Episode 015: Why become an atheist?

apologetics atheism Philosophy of Religion podcast

It’s back!

The last month has been pretty crazy for me: changing job and moving house being among the main culprits for this state of affairs. But after much ado, here it is, Episode 15! This time I’m asking a simple question: Why be an atheist? And if you’re not one, why become one? And if you are one, why try to persuade other people to become one?

I’ve started a new trend with this episode. Some previous episodes were just too long for a lot of listeners, so I’m making a fairly strict rule that episodes shall not exceed forty minutes. This one’s just under twenty eight minutes, so I’m off to a good start. Also, I’ll only be putting episodes up each fortnight rather than weekly, just because I don’t have quite as much time as I did before – plus with all these people downloading an episode every week I literally couldn’t afford the bandwidth!

So here it is, enjoy. As always, comments either here or by email to be discussed on the show are more than welcome. And as always – subscribe using the iTunes store if you can.

Glenn Peoples

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{ 18 comments… add one }
  • JardinPrayer September 2, 2008, 2:36 pm

    Well, you’ll no doubt be pleased to know that I am linking to both your blog (specifically) and your site (more generally) on my own blog (www.jardinprayer.wordpress.com). After you get over that thrill, take a breath and read on. I listened to a full five and one-half minutes of your podcast this evening! Now wait…before you go “pfft,” or whatever, let me say that I wanted to listen to the whole thing. I really did. But, even though you’ve elected to usher in a new era by keeping your podcasts under 40 minutes, I just cannot sit still and listen to audio for more than 5 or 6 minutes without glazing over. Either there needs to be video or the audio track has to be short. Really short. I know I have the liberty to browse the other 7 tabs open in my Firefox browser while I listen, but I have one of those brains that cannot read something while listening to something else. So, if I’m to give you my undivided attention, you’re gonna have to make sure the first 6 minutes of your podcasts are your best! I’m sure I made your day.

  • Glenn September 3, 2008, 10:00 pm

    Look what MTV has done.

  • brian September 4, 2008, 5:57 am

    Thanks for the podcast. Had me thinking of a wonderful article by William Cavanaugh- a must read- Does Religion Cause Violence? (http://www.catholicanarchy.org/cavanaugh/Cavanaugh%20-%20Does%20Religion%20Cause%20Violence.pdf) All-in-all i thought it was very helpful, although the analogy between the belief ‘Religion causes violence’ and ‘water is wet causes violence’ for example seems a bit much. I say this only because i wonder if it just isnt helpful to listeners who aren’t quite with you. Although you can make a case for comparing the logic of the two statements as supremely unsophisticated, in reality it shouldnt be too hard to empathize with those who are misguided to actually think religion causes violence. Certainly there are cases where religious factors have significantly contributed to violence, etc.

  • Mike September 4, 2008, 1:51 pm

    Thanks again for the wonderful podcast. I do have a complaint of sorts but it is much more of a complement….it depends how you take it, I guess. I am not very pleased to find out about your self imposed time limit. I really enjoyed the depth in which most of the first 14 casts got into. I fear that placing a limit may come at the cost of substance. I am not sure why you placed the limit and if it personal than please disregard all of my comments, but if it was because you thought that you were rambling or were losing some of us….you could not be more wrong. I found it refreshing to listen to a podcast that was both lucid and an in depth analysis of the issues. Most of the casts I listen to target more of a general audience and are most often very superficial. Again, if you cut the time short because of your new job, family, etc….please disregard my comments, but I can’t help it if I really enjoy your podcast!! Keep up the good work, looking forward to #16,

  • Glenn September 4, 2008, 10:57 pm

    Thanks for the encouraging comments guys.

    Mike – I appreciate your remarks on the time limit. I’ll bear that under consideration, and we’ll see what works. Maybe I’ll put some long ones out there as well, and maybe I’ll go back to the totally self indulgent rampages. Time will tell. πŸ™‚

  • Kenny September 5, 2008, 12:57 pm

    I liked the long podcasts too. I like to put something on that will last for a while while I putter around and do chores πŸ™‚

  • Mike September 6, 2008, 2:10 am

    Amen Kenny! πŸ˜†

  • Alex March 19, 2010, 11:50 am

    This was quite an absorbing podcast. The question “Why care if atheism is true?” is one that doesn’t get asked all that much in atheist/theist discussions.

