Atheism and Theism as Model Choices

One way to think about the comparative rationality of atheism and theism is to treat atheism as the rational default. After all, atheism postulates no God, theism does, and so theism bears the burden of proofs, especially because God’s existence is extraordinary or random postulate.

That’s the wrong way to think about the rationality of theistic belief. Following Michael Rea’s important book, World Without Design, I think of atheism and theism more like frameworks or research projects for making philosophical judgments. Many of the arguments for both positions involve claims that the other side sees as non-starters, and whose premises ultimately suppose that atheism or theism is true. What’s more, the frameworks are sufficiently different that they don’t even affirm the same phenomena to be explained, such as the existence of libertarian free will. In this way, we might even see theism and atheism as distinct philosophical paradigms, rather than simple competing propositions.

Atheism and theism are therefore competing frameworks for explaining certain kinds of “big” phenomena, like existence, order, morality, freedom, and consciousness. Both postulate an ultimate ground for everything. Atheism tends to ground everything in particles and fields. Theism tends to ground everything in a single agent, usually a perfect agent.

For reasons Mike Huemer outlines, simplicity does not settle fundamental philosophical problems, and I think that extends to atheism and theism. Which view is simpler? Postulating a single perfect agent that grounds all kinds of phenomena? Or particles and fields? On the one hand, atheism usually says that there is one kind of thing (matter/energy), whereas theism has two kinds of thing (matter/energy and mentality). On the other hand, theism has one grounding object, whereas atheism has many grounding objects. So which is simpler? I think theism is, but it’s not obvious.

So then how do we assess the rationality of theism? We engage in model-based reasoning. List shared phenomena and determine whether they are better explained by theism or atheism. Then list the unshared phenomena, assess whether you affirm or reject them, and then determine whether they are better explained by theism or atheism.

To illustrate, here are some agreed upon phenomena: contingent existence, order in the universe, consciousness, empirical knowledge, suffering, religious experience.

And here are some (usually) disagreed upon phenomena: necessary existence, libertarian free will, objective moral facts, a priori knowledge, universals, objective life meaning.

Here’s my balance of evidence.

Agreed-upon phenomena favoring theism: contingent existence, order in the universe, consciousness, empirical knowledge.

Agreed-upon phenomena favoring atheism: suffering.

Agreed-upon phenomena that may break even: religious experience (some is consistent with theism, but the totality may be inconsistent with theism).

Disagreed-upon phenomena favoring theism: necessary existence, libertarian free will, objective moral facts, a priori knowledge, real universals, objective life meaning.

Disagreed-upon phenomena favoring atheism: ? [atheists belief in less stuff, so it’s perhaps not significant that this category is empty, but feel free to fill in the gaps]

For me, the theistic model explains more phenomena that theists and atheists agree upon. I admit that suffering favors atheism, but not so much that it overrides the explanatory power of the other factors, especially order in the universe. I think the probability of suffering on atheism is like 99.99%, and on theism, it is well under 50%. [The skeptical theist reply convinces me that suffering is not very improbable on theism, since we don’t know God’s reasons. Plus, if everyone goes to heaven, every life has infinite worth, so suffering is always an infinitely small portion of one’s life.] But I think the probability of order on theism is 99%, and order on atheism is something like 10^-10. [Those are the odds the cosmic fine-tuning argument gives us, and that’s being generous to atheism.]

I think I have good arguments that the disagreed upon phenomena are real, and I think it is  clear that these phenomena make more sense on theism, but I understand that atheists will not be as moved by these arguments.

So from my epistemic point of view, theism is supremely rational as a modeling choice. It’s a way of looking at the world that makes a whole lot of phenomena seem natural, coherent, and unsurprising vis-a-vis the main intellectual alternative of atheism. I think theistic argumentation is sufficiently strong that atheists will have trouble assigning theism a very low probability, but I don’t think that atheism is an unreasonable view. It’s not something that has to be proven. It’s a modeling choice, and I get why people choose it.

