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Thursday, June 19, 2008


Just a few days ago, I was discussing a mutual friend with a former colleague. The latter was astonished by our mutual friend’s Christianity: “What’s up with that?!” he exclaimed, expressing bewilderment and even nervousness at the thought that a well-regarded – indeed, by academic standards, famous – professor could believe in the existence and beneficence of an omniscient and omnipotent God. If was as if our Christian friend had declared that the world was flat or was dabbling in alchemy. My former colleague even worried that, if a serious academic could believe in God, he was capable of believing in, or attempting, anything -- attempting to walk across the East River unaided by a water taxi, gunning down students in hallways, speaking in tongues at a faculty meeting, you name it.

Admittedly, my former colleague is an extreme case, but I have more frequently encountered less intense versions of what I will call “Theophobia” – the academic’s irrational fear of, or intense discomfort around, theist and, in particular, Christian, beliefs. Theophobia does not have a DSM designation (yet), but I tend to think that it mimics many of the characteristics of paranoia about gay and lesbian couples: It seems to driven by unfamiliarity with anything except the crudest caricature of the object of horror, derived from distant rumors of bizarre and violent behavior in a strange faraway place (for homophobes, say, the Castro; for theophobes, perhaps Lubbock, TX or Colorado Springs, CO). Secular academics typically do not know many religious believers -- especially not many overly devout Christians -- and their isolation leads to the most naively lurid fantasies about what religious belief entails. (The growth of conservative law schools -- Ave Maria, Pepperdine -- is calculated to exacerbate this segregation with the consequence that secular academics will be even more isolated and more naïve about religion)

Of course, some would dispute that theophobia is truly phobic. Religious belief does genuine harm, they would argue, and therefore, it is rational to be wary of it. Following the jump, I’ll offer my own reasons for why fear of religious belief is indeed phobic and, to that extent, undesirable.

I say that theophobia is irrational, because there is no obviously persuasive reason to believe that religious belief as such has any more harmful consequences than lack thereof. True, religious believers have done some horrible things in the name of God. But there is no obviously persuasive reason to believe that the body count attributable to religious belief is higher than the death toll from whatever ideology one wishes to ascribe to Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Hutu Nationalists, Hitler, Mao Tse Tung, or any number of other despots motivated by secular ideologies. (Yes, I know Hitchens & Co. disputes that this string of despots killed for the sake of secular ideologies, mostly by gerry-rigging the definition of “religion” to include beliefs like Nazism. But, using the same looseness of definition, I can claim Stoics, Epicureans, even diehard Rawlsians -- yes, there are such people -- among the religious believers).

Suppose one takes God to subsist rather than exist, as an intellectual construct akin to pi or imaginary numbers? What harm can come from guiding one’s life by the supposed judgments of the being that Adam Smith called “the impartial spectator” – a perfectly wise judge with perfectly accurate information about your motives and actions? I can think of worse heuristics. The fact that someone takes this heuristic to be ontologically "real" in some sense strikes me as utterly harmless, whatever its merits as a philosophical position. Yes, one could imagine that religious believers might ignore the welfare of the secular world in favor of the eternal one. But one can also imagine religious believers who ignore their secular welfare out of obedience to God’s command to value the secular world. If what you need is passionate altruism, my bet would be on the theists: It is not easy to imagine a rational self-maximizing welfarist throwing himself on a grenade for the sake of a world that, from his point of view, will cease to exist at the moment of detonation: What’s in it for him, after all?

I do not wish to enter into the tired controversy about whether atheism or theism is more conducive to ethical behavior. I want only to suggest that this controversy is tired precisely because there is no obvious answer to the question inspiring it. One can wrangle forever about the relative merits of theism and atheism without reaching any firm conclusion, which is precisely why it is irrationally phobic to have an intense fear of theism on this score. Accept such a belief or reject it as you please, just as you might accept or reject any number of other beliefs that are not provably true or false – Raz’s argument against anti-perfectionist liberalism, Derek Parfit’s theory of personal identity, or the fatalism that the NY Yankees will collapse again this baseball season. But do not panic around a Christian (or a Muslim, Jew, Hindu, etc).

How widespread is theophobia among academics? I cannot say for sure -- I've only casual anecdotes to guide me -- but I suspect that, whatever its prevalence, it is on the decline. Atheism’s fatal error was to go middlebrow. When the books of Dawkins and Hitchens became bestsellers, their ideas lost several points in the academics’ stockmarket. Intellectual pride is the academic’s signature sin (oops – I mean failing), and few academics want to be associated with an ideology tied to the vulgar laity. Moreover, I think that there is a powerful case that God, whether He exists or not, has historically had the better writers on His side: Who would you rather read, after all – Dawkins, Hitchens, Bradlaugh, Paine, d’Holbach and other (semi-)atheist writers, or Pascal, Kierkegaard, Locke, Unamuno, Donne, Dante, Milton, and Flannery O’Connor?

Of course, I might be wrong about the prevalence of theophobia among academics: I’ve only my very anecdotal experience to go by. (If anyone out there can confirm or disconfirm my sketchy suspicions, I’d be grateful). But even if theophobia is on the wane, it is still worthwhile to hasten its demise. After all, change is difficult, and you have to want to change.

