Atheism, Psychological Predisposition, and Temperament

Do you suppose that psychological predisposition and temperament play large roles in religious and irreligious belief?

Let me suggest a dramatic example: a significant minority of the world’s prison population—perhaps 20%–exhibits psychopathy. Some of these people are, no doubt, atheists, but many more are theists. And no, it doesn’t mean that all, or even most of these—whether atheist or theist—will ever commit, say, a grotesque murder. But there are quite a few people in the world who do match the clinical definition for being psychopaths. And they are probably more than one might first imagine. Steven Pinker, for example, in the notes to his book The Blank Slate, cites a statistic suggesting that 1 out of every 20 adult males properly fits the psychopathic profile. And in the BBC documentary clip that I’ve posted below, the percentage of psychopaths in Britain is estimated at .5% of the population (1 out of every 200 persons).

Either way, that’s a lot of psychopaths. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know what their views on religion are? My bet is that they would break down into two extreme camps: they either claim to be atheists or fundamentalists.

Why? Because psychopathy is (in part) characterized by:

  1. habitually inappropriate or flat emotional registry to awful things; and
  2. outwardly logical thinking divorced from emotions.

It follows that quite a few atheists probably do take on the appearance of having characteristics consistent with psychopaths. As, of course, do religious fundamentalists. Just as the atheist can absorb God’s death with an equanimity that does not seem proportionate to the news, so the religious fundamentalist absorbs the existence of hell with an inappropriate registry. For most of us, I’d bet that it feels a bit out of kilter to encounter someone who believes that God is dead or that hell really exists and also goes about his or her day with relative calm or indifference to these matters.

But that’s exactly what atheists and fundamentalists generally do, isn’t it?

A lot of atheists and hell-believing fundamentalists appear to be registering the wrong emotion in response to what they believe, and they bring with them a calm logic that seems to have missed the emotional forest for the syllogistic trees. Kant, for example, famously heard a fellow philosopher make a very logical argument for the existence of hell, but on hearing that it would not exclude a child from the consequences of the logic, replied tartly, “My heart rejects it!” Disbelief for Kant, in this instance, was a matter of psychological predisposition and temperament.

Now let’s apply this to atheists. If you really believe that God is dead, it seems that the proper response to this is distress—or at least some level of adult sobriety—for it means, invariably, that the universe can have no larger meaning or purpose than the individual. Whatever else God is, God represents the one hope for human beings that life can have a lasting meaning; that life is not a big nihil—an ultimate nothingness grounded in chance.

And yet there are a lot of atheists—especially among those who call themselves “gnu atheists”—who seem rather pleased in their conclusion that God is dead, and delight in trying to intellectually unsettle and disillusion theists in their religious hopes.

If nothing else, there is a tinge of sadism there.

I’m not saying that, when a person reaches the intellectual conclusion that God is dead, it must lead to permanent sorrow, and displays of sorrow, or else that person is a psychopath. Afterall, the psyche has other ways of coping with bad news beyond the strategy of falling into total emotional flatness. One of those ways is cognitive dissonance: you know something is bad but you just choose not to think about it too much, and try to get on with your life as best you can.

But this isn’t what a lot of atheists do—at least not the evangelical “gnu atheists.” More than a few of them appear quite pleased to have reached the conclusion that God is dead, and it is as if they want it to be so.

Of course, atheists who express evident pleasure in the death of God may do so, not because they are grounding their rejection of God in a desire for meaninglessness, but because they perceive the monotheistic religions as themselves psychopathic—cruel in their affirmations of a sadistic God who tortures people in hell and keeps women and gay people down. There are lots and lots of sensitive atheists who obviously reject God, and take pleasure in that rejection, out of righteous outrage at the sadism inherent in traditional religion.

But there are others who don’t. And it makes me wonder about them, given the enormity of their rejection, why they do not seem appropriately upset. It reminds me of Camus’s The Stranger. In the novel, when Meursault’s mother dies, he is not visibly upset at the funeral, and this leads the attendees to speculation. What does such behavior mean?

Perhaps it just means that he felt what he felt. And so it seems that, whether you arrive at atheism via a lack of emotion (it’s just a logical conclusion that you accept) or you arrive at atheism out of righteous outrage at theists (you cannot stomach the fundamentalist’s callous hell belief or the liberal religionist’s saccharine and Orwellian God-talk), you have arrived at your conclusion, perhaps in large part, because of psychological predisposition and temperament. Likewise, if you are a theist, one of your likely reasons for being so is that you simply cannot stomach atheism’s nihilistic conclusion, and perceive in it a state of utter hopelessness—a secular hell-realm.

In either case, the stomach (or the curious absence of a stomach) plays a role.

This reminds me of what Damon Linker recently wrote about post-9-11 atheists (such as “gnu atheist” Jerry Coyne) v. post-World War II atheists (such as Albert Camus):

The members of the second, more humanistic tradition of atheism understood and accepted that although an individual may settle the question of God to his personal satisfaction, it is highly unlikely that all human beings will settle it in the same way. They recognised that differences in life experience, psychological makeup, social class, intelligence, the capacity for introspection, and temperament will tend to preclude unanimity about the fundamental mysteries of human existence, including God. Humanistic atheists accept this situation; ideological atheists, including our bestselling new atheists, do not.

Linker, I think, has hit the nail on the head. And I would note that there appears to be a very large genetic and developmental component in adult psychological makeup and temperament. It makes me wonder how angry or impatient we should be with those who do not accept our religious (or irreligious) views and attitudes. And it also makes me wonder whether the way we formulate religious (or antireligious) arguments has to do with unconscious strategies for modifying the behavior of others—others with distinct and inherited psychological predispositions and temperaments.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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52 Responses to Atheism, Psychological Predisposition, and Temperament

  1. Brian Westley says:

    If you really believe that God is dead, it seems that the proper response to this is distress

    Are you a complete loon?

  2. jean-philippe says:

    If we associate the belief in God with conformism, there are two ways to see it:

    Psychopaths are among the least conformist because they can act without caring about morality and conventions. They can do whatever they want.

    Psychopaths are among the most conformist because they can’t free themselves from their behaviour. They are slaves.

    I’m more tempted about the second view.

    Interestingly, Hare’s work about psychopathy doesn’t seem to touch religion.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hare_Psychopathy_Checklist

    In Canada, half of a loonie if 50 cents.

  3. Now let’s apply this to atheists. If you really believe that God is dead, it seems that the proper response to this is distress—or at least some level of adult sobriety—for it means, invariably, that the universe can have no larger meaning or purpose than the individual.

    Are you saying that there is no meaning to life without a deity? Can atheists not find meaning for their lives on their own accord? I prima facie reject his outlook. I find meaning in the results of my work, in my family, in my beliefs in the freedoms of individuals- in short, I find meaning in many places and the real meaning of life is to live it. I have no need of being given a purpose. Nails are given a purpose. Who wants to be a nail?

    I honestly don’t care if there is some psychological predisposition for one or the other side. I only care whether my beliefs are true. All else is fluff.

    • santitafarella says:

      Shamelessly,

      I’m not saying life has no meaning. I’m saying it has only individual meaning—the meaning you give it (if atheism is true).

      As for truth, I’m suggesting that, on the question of God, the snake bites its tail for each one of us. We draw the conclusions that fit our psychological makeups and temperaments—not because we have arrived, in any reliable sense, at a correspondence of our beliefs with reality. Whoever is right is right by accident, not by warrant. The truth is that the answer to whether mind is prior to matter is not obvious and our assumptions and starting axioms may be wrong. The world may be quite different from what you or I imagine.

      My solution for while we wait? Eat a taco, support science, read literature and philosophy, make love not war, and keep talking.

      —Santi

      • I’m not saying life has no meaning. I’m saying it has only individual meaning—the meaning you give it (if atheism is true).

        But you are saying that it is only purpose larger than any human which saves one from dispair, are you not? As one who does assign meaning to my own life and finds it liberating and wonderful that I can do so (I find the use of the word ‘only’ in the above quote wrongly diminutive), I am living evidence that this is far from the case. Your statement is based on a faulty warrant.

        Also, you presume that there is no way to reliable knowledge on the question of the existence of any particular god, that the answer depends only on our psychololgical disposition. This again is a faulty warrant, and demonstrably so. While it is possible to construct a god that is unfalsifiable (and why anyone would entertain the notion of such a god – a god indistinguishable from nonexistence – is beyond me….), many god concepts are quite falsifiable using scientific methods (the only path I know which leads to reliable knowledge) by looking at their attributes.

        For instance, it is possible to test the god concept attribute wherein prayers directed at aiding recovery of the ill are answered. The STEP and MANTRA studies did exactly this. Not only was this god falsified, it turns out (in the STEP study) that those who were prayed for and knew they were being prayed for had worse outcomes form bypass surgery. There is a growing body of literature (by this I refer to peer-reviewed scientific journal articles, not the trash that one tends to find on bookstore shelves) on these questions.

        Thus I do not accept that paths leading to reliable knowledge have nothing to say on these matters (in point of fact, I accept the opposite claim). Nor do I believe that the validity of belief in a god is a crap shoot. NOMA, Stephen J. Gould’s dubious legacy, is quite simply demonstrably false.

      • santitafarella says:

        Shamelessly,

        Would the discovery that you were the only conscious being in the universe have an impact on the way you felt about your own ability to make meaning of your (utterly alone) existence? What individual meaning would you make apart from other consciousnesses in it? Wouldn’t the task at least be made trickier? I would suggest that God’s absence is something that changes the meaning equation (just as the absence of other human minds, if that were the case, changes the equation). Do you disagree?

