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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Roman Forum


In Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, Greg Epstein (2007) offered Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud as the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" of their time. Massimo Pigliucci characterized the Pre-Socratics as a "intellectually wild" bunch in his (2010) book Nonsense on Stilts How to Tell Science from Bunk.  Here I propose the Four Horsemen of the Roman Empire.

The goal of this series is to trace the evolution of four core arguments against God's existence in the words of four prominent figures from each period. Unlike in the previous posts, none of the Roman Horsemen are contemporaries. Each is separated from the next by a century or two. They provide, however, what is arguably the most elegant formulations of their respective ontological arguments.

The argument from evil- If the gods are real, they have a lot of explaining to do. Lucretius knew that evil was not divine retribution.





Lack of empirical evidence- Discovery trumps revelation. Sextus Empiricus argued forcefully that the incorporeal is immaterial.



The argument from inconsistent revelations- Cosmopolitan doubt: All religions can't be right, so they're probably all wrong. Marcus Aurelius advocated living according to secular values.


The argument from reasonable nonbelief- If the existence of gods were self-evident, everyone would believe. Hypatia stands as a historical reminder of the dangers of compulsory belief. 






Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Hellenist Handbasket


In Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, Greg Epstein (2007) presented Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud as the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" of their time. Massimo Pigliucci characterized the Pre-Socratics as a "intellectually wild" bunch in his (2010) book Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk. I now present the Hellenist Horsemen.

The argument from reasonable nonbelief- If the existence of gods were self-evident, everyone would believe. The burden of proof is on religion. Faith is not a virtue. Socrates' reasonable nonbelief earned him a death sentence for impiety and corrupting the youth.




Lack of empirical evidence- Discovery trumps revelation: the skeptical or naturalistic argument. Hippocrates understood that the God of the Gaps was an appeal to ignorance.



The argument from inconsistent revelations- Cosmopolitan doubt: all religions can't be right, so they are likely all wrong. Aristotle thought that religion was the personification of astronomical features and was used to promote social cohesion.



The argument from evil- If the gods are real, they have a lot of explaining to do. A fictitious god who doles out evil capriciously is no model for civil society.  The Epicurean trilemma is practically synonymous with the problem of evil.







Pre-Socratic Dialogue



In Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, Greg Epstein (2007) offered Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud as the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" of their time. Massimo Pigliucci characterized the Pre-Socratics as a "intellectually wild" bunch in his (2010) book Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk. Did the Pre-Socratics have their own "Four Horsemen"?

As it happens, there are also four core arguments against God's existence that have persisted since ancient times. Using these four arguments as an organizing principle, I present for your consideration the Four Horsemen and their Pre-Socratic analogues.

The argument from inconsistent revelations- All religions can't be right, so they're probably all wrong. Jennifer Michael Hecht calls this cosmopolitan doubt. Xenophanes reasoned that the gods were narcissistic fantasies.



The argument from evil. There is no divine will dispensing reward and punishment. Heraclitus conceived of a self-generated, mechanistic universe.





Lack of empirical evidence- Discovery trumps revelation. For Anaxagoras, everything had a natural explanation.




The argument from reasonable nonbelief- If the existence of the gods were self-evident, everyone would believe. The burden of proof is on religion. Democritus rejected the supernatural.






Friday, January 25, 2013

Pop Ontology


Life in the atheist echo-chamber can be tedious. We spend a lot of time preaching to the choir and probably get impatient hearing the same arguments over and over. It's true that the ancients employed  all of the same arguments in circulation today, but the question of the existence of the gods is as relevant today as it was in ancient Greece. The religious are lukewarm secularists at best, and--while they may recognize harm done by religion--they are more interested in reforming religion than abolishing it. In this post, I discuss the various types of atheism, the arguments against the existence of the gods, and the centrality of the God Hypothesis to secularist and antitheistic arguments.




Types of Atheism

Sherwin Wine identified the following six types of atheism. They vary along the dimension of the probability of the existence of gods, but coincide in their implications for living as if there are no gods.

Ontological Atheism compares to strong atheism on Dawkins' scale of theistic probability. It can be characterized as gnostic atheism.

Come on! There are no gods and you know it!






Ethical Atheism compares to de facto atheism on Dawkins' scale. It is analogous to Humanism.

Piety is a poor substitute for ethics. 


Existential Atheism holds that autonomy is more important than reverence for a narcissistic god. Agnostics who live as if there are no gods are existential atheists.

Gods or no gods, I'm the boss of me. 



Agnostic Atheism covers a range of doubt on Dawkin's scale. A "pure" agnostic regards God's existence as equally probable with his nonexistence.

We can't know for sure, so enjoy your life.




Ignostic Atheism is comparable to de facto atheism, but considers the question of God's existence irrelevant because "God" is used so broadly that it's a meaningless word.

"God," is just a word for whatever you you think you're supposed to believe.




Pragmatic Atheism is another form of de facto atheism. It holds that belief in gods is irrelevant to living a meaningful life. This is a core tenet of freethought.

Faith is a poor substitute for meaning.




Ontological Arguments

There are four core arguments against God's existence that have persisted since ancient times. They are summarized below.

Lack of empirical evidence- Discovery trumps revelation. This is the skeptical argument.





The argument from inconsistent revelations- They can't be all right, so they're probably all wrong. This is also known as cosmopolitan doubt.


 


The argument from evil- If the gods are real, they have a lot of explaining to do. This is also known as the Epicurean trilemma. This is a counterargument to divine nepotism favoring the faithful.



The argument from reasonable nonbelief- If there were gods they'd want us to know. This is a counterargument to the idea that blind faith is virtuous and God hides the evidence to test our faith.




Secularism

Secularism is an essentially agnostic position, but the commitment to secularism is clearly stronger for atheists than for theists. For one thing, theists enjoy religious privilege. Although secularism protects minority religions and atheists alike from having a majority religion imposed on them, minority religions enjoy the privilege of theonormativity, the presumption of some form of belief as normative. The normativity of belief privileges believers of majority and minority faiths over nonbelievers.

Another explanation for the absence of the religious in secular causes is cognitive dissonance. If there is a God, it stands to reason that His will should transcend civil law. Some religious moderates can accept that because of religious diversity there is little agreement about God's will, but even they are unlikely to be as passionate for the cause of secularism as a nonbeliever because it conflicts with their belief in divine will.



Antitheism

Antitheism can be as benign as a mere lack of regret over the inability to believe. It does not rely on the argument that religion is harmful. Even religious moderates are known to acknowledge the harm done by religion, which makes them antitheistic in the broad sense of the word. Like secularism, antitheism is an agnostic position at its core. Unless coupled by disbelief, antitheism loses its authority as a rational argument. It becomes an argument from emotion--a rejection of religion based on harm, not truth.




There is very little new by way of ontological arguments against theism. The case for secularism is more compelling when bolstered by the acceptance that there is no divine will than when justified merely by the failure of consensus on that divine will. The antitheist case for religious harm is reduced to an appeal to emotion unless it proceeds from an atheistic ontological position. There are a few basic arguments that an atheist activist should master, which I've presented here. Consider yourself armed with the wisdom of the ages for your debates with theists.