A.N. Wilson’s Return to Christianity

by Luke Muehlhauser on June 25, 2009 in General Atheism

anwilsonA.N. Wilson (b. 1950) is a popular novelist and biographer. He grew up a Christian, but in the late 1980s he became an atheist, and published a pamphlet called Against Religion.

This year, he rediscovered his faith, and criticized both academic and popular atheists.

His original conversion to atheism was swift and self-confident:

By nature a doubting Thomas, I should have distrusted the symptoms when I underwent a “conversion experience” 20 years ago. Something was happening which was out of character – the inner glow of complete certainty, the heady sense of being at one with the great tide of fellow non-believers…

…I realized that after a lifetime of churchgoing, the whole house of cards had collapsed for me – the sense of God’s presence in life, and the notion that there was any kind of God, let alone a merciful God, in this brutal, nasty world. As for Jesus having been the founder of Christianity, this idea seemed perfectly preposterous. In so far as we can discern anything about Jesus from the existing documents, he believed that the world was about to end, as did all the first Christians. So, how could he possibly have intended to start a new religion for Gentiles, let alone established a Church or instituted the Sacraments? It was a nonsense, together with the idea of a personal God, or a loving God in a suffering universe. Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense.

It was such a relief to discard it all that, for months, I walked on air… At last! I could join in the creed shared by so many (most?) of my intelligent contemporaries in the western world…

But shortly, Wilson began to have doubts… about atheism. Whenever he did, he would rush off to Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion to reassure himself that God did not exist.

But religion, once the glow of conversion had worn off, was not a matter of argument alone. It involves the whole person. Therefore I was drawn… to the disconcerting recognition that so very many of the people I had most admired and loved… had been believers. Reading Louis Fischer’s Life of Mahatma Gandhi, and following it up with Gandhi’s own autobiography, The Story of My Experiments With Truth, I found it impossible not to realize that all life, all being, derives from God, as Gandhi gave his life to demonstrate… Attractive and amusing as David Hume was, did he confront the complexities of human existence as deeply as his contemporary Samuel Johnson, and did I really find him as interesting?

Over time, Wilson became convinced that

…purely materialist “explanations” for our mysterious human existence simply won’t do – on an intellectual level…

Do materialists really think that language just “evolved,” like finches’ beaks, or have they simply never thought about the matter rationally? Where’s the evidence? How could it come about that human beings all agreed that particular grunts carried particular connotations? …No, the existence of language is one of the many phenomena – of which love and music are the two strongest – which suggest that human beings are very much more than collections of meat. They convince me that we are spiritual beings, and that the religion of the incarnation, asserting that God made humanity in His image, and continually restores humanity in His image, is simply true.

…My departure from the Faith was like a conversion on the road to Damascus. My return was slow, hesitant, doubting.

Obviously this is not a full picture of Wilson’s re-conversion to Christianity, but I have some comments on what he has shared.

Wilson’s two reasons for believing in God again seem to be that:

  1. Many of the people Wilson admired and loved were religious.
  2. Materialism can’t fully explain some things, like language, love, and music.

facepalmOkay, now. I’ll try not to be too harsh, here. But it’s going to be tough.

1. Many of the people Wilson loved and admired were religious.

Lovable and admirable people have believed all sorts of things! Gandhi was a Hindu, Siddhartha was a Buddhist, Jesus was a Jew, Francis of Assisi was a Christian, Norman Borlaug is some kind of nonbeliever, Abdul Ghaffar Khan was a Muslim… does this mean Wilson should be a Hindu Buddhist Jewish Christian Muslim nonbeliever?

2. Materialism can’t fully explain some things, like language, love, and music.

“We ancient Greek scientists can’t explain lightning, therefore Zeus did it.”

First, this is a blatant argument from ignorance.

Second, Wilson asked: “Where’s the evidence?” How ’bout “Where’s the evidence that Yahweh did it by magic?

Third, his examples are terrible. If you’re going to convert because you think “Goddidit” is easier than awaiting scientific research, why not pick something we actually don’t understand yet, like consciousness? The evolution of language is actually quite well understood, and of course we’re not the only species who sings or plays around. And… love? Love!? Love is the first thing that makes complete sense from an evolutionary perspective! It’s an obvious aid to reproduction.

I am astonished that arguments from ignorance are so convincing to people. It’s one of the first arguments I hear, as if whenever we don’t understand something, this is therefore evidence that Yahweh made it by magic. Ohmygod don’t get me started.

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{ 42 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeremy Killian June 25, 2009 at 5:28 pm

Careful, Luke-I wouldn’t be surprised if in 30 years or so, Wilson’s story will be a lot like your own!

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Lorkas June 25, 2009 at 6:17 pm

Jeremy Killian: Careful, Luke-I wouldn’t be surprised if in 30 years or so, Wilson’s story will be a lot like your own!

Do you mean that Luke will suddenly find arguments from ignorance to be compelling?