        —Santi

      • I note that you have made no comment on the ability of science to assess claims of the supernatural as I discussed above, nor on the burden of proof shift in my comment below. I take it these points are conceded? If not, do address them. I’ve taken the time to address your points and would appreciate the same courtesy.

        Would the discovery that you were the only conscious being in the universe have an impact on the way you felt about your own ability to make meaning of your (utterly alone) existence?

        You’re not slipping into solipsistic nonsence now, are you? Implying that the nonexistence of god is the same as being totally alone in the universe is a false equivalence. I don’t accept any god existence claims and yet I don’t feel alone at all.

        I would suggest that God’s absence is something that changes the meaning equation (just as the absence of other human minds, if that were the case, changes the equation). Do you disagree?

        I would say that it makes the whole thing a non sequitur, which is exaclty what I’ve always thought. One of the strangest things that religious people do is talk about things like ‘ultimate purpose’ or ‘meaning’ that is forced on us by some unsubstantiated ‘higher power’ as if they were statements of fact. The problem is, no one has ever demonstrated that there are such things, only that they want it to be so.

        You’re doing the exact same thing. In fact, your statement that atheists should be in despair without establishing that they are is just that.

        ‘Ought’ is not ‘is’.

      • santitafarella says:

        Shamelessly,

        You asked what I think of science’s ability to assess claims and who has the burden of proof.

        I’ll take a crack at the burden of proof first. In a court of law one is innocent until proven guilty. The burden of proof lies with the accuser because society has an inherent interest in protecting the individual qua the individual.

        But when you take the idea of the burden of proof out of the courtroom, it turns into a way for those who debate propositions to put a red herring into the discussion. If the matter is of genuine concern to you then, obviously, nothing is left simply presumed. When somebody says that a gremlin is in the lightbulbs making them shine (a standard example), it’s not so much the burden of proof that leads to the rejection of the claim—it is, rather, your background knowledge that already makes the claim dubious. You can explicate that background knowledge and explain why your theory of electricity is better than other hypotheses, but it is simpler to say: “the burden of proof is on you.” In other words, you already have an explanation for the lights, and if others propose a different one, they must back their claim with supports (reasons and evidence for their new claim).

        But the conflict between naturalism and supernaturalism is not like that. Both are metaphysical premises that empiricism cannot adjudicate. And so one has to look at the whole and decide what makes the most sense to you. People, having different temperaments, will draw different conclusions. Here’s an example:

        Did the material universe, and its laws, just come into existence out of nothing, has it always just been here, or did a mind—the mind of God—preceed matter? Who has the burden of proof on such a question? A paradox of some sort rests at the heart of existence. To suggest that naturalism is the default position is ridiculous. There’s a real puzzle there.

        It comes down to this: is mind or matter the first existent? Does mind reduce to matter? To pretend that we know the answers to these questions, or that one answer is already obviously better than the other, and that one can have the presumption of “innocence” and the other carry the burden of proof, is silly. Much as we would like it not to be the case, we don’t know, exactly, where we are or whether we are operating under the right set of premises. A lot of life is guesswork. The burden of proof, therefore, rests with one and all, and each of us has to decide what makes sense to us.

        —Santi

  4. Jorg says:

    “If you really believe that God is dead, it seems that the proper response to this is distress”

    No, not at all.

    • santitafarella says:

      Why do you say that?

      —Santi

      • Actually, Santi, Jorg doesn’t owe you an answer. You made an unsubstantiated claim in that statement and your question is an attempt – albeit unintended – at a shift in the burden of proof.

      • George says:

        Apologies for lateness! But, to take a simple crack at an answer, simply because many people do not think so. Distress may be one of the possible responses, but not a “proper” one, unless we are to take you as a standard of propriety.

        Meanwhile, regarding metaphysical views of the Universe, I am gong to respond with a not-so-startling claim that the naturalistic view is, a priori, much more coherent and logical than the supernatural one, on Bayesian principles. I would say that anyone with a decent scientific background would agree; most educated theists have retreated to pure “faith” and self-admitted irrationality of their belief. Within considered deliberative equilibrium, as someone like Nielsen would say, naturalism is a default position, since there is absolutely nothing to recommend its opposite outside of gaps in our knowledge. That is not to say that theism is certainly incorrect; the situation MAY change, but until it does, atheism is perfectly logical.

      • Jorg says:

        Oops. The above is from me, of course, using a different default…:)

  5. Paradigm says:

    Psychopaths are extreme sensation seekers. They are impulsive and into instant gratification. They almost always take drugs and like to have a lot of sex with different partners. It’s very hard to see how they could do any of this as fundamentalists.

