Chatting Atheism

I took part in a conversation about contemporary atheism, which appeared on The Point, which is a web series spin-off of The Young Turks, which itself is both a web series and a show broadcast on Current TV. (Got all that?) My co-panelists were Michael Shermer of the Skeptics Society and Edward Falzon, author of the (satirical!) book Being Gay is Disgusting, and it was hosted by Cara Santa Maria, science correspondent for the Huffington Post.

The format of the show is that we hear three very brief pre-recorded “points,” to which the panelists then respond. In this case, all the points and all the panelists were already confirmed atheists, so we could put aside for the moment the endless arguments about whether God exists and focus on the very interesting questions of what to do about the fact that he doesn’t. The points we heard were from James Randi, PZ Myers, and AJ Johnson of American Atheists. I wasn’t familiar with AJ before this event, but her video was very strong; I think (hope) we’ll be hearing a lot more from her in the future.

It was a great talk, although it did reinforce my conviction that while we atheists are mostly right on the metaphysics, we need to really raise our game when it comes to epistemology and metaethics.

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65 Responses to Chatting Atheism

  1. Jay says:

    I don’t think Cara quite understood the implications of your response when she said, “Nobody really knows what happens when we die,” and you said, “I know. I can tell you if you want to know.”

  2. Michael Turner says:

    Infinity exists or it doesn’t. That is really what the big questions are all about. Either there is infinite energy and infinite time or the nature of existence eventually dies. Yet the in your face paradox won’t be changed… The universe has to be a perpetual motion machine of energy production in order to exist forever and continue to use energy.  So to have a universe with rules, the rules have to be broken, most fundamentally. The paradox is atheism fails without God. – C. Michael Turner

    In a universe build only in three dimensions with consistent laws based upon the interactions of total energy, particles and waves there is a new and historically renewed insight to understanding. All mass and energy decay into monopole gravitational waves as an energy transfer and the wave to wave contact force action creates a reaction called gravity. “the Ghost Wave Theory”.
    Singularity=100% particle
    Three forms of decending potential energy Matter
    Mass – mostly particle with some wave properties – three forces
    Energy – Particle/wave duality-Photons/ electromagnetic fields
    Space – 100% wave with no particle properties
    Fundamental particles even decay onto gravitational waves.

  3. Peter says:

    Do you even know what the Young Turks were? They were the biggest butchers of 20th century after Hitler. The are responsible for the Armenian genocide and for the slaughter of other minorities in Turkey. It is a shame for a web series to have such name and for you to appear there. Would you appear in a web-series called “the Nazis”?

  4. Random Rambler says:

    The recent “Great Debate” at Caltech was far superior, in my opinion. This video was superficial and cliche-ridden. I had hoped you would engage religion and the related philosophy more seriously. Just laugh off theism?… I’ve recommended the Caltech video to religious friends to help them understand the atheist/secularist position but I cannot do that with this video. I think it would reinforce the view that many of these friends have that today’s popular atheism is a superficial ideological movement that can be ridiculed and “laughed off” just as well.
    And I’m irked by the way atheism/secularism is so often conflated with current liberal moral sensibilities. Being non-religious is not the same as agreeing with abortion-on-demand, same-sex marriage, and the like. Believe it or not. It is possible to have a rational point of view on ethics without marching in step with the herd. —end rant

  5. Jay says:

    @Random Rambler: What are the non-religious arguments against same-sex marriage?

  6. Eva says:

    I think the show was a bit watered down by Cara Santa Maria. However I liked your input and agree with your position on all raised topics.

    Except the one on morality.

    The way you put it and discussed it was as if we have to come up with our moral starting from scratch as opposed to them actually having a book. My point is that there is no difference between the origin of our morality and theirs. The people that contributed to the bible during the ages came up with the moralities in the bible the same way as we did – from evolution. The only difference is that contemporary christians follow a moral codex established by and valid for societies 2000 years old and our codex is contemporary and ever changing. (That said, as mentioned in the show, theirs is changing as well and only a few things are left, noone is stoning anyone to death today in the western society no matter how good a catholic he is.)

