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.

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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.