    • santitafarella says:

      Jim Jones of Jonestown infamy (in the 1970s) was clearly a psychopathic religionist. Fundamentalism has more than its share of flat affected cons who, even as they are conning people, probably believe (accept the logic of) the religion that they are embedded in. They probably feel no guilt at their behavior and rationalize it as they go. My guess is that a lot of suicide bombers are psychopaths who intellectually, not emotionally, absorb the religion that they belong to. I do think it’s odd that it’s hard to find anything substantial on the Internet concerning psychopathy and religious belief. At least I have yet to find it.

      —Santi

      • Paradigm says:

        The vast majority of psychopaths do not have a religious bone in their bodies. Read Hare or some other expert in the field. They sometimes claim to be religious but it is just to get what they really want – sex, drugs, power or being in the spotlight.
        Remember that Jones was a drug addict and a sex offender. The cult gave also gave him power and attention.

      • santitafarella says:

        If your atheist theory is correct, and 1 person out of every hundred is a psychopath, then, in surveys, a significant portion of atheists who report that they are atheists may also be psychopaths. Hmm.

        —Santi

      • My guess is that a lot of suicide bombers are psychopaths who intellectually, not emotionally, absorb the religion that they belong to.

        “No sane person would be a suicide bomber.” Yeek. More of the No True Scotsman fallacy. All studies I am aware of indicate that this is nowhere near the case. They are typically well-educated middle class people that are strongly theologically and ideologically driven. They are the antithesis of psychopaths.

      • santitafarella says:

        Shameless,

        You’re not using the word psychopath correctly. A psychopath can be completely sane in the conventional sense of “non-delusional.” A psychopath can be, in other words, completely rational and in touch with reality. But what distinguishes the psychopath is the inability to register emotions. They might not feel the emotions that you or I would, say, in walking around Auschwitz in 1944.

        What you are thinking of is a psychotic. Psychotics are out of touch with reality.

        —Santi

      • You’re right – I was getting them confused. However, it doesn’t matter. The psychological profile of suicide bombers does not include psychopathy.

      • @Paradigm

        You are using the typical Christian “out” here. Even though psychopaths claim to be Christian, you are saying that they are not REALLY Christians. You claim they use religion to get what they want. By that same token, you say that almost all psychopaths are atheists – because to you that is what atheism means. This is an absurd line of reasoning. You completely discard what the individual says and instead use your own measure. Apparently, you deem yourself superior to even God. After all, God supposedly granted free will and allows evil to exist because of it. But, regardless of that free will, your mandate of who is what is the correct answer.

        Are you, maybe, attempting to define who is what by looking at their actions rather than their expression? By this measure, too, you are incorrect. The bible condones murder, polygamy, rape, and slavery. The examples are numerous, feel free to flip randomly through the OT – Leviticus springs to mind best, although examples are far reaching. I would actually claim that this is what draws psychopaths to religion. It is quite easy to find “justification” for ones actions within the bible. The bible requires much interpretation. Just as you may interpret it in one way for love and caring, it is incredibly easy to interpret it other ways to justify evil actions. Simply look at the last 2000 years of Christianity to see how this was done. Inquisitions, Crusades, Wars, etc. etc.

    • So people who take illicit drugs and/or engage in sex with multiple partners yet claim to be religious are really not? This is called the “No True Scotsman” fallacy.

      And for the record, Jones was not a psychopath. Psychopaths are unable to function socially. He was a sociopath and megalomaniac, and I have no doubt he believed every word he said. Same with Karesh.

      • santitafarella says:

        Shameless:

        Sociopathy and psychopathy are in the same family of disorders. Jim Jones used to brag of his ability to vulcanize himself—a characteristic of psychopaths.

        —Santi

      • As stated above, I was indeed getting my terminology mixed up. But this is still a textbook example of the No True Scotsman fallacy.

    • Addendum: Paradigm, since I do not use drugs and am faithful to my wife yet profess atheism, does that mean that I am really a believer?

      • Paradigm says:

        No, if you are a psychopath you are almost certain to be an atheist, but it doesn’t work the other way. Like if you are Chinese you don’t have green eyes, but if you don’t have green eyes you are not necessarily Chinese.

      • Heck, I don’t think it works the way you describe it. My point was that your logic is a prime example of the No True Scotsman fallacy. Until you provide actual data from peer-reviewed literature on this, I reject your “hypothesis” (read: baseless opinion).

  6. Paradigm says:

    Which reminded me of an awesome movie, “The Night of the Hunter” with Robert Mitchum. He actually sings in this one: “Leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms…”

  7. Paradigm says:

    That’s silly. Pathological lying is a core trait. Another is “need for stimulation/prone to boredom”, so they probably don’t answer surveys at all, and if they do they’ll say anything. Just look into a few case studies and you’ll see what I mean.