    Nevertheless, I’m glad you took part in the show, I’m from Europe and here we don’t really feel the need to discuss religion but in America scientist really need to do something to have their voice heard and hopefully change something. Things look scary over there. Especially with respect to education in some states.

  7. Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

    @ Peter:

    “Young Turk
    1. A member of a Turkish reformist and nationalist political party active in the early 20th century.
    2. also young Turk
    a. A young progressive or insurgent member of an institution, movement, or political party.
    b. A young person who rebels against authority or societal expectations.”

    “Na·zi (näts, nt-)
    n. pl. Na·zis
    1. A member of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, founded in Germany in 1919 and brought to power in 1933 under Adolf Hitler.
    2. often nazi An adherent or advocate of policies characteristic of Nazism; a fascist.
    Of, relating to, controlled by, or typical of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party.”

    [Free Online Dictionary]

  8. Trevor says:

    I agree with Eva on the common origin of morality. Although I doubt whether, at least for atheists, morality is changing. Rather, fresh problems are judged against a constant standard.
    As an atheist, I “know” that God doesn’t exist, and can use Occam’s razor as a justification.
    Religious people “know” that God does exist, and have a host of justifications.
    Rational discussion between these two points of view invariably leads nowhere, as the conviction on both sides springs from a prior, and unshakeable, “knowledge”.
    And (in my, perhaps biased, view) religious people “can’t handle the truth”, so it is kinder not to disturb their convictions.
    In my view, the bleak purity of an atheist’s vision leaves no need, at least on an individual level, for metaphysics or epistemology, which are only relevant to a religious interpretation.
    And finally, “agnostics” are inherently religious, if only in the sense that a genuine atheist has the same intellectual quarrel with an agnostic as with any religious person.

  9. Ray Gunn says:

    #6 @Eva: I is from Texas and gots advansed decree. Their is no problem wiht education hear.

  10. vince w. says:

    I guess I am a closet atheist, or at any rate an agnostic. I find a similar apology for theism às for ‘intelligent design’ (an oxymoron if ever there was one). However, a part of my personal ethic system is THINK AND LET THINK or BELIEVE AND LET BELIEVE — neither position can be scientific. Inasmuch as one cannot prove God, neither can one prove a negative.

    To many people, much of their chance for coping is tangled up in wanting the reality of a God. I don’t fault them for that; and would appreciate reciprocation for my irrevocable doubt. However, I also understand that for some, that reciprocation comes with the level of depression and confusion I refuse to bestow. My professional background has been in the theater as an actor/director. I can act the part that can give someone solace and much needed comfort. I feel better treating others with that kindness.

  11. Distemper says:

    I found this page by the person who first reported about the George Bush Sr. quote. There is a link here to all of the Library of Congress entries relevant to him and atheism. This quote is mentioned in these documents and is not refuted by his surrogates answering letters.

  12. Richard says:

    Sean, how do you know God doesn’t exist? Maybe God does exist. Does science answer the question? If so, how? Just curious. I’m an agnostic. For me, science deals with explanations of things which can be testable. Since we only have access to the physical world of the Standard Model, etc., because we are made up of Standard Model particles, the only testable ideas and explanations are those that have the Standard Model as their basis (i.e. “natural causes”, “materialism”, etc.). But we don’t know if this aspect of reality is the only one. Hence my agnostic views.


  13. Bob F. says:

    Richard: you don’t need to test physical properties (e.g. spin of quarks vs. spin of tenticles of noodly goodness) to learn if claims about gods are correct. You can simply ask the question “Do the claims work as described?”

    So for example, if praying for sick people routinely makes them recover at a rate significantly higher than random chance and higher than *not* praying, then you know prayer works, even if you can’t know what the mechanism is. So far, the answer to these questions is a resounding No. You can also be certain that if the answer were Yes, we would never hear the end of it.

