• Strange Notions Strange Notions Strange Notions

From Faith to Atheism: An Interview with Doug Shaver

DougShaver

We've posted several recent interviews with Catholics like Vatican astronomer Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ, atheist convert and professor Dr. Holly Ordway, and theologian and convert Dr. Stephen Bullivant.

Although we have featured interviews with atheists in the past, such as with Dr. Michael Ruse and Chana Messinger, many commenters wondered when we would see more atheist interviews. Therefore, I issued a (still-standing) invitation for any atheists interested in being interviewed.

The first to heed that invitation was Doug Shaver, a frequent and insightful commenter here at Strange Notions. Doug has an eclectic professional and intellectual background. He was born a few months after the end of World War II to parents who were theistic but religiously uncommitted. Initially a religious skeptic, he was converted to evangelical Protestantism at age 12 and two years later became a Oneness Pentecostal. Over the next decade, his personal research into the origins of religion in general and Christianity in particular led him first into liberal Protestantism and, by his mid-20s, to atheism.

Meanwhile, Doug acquired extensive training in electronics during 6 years of service in the U.S. Navy. After his military service he earned a BA in sociology from the University of North Florida and began a career in newspaper journalism. He has also at various times been a social worker and worked in various trades including construction and auto repair. He is widely read in the history of science and technology, and in 2012 graduated from California State University, San Bernardino, with a BA in philosophy. He writes regularly at DougShaver.net.

Doug agreed to chat with me about his religious experiences including his journey from faith to unbelief.

 


 
BRANDON VOGT: You were a skeptic from a pretty young age, but then found your way into a self-described "fundamentalist" church and then a Pentecostal community. What was your religious experience like growing up?

DOUG SHAVER: Practically nonexistent. Religion was almost never discussed in our home, but that was due more to indifference than any hostility. Neither of my parents was an atheist, but they had little interest in any organized religion, and none at all in trying to instill whatever beliefs they had in their children. I never saw the inside of a church until my conversion.

What scant knowledge I managed to acquire about religion was from incidental references to it of the sort that one cannot avoid hearing in everyday life. From such references, I got the idea that there were several varieties of it, that in most of the world's countries one of those varieties was dominant over the others, and that they were generally based on various beliefs about a supernatural being known as God. I knew that I knew that in the United States, that dominant religion was called Christianity, its founder was a man called Jesus Christ, and the Christmas holiday had some connection with stories about his birth. I was unaware of any connection between Easter and Christianity. I noticed that calendars often had notations about things like Passover, Lent, Yom Kippur, and the like. I had no idea what those names meant, and for some reason it never occurred to me to ask anyone.

I came to understand, in a vague sort of way, that many people believed that praying to this God would sometimes make things happen that otherwise would not happen. It became apparent to me, probably by the time I was 8 or 9, that this was a kind of superstition, not relevantly different from believing that certain things would bring good or bad luck. And, if belief in this God was, as seemed apparent to me, what religion was all about, then religion was just another superstition. It seemed to be, in some sense, more respectable than other superstitions. I could see no reason why it should be, but in various ways I learned very quickly that any expression of skepticism about religion was likely to get a very negative response.

BRANDON VOGT: What were some of the strongest reasons you were drawn to Christianity?

DOUG SHAVER: Initially, it was almost purely a case of taking Pascal's wager. I was told that if I didn't accept Christ as my savior, I was destined to burn in hell forever. I could not help thinking, "What if it's true?" I was 12 years old and, for various reasons including a very dysfunctional family, I was an emotional basket case. I figured I had better at least act as if I believed, following Pascal's advice even though it would be years before I ever heard of Pascal or his wager. And it worked. Within a matter of days, or a few weeks at most, I was no longer just acting. I was believing everything I said.

After that transition, was sustained me was a conviction that it all really did make good sense. It just seemed obvious that because we were the creation of a perfect God, doing what he wanted, living as he wanted us to live, was not only the right thing to do but also the smart thing to do. It was the way to be happy, and nothing about my life outside the church was making me happy.

BRANDON VOGT: At age 25 you surprisingly realized, "I don't believe in God any more." Was that a sudden conviction or something that grew over time? What led you to that conclusion?

DOUG SHAVER: I'm sure it must have been growing for some time. My feeling at the time was not so much of making a big discovery as of completing the transition from asleep to awake.

What led me to it was the steady erosion over the years of the reasons I thought I had for believing in God. I don't mean specifically theistic arguments in every case, but more generally arguments for the existence of some kind of transcendental reality, for some force in the universe that was beyond empirical confirmation, or at least any direct confirmation that was not merely an appeal to one's gut feelings.

BRANDON VOGT: Atheists and Catholics alike will agree there are many bad arguments offered for God. But what do you consider to be the strongest argument for God, and why do you think it fails?

DOUG SHAVER: Keeping in mind that we're not talking specifically about the Christian God, I think there are two bases for a reasonable faith.

One is that belief in a god of some kind does seem to be almost a human universal. I am told that a few counterexamples have been documented in the anthropological literature, but even if they do exist, such outliers don't disprove the generality. Evolution does seem to have hard-wired our brains, if not for religion, then for some ways of thinking that normally produce religious belief. The hypothesis that this is because there is something true about religious belief is hard to resist, and I have a hard time blaming anyone who doesn't resist it.

I think it fails on grounds of parsimony, in that it needs to assume something special about religion. Those ways of thinking that support religion are demonstrably unreliable in many non-religious contexts, but they nevertheless are amendable to cogent evolutionary explanations. Our brains were designed by evolution to facilitate our survival by guiding our actions in an environment very different from the one in which most of us now live. So long as our ancestors took the actions necessary to stay alive, it didn't matter whether the beliefs on which they based those actions were true. This is not to argue, as Plantinga tries to argue, that the difference between true beliefs and false beliefs was always irrelevant to our survival. False beliefs would have been fatal in a great many situations. But not all situations, and in those other situations, religious beliefs could well have been advantageous even if untrue.

The other is the fine-tuning argument. There are all those universal constants that all had to be exactly what they are if we were to exist, and there is no apparent reason for them to be exactly what they are. But we do exist, and so there must have been some reason. Though this sounds superficially like just another God-of-the-gaps argument, it seems sufficiently different from the others to merit some attention. These constants are the bedrock of all other scientific explanations, and the expectation that they will be explained someday, when we have no clue as to where the explanations might come from, is not obviously any less an act of faith than that of the average theist.

As a defense of theism, I think the best that can be said is that it leaves theism on equal footing with atheism. For me, the only sensible construal of believing on faith is the acceptance of an assumption, or postulate, or axiom, or whatever you call a proposition believed without proof. We all, not excluding any atheists, believe some propositions on that basis. On that particular point, anyone who defends their theism strictly on that basis will get no argument from me.

But some axioms are more defensible than others, and I have a problem with any axiom that seems to be no more than a disguised way of saying, "We don't know." The fine-tuning argument depends for its force on the current ignorance of the scientific community regarding the origins of those constants. Because of that ignorance, those values seem to have been assigned at random: any of them, for all we now know, could have been anything else. But there is the rub: for all we now know. We most certainly do not know that any of them could have been any different. We certainly do not know that there was anything random about their acquiring the values they have. For all we do know, their apparent randomness is a measure of nothing more than the current state of our scientific ignorance.

We skeptics are sometimes accused of thinking that science has all the answers. This skeptic thinks nothing of the sort. I know very well how countless are the questions that science has not come anywhere near answering. But if it is silly to think science has all the answers, it is no less silly to think that it now has all the answers that it will ever get. The fine-tuning argument, it seems to me, is saying in effect: These are questions that science ought to have answered by now, and since it has not answered them yet, we can be confident that it never will answer them. I can see no rationale for thinking that these questions about the fundamental constants are of that sort.

BRANDON VOGT: In your experience, what's the biggest misconception Catholics have about atheists?

DOUG SHAVER: I am not aware of any misconceptions that are unique to Catholics. So far as I can tell, they are distributed pretty equally among believers of all persuasions.

I'm not sure I can pick one out as uniquely prevalent, or "biggest" in any other sense, but a good candidate would be the claim that there is something inherently nihilistic about atheism, that without God, we just have no reason to care about anything. Among those believers who acknowledge that some of us, nevertheless, do care about certain important things, I usually see one of two responses. One is along the lines of: "Yes, I admit that you do care, but you're not justified in caring. You can give me no good reason for thinking that what you care about really is important." The other is: "Yes, you care, but you learned your caring from us theists. You were born and raised in a believing society, and that is the only reason you care about anything."

On both points, obviously, I beg to differ.

Brandon Vogt

Written by

Brandon Vogt is a bestselling author, blogger, and speaker. He's also the founder of StrangeNotions.com. Brandon has been featured by several media outlets including NPR, CBS, FoxNews, SiriusXM, and EWTN. He converted to Catholicism in 2008, and since then has released several books, including The Church and New Media (Our Sunday Visitor, 2011), Saints and Social Justice (Our Sunday Visitor, 2014), and RETURN (Numinous Books, 2015). He works as the Content Director for Bishop Robert Barron's Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Brandon lives with his wife, Kathleen, and their five children in Central Florida. Follow him at BrandonVogt.com or connect through Twitter at @BrandonVogt.

Enjoy this article? Receive future posts free by email:

Note: Our goal is to cultivate serious and respectful dialogue. While it's OK to disagree—even encouraged!—any snarky, offensive, or off-topic comments will be deleted. Before commenting please read the Commenting Rules and Tips. If you're having trouble commenting, read the Commenting Instructions.

  • Another good interview. Thanks Brandon.

    It's nice to see an interview of a thoughtful atheist who knows about and respects philosophy.

    • Doug Shaver

      My respect for philosophy was a long time coming. For most of my life, I thought it was a waste of time. I guess I was in my 50s when I realized that I'd actually been doing it for most of my life. That's when I started studying it to find out whether I'd been doing it right.

  • Jim (hillclimber)

    This was great. Doug, thank you for sharing details about your life in such an honest and thoughtful way. I commend your open-minded and reasonable approach. Brandon, excellent work. Encore!

  • Indigent

    Thank you Mr. Shaver....will definitely be visiting your site. Thank you SN for presenting this interview.

  • Kevin Aldrich

    This was enjoyable to read. Thanks!

    I had the bias that atheism is inherently nihilistic. I guess that was because when I became an atheist at about the age of fifteen I was pretty much a nihilist.

    • Mike

      Yeah but atheists can only care bc they're "programmed" to care by evolution to some extent like christians but their strict evolution or materialism really can't account for that caring beyond the kind of caring that is temporal and based strictly on survival of the fittest and i don't think atheists deny that; they just say that that's enough for them and should be for us; but hitler got away with it and there are absolutely zero consequences for him to face, ever.

      • Kevin Aldrich

        I think it was Plato who realized way back when that it was worse to be an unjust man than to suffer from injustice.

  • Michael Murray

    Thanks Doug. If I had to pick the strongest two arguments for the existence of some kind of god I would have picked those as well. And rejected them of course.

    I'd also give some credit to personal revelation. Of course it's not an argument for me that someone else says that they experience god because I can reject it as a delusion or hallucination but I can see it might be an overwhelming argument for them.

  • Michael Murray

    As noted by Mike (Sample1) over on EN the link for dougshaver.net actually points to a .com site which doesn't seem to exist.

  • Jim (hillclimber)

    I think the interest in the near ubiquity of religious expression across all cultures is a great angle to explore. It would be interesting to see a post from a cultural anthropologist on this topic. Apart from any questions about ultimate truth, it would be interesting to see if any general blog-level remarks can be made about connections between social coherence and religious expression, with perhaps a few brief examples of how those connections work in various cultures.

    Come to think of it, Stephen Pinker's writings on the "psychology of taboo" might be a good place to start (the notion of "taboo" is just one small part of religion, but it is a very important and contentious aspect, and is therefore fertile ground for conversation). I think Pinker gives a fairly balanced view of why aversion to the "taboo" makes sense in certain contexts and not others.

