CPBD 023: James Spiegel – How Immorality Leads to Atheism

by Luke Muehlhauser on February 28, 2010 in Ethics,Podcast

cpbd023

(Listen to other episodes of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot here.)

Today I interview philosopher James Spiegel about his book The Making of an Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief.

Download CPBD episode 023 with James Spiegel. Total time is 27:27.

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{ 67 comments… read them below or add one }

Roman February 28, 2010 at 7:32 am

That was good, thanks for that Luke!

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lukeprog February 28, 2010 at 7:40 am

Roman,

Thanks. It was odd how he ended up walking slowly from ‘There’s good evidence that…’ to a position more like ‘If you accept all the particulars of my theology because of what the Bible says, then here’s a possible scenario in which we might say that immorality leads to atheism, even though I acknowledge that theists are just as affected by immorality and cognitive bias.’

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AlexG February 28, 2010 at 7:48 am

Wow, this is really the only full-blown debate you’ve had in these interviews except for the one with Mike Licona. Only you won this one. :)

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Chuck February 28, 2010 at 7:59 am

Looking forward to listening to this after I finish a conference call this morning (I know, evil, atheist working on the Sabbath). I read this guy’s blog and knowing where you have come from am anxious to see how you respond to what seems like his insular and defensive reasoning.

I posted the following to his blog beneath the post announcing his book:

I am an Atheist.

I was raised Roman Catholic but left that church when I witnessed first hand the terrible collusion regarding the child-abuse dilemma involving a friend of mine.

I became “spiritual” investigating the works of Eastern writers or Christian writers influenced by Eastern thought (e.g. Merton, deMello).

This led me to Evangelical Christianity probably best described as Open Theism which then led me to a Calvinist world-view when systematic theology and doctrine became the natural next step.

Ultimately I suffered a nervous break-down that was enabled by pursuit of god. I had been living with an untreated anxiety disorder and depression which I attributed to my sinful state and was allowed mild relief from both due to the placebo effects found in worship and fellowship but, when I suffered a job-loss four months into my marriage, my GAD was enflamed leading to uni-polar MDD and a nervous break-down accompanied by suicidal ideation. My Calvinism and circumstances asserted that I was not one of the elect and to spare my wife the torment of having to live with an “un-saved” person I thought it best if I kill myself. I was hospitalized and prescribed medication. I also worked on the cognitive disorders I accumulated having lived in a highly religious and alcoholic home where god was one of wrath and justification for child abuse. I continued in church but as I listened to the doctrine presented I came to see christianity predicated on the same kind of “self-hatred” that kept me sick. I did some seeking into church history and the historicity of the gospels and concluded that my observations of the christian faith being one of self-hatred, true. I think one must consider themselves depraved if they are to find any efficacious truth in christian doctrine. For me to do that means I invite my mental illness to grow and that seems illogical and immoral.

I am not an atheist because I want to drink, or cheat on my wife, surf the net for porn or do anything I would have considered immoral while identifying as a christian. I am an atheist because it is the best path for me to recover from an anxiety disorder and depression without inviting the possibility of suicidal ideation. The history of christianity is a violent one where hating yourself and humanity is considered the highest moral good in obedience to a wrathful god.

I choose to seek a morality rooted in reason and the wonder that we are all seeking the best we know how to live.

My wife and I are expecting our first child in 3 months. I want to spare him the self-hatred forced on me by christianity.

I see in your presupposed hypothesis additional cruelty and unwillingness to invite the consideration that christian theology may be psychologically harmful and inconsistent with the love it proclaims.

Just wanted you to hear from a proud atheist who also considers himself your moral equal (if not your moral superior).

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Lee A.P. February 28, 2010 at 9:18 am

AlexG: Wow, this is really the only full-blown debate you’ve had in these interviews except for the one with Mike Licona. Only you won this one.   

Uh, Luke got the best of Mike. Licona revealed himself as simply a classic super naturalist who believes in unseen beings influencing crap behind the scenes of existence. Once you buy into evil but extremely clever supernatural beings influencing things, then you can never be sure that you aren’t the one being tricked.

I don’t know if I even want to listen to this one as the guests premise is so stupid.

From reading Luke’s post it seems this fella thinks: “If you belief as I believe, me being a Bible believing Christian and all, then immorality leads to atheism”. Well no shit. That line of thinking leads to the obvious theist position “The Bible is the right way and if you don’t believe it, then you are immoral and wrong”. Not very intellectually stimulating stuff there. Its just classic casting of judgement one expects from Christians.

Many atheists are made because they read the putrid immorality God engages in within the pages of the Bible.

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Mark February 28, 2010 at 9:27 am

Re: Vitz. I feel comfortable accepting the hypothesis that there are some powerful non-rational forces inclining people to atheism. I imagine, after all, the same is going to be true of all culturally charged ideologies. But the logic of the Vitz thing makes no sense to me. Even if we successfully establish that having a poor relationship with one’s father causes atheism — indeed, is always the cause of it — it doesn’t follow that people are atheists for non-rational reasons. For perhaps there’s an intermediate link L in the causal chain such that 1. a poor relationship with one’s father causes L, 2. L causes belief in atheism, and 3. L is epistemically honorable.

