bookmark_borderHoria George Plugaru’s Argument Against the Abundance Theory of Creation

The Internet Infidels just published a new essay by Horia George Plugaru in the Secular Web’s Kiosk, “Why the Abundance Theory of Creation Fails.” From the opening paragraph:

How can God be both a perfect being and the creator of the universe? Doesn’t the fact that he created the world imply that he had a need or want? Otherwise, why would he bother creating anything at all? But then, if he had a need that implied the existence of the universe in order to be fulfilled, it seems he is not perfect: he lacks something. But by definition, a perfect being could not lack anything. So if the universe exists, God is not perfect, so God does not exist.


bookmark_borderArgument Against the Resurrection of Jesus – Part 13

I am examining the implications of the following supposition:

JAW = Jesus was alive and walking around on the first Easter Sunday.
This supposition is asserted by most Christian apologists as a key claim in support of the resurrection of Jesus. Another key claim made by Christian apologists concerns the alleged crucifixion of Jesus:

JWC = Jesus was crucified on Friday of Passover week, just before the first Easter Sunday.
All four Gospels agree that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified in Jerusalem on Friday of Passover week by order of Pontius Pilate (Mark 14:12-15:47, Luke 22:7-23:56, Matthew 26:17-27:62, John 13:1-13:30 and 18:1-19:42).
Since none of the Gospels was composed by an eyewitness to the trial, crucifixion, or burial of Jesus, and since the Gospels were apparently not based directly on eyewitness testimony, but were based on oral and written traditions of unknown origins (unknown to us), and since the Gospels were composed about four to six decades after the alleged crucifixion of Jesus, and since the primary motivation of the authors was to promote Christian faith (which includes the belief that Jesus was crucified), we cannot be certain that (JWC) is true. At best, we can conclude that it is very probable that (JWC) is true.
Perhaps Jesus was crucified, but not on Friday of Passover week, or perhaps Jesus was killed on Friday of Passover week, but was not killed by being crucified (e.g. he died as a result of scourging and so was not hung up on a cross), or perhaps Jesus was not killed on Friday of Passover week because he was never crucified – the crucifixion being a legend or a mistaken inference of Jesus’s original followers.

Nevertheless, since we have no evidence of any alternative to the crucifixion story found in all four Gospels, the most likely scenario is that (JWC) is true. I think it is reasonable to assign (JWC) a probabilty of .9 (nine chances in ten of being true, given that Jesus was an historical person–which follows from the supposition of (JAW) ), and thus the probability of (Not JWC) would be .1 (one chance in ten that one of the other alternatives is true).

In proposing a probability of .9 for the truth of (JWC), I am taking into account not just the NT evidence, but also the non-Christian historical evidence (see The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, p.49) from Josephus (Antiquities 18:63), Tacitus (Annals 15:44), Lucian of Samosata, (The Death of Peregrine, 11-13), and the letter of Mara Bar-Serapion.

Antiquities by JosephusJosephus does not claim to have witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus, nor does he claim to have interviewed any eyewitnesses of the crucifixion of Jesus. We simply don’t know what his source was for this information, but it was probably third- or fourth-hand hearsay:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day. (Flavius Josephus. The Works of Flavius Josephus. Translated by. William Whiston, A.M. Auburn and Buffalo. John E. Beardsley. 1895. Antiquities 18:63)
Josephus completed Antiquities in the early 90s, about six decades after the alleged crucifixion of Jesus, and it was composed in Rome, not in Palestine. Since the Gospel of Mark was composed about 70 CE, and Matthew and Luke were composed in the 80s CE, the synoptic Gospels were already in circulation among Christians before Josephus composed Antiquities, so he may simply be echoing stories about Jesus that circulated among Christian believers in Rome.
Furthermore, scholars have concluded that the text of the passage from Josephus was altered by Christian copyists, so it is uncertain exactly what the passage said about Jesus in the original version written by Josephus, although it is likely that Josephus mentioned the crucifixion of Jesus in the original version (see The Historical Jesus by Gary Habermas, p.192-196).

Finally, Josephus does not specify the time and place of the crucifixion.

