Richard Carrier is a world-renowned author and speaker. As a professional historian, published philosopher, and prominent defender of the American freethought movement, Dr. Carrier has appeared across the country and on national television defending sound historical methods and the ethical worldview of secular naturalism. His books and articles have also received international attention. He holds a Ph.D. from Columbia University in ancient history, specializing in the intellectual history of Greece and Rome, particularly ancient philosophy, religion, and science, with emphasis on the origins of Christianity and the use and progress of science under the Roman empire. For more about him and his work, visit RichardCarrier.info.
Thank you for allowing us to interview you for TheBestSchools.org. You are an author, philosopher, scholar of ancient history, blogger, former editor-in-chief of the Secular Web, and all-in-all a highly visible atheist public intellectual. Let’s take these identities one at a time, in reverse order. Could you begin by giving us some personal background? What religious tradition, if any, were you raised in? Was there ever a time in your life when you were attracted to belief in God? Were there some pivotal events that led to your rejection of God?
I tell my story in greater detail in Sense and Goodness without God (chapter two). But the short of it is that I was born a nominal Methodist, and both my family and my church encouraged my freedom to explore and find my own path. I was converted to Taoism by a powerful religious experience and remained convinced of that religion for many years due to similar ongoing experiences. In Taoism there is no personal god, but an impersonal force, that governs all things. Before that I was vaguely deistic. But while serving in the Coast Guard I read widely in Eastern and Western philosophy and science and realized religious experiences are not a reliable guide to the truth. They are predominately psychological. I also realized Taoism had flaws; it was wrong about some things, and thus could not be the one true religion.
I remained a Taoist but had my doubts about a lot of it. Eventually a Christian convinced me to read the Bible, Old Testament and New, cover to cover. Upon completing that task I realized I was an atheist. I then went looking for books about atheism, and back then (this was 1991), they were very hard to find. I thought I was the only atheist in the world. But eventually I discovered a body of literature and national organizations and became a part of the growing atheist community. I never found a credible atheist alternative to religious worldviews. I toyed with Marxism and then its exact opposite, Objectivism, but both had even more flaws than Taoism and were clearly false philosophies, however seductive some people find them. So I researched and contemplated and developed my own, which culminated in my first book, Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism (AuthorHouse, 2005). I have continued researching and debating and contemplating, and that book has stood the test of time. It remains an accurate description of what I now believe to be true.
You were in the U.S. Coast Guard for some years, before pursuing an academic career. Could you tell us about what led you to join the military, and then what later led you to study Classics and ancient history, first at Berkeley and later at Columbia?
I burned out on academics in high school. I got stellar grades and majored in science and took every science elective they offered and was grooming myself to go into nuclear physics, but by the time of graduation I was sick of studying and wanted a simpler life. So I pursued a Zen life of blue collar jobs, hard-working jobs, where you actually accomplish things by the end of every day. I went from construction to electrician to park maintenance, even a waiter for a three-star restaurant. And that was all good for me. I wouldn’t do it differently. I learned so much from all that. It kept me grounded. But after a while I realized my life was becoming aimless and I wanted to do something more significant.
My family was close to dirt poor. We bought a lot of our groceries at the “day old” store, where they sell at discount the expired bread and merchandise of “real” markets, and I slept on the floor most of my childhood because we couldn’t afford a bed. Options were few. I decided the military would be good for me. As a Taoist I was already frugal and agreeable and inured to hardship, and the military would provide all my needs while teaching me things and giving me a meaningful occupation. I also hoped it would make a man of me. I was pretty awkward and scrawny even then, and I knew I had a lot to learn. I picked the Coast Guard, most directly because of a television ad, but really because they had a mission I felt I could always believe in, law enforcement and search and rescue, no messy uncertainty of politicians I never voted for sending me off to fight morally dodgy wars I didn’t believe in.
That was the best thing I ever did. Boot camp alone made a man of me. The rest of my service was just gravy. I learned more in my few years of service than all my life before that, both skills and wisdom, and a real appreciation for everyone who does national service (which many people don’t really get, not having lived it). I left strong and fit, with a good head on my shoulders and a solid sense of maturity, competence, and responsibility. While in service I received several decorations and qualifications, guarded San Diego from Saddam Hussein’s phantom submarine (no, seriously, intel had it that he’d bought one on the black market and might attack U.S. ports with it), and did a lot of good work enforcing the law and saving lives. I’ve blogged about my military service before, so you can read more about it (“Atheists in Foxholes”).
It was in the Coast Guard that I became an atheist and began researching that and connecting up with networks of atheists around the country. By the time I got out I was eager to go back to school and had notions of becoming a math teacher, but I found that boring. I tried literature, because I loved language, but found that even more boring. But in the meantime, I was fulfilling all my general education requirements and among them of course was Western Civ I, which includes a unit on the Romans. I fell in love with Roman history and culture, and with the idea of doing history in general.