But atheists should see theism as a modeling choice, and not treat theism as irrational because it is not subject to proof.

Abortion, Fetal Personhood, and Artificial Intelligence

Part of the point of this blog is to make people with different perspectives more comprehensible to one another. That’s hard when it comes to abortion, so I tried to think up a case that would put each side in the other’s shoes. Here goes.

Imagine, as many of you believe, that one day we will have sentient artificial intelligence. Also imagine, as will certainly be true, that many people will deny that the AIs are sentient when they arrive and perhaps long after that. This will be understandable to some extent. It’s hard to determine whether AI are sentient since we don’t even know what brain states correlate with consciousness yet, so it’s hard to know if artificial neural networks will be conscious either. And even if we did learn what consciousness corresponds to in the brain, that may not bear on whether artificial neural networks can be conscious. The arguments for and against AI consciousness will end up being metaphysical in character and very hard to resolve. Good people on both sides of the debate will be honestly convinced that they are correct. And they will have serious philosophical arguments about the nature of persons and consciousness to back them up.

That’s kind of how the abortion debate is now, except the groups who believe in personhood are flipped. Today, progressives usually deny fetal personhood and conservatives usually affirm it. But in the future, progressives will affirm artificial personhood and conservatives will want to deny it.

So now let’s imagine a debate between a “pro-life” progressive who wants to protect artificial life, and a “pro-choice” conservative who wants to allow people to erase artificial life if it significantly hampers their freedom.

Imagine that the artificial intelligences can take a physical form, and appear human. Also imagine that, for whatever reason, they often follow humans around, innocently, but in ways that prove to be burdensome. Every once in a while, the robots get in someone’s way, such as when they’re driving. And in a few cases, the threats they pose are deadly. So, some humans periodically decide to run the robots over, or break them just to end the burden and harassment. Sure, the robots sort of seem human, some of us reason, but they’re probably not, so there’s probably nothing wrong with running a few of them over and crushing them. They’re not persons.

Now imagine that, in time, pro-artificial-life progressives start to protest at the places where the robots frequently get run over. In some cases, they place blockades in the way, and in still other cases, they hire police to do likewise. And then imagine that this issue becomes political. Progressives start to care intensely about protecting artificial life, and conservatives become intensely committed to allowing people the freedom to run the robots down when it is necessary, and when the choice is a hard one.

Let’s also imagine some of the same kinds of debates arise. Let John be a pro-AI-life progressive, and Reba a pro-AI-choice conservative.

John: “I think these robots are alive. I think they have souls. And I think we shouldn’t kill them by the thousands, even when they pose real risks to people and even in cases where we really need to run them over. They’re people after all, just like us.”

Reba: “I’m not sure you appreciate how badly these robots harass and endanger people. Sure, they don’t mean to harass; they’re pretty innocent seeming. But they’re also burdensome, and you’re telling us that we have to tolerate their constant presence based solely on your weird religious theory that robots are sentient, when that’s just crazy. I mean, c’mon, they’re robots. Haven’t you read that important article by John Searle on the Chinese Room? Didn’t that refute things once and for all?” [Readers: if you think that’s silly, compare the use of Judith Thomson’s article defending abortion.]

John: “I didn’t share the base intuitions in the Searle article. And, come on, surely it is significant that the artificial neutral networks are functionally equivalent to ours.”

Reba: “But mental states aren’t the same as functional states! They’re just really good consciousness simulators! And you’re trying to tell people what to do with their lives, to pay severe social and physical costs, just to preserve these weird creatures that are kind of like humans, but really just resemble them?”

John: “Look, I know I’m not going to convince you that mental states supervene on functional states; and you’re never going to convince me that dualism is true. The arguments are hard, we’ve had them for centuries, and we didn’t get anywhere when we used to debate whether fetuses had souls before perfect contraception and artificial wombs made abortion disappear. But I’m still convinced, very convinced, that these robots are alive, that they’re just like us on the inside. And I have to do what I can, even vote for bad politicians, in order to save the robots from being destroyed.”