  8. Paradigm says:

    “You completely discard what the individual says and instead use your own measure.”

    No, I disregard what individuals who have a history of pathological lying say and use the meassure of their actions instead. If you want to take their word for it, go ahead.

  9. Paradigm says:

    If that individual is a well documented pathological lier I do. What choice do I have, should I believe the lier just because he is talking about religion? I can’t get inside his head and neither can you, so given that his words don’t mean anything we only have his actions to judge him by. That an peer assesment. Are there any other sources of information?

  10. knight says:

    You’ve committed bigotry in this post by equating “religious fundamentalist”s with those who think Hell is nothing to be emotionally concerned about, when fundamentalist doctrine is based on just the opposite. Instead of stereotyping, which is what you appear to have set out to not do with the beginnings of this post, how about LEARNING completely about what you are talking about. You completely did not study what Christian fundamentalists are, clearly, or you would not have made such a mistake. It’s as stupid as saying, “Professional chefs have no concern for the taste of food because…”, which is a big “WHAT?!” I hope you made this mistake in ignorance, rather than directed hatred, I doubt that though, since you specifically targeted them as opposed to saying, “religious psychopaths”. And I know how that term sounds, but you could simply clarify it by saying you don’t mean that all religious people are psychopaths.

    • santitafarella says:

      Knight:

      By being callous about hell, I don’t mean that there aren’t fundamentalists out there who are concerned for the lost. There are lots of emotionally sensitive fundamentalists out in the world (obviously). What I mean is that there are also a lot of fundamentalists who take hell literally and yet don’t register the enormity of it. They are okay with the thought that their friends and relatives will be in heaven while huge masses of humanity burn in hell for eternity.

      How sick of a disconnect is that? How could anyone enjoy heaven knowing that other people—most people—are suffering a Holocaust-like horror 24 hours a day? This would be like living in Nazi Germany and enjoying a night on the town in Berlin even as you know what is happening at Auschwitz.

      The great disconnect concerning literal hell belief is that it is grotesquely immoral: it makes God into a psychopathic monster and the saints in heaven callous allies approving or ignoring the crime. It’s akin to siding with Zeus in thinking that Prometheus (in Greek myth) deserved his ridiculously disproportionate punishment.

      —Santi

  11. Mo Trauen says:

    Your essays on religion and atheism are full of false dichotomies. You seem to think that atheism is motivated either by logic or by revulsion at the god presented by the Abrahamic religions. Do you not see that it is possible for both to be true? That a person can both realize that god is literally a myth–supported by no logic or evidence–and be glad of it because the character of god appears to reflect only the worst part of the human psyche?

    Even worse than that false dichotomy, which really seems to be just a veneer for anti-atheist bigotry, you assume that an atheist who is motivated only by logic is somehow morally blind. This can only be based on an assumption that god is good or that a normal person would want there to be a god. A moral person, however, must first and foremost be honest. Honest people don’t choose their facts based on how they feel about them. And, without honesty there can be no morality.

    http://goodatheistarguments.blogspot.com/2010/11/religious-worldview-is-antithetical-to.html

    http://goodatheistarguments.blogspot.com/2011/05/truth.html

    http://goodatheistarguments.blogspot.com/2010/09/religion-is-dishonest.html

    Another false dichotomy is that between the meaning alleged to be found in life for those who believe in the god myth and absence of meaning for those who do not.

    Why do you need more meaning than that to be found in our daily existence with those we love? Why do you need to believe that your life has cosmic meaning? The logical response would be rampant egotism on your part were it not for the rather obvious fact that you are simply repeating the nonsense programmed into your brain by the religious dolts who raised you.

    Believing that I am the hobby of some invisible magic being, who is apparently bored because he can’t get cable, doesn’t give my life any more meaning. In my mind, that notion gives my life less meaning–except to the extent that it might be flattering to think that the most important being in the universe actually cares about me and what I do.

    http://goodatheistarguments.blogspot.com/2010/10/meaning-of-life.html

    • santitafarella says:

      Mo,

      I’m not a religionist; I’m an agnostic. Atheism is a live option for me, so I wrestle with it and am critical toward it because I think it deserves more attention and critical thinking than non-live options (such as, say, Mormonism, Protestantism, Catholicism, or Islam).

      Is deism a live option for you? Do you think it’s just a teensy bit possible that mind preceeds matter?

      And, since you think atheism can be fully meaningful, what’s your take on Nietzsche and nihilism?

      And why are you concerned with morality at all? Why are you a humanist and not a Machiavellian?

      —Santi

  12. Mo Trauen says:

    Anything is possible. No one can ever be absolutely certain of anything, and atheism doesn’t require absolute certainty. The question is only how much certainty should one require before reaching a conclusion.

    http://goodatheistarguments.blogspot.com/2010/10/atheism-vs-agnosticism.html

    Deism is a “live” option for me only to approximately the same extent as the existence of Harry Potter is a live option for me.

