Tim Skellet, Prison Chaplains and talking to believers

From time to time, bloggers here have taken the opportunity to advertise their own work or direct attention to a commentator that they personally find of interest. This doesn’t seem a wild abuse of blogging privileges, and I thought I’d take the opportunity to do a plug for someone in return for a case of wine whose commentary I had enjoyed.

Though, as he has privately admitted, his work is in fact “all bluff” and he is actually “very non-useful and quite silly” I do take Tim Skellet at his word when he swears that he is “still a nice bloke” despite his atheistic secular humanism.  There is, I think, something to be said for trying, as he does, to be “simply live-and-let-live”. And there’s something to be said for the claim, expressed in the title of one his pieces for the Guardian, that “Atheists can have a genuine conversation with believers.” I think he has a point when he argues, as the subtitle of his Comment is Free piece suggests, that “talking with people is more likely to bring results than talking at them” and “there’s no point casting a whole culture as the enemy”.  Comments on that topic are, of course, most welcome here.

More recently Tim has written an interesting blog piece titled ‘God behind bars, atheism in cells: prison chaplains and some issues’. As he notes, “there are all sorts of issues surrounding the nature and work of prison chaplaincies” and he points to a number of them.  I share some of his concerns about “supposed secularization” that is actually “mere removal of social services” and welcome his attempt to open up a discussion that will hopefully receive input from religious and secular-humanist prison chaplains alike. There are worse things to advertise and I’m happy to point readers in the direction of Tim’s post.

On an unrelated topic, I do find a Clairet quite agreeable.


  1. This universe exists by nature or by decision.
    Complete knowledge of nature will not exclude decision, so this dilemma will persist until the decision maker appears or we tire of debate.

    Any belief which cannot be tested stands equal to any other belief which cannot be tested. Until a test is able to falsify one belief against another, all untestable beliefs are equal and invalid.

    I am quite pleased by any opportunity to discuss the foregoing with a fellow human.

  2. s. wallerstein (amos)

    The mixture of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes makes for a good cheap wine. Some of the best low-price wines in Chile, sold in bottles of a liter and a half, combine those two grape varieties.

    I’m not familiar with Cabernet Franc, but the wine you link to is 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, which leaves a heavy (and delicious) mark.


  3. Your article reminds me of the recent one about Alain de Botton’s book “Religion for Atheists”, that argues that whilst the supernatural claims of religion are “of course” entirely false, nevertheless religions still have important things to teach the secular world.

    This is most apparent in social services where the value of the marginalized amongst us is asserted to be infinite and that forgiveness and reconciliation is a possibility for those who feel guilt for their crimes against society. It is also apparent in the religious view that we have the free will to change to be “good” people and not be determined by our genes and upbringing to be selfish and “evil”. This seems to me to be compatible to a humanistic/religious pov.

    So I certainly agree with the premise that selective aspects of religious humanism certainly bring benefits that atheists/agnostics can and should incorporate into their worldviews that underpin their perspective on the question of belief in deities.

    But before I just leave it at that…

    I think many atheists, that are non-humanists do take on aspect of religious faith, in the sense that most have a religious faith like commitment to axioms and assumptions underlying objectivist, materialist, naturalistic (and sometimes nihilistic) worldviews — as these are often unreflected and taken as fundamental fact.

    This being so I disagree with de Botton that “supernatural” phenomena are “of course” entirely false. First of all we certainly do not understand all natural phenomena, and it is an article of faith to assume that we will. Some phenomena may be natural but beyond our ken in practice (we are limited in our human cognition), and others may be beyond our ability (however sophisticated our cognition may be) in principle. Such possibilities can not be proven wrong. So it is simply not true supernatural phenomena are false, they are merely not subject to analysis by the scientific method – and that does not make them false as a matter “of course”!

  4. Of course some supernatural claim are weird, spooky and more unreasonable than others, given the paradigms of belief we work within. And the dictum that incredible claims need very credible evidence applies. We do need to be careful though with that word “evidence”, to ensure it does not reduce us to a self-annihilating verificationism.

  5. Amos,

    Though often overlooked now, the dark rosé/light-coloured red that is the clairet was, until the 18th century, the most popular wine exported from the Bordeaux region. I think you may find it most agreeable company on a picnic.

    Wine producer Regis Chaigne has tweeted to thank me for recommending his wine and informs me that that the Chateau Ballan-Larquette also exists in red and white.

  6. Hi Steven,

    Thank you for commenting.

    God’s existence remains one of the ‘Big’ questions for many ordinary people and the philosophical arguments for and against remain, I think rightly, a staple part of the education of any philosophy undergraduate.

    The arguments against are all very old indeed. Alex ‘Dawkins on steroids’ Rosenberg notes the relative lack of originality in the atheistic and anti-theistic arguments of Messrs Harris, Hitchens & Dawkins and he suggests that the fact these old arguments are still doing the rounds shows their general inability to ‘de-convert’ many people of faith. The arguments for God’s existence are, of course, also ancient. A great many profoundly intelligent people are still tinkering with them. But I think it is fair to say that almost nobody is led to believe in God on account of those arguments (though some religious people may think those arguments show their faith to be reasonable).

    The ‘for and against God’s existence’ arguments are all intellectually stimulating. If people want to engage with some of those arguments here they are most welcome to. And an open-minded and productive discussion about them might lead some people to end up holding a slightly different view about the strengths of some of those arguments. Still, what I don’t think would occur is that anybody would walk away with a different opinion regarding ‘the Big Question’. Nobody would find or lose their faith by the end of the thread.

    I think the more practically important questions are societal questions. I do speak from the comfort on the UK of course, but I think those of us in the middle ground that includes temperate atheists, agnostics and the very many people of faith who do not sanction terrorist attacks or seek to introduce a theocracy constitute the great majority. And I think we need to talk to each other about the important practical questions, co-operate to deal with our shared concerns and make accommodations for each other. I do think it is important to talk to those of the ‘new atheist’ community too of course. They may be a constituency that is far louder in the blogosphere than it is of importance to the general public, but their motivations are quite understandable and their concerns are not without warrant.

    I think Tim’s CiF piece, is a good conversation starter and I welcome dialogue between reasonable people of the various faiths and of none about the issues that concern us all.

  7. Hi Martin,

    Some of what I said to Steven may seem pertinent.

    I just don’t think you are going to succeed in shifting the typical atheistic ‘of course there’s no God’ point of view I’m afraid.

    I can understand that you might think this closed-minded and think something like a fully-fledged agnosticism is more epistemically appropriate. But I don’t think you’ll really get anywhere trying to change the typical atheist’s view about the credibility of religious claims. Many atheists may be concerned by ‘scientism’ but I don’t think you’ll have much joy trying to persuade atheists that that the axioms of physicalism or naturalism – even if they are philosophically problematic in some ways – are on a par with belief in God. And whilst some of us might feel able to make a few polite noises along the lines of ‘well, you never know’ and insist that our naturalism is strictly methodological, when it comes to talk of the supernatural, the atheistic position will remain that there is no reason to think there are any such things and that, even if there were any such things, there would be no way of knowing them (in a way that an atheists would acknowledge is a ‘way of knowing’).