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Eric June 25, 2009 at 6:23 pm

Luke, I don’t think you read Wilson charitably. For example, Wilson didn’t simply say that many people he admired were religious, but:

“ … a life like Gandhi’s, which was focused on God so deeply, reminded me of all the human qualities that have to be denied if you embrace the bleak, muddled creed of a materialist atheist.”

This doesn’t strike me as worthy of a facepalm! Indeed, it reminds me of Chesterton, who converted to Catholicism in no small part because he could imagine no other view of the world that could’ve produced someone like St. Francis. This, it seems to me, is a rather profound reason, not a trivial one. If some particular way of viewing the world is inconsistent with just about everything we understand *from the inside* about what human beings are and should be, then we have good grounds to reject it. (E.g. eliminativism comes to mind – pun intended).

Also, I think that this passage is key:

“When I think about atheist friends, including my father, they seem to me like people who have no ear for music, or who have never been in love. It is not that (as they believe) they have rumbled the tremendous fraud of religion – prophets do that in every generation. Rather, these unbelievers are simply missing out on something that is not difficult to grasp. Perhaps it is too obvious to understand; obvious, as lovers feel it was obvious that they should have come together, or obvious as the final resolution of a fugue.”

Wilson seems to be saying that there’s a properly basic character to religious belief, and, given this, his comments on the human qualities he sees exemplified in theists should be read as a concomitant of the former.

Finally, he isn’t merely saying that materialism can’t explain some things, hence theism, but that materialism can’t explain some of the most important things (and I take him to be saying, not merely that it can’t explain them now, but that it can’t explain them in principle), while theism can:

“No, the existence of language is one of the many phenomena – of which love and music are the two strongest – which suggest that human beings are very much more than collections of meat. They convince me that we are spiritual beings, and that the religion of the incarnation, asserting that God made humanity in His image, and continually restores humanity in His image, is simply true. As a working blueprint for life, as a template against which to measure experience, it fits.”

Each of his points is of course open to dispute, but they are not, it seems to me, as naive and irrational as you suggest.

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JonJ June 25, 2009 at 6:25 pm

I wouldn’t say that the origin of human language is *very* well understood yet, but obviously evolution theorists are on the right trail, and equally obviously some of our primate relatives have some of the same skills in rudimentary form, so there’s really no reason to consider it a “gap” that God has to be thrown into to fill.
But obviously folks like this guy, who is about the most philosophically inept character I’ve heard of in a long time, are really not looking for an explanation of these phenomena in the sense that a person with a good modern education understands that term. He (and many others like them) are just grasping at straws to make their hunger for religious faith seem at least minimally intellectually respectable.
The question is what threw him into this panic that has him so concerned to be convinced that humans are “spiritual beings” and “not only material.” I will bet a nickel or two that he has just realized that he is going to die someday and he wants to believe he has a “soul” that will survive. That’s usually what brings folks like him back to Mother Church, whether they will admit it or not.

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lukeprog June 25, 2009 at 6:31 pm

Eric,

The passages you quote are still more arguments from ignorance, and ignore the total collapse of magical explanations and the astounding success of natural ones in the past 300 years.

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Eric June 25, 2009 at 6:40 pm

Lukeprog, I disagree: they’re not arguments from what we don’t know, but arguments from what we do know. E.g. we do know that Gandhi’s life was both eminently admirable and incomprehensible apart from his religious views; Wilson claims to find materialistic explanations of both Gandhi’s’ life and of our deep rooted admiration for it unsatisfying and theistic explanations satisfying; hence his commitment to theism. Again, this sketch of his reasoning (all he’s provided is a sketch) isn’t rationally coercive, but it’s not an argument from ignorance, and it’s certainly stronger than arguments that are truly worthy of a facepalm. 

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Lorkas June 25, 2009 at 7:45 pm

Eric: Finally, he isn’t merely saying that materialism can’t explain some things, hence theism, but that materialism can’t explain some of the most important things

In other words: it’s not an argument from ignorance. It’s an argument from ignorance about really important things.

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Chuck June 25, 2009 at 7:55 pm

1. We have language, music, and love.

2. Evolution cannot account for language, music, and love.

3. Therefore, God did it.
That’s a classic argument from ignorance.

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Joseph June 25, 2009 at 8:01 pm

I don’t see him ever mentioning he once again believes in Yahweh.  He also never mentions a fear of death or a desire for immortality being a reason for his “reconversion” (as some other commentators suggested).  Also, where does it say he is Christian again?  He mentions Christianity as a part of his youth, but I don’t see him mentioning it now.
Maybe the article is a bit wistful, but it does point out the limitations to our understanding sometimes overlooked by atheists (I find they/we are not always the most humble bunch).
Just saying, this post seems a bit of an overreaction.