Reba: “The thing that frustrates me is that it seems like you just don’t care about humans very much, you just don’t respect our choices or our rights. Sometimes we need to get to the hospital, and sometimes we need to get home to attend to a family emergency. You’re talking about putting up roadblocks, big restrictions on our liberties, liberties without which we might suffer, and in some cases, die.”

John: “I know it’s a risk, but we will save robotic life!”

Reba: “I’m concerned your primary aim is to control people. You just don’t seem to care about our welfare.”

John: “I don’t want to control humans! I want to save AIs!”

Reba: “You just don’t get it, do you John? You need to trust humans, respect humans, believe humans.”

John: “You’re just not hearing me anymore. I know I’m putting restrictions on carbon-based people, and I hate that, but it is the only way to stop you from killing silicon-based people by the thousands. I mean, since 2100, pro-choice laws allowing carbon-based people to kill artificial life have led to the annihilation of 40 million robotic lives. That’s one of the great moral horrors of the twenty-second century!”

Reba: “Ugh, you’re so dramatic. I can’t believe you’d compare us running over assemblages of robotic parts to slavery or the Holocaust.”

John: “I’m never going to convince you. Maybe I’ll just shock people into listening by showing them big pictures of robots being torn apart, or movies of them screaming as they die.”

Reba: “That’s really offensive, putting people through all that. You might traumatize a victim, you know.”

John: “I have to convince someone, somehow. Maybe I’ll even have to vote for Barron Cyber-Trump III just to stop you.”

Many pro-AI progressives will be strongly tempted to get in the way of humans who feel the need to disassemble, disable, or destroy the robots that constantly harass and sometimes endanger them. And that will involve interfering with the liberty of humans, since keeping the robots alive is of the greatest moral importance. And many anti-AI conservatives will tend to prioritize the interests and worth of humans, and deny the personhood and value of AI. At some point, we’re going to have another big disagreement about who counts as a person, and when it comes to AI, progressive and conservative opinion is likely to reverse. But once you put yourself in this future mindset, you may find yourself a bit more sympathetic to how the other side sees things.

Maybe that helps. Maybe not. But it was worth a shot.

Chik-fil-a, Hate, and Moral Error

Chik-fil-a has made a major decision. They will no longer support the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Salvation Army in order to avoid being associated with groups that are “anti-LGBT.” In this post, I want to explore the ethics of the decision to divest. One line I hear from supporters of CFA’s decision is that people should not support the Salvation Army because it has an incorrect and harmful view of the moral permissibility of LGBT relationships. Because the Salvation Army opposes those relationships, and discourages them among their members, it should be subject to social sanction and should lose the support of good people who care about stopping discrimination against LGBT persons. So people concerned with equality should find other groups to support, and if Chik-fil-a cares about equality, then it should find other groups to support as well.

Let’s abstract from the details of the case and consider a decision to support two different groups, both of which are mistaken about the moral truth with respect to some important issue. Call them Innocent Inc. and Culpability Corp.

Innocent Inc. is a charitable organization that does a lot of good for the poor. It is mistaken about important moral claim A, though innocently. If Innocent Inc. did not see itself as having good reason to hold ~A, then it would hold A. Its support for ~A is not based in animus, only mistaken argument and tradition. Also, Innocent Inc.’s mistaken denial of A is not especially central to its mission.

Culpable Corp. is a charitable organization that does a lot of good for the poor. It is also mistaken about important moral claim A, though culpably so. Culpable Corp. would reject A even if it had good reason to hold ~A. Its support for ~A is based on animus, and not merely on mistaken argument and tradition. Also, Culpable Corp.’s deliberate denial of A is not especially central to its mission.

Now suppose that you affirm A, and have learned that two of your favorite charities, Innocent Inc. and Culpable Corp., both reject important moral claim A. This comes as a surprise to you. Should you alter your donation practices?