In high school, history is insufferably boring and meaningless because it’s taught as just a memorization game, names and dates, names and dates, so I never gave it a thought as a possible pursuit. But in college, history is not taught like that. In college, history is about how we know what we know (questioning, finding and testing sources, weighing evidence) and about cause and effect (why did these important things happen?; what brought them about?; what were the causes?). And that made it endlessly fascinating. I was hooked. Nothing else grabbed me the way that did, and that’s saying something, because I still loved science and took a lot of it again in college (even in the Coast Guard I had earned the equivalent of a college semester of electronics engineering credits).
At the same time, my connection with the atheist community and interest in history led to fellow atheists asking me questions about ancient documents and the origins of Christianity and its possible pagan roots. And a lot of claims were bandied about in books (most of them implausible or untrue, as I increasingly learned) that I wanted to really research properly, and so my two paths merged: my love of history and the Roman era would serve double duty as a way to help the atheist community get its facts straight about things that came up in debates with Christians, and with each other. I’d acquire the languages, so I could study the New Testament and other documents in the original Greek, and get all the background necessary to understand the era as a professional. And that’s what I went on to do.
I had a similar “converging paths” interest in studying the origins of science in the ancient world. My love of science alone attracted me to that study. But even before that, claims were on the rise that Christianity had been necessary for modern science to develop, and I realized those arguments were based on claims about the ancient world I already knew to be false. So I could again pursue a subject that fascinated me in and of itself, while also helping the atheist community get a professional perspective on this subject, too. That’s what led to my dissertation, which was a study of attitudes toward the scientist in the early Roman Empire, and what scientists actually did, and the nature of and support for science in the pagan world. That culminated in a chapter I wrote for John Loftus’s The Christian Delusion, “Christianity Was Not Responsible for Modern Science” (Prometheus, 2010). I also have related books in the works. One on ancient science education is in peer review at an academic press now, and another on the place of ancient science and scientists in Roman society is in development.
Has your atheism shaped your academic interests and career in any way, or vice versa?
Yes. As detailed above, I have kept my interests as an atheist tied to my interests as an academic, and found ways to combine them to double effect. I can thus be of service to my community and cause, while doing something I already love. Even just the ideas have cross-pollinated. I might never have discovered ancient science as a subject had it not been for my exposure as an atheist activist to Christian claims about it. Conversely, my study of ancient economics, papyrology, and other subjects has opened my eyes to things that have been of great help in debates with Christians and others, which might never have occurred to me otherwise. And all through this, my interest in history as a method led me to study the literature on historical method extensively, which has led to my development of a Bayesian methodology, which I am applying to help with the current methodological crisis in Jesus studies, but which I believe can transform all fields of history, not just the study of Jesus. My book making the case for that, Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus, has finished peer review and will be out this April (Prometheus Books, 2012).
You ran the show at the Secular Web — the web site of the Internet Infidels organization — for a number of years during the 2000s, at a time when organized atheism was really taking off in the blogosphere. Could you tell us how the Secular Web project got started? How has it evolved over the years? How did you become personally involved with Internet Infidels?
I wasn’t with the Secular Web in the beginning. It was mainly the brainchild of Jeff Lowder. But it was a brilliant idea. One I wish had existed when I became an atheist and wanted to read what others had written on the subject. It became the largest online library of atheist writings, where you can find something on almost everything. The internet is so much bigger now, I no longer think of any one site that way, but as the whole web as my library. But back then this was a revolutionary thing, similar to Wikipedia in concept (which hadn’t been invented yet).
I got involved when Lowder asked me for permission to publish on the Secular Web some things I’d written, an article for an academic journal (“Do Religious Life and Critical Thought Need Each Other?”), an award-winning essay (“A Fish Did Not Write This Essay”), and a “tract”-style handout I’d made (“What is Atheism Really All About?”), all very early work, before I’d even gotten my B.A. I got interested in the site and became a continuing contributor; then was asked to be the feedback editor, and I handled that so well I was given the position of editor, then editor-in-chief. I was a member of the board of directors at that point. It was all volunteer, no pay. But I loved the work and we got a lot done on next to no budget.
I have since retired and moved on. I’m not on the board and don’t edit or contribute to the site anymore, so I’m pretty well out of the loop. So I don’t know how it may have evolved since then. I still support them, I just have moved on to other projects. I’m now in the business of blogging, teaching online courses for the Center for Inquiry Institute, and creating definitive works in print that will be of use to the atheist community. For example, my books Not the Impossible Faith: Why Christianity Didn’t Need a Miracle to Succeed (Lulu.com, 2009) and Why I Am Not a Christian (CreateSpace, 2011), and chapters like “Why the Resurrection Is Unbelievable” for John Loftus’s The Christian Delusion (Prometheus, 2010) and “Moral Facts Naturally Exist (and Science Could Find Them)” for Loftus’s The End of Christianity (Prometheus, 2011). And now Proving History, out this spring. Those are all designed to be thoroughly researched, thoroughly referenced, well-thought-out educational pieces that atheists can use as tools to develop their own arguments and worldview and defend them against Christian critics. Likewise, all the other articles and chapters I’ve published in books and journals.