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David June 25, 2009 at 8:02 pm

Eric: Wilson claims to find materialistic explanations of both Gandhi’s’ life and of our deep rooted admiration for it unsatisfying and theistic explanations satisfying; hence his commitment to theism. Again, this sketch of his reasoning (all he’s provided is a sketch) isn’t rationally coercive, but it’s not an argument from ignorance, and it’s certainly stronger than arguments that are truly worthy of a facepalm.

I find materialistic explanations of rainbows and of our deep rooted admiration for them unsatisfying and leprechaunian explanations satisfying; hence my commitment to the belief in Little People.  Obviously, this is not an argument from ignorance and is most definitely strong enough to withstand a facepalm.

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Eric June 25, 2009 at 8:06 pm

Lorkas, I think the clause you left out, to wit ‘while theism can,’ is rather important, especially when the issue is whether we’re dealing with an argument from ignorance.  

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Eric June 25, 2009 at 8:20 pm

David, that analogy would be excellent if only it weren’t for the pesky little fact that there are no satisfying explanations from an appeal to leprechauns apropos of rainbows. Oh, and there’s the little problem with comparing the aesthetic appeal of rainbows with the moral appeal of an admirable life. Finally, if an argument moves from alternative explanations to one of those explanations on the grounds that one explains the data better than the other, we’re not dealing with an argument from ignorance (whatever other problems, e.g. false alternatives, etc. there may be). Okay, so aside from just about everything, the analogy is excellent! 

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Lorkas June 25, 2009 at 8:38 pm

Eric: Lorkas, I think the clause you left out, to wit ‘while theism can,’ is rather important, especially when the issue is whether we’re dealing with an argument from ignorance.

How does theism explain these things? By asserting an all-powerful magic being made them so? Surely you see that the problem with this is the same as asserting that Thor makes lightning. Just because we don’t yet understand the explanation for something doesn’t mean it’s magic, Eric.
 
Since the most successful tool humans have ever invented for understanding the cosmos–science–works because those who do it assume, for the sake of argument, that naturalism is true, I’m comfortable just waiting this one out. A real explanation is better than a magical explanation anyday.
 
In any case, many of the examples given already have natural explanations. Like Luke said, love is particularly easy, but language and music have also been explained. In other words, what’s given is an argument from personal ignorance, which is much worse than your everyday argument from ignorance. What it suggests is that the author is too lazy to learn about what we already know on the subject, and therefore God exists.
 
At least if he said consciousness rather than language, it would be more respectable (although just as wrong). We might as well start asserting that since we don’t understand the way that some anaesthetics work (it’s kind of scary to think about, actually), it’s fairies that knock you out when you take them. It makes no sense to posit an entirely implausible entity to explain a phenomenon we don’t yet understand. It’s more honest to just say “I don’t know yet” (and donate to scientists who are trying to figure it out) :)

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Dee June 25, 2009 at 11:47 pm

As we age and our brain deteriorates, the thinking skills and intelligence needed to refrain from our evolutionarily given desire to favor superstitious explanations, and paternal structure, can take hold.  Over time, the magical thinking of religion starts to become appealing again, as the efficient brain of our late teens, 20′s and early 30′s, slowly decays.
This process is of course not recognized by self, because self is constrained by the very mind that is deteriorating. In other words a brain which lacks the intellectual capacity for a reasoned Atheistic world view, is also incapable of recognizing that it lacks the intellectual capacity for a reasoned Atheistic world view.
One day my mind will most likely decay into this state and I will find religion compelling again. I hope not.

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Ryan June 26, 2009 at 12:31 am

I just found this on Wikipedia:

In August 2006 Wilson’s biography of Sir John Betjeman was published. It was then discovered that he had been the victim of a hoax and had included a letter (to Anglo-Irish writer, Honor Tracy) which purported to be by Betjeman detailing a previously unknown love affair, but which he acknowledged to be a fiction, when it was pointed out that it contained an acrostic spelling out an insulting message to him.[1] The letter was sent to Wilson by “Eve de Harben”, who then wrote to a journalist to reveal the hoax. The acrostic spelt out “AN Wilson is a shit” and “Eve de Harben” is an anagram of “Ever been had”.

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Silas June 26, 2009 at 2:12 am

Yeah, we’re made out of atoms. So what?
What exactly is wrong with that?
 

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oliver June 26, 2009 at 2:46 am

Reading through A.N. Wilson’s reconversion essay has gotten me thinking about whether there is a need to establish some sort of classification for atheists. The ‘I was a former avowed atheist’ card gets thrown around by apologists quite a bit and I find it misleading, and annoying.

Of course technically, an atheist might just be anyone who doesn’t profess a belief in a deity. But not taking into account WHY someone is an atheist leaves room for confusion wide open.

