Here’s my interview with Seth Yoder of Leaders in Free Thought in Colorado. My favorite interview I’ve done.
SETH: I’m speaking with my guest, Luke…
SETH: Muehlhauser. Wonderful. Is that German?
SETH: Right on.
LUKE: What’s Yoder there, buddy?
SETH: Yoder is Amish.
LUKE: Definitely is.
SETH: Or at least I’m told. So… you run a site called CommonSenseAtheism. It’s really a wonderful site, got a lot of content on it. Over 500 debates, some book reviews, your own essays and opinions and podcasts dealing with philosophy and morality, and I’m sure I’m leaving something out. How did you get the idea to do something like this?
LUKE: Well, I had recently gone through a deconversion from evangelical Christianity to atheism, so I wanted to explain to people why that had happened, and also I saw that a lot of the debate between believers and non-believers was not of the quality that I would like it to be. There was a lot of sniping or people who were not interested in how the arguments worked but just wanted to say that all of their arguments worked and none of the arguments from the other side had any force at all, and I wanted to take an approach that was more sympathetic to the worldviews of others that I disagreed with. So I thought there was a gap for me to fill in taking that kind of approach this debate between non-belief and belief.
SETH: On your website you say: “Right now the ethical theory that seems most plausible to me is desire utilitarianism (aka desirism), and the next most plausible is error theory.” For someone like me who’s not very philosophically literate, what do those terms mean, and why do you find them compelling?
LUKE: The easier one to explain is error theory. This is a theory that was propounded by J.L. Mackie, and today the leading proponent is Richard Joyce. It’s basically a two-step argument. The first step is that morality is essentially committed to something-or-other – like categorical imperatives or moral absolutism or this kind of thing.
The second step is that that thing – that morality is essentially committed to – is false. So all of moral theory is in error.
The way J.L. Mackie explained this is that it’s very much like the way most atheists think about God. The God concept is essentially committed to this being that’s omniscience or omnipotent or supernatural, and then we’re gonna say, “Well, there is no supernatural. So God talk is fundamentally in error.”
So error theory is basically atheism about morality. It’s non-belief in morality – because there’s nothing that exists that fits that description. So that’s what error theory is.
Desirism is a different account of morality that is much harder to explain in short time. The only thing I can say about desirism very quickly is that it’s a theory that places moral condemnation and moral praise at the center of the moral theory.
It says the only reasons for action that exist come from desires. It might be nice if there were such things as intrinsic values, but in fact there aren’t. It would be nice or make moral theory easier if there were such things as categorical imperatives but there just aren’t. It would make moral theory very simple if there were divine commands that could serve as reasons for action, but divine commands do not exist.
A lot of the proposed reasons for action just don’t exist. So all we’ve got left is desires. My desire for coffee is a reason for me to drink coffee. That’s not a controversial type of reason for action. But in the end it’s the only one I know how to defend. It’s the only one I think exists. Unless somebody gives me better evidence for the others.
So desirism is a moral theory built up explicitly and only from reasons for action that come from desires. This is drawing from a famous paper by Philippa Foot – she proposed that morality could be a system of hypothetical imperatives, which basically means reasons for action that come from desires. This was heretical, because most people think that if you’re going to talk about moral theory, you have to be talking about categorical imperatives or intrinsic value or something like that.
But Philippa Foot thought that they were wrong about that, and that we could develop a robust moral theory solely by talking about reasons for action that come from our desires. So I’m following Philippa Foot.
Interestingly, in her last book Philippa Foot recanted of her heresy and said “No, actually morality does have to come from categorical imperatives or something like that.” But there are a lot of people who stick by that original paper and think that we can develop a robust theory of morality from just reasons for action that come from desires. So that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to explain a moral theory that can make sense of moral practice and what we should and shouldn’t be doing with the only reasons for action that I know to exist, which are the reasons for action that come from desires.
SETH: You grew up in Cambridge, Minnesota?
LUKE: Lamebridge. Of 5,000 people. And one slow-ass train right through the middle of it.