You are trained as an ancient historian, but your claim that Jesus of Nazareth may never have existed is a minority position in your academic field. It is also a view that many lay people — even atheists — are likely to find surprising. What are the main considerations that led you to this heterodox view?
The real change for me came when I was persuaded to academically review Earl Doherty’s book The Jesus Puzzle (Canadian Humanist Publications, 2000). I had been a staunch defender of the consensus view, and it was easy to do, because 99% of everything written arguing that Jesus didn’t exist is of horribly poor academic quality, propped up by false claims about the evidence and ancient history, and methodologically illogical half the time. Fish in a barrel. That’s why I wasn’t keen to read one more book arguing the case.
But several atheists whose opinions I respect said Doherty seemed to be making sound arguments and had his facts straight. But they weren’t experts, so didn’t know if he was just another hack or if he was on to something. By then I was an expert. I had one undergraduate and two graduate degrees in ancient history and was working on my Ph.D. So they persuaded me to give it a serious read and review it for the Secular Web. My somewhat mixed but mostly positive review can still be read online (“Did Jesus Exist?”).
They were right. Though his work isn’t flawless, he wasn’t a hack. He had his ducks in a row, all his key factual claims were correct, and his reasoning was not illogical. That got me to doubting the consensus, and led me on a quest to research the issue further. But still this remained a side issue for me for the longest time, until another group of atheists got together and put together a large grant to fund my researching and writing a book on the subject, which has now become two, Proving History (on method) and On the Historicity of Jesus Christ (on theory), which I will finish next year (though when that gets published will depend on how long it takes to get through peer review and the publisher’s production schedule). The aim of both books is to produce the most academically rigorous, defensible case, so professional historians can take it seriously and read and debate it. But they will be written also for a lay audience to be able to understand them and benefit from them, as that was a condition of my grant.
It’s not unusual for a historian to challenge and overthrow an established consensus. That has happened repeatedly in nearly every field. But it has to be done properly. No one before this has applied updated evidence and methods to make the case in an academically professional way. Doherty comes close, but he is not a Ph.D., and his work lacks the structure and method that professionals require (for example, he mixes weak arguments with strong, rather than only standing on the strong arguments, and he often doesn’t back up his claims with sufficient citations of evidence, even when he’s right). So really, the case has not yet been properly examined. Which means the consensus position is not yet well enough informed to rule the day. We’ll see what happens in a few years.
You have debated Christian apologist William Lane Craig. He has a reputation as a formidable debater. How tough did you find him? Subsequently, you said respectful things about him on your blog. How would you summarize the debate and what was accomplished?
I was disappointed by that debate. He did not directly interact with many of my actual points and spent most of his time rattling off long series of “rebuttals” to things I had written elsewhere but had not mentioned in the debate. As a result, most of what he said was irrelevant to that debate, and would have been mysterious to the audience, who (unlike Craig) won’t have read my writings and thus didn’t know what he was talking about half the time. Even when his points were relevant to arguments I made in the debate, he asserted so many of them that I did not have time enough on the clock to answer him. That makes a debate essentially useless to a viewer. If you are serious about the question, you want to know what both sides have to say on every key issue. That debate doesn’t give you that. I think Craig’s desire to “win” overcame his interest in making the debate a useful resource for anyone. Which for myself is the only reason I do debates. I’m not really concerned with winning, but educating. But the tactics he used in that debate don’t educate.
For example, one of the many claims he made that I didn’t have time to get to was that there are “semitisms” in the Greek text of Acts that suggest the street sermons therein derive from original Aramaic sources — notebooks, maybe, jotted down by eyewitnesses perhaps . . . this is conjecture upon conjecture, but that’s not even the main problem. The main problem is that the Septuagint (the earliest translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek) contains as many semitisms, and Acts bases its street sermons on the language, style, and content of the Septuagint. Thus, those semitisms don’t indicate an Aramaic source at all. And this is acknowledged by most scholars and experts on Acts. But the audience never learned that. Instead, Craig told them one minority view, and didn’t tell them the more commonly held view (a view that is entirely reasonable), all in order to “win” the debate. As an educator, I would rather the audience knew the pertinent facts of the matter, so they can decide. I wouldn’t skew those facts to make a point I knew was not entirely reasonable. If the audience doesn’t have all the pertinent information, they can’t make an informed decision.
There was a lot of that going on. And for me that just made the debate frustrating and fruitless. Nevertheless, I learned a lot from that debate about how to debate. I now know how to bypass and defuse tactics like “spreading” (that’s the formal term in scholastic debate for what Craig was doing: throwing out so many claims that your opponent won’t have time to rebut them all, because it always takes twice as much time to explain why a claim is wrong as it does to assert the claim itself); how to call an opponent out who drops a key point (and hopes the audience doesn’t notice that he didn’t rebut it); and how to stay on point myself and keep the audience informed. But that’s all “tactical” stuff. It isn’t really pertinent to the substance of any debate — namely, sincerely determining who is right. If you make it all about tactics, you cheat your audience out of the opportunity to do that.
William Lane Craig and Richard Carrier debate at Northwest Missouri State University, March 18, 2009.
It took courage for you to debate Craig. Moreover, unlike some debates that thrive on vilifying one’s opponent, your debate with Craig was characterized by civility throughout. From a prudential vantage point and leaving morality aside, do you think that atheism would stand to gain as a social movement if more atheist public intellectuals practiced the virtues of courage and civility?
I’m not aware of any public atheist intellectual currently who doesn’t practice those virtues. Even the late Christopher Hitchens could not be accused of a lack of courage, and for all his strong and fiery language and biting wit he never in my experience used deceit or tricks or ad hominems or threats or violence or anything truly uncivil. This may be a generational thing, but American culture of the 21st century resembles more the British Parliament than the Mayflower. You have to be able to take harsh language and clever quips, as long as it aims to be honest and on the mark.
If something truly is ridiculous, it ought to be ridiculed. That’s what we evolved that emotion for: to marginalize, with shame and embarrassment, beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes that are truly wrong and stupid. To build a wall of false protection for some select system of beliefs and say it doesn’t get to be a target of honest ridicule only serves to protect and perpetuate bad ideas (and to just assume there can’t be any bad ideas in your system of beliefs is arrogant enough to be ridiculous itself). When ridicule is deployed wrongly, the response is not to call for the end of all ridicule, but to turn it back on the ridiculer: if they are ridiculing something that isn’t true (e.g. a straw man), then you should respond by proving that, which will then make them look ridiculous; if they are ridiculing something that’s true but isn’t really ridiculous, then you should respond by proving that, which again will make them look ridiculous. Then their views become shameful, embarrassing, and marginalized. That is how we make progress in steering populations away from truly bad ideas (like fascism and racism) and towards good ones, without violence or intimidation or any other tyrannical method that bypasses individual human reason and the right to decide for themselves.
You gave the example of my debate with Craig, and how we took each other seriously and treated each other as professionals. That’s not wholly true. He deployed the fallacy of “poisoning the well” a couple of times, by unfairly ridiculing some things I wrote, and mentioning things that weren’t relevant to the debate but that would turn the audience against me. But since I don’t use those tactics, my not responding in kind was already a given. And I think that’s generally true. So I wonder what opponent he has debated that you have in mind who was uncivil to him. It seems to me the assumption that atheists are belligerent and rude is not really founded in any face-to-face experience with atheists, but more a caricature based on prejudice (some kind of picture you have in your head of how you assume an atheist will behave), or possibly from experience with punks and trolls online (where there are ample supplies of uncivil atheists, whom I generally find to be emotional children, and never become disciplined intellectuals; but there is an equal share of uncivil Christians like that, too, so that’s not an atheist thing, but a human thing).
I do agree we must continue advocating a basic standard of honesty and sincerity and thoughtfulness among all intellectuals, atheist or otherwise, in all their advocacy and debate. But I think we’ve both done a pretty good job of that already. It’s just our political leaders and news pundits who never get that memo. And unfortunately, the wider populace is more keen to emulate them than intellectuals like myself or Craig. Which is a wholly different problem, not peculiar to the atheist movement or any other.
Let’s move now to a more philosophical plane. You advertise yourself as both an atheist and a metaphysical naturalist. Let’s examine these two ideas separately. First, atheism. An atheist is not merely someone who has doubts about the existence of God, or who doesn’t know what to think about the subject. Rather, an atheist positively asserts that God does not exist. What are the main reasons why you call yourself an atheist, rather than an agnostic? In other words, how can you be so sure that God does not exist?
In a nutshell, all of the evidence we have is far more probable if there is no god than if there is. When you do the math on that, you end up with a very low probability that a god exists on present evidence. And that simply means there most probably is no god. In fact, I have found every item of evidence that is still proposed as proving a god exists (and that list has greatly narrowed over the last two thousand years, as most of the evidence once cited before has already been abandoned as turning out wrong), actually proves a god doesn’t exist.
Religious experience, for example: that would be a great proof — if everyone’s experience were consistent across all culture, geography, and history. But it isn’t. It’s so routinely inconsistent, always changing with the surrounding human culture and reflecting human psychology, that religious experience can only have a natural cause. Any caring god would not let that happen. He would give a consistent message to everyone, always, everywhere. Thus, the evidence is exactly what we expect if no god exists, but not at all what we expect if a god does. If everyone were presented with an object and one group saw it as an apple and another as a bucket and another as a mouse and another as a broom, we would conclude that human eyesight simply doesn’t work. So we must conclude the same for human experience of the divine. I expand on this point considerably in “Christianity’s Success Was Not Incredible” in John Loftus’s The End of Christianity, providing a formal mathematical proof of the principle.