  14. R Michael Newton says:

    I am an agnostic, but emotionally atheism appeals to me. However i feel that atheism is just as much as a”belief ” as a belief in god, wheres agnostiscism merely states, ” I don’t know whether there is a god or not”, and I would suggest ” I don’t care”.

  15. Natalie says:

    I cannot be anything but and atheist, but I do think that were are part of the universe here and at all times. Maybe you can call the Universe God therefore we are God. I do like John A Gowan theories since I read him I am not afraid of dying since I know I will be always.

  16. Eva says:

    @ Trevor

    “Rather, fresh problems are judged against a constant standard.” Yes, that is what I meant really.

  17. Julian Penrod says:

    I may already be banned from this blog as with others, but there are a number of points that could be made.
    If you posit that there is no God and you haven’t proved it, then you are violating the very laws of “science” the atheists pretend to obey so scrupulously. They used to use the “argument”, “You can’t prove a negative”; then they said, “It’s too big a thing to do and we want to act like it’s true so we’re allowed to claim it true even though we haven’t proved it”. Now, they say, “I don’t have to prove there is no God, you have to prove there is!” All of them weasly ways to dodge around the issue.
    And, by hosting this blog, Discover Magazine is essentially asserting that it is a “scientifically” provable fact that there is no God.

  18. Random Rambler says:

    @Jay: I don’t know any such arguments off the top of my head and in retrospect I think gay marriage was a bad example. Good call. I picked it as an example because it is charged; but it’s admittedly an issue I’m not very well versed in.
    The thing that bothers me is the impression of an *atheist* morality. I know atheists who insist that all out eugenics is a good idea, and I know atheists who argue that all human cloning, IVF, and abortion-on-demand are unethical. Similarly, atheists can have many different takes on religion. I don’t like the sense of pop-atheism as indistinguishable from a brand of secularist ideology. This is precisely what my religious friends who engage in apologetics contra Dawkins et al. believe and it allows the issues to be polarized and reduced to “right wing” vs “left wing” psychology. This is my limited experience, for what it’s worth.

  19. Uranium Willy says:

    The universe can not have a creator, the creator would have to be the creator of itself. Religion simply say some part of the universe come from another part, big deal. If I was to tell you there was a shoebox on Mount Everest, and asked you to have a debate about its contents, you would say I don’t known, but the fact is you have an infinitely much better chance of guessing the contents of the box than you do of the correct configuration the supernatural takes. The box has to have real things in it, some things are more likely than others, there is no such information for the supernatural, it is completely unknowable. There is a infinite number of configurations that the supernatural can take, there is no way to rule any configurations out, there is no way to determine which configurations are more likely than any other, therefore there is nothing anybody can say about the supernatural.

  20. Andrew says:

    I’m an atheist, and I’d say that the statement at the beginning of the video along the lines of “atheists all hold certain truths to be self-evident” (paraphrasing) is totally false. I disagreed with some of the content in this video, but I am definitely not a theistic guy.

    You guys (those featured in the video) are on the extreme end of the atheistic spectrum. I agreed with much of the content featured, but I also disagreed with much of it. There isn’t one definitive atheist, like there isn’t one definitive believer. Some are bat s*** crazy but some are calm and educated.

  21. Blake says:

    You might be interested to know that, in philosophy (i.e. the peer reviewed literature on the subject), these terms have consistent meanings.[1] The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy is the only academic source I could find that mentions the popular layman “lack of belief” meaning, and it does so only to say it’s not standard: “atheism (from Greek a-, ‘not’, and theos, ‘god’), the view that there are no gods. A widely used sense denotes merely not believing in God and is consistent with agnosticism. A stricter sense denotes a belief that there is no God; this use has become the standard one.” And then, “In contrast, an agnostic maintains that it is not known or cannot be known whether there is a God”.[2] A person wanting to say he “lacks belief” in God simply calls himself a “non-theist”. Nobody uses terms like “agnostic-theists”; that’s just confused. Theists and atheist can hold their belief with varying degrees of confidence, so if you want to say you are absolutely sure that atheism/theism is true, then you just say you are “certain”, or you hold your belief with “certainty”.[3]

    Some theists do complain that atheists have no way of discerning the right/wrong, but the typical argument theists are alluding is radically different. Normally, they are saying objective moral values and duties exist, and that atheism can’t accommodate this fact. Consequently, atheism must be false. So even if atheists can know the right from the wrong, it doesn’t follow that their worldview can account for the reality of objective moral values and duties (if these things exist; most people strongly intuit that they do).

