Category Archives: Philosophy of Religion

Critics of “Religion’s Smart-People Problem”

A few months ago I published a piece in the online journal Salon entitled “Religion’s Smart-People Problem.” It generated over 2,500 comments on the site and had over 66,000 facebook shares. I thought my readers might be interested in hearing from some of my most vociferous critics. And while I don’t have time to respond to them, let me say this.

First, critics often focus on what you don’t say as much as what you do say. So critics of the short piece in Salon criticize it for not responding to the theology of Tillich or Kierkegaard, or the latest ruminations from Mormon elders, Catholic bishops, or their other favorite gurus. Heck, it was a piece for a popular magazine, not a dissertation! I’m reminded of one of the readers of my master’s thesis which was about the moral philosophy of David Gauthier. (All three chapter were later published in peer-reviewed journals.)  The reader’s criticism—I should have talked more about Thomas Hobbes! Yes, really.

Second, I have lived too long to think you are going to change people’s minds. Even if your arguments are air-tight, those who have devoted their lives to some cause or whose being is wrapped up in religion or some other ideology won’t change their minds. But despite what all the critics say, religion does have a smart-people problem—the relationship between more education, particularly scientific education, and a decrease in religious belief is well established. Moreover, religion has a young people problem, a people-in- countries-with-strong-social-safety-nets problem, and it definitively has a future technology problem. When science and technology defeat death, and we have become posthuman, the old promises of immortality will have no influence. Posthumans won’t go to church; superintelligences won’t find their answers in Jesus or Mohammed.

All these theologians are like Neanderthals sitting around the campfire deciding which of their creation myths is best while not noticing that the invading Homo Sapiens will soon replace them. Similarly science and technology will eventually put an end to religious superstition. I so wish that all the mental acumen of theologians was employed in advancing science and technology rather than in defending old myths or creating obscurantist metaphysics.

Still I’m willing to let my critics have their say. Here then are some of the intellectual online critiques of my work from various Christian apologists.

The Skeptic’s Smart-Person Problem

Socrates Warned Against the Likes of John Messerly

Atheists Are Smarter Than Believers, Says An Atheist

When We Know Better Than You

Does Morality Depend on Religion?

The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso in 2007

Why should I be moral? One answer is that if we are moral, the gods will reward us; and if not, the gods will punish us. This is called “the divine-command theory.” (DCT) According to DCT, things are right or wrong simply because the gods command or forbid them, there is no other reason. (This is like a parent’s who says to a child: it’s right because I said so!)

To answer the question of whether morality can be based on a god we would have to know things like: 1) if there are gods; 2) if the god we believe in is good; 3) if the gods issue commands; 4) how to know the gods’ commands; 5) if we found the commands—say in a book—how would we know the commands are good ones; 6) if they were good commands how would we understand or interpret them; 7) if the came from a book which translation of the book; 8) how could you know if the translation is accurate; 9) can any translation be accurate; and 10) even if the translation was accurate how would you interpret the words you read. This is just a partial list of the problems you encounter trying to base ethics on a god or religion.

Difficulties also arise if we hear voices commanding us, or we accept an institutions’ authority. Why trust the voices or authorities? And which institution? Which revelation? Obviously, there are enormous philosophical difficulties with basing ethics on religion.

But let’s say that there are gods, that you have found the right one, that the right one issued commands, that the commands are good, that you have access to the right commands (because you found the right book, church, or had the right vision), that you understand the commands, that you interpret the commands correctly even though they came from a book that has been translated from one language to another over thousands of years? (Anyone who has ever translated knows that you can’t translate word for word between languages.) But let’s just say that somehow you are right about everything. Can you then base ethics on religion?

More than 2,000 years ago Plato answered this question in the negative. In Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates asked a famous question: “Are things right because the gods command them, or do they command them because they are right?” If things are right simply because the gods command them, then their commands are arbitrary—without reason. There are no good reasons for their commands. The gods then are like petty tyrants who just command things because they have the power.