Annals by TacitusTacitus does not claim to have witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus, and since he was born in 56 CE and the alleged crucifixion would have happened about 30 CE (if it did happen), Tacitus could not have been an eyewintess. Nor does he claim to have interviewed any eyewitnesses of the crucifixion of Jesus (and given the date of composition of Annals, it is very unlikely that he would have had access to any eyewintesses–people rarely lived to 60 years old, let alone 100 years old). We simply don’t know what his source was for this information.

Tacitus composed his Annals in about 115 CE., about eight decades after the alleged crucifixion, and almost five decades after the composition of the Gospel of Mark. Tacitus writes about the presence of Christian believers in Rome, so it is entirely possible that his information comes from Christians or from Romans who were familiar with Christian beliefs.

Furthermore, Tacitus gets two things wrong is his one sentence about Jesus:
But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. (Complete Works of Tacitus. Tacitus. Alfred John Church. William Jackson Brodribb. Sara Bryant. edited for Perseus. New York. : Random House, Inc. Random House, Inc. reprinted 1942. Annals 15:44)

Jesus’s name was not ‘Christus’. The word ‘Christ’ is a title– meaning ‘Messiah’ – which was bestowed upon Jesus by his followers. Also, Pilate was a prefect
not a procurator (Jesus, The Final Days by Craig Evans and N.T. Wright, p.3-4). Also, Tacitus does not say that Jesus was crucified, nor does he give a specific time and place for the execution of Jesus, although he does suggest ‘Judea’ as the general location.

The Death of Peregrine by Lucian of SamosataThis passage is from a speech about the life and death of a Cynic philosopher Peregrinus Proteus made by an unnamed person/character:

“It was then that he learned the wondrous lore of the Christians, by associating with their priests and scribes in Palestine. And—how else could it be?—in a trice he made them all look like children, for he was prophet, cult-leader, head of the synagogue, and everything, all by himself. He interpreted and explained some of their books and even composed many, and they revered him as a god, made use of him as a lawgiver, and set him down as a protector, next after that other, to be sure, whom they still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world. (The Passing of Peregrinus, 11, by Lucian of Samosata. Translated and notes by A.M. Harmon, 1936, Published in Loeb Classical Library, 9 volumes, Greek texts and facing English translation: Harvard University Press.)
Since Peregrinus committed suicide at the Olympic Games in 165 CE, this satire written by Lucian must have been composed between 165 CE and the death of Lucian (sometime after 180 CE). Suppose this satire was written about 170 CE, in that case this passage was composed about fourteen decades after the alleged crucifixion of Jesus. Since Lucian was born around 125 CE, he obviously could not have been an eyewitness to the crucifixion of Jesus.

By the time Lucian was 10 years old, the year was about 135 CE, so any eyewitnesses of the crucifixion of Jesus would have been dead by then. Thus, Lucian never interviewed an eyewitness of the crucifixion. Nor does Lucian provide any indication of where he got this information, other than that he heard it in a speech about Peregrinus (but the speech may well be purely a rhetorical device, and not an actual speech given by an actual person).

By the time that this satire was composed (around 170 CE), the synoptic gospels had been in circulation for about one century. So, it is entirely possible that this speech in a satire about the philosopher Peregrinus simply draws on the widely held Christian belief that Jesus had been crucified.

Furthermore, the speech does not specify the time and place of the crucifixion of Jesus, other than giving the general location of ‘Palestine’.

A letter by Mara Bar-SerapionA Syrian named Mara Bar-Serapion wrote a letter from prison to his son “sometime between the late first and third centuries A.D.” (The Historical Jesus, p. 207):

What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished…the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. (Christian Origins by F.F. Bruce, p. 31, quoted in The Historical Jesus, p.207-208).

Since this letter might date to the second or third century CE, it might well have been composed one or two centuries after the alleged crucifixion, in which case the author could not have been an eyewitness and could not have interviewed an eyewitness of the crucifixion.

The author does not claim to be an eyewitness to the crucifixion, nor to have spoken to an eyewitness of the crucifixion. Nor does the writer indicate how or where he obtained this information. Once again, this might well be third- or fourth-hand hearsay, even if the letter was written at the end of the first century.

