Personal Journeys from Traditional Religion to Atheism

In my previous post I mentioned Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life. This book includes essays by 20 thoughtful non-believers, assembled by editor Louise Antony. Christianity Today recommends it to those who want to understand why people reject theism.

There’s a lot to say about this volume, and I’ll begin by appreciating the light that it sheds on the journey from theism to atheism. Most of the authors grew up in Christian or Jewish families. For some, religion never made sense. Others were initially devout but experienced a wrenching crisis of faith during adulthood.

Even those started out as committed Jews or Christians were often troubled by the hypocrisy they witnessed during childhood. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong recalls the time a new minister at his church preached in support of moderate drinking. The “alcoholics in the congregation” grumbled, and soon got rid of him. One day a black couple came to a big all-white church in town and half the congregation walked out (p. 70). And when Walter joined a Christian fellowship in college he discovered that no one wanted to listen to unorthodox ideas. He wrote a paper about which Biblical parables seemed to be authentic teachings of Jesus, and which might have been written by others. He was dismayed by the way his peers responded:

“I was ready to have my study criticized in a rational way, but they did not uncover any problems in my argument. They rejected it simply because they did not like my conclusion. What could be more dishonest? I wanted to get the facts straight. … I thought they shared my goals. They didn’t. They pretended to base their religious beliefs on arguments, but it was all a sham” (p. 72).

Joseph Levine looks back on his childhood, when he accepted the scripturally literalistic teachings of Torah Judaism: “I was taught that the world was literally created in six days almost six thousand years ago, and that the theory of evolution was mistaken” (p. 17). As a young man Levine was on the path to becoming a rabbi, but he began suffering from deep anxiety. When he probed for the sources of his distress, he discovered important moral and intellectual issues. The idea that the Jews are God’s chosen people seemed unreasonable, for example, but “it wasn’t until I lived in Israel that it began to cause serious internal conflict. It was there that I saw firsthand how Jews treated Arabs the way Jews were themselves treated in Eastern Europe” (p. 27).

Louise Antony also had painful struggles with theological doubt: “Somewhere along the line, I came to the conclusion that my inquisitiveness was sinful.” She even decided that “the questions had been put into my head by the devil, and … the whole world had been mined with dangerous ideas…. No one ever told me such a thing in so many words, but it seemed to me a good explanation for the taboo against thinking in religion, together with my apparent inability to respect it” (p. 44). “But then came the day that literally changed my life – the day when I first heard the ‘argument from evil’” (p. 49).

Several other contributors also struggled with the same problem. In a few days I’ll comment on what they wrote about divine power, divine love, and the widespread prevalence of tragedy and suffering.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Thoughtful Atheist Essays

These days when people think of atheism, the “new atheists” often come to mind – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. Of these, all but Dennett are intensely anti-religious. Hitchens, for example, wrote a book entitled God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. But I’ve just discovered a book in which atheistic philosophers reflect on religion. In browsing through this volume I was impressed by the diversity of opinion expressed, and the general tone of respect for faith traditions.

The book is called Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life, edited by Louise M. Antony, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Many of its essays express positive feelings about various religious traditions, even though the authors do not accept the doctrines of these organizations. Contributors include several whose work in philosophy of mind I have appreciated – Joseph Levine, David Lewis, Georges Rey, Kenneth A. Taylor, and Daniel Dennett himself. I look forward to reading these papers in detail, and I’ll share my reactions in a future post.

Roger Christan Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.

Is Physicalism on the Ropes?

What is mind? Never matter. What is matter? Never mind! – attributed to Eighteenth Century philosopher George Berkeley

Is reality wholly material, or are some real things non-material? Theists and atheists tend to answer this question rather differently. This issue also ties into the mind-body problem. Is the mind part of the brain? Is it separate from the body, perhaps some sort of immaterial soul? Or is it both material and non-material, and if that’s true how do these two components interact with each other?

For several decades most philosophers have found it rather obvious that all realities are physical. One way to think of physicalism is to imagine an all-powerful creator “laying out all the microphysical phenomena throughout the universe. Having done so, and having settled all the microphysical properties of those phenomena along with the basic microphysical laws, God did not then have to ask Himself ‘Shall I make lightning flashes or caterpillars or mountains or human beings?’ No further work was needed on His part.” (Michael Tye, Consciousness Revisited: Materialism without Phenomenal Concepts, pp. 25-26)

Tye is not advocating theism in this passage. It is fairly common for philosophers to invoke the concept of God in a metaphorical sense, to highlight some conceptual issue, and Tye is using the God-concept to clarify what physicalism is all about. By making all the particles of the cosmos and deciding how they would interact, a Creator would have ensured that lightning flashes, caterpillars, etc. would also exist.

But we aren’t so sure when it comes to consciousness. Some would suggest that: “Even if God had no further work to do in determining whether there would be a tree in place p or a river in place q or a neuron-firing in place r, say, having settled all the microphysical facts,” if God wanted to make sure that humans had conscious experiences, “God did have more work to do” (p. 31).

This issue has been hotly debated in academic circles, especially since the 1970s. Thomas Nagel, Frank Jackson, David Chalmers, Joseph Levine and many others have offered arguments suggesting that it seems odd or even impossible for consciousness to be physically constituted.

Most of those who question the coherence of physicalism still think all of reality is material. We just aren’t sure how to make sense of this fact when it comes to mental processes. Jerry Fodor puts it bluntly: “Nobody has the slightest idea how anything material could be conscious. Nobody even knows what it would be like to have the slightest idea about how anything material could be conscious. So much for the philosophy of consciousness.” (http://web.media.mit.edu/~minsky/eb4.html)

This tide of criticism seems to be rising. In 2010 Oxford University Press published The Waning of Materialism, edited by Robert Koons and George Bealer. Some of the 23 contributors advocate substance dualism: mind and matter are two very different kinds of stuff.

I’m sharing this information because atheists and agnostics sometimes assume that anyone who questions physicalism is an idiot. But there are sophisticated reasons for challenging the materialist paradigm. I’m exploring this issue in my current book-in-progress. More about that later.

Roger Christan Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.