I've been amusing myself watching videos online, including some of my music and sporting faves. But I also came across this fascinating video of Sam Harris speaking at the AAI conference earlier this year. I thought some of you might find it interesting; I think it might have quite broad appeal, even perhaps to some of the people of faith on my friends list who may be interested in current trends in the debate. Obviously it is at the occasion of a - how shall we say - "atheistnormative" meeting, and so if you're thinking about clicking through you should of course bear that in mind, but you may find it quite engaging nevertheless. He expresses some very interesting ideas about the usefulness or otherwise of the term "atheist", his thoughts on how atheists are too even-handed in their treatments of different religions, and finishes with a very interesting section on the reported experiences of mystics and contemplatives down the ages, and how he thinks atheists can often dismiss these too readily for their own good.
The other section of this post is under a cut tag, because I am going to be freely atheist in it. I am not going to be rude about theists, and I promise no swearing or other brusque language :o) . However, I will be presenting an argument from a convinced atheists's perspective as to why Russell's Teapot and the Flying Spaghetti Monster are doomed to be ineffective as debating tools, and some of what I write may appear quite dismissive (perhaps even arrogantly so, although I hope not) to theist eyes. My technique will be to present a hypothetical interview by me now of my younger theist self.
Still here? OK, don't say you weren't warned. :o)
I have often found, since I came to the point where I became an atheist, that my youthful background as an evangelical Christian has been very useful in understanding where theists are coming from. Let me make clear that I do not for a minute believe that the insights thus gained are unavailable to people who have never been believers - we are all human beings and, if you have a facility for empathy and a little imagination, such insights can also be yours. I simply find that I have a useful, psychological short cut. I find it useful to think about how I, as a 16-year-old theist, might have met some of the 33-year-old me's anti-theist arguments.
To illustrate this, let me present a little hypothetical question-and-answer session: me now, putting arguments to my younger self.
Anne Now: I propose that religion is entirely human-made, and is an artefact of humanity and the way it has evolved, rather than describing something that exists outside of it. Let's start with this, then: how do you explain the sheer variety of human religions?
Anne Then: Well, each society understands God in its own way. Certainly any monotheistic religion is fundamentally the same, since all believe in a single God. The differences between each are merely the result of cultural developments in different areas of the world. I would also argue that the same is true of the polytheistic religions, the vast majority of which have a God at the top of a hierarchy of devine personae. But such a leader figure is not necessary: any service to God, via whatever cultural filter, will be received by God as to Him. I expect he's pretty understanding of imperfections in our interpretations. He is a loving and very understanding Chap. :o)
Anne Now: But if you ask a hundred different Christians what they think God wants, you will get a huge number of different answers. If you ask a million different theists of different faiths, even more. A liberal theist tends to believe in a liberal God, a conservative theist a conservative God, and a fundamentalist in a fundamentalist, bloodthirsty God. All believe they are right. I think this simply constitutes a reflection of the personalities of the different believers and implies no external Being. This diversity is not problematic within my philosophy, but it is very much so within yours. How can you be sure that *you* know what he wants?
Anne Then: Well, I don't. It would be arrogant to say otherwise. But I know that I have a very personal relationship with Him, and I can only hope that what I am taking out of that is vaguely congruent to His will. But you're right - there's no way I can know. I concede that.
Anne Now: I suppose it's true that there are many areas where it doesn't really matter. But I think I may be posing a slightly trickier question here_
Anne Then (laughs): Oh dear...
Anne Now (laughs): Indeed, sorry...
Anne Then: Ha! That's OK. Go on...?
Anne Now: OK a slightly trickier question, then: what about when basic doctrines are simply mutually exclusive? Let me give you an example. I don't want to put words into your mouth, so please correct me if I'm wrong. In fact - why don't you tell me yourself? What do you believe will happen when you die? Some kind of afterlife?
Anne Then: Oh I see! Oh yes, I believe in an afterlife.