There are other problems with this passage. First, Jesus was not a King, and the writer does not name ‘Jesus’ or mention ‘Christ’ or ‘Christians’, nor is there any specification of the time and place of the execution of the ‘wise King’. Thus, it is unclear whether it is really Jesus of Nazareth that is in view here.

Furthermore, there is no mention of crucifixion, only execution.

Finally, the writer is wrong about the death of Pythagorus and other facts: “…some of Mara Bar-Serapion’s material concerning Athens and Samos is quite inaccurate.” (The Historical Jesus, p. 208). So, the writer of the letter is not a reliable source of historical information.
This letter may well date one or two centuries after the alleged crucifixion of Jesus, makes a vague claim about the execution, not crucifixion, of a ‘wise King’ of the Jews, which may or may not be a reference to Jesus of Nazareth, occurring at an unspecified time and place, along with other historical claims about major figures which are innacurate. This is pathetic as historical evidence for (JWC).

To be continued…

INDEX of Argument Against the Resurrection of Jesus posts:

bookmark_borderTyler Wunder Has Joined The Secular Outpost!

I’m pleased to announce that Dr. Tyler Wunder has joined The Secular Outpost! Here is a short bio he provided to me for this announcement:

I received my PhD in Philosophy from Boston University; my dissertation was a critique of Alvin Plantinga’s Warrant trilogy. My publications are: “Anti-Naturalism and Proper Function” [Religious Studies 44(2)], “Critical Study of James K. Beilby’s Epistemology as Theology: An Evaluation of Alvin Plantinga’s Religious Epistemology” [Philo 10(2)], and “Critical Study of Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief” [Philo 5(2)]. I have also given an interview for the podcast Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot, titled “Why Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology Fails” (episode 72—October 2010).

Presently I am working on an article related to Plantinga’s latest book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, as well as a book, loosely based on my dissertation, which defends the Great Pumpkin Objection against Reformed epistemology. I teach philosophy, including the philosophy of religion and formal logic, at a university in Ontario, Canada, and live with my wife, Sylvia Bryce-Wunder, and our rabbit Sweety.

Dr. Wunder has also written two pieces for The Secular Web: An Inquiry into Davis’ Account of the Possibiliy of Rational Belief and Rational Scepticism in the Resurrection of Jesus” (1998) and “Review of Warranted Christian Belief” (2002).

Please join me in welcoming Dr. Wunder!

bookmark_borderHas Christmas become too secular?

No. Christmas officially became a secular holiday on June 28, 1870. That’s when President Ulysses S. Grant declared December 25 a legal holiday, along with January 1, July 4, and a day to be determined for Thanksgiving. We were founded as a secular country under a godless Constitution (no mention of God or Jesus), where freedom of conscience is guaranteed for all people. Just so there is no doubt about President Grant’s intent, in his seventh-annual message to Congress on Dec. 7, 1875, he said: “Declare church and state forever separate and distinct; but each free within their proper spheres.”
Christians may certainly celebrate Christmas religiously. Early Christians made up a story about a savior born on December 25, a myth that originated in the winter solstice festivals of ancient civilizations. Mithras, a Persian savior-god, had a sizable following in the Roman world and his birth was celebrated on that day. By appropriating the day for the alleged birth of Jesus, Christians could more easily convert pagans.
Individuals are free to focus on whomever they view as the reason for the season: Jesus, Rudolph, or Santa. My personal preference is a Santa who wants us to be good for goodness’s sake, without fear of eternal punishment for not believing in him. From Rudolph we learn that it’s OK to be different, and to stand proud even if others laugh at you. And though Jesus primarily wants us to give glory to God, I like it that he also asks for “Peace on Earth and goodwill toward men.”
What a wonderful world we would have in any season if we followed these three lessons: be good, accept diversity, and strive for peace. I wish this holiday season would bring us closer to such important secular principles. Unfortunately, the Christmas season has become increasingly divisive.
A manufactured “War on Christmas” by some Christians now forces people to choose between wishing a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” It’s ironic that stores are boycotted when the emphasis is on the Happy Holidays phrase, implying that the true meaning of Christmas for religious people must be “shopping.” In fact, because of the pagan origin of Christmas, some early American colonies prohibited the celebration of Christmas. That might have been the original war on Christmas.
Whether we celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, HumanLight, or any other holiday, my wish for this and all seasons is that we strive for peace on Earth and goodwill toward all humans.

bookmark_borderTom Flynn, the Anti-Claus

Should non-believers celebrate a secular version of Christmas as a sort of winter holiday? According to Tom Flynn, the answer is “no.” If you haven’t heard of Flynn, he is the Executive Director of the Council for Secular Humanism, editor of Free Inquiry, and the author of The Trouble with Christmas. (As Flynn points out, his book makes an excellent holiday gift!)