    It’s kind of like asking why you should convince someone that they’re in the matrix, or Robert Nozick’s experience machine. Many would prefer not to enter Nozick’s experience machine, if given the choice, perhaps because people prefer their lives to have real consequences, that affect the lives of others.

    But anyway, it seems to me that the atheist could say one of two things in response to the question. First, that it is prima facie better to believe truths than falsehoods. This is one possible reason why we wouldn’t get into the experience machine, because a real life is intrinsically better than an illusory life. Second, that having true beliefs is better than having false beliefs because we base our actions on our beliefs, and so if we want to act effectively to achieve our goals then we should try to have true beliefs.

    By the way, with regards to what you said about Christian conservatives (am I remembering that right?) being happier, that may well be the case, but wouldn’t you agree that a pleasurable/happy life isn’t the same as a good life, and so while atheism may not make you happier, it may nonetheless be good for you?

    Just some ideas I’m throwing out.

  • Glenn March 19, 2010, 2:46 pm

    Thanks for your comments Alex πŸ™‚

    One thing I would ask is what good reasons an atheist could have for thinking that “it is prima facie better to believe truths than falsehoods.” Why’s that? There’s certainly no moral duty to believe only true things (if atheism is true), so it can’t be that, I would think. So in what other sense is it better?

  • Alex March 20, 2010, 1:32 am

    Hey Glenn.

    You ask why an atheist should believe or think that it’s better to have true beliefs than false beliefs. Well, if you believe that there are prima facie duties, then you may well believe that it is prima facie wrong to lie to people.

    W D Ross calls this the principle of fidelity, and distinguishes it from another prima facie duty to prevent harm, implying that there is something wrong about lying that goes beyond the harm that a lie causes. So, if you’re in a position where you could either lie to someone or tell the truth, and in both cases the amount of harm it would cause were equal, then you should favor telling the truth.

    If there is a prima facie duty to tell the truth rather than lie, then I think that it would be plausible to extend this duty to oneself: you shouldn’t lie to oneself, but face the truth. And denying what is evidently true, such as atheism, would in a sense be lying to oneself.

    But you might further ask why lying is prima facie bad in a godless world. If God exists, then He wants us and has created us to seek out the truth, and so lying goes against that. But what if God doesn’t exist?

    Well, it seems to me that, even if there isn’t a God, the universe appears to be a wondrous place, something worth studying and learning about, and that seems to me to be what gives us reason to prefer the truth over falsehood, if you put aside pragmatic considerations. Of course, we might find out that the world isn’t that great after studying it, and if that happens then I’ll have to reconsider my reasons for preferring truth over deception πŸ™‚

  • Glenn March 20, 2010, 2:04 am

    Alex, I don’t think there’s a particularly compelling argument from the duty to not lie to others to the conclusion that you should never allow yourself to believe things that aren’t true. So I don’t really think this response does the trick.

    As to the second issue you raise, whether or not the duty of truth telling really exists in a godless world, you appear to be saying that since the universe is so great, and it is worth learning about, which requires learning truth. But this just seems to suppose that if the truth is fsacinating or endearing, then we should learn it. But what if a collection of falsehoods is equally fascinating and endearing? It still seems like you’re appealing to an unpoken duty to represent reality as it really is.

  • Alex March 20, 2010, 2:33 am

    Glenn, you’re of course allowed not to find the duty not to lie to others a good reason not to deceive yourself. It might then be best to say that to the extent that someone does find the duty not to lie applicable to oneself, they have a good reason to prefer true beliefs to false ones. I don’t see why we shouldn’t apply the same duties we have to others to ourselves; this seems to me to be a corollary of the golden rule: treat others as you would treat yourself. If I have a duty not to deceive others, then why am I different?

    On the second issue, you raise a good point. It seems to me unlikely that any human being could construct a worldview that is false but just as fascinating or endearing as the world really is, given our limited capacities. As they say, truth is stranger than fiction! But I can’t deny that it is possible. Of course, in constructing such a worldview, one may well run into practical problems, as I stated in my first post. Maybe, if we don’t have a prima facie duty to follow the truth, which I’m not sure of, I can fall back on pragmatic reasons for accepting the truth.

    We often base our beliefs about ethics and politics on our beliefs about religion, or metaphysical concerns, so it’s important to get the foundations of a worldview right. This would be my main reason for accepting the truth of atheism, and trying to get other people to do so.