In the case of Innocent Inc., perhaps not. Maybe Innocent Inc. has been doing a lot more good than other charities you’re aware of. Or perhaps Innocent Inc. is closely connected to your community and you feel obliged to support it. Or maybe Innocent Inc. is just a very public presence which makes donating to it easy. The fact that they have a mistaken moral view not central to their mission, then, doesn’t seem to be such a big problem. Perhaps if they denied A hatefully, or if denying A were central to their mission, then divestment would be appropriate. But getting morality right is hard. We disagree about moral issues all the time, and very strongly, and so perhaps Innocent Inc. should be cut some slack. After all, we are all probably mistaken about some important moral view.

In the case of Culpable Corp., matters are easier. In general, we shouldn’t support people who bear others bad will, if we can avoid it. Perhaps Culpable Corp. does a lot of good, but bearing others bad will, hating them, spewing invective toward them shouldn’t be rewarded. Perhaps one should shift donations entirely to Innocent Inc. Or perhaps to Truth Technologies, which holds only morally correct views.

I think how you react to the Salvation Army depends on whether you think it is more like Innocent Inc. or Culpable Corp. If the Salvation Army is like Innocent Inc., then divestment seems less reasonable, especially if the organization is significantly dependent on your support or you have a special relationship with it, or some other sort of special connection. In the case of the Salvation Army and CFA, something like this relationship holds. They share values, have an ongoing relationship, the Salvation Army does a lot of good, its views on LGBT equality are an innocent mistake, and its views on the matter aren’t really central to its mission. CFA’s divestment seems most appropriate if the Salvation Army is like Culpable Corp.

And this assumes that Chik-fil-a’s leadership now thinks the Salvation Army is mistaken about sex equality. If CFA still holds the same with as the Salvation Army, then that changes things too.



CFA 2020: Assailing the Anthropocene Workshop

Each year, my department at BGSU hosts a workshop in applied ethics and public policy. Faculty take turns organizing the conferences, which are always excellent. This year, my colleage Justin Donhauster is organizing the conference, whose them is Assailing the Anthropocene: The Ethics of Disruptive Innovations for Surviving Our Climate-Changed World.

The workshop will examine ethical and sociopolitical concerns raised by “disruptive innovations” being developed to respond to impacts of the unprecedented environmental changes that mark the onset of the Anthropocene.  “Disruptive innovations” are broadly conceived to include novel initiatives for sustainable adaptation and social change, civil and ecological engineering strategies, applications of technologies for environmental protection and damage mitigation, geoengineering strategies, and bioengineering strategies (e.g. gene editing).  The workshop will bring together scholars working on projects on the ethical and more broadly normative aspects of such innovations.  The workshop will produce an edited volume containing essays that can inform debates, and policy and legal decision-making, about urgent issues like mitigating climate change damages, climate refugee justice, global urbanization, biodiversity banking, sustainable city design, and sociopolitical adaptation.

Please send submissions with your name, affiliation, and contact information, in MS Word or PDF form, to Justin Donhauser at with the ‘BGSU 2020 Workshop’ in the subject field. Abstracts are due by 10 p.m. on January 2nd 2020; we will notify submitters of our decision by February 1st.

Here’s a flyer for the conference: BGSU AppliedEthicsWorkshop 2020.

Direct any questions to Justin Donhauser at

Why are so many artists inclined towards (non-traditional) supernatural belief?

I have an experience I wonder if you share. I know a number of artists. Almost none of them are Christians, but none of them are naturalists. That is, none of them think that the world is exhaustively described by the natural sciences. The artists I know usually believe in some kind of cosmic order, that morally bad deeds somehow get punished supernaturally, that the universe can smile on someone who does good, that the fundamental nature of the universe is good and one of compassion and care, that there’s life after death (usually reincarnation), and that art partakes in at least something divine, understood very broadly. And they often love astrology, crystals, “metaphysics” and the like. This is surely true of many famous actors and actresses. Sure, there are exceptions, but don’t we often stereotype many artists as, well, odd in that they tend to have wacky, seemingly superstitious beliefs about the world? There’s a certain loveliness to these beliefs, as they indicate the artist is a person of goodwill and kindness. But whatever the case, they seldom think the world is a mere combination of particles and fields. There’s just more to the world than that.