Flynn was touring the U.S. speaking to atheist groups on the topic, “The Trouble with Christmas.” (He calls his tour the “Anti-Claus Tour 2011.”) With considerable humor, Flynn presented the history of the Christmas holiday we have today in the U.S. and the UK, which he attributed to DWAMQs (“Dead White Anglo Males…. and a Queen”), including Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria.
Flynn argued there are parallels between holidays related to Osiris and Mithras, on the one hand, and Jesus, on the other. (For example, Mithras’ birthday was believed to be December 25, whereas the gospels do not mention Jesus’ birthday.)
Flynn presented six of his top ten reasons against parents teaching their children about Santa:
1. To perpetuate the Santa Claus myth, parents must lie to their children.
2. To buoy belief, adults stage elaborate deceptions, laying traps for the child’s developing intellect.
3. The myth encourages lazy parenting and promotes unhealthy fear.
4. The myth harms children’s moral and emotional development and damages family dynamics.
5. The myth promotes selfishness and acquisitive attitudes among children.
6. Children may not enjoy the Santa Claus drama as much as parental nostalgia suggests.

Flynn urged secular humanists to respond to the “Christians’ birthday festival” by being “conspicuous in sitting it out and sitting out contrived secular alternatives” like the Winter Solstice and HumanLight. In his words, “If we are not Christians, we are not pagans either.” A practical consequence of this position, as Flynn sees it, is that secular humanists should not wish other people “happy holidays” because “many people are not celebrating any holidays at all.”

The question-and-answer period was interesting: Flynn seemed to receive a friendly but skeptical response from the atheist audience, if the questions were any indication.

I have mixed feelings about all of this. I agree with Flynn that parents should not lie to their kids about Santa. But what about celebrating Christmas or, as he calls it, “contrived secular alternatives” like the Winter Solstice and HumanLight? I celebrate a completely secular version of Christmas purely as a family tradition, but I can understand why other non-Christians might feel very differently. For the same reason, I do not celebrate Winter Solstice or Human Light: they mean nothing to me. I can understand why some nonbelievers feel the need to create a secular holiday alternative, while others (like Flynn) see no reason to celebrate any holidays.

I guess I am just a “holiday subjectivist.”

bookmark_borderArgument Against the Resurrection of Jesus – Part 12

I have previously examined the implications of the supposition that (JAW) is not the case:
(JAW) Jesus was alive and walking around unassisted on the first Easter Sunday.

Now I’m going to start looking into the implications of the supposition that (JAW) is the case.

There are many ways to divide up the logical pie, but I propose to analyze(JAW) into eleven different logical possibilities:

Acronyms for key claims related to Jesus’s alleged resurrection:

JAW = Jesus was alive and walking around on the first Easter Sunday.

JWC = Jesus was crucified on Friday of Passover week, just before the first Easter Sunday.
BWJ = ‘Badly Wounded Jesus’: DSW and JSS and HAF and SAD.
DSW = On Friday of Passover week, just before the first Easter Sunday, Jesus received a deep spear wound to his chest (i.e. the tip of the spear penetrated at least 3” deep, measured perpendicular to the surface where the spear entered his chest).
JSS = On Friday of Passover week, just before the first Easter Sunday, Jesus was severely scourged (i.e. the wounds from the scourging were such that there was at least a .8 probability that Jesus would die in the next 24 hours if he received no care for the wounds).
HAF = On Friday of Passover week, just before the first Easter Sunday, Jesus’ hands and feet were nailed to a cross.
SAD = On Friday of Passover week, just before the first Easter Sunday, Jesus remained suspended on a cross all day (i.e. for seven to eight hours, from approximately 9am to 5pm).
DOC = On Friday of Passover week, just before the first Easter Sunday, Jesus died on a cross (i.e. his heart stopped beating for at least five minutes).