  • Doug and Brandon, thank you both for an insightful interview. It is helpful to read how you think these things through, Doug. I appreciate your time, effort, and willingness to do this interview.

    • Doug Shaver

      You're very welcome, Stacy, and I thank you for the kind words.

  • Jim (hillclimber)

    Doug, I am curious on this point:

    Those ways of thinking that support religion are demonstrably unreliable in many non-religious contexts

    By this, do you mean that since excessive pattern seeking (or "overfitting the data", in statistical parlance) is clearly a bad thing in non-religious contexts, it is therefore not plausible that it would confer an advantage when expressed in a religious context?

    If that is what you were trying to convey, I agree, but I have the natural follow-up question: "Who is to say that the pattern seeking expressed in a religious context is excessive?"

    Moreover, the Biblical tradition is one in which man again and again grows too confident that he understands God, and again and again is reminded that his confidence is unfounded. In what sense could this perpetual pattern of "dying to [our understanding of] the Law" ever be considered overfitting? The very nature of the Paschal Mystery is that we must forever refine our model to avoid overfitting or underfitting.

    • Doug Shaver

      By this, do you mean that since excessive pattern seeking (or "overfitting the data", in statistical parlance) is clearly a bad thing in non-religious contexts, it is therefore not plausible that it would confer an advantage when expressed in a religious context?

      No, that isn't quite what I mean. In any context, to say that it is excessive is to say that it's a bad thing. Excess, more or less by definition, is not good.

      The challenge, when we see an apparent pattern, is to know whether it represents a real regularity of some kind. Sometimes it does, and on those occasions, our tendency to see patterns serves us well. It serves us so well on those occasions that, in general, we're better off seeing patterns that aren't real than failing to see patterns that are real. For most of our history, we didn't have the luxury of investigating every apparent pattern to confirm its reality, and so we acquired a tendency to just assume the reality of every apparent pattern and then act accordingly. This was a good survival strategy. It was not such a good epistemological strategy.

      We were further limited, through most of our history, in our ability to identify the real regularities giving rise to the real patterns. When plagues happened, our ancestors would have noticed that people who had to be around sick people often became sick themselves, but it took the development of modern science for us to figure out why it happened and to learn the differences between communicable and noncommunicable diseases.

      In other words, we have learned how to supplement our pattern-recognition skills to make them work better, partly by recognizing those situations in which they tend not to work well and partly by scientifically investigating the real patterns we see in order to discover what causes them. The planetary orbits exhibit a real pattern that was observed in ancient times. Ptolemaic astronomy offered an explanation for that pattern. Modern science offers a better explanation.

      The problem I see with religion, in this context, is not so much that the patterns perceived by religion are not real. I'm sure that some of them are, but we can't assume that they all are. And even for the real patterns, the antiquity of a religious explanation, or the ecclesiastical authority of those who propound the explanation, is no reason by itself for that explanation to be accepted.

      • Jim (hillclimber)

        For most of our history, we didn't have the luxury of investigating every apparent pattern to confirm its reality, and so we acquired a tendency to just assume the reality of every apparent pattern and then act accordingly. This was a good survival strategy.

        I wonder if you really want to state that in such strong terms (?) I cannot imagine that it would have been a good survival strategy to assume the reality of every apparent pattern. If you are a desert nomad and you believe in the reality of every mirage, you are not going to survive for long. It was mightily difficult to survive in the conditions our ancestors lived in, and nature is very unkind to people who are too credulous. I credit our ancestors with a lot of sophisticated thinking for threading the needle through harsh and uncertain conditions that might have been a bit much for our (in some ways) un-honed modern brains.

        The problem I see with religion, in this context, is not so much that the patterns perceived by religion are not real. I'm sure that some of them are, but we can't assume that they all are.

        I basically agree with this. Even within Catholicism, we have (and always have had) great debates about what is truly part of the deposit of faith versus what is open to reinterpretation with the aid of the Holy Spirit. Witness the very legitimate debates around the current synod on the family.

        • Doug Shaver

          For most of our history, we didn't have the luxury of investigating every apparent pattern to confirm its reality, and so we acquired a tendency to just assume the reality of every apparent pattern and then act accordingly. This was a good survival strategy.

          I wonder if you really want to state that in such strong terms (?) I cannot imagine that it would have been a good survival strategy to assume the reality of every apparent pattern. If you are a desert nomad and you believe in the reality of every mirage, you are not going to survive for long.

          I'm trying to express a rather complex idea in brief and simple terms, and I'll plead guilty to some oversimplification.

          Sometimes reality presents us with inconsistent patterns, and our ancestors obviously needed the ability to resolve the conflicts. One pattern is that when you see something, it's usually actually there. But the desert nomads among our ancestors would have noticed another pattern: When you see water in the desert, it often isn't actually there.

          And, some patterns are more complex than others. Maybe whenever A happens B also happens, except when C also happens along with A, in which case D happens instead of B. Our ancestors had to be able to figure out that sort of thing, too.

          It was mightily difficult to survive in the conditions our ancestors lived in, and nature is very unkind to people who are too credulous.

          Yes, but how credulous is too credulous? Nature would have been just as unkind to excessive skepticism. If I'm out in the woods and hear a noise that could be a predator, it isn't likely to be a good idea for me to wait for visual confirmation before taking evasive action.

    • Doug Shaver

      the Biblical tradition is one in which man again and again grows too confident that he understands God, and again and again is reminded that his confidence is unfounded. In what sense could this perpetual pattern of "dying to [our understanding of] the Law" ever be considered overfitting?

      The only biblical tradition I ever learned was from evangelical Protestants, and that isn't what they say it is. The biblical tradition, according to evangelicals, is that man again and again rebels against God, not because of overconfidence in his understanding of God but just out a pure desire to disobey God's commandments.

