Letters on Theism and Naturalism (index)

by Luke Muehlhauser on January 31, 2010 in Indexes,Letters

old letters

The world today is captivated by a competition between two worldviews: theism and naturalism. Most people, including 3.7 billions Christians, Muslims, and Jews, are theists. They believe in one almighty, loving God who created everything there is. But most scientists and philosophers are naturalists. They think there are no gods; the natural world is all there is.

True believers never doubt the existence of God. They may not see a point in comparing theism and naturalism: “Isn’t it obvious that God exists? Why bother?”

True disbelievers see belief in God as an idiotic superstition. “Why talk to believers?” they say. “They fell for the old Sky Cake routine when they were children, and they’ll never let it go.”

This series won’t be of much interest to either true believers or true disbelievers. But I hope it will be of interest to the many people who have the humility to know they could be wrong even about things that feel certain, who realize that whether or not God exists matters a great deal for how we live our lives, and who think the issue deserves our best thinking.1

This series is a organized as a series of letters between two fictional characters: a theist and a naturalist.

Their story: Paul and Karl are brothers. They attended the same church, and later went to the same university. At university, their naive faith was severely challenged by what they learned. Paul recovered and grew into a more informed, mature Christian faith. Karl lost his faith altogether and became a naturalist.

Years passed, and they each went to different graduate schools, both for philosophy. A national newspaper, Zeitgeist, heard of their story and asked each of them to write a letter to the other about their worldview. These two letters were published in the newspaper. The letters were so popular that Zeitgeist asked Paul and Karl to continue their exchange, and each new pair of letters was published in a weekly column in Zeitgeist.

Here is the index of their exchanges:

  1. The Opening Letters

(more to come)

  1. I have blatantly stolen this opening from C. Stephen Layman, whose opening to Letters to Doubting Thomas frames the issues much the same way I do. []

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Hermes January 31, 2010 at 7:02 am

“Most people, including 3.7 billions Christians, Muslims, and Jews, are theists.”

For reference;

1. Christianity: 2.1 billion (~33%)
2. Islam: 1.5 billion (~21%)
3. Secular/Nonreligious/Agnostic/Atheist: 1.1 billion (~16%, ‘half theistic but non-religious’)
4. Hinduism: 900 million (14%)
5. Chinese traditional religion: 394 million
6. Buddhism: 376 million (half are non-theistic)
7. primal-indigenous: 300 million
8. African Traditional & Diasporic: 100 million
9. Sikhism: 23 million
10. Juche: 19 million
11. Spiritism: 15 million…
12. Judaism: 14 million (0.22%)
13. Baha’i: 7 million

Source: http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.html

Note that it would be likely that if the Christians and Muslims did not draw from Jewish religious texts directly, the Jewish religion would not get nearly as much attention as it does. It would be studied as an historic aside or currently for people who are interested in more obscure religions.

By number of members, Judaism is sandwiched between Juche (state religion of North Korea) and Spiritualism, and the Baha’i. Israel as a nation is ranked just below Bulgaria and well below diverse countries such as Haiti, Cuba, Greece, and Belgium in population (Israel: 96 out of 223, or 0.11%).

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KT January 31, 2010 at 2:01 pm

Luke-
How exactly would the existence of God change the way you live? Isn’t it entirely clear to a “consistent atheist” that genuine values are not (and could never have been!) passively received from above? As Nietzsche noted, “the good” is what is noble, what is admirable; an authentic atheist(one who has eradicated medieval and Enlightenment vulgarity) lives according to his conscience and needs nothing outside himself to justify adhering to its dictates.

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Haukur January 31, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Hermes: Note that it would be likely that if the Christians and Muslims did not draw from Jewish religious texts directly, the Jewish religion would not get nearly as much attention as it does. It would be studied as an historic aside or currently for people who are interested in more obscure religions.

Jews/Judaism would be an important and non-obscure ethnic-group/religion even without a connection to bigger religions. Jews are a rounding error in world population figures and yet, just for starters, they get more than a fifth of all Nobel prizes. They’re incredibly successful in amazingly many fields. Lots of people would pay attention to Jews and Judaism even without the Judaism-Christianity-Islam connection.

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Hermes January 31, 2010 at 6:08 pm

Haukur, are you attributing a direct causal link between Judaism (theistic religion), Judaism (cultural), or the much touted lineage of people who claim Jewish ancestry — as a factor in the achievements of any of these groups in academic areas?

