Today I interview philosopher Stephen Maitzen. Among other things, we discuss:
- how many theistic defenses don’t make sense given the demographics of theism
- how Christian theism leads to twisted morality
- the problems with free will theodicies
- the incoherence of ‘Ultimate Purpose’
- The Shack, a Christian inspirational novel
Download CPBD episode 025 with Stephen Maitzen. Total time is 48:44.
(This episode also available on YouTube.)
Stephen Maitzen links:
- Stephen Maitzen at Acadia University
Links for things we discussed:
- Adèle Mercier, “Religious Belief and Self-Deception” appears in 50 Voices of Disbelief
- Georges Rey, “Meta-Atheism: Religious Avowal as Self-Deception“
- John Calvin on the sensus divinitatis
- U of M study finds atheists are least trusted
- Maitzen, “Anselmian Atheism” (Anselmian theism implies radical mysticism)
- Maitzen, “Divine Hiddenness and the Demographics of Theism“
- Maitzen, “Ordinary Morality Implies Atheism“
- Jeff Jordan surveys those who seem to accept that God permits undeserved, involuntary suffering only if such suffering produces a net benefit for the sufferer in “Divine Love and Human Suffering”: William Rowe, Marilyn Adams, William Alston, Eleonore Stump, and Michael Tooley.
- Swinburne, “Theodicy, our well-being, and God’s rights“
- Exodus 14:8
- Romans 9:18
- M’Naghten Rules
- Lewis, “Evil for Freedom’s Sake?“
- Harvey Cox, The Secular City
- Nagel, “The Absurd“
- The Shack (and responses to criticism)
‘Silver Bullet’ was kind enough to pay someone to transcribe this interview.1 Here it is:
Luke: Dr. Stephen Maitzen is a professor of Philosophy at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, and author of a couple dozen papers and book chapters on philosophical atheism. Steve, welcome to the show.
Maitzen: Thanks, thanks for inviting me.
Luke: Steve have you always been an atheist and how is your world view different than it was in your 20s?
Maitzen: Well there’s a short answer to that question and a longer answer. I’ll give you both answers. The short answer is no, I’ve not always been an atheist. There was a brief period in my teenage years when I called myself a Christian and then an equally brief period in my early 20s when I called myself an agnostic but in the years since then I’ve become pretty firmly convinced that no god exists the more I look into it.
Now the longer answer and maybe the more interesting answer is I’m not sure, I may always have been an atheist despite sometimes giving myself other labels. Back in those days I may have succumbed to what Daniel Dennett calls the belief in belief. I may have figured it was more important to be thought of as a believer than actually to hold religious beliefs. And I think if you looked at my unreflective behavior back then you would have probably found evidence that I didn’t really believe in the existence of god even if I said I did. For instance I never celebrated or rejoiced in the death of Christian children on the grounds that their deaths had freed them from this veil of tears and sent them to paradise.
But it’s a good question why I didn’t rejoice or celebrate. I mean sure we’re going to miss the deceased child but by dying she has escaped the concentration camp that is life on earth and is now experiencing endless joy that we can’t even imagine. So if we really believe that it would be mean and selfish of us not to celebrate her good fortune. She’s won the ultimate lottery. So I think maybe a true Christian should celebrate the death of such a child but of course I never did and of course neither do most people who call themselves Christians. So maybe my behavior back then gave the lie to my claim that I was a Christian. I’ve read a couple of philosophers who’ve written interesting articles defending the view that in fact very few self-described theists at least in our culture actually hold the religious belief that they claim to hold. These philosophers are Edelle Mercier at Queens University in Ontario and George Ray at the University of Maryland.
Luke: Well that brings up some very interesting questions that I’ve always wondered about because I was a Christian if anyone was a Christian. I was experiencing god and praying and having visions and really studying god and chasing after Jesus and doing everything that the most on fire Christians do but I never celebrated the death of Christian children who I knew would go to heaven. So I don’t know that that says that you weren’t a Christian unless it says that nobody’s a Christian.
Well let’s talk a bit about philosophical atheism then. You know, in most cases in philosophical atheism people think problem of evil and that’s it, but there’s a lot more to it than that. One common argument is called the argument from divine hiddenness. How does that argument work?
Maitzen: Well very briefly the argument is just this. If god existed there wouldn’t be any non believers in god but clearly there are nonbelievers in god so it follows that god doesn’t exist.