For example (and I apologise in advance in to those who might consider these to be broad generalisations. These are my observations):

1. Someone might be an atheist simply because he has not been exposed to any ideas about theism.

2. Maybe a Christian gets mad at God for not curing their sick child or mother, and therefore ceases to take part in any acts of worship. To them, this God that let them down in their time of need does not deserve to be worshipped – and they even stop going to church altogether. People like this strangely get labelled as, or refer to themselves as atheists. (such ‘atheists’ usually bounce right back into faith once the next personal crisis hits them and they can think of no other way of coping, except by ‘surrendering to God’s will’)

In Surprised by Joy, former ‘atheist’ C.S. Lewis writes that he “was living in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world.” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/people/cslewis_10.shtml)

Hmmm…..

3. There are those who simply don’t like the idea of having to submit to any divine authority. They want to be ‘free’ to live their lives according to whichever way they want – full of partying, drugs, sex and alcohol (I’m sure you’ve heard this one often!) They reject the idea of God on these terms, because they think believing in God somehow constrains their freedom and independence. They then go around calling themselves ‘atheists’ – or ‘former’atheists. This reason is a popular one commonly offered by recent Christian converts as to why they were once ‘committed atheists’ (whatever that means).

Evangelists love calling atheists people who “don’t want to be held accountable for their actions”. That this rhetoric is so common among churchfolk suggests to me that those that have converted might have initially resisted for this reason, and therefore assume that the same rationale is being employed by those of us who still profess non-belief in God. Clearly, our non-belief is for VERY DIFFERENT reasons than theirs was.

4. Some people have been treated badly by their church (maybe molested by a priest), discriminated against, or treated unfairly, thus on these grounds reject everything to do with God, since God is guilty by association. If asked whether they believe in God, sometimes they answer no (depending on how the question is phrased – this is important).

5. There are those who have given religion serious intellectual consideration, subjected religious claims to rigorous scientific scrutiny, and just found that believing in an imaginary spirit being was unwarranted, given insufficient evidence to support such a claim.

6. Etc..

What I am trying to say is that there seems to be too many people from the second, third and fourth categories going around calling themselves atheists (or former atheists), yet in fact they are (or were) nothing more than disillusioned, scared or angry theists. To me, people like Francis Collins, and C.S. Lewis are perfect examples of this. Honestly, because when I tried to read their books to see whether what was sufficient to convince them would also be sufficient to convince me, I was left puzzled by the scores of BAD reasons they offered to account for their conversion. I read their books hoping to see what evidence they saw that led them to overcome their scepticism of things like miracle claims, existence of spirits and demons. By what standard would they argue for the validity for Christian supernatural claims against non-Christian ones, like that of Prophet Mohammad and Satya Sai Baba (who is still alive by the way, and millions of first-hand eye witnesses are also still alive to ‘corroborate’ his alleged miracle claims). Sadly nothing of the sort is ever offered, yet these are the sort of things fuelling the rapid growth of atheism in the developed world. How did they get over the ‘miracle claims are bull-shit’ hurdle? Such things are not convincingly argued in their writing, if at all. This is exactly what I was reminded of when I followed the link to read Wilson’s article. His return to theism was for BAD REASONS, and Luke has ably addressed them.

I’m tired of Christians shoving people like A.N. Wilson, Francis Collins, and C.S. Lewis in my face saying, “You see? They too were once ATHEISTS, just like YOU still are, but they realised the futility of their atheism! Hahahahaha!!!!!” Having looked at their reasons for non-belief, I consider my atheism to be NOTHING LIKE these people’s, and its annoying to be lumped together with them (or as they were in their former ‘atheist’ life.

Shouldn’t we find a word that describes the category of atheists who don’t believe in God “because as critical thinkers, we consider the scientific method to be the most reliable method for studying the cosmos, and by this standard no religious claim so far has met the burden of proof required to justify a belief in it” – or something like that? From the discussions I’ve been following on this blog i can tell most of the atheists here seem to be of this type, and would never be persuaded by the reasons that seemed sufficient to convince the likes of C.S Lewis, Francis Collins, Lee Strobel, and A.N. Wilson. I highly doubt they were ‘category 5’ atheists, which i consider my self to be. Hey – did I just stumble on a good name there? Category 5 Atheist!

Incidentally, I saw a Thunderfoot video on Youtube where he was calling himself a PEARList (Physical Evidence And Reasoned Logic) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0zSCpsOSSw

I know that we in the atheist community generally dislike labels, but honestly, aren’t you tired of being told ,”If they (‘avowed’ former atheists like Ray Comfort)converted, why can’t you?” We need a term or classification that sets us apart from these former ‘disillusioned-theists’.

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Rick June 26, 2009 at 3:33 am

 

oliver: Of course technically, an atheist might just be anyone who doesn’t profess a belief in a deity.