INDEX of Argument Against the Resurrection of Jesus posts:

bookmark_borderFinding Reason in the Season

I once believed in miracles because my parents told me they were true, but even then I recognized that all miracles were not created equal. The Hanukkah miracle of a light burning for eight days instead of just one paled in comparison to the Pesach miracle, when a God decided to “pass-over” the houses of Jews and kill the firstborn Egyptian male in each home along with the firstborn cattle (Exodus 12:12). Hanukkah, of course, while a major holiday in this country, did not become one for theological reasons. It is celebrated so Jews don’t feel left out when others get Christmas presents. Jewish children traditionally receive a present every day for eight consecutive days. So take that, Christians, I used to say to myself.
Though Hanukkah trumped Christmas at home, not so in my public elementary school. My grandmother would usually begin a conversation with me by asking what I had learned in school, and she seemed delighted by whatever I reported. One exception occurred before Christmas, when I answered her question by singing “Silent Night.” I didn’t know what a “virgin” or a “holy infant” was, but I noticed an unexpected frown on my grandmother’s face. Since my family didn’t want to appear “un-American,” they wouldn’t have thought of complaining about Christianity being promoted in school. But they were especially upset when I learned “Silent Night” in German. After the Holocaust, all things German instilled fear in our family.
Most Christians who are willing to accept the evidence for the Earth revolving around a stationary sun are also willing to acknowledge that a savior born on December 25 is a made-up story. Christmas has its origins in the winter solstice festivals that most ancient civilizations observed. Mithras, a Persian savior-god, had a sizable following in the Roman world and his birth was celebrated on December 25. By appropriating this day for the alleged birth of Jesus, Christians could more easily convert pagans. Because of this pagan origin, some early American colonies prohibited the celebration of Christmas. That might have been the original war on Christmas.
When greeted with “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” I used to mumble, “Same to you.” Since some vocal Christians now claim that the latter salutation is a “War on Christmas,” I wonder when I hear “Merry Christmas” whether it is meant to be a friendly greeting or a challenge in this war. Too bad we seem to be moving further from my wish for all seasons: peace on Earth and goodwill toward all people.
Peace and goodwill don’t necessarily mean agreement with all points of view. The holiday season has now become a time to celebrate freedom of expression through billboards and buses, where some atheists have been known to equate the myth of God with that of Santa Claus. I think this comparison is unfair—to Santa. Santa doesn’t ask children to worship him or to put love for him above love for other humans. He asks only that we “Be good for goodness’ sake,” an idea that makes a lot of sense and has appeared on several humanist billboards.
While atheists and humanists typically spend December holidays with family, we often like to celebrate as a community at this time of year. My local secular humanist group in Charleston holds an annual HumanLight ( “Winter Solstice” potluck dinner and used book auction, with proceeds going to worthwhile community causes. This has become a bittersweet occasion for me in the last several years.
Former dentist Bill Upshur, a founding member of our group, was one of the finest people I’ve ever known. He knew how to live, and how to die with courage and grace. When he learned he had terminal esophageal cancer, he continued to be active as long as possible. He believed, at age seventy-seven, that he had lived a full life. The only time I saw him choke up was when he talked about leaving his beloved wife Jane alone.
Knowing in 2007 that he didn’t have long to live, Bill told me he wanted to donate $20,000 to the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry. He devised an unusual plan to make the donation. Typically books at our auction go for no more than $10. Bill and I engaged in a fake bidding war for Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion. It started with incremental bids of a dollar or two, then soared to $1,000, $5,000, $10,000, and ended with Bill’s winning bid of $20,000. I had informed nobody, including my wife Sharon, who became increasingly alarmed by my extravagant bids.
When I told Richard Dawkins, he wrote a wonderful note to Bill, which I read to him in the hospital a week before he died. Richard said, “I hope you will not think me impertinent if I say you are my kind of guy. You now possess the most expensive copy of The God Delusion in the known universe. Thank you for all you have done for secular causes.” My last memory of Bill was his broad smile after hearing Dawkins’ words.
We make a special point to remember Bill at each annual winter solstice celebration. He was a real person and I will always associate his sense of humor and voice of reason with this holiday season.

bookmark_borderLinks and News — 19-Dec-11


Secular Outpost Revamped

  • Ex-Apologist favorably mentions recent changes at The Secular Outpost.
  • [Editor’s Note (Lowder): Thanks!]

