Philosophy of Religion with Russell Blackford

Russell Blackford

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.

50 Voices of Disbelief

50 Voices of Disbelief

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.

50 Great Myths About Atheism

50 Great Myths About Atheism

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.

Also see 50 Great Myths About Atheism and 50 Voices of Disbelief, as well as other titles from Russell on Amazon

Philosophy and Its Audience with Zan Boag

NP promo

Martin Heidegger’s poetic prose was difficult to understand at the best of times. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote baffling waffle throughout parts of his speed-induced authorship. And even judges who reviewed Søren Kierkegaard’s dissertation found it complicated to get through. In fact, Kierkegaard never worked a day in his life but criticised the bourgeois. And Heidegger, who had a short spell with Nazism criticised Sartre, but he was quite fond of Kierkegaard. These thinkers were profound, but who were they writing for and what is their relationship to ordinary people?

Zan Boag is the editor of New Philosopher magazine – An independent print publication delivered to the general public every quarter. Zan and I had a chat about philosophy’s audience and what the everyday person can gain from thinking.

The Philotoric: Can you tell me a little about yourself – Who are you? What do you do? Hobbies, habits, heroes?

Zan Boag: The majority of my time is spent working on the magazine and taking orders from my young children. I play basketball, don’t watch television and believe that heroism is like happiness – it happens in a moment, it’s not a permanent state.

The Philotoric: You now have four issues of the New Philosopher magazine and each of them is beautiful, congratulations. What can you tell me about your readership – Is it trending amongst younger generations?

ZB: The writers and designers are doing a terrific job. They have managed to appeal to people of all ages – from school kids to those in aged care. We have subscribers in corporate offices, prisons and churches, apartments and mansions, rich suburbs and poor. Rather than age, religion, cultural background or socio-economic class, I’d say the common thread is that they are humans who think that there’s more to life than consumption, production, comparison and competition.

The Philotoric: I recently purchased a new translation of Søren Kierkegaard’s, The Concept of Anxiety by Alastair Hannay and the cover has the following blurb – A Simple Psychologically Orientated Deliberation in View of the Dogmatic Problem of Hereditary Sin. Does this type of jargon turn people away from philosophy literature?

ZB: That’s Kierkegaard for you, he packed a lot of complex ideas into his 42 years – In fact, Heidegger had twice as long to confuse people. It’s important to distinguish between philosophy for philosophers and philosophy for the general public. The former serves as a means to extend thought, to explore ideas by delving into the depths; the latter involves communicating these ideas to others so as to bring about some sort of positive change in our world, of our understanding of the world and our place in it. They are interdependent, both needing the other to thrive.

The Philotoric: How does an academic audience feel about the ordinary person’s involvement in philosophy?

ZB: When we [New Philosopher] approached leading Australian universities and the Australasian Association of Philosophy (AAP) – the professional association for philosophers in the region, they were thrilled that such a project was taking shape. Ultimately the AAP and five universities backed the project as founding partners. Philosophers have also lent their support, including Peter Singer, Noam Chomsky, Daniel Dennett and Angie Hobbs. Thinking is not a treasure they wish to keep to themselves, it is a virus they aim to spread.

New Philosopher #4

The Philotoric: What would you say to those who think studying philosophy is useless?

ZB: I’m not sure how learning to think critically about the world and your place in it could be deemed useless, unless, of course, you’re content with studying to work, working to buy stuff, buying stuff to impress others, and then dying – all the while ignoring the plight of others on the planet and the planet itself. If you’re still not convinced, try this quote from Alex Pozdnyakov (a philosophy student in Europe): “I have this strange phrase I use when people ask me why I chose philosophy. I tell them I wanted to become a professional human being.”

The Philotoric: What is the purpose of studying philosophy and ancient texts in 2014?

ZB: I question the purpose of a lot of activities undertaken in 2014. Seeking wisdom from another time – a time before social media, 24/7 news and shopping malls – isn’t one of them.

The Philotoric: Can you provide a concrete example of how philosophy has changed your life?

ZB: Hmm, concrete and philosophy in the same sentence … I’d like to think that it has changed everything – what I deem important, how I view others and the way I live my life. But if you want a concrete example … well, thanks to philosophy, I’m pretty good at arguing.

A Very Short Introduction to Søren Kierkegaard with Patrick Stokes

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BuzzFeed have featured Friedrich Nietzsche as trending hipster material. So was it his luscious moustache that did it, or the existential literature that draws such wide attention?

A Danish theologian by the name of Søren Kierkegaard is often referred to as the father of existentialism. But what is existentialism and how do we interpret this religious writer who lived 200 years ago?