  • Glenn March 20, 2010, 2:42 am

    “I don’t see why we shouldn’t apply the same duties we have to others to ourselves”

    Think of it like this: I have a prima facie duty not to destroy someone else’s belongings. I have no such duty not to destroy my own belongings. I have a prima facie duty not to physically interefere with another person’s body. I have no such duty to my own body. So it’s coutnerintuitive to think that just because we have a duty to not lie to others, we must therefore have a duty to only believe true things.

    At very least, some fairly compelling reasons would need to be given for believing this otherwise strange claim.

    As for your final claim, you say that people tend to base their moral and political decisions on their worldview, so it’s important to get the basic facts right. But why? Are you sure that there are no false beliefs that might liead to desirable morality and politics? In fact, some atheists have claimed that although religion is false, it is a useful fiction just because it can support moral systems that atheism can’t.

  • Alex March 20, 2010, 3:43 am

    “At very least, some fairly compelling reasons would need to be given for believing this otherwise strange claim.”

    I’d say the same about theism πŸ™‚

    But again, maybe there are reasons that I’m unaware of, so I’m not willing to rule out that there is a prima facie reason to not deceive oneself. But I largely agree that it’s not the best reason for accepting atheism.

    “Are you sure that there are no false beliefs that might liead to desirable morality and politics?”

    I think this is the crux of the matter. If religion really was a necessary condition for morality or a beneficial society, then you might have a case for not evangelizing one’s atheism. But unless this can be shown to be the case, I find it more likely that the truth will best guide one’s morality than falsehood. All true beliefs are beneficial in that they allow us to best meet our goals, but not all false beliefs are as beneficial.

    Suppose that your neighbour believed there was a diamond in their garden, and they spent their life digging for it. Obviously it would be best to dissuade them of this belief, because they could be doing better things with their time. Similarly, many religious practices are ineffective if the religious belief undergirding them are false, i.e. faith healing, prayer, reading religious texts. You might argue that these things strengthen community, or hone one’s mind, but there are, I think, better ways to achieve those goals.

    I also believe that one can have a meaningful and good life if there is no God, and that moral realism is true. These are, perhaps, preconditions for having good reason to look into atheism and try to get other people to be atheists.

  • Glenn March 20, 2010, 11:51 am

    Alex, well if it comes down to whether or not theism is necessary for morality, the argument for that is compelling. I did a two part podcast series on it some times ago.

    But I don’t even think it comes down to that. The point is just that moral fictions – along with plenty of other fictions – could be conducive to one’s pleasure and one’s happy life just as much as the truth of the matter. That’s the crux. This is not to say that all falsehoods could do so (e.g. wasting one’s life in toil digging for a diamond that isn’t there). It’s only to say that many falsehoods could do this, and absent any moral compulsion to only pursue truth, why rock the boat?

  • Alex March 21, 2010, 12:04 am

    Glenn, unfortunately I haven’t listened to your series on morality yet, but I’ll try to do so.

    “It’s only to say that many falsehoods could do this, and absent any moral compulsion to only pursue truth, why rock the boat?”

    I think that, given the choice, most people would rather have true but discouraging beliefs, than false but pleasing beliefs. People value the truth more than fiction. This doesn’t mean that we have a moral compulsion to always follow the truth, but that the fact that people desire the truth is one reason to seek it.

    I also think that the majority of falsehoods people hold aren’t as conducive to a good life as the truth, even though it’s possible that they could be.

  • Glenn March 21, 2010, 12:45 am

    Oh, it’s quite possible indeed that people might, in theory at least, say that they would rather have the awful truth. But this doesn’t really seem enough to sustain the idea that atheists ought to be in the business of winning converts, for the simple reason that when it comes to religion, people who are religious seem to gain a great deal of happiness and hope from believing that it really is true. So they a) do think that they’ve got the truth (so they don’t think they’re missing out in that regard), and b) they find this belief set to be very encouraging.

    I think your last comment is pretty safe – hedging your bets and all! πŸ™‚

    If nothing else, I think this podcast episode shows that there are at least some very plausible reasons to hesitate before thinking that atheists should be convincing others to join their team.

  • Alex March 23, 2010, 2:42 am

    Well, I wouldn’t say that I want to win converts, that implies that I’d like people to be atheists whether or not it’s true. But of the religious people I know personally, most tell me that they wouldn’t be religious unless they thought it were true, and that the encouragement they get from religion is just a bonus.

    I certainly think that there are plausible reasons to consider the outcomes of pushing any view or belief, and that I’m not the only person that can hedge his bets!

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