Similarly the “fine tuning” of the universe’s physical constants: that would be a great proof — if it wasn’t exactly the same thing we’d see if a god didn’t exist. If there is no god, we will only ever find ourselves in a universe finely tuned (in that case, by random chance), because without a god, there is no other kind of universe that can produce us. Likewise, a universe that produced us by chance would have to be enormously vast in size and enormously old, so as to have all the room to mix countless chemicals countless times in countless places so as to have any chance of accidentally kicking up something as complex as life. And that’s exactly the universe we see: one enormously vast in size and age. A godless universe would also only produce life rarely and sparingly, and that’s also what we see: by far most of the universe is lethal to life (being a deadly radiation filled vacuum) and by far most of the matter in the universe is lethal to life (constituting stars and black holes on which no life can ever live). Again, all exactly what we’d expect of a godless universe. Not what we’d expect of a god-made one.
Thus, we have exactly the universe we’d expect to have if there is no god. Whereas a god does not need vast trillions of star systems and billions of years to make life. He doesn’t need vast quantities of lethal space and deadly matter. Only a godless universe needs that. I make a more detailed survey of this kind of evidence in “Neither Life Nor the Universe Appear Intelligently Designed” in John Loftus’s The End of Christianity. It also does no good to say such a random accidental universe is improbable, because the convenient existence of a marvelously “super-omni” god is just as improbable. Either way you are assuming some amazing luck. Which leaves the evidence. And the evidence is just way more probable if there’s no god. Thus, we’re forced to choose between which lucky accident it was, and the evidence confirms the one and not the other.
Likewise, any other evidence you care to mention. It always pans out the same: the evidence actually looks exactly like what you would expect if there is no god, but not what you’d expect if there is. Again, it does no good to make excuses and propose that maybe a god has weird motives and desires to make all the evidence and all the universe look exactly like there is no god. Because that requires a wild leap of faith — and to no purpose, since such a god obviously will never do anything for us (as that would then contradict his intent to make the universe look godless) and would have to be an unconscionable psychopath (as it would require callously ignoring all the pointless suffering this behavior causes and allows) and thus on neither account would such a god be worth believing in, much less worshipping. And there is no evidence for such a weird god anyway.
It is one thing to say we lack proof of the stories in the Bible, or that miracles such as the resurrection are impossible, or even that Jesus never existed. It is something else again to say that science can explain why anything exists at all — why there is something rather than nothing. Are you as certain in your own mind that the material universe is ontologically self-sufficient as you are that Christianity is based on mythology? If so, why?
Yes. Because there always has to be some ontological brute fact of the matter. “God exists.” “Why?” “He just does.” This is no different a conversation than “The universe exists.” “Why?” “It just does.” Any explanation you try to give for why there would be a god at all, can just as easily be used to explain why there would be anything at all, and that “anything” can be a godless universe just as easily as a god. Even once you settle on that explanation, you can ask why that is true. And so on. Ultimately, god or not, you have to end the infinite regress with something that just exists. So this is not a problem for atheism, any more than it already is for theism.
There are also reasons to conclude atheism does a better job of explaining why something exists rather than nothing. If we start with absolutely nothing, and I mean nothing, no space, no time, no laws of physics, no rules or powers at all governing what will happen, then literally anything can happen. The “nothing” can stay nothing, or it can spontaneously become something. Or it can spontaneously become two things. Or three. And so on, all the way to infinitely many things. Minimally, “one thing” means some sort of contiguous space-time of some shape or size, hence a universe, since the basic requirement of existence is having a place to exist and existing at some time (otherwise it exists never and nowhere, which is synonymous with not existing). Thus, no “something” can ever exist without a space-time in which to exist. Therefore, minimally if anything comes to exist, some region of space-time necessarily comes with it. Thus, if there are two separate things, that means two separate regions of space-time, thus two universes; and three, three; and so on, all the way to infinitely many universes, which is another of all the logical possibilities.
And because there is nothing, there is nothing that makes any of these outcomes more likely than any other. So of all the possible things that can happen (nothing, one thing, two, three, etc.), that what will happen will be a continuous “nothing” has a probability of infinity to one against. In other words, effectively zero. That it will become one thing alone likewise has a probability of effectively zero. In fact, that it will become any finite number of things or less has a probability of effectively zero — because any finite number divided by infinity is effectively zero, and there are infinitely many things that can happen, when nothing limits what can happen. And when nothing exists, nothing exists that can limit what can happen.