    What some atheists – most atheists I’d contend – can do is join you in rejecting ’Gnu’ cyberspace assumptions that religious believers are all stupid or dishonest, that religion is a source of nothing but harm and that the best way to deal with people of faith is to be insulting and dismissive. We can also agree that discussions about the society we want have to be inclusive of religious believers. And we can be sceptical of those who dogmatically fight against the involvement of religious groups in the provision of societal goods without looking at the question of whether they do more good than harm and can realistically be replaced by anything better. We might also be less than keen on the idea of the state interfering with how churches operate when how they operate does not seem to cause any great harm.

    I think questions about the ‘reasonableness’ of religious belief along with questions about the truth of religious claims, just are not fertile ground for productive discussion. I don’t think anybody’s opinion will be changed on these matters by blog arguments. We have broad areas of agreement and share common concerns that we can more profitably talk about.

  8. I only drink wine that comes from a box. I savour the fine taste of cardboard.


  9. Years ago when I lived in a squat in France we used to buy 5 litre plastic ‘petrol-like’ containers of cheap gut rot red wine. We’d mix it with cheap cola to make Callymucho. By custom, everybody had to supply at least one lot per day for the communal table. I don’t remember much about it but I believe I can still taste it.

  10. If something decided to create this universe and that something demanded that we make a decision regarding it, without having sufficient knowledge of it, that demand would be unethical, immoral and unjust.

    So long as the nature decision dilemma remains, I find it difficult to appreciate the value of discussing beliefs which cannot, yet, be tested. Discussing ways that yet untestable beliefs might, someway someday, be tested in a manner that could acquire even a bit more knowledge, positive or negative, could yield a seed or even some fruit for a fertile imagination.

    The acquisition of knowledge is what I value and I care not where an idea comes from; I care that the idea leads us all to another bit of knowledge.

    We reside within a living artifact and we are part of it. We have a great deal more to learn about that artifact and about ourselves. This universe is a book that actually was written by a “creator”. This universe, currently, is the only authoritative source of information we have.

  11. kalimotxo :smile:

  12. Thanks John,

    I gather in Romania it is, understandably, called motorină i.e. “diesel fuel”.

  13. Hi Steven,

    I can certainly understand the sentiment behind the claim that if there is a God then He is ‘unethical, immoral and unjust.’ Apologists have a thousand or so years of learned thinking to draw upon to argue against such a claim, but doubtless none of it would change your feelings on the matter. And any further arguments you might make for God’s immorality are most unlikely to persuade any theist that God is evil or non-existent either. The point is that whilst it is a good that you can express those feelings freely, expressing them won’t actually do anything to stimulate a productive conversation with a theist.

    Interestingly, one set of untestable beliefs – amongst the many that we tend to hold without evidence– are beliefs such as x, y or z is ‘unethical, immoral and unjust.’ When people make utterances such as “x is immoral” they normally mean to do something more than merely express their personal feelings. They mean to say something true and something that is true regardless of what anybody may think. Still, how we would test a claim such as “x is immoral” is something of a mystery. You might want to say that it can be tested against your conscience but this seems to put your moral claims on a foundation that is no more scientifically respectable than claims for god’s existence as based on private religious experiences. How moral claims could be true, what possible types of things could make them true is a puzzle not all of us face up to. Myself I must admit that I have become something of a sceptic – there seems no truth to be had when we make ‘moral talk.’ I don’t expect you to embrace that position. Still, one might want to concede that not only do we not restrict ourselves to discussing what can be tested but that few of us want such a restriction

    It seems to me that discussing God’s existence seems rather a waste of time, in so far as convinced parties enter into proceedings with a view to ‘winning’ a debate. It seems to me that there is something to be gained from people of a moderate mind discussing their beliefs in order that we might better understand each other. Sometimes views can change over time through amenable discussion. And it seems to me that the ‘live-and-let-live’ majority – comprised of moderate believers and temperate atheists alike – can enter into productive discussions about how we should deal with the problems of religious extremism, and other issues of common concern. There are a number of issues – whether it is the role of prison chaplains or the religious nature of the AA – that seem best tackled by discussion amongst reasonable parties including those of faith.

  14. s. wallerstein (amos)


    I agree with you that it is not productive to discuss the existence of God, that the rational arguments for and against God’s existence have never convinced anyone.

    You say that believers and non-believers can dialogue about “religious extremism”.

    Wouldn’t it be more interesting to discuss “extremism” in general, not only religious extremism?

    After all, extremism and fundamentalism (not all extremists are fundamentalists and I’m not sure if all fundamentalists are extremists, maybe not)
    come in many varieties, religious and non-religious.

    Perhaps we may discover that the dividing line (or one of the dividing lines) falls not between religion and atheism, but between a skepticism skeptical of itself and extremism.

  15. JPH: we humans seem to conduct decision affairs with a strong preference for ethics, morality and justice. We do not like to punish a person without having sufficient knowledge of guilt or liability. We do not like drugs going to market without sufficient knowledge of their safety and efficacy.

    Many examples can be given for our strong preference for having sufficient knowledge to support a decision. So long as the nature decision dilemma exists, pointing out that many of those taking the decision side are presenting a something demanding that a decision be made without having sufficient knowledge to support it, is a way to churn up a conversation that examines the ethics and morality and justice of that demand. The reason I present it is to show that we are not compelled to make such a decision.

    Having released all persons from any compelling cause to resolve to nature decision dilemma, all persons can discuss it and ponder it and share ideation about it with a relaxed sense of curiosity instead of urgency.

    I also question the authority of any person putting words into the mouth or hand of a something which decided to create this universe for the same reason. Since no person holds a documented and verifiable authority to speak for something, we can all talk freely, about something, in a relaxed state of curiosity.

    To your comment about weighing morality, it is weighed by those impacted by a decision. Conscience can examine the outbound potentials of a decision being formed but morality is weighed by persons affected when the decision is executed ( or a priori if consulted before execution).

  16. SW: “skepticism skeptical of itself”

    I want to concur. I like the thought, I enjoy the thought. I wish an extremist could, more easily, take a moment to reflect.

    Question everything, especially me.

  17. Hi Amos,

    ‘Wouldn’t it be more interesting to discuss “extremism” in general, not only religious extremism?’

    Indeed so. It seems more useful to view religious extremism in the general context of extremism – certainly it seems more productive than viewing religion generally in the context of religious extremism.

    One of the ways I’d put things is indeed misleading. It’s not as if we have two distinct type of people – ‘believers and non-believers’ – and that they ought to enter in to ‘dialogue’ as if they were two opposing sides at a negotiating table. Rather it’s that we have a great mass of people who share broadly similar values and a ‘live-and-let-live attitude’. They tend to speak more quietly, because they are not extreme in their opinions but they should talk more often and make common cause.