Which is why non-pantheists (please correct me if that’s the wrong term – I’m trying to describe someone who believes, or has no problem in believing in any and all invisible friends simultaneously) are the only true non-atheists. Christians believe in three gods with some spiritual mumbo jumbo about how it’s really one god, but they deny all other gods, making them positivist atheists with regards to Shiva, Vishnu, Zeus, or Loki. Let’s institute another category of:
6. Those who selectively deny the existence of other gods but refuse to rigorously apply that same logic to the belief in whatever god(s) they do believe in.
I personally am of the mindset that no gods exist; however, should I confront inconvtrovertible evidence, I would believe. This is fully rational, and not faith, because I disbelieve in all gods on the basis of a lack of evidence for them.
I’m disappointed every time I hear of an atheist (re)converting to whatever. It feels like someone I counted on being a rational person has decided to set aside the best tool for knowing the world and not to use it anymore.
Some theologians’ arguments that ‘so-and-so is a former atheist’ doesn’t mean much to me. So what? They chose to renouce reason. Why is that an argument for or against anything? Science, reason, and existence is not by nature democratic: stuff is, or is not, and may or may not be true, no matter how many people vote one way or the other. Including your converted atheists.

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Steven Carr June 26, 2009 at 4:30 am

AN Wilson wrote ”Of course, only hard evidence will satisfy the secularists, but over time and after repeated readings of the story, I’ve been convinced without it.’

Faith – belief without evidence.

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Marco June 26, 2009 at 5:04 am

No true scotsman fallacy.

Christians tell the same thing when I tell them I was a christian.
It’s about as senseless as including ”This position cannot be abandoned” in the atheist/ christian/ muslim/ whatever definition.  

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oliver June 26, 2009 at 6:51 am

Marco,
 
Thanks. Fallacy noted.
But is it still the No True Scotsman fallacy if what we’re doing is simply recognizing that different people arrive at atheism in different ways, and simply wish that these descriptions can be categorised in a more useful way?
 
That way, when a Christian is prosletyzing to me, he can skip the part about me not wanting to be accountable, about me wanting to do drugs and have sex, and me being angry at god, or them asking me what happened at my church that has made me so hostile to religion, etc.. since by the type of atheist I’ve described myself as, those are NOT the reasons I’m an atheist.
 
I just wish there was a term that wasn’t a mouthful, which accurately states my position. A word that makes clear that my lack of belief in God is derived by my scientific sceptism and critical thinking, and like Rick said, being open to belief to the extent that there is sufficient evidence to warrant it.
 
Then I wish a different word would describe the kind of atheists in category 2-4 above. Otherwise someone might think me seeing a waterfall that parts 3 ways should be sufficient to convince me of the truth of the trinity. Aftera all, for one famous ‘former atheist’ we all know, this turned out to be more than enough evidence!
 

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Jeremy Killian June 26, 2009 at 10:52 am

Dee: As we age and our brain deteriorates, the thinking skills and intelligence needed to refrain from our evolutionarily given desire to favor superstitious explanations, and paternal structure, can take hold.  Over time, the magical thinking of religion starts to become appealing again, as the efficient brain of our late teens, 20’s and early 30’s, slowly decays. This process is of course not recognized by self, because self is constrained by the very mind that is deteriorating. In other words a brain which lacks the intellectual capacity for a reasoned Atheistic world view, is also incapable of recognizing that it lacks the intellectual capacity for a reasoned Atheistic world view. One day my mind will most likely decay into this state and I will find religion compelling again. I hope not.

It was only a matter of time before somebody pulled the Antony Flew Card on poor Wilson.  Anyone who leaves atheism for theism has got to be losing his marbles, eh?
As a university educator, I am very skeptical about the late teen and early 20 year old brain being “effecient.”  C’mon, don’t you remember frat parties?  Effeciency?

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lukeprog June 26, 2009 at 11:11 am

Eric,

What you’ve described is PRECISELY an argument from ignorance. Here’s how it goes:

Lightning jumps across the sky with great light and power (what we do know). Materialist explanations of this (c. 500 BC) are insufficient. Therefore, Zeus is a better explanation by default.

Gandhi’s life is admirable and moralistic (what we do know). Materialist explanations of this (c. 2000 AD) are insufficient. Therefore, Yahweh is a better explanation by default.

That, my friend, is an argument from ignorance.

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Reginald Selkirk June 26, 2009 at 11:23 am

 

Jeremy Killian: It was only a matter of time before somebody pulled the Antony Flew Card on poor Wilson. Anyone who leaves atheism for theism has got to be losing his marbles, eh?

In the case of Flew, I consider the case to be made that Flew is no longer at his sharpest, and that he is unfamilar with the arguments made in the recent book attributed to him. He also, as a non-biologist, accepts “Intelligent Design” biology arguments that are completely unconvincing to the vast majority of biologists.
In the case of A.N. Wilson, he lists his reasons and they are not very convincing. I would not make an argument for the senescence of Wilson because I am not familiar with him or his work, and so can offer no opinion as to whether he was ever sharper than his current effort.

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Chuck June 26, 2009 at 11:26 am

Oliver,
Just eschew labels all together. The next time someone asks you if you’re a Christian/believe in God/where you go to church/etc., just say, ”I’m not superstitious.” You may make them angry, but at least you’ll get past all the bullshit.

