The Games Some Atheists Play

Some friends have encouraged me not to bother with the Harris Challenge thing any further, for reasons I have already stated, among others. I’m still not sure about that matter, but I do agree that life is too short to waste significant parts of it arguing with those whose minds are made up to disagree with you in their own silly ways. There’s no point in trying to teach everyone out there to think clearly, especially those who have an existential commitment to not doing so. This goes not only for “new atheists” but also for hard core Tea Partiers, for jihadi Muslims, for converts to most cults and for those convinced that they don’t have to worry about the problems they are creating for themselves because of Jesus’ immanent Second Coming.

My primary goals in life as a philosopher and as a post-evangelical theist these days are:
– to establish as much peace and mutual understanding as I can with those around me –– including those who have chosen to believe differently than I have,
– to learn to be more compassionate on others, regardless of their beliefs,
– to try to empower systems of justice against those who carelessly treat other people as disposable convenience items,
– to encourage and enable as many as possible of those who share my basic beliefs to do the same,
– and to encourage responsible and sustainable behavior and cultural practices among those of all different sorts of beliefs.
I honestly believe that is how God would have me live. For those of you who don’t believe in any God, or who believe that your god would have you act according to different sorts of priorities (like “smiting the unbelievers”), I will continue attempting to relate to you according to these principles regardless of our differences.

This creates a certain number of practical dilemmas for me in terms of which arguments are worth diving into and which are worth sitting out. When are there genuine opportunities for building mutual understanding and working together for peace, justice and sustainability; and when are there just conflicts spurred on by those addicted to debate as a contact sport? It’s never going to be a black and white matter, or an easy call for me to make regarding my own personal balance issues.

This came to mind yet again this week when a virtual acquaintance of mine, who is quite the confirmed atheist, floated a link clearly intended to evangelize for his world view –– not so subtly hinting that atheism is the only completely rational perspective on transcendental and moral issues, and those who disagree probably cannot outsmart a goat. How far do I really want to bother with replying to such silliness?

Such a cute mascot for atheism...

Such a cute mascot for atheism…

The only reason I can think of to bother at all is that my virtual acquaintance might really be so naïve as to see this as an honest means of encouraging discussion on the matter rather than as a polemic move more likely to shut down productive dialog on such matters, and I might be able to convince him otherwise. So to unpack this matter for his benefit, with hopes of increasing possibilities for respectful dialogue in the future, I’ll take the trouble this time.

The link in question, which really doesn’t deserve to be promoted, asks a series of 17 questions. The first –– whether or not you believe there is a God –– is the only one not presented in strictly black and white terms. That in itself tells you something about the lack of subtlety to expect here. So OK, yes, I believe there is a God.

Question 2: “If God does not exist then there is no basis for morality.” True or false?

This is already getting silly. Careful consideration shows that there are numerous bases for morality possible. How sustainable and consistent each alternative basis happens to be is a different question. Is there any basis for considering morality to be more absolute than market phenomena which does not postulate either a God or some other transcendental “placeholder” for God? That obviously doesn’t lend itself to being a simple yes or no question, but the quiz-makers obviously don’t want to explore such complications in their beliefs here. In any case, let’s say that this is false.

Question 3: “Any being which it is right to call God must be free to do anything.”

And here we have the old “Can God make a rock so big that he can’t lift it?” shtick. The debate over what is properly meant by “freedom” is going to screw up any abstract conclusions drawn from whatever I answer here, but for purposes of playing along let’s say “true”.

Question 4: “Any being which it is right to call God must want there to be as little suffering in the word as is possible.”

Here we have a proposal that some instinctively think might provide a valid replacement for the idea of God: reducing or eliminating suffering. This I’ve already stated my disagreement with Harris & Co. over. Obviously suffering is nothing to be promoted for its own sake, but that does not make its reduction or elimination the highest of virtues, either for God or for mankind –– since rather obviously the most efficient way of eliminating suffering is to eliminate all who are capable of suffering. By that logic the world would be a better place if life never would have come into existence. So without digging deeper into the inconsistencies this entails for many atheists’ presuppositions here, false.

Question 5: “Any being which it is right to call God must have the power to do anything.”

This is essentially a restatement of question 3. Power and freedom are going to be closer in functional meaning to each other in this context than the various definitions of either freedom or power will be to each other. The same silly question of what sort of rocks God might make demonstrates the trivial potential of this wording as well. But given the naïve character of the question I’ll again let it slide as “true”.