Thus, the principle that “from nothing, comes nothing” is impossible. For that principle to apply, that principle would have to exist. But that would not be nothing. It’s a law. Which is something. But when nothing exists, no laws exist. So the law “from nothing, comes nothing” doesn’t exist either. Thus, when you truly have nothing, that law does not obtain. Instead, almost certainly, if you start with absolutely nothing, you will end up with something. In fact, quite a lot of things. Nearly infinitely many universes in fact. Because the probability of “nothing” staying nothing is basically zero; likewise the probability of it becoming just one universe.
So, you will always get something from nothing. No god needed. And that’s actually a better explanation for the universe we see, which (as I explained before) looks exactly like a godless universe would. Thus, we should expect it to have a godless origin. And here we have a logically necessary origin of a godless universe from nothing, entailed by the nature of nothing itself.
With respect to metaphysical naturalism, you wrote in the Mission Statement for Internet Infidels: “So we define ourselves only as Metaphysical Naturalists, a term already encompassing many worldviews, from Physicalism to Platonic Naturalism.” A lot of people would be surprised to learn that Platonism is a form of “naturalism.” Can you elaborate on what you mean by “metaphysical naturalism” and how you see it as encompassing such a wide range of worldviews?
I agree Platonic Naturalism barely makes sense. Yet there are people who profess to hold that view (philosophy professor Evan Fales, for example), and the Secular Web was intent on being inclusive and not taking sides in that debate. I, personally, think that’s nonsense and there can’t be any intelligible form of Platonic Naturalism, other than what is really just Aristotelianism, which is really just physicalism. But that’s my own view as an independent philosopher, not the policy of the Secular Web.
Fales and I have debated the issue endlessly and I don’t see any difference between the view he defends and Aristotelianism. He doesn’t agree, but I think our impasse is semantics, not metaphysics. On a naive Platonism, abstract objects are disembodied mental things with causal powers, which is supernaturalism by definition. I think he agrees (although it’s been a long time since we discussed this). So I don’t think he’s a naive Platonist. On advanced Platonism, abstract objects have no causal powers but exist because they “necessarily exist,” and thus will exist in all possible universes (thus even universes with no gods or any supernatural entities). But to me this is still illogical, because if they have no causal powers, we could never know of them (because they could never cause our brains or senses to perceive or apprehend them), so why would we ever have cause to believe they exist? Fales responds that we know of them through instantiations. Which is Aristotelianism. And so on, around we go.
In Sense and Goodness without God I make the distinction between potentially existing and actually existing. All logically possible abstract objects potentially exist but do not actually exist unless instantiated. Their potential existence is a property of things that actually exist, such as space-time. For example, space-time can be folded into certain shapes. Thus, space-time has the property of being potentially folded into those shapes. Therefore, those shapes “exist” but only potentially, and they exist only because something that can instantiate them actually exists (thus their existence is not “out there” but in an actually existing thing: namely, space-time). I think Fales finds this view acceptable, and calls it Platonism. I think it is just Aristotelianism. Thus, semantics, not metaphysics.
In philosophy, the term “naturalism” is often used to mark a contrast between views — like Wilfrid Sellars’s, for instance — that look exclusively to the natural sciences to determine what really exists, and views — like G.E. Moore’s — that refuse to grant to the natural sciences the role of ontological arbiter. Most atheists these days appear to be materialists or physicalists, giving primacy to the material world as delineated by science. Are you yourself prepared to countenance the worldview of a Plato or a Moore, in which the number five and the property of goodness have objective existence? If so, doesn’t that alienate you from many of your fellow atheist public intellectuals?
Oh no, I’m a physicalist (“or something near enough” as Jaegwon Kim would say). Platonism is silly. And Moore was wrong (I specifically refute him in Sense and Goodness without God and effectively more so in The End of Christianity). But it’s incorrect to say that “the number five and the property of goodness have objective existence” only on their views. They can have objective existence on physicalism, too. Aristotle more than amply proved that. So, really, this has been settled for 2300 years. Anyone who doesn’t know that just hasn’t gotten the memo.
Numbers are the property of quantity, which all physical things inalienably possess. You can’t have things, and not have quantities. That’s logically impossible. That doesn’t mean you need to have some sort of ghostly, magical “fiveness” floating around somewhere. All you need are the physical things. Likewise goodness, which is a relational property of human beings: that which is good is objectively entailed by the physical nature of humans and the world they inhabit. I demonstrate this in the final chapter of The End of Christianity, but I also discuss both points specifically (and expand the point to cover all abstractions) in Sense and Goodness without God. I’ve also blogged extensively on the “physicalist” existence of both goodness and numbers. Key to understanding it all is the distinction I discussed earlier of potential existence vs. actual existence.
Who are your favorite atheist and/or metaphysical-naturalist authors? Which books would you especially recommend to people who would like to learn more about these subjects?