The Skeptic Awards 2011

  • The Skeptic Magazine plans to give awards for several types of skeptical activity, including “Best Blog.”
  • [Editor’s Note (Lowder): Please consider voting for The Secular Outpost!]


Bellingham Lectures in Philosophy of Religion

  • These lectures, which will be streamed online, will include talks by Jeffrey Schloss and Michael Murray on evolutionary theories of religious belief and natural evil in a fine-tuned universe.

Schieber’s Objections to the Kalam Argument” by John Danaher

PhilPapers Survey Results

  • Among all respondents, 72.8% accept or lean toward atheism. Among general philosophers of science, that number rises to 77.6%. For philosophers of probability, it is 78.9%. For philosophers of religion, however, 72.3% accept or lean toward theism, while 19.1% accept or lean toward atheism.
  • [Editor’s Note (Lowder): Nothing surprising here, except perhaps that as many as 19.1% of philosophers of religion accept or lean toward atheism.]

A Bayesian Approach to Absent Evidence Reasoning” by Christopher Stephens

  • Abstract: Under what conditions is the failure to have evidence that p, evidence that p is false? Absent evidence reasoning is common in many sciences, including astronomy, archeology, biology and medicine. An often-repeated epistemological motto is that “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Analysis of absent evidence reasoning usually takes place in a deductive or frequentist hypothesis-testing framework. Instead, a Bayesian analysis of this motto is explored and it is shown that, under plausible assumptions about the nature of evidence, the absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

Air Force Academy Dogged by Anti-Christian Pressure” by Baptist Press


When Are Supernatural Claims Worth Investigating? Should We Want Atheism to be True?

Intimation of Elsewhere Ignored” by Maverick Philosopher

  • The author argues that nonbelievers who have a mystical or religious experience should find those experiences worth investigating.
  • [Editor’s Note (Lowder): I agree with Maverick Philosopher.]

God and Wonderdad: A Final Discussion of Antitheism” by Randal Rauser

  • The author argues that all of us ought to hope that theism is true.
  • [Editor’s Note (Lowder): I think Rauser’s analogy is excellent and I agree with the point he makes.]

Atheism and Public Relations

Yep, This Will Make Everything Better” by Hemant Mehta

  • The author criticizes American Atheists’ Dave Silverman for his rather tactless post on Facebook about Islam and Mohammed.
  • [Editor’s Note (Lowder): I agree with pretty much everything in Mehta’s post.]

Do Some Atheist Philosophers Criticize a Straw Man Version of Cosmological Arguments?

Meta-Sophistry” by Edward Feser: among other things, Feser claims that “certain atheist philosophers ritualistically” misrepresent cosmological arguments for God’s existence by suggesting they rely upon a premise which says, “Everything has a cause.” Using that article, that article’s combox, and linked articles, we can summarize the purported violators as follows:

  • Alleged examples of this error in articles published in the Secular Web, including Theodore Schick, Dan Barker, and Adolf Grünbaum: see here
  • Alleged examples of this error in articles published elsewhere, by such authors as Daniel Dennett, Robin Le Poidevin, Graham Priest, Michael Martin, Bertrand Russell, Simon Blackburn: see here
  • [Editor’s Note (Lowder): I haven’t taken the time to investigate Feser’s claim.]

bookmark_borderThe Definition of Atheism, the Anal-Retentive Defense of Etymological Purism, and Linguistic Relativism

Back when I was the moderator of the USENET newsgroup alt.atheism.moderated, I used to debate the definition of atheism and I used to defend the atheism as the lack of belief position. I’m persuaded, however, by Ted Drange that by default we should define our terms in a way which matches ordinary usage. Ordinary usage of the word “atheism” is that it means the belief that God does not exist. I see no benefit whatsoever to the proposal that nontheists should spend their limited time on trying to convince people both that (a) atheism is rational and (b) that they should use the word atheism in a different way, as opposed to merely focusing on (a).

Among professional philosophers, including self-identified atheist philosophers, probably the majority viewpoint is that atheism is the belief that there is no God and agnosticism is the lack of belief in God’s existence and God’s nonexistence. (Notable exceptions would be Michael Martin, Antony Flew, and Keith Parsons.) When professional philosophers want an umbrella term to group together people who believe God does not exist with the people who merely lack belief, probably the majority of them use the term “nontheist.”
For the record, I am fully aware of how condescending it can come across when person A says, “I’m an X,” and person B says, “No, you’re not. You’re a Y.” In other words, who am I to tell people how they should self-identify? In response, I would point out the following.

(1) I think people have the right to label themselves however they wish; I am not making a normative or ethical issue out of this. In other words, I’m not saying nontheists have an ethical requirement to use the word atheist consistently with ordinary usage.

(2) I am suggesting as a matter of strategy and “resource management” that there are much better uses of our time than an anal-retentive defense of etymological purism, i.e., the “but the greek roots of atheism, a + theism, mean literally without theism” defense. The meaning of words can and do change over time. If the meaning of “atheism” has changed from its Greek roots, then so be it.

Instead of focusing on etymology, I suggest a more pragmatic approach. With respect to the definition of atheism, I think we have a situation where two people who speak English and use the same words (e.g., belief, God, atheism, etc.) are effectively speaking two different languages. A self-identified ‘atheist’ and theist may even think they have a disagreement because superficially it seems they are speaking the same language, but they’re not. Because they’re not speaking the same language, we must distinguish the labels we assign to various positions from the positions themselves.

Imagine the following conversation:

Self-Identified ‘Atheist’: I’m an atheist.

Theist: Oh, so you believe that God does not exist. What’s your evidence for the nonexistence of God?

Self-Identified ‘Atheist’: No, I lack the belief that God exists. The lack of belief that God exists does not require any justification unless we first are given some reason to hold that belief.

Theist: No, you’re re-defining words. Atheism is the belief God does not exist.

Rather than continue beating a dead horse, you then try this approach:

Self-Identified ‘Atheist’: We’re using the same words in different ways. Based on how you define the word atheist, then I’m not an atheist; I’m an agnostic. Based on how I define the word atheist, however, I am an atheist. If we’re going to have real dialogue rather than just the illusion of communication, we’re going to have to agree on a set of terminology for the discussion.

Theist: [at this point the theist will either insist on his terminology or be willing to adopt yours; either way, the difference in terminology will be explicitly acknowledged by both sides and real communication will be possible.]

The point is that there is rarely much value in debating definitions, but real dialogue is possible if one of the parties is willing to state their position in terms of the definitions the other party accepts. As Andrew Kirk pointed out, “This is no different to learning a new language, or even a local dialect, and then using it rather than your own native dialect, to aid communication between yourself and a speaker of that dialect.”

I think the main obstacle to taking this sort of pragmatic approach is an unstated (and probably unconscious) assumption of what I will call “linguistic objectivism,” the idea that the truth of definitions of words does not depend upon the subject states (beliefs, desires, etc.) of persons. I cannot even imagine how linguistic objectivism could be true. If it even makes sense to talk about something being the ‘correct’ definition of a word, it seems to me that could only be the case in a relative sense. In other words, to borrow terminology from ethics and apply it to linguistics, I’m suggesting we should drop the pretense of ‘linguistic objectivism’ and instead be ‘linguistic relativists’: we should recognize that linguistics are relative to different cultures and different times.

Indeed, to press Kirk’s analogy all the way, what etymological purists about the “atheism is the lack of belief that God exists” definition are doing is equivalent to an American going deep into Mexico to a city that is not a tourist town, and then being hellbent on the fact that the Mexican locals must speak English, despite the fact that he is, quite literally, on their turf. The point is that, everything else held equal, it seems odd, if not presumptuous, for a group representing a minority linguistic tradition or culture, to insist that the majority linguistic tradition or culture submit to the minority group’s linguistic norms. (Here I am assuming that “atheism,” regardless of how it is defined, is the minority position.)