      I'm not enough of a biblical scholar to know whether the evangelicals are right about that. I'll suppose for the sake of discussion that the biblical tradition is as you say. That doesn't mean that it fits the historical reality any better than the evangelical version. I see the Bible as a record of the religious thinking of its authors and of the communities in which the writings were preserved and transmitted, and I don't see religious thinking as always being about trying to fit metaphysical theories to empirical data. I think the creation and transmission of religious literature, in particular, is quite a bit more complicated than that.

      The very nature of the Paschal Mystery is that we must forever refine our model to avoid overfitting or underfitting.

      I have never heard the Paschal Mystery explained in those or any similar terms. You'll have to elaborate a bit before I can comment on that observation.

      • Jim (hillclimber)

        The biblical tradition, according to evangelicals, is that man again and again rebels against God, not because of overconfidence in his understanding of God but just out a pure desire to disobey God's commandments.

        I don't think the Bible talks about overconfidence and disobedience to God as if they are two different things. Consider, for example, Isaiah 1:11-13. Think of those who brought their "multitude of sacrifices" to the Lord: were they driven by an overt desire to disobey God? On the contrary (in my imagining, at least) they were trying, albeit in a methodical, overconfident, complacent way, to please God. That is their sin: not they aren't trying to please God, but that they aren't approaching the task with enough humility. If they approached the task with humility they would have perceived that what God truly wanted was to "make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan's plea, defend the widow".

        I think one could say similar things about the pharisees in the NT, whose exemplary personal piety (a good thing in itself) was corrupted by a prideful overconfidence that they knew exactly what God wanted in every instance.

        I think one can reasonably ask whether overly confident theologizing (whether liberal or conservative, anti-Catholic or pro-Catholic) is a modern form of "whole-burnt rams and fat of fatlings".

        I will respond to your other points in separate messages. Thanks. Good conversation.

        • Doug Shaver

          I will respond to your other points in separate messages. Thanks. Good conversation.

          Take your time. And you're welcome. I'm enjoying this, too.

        • Doug Shaver

          I don't think the Bible talks about overconfidence and disobedience to God as if they are two different things.

          One can cause the other. That doesn't make them the same thing.

          I think one can reasonably ask whether overly confident theologizing (whether liberal or conservative, anti-Catholic or pro-Catholic) is a modern form of "whole-burnt rams and fat of fatlings".

          If I were still a Christian, I would answer in the affirmative, though with some rephrasing. What you are calling "overly confident theologizing" is, I'm guessing, what I would call an overemphasis on adherence to doctrine.

      • Jim (hillclimber)

        I don't want to presume to summarize the central mystery of Catholicism in just one phrase, but I think it would be uncontroversial to say that the Paschal Mystery is all about dying to one's "former self", and letting God come in to raise us up to new life.

        I would elaborate the connection to science and theology in this way:

        The central, paradigmatic instantiation of the Paschal Mystery is (according to Catholicism) the historical death and resurrection of Jesus. But, on Catholic theory, everything that is wonderful in life can be brought into relation with that central reference mystery. When dead plants turn to compost and crocuses bloom out of the compost in the spring, that reflects the Paschal Mystery. When a person turns away from the pleasure of a harmful addiction and finds a new healthy way to live, that reflects the Paschal Mystery. When a man and a woman give up their individual freedoms in order to create a lasting and procreative life together, that reflects the Paschal Mystery. And when a scientist, or a theologian, lets go of his "pet theory" (obtained through some unintentional over- or under-fitting of the data) in order to more successfully conform his understanding to the truth, that also reflects the Paschal Mystery.

        • Doug Shaver

          I don't want to presume to summarize the central mystery of Catholicism in just one phrase, but I think it would be uncontroversial to say that the Paschal Mystery is all about dying to one's "former self", and letting God come in to raise us up to new life.

          OK. I don't think even Protestants would disagree with that. I don't remember anybody referring to it as a mystery when I was one of them, but I'm sure they'd agree that we don't really understand how it works.

          The central, paradigmatic instantiation of the Paschal Mystery is (according to Catholicism) the historical death and resurrection of Jesus. But, on Catholic theory, everything that is wonderful in life can be brought into relation with that central reference mystery. When dead plants turn to compost and crocuses bloom out of the compost in the spring, that reflects the Paschal Mystery. When a person turns away from the pleasure of a harmful addiction and finds a new healthy way to live, that reflects the Paschal Mystery. When a man and a woman give up their individual freedoms in order to create a lasting and procreative life together, that reflects the Paschal Mystery. And when a scientist, or a theologian, lets go of his "pet theory" (obtained through some unintentional over- or under-fitting of the data) in order to more successfully conform his understanding to the truth, that also reflects the Paschal Mystery.

          As an interpretation of Jesus' death and resurrection, I see nothing there that I'd care to argue about.

      • Jim (hillclimber)

        I see the Bible as a record of the religious thinking of its authors and of the communities in which the writings were preserved and transmitted, and I don't see religious thinking as always being about trying to fit metaphysical theories to empirical data.

        I strongly agree on both of those points.

        I think the creation and transmission of religious literature, in particular, is quite a bit more complicated than that.

        If by that you mean that there was more to it than a bunch of Israelites sitting around the campfire and trying to figure it all out, I agree. We (collective Biblical "we", including Canaanites, Israelites, Greeks, Irish, Americans, etc.) have engaged in a lot of deliberate campfire-style reflection and interpretation ever since Avram got the call to set out from Ur in search of something more. That sort of "metaphysical reflection" (broadly construed to include things like social self-understanding) is a big part of what made the Bible what it is. But no human has ever been in control of the overall process. The process was shaped by political wrangling, war, natural disaster, and devil knows what else. That is precisely why it makes sense to me to look at the overall coherence of the story of salvation history and to say that we humans ultimately didn't make this up. It was not in our control. The story chose us, not the other way around. The Bible provides the opening acts of this grand story that seems to me to be providential beyond all human calculation.

        • Doug Shaver

          That is precisely why it makes sense to me to look at the overall coherence of the story of salvation history and to say that we humans ultimately didn't make this up.