Question 6: “Evolutionary theory maybe false in some matters of detail, but it is essentially true.”

Apparently tossed in to weed out and identify strict fundamentalists. Obviously this lacks definition. Is it asking if random mutation and selection through competition for survival explain everything about the variety of biological life we find in the world today? Does “evolution” as conceptualized here entail its own sense of purpose and direction for biological life? Are we to take this question to include within the concept of “evolution” the various theories of the initial origin of the universe? Well… rather than digging through all the conceptual problems here, I’ll take the charitable view that “evolution” is taken to mean a collection of scientific theories regarding how the world continues to change and develop. Obviously many such theories are in a rather “imperfect state” at present, but I’d be willing to grant that more often than not they reflect an honest pursuit of understanding of the dynamics involved in such matters. So let’s say true here.

“DANGER! No injuries so far, but watch out! Danger ahead!”

So the game is satisfied with my performance, but it’s playfully suggesting that it’s still gonna get me. How amusing.

Question 7: “It is justifiable to base one’s beliefs about the external world on a firm, inner conviction, regardless of the external evidence, or lack of it, for the truth or falsity of these convictions.”

In other words, do I believe in the absolute primacy of a posteriori rational evidence as the final determinant of metaphysical reality? Um… not really. The problems with such a position are rather conveniently papered over in the wording of the question. Good way to catch some people out I guess. I can sort of expect the quiz to draw some unwarranted conclusions about me on this matter, and if I was taking this seriously that might bother me, but no worries on that account.

Question 8: “Any being that it is right to call God must know everything that there is to know.”

Can God still be God if it is possible for him (or her or it) not to be aware of particular details? I shy away from the sort of thinking that reduces God to a rational, mathematical abstraction in these sorts of ways. By that sort of logic it can easily be proven that I don’t exist. But in practical terms a god who can be tricked by clever manipulation and lack of awareness of potential outcomes really isn’t worth worshipping, so for practical purposes let’s I’ll leave this one as “true”.

Question 9: “Torturing innocent people is morally wrong.”

Another hint at the obviousness of believing in utilitarianism as more morally binding than theism: setting an absolute standard of non-suffering that God would have to submit to in order to be truly good, creating at least a paradox regarding God’s freedom and all that. Open questions as to the meaning of “innocence” in this case go without saying. Behind this we have the question of whether belief in morality requires belief in some form of justice inevitably coming to those who cause others to suffer for their own selfish reasons. But such belittled complications aside, no, I do not believe in the justifiability of randomly waterboarding those who have been designated as our enemies, either for pragmatic reasons or based on some theory that “God says we should.” At least in a prima facie way I would agree that it is wrong to torture those who have had no direct role in causing suffering for others at least.  Thus true.

Question 10: “If, despite years of trying, no strong evidence or argument has been presented to show that there is a Loch Ness monster, it is rational to believe that such a monster does not exist.”

Ah, the old “compare God to mythical creatures” shtick, searching for potential contradiction with #7. What are we going to do about this? How are we to explain the persistent beliefs and “superstitions” regarding the “monster” in such a case? Can we take a lack of evidence as evidence of a lack in such cases? Here I would really like to remain entirely agnostic. The possibility of an exotic though now extinct species in the body of water in question is theoretically possible, as is a mass hoax. In practice if I were to go out boating on the loch in question the least of my fears would be that of encountering Nessie, but I don’t believe that there is any strong proof that such a creature either has or has not existed at some point in history. I can pretty much count on the game manufacturing problems on this however I answer. Playing off the abstraction factor of question 7 then, I’ll go with false.

Question 11: “People who die of horrible, painful diseases need to die in such a way for some higher purpose.”

In other words do I believe God gives himself the right to torture people to realize his own ends? Obviously some major complications and qualifications are being papered over, and simple yes or no answers aren’t really going to work here either. To address the proposition itself rather than its implications though, no, I don’t believe that every case of unjust suffering in our world must inevitably have been caused to serve a higher purpose. I believe that some people’s suffering can serve important purposes –– many times in terms of building compassion in others –– but I don’t consider that to be inevitable. Yet in spite of that I still believe that justice is a cause worth pursuing. Conceptualizing this in a way that works both metaphysically and normatively is equally challenging, regardless of what transcendental entities one does or does not believe in. I challenge anyone to disagree with me about that. So anyway, leaving that as false…

Question 12: “If God exists she could make it so that everything now considered sinful becomes morally acceptable and everything that is now considered morally good becomes sinful.”