    As I think I implied before, to me existential nihilism is a direct result of religious indoctrination combined with a dash of anti-social personality disorder (which, frankly, is nearly the same thing in the Abrahamic religions). Only someone who thinks that cosmic meaning is the only meaning that matters could take existential nihilism notion seriously. (I should add that existential nihilism can also be seen as a symptom of clinical depression.)

    I will suppress the urge to respond angrily to the bigotry inherent in your last two questions. I am an atheist because I am honest. I am moral because I possess empathy and the ability to think logically.

    http://goodatheistarguments.blogspot.com/2010/09/religion-is-dishonest.html

    http://goodatheistarguments.blogspot.com/2010/09/religion-and-morality.html

    http://goodatheistarguments.blogspot.com/2010/10/when-believers-accuse-atheists-of-being.html

    http://goodatheistarguments.blogspot.com/2010/09/religion-and-morality-ii.html

    • santitafarella says:

      Mo,

      In your choice of analogy (Harry Potter), then deism, obviously, is not a live option for you.

      As for me, atheism is not a conclusion I can arrive at without a good deal more evidence. I think of the question of atheism v. theism as akin to that of the question of life on Mars: people have opinions on the matter, but the experiments that might decide the issue have yet to be done.

      For example, the universe appears to be extraordinarily fine-tuned for the existence of life and minds appearing in it. If we do not live in a multiverse, then it seems more than a little plausible that mind, at the beginning, somehow preceeded (or coexisted with) matter.

      It seems to me that, given what we know about the physical constants, that atheists need the multiverse hypothesis to plausibly account for our collective good luck.

      But, at this stage in the science game, we don’t know if we live in a multiverse. Agnosticism about atheism and the claims of theists thus seems warranted (as a default position).

      As for morality, I get it. You evolved from bonobo-like ancestors, not sharks, so you’re not inclined (because of empathy) to behave badly. It’s a good argument. But, ontologically, there is no way to distinguish the evolutionary strategies (morally) of bonobos and sharks. And some people are sharks (Machiavellians, psychopaths, or Nietzscheans).

      My question is this: what makes you think that a world free of theists would be one led by humanists (and not Machiavellians or Nietzscheans)? In other words, what makes you think that atheism, should it win the day, will stay in the realms of the empathic and rational, and not give itself over to, say, social Darwinism or Herderian nationalism? History suggests it probably won’t stay empathic and rational (think of Stalin and the contemporary atheist leadership of China, which consists of people far more Nietzschean and Herderian than humanist).

      Where’s your blue bus really calling us?

      —Santi

      • Jorg says:

        oooh, just noticed this one:
        “History suggests it probably won’t stay empathic and rational (think of Stalin and the contemporary atheist leadership of China, which consists of people far more Nietzschean and Herderian than humanist).”

        And yet the majority of today’s industrialized nations in Europe, for example 9as well as Australia and Japan), do not seem to have that problem at all. Considering that many of their citizens identify as atheist (or, at least, irreligious) one would expect many such to be in positions of power and one does not exactly call those countries “oppressive” or “social-Darwinist”: in fact, they are closer to libertarian socialism that USA with all of its religious baggage.

      • santitafarella says:

        Jorg,

        Europe has a powerful humanist tradition; China does not. And China, by not playing by the same rules, may stimulate a competitive race to the Social Darwinian bottom (with, for example, the concerted application of eugenic technology over the next century). The next “space race” may prove to be a eugenics race.

        There was a time, not so long ago, that Europe’s social welfare model looked secure, but global pressures have placed it under a lot of strain. My argument is that this is a good analogy for how a nihilistic atheism, as practiced by the leadership elites in one country, may wear down the humanistic elites in other countries.

        Once you embrace atheism and see yourself as free of all external constraints, the temptation to behave, when in power, in a manner that is Machiavellian or Nietzschean (as opposed to behaving in a manner consistent with humanism or humane religion) is very, very strong.

        The whole banking crisis, for example, was driven by nihilist Machiavellians who respected neither God (religion-induced taboo) or Voltaire (the secular humanist tradition of justice and empathy for others also subject to death).

        What contemporary “new atheists” have yet to really grapple with is Nietzsche.

        —Santi

  13. Jorg says:

    S: “For example, the universe appears to be extraordinarily fine-tuned for the existence of life and minds appearing in it.”

    Actually, no, it doesn’t. That is yet another fallacy that theistic philosophers like to employ in their defense. Basic constants and ratios can vary over several orders of magnitude, in the first instance. Secondly, many of them are interlinked and it is impossible to vary one of them without affecting others. Thirdly, when theists employ the fine-tuning argument, they only vary one value at a time, which is not necessarily the case even when the variable in question are independent. Fourthly, many of the constants with astounding ratios used as an argument for fine-tuning have the values they do only because of our arbitrary choice of units (for example, h, G and c are regularly normalize din cosmology to equal 1: makes equations much more tractable without any loss of rigour).