          I've heard from apologists before about the Bible's coherence. It seems to me that the only people who find it are those who read it with an antecedent conviction that it has to be there. A god could have inspired some of it. The same god could not have inspired all of it.

  • Thanks for that Doug. I totally agree about the fine tuning argument. I think it makes atheism less plausible because you have to suppose science will find something that it is not at all clear it will find. Kind of a leap of faith. Still, as a Catholic, I would not be at all surprised if science did exactly that. Most of the experts don't see it now but that has been true in the past about other seemingly impossible scientific problems.

    On atheism being inherently nihilistic I wish you would have tried to actually explain why you believe that is not so rather than just saying you are annoyed at theists for believing it is so.

    This is particularly true when you say evolution has reliably led humans to believe things that are false. If that is true about metaphysics then could it be true about morality? That is could moral intuitions that humans have had held deeply for all of recorded history be simply rejected?

    • Doug Shaver

      I totally agree about the fine tuning argument. I think it makes atheism less plausible because you have to suppose science will find something that it is not at all clear it will find.

      I don't think we have to suppose that. At least I don't suppose it. For all I think I know, science might never come up with a good explanation for why the constants are what they are. For me, unanswered questions are not evidence for anything except our inability to answer those questions.

      On atheism being inherently nihilistic I wish you would have tried to actually explain why you believe that is not so rather than just saying you are annoyed at theists for believing it is so.

      I didn't say anything about being annoyed.

      I believe it is not so because there is no reason for it to be so. If atheism entailed nihilism, then there would be a valid argument by which nihilism could be deduced from the proposition that God does not exist. There is no such argument, and therefore, atheism does not entail nihilism. QED.

      This is particularly true when you say evolution has reliably led humans to believe things that are false.

      I do not and did not say "reliably led."

      My point was that, given our current understanding of natural selection, we have no reason to suspect that evolution would or even could have equipped our brains with anything like a truth-detection module. It is a contingent fact, confirmed by simple observation, that we all do believe some falsehoods. Given the apparent facts of our biological origins, this was to be expected, and it is only in this very loose (and irrelevant) sense that one could say evolution "reliably led" to our belief in falsehoods: The alternative, that we would have believed only true things, was never a possibility.

      If that is true about metaphysics then could it be true about morality? That is could moral intuitions that humans have had held deeply for all of recorded history be simply rejected?

      It depends on which intuitions you're talking about. Each one needs to be examined on its own merits. If we have had a particular intuition for as long as we've existed, then there is probably a good reason for keeping it, but only probably. For almost all of our history, we inhabited an environment very different from the one we live in now, and the difference should not be treated as inconsequential when we're debating moral issues.

      • I don't think we have to suppose that. At least I don't suppose it. For all I think I know, science might never come up with a good explanation for why the constants are what they are. For me, unanswered questions are not evidence for anything except our inability to answer those questions.

        The trouble is that you can always go there. What would you say to a fundamentalist Christian we just don't know why there is so much evidence for evolution. It is an unanswered question. Yet unanswered questions are not evidence for anything except our inability to answer those questions. So there is no good reason to believe in evolution.

        The fine tuning argument does point to God right now. As long as there is no explanation other than God for the way the universe is tuned that will be the case. Just asserting that another explanation is out there is kind of weak. Yet we have not really had all that much time to find one. So you might suppose one might be found. Yet the longer that drags on the more you are looking like the guy who denies evolution. Science never proves anything. There is just more and more evidence lining up around one theory. This is not there yet but it has that potential.

        I just worry that science will come up with another theory and everyone will say they have somehow disproved God. So I would be careful not to call it a proof until the science becomes somewhat settled.

        • Ignatius Reilly

          This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!-Douglas Adams

          If the universe was not able to sustain life, we could not observe it. The observation of a universe presupposes observers, so any universe that we observe we will be able to live in. The fine-tuning argument fails to take that into account.

          • You can go with the multiple universe idea. It does mean you have to give up the idea that you reject God based on lack of evidence. You are actually accepting a far less plausible and less evidenced theory just to avoid believing in God. It is always your choice.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            I don't think I am stating any preference for the multiverse theory. My point is that any universe that we observe must be fine tuned for observers. We don't know why the universe is the way it is - to say that is it designed by a god for life ignores the fact that the universe is largely devoid of intelligent life and even on the planet we call home, we observe that life exists in spite of a very harsh environment.

            The problem of evil is enough to disbelieve in the Abrahamic God, if there is some fine tuner god, we have no reason to believe that that god is identical to the God of Catholicism.

          • I would not say we have no reason to believe it. If God exists then the next question is how can we know Him? Or it? It does allow you to approach the various claims differently. Knowing that monotheism is true makes Judaism, Christianity and Islam more right than other religions. They would be worth a second look. Is this God that we now know exists actually trying to communicate with mankind? Has He, in fact, been doing so for a long time?

        • Doug Shaver

          What would you say to a fundamentalist Christian we just don't know why there is so much evidence for evolution.

          I would commend them for their intellectual integrity, if they stopped there.

          So there is no good reason to believe in evolution.

          If they also said that, they'd be contradicting themselves. Providing a reason to believe is what it means for something to be evidence. If you nevertheless don't believe, then you're saying that it is not a sufficient reason. An insufficient reason is not a nonexistent reason.

          Any body of evidence is just a set of facts, but they are never the only relevant facts in any controversy. In deciding what we ought to infer from a particular body of evidence, we need to consider everything else we think we already know about how the universe operates. In a proper Bayesian analysis, this "everything else" is called our background knowledge, and reasonable people may differ as to what gets to count as their background knowledge. A fundamentalist Christian's background knowledge includes the proposition that the inerrant word of God contradicts the theory of evolution. My background knowledge does not include that proposition, because I don't believe in scriptural inerrancy and I cannot know what I don't believe.

          The fine tuning argument does point to God right now. As long as there is no explanation other than God for the way the universe is tuned that will be the case. Just asserting that another explanation is out there is kind of weak.