    You’re quite right – the important dividing line doesn’t fall between religion and atheism. We have those who are open to doubt and being pragmatic and we have those who are possessed by certitude and an over-simplified view of the world.

    As usual, you talk eminent sense.

  18. @Jim

    I don’t disagree with your remarks about the futility of a rational argument with those of deep conviction over the belief/non-belief in God. It seems the way that convictions work is that belief (and non-belief) is not based on rationality, but on preference (that sometimes is “reverse-engineered” rationalized) to “self-evident” axioms, albeit ones that are not self-evident to others.

    My conjecture is not that my preference set is right or better and others are wrong or worse, but that if we are intellectually honest we should NOT argue pointlessly that we are atheists or theists by means of rationality (and delete the “of course” type of remarks that the “other” is irrational). Once we can admit to that we are on common ground/commensurability – a necessary position to meaningful dialog IMO (we are no longer haranguing each other over a flogged and dead horse).

    It seems to me de Botton (and perhaps Tim Skellet – though I have not read this book) find “accommodation” that there are admirable aspects to the culture of theism that can be grafted onto atheism. And admission of this is being “nice” to theists. It’s kind of disingenuous in that respect, like saying I can accept that Nazi’s loved their country and patriotism has its positive aspects.

    What I’d rather seek (since IMO it is far more productive and honest) is a means by which believers and non-believers can come to see that what stands between them is NOT an issue of rationality and irrationality, but of fair and tolerable choice. Once that is made we can tolerate those specific choices, and move on to other sociological, ethical, ecological, etc., choices we can discuss as being reasonable, fair and tolerable.

  19. PS: my remark

    “…a means by which believers and non-believers can come to see that what stands between them is NOT an issue of rationality and irrationality, but of fair and tolerable choice.”

    Really only applies to those positions of a person (theist or atheist) that are arational (neither demonstrably rational or irrational), e.g., a flat-earth attesting theist would be irrational, as much as an atheist that says, he can prove by science (a method of natural/physical analysis and empiricism), that supernatural events(non-natural/physically caused) do not exist.

  20. s. wallerstein (amos)


    I believe that a theist position is wrong, false.

    However, I cannot prove that.

    My atheism is based on a general sense of how the universe works, of what reality is like, of how things are.

    You have another sense of how things are.

    Now, I see no reason to convert you to atheism nor to convince you that theism is wrong, since I can’t see how your theism does you or anybody else any harm nor how your theism makes you any less of a competent ethical agent nor how your theism makes you any less wise in your day to day living.

    Why then would I want to convert you to atheism, except as a show of my argumentative power or of the force of my personality, which actually both seem more like signs of vanity than good reasons for attacking someone’s core beliefs?

    In any case, you seem to be a better arguer than I am, so even if I want to convert someone today in order to feel powerful, I’d better search for a better candidate.

  21. @Amos,

    Fair enough and the converse can be equally said, replacing atheism with theism and vice versa. I think it is a rational opening confession for any rational atheist or theist to state. And folks can then move on. It does not insult the other party that their convictions of belief are “of course” irrational.

    That is … If and only if the specific convictions of belief/unbelief are genuinely arational. And that aspect can be profitably explored, since some convictions, whilst anti-real are easier to reason by abduction, that is to say inference to the best explanation. Now the criteria of what consitutes “best” are to be discussed/agreed.

  22. Hi Martin,

    De Botton’s ‘of course’ is aimed at atheists not believers. It’s meant as a way of saying to other atheists “okay, we all agree that there’s no God, now let’s move on from talking about that and have more productive conversations”. It seems reasonable to ascribe to him the claim that “there are admirable aspects to the culture of theism that can be grafted” onto an atheistic culture. He’s not setting out to be ‘not nice’ to theists but he’s not saying what he’s saying in order to try and be ‘nice’ to them either. I appreciate his ‘of course’ may be offensive to a believer, but I don’t think we should dwell on it here. I think we also have to keep in mind that he is an atheist explicitly aiming to talk to other atheists.

    Tim Skellet is avowedly not aiming only to talk to atheists. The Guardian ‘comment’ piece I linked is one in series by various commentators in response to the question: “How should we talk about God online?” I thought what he said in it was fairly sensible and that it might prompt some discussion here. His own blog, which he talks about in the article, actively seeks to engage with believers. His most recent posting is an invitation to chaplains to engage with him on the issues surrounding prison chaplaincy (which he is not dogmatically calling to be abolished). I don’t think you’ll find there’s any ‘of course religion is wrong’ tone to what he is doing. One doesn’t start a genuine conversation with people of faith by saying ‘of course you’re wrong’.

    Those points aside, I’d like to echo all that Amos (wisely) says.

  23. Only through the advancement of intellect has our perception been able to question what we do not understand or even thought to doubt. As technology advances we tend to believe in our own creations as I am sure god once did.

  24. @Jim,

    Again thanks for the clarification. Yes, of course de Botton’s “of course” is meant for his audience (that are not theists, who are not addressed at all in his book by and large). And whilst I generally accept your points in your 1st para, there is still something that “gives me the hump” to use the vernacular. Why? Because it is wrong. It is simply wrong to assert to any community that another communities arational beliefs (that are not subject to being proved true/false by rationality) are false/irrational. Though de Botton does not address theists, if he wishes to (in terms of a respectful and genuine dialog, that does not openly start out with the assumption that the others is “of course” wrong) this position is disingenuous/two-faced. You would be saying one thing to the other whilst holding the opposite view to your own. Like General Patton shaking hands with Red Army Generals. To avoid a cold “culture-war” we should dwell on this, and adjust accordingly I think. It is not accomodationism, it is correct epistemological understanding of the real/anti-real.

    I accept your remarks regarding Skellet, and will now seek his work out — you deserve your Claret! :)

  25. @Amos,

    One thing I have thought further on since my reply relates to your para…

    “Why then would I want to convert you to (a)theism, except as a show of my argumentative power or of the force of my personality, which actually both seem more like signs of vanity than good reasons for attacking someone’s core beliefs?” (brackets mine)

    If the purpose is indeed to persuade for the sake on one’s ego/vanity, then you are perfectly right to say we should avoid the effort to convert. However, if one is of a belief that your “core beliefs/preference set” is genuine “good news”, something that should be shared with those willing to hear, then I have no objection. The key being “on those willing to hear”, we should not force our belief for the sake of vanity, rather offer it, if asked for, for the sake of charity.

  26. s. wallerstein (amos)


    I don’t think that atheism is good news or bad news. It’s the news.

    It may be a matter of temperment, but unless I see that someone’s beliefs are harming them, others or me or reducing their possibilities to flourish radically, I see no reason to convert them or to try to modify their core beliefs. I’m not even sure that I have the right to try to convert them, unless, as I said, their beliefs are harmful or radically reduce the possibilities of flourishing.