Note that for my part, my focus was strictly on the 0.22% (and probably lower) followers of Judaism as a theistic religion and from that that they get quite a bit of attention because of the association of that theistic religion with the two most popular ones; Christianity and Islam. I meant nothing more nor less.

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Hermes January 31, 2010 at 6:13 pm

KT, I think you will find it difficult to find ‘authentic atheists’ (???) that fit any narrow description based on a pile of presuppositions. Atheism is the title of non-theists. If you know what a theist is in general — not limited to a specific sect — then what a non-theist is should become more clear to you.

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KT January 31, 2010 at 6:53 pm

Hermes, if you have the assumptions of a theist, you possess the responsibility to claim the title of “theist” and live as if a Supreme Deity existed; if you believe moral duties COULD be imposed on you from the outside, you have the intellectual responsibility to live as a theist. To “not choose” theism (as an intellectually responsible adult) is to choose atheism, which means that you accept FULL responsibility for your moral values and choices.

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lukeprog January 31, 2010 at 10:30 pm

KT,

Of course, that would entirely depend on the kind of God that existed.

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Hermes February 1, 2010 at 4:42 am

KT: Hermes, if you have the assumptions of a theist, youpossess the responsibility to claim the title of “theist” and live as if a Supreme Deity existed; if you believe moral duties COULD be imposed on you from the outside, you have the intellectual responsibility to live as a theist. To “not choose” theism (as an intellectually responsible adult) is to choose atheism, which means that you accept FULL responsibility for your moral values and choices.  

KT, you have pre-loaded your idea of what a theist is — what all theists are — with many presumptions. As such, there’s little to comment on till you sort that out for yourself first or we can’t properly communicate on the issue you raised.

As for the limited sub-set of authority-based theistic moralities, I point you to Euthyphro and request that you carefully consider it for yourself — by yourself — and that you do not look for advice from apologetics texts that often mangle words in an effort to force a square peg in a round hole.

Tips: Euthyphro is about the ‘law giver’, not the recipients. Quick replies to Euthyphro usually show that very little thought has gone into actually understanding what Euthyphro covers and why it’s called a Dilemma.

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Jeff H February 1, 2010 at 3:18 pm

KT: Hermes, if you have the assumptions of a theist, youpossess the responsibility to claim the title of “theist” and live as if a Supreme Deity existed; if you believe moral duties COULD be imposed on you from the outside, you have the intellectual responsibility to live as a theist. To “not choose” theism (as an intellectually responsible adult) is to choose atheism, which means that you accept FULL responsibility for your moral values and choices.  

Your definition would seem to regard someone like Immanuel Kant as a non-theist. He certainly believed in God, yet he believed that morality was found within human reason rather than from God. Perhaps you need to adjust your definition accordingly.

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KT February 2, 2010 at 7:46 am

Jeff H, I didn’t say a theist had to accept the moral argument in order to be a theist; I merely said that an intellectually responsible atheist can’t in principle. Atheism, by its very nature, can never be established with absolute certainty (unlike theism, where if one accepted an ontological argument or a transcendental argument, one could actually believe with absolute certainty). If God possibly exists and is(somehow) NECESSARY for the ontological grounding of morality, one should go with Pascal’s Wager, no matter how improbable you actually think theism is. I completely reject, in principle, the notion that God COULD provide the ontological grounding for morality; I have absolutely no reason to change my values and decisions should an ontologically necessary being with intrinsically maximal traits exist.

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Hermes February 2, 2010 at 9:50 am

KT: I didn’t say a theist had to accept the moral argument in order to be a theist

That’s not quite what I read here;

KT: Hermes, if you have the assumptions of a theist, youpossess the responsibility to claim the title of “theist” and live as if a Supreme Deity existed; if you believe moral duties COULD be imposed on you from the outside, you have the intellectual responsibility to live as a theist.  

Ignoring the part I did not include, could you clarify the above paragraph?

As for the rest, I’m still wondering if you know what a generic theist is as opposed to one tied to a more narrow or even sectarian point of view.

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Hermes February 2, 2010 at 9:53 am

KT: If God possibly exists and is(somehow) NECESSARY for the ontological grounding of morality, one should go with Pascal’s Wager, no matter how improbable you actually think theism is.

The above sentence doesn’t make much sense unless you’re talking about a specific sect’s theism and not theism in general.

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