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This discussion, I hope, will be a start of an ongoing conversation – and a respectful one at that – between theists and atheists. I'm very excited to be afforded this opportunity to speak with you all today and look forward to the question and answer session which follows. After the question and answer session, please feel free to view more of my content at justinvacula.com, listen to episodes of the NEPA Freethought Society podcast (also found on my website), and also feel free to email me and/or interact on social networks. I've been invited to be a guest speaker today by your professor Dr. Sebastian Mahfood to provide a perspective of an atheist. Many people throughout the freethought/atheist/secular community were excited to hear about this including, perhaps most prominently, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) – the largest national organization for freethinkers, of which I am an active member. The FFRF seeks to educate the public on matters relating to non-theism and promote and defend the constitutional principle of separation of church and state – two objectives I support and personally spend much time on. The FFRF promoted my blog post relating to this event. The feedback was tremendously supportive. My speech today will touch on many broad topics. I won't focus on one or two issues, but rather will talk about several in the allotted time period and may elaborate in the question and answer period. Some of the topics I will talk about – all related in some way to me being an atheist – include my thoughts on the need for reflection and respectful conversation with those whom we disagree, why I consider myself an atheist, what it means to be an atheist, my religious upbringing, my path to atheism, the difficulty of being an out atheist in the United States, and arguments against belief in the Christian god. There seems to be a lack of substantive discussion about matters of religious belief and what seems to be even worse, a lack of concern for holding justified true beliefs – and this isn't only in the arena of religious beliefs. People avoid conversation because they want to preserve harmony or what some call 'respect beliefs.' Some view disagreement as disrespect. Some even think that disagreeing with people's religious belief in whatever manner or even providing counter-arguments to religious belief violates diversity requirements and is intolerant. Some even think there is no such thing as truth, that we create our own realities, or that holding truth is impossible. Some believe that it is permissible to believe something without good reason, because a belief makes one feel good, or even solely because of faith (I'll get to that one later.) I believe that we, even though we may be quite limited as human beings with our current state of limited knowledge, can talk about truth and collectively work toward reaching it. In a course like this, one concerned with philosophy, students should be concerned with holding belief that is both true and justified. The Bible even, in some points, specifically in 1 Peter 3:15, instructs people to, if asked give “the reason for the belief in your heart” to “prepare a defense and do so with gentleness and respect.” As an atheist, I am very much in favor of this attitude and hope to foster it in discussions I have podcasts I record, speeches I give, and in other aspects of my life. Discussions and disagreement can and should be had in a respectful manner without a person pulling punches – attacking ideas, not people. In challenging our beliefs, especially our cherished beliefs, we can only learn and progress. If it is the case that arguments can serve to lead us away from particular beliefs, we are better for that – for having beliefs which are justified and true should be a primary concern in our intellectual lives and much more important than possible temporary discomfort. As an atheist, or more broadly as a skeptic, I am willing to change any and all of my beliefs provided good enough reason and argument is presented. If it so happens that a convincing argument for any gods or the Christian god comes forth, I will be better for encountering that for I will have more justified true beliefs and less false unjustified beliefs. Even if we happen to not change our minds on issues, we're also, I would think, generally better off for encountering people whom we happen to disagree provided
something is learned. Justified true beliefs, after all, should be able to withstand objections. In encountering people and ideas we disagree with, we can formulate responses and be better prepared to deal with them and even to better understand ourselves. I am an atheist – the term, I think, properly understood, is simply used to describe a person who lacks belief in any gods. This does not mean to have a belief that no gods exist or serve as a claim of absolute certainty. I am an atheist because I find no good reasons to believe that any gods exist. To go even further, I find no good reasons to believe that any sort of supernatural or paranormal phenomena exist. When I think of belief or lack thereof in any matters, I think of what is the most reasonable interpretation of reality – to think in terms of absolutes is most unhelpful because I can be mistaken as my senses might be faulty and my interpretations of reality – whether they be results of deliberation, intuition, or empirical observation -- may also be faulty. Philosopher Johnathan Kvanvig, on this matter, expresses a sentiment which I find most helpful, “There is no reason whatsoever to think that believing the truth is always impossible; the best that can be claimed is that there is no guarantee in any given case that we have achieved the state of believing the truth. Perhaps it follows that we should not hope for the chimera of infallibility.” As one atheist, I can't claim to speak for everyone, but only can speak for my perspective – although some atheists may agree with everything I will say and some atheists will agree with portions of my speech. I'm not Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. While their works and writings have been influential to me, I don't agree with everything they say and take a much different approach – a philosophical one (especially when considering Dawkins who takes largely, if you will, a scientific approach to atheism) – and I have a different tone. Atheism and religion alike aren't monolithic entities in that atheism and religion is one 