On the other hand, if the gods command things because they are right, then there are reasons for their commands. The gods command things because they see or recognize that certain commands are really good for us. But if that is the case, then there is some standard or norm or criteria by which good or bad is to be measured. And this standard is independent of the gods.

So either the god’s command are without reason, and therefore arbitrary, or they are with reason, and thus are commanded according to some standard. This standard—say that we would all be better off—is thus the reason we should be moral. And that reason, not a god’s authority—is what makes something right or wrong. And the same is true for an authoritative book. Something is not wrong simply because the book says so. There must be a reason for this and if there is not, then the book is simply wrong.

Of course one could argue that even if the gods are petty tyrants who command us without reason—except for say their own amusement—we should still follow the commands so as not to suffer—since the gods are possibly powerful and mean enough to do so. If they can inflict eternal torture—if they are the ultimate sadists—then we do have a reason to follow their commands—to avoid torture!

The response to this is that we don’t know that the gods will reward us for following their non-rational commands. Maybe the gods reward people who use their reason and don’t accept such commands and punish those who are so frightened as to accept non-rational commands. This seems to make some sense if the gods are petty, tyrannical bullies, they might like it if you stood up to them. Who knows?

The foregoing discussion should suffice to show how difficult it is to base ethics on religion. Again, even if one could overcome all the practical difficulties involved in philosophically justifying religion, it seems that either a) the god’s commands are arbitrary and there is thus no reason to follow them; or b) the god’s commands are not arbitrary and there are reasons for them. But if the latter is the case, then we are doing philosophical, not theological, ethics. We are looking for the reasons why things are moral or immoral.

Finally, you might object that the gods have reasons for their commands, and we just can’t know them. But if this is the case, if we really can’t know anything about the gods’ reasons, if the ways of the gods “are mysterious to humans,” then what’s the point of religion? If you can’t know anything why the gods command things, then why follow their commands, why have religion at all, why listen to the preacher? If it’s all a mystery, then no person or book or church has anything coherent to say about God, ethics, or anything else. and in that case, you should just be a skeptic.

If we want to rationally justify morality, then we will have to do it in a moral theory independent of hypothetical gods. We will have to engage in philosophical ethics.

Do We Survive Death? Discussed in One Page

The idea of an immortal soul – For Socrates, this meant something in you that is indestructible. For St. Paul the immortality of the soul meant your non-physical soul would be reunited with a new physical body at judgment day [The idea that you die and then go to a paradise or punishment is a Greek idea; it is not Christian orthodoxy.]

Problems – Doctrines of immortal souls are difficult to accept in the 21st century because: 1) the idea of a soul is useless in science; and 2) consciousness depends on brains. You could just have faith in an immortal soul, or try to find reasons to believe in immortality, or you just give up on the idea altogether. For evidence of immorality you might turn to:

  1. near-death experiences – PROBLEM – NDE, to the extent they occur, provide very little reason to believe in life after death and are easily explained scientifically.
  2. Reincarnation – PROBLEM – the evidence for R is weak or non-existent.
  3. Psychics who communicate with the dead. PROBLEM – anyone who claims to do this is a charlatan. The tricks by which supposed psychics fool people are well-known.

It would be miraculous if our consciousness could survive without our bodies. Perhaps we should just believe in miracles. But David Hume advanced a powerful argument that it is never rational to believe in miracles, it is one of the most famous in all of philosophy.  Hume asks, What is more likely?

  1. that someone in the past actually walked on water, rose from the dead, etc., or
  2. that those who tell such stories are exaggerating, lying, or have themselves been deceived.

Of course, #2 is more likely. Lying, exaggerating, or being credulous are common; walking on water or rising from the dead or not. Thus it is never rational to believe in miracles—defined as actions violating laws of nature—because #2 is always more likely than #1.

While immortality is possible, it is easy to see that it is highly unlikely.

Summary of “The Problem of Evil”

The “problem of evil” is thought to be one of the most difficult for theists. Why? Put simply the existence of bad or evil things isn’t hard to explain for non-theists—human beings and the world are imperfect—but they are hard to explain for classical theists.