    Each life is an eco-system of sorts. A belief has a certain role in the whole eco-system, which is difficult to understand without knowing the other well, so that in trying to convert another person, I run the risk of upsetting the whole personal ecosystem.

    Let me put it another way. In changing beliefs, surgical strikes are rare. That is, I cannot just get John to substitute belief x for belief y without having an effect, perhaps a negative effect on beliefs
    a, b, c, d…..

    With regards to your previous comment, I do not see religion as General Patton probably saw the Soviet Union. I assume that Patton disapproved on ethical grounds of the Soviet system and considered the Soviet Union as a potential enemy.

    (By the way, if I stop shaking hands with everyone who represents systems that I disapprove of on ethical grounds, I’m going to refuse to shake lots of hands: including those of representatives of the U.S. government during the Bush 2 administration. In general, I shake everyone’s hand.)

    So I have no moral objections to religion per se. I consider religion to be an illusion, to use Freud’s term, not something that is ethically wrong, as Patton most probably saw the Soviet Union.

    Many years ago my father commented to me: if something is too good to be true, it isn’t true.

    My view (it is also Freud’s) is that religion is too good to be true, an illusion.

    Yes, I know that you don’t consider religion to be too good to be true, but I use that expression to communicate how I see religion, which once again, has little to do with the way Patton saw and feared Stalin.

  27. @Amos,

    The reference to “good news” is just alternative form of saying “gospel”, I’m playing with Christian words :P

    BTW: I think some atheists see “good news” in the freedom from responsibility to a God that sets out a moral agenda that is inconvenient to the desires of some. I have heard that it is often thought liberating in that respect.

    The reference to Patton and the Russians is meant to allude to Patton’s distinctly anti-Russian feeling, seeing them as being in the wrong politically, but nevertheless accommodating (shaking hands and smiling in a disingenuous manner) them for the sake of winning World War II (if you’ve seen the movie Patton and the performance of George C Scott it would be clearer). It also brings to my mind the post WWII cold war, and I am thinking by analogy that the ongoing culture-war between atheists and theists (that has been heated since the advent of new atheism) might, through accommodation, become a cold war. Something IMO to avoid if possible, by rather settling only for a genuine peace/reconciliation, via the understanding that “Belief In God” (the BIG anti-real question) can not be resolved true/false by rationality.

    Sorry if my allusions and word-play didn’t come across :(

    As for truth and goodness, well from a Platonic perspective truth, goodness and beauty are to be expected to be consistent. E.g., people like the mathematical physicist Dirac think that a mathematical truth is good when it is beautiful, and some people think spiritually of Occam’s razor in that truth is simplicity. Others see symmetry in the source of what is good social behavior within the simplicity of the golden rule/ethic of reciprocity.

    So maybe your Dad had it wrong? Maybe good is the hallmark of being true.

    Yesterday I posted this comment on my Facebook status…

    If God is defined as “truth, reason and love”, what true and reasonable argument could an Atheist love more?

  28. s. wallerstein (amos)


    I saw them movie Patton when it first came out, many years ago. Thanks for refreshing my memory.

    Given that I’ve been an atheist since I first thought about the subject, being an atheist has not been a liberating experience to me, since I never had a religious moral code to be liberated from.

    However, I would suspect that if there is an underlying sense of ethical responsibility, it matters little if the person is religious or not. That sense of ethical responsibility has to do with upbringing, education, and basic character, which probably has a genetic component.

  29. Good.

    WRT… However, I would suspect that if there is an underlying sense of ethical responsibility, it matters little if the person is religious or not. That sense of ethical responsibility has to do with upbringing, education, and basic character, which probably has a genetic component.

    Yes. I think so to a degree, we all have access to an evolved sense of common ethics. If nature has been teleologically structured such that genetic interaction with it will result in sentient beings with a common moral sense, then this sense will be in part discursively reasoned (e.g., an intellectual balancing or rationalization of ethics – and may be more memetic than genetic) and partly intuitive reasoning (we have a common genetic sensitivity). This later mode may require a person to have faith that it is true, since it is more of a Platonic anamnesis or remembering). The complex/cybernetic interplay between these layered/tangled hierarchy of reasoning modes could be part of the emergent “strange loop of conscience” (see… http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=a-new-journey-into-hofsta ).

    From here is is a short step to talk about deep calling on deep and you get a reasonable route to revelation, and religion.

  30. PS: the reference is to Hofstadter’s ideas in his book, “The Strange Loop of Consciusness”, I have replaced “Consciousness” with “Conscience”, since I want to say that part of consciousness that is inner sense of what is right or wrong in one’s conduct or motives, impelling one toward right action.

  31. s. wallerstein (amos)

    One thing that is little or never mentioned in all the debates about or with the new atheists is what I mentioned briefly yesterday: that successful surgical strikes are very infrequent when you try to convert someone or change their beliefs. In changing one belief, in this case, the belief in God, you invariably upset the person’s whole lifestyle.

    Let’s say that John is a religious person. It is probable that his family also is religious, that his spouse is too, that most of his close friends also are.

    Now, if, through my brilliant use of Dawkin’s
    blitzkreig reasoning I convince John that God does not exist and that organized religion causes only ills, what will John do with his life?

    Well, maybe John will leave his old, theistic spouse and marry a glamorous, sexy atheist and shun his boring church-going friends and meet a dashing new group of with-it, cool atheists.

    Maybe. Maybe not.

    By the way, I don’t mean to imply that religious people are especially intolerant towards atheist friends, simply that friendship is based on shared tastes and on a shared way of life. If I were to convert to any organized religion, I would begin to distance myself from most of my friends (atheists and agnostics), because our codes would begin to clash on so many issues.

    It’s not so easy to make new friends, although atheists, we all know from meeting the GNU’s online, are a friendly, outgoing crowd.

    One reason that it’s not so easy to make new friends is that rarely one is simply religious.
    Being religious has to do with a lot of other tastes, attitudes and ways of living.

    For example, having been deeply religious all his life, John probably reads a certain type of books. No, that’s not a criticism of John for being religious: atheists also read certain types of books. I quickly scan my bookshelves and lo and behold, most of my books are written by atheists and non-believers, lots of Nietzsche, Marx, Sartre, Freud, Foucault, Spinoza (the only theist accepted by the new atheists). Exceptions, Plato, Homer and Dostoyevsky.

    So in order to adapt to his new crowd of atheist pals and his new hot atheist wife, John is going to have to modify his tastes in fiction, probably in movies, music and lots of other things.

    Maybe he can successfully modify his tastes and life-style. In any case, he will always be at a certain disadvantage in social interactions with his new atheist friends, since his atheist culture will always less deep, newly acquired.

    No one likes the new rich. The new guy at the club is always something of an outsider.

    I could go on. However, the point is that when you set out to convert a person, to change his or her core beliefs, you assume a lot of responsibility towards that person, because although you may be sure that you are convincing him or her of something which is self-evidently true, you well may be causing serious disruption in his or her way of life.