Luke: Well I think the meat is in that first premise. Why would we think that if god exists there would be no unbelievers?
Maitzen: It goes this way, if the perfectly loving god of classical theism existed and because perfectly loving wanted to relate personally to all of his human creatures wherever possible then there wouldn’t be any non-believers in god or at least there wouldn’t be any non-believers who were cognitively and emotionally capable of relating to god. And that’s because you need to believe in god in order to enjoy a proper kind of human relationship with god. So if belief is a precondition for entering into this kind of relationship with god and if god in virtue of being perfectly loving wants to enter into this relationship with each human being then non belief becomes puzzling. But of course there are non-believers including non-believers who are cognitively and emotionally capable of relating to god. So if that’s right the god of classical theism doesn’t exist – or if you want to be more guarded in the conclusion – probably doesn’t exist.
Luke: Well and a lot of theists have offered various reasons or counterarguments as to why the existence of so many unbelievers is compatible with the existence of a god who wants to have a loving relationship with everybody. What are some of the counterarguments that people have offered?
Maitzen: Well you get a lot of them you sometimes hear it suggested that it’s the nonbelievers’ own fault for ignoring god’s call or maybe god wants to avoid coercing people into belief and so remain hidden from some of them. Or perhaps god wants to stimulate people to search for god with humility and contrition or maybe god wants to leave us room to exercise passionate faith and so on. So those are the sorts of replies you standardly hear but there’s a reason I think they don’t work and it’s a reason having to do with what I call the demographics of theism.
Luke: Well how does that work?
Maitzen: Well notice that the replies I just gave you in terms of avoiding coercion, replies that suggest it’s the believers’ own fault for failing to believe in god or god’s desire to leave us room to exercise what Kierkegaard would call passionate faith. Those sorts of explanations might work for randomly selected cases of nonbelief, maybe yours and mine, but what they don’t do is explain why theistic belief is so unevenly distributed around the world. Nearly all Afghans are theists and nearly all Cambodians are not. Now there’s no reason I can think of to suppose that Cambodians are inherently less capable of relating to god than Afghans are. So to my mind the lopsided distribution of theistic belief around the world is much easier to explain in social scientific or historical and political terms than it is to explain by reference to a loving god who wants to relate to all of his human creatures. I think the clustered distribution of theism makes the argument from hiddenness much harder to rebut than it would be if theistic belief were uniformly distributed around the world.
Luke: Yeah that makes a lot of sense. I mean the unbelief in say Vietnam makes a lot more sense to be explained by Pol Pot than it does to say that well people who are in Vietnam in this generation just happen to all have the psychology that they wouldn’t respond to god or something like that.
Maitzen: I agree. The naturalistic explanations you get are gonna be referring to messy and haphazard influences, whereas the theistic explanations have to work in terms of a god who is planning this all somehow, an explanation that isn’t messy or haphazard.
Luke: And I know from my own personal experience I mean when I lost faith in god I was begging god to respond because I didn’t want to lose my faith. And I know when I was travelling one of my friends was really struggling with the same thing. She said, for years I’ve been calling out to god and just please speak to me I want to know who you are and she just got nothing. I remember one night she just wept and I just can’t imagine a loving god who wants to relate to the human beings that he created to relate to refusing the desperate cries of people who really want to know him. I think it makes a lot more sense that he’s just not there.
Maitzen: Yeah I think it’s a powerful argument and the argument you just gave is the one that one sees pretty frequently in the literature and the responses tend to be to that argument. What they tend not to respond to is the demographic problem. Even if your case and your friend’s case could be explained away, how do you explain away entire countries where nearly everyone is a nonbeliever in theism, especially when as I say there are naturalistic explanations on offer that seem to do a much better job of it.
Luke: Yeah. Now you also use this notion of the demographics of theism to respond to Alvin Plantinga and his idea about the sensus divinitatus. Would you just introduce us to how Plantinga argues and explain how you think the demographics of theism challenge that as well?
Maitzen: Sure. As I understand it the official doctrine if you like of the sensus divinitatus, and this is the doctrine that traces back to John Calvin, says that all human beings and not just Christians are born with a god-given awareness or faculty or capacity for knowing god directly. Calls it the sensus divinitatus, a sense of divinity, it’s inborn in all human beings, says Calvin, and because it’s innate in all human beings Calvin says that no one has an excuse for being an atheist. So again suppose that’s true and now consider the clustered distribution of theistic belief around the world that I referred to a moment ago and think of the two rival explanations of that distribution that are now on offer. On the one hand you’ve got naturalistic explanations that cite messy and haphazard factors like human conquest and politics, and on the other hand you’ve got an explanation that presupposes this innate god-given human faculty that for some reason works splendidly in Afghanistan and works terribly in Cambodia. And no innate capacity of course that we know of will stack geographic boundaries in that way. So I would conclude it’s unlikely that any sensus divinitatus exists.
