Next in our series is James Lindsay. James’ blog is “God Doesn’t; We Do” and he also self-published the book God Doesn’t; We Do. So let’s turn it over to James:
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As with many things, this is not a simple matter. After reading through examples on your blog, I realized that I’m a “complex” case with a very slow process of leaving theism. There are many instances I can think of that hold significance as having been game-changers, some that I realized at the time and some that I didn’t realize until much later. I now have very different reasons than I did at various stages along this journey. Since this is about my argument, though, not a process of deconverting and the insights involved therein, I’ll try to stick cleanly to your question about my reasons.
Now, I’ve been pretty careful with my wording so far particularly because I find fault with the wording of your question. This fact is nothing upon you, but it is revelatory of your thought processes. As a mathematician, I see something in your wording, which I realized while contemplating my response to the question “why do I reject theism in general and Christianity in specific?”
Here’s the catch: in statistical hypothesis testing, we have two hypotheses, the “null” and the “alternative” hypotheses. We assume the null unless there is sufficient reason presented to reject it for the alternative, given with a level of confidence determined beforehand to be sufficient to the degree of evidence required. Particularly, it is erroneous to “reject” the alternative hypothesis–it is only possible to fail to accept it. For me, as “negative atheism,” as Anthony Flew called it, is the null hypothesis, I cannot “reject theism” but can only fail to accept it. For you, as a Christian, you have worded your question about “rejecting theism” to indicate that your position takes theism as the null hypothesis. This statement is profoundly interesting because it reveals a bias–one I claim you have and yet that you might try to claim that I have.
In short, then, for levels of confidence that suit me in this question, I fail to see sufficient reasons to accept the hypothesis of theism. Since Christianity is predicated on theism, I fail to accept Christianity as well. Indeed, while I feel I could talk at length in the realm of your strength–Christian theology–to the reasons I find Christianity in particular to be unacceptable nonsense, I actually feel that it is beneath commentary entirely because (1) I see no reason to accept theism, and (2) Christian theology, as viewed from the outside, is easily dismissed even while accepting theism, as billions of Muslims, Hindus, etc., demonstrate handily.
For me, then, since I see no empirical reasons to accept theism but see billions of people who do accept it anyway, the real question comes down to “why do people accept theism?” Certainly it’s not because it’s true, in the usual sense of the word, and particularly not because it is demonstrably true. So here I can talk about my personal reasons for ignoring theism as being essentially irrelevant, beyond the fact that I have no reason to believe that it is true.
I don’t mean to suggest that the reasons that people accept beliefs in a deity are simple, but there are rather broad categories of psychosocial needs that are met by religion with “God” as the emblematic figurehead. These needs can be listed briefly: attribution (including meaning), control, esteem, sociality (including an overarching moral framework), and perhaps a need for some kind of mysticism or spirituality. In part, on the personal level, I do not accept theism because I do not think theism sufficiently provides for these needs. In fact, I find that theism often stands in the way of meeting these needs deeply, hence my failure to accept theism resulted from a long-term search that I can now understand in light of attempting to satisfy many of these psychosocial needs for myself.
To wit, I find science does a better job of providing my basic attributional needs, i.e. explanations for phenomena. Indeed, suggesting a supernatural agent cause does nothing but leave open the question of “how?” which off theism can be worded “how does/did this happen?” and on theism “how does/did God do this?” Those questions are functionally identical although the latter contains the famous unnecessary hypothesis. For my deeper attributional needs, a sense of meaning or purpose, I’m content understanding that my meaning in life is inherently subjective and therefore up to me to create and appreciate for myself. The theistic hypothesis adds literally nothing but unnecessary, confounding, and ultimately meaningless questions to this process.
For the other needs, control, esteem, and sociality, I have other means of satisfying them as well. I find my needs for control met in the abundant evidence we have for human resilience in the face of adversity, including my own, although I would suggest that my explorations with Buddhist non-attachment were very helpful in realizing that I need far less control over circumstances than I thought I did. My sense of esteem is intertwined with these other needs and is often quite stable. As to any “spiritual” needs–which I also see as being psychological–I feel even more successful exploring that aspect of my mind without a hypothetical “God” to represent attribution for various experiences than I did when I still believed some “God” is out there.