Now, I grant that very few humans think the world is a mere combination of particles and fields, but the artists I know seem especially adamant about this fact.

OK, so perhaps I’m wrong to generalize, but suppose I’m right (and I’m sure some of you are inclined to agree). What explains the seemingly greater non-traditional religiosity of artists of various sorts? Here’s a hypothesis: there’s just something about aesthetic experience that inclines one towards thinking that beauty is something out in the world, that aesthetic judgments are in some way objective and that the sublime is somehow real. And perhaps the fact that beauty is implicitly understood as a kind of perception lends itself to metaphysical beliefs that would undergird those judgments, such as that beauty is a perception of the ordered goodness of the world. But perhaps that’s an overly intellectual explanation.

Here’s another possibility. Artists often seem inclined towards intense moods, both positive and negative. And we associate the supernaturalism of artists with those in good moods. But the depressed artist may be much less inclined towards plucky supernaturalism, and so more inclined to embrace meaninglessness, or some kind of (perhaps) overwrought reaction towards a “dead” universe. So maybe when people feel happy, they project that onto the universe, and when they feel sad, they project that onto the universe too. (Just to note: I know plucky naturalists, jovial Hume-types in the mold of Daniel Dennett, but for whatever reason, most people tend to think of naturalism as a “sad” belief system.)

A third possibility is that artists associate having these beliefs with being a good, open-minded person for purely cultural reasons. Good people have “good” belief systems, which means avoiding sad views like naturalism and traditional beliefs like conservative Christianity, which are seen as close-minded.

I also wonder whether there’s some connection between religiosity of the individualized, eclectic, happy variety is associated with openness to experience. Many, if not most, religious people tend to be lower on openness to experience, but that’s associated more with traditional religious belief.

In any case, I think there’s a real phenomenon that artists are inclined towards a certain kind of supernaturalism, at least moreso than the average person. And I’m curious as to what’s going on.

Can Nationalism Promote Trust?

I’m fond of the claim that liberal institutions can and do create social and political trust, but sometimes I wonder whether nationalism can too. Well, it turns out there’s now some evidence in favor of the latter claim, from a recent paper from Christian Bjørnskov, Martin Rode, and Miguel Ángel Borrella Mas. The process of nation-building surrounding secession in Catalonia probably increased social trust.

Here’s the abstract:

Consequences of social trust are comparatively well studied, while its societal determinants are often subject to debate. This paper studies both in the context of Catalan attempts to secede from Spain: First, we test if Catalonia enjoys higher levels of social capital that it is prevented from capitalizing on. Second, the paper examines whether secessionist movements create animosity and political divisions within society that undermine trust. Employing the eight available waves of the European Social Survey for Spain, we show that social trust levels are not higher in Catalonia than in the rest of the country. However, we find indications of a significant regional increase after secession became a real option in 2014. We argue that this finding is a likely result of the mental process of nation building, indicating that the formation of social trust may best be thought of as a stable punctuated equilibrium.

The authors argue that “Catalan social trust has not declined as a result of the secessionist conflict, as argued by the unionist side of the discussion, but has rather increased significantly after 2014,” a difference equivalent to the difference between trust in the Netherlands and Sweden. The authors, of course, don’t argue for nationalism or deliberate nation-building, but we do have at least a bit of evidence that when states and societies deliberately try to build new identities, or perhaps to rediscover old ones, that can increase social trust. This may also buttress the possibility that large-scale immigration will be trust-decreasing insofar as it undermines shared identity. I’m not happy about either of these results, as they make trouble for my thesis, but I’m obligated to report it.

When are Religious Exemptions Morally Required?

I’m writing this post as a reference for future discussions about religious exemptions.

Conditions Sufficient to Morally Require a Religious Exemption

I think religious exemptions from a law morally ought granted whenever the following four conditions are met:

(1) The law is endorsed by the subset of the population whose support makes the law democratically legitimate (something like a majority).