Posted by Rick Hills on June 19, 2008 at 12:10 PM in Culture | Permalink


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» "Theophobia": from The Volokh Conspiracy
Rick Hills (PrawfsBlawg) writes: Just a few days ago, I was discussing a mutual friend with a former colleague. The latter was as... [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 19, 2008 1:26:24 PM

» Let he who has no irrational belief cast the first stone. from Crime
Law professor Rick Hills has a really interesting post describing how many secular people view religious believers:Just a few days ago, I was discussing a mutual friend with a former colleague. The latter was astonished by our mutual friend’s Christian... [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 19, 2008 4:00:37 PM

» Academics and Hostility to Religion: from The Volokh Conspiracy
Rick Hills claims that many academics have an "irrational fear of, or intense discomfort around, theist and, in particular, Christian, beliefs," which... [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 19, 2008 4:16:16 PM

» Academia and Religion: from The Volokh Conspiracy
When it comes to the attitude of academics toward religion, I suspect that the truth is probably closer to the view articulated by Rick Hills or Ilya than to Eugene's more charitable view. In particular, what the data (and perso... [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 20, 2008 11:37:00 AM

» How Religious are Academics? from The Volokh Conspiracy
Many people, especially among political conservatives, believe that most academics are secular, possibly even hostile to religion. However, a recent study of ac... [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 22, 2008 12:30:25 AM


"But it seems to me atheists have the burden of answering Dostoyevski's "if there is no God, everything is permissible.""

No, everyone has that burden. The existence of God doesn't really help, because it's just another factual reality, not any further explanation of morality. A god might or might not permit this or that in the sense that it would punish someone for it, but this doesn't magically make the actions of a god have any extra moral weight.

And I agree that it's also rather lame of Rick Hill to throw a punch and then basically say "I don't want to debate the matter, it's so tired."

Posted by: Bad | Jun 22, 2008 11:33:45 AM

Are they, then, marxophobes?

Well, first, you missed part of my point. To reiterate: It has been argued that academics are more rigorous and logical. I suggested, based on personal observations, that this is not necessarily so.

And so to address your comment: They may very well be marxophobes. Erudite, informed, coherent marxophobes, but phobic none the less. A distressingly large number of people (including myself) have an opinion and them proceed to marshal all manner of evidence and logic to support said opinion, rather than the other way 'round. From my vantage point, academics are no better than the ordinary run of humanity when it comes to this. YMMV, and if so I am happy for you.

I do find it amusing that you say bad ideas can expect to be criticized in academics, as though this happens no where else.

Posted by: Jammer | Jun 20, 2008 8:42:53 PM

Jeff: who cares?

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Jun 20, 2008 8:37:05 PM

I'm not endeavoring to answer the question of whether there are credible arguments against religious belief. I am endeavoring to put forth an alternative theory as to WHY so many academics take particular pleasure in making those arguments against religious belief. It's not because the arguments unfold like ornate origami - it's because the academics have an (emotional, not entirely rational) chip on their shoulder against the people and institutions responsible for the promotion of those beliefs. Look at the belittling, pithy comments on this thread against believers; each one drips with condescension. So let's just not pretend this is a strictly logical exercise. Academics have feelings, and failings, too.

Posted by: Jeff | Jun 20, 2008 8:23:31 PM

Yes Jammer, and other academics criticize those bad ideas (not that I'm saying Marxism is a bad idea, mind) just like they criticize religion. Are they, then, marxophobes?

That's the point. Academics is a place where you can expect bad ideas to be criticized, whether those ideas come from Derrida or a bunch of dead mystics.

Jeff, have you ever heard of the genetic fallacy?

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Jun 20, 2008 7:16:30 PM

In academia, despite the best efforts of the postmodernists, theoretically the emphasis is on using logic and reason and observation to increase the world's store of knowledge, and to impart that knowledge to the next generation.

I'm afraid I have to comment on this idea, which I've seen several times in this thread.

I am not an academic, but my wife is (thus the fake name -- she should not suffer for my opinions), and I see and hear a lot about her little slice of the academic world at a major state university (and her experiences at other universities and conferences).

I think I would be more accepting of the theory that academics are "phobic" about the religious due to the tendency of those in academia to be more rigorous and demanding of proofs etc. were I not constantly witness to professors holding the most bizarre theories and notions about economics, politics, literary theory, and, yes, theology, among other things. For example, one cannot throw a rock on most campuses without hitting at least one hard-core Marxist (you might even get a Maoist, but they seem to be in serious decline). Talk about faith-based knowledge!

And they are hardly all post-modernists. Even hard science types, once they leave their areas of knowledge, have a shocking tendency to operate on emotionalism and half-baked ideas of "how the world works" instead of via empirical observation and research.

So no, I just can't buy the idea that its all about the logic and reason, though perhaps the "phobes" in question think that is the case.

Posted by: Jammer | Jun 20, 2008 7:04:31 PM

I think the issue is that in this day and age anyone who believes in god is somewhat like an adult that believes in santa. So it is easy to see why it's surprising that someone who is otherwise an intelligent rational person is religious.

Posted by: Alex | Jun 20, 2008 5:52:32 PM

I suspect academics' strong dislike of evangelical Christians is borne more out of a culture/class bias than some strongly held or well-thought out objection to the nature of faith v. reason, etc.

America, and mostly "middle America," is often maligned, especially by academics, for being anti-intellectual. This is to say - a lot of Americans are simply not as impressed with academics as academics are with themselves. This bothers the hell out of academics, many of whom, I imagine, worked very hard to escape such seemingly narrowminded environments and find a socially welcoming community that rewards, rather than ridicules, academic achievement. As evangelical Christianity is the predominant faith in much of "middle America," disliking evangelicals is a short hand way of returning the (imagined) sneer. Put another way, being friendly towards evangelicals is like siding with the enemy, an familiar (or not-so-familiar, as the case may be) social institution that seems to reward the veneration of dominant "middle american" values, and rejects the kind of innovation and experimentation that academics like to pat themselves on the back over.

