How should the religious and atheists approach each other in discussion? Five morals.

December 14, 2015

I here draw five morals concerning how atheists and the religious might usefully approach each other in debate and argument (from forthcoming book chapter).

1. There's a tendency among the religious to take offence at comparisons drawn by atheists between religious belief and other supernatural beliefs such as belief in ghosts, fairies, etc. No doubt some atheists do just want to belittle and bait the religious by making such comparisons. However, it seems to me that, given that the X-claim explanation of why Peter fails to recognise the unreasonableness of his Christian belief looks fairly plausible and certainly is no 'just so' story (I'll be posting on this shortly, but it's an explanation of religious belief based on drawing a parallel between beliefs in fairies, ghosts, and other invisible persons on the one hand, and belief in gods on the other), drawing such a comparison can be very appropriate. I certainly intend no offence by drawing it. I don't think the religious should take offence.

2. Atheists should not suggest that religious folk are stupid. Unfortunately, many do. While there is some evidence that a lower IQ correlates with increased religiosity, the fact is that most popular religions - even the most absurd - can boast adherents at least as smart as myself. I count among my close friends Christians with impressive intellects. They aren't fools.

Note, however, that establishing that many smart, college-educated people believe something does not establish that the belief itself is reasonable. Young Earth Creationism is scientifically absurd, yet it has many smart, scientifically literate defenders, including some with tenured university positions. Indeed, it appears to be a feature of religions, and X-claim belief systems more generally, that they can seduce many smart, educated people into supposing even ludicrous falsehoods are reasonable. Consequently, religious folk should gain little reassurance from the thought that there are many smart, college-educated people who believe the same as them (unfortunately, many do).

3. I suggest honesty is the best policy. Christians who, like William Lane Craig, think the sin of rejecting God is so momentous that atheists deserve to burn in hell ought not to attempt to hide that opinion for fear of causing offence. First off, most atheists have thick skins. We know we're a highly distrusted minority (more Americans would rather have a pot-smoking President than an atheist one, for example). Secondly, I for one would much rather understand what my intellectual opponent really believes about me than have them disguise it. After all, if a Christian really believes that, as an atheist, I am hell-bound, they surely have a moral duty to warn me. I understand and appreciate that. I think we atheists should be similarly honest. I consider Christian belief of the sort defended by Peter to be pretty ludicrous: scarcely less ludicrous, in fact, than many other religious belief systems that Peter himself would probably find ludicrous (such as Mormonism and Scientology, for example). I think I should be honest about that, rather than disguise my opinions for fear of 'causing offence'. For obvious reasons, dialogues between belief systems where the participants try to disguise their beliefs and deal in half-truths are unlikely to be helpful in terms of getting at the truth. Nor am I convinced such deceit is even the best policy when the aim is merely getting along. If Peter tells me he believes that, being an atheist, the depth of my moral depravity is so deep as to qualify me for eternal damnation, I'll be a little shocked. But I'll be happy to discuss that with him. If, on the other hand, he chooses to hide this assessment from me, then there is a good chance that I'll nevertheless detect his attitude. If you'd feel sullied after having shaken hands with a mass murder like Pol Pot, imagine how sullied Peter may feel after shaking hands with me. I doubt Peter could keep such moral revulsion entirely under wraps. And my detection of his deceit is, in turn, likely to make me suspicious and distrustful of him.

4. A little mockery and leg-pulling is, in some circumstances, entirely appropriate. No one should abandon a belief because others laugh at it. Nor should any religious person or atheist be mocked merely to cause them distress. However, while humour should not take the place of rigorous criticism, it can enhance the latter's effectiveness by breaking the spell of deference and 'respect' that belief systems are capable of casting over us. In Hans Christian Anderson's The Emperor's New Clothes, the small boy who points and laughs breaks the spell: he allows everyone else watching the naked Emperor to see how they have been duped, to recognise the absurdity of their situation. Of course, some authoritarians (be they religious or atheist) who revel in pomposity and demand overweening respect are aware that humour can unmask them, which explains is why they are particularly fearful of it (I am now thinking of Charlie Hebdo). I am more than happy for others to pull my leg. I hope they won't mind if I sometimes pull theirs.

