Reasonable Atheism (31): the one less God fallacy

In ‘The God Delusion’, Dawkins writes: “I have found it an amusing strategy, when asked whether I am an atheist, to point out that the questioner is also an atheist when considering Zeus, Apollo, Amon Ra, Mithras, Baal, Thor, Wotan, the Golden Calf and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I just go one god further.” (p77 of my copy)

This is a philosophical error, a category mistake. The Christian God is not the same sort of thing as the other gods listed (assuming the FSM counts as such). So it’s a little like having an orange in your pocket, and a man comes along and says ‘you haven’t got an apple in your pocket’. ‘No, I haven’t, nor would I claim to have’. Then you produce the orange and he says ‘see, no apple!’


One of the great breakthroughs in Hebrew theology, a transition – an evolution! – that is documented in the Old Testament, comes when the people of Israel, in the context of the destruction of Jerusalem c. 586BC, realise that the god they have been worshipping isn’t just the tribal God of Israel, which would be a god listable with all the others in Dawkins’ text. They see their God as being in charge of all things, creator of all things, not just the Israelites. This conceptual innovation led to an immense shift in their theology – a theology that can be tracked in Scripture in all sorts of different ways. It was responsible, for example, for the writing of Genesis chapter 1, which articulated this idea of God as the creator of all things.

So it would be fair to say that, since approximately the sixth century BC, the Judaeo-Christian tradition (and the Islamic offshoot) hasn’t believed in the sort of God that Dawkins lists. It’s a pity that Dawkins doesn’t take this into account in his diatribe, but that would take genuine intellectual curiosity.

NB please note that it is no defence of Dawkins’ argument to say that ‘the Christian God doesn’t exist either!’ (which is simply saying ‘you have no orange in your pocket’, a different claim to ‘you have no apple in your pocket’.). The point is simply about what Christians are believing in – and that isn’t what Dawkins is criticising. Hence the error.

God and human rights

Andrew Brown has a new blog on the Guardian. Go and discuss this with him:
“if there is no God, then we cannot be made in his image, and we cannot be his children: in that case there is nothing which it is wrong to do to a human being simply because they are a human being. Note: this isn’t a claim that no atheists can believe in human rights. That would be absurd. It is a claim that the atheist who believes in human rights must believe that they are no more than a socially constructed reality and that if no one believed in them, they would not exist. Otherwise, Rowan would say, if you reach to some standard of humanity independent of actual humans, you are reaching for something that makes sense of a lot of talk about God.”
(He’s channelling Rowan)

Reasonable atheism – central post

This will be the central point to navigate the posts on atheism, both the ‘reasonable atheism’ sequence and a handful of others.

There are two things that I believe to be true:
– the prevalent form of atheism is irrational (and highly damaging); and
– Christianity is not irrational, when properly understood.

For the avoidance of ambiguity, those two things do not entail that all Christianity is more rational than all atheism. I do not believe that to be true. I do believe that Christian theology is the highest and most exalted expression of the Western intellectual genius, and that it is truth which sets us free.

My basic stance:
Thresholds for a sensible conversation with an atheist
Of atheisms sophisticated and humourless

What I think atheism misses in its worldview
What is acceptable to the humourless atheist?
On wisdom
Is wisdom necessary?
Emotions and decisions
Atheism and choosing the good
Why (most) atheist criticism doesn’t reach me

The problem of suffering (= ‘theodicy’)
(also listed as “my discussions with Stephen Law”)
Meaning, Suffering and Integrity
Four questions on theodicy
A few thoughts about the problem of evil
The Old Testament heart (mainly autobiographical, but relevant)
Prayer and Grief (ditto)

The nature of religious language
What do I mean when I talk about God?
The fundamental theological rule
The problem of definitions
Mystery and idolatry
Justifying language about God
Wittgenstein on language
Muscles, metaphors, mysteries and the grokking of God
A point about religious grammar and part 2
The fool and his heart

On miracles and the supernatural
On miracles
The nature of the supernatural
On the notion of ‘evidence’ for God’s existence.

Other aspects
Western atheism as a Protestant sub-culture
Religion has ‘bloody hands’?
Has spirituality changed since Newton?

Reasonable Atheism (29): Why (most) atheist criticism doesn’t reach me

This is our car. It is a very nice car, very practical, capacious, safe – and it has served us very well in meeting our needs. It is not a perfect car. There are several things wrong with it – it has low mpg, it tends to get too hot inside on sunny days, it has a steadily accumulating number of bumps and scratches, especially from the bicycles of small boys – but it serves the job well. It is extremely reliable and we often depend upon it.

Now imagine someone coming along to comment upon our car. This person points out the various things that are wrong with it – as listed above – and tries to persuade me that I would be better off owning a car like his (and it normally is a ‘his’). He points out how beautiful the car looks from the outside, how seamless is the paint work, how there isn’t even a minor blemish. However, when I inspect his car, I notice various things. To begin with, the car is cosmetically perfect, as if it has come straight out of the showroom. I begin to suspect that it has never been used for a journey. So I investigate further. I look inside and see some very comfortable seats and a state of the art stereo system. But I also note with great concern that there is no steering wheel, no foot pedals, no gear stick. I look with amazement towards the owner, but the owner doesn’t seem to understand why I am concerned. I ask to look under the bonnet, which he happily opens for me, and my concerns reach fruition: there is no engine. This is something that looks very like a car, but it can never be used as a car. It won’t take you anywhere.