I don't think a lot of the 'hater' academics at issue have much of a grasp on Christian theology at all, nor do they care to. They'd rather focus on the cartoonish megachurch down the street.

Posted by: Jeff | Jun 20, 2008 5:48:03 PM


How do you know that he was referring to the athesists as "theophobes"?

Posted by: Michael F. Martin | Jun 20, 2008 4:00:42 PM

“Aye, I used to go to church, the big building with the pointy steeple, but I stopped going. I grew up.” Callum Gilhooley

Posted by: bill | Jun 20, 2008 8:30:00 AM

The problem is a very deeply human one. It isn't that there are no believers in academia. The problem is that a handful of vocal atheists have spoiled the party for the rest of us by voicing their opinions in obnoxious and antagonistic ways that tend to push us away rather than engage us in debate.

Ultimately, it's their loss since we still get to hear their views but they don't get to hear ours.

Posted by: Michael F. Martin | Jun 20, 2008 7:21:25 AM

"Theophobia" happens to be "Fear of God", thus the sufferers are therefore theists, not atheists. No atheists fear God.

Posted by: Strappado | Jun 20, 2008 7:12:49 AM

Fear of the religious is not due solely to the violent acts of religious believers. It is also due to the insidious attacks on civil liberties, human rights and education. When you have organised religion lobbying for laws on what people can and cannot do in their own bedrooms and calling for the punishment or execution of people who dare to offend their beliefs, then theophobia is justified. When well-funded religious think-tanks organise the corruption of educational standards by trying to force their crazy beliefs into science lessons, then the natural response is a call for fair-minded secularism. Calling this an irrational phobia is nonsense.

Posted by: Stewart Ware | Jun 20, 2008 3:40:01 AM

Liminal... so much of this claim of "animus" amounts to the notion that religious beliefs are somehow special, exempt from criticism. It may surprise you that academics harshly criticize things with which they disagree. If that's what you mean by "animus," then I can find you a lot of people who will display "animus" in that sense toward rational choice theory, or substance dualism, or general equilibrium.

Or do you mean actual harm to people? Are you talking about denying someone tenure because s/he believes in god? Show me evidence that this happens on anything like a regular basis (or even at all?) and I'll eat my copy of the second critique. (Ben Stiller's lying propaganda notwithstanding.)

Or are you talking about stuff like denying tenure to biology professors who don't believe in evolution? In which case, well, I'll be more than happy to defend that position, which strikes me as roughly equivalent to denying tenure to physics professors who don't believe in gravity.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Jun 20, 2008 2:33:40 AM

I see a thematic drift in these comments that I find telling. I read Rick’s original post as focused on the question of whether there might be some problems of prejudice and ignorance (“theophobia”) in the secular-dominated academy towards the religious. That is, he was inviting the secular-dominated academy to engage in self-reflection to consider whether it has sometimes wrongly created a religious “Other”.

With lighting speed, however, the larger focus of most of the commentators became the question of whether there can be any warrant for the beliefs of the religious. This new focus is a legitimate (if sometimes “tired”) question and it did receive some thoughtful discussion here. But the new focus means that the weight of the conversation shifted from the possible flaws of the secular-dominated academy (the “We” in this debate) to philosophical questions that put the religious “Other” in the hot seat to justify its mere presence.

Amazingly, for at least a few of the commentators, it is an overt question whether even mere inclusion of the religious in academia can be justified. See for example the comment that “[epistemic theophobes] simply feel that belief in god is about on par with belief in the tooth fairy, and they don't feel that someone who could believe in the tooth fairy should be seen as an authority on anything, let alone their peer and colleague.” “*Simply* feel”? I take it this commentator does us the service of providing another anecdote of intolerance to add to Rick’s list!

The displacement of the first question by the second is partly troubling because the first is the less-considered question. But it is also troubling because some of the commentators making this shift must (I think) be implicitly assuming a very strong connection between the answers to the two questions. That is, if believers can't establish their beliefs aren't ludicrous or harmful, then we don’t need to worry our heads over whether we might have a problem of secular academic bias against believers. (Implied: “They deserve it.”) In reality, however, the connection between Rick’s original question and the commentators’ question is attenuated.

So (although I often think religious beliefs with which I disagree are worthy of my respect), for the sake of argument, we can posit that all of “us” agree that the religious beliefs of a particular professor are unwarranted and yet we may also conclude that her secular colleagues’ perceptions and behaviors towards her and her beliefs are irrational and harmful. The seculars deny her academic opportunities--not because of any relation between her religious beliefs and her work--but because of their own ignorant and lurid extrapolations about what must accompany those beliefs, or simply because her beliefs make them feel angry or anxious or they just enjoy the righteous feeling they get from defining themselves against her (and being tenured, they are not used to anyone telling them when they have crossed a line).

When Paul G. talks about “sloppy reasoning” and a “strawman”, I believe he actually underlines Rick’s point. Of course it may not be rational for the secular to deduce “crazy” deeds from crazy beliefs. Precisely. Rick was in fact inquiring about the incidence of secular academic irrationality toward the religious. It just seems very hard for many of us to stop to contemplate frothing-at-the-mouth irrationality from respected secular academics. So instead we talk (for the umpteenth time) about the religious kind of frothing (the existence and plenitude of which I fully concede). Why not ask whether there are good empirical studies on the topic of secular academic fear and hostility to the religious? If there aren’t any, why not?