5. Atheists should understand the often good motives of those who evangelize. After all, Christian evangelists really are trying to save us atheists. The stakes couldn't be higher. If I could only save someone from a dangerous fall by rudely grabbing them and shouting my warning in their face, I would. I will generally forgive those who strive, by behaving with similarly urgency, to save me from a fate literally worse than death. I certainly don't expect the religious to keep their beliefs to themselves.


#1 Cornell (Guest) on Monday December 14, 2015 at 10:01am

So why is it ok for you to hand-wave at my question regaregarding how we can know what the moral objective standard to liberal humanism is?

Double standards? or is this whole post of yours a lie so you can look good?

#2 Stephen Law on Monday December 14, 2015 at 10:59am

Dammit I’ve been found out.

#3 Cornell (Guest) on Monday December 14, 2015 at 11:30am

Yeah and since I am a straight shooter I want to let you know that I posted this on William Craig’s Facebook page.  I can’t guarantee you that he will see it though.

And since I try my best to be honest, I did take a jab at you which was a bit rude, but I still stand by it.

Anyways suppose the US was filled with 80-90% atheists, do you think that most US citizens would prefer a pot-smoking president over a Theist president?

I feel as if I this would make it a bit more fair

If you want my opinion, I have no problem with an atheist president as long as she or he is a better candidate than the rest.

#4 Stephen Law on Monday December 14, 2015 at 12:29pm

That’s OK Cornell. If Bill Craig responds that would be great.

#5 cornell (Guest) on Monday December 14, 2015 at 7:01pm

He saw it and rightfully pointed out to me that he publicly debated Ray Bradley on “Can a loving God send people to hell?”. The debate is on Youtube

So this is false

“I suggest honesty is the best policy. Christians who, like William Lane Craig, think the sin of rejecting God is so momentous that atheists deserve to burn in hell ought not to attempt to hide that opinion for fear of causing offence.”

I think you jumped the gun there

#6 stephen law (Guest) on Tuesday December 15, 2015 at 2:12am

Hi Cornell, I am very familiar with that debate and have watched it a few times. Did you watch it? You should. It’s fascinating. Craig’s view on eternal punishment is bonkers - the sort of view that, were it not religiously based, would likely get the holder referred for psychiatric help.

Craig thinks the unbelievers face eternal damnation, and says so in many places. This is because they continue to sin in hell, or, more plausibly, thinks Craig, because their sin of rejecting Christ is so momentous it merits eternal damnation. He says:

“That’s why I went on to offer the second, better solution: that the rejection of Christ as Lord and Savior, being a rejection of God Himself, is a sin of infinite gravity and proportion and therefore plausibly does merit infinite punishment.”

#7 Stephen Law (Guest) on Tuesday December 15, 2015 at 2:20am

btw, it’s not just atheists that burn forever, on Craig’s view; so do Jews, Muslims, etc. who have heard the Gospel message and rejected it. Craig squares all this with an infinitely loving and merciful God, though. See this:

#8 Stephen Law on Tuesday December 15, 2015 at 2:22am

ah the links have not been appearing. here is the last one:

#9 Philip Rand (Guest) on Tuesday December 15, 2015 at 7:02am

Now this is interesting… first, I think it is quite important that when using Craig’s quote attention should be directed at the word “plausible”… this word is vitally important.

Here is the reason…

Quantum Physics can be fully explained with these few simple “rules”:
1. The use of operators to represent physical quantities.
2. Their eigenvector equations.
3. The representation of a microphysical system by a linear combination of eigenvectors.
4. The existence of “interference” in the state vectors.
5. The calculation of probabilities from averages taken over the ensembles.
6. The existence of a Hamiltonian time-displacement operator for the ensemble.

This is the “quantum theory” and importantly all the myriad of “interpretations” of quantum physics are based on these six postulates. What is important to realise is that all “quantum interpretations” are externally grounded using these six postulates, these six postulates form the “constraints” imposed on the “interpretations”… AND that all “interpretations” are equally valid, i.e. plausible.

