My deconversion

Before I recorded the Unbelievable show with Richard Morgan, broadcast last Saturday, Richard asked me to tell him how I came to be an atheist.  Here is my story as emailed to him:

I think I’ve always been an atheist.

What happened was that over a period of time, in my teens, I came to accept that I was an atheist. It was kind of C. S. Lewis in reverse, I think.

When I was about 6 or 7 at primary school one of the other pupils died. I didn’t know him, but when the announcement was made in assembly the next day, I remember thinking: “So he’s in Heaven now….” and that thought produced a very peculiar feeling. Of course, I may be projecting onto my infant self, but I now think that I was experiencing the dissonance of trying to reconcile what I thought I believed (God, Heaven, Angels etc) with what I actually believed (yeah, nice story).

But everyone I knew just took it as given that God existed, that Jesus was his son, that when we died we would go to Heaven if we’d been good or Hell if we’d been bad (the doctrine of justification by faith was not something that I think anyone in my circle was familiar with).

I heard a vox pop radio broadcast (about a year or so after my “that’s so weird!” reaction to my fellow pupil going to Heaven) on what people thought about the after-life. One of the “pops” said he thought it was all rubbish. I asked my mother how he could think that when Jesus had talked about Heaven and Hell. She said that the man didn’t believe in God or Jesus. That was a shock. I had had literally no idea that the belief was up for discussion.

My grandmother was a devout Catholic and my mother had been brought up as a Catholic but left the church when she married my father. We were all brought up as C of E.

We lived in S. Africa for a year when I was 10 & I was sent to a convent school (day only – not boarding). I found this very exotic and exciting. The Hail Mary – a previously unknown prayer, the genuflecting, the rosaries etc.

Back in the UK (aged 11) my mother decided to give the Catholic Church another try & I enthusiastically went along with her, converted & was baptised (& eventually confirmed).

There were several advantages to this:

1. No more RE lessons. In fact I was abruptly removed mid-lesson from my last one, on the message getting through that I was now Catholic. This was gratifyingly dramatic.  

2. The sense that now I was intriguingly different (one of a group of about a dozen in the whole school who was Catholic)

3. Special assemblies in the staff dining room on Fridays (the rest of the week we attended the usual school assemblies, but still the Friday separate assemblies cultivated my sense of being in some way above the rest of the crowd.)

There were also some disadvantages.

1. Having never been much of a church-goer, my mother was now a regular and of course I had to go too. I hated going to Mass. It was so boring. And physically painful too, until one got used to the long periods of kneeling. I was sustained by a sense of moral superiority over others, who were not going off to Mass and were therefore my inferiors, but not much else to cheer me up.

2. Although there were no more school RE lessons, once a week we were supposed to go during the lunch hour to Catholic RE. A priest would take the lesson which was invariably dull. A recurrent theme was the evidence of God’s existence and the First Cause Argument was usually relied on. I didn’t see any fault with the FCA. In fact I thought it was unanswerable. But at the same time, for something which was so unanswerable it was strangely unpersuasive. So when Fr – would say that the ink stain on that desk could not just have happened, that somebody had to have caused it, I assented with my head but remained full of doubt in my heart. (Maybe he was actually using the argument from contingency, which to this day I do not understand, so it would certainly have gone over my head back then.)

I was troubled during this time (in grammar school) by doubts about God and the afterlife – especially the afterlife which I particularly wanted to be true. God was only important as a guarantor of the after-life.

When the Gideon’s Bible Society came to the school and gave us each a copy of the New Testament I noticed in one of the appendices there was like a “trouble-shooter” guide for useful texts in trying times. One of them was for “When you are doubting”. I looked up the recommended verses, but they were of no help at all. (I seem to recall that they had something to do with eggs, but I may be misrembering.)

So it went on until my mid-teens, when the edifice stopped creaking and started simply breaking apart.

The Pope came to Canterbury Cathedral and was allowed to celebrate an open air Mass in the grounds. Canterbury is where I lived. Well, you’d have thought the world was going to end from the reactions of some Protestants. Leafletting, protests – it was an eventful time to be a Catholic in Canterbury.

The extent of the alarm felt by the protesting Protestants made me think. Even if they were right, surely God wouldn’t punish anyone for making an honest mistake? Even if that mistake was not believing in him at all, that ought to to call down punishment? A person might very much want to believe, but just find that they couldn’t. (I believed I believed. I hoped I believed. I told myself I believed. But it was all very effortful and so I felt acutely the injustice of being punished for non-belief.)