So, for example, while Vitz is proposing some causal chain like this:

“poor father figure –> distrust of father figures –> association of God with father –> distrust of God,”

which is clearly epistemically dishonorable, I can just as easily imagine it’s something like this:

“poor father figure –> distrust of the say-so of mere authority –> distrust of received cultural knowledge absent evidence –> higher demand for intellectual rigor –> distrust of religion on the basis of evidence,”

which is epistemically honorable. And there’s some data from the cognitive psychologist Michael Inzlicht suggesting that atheists are indeed more bothered by their mistakes than theists are, so we could even count this as some rudimentary evidence favoring the second chain over the first.

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Justfinethanks February 28, 2010 at 9:28 am

Lee A.P.: Not very intellectually stimulating stuff there.

What are you talking about? Just look at the extensive research that went into this theory!

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Chuck February 28, 2010 at 9:35 am

This guy is a bad scholar.

His “bad father” inductive argument can be refuted by Luke and what seems like a great relationship with a great dad (who happens to be a preacher).

Luke’s refutation of the non-random sample and a control group shows how stupid this guy is, he doesn’t understand the meaning of “random” sample when considering hypothesis-testing. He thinks that the cherry-picking of non-random theist examples is a good thing. A random sample for him would be a bad thing.

He preaches to the choir.

This guy is the moral equivalent to a good old boy who thinks both women and blacks are inferior to white men.

He is an idiot.

I’m glad Luke doesn’t have the same anger issues I have because I would call this guy out for his superstitious-riddled bigotry.

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Chuck February 28, 2010 at 9:46 am

The final objection you cite Luke regarding the implausibility of atheism due to geography shows that this guy is committed to a pre-scientific world-view which seems very silly.

His scholarship is about as valid as scientology.

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Chuck February 28, 2010 at 9:47 am

“Check out my book”

Ummmm no.

You are an idiot.

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Reginald Selkirk February 28, 2010 at 10:34 am

Chuck: (I know, evil, atheist working on the Sabbath)

Just like all those godless Nascar drivers.

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Paul Wright February 28, 2010 at 11:13 am

Spiegel’s stuff is interesting to people who share his premises, I suppose, but I don’t really see why he’s attempted to co-opt psychology, Kuhn and so on: if you’re committed to the proposition that the Apostle Paul wrote inerrant scripture, why trouble yourself with evidence?

All world views which are comprehensive enought to explain why there are some people who don’t share them can run into what Suber calls logical rudeness: dismissing someone’s arguments by taking the voicing of arguments itself as a symptom of error. Spiegel is careful to say that he is not arguing that atheism is false, merely explaining why so many people believe it given it is false, but I wonder how many readers of his book will be as careful with that distinction.

The same goes for atheists. We have theories about why so many people believe even though theism is false. Perhaps Spiegel’s slightly embarrassing performance should serve as a reminder to keep those theories separate from the arguments we have that theism is in fact false.

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Chuck February 28, 2010 at 11:23 am

Paul,

Spiegel is arguing the motivation for atheism is immorality because the bible says so.

It is no difference in substance as saying women shouldn’t vote because the man is the head of the family.

The bible says it so we should believe it.

His inability to understand the technical meaning of random sampling further confounds his pretense to scholarship. He is making an argument that is built on a belief hypothesis rooted in predictive behavior yet, he doesn’t even understand the basis for population sampling which would allow someone to make his claim.

He is a bigot plain and simple and his entire thesis is “The bible says it so I believe it.” Intellectually, he is no different than a young earth creationist.

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Reginald Selkirk February 28, 2010 at 11:47 am

What a load of ****. On the ‘daddy issue’ argument, he repeatedly attempts to pass it off as an “inductive argument,” and at one point he even attempts to claim it as reasoning to the best solution, but he does not have any serious non-anecdotal evidence of the sort which makes the inductive scientific method so powerful. I.e. he is overselling it. Unlike deductive logic, inductive logic enables probability. Use it.

“I’m convinced by some forms of the cosmological argument… there’s a world, and that requires an explanation…”
(Wording may not be exact, I only listened once)

Harken back to your criticism of Dawkins, in which you quote WL Craig to the effect that an explanation does not need an explanation. If you simply apply this one step earlier, it works against the theist.

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Reginald Selkirk February 28, 2010 at 11:49 am

Paul Wright: Spiegel’s stuff is interesting to people who share his premises, I suppose, but I don’t really see why he’s attempted to co-opt psychology…

Because it’s easier than actually rebutting the arguments against theism. Label your opponent as a psychotic, and then you don’t hae to take him seriously.

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Sabio Lantz February 28, 2010 at 3:23 pm

The “fart-logic” in this conversation was repugnant.

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Chuck February 28, 2010 at 3:36 pm

Sabio,

Good point.

I wonder if some Christians entertain such blatantly insular arguments to ensure intense push back as evidence that they ARE elect and are working for the truth (e.g. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you). I so often encounter the kind of thinking the good Professor (?! really?) shared in this interview and when it is opposed, there’s almost a smug delight as if their objective to be opposed has been achieved due to their terrible thinking.