Luke: Well maybe there’s some kind of spiritual disturbance in Cambodia, like maybe one of Satan’s main angels is just camping out in the center but they didn’t send an archangel of Satan to Afghanistan.
Maitzen: You could say that. Then I would bring up Thailand next and force you to explain Thailand and then we’ll go on to Burma and Laos and wherever else we need to go in order to find a country that is overwhelmingly nontheistic. We’ll need to contrast those with places like Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia and so on. Gets pretty ad hoc at any rate it seems to me as an explanation of what we find. I’m not saying it’s impossible to explain this clustering but I think those explanations are less likely than the kind we get from naturalism.
Luke: Well it’s always possible that there’s a Satanic archangel in each of those countries so you can’t rule it out.
Maitzen: No you can’t, you can’t rule it out.
Luke: Well let’s talk about morality then. Most people seem to think that morality and religion are bound at the hip and that objective morality can be used as the basis of an argument for god’s existence. But you argue that ordinary morality implies atheism instead. How does that argument work?
Maitzen: Your phrase bound at the hip is a nice way of putting it. Most Americans for example according to a recent survey anyway mistakenly think that morality absolutely depends on religion and for that reason atheists are morally untrustworthy. An interesting result of a 2006 survey out of the University of Minnesota. But about morality, I think ordinary morality as I call it implies atheism in a number of ways but I focused on only one of those ways in the article that I wrote on the topic. And I’ll say more in a minute about the argument in that article but I want to say I also wonder about some other problems. For instance how do you square the theistic doctrine of heaven with our ordinary moral explanation of the wrongness of killing a child for instance? If the doctrine of heaven is true then a heaven-bound child goes to paradise upon being killed but morality says that killing a child is wrong mainly because killing a child seriously harms the child. So which is it, harm or paradise? I can’t see how to square the wrongness of killing with the doctrine of heaven. But let me get back to the argument I did give in that article.
Luke: Well actually here let me give what I think would be the most common theistic response to that is I think Christians would say the wrongness of killing the child then is because it’s disobedient to god. God has the right to take that child’s life and not you. And that’s what’s wrong with it. It’s not that you’re harming the child or not harming the child, it’s wrong because you’re disobeying god or something like that.
Maitzen: And I think that response doesn’t square easily with our ordinary moral reasoning about the wrongness of killing. When we’re talking about it in everyday contexts we tend to regard killing someone as harming that person in a very serious way maybe the most serious way and our killing being wrong for that reason. If in fact killing somebody sends him or her straight to paradise then you’re right we have to come up with a very different reason for the wrongness of killing and you’ve mentioned one, it usurps god’s prerogative. But notice that locates the wrongness in a very different place from where I think our ordinary moral practice would locate it. Killing a child becomes an offense to god not to the child. We think killing is wrong principally because of what it does to its victim, not what it does to some third party.
But that’s something I’ll explore when I have more time. The argument that I gave from Morality to Atheism is different though and to be fair I should point out that theists and atheists have worried about this problem, about the impact of theism on the moral obligations that we think we have such as the obligation we at least sometimes have to prevent terrible suffering by children. We think we do have that obligation at least sometimes and theists have worried, as atheists have, about the impact of theism on an obligation like that. So what I tried to do in my article is to show how god’s perfection destroys our most serious moral obligations.
The slogan I sometimes use is this. The better god is the worse we’re allowed to be. And it’s an analog of another problem that stems from god’s greatness and that is that if god exists and is unsurpassably great then god must be so great as to be totally inconceivable by us. So I’ve argued in a different article that anselmian theism implies mysticism of the most radical kind. But let me get back to the moral argument, I’ll unpack it a little bit more. If god is perfect in knowledge, power and goodness then I claim god would never exploit a child by letting the child suffer horribly unless the suffering was required for the child’s own greater good. To put it in a nutshell, no perfect being exploits kids. So god permits horrific suffering by children only when it’s in their best interest. Their suffering is really like a painful but highly beneficial vaccination.