Unfortunately, based on my own small universe of anecdotes, I have no problem imagining that we might find some very wild irrationality in some of the smartest of secular academics (and I mean cases of anti-religious animus not just “phobia”). As with Rick’s anecdotes, I don’t know if the ones I have in mind are representative. But their particulars were compelling enough to make me pessimistic about the existence of a correlation between education and equal treatment and nonprejudice. Maybe being very smart and educated only means the object of one’s prejudices shifts? Reading Rick’s post returned me to a little hope that academic culture could be a sort that nurtures more self-reflection and humility.

Posted by: Liminal | Jun 20, 2008 1:50:14 AM

There's a lot of controversy among Kant scholars about what to make of Kant's talk of God- how much of it was to keep him out of trouble w/ the Prussian state, for example. That was a real problem in his time, after all. Fichte lost his job for being an "atheist" during Kant's life for being a sort of deist. And it's pretty clear that you get a rather thin God at most out of Kant, certainly not the one found in the Bible. But the post started out talking about that God, not this thin one. I suspect that very few academics have any serious objection to a sort of vague deism that one gets (at most- again there's controversy as to whether God plays any real role in Kant's views or not) at the end of Kant's story. So, even if that sort of religion is rational, it's not the sort we started out here talking about. And once we've reached a more mature world-view and have better ideas of science it's not at all clear why we'd need the thin God either.

Posted by: Matt | Jun 19, 2008 9:27:18 PM

Paul, a clarification on the Kant point. Contrary to what you've written, Kant thought the exercise in pure reason was precisely how people posited the existence of God. Fanaticism and dogmatism were the result of the "transcendental illusion", thinking that the product of your reason was empirically real. God may well be accessible to reason, but we can't say anything in terms of truth about God because the subject goes beyond either experience or possible experience. We can only make truth claims about objective things. But as to moral choice, what we ought to do (not what is), Kant's view was that we can reason our way to moral ends, because we are not making truth claims about objects. Hence, the Categorical Imperative was an exercise in reasoning to moral choice: don't do anything where you wouldn't make the principle of your action a universal law.

"Some really thin version of religion that doesn't make empirical claims?" Well, I can't speak to other traditions, but that writes off much of modern non-Orthodox Judaism. (Also, I doubt that many people at the Harvard and Yale Divinity Schools, or the Princeton Theological Seminary, or the Graduate Theological Seminary are trying to make empirical claims.) Martin Buber's I-You makes no empirical claims. Hermann Cohen's "Religion of Reason" makes no empirical claims. Harold Schulweis' predicate theology makes no empirical claims. Reconstructionist and Reform Judaism make no empirical claims about God (a significant disappointment if you were waiting for the Messiah to come). Indeed, Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, was skeptical of the existence of a personal God. That's the point! Like all of them, I have no interest in whether angels exist or Jesus really rose from the tomb. Like legal discourse, non-fundamental religious debates involve normative claims. But I will grant you that religious discussion, like epistemology and ontology, spends more time working through the rules of recognition.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Jun 19, 2008 9:13:43 PM

I'll more or less agree with Paul. (I don't think Dostoevsky's point is that subtle, either- it's one that seems so in an intro to philosophy class and then not much after. Certainly he doesn't do anything sophisticated with it.) What I would add to Paul's point is that when God gets that thin it becomes awfully hard to see the point in it anymore, either. It certainly seems to come down to "it makes me feel good to believe in it." That's fine, I guess, but it's now about as substantive as liking chocolate over vanilla. Certainly it has nothing to do with what's written in great books of scripture and taught in church. (I should know- I spent a lot of time in church and learned to read by reading the Bible with my parents.)

Posted by: Matt | Jun 19, 2008 8:32:52 PM

Chris: but Hitchens was purporting to say something meaningful about religious people, as opposed to people generally -- the claim has to have been that there was something special about religion -- as opposed to just about human twistedness generally -- that makes for the death-plotting. And that's just not true.

Jeff: and is a god supposed to SOLVE the endless debates in moral philosophy? How?

Jeff pt. 2: Also, I don't understand why fundamentalism is a straw man. Fundamentalism is what people actually believe. I think this is a problem with the whole Kantian line as it goes. Kant claimed that the existence of god is inaccessible to human reason -- which we can reduce to "without empirical content" without losing anything important. But actual religious believers claim that their god did things for which there should be evidence! Giants! Floods! The age of the earth! People rising from graves! The parting of the red sea!

You might be able to posit some really thin version of religion that doesn't make any empirical claims. That kind of religion can't be empirically disproven (though it's still subject to the usual objections about the contradictions inherent in omnipotence, etc.), but I'd go so far as to say that almost nobody believes it.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Jun 19, 2008 8:23:50 PM

This post is intellectually lazy.

First, you affirmatively state that the theist is the better bet for altruism (and offer a lame rhetorical argument for that view - see below), but (perhaps aware that you can't really defend that claim) you try to dismiss any debate about the issue as "tired" and state that the there is no obvious answer as to whether theism or atheism is more conducive to ethical conduct. If you want to hide from criticism and debate, then don't make the claim.

Since you did make it: it is in fact VERY easy to imagine an atheist throwing himself on a grenade, even if we accept your strawman (which no one should) and assume that the atheist must be a "rational self-maximizing welfarist." What's in it for him is avoiding a life lived in shame and self-loathing that would follow from being unwilling to sacrifice for others. Even a rational self-maximizing welfarist (if we can coherently imagine one) must have feelings and connections to others (lest we imagine something that is not human at all), those connections are after all the greatest source of his "welfare". Few things score lower utils then a life without dignity and self-respect.