          I'm not staking my position on the assumption that another explanation is out there. If the fine-tuning argument is all you have, and if the settings of the fundamental constants were somehow shown to be scientifically intractable, then the most I would be forced to infer would be that the universe had a supernatural origin, and I would then be a deist. In that case, instead of saying "There is no God," I would be saying "There is a God." But I would not have to change my mind about one single other piece of my doxastic structure. Merely knowing that a creator exists would tell me nothing at all about the nature of that creator or about humanity's relationship with it.

          I just worry that science will come up with another theory and everyone will say they have somehow disproved God.

          Yeah, they might do that, but they would be wrong. Discrediting an argument for some proposition does not ever disprove that proposition.

          • Accepting a God based on the fine tuning argument does make a lot of difference. Becoming a deist is one option. Yet it would make any truth claim involving God inherently more plausible because you would at least believe God exists. So who know where you would end up?

          • Doug Shaver

            We'll see how slippery that slope is if I ever decide to get on it.

      • It depends on which intuitions you're talking about. Each one needs to be examined on its own merits. If we have had a particular intuition for as long as we've existed, then there is probably a good reason for keeping it, but only probably. For almost all of our history, we inhabited an environment very different from the one we live in now, and the difference should not be treated as inconsequential when we're debating moral issues.

        This sounds like a blank check. That any moral principle is just up for grabs. A government can define good any way it wants and simply declare all traditional morality to be something man does need anymore. The constitution says, "All men are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights." If you say that is not so, that times change so rights are not actually inalienable, then you can lose a lot.

        • Doug Shaver

          This sounds like a blank check. That any moral principle is just up for grabs

          Who has the authority to say otherwise, and where do they get that authority? If you say the church has it, and the church gets its authority from God, then you need to prove that.

          A government can define good any way it wants and simply declare all traditional morality to be something man does need anymore.

          Some governments have tried that, but I don't know any that have succeeded. Not many people regard their governments as moral authorities.

          The constitution says, "All men are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights."

          That statement is not in the Constitution, at least not the U.S. Constitution. It's in the Declaration of Independence. In any case, I don't look to political documents for moral guidance, and if I met anyone who did, I would advise them to look elsewhere.

          If you say that is not so, that times change so rights are not actually inalienable, then you can lose a lot.

          Keeping an open mind is always risky, but never as risky as the alternative.

          • So where would you look for moral guidance? It seems you have knocked down all the contenders yet you still claim you are not a moral nihilist.

          • Doug Shaver

            So where would you look for moral guidance?

            I get mine from my philosophy. I regard certain ethical principles as axiomatic, and then in a given situation, I try to determine what those axioms imply the best course of action would be.

            I hope it's obvious that that's a gross oversimplification, but it's the best brief answer I can give to your question.

          • Moral guidance needs to come from some source that knows more about morality than you. I| am not sure how this qualifies. You choose the axioms? Seems like you could get any answer you wanted.

          • Doug Shaver

            Moral guidance needs to come from some source that knows more about morality than you.

            How do I identify that source? If someone says to me, "I know more than you do about morality," how do I determine whether I should believe them?

          • Breezeyguy

            Great article and comments Doug. Thanks for your thoughts. Have you ever read "De Moralitate Atheorum" by Mike Flynn? It's an argument in 'sed contra' format on morality and atheism.

            I think the argument is more compelling if it phrased in terms of "morality versus materialism" though. For how can a materialist even begin to describe what "should" and "shouldn't" even mean? Do you agree?

          • Doug Shaver

            Have you ever read "De Moralitate Atheorum" by Mike Flynn? It's an argument in 'sed contra' format on morality and atheism.

            I had not. But I found it and much enjoyed reading it. He makes a lot of good points.

            I think the argument is more compelling if it phrased in terms of "morality versus materialism" though. For how can a materialist even begin to describe what "should" and "shouldn't" even mean? Do you agree?

            Not entirely.

            Insofar as Flynn presupposes an identity between atheism and materialism, I don't agree at all. Of course a materialist must be an atheist, but the converse does not hold. There is no inconsistency between denying God's existence and affirming the existence of an objective morality. Or at least, there is no necessary inconsistency. It is possible, of course, that one's reasons for rejecting theism would also, if consistently applied, lead one to reject the existence of objective moral principles. But atheism per se does not commit one to any particular ontological framework. By itself, atheism says nothing more than that, of all the things that could exist or probably exist, God is not one.

            I am not aware of any reliable polling data, but I suspect that most atheists are, as a matter of contingent fact, materialists. And, I do reject the existence of objective morality, not because I am an atheist but because I am a materialist.

            Must I then deny that words such as "should" or "shouldn't" are meaningful? I don't see why. The meaning of any word is established by usage, not by any authority's fiat. Those words do mean something, even when atheists or materialists use them, and even if precise definitions are difficult to articulate.

            Flynn quotes Rorty: "For liberal ironists, there is no answer to the question 'Why not be cruel?'" What little I have read of Rorty's work was not about liberal irony, and I have no idea what he means by it or whether he would think I am a liberal ironist. But I do have an answer to that question, and I really don't care whether Rorty would consider it an acceptable answer.

            I cannot adequately defend that answer in the space of a forum post, but my ethical philosophy begins with the observation that we are a social species. We don't live in communities just because we like to, but because we must. With exceptions too rare to be relevant, we cannot survive long living in solitude. Necessity aside, communal life does have advantages, more or less obvious, over solitary life. But there is no free lunch. One of the costs of communal life is the occasional need to subordinate one's immediate personal interests to the interests of the community, because if those interests are not adequately served, then the community does not survive as a community, and if the community does not survive, then neither do its members.

            There must be rules, agreed upon by the community in general (not necessarily unanimously), specifying the situations in which that subordination must occur and the means by which the community may respond to noncompliance with its rules. Such rules are called nowadays by various names depending on the contexts in which they may be applied: laws, moral principles, codes of etiquette, etc.

            The particulars of the rules are less important than their existence. The diversity of human cultures is testimony to the extent of possible variation in the rules. The nonexistence of any genuine anarchy is likewise testimony to the necessity of enforceable rules of some kind.