    Something to think about.

  32. Martin,

    It makes no obvious sense to me to suggest that people ‘choose’ to (dis)believe in God. In a Christian framework where one freely chooses to embrace or reject God I presume it is intelligible. Possibly in some existentialist conception it makes some kind of sense too but it makes no obvious sense to me. I can imagine how one might – persuaded by Pascal’s wager say – set out to try and obtain belief in God. But this is hardly commonplace and it isn’t really to the point. I’d press you to give some argument in favour of the claim that beliefs can be usefully said to be (directly) chosen and to argue that belief/disbelief in God is essentially like this but I suspect we’d only talk past each other. Your talk in that regard comes, I suspect, from within a framework I simply can’t accept.

    I can make sense of talk of the ‘arational’. If x is said to believe that 1) “torturing children just for fun is wrong” it seems reasonable to say that 1) is an ‘arational’ belief. It won’t be the case that 1) is derived from anything and it won’t be susceptible to any kind of proof or evidence (nor is it subject to choice either in my worldview). One might say 1) is a basic belief, something one intuits immediately without reasoning. This would be consistent with a non-naturalistic Moral Realism. But you wouldn’t then get to call 1) ‘anti-real’ and stay within the bounds of normal language usage.

    It seems an unusual way of phrasing things, but I can make sense of the claim that 1) is an ‘anti-real’ belief or proposition – that it can’t be proven true or false by rationality. But I can only do this because by deeming it an ‘anti-real’ utterance I’ve accepted that it isn’t truth-apt at all – it only expresses how x feels. One could say that 1) is ‘anti-real’ and mean to express that I suppose but one can’t go on and hold that 1) can be bolstered by ‘reason by abduction’ or ’inference to the best explanation’ or that there is anything to disagree about regarding 1) beyond its value as a non-fact-stating way of talking.

    It seems to me that you think “God exists” (or has being) is truth-apt and in fact true (otherwise you wouldn’t get to think Amos and I are wrong about something) and that you think God is an entity that enjoys objective existence. (You are presumably a Realist with regard to God – you think He would exist – or would enjoy being -regardless of what we all thought and whether we existed at all.) You may well hold that the many of the utterances in religious ‘games’ are not really fact-stating (you may be an anti-realist with regard to some, even most religious utterances). But there is no obvious sense in which you are an anti-realist with regard to belief in God as far as I can see, not in so far as the terms ‘real’ and ‘anti-real’ are normally used. So I think you really need to drop your frequent references to the ‘real’ and ‘anti-real’ if you want to be better understood. Talk of ‘anti-real propositions’ and ‘anti-real beliefs’ is somewhat gnomic and doesn’t really seem to reflect your position.

    You hold, I suppose, that God’s existence (or being) is ‘intuited’ – not reasoned to – but that this intuition can be bolstered by arguments to the best explanation whilst remaining immune to refutation by science. This seems a perfectly familiar position. I’ve no reason to think, as you do, that there is anything supernatural to intuit and I don’t see how one could intuit anything supernatural if there was anything of that nature. But that doesn’t mean I think you are irrational. It just means I think you are wrong. I can accept some religious claims are beyond strict refutation, I can also accept that many religious utterances play a completely different role to the fact-stating role of science and that much of religious talk is metaphorical or analogical. I can also show a little epistemic humility and acknowledge that I may be wrong about many things. I can acknowledge the value religion plays in your life and accept that it is not only the religious person who accepts many things as true without proof or empirical evidence. And that seems more than ample ground for mutual respect.

  33. Amos,

    Certainly there are, as you note, ‘ethical’ issues to consider when it comes to intervening to try and change another individual’s core beliefs and worldview. I’ve touched on this myself before. Even the most strident Gnu would, one hopes, leave the terrified man on his deathbed or the distraught grieving parents to their ‘delusions’ of an afterlife. One can, of course, extend the principle further. Truth, and its promulgation, is not the only thing we value.

  34. @Jim,

    Thanks for your lengthy and detailed response :) As you say in the end we certainly can engage with mutual respect.

    Two points I’d like to try and answer/add to:

    1) You ask…

    I’d press you to give some argument in favour of the claim that beliefs can be usefully said to be (directly) chosen and to argue that belief/disbelief in God is essentially like this but I suspect we’d only talk past each other. Your talk in that regard comes, I suspect, from within a framework I simply can’t accept.

    My answer is … why do you say, “Your talk in that regard comes, I suspect, from within a framework I simply can’t accept.”, if that is not a free choice of framework that you’ve committed to consciously? You note that you see the possibility that our paradigms (per Kuhn), may end up with us talking past each other incommensurably. But, I think, we choose our paradigms, we are responsible ultimately for our beliefs (if not why philosophy?) Your answer gives you my answer better than I could articulate one from scratch (sorry to be a smartass) :P

    You can choose the limits of reason that you will employ in evaluating a reasonable argument, e.g., discursive rationality alone, or that plus intuition. If you go the latter then you may intuit meaning and teleology that is best explained by a systematic theology, based on the arational belief in a Platonic God as the source of reason, goodness and love.

    2/ I think we all need to consider the anti-real nature of the belief in God. We can say by discursive rationality we must be Agnostic. Fine. By intuition we become Atheist or Theist, through a leap of faith (it is clear what that is in the case of Theism, for Atheism this point tends to upset those who dislike “faithers” as the polemic term goes).

    Typically I have found that the faith of the faithless atheist is the faith that they can be decided, in the real sense, over being atheistic as a real proposition by a scientistic pragmatism, so like Dawkins (and Russell before him) they say — on being pressed — that they are agnostic with a 6.9/7 in Bayesian belief terms that render them pragmatically as Atheists (a term they use for the general public who are not willing to think about Bayesian arguments).

    The trouble with this argument is that you get to a 6.9/7 result if you limit the evidence permissible to a verificationist sense. If you allowed subjective and intuitive reason to be factored, the score cannot be objectively assessed, it is subjective. For the scientistic pragmatist atheist it is based on faith verificationism (that rids us of supernatural phenomena as a principle) is true and meaningful, but this arational principle is subject to being self-referential and thus false or meaningless, i.e., you’d only know it was true by supernatural means. It’s all a language game, albeit one dressed up as not being as a-prioristic as traditional religious beliefs.

    Ergo, we choose our faith, and that is why it is so crucial to make a good choice — and we have a sense of what is good as you pointed out. That is key.

  35. Hi Martin,

    Mine is not, as I understand it, a framework that I made a ‘free choice’ to commit to consciously or otherwise. You hold a set of religious convictions amongst which is the idea that you made a ‘free choice’ to accept God. I said what I said because I suspect you will be unable to say anything to make talk of (directly) ‘choosing’ our beliefs seem intelligible to anybody who is not already operating within your religious framework. I don’t know what more ‘why’ I can give you. I don’t think we ‘choose’ our belief systems or that we are ‘ultimately responsible’ for our beliefs. My answer to ‘why philosophy?’ is ‘why not?’ You think, I gather, that doing philosophy only makes sense if one assumes ‘we are responsible ultimately for our beliefs.’ I don’t know what it means to say that we are so responsible. ‘Ultimately’ I think there is no choice or ‘responsibility’. I intuit no meaning or purpose (such things are projected not perceived) and I find nothing for a theology to ‘explain’.