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Derrida February 28, 2010 at 3:57 pm

Spiegel makes me think that the “sin” that causes atheism is thinking too hard. He says that his thesis has scientific justification, but he doesn’t explain what would falsify it, I’m guessing because “immorality” is too wide a criterion to really be useful. Spiegel confesses as much at the beginning, when he says that immorality needn’t be obvious and external. The only justification he has is scriptural, which obviously won’t convince atheists or agnostics, or non Christians, or Christians have a different interpretation of scripture to Spiegel.

His appeal to the cosmological argument is telling. Supposing that the universe does require an explanation of its existence, that explanation needn’t be causal in nature. If the universe did have a cause, that cause needn’t be a transcendent omnimax person, let alone the specifically Christian God.

It seems to me that Spiegel’s argument is one big tu quoque:

“Dawkins said theists are delusional?! Well… he’s delusional… times a million! So ner.”

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justfinethanks February 28, 2010 at 4:52 pm

You know, it just occoured to me that I actually don’t oppose the idea of scientists investigating why people become atheists in principle, for the same reason I don’t oppose the idea of investigating why people fall in love or why some people become successful in life. Obviously, studying these things doesn’t invalidate atheism, love or success.

But do it with more than anecdotal evidence, bible quotes, and moral contempt. I mean, those nasty atheists have the scientific study of the origin of religious belief down pat, even forming the International Association for the Cognitive Science of Religion, which has founded journals, funded studies, published books, and done everything else a good scientific foundation should do.

Where the hell is the equivalent for the study of unbelief and skepticism? Where are the Biola University psychologists performing controlled experiments with atheist volunteers? Where are the theist neuroscientists doing brain scans of atheists? I mean, I usually agree with theists when they say they can be good scientists and accept mainstream scientific discoveries and still believe in God with consistency, but it sure is hard to deny that atheists are way better at the sciency stuff.

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Wes February 28, 2010 at 5:26 pm

This guy’s thesis is completely ludicrous and his arguments for it are truly terrible. He doesn’t seem to have any idea what the word “evidence” means, and he has an incredibly simple-minded understanding of Kuhn. I don’t know what’s more offensive: His completely unsupported claim that atheists are wicked, or his flagrant abuse of history and philosophy of science (my particular field).

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Chuck February 28, 2010 at 5:30 pm

Without our secular protections this guy would be fetching fire-wood for a good heretic burning. I hope I can meet him and tell him what an offensive asshole he is to his face.

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Mark February 28, 2010 at 6:15 pm

I think some of you are overreacting. He feels his religion tells him that atheism is engendered by what Paul calls a “reprobate mind;” I think he’s right, and see him as honestly hammering out the consequences of his own beliefs. That those consequences are so repugnant to us is just another mark against the Christian beliefs they flow from, not so much against Spiegel the person. Besides, in the grand scheme of things, this is way less offensive than the doctrine of hell.

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Lee A.P. February 28, 2010 at 6:24 pm

Chuck: Without our secular protections this guy would be fetching fire-wood for a good heretic burning.I hope I can meet him and tell him what an offensive asshole he is to his face.  

To be fair he sounded like a nice guy. The world is so full of people who believe in stupid supernatural shit, you’d be admonishing people to their faces to the point of exhaustion.

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Chuck February 28, 2010 at 7:58 pm

You might be right.

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Rob February 28, 2010 at 9:22 pm

Great interview. Thanks for exposing Spiegel’s blatant cherry picking: the sociological and psychological literature suggests that worldviews are held for non-rational reasons. But Spiegel applies this in an unbalanced way. That is non-rational on his part. Also, the point about the demographic distribution of non-belief manifestly flaunted the bankruptcy of his thesis.

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Briang March 1, 2010 at 12:26 am

I can see there’s been quite a number of negative response to Spiegel’s thesis. I write with the concern that I might receive similar attacks, since something like his thesis seems plausible to me. (I say something like because I have doubts about how strong of a claim can be made here.) I hope in sharing my views, that perhaps the responses that are sure to follow may help me understand atheists better. My comments may also help atheists understand why Christians raise questions about atheists’ morality.

There are two reasons why the thesis seems plausible to me.

1)In my observation of atheists, I’ve found that while they are very often insistent that they can be just as moral as Christians, but yet when they start discussing the specifics of their moral beliefs they seem to have a very different kind of morality in mind. I don’t find atheists promoting chastity until marriage, for example.
2)From my own experience, I know the difficulties of struggling with temptation and sin. I can understand the attraction to the idea that there is no final judgment regarding my life.

These observations are only the things that make me think it’s plausible that moral beliefs have influenced a person’s atheism. Can any testable predictions be made? If it’s true that morality is a primary factor in deconversion from Christianity to atheism, I’d predict that moral beliefs ought to change more drastically then other beliefs. Of course some moral beliefs are directly connected to belief in God, beliefs tied to worship, for example. But if one considers only those beliefs that are not directly connected with God, I’d predict that those beliefs would change more then other beliefs that a person held as a Christian. As an example, I’d expect that most people believe that germs cause disease before and after their deconversion. I don’t expect the same to be true with their beliefs about sexual morality or abortion. Now it may be that this prediction is consistent with other hypothesizes, so it may not be absolutely conclusive in itself.