But the notion that nothing was off-limits made me move away from Catholic claims of certainty, claims to be the “only true church.”

I became a sort of religious post-modernist, a pantheist: “God is everywhere, man. There are just infinite paths to find him. They’re all equally true….”

I’ve always enjoyed reading things I disagreed with so when I saw Bertrand Russell’s “Why I am Not a Christian” in the local library, I thought I’d give it a go. Even if I didn’t believe in the Christian God anymore, there was, of course, no answer to the First Cause Argument, so get out of that one, Russell. It was turtles all the way down. There was still a God and I still had a Heaven to go to.

Except the FCA turned out to be rubbish and a puff of sceptical wind blew it away.

My belief in my belief remained for a while balancing precariously on the cliff edge of my unwillingness to let it go, but eventually I had to get up from my knees (CS Lewis in reverse) and confess that there was no God, no afterlife, nothing.

And it wasn’t so bad! Because underneath it all, that’s what I’d always thought anyway. It was better to face it than to stick my fingers in my ears and sing “La la la God! La la la Heaven!” every time I thought about death.

I think I was about 16.

Objective Morality: What’s God got to do with it?

I was prompted by this post from S. J. Graham to return to the argument from morality.

The argument goes as follows:

P1. If God does not exist then objective moral values and duties do not exist.

P2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.

C. Therefore God exists.

I believe that P1 is erroneous in two respects.  Firstly, God’s non-existence would not exclude the possibility of objective moral values and duties.  Secondly, God’s existence could not of itself explain any objectivity that moral values and duties do possess.

Let’s take the question of whether it is possible that objective moral values and duties could exist without God.  William Lane Craig, who favours the argument and often uses it will usually define “objective” as “existing independent of what any human believes.”  Let me concede that most people will think that this is a good definition and will readily agree with it when it is put to them.  Its attraction is that it presents us with a very simple and easily understood example of objectivity.  But I think there’s a bait and switch going on here and that the definition should be challenged.

“Existing independently of any any human belief” is certainly a sufficient condition of objectivity.  But is it a necessary condition?  I think not and if I am right about that, then P1 is fatally undermined.  Examples which do not lie on a spectrum, where there is a clear binary between truth and falsehood, are the most obvious cases of objective truths. But it is a mistake to assume that they are the only examples of objective truths.  

Let me use a thought experiment which my friend Richard Morgan often refers to: the “pile” experiment.  You put an apple on an otherwise empty table.  Do you now have a pile of apples on the table?  No of course not.  One apple isn’t a pile.  You put a second apple on the table.  Now do you have a pile?  No, that’s just a pair of apples.  You put a third on.  Is it a pile now?  No, not really.  Add a fourth.  Still not exactly a pile, not even when you balance the fourth apple on top of the other three.  So you go on adding apples and at some point you’ve got a pile.  Hey!  How did that happen?  

It happened because we all share a language and the language includes a word which we use for our concept of a pile.  The moment when its use becomes justified is a matter of judgment but that isn’t to say that it’s purely a matter of personal  opinion.  When WLC invites us to accept that objectivity requires that something be entirely independent of any human opinion he goes too far.  The test which we apply in many areas is not so stringent and would be better expressed as “independent of an individual’s opinion.”  

If your friend Suzy were to call two or three apples on the table “a pile” you would most likely think that she  did not know the correct meaning of the word.   Ditto if there were a quantity of apples on the table lying on top of each other like a small mountain and she insisted that it did not constitute “a pile.” In neither case would you say to yourself “That is Suzy’s world-view and it is as valid as mine, so I have no basis for questioning it.”  Suzy is just objectively wrong because she has departed from the agreed criteria which govern the use of that particular word.

It doesn’t matter that the word was coined to meet human needs and reflect human priorities.  That alone doesn’t make “pilehood” subjective.  

Nor does it matter that you cannot identify the exact moment at which the apples became a pile.  Many concepts are like this because language is like this, with a built-in fuzziness providing it with flexibility which makes it useful where precision would render it inoperable.   For many concepts (“C”) you go from “definitely not C” at one extreme to “undeniably C” at the other, with some grey areas in between.  But that’s no bar to some statements about “C” being objectively true where the agreed criteria are clearly met.  

Now let me turn to the question of how  the existence of God might relate to the existence of objective moral values and duties.  The problem for the apologist is what is known as “The Euthyphro Dilemma.”  In brief, does God command us to do good actions because they are good?  Or are the actions good because God commands them?   If the former, then God is judging them against a standard which is external to him and so their goodness is independent of God. If the latter, then goodness is arbitrary, simply the result of God’s fiat and ultimately not recognisably objective.

Theists have responded to this by claiming that God does not assign “good” and “bad” arbitrarily. The good is a reflection of God’s holy nature, which is inherently good.

But there are problems with this.  Firstly, if “goodness” is defined by God’s nature then the statement “God is good” becomes a tautology, true but trivial.  Only if God is evaluated against some other referent does the statement amount to a claim with some substance.

Secondly, the morality of an act is still reduced to a sort of brute fact and seems as bafflingly arbitrary as it would be if it were merely God’s fiat.

To illustrate this, let’s imagine that our friend Suzy has died and, as a good Christian, is now in heaven.  She has spent her life trying to promote goodness and fight evil.  With this in mind she has done all that she could to persuade the rest of the world that (say) the death penalty should be abolished.  Suppose that that when she gets to heaven God looks at her quizzically.  “The death penalty campaign, Suzy,” he says.  “What was all that about?  There’s nothing wrong with the death penalty!  I’m all in favour!”  Suzy might reasonably expect the next statement from God to start “Because…..”  Isn’t it reasonable to expect an explanation of why she’s wrong?  And isn’t also reasonable to expect that explanation to consist in something more than “Because that’s the way my holy nature rolls.”   

But if there is any explanation in addition to what accords with God’s holy nature, then we are back to Euthyphro, because it’s the reasons by which God explains his position which are key to its moral rightness  or wrongness, not the fact that it accords with God’s nature.  

Whether you believe in God or not, moral statements are surely more like judgements about when a number of apples becomes a pile than they are like mathematical equations or scientific claims.  There are other types of facts than mathematical scientific ones and maths and science should not be held up as a template which all other facts must meet to achieve the accolade of objectivity.  Could God, if he existed, provide us with the definitive answer to the conundrums posed by trolleyology

Nuanced, complex, multi-faceted, moral issues are not easy to resolve.  But whatever the difficulties,  I cannot see that God is provides a better answer than our own human understanding of what morality essentially is and the criteria by which we decide what is right or wrong.

How we know that Francois Hollande is French

Consider the following proposition:

President Francois Hollande is French.

Is it true?

Is it objectively true?

What makes it objectively true?

Your answers to both the first questions should have been “Yes”.  Was the third a problem?  

If you had difficulty answering it then, ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce to you: The Godess Marianne.  I can prove that She exists thuswise:

1. If The Godess Marianne does not exist then objective Frenchness does not exist.

2. Objective Frencheness does exist.

3. Therefore the Godess Marianne exists.

Ta da!  You see, if there is not a quality of transcendent Frenchness to which we are appealing when we describe someone (or something) as “French” then it would make Frenchness merely a matter of subjective opinion.  What is or is not French cannot be simply a matter of subjective opinion – you answered that second question “yes” remember?  

We must be appealing to something outside ourselves when we try to answer that question.  If not, then all you are saying when you describe Francois Holland as French is that it happens to suit your private preferences to call him French.  If  you say he is French and I disagree, how can you challenge my claim? It would be just your opinion against my opinion. 

But we all feel strongly and instinctively that it can’t be merely a matter of opinion.  That a person or a thing is French is a proposition that has a truth value and that truth must be grounded in something transcendental, not merely human opinions.  

It is no answer to say that Frenchness is simply the quality pertaining to those things which come from or belong to France.  This seems to some aMariannists to be a very clever move, but all they are doing is pushing their problem back a step.  What France is must itself be a matter of objective, transcendent truth if it is to provide the objective source of Frenchness which they are grasping for.  The answer to this gambit is to point out that France as an objective entity is simply an extension of the Godess’ own nature imprinted on the physical world.  

It is Marianne who provides the grounding for objective Frenchness.  She is the source of Frenchness.  She is not just French but she is France itself, the basis without which we would be left randomly ascribing Frenchness to whatever and whomever we pleased.  Without Her, we might call Dame Edna Evrage French.  Or Hitler French. 