Patrick Stokes is a lecturer in philosophy at Deakin University and an author of two books on Kierkegaard. In a traditional existential fashion, Patrick and I met at a café to discuss Kierkegaard’s philosophy.

The Philotoric: What is existentialism?

Patrick Stokes: Existentialism is a first-person here and now perspective of the world. It is very difficult to say that anyone is an existentialist, except for [Jean-Paul] Sartre for about 15 years or so, but no one owns up to the label. I don’t think that [Søren] Kierkegaard is really an existentialist but I think he does belong to that genealogy of existential thinkers.

The Philotoric: Who was Søren Kierkegaard?

PS: A very strange man who no one knew what to do with. Kierkegaard had a theology degree but spent most of it doing philosophy. He never had a job in a university. He never got married. He got engaged, but broke it off. He spent his whole life living off his father’s income, self-publishing his work. And he died at exactly the right moment, just as he was about to run out of money.

The Philotoric: If we could only read one book by Kierkegaard, what should it be?

PS: It is hard to do that with Kierkegaard because his whole argument is spread over several books. It depends on who that reader is. If it is a philosopher, I would say Concluding Unscientific Postscript [to Philosophical Fragments]. For a writer, I would say Prefaces. If that person wants to learn about the human condition, I would say the Upbuilding Discourses.

The Philotoric: Does Kierkegaard often get misinterpreted with quotes like life is meaningless?

PS: Yes, it is not really Kierkegaard, it is a character. In fact, I know an academic who has been working on Kierkegaard for years who actually came across him in exactly the right way. He picked up Either/Or not knowing anything about it and really appreciated the ‘life is meaningless/we are all going to die’ stuff. Then he got to volume two and said, ‘what the hell, I don’t want to get married.’ It is exactly the way that Kierkegaard wanted you to come across it.

The Philotoric: So Kierkegaard wants to provoke his readers?

PS: Yes, to throw it back on you as the individual concrete reader who is working out how to live their life. He is trying to engage the reader on an existential level. If he just tells you how it is, it does not engage you. But as he does this indirectly, it engages you existentially and makes you think how it relates to your life.

Twitter Phavourites

The Danish thinker, Søren Kierkegaard once said that some day, communication would become instantaneous, but people would have nothing to say.

It could be said that Kierkegaard’s prediction from the Danish Golden Age is accurate. This might ring true for struggling conversationalists of the 21st century who spend too much time on social media. And what about those who are more inclined to text rather than phone?

One could argue that social skills are a little passé and one’s online identity is just as profound as the real deal. But with fake names and distant acquaintances making up real friends, are we really projecting an accurate portrayal of our true self? After all, if so much of Kierkegaard’s authorship was pseudonymous, why can’t we take wAyNe_69 seriously?

Nevertheless, I want to share the following which highlights what we are saying in 2014 on Twitter. These handles are some of the most influential voices of our time. They provoke philosophical thought in modernity and challenge contemporary standards. Whilst the others may come from a time not so long ago, they are still relevant. As for the rest, they showcase the creative and humorous side of the existentialists.

Without further ado.

New Philosopher Magazine (@TheNewPhil): Great subject matters, excellent writers, attractive design and no advertisements. But If you miss the print run, check out newphilosopher.com and follow them on Twitter. @TheNewPhil often features expressions of their avid readers and stimulating excerpts from back issues.

Peter Singer (@PeterSinger): Author and moral philosopher. The latest account of ethics in today’s society.

Kim Kierkegaardashian (@KimKierkegaard): Funny tweets from a Kardashian-gone-Kierkegaardian, or vice versa.

Simone de Beauvoir (@SimoneBeauvoirs): Quotes from the prominent feminist thinker and other thought-provoking ideas relating to gender equality.

Daniel Dennett (@danieldennett): Influential writer, philosopher and prominent leader of new atheism. A good source of contemporary problems in society.

Alain de Botton (@alaindebotton): Author, philosopher and television presenter. A terrific account of issues in modernity that anyone can relate to.

Nigel Warburton (@philosophybites): Co-founder of the philosophy bites podcast. Keep up to date with the latest releases and hear about Nigel’s extracurricular philosophical activities.

Søren Kierkegaard (@SorenKQuotes): Angst-filled quotes from the Danish thinker that might affect your mood.

Patrick Stokes (@patstokes): Writer, philosopher and regular guest on Triple R Breakfasters. @patstokes merges philosophy with politics, and other everyday issues of modernity.

Existential Comics (@existentialcoms): A humorous account of existentialism in comic form.