Of course, the main argument here is also a strawman. It trades on your failure to define your target. Some of your "theophobes", e.g. your former colleague, simply don't feel comfortable with those who believe in the supernatural because it doesn't fit with their naturalist approach (call them epistemic theophobes if you will). Such epistemic theophobes don't necessarily believe that religion tends to make people unethical, in fact they probably don't. They simply feel that belief in god is about on par with belief in the tooth fairy, and they don't feel that someone who could believe in the tooth fairy should be seen as an authority on anything, let alone their peer and colleague. The theophobes you actually address, on the other hand, seem to suspect that theism leads to unethical or harmful behavior (call them ethics theophobes). Some atheists do make cheap shots along these lines. But to the first group, the epistemic theophobes, your points about theists, ethics and altruism, i.e., the main thrust of your argument, are all beside the point. To them, the goodheartedness of theists doesn't make them any less silly and deluded. And even if your argument convinces a few ethics theophobes out there, they are free to respond by retreating back to epistemic theophobia.

Finally, your list of authors is blatantly cherry-picked. Hume?? Nietszche?? Russell?? All a pleasure. And if your going to stick the atheist with modern "middle brow" authors, the comparison should be to today's popular theist authors. Now, there's a reading treat.

Posted by: James Hobbs | Jun 19, 2008 8:03:56 PM

No, Matt, Dostoyevski's insight was far more subtle than the positing of an anthropomorphic God. I think Dostoyevski was wrestling with where you draw the line. At some point, something is right and something is wrong. Why? Who knows? It's always arbitrary. Abraham argued with God about whether it was right to destroy Sodom if in the process fifty good people would die, and they settled on ten (I think). That is, it's a problem of line drawing unless you don't think there is ANY universal right, in which case, there is no wrong, and everything is permissible. And if you think there's a universal right, you are necessarily positing some axiomatic and unprovable proposition, whether or not you call it God.

But that's my point from before. Setting a straw man of fundamentalism and then knocking it down simply avoids the issue of the antinomies inherent in this discussion. Fine, there's no Hitler in the sky with diamonds. We agree. Okay, then how do we decide what is right and wrong? Which is why Charlie (Colorado) is probably right in saying this is always a train wreck, because we will always circle back to some point (deontology versus consequentialism, or transcendentalism versus naturalism, etc.) that has been argued endlessly in moral philosophy, and which makes good pragmatists throw up their hands in frustration.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Jun 19, 2008 8:03:28 PM

@Paul Gowder

Maybe it isn't so clear to you, but I read that passage as almost certainly referring to some religious people, not all religious people.

Given that reading, it also seems to me to be accurate.

Posted by: Chris Bell | Jun 19, 2008 7:21:21 PM

"If was as if our Christian friend had declared that the world was flat or was dabbling in alchemy."

Bingo! You take for granted that there is obviously some meaningful difference belief in these three things. Many do not.

Posted by: david ward | Jun 19, 2008 7:21:21 PM

Jeff said:
"But it seems to me atheists have the burden of answering Dostoyevski's "if there is no God, everything is permissible.""

Do you really think this is a serious claim? Doesn't it depend on the idea of God as basically Hitler in the Sky with Diamonds? Things can only be right or wrong because some cosmic dictator says so? It's a pretty unattractive view, and not one that has enough going for it that I feel like I need to spend much time on it. Dostoevsky was a pretty good (if often awful self-indulgent) writer but he wasn't a very sophisticated philosopher, I think.

Posted by: Matt | Jun 19, 2008 7:16:49 PM

Charlie: Why not accept the Teapot hypothesis then?

Seriously. We believe things for reasons. Thus, the assertion "there is reason to believe in P" is not on the same epistemic footing as the assertion "there is no reason to believe in P." The former statement requires pointing to some reason. The latter can be "defended" merely by sitting there.

This is elementary reasoning. Consider an equivalent, non-god case. We can't disprove the hypothesis "time travelers from the year 9000 came back in time to shoot JFK." If I were to argue that this definitely did NOT happen, I might have to give some kind of evidence. But if I were merely to decline to believe in it, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, I would be perfectly within my rights to do so. The two propositions "there is no reason to think time travelers shot JFK" and "there is reason to think time travelers shot JFK" are not on an epistemic par.

Now if I asserted the *impossibility* of a god, that's a proposition that would require some kind of affirmative reason to believe it. But atheists don't generally assert that -- not, at least, without just such a reason, given by the various logical contradictions that various versions of the deity hypothesis entail.

I'm a bit too lazy to re-hash those arguments, so I'd rather just point out that rational people don't believe propositions without some reason beyond "nobody's proven the opposite."

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Jun 19, 2008 6:55:50 PM

Pretty much any discussion of theism/atheism on any blog is an ongoing train wreck; sadly, it's a train wreck from which I find it hard to avert my eyes.

Paul: Rick, Russell's Teapot remains a fairly effortless refutation of the non-falsifiability defense of religion. Belief in a proposition is not justified merely by the impossibility of refuting the religion: it also requires some affirmative evidence.

The problem there is that the argument is dual: both the religious (in the normal sense of theistic religion, see below) worldview of a Deity, and the atheistic worldview of no Deity, can't be argued with affirmative evidence. (If you don't agree, propose an experiment that would produce affirmative evidence of the existence of a Deity without that Deity's cooperation. Or propose an experiment that would provide affirmative evidence of the non-existence of a Deity.)

If both belief in a Deity and dis-belief in a Deity can't be accepted, since there is no affirmative evidence, where does your argument stand?

