Preaching at atheists

Here is a blog by an atheist about whether there is a value for atheists in having a moralizing sermon preached at them now and then. She thinks there is. Is there any way to do this in an atheist context, for those who want it?

One of the commenters on that blog kept saying to her, “How could you, as an ethics professor, need something like that?” I think he’s missing the point. We don’t benefit from most sermons because they give us new information we didn’t have before;we benefit from them because they remind us of things we already knew but had forgotten.

I wonder if movies sometimes fill this role for the non-religious. Or if they do, whether they should. Or whether art in general should. Are there others who do or should fulfill the sermonizing role in our society? Oprah & Dr. Phil? Politicians? Other public speakers?


On a side note, I mentioned in class that when Anselm calls atheists fools, he does so because it says in a couple of places in the Psalms “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.'” I also said I didn’t think that’s the correct interpretation of those verses. Here‘s my case for interpreting them differently, for anyone who’s interested.


Do we need God to explain the universe?

Sean Carroll, a physicist at Cal-Tech, just published a paper in which he says:

Most modern cosmologists are convinced that conventional scientific progress will ultimately result in a self-contained understanding of the origin and evolution of the universe, without the need to invoke God or any other supernatural involvement.

Here is an interesting summary and assessment of Carroll’s paper by Kenny Pearce, on the philosophy of religion blog The Prosbologion.

The original paper by Sean Carroll is here.

Check them both out.

Is mystical experience a good reason to believe in God?

I grew up believing in God, but one of things that confirmed me in my faith was that I had a couple of experiences which I can only describe as personal encounters with God. They made God seem incredibly real to me. In theory, these “mystical experiences”, as I guess you could call them, can be explained apart from God — they could have been due to some sort of freak psychological quirk in me — but practical common sense, it seems to me, suggests that the better and more likely explanation is simply that God caused them.

So my belief is at least partly based on my own direct experience of God.

A few weeks ago, I talked to a friend that claims to have had supernatural things happen sometimes when she was praying for someone’s healing. I don’t believe most people who say things like that, but I trust her honesty so I believe her. She at least experienced what she says she did. In addition, I realized that if the same things had happened to me, I’d have decided to interpret them as supernatural, not merely psychological, events.

So my belief is also partly based on the direct experience of God that some of my friends claim to have had.

Is this kind of thing an appropriate reason for believing in God?

The reading for this week’s class, Religious Epistemology  by Kelly James Clark from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, talks about this.

It says:

… people who believe on the basis of religious experience do not typically construe their belief in God as based on an argument (any more than belief in other persons is based on an argument). They believe they have seen or heard God directly and find themselves overwhelmed by belief in God.

This is like what happened to me. I felt that I experienced God directly, and consider that experience to be a good reason to believe that God exists.

It also says this:

Richard Swinburne alleges that it is also reasonable to trust what others tell us unless and until we have good reason to believe otherwise. So, it would be reasonable for someone who did not have a religious experience to trust the veridicality of someone who did claim to have a religious experience. That is, it would be reasonable for everyone, not just the subject of the alleged religious experience, to believe in God on the basis of that alleged religious experience.

In other words, Swinburne believes it is reasonable to believe in God based on someone else’s mystical experience.

You may not agree.You may feel that taking any mystical experience seriously is already to lose touch with reality. Can give a reason for your view that doesn’t beg the question?

One student did so by saying this:

“Religious experiences do not count as evidence towards God because these happenings are not testable and are perceptively biased.”

The question of testability is an serious one. How do I know the difference between a real religious experience and a fake one? I don’t believe every claim someone makes to have experienced God. So why should I believe any such claim? How can I possibly distinguish between the reliable stories and the crazy ones? If there is no good way to test religious experiences scientifically, might there be other ways to test them?

Are testability and absence of perceptive bias the right requirements for being good reasons for belief?

Another student last week said that there is NO possible evidence that would convince him there is a God. Is belief in God so different from everyday beliefs that even testable evidence is not a good reason to believe? Are there other beliefs like that, or just belief in God?

I believe these questions are worth asking, even apart from the question of whether God exists or not.