Though there are of course intelligent believers, all of the data I have seen point to a positive correlation between intelligence and atheism. My experience has always been that religion tends to be held by those who are less educated.
8. Prayer doesn’t work.
9. There is far, far too much suffering in the world to hold onto the idea of a loving God. This is true both in human terms – serial killers etc. – and in natural terms – tsunamis wiping out entire villages etc. If God took so much care when creating the world he would have been able to avoid this ghastly feature.
10. Religion is passed on very consistently through the genes and the likeliest explanation is that this is why people believe, not that one faith – Islam, Judaism, Christianity – is objectively true. This is further proved by religious authorities being so desperate to teach religion to children while they are young. If one attempted to pass on a religion to an 18-year-old the results would of course be dramatically different.
11. The creation of a Hell for non-believers is too obviously a sign of insecurity on the part of those proposing it. A belief that was objectively true would not rely on threats like this.
12. If Hell were to exist, which I certainly don’t believe, a God that allowed it would be unspeakably evil, not in any sense good.
13. Religion’s ghastly sexism implies that it is an entirely man-made story, not one of a God that created men and women equal.
14. There is no reason to believe that God wouldn’t have the power to make us all religious. There is no reason to think that us exercising our free will not to believe in him would lead to a punishment that he could easily avoid by having us believe in him.
15. Religions come and go all the time, and are constantly changing the goalposts.
16. Religion very often corrupts rather than purifies people.
17. We see so many other planets that are incapable of hosting life that it is arrogance to assume that we are ‘designed’ or ‘blessed’, as opposed to simply being fortunate. On top of this, there may be superior forms of life in the universe, in which case religion will have to once again revise its ideas on our position in this supposed plan.