On the other hand, the notion that life is empty and meaningless without belief in a Deity is equally ignorant, and basically rather ethnocentric. Animists like Shintoists, and basically atheistic Buddhists, somehow manage to go on living and finding meaning in life. Equally foolish is the notion that one can't have ethics or morals without religion; again, Buddhists manage without a Deity quite well, and Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments constructs an ethic based only on sympathetic appreciation of another's pain, which (we now know) is built into our brains at a very deep level, in the "mirror neurons".

But, we end up redoing all these arguments, over and over again; it reminds me of the maxim my grandfather told me about the statistical correlation between opinions and the excretory sphincter: everyone has one.

I do wish that people would be a little careful about who they claim as atheists, though: given the number of times Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Jefferson went to pains to assert their belief in a deity, even though they were freethinkers about the nature and intrusiveness of Deity, it seems a bit dishonest to assert they were "really" atheists and then claim them as support for the atheistic position.

Posted by: Charlie (Colorado) | Jun 19, 2008 6:45:07 PM

"If was as if our Christian friend had declared that the world was flat or was dabbling in alchemy."

You nailed it right there.

In academia, despite the best efforts of the postmodernists, theoretically the emphasis is on using logic and reason and observation to increase the world's store of knowledge, and to impart that knowledge to the next generation.

Believing in pretend superbeings, despite all the evidence of our observations, logic, and reason to the contrary, seems to subvert the entire mission of academia, which is why academics are right to be suspicious of religion and religious believers.

Posted by: JB | Jun 19, 2008 6:42:25 PM

Seems to me there are two separate threads here. One is the equation of atheism with meaninglessness or purposelessness of life. Kind of the "there are no atheists in foxholes" thesis. I don't assume that equivalence - under the principle of charitable interpretation, I assume atheists find "God" as the end of the search for meaning or purpose to be unhelpful. But it seems to me atheists have the burden of answering Dostoyevski's "if there is no God, everything is permissible."

The other is the problem of universals and particulars. It seems to me that if there are theistic truths, they ought to be pretty universal. So I have a hard time believing God said you have to believe and do precisely this and this and this and this (don't eat shrimp, believe Jesus was reincarnated or in transubstantiation, wear a yarmulke, etc.) or I'll take my heavenly ball and go home. (It's why my concept of the deity is limited to the Kabbalistic Ein Sof - any human translation immediately moves from the universal to the particular.) Again, on the principle of charitable interpretation, I assume theists (until they prove otherwise) also recognize the distinctions between the particularities of ritual and the universals of morality and ethics. Or to put it another way, any path you want to take is okay as long as it gets you to the right place. So theists have the burden of showing that a particular set of rituals or beliefs are the only path.

The real conundrum is how can God be God, and still be wrong sometimes (i.e. the problem of fundamentalism and orthodoxy)? For an accessible analysis of this, see Susan Neiman's Moral Clarity, where she contrasts the image of Abraham bargaining with God not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah with the image of Abraham in the binding of Isaac a couple chapters later. It seems to me that radical atheists and fundamentalists alike concur in the latter image as being appropriately religious, but that doesn't exhaust the possibilities. What does religion look like when it allows you to use the product of your reason to argue with God?

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Jun 19, 2008 6:17:46 PM

please, anon, I can be _much_ more nasty than that if I want.

Posted by: matt | Jun 19, 2008 5:04:45 PM


As I write these words, and as you read them, people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all the hard-won human attainments that I have touched upon.

Also Hitchens, also God is not Great, though I forget the page number (remind me, and I'll look it up at home later today). As I said, Hitchens is a fool.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Jun 19, 2008 4:59:15 PM

Love the post. Love the name-dropping even more. It adds a little fun to see if one can get a rough sense that the reference is intended to elicit. Ignore Matt, who is trying his hardest to be nasty -- keep up the name-dropping!!

Posted by: anon | Jun 19, 2008 4:48:57 PM

Hitchens aside (and Hitchens is a fool), most atheists don't believe that all believers are frothing maniacs looking to kill the first person they come across.

"I have probably sat up later, and longer, with religious friends that with any other type." ~ Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great, p. 12.

Let's keep things in perspective, shall we?

Posted by: Chris Bell | Jun 19, 2008 4:20:27 PM

"Rick Hills: It is not easy to imagine a rational self-maximizing welfarist throwing himself on a grenade for the sake of a world that, from his point of view, will cease to exist at the moment of detonation: What’s in it for him, after all?"

Easy? I have no idea what you might find easy to imagine. But I do know that it is sort of bigoted to scoff at such a thing, given the number of non-theists who have given their lives for this of that cause, not quite falling into your pat stereotype of being driven by nothing more than pure "self-maximizing" motives.

Your discussion of atheism/theism also suffers from the usual misleading pretense of presenting atheism and theism as two negating claims, which rather conveniently leaves out the reality that one can simply not believe in god, period, without also committing to the position that there is no god, or that a god is impossible.

This is, in fact, the position that most self-described atheists take. But since it is far more difficult to build a straw man out of, it's the position that people are ever trying to carefully define out of notice, or even more confusedly trying to lump away under "agnosticism."

Posted by: Bad | Jun 19, 2008 4:19:23 PM

Rick, Russell's Teapot remains a fairly effortless refutation of the non-falsifiability defense of religion. Belief in a proposition is not justified merely by the impossibility of refuting the religion: it also requires some affirmative evidence.

As for the claim that theism isn't about believing in crazy bearded guys, etc., well, do we need to go back to this infamous poll?