Now morality, though, as an avenue to social cohesion, is a big kicker. It is my studied opinion that theological attempts to explain morality fail utterly in that their roots are often tied to authoritative dicta instead of real-world salience. Indeed, I often think of theism as an avenue to “morality lite,” with lite meant in precisely the same way as with “lite” beer. I’m coming to see “God” (as defined as moral perfection with agenticity) as an emblem of a conceptual ideal within a particular moral framework, whether or not this moral framework has any grounding in salient notions like care and harm, or well-being and suffering. Of course, this isn’t all that is meant by “God,” which is something of an amalgam of many ideas. This is merely how I’m seeing the “moral perfection” aspect. At any rate, I don’t need to apply agency, divine authority, or supernatural origins to these concepts in order to achieve the goals of “being good” and meshing with the social framework into which I was born.
So, to summarize: your question doesn’t technically make sense, as “rejecting theism” would only be possible if I already assumed it. I do not accept theism, though, because I see a paucity of evidential reasons to believe any such agent is required and because it has been my consistent experience that I can meet my intellectual and psychosocial needs vastly better without the hypothesis of any “God” of any kind.
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“I’m a “complex” case with a very slow process of leaving theism”
“I cannot “reject theism” but can only fail to accept it.”
Hmmm. I’m perplexed. On the one hand, James describes himself as having come to the point of rejecting (or as he says, “leaving”) theism. On the other hand he insists that he cannot reject theism. What’s going on here?
As they say, actuality entails possibility, so if it is actually the case that James rejected theism, then surely it is possible to reject theism. And since James actually did reject theism (since leaving certainly entails rejecting) it is possible for him to reject theism.
Of course it is not possible for him to leave theism now that he’s an atheist. But that simply shows that when it comes to one’s metaphysical beliefs one man’s “null hypothesis” is another’s alternative hypothesis.
“to the reasons I find Christianity in particular to be unacceptable nonsense, I actually feel that it is beneath commentary entirely because (1) I see no reason to accept theism, and (2) Christian theology, as viewed from the outside, is easily dismissed even while accepting theism”
There is a polemical edge in James’ writing that contrasts starkly with Jeff Lowder’s tentative non-belief. Consider, for example, James’ statement that Christianity is “unacceptable nonsense”. A dictionary definition of “nonsense” would be helpful here:
“Nonsense” n. trifling, fatuous, foolish, absurd, without meaning.
So James apparently views Christianity as trifling, fatuous, foolish, absurd, and/or without meaning. It is difficult to conceive a more harsh and dismissive attitude toward Christianity than this.
James may think this brusque dismissal is a sign of the intellectual strength of his position, but really this only evinces the hard and simplistic categories of the fundamentalist. As I document in You’re not as Crazy as I Think, both Christian and atheistic fundamentalists are distinguished for marginalizing those with whom they disagree with sweeping charges of immorality or ignorance. James presumably opts for the latter charge here.
James then adds that Christianity is “beneath commentary entirely”. Wow, strong words (and ironic since he’s commenting on Christianity as he makes them; call it benevolent condescension!). But what reasons does James give for finding Christainity “beneath commentary”?
James gives two reasons. First, he sees no reason to accept theism. This isn’t a very impressive reason since it could simply reflect one’s ignorance of the subject matter. (Compare: the fact that Mrs. Brown’s grade 3 class sees no reason to accept superstring theory doesn’t mean there are no good reasons to accept superstring theory!)
James’ second claim is that Christianity (or, as he says, “Christian theology”) is “easily dismissed” when “viewed from the outside”. I’m not sure what James is saying here. Is this a nod to John Loftus’ outsider test?
“my failure to accept theism resulted from a long-term search that I can now understand in light of attempting to satisfy many of these psychosocial needs for myself”
This is an admirably candid observation, though the psychosocial satisfaction one derives from accepting p is not a reason to accept (or reject) p. (However, in cases where the evidence for p and not-p is roughly equivalent, a pragmatist could argue that psychosocial benefits could be sufficient to take a doxastic stand.)
“To wit, I find science does a better job of providing my basic attributional needs, i.e. explanations for phenomena.”
It depends what phenomena we’re trying to explain. In my public debates with John Loftus I point out that there are many facts about the world that science must assume (e.g. the inexplicable fact that the laws of nature are written in the language of mathematics) and others that science cannot address (e.g. the transcendent meaning of love).
If I read James correctly then his “basic attributional needs” include scientism. I am driven to this conclusion based on a reading that James seeks scientific explanations for phenomena simpliciter. (If James believes certain phenomena are not amenable to scientific explanation then he can certainly explain what those are at which point I’ll happily drop the scientism reading.)
But even if James finds a commitment to scientism does better at “providing [his] basic attributional needs”, that certainly isn’t a reason to think scientism is likely to be true.