Does God exist? If so, how do we prove it? And does the existence of an intricate device like a watch provide a reasonable, intelligent argument?
British philosopher, Bertrand Russell tells us that we should suspend judgement if we can’t figure out what’s true. But for those of us who question our beliefs and want to know more might just relish in the field of philosophy of religion. And I shouldn’t forget the staunch theists and atheists who want to broaden their understanding of religion.
Author and dual Ph.D academic, Russell Blackford went from an evangelical Christian to an atheist. Russell is a lecturer at the University of Newcastle and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology. Russell and I discuss philosophy of religion and creating meaning in this short introduction to a much larger topic.
The Philotoric: You were on the brink of becoming an evangelical leader and now you write books on atheism – what happened?
Russell Blackford: I suppose I was already an evangelical leader in a small way, in that I was the Vice-President of the Evangelical Union at my university (the University of Newcastle, here in Australia). Who knows what might have beckoned beyond that? I wouldn’t necessarily have ended up in the priesthood or anything like that, but still… The trouble at the time was that I “had doubts” – as we used to say – and they ultimately defeated my attempts to put them to rest. I could not make any Christian account of the world add up, and by the time my tenure as EU Vice-President was over I’d eventually abandoned any Christian belief. I didn’t make a fuss about it, but I dropped out of evangelical activities and concentrated on other aspects of my life. I had no ill-feeling toward my Christian friends, who were kind and good people; it was just that I, personally, could no longer honestly believe in the Abrahamic God, the Incarnation, the doctrine of sacrificial atonement, or any other Christian doctrines, including specifically Christian moral ideals. This makes it all sound simple, but it most certainly wasn’t. I was going through months of doubt and worry about the truth of my religion, it was a psychologically agonising period.
Those events were many years ago now, back in the 1970s when I was an undergraduate student. It wasn’t until 2009 that I co-edited a book about atheism (with Udo Schuklenk) – 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists. Much had happened in my life and in the wider world during those 30+ years, and many things converged to encourage me to address the issue of atheism – and the pretensions of religion – in a more formal, public way. One aspect was my sense of the growing political influence of religion, even in Western countries where traditional religious belief is steadily declining. Worse, much of that influence comes from especially reactionary and authoritarian varieties of religious faith.
The Philotoric: Was there a philosophical source of inspiration?
RB: Sure – though again, it wasn’t just one thing or a particular text by an atheist thinker. I read many books and articles, and thought about many aspects of how the world might look from the perspective of secular philosophy rather than religious faith. A major stumbling block for me was the classic Problem of Evil. This may be expressed as a question: If there is a supernatural being who is powerful enough to create a world without pain and suffering (and so much of it!), and who is supposed to be all-benevolent, so as to be motivated to do so, why do we actually live in a world such as we see around us where pain and suffering are so common and so horrendous? Of course, theologians and religious philosophers have offered many answers, some of them ingenious, and perhaps one of them just might turn out to be acceptable if we had overwhelmingly powerful reasons to believe in God. Perhaps we’d just have to trust that one of these answers, or another that we are unaware of, is sufficient even if implausible from an outsider’s perspective. That, however, was not the position I found myself in. All the answers were highly implausible at best. And too much else converged to cast extreme doubt on the whole Christian worldview, rather than to provide compelling reasons in its support. A time came when I decided, once and for all, that I could not honestly hang on to the Christian worldview in any of its variants. I felt enormous relief and liberation when that happened: the worst thing in a situation like this is the anguish of continuing uncertainty and indecision. A weight seemed to fall from my shoulders.
The Philotoric: What is philosophy of religion?
RB: I take philosophy of religion to be the rational examination of religious institutions, world views, and particular teachings. First, philosophy of religion tries to understand what religion is or how it’s best understood. But then it asks all sorts of questions about whether religious belief is reasonable and what justification religion has. Does it have some kind of intellectual or moral authority that we ought to respect? Are there any good reasons to believe in a God or gods, or to accept other supernatural doctrines such as the existence of an afterlife or of reincarnation? What kind of worldview could replace it, and how could we live without religious belief? The questions go on, but perhaps this gives you an idea.
The Philotoric: The New Atheists have gone hard in the last ten years. Do you think there is a resurgence of interest in God/s, or perhaps a slight sympathy towards it?
RB: I wouldn’t put it like that. I think that there was a regrouping by religious organisations and leaders after the severe loss of social credibility and political relevance that they suffered during the 1960s and 1970s. We’ve seen a revival in organised efforts by religious conservatives to influence society and politics, much of it successful, but this seems to be happening against a general background of decreasing religiosity in Western countries. The so-called New Atheists can be seen as pushing back against some of the more dangerous and authoritarian manifestations of religion. I doubt that they’d have gained much traction, or even had much motivation to write their books, if the most prominent and influential Christian voices in the United States had been theologically and socially liberal ones and if we were not confronted by the disturbing phenomenon of Islamist fanaticism.
The Philotoric: There are different arguments for the existence of God. One that I have heard a few times from evangelical Christians in recent years is William Paley’s teleological argument (the watchmaker analogy). Can you briefly summarise it?
RB: There are many versions of the argument, including varying reconstructions of Paley’s own meaning. The general idea is that we point to some impressive phenomenon, most likely, for Paley, a living thing of some kind, and we argue – more or less by analogy to complicated, intricate devices such as watches – that it must have had an intelligent designer and artificer. The central premise is that when we are confronted with functioning, intricate things we inevitably and rightly infer the existence of some kind of powerful intelligence that brought them about.
The Philotoric: Can you shed some light on notable criticism?
RB: Of course, with life forms we now know a great deal about how their amazing intricacy and diversity arose over time via small, incremental steps – that is, through the processes of biological evolution. But even before Darwin, the watchmaker type of argument was inconclusive. After all, we did not know, as part of our background information, that all intricately functioning things are artificial; on the contrary, we knew only that some were, and we were fairly well placed to tell the difference between living organisms and artificial things such as watches. Today, we are even better placed to make that distinction. I.e., scientists and engineers have a much better idea of what kinds of materials and structures can and cannot be produced by natural, as opposed to artificial, processes. Prior to Darwin, we did not have a truly compelling explanation for the diversity and intricacy of life forms, so there was a gap in our theoretical knowledge. But even without that explanation, there was no good positive argument that such things as living creatures are, in effect, artificial (the artificers being one or more gods). Once it’s expressed like that, the argument is not so intuitive at all.
The Philotoric: If theism fails at intellectual reasoning, can faith trump argument?
RB: No. I don’t accept that there are “ways of knowing” – whether it’s faith, or mystical experience, or anything else – that trump evidence and reason.
The Philotoric: Another interesting perspective is Rudolf Bultmann’s idea of demythologising the bible in existential terms. Can you explain what this interpretation is?
RB: I’m no expert on Bultmann’s theology, so I won’t pretend to be… As far as I understand Bultmann’s approach, the basic idea was that the New Testament accounts of Jesus and his teachings were heavily mythologised in a way that was helpful to the understanding of their original audience but now operates as a psychological barrier to modern audiences in a scientific age. Once you think in this way, you might try to extract the moral and “existential” essence of the biblical teachings – which you can then present to modern audiences in a way that they will find more palatable. A theologically conservative critic of Bultmann might see him as engaging in theological vandalism: denying the historical reliability of the Gospel narratives. An unkind secular critic might see him as desperately trying to save the value of historically unreliable narratives by denying that they were ever intended to be understood literally.
The Philotoric: In your book, 50 Great Myths About Atheism, as you debunk atheism is depressing, you write that atheists must find meaning and fulfilment. Are you referring to a subjective purpose within life?
RB: There is actually quite a bit to say both about why many people seem to find religion reassuring, but also about how you might understand the world and live your life without the crutch of religion. We can live well not only without religion but without any other comprehensive ideology. There can be joy in acknowledging the areas of uncertainty and ambiguity in our knowledge of the world and approaching it in a spirit of wonder rather than claiming to have all the answers (or following someone else who claims to have them). I’m somewhat out of sympathy with this whole idea that meaning and fulfilment are jeopardised merely because someone does not have supernatural beliefs. For many of us, the natural and cultural worlds gradually being revealed by the sciences and humanities are quite enough, and it can even feel liberating not having to reconcile the bizarre claims and demands of religion with a good human life by ordinary standards. We can find joy, satisfaction, and experiences and connections that have meaning for us in the things of this world – for all its suffering and pain, our world also offers much in the way of delights and satisfactions, enough to last for many lifetimes. If life seems flat and meaningless to a particular individual, he or she probably has problems of some kind that are very different from an inability to accept the doctrines of one or other religion.
The Philotoric: What about those who choose to live between arguments? Those who deny the existence of God, but do not necessarily reflect on creating meaning. Are these lives meaningless?
RB: Not at all. I write for people who actually are concerned about these issues for whatever reasons. Obviously, I think the issues are important, but that doesn’t mean that everyone should spend their time thinking about them. People find connection, joy, personal satisfaction and fulfilment, experiences that are deeply meaningful to them, in many ways – perhaps through their relationships with loved ones, through absorbing work, through ordinary hobbies and interests, and, really, in ways that are as varied as people themselves. Philosophy is important, and I encourage people to take an interest in it, but I certainly don’t think that explicit reflection about creating meaning is necessary for leading a good and meaningful life.
Russell will have a chapter in John Loftus’ new book, Christianity Is Not Great, in which he discusses living without God, at length. Release date is 14 October 2014.