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Wes March 1, 2010 at 12:58 am

Briang: I can see there’s been quite a number of negative response to Spiegel’s thesis.I write with the concern that I might receive similar attacks, since something like his thesis seems plausible to me. (I say something like because I have doubts about how strong of a claim can be made here.)I hope in sharing my views, that perhaps the responses that are sure to follow may help me understand atheists better.My comments may also help atheists understand why Christians raise questions about atheists’ morality.There are two reasons why the thesis seems plausible to me.1)In my observation of atheists, I’ve found that while they are very often insistent that they can be just as moral as Christians, but yet when they start discussing the specifics of their moral beliefs they seem to have a very different kind of morality in mind.I don’t find atheists promoting chastity until marriage, for example.
2)From my own experience, I know the difficulties of struggling with temptation and sin.I can understand the attraction to the idea that there is no final judgment regarding my life.These observations are only the things that make me think it’s plausible that moral beliefs have influenced a person’s atheism.Can any testable predictions be made?If it’s true that morality is a primary factor in deconversion from Christianity to atheism, I’d predict that moral beliefs ought to change more drastically then other beliefs.Of course some moral beliefs are directly connected to belief in God, beliefs tied to worship, for example.But if one considers only those beliefs that are not directly connected with God, I’d predict that those beliefs would change more then other beliefs that a person held as a Christian. As an example, I’d expect that most people believe that germs cause disease before and after their deconversion.I don’t expect the same to be true with their beliefs about sexual morality or abortion.Now it may be that this prediction is consistent with other hypothesizes, so it may not be absolutely conclusive in itself.  

You are endorsing precisely the kind of circularity that Spiegel endorses. You’re defining “morality” as “whatever Christians believe”, noticing that atheists don’t believe the same, and then declaring that they are immoral.

It’s true that you won’t find many atheists railing against abortion or endorsing chastity until marriage, but that’s largely because misogyny and prudishness are less common among atheists. Woman-hating fear of sex is pretty much the norm amongst Christians, so they include being a misogynistic prude among their list of “moral” dictates.

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Derrida March 1, 2010 at 1:34 am

While autonomy and the desire to do evil might be a reason to be an atheist, it seems to me to be a rather weak reason.

Given the choice of being able to blaspheme, make up my own rules, or whatever, and eternal bliss, which I apparently know exists but deceive myself about, I would choose eternal bliss.

Religions have had eons to work out how to motivate people into believing this stuff, and into indoctrinating their children with it. There are major rewards, in this life and, according to Christians, the next. This is why people actually think Pascal’s wager is a good argument, because the real and imagined benefits of being religious are stupefying.

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Reginald Selkirk March 1, 2010 at 6:43 am

Briang: 1)In my observation of atheists, I’ve found that while they are very often insistent that they can be just as moral as Christians, but yet when they start discussing the specifics of their moral beliefs they seem to have a very different kind of morality in mind. I don’t find atheists promoting chastity until marriage, for example.

Well duh, dude. Consider each moral issue currently in debate in society. Ask yourself, are the reasons for each viewpoint rational, or are they backed only by religious appeals? The views which are backed only by religious tradition are rejected by atheists. This is not the least bit surprising.

Consider gay marriage as a prime example. The arguments against it are rationally pathetic, and quite often factually incorrect. “Marriage has always been between one man and one woman”? No, it hasn’t. Even religious scriptures give the lie to that one.

One other point I feel is important: is morality about living well, or is it about controlling the behaviour of others? If some group wants to go off and live idiotically; say Jehovah’s Witnesses would rather die than have a life-saving blood transfusion: fine with me. But if they tried to enforce that belief on society as a whole, then I have a problem with it. I also havea problem with them forcing it on children who are too young to have made their own decisions. The most public disagreements about morality in this society today are about religious people attempting to force their values on society as a whole. Examples: gay marriage, abortions, and even birth control.

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Rob March 1, 2010 at 7:25 am

Briang,

Consider some simple substitutions to your statement:

1)In my observation of Christians, I’ve found that while they are very often insistent that they can be just as moral as atheists, but yet when they start discussing the specifics of their moral beliefs they seem to have a very different kind of morality in mind. I don’t find Christians promoting equal treatment of homosexuals, for example.

Get it now?

In addition, Christians admire and worship Yahweh, and claim that Yahweh is the very ground of what is good. Yet Yahweh is an evil monster. Which makes me think: there is something very wrong with the so called “morality” of Christians.

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Briang March 1, 2010 at 7:33 am

Wes: You are endorsing precisely the kind of circularity that Spiegel endorses. You’re defining “morality” as “whatever Christians believe”, noticing that atheists don’t believe the same, and then declaring that they are immoral.

It’s true that you won’t find many atheists railing against abortion or endorsing chastity until marriage, but that’s largely because misogyny and prudishness are less common among atheists. Woman-hating fear of sex is pretty much the norm amongst Christians, so they include being a misogynistic prude among their list of “moral” dictates.

Of course it’s true, that I base my thinking on this question on the morality that I think is correct (I can’t really base my thinking on morality I think is mistaken, can I?), however, I think there’s more to it then that. Given that most of us take many, if not most of our beliefs from society and our upbringing, why is it that it seems that a disproportionate number of moral beliefs change when one leaves Christianity. I learned that abortion is wrong from the same place I learned my ABCs and germ theory of disease: my mother taught me. How is it that when people start “thinking for themselves”, that they all seem to question the moral beliefs, but not the ABCs or germ theory, or arithmetic? It’s not just that atheists have come to a different set of beliefs then myself, but that they’ve chosen a very particular set of beliefs to question, while leaving many of their other beliefs unquestioned.

As far as your comments about “woman hating” and “sex fearing,” I think you have some misconceptions about Christianity. I’d suggest you learn about Theology of the Body. Also, stop by my church. When you see families with, four, five, and six children, it’s quite implausible that this is due to any fear of sex.

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Chuck March 1, 2010 at 7:49 am

The last two comments were very well stated.

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Rob March 1, 2010 at 7:54 am

Briang wrote:

“How is it that when people start “thinking for themselves”, that they all seem to question the moral beliefs, but not the ABCs or germ theory, or arithmetic?”

That is a good argument against theistic morality, not for it, as you seem to think.

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Briang March 1, 2010 at 8:21 am

Rob,

It’s not so much an argument for who’s morality is correct, but about what motivates belief and behavior. An atheist can say he’s thought about Christian morality and honestly come to reject it. However, that’s beside the point. When a person accepts 90% of the stuff he’s learned on the basis of authority and spends little time questioning these beliefs to see if they’re true, and then he comes to moral beliefs and decides he needs to find out for himself whether they are really true, this seems to call out for an explanation. The claim that Christians just have a mistaken morality doesn’t explain why those beliefs are the ones questioned in the first place, when a person holds many other beliefs that go unquestioned.

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Chuck March 1, 2010 at 8:35 am

Brian,

Can you provide illustration to your argument? Specifically your statement, “The claim that Christians just have a mistaken morality doesn’t explain why those beliefs are the ones questioned in the first place, when a person holds many other beliefs that go unquestioned.” What unquestioned beliefs might one hold that could be equal to an obviously dubious belief like, Original Sin, which of course is the basis of Professor (I am still amazed the guy has earned this title) Spiegel’s thesis.

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Rob March 1, 2010 at 8:38 am

Briang,

Thanks for unpacking your point. But I don’t hold 90% of my beliefs based on authority. I do not believe 2+2=4 because my mother taught me that. And so my beliefs about the germ theory of disease. What my mother taught me about that has no bearing on my current understanding of microbiology and human physiology.

“When a person accepts 90% of the stuff he’s learned on the basis of authority and spends little time questioning these beliefs to see if they’re true”

I spend a great deal of my time questioning my beliefs. Anybody who cares whether their beliefs are true has to. And I do care.

I think you will find that atheists who are atheists for well thought out reasons probably also have a well thought out meta-ethical theory. Although the latter is a much thornier issue than whether Yahweh created the universe.

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Reginald Selkirk March 1, 2010 at 8:54 am

Briang: Given that most of us take many, if not most of our beliefs from society and our upbringing, why is it that it seems that a disproportionate number of moral beliefs change when one leaves Christianity. I learned that abortion is wrong from the same place I learned my ABCs and germ theory of disease: my mother taught me.

And yet there are some Christians who do not believe in germ theory, because their parents, motivated by religion, tell them it is false. A person leaving the Church of Christ, Scientist, is likely to re-examine their rejection of germ theory. Once the religious reasons are disqualifed as being unfounded (and as you notice, these are frequently transmitted via parents), then what is left? What are the non-religious reasons for rejecting germ theory? Whereas the scientific evidential reasons for accepting germ theory are very persuasive and very clear.

To return to your first stated example: pre-marital sex

First off, some of us note the irony of Christians opposing pre-marital sex when the chief figure of their religion is a product of it.

What are the non-religious reason for opposing pre-marital sex, once this whole concept of sin is rejected?
a) Emotional damage to immature personalities
b) Sexually-transmitted diseases
c) Unwanted pregnancy

Pre-marital sex has always been around, and with physical maturity coming earlier and marriage coming later, it is completely unrealistic to expect that it will be eliminated entirely.

With respect to a) what is the evidential basis for claims of emotional damage? A recent study does not corraborate these fears: Casual Sex Doesn’t Cause Emotional Damage: Study
December, 2009

With respect to b and c, Many of the Christians who oppose pre-marital sex also oppose effective birth control, including condoms. Once you get past the desire to punish people for behaviour you perceive as sinful, you find that the views of many Christians on this are contradictory and nonsensical. It is no wonder that these views are rejected by those leaving the faith.

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Reginald Selkirk March 1, 2010 at 8:57 am

Briang: I learned that abortion is wrong from the same place I learned my ABCs and germ theory of disease: my mother taught me.

Another point about this: does it ever occur to your that your mother might have been wrong about something? It frequently happens that someone is handed their conclusion, and then makes up supporting “reasons” for holding that conclusion. I.e. confirmation bias is rampant.

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Briang March 1, 2010 at 9:19 am

I’ve been thinking about it and I think I may need to modify the testability criteria of my hypothesis. I think the following proposition is plausible:

People tend to reexamine their own beliefs when they find educated people who disagree with them.

So it may be the case that people re-think their views on abortion, because there are educated people who disagree, while they don’t rethink their views on germ theory because, they don’t find educated people disagreeing on the topic.

So I propose the following modified prediction:
A random sample of atheists who were former Christians will likely have changed more of their moral beliefs (since their deconversion) than other beliefs that are commonly debated among educated people.