Jonathan: Perhaps it would be better to say that the problem is with equating the two generally, then. Hitchens aside (and Hitchens is a fool), most atheists don't believe that all believers are frothing maniacs looking to kill the first person they come across. That's just not true: religion has been used to irrationally justify virtuous behavior (abolitionism, pacifism, civil rights movement, resistance to all sorts of dictatorships, etc.) as well as to irrationally justify vicious behavior (genocides, inquisitions, etc.). The belief that the religious are irrational and the belief that the religious are dangerous *do not go together.*

Moreover, the claim that they do go together is incredibly dangerous, in addition to being false, for it suggests that the religious and the irreligious can't live in a society together -- it suggests that atheists dare not tolerate the religious.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Jun 19, 2008 4:09:38 PM

But many of the comments suggest that the commenters hold a caricature of what it means to believe in an omnipotent and omniscient God. Obviously, if such a belief entails the notion that an old bearded guy vaguely resembling something out of a William Blake watercolor sits on a self-propelled cloud zapping evil doers with lightening and protecting others with magic shields, then the belief is (a) false, (b) falsifiable, and (c) silly.

Well, you didn't tell us much about your friend's beliefs, just that he is a theist. Notice that you go on to defend the belief in God as an honest answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing. That's not a defense of theism; it's a defense of deism.

A theist believe in a lot more than a God that started the universe going. A theist believes in an interventionist God - a God that works miracles, answers prayers, etc. This God must do something else.

It says a lot about society to note that the following is a rude question: "Do you really believe that a virgin gave birth?" How would your friend answer it? From the limited info you've provided, I assume your friend would answer the question "yes." By doing so, he would be claiming a lot more than some theory of why there is something rather than nothing.

Posted by: Chris Bell | Jun 19, 2008 3:58:23 PM

As I said on Volokh:

Here's where the "former colleague" gets it wrong. There is a difference between a belief being, in terms of logical justification, no different that "attempting to walk across the East River unaided by a water taxi, gunning down students in hallways, speaking in tongues at a faculty meeting, you name it" and it being different in terms of social and cultural likelihood. Beliefs are generally bounded by culture, and fairly predictable when it comes to what sorts of behavior they might inspire.

If someone tells me that they have faith in Jesus, that faith may seem itself wholly unjustified, but it does not tell me that they are just as likely as not to tell me the next minute that they believe in Keebler elves. In fact, I can pretty well predict not only what they will still believe in tomorrow, but what sorts of things they aren't likely to believe in (i.e. a whole host of kooky beliefs that Christianity actually looks down upon). So fears about them doing something kooky don't really seem rationally justified.

There may be some small correlation between being likely to believe in one improbable thing and others, but this effect is generally far stronger with beliefs that also lie outside of the general culture to begin with (i.e. UFO-ologists being more likely to believe that Bigfoot exists).

Posted by: Bad | Jun 19, 2008 3:49:45 PM

Isn't the issue that scientism, a phenomenon of the last 150 years or so, either disregards or disagrees with Kant's point above? That is, one's belief that all (including the sense of purpose and meaning) can be explained naturalistically is as unprovable as the belief that it cannot. I'm thinking of the vehement debate between the consciousness theorists - those who don't think consciousness is or ever will be reducible scientifically (Chalmers, e.g.) and those who do. (Or as a very smart person said to me a while back, there's a reason why philosophy of science is in the philosophy and not the science department.)

This was all a lot easier, I think, before the Enlightenment thinkers separated virtue and happiness (i.e. natural evil and moral evil aren't causally related). To Rick's point, neither theism nor atheism has figured out in a universally satisfactory way why the good suffer, the evil prosper, and why we seem to care. If you are radically theist, it seems to me that you are a successor to the rationalists and are willing to accept that this is the best of all possible worlds, apart from whether you reject obvious physical cause and effect. That is, suffering is somehow God's will. If you are radically atheist, you have a really hard time with what seems to be an empirically real (but I guess illusionary or evolutionary or something) sense of purpose and meaning - the slippery slope to post-modernism.

Or to put it in terms of Pierre Bayle's conundrum: If there is moral or natural evil in the world, God can be all good, or all powerful, but God cannot be both all good and all powerful.

Here's a way to look at it historically. In 1787, the Northwest Ordinance included the sentence: "Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged." In 1924, the University of Michigan allowed the sentence to be inscribed in the fresco above the entrance to Angell Hall, the largest building on campus. I can't imagine that happening in 2008.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Jun 19, 2008 3:32:52 PM

What I really wonder, Rick, is why there is so much name-dropping of philosophers in so many of your posts. In this one and your reply there's Arendt, Ayer, Quine, James, Kant, Raz, Parfit, and others. None of this adds anything to the post as far as I can see. As for the substance I think Volokh is more or less right but man, what's with all the name dropping? If you want to make an argument just make it rather than throwing around names.

Posted by: matt | Jun 19, 2008 3:18:25 PM

Paul - Prof. Hills did state: My former colleague even worried that, if a serious academic could believe in God, he was capable of believing in, or attempting, anything -- attempting to walk across the East River unaided by a water taxi, gunning down students in hallways, speaking in tongues at a faculty meeting, you name it.

That doesn't appear to be inference but direct attribution.

Posted by: Jonathan | Jun 19, 2008 2:59:36 PM

There is increasing empirical evidence that religious belief (within limits short of fanaticism) is pragmatic. That believers are more successful, happier, less pathological, etc. Now this is not true for every person, perhaps not for the individual academic or even academics generally. But we shouldn't dismiss the possibility that it is beneficial for others.

Posted by: frankcross | Jun 19, 2008 2:56:02 PM

With the exception of Paul Gowder's claim that Bakunin is a decent writer, these responses strike me as thoughtful. There are additional thoughtful comments on Gene Volokh's blog, by the way. (Paul: You've got to be kidding: I would not feed "Man and State" to my dog if it were soaked in Hollandaise sauce).