The Problem – The gods are all-good, powerful, and knowing and yet there is evil. Thus either the gods can’t do away with evil—in which case they’re not all-powerful, or they won’t do away with evil—in which case they’re not all good. We can distinguish between:

a) The logical problem of evil – gods and evil are incompatible or inconsistent; and
b)The evidentiary problem of evil – evil counts as evidence against the gods.

Response to the problem – Theists have articulated defenses, but generally can’t advance
theodicies (complete explanations for evil.) A defense is easy, you just need to show that it is rational to believe in gods and evil simultaneously. A theodicy is hard, it must show how evil fits into a god’s plan. Most theologians think that the best we can do is to show that evil and the gods are compatible, but they don’t believe they can completely explain evil. In order to defend the rationality of religious belief—to offer a strong defense—philosophers/theologians try to provide reasons for the existence of evil. These include:

1. The ideas that pain/evil is necessary as part of the body’s warning system

PROBLEMS – Sometimes we need warnings but there is no pain (carbon monoxide, obesity, etc.); sometimes the pain doesn’t help us (cancer, etc.); sometimes pain may be debilitating. Furthermore, why would gods create pain? What explains such cruelty?

2.  The idea that evil is necessary so that we may better appreciate the good – (Logically this implies that we would have no notion of bad without good, or tall without short. Psychologically this implies that we wouldn’t appreciate good things with bad things, pleasure without pain, and happiness without unhappiness. )

PROBLEMS – Even if this is true, why do we need so much evil? We have cancer and heart disease, so do we really need Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and Huntington’s and ebola too? And do you really need to know there are bad things to enjoy good things? (If you believe in heaven or paradise where supposedly you are eternally happy, would you need occasional pain there to appreciate its goodness?)

3. The idea that evil is punishment from wrongdoing; we bring it on ourselves

PROBLEMS – This makes sense only if moral character and suffering correlate. But misfortune/evil strikes indiscriminately, as does good fortune. Moreover, do babies deserve misfortune? Do we deserve horrible diseases? Can one ever do enough bad things to deserve say, everlasting punishment?

4. The idea that evil results from free will – Evil results from free will. A world with humans and the evil that results from their free will is better than one without humans even if that world had no evil. War, murder, torture, etc. are worth the price of the positives that derive from human free will.

PROBLEMS – We can answer that free will is not worth all the misery that ensues from free choice. In addition, we might wonder why an omnipotent god couldn’t create humans with the freedom to do bad things, but who never do them. Moreover, free will, if it even exists, only accounts for moral evil (evils attributed to free will like murder, rape, etc.) but not physical evil (earthquakes, floods, disease, etc) which have nothing to do with free will. Finally, if evil results from freedom and there is no evil in heaven, then we aren’t free in heaven.

5. The idea that evil is necessary for the development of moral character. In a world without “trials and tribulations” we wouldn’t get to develop our moral characters or make our souls. Such a world wouldn’t elicit generosity, courage, kindness, mercy, perseverance, creativity, etc.

If the moral character development argument is combined with the free will defense then we have given the best account of evil possible. This is not a theodicy—a complete explanation—but a defense—a partial explanation. We could even add that since there is another world evil here is no big deal anyway. That is, all this pain will be insignificant when we all enjoy eternal bliss. Of course, even if we can overcome the problem of evil that doesn’t mean the theistic story is true.

PROBLEMS –At least three basic problems remain in our attempt to reconcile evil and all good, all-knowing and all-powerful gods.

1) Why don’t the gods intervene to prevent extreme cruelty—such as the abuse of an innocent child? The free will defense is implausible here.

2) Why is there so much human suffering? Do we really need all these hurricanes and diseases? Do we really need to develop our characters by, for example, seeing children die or suffering from cancer? And even if we need to occasionally die in childbirth or from cancer, couldn’t we have fewer cases of this evil?

3) Why do non-human animals suffer so much? They don’t have freedom or need to develop their moral characters, yet they suffer. If you look at the entire world, and the entire history of the world, does the evidence suggest that it is the product of all good, all-powerful, deities? Or does the evidence suggest the opposite? At the very least, doesn’t evil provide evidence against the existence of such gods? Of course, it does.