Now, let’s look at Craig’s model, essentially in form it follows the above example, i.e. his “interpretation” using philosophy and science is externally grounded in the Bible, the Bible is not part of his “interpretation” rather it functions as the boundary condition that constrains his “interpretation” of “reality”.

Now, let’s look at Dr Law’s model, it differs from Craig’s in that his “interpretation” of reality does not have an external constraint, his only option is to use philosophy and science without an external constraint.  I believe Dr Law recognises this anomaly; this is the reason for his attempts at developing Humanism and his Evil God model, i.e. he is attempting to develop an external constraint that his “interpretation” of reality can hinge upon.

However, it is clear that these attempts will always inevitably fail because of the circular nature of the attempt.

This is why Dr Law’s only option is to delimit “interpretation” itself in this type of religious/atheist

This is quite clear when he writes:

“But let’s all at least agree that we can say what God is not: he is not all-powerful and all-evil. And he is not all-powerful and all-good”

Because what this statement amounts to is that his “interpretation” of reality IS THE ONLY “interpretation” of reality.

Here, I believe even Craig would admit when it comes down to it that a complete formulisation of “interpretation” is as utopian a project as a complete formulisation of Belief Fixation, i.e. this is the reason for Craig’s use of the word “plausible”, he recognises that “interpretation” is not delimited.

However, for Dr Law’s project holistic interpretation (like in the quantum theory example) must be denied. 

What could save Dr Law’s model of reality so he can win arguments without recourse to terms like “bonkers” is for him to formalise “interpretation”.

If he could formalise “interpretation” he wouldn’t require the recourse to terms like “bonkers”.

Because, both Craig and Law are working within this confine:

Rational acceptability (facts of the world) and convention (interpretation of the facts of the world).

These clashes have nothing to do with morals whatsoever…they have everything to do with holistic interpretation.

#10 Cornell (Guest) on Tuesday December 15, 2015 at 9:53am

Stephen you can use what looks like your justification via subjectivism which is just true for you, and not for William Lane Craig regarding whether or not it is bonkers all you want, but you didn’t deal with anything I said and went off topic.

You make an unsupported claim that insists Dr. Craig is hiding his beliefs on exclusivism, but this was just demonstrated not to be the case.

Your response just amounts to a red herring.  I expect this from your fan club that pretends to know things they don’t really know, but I expected better out of you.

#11 Stephen Law (Guest) on Tuesday December 15, 2015 at 10:28am

Oh, NOW I see where you are coming from. You think I am saying Craig tries to hide his exclusivism? Of course he doesn’t! I just refer to him because he gets a mention earlier in this chapter as someone who says, very openly, that atheists like me deserve to burn.

#12 cornell (Guest) on Tuesday December 15, 2015 at 2:54pm

It looks like this could have been taken either way

So why would it have been great if Dr. Craig responded?

#13 Stephen Law (Guest) on Tuesday December 15, 2015 at 2:55pm

Because I always enjoy interacting with him.

#14 Cornell (Guest) on Tuesday December 15, 2015 at 8:39pm

Fair enough…I guess I’ll take you at your word.

#15 Cornell (Guest) on Tuesday December 15, 2015 at 9:05pm

Anyways on the thread it seems as though we have someone who is breaking rule number 2 to the extreme.

Perhaps you can make up a follow up blog post about how to deal with these situations when they go sour.  I will admit right now that I am trying to be humorous with this guy, and I am being a bit of a wiseguy, but this person is obviously angry, and is out to just call people names.

Tim Hardcastle - Cornell, perhaps you could say something rather more substantive. For example, in your fevered and deranged imagination, what hole am I in?

Cornell Anthony - This one

A wise man once said

A strong clue that a person is arguing from a position of weakness is when character, rather than content, is attacked. An ad-hominem seems to be a last ditch defense of the losing side.

You were trying to tell me that what I said about boxing was bad, but once I replied you didn’t even attempt to refute the substance of my claim and went straight to name calling.

Tim Hardcastle - Your content-free whining does not really answer my question.

Cornell Anthony - “Your content-free whining does not really answer my question.”

Well let’s go back to the thing that you went away from

Reynold argued

“Humanist views just basically go by trying not to hurt other people. Do you have a problem with that?”

I asked him about boxing

You said that this was retarded, but didn’t really explain how it was retarded.