But many of the comments suggest that the commenters hold a caricature of what it means to believe in an omnipotent and omniscient God. Obviously, if such a belief entails the notion that an old bearded guy vaguely resembling something out of a William Blake watercolor sits on a self-propelled cloud zapping evil doers with lightening and protecting others with magic shields, then the belief is (a) false, (b) falsifiable, and (c) silly.

But this characterization of theism is similar to some caricatures of welfarist economists (e.g., "Welfarists believe that humans are better off whenever goods and services are cheaper, regardless of how those goods and services are distributed." Yes, I have heard people with college degrees say such silly things. But such statements discredit neither welfarism nor anti-welfarism).

As Hannah Arendt noted, modern theism and atheism are both equally grounded in doubt. Both are efforts to address the question, "why is there something rather than nothing?" As Kant noted in his First Critique, both the atheistic and theistic response to this question forms an unresolvable antimony: Neither claim is falsifiable, because both address questions that are, by definition, outside the realm of any theory addressing predictive empirical claims. (Compare in this respect the following statement: "There are universes outside the farthest range of space that light from the Big Bang will ever travel." The statement is (a) meaningful and (b) non-verifiable in principle).

The old Logical Positivists (e.g., A.J. Ayer) used to say that such non-falsifiable statements are meaningless. But that view of meaning has been discredited since Quine's "Two Dogmas of Empiricism." William James' defense of religious belief, therefore, remains a rejoinder to every crude form of atheism (and theism). The meaning (or, in James' phrase, "cash value") of theistic and atheistic statements is entirely their consequences for people's lives.

Hence, I would maintain that it is mistaken to regard theism as such (or atheism as such) to be obviously an incorrect theory of the range of experience that such theories seek to explain.

Posted by: Rick Hills | Jun 19, 2008 2:49:24 PM

Rick, how are you inferring from your colleague's belief that the religious think crazy things (which is obviously true -- transubstantiation? resurrection? reincarnation? world created in six days? some being in the sky cares about whether you eat pork? speaking in tongues? curses? possession? the end times? that children ought not to be educated beyond 14? that children ought not to have blood tranfusions? NAME a lunatic belief, and you can usually find a religion that endorses it, without even getting into the crazy cults) to the belief that the religious do crazy things?

It's entirely possible to think that the religious are irrational people who believe absolutely ludicrous things without thinking further that the religious are going to do some kind of harm. That's just sloppy reasoning. And it's an utterly transparent strawman to reason from the denial of the harm thesis to the denial of the crazy beliefs thesis, or to scold your poor colleague for endorsing the crazy beliefs thesis because the harm thesis isn't true.

(As for the writers, are you crazy? If we count people who might as well have been atheists but for the time they lived in, probable crypto-atheists, etc., as well as out-and-out atheists, the no-god crowd gets Voltaire, Wilde, Nietzsche, Jefferson, Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Mencken, Bakunin, Camus, Sartre, Hume, Huxley, Russell, Shaw, Twain, Freud, etc. etc. And then there are the likelies: Tolstoy (arguable and hotly disputed, but at least a freethinker). According to Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce might be included in that crowd too. Orwell. Anyway, you hopefully get the point.)

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Jun 19, 2008 2:01:47 PM

I left out a negative in one of the sentences above:

"The theophobic colleague described in the post may think a person who accepts non-rational assertions in one part of his life *cannot* be trusted to be logically rigorous in other parts of his life."

Posted by: Matt S. | Jun 19, 2008 1:50:31 PM

Is theophobia among secular academics the result of "rumors of bizarre and violent behavior in a strange faraway place," or is it an aversion to non-rational forms of argument? In the OED, one of the theological definitions of "faith" is, "The spiritual apprehension of...of realities beyond the reach of sensible experience or logical proof." For people who are not predisposed to taking things on faith, the idea that other people can may be scary.

For scientists, theophobia may be the fear that people who have the ability to take things on faith may not respect science, or may pollute the discipline (a fear that may be justified in a few cases, such as the effort to categorize intelligent design as a scientific theory). For philosophers, theophobia may be the fear that logical argumentation may not win the day; the assertion "life begins at conception, period" has halted many a philosophical conversation in its tracks. Academia in general often involves a process of building logical arguments. The theophobic colleague described in the post may think a person who accepts non-rational assertions in one part of his life can be trusted to be logically rigorous in other parts of his life. The jump is a fallacy, of course, but it may be what is at the root of theophobia.

I do not intend to make a blanket defense of theophobia, but I do believe theophobic people tend to be wary of religious believers for more considered reasons than vague fears of religious violence.

Posted by: Matt S. | Jun 19, 2008 1:48:22 PM

Sorry, bad link. Here's a new one.

Posted by: Chris Bell | Jun 19, 2008 12:46:08 PM

It is silly to be theophobic and I do know people like that. FWIW, In a very religious community, accusing someone of being an atheist is best done is a whispered tone with teeth clenched. My family doesn't know that I'm an atheist, as I avoid the issue out of fear of losing Christmas presents.


As to "Atheism’s fatal error was to go middlebrow" - that's silly. The atheist writers went "middlebrow" because they want to spread their ideas! They don't want their ideas to be held only within ivory towers. That's why authors like Hitchens made a big point of including the Bible Belt in their book tours.

Maybe you're right that snobby academics will all become religious if the populace becomes atheist, but that's a loooong way off. (Plus, has it happened in places like Japan and Sweden? Not to my knowledge.)

Posted by: Chris Bell | Jun 19, 2008 12:44:31 PM

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