So I discuss with the man what I see as wrong with his car. I say ‘it looks lovely – much nicer than mine – but you can’t take it anywhere’. And the response is ‘it’s impossible to go anywhere, that’s not what cars are for’. So I try to explain, ‘No, that’s not true – we use our car to go places and do things, it’s very useful’. And he says – ‘ah, no, sorry, you’re deluded. What you call an engine and a steering wheel is in fact an extremely advanced projection system. When you sit inside your car and you feel yourself to be going somewhere, the truth is that you are being lied to and deceived’. But then I say ‘but what about the shopping that I picked up, that’s now in the boot – and I do that on a regular basis to feed my children!’ And the man says ‘I see that the delusion has really sunk its teeth deep into you, I think you need professional help. I know a lot of car dealers who are very good at removing those projection systems and helping you see cars in the way that I do’. And I say, ‘Sorry, my kids need their supper.’


Excellent animation. 4/5

Question: how does the humourless atheist describe and evaluate the moral progress achieved by Lightning McQueen? It’s because I consider that they _cannot_ that I see humourless atheism as foolish.

Reasonable Atheism (28): The fool and his heart

Famously, Psalm 14 begins ‘The fool says in his heart “There is no God”‘. What is meant by this? Click ‘full post’ for text.

Is the fool foolish because there is some fact about the world that he hasn’t noticed? That is, is this attribution of foolishness akin to calling a flat-earth believer a fool? As if a man is standing in front of the sea and claiming not to see any water? That sort of claim would be an empirical claim. It would be an assertion of some fact about the world, a fact that is amenable to scientific investigation, the formulation of hypotheses and the accumulation of evidence. Then the dispute would be between the community of those who accept the legitimacy of those processes, and those who don’t, and the more widespread the acceptance of the processes, the more foolish the objector will be seen as. One definition of the fool: one who stands outside the consensus of the community. And in this example the community will have a particular ‘grammar’ for how to talk about what counts – what counts as important, what counts as evidence for what is important.

Is this the nature of the Psalmist’s claim? Well, let me first ask: are there areas of life where foolishness might be displayed in ways that are not open to empirical investigation? Consider the shenanigans in the Clinton White House involving Ms Lewinsky. When Hillary found out about these matters, would she be justified in calling her husband a fool? It is, after all, a familiar trope in literature when someone is rendered foolish by their passions. Or perhaps when someone is tempted to steal, on the optimistic presupposition that they won’t be caught – and they don’t realise that all of their actions are being caught on CCTV. Or perhaps the more long term and insidious foolishness of having just one more drink, or ‘one for the road’. Or perhaps pouring petrol on a blazing fire. In these examples there might be empirical information that is relevant – certainly to the detriment of Mr Clinton’s reputation – but is the foolishness itself empirically observed? Or is it rather a matter of judgement?

Isn’t that what foolishness is? An absence of sound judgement, or the impairment of judgement? Either a repeated choosing badly, or, perhaps, an absence of any decision making at all.

It is, in fact, a good example of foolishness to try and make these second sorts of foolishness – let’s call them moral – fit into the first type of foolishness – call them empirical.

And the question I want to ask is: which sort matters more? Which sort is most destructive of a fully human life? And what sorts of habits and attitudes help us avoid foolishness and pursue what is wonderful?

So what does the Psalmist mean? Well let’s put the quotation into context:

“The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good. The LORD looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.”

It is common in the psalms to have a verse repeating the same sentiment in two different ways, and that applies here – the fool saying that there is no God is the same sentiment as no one doing any good. In other words we have here a practical description of behaviour. We are not here dealing with an empirical claim, we are instead dealing with the realm of morality. The claim of foolishness is not that the fool isn’t seeing the world correctly in some scientific fashion, rather, the fool is acting as if there is no accountability and no consequence to his actions. The fool who believes that there is no God is the same as the amoral actor who has no care for the consequences of his choices. This is the grammar of the language.

To say that the fool says in his heart there is no God is to describe the disposition, the shape of the heart of the fool. It is an undisciplined heart; a heart that is not accountable; a heart that is selfish and unconstrained. The word ‘God’ has its meaning in this context – it is the lynchpin of the entire system – for God is precisely that which orients a heart correctly, to which the heart is accountable, which is able to rightly discipline and enable the heart to judge correctly between what is just and what is unjust.

I have talked elsewhere about the problem with science and the positivist culture that has been so influentially humourless for the last century or so – it is asophic, it is blind to wisdom. It is asophic, and as a result, it says in its heart there is no God.

Hear the word of the LORD, O children of Israel, for the LORD has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land. There is no faithfulness or steadfast love, and no knowledge of God in the land; there is swearing, lying, murder, stealing, and committing adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, and all who dwell in it languish, and also the beasts of the field and the birds of the heavens, and even the fish of the sea are taken away. Yet let no one contend, and let none accuse, for with you is my contention, O priest…My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” (Hosea 4)