    It is a bit too much to get into here, but I recommend Stenger’s latest book: The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning. There is some sophisticated mathematics and reasoning in there but nothing anyone with lower-division physics and mathematics should not be able to handle.

    • santitafarella says:

      Thanks for the book recommendation.

      Discover magazine, by the way, quotes a physicist as saying the same basic thing that I am:

      “If there is only one universe,” Carr says, “you might have to have a fine-tuner. If you don’t want God, you’d better have a multiverse.”

      The link to the fuller context of the quote can be seen here:

      https://santitafarella.wordpress.com/2008/11/16/intelligent-design-v-the-multiverse-discover-magazine-has-a-fascinating-article-on-god-belief-and-the-possibility-that-we-live-in-a-multiverse/

      • Jorg says:

        The second paragraph of the Discover article specifically repeats the errors I pointed out in the previous post. There is no consideration that different ariables (for example, masses of elementary particles) are linked and by changing one the rest will change accordingly, cancelling the effect (all mass appears to arise by the same Higgs interaction, and in the absence of the Higgs field all particles are massless). The constraint on the mass of the proton is likewise too narrow. In reality, it may fluctuate by an order of magnitude. To recap, there does not appear to be much of “fineness” in teh so-called fine-tuning. That in itself does not preclude the idea of the Creator, of course; merely makes him unnecessary.

  14. Jorg says:

    Santi: indeed and point taken. we can agree that a tradition of humanism and civil society is a necessary underpinnning for any liberal/democratic/libertarian-socialist (take your pick) society and has to be cultivated beforehand (consider Russia as another unfortunate example). However, that tradition is necessary in ALL cases, not just the one with atheists in power. Without a deep humanist/civil/humane tradition theistic societies can (and have) becoem rather hellish as well.

    • santitafarella says:

      Jorg,

      In my view, both atheism and theism have a dark side: both have the potential for justifying nihilism (and, historically, both have).

      The light side of atheism is humanism (based in the humane use of science and Enlightenment ideas). A representative achievement is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. See here:

      The dark side of atheism is Nietzsche, Machiavelli, and Francis Galton (Darwin’s cousin).

      Likewise, religion has a light side (as embodied in the Buddha, Gandhi, Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, Martin Luther King, Francis Collins, etc). Its dark side is fundamentalism and religious nihilism (kill them all and let God sort them out).

      The atheist sees religion’s dark side; the theist sees atheism’s dark side. And both are real, but only half of the picture. The reality is that a lot of common ground can be had by those who declare solidarity with one another on the light side of both philosophical positions. And the other reality is this: the temptation to the dark side for both is equally real and should not be downplayed or made marginal.

      Some of this has to do with inherited temperament. Loving people practice their atheism (or theism) lovingly and hateful people practice their atheism or theism hatefully.

      —Santi

  15. santitafarella says:

    Another way to think about this is the following: atheists think the dark side of religion is what is essential about it; theists think the dark side of atheism is what’s essential about it. And so they don’t make solidarity with one another as closely as (most of them) probably should. The real danger to humanity is Herderianism, Machiavellianism, nihilism, and other ideologies that deny universal human brother (and sister) hood, atheist or theist.

  16. Mo Trauen says:

    The burden of proof is on the one claiming to know the truth. Atheists do not have to make such a claim. We claim only that theists have failed to adduce sufficient evidence to make a rational person take their hypothesis seriously.

    When there is no evidence for something, the logical conclusion is that it doesn’t exist. Everyone follows this rule until the question of his or her religion comes up. That is when the religious become dishonest and suddenly turn the rule on its head.

    http://goodatheistarguments.blogspot.com/2010/09/burden-of-proof.html

    http://goodatheistarguments.blogspot.com/2010/09/burden-of-proof-ii.html

    http://goodatheistarguments.blogspot.com/2010/10/burden-of-proof-iii.html

    The universe is fine tuned? Or could it be that we evolved to fit the environment and thus it seems fine tuned to those who have the causal chain backwards because of assumptions drilled into their heads when they were children. This, by the way, is called the anthropic principle. Google it.

    Agnosticism would be the default position if the propositions were equal. They are not. An extraordinary, un-falsifiable claim has been made without evidence. In such circumstances, the default position is that the claim is false, i.e., atheism. “An invisible magic man in the sky did it” is not a serious theory of cosmology.