I actually provide a list online of “must read” books in philosophy that I think any philosopher should have read (or at the very least up-to-date books that are directly comparable on each subject). See my recommended reading list, Essentials in Philosophy. But if I had to name, let’s say, the top three books on “atheism” and “metaphysical naturalism” they would be Gary Drescher’s Good and Real, Andrew Melnyk’s A Physicalist Manifesto, and Malcolm Murray’s The Atheist’s Primer. If you read nothing else, read those. Of course, those are all rather technical. I think my book Sense and Goodness without God is more approachable, and summarizes most of what they argue anyway. I’m not aware of any book comparable to mine in that respect. Which is why I wrote it.
Are there any Christian apologists or other religious authors whom you enjoy reading or whose work you respect? Are there any philosophical critics of atheism whose work you have found challenging?
Reading Christian apologetics is generally painful. Every such book has so many mistakes of fact and logic. But some are better than others. I find Richard Swinburne and Alvin Plantinga to be ridiculous. And Dinesh D’Souza and Josh McDowell are a joke. Whereas J.P. Moreland makes far more sense than the former two, and is far more competent than the latter two (although he hasn’t really produced anything in a while). And Craig is the best I’ve read. I will generally read new stuff by Gary Habermas, too. But the only religious authors I enjoy reading are not strictly speaking apologists, or at least the works of theirs I read are not, e.g. Dale Allison, Stephen T. Davis, Bruce Metzger, Raymond Brown. And sometimes I don’t have a consistent reaction. I actually loved William Dembski’s No Free Lunch (it’s very well written and for all its flaws he says a lot of useful stuff in there and is right more often than he’s sometimes given credit), but his End of Christianity is just beyond ridiculous.
Critics of atheism, specifically? In my experience the most challenging critique of atheism, in terms of asking good questions that atheists often don’t spend serious time answering, is Victor Reppert’s C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea. He’s wrong. But I thought it worth an extensive and careful reply (available online as “Critical Review of Victor Reppert’s Defense of the Argument from Reason”), and interacting with his work made my book Sense and Goodness without God vastly better. I also benefitted from Moreland’s Scaling the Secular City. Since then critiques of naturalism only seem to be getting progressively more lame (e.g. see my critique of Michael Rea’s World without Design).
Even if many of the claims made by Christianity and the other world religions are untrue, can there still be value in religion considered as a practice or way of life? Do you feel that you have learned anything at all of value from either holy scriptures or modern religious authors?
From all religions, yes. Always something of interest or value in each tradition. Interacting with them has also been fruitful to me, and that includes Buddhism and Taoism and Confucianism, not just Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But I also benefitted from interacting with Marxism and Objectivism. Even those worldviews have an occasional insight worth heeding or adapting.
But can there still be value in religion considered as a practice or way of life? To be honest, I think only in the sense that there is value in folk medicine when real medicine is not to be had. Because just like folk medicine, which can be dangerous and ineffective by comparison with real medicine, I find that religions have two persistent flaws:
(1) Religions mix too much bad with the good. “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death” is a wicked teaching, ignorant, cruel, and dehumanizing. “The fool hath said in his heart, ‘There is no God’. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good” is plain falsehood and rank bigotry. “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” has caused more misery and murder than anything Jesus ever taught. Likewise, “If your brother, your mother’s son, or your son or daughter, or the wife you cherish, or your friend who is as your own soul, entice you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods’ . . . you shall surely kill them.” And so on (see “The Will of God” for more examples).
When you start picking and choosing, rejecting wicked teachings like these and keeping only what you consider genuinely good, you are no longer practicing a religion. You are making up a philosophy out of your own opinions. It would be better to do that in a sound way, a way that’s logically careful and scientifically informed. But I find that when you do that, you end up with secular humanism.
(2) And religions always come packaged with lousy epistemologies. Faith-based epistemologies are inherently dangerous. Because they are easily manipulated, and prone to error. When your beliefs are not anchored in demonstrable facts, but in feelings and intuitions and randomly chosen scriptures and authorities, it’s too easy for your own biased and badly informed opinions to become “God’s will,” too easy to come to conclusions about mankind and the world that are simply false, too easy to be persuaded that killing or hurting people you don’t like is what God wants. Just observe John Hagee’s ability to manipulate millions of voters with appeals to “faith,” all to start a murderous and irresponsible war in the Middle East so as to usher in the apocalypse (just google “Armageddon Lobby,” and read Matt Taibbi’s The Great Derangement). That’s doing no one any good.
The only defense against this is to adopt epistemologies that only ground strong beliefs in logically valid conclusions from objectively confirmable facts. And as far as I’ve seen, no religion can stand on that foundation. All religions require you to “have faith” in a number of core doctrines that can’t be demonstrated (e.g. “hell exists and homosexuals go there,” “God speaks to you in your heart; but if God says the exact opposite to someone else’s heart, then they’ve been deceived, not you,” “the Bible is the infallible word of God and can never be mistaken,” etc.), which requires you to adopt the general belief that it is legitimate to have and act on beliefs “on faith” in the first place. But once you accept that principle, then you can justify believing anything “on faith”; all you need is a good enough desire to. Whereas if you reject that principle altogether, you avoid these dangers. But once you declare “faith” an invalid epistemology, and only build logically on objectively confirmable facts, religion has nothing left to recommend it. At best you end up with deism. And ultimately even that doesn’t hold up on thorough reflection.
