John Loftus and the instrumental mindset

Militant atheists often present themselves as dispassionate and incredibly “bright” seekers of truth whose conclusions are always impartial and well grounded.

I think that nothing can be farther from the truth and I want to illustrate this trough the behavior of a very active American anti-theist.

 

John Loftus is a former fundamentalist who became an anti-theist and views it as his greatest purpose in life to “debunk Christianity“.

sometimes agree with his criticism of fundamentalism and conservative Evangelicalism, but find that he most often utterly fails to address the position of his strongest opponent.

He has also made it perfectly clear that his goal is not to rationally examine religious topics but to use everything he can to reach “the end of Christianity”, like a perfect ideologist.

 

Consequently, he usually picks and chooses the worst passages of the Bible while picking and choosing their worst interpretations and concludes from that the whole Bible and Christianity in general is wicked.

(Click here to see another anti-theist using pretty much the same strategy).

 

So I was very surprised as I found  a blog post from him where he states the Bible teaches that hell means annihilation (the irreversible loss of one’s existence).

 

“Since I was able to question my Christian faith for the first time once I believed in Conditional Immortality or Annihilationism as the best Biblical description of hell, see here, I thought I’d offer a few brief notes on that view, from a Biblical perspective. I know there is a debate about this going on among Christian circles, but here are some of the things that those who dispute it must deal with:

We should not confuse the reality of hell with its images. The images of hell are of: 1) “everlasting punishment” (Matt. 25:46); 2) “eternal destruction” (Matt. 10:28); and 3) banishment into the “darkness” (Matt. 22:13; 25:30). How we interpret these images depends on other Bible verses. In the O.T. the wicked will cease to exist (Psalm 37, Mal.4: 1-2). Jesus in the N.T. shows us that the purpose of fire in punishment is to destroy or burn up the wicked (Matt.3:10-12; 13:30,42,49-50). According to John R.W. Stott: “The main function of fire is not to cause pain, but to secure destruction.” [Evangelical Essentials, (p. 316)]. Paul likewise emphasized destruction (2 Thess 1: 9; I Cor. 3:17; Phil. 1:28; 3:19). Peter likewise stressed the sinners’ fate as that of destruction (2 Pet. 2:1,3, 6; 3:6-7). Even in John’s book of Revelation, the lake of fire will consume the wicked (Rev. 20:14-15). G.B. Caird: “John believed that, if at the end there should be any who remained impervious to the grace and love of God, they should be thrown, with Death and Hades, into the lake of fire which is the second death, i.e., extinction and total oblivion.” [Commentary on Revelation, (p. 186)].

“The Bible uses language of death and destruction, of ruin and perishing, when it speaks of the fate of the impenitent wicked. It uses the imagery of fire that consumes whatever is thrown into it.” But “linking together images of fire and destruction suggests annihilation. One receives the impression that ‘eternal punishment’ refers to a divine judgment whose results cannot be reversed rather than to the experience of endless torment (i.e. eternal punishing).” [Pinnock, Four Views of Hell, p. 144].

L.E. Froom claims that conditional immortality was generally accepted in the early church until its thinkers tried to wed Plato’s doctrine of the immortality of the soul to the teaching of the Bible.” [The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers, Herald Pub., 1966]. Biblically speaking, human beings are not immortal. God alone has immortality (I Tim. 6:16); well doers seek immortality (Rom. 2:7); immortality is brought to light through the gospel (2 Tim. 1:10); those in Christ will put on immortality (I Cor. 15:54), so that they now partake of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4).

If human beings don’t have immortality until they die in Christ when God grants it to them, then according to the Bible we cease to exist after we die. We are annhihilated, and that’s our punishment. And since according to the Bible God is judging us all along the way, there’s no need to believe that the figurative pictures of a great white throne judgement are literal events one can expect to experience, either.”

 

A far better defense of the concept this is the Biblical view of hell can be found in my interview with Chris Date.

 

Still, I was really stunned to have found that on the website of John. Annihilationism is a doctrine which is far more reconcilable with our moral intuitions than eternal torment, so it would have made more sense for John to defend the view the Bible really teaches that everyone of us will be literally tortured (as another member of DebunkingChristianity actually did).