    Again, I don’t think it is at all helpful for you to talk of the “anti-real” nature of belief in God. Like other believers, like agnostics and like the ‘standard’ atheist, you are a realist with regard to the utterance 1) “God exists” – you think it is truth-apt. You may think 1) ‘God exists’ is a belief that is justified by subjective experience or is directly intuited but that doesn’t make it obviously meaningful to say the nature of that belief is ‘anti-real’.

    I think you need to get clear on what Verificatioism is. According to Ayer both 1) and its negation were meaningless. Verificationism doesn’t say “God exists” is false or improbable it claims both it and its negation are nonsense. Verificationism is a handy ‘pocket philosophy’ for working scientists where it keeps minds focused on how a claim might be tested. But things in science are not nearly as simple as empiricists used to think. Thus philosophically verificationism is a dead dogma. You’re not arguing against the philosophers if you argue against the verification principle – they all know its self-defeating nature. Ayer himself renounced it and philosophers don’t subscribe to it.

    Dawkins’ 6.9 signifies his subjective confidence in the clam that 1) is false – he is a de facto atheist but thinks himself technically an agnostic because he does not hold that 1) is false with absolute certitude. It’s not the case that he admits this when pressed – he says as much explicitly in ‘The God Delusion’. (Russell was also explicit about being an agnostic – he restricted knowledge to demonstrative reasoning so he couldn’t claim to know “God exists” is false.) Dawkins’ arguments for the statistical improbability of God’s existence aren’t worth our time discussing. He’s not arguing against the God of the philosophers – an eternal, necessary being – but some contingent naturalistic deistic being. He isn’t arguing that your Platonic God is very, very improbable – he would simply write your conception of God off as incoherent.

    What many theists who object to ‘scientism’ want to do is assert that science cannot rule out the existence of the supernatural. They want scientists to stick to methodological naturalism and in fact that is exactly what scientists tend to do. They don’t typically assert there are no supernatural entites – they just assert that there is no reason to think they do exist and that there would be no way to know otherwise. Few theists argue that science should ‘factor in’ subjective experience and intuition. What they do want to do is leave room for other ‘ways of knowing’. I find no reason to think we have any such faculty.

    ‘we have a sense of what is good as you pointed out. That is key.’

    In so far as I would say we have a ‘sense of what is good’ I mean only that – congenital psychopaths excepted – we have certain distinctive feelings, associated with particular parts of the brain and explicable in terms of evolution and neuroscience, that cause us to view things as ‘wrong’ and ‘right’. That sense is not ‘key’ to anything epistemically. I take moral claims, like religious claims, to be systematically false.

    I’ll leave you to have the last word.

  36. @Jim

    Thanks for you clarifications.

    When I say the belief in God proposition is anti-real, I say so from a discursive reason (let me call it rationality to distinguish it from the word “reason”) perspective. I assert by reason of intuition that God exists as real proposition. So by rationality alone I am an Agnostic, by reasoning of my whole being I am a Theist (Christian). This position is what it means to be a Christian Existentialist or Christian Agnostic. It follows the ideas of Paul Tillich.

    As for your clarifying points on Verificationism. You can apply the principle to the statement “that only analytic and empirical statements are meaningful” (i.e., the verification principle itself), to arrive at a view that it is itself false or meaningless. So I do not view its application by a scientist outside of physical phenomena to be useful, it is ultimately a metaphysical principle that says metaphysics can not be articulated meaningfully. In that respect it is not a handy pocket philosophy at all IMO. This was the view of Wittgenstein I believe in his PI revisions of his earlier TLP.

    I have heard Dawkins refer to himself as an Atheist, but on other occasions as a technical Agnostic as you say. I just would prefer he was consistent, and reflect on what is fair to write off and what it is not in the reasoned choices of another. That he would write off my conception of a Platonic God as incoherent is my very point – he is committed to a verificationist view outside of the purview of science, because his scientism says there is no such thing as a topic (that is meaningful) outside of science’s purview. It is a loopy self-justifying delusion.

    I don’t ask science to factor in non-science, that would be nonsense. But I do not wish it to tell us there is nothing meaningful outside of science, that is a preferred metaphysics that is not mine – it is their choice, not mine.

    As for you taking moral claims, like religious claims, to be systematically false. Surely you mean meaningless, since you earlier admitted them to be anti-real/arational (when you said I can make sense of talk of the ‘arational’. If x is said to believe that 1) “torturing children just for fun is wrong” it seems reasonable to say that 1) is an ‘arational’ belief. It won’t be the case that 1) is derived from anything and it won’t be susceptible to any kind of proof or evidence.

    Personally I think we do make moral choices and we are responsible for them. I think that is not a real statement by rationality alone, to make it real you must intuit it. Either you do or you don’t. And that choice is the most meaningful one to make in Philosophy (to love wisdom is to assert love is meaningful and wisdom is possible).

  37. Hi Martin,

    The reason I make an issue of your talk of ‘real’ and ‘anti-real’ is that there is a division drawn between realism and anti-realism and it does not seem as if you are following it. This causes confusion – I know in my own case I have found your arguments hard to grasp in the past partly on account of your language use. If you Google “anti-real proposition(s)’ you won’t find many results that aren’t authored by or referencing you because an utterance that is ‘anti-real’ is not a proposition at all.

    Some have taken Wittgenstein as an anti-realist with regard to religious talk from his scattered ‘lecture notebook’ remarks. LW had no time for arguments for God’s existence and thought those who tried to argue for Gods existence using scientific results were ‘cheating’ themselves with ‘superstition’. By mentioning ‘talking past’ I was referencing him but not meaning to make the same point he made. His point about ‘talking past’ was that the non-religious man is making a mistake when he thinks the religious man is making truth-apt historical and factual claims when he makes religious utterances. Despite this it seems LW was deeply ‘religious’ in some sense. Your religious commitment is not of that nature but you do reference LW frequently so you can see why this might cause confusion.

    I get your point that reason leaves you an agnostic but by ‘intuition’ you think your faith is justified. You think you intuit meaning and purpose that is ‘out there’ – I think you project it. I don’t want to be dismissive of religious experience and I do not think x is irrational if he takes such experiences as experiences of a divine reality. Similarly I do not think x is irrational because he takes his moral sentiments to be intuitions of objective moral facts. I do think x is wrong though. When I say I think moral claims are false I do mean that – I don’t mean they are meaningless. Arational and anti-real are different things. I intended to show that I could understand how a belief could be described as arational – that is not derived from reason. (I didn’t go into this but there seems no reason why an arational belief can’t be false – unreasoned basic beliefs resulting from sense experience can turn out that way as Plantinga notes). And I intended to show how I could understand how an utterance could be called ‘anti-real’ i.e. not truth-apt. I don’t buy non-cognitive accounts of moral claims myself. I think they are truth-apt but false or at least ‘not true’ (there’s a slight technical distinction).