            From this perspective, then, I would argue that the real basis of any morality is just our own survival. Someone will then ask: Why should we care whether we survive? I reply: We do care, and we're not going to stop caring, no matter whether or not there is any sense in which we should care. Our survival instinct is just a brute fact. We will do what we must in order to keep ourselves alive as long as we can. Any proposed moral code that was inconsistent with human survival, if it could be implemented in some community, would be rendered moot by its very implementation, because that community would cease to exist.

  • Mike

    Excellent interview and interesting responses, even handed and fair minded, thx.

  • F.Nazar
    • Indigent

      how about from atheist to Catholic:

      Or how about from Catholic to atheist.

      http://www.alternet.org/belief/what-its-go-hard-core-catholic-upbringing-atheism

    • Kreeft and Hahn were never really atheists. They converted from Calvinism to Catholicism.

      • F.Nazar

        What I meant is that with such overwhelming evidence, any atheist should rationally become Catholic... any non-Catholic, too:
        http://prove-religion.blogspot.com/2011/12/scientific-proof-of-religion.html

        • Doug Shaver

          I've watched the video. I don't agree with Kreeft's judgment about how overwhelming his evidence is.

          • F.Nazar

            Hi Doug, I didn't' realize it was you writing: thank you for your wonderful interview. It's nice to read something intelligent and respectful. What's overwhelming is not Kreeft's lecture but the physical evidence of God's miracles on earth NOW, evidence you can touch, smell, see with your own very eyes:
            http://prove-religion.blogspot.com/2011/12/scientific-proof-of-religion.html

          • Doug Shaver

            I have not seen any of that overwhelming physical evidence.

          • F.Nazar

            I guess you didn't have time to see it. Let's start by the Incorruptible bodies of Saints you can touch, smell and see with your own eyes. How do you explain this only happens with Roman Catholic Saints or with Orthodox Saints prior to the schism from the Roman Catholic Church, and no other?

          • Michael Murray
          • Michael Murray
          • Doug Shaver

            I guess you didn't have time to see it.

            Time was not the issue. I don't regard seeing something on YouTube as equivalent to seeing it.

          • Doug Shaver

            How do you explain this only happens with Roman Catholic Saints or with Orthodox Saints prior to the schism from the Roman Catholic Church, and no other?

            I don't need to explain any X until I know that that X is actually a fact. And I don't know that it's a fact just because you say it is a fact.

        • Ignatius Reilly

          I think you need to think like an atheist for 6 months and leave Catholicism, while listening to the music you deem "satanic". If you do this, you will find atheism to not only be true, but scientifically proven.

          • "If you do this, you will find atheism to not only be true, but scientifically proven."

            I find both of these claims shocking.

            How is atheism "true"? The two most popular definitions of atheism I'm aware of are:

            1. The belief that God does not exist, or
            2. A lack of belief in God.

            Are you arguing that Definition 1 is true? If so, on what basis, and according to what evidence, do you know that God does not exist? Many atheists would agree that it's not possible to prove the non-existence of something, unless that something is a self-contradiction. But God, properly defined, is not.

            If you're arguing that Definition 2 is true, then that claim tells us nothing relevant to this discussion. Of course it may be true that you lack a belief in God. But so what? With due respect, most of us have little interest in your personal psychology. We're much more concerned with whether God actually exists, not whether you believe he does or doesn't.

            Finally, I'm very curious how atheism has been scientifically proven. That's an audacious claim which I challenge you to substantiate.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            I was using the same reasoning as the poster above was using to show that Catholicism is scientifically proven to show that atheism is scientifically proven. I do not believe that atheism is scientifically proven.

            I find it interesting that (according to the previous poster) one must willingly prime themselves for brainwashing, in order to know God. I also found it interesting that he labeled a whole genre of music as satanic.

            My personal view is that the Abrahamic God does not exist. Some other God may or may not exist, I'm not at all sure on that point. Science has given us a better description of the natural word, and I find that description incompatible with an all-loving and all-powerful being.

          • Guess I was just confused by you saying:

            "You will find atheism to not only be true, but scientifically proven."

            And then:

            "I do not believe that atheism is scientifically proven."

            To me, that sounds contradictory.

            "Science has given us a better description of the natural word [sic]"

            And so what? Just because science offers thorough descriptions of the natural world, how does that say anything about God? Describing something is not the same as understanding it, much less explaining it, much less causing it.

            A far more important question to ask is, where did the natural world come from? Why does it exist? Science has not--indeed, cannot--answer those questions, for it presupposes the natural world.

            "and I find that description incompatible with an all-loving and all-powerful being."

            We've been around this issue many times, in feature posts and in the comment boxes. There's simply no logical contradiction between an all-loving, all-powerful God and the existence of suffering. You've offered no reason why the two are necessarily incompatible.

          • There is no logical contradiction, unless any of the suffering is gratuitous. There is an enormous amount of evidence to support enormous amount of gratuitous suffering is going on and no evidence that any of it is necessary.

  • BrianKillian

    "Those ways of thinking that support religion are demonstrably unreliable in many non-religious contexts"

    Must there be one way of thinking that is reliable in ALL contexts? Is science that way of thinking?

    • Doug Shaver

      I don't believe there has to be a way of thinking that is reliable in all contexts, but I see no reason to just assume there isn't one.

      I'm not prepared to defend the proposition that science is certainly that way, but I will argue that no other way has been shown to be as reliable in any context.

      • In my opinion, logic is a way of thinking that is reliable in all contexts. Science (i.e. the scientific method, the idea that results must be reproduced independently in order to be acceptable) is a logical methodology which cannot be applied in all contexts. In other contexts, other logical methodologies can be used. Such as the philosophical methods of St. Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle.

        • Doug Shaver

          In my opinion, logic is a way of thinking that is reliable in all contexts.

          I regard logic as a tool of thinking rather than as a way of thinking.

          • Do you consider it reliable in all contexts?

            Similarly, how do you compare it to the scientific method? Which do you consider superior in all contexts?