So, does that mean that John wrote this out of intellectual honesty even if this makes Christianity taste more palatable? This is what I first thought before I saw one of his comments on the website of Dr. Glenn People:

 

My experience was that once I gave up an eternal hell it was a relief to me. Claim differently all you want to. But it allowed me to consider that I might be wrong without the threat of an eternal punishment.

And so the question remains whether annihilation will hurt or save the church. Without such a threat there is, well, no threat. It’s not quite the same as universalism but close. If all will be saved or if no one will suffer an eternal punishment then there is less motivation for missionary work or evangelism, and less of a need to preach correct doctrines rather than pop psychology which helps grow a church.

Without an eternal hell then another problem surfaces with the atonement? Typically the substitutionary doctrine says Jesus paid our punishment on the cross, but if there is less or no punishment then why did he need to do this at all? Why die to save human beings from extinction? To cease to exist is no punishment at all and therefore nothing to save anyone from.

I know you’ll answer these questions to your satisfaction, but these answers don’t satisfy me.”

 

So on average (according to Loftus) the doctrine of conditional immortality is a good thing because this would lead Christians to get less evangelistic and more willing to rationally question their faith.

I’ve grown convinced that John Loftus views everything as means to the end (of Christianity). As Randal Rauser wrote:

” Having just leafed quickly through it I was struck yet again by how much Loftus brought his Christian fundamentalism with him when he became an atheist. I see, for example, that his critique of Genesis 1-2 includes fundamentalist assumptions about reading ancient literature as a scientific account. Moreover, the book even ends with a “Commitment Page” (p. 467) in which Loftus asks the reader to sign their name that they are now an atheist committed to propagating atheism in the world. Once an evangelist, always an evangelist, I guess.

I hope to have a review of Loftus’ book sometime in August (I have two time sensitive reviews that I need to get out first).”

 

I think we can know beyond any reasonable doubt that John Loftus has remained a missionary fundamentalist.

More generally, searching a reasonable conversation with an American anti-theist is akin to seeking a rational discussion with a far-left or far-right politician who is doing everything possible to bring about his or her reforms.

It is an utter waste of time and I advise all my fellow Christians (both Conservative and Progressive) to avoid wasting your time on such websites where mockery, bullying and ridicule are commonplace. If you feel outraged by something they wrote, write your response on your personal blog but don’t challenge them in their own lands.

 

I’m really glad that in France and Germany, one can find PLENTY of non-militant and tolerant intellectual atheists who are willing to engage in friendly and rational challenges with no ax to grind.

In a truly open society (as defined by Karl Popper) it should certainly be possible to discuss about worldview differences without getting disagreeable.

 

 

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John Loftus, probabilities and the Outsider Test of Faith

John Loftus is a former fundamentalist who has become an outspoken opponent of Christianity which he desires to debunk.

He has created what he calls the “Outsider Test of Faith” which he described as follows:

“This whole inside/outside perspective is quite a dilemma and prompts me to propose and argue on behalf of the OTF, the result of which makes the presumption of skepticism the preferred stance when approaching any religious faith, especially one’s own. The outsider test is simply a challenge to test one’s own religious faith with the presumption of skepticism, as an outsider. It calls upon believers to “Test or examine your religious beliefs as if you were outsiders with the same presumption of skepticism you use to test or examine other religious beliefs.” Its presumption is that when examining any set of religious beliefs skepticism is warranted, since the odds are good that the particular set of religious beliefs you have adopted is wrong.”

But why are the odds very low (instead of unknown) to begin with? His reasoning seems to be as follows:

1) Before we start our investigation, we should consider each religion to possess the same likelihood.

2) Thus if there are (say) N = 70000 religions, the prior probality of a religion being true is 1/70000 p(R), p(R) being the total probability of a religious worldview being true.

(I could not find a writing of Loftus explicitly saying that but it seems to be what he means. However I could find one of the supporters of the OST taking that line of reasoning).

 

Objective Bayesianism and the principle of indifference

 

This is actually a straightforward application of the principle of indifference followed by objective Bayesians:

In completely unknown situations, every rational agent should assign the same probability to all outcomes or theory he is aware of.

While this principle can seem pretty intuitive to many people, it is highly problematic.

In the prestigious Standford Encyclopedia of philosophy, one can read in the article about Bayesian epistemology :

“it is generally agreed by both objectivists and subjectivists that ignorance alone cannot be the basis for assigning prior probabilities.”

To illustrate the problem,  I concocted the following story.

Once upon a time, king Lothar of Lorraine had 1000 treasures he wanted to share with his people. He disposed of 50000 red balls and 50000 white balls.

Frederic the Knight (the hero of my trilingual Christmas tale) has to choose one of those in the hope he would get one of the“goldenen Wundern”.

On Monday, Lothar distributes his treasures in a perfectly random fashion.
Frederic knows that the probability of finding the treasure in a red or in a white ball is the same: p(r) = p(w) = 0.5

On Tuesday, the great king puts 10% of the treasure within red balls and 90% within white ones.

Frederic  knows that the probabilities are   p(r) = 0.10   and    p(w) = 0.90

On Wednesday, the sovereign lord of Lorraine puts 67% of the treasures in red balls and 33% in white ones.

Frederic knows that the probabilities are p(r) = 0.67 and p(w) = 0.33

On Thursday, Frederic does not know what the wise king did with his treasure. He could have distributed them in the same way he did during one of the previous days but also have chosen a completely different method.

Therefore Frederic does not know the probabilities;   p(r) = ?  and p(w) = ?

According to the principle of indifference, Fred would be irrational because he ought to believe that p(r) = 0.5 and p(w) = 0.5 on the grounds it is an unknown situation.

This is an extremely strong claim and I could not find in the literature any hint why Frederic would be irrational by accepting his ignorance of the probabilities.

Actually, I believe that quite the contrary is the case.

If the principle of indifference were true, Fred should reason like this:

“I know that on Monday my Lord mixed the treasures randomly so that p(r) = p(w) = 0.5
I know that on Tuesday He distributed 10% in the white ones and 90% in the red ones so that p(w) = 0.10 and p(r) = 0.90
I know that on Wednesday He distributed 67% in the white ones and 33% in the red ones so that p(w) = 0.67 and p(r) = 0.33
AND
I know absolutely nothing what He did on Thursday, therefore I know tthat the probabilities are p(r) = p(w) = 0.5 exactly like on Monday. “

Now I think that this seems intuitively silly and even absurd to many people. There seems to be just no way how one can transform an utter ignorance into a specific knowledge.

Degrees of belief of a rational agent

More moderate Bayesians will probably agree with me that it is misguided to speak of a knowledge of probabilities in the fourth case. Nevertheless they might insist he should have the same confidence that the treasure is in a white ball as in a red one.

I’m afraid this changes nothing to the problem. On Monday Fred has a perfect warrant for feeling the same confidence.
How can he have the same confidence on Thursday if he knows absolutely nothing about the distribution?

So Frederic would be perfectly rational in believing that he does not know the probabilities p(r) = ? and p(w) = ?

Likewise, an alien having just landed on earth would be perfectly rational not to know the initial likelihood of the religions:
p(Christianity) = ?     p(Islam) = ?     p(Mormonism) = ? and so on and so forth.

But there is an additional problem here.

The proposition “the religion x is true one” is not related to any event and it is doubted by non-Bayesian (and moderate Bayesian) philosophers that is warranted to speak of probabilities in such a situation.

Either x is true or false and this cannot be related to any kind of frequency.

The great science philosopher Elliot Sobert (who is sympathetic to Bayesian epistemology) wrote this about the probability of a theory BEFORE any data has been taken into account:

Newton’s universal law of gravitation, when suitably supplemented with plausible background assumptions, can be said to confer probabilities on observations. But what does it mean to say that the law has a probability in the light of those observations? More puzzling still is the idea that it has a probability before any observations are taken into account. If God chose the laws of nature by drawing slips of paper from an urn, it would make sense to say that Newton’s law has an objective prior. But no one believes this process model, and nothing similar seems remotely plausible.”

He rightly reminds us t the beginning of his article that “it is not inevitable that all propositions should have probabilities. That depends on what one means by probability, a point to which I’ll return. The claim that all propositions have probabilities is a philosophical doctrine, not a theorem of mathematics.” l

So, it would be perfectly warranted for the alien to either confess his ignorance of the prior likelihoods of the various religions or perhaps even consider that these prior probabilities do not exist, as Elliot Sober did with the theory of gravitation.

In future posts, I will lay out a non-Bayesian way to evaluate the goodness of theory which only depends on the set of all known facts and don’t assume the existence of a prior probability before any data has been considered.

As we shall see, many of the probabilistic challenges of Dr. Richard Carrier against Christianity kind of dissolves if one drops the assertion that all propositions have objective prior probabilities.

To conclude, I think I have shown in this post that the probabilistic defense of the Outsider Test of Faith is unsound and depends on very questionable assumptions.

I have not, however, showed at all that the OST is flawed for it might very well be successfully defended based on pragmatic grounds. This will be the topic of future conversations.

Is John Loftus a consistent biological robot? Can he avoid redefinitions?

Alex from the website http://www.skeptiko.com

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dealing with paranormal topics interviewed the militant atheist John Loftus.

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I am going to offer my random thoughts as the dialog went forward.

John is a former conservative Christian who has been emotionally abused by Christian fundamentalism which taught him he had to worship an evil God along with an inerrant Bible.

He became a resentful atheist and now seek to destroy the whole Christendom at all costs.

The topic of the interview was the so-called Outsider Test of Faith (OTF) which aims at pushing Christians to evaluate their religion in the same they critically considered other religions.

As a progressive Christian, I completely agree with that!
Actually, when conservative Evangelicals from the website “AnsweringMuslims.com” point out that the Koran is false because it includes immoral stuff, I evoke worse atrocities in the Bible and tell them with love that they ought to treat Muslims as they themselves would like to be treated by Antitheists. Alas I have never gotten any kind of response from them.

I believe that the Biblical Canon is not MORE inspired than book outside the Canon and when discussing with fundamentalists, I often get answers from folks wanting to prove the Bible by assuming (without any reason) that other parts of the Bible is true.

So progressive Christian do the same experience as non-Christians when dealing with fundamentalists trying to prove their very specific worldview.

That said I believe a valid OTF should mean we are agnostic about every worldview for avoiding biases. I am not sure this is possible to do that while still being able to consider evidence and thinking logically.

Alex agrees with John that Christianity ought to be debunked and dismissed some Christian miracles such as the virgin birth and the empty tomb as nonsensical.
For someone open to the serious investigation of anomalous data, this is strange, to say the least. The empty tomb is a well attested fact accepted by most critical scholars. It is its explanation which is uncertain and heavily depends on worldview commitments.

Alex did not contest any of John’s argument against Christianity (and most of them are actually aimed at Conservative Evangelical Christianity and are very weak against other forms of Christianity) but focused on the problem of materialism and biological determinism.

This is certainly the weakest point in John’s worldview and one he is not well equipped to deal with, since his specialization is in theology, anti-theology, and a bit of philosophical theology.

He was humble enough to recognize this and referred to other naturalism defenders such as Victor Stenger and Keith Pearson. Exposing some fallacies of these authors will be the topic of future posts here…

Alex is a non-Christian theist strongly rejecting materialism and wanting John to defend his own worldview, namely Reductive Materialism (RM) to an outsider like himself.

John is misleading as he said that atheism makes no positive claim at all. This is even worse for Reductive Materialism (RM).

Saying that everything which is real is IDENTICAL to material processes is clearly a positive claim, which not only (given the existence of countless unknown parallel worlds) cannot be reasonably proven but is also probably inconsistent.

John agreed that in one million years (let alone in one trillion years) nothing humans can do matters.

But he emphasized that his actions and his love matter now.

But is John really capable to love, act morally, combat injustices if he thinks at the same time that his love is IDENTICAL to a bunch of molecules, atoms and more elementary particles moving within his brain?

Is that compatible with the way humans over the centuries in the entire world have felt about love?

Would it be not more honest for John to accept the fact that love is an illusion, just a bunch of physical processes leading a self-reproducing chemical system to produce offspring?

John is persuaded that an objective morality exists, and that many stuff described in the Old Testament are wrong (and I partially agree with him about that).

But if everything which is real is identical to particles, and the proposition “Genocide is always wrong” is real, then to what neutrons, atoms, molecules, currents is it IDENTICAL to?

The overwhelming majority of humans would find it absurd to reduce the moral wrongness of an atrocity to a bunch of particles without completely redefining the word.

And when John speaks of making a choice, he is just expressing the fact that his brain molecules are going to push his body to act in a certain way, according to purely physical causes which can be traced back ultimately to the big-bang.

Is that not a striking redefinition of a “free choice”?  How can it be freer than a choice predetermined by God?

John rightly pointed out that fundamentalist and many conservative Christians have a harmful influence on them and others and ought to lose their faith.

I agree and interact a lot with such folks as a blogger. But why should progressive Christians like myself worshiping a God who is perfectly good and loving and rejecting any kind of human dogmas (both outside and inside the Bible) give up their faiths?

And anyone taking a look at my blog, at those of Randal Rauser, James McGrath, the Naked Pastor, Rachel Held Evans, Kimberly Knight and many others won’t fail to see that the antitheistic meme (Liberals and Progressives legitimize fundamentalism) is completely wrong.  We constantly oppose fundamentalism.

John thinks apparently that deism and the belief we live in a very complex computer simulation are not irrational. Great, but if that’s the case, he should view himself as an agnostic rejecting traditional religions.

Considering this whole debate, I regret that Alex did not show slightly more respect to John who was very polite. But I understand it is very hard not getting emotionally involved during such discussions  and I am unfortunately no exception.

I don’t agree with Alex’s final claim that science shows us that consciousness survives death. While sometimes very intriguing, the results of parapsychology and NDE researches are far from being conclusive.

I am much more convinced by philosophical arguments showing that consciousness is not the same thing as material processes studied by science.

Now I am looking forward to receive critical and approving comments!

 

 

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The Advice of a Former Christian to Religious Apologists

Deutsche Version

I’ve read a great post of former Christian apologist John Loftus (DebunkingChristianity) who gives advice to current Christian apologists.

I was stunned to realize I agree with most things he has written.


Like Thom Stark, I was disgusted by the firing of Chris. Rollston due to his intellectual honesty and his willingness to expose bad things people from the past have attributed to God. I have myself been banned from quite a few conservative forums for my challenge against certain dogma, but this is evidently nothing in comparison to the ordeal professor Rollston underwent.

Here is the key point of John’s recommendations:


 “The ninth thing you must do is to become educated rather than indoctrinated.”

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This is a wonderful sentence and I applaud John for leaving open the possibility that there might be Christian apologists out there who are really honest and educate themselves.

I hope he would agree Randal Rauser is a good example.

Yet, like many other things he rightly says about biases of all kinds, this sort of cuts both ways. Everyone with a worldview and an ideology is prone to delude herself. This is true for capitalists, socialists, marxists, post-modernists, transhumanists, Muslims, Christians and anti-theists alike. Until now, I haven’t found good evidence that the BEST theist intellectuals are more biased and deluded than the BEST atheistic intellectuals.

John is certainly right there is generally no come-back for a liberal who was previously a fundamentalist. However there are many cases of liberals who become fundamentalists in their later life.

Bin Laden is certainly the most ugly one. He was (among others) convinced by some books that he had to take the Koran seriously because it allegedly predicted scientific results, in the same way people converts to Evangelicalism after having read a book „proving“ that evolution is wrong.

Then get a real education if you want to be an apologist. Skip on by any evangelical apologetics program where the professors are required to sign a doctrinal statement. Attend a secular university instead. Then see what happens. If your faith is strengthened then you will be a better apologist. If it causes you to become a liberal or non-believer then follow the evidence where it leads.

Along the way do two things. First, read books and attend lectures that are outside the box of your comfort zone, books like these for starters. „

To that, I can only loudly answer “Amen“!

One of my own conclusions of such a process is that in many domains and cases the evidence is much more ambiguous than what both believers and deniers think it to be.

Finally, I would add one personal recommendation for every evangelical apologist believing in Biblical inerrancy: start reading many OTHER ancient religious books, from the near East, but also from many times and places.

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Consider their passion for their gods, the despair they experienced, the good things they wrote as well as the ugly stuff they attributed to their deities.

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Compare this with the Bible and draw your own conclusion concerning its alleged uniqueness, inspiration and lack of errors.

 

 

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