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Reginald Selkirk March 1, 2010 at 9:32 am

Briang: while they don’t rethink their views on germ theory because, they don’t find educated people disagreeing on the topic.

Unless their original view was wrong, and handed down to them by religious nutbag parents.

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Briang March 1, 2010 at 9:33 am

Reginald Selkirk: Another point about this: does it ever occur to your that your mother might have been wrong about something? It frequently happens that someone is handed their conclusion, and then makes up supporting “reasons” for holding that conclusion. I.e. confirmation bias is rampant.

Of course I don’t think my mother is infallible. I’m merely making the observation that all of us (myself included) are taught by upbringing to believe many things about the world, science, religion, politics, morality, language, mathematics etc. Somehow when we get out on our own we call start to question and reexamine many of these beliefs. Yet some of our beliefs we don’t reexamine. What is the difference?

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Chuck March 1, 2010 at 9:34 am

Briang,

How are you going to use “educated people” as a control group (unless of course you think being an Atheist and being an “educated person” are mutually exclusive)?

Also, you need to define what you mean by “moral beliefs”.

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Chuck March 1, 2010 at 9:40 am

Briang,

The topic of this post is not the driving forces behind credulity. The topic is the assertion that atheists choose atheism because they are immoral (which you endorse).

You are not doing anything to support your endorsement but you are erecting an awful lot of strawmen.

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Briang March 1, 2010 at 9:45 am

Chuck,

I think one would have use some standard like people with a college degree.

By moral beliefs, I would say beliefs which can be put in the form of “x is morally wrong” or (y is morally praiseworthy.”

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Rob March 1, 2010 at 9:47 am

Brinag wrote:

“A random sample of atheists who were former Christians will likely have changed more of their moral beliefs (since their deconversion) than other beliefs that are commonly debated among educated people.”

For the sake of discussion I will grant that your prediction is confirmed in some empirical way. Now, what is your point? How at all does that information contribute to the hypothesis that atheism is caused by immorality?

It seems to me deconversion causes a person to reassess their ethical foundations. But you want to argue that a person’s ethical foundations cause them to deconvert. You have not even begun to make that argument.

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Chuck March 1, 2010 at 10:33 am

Briang,

How does yoru sampling strategy isolate the dependent variable? What dependent variable are you assessing?

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Mark March 1, 2010 at 1:13 pm

Brian, it seems to me that the obvious reason people change some of their moral beliefs after deconverting is because they can’t find any non-religious reason to continue upholding those beliefs. Most non-religious people in the West can’t think of a good argument against, say, homosexuality that doesn’t proceed from a premise of the form, “God says…”

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RA March 1, 2010 at 1:20 pm

I could hardly believe my ears when he used that broken father thing. This guy does not seem to have any knowledge of atheistic thinking and simply throws a few preconceived ideas from the Amen Corner and then verifies his own thinking with some selective scriptures and writings.

I did enjoy his saying that everything that he believed about atheists applies to himself and Christians as well except that the Bible says what he thinks is true.

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Chuck March 1, 2010 at 1:25 pm

Maybe there is a post-modern thought to his book. “Making of an atheist: read this book and see how utterly stupid Christian claims to psychology are and it will make you an atheist.”

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Reginald Selkirk March 1, 2010 at 1:28 pm

I invite Briang to construct a list of non-religious reasons to oppose gay marriage.

Here’s a couple counter-arguments to get him started:

1) One man-one woman is the historical norm.
counters: Nuh-uh, read your freaking Bible. Besides, who cares about the historical norm? Should we enforce the wearing of tights and powdered wigs?

2) It makes me feel icky.
counter: So what? Is your icky feeling reason enough to deprive someone else of a basic right?

3) Legalizing gay marriage will destroy heterosexual marriage.
counter: You need to fill in some detail. How exactly will it do so? I maintain that there are exactly two people in the world who can harm a marriage, the two spouses.

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Hermes March 1, 2010 at 3:10 pm

I’m in a minority of atheists that I’ve talked to, though still not an insignificant group. When I understood what people meant by God (specifically: Yahweh), I just took it as a given that it was a story for children and for old and uneducated people. I was about 8, maybe 12 at the oldest. My age didn’t matter since my whole realization was such a non-issue just like figuring out Santa. I was fine but not interested in with religion, including going to church, and just figured that the adults had a reason for telling the stories and showing up at the building once a week.

It wasn’t till college that I realized that people that were my age and who were reasonably smart took it seriously at all.

The question I have is this;

If someone’s parents were either atheists (in reality) or thought of as being atheists, why would there be any issues with parental figures and being an atheist?

It seems that, if anything, that person (mistaken or not) would be following their parents lead and as such not rebelling against anyone in the family through theistic or religious belief.

Conclusion: These types of arguments by theists never seem to be anything but a mix of projection, wishful thinking, and common bigotry.

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Alex March 1, 2010 at 9:54 pm

Luke,

I’m about 11 minutes in and you seem to be doing brilliantly, time after time you remind him that his points go both ways. Schooled.