Anne Now: Eternal life in Heaven.
Anne Then: Yes. I don't know exactly how it will work, but yes.
Anne Now: What about reincarnation?
Anne Then: I don't believe in that, no.
Anne Now: Phew! I can ask my question then.
Anne Then (laughs): OK, glad to be of help. Go on then.
Anne Now: Some religions have reincarnation as a staple belief. Are they wrong?
Anne Then: I'd have to say yes to that.
Anne Now: But how can you be sure? What makes you so sure that your way is the right way? It's fair enough to say everyone can be vaguely right when it comes to things that easily overlap, but those two ideas plain disagree.
Anne Then: Yes, that's true, they do. But I do believe in an eternal afterlife rather than reincarnation, so you can't expect me to say differently.
Anne Now: So you think it's possible for cultural development following the revelation of God's word to stray so far that it leads to quite serious untruths that - say - mug Hindus are doomed to believing?
Anne Then: I suppose that's true. But I don't believe that it's possible for human beings to know what God's plan is, by and large, so I don't know why that might be. I don't think that a belief in reincarnation will exclude Hindus from Heaven. Or the reverse, if I'm wrong. Whatever happens, happens.
Anne Now: Isn't that a cop-out? And isn't my view simpler? That human beings evolved a tendency to seek meaning and believe in things even if they're not there? That would easily explain why religions vary so much from culture to culture, and why they have doctrines that are mutually exclusive in parts. And why so many people even within the same religion can believe very very different things. Your way has to fall back on you not possibly being expected to know the answer to what seems like an impossible quandary. In fact, let's take my thesis that human beings have a tendency to believe in things that might not be there. What would we expect that to look like? Well, we *might* expect people to say things like "I don't know what's there, but I know there must be *something*", or indeed "I know God is there because I can *feel* him beside me". Isn't that simply an expression of what I'm talking about?
Anne Then: It's possible, but how can you be sure you're right?
Anne Now: Let's take another tack. Why don't dogs go to church? Why don't sparrows stop mid-flight five times a day and reorientate themselves towards Mecca? Dolphins are intelligent: why don't they sing dolphin hymns?
Anne Then: Ha! How do you know they don't? But I take your point. I just think human beings are lucky enough to be able to have some understanding of the devine. I just think myself lucky to be able to do that.
Anne Now: Isn't it more likely that it's because there is no God, and that religions of all kinds are simply an artefact of how our species has evolved?
Anne Then: Theoretically your idea is attractive, but in practice my own personal experience of God makes me think that it is unlikely to be true. Let me ask you a question: you cannot disprove the existence of God, I think we'd both agree, so how can you be so sure you're right?
Anne Now: Well, you cannot disprove the existence of the Celestial Teapot or the Flying Spaghetti Monster; it doesn't mean they exist.
Anne Then: Oh come on. Those notions are quite clearly human inventions. A teapot is clearly made by people for people. Spaghetti, whatever its wheaty roots, is quite clearly shaped by people for human consumption. And crucially, they are both physical objects, though hypothetical - and God is very much not. I cannot prove the existence of God, and you cannot disprove it. That makes us even.
Anne Now: Hmmm. No, I respectfully suggest it doesn't. Probability doesn't have to split 50/50. I suggest you take up university-level maths one day...
OK, a trite treatment, perhaps, but you get my point. There are two problems:
1) Teapots and spaghetti monsters are quite clearly invented by human beings, and so the rhetorical use to which they are put will only ever be accepted by people who already believe that religion is invented by human beings too viz. atheists. People who do not believe that religion is human-made will find the comparison facile, and non-analogous.
2) And though hypothetical, they are also theoretically material constructs, and the vast majority of theists see God as being non-material. Although philosophically and logically this is irrelevant, it will not seem that way to most theists.
And therefore I submit to the jury that Russell's Teapot, along with the Flying Spaghetti Monster, are doomed to be forever useless in debate with theists. The prosecution rests.