SETH: You were the son of a pastor?
LUKE: I am the son of a pastor.
SETH: You attended Christian schools that taught creationism?
LUKE: That’s right.
SETH: Is it fair to say you were indoctrinated into the Christian faith?
SETH: I was also, like most people in America. I was indoctrinated into Methodism. I don’t know about you, but I hold some resentment towards my parents for doing that, and I give them a hard time about it sometimes. Do you hold resentment toward your parents?
LUKE: I don’t know whether I’m justified to hold resentment against them, but as a psychological fact I just don’t.
I have a lot of regrets. I wish I hadn’t spent 20 years learning creationism. Because I suddenly had to catch up on a lot of science that I had not been taught. I was really ignorant of science at age 19. Things like that, I wish I would have avoided.
On the other hand, being indoctrinated in that way may have made me more empathic towards believers, because I know what it’s like to experience God. I know what it’s like to be certain of your beliefs. I know what it’s like to live in a community of people where it’s affirmed over and over again.
I think the reason I don’t hold any resentment toward my parents is because they are very good parents, and very loving. The new that I’m an atheist and I reject all the values they raised me with is very difficult for them, but they’re handling it with incredible maturity, and we still love each other, we still have an open relationship, we still have an enjoyable relationship, so I don’t hold any resentment toward them, I can’t – they’re too cool for that.
SETH: Do you think your life now would be any different if you had been raised more secular?
LUKE: It would be radically different. The most probable thing is that if I had been raised more secular, I wouldn’t care so much about these issues, and I wouldn’t be talking to you about them. I suspect that the reason I’m passionate about bringing the good news of naturalism to people is because I lived as a Christian for 20 years, and I understand what it’s like to live in that way, and I had this rather traumatic experience of coming to know the truth, and saw a lot of benefits to my life because of that.
I don’t think I would be doing the things I do now if I had been raised a nonchalant secular person instead of being raised really dogmatically religious, and then having this crisis of faith and this really emotionally wrought experience of being ripped out of faith.
JERIC: I’d like to hear more about your deconversion…
LUKE: I was so in love with God, and so in love with Jesus. I really believed that God had rescued me from a tough time in my late teenage years where I was depressed for the awful fate of a tall white American male… very depressing.
But God rescued me from that by showing me the beauty of his creation, and showing me that it was a gift from him to me. And this understanding of the world pulled me out of my depression and made a big difference in my life. So I was on fire for God, and I wanted nothing but to be like Jesus to the people of a lost and hurting world.
The problem was that lots of different theologians and pastors had different ideas about who Jesus was. Did he have a social gospel? Was he really into metaphysics? Was he more focused on works or faith? Lots of debates. And I thought: “If I’m gonna be like Jesus, I have to figure out what Jesus was really like!”
So I looked at the historical Jesus: what is it that we know about Jesus when we do rigorous historical inquiry?
And I found a lot of stuff – even when reading evangelical Christian scholars – that we had never heard from the pulpit. Things that are well known to everyone who goes to seminary, including people like my father, but are not shared with the lay people in the church because it would be too threatening to them.
Things like: Paul and Jesus preached very different messages and it turns out that what’s practiced as Christianity today has more in common with the message of Paul than it does with the message of Jesus. That was disturbing and shocking to me. I studied more about this, and getting a different perspective than I had received from the pulpit challenged my faith, and that led me into Christian apologetics because I wanted to bolster my faith and come up with “What’s the great arguments for why I should believe even though there’s all this disturbing data from Historical Jesus studies?”
In the end, when I was comparing the apologetics of Christian philosophers like William Lane Craig and Richard Swinburne to the very simple, no-nonsense of somebody like Dan Barker, the atheists just had a better argument.
This was terrifying for me. I didn’t want it at all. I would pray to somehow magically take this stuff from my brain that I had learned, so that I wouldn’t remember it, and I could just go back to being in love with God and on fire for Jesus. But that didn’t happen, and I couldn’t unlearn what I had learned.
That was very depressing, and then about a month later I discovered that billions of atheists had had plenty of meaning and purpose and morality for thousands of years without deities, and then I was like, “Oh! Actually this isn’t so bad.”
And I’ve gotten a number of benefits from not believing in gods since then, so I want to share that with other people.
SETH: You seem to be quite a fan of the Christian apologist William Lane Craig. Why?
LUKE: Well, “quite a fan” is an interesting way to put.
I engage his work a lot for a couple of reasons. He’s got a Ph.D. related to the historical Jesus and a Ph.D. in analytic philosophy related to arguing for theism. So he’s supremely qualified and he published in academic journals.
But he also does very good work popularizing these arguments for a lay audience. And because he’s written so much, and it’s easy to tell what his views and arguments are on things, he’s really easy to engage. And, people are very familiar with him, so if I can talk about why William Lane Craig’s arguments fail, I can reach a lot of people, whereas I’m not going to reach them if I explain why Peter van Inwagen’s arguments fail, because nobody has ever heard of him.
So that’s one reason I engage William Lane Craig.
The reason you might call me a “fan” even though I disagree with so much and think much of the way he thinks is really improper is because he does make a serious effort to engage the arguments in a way that a lot of atheists do not.
Honestly, in a lot of debates with atheists, it’s William Lane Craig who is being more logical and more faithful to the arguments than the atheist opponent is. A lot of that just has to do with the fact that he’s better philosophically trained, so he thinks like a philosopher, but I really think that should put some atheists to shame. If they really think their’s is the rational position, they should be able to win on grounds of argument and evidence and logic, and when they don’t, it shows that we are probably just arguing from a psychological perspective: “We know we’re right, and he’s obviously wrong, and here are the reasons why, and I don’t really have to take the logic or the arguments seriously or study these issues.”
I think that reveals that when we talk about searching after truth, we’re mostly not. It’s really hard to actually be someone who seeks after truth. I really feel like a seek after truth, but I think a lot of the time I’m not, and it just feels that way. That’s how I interpret the data from the psychological literature. I think the way the debate goes between theists and atheists reveals that psychology very crisply.
So I admire the way that William Lane Craig uses logic and engages the arguments and I think he’s wrong, but I think he does a better job than most of the atheists he debates.
SETH: How does one “win” a debate?
LUKE: A lot of it has to do with presentation and confidence and the way that you rephrase at the end of every section of the debate why you’re ahead. William Lane Craig does that very well.
But another way that William Lane Craig wins a debate is not just in the presentation but that he literally gives better arguments. And it’s not because the theistic arguments are right, it’s because the people he’s debating are not very familiar with the arguments at all.
So for example, the atheist will give the problem of evil, and William Lane Craig will give skeptical theism or the free will defense, and the atheist will misinterpret these and give a response that is totally irrelevant, which is very frustrating because this is Problem of Evil 101 stuff, folks. If you’re going to be debating these issues… this is what you read on the Wikipedia page. You should be expecting skeptical theism and free will defense. This is really easy stuff.
It’s like Craig has the first six moves of the chess game memorized, and the atheist has the first one, and then after that they’re confused or don’t know how to respond. So in many cases, William Lane Craig wins the debate that way – by giving better arguments, and by not getting good responses from the atheist, who is unfamiliar with the arguments.
SETH: I’ve seen two debates. One was with Hitchens at BIOLA. Another was with Bart Ehrman… I remember most vividly the one with Hitchens. He comes out. He has five arguments. They’re really good from a theistic perspective. And then he just keeps repeating those arguments, and he doesn’t address anything that Hitchens says. And then the last time he’s up, he proselytizes, and drops the arguments altogether, and says “Forget the debate, guys, what really matters is your relationship with Jesus.”
And that seems to me like a Hail Mary. And he does it with Ehrman, too. The last time he speaks, he’ll drop his arguments and proselytize and go for the Hail Mary. Is that really good debating technique?
LUKE: I would challenge you to rewatch those debates and watch for this: What happens in the Hitchens debate is that at the opening for each of his speeches in the debate, William Lane Craig quotes Hitchens’ arguments almost verbatim, and then gives a response for why they don’t work or why they aren’t relevant to the case. This was, in my interpretation, so devastating that Hitchens actually ceded the final section of his debate time and didn’t use it. So Craig had nothing left to respond to, so he had plenty of time to proselytize.
A similar thing happened in the Ehrman case. The highlight of that debate was when Ehrman gave Hume’s basic argument against the idea that we could have historical evidence for the occurrence of a miracle. Most of the literature in the last 20 years on Hume’s argument has focused on a mathematical tool called Bayes’ Theorem. Ehrman was unaware of this, apparently, because Craig pointed it out and correctly showed that Hume’s original formulation of the problem could potentially be overcome by Bayes’ Theorem. Ehrman had no idea what Craig was talking about, and obviously hadn’t read anything on Hume since, probably, Hume, and was shown to be not up on the arguments.
Again, in that debate with Ehrman, Craig repeated Ehrman’s arguments at the beginning of each of his speeches and gave a rebuttal to them, and again by the end of the debate was so far ahead that he had time to stand there and proselytize.
That’s how I saw it. Listeners can go to those two debates and see which way they interpret it.
SETH: Do you think debates really matter? Do they change people’s opinions?
LUKE: I think they do. Especially debates on college campuses.
College is when our minds and attitudes are open to exploring new things. Do we want to be like our parents? Do we want to think differently? Do we want to think like that peer group? Do we want to think like this peer group? When you’re presented with new ideas from smart and charismatic people, I think that can have a big effect.
I doubt people convert on the spot, but I think a lot of seeds are planted. I know from a couple of people who do debates that they get many letters later – sometimes years later – saying, “I remember the debate you had with Eddie Tabash, and it really had an impact on my thinking.”
So apparently they do have a big effect, especially when they happen at college campuses when our minds are open to change.
SETH: In recent years, there’s been the rise of the New Atheism. I’ve read statistics that a few years ago the non-religious portion of the United States was around 8%, and now it’s around 16%. To me, as an atheist, that’s heartening.
But at the same time, if I zoom out and look at the big picture… since the beginning of recorded history there has been dissent from religion, dating back to Epicurus?
LUKE: Sure, much earlier. Democritus and many figures in ancient India. Ancient India was largely atheist.
SETH: And then of course Darwin comes along with evolution in the 1800s. Which would seem to be the nail in the coffin of any religion. But still it persists, and strives! Why do you think that is?
LUKE: There’s a lot of interesting work going on right now about why it is that we are predisposed to religious thinking. I don’t know which theory is correct.
One theory is that it’s an evolutionary biproduct. One theory is that it’s actually evolutionarily adaptive. One theory is that is develops in culture based on other types of things that are adaptive, for example what Michael Shermer calls our hyperactive agency detectors, where we just assume everything is an agent instead of a natural cause because that’s a better mistake to make.
If I’m lying down sleeping and I hear a stick break in the woods, I’m way better off if I make the mistake of thinking it’s an agent – like a tiger – than I am in making the mistake thinking it’s nothing, and then the tiger eats me. Assuming everything to be agency is better for your survival. Maybe religion is a biproduct of that.
Maybe it has to do with the fact that we dream, and it seems like dead ancestors are visiting us in some way, but not in their physical body, but we definitely experienced them last night in some way. Maybe it’s an extension of that.
It’s hard to say, there are many interesting theories out there, I’m not sure which one is going to be correct.
But there do seem to be many things about humanity that pulls us to religion. But luckily, we now have very good data that it’s not essential to the human condition. We can overcome religion and live without religion and be very happy.
This is especially evidenced in Northern Europe, where they don’t believe in gods or religion, but they have some of the most healthy democracies in the world there, with excellent health care and human welfare and security and prosperity, and they do it all without deities.