'thing' and that all atheists or all religious persons (of specific religions) believe the same thing. Knowing that a person is an atheist tells you only one thing about that person – that he or she lacks a belief in any gods – and is no guarantee of critical thinking skills or anything else. Similar to this is that knowing a person is a theist only tells a person that one believes in a god...and perhaps not even a personal god, oddly enough, on the accounting of some people I have encountered. Some who consider themselves to be Christians, perhaps mostly in academic settings, think of God as a metaphor, see the Bible as a book which is nothing more than a beautiful and interesting narrative in which individuals attempt to understand the world. It is both unhelpful and inaccurate to make wide assumptions painting all religious people or atheists with a broad brush. Perhaps it is best to try and understand the person who holds a belief – to ask questions, to see where they are coming from, and even have understanding of their background. I will then provide a short backstory of my background. As a student in kindergarten in a public school, I first started to attend CCD religious education courses learning, among other things, at the age of five or six, that Jesus died on the cross for my sins. These classes, for those who may not know the acronym, are Roman Catholic education classes that, at least from my education, were once a week classes with a religious teacher and a priest. I would go to church for about an hour to hear words of encouragement and preaching from a priest and then go to class for another hour. In addition to this, throughout my childhood and teenage years – I would regularly attend church services. I was also an alter boy, a reader for masses, and participated in the yearly Stations of the Cross plays as an actor and, in later years, a narrator. My parents were also religious – but mainly nominally – they went to church with me, of course, although this was mainly my father. My mother and my father, as it seems today, think that one should 'just believe' and found that I should be 'raised in the church' – so I was. I received various sacraments in the Catholic Church from baptism to confirmation. I was very much a believer – and so to the point in which
I had considered, although never acted on it, entering the priesthood – and people recommended that I do so...at quite a young age, even. I suppose they saw much religious promise, if you will, in me. In my second year of undergraduate education at King's College -- a liberal arts Catholic university in Pennsylvania – I started to seriously question my religious beliefs mainly as a result of a philosophy course, “Ethics and the Good Life” that I had and a discussion about atheism on campus. Also important was a friend of mine, an English teacher I had in high school, who had – as far as I can remember – been the first person to seriously cause me to think about the truth-value of religious beliefs although I, at the time, had seriously considered that he was acting as a minion of Satan or otherwise was possessed by the devil. After writing a paper for my “Ethics and the Good Life” course in which the prompt concerned whether one needed to believe in God to find meaning in life – I defended a position that one did not need to believe in God to find meaning. From there, I found it important to go on a quest of sorts to determine whether there were good reasons to believe in the Christian god. Long story short, as should be obvious, my answer was 'no' after all sorts of discussions with religious professors, ministers, priests, friends, and fellow students. I found these discussions, as an atheist, to be extremely productive and valuable as I could better understand their positions and challenge my own beliefs. Entering my third year of college as an 'out atheist' wanting to start a student group – a chapter of the Secular Student Alliance – I received a tremendous unexpected amount of hate mail and general hate from students...simply because I wanted to start a student group for secular students. Following this, and a notification from college administration that my group was not allowed to exist, I received much more hate including threats and a great deal of nastiness – and this time from the community of Northeastern Pennsylvania and two aunts of mine – following my challenging the constitutionality of a nativity scene on a courthouse lawn. I was declared, by a radio show host, the third most hated person in Luzerne County – the county in which I live. #1 and #2, as you may wonder, were two judges indicted in the 'Kids for Cash' scandal – these were judges who received kickbacks from a private facility when they sent children in their juvenile courts to a private detention center. More recently, although this time not generating hate mail, at least yet, I submitted an advertisement to a county bus company that had the word “Atheists” in large text – this was denied as it was declared an 'attack on religion' and a controversial sign that would spark public debate of controversial issues – thus not permissible on county buses. I haven't though, given up, but it will take some time to properly address this issue and have the sign placed on buses – it may even take a lawsuit and a court date. It's really difficult for people to be openly atheistic because they fear financial distress, job loss, being kicked out of a home, losing family members, and other repercussions. I'm an out atheist and believe that my activism – and the activism of many others – whether that consists of writing, protesting when called for, opposing legislation and other governmental activity contrary to the Establishment Clause, etc. is important. I even feel a sort of moral obligation to make my views known, address governmental wrongs, educate others, and continue my efforts. Like many of the “new atheists,” I feel that religious beliefs are not only unjustified, false, and irrational, but also potentially dangerous. We cannot doubt that our beliefs inform our actions and some of our actions have the ability to harm others. Of course, though, not all religious beliefs or beliefs derived from religion are harmful or potentially so, but some are. Additionally, not all people act on their beliefs – there is a wide gap, for example, from the person who believes that atheists are morally deficient (as Psalm 14 declares) to those who will openly discriminate against or show contempt toward atheists.