(2) The law places a substantial burden on the integrity or conscience of religious citizens (or secular citizens), or considerably sets back their fundamental interests.

(3) The exemption is feasible. Government can detect burdened citizens, exempt them without enormous costs, and typically root out fraudulent exemption claims.

(4) The exemption economizes on third party harms.

Reasons for the Four Conditions

The case for (1) is simple: if, say, a majority supports the law, then that’s usually a good reason to have the law. If they don’t support it, then abolish the law. No exemption is necessary.

The case for (2) is also simple: all persons have dignity and worth, and part of respecting that worth is respecting their liberty to live their own lives in their own way, to integrate their lives and identities with core principles, projects, and values. Laws that require people to violate their integrity or conscience or that greatly restrict the liberties to live out their own lives in their own way are, for that reason, unjust and undesirable, and so should not be imposed on everyone. Also note that this point is not restricted to religious citizens, but covers secular citizens too.

The case for (3) is also pretty straightforward. If the exemption is infeasible, say because too many people want the exemption, or the people who want the exemption can’t be detected, then that’s a good reason not to have the exemption. In those cases, either abolish the law or restrict the exemption.

The argument for (4) is complicated. On the one hand, we shouldn’t grant exemptions that cause severe harm, like exemptions from laws banning child sacrifice (a go-to example of exemption opponents). But all exemptions have the potential for harm, just as all rights do, so the mere fact that an exemption harms a third party is not sufficient to deny the exemption. Instead, the exemption should be crafted to economize on third party harm, at least to a large extent. So exemptions can impose harms on third-parties, but should not cross a certain threshold of harm, at least once we subtract the harm that comes from denying the exemption (since total harm is what’s at issue). But it’s going to be hard to specify that threshold in any precise way.

A second problem arises when we try to decide what counts as a harm. Obviously physical harms should be counted, and many psychological harms as well. But sometimes people cite a third kind of harm – dignitary harm – that isn’t the same as a physical or psychological harm. The harmful act is harmful simply because it is an affront to the dignity of a person, regardless of whether the person feels hurt or degraded. However, some people (like me) deny that there are dignitary harms over and above physical harms, psychological harms, or simple rights violations. So that’s going to complicate matters.

Some Illustrations

The Draft: To illustrate how to apply the conditions, let’s begin by considering the classic case of exemption from the draft. In at least some wars, most people support the war. Second, participating in the war places a modest or substantial burden on the liberties and interests of some persons. Third, it is feasible to exempt a small number of people. Objectors are easy to detect and there are few enough people wanting exemptions that the exemptions can be granted without large costs. Finally, while having fewer soldiers may result in some harms, the numbers are small enough that draft exemptions don’t impose third-party harms, and may even reduce harm if the exempted become medics. If they heal rather than kill.

Note that secular citizens can secure draft exemptions, so I’m not limiting these standards to religious citizens. Religious citizens on my view possess no religious privilege in this domain of the law.

Sacred Drug Use: We can also assess the famous case of Employment Division v. Smith. A majority of people presumably supported restrictions on drug use, including peyote, but being forbidden from ingesting peyote placed a substantial burden on the integrity of two men employed by the State of Oregon, and when they were fired, they were denied unemployment benefits, a further harm added to losing their job. The exemption is feasible. Few people have an incentive to lie about whether their faith requires peyote use nor can they usually successfully deceive the courts. And there is no real third party harm from occasional peyote use. So again, the exemption is morally required.

Vaccine Exemptions: A case where exemptions plausibly should be denied are cases of vaccine exemptions, since too many exemptions impose a grave physical harm on children, such that the exemption does not economize on third-party harms. If the number of people who wanted the exemptions were very small, the exemption should be granted, but now that vaccine denialism is being mainstreamed (sigh), denying exemptions is appropriate in many cases. That said, there are better and worse ways to craft exemptions. I think the denials should simply lead to forbidding families with unvaccinated children from using public services. No one needs to go to jail, no doctors need to be sent to private homes, etc.