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Wes March 2, 2010 at 8:18 am

Briang:
Of course it’s true, that I base my thinking on this question on the morality that I think is correct (I can’t really base my thinking on morality I think is mistaken, can I?), however, I think there’s more to it then that.Given that most of us take many, if not most of our beliefs from society and our upbringing, why is it that it seems that a disproportionate number of moral beliefs change when one leaves Christianity.I learned that abortion is wrong from the same place I learned my ABCs and germ theory of disease: my mother taught me.How is it that when people start “thinking for themselves”, that they all seem to question the moral beliefs, but not the ABCs or germ theory, or arithmetic?It’s not just that atheists have come to a different set of beliefs then myself, but that they’ve chosen a very particular set of beliefs to question, while leaving many of their other beliefs unquestioned.As far as your comments about “woman hating” and “sex fearing,” I think you have some misconceptions about Christianity.I’d suggest you learn about Theology of the Body.Also, stop by my church. When you see families with, four, five, and six children, it’s quite implausible that this is due to any fear of sex.  

The moral beliefs most likely to change are the ones which have nothing but Christian dogma to back them up. Things such as homosexuality, abortion, sex outside of marriage, etc aren’t justifiably immoral unless you presuppose that the Bible and the church are automatically right about everything. Like I said, you (and Speigel) are operating on a question-begging premise that “morality” equals “whatever Christians believe”. It does follow from this circularity that all non-Christians are wicked, but it’s hardly philosophically interesting. I can just as easily define morality as “whatever atheists believe” and render every Christian on the planet wicked by default.

I find it funny that you point to families with six children as if it were a counterexample to the charge that Christianity is misogynistic and prudish. There’s no need for me to rebut you on that point. You made my case for me. “If you believe Christianity treats women like baby-making machines, you should come to my church and see all the baby-making machines.” Funny stuff.

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Briang March 2, 2010 at 8:34 pm

Wes,

Your last paragraph was a distortion of what I said. I wrote:

“Also, stop by my church. When you see families with, four, five, and six children, it’s quite implausible that this is due to any fear of sex.”

My statement was clearly a response to your charge of Christians having a fear of sex. Since children are the result of sex, people with a lot of children are usually not afraid of sex. (I’m surprised I have to spell this out). Of course this doesn’t prove anything about whether the women are treated right. It wasn’t meant to.

Then you turn it around to suggest that women are treated like baby making machines. Please! Has it ever occurred to you that, I don’t know, couples actually talk to one another, and actually want, as a couple, to have a large family? Has it ever occurred to you that many women are devastated to find out that they can’t have children?

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drj March 2, 2010 at 9:22 pm

Briang: I’d expect that someone who as a Christian believed that both murder and premarital sex were wrong and then became an atheist and with little to no intellectual reflection came to believe that murder is wrong but premarital sex is not, is probably someone who just wants to get laid and is fitting his beliefs to match his desires. (One may need to ask on the survey whether the person has engaged in the activity or at least desires to. If someone wanted to be a celibate murderer, then the conclusion wouldn’t be probable. )  

One of the major issues I see with the theory is that, quite frankly, under Christianity, one has the moral leeway to do all sorts of things. Young Christians who want to have pre-maritial sex, seem to usually just do it – they don’t need to leave the church first.

Forgiveness can always be had later.

As for murder and pre-marital sex – I don’t think thats a good dichotomy. Murder is universally considered a grave wrong in a way that pre-marital sex isnt, even among other religious traditions.

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Briang March 2, 2010 at 9:40 pm

I’ve seen a number of responses to the effect that atheists change their moral beliefs on deconversion because they don’t find good reasons for those moral beliefs. This is something I can’t disprove. I’m not sure one can give a satisfactory account of morality from atheism. I can’ think of reasons for at least some of my moral beliefs that don’t directly require the claim “God said so.” These reasons make sense to me, however, that is no guarantee that they would make sense to an atheist.

I also think that the atheists (as well as Christians) commenting on this blog are atypical. In my experience, most people (religious or not) don’t put that much thought into the kinds of questions discussed here. So it still seems plausible that moral considerations (based on what they want to do) may be a strong influence on their atheism.

This may be another way the hypothesis can be tested, in addition to what I stated above. Try to find out if moral beliefs change on the basis intellectual reasons. This would be pretty easy to do. Ask former Christians, who’ve deconverted to atheism, about the changes which have happened in their moral beliefs. Then ask questions about their intellectual habits with regard to their moral beliefs. (Have you ever read a philosophical book on ethics? How often to you think about moral issues? rarely / sometimes / often How often do you discuss moral issues with others? etc. )

I’d expect that someone who as a Christian believed that both murder and premarital sex were wrong and then became an atheist and with little to no intellectual reflection came to believe that murder is wrong but premarital sex is not, is probably someone who just wants to get laid and is fitting his beliefs to match his desires. (One may need to ask on the survey whether the person has engaged in the activity or at least desires to. If someone wanted to be a celibate murderer, then the conclusion wouldn’t be probable. )

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Briang March 2, 2010 at 10:18 pm

drj

drj:
One of the major issues I see with the theory is that, quite frankly, under Christianity, one has the moral leeway to do all sorts of things.Young Christians who want to have pre-maritial sex, seem to usually just do it – they don’t need to leave the church first.Forgiveness can always be had later.As for murder and pre-marital sex – I don’t think thats a good dichotomy.Murder is universally considered a grave wrong in a way that pre-marital sex isnt, even among other religious traditions.  