As I said earlier, I don't believe in any gods because I don't find any reasons to do so. Additionally, I don't find faith to be a reliable or proper mechanism to arrive at justified true belief. A philosopher friend of mine, Dr. Peter Boghossian, thinks of faith as “pretending to know things you don't know” and also considers it to be a “cognitive sickness.” Others, Dr. Boghossian included, view faith as belief without sufficient evidence, argument, or reason. Faith, it seems, at least under this understanding, doesn't seem to get one to belief in any gods for a good reason – in fact, conclusions are arrived at absent of reason. Perhaps, though, it is possible to combine faith and reason? If reasons, though, can lead one to belief, why would faith need to enter into the picture? The arguments typically given by religious believers – at least by academics and apologists – seem to me to be faulty and not lead to justified true belief in the Christian god or any other gods. Arguments like fine-tuning arguments, cosmological arguments, and moral arguments – even if accepted as valid and sound, don't even get – as I see it -- to the Christian god in particular. I don't find any good reason to believe in miracles or, perhaps more particularly, the resurrection of Jesus. It seems to me that the natural world is all that exists. Over time, phenomena or explanations that were associated with the supernatural have fallen to the wayside in favor of naturalistic explanations that better account for phenomena. In other situations in which a natural explanation is simply lacking, I find no good reason to jump from “I can't explain this” to “A miracle happened.” While problems, some might say, and myself included, regarding the cause of the universe (if there even was one) or the nature of consciousness exist, for example, I find no good reason to jump from “I can't explain this” to “God must be responsible.” With that, I'll move on to arguments against Christian belief. A song I really enjoy titled “And When He Falleth” by the metal band Theatre of Tragedy contains dialogue from the movie “The Masque of the Red Death” starring Vincent Price which gives an introduction to one of the best arguments that undermine belief in the Christian god. The dialogue is as follows: “How can you look around this world and believe in the goodness of a god who rules it?” This, of course, as you might have guessed, is a formation of the problem of evil. An evidential form of the argument is as follows 1) There exists an egregious amount of unnecessary suffering which is guaranteed as a result of the laws of nature. 2) This is incompatible with the Christian god. 3) The Christian god does not exist. If an all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing god existed, I would expect to see a much different world – one which does not contain Indian Ocean tsunamis and Haitian earthquakes which kill many people – some of them children and pregnant women. This, of course, has nothing to do with 'free will' or what is often called 'moral evil' – actions taken by agents who have free will which harm other agents with free will. Another line of reasoning I think is quite effective – similarly related – is inspired by philosopher Stephen Law. He calls this is 'Evil God Challenge.' If the amount of what can be called 'good' in the world – that which makes us happy and want to continue living -- would render belief in an all-evil god irrational, why would not the evidence of 'natural evil' render belief in an all-good god irrational? And if belief in an omni-evil god is profoundly irrational, why is it the case that belief in an omni-good god is not only rational, but profoundly rational and compassionate? Many of the defenses people use to preserve belief in an all-good god can be 'flipped' to preserve belief in an all-evil god. If a theist were to say, “Well, God is mysterious so we just can't know why he designed the universe so that the Haitian earthquake would happen. Perhaps there is some greater good and we're lacking in ability to identify this,” the evil god defender could similarly say, “Evil god is mysterious. We can't know why he creates humans so that sex and viewing sunsets are so enjoyable to many. We're just lacking in ability to identify this.” We'd see this reasoning as insufficient to defend the idea of an all-evil god, so why not is it the case
for an all-good god? These are three quick versions of arguments I would use against belief in the Christian god. Another interesting argument, I think, is one surrounding the idea of theological fatalism. If God, an omniscient being, has all true beliefs and no false beliefs, it seems to be the case that humans have only one course of possible action. If God, for example, holds a set of beliefs, if you will, pertaining to my life, I could never 'do otherwise' for I would render his beliefs false – and this is impossible because God is omniscient – he holds only true beliefs and all true beliefs. If God believed that I were to give this speech today and you were to listen to it, we could not possibly do otherwise for we would render God's beliefs false. Christianity, though, on almost all accounts, maintains that humans have free will – the ability, as understood by many, to have some sort of volition and control over actions or – on some accounts – the ability to 'do otherwise' or genuinely be able to take multiple courses of action. An omniscient being, though, seems to be incompatible with free will. Here, I've provided a good deal of content – as this speech was very general in nature...so I am now excited for the question and answer session.
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