            As for me, I consider the scientific method a subset of logic.

          • Doug Shaver

            I regard logic as a tool of thinking rather than as a way of thinking.

            Do you consider it reliable in all contexts?

            I believe it is absolutely reliable when used properly. Like any other tool, it can be misused.

          • I believe it is absolutely reliable when used properly. Like any other tool, it can be misused.

            Agreed.

            I don't believe "compare" is the right term to use. There are many components making up the scientific method, and logic is one of them.

            My workshop includes a table saw. I might compare my workshop with someone else's shop, or I might compare my table saw with his table saw, but I don't compare my table saw with my workshop.

            That non-comparison sounded very much like a comparison.

            I think we may be using the word "logic" differently.

            I use the Merriam-Webster definition:

            : a proper or reasonable way of thinking about or understanding something

            I see the scientific method as a subset. It is one, particular, way of understanding things.

          • Doug Shaver

            I think we may be using the word "logic" differently.

            It is apparent to me, after exchanging several posts with you, that you and I are using quite a few words differently.

            I use the Merriam-Webster definition:

            : a proper or reasonable way of thinking about or understanding something

            That is not the Merriam-Webster definition. It is a Merriam-Webster definition, and it is not a complete definition, but only a summary statement. Here is the complete entry from Merriam-Webster's website:

            log·ic noun ˈlä-jik

            : a proper or reasonable way of thinking about or understanding something

            : a particular way of thinking about something

            : the science that studies the formal processes used in thinking and reasoning

            Full Definition of LOGIC
            1 a (1) : a science that deals with the principles and criteria of validity of inference and demonstration : the science of the formal principles of reasoning (2) : a branch or variety of logic [modal logic] [Boolean logic] (3) : a branch of semiotics; especially : syntactics (4) : the formal principles of a branch of knowledge

            b (1) : a particular mode of reasoning viewed as valid or faulty (2) : relevance, propriety

            c : interrelation or sequence of facts or events when seen as inevitable or predictable

            d : the arrangement of circuit elements (as in a computer) needed for computation; also : the circuits themselves

            2 : something that forces a decision apart from or in opposition to reason [the logic of war]

            I see the scientific method as a subset.

            I have read no work by any scientist who agrees that science is a subset of logic. I assume you are not a scientist. Let me suggest an analogy. Suppose a Protestant tells me, "Catholics worship the virgin Mary." If several Catholics tell me, "No, we don't worship the virgin Mary, we worship only God," whom do you think I should believe?

          • It is apparent to me, after exchanging several posts with you, that you and I are using quite a few words differently.

            This is the only one I've noticed. But we can make the corrections as we go along.

            That is not the Merriam-Webster definition. It is a Merriam-Webster definition, and it is not a complete definition, but only a summary statement. Here is the complete entry from Merriam-Webster's website:

            It is a valid definition, however. And I'm only pointing out that we are using the word differently and perhaps misunderstanding each other on this point.

            I have read no work by any scientist who agrees that science is a subset of logic. I assume you are not a scientist. Let me suggest an analogy. Suppose a Protestant tells me, "Catholics worship the virgin Mary." If several Catholics tell me, "No, we don't worship the virgin Mary, we worship only God," whom do you think I should believe?

            I think you should believe Catholics.

            But your analogy is flawed. Protestants lie when they claim that Catholics worship the Virgin Mary. It simply is not true.

            But I am not lying when I use my VALID definition of the term "logic". I have provided the definition from a dictionary and that is a well known authority on the meaning of words.

            This anonymous person on the internet uses the terms the same way as I do:

            Rader's Biology4Kids.com

            The scientific method is a rational, logical thought process that is used to figure out facts and truths. All of the answers must be able to be proved.

            If he can describe the scientific method as "logical", then he considers the scientific method as a subset of some group which he considers logical systems.

            And so we come back to the fact that we are both using valid definitions of the term and therefore talking past each on this point.

          • Doug Shaver

            And so we come back to the fact that we are both using valid definitions of the term and therefore talking past each on this point.

            I agree with the part about talking past each other.

  • I am a theist and more critical of the fine tuning argument than Doug Shaver. That argument takes for granted the validity of probability over its range of definition from zero to one. It then claims, without any rationale, that probability is not valid over a segment of that range near zero. The other point on which I agree is with the falsity of the claim that denial of the existence of God is denial of any basis of ethics. Those who make such a claim do not see the distinction between ultimate and proximate. For example, in concluding that murder is unethical, one does not contemplate the nature of God, one contemplates the nature of man. In the nature of man, atheist and theist share the same basis for ethics.

  • Moussa Taouk

    Hi Doug,

    Thanks for that interview (and thanks Brandon for those thoughtful questions).

    So Doug, in your comments below you mentioned how it's beneficial for humans to recognise patterns - and you gave an example of recognising that sick people often spread their sicknesses. I just want to pick up on that notion of the benefit of recognising the pattern of something that's bad for us, and then presumably having the evolutionarily correct response, which is to avoid that thing.

    I've read that in times of plagues in earlier European history, everyone would avoid the sick and they would be left to die because mingling with them meant a much higher chance of sickness and death. That would seem like the evolutionarily correct thing to do. But then come on the scene these crazy Christians who defy this survival mechanism, and they go along and tend to the sick by cleaning them and feeding them and providing for them in what way they can. Many Christians die as a result.

    We don't usually think, "those Christians were a bunch of bloody fools. They did the stupid thing". We usually think "wow. That's a heroic display of selflessness in the face of adversity." We see beauty in the act of loving others even in such a foolish and certainly such a radical manner, a beauty motivated by this ideal that "love is stronger than death".

    How is it that an evolutionarily stupid and foolish act (that has the real potential of wiping out an entire people) can also be beautiful? Is it that our notions of "heroic" and "beautiful" are warped and disfigured by our religious beliefs, or could it be that the natural world takes you only so far but then one can transcend the natural world by using a belief such as 'love is stronger than death' as their diving board? (or is there some other explanation?)