In that case however if that’s what’s going on we don’t have the moral obligation that we always thought we had: the moral obligation to prevent a child’s suffering at least when we easily can, because nobody thinks we have the moral obligation to prevent painful vaccinations that greatly benefit children, and even parents who are opposed to vaccinations on principle are opposed because they think vaccines harm children. If you think a painful vaccine greatly benefits your child then you’re not opposed to it, you don’t think anybody has an obligation to prevent the vaccination. Well if all that’s right then we never have a moral obligation to prevent horrific suffering by children because again the analog to horrific suffering by children is a painful vaccination that benefits the child. And I’m saying that has to be what’s going on if the world is in the charge of a perfect being. And furthermore if we don’t have the obligation to prevent horrific suffering by children even when we easily can then I can’t see how we have any moral obligations. If we don’t have even that obligation then morality falls apart as far as I can see. And more generally I think theism implies a crazy inverse relationship. The worse a child’s suffering is the more reason we have for thinking that it’s required for the child’s own good and so the less reason we have to prevent it. The worse the suffering the less reason we have to prevent it. So another slogan I sometimes use is this. Adding god to morality turns it upside down. So that was the argument; is it clear enough so far?
Luke: Yeah and it’s related to I think an argument that a lot of people think about intuitively and that is when atheists bring up the problem of evil, how could an all good all, powerful god allow so much apparently pointless suffering, the theists will often say something like, well it has a higher purpose, it’s achieving some higher good. And so if that’s the answer then why should we think that we should go out of our way to try to stop or relieve pointless suffering if it’s the will of god that this suffering takes place? It just completely flips upside down morality just like you say.
Maitzen: Yeah I think it is a powerful objection and I’ve tried to make it even more powerful by insisting that the suffering in question actually benefits the sufferer overall. So it’s not simply enough that some overall benefit accrue to the universe if we allow a child to be tortured. I think perfection in god requires something stronger and there’s a number of theists who agree, namely that the suffering in question be necessary for the sufferer’s own benefit. And I think if you believe that doctrine then the obligation to prevent suffering dissolves.
Luke: Well I think a lot of what you’re getting at here Steven is really kind of intuitive common sense objections to theism where… when I first lost my faith I thought well it really sucks that I can’t believe in god and that there’s just no reason for me to think that god exists but I still think the Christian world view is really moral and everything. But as I’ve thought about it more there’s more things like this that have come to my attention where I realize, oh my gosh this Christian theism is horrifying in a lot of ways. If you take it seriously I mean it’s a universe commanded by a supreme unquestionable dictator who demands jealous worship and allows so much pointless suffering for who knows why, allows people genuinely seeking him to not find him or to find some false religion. I mean if you take Christian theism seriously, god is evil in almost every way I can even conceive of. And it’s horrifying to think that so many people like I used to think that this is the standard of goodness to whom all humanity should be held.
Maitzen: It is mystifying why that’s so but it’s an extremely popular view that atheism is bad for morality when in fact it seems to me pretty clear that theism is what’s bad for morality.
Luke: What are some of the objections that you’ve heard to this latest argument that we just talked about?
Maitzen: By far the most popular objection is one that invokes libertarian free will. This objection comes up every time I present my argument including at a recent public debate that we had on god and morality at Acadia University where I teach. In fact my opponents in that debate rested their entire rebuttal on libertarian free will. Their idea is that a perfect god can justly allow a child to be tortured in order not to interfere with the libertarian free will of the torturer. I find that outrageous but that’s their case and this invocation of libertarian free will comes up again and again. I think it’s a bad objection for a bunch of reasons. First it assumes that libertarian free will, that is contra causal free will, is a coherent notion and that it’s the only kind of free will worth having. Both of those assumptions are highly questionable. Second it assumes that libertarian free will has so much intrinsic value that it should never be interfered with. But nobody really believes that if you look at our moral practice. We interfere with people’s free will all the time, we think we are sometimes obliged to do it.
Third the objection assumes that god in fact never interferes with free will, which is I think an unbiblical assumption. If you look at Exodus 14 you find god interfering with the free will of Pharaoh, and if you read Romans 9 verse 18 you find St. Paul announcing a regular policy of interference on god’s part with free will. So for what it’s worth I think it’s an unbiblical assumption that god never interferes with libertarian free will.
Luke: Wait how does St. Paul say that god regularly interferes with free will?