    I believe Dawkins (like Russell on occasion when speaking to ‘the masses’) has referred to himself as an ‘atheist’ yes – for practical purposes he is one and using this term this may make communication easier though I get your point. Few self-described atheists claim to know with absolute certitude that “God exists” is false – Victor Stenger and A.C. Grayling being amongst those who seemingly do. Grayling has criticised Jerry Coyne for being an agnostic and not an atheist – Grayling thinks one is entitled to claim to know there is no Deity and that if you don’t claim to know that then you are not an atheist. People use the word ‘atheism’ in different ways though.

    Dawkins would not write off your God on account of Verificationism, he would write it off as incoherent. He would claim that theological conceptions of God as a whole are ‘square circle’ incoherent and/or that some of the ‘essential’ qualities attributed to Him are incoherent. (At least I think so – he’s not interesting enough to pay too much attention to). Some have used this line of argument to claim that God does not exist period – it is part of Grayling’s argument but not all – but that is quite different from verificationism. By ‘pocket philosophy’ I only mean verificationism is a rough rule for scientist to use while they investigate physical phenomena – there is nothing else they do investigate and (it seems) nothing else they could investigate. The principle is, as I said, and you noted, self-defeating – it is meaningless by its own lights (not false). And that may be part of the reason no philosopher of science accepts it – there are ways of getting out of this ‘self-defeating’ problem but verificationism is still completely hopeless. What this means is that your claims for God cannot be easily written off as meaningless. I don’t think your claims are meaningless but, as I say, I do think them wrong. I admit the possibility I may be wrong but I can find no reason to believe – or even seriosuly consider – the things you do believe.

    Sorry if I sounded ‘short’ by saying that I’d leave you the last word (which now I obviously haven’t) but I don’t want to get too bogged down in theology and on questions on which neither of us is ever going to change the other’s mind. I don’t want to commit myself to a lengthy conversation that gets into Christian Apologetics.

    As AJ Ayer once said: “Even logical positivists are capable of love.”

  38. @Jim,

    I don’t say that you can not have an anti-real proposition, I just that you can not prove it true or false in a real sense by means of rationality/discursive reason. I believe this is a standard application of the terms as per my reading of “The Logical Basis of Metaphysics” by Sir Michael Dummett, whose argumentation I try to follow closely.

    I don’t argue that LW would follow my argumentation fully. But I think he would see it as a legitimate language-game in terms of his PI work. In particular I’d reference this quote…

    “…for Wittgenstein scientism is just as misguidedly metaphysical as traditional, more transparently a prioristic, approaches.” ( Goldfarb, Warren. “Wittgenstein on Understanding”. Midwest Studies in Philosophy, XVII. 1992. pp. 112)

    This is my position also. I would contest that my comments are not only reasonable but not without support from those who have specialized in this field.

    Though you say I project my faith (something I am aware of as a possibility) I would argue that if I am a deterministic entity it has been first projected into me. If I am not a deterministic entity I have a free choice to choose it over alternatives by means of it being the best according to my preference set.

    I think there is an inconsistency in your posts, when you claim that moral claims are false in a real sense, but accept that they are arational, i.e., not subject to true/false conclusion by rational argument. Saying, as you just have, that “I think they are truth-apt but false or at least ‘not true’” IS MY POINT, they are truth-apt by intuition not by rationality. (sorry for the caps!)

    I think A C Grayling is demonstrably wrong in his analysis, Dawkins would be right to say he is an agnostic (if he did it more consistently), but he is wrong in his faith conviction over scientism and the resulting denial of meaning outside the verification principle (that I have shown is meaningless in this non-science realm).

    You are at liberty to think my claims are wrong from your convictions and preference set. I accept that, and respect that (and I think as per the discussion with Amos you should offer me that same position). I think you can not prove to me that my convictions and preference set is wrong rationally, just according to your a prioristic worldview.

    We could use logic of abduction to challenge the principles of our respective positions, we might examine our relative preference set according to Occam’s razor, or Loving-Kindness, or another arational precept. We should do that first as an attempt to set out our common ground.

    Of course we are all capable of Love. The issue is, if we reflect, can we understand Love? To do that we may indeed be discussing theology.

    I understand the motivation to want to bring this dialog to a close and move onto other things — I share this desire, but I have valued very much our conversation. :)

  39. @Jim,

    I wonder if you have seen this article? It relates to our discussion of Dawkins, de Botton and the futility of culture wars. I think it valuable…


  40. @Jim,

    It’s an interesting link. Thanks.

    The first speaker speaks for me and my position.

    And then Prof Dennett speaks and IMO he is wrong, and demonstrably so.

    He asserts explicitly that Methodological Naturalism is built into Science, that is to say Science is built on a belief system, a belief system that disallows the recognition of certain phenomena (those that are not physically naturalistic). That is not Science that IS Scientism. IMO Science is a method to prove hypotheses false analytically and/or empirically. Science can not prove something absolutely true, but it can prove them contingently true.

    Dennett was right to say ID is not a Science, since ID’s premise is an argument from ignorance, a logical fallacy. You can not prove ID true or false by Science.

    But could ID be true nevertheless, in the sense of Theistic Evolution says the natural world and its physical laws (in a Universe or Multiverse form) was set out Teleologically? I think the answer is that it is possibly true. But it is an non-scientific proposition. ID should NOT be taught in science class, but it might have a place in philosophy or religious study class.

    ID is based on an anti-real proposition (one that can not be resolved as really true or false by rationality), that can be addressed by an arational hypothesis (God did it, or at least an Intelligent Designer did it) of a systematic theology. I understand you don’t want to step into that puddle, so I will not go further. :)

    PS: I hope this clears up my sense of the use of anti-real and arational (that has confused you – mea culpa).

  41. Hi Martin,

    I thought you might find John Haught to be more in tune with your thinking.

    It certainly seems to me that Methodological Naturalism is built into science. I don’t see how science could investigate non -physically naturalistic phenomena, there doesn’t appear to be any. But, I don’t think we’re going to get far discussing that. You have your belief system, it has been shared by some of the ablest thinkers and being religious is still the norm globally. It’s possible that I’m wrong.

  42. @Jim,

    Yes, again thanks for the link – the fuller interview is even better.

    The point about science and methodological naturalism is not that it has no relevance to science questions (it is implied by science’s methods of physical empiricism and logical analysis), it is that for non-science questions it suggests that they are not legitimate questions, and I think they are/could be (e.g., asking the question is the love of true wisdom possible). So I think methodological naturalism is OK for science questions and not for non-science questions, if a scientist misses this point he talks scientism over non-science questions.