    This was the most disappointing part of all, imo. All four atheists were laying into Christians for ignoring the Sabbath and eating shrimp/pork etc., but how could they be so embarrassingly naive about basic Christian doctrine? This is akin to four creationists confidently laughing at evolution on TV because there are no modern humans giving birth to monkeys. Google “New Covenant”. I’m not saying its true, but the reason the OT laws aren’t obeyed is explained again and again throughout their New Testament (particularly Paul’s letters, and Hebrews, where its explained why Christ followers are no longer “under the law”).

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    [1]Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.”
    [2]The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (8 volumes, reprint): According to the most usual definition, an “atheist” is a person who maintains that there is no God, that is, that the sentence “God exists” expresses a false proposition. In contrast, an agnostic maintains that it is not known or cannot be known whether there is a God, that is, whether the sentence “God exists” expresses a true preposition.
    [3]Another small Phil 101 point: Contra Sean’s comment, in philosophy (epistemology) “knowing that p” and “being certain that p” are sharply distinguished. Philosophers disagree over what constitutes knowledge, but it usually startes with the canonical “justified, true, belief” (then the project is to add a fourth condition which accounts for infamous “Gettier counterexamples”).

  22. Julian Penrod says:

    This may cause me to be banned, but, in fact, evidence foe the presence of God is obtainable. A problem is that it requires certain qualities in a person. “Science” devotees would decry certain qualities being required to see evidence of God, but, at the same time, they would have no problem with saying you need an electron microscope to view things under a nanometer in size. To receive evidence of God, among other things, you have to earn it and deserve it. Acting to improve the world because you know it’s right, not because you want to see proof of God. Not giving in gratuitously to vain displays of craven nature. Not denying the presence of God because He did not give you the car you asked for. Seeking improvement in the world and yourself. Not embracing ulterior motives in what you do. Any who engaged in true acts of decency and nobility would see evidence of God. Those who didn’t see evidence of God never acted decently and nobly. And, by attacking what I say, they are saying that they don’t intend ever to act that way. The evidence is there.

  23. Gary says:

    I’m atheist, by individual reason. I don’t require validation by others.

    “I took part in a conversation about contemporary atheism, which appeared on The Point, which is a web series spin-off of The Young Turks, which itself is both a web series and a show broadcast on Current TV. (Got all that?) My co-panelists were Michael Shermer of the Skeptics Society and Edward Falzon, author of the (satirical!) book Being Gay is Disgusting, and it was hosted by Cara Santa Maria, science corresponded for the Huffington Post. ”

    Organized anarchists are just as pointless.

  24. Random Rambler says:

    @Julian Penrod, If you are banned for simply sharing your opinion on the God question I would un-bookmark this blog and never look back. I see no reason why that would happen though.
    I would even say that I sympathize with what you’re saying. I can remember reading Kierkegaard, Marcel, Buber, and others in my youth and coming to see the world in essentially religious terms. The human existential situation is rich and in the face of peak experiences nihilistic/atheistic points of view can seem rather hollow and irrelevant.

  25. Kel says:

    “It was a great talk, although it did reinforce my conviction that while we atheists are mostly right on the metaphysics, we need to really raise our game when it comes to epistemology and metaethics.”
    My impression from listening to critics of atheism is that we’ve got the epistemology (mostly) right, but it’s our metaphysics that’s lacking.

    Agreed on the metaethics.