Maitzen: Okay according to Romans 9:18 and I’m using the new living translation cause that’s the one I understand best. It says “so you see god shows mercy to some just because he wants to and he chooses to make some people refuse to listen.” So I think that anybody who says that libertarian free will is so important that god would never mess with it has some explaining to do. What is going on when god hardens hearts and what is going on when according to Romans 9:18 he chooses to make some people refuse to listen to the gospel message. So the assumption of absolutely inviolable libertarian free will is for what it’s worth unbiblical and as a fourth reason I think the objection fails in that it assumes that ordinary morality cares deeply about libertarian free will but that’s an assumption that flies in the face of the evidence. If you look at the criminal law for instance, Anglo-American criminal law, juries never ask if the defendant had libertarian freedom when he committed the crime before deciding to convict the defendant. Judges don’t instruct juries to pay any attention to that. So unless the criminal law is way out of whack with ordinary moral assumptions, libertarian free will just isn’t part of our ordinary moral background.
Luke: Well wait a minute though isn’t there a significant legal precedent for letting certain criminals off the hook so to speak if we feel that they weren’t in control of their actions like for example if they were significantly mentally insane or something like that?
Maitzen: There is this McNaghten rule I think it’s called which requires that the defendant have been able to conform his conduct to the law and recognize the wrongness of what he was doing but both of those assumptions are compatible with determinism as any compatabilist will tell you. What libertarianism requires is that the defendant’s actions not have been determined by the prior state of the universe. And judges don’t require that that question be looked into, juries aren’t allowed to ask it, and on the rare occasions in which the sort of thing comes up in the trial court you find the appellate court saying that is not germane. It is sufficient if at the conscious level the defendant knew what he was doing and chose to do it in full knowledge of its consequences. And all of that is compatible with his action having been determined by the prior state of the universe. So I think that if you look at the criminal law as reflecting ordinary morality to this extent it’s pretty hard to argue that libertarian free will is part of the bedrock assumption of the criminal law.
Luke: So let’s go back to your first two objections to the free will defense and flesh those out a little bit more.
Maitzen: The first assumption is that libertarian, that is this contra-causal kind of free will is first of all a coherent notion. This isn’t my area of specialty but I know enough about it to know that a lot of people have questioned whether it’s even coherent to suppose that you act freely when your actions are not determined by the prior state of the universe and that would include the prior state of your mind. Doesn’t it become random rather than an action for which you are responsible as it’s more of a spasm than an action. So people have worried I think rightly about the coherence of this notion of libertarian free will but even if it could be shown to be coherent it’s a very good question why we should think it’s the only kind of free will worth having. I think those are independent assumptions, first that it’s coherent and second that it’s the uniquely valuable kind of free will.
Luke: Yeah and whether or not contra causal free will is coherent, most philosophers right now are pretty sure that it’s just not true that we have contra causal free will. The biggest survey ever of professional philosophers said that something like 14% of professional philosophers thought that libertarianism was a viable theory.
Maitzen: Yeah so that reflects the state of opinion in the field, I wouldn’t look at that as a particularly powerful argument.
Luke: Sure and then what was the second objection that you had to the idea that free will can be used as an excuse for god allowing either strange moral consequences or suffering or whatever.
Maitzen: Well the idea that libertarian free will in particular has so much intrinsic value, it’s so intrinsically important that it should never be interfered with. But as I said before that’s not an attitude that we take in our every day moral practice. Even libertarians are perfectly willing to interfere with the free will of the criminal if it means preventing a terrible crime. So I think it was David Lewis who said that when we’re evaluating conduct the freedom of a wrong doer is a weightless consideration, it has no weight in our evaluation of the conduct. We don’t say well at least it’s a good thing that the child torturer acted freely, we don’t put that on the good side of the ledger. So I don’t think it really is one of our commitments that libertarian free will has any intrinsic value let alone enough to make it the case that you should never interfere with it.
Luke: And the way I often think about this is in terms of the problem of evil and the free will theodicy is: look if god had the power to, say, make it so that Hitler was really interested in gardening or something like that instead of politics just because of slightly different hormones when he was in the womb or whatever, why did god not do that? It makes no sense. You know the theists will say well he didn’t want to interfere with Hitler’s free will but we don’t normally think of that as interfering with free will and we didn’t have a problem interfering with Hitler’s free will when we invaded France. It’s just insane to me to say that free will has so much value that it gets God off the hook for allowing so much pointless suffering.
Maitzen: I agree and I think it’s instructive that we don’t say that about libertarian free will except when the problem of evil comes up.
Maitzen: We don’t say that about the libertarian free will of criminals or child torturers and so on. It’s just when the problem of evil is raised that all of a sudden free will becomes so valuable that not even god may ever curtail it and never mind what the what the bible says about us having done so.
Luke: Well I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there. I think that’s a serious problem for theists and I’m glad you’ve got some work on it.
Maitzen: A second objection to my argument from Morality to Atheism is this. Contrary to what I’ve said a perfect god is allowed to exploit people including children because they owe their existence to god and god is on balance anyway their benefactor. Richard Swinburne is the figure most associated with this kind of objection and I reject it. So suppose I clone a child into existence, so we’re looking at future technology, and I’m good to the child for all but the final minute of its life but during that final minute I allow it to be tortured to death in order to show others just how revolting child torture is and thereby discourage them from engaging in child torture.
Luke: Well gee that would be awfully good of you.
Maitzen: That’s the idea. My exploitation of the child would be monstrous, it would be at least morally imperfect behavior, even though it owes its existence to me and I was on balance let us suppose its benefactor, I treated it very well for all but the last minute of its life. Even so I’m not off the hook for exploiting it during that last minute. So I reject Swinburne’s reply to the argument.
Luke: Are there other objections that you hear?
Maitzen: Another objection I sometimes hear is that it’s enough to justify god’s exploitation of a tortured child if god redeems the child’s suffering. Now redeems is the word the objector typically uses but I’m not sure it’s the right word. In any case what’s meant by the objection is that it’s enough to justify god’s exploitation if god later compensates the tortured child with heavenly bliss. I think this objection simply confuses two things, compensation and justification. If I run you over in my car the law may force me to compensate you afterward but that compensation hardly justifies what I did to you in the first place, they’re just two very different things. No amount of compensation and no amount of forgiveness on the part of the victim constitutes a justification for the original exploitation. So I think this redeems business is not persuasive I think it’s just a confused reply to my argument.
Another objection is this. For all we know god is sometimes forced to exploit children in order to avoid something even worse. Now in that case I would still say god’s perfection is threatened. I would say that because we human beings may face genuine moral dilemmas, cases in which we can’t avoid doing something wrong because our options are constrained, we are limited beings. But it seems to me that god would face a moral dilemma only if moral dilemmas are built into the metaphysical fabric of every possible universe or at least the fabric of the best possible universe. And I can’t see how they could be. I can’t see god facing a moral dilemma unless moral dilemmas are metaphysically basic and I can’t see how they could be.
Luke: Yeah and I’m hearing Plantiga arguing now that you can’t prove that moral dilemmas aren’t metaphysically basic.
Maitzen: Right and maybe it comes down to a question of which of us bears the burden of proof. I’m assuming that if god does face a moral dilemma then moral dilemmas are metaphysically basic. Now the question becomes whether to believe that moral dilemmas are metaphysically basic and I think the burden of proof is on someone who says that this is part of the metaphysical fabric of the universe, why should we suppose that it is? It’s an attempt to add an item to the list of metaphysically basic facts about the universe and I think the burden of proof is on whoever wants to add that item.
Luke: Yeah and I think one way to avoid having to hash out whether or not something is metaphysically basic would just say well even if it’s possible it seems very unlikely and therefore despite your objection about this possible world where moral dilemmas are metaphysically basic your argument would still constitute strong evidence against the existence of an all perfect god.
Maitzen: Yeah I think we could certainly cast it in those terms.
Luke: Well switching gears a little bit, as an atheist doing philosophy of religion you’re in the minority. So what does the field of philosophy of religion looks like from your perspective?
Maitzen: Well it looks too important to leave it all to theists. In my course we get to study the most important issue that there is. I tell them if you throw a dart at the newspaper chances are good that you’ll hit a story in which religion is the driving force behind the story. And I tell them that the contemporary importance of religion and philosophy of religion is totally contrary to what the experts were predicting some decades ago. You know I trot out the famous quotation from Harvey Cox, the Harvard theologian who wrote a book called the Secular City in 1965 and he predicted in that book that religion would soon disappear from the public sphere never to return. And it might have been a fair prediction from his perspective but it’s turned out to be spectacularly wrong. Religion is as important today as it perhaps ever has been. So I try to organize this course around arguments that seem to me actually to motivate ordinary belief and nonbelief in god and those tend not to be the ontological, cosmological or teleological arguments even in my experience. Instead to the extent to which arguments motivate believers at all it’s arguments about such things as the ultimate meaning of life and arguments about the basis for morality. Those are the really motivating kinds of arguments as Christian apologists such as Craig recognize and capitalize on. So those are the topics that we tend to concentrate on for the most part in that course.
Luke: What is it that you would have to say as an atheist about the meaning of life and morality?
Maitzen: The work I’ve been doing so far has been meant to combat this widespread misimpression that atheism is bad for morality and instead to turn the tables and argue that theism is in fact the real threat to morality. Where ultimate meaning of life is concerned I give a rather different answer that I think I’m borrowing from Thomas Nagel and that’s simply the idea that the notion of ultimate purpose or ultimate meaning is incoherent. It can be shown to be impossible on conceptual grounds alone and so we should stop seeking it and we should not be disappointed with the discovery that we can’t achieve it because it is a conceptually confused idea.
Luke: And so what’s the idea of ultimate meaning that you’re talking about and why is it incoherent?
Maitzen: As I understand if you read people like again William Lane Craig they object to atheism because it provides no ultimate purpose for our lives. No matter how noble the purpose to which you devote your life unless god exists that purpose can be made to seem trivial or fleeting or relative, unless god exists. So what Craig is evidently looking for is a purpose that is ultimate in the sense that it’s unquestionable, it would make no sense to question it, it would make no sense to wonder what’s so great about that purpose. It’s a purpose that can’t be diminished no matter how far back from it you step. And this is where Nagel comes in. In a 1971 article called The Absurd, at least as I interpret that article, he argues that that kind of ultimate purpose is in principle unattainable because as soon as you understand any alleged purpose that we might have for our lives you thereby become able to question it and step back from it and ask what makes it so great and why that is sufficient as our ultimate purpose. So you’re on the one hand seeking a purpose that you cannot sensibly question and on the other hand if it’s to serve as your purpose you’re gonna have to understand it to some degree but as soon as you understand it you thereby become able to question it and therefore render it non-ultimate. Ultimate purpose cannot be had on conceptual grounds alone because the concept is incoherent. So what Craig is requiring can’t be had and what he is saying theism offers cannot be had.
Luke: Well and I think the idea here is let’s say I say that my purpose is to decrease suffering and increase the peace on the planet. And the theists could come back and say, well why think that really matters, how could that be the ultimate purpose? And the theist thinks that he has a better answer because he can say, well the reason my purpose is to reduce suffering on earth is because that’s what the god of the universe told me to do and so that’s why that’s my ultimate purpose. But then we can just as well say, well why is that an ultimate purpose? Why should you obey this god character? And so there is no ultimate purpose that you could present that can’t be questioned in exactly that way.
Maitzen: And suppose god had said to us or you came to discover that according to god our purpose on earth is to generate as much CO2 as possible to feed the plants and the trees. We’re doing a very good job of it. That wouldn’t be satisfying even if it came from the creator of the universe. You can easily show that its just having come from god wouldn’t make it a satisfying purpose if it was otherwise unsatisfying.
Luke: Yeah and another way to see that is let’s take what is very often called the ultimate purpose by theists, and that is the ultimate purpose of human life is to glorify god. Now I don’t know about you but I don’t see that as a very valuable purpose. I mean it’s kind of like Kim Jung Il telling all of his citizens your purpose is to glorify me and make me feel good about myself, it’s just not a very impressive purpose.
Maitzen: And it might actually be in the end highly pleasurable to do that, to engage in that activity. But I can easily envision let’s say you and me up there enjoying this beatific vision of god and I’ll elbow you and ask, is this it? This is the experience that makes everything worthwhile that justifies the Holocaust and makes all evil comprehensible. It wouldn’t be hard at all to wonder how it is that this experience answers every question. So I think people who have offered ultimate purpose as a reason for accepting theism and rejecting atheism first of all haven’t read Nagel which I find puzzling in the case of Craig who’s written for years on this topic and Nagel’s article is about the most famous article in English on the topic of life’s absurdity. I find it very puzzling that so far as I can tell he’s never even cited Nagel or discussed him.
Luke: Well so you say philosophy of religion is too important to leave to the theists. Now some headway has been made not so much in philosophy of religion but in the public square with the new atheists. So what do you think about that?