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Reginald Selkirk June 26, 2009 at 11:30 am

Jeremy Killian: As a university educator, I am very skeptical about the late teen and early 20 year old brain being “effecient.” C’mon, don’t you remember frat parties? Effeciency?

C’mon, don’t you remember all those great scientific contributions Einstein made in his 60s and 70s?
 

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Reginald Selkirk June 26, 2009 at 11:33 am

oliver: I just wish there was a term that wasn’t a mouthful, which accurately states my position. A word that makes clear that my lack of belief in God is derived by my scientific sceptism and critical thinking, and like Rick said, being open to belief to the extent that there is sufficient evidence to warrant it.

For a single word, I would propose “rationalist.” If you are willing to go with two words, perhaps “rationalist naturalist”
 

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Reginald Selkirk June 26, 2009 at 11:39 am

 

Eric: Finally, he isn’t merely saying that materialism can’t explain some things, hence theism, but that materialism can’t explain some of the most important things (and I take him to be saying, not merely that it can’t explain them now, but that it can’t explain them in principle), while theism can: “No, the existence of language is one of the many phenomena – of which love and music are the two strongest – which suggest that human beings are very much more than collections of meat…”

And yet, it took me about 5 seconds (I’m a slow typist) on Google to find this article:
The Science of Romance: Why We Love

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Rick June 26, 2009 at 11:51 am

oliver: Then I wish a different word would describe the kind of atheists in category 2-4 above. Otherwise someone might think me seeing a waterfall that parts 3 ways should be sufficient to convince me of the truth of the trinity. Aftera all, for one famous ‘former atheist’ we all know, this turned out to be more than enough evidence!

I, for one, prefer not to be labeled – by myself or by others. In labeling, everything that makes me unique are thrown out the window in favor of the few things that allow me to be lumped together with others. It’s like categorizing everything as an orange that’s edible and round. And an artichoke, by that definition, is an orange. Just try to peel one!
 
I prefer to invite dialogue by denying that I’m ‘an atheist’ before finding out what exactly my accuser means by the term. Same thing with political parties, ethnicity, or even gender. I prefer that people get in touch with me first and leave their little boxes at home. The name of the pigeonhole allows lazy people to pretend to think: no actual critical thought is involved if you can say so-and-so is wrong/mistaken because (s)he is an atheist. It trivializes the path the person took to get there, the significance that his/her beliefs have, and distances us from each other. It certainly makes it easier to commit violence, whether physical or verbal.
 
This is why I don’t ask people if they’re christian anymore. Instead I ask about their family, how they feel about the future, what their hopes and dreams are. Turns out, we have a lot in common before all the labels get slapped on.

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Eric June 26, 2009 at 12:54 pm

Lukeprog, I think that the problem is that you’re taking an inference to the best explanation (IBE) to be a deductive argument. I agree, your example is an argument from ignorance; however, I disagree that this is what Wilson is saying. He’s *not* saying, we have explanations E1 and E2, and E1 isn’t adequate, hence E2 by default. Rather, he’s saying we have these two explanations, E1 and E2, *and E2 makes more sense of the world as I experience it than E1*. Again, it’s an argument from what Wilson claims to know (whether he’s right is irrelevant), not an argument from what he doesn’t know. 

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lukeprog June 26, 2009 at 2:12 pm

Eric,

There is a fine line between a brazen argument from ignorance and an IBE for which the proposed best explanation has no empirical content. This is a problem in general with proposing magical explanations. How does “Zeus did it by magic” or “Yahweh did it by magic” or “some vague supreme being did it by magic” provide any kind of explanation? That’s why I say it’s an argument from ignorance. If the proposed explanation had any empirical content, then maybe I’d say this was a valid IBE. But to just say it must be magic because we don’t know of any non-magical explanations for it yet… well, I think that’s just an argument from ignorance.

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Dee June 26, 2009 at 3:31 pm

Jeremy Killian: It was only a matter of time before somebody pulled the Antony Flew Card on poor Wilson.  Anyone who leaves atheism for theism has got to be losing his marbles, eh? As a university educator, I am very skeptical about the late teen and early 20 year old brain being “effecient.”  C’mon, don’t you remember frat parties?  Effeciency?

It is well documented that certain parts of the brain mature at different times, but overall there is a marked decline as we age past our 30′s. As with everything in biology, this is no doubt variable.
 
But ask yourself this question honestly: “Does having a physically different brain at different stages in your life, mean your thought process may differ?”.
 
The answer is of course yes. How the process happens as a physical process is different, and therefore the outcome (as a result of the physcial system) has a chance of differing.
 
People who teeter on the edge of understanding for certain concepts, may find the consideration of those concepts leading to varied conclusions at varied ages.
Religion has so much going for it as a human concept, and it is quite a task to out compete it in the ideas marketplace. Being a reasoned Atheist is not a simple task. The attributes religion has as a concept make it very tough to beat. It provides comfort, purpose, direction, hierarchy,  and perhaps most importantly; answers. (Albeit possibly false ones)
Those things generally only get beaten out by, among other things; indoctrination (there are many indoctrinated Atheists), personal bias E.G many homosexuals who hate religion because religion hates them, or by cold hard reasoning.
The latter is beyond the reach of many, and it is my opinion that it is not unreasonable to think that the change of brain states may have an effect on this.
 