You just assume that when you say something you don’t have to give evidence for your claim and that is that. You remind me of a religious fundamentalist who takes his claims on faith.

If you want to swing that way then just admit it.

Tim Hardcastle - And are you genuinely confused by the question of boxing, or are you merely pretending to be?

Cornell Anthony - No

My question is that if ““Humanist views just basically go by trying not to hurt other people”

Then how does he feel about boxing, because boxers hurt each other.

So I wanted his opinion on that.

This doesn’t make me pretend anything

Cornell Anthony - It is ok to ask questions and be skeptical of what humanists have to say.

Skepticism is good Tim

I am not obligated to hear an argument from a humanist and blindly accept it as a good argument.

Tim Hardcastle - You’re also not obligated to be willfully stupid.

Cornell Anthony - When you can at least try to demonstrate my stupidity I’d be glad to show you where you are wrong.

Tim Hardcastle - Actually, demonstrating your stupidity is your job, and you’re doing just fine without my help.

Cornell Anthony - So I guess in other words you are all talk and no game

Tim Hardcastle - Those are indeed other words.

Cornell Anthony - Indeed….Someday Tim is going to learn how to make a claim and defend it.

Cornell Anthony - So does humanism believe in calling people stupid and not explaining how or why they are stupid?

Or are you not a humanist?

Tim Hardcastle - So, the mystery remains. On the one hand, much of Cornell’s tedious drivel does indeed seem to be actuated by a pathetic desire to annoy his betters. On the other hand, it is quite conceivable that he genuinely is as stupid as he comes across as being.

Cornell Anthony - “So, the mystery remains. On the one hand, much of Cornell’s tedious drivel does indeed seem to be actuated by a pathetic desire to annoy his betters. On the other hand, it is quite conceivable that he genuinely is as stupid as he comes across as being.”

Is my question too hard to answer to the point where you go off on a tangent? I can give you an easier one if you wish?

#16 Philip Rand (Guest) on Tuesday December 15, 2015 at 11:22pm

Well Dr Law… you have stated in the past that John Lennox is the “nicest” man in the world…

John Lennox has a similar view of Hell condemnation as Craig…based on evidence, i.e. so in your case you would be condemned because you know the Christian gospel in detail and even work at a Catholic Theological college… you know the Christian message so much that you have created an evil god theology in opposition to it…

I mean, CFI even sponsored a Satanic Mass!

But, what is interesting is that you would not call John Lennox bonkers…

#17 Randy on Tuesday December 15, 2015 at 11:57pm

“Atheists should not suggest that religious folk are stupid. Unfortunately, many do. While there is some evidence that a lower IQ correlates…”

We know that the IQ tests only measure certain kinds of intelligence… the sort that can be easily measured in an hour or two with pencil and paper.

But believing in what amount to fairy tales, merely because one’s parents told one to (and this is almost always the reason) is stupid.  It reveals a process of learning by memorization, rather than a process of learning by finding out.  A person may know a great many things, and may know how to do a great many things, but can still be as dumb as a post.

#18 Philip Rand (Guest) on Wednesday December 16, 2015 at 2:15am

Randy… Why be so disparaging of “fairy tales”?

Dr Law uses a fairy tale in the article to make a point:

“In Hans Christian Anderson’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, the small boy who points and laughs breaks the spell: he allows everyone else watching the naked Emperor to see how they have been duped, to recognise the absurdity of their situation.”

Wouldn’t this suggest that a fairy tale does offer a truth about the world?

What Dr Law fails to mention is that Anderson also wrote “The Snow Queen”

Which ends with the grandmother quoting from the Bible:

“Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 18:3).”

This means that the “Emperor’s New Clothes” can be “interpreted” in many ways…

#19 cornell (Guest) on Wednesday December 16, 2015 at 10:16am

Philip you are a good debator who makes a lot of thought provoking points.

#20 Stephen Law (Guest) on Wednesday December 16, 2015 at 10:36am

Are you being facetious Cornell?

#21 cornell (Guest) on Thursday December 17, 2015 at 8:53am


But keep in mind that I said he makes a lot of thought provoking points rather than everything he says us thought provoking

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