Maitzen: Unlike some people I don’t have strong opinions about the new atheists. I do think they’re doing an important service in getting ordinary people who are non-believers to be less shy about their nonbelief or their atheism, that’s one important service. And it’s possible they’ve performed a service in getting ordinary people who are theists to think more deeply about assumptions that they have never been encouraged to examine.
Luke: So what would you like to see happening in the public debate between theism and atheism in addition to the things that you just mentioned?
Maitzen: Well for one thing I’d like the quality of the public thinking on these issues to be much better than it now is. Maybe I can illustrate what I mean by giving you an example from my own recent experience. An administrative colleague of mine at Acadia attended the recent public debate that I mentioned to you and afterward this person bought me a gift almost as a response I think to what I’d said in the debate about god and suffering. Now the gift was a Christian inspirational novel called William Paul Young called The Shack. Have you heard of it?
Maitzen: Well I’m surprised in a way because it is apparently a runaway hit. It has sold over 10 million copies, it has been translated into 34 languages.
Luke: Oh my god, well it’s really not my genre.
Maitzen: Nor is it mine but it was a gift and I read it. And of course no book by any of the new atheists can compete with those numbers. And I’m not even sure that all of the new atheist books combined can compete with those numbers. As I say a runaway bestseller. Now this novel The Shack has been condemned as heretical and unbiblical by some prominent Christians. I don’t myself care whether it’s heretical or unbiblical but I do care that it’s the most intellectually shallow, childish, morally frivolous novel I’ve ever read, and again I received it as a gift with the endorsement of a colleague, an intelligent professional who has a PhD in psychology. And I can’t understand how this person would be anything but embarrassed by the book, it’s that bad. But regardless of your religious perspective, the wild popularity of this book is a bad sign. If it requires the quality of the public’s thinking on these issues then we are in deep trouble and we need to do something about it.
Luke: What is wrong with the book in particular for those who have read it?
Maitzen: It’s hard to sum up briefly but I’ll read you what it has on the back cover of the book, and this is to give far too much publicity to a very very bad novel. But it says “In a world where religion seems increasingly irrelevant The Shack wrestles with the timeless question, where is god in a world so filled with unspeakable pain? The answer Mac gets, he’s the lead character there, will astound you and perhaps transform you as much as it did him.” So that grabbed me, the back of the book promising to talk about that question.
So here’s what happens. Mac’s young daughter is brutally murdered and Mac gets to spend the weekend with god some years later asking god questions. So any theistic father will ask god the question that Mac ends up asking. As god puts it in their conversation, could I have prevented what happened to Missy? The daughter. The answer is yes, this occurs on page 224. So we’re 224 pages into the narrative and god’s about to give the explanation we’ve all been waiting for. Here’s what god says. “I could have chosen to actively interfere in her circumstance, I could have chosen to save her from the murderer. But, and I’m quoting, that was not an option for purposes that you cannot possibly understand now.” That’s it, that’s all we get. Cannot possibly understand. Now my reaction would be, well try me and let’s see if I can’t understand. Say something alright? It’s the central question of the whole novel and the novel punts on that question.
The back cover was correct, I was astounded by the answer that Mac gets. I mean I was expecting at least this much from god. “What Missy endured was required for her own greater good although Mac you might not understand how that could be.” That’s at least a partial answer, right. What Missy went through was required for her own good. Mind you that answer does, as I’ve argued, undermine our moral obligations but at least it’s a better answer than one that Mac actually gets. Nevertheless it is wildly successful, selling millions upon millions of copies, and judging from the endorsements that the book gets it’s influencing a lot of people. But if that’s the quality of public thinking on the issue that’s a very sad sign. So what can we do about it? Well I’m thinking we can use the internet, your podcast and your very active blog are definitely steps in the right direction. Maybe the blogosphere can help us where the schools evidently have failed us. If that’s the level of public thinking the schools have not done their job. Or maybe we can demand more from the schools, maybe we can require a critical thinking course taught by properly trained teachers as a condition of graduating from high school.
Luke: Well they’ve experimented with that I think in Australia and somewhere else that I can’t remember right now and it did measurably increase test scores so maybe it would catch on.
Maitzen: If The Shack and the popularity of this book are a sign of the quality of public theology that’s really worrisome. It’s as if religion has created a thought free zone around itself as no other human activity has and we need to sort of pierce that zone and get in there and get people thinking more critically.
Luke: Well Steve I appreciate you boldly charging into that thought free zone with some thoughts and I hope you continue to do so. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you thanks for coming on the show.
Maitzen: Thanks it was my pleasure.