    PS: I freely admit I may be wrong also.

  43. @Jim,

    The point I a making is what separates methodological naturalism from philosophical naturalism — the former is merely a tool, when maintained as a method of science, and makes no truth claim; while the latter makes the philosophical — essentially atheistic — claim that only natural causes exist.

  44. Hi Martin,
    You mentioned Dummett. There’s an interview with him from only a few years ago on Frege here. There’s also a shorter anecdote on his only meeting with Wittgenstein as well that I’d recommend.


    I’m now busy trying to figure out the gist of Dummett and semantic anti-realism.

  45. @Jim

    Thanks for that link, much appreciated. Anti-realism really covers two forms and sometimes it is easy to confuse people because they use the label to cover the two types indiscriminately. Consider…

    a)Principled Anti-Realism: (that I try to distinguish by calling “arationality”) this is those questions/propositions/statements that we know we cannot really/rationally know, as a matter of analytical logical principle. Dummett challenged Aristotle’s Law of Bivalence/Exclusion of the Middle in this respect (following Frege and Intuitionism). We have rational propositions and irrational propositions. Wittgenstein in his early TLP seemed to agree with Aristotle (and be against Dummett) in that one of his points was that if a question could not be answered this was not a valid question (it was irrational). But there are plenty of questions that are neither rational or irrational, yet have meaning (at least to those that ask them, indeed they are often the most important questions in life that Dummett in his introduction to his (referenced) book states that Modern Analytic Philosophy is avoiding/abandoned) — the excluded middle — it is this assertion that forms the basis for Dummett’s Logical Basis of Metaphysics. E.g., “God can become incarnate in man”, is an arational/principled anti-real statement of meaning. Wittgenstein in his later PI work would consider these statements to be part of a “language-game” of a believer, to approach the unapproachable, to see beyond the veil, in this respect he became more pro-Dummetts postion.

    b) Pragmatic Anti-Realism: This is when a question/proposition/statements cannot be answered true or false in real terms, because it is simply not possible to determine its state due to historical/empirical circumstances, we must give up on knowing them, even though they are “truth-apt”, to use your term E.g., “Jesus of Nazareth existed as a historical fact and the gospel accounts of his life are broadly accurate given allowance for human error in recording details” is an pragmatic anti-real statement.

    As a historical note many who followed Wittgentein became Catholic Philosophers, such as Elizabeth (G.E.M.)Anscombe, and,though no direct follower of Wittgenstein, Sir Michael Dummett.

    Hope that helps.

  46. For me, amongst the most compelling arguments against the religionist perspective comes from noting that believers invariably claim detailed knowledge of their god or gods, of their moral code, the required acts of piety, dictats on the treatment of others, of children etc etc. It is common in the statements made by religionists against atheists to assert that ‘we don’t know anything for sure’ etc. This is supposed to trump the scientific and rationalist position in some incomprehensible way, as if ‘therefore, anything goes’ in explaining ‘life, the universe and everything’.

    Once religionist have confidently asserted that ‘we can’t be sure of anything’ and thus that their own beliefs are logically possible, they will happily circumcise your children (male or female), insist on advocating precise requirements for matrimony, sexual mores, diet, disposal of bodies and all the rest. But this is not claimed to be done from a position of much uncertainty! And then the implicit and explicit demand is there to respect this attitude and certainly not to dare ‘offend’ it (in many cultures, historical and present-day, demanded on pain of death).

    That the cultural traditions epitomised in religious belief are locally strong, and generationally persistent is to be expected given the underpinning long-term indoctrination (‘enculturation’ if you will) that cannot be disputed. Therein lies any ‘reality’ in religious belief … no matter how vague … it is a cultural reality.

    Religion has been obliged by the advances of science and the enlightenment to ‘butt out’ of fields such as astronomy, geophysics, biology is a given (ok except in bible-belt USA, in fundamentalist Islamic cultures and in some fundamentalist Hindu and Buddhist cultures too). The next area that will cause grief is Neuroscience and the study of brain/mind function. There’s going to be god-particle there too!

  47. Religiosity and Neuroscience


    There’s also another piece by a science writer on ‘The Evolution of the God Gene’


  48. Hi Martin,

    Dummett, without doubt a genius who worked on very difficult matters, is a bit more than my cognitive faculties can deal with at the moment.

    Non-realism, irrealism and anti-realism are often used synonymously, at least in the context of moral non-realism. I have perhaps conflated a species of this ilk – non-cognitivism – with the genus. In that context moral utterance are viewed as not being true or false and not ever being capable of being made true or false which is why people who take that (I think implausible) view of ‘moral talk’ would say that such talk is simply not truth-apt. Moral utterances are like “Shut the door!” or “Boo/Hurrah!” – they just aren’t the type of things that are truth-apt.

    Given that Dummett coined the term ‘anti-realism’ I understand why you would use it to refer to his particular views. Still you might want to refer to Dummett and his ‘semantic anti-realism’ more often in order to point people in the right direction.

    In one anti-realist conception of mathematical propositions (intuitionism) such propositions and their negations can both be not true – but one of them may end up becoming so once it is proven. In the now-unpopular Platonic view, and in other more plausible Realist conceptions, the truth or falsity of a mathematical statement is independent of its proof (the proof is the discovery that it is true not the thing that makes it become true). In that Realist view the truth-value of (p) and of (not p) is unknown but ‘(p) or (not p)’ is true. In intuitionism the truth of a mathematical statement consists in our ability to prove it, so if we cannot prove either (p) or (not p) then we cannot say ‘(p) or (not p)’ is true. And Dummett held, I think, that this underlies debates about Realism and Anti-realism generally. In some areas of discourse realism is apt – in those cases a sentence is made meaningful by its truth-conditions. In others it is made meaningful by something else. And in your case it seems ‘God exists’ is not made meaningful by its truth-conditions but by something else.

    What that something else is not specified by saying your view is anti-realist because in Dummett’s conception whilst there’s one form of realism, ‘anti-realism’ covers a wide range of possible positions.

    If one adopted something like mathematical intuitionism then ‘God exists’ and its negation would both fail to be true in the absence of a proof of His (non)existence but it might become true or false. If one adopted something like non-cognitivism, ‘God exists’ simply could not ever be true or false – it would only express something like an attitude towards the world. That’s the position I took Wittgenstein to be taking though he would himself have wanted nothing to do with talk of realism and anti-realism. Obviously he took religous talk to be meaningful but he thought it had nothing to do with history or facts about this world or another one.

    At some point I should write something about the Atheist Christians – that there is no supernatural entity called “God” and that Christ was merely human if he even existed at all is something a number of church goers and clergymen in the Netherlands are fine with. Still the traditional rituals and biblical readings remain. There were also a number of ‘death of god’ theologians who thought there was not really any being called God but that religious practice and biblical reading were still worthwhile.

    De Botton isn’t on the cutting edge.