(This entry relied heavily on James and Stuart Rachels’ book: Problems from Philosophy.)

Summary of the Arguments for the Existence of God

Is it reasonable to believe in a god(s)? To be reasonable, a belief must be backed by good reasons, but are there any? Western philosophers through the centuries have advanced 3 basic arguments for the existence of a god; we will consider each of them briefly. 

ARGUMENT #1 – The Argument from Design (a teleological argument)

Version A – “The best explanation argument”

1) There seems to be design in the universe;
2) This design didn’t come about by chance; thus
3) The universe was intelligently designed.

Version B – “The same-evidence argument”

1) Watches have designs and are designed by watchmakers;
2) Similarly, universes have designs and are designed by universe designers; thus
3) The universe was designed by one or more universe designers.

Hume’s Objections

  • We infer a designer from a watch because we have background information about watches (we have seen them, can visit watch factories, etc.) But we have no background information about universes or how or if they are created. Thus we can make no inference about their supposed design.
  • Suppose we accept the universe has a design; what would we conclude about its designer? Considered objectively, we wouldn’t conclude that it was designed by an omnipotent, omniscience, omni-benevolent deity. We would conclude it was made by less than perfect beings, intelligent aliens, drunk, child or malicious gods, etc.

Evolution – Hume’s were logical arguments, but in lieu of a definitive replacement for design the situation was at an impasse. This all changed with modern biology. After the fact of evolution was discovered, the design argument was essentially dead. (For more on the fact of evolution see:**

[There is a new kind of teleological argument, known as the “fine tuning” argument. The idea is that life in the universe can only occur when certain universal physical constants lie within a very narrow range. This may imply a designer. However, the argument is not generally thought to be successful, and it is definitively undermined if we live in a multiverse.]

ARGUMENT #2 – The First Cause Argument (a cosmological argument)

Version A –
1) Everything has a cause;
2) Causes can’t go backward indefinitely; thus
3) There is a first cause, the gods.

Problems – Either everything has a cause or it doesn’t. If everything has a cause, we should ask what caused the gods? If there is something without a cause or self-caused or self-sufficient, it makes more sense to say that thing is the universe instead of some god because we know the universe exists whereas we don’t know gods exist.

Version B –
1) The universe requires an explanation; thus
2) The best explanation is a god or gods.

Problems – We have no idea of what, if anything, explains universes, and no good reason why such an explanation would be anything like the gods we imagine. Moreover, with the advent of “quantum cosmologies” in the 1980s, we have scientific ideas that explain how universes can appear spontaneous existence out of nothing. In conclusion, either:

  1. the universe is explained by something else (but we don’t know what this might be);
  2. the universe is explained by itself (it is its own explanation);
  3. the universe has no explanation/cause (it is unintelligible, it just is); or
  4. the universe is eternal (could be part of 2 or 3 above)

(You can substitute multiverse for universe in the above, but the choices don’t change. )

ARGUMENT #3God as a Necessary Being  (an ontological argument )

Version A –
1) The universe is contingent (depends on something else); thus
2) Something else is necessary (a non-contingent god.)

Version B – (St. Anselm’s argument)
1) God is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived”;
2) The greatest thing, to be the greatest thing, must exist; thus
3) God exists.

Version C –
1) God is perfect;
2) Existence is a perfection;
3) God exists.

Gaunilo’s objection – According to this reasoning a perfect island exists. But this is silly.

Kant’s objection – Whether a thing is perfect depends on its properties. Existence is not a property, but a determination of whether a thing exists. Thus the definition of a perfect being tells us what a perfect being would be like IF it existed;  not that a PB actually exists.

These are the very best arguments ever advanced by theologians and philosophers, and a majority of contemporary philosophers believe these arguments fail. Maybe arguments don’t matter and one should just believe anyway, or maybe personal religious experience gives one a reason to believe, or maybe the gods are just imaginary. But we can say for certain that belief in a god or gods is not simply a matter of reason or logic.

(For the record I believe that the god of classical theism is almost certainly imaginary.)


** If you want to know the truth about evolution you can visit any of these websites: