Theism and Explanation, and the joys of asking “why?”

Well, it took me long enough, but I finally finished Theism and Explanation, the book you voted for me to read for my latest Slutty Book Report. It’s one of those books where you finish a chapter and immediately go back and read it again because each time you go through, you absorb something else. It’s also one of those books that creates the sensation of your brain stretching to fit an abundance of new information. Yeah, its good.

I wanted to do justice to the book, by doing an in-depth, thoughtful review rather than sharing my gut-reaction to its many chapters; hence my tardiness with the report.

But before I get into my full review, a bit of side-story. A lot of times, some laid back non religious (and religious) people ask me the motivation behind my pressing need to ask why. What does it matter if there’s a God or no god? Isn’t it enough to be a good person, and live a moral life without an acerbic attitude toward religion? Why must I ruthlessly search for the truth and reject any notion of a deity or Christianity/Judaism/ Islam/ ad infinitum from my mind? My yearning for answers, and allergy to religion as the solution has been likened to constantly hitting my head against a wall. I’ve even been told my blog sounds like I’m angry or bitter towards “God”.

For some people it may be enough to let bygones be bygones. To say, “well, that guy believes in a talking snake, a virgin birth and redemption from a magic Jew zombie, but that makes his life meaningful, so who am I to tell him he’s wrong?”
Or, “that girl has a guilt complex perpetuated by her religion’s constant iteration that she’s insufficient, incomplete and fundamentally evil without them. But hey, she’s volunteering a day of her life per week at a homeless shelter, so it all works out for the best.”

I just don’t get this. I think these people are doing themselves a major disservice by not self-examining their value systems and dissecting what is necessary from what is snake oil—or even fundamentally damaging to their mental health. Maybe my inability to accept this chasm is a curse—I don’t know. It certainly has lost me enough friends and even the good opinion of family members over the years. If people liking and agreeing with me was the measure of success by which I measured my life, I’d be royally fucked.

The thing is, I’m not angry. I have a really spectacular life, great friends, stimulating job, a working cerebrum, and a partner who I respect as much as I love. If I have reason to be bitter, I sure haven’t found it yet.

So what’s my deal? I insatiably have to know the truth. Have to. It is a driving force behind my thoughts, words and actions every day, and part of knowing the truth is separating the wheat from the chaff— what is true, from what is hogwash. If something makes me feel all snuggly inside, but it isn’t true, I don’t want any part of it. And reciprocally, if something is painful and difficult to accept, but its true, then I’ll swallow the jagged little pill and be a better person for it. I love the process of searching for truth; testing the facts and seeing if they still hold water after asking the hard questions.

The answers religion provides have always felt hollow and unsatisfying to me. In my experience, trying to accept Christianity was like having sex with a corpse. It felt creepily wrong, and I was doing all the work. There was no really compelling evidence for this being I was told to love, and the rules felt rote and nonsensical. I can trace back to my earliest memories of childhood, questioning why religion was a necessary part of being good.

Enter Theism and Explanation.

The author, Gregory Dawes, does an exceptional job of leaving his actual stance (atheist or theist) a mystery, while examining the claims and merits of both sides. If you’re a theist, you might read some of his statements and think “yeah, I agree with this guy. Clearly he understands my point of view”, but you could just as easily get the same impression as an atheist. He doesn’t overly dismiss or condemn either philosophy. This lack of bias alone gives him some major props from me.

His style of writing is also very complex—he examines every layer of what constitutes belief and challenges it. In my opinion, this “de-programs” the reader from holding on to his or her strongly held beliefs (from one’s own ego or indoctrination) and allows them to really take a birds-eye view of the actual concept, whether its God’s goodness or the existence of supernatural forces in our lives.

I abhor any explanation that requires me to trust more than use my intellect. If something is trustworthy, it should be transparent. Dawes agrees. He proposes

“we could conceivably have sufficient reason to accept a theistic hypothesis, despite its lack of ontological economy”, but if we have an alternative more economical hypothesis, we should prefer it, and if we do not have one, “we would have good reason to seek it”

So, its not that there is absolutely no god, it’s that Ockham’s Razor is the best tool to use in deciding which explanations are more likely to be true. We should prefer a hypothesis that gives us more precise details of the effect. As an atheist, I think that the stories of fantasy which make up most of religion’s explanations of miracles, god, and salvation, lack this necessary precision. Dawes maintains that theistic explanations score poorly when measured against this explanatory virtue. The reason they do so, he says, is that “the agent they posit is so dissimilar to any other with which we are familiar”.  Have you seen someone raised by the dead, or even walking on water lately? There you go.

The more secular explanations of the natural world belong to a successful research tradition, that of giving scientific explanations for phenomena. Dawes says belonging to such a successful research tradition “is a virtue that proposed theistic explanations clearly lack”.

Why research it, though? You just have to trust there are some things which God conjures that our mere mortal minds just can’t fathom, right? At least that’s what I was taught in Catholic school.

Mr. Dawes goes on to say that “we are warranted in regarding a theistic hypothesis as a potential explanation of some state of affairs only if we cannot conceive of any better way in which the posited divine goal could have been attained.”

And in past centuries and millennia, this was true. What caused that tornado? No idea. Must be god punishing us. Someone is left handed when all the rest of us are right handed? Must be witchcraft.

There was no better explanation for natural wonders, so of course people were left to conjure up their own divine explanations. What they didn’t realize was with time, research and understanding, these old posits became as obsolete as the generations that created them.

Where Dawes and I part ways on agreement, is his stance on personal revelation. There are things, he says, which one individual can experience through their own merit, which may sway them to believe there is more to explanation than mere ontological evidence. And since he contends that a theory must have competitors to compare and contrast with in order to be disproved, this personal evidence must be convincing for the individual who adheres to it.

If someone believes he is the reincarnation of Elvis, and has lots of personal evidence to back this up in his own mind, does it make it true? I suppose this sort of belief doesn’t really hurt any one, but it makes me challenge the credibility of the argument. Is it a sound explanation of belief, even though it isn’t necessarily true for any onlookers?

When you start to argue the different varieties of what “truth” can mean, I turn back. That’s just too much mental gymnastics for me— it becomes a battle of semantics rather than reason.

Atheism is more than just an ism, but a philosophy for life; the prism through which you see yourself and your place in the world. It isn’t about being bitter towards theists (though some definitely give that impression), or always being right, or just being argumentative cunts. It’s about embracing skepticism for explanations and craving those which stand to reason.

I throughly enjoyed this book, and thank my friend Tommy for recommending it as an option in the voting!

What do you think of Mr. Dawes’ arguments? And does anyone know if he actually was a theist or not?

Until next time!

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10 responses to “Theism and Explanation, and the joys of asking “why?”

  1. Excellent!

    As to your first question, Why, i’d add the negative effects/affects of religious belief. In particular it defers responsibility, and in this respect anti-human. I kid you not, a theist once told me “even if global warming is true god won’t possibly let humans hurt the planet.” That type of mindset is dangerous.

    • that is a really profound point. It certainly is dangerous when look at from this perspective. Ignorance can be lethal, and in the case of preserving the earth for future generations, I shudder to think of the religious opposition the secular world faces. Thanks for reading.

  2. I really like this article and the questions you ask, so I’ll seriously attempt to comment…
    I agree with much of what you’re saying about your own experience. I think you make an important point when you mention that we shouldn’t overlook religious motives because of supposedly good results, like when a person is volunteering. In fact, this is one thing that has made me fall out with friends and family in the past. I have a hard time believing in ‘good intentions’ when somebody wants to get to know me better AND get me to become a member of their church. In my experience selling me salvation is not much different from selling me anything else I don’t wish to possess.
    As to searching for the truth: I feel the same, but I increasingly think there is no truth to be found, just our highly personal experience and a mix of prejudices about the world around us. So I would like to ask you a question: do you think getting rid of religion brings us closer to the truth? Do you think there is an answer out there to be found?
    I don’t have the answer to that one, at a fundamental level. I’m still searching.

    • thank you so much for taking the time to read my little review.
      I agree; religion may bring about positive actions in its followers. But if they are doing these good or selfless things because they expect some form of “reward” in the afterlife, how good are those intentions really?
      I’ve felt much the same way when meeting people who want to induct me into their church. Even if its a compliment; they want me around because they like me or they think id be a valuable addition to their flock, it still feels fake. I can’t stand superficial smiles.
      I think there is a truth to be found. Truth certainly is a relative term, but if by truth I really mean “fuller understanding of the illimitable details surrounding existence and its minutia of choices” then yes. I believe its always worth pursuing.
      Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

  3. I haven’t read Dawes’ book but for the most part, I agree with you. If he puts stock in personal revelation, then he ought to look at the neurology behind it, at the very least. Studies have been done that reveal that experiences with “god” can be replicated in three ways, none of which require a god:
    — low oxygen levels
    — stimulation of certain parts of the brain
    — certain narcotics or hallucinogenics

    I should think this fact alone should cause the personal revelation component of the underlying hypothesis to be diminished, if not outwardly discounted.

    I’m intrigued by the quest for truth you mention. It’s certainly admirable and to the extent that it’s feasible, I agree with you. Practically every day, science unlocks some mystery (and, likely, discovers new ones…) But I can also cite an interesting personal example where I don’t know the full truth and I’m not sure I want to.

    It is possible that I am distantly related to the 60s folksinger Phil Ochs. The information that I use as the basis for this statement is as follows:

    — my great grandparents emigrated to the US from somewhere in England. Although we know the spelling of their last name was changed at Ellis Island, I don’t know the original spelling.
    — Phil Ochs’s mother’s maiden name was Gertrude Phin. She didn’t come to America until she met Phil’s father.
    — Within the generation shared by Phil Ochs’s mother, and my grandfather, there are four first names in common in the two families, including Gertrude.
    — An extremely common Jewish tradition (and both of these lineages were Jewish in that generation) is to name children after the recently deceased. This could very strongly suggest that one of Phil’s grandparents and one of my great grandparents were either siblings or close cousins.

    Yes, it’s certainly possible to do more research to answer this question more definitively than just to say it’s possible that I’m related to Phil Ochs (whose music, if you don’t know it, is pretty damn awesome…)

    But I kind of like not knowing for sure. Whether I am or not, it doesn’t alter how I live my life. It’s a nice story to tell. If I were to find out for sure that I’m not related to him, I’d lose that story. Maybe some day I’ll want to look into the full truth but not right now…

  4. Pingback: Slutty Book Reports: “Not God’s Type: A Rational Academic Finds a Radical Faith” | The Atheist S.L.U.T.·

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