Yet another variation on questions 3 and 5, this time specifically framed in moral terms, though logically no different and no less trivial in its hypothetical structure. (Can you imagine a quiz like this with no hypothetical questions?) Oh well… let’s go with the same response as to the other silly questions of this sort…

“You’re doing brilliantly! Only five more questions to go and not so much as a scratch so far! Well done!”

Yes, I’m totally flattered…

Question 13: “It is foolish to believe in God without certain, irrevocable proof that God exists.”

Pascal’s prisoner’s dilemma comes to mind, as does my old friend Lyman’s old adage, “For those who do not believe, no proof is possible; for those who do believe, no proof is necessary.” I get the idea that whoever wrote this question doesn’t understand much about the nature of beliefs, etc. I’m going to say “false”.

Question 14: “As long as there are no compelling arguments or evidence that show that God does not exist, atheism is a matter of faith, not rationality.”

Ah, playing with the old equivocation on the meaning of “faith” thing. Then there’s the matter of determining what constitutes a “compelling argument” in such cases. Are we talking about an argument where anyone who does not come to the same conclusion as the one making the argument must inherently be dishonest or stupid not to see things the same way? Or are we talking about an argument which leaves the unbeliever in question feeling like for him personally more things fall into place on a non-believing premise than on a believing premise? I am quite convinced that atheism is a matter of personal ideological choice in pretty much every case I’ve ever encountered. Does that make it a matter of faith? Depends on your definitions. Does that make in non-rational or irrational. I wouldn’t want to make any insulting claims against my friends’ cognitive processes on that one, just as they would not want to make such insulting claims against mine, I’m sure. Thus quite the crap question here. Flip a coin: heads for true… tails: false.

Question 15: “The serial rapist Peter Sutcliffe had a firm, inner conviction that God wanted him to rape and murder prostitutes. He was, therefore, justified in believing that he was carrying out God’s will in undertaking these actions.”

The silliest question this far here –– and that’s quite a significant superlative! He could also claim a conviction that the CIA wanted him to rape and murder the women in question. That wouldn’t make him justified in doing so, nor would it prove that the CIA does not exist. It merely demonstrates that he is a paranoid schizophrenic. Dum-ti-dum-dumb… false.

Question 16: “If God exists she would have the freedom and power to create square circles and make 1 + 1 = 72.”

Postulating yet another hypothetical rock for God to make and lift for the cynic’s amusement. Is there really a point to this silliness? Out comes my coin again… heads this time.

“You’ve just bitten a bullet! In saying that God has the freedom and power to do that which is logically impossible (like creating square circles), you are saying that any discussion of God and ultimate reality cannot be constrained by basic principles of rationality. This would seem to make rational discourse about God impossible. If rational discourse about God is impossible, there is nothing rational we can say about God and nothing rational we can say to support our belief or disbelief in God. To reject rational constraints on religious discourse in this fashion requires accepting that religious convictions, including your religious convictions, are beyond any debate or rational discussion. This is to bite a bullet.”

Yeah, whatever. If I thought this were a sensible question to begin with I’d take such a critique almost seriously.

Question 17: “It is justifiable to believe in God if one has a firm, inner conviction that God exists, even if there is no external evidence that God exists.”

Interesting rhetorical variations in comparison with #14: “no compelling arguments or evidence” vs. “no external evidence” and “inner conviction” in contrast with vague assertions of rational processes for the atheist. If you want an example of the difference between rhetorical implication and philosophical argument, this would be a good place to look. Should I flip again… or just ignore the rhetoric and give the believer the same dignity in choosing his ideological position I would give to an atheist? May as well go with the latter…

“You’ve just taken a direct hit! Earlier you said that it is not justifiable to base one’s beliefs about the external world on a firm, inner conviction, paying no regard to the external evidence, or lack of it, for the truth or falsity of this conviction, but now you say it’s justifiable to believe in God on just these grounds. That’s a flagrant contradiction!”

Oh dear! Whoa is me! Given a choice between considering the structure of the rhetorical attack to have factual significance and looking beyond the silly rhetorical structure to allow for dignified and informed ideological choice, I’ve been found guilty of not realizing the factual implications of the rhetoric being used! I’m so embarrassed… not.

“You have reached the end! Congratulations! You have made it to the end of this activity. You took 1 direct hit and you bit 1 bullets. The average player of this activity to date takes 1.37 hits and bites 1.09 bullet. 576888 people have so far undertaken this activity. Click the link below for further analysis of your performance and to see if you’ve won an award.”

