And what do we mean by a good argument?
I recently got an email from Andy Blood, commenting on my recent 10 Myths and Truths About Atheists piece for AlterNet. And one of the things he asked me was:
I would like to know what you think the BEST anti-atheist arguments are. By that I mean, not the ones that persuade the most people (those are often based on lies, or purely emotional), but the very best ones, the ones you would have the most trouble refuting. I think the “trend” argument, for instance, suggests that many new atheists might be phonies. That doesn’t address real atheism, of course, but it’s something. There’s this Oxford prof. who wrote a book about The Twilight of Atheism or something, and he had one point — atheism is effective and liked because it’s freeing. As soon as religion (non-traditional, I guess) becomes freeing, atheism will lose it’s relevance. Again, this is refutable, but at least not the regular thing that we hear all the time.
I wrote back and said that, honestly, I didn’t think any theistic or anti- atheist arguments were good. I not only don’t find any of them persuasive; I find all of them seriously weak. Andy wrote back with what I think is an interesting notion:
I don’t think there are any WINNING arguments, but the better ones can at least make you pause and think. It’s a good brain-storming technique any way. Like: Why have humans been religious for so long — before churches and all that, many, many years ago? Isn’t it at least possible that this means that humans are innately religious? I don’t agree, but it is at least something to think about. (I was asked this question, and didn’t have a super fast answer).
So here’s my question:
Which arguments for religion — or arguments against atheism — do you think are good? I don’t mean “good” in the sense of “irrefutable” or even “persuasive” (although if you’re a believer and think there are some of these, I’d be interested to see those too). I mean: Which arguments for religion or against atheism made you think harder? Which arguments made you clarify your thinking, or even modify it?
A couple of mine:
“Maybe atheism is just a form of color- blindness. Maybe religious believers are perceiving something real, and atheists just don’t have the capacity to perceive it.”
Not a persuasive argument, I think; mostly because believers can’t come to any sort of agreement on what it is they’re supposedly perceiving. But thinking about this question made me think harder about perception, and how it is that we know what we know. It made me think harder about standards of evidence, and what kinds of things can be “known” intuitively and what kinds of things can’t. And it made me more rigorous in my thinking, not just about religion but about lots of things.
Again, not a convincing argument. Mostly because, even though we don’t really understand consciousness, the one thing we’re pretty sure of is that it, whatever it is, it seems to be a product of the brain.
But for me, when I was letting go of my spiritual beliefs, this was the last argument to go. (I never believed in what Ingrid calls the Omnimax God — omnipotent, omniscient, and omni- benevolent — and the “god” I believed in could scarcely be called a god: it was more like the World-Soul, an aggregate of all the souls of all the living things that I thought had souls.) My personal experience of consciousness as what seems to be a vaguely immaterial substance floating around in the vicinity of my head… it’s not intellectually convincing, but it’s very hard to shake.
And the process of shaking it is largely what’s sparked my interest in the study of how the mind works. I don’t think I understand consciousness — I don’t think any of us do — but I think I understand it better for my attempts to answer the question, “If consciousness isn’t the immaterial soul, then what the hell is it?”
So what about the rest of you? Are there any arguments for religion, or against atheism, not that you find persuasive (although I’d like to hear about those too), but that have made you stop and think? Any that have made you shift the way you think — about atheism, about religion, or about the world in general?
(Oh, and BTW, Andy: If you want a good counter to the “if religions isn’t true, why have so many people believed it for so long?” argument, I strongly suggest you read “Breaking the Spell” by Daniel Dennett. That’s the whole topic of the book. Fascinating and important. Quick answer: Religion is a by-product of ways that people are wired by evolution to think, including the tendency to see intention even where none exists, the tendency to see patterns even where none exists, the tendency in children to believe what their parents tell them, the tendency in adults to trust authority figures, and the tendency to rationalize beliefs that we already have and decisions that we’ve already made.)