Next up in our series we have Jonathan MS Pearce. Jonathan has published books on free will and the nativity, debated me on the nativity for the Reasonable Doubts podcast, and blogs regularly as A Tippling Philosopher.
So now, come hither O Tippling One, and share for us your reasons for disbelief!
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My name is Jonathan MS Pearce and I am a teacher, philosopher, author and blogger. I am an agnostic atheist in that I believe there is probably no God, though cannot prove it any more than a theist can prove that there is (it’s difficult to prove anything past cogito ergo sum). I came from a religiously apathetic house – no real persuasion either way. For this I am hugely grateful, now. This allowed me to make up my own mind, swinging from a confirmed Christian in my school days to rejecting God in my late teens. This was based initially on living and travelling around the world and seeing pain, suffering, inequality (I’m drinking a cup of tea now whilst thousands are starving in sub-Saharan Africa, none of which can be justified by compensation in heaven) and diverse beliefs first hand (later understood as the Problem of Evil and the Outsider Test for Faith). I realised my beliefs were a product of where I was brought up. This cast serious doubts. Living at university with scientists as a lone Arts student gave me a greater understanding of empirical arguments against God (they were all atheists). Later in life, as someone who has studied the arguments in depth, and as part of the Tippling Philosophers group which has included a notable published Christian philosopher and a theologian, I have interacted in great depth with all of the arguments for the existence of God. I find none persuasive, including (and, perhaps especially, the historical ones). I cannot even understand why an ontologically perfect being would have any needs or desires at all, especially to create something so apparently imperfect as us and this universe.
In one of my books, I set out a cumulative case against the existence of God in 501 questions directly to him. One of my favourite questions for its simplicity in exposing design flaws and the Problem of Evil is this: Why don’t humans and all animals photosynthesise? Quite simple for an omniGod. In fact, due to the vastness of pain, suffering and death over millions and millions of years due to carnivorousness just so organisms can survive, why is it that organisms be designed to need energy at all? This kind of panoply of pain, designed in and actualised by a Creator, is surely unnecessary and best explained by a naturalistic universe.
The core to my disbelief, though, is the philosophical incoherence of the idea of free will, upon which a personal deity supervenes. This should be THE most prevalent topic of debate in theology. Arguing about whether the dead saints really did parade around Jerusalem, meeting many people, never to be reported by anyone else on earth but Matthew; about whether it really happened is irrelevant if you can’t establish free will.
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Jonathan has provided a very helpful and succinct overview of his disbelief, and I’m grateful for it. I’m going to respond to five sentences from Jonathan’s comments.
“I am an agnostic atheist in that I believe there is probably no God, though cannot prove it any more than a theist can prove that there is (it’s difficult to prove anything past cogito ergo sum).”
David Hume, Bertrand Russell, and others pointed out that you may not even be able to prove the cogito with the kind of absolutely indefeasible proof that Descartes sought. At best, you may prove “there are thoughts” while inferring that there is a thinking substance underlying those thoughts. The thinking substance is precisely the assumption that a bundle theory of self would challenge. Suffice it to say, playing the hyper-skeptic threatens even Descartes’ cherished cogito.
“I came from a religiously apathetic house – no real persuasion either way. For this I am hugely grateful, now. This allowed me to make up my own mind,“.
I find this to be a hugely important, and very revealing statement. Jonathan seems to equate apathy about x with the freedom to think critically about x. But there is no essential connection here. Indeed, apathy may completely obstruct proper thinking about a given subject matter. Let’s say that Jimmy is born into a family that is completely apathetic about a just society. Does this fact provide Jimmy with a greater critical objectivity to develop his own thoughts on a just society? To say the least: not necessarily. Indeed, apathy about justice can serve to obstruct proper thinking about justice, particularly if justice is precisely the kind of thing that should stimulate intense commitment and thoughtful engagement.
By the same token, “a religiously apathetic house” doesn’t mean “a house that has equipped one to think in a critical, objective way about religion”, particularly if religion is the kind of thing that should stimulate intense commitment (one way or the other) and thoughtful engagement. At the very least, apathy is not a neutral, default position.
So where is intellectual freedom found? It is found when intellectual virtues are encouraged, when people learn to examine their beliefs with some critical distance, to challenge their own penchant for confirmation bias and motivated reasoning, to learn to extend the hospitality of listening to others and seeing the world from their perspective. But all these virtues are fully compatible with a whole range of perspectives on and degree of commitment to various religions or beliefs about God.
“I realised my beliefs were a product of where I was brought up.”
This is interesting. Often atheists make comments like “You’re a Christian because you were raised in a Christian household.” I wonder if Jonathan thinks he’s an agnostic-atheist because he was raised in a religiously apathetic household?
“This kind of panoply of pain, designed in and actualised by a Creator, is surely unnecessary and best explained by a naturalistic universe.”
This is a comment not on Jonathan’s sentence but rather one occasioned by it: The problem of evil is the atheist’s best friend for provocative sound bites. “Why would God allow X?!” (applause) But it is much more difficult to formulate a viable argument from the problem of evil. And it seems to me (as it has seemed to many theists) that the very visceral reaction human beings have to the distribution and intensity of evil and suffering in the world, the sense that this isn’t the way things ought to be, is itself a fact that supports the theist’s intuition because that is precisely the view of the theist.
“The core to my disbelief, though, is the philosophical incoherence of the idea of free will, upon which a personal deity supervenes. This should be THE most prevalent topic of debate in theology.”
Here I’ll simply note that Christian philosophers and theologians endorse the complete range of positions on free will from libertarianism to soft determinism (human beings have free will and are determined) to outright hard determinism (human beings don’t have free will and are determined, for which see philosopher Derk Pereboom).
Given that Christians work comfortably within the full range of theories of free will, adopting one particular view of free will is not a ground to reject Christianity.