Some aMariannists have suggested that Marianne does not solve the problem of objective Frenchness.  They claim that it simply leads to the questions:

  • Is someone French because Marianne declares them so?  In which case Frenchness is a mere fiat of Marianne’s and so no more objective than if we used human criteria for attributing it.
  • Or, does Marianne declare someone to be French because they are in fact French?  In which case She must be appealing to some standard outside Herself and so is not genuinely the source of Frenchness.

But this is a pseudo-dilemma because it fails to understand that Marianne is in her very nature French and we understand Frenchness only through her having hard-wired Frenchness into the world, indeed, the universe (or we might call ET French)

Don’t misunderstand me – I’m not for a moment claiming that just because someone is an aMariannist they cannot themselves be French.  Some aMariannists are very French.  But they have no grounding for describing themselves as French or describing others as non-French.  

The aMariannist is faced with a stark choice.  Either they accept that any claim they make about Frenchness is nothing more than an expression of a personal whim, or they must accept that Godess Marianne does indeed exist and is underpinning everything they say about France and every claim they make about anyone or anything being French.  

The Incomprehensibility Argument Against Religious Knowledge

Apologists say that reason leads to belief in God.  Some will argue that any attempt by atheists to advance reasons for rejecting belief in God leads to an internal incoherence, because without God there cannot be any basis for relying on our powers of reason.  But how reliable would reason be if theism were true?

By “theism” I mean here the belief in a God who is infinite and omniscient.  Such a being would be as far above we humans (in terms of his knowledge, reasoning and understanding) as a human is above an ant.  In fact, this might be an understatement, since it does not fully express the difference between the infinite and the finite.

An ant could have no insight into human wishes or motives.  Any attempt by an ant to understand human behaviour or actions in terms of its own antly priorities would be doomed to failure.  

By the same token, any attempt by humans to understand God’s actions, wishes or motivations must be doomed to failure, for exactly the same reason as the ant’s attempt to understand humans.

Why would the theist claim to have any knowledge about God?  Whatever she says she knows about him comes from her finite, fallible, flawed understanding of the world and how God has chosen to reveal himself in it.  She believes herself to be made in God’s image and thinks that this guarantees her rationality.  But this begs the question, because her reasons for believing that she is made in God’s image depend on her abilty to reason correctly about God and his word. 

She works on the premise that God would not deceive her.  But why should God not deceive her?  Her human understanding is that deception is wrong and that God would not do wrong.  But God being so far above her in all things, might have reasons for deceiving her –  and the whole human race.   Her understanding that deception is “wrong” might be nothing more than a reflection of her own limitations. Perhaps from God’s sublime point of view, deception is a great good.  

The theist must accept that her “reasoning” about God, about truth, about knowledge, might all be nothing more than filthy rags of unreason in God’s eyes.  

The theist can say that God exists but thereafter must fall silent.  She cannot know his nature, how he wishes to be worshipped, what doctrines are true about him, how best she might please him.

She cannot even speak on secular subjects.  God, for his own reasons, might have deceived her on every single thought or belief she has.  She cannot know that she knows anything about anything.  

Ultimately, the theist must reject the very reasoning which led her to claim God’s existence in the first place.

Only in the Weird and Whacky World of Christian Apologetics Part 1: Paul and the 500 Witnesses

I’m going to run an occasional (i.e. it will appear at random, probably when I can’t think of much else to talk about) series on some of what I consider to be the odder arguments that apologists advance. These aren’t fringe arguments. These are all mainstream arguments that will crop up repeatedly in apologetics. 

Here is one that caused a sharp intake of breath when I first heard it. I mean, it’s so obviously wrong (isn’t it?) Still, for many Christians it is an absolute clincher. 

In defending the historical reliability of the resurrection Christians will often refer to this verse:

After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep;

1 Corinthians 15:6

“‘Most of whom remain until now!’ Wow!” says the apologist, “I mean, that’s as good as an invitation to go and check it out for yourself!  So Paul knew his claims were rock-solid irrefutable. He had (most of) 500 witnesses all ready to back them up.”

This might be more persuasive if Paul had named at least two out of the 500.  Or if he’d specified the exact location of this appearance.  But even then, unless the appearance had been at some place near Corinth (let’s say, less than one day’s travel by donkey) that extra information was still not going be of any help to anyone wanting to conduct a bit of research in an age before the advent of the telephone and the Internet. 