Serving Same-Sex Weddings: Here’s a harder case – Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, wanted an exemption from providing same-sex couples with certain kinds of wedding cake or product. A sizeable majority of citizens in Colorado want restrictions on discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. These restrictions arguably place a substantial burden on the integrity of Phillips. An exemption for Phillips is feasible as well. It isn’t hard to detect such citizens because very few people request exemptions, and few will ask for them insincerely, given how unpopular they are. Further, the exemptions can occur with very little cost. So conditions (1)-(3) are satisfied. But what about (4)?

Clearly those turned away aren’t physically harmed, nor are they even financially harmed, since the vast majority of cake shops provide cakes to same-sex weddings. And I seriously doubt there is any psychological harm in being turned away by a single cake-shop among dozens, even if being turned away is offensive. No, the question is whether there is a dignitary harm in this case because someone is denied a service solely because of their sexual orientation and desire to be married. As I said earlier, I don’t think there are dignitary harms. One reason is that I think it is basically a misleading way of characterizing an offense, and I agree with J.S. Mill that friends of free societies must insist that people distinguish between harm and offense. The law must regulate harm, but must not regulate offense.

But even if there are dignity harms, I doubt one denial of service can harm a person’s dignity. The refusal has to part of a broader social norm that degrades persons over time. But that’s not present here. So Phillips merits an exemption by my criteria and the way in which I’ve specified them.

My purpose here is not to prove that Phillips merits an exemption, but to examine how to apply the standards I’ve set out. Since my standards take no position on whether there are dignitary harms, however, most people should be able to get on board with the four conditions I outline.

The Strange Death of the New Atheism

Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex has posted a fascinating set of reflections on the rise and fall of the New Atheism. Most readers of the blog will know that many New Atheists seem to have gotten caught up with right-wing or centrist politics, often with the men’s rights movement, opposition to political correctness, and so on. But Alexander argues that most of the atheist bloggers and authors were caught up with movements on the left, specifically what we might call the new social justice movement. He provides a lot of interesting evidence from search terms, bloggers changing direction, “atheism+”, and so on and so forth. I have to admit it’s plausible. And, indeed, it fits the pattern of many disagreements in American life getting sucked into our red tribe/blue tribe dispute, or what I call our cold, civil war.

A few observations to add to Alexander’s post.

First, if Alexander is right, and I think he is, by and large, it provides some support for the common Christian retort that atheism can’t really furnish a comprehensive doctrine or philosophy of life or “faith” because it really is a negative claim. Despite New Atheist retorts, it looks like they felt sufficiently incomplete that they began to take up new political causes, and now find meaning in pursuing those causes. We can now ask whether the new social justice movement furnishes a stable, enduring philosophy of life.

Perhaps it can do this. Though I have my doubts. The goals and successes are too fleeting, I think. You have to move on to fight a new bigotry pretty quickly, and you’ll eventually either run out of good targets and start picking bad targets. The nice thing about the great world religions is that they, by and large, identify the prime enemy as yourself and your bad character, and suggest teachings and practices to make yourself better. That strikes me as more enduring than any social or political ideology. That said, the new social justice movement has a similar kind of self-examination and penance practice, which is rooting out bigotry in the soul. The movement focuses on a narrower range of vices, but it does share this meaning-granting activity with the great world religions.

Second, the new social justice movement is way more effective at undermining Christianity than the New Atheism. The New Atheists tried to establish new taboos on Christian belief by establishing new taboos on epistemic irrationality. But we don’t really have taboos on irrationality. And most people don’t care about being irrational, so it only got so far. But the interesting thing about the new social justice movement is that they don’t have to invent a new taboo, they just spread an existing taboo onto theologically orthodox Christians. Lump orthodox Christians into the class of bigots, and bam!, you’ve got a much more effective weapon. Many people care a lot about not seeming bigoted and prejudiced. I don’t think this was by design. I think most New Atheists are well-meaning and their turn to social justice is sincere. But they have become more effective at achieving one of their ends than they once were.