I am not saying this is what happened in A.N Wilson’s case, but… maybe…
 
 
I

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JonJ June 27, 2009 at 7:31 am

I don’t think the argument about advancing age holds much water; there are folks who exhibit stupidity and brilliance at all ages. I, personally, am of Medicare age and just as atheist as I always was — and I expect to always be, unless someone suddenly comes up with an entirely new, totally knock-down argument I haven’t heard of, which I think is very unlikely. Actually, if I am not mistaken, the latest brain research suggests that the brain can develop new synapses, etc., at any age, provided that said organ is actively used. The problem is that most people don’t use it more than they have to — they find it too much hard work.
In fact, I find more and more that there just isn’t any point in presenting finely honed rational arguments against theism to most religious believers. They just don’t care about such stuff — they have never studied philosophy as a rational discipline, have no desire to bother themselves with it, and really resent people like us who try to get them interested in it. They just don’t want to take the trouble to develop those kinds of synapses in their brains, when a purely emotional faith that “God’s in His heaven and all’s right with the world” is perfectly sufficient to quiet their fears about death, etc., and keep them reassured.
Wilson seems to be to be someone of precisely this type. He seems to have originally “lost his faith” on an emotional, un-thought-out basis and recovered it again on just the same kind of basis. These people exist in a world entirely apart from the world of rigorous philosophical investigation, and never (or hardly ever) the twain shall meet.

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Dee June 27, 2009 at 5:15 pm

JonJ: I don’t think the argument about advancing age holds much water; there are folks who exhibit stupidity and brilliance at all ages… etc

Hi Jon,
I agree with you there is certainly no hard and fast rule that aging will effect your beliefs. As I noted, this is highly variable. There are many elderly people who are Atheists, and even lose their religious faith at a later state in life.
However, I do no think it can be denied that our thought processes change throughout our lives, and do become less capable in certain respects as we get older.
The possibility that this will effect our world view has to be honestly considered.
Also, as death creeps nearer, emotions must surely start to press more heavily on our thought processes. I have known a few life long staunch Atheists soften their views and become much more accomodating to an afterlife as very elderly people, with no apparent reasoning.  Perhaps they had a genuine experience, I am in no position to speculate. But it would seem remiss not to consider the possibility that fear of oblivion may have had some sway in their decision.
There are certain concepts that are innately difficult to grasp. Time scales regarding evolution for example. I have met people who simply cannot understand how tiny amounts of variation can add up to the vastness of life currently on the planet. They then see the failing as evolutionary theory, not ehri own failing to grasp the concept. Given our considerations of these types of things are dynamic each time we ponder such things, there could easily be a time when you brains capability is such that you can form a logically coherent model given the variables, and also a time when you would be unable to.
Is it possible that some people essentially cross a boundary as their brain decays with age, and concepts which were formerly able to be held in a coherent and logically consistent model, are no longer able to be held that way because the hardware necessary to connect the dots is simply not there anymore?
I think so.

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JonJ June 28, 2009 at 8:46 am

Is it possible that someone could understand and accept evolutionary theory when young and then lose their grip on it as they age? Perhaps, but my experience with elderly people who understood such things as scientific theories when they were younger is usually that they still do as they age (unless of course they are becoming “senile” in general, which can happen to anyone). If they were creative scientists at an earlier age and no longer have that special something, that is one thing (some mathematicians believe that geniuses in that field start to decline in their 20s), but lay people who have the ability to understand science seem to keep it, most of the time.
The problem is with people who never seem to have the ability to grasp abstract scientific and philosophical ideas even when young–which includes, I think, the majority of the population. Unfortunately. Which is why religion is so popular :-).
 

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Reginald Selkirk June 28, 2009 at 12:48 pm

A.N. Wilson’s justification for his theism is above. It is noted, and stupid. Since he puts in such a poor showing now, presuming that he once had an edge and has lost it due to senility is the most charitable interpretation.
 

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one more clay figurine October 15, 2009 at 9:59 pm

does this mean Wilson should be a Hindu Buddhist Jewish Christian Muslim nonbeliever?

huh? He said religious. He didn’t specify which religion in particular, but referred to religions in general.

Materialism can’t fully explain some things, like language, love, and music.

Well, apparently it can. Except when materialism is applied to these things, we can conclude they are delusions from the bizarre workings of evolution. However, if you believe these delusions to have even a microscopic fraction more significance than materialism explains, then you need to look to fields outside of science.