I see this as an extremely vague claim made in circumstances where it was not realistically possible to refute it.  Christian apologists see it as a confident appeal to verify a story which Paul knew to be true. I wonder which of us is right?

God and Fairies

When atheists compare belief in God to belief in fairies, this is apt to cause great offence to believers.  Christians feel insulted by what they perceive as a direct comparison between God and fairies.  Fairies are entities which, in our society, only children believe in and Christians feel that both they and God have been belittled by the comparison.  This in my view is a misunderstanding of the point that is really being made. 

The analogy properly arises in the context of a theist challenge that unless an atheist can prove that a God doesn’t exist they should remain on the fence about his existence.  In this context the comparison with belief in fairies is pertinent.  I’m as much on the fence about the existence of God as I am about the existence of fairies and for the same reason.

The  analogy is not between God and fairies. The analogy is between belief in God and belief in fairies – a significantly different thing. The analogy, like  all analogies, compares two things  which are different but share certain features.  It works to the extent that the shared features are the relevant to the issue under discussion. The point of any analogy is to use something which is simpler,  better understood or more widely agreed upon in order to illustrate something which is more complex, less well understood or less widely agreed upon.  Analogies must contain both similarities and differences. If they fail to include both, then they won’t work. Belief in fairies is not exactly like belief in God. The only thing that is exactly like belief in God would be, well, belief in God. But comparing belief in God to itself is not going to get any of us anywhere. 

Let me use another analogy.  (An analogy as an analogy of an analogy – is that too meta?) Sometimes people will say that love must be freely chosen if it is to have value. I think these people couldn’t be more wrong. Love, real love, is never freely chosen. I didn’t chose to love my children.  I just loved them. There was no choosing involved.  Because I love them I do often freely choose to do things that I would not otherwise do (like drive miles out of my way to pick them up or drop them off). But the emotion which gives rise to the behaviour is unchosen.  I sometimes say that I can no more freely choose to love my children than I can freely choose to love the taste of spinach. I can choose whether or not to eat spinach but if I do eat it, I cannot choose whether or not to enjoy the taste. In making the comparison I am not saying that my children are like spinach, or of no more importance than spinach. I am just saying that the feelings I have about both are both very real and entirely unchosen.  

What we are focussing on is belief, how it comes about, what creates it and what fails to create it. It doesn’t really matter whether the belief in question is God or fairies, the Big Bang, the efficacy of homeopathic remedies, the theory of evolution through natural selection, the Bermuda Triangle, global warming, whatever.  There is a human tendency to withhold belief in something until some evidential burden is met.  This is true whether the “something” is trivial or important.  As I have written previously beliefs are not chosen, but nonetheless, we expect them to come about as a result of evidence.  We do not expect them to spring up ex nihilo.  Belief in a claim is judged rational only to the extent to which it is supported by evidence. 

 We do not start from the position of saying that we are neutral on the question of whether or not fairies exist and that we will remain neutral unless either they are proved to exist or proved not to exist.  No evidence, no belief. Some (credible) evidence, some level of belief. That’s how it generally works. If there’s some evidence, but it falls short of proof, then we might well find ourselves in the position of being undecided. The stronger the evidence, the more likely it is to tip us over into positive belief. 

So when the theist says that it is irrational to disbelieve in God, and that if we are not persuaded by the arguments in favour but cannot actually disprove his existence, it would be more rational to be undecided, we respond with an example of a relatively widely accepted disbelief.  If there is no credible evidence for the existence of fairies, then how should we expect that to affect our beliefs?  Is it more rational in those circumstances to be undecided as to whether they exist or not?  Or is it more rational to dismiss their existence until such time as some credible evidence is provided?  

If disbelief due to lack of credible evidence is intellectually respectable in the case of fairies, what reason is there for treating disbelief in God any differently?  

Of course, if there is some credible evidence for God’s existence, then that changes everything. But the existence of credible evidence is exactly what the atheist denies. So it is up to the apologist to produce evidence sufficiently compelling to warrant some level of belief. If the atheist rejects credible evidence and thus still disbelieves, then they would be irrational.  But the irrationality would lie in rejecting the credible evidence, rather than in remaining a disbeliever having once rejected it.