SETH: You sparked a small online controversy with one of your blog posts over sexy scientists.
LUKE: Well I published a fun little post of some female scientists to remind people that females are in science, and they were ones that I also happen to think are sexually attractive – a list of 15 sexy scientists and then the last one was P.Z. Myers as a joke.
And I was immediately attacked by a huge portion of the atheist blogosphere, saying I’m objectifying women, and this is harmful to women. It wasn’t something I’d really thought about that much, so I was interested to see if it was the case that, “Well, maybe they’re right. Maybe I shouldn’t be making posts like that. I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it much.” So it seemed plausible to me that I could be wrong.
So I went to the different blogs where I was being criticized, and asked for the arguments – the reasons why posting that list was so harmful.
A lot of the people said explicitly that they didn’t care what the arguments were, they just know that they know that they know that it’s wrong. That was disappointing. Especially from supposedly rational, skeptical, atheists.
A lot of the other arguments were juts really bad, so I decided to seek out arguments from a professional philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, who writes on objectification. I explained why I didn’t think her argument was any good, either.
Then I found another article that did convince me there might be something wrong with the post, and then I apologized, but that really didn’t make anybody happy; everyone was still pissed at me.
SETH: The controversy to me seemed absurd. Like, one of the arguments was that if you call a female sexy, that shows a presumption of sexual availability. Which is absurd.
LUKE: Another one that was weird was that people said that when I was calling women I was sexy I was “exercising male privledge.” As if women do not have the ability to call men sexy back? I don’t know. That confused me.
SETH: Another one I heard is that if you call someone sexy, that presupposes that that is their own value.
LUKE: Yeah, it makes no sense.
SETH: Maybe the most compelling argument against your blog post was about consent. You posted their pictures and called them sexy without their consent. Which is reasonable. However, if you’re talking about pictures without consent, then every journalistic enterprise should be shut down.
LUKE: A lot of them, especially on the internet. These were photos that were already available on other websites. It wasn’t photos that they didn’t want people to see, apparently. But yeah, that was more persuasive to me than the other reasons that were given.
SETH: You run a blog, produce podcasts, speaking engagements, a day job. Where do you get the time and energy to do this?
LUKE: What I do seems impressive to some people but is way, way easier than, for example, trying to be a husband and a father and go to school and work a job as well. I don’t think I’m super-productive. I think it mostly helps that I am not a father or a husband.
But my other response is one that P.Z. Myers gives when he’s asked how he produces so much content, which is: “Well, how can other people waste so much frickin’ time?”
SETH: Reddit.com. That’s how I do it.
What’s next for you?
LUKE: I do. I’ve been working on a website about naturalism as a worldview with some friends of mine. I’m really excited about it.
Atheism is a narrow topic. I’m glad I chose the blog title ‘Common Sense Atheism’ because I rode the wave of interest in that term – atheism – that came with the bestselling books from the New Atheists, but I don’t really care all that much about non-belief in gods. That’s an empty thing to care about.
What I really care about is the positive worldview naturalism – this way of looking at the world as something that we can discover best by means of science. Science happens to be the thing that works best for figuring out how the world works. What happens when we take that seemingly very obvious fact and apply to the way we try to get truth about morality, the way we try to get truth about meaning and purpose, how we answer questions about epistemology in general or reasons or politics. What happens when you take science seriously, and apply it to your whole worldview?
I think a lot of really good things fall out of that, and it’s already the dominant perspective movement in analytic philosophy in the West. So I just want to translate all that for people because I think it’s useful to people. Much of the website is about scientific self help! There’s lots of good scientific research about how we can achieve our dreams, achieve our goals, and it’s almost never mentioned in the popular books, because those are written to sell, not to help.
That’s a practical benefit you get if you take science seriously. Other benefits are too numerous to name. You won’t be withholding medicine from your child because you have an unscientific belief about vaccines creating autism or something like that. There’s many benefits when you take science seriously.
SETH: Thank your for speaking with me today.
LUKE: Been a pleasure, Seth.
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