You fail to realise that science could never explain why we have all these emotions, why the universe exists, why we feel empathy and moral obligation, other than saying it was all accidental chance (as much as an appeal to ignorance as any). It only explains how it operates in the physical world. There is more to the physical world, believe it or not. Your whole post came from your reasoning and logic, which are things that cannot be examined in a testtube. I might find the slice of brain where the function occurs, but that is a slice of brain; not logic.

Science explains the how, not the why.

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drj October 16, 2009 at 3:56 am

Science explains the how, not the why.

Religion can’t explain any why’s, since they can’t actually explain why their proposed God exists… they just have to fall back on “well… um… He’s a necessary being”. The best you can do is explain what God is, and what he wants, but not a single “why” about him. He’s simply your arbitrary terminus on which to stop the infinite regress of “why”… but materialists can easily do the same with naturalistic explanations.

God ultimately is the divine, supreme nihilist… and by extension, so must we all be.

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ian darling August 31, 2010 at 1:27 am

Whatever else Wilson is wrong about- he is probably right to say that Atheistic Materialism is rather a bleak and empty view of life.In this completely disenchanted world (about social justice and everything except greed) it is no surprise that religious belief is exploding across most of the world,however mistaken these beliefs might be- because without vision the people perish and the atheists have not begun to figure out how their worldview might provide this.

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Jerrid November 13, 2010 at 5:20 pm

After taking the time to read all the comments and arguments… I agree with Wilson… and I’ll never get that time back :(

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B September 18, 2011 at 4:41 pm

Everything has to have a beginning, even if you believe an ape evolved into a person,lol. How did the first anything come to be? Read, “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist, by Frank Turek

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GE February 2, 2012 at 12:11 pm

Where to begin? It seems that your deconversion has caused you to become confused and an authority on almost every subject known to man. The reason the Gospel of Jesus is as simple as it is, is so that anyone who has an ounce of true faith can believe in Christ and become a born again child of His. Though the gospel is simple it is does not make one simple by believing it. In fact it does the opposite. I do not say this to hurt you or condemn you, but to tell you that you are basing your eternal destiny on what you think is right or even someone else. I’m sure you know the scriptures well but one only has to look at Proverbs 14 to see the folly of your thinking. God’s Word is Divinely inspired. No other book that has ever been written has had all of its prophecies fulfilled the way the Bible does. Look at how many days, years and even centuries its predictions have come true. Do a study on it. But remember Proverbs 14 again…

2 Whoever fears the LORD walks uprightly,
but those who despise him are devious in their ways.

3 A fool’s mouth lashes out with pride,
but the lips of the wise protect them.

4 Where there are no oxen, the manger is empty,
but from the strength of an ox come abundant harvests.

5 An honest witness does not deceive,
but a false witness pours out lies.

6 The mocker seeks wisdom and finds none,
but knowledge comes easily to the discerning.

7 Stay away from a fool,
for you will not find knowledge on their lips.

8 The wisdom of the prudent is to give thought to their ways,
but the folly of fools is deception.

9 Fools mock at making amends for sin,
but goodwill is found among the upright.

10 Each heart knows its own bitterness,
and no one else can share its joy.

11 The house of the wicked will be destroyed,
but the tent of the upright will flourish.

12 There is a way that appears to be right,
but in the end it leads to death.

13 Even in laughter the heart may ache,
and rejoicing may end in grief.

14 The faithless will be fully repaid for their ways,
and the good rewarded for theirs.

15 The simple believe anything,
but the prudent give thought to their steps.

16 The wise fear the LORD and shun evil,
but a fool is hotheaded and yet feels secure.

17 A quick-tempered person does foolish things,
and the one who devises evil schemes is hated.

18 The simple inherit folly,
but the prudent are crowned with knowledge.

19 Evildoers will bow down in the presence of the good,
and the wicked at the gates of the righteous.

20 The poor are shunned even by their neighbors,
but the rich have many friends.

21 It is a sin to despise one’s neighbor,
but blessed is the one who is kind to the needy.

22 Do not those who plot evil go astray?
But those who plan what is good find[a] love and faithfulness.

23 All hard work brings a profit,
but mere talk leads only to poverty.

24 The wealth of the wise is their crown,
but the folly of fools yields folly.

25 A truthful witness saves lives,
but a false witness is deceitful.

26 Whoever fears the LORD has a secure fortress,
and for their children it will be a refuge.

27 The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life,
turning a person from the snares of death.

28 A large population is a king’s glory,
but without subjects a prince is ruined.

29 Whoever is patient has great understanding,
but one who is quick-tempered displays folly.

30 A heart at peace gives life to the body,
but envy rots the bones.

31 Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker,
but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.

32 When calamity comes, the wicked are brought down,
but even in death the righteous seek refuge in God.

Again I say none of this to offend you but you are on the wrong path and need to be challenged to rethink your foolish decision to abandon the one true and living God. I pray you will come to your senses and repent to reconnect with God through Christ Jesus who is Lord.
New International Version (©1984)
It is written: “‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.’” Romans 14:11

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