There’s more then one way a person can come to terms with the fact that they are doing something that they know is wrong. One is to ask for forgiveness later, the other is to change their belief. This is why I don’t think we can simply assume that atheists are worse sinners then Christians. If it’s correct that sin is a motivation for atheism, we need not predict that we’d find more sin amongst the atheists. It could be the case that people respond to the same motives in different ways. This, of course, makes it more difficult to test whether the motive is there, although, I think my suggestions may be on the right track, but perhaps still in need of refinement.

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Hermes March 2, 2010 at 11:04 pm

Wow. I can’t disagree more with what you’ve written, Briang.

The only thing that comes close is your comment that “most people … don’t put that much thought into the kinds of questions discussed here”. To that, I would only add that much of what’s discussed here is frequently not worth thinking about. :-)

To get back on topic …

What you wrote is just alien, and I don’t mean that as a comment on how exotic I think it is. I find more in common with the attitudes and morals of the Piraha (Pirahã) than what you just described;

… I should not make them sound like saints, because one of the great functions of this suffix is say I saw it with my own eyes is to lie. So it works, they do lie, and I remember once taking the story of how they killed their babies, infanticide, and they took this, I was really getting in to this, I was taking the whole story down, infanticide, and they all started laughing, I said ‘What are you laughing for?’ [they answered] “Who would kill their babies?”

Source: http://fora.tv/2009/03/20/Daniel_Everett_Endangered_Languages_and_Lost_Knowledge

You also mentioned a ‘change in morals’. I would contend that many of those changes are due to a better understanding of what is moral because thought was actually given to the issues. Following an authority without reflection, to me, is not a positive expression of morality. At best, it is amoral. It is just following without regard to consequences or circumstances either positive or negative.

With that in mind, are your comments that both sex and murder are immoral, based on a close examination of the issues, or are they strictly based on your religious point of view as given to you that you see no need to question or examine?

Specifically, have you examined what people actually do regardless of what religions are there to attempt to proscribe those behaviors? If you have, what is your view on the emphasis of specific religions on detailing how and when specific sexual behaviors are permitted or encouraged vs. discouraged? (I’ll take it as a given for now that murder is always wrong and that you provided that example as one item in a short list of immoral acts.)

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Hermes March 2, 2010 at 11:09 pm

Briang: This is why I don’t think we can simply assume that atheists are worse sinners then Christians.

Well, of course, atheists are not sinners at all.

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Ben March 3, 2010 at 12:56 am

Well played, Luke. Well played. By the time he’s done being reasonable with the evidence, not only does he not have a case, but we have a straight up disproof of the authority of scripture and an explanation of the popularity of religion. It is easy to reframe the argument as atheism as the road less traveled.

He said he could be wrong about any point of interpretation of Scripture but not the authority of Scripture. But isn’t that in and of itself a point of Scripture he could be wrong about? :D

Ben

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Chuck March 3, 2010 at 5:16 am

Briang,

You are correct. My move from christianity to atheism was a moral one. I thought it immoral to obediently define morality based on pre-historic myth and also felt it immoral to entertain the presumption to know other people’s moral character due to a magical being known as the holy spirit. I also thought it was highly immoral to cherry pick the history of a religion that has been sado-masochistic and bloody and call it “good”. I thought it immoral for an institution to confidently declare homosexuals sub-human and not eligible for due process rights because the ancient myth they use to obey an invisible god says so. I thought it immoral to lie about science as a means to obviating the 1st amendment and ultimately I found it really immoral to applaud the actions of an Evangelical President who invaded a sovereign nation under the premise a “higher father” told him to do it.

I came to understand that my identification with christianity compromised my innate sense of right and wrong and recognized if I were to develop a mature ethic I needed to put aside the notion that blind obedience to tradition and/or myth develops that ethic.

It doesn’t. It keeps one superstitious and bigoted like the professor interviewed in this episode.

I am an atheist because I wanted to elevate my morality not because I wanted to enjoy the temptations christianity says are bad.

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Reginald Selkirk March 19, 2010 at 8:37 am

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lukeprog March 19, 2010 at 10:08 am

Reginald,

I dunno. I’m far from the only person to write about Spiegel’s book.

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everettattebury March 23, 2010 at 2:01 pm

As I listened to this, I couldn’t help but think of The Emperor’s New Clothes. If we weren’t all so immoral, then we would be able to see there is a God. Spiegel’s thesis is just a very elaborate ad hominem.

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Camus Dude October 7, 2010 at 12:34 am

Methinks “Philosopher” is to august a title for this guy.

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Gatogreensleeves October 3, 2011 at 4:04 pm

Was Bertrand Russell in this list of prominent immoral atheists? I think you put this argument to bed, especially when pointing out the quasi-ad hominem and contrast of Paul’s position with the data applying to theist and non-theist alike.

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Dev November 27, 2011 at 4:02 pm

I love it when my atheistic worldview is challenged with great arguments. But that was not the case with Mr. Spiegel. I actually expected a sort of Nietzschean discussion about how immorality lead to atheism and it being a good thing. Haha. I felt a little sorry for Mr. Spiegel, as he must have realized himself that the interviewer totally debunked all his arguments with ease. I applaud him for going on the show though.

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