    Finally, you apparently haven’t noticed that religion was obviously designed by and serves the psychopaths among us. Religious morality doesn’t hold them back, it sets them free. It allows them to manipulate others and to dull the consciences of those with inklings of morality.

    http://goodatheistarguments.blogspot.com/2010/10/moral-insanity-of-religion.html

    http://goodatheistarguments.blogspot.com/2010/10/moral-insanity-of-religion-ii.html

    http://goodatheistarguments.blogspot.com/2010/11/moral-insanity-of-religion-iii.html

    http://goodatheistarguments.blogspot.com/2010/12/real-world-effect-of-religions-moral.html

    • santitafarella says:

      Mo,

      A court move—such as establishing the burden of proof for a trial—doesn’t work for existential questions because, when you raise an existential question, the truth is the whole. Nobody gets a free ride or has a prior right to win an argument by simply remaining silent. Instead, you look out at the world that you find yourself in and are forced to come up with some positive thesis: “Hmm, how do I account for what I see around me and my own existence? What’s my theory?”

      If you’re a theist you say, “God did it.”

      But if you’re an atheist, your response is also some sort of positive claim: “Hmm. Maybe God didn’t do it. Maybe atoms rustling in the void accounts for all there is.” Or, to put it another way, if you’re an atheist your theory is this: all that is came from matter that was once nothing or is eternal. Matter preceeded mind and produced it, and the universe arrived at its current physical laws and conglomeration of atoms by a contingent process (perhaps a prior series of multiverses or just the dumb luck of a single draw).”

      There are, in other words, many positive assumptions functioning in any declaration that one is an atheist, few of them subject to evidence, and many of them as jaw-dropping as theist claims (that matter and the laws of physics perhaps came from nothing; that we may live in a multiverse, etc).

      So, when you say of theism, “An extraordinary, un-falsifiable claim has been made without evidence,” the same is true of atheism. If atheism is true it is jaw-dropping in its power to boggle the mind; if theism is true it is jaw-dropping in its power to boggle the mind as well.

      Unfortunately, we’re embedded in the system we’re trying to account for and we live in an ontological mystery which is so strange and complex that any pat and definite explanation of it (God did it; God didn’t do it) invariably drives one into question begging: how does something come from nothing?; how do laws of physics just happen?; who made God?; how could mind come from matter? What evidence do we really have that the multiverse actually exists? etc.

      To my mind, the complexity and lack of ultimate evidence on both sides (for mind prior to matter or for a nearly infinite multiverse existing prior to our minds and universe and responsible for producing them) urges one to be cautious, to be an agnostic.

      —Santi

      • Mo Trauen says:

        No, one does not need to have a theory of existence. Nor does the atheist claim to know how the universe came to be. (Though some may try, this is hardly essential to atheism. Atheism is simply rejection of the notion that an invisible magic man did it.) Once again you have set up a false dichotomy. Once again you are parroting the non-reasoning drilled into your head as a child.

        The question of the origins of the universe is a separate question from that of the existence of a god. If you don’t see that, and obviously you don’t, then you are engaging in circular reasoning. You are assuming that a god has to be the answer, which assumes there is a god. You are also assuming that there is sufficient reason to include god in the set of possible explanations, which is false, unless you have assumed that god has to be the answer because you have no other.

        But, if you have no other answer, you have no answer. “Magic” is not an answer because one doesn’t solve a riddle with another riddle (sweeping dirt over dirt doesn’t “clean” the floor). In such cases, a logical person would simply say: “I don’t know”. One can be (and should be) an agnostic on the question of the origins of the universe without being an agnostic on the question of the existence of god. As I said before, they are two distinct questions.

        No one knows how the universe came to be. In fact, the question involves potential issues that are completely outside our realm of experience–because outside of our universe. Thus, any assumptions based on our knowledge or experience are unfounded and should be rejected until supported by scientific evidence.

        Anyone who claims to know the answer to the question of the universe’s origins is either a liar, a fool, or a madman. The atheist does not make such claims, only the religious do. Though it is interesting that they try so hard to argue that atheists make such claims–indicating that they know just how absurd their claims are and are grasping at straws in a desperate effort to shift a burden of proof they know they cannot meet.

        I strongly suspect that the origins of the universe lie in some natural process–not a magical one. Why? Because that has always proven to be the case. Diseases are not caused by curses or evil spirits but by microbes and viruses and other natural causes. The wind is not caused by the blowing of some Zephyr but by the action of the sun’s energy heating different parts of the atmosphere to different extents, etc. Every single time when former supernatural explanations became subject to testing by science, they proved to be ludicrously false. (These past experiences are part of the mountain of evidence that gods are man-made myths. Indeed, this mountain of evidence is the only evidence we have on the question of god’s existence.)

        I don’t “need” to be able to explain existence any more than I “need” to believe that my life has cosmic meaning. For all practical purposes, I exist and the people and things that matter to me exist. We exist as a a result of a sting of natural causal events–not supernatural–the details of which I cannot and need not know in their entirety.

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