If you had to guide a college-bound high school senior on where to pursue undergraduate studies, what would you say? What are some of the top schools and programs that embody your educational philosophy? Leaving aside religious institutions, where would you not send this high school senior?
I first have two more basic recommendations for prospective students:
(1) First to get real world experience in the job market. Don’t go directly from high school to college. Spend at least a year or two working at some basic job, whatever it is. Whether it’s as a McDonald’s server or plumber’s apprentice. And endeavor to excel at whatever it is, be good at it, take pride in being good at it. Learn what that feels like. And if nothing else, this year or two delay (or even five or ten) will make you hungry for learning again, so when you do go to college, you’ll be passionate about your studies, instead of burned out and not taking them seriously.
(2) Second, to get as much done at the community college level as possible. I don’t know how well this strategy works in other states (you’d have to research that), but in California there is a government program called IGETC, whereby you complete the first two years of a four-year degree at one of the state’s many (and quite excellent) community colleges, and the state universities and four-year colleges then reserve spots at the junior level for IGETC applicants. This actually greatly increases your odds of getting into a state school, and saves you tens of thousands of dollars. Moreover, you can complete the IGETC requirements at your own pace. Thus, you can work part time and only go to school part time, taking as long as you want to complete those two years (for example, I did my two in three years’ time). This is more economically sensible, because community colleges are very cheap, and don’t require you to pay tuition for classes you aren’t taking. You can actually pay your own way from your own part-time jobs and have no debt and require no scholarships. Then, when you proceed to a full university, you have only two years of full time study to complete and pay for.
As to what four-year schools I’d recommend, really it depends on what you want to study. Which you can take your time deciding if you start in community college. You have to declare a major to enter at the junior level, but by then you’ll likely know what path you want to take. Look for the top-recommended public schools for that major in your own home state and apply there. I recommend state schools because they cost half what private colleges do. Sometimes, you can find a good private college that will give you a full scholarship or that’s otherwise affordable, but I wouldn’t count on it. In California, the state UC and CSU systems are superb. Some schools are better at some subjects than others, so you would choose among them based on what you want to do, then apply to several, and take the one that accepts you, or if several do, the one that’s geographically located where you’d prefer.
For example, if you want to pursue history, you need to decide what era, and then find what schools have the best departments for that. If you are fascinated by the Byzantine era, then UC San Diego. Early Roman empire? UC Berkeley. Sumerian studies? UCLA. Jewish studies? UCLA again. And so on. But above all, the most important advice I can give is not to assume your major is your career. Any college degree makes you a very well-rounded, well-informed citizen. You learn a lot in many of broad and diverse subjects (from science to literature to history), and in your major you learn by example how to become an expert in any field and hone skills of reading and writing and investigating and just learning in general that you can apply to any future, not just one related to your major.
The choice of major is just to keep you on track studying something you are passionate about and thus will stay motivated in throughout school. Thus, for example, you needn’t pursue a history major to become a history teacher or history professor; you can get a history degree and use it to build an impressive resume to get into almost any industry. My wife got a degree in theater arts, specializing in stage management, and got all kinds of corporate jobs off of that, and is now a corporate accountant — never having gotten a degree in accounting. I went all the way to a Ph.D. in history and went on to build a career as a writer.
Any final thoughts you would like to share with our readers? Where do you expect to be ten years from now? Where do you expect atheism as a social movement to be by then?
My final advice is to always read widely from other points of view than your own. I have several shelves of Christian literature that I’ve read. But Christians don’t as commonly read atheist literature that much. Likewise, I have books on Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Marxism, Objectivism, books on politics from both conservative and progressive POVs. I always look for the best book against any view I espouse and interact with that, the book with the best research, the best arguments. It’s made me a better philosopher, a better historian, and a better citizen. Better by far. It will do the same for you.
Where do I expect to be in ten years? Probably where I am now: writing and publishing books and articles in ancient history and naturalist philosophy, and teaching and speaking freelance around the country. I already have a slate of books planned to occupy me for the next five years. What I’ll tackle in the following five I don’t speculate on. I leave that for then.
Where will atheism as a social movement be by then? Considerably larger and more public. National movements like Drinking Skeptically and the Secular Student Alliance will everywhere be as familiar and accessible as the YMCA or Campus Crusade for Christ. Many more people will be identifying with us. And we will have more prominent intellectuals who are women or minorities — we’re already accumulating good numbers there, and I’ve met the college students gunning to join them, so I can already see where that’s going. Both in their diversity and their numbers, a real change is coming.