Oh goody goody! I’m smarter than your average bear… or theist. I wonder what I might have won!

“Congratulations! You have been awarded the TPM medal of distinction! This is our second highest award for outstanding service on the intellectual battleground. The fact that you progressed through this activity being hit only once and biting very few bullets suggests that your beliefs about God are well thought out and almost entirely internally consistent.”

Well that’s… might white of you! I’m so glad you almost entirely approve of my beliefs… and I hope that someday you find your own consistent and intelligent way of expressing your beliefs to those who don’t share them…

Meanwhile, I hope that those who are prone to spreading such “games” can see just a little more clearly now their limitations in terms of building sincere dialog. This propaganda exercise doesn’t really stimulate thought so much as reflect a lack thereof regarding significant matters of definition. It vacillates between insulting and condescending with a rather unjustified air of authority, as though only atheists like them can be “real philosophers”.

If you just want to mess around with such games on the same level as automated quizzes which tell you things like “What sort of Jerry Springer guest are you?” or “What sort of Amish teenager are you?” I’d almost be willing to grant it the same sort of mostly harmlessly offensive status… were it not for a couple of factors: First of all those other offensive quizzes are not trying to sell subscriptions to a service to make you a better Amish teenager or Springer guest. But more importantly, I find the reinforcing of a false dichotomy between faith in God and philosophical thinking to be not only distasteful, but harmful to those on both sides of the mythical divide thus established.

You still want to defend the fun and utility of such a game? Not much else I can do for you.



Filed under Philosophy, Pop culture, Religion, Respectability, Sustainability, Tolerance

3 responses to “The Games Some Atheists Play

  1. New atheists have are stereotyped as being shrill, pushy, and insulting.

    Probably true of many atheists, but it is probably also true of just about any other generic group.

    But I think atheists are also thought to be shrill, pushy, and insulting when nothing like that is happening like that at all.

    I know I posted a link to the test/quiz that David mentioned, and he said he would write about it.

    And yet he says how I somehow implied that theists are idiots and the only rational view is atheism. Nope. I never implied that at all.

    He said that this game was propaganda for some view. Nope, most atheists do quite poorly on it and I am pretty sure theists can get a perfect score on it as well.

    At the end he said something about how theists can be rational and don’t need to just rely on faith. I never implied that theists can’t be rational. The game never implied anything like that either.

    David somehow read into my simple statements and a link to a game to be some horribly stereotypical and insulting atheist garbage, and yet nothing in the reality of what I said or what the game said seems to be a good reason for him to think such a thing. I am the one who is insulted by him thinking such terrible things about me out of nowhere.

    • Thanks for replying, James. I agree that there are pushy, shrill and insulting individuals arguing for many different positions, and that atheists certainly don’t have a monopoly on this. My point is that this “game” is a counter-productive means of making such an argument. I didn’t accuse *you* of saying that theists are idiots; I accused the game of implying that theistic views are inherently irrational in a ham-handed way, and encouraged you to stop promoting it on that basis.

      To quote out the discussion that led to my writing this, my original response to this quiz was: “Mildly absurd piece of polemic gamesmanship that really shouldn’t be called philosophy. Reducing complex issues to a series of binary choices is a good way to take shots at your enemies, but not a good way to search for deeper understanding of complex ideological issues.”

      To that, another polemicist (not James) replied, “All I see David typing is, ‘I have no reasoned responses to logical proofs, and so will reject them with a trivial handwave and quick ad hominem.'”

      James then piped in with, “I think it is quite interesting and can spark philosophical conversation. (…) it does say why it finds our answers to be problematic (…) So, [the other polemicist] is right that arguments were presented. (…) I would be interested in knowing what your results are, especially if you don’t agree with what it said about them.” At which point I promised this blog.

      My point is not to counter-personalize this, but to demonstrate that this quiz really is not a neutral means of investigating issues but really a clumsy piece of propaganda that reinforces harmful stereotypes. I honestly don’t think James realized that in posting it. I’m not suggesting that he should take it down. I’m just hoping that he would realize the prejudices inherent in its structure and stop thinking of it as a neutral tool to spark philosophical conversation, which it clearly is not.

  2. Thank you or clearing all that up, David.

    However I am still not convinced that the test is used as propaganda or to promote a certain worldview. Theists can pass the test, and atheists tend not to pass it. The test is mainly just supposed to show when we contradict ourselves.

    I don’t think the test is supposed to show that there can’t be reasons to believe in god or anything like that. I don’t know why you think that.

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