Third, and this is a small point, but Alexander claims that the religiously unaffiliated are atheists, but that’s not true. Maybe they’re functionally atheist, but I’m not even sure this is true.



House of the Dragon Greenlighted – Some Hopes and Fears

We finally have some good news about the Game of Thrones spin-off shows. We’re getting House of the Dragon, which will cover the first half of the wonderful, but dark and gruesome history of House Targaryen’s rise and fall in Westeros (including the especially gruesome but awesome tale of the Princess and the Queen). Here are some of my hopes and fears.

Hopes: (1) D.B. Weiss and David Benioff (Dan and Dave) are not involved in writing any of the ordered episodes, which is great, since they’re not very good at writing when they lack detailed, quality source material. So the writing might be good. (2) There are tons of really good stories that can plausibly be told in single episode formats, with colorful characters.

Fears: (1) The show will still cover one hundred and fifth years of history, which means it could feel rushed despite having a lot of bite-sized stories. We may not have time to get attached to the characters. (2) To tell the stories right, HBO will have to give the show a ludicrously large CGI budget, which I worry will bog down the show in other respects. The reason is that many of the early stories involve lots of full-grown dragons. To tell the story of the Princess and the Queen, for instance, they’re going to have to have many scenes of dragons fighting each other. Game of Thrones sometimes got too bogged down in CGI and other special effects, at the cost of more important parts of the show. I don’t want that to happen again. Finally, (3), the Princess and the Queen is extremely gruesome, with children dying horrid deaths, and that must be handled with great care to make good television. My guess is that they will age up many of the characters.

Despite my fears, I’m hopeful, especially since Dan and Dave aren’t involved.

Kanye and the Politics of Jesus

One of the fascinating phenomena surrounding Kanye West’s recent conversion to Christianity is the kind of advice he is receiving from Christians that don’t know him. I worry about offering advice on such intimate matters when you don’t know the person in question, but there are some kinds of advice I’m pretty confident are problematic. I want to discuss one such case here.

Shane Claiborne, a well-known Christian anti-poverty advocate and social theologian, has encouraged West to avoid mixing his newfound faith with American right-wing politics, which I agree occurs far too often. The problem is that Claiborne recommends his own politics as an alternative; he wants Kanye to adopt a “philosophy of resistance.”

My own view is that the great idol in American social life is political ideology, left-wing or right-wing. We in effect have two golden calves tempting Christians away from living Christian lives and into something else – the blue-team calf and the red-team calf. Both calves are false, and both are dangerous idols because one can worship either one without realizing it. What’s worse, they reinforce one another. Looking away from the blue calf leads to a temptation to worship the red calf and vice versa.

I don’t think Christians should advise new Christians to adopt their politics right away, since the prime aim of a new Christian is to grow in the faith, independent of worldly ideologies and influences. So I disagree with Claiborne.

In fact, I’d go even further and argue that Christians at any stage of spiritual maturation should avoid mixing their faith with their political ideology. For one thing, Jesus’ life and teachings do not fit into any ideological category, so looking at the faith with an ideological lens will always distort the truth. And second, I don’t think Jesus Himself has an ideological commitments. In His human nature, He probably didn’t have one, and in His divine nature, He doesn’t need one. Instead, Jesus speaks what we might call political languages, appeals to important political values like virtue, aid, and peace that are different ways of characterizing and communicating about complex moral and political truth. And I think that’s by design: to help Christians avoid making politics their God.

So Claiborne is right to caution West not to worship the red calf, but worshipping the blue calf is not the way to go. I don’t think Claiborne means to give that advice, but his argument is formulated in a way that lends itself to blue calf worship.

“For Jesus,” Henri Nouwen wrote, “there are no countries to be conquered, no ideologies to be imposed, no people to be dominated. There are only children, women and men to be loved.”

No ideologies to be imposed, left or right.