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Stephen Law read a bunch of stuff by top apologist William Lane Craig and noted that Craig believes a bunch of odd things (apart from the odd things you’d already know about from Craig’s debates, I mean). There was some discussion in the comments over this one:

“Therefore, when a person refuses to come to Christ it is never just because of lack of evidence or because of intellectual difficulties: at root, he refuses to come because he willingly ignores and rejects the drawing of God’s Spirit on his heart. No one in the final analysis really fails to become a Christian because of lack of arguments; he fails to become a Christian because he loves darkness rather than light and wants nothing to do with God.”

[William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, (Revised edition, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994), pp. 35-36.]

This is all very Biblical: Craig’s “loves darkness rather than light” is a reference to the verse following that famous verse in John 3:16: “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.”

As a good inerrantist, Craig apparently believes this and other passages like Romans 1 (see my old blog post about this) where the Apostle Paul writes that unbelievers are “without excuse”. Atheists know there’s a God really but don’t worship him because to do so we’d have to acknowledge how bad we are, or something. This is a culpable error, not a mistake, too.

The pathologising of non-belief based on knowing what people think better than they do is itself pathological, as Thrasymachus says, at least if it’s used to dismiss atheist arguments without engaging with them (note that Craig does not do this in debates, though he seems to do it personally, and to advocate other Christians doing it, which is bad).

In the comments, wombat suggests that the evangelical claim is that atheists are in the situation “where one accepts something intellectually but not at a more basic emotional level e.g cigarette smokers who continue in spite of acknowledging its dangers. The Christian apologists here are claiming that the “knowledge” is at that deeper visceral level.” wombat also linked to Jamie Whyte’s observation that religious believers don’t really act like they believe what they say they believe.

On that subject, there’s also Georges Rey’s “Meta-atheism: religious avowal as self-deception“, where he argues that Christians generally don’t act as if they believe what they say they believe. I’ve discussed Rey’s paper before.

There’s a folk psychology where “thoughts” are propositional sentences that occur to us, and “beliefs” are the ones we hold on to as true over time and use to guide our actions. But the way the phenomenon we call “belief” really works doesn’t seem much like that. This doesn’t just apply to religion: see The Mystery of the Haunted Rationalist.

If the evangelical claim is just to know that atheists are secretly lying, it’s bizarre, as Thrasymachus says. On the other hand, if the evangelical claim is that atheists anticipate-as-if there’s a God while avowing-as-if there isn’t, I don’t think that works. What are the things that atheists are doing which give away the fact that they are anticipating that way? And why does this make them culpable and deserving of Hell?

I don’t think the atheist version (i.e. Rey’s or Whyte’s) has the same problem, because there are plenty of examples of Christians who don’t act like there’s a God.

Friend Iain recently read the New Testament and reviewed it. He made some comments on it, including the observation that the early Church members thought that Jesus would return within their lifetimes. This prompted some comments giving the standard evangelical gloss on these passages (see also), to avoid the conclusion that the Bible contains errors. I wrote a comment:

http://de-conversion.com/2008/11/09/the-psychology-of-apologetics-biblical-inerrancy/ is worth a read to understand what’s going on in the comments here 🙂 Short version: Quine says evidence alone doesn’t compel us to change a particular belief, because we can modify another one instead. Quine was writing in the context of scientific theories: if you don’t measure a difference in the speed of light in two directions, say, maybe there’s no luminiferous aether, but if you really think there must be one, maybe the Earth sort of drags the aether with it, or your instruments were faulty, or something. Paul thought Jesus was coming back within his life time, but if you really want Paul’s writings to be without error, what Paul actually meant is that you should live with a sort of Buddhist detachment to the things of this world.

Quine has clearly got something over the sort of naive falsificationism (i.e. if your theory is disprovedcontradicted by a single experiment, it’s curtains for that theory) which is supposed by some to be how science works. Nobody discards a trusted hypothesis so easily.

Still, something seems to have gone wrong with a theory when it allows anything: if you started from the position that the Bible contains no factual errors (call this innerancy1), you probably would not have predicted what Paul wrote in 1 Thess or 1 Cor 7:29ff, 1 Cor 15:51 (“sleep” = “die” here) etc; yet there they are, and what-evangelicals-call-inerrancy (call this inerrancy2) is somehow compatible with them. I think this means that inerrancy2 doesn’t compress anything: it’s just a list of what happens (the Bible) with a cherry on the top (“this list contains no errors or contradictions”). I’m using Eliezer’s ideas about http://lesswrong.com/lw/jp/occams_razor/ here.

Over on Ask Metafilter, there’s a question about hope in a godless universe. Here’s a response I just posted (the original poster’s text is in italics):



Like where I could tell myself to turn it over to God or let things go and he will guide me and/or keep me from harm. This is so comforting to me



Suppose you “turned things over to God” or “let go and let God” in the past and things worked out. You now grasp there is no God, or at least, no God that makes any difference (gods that are identified with the good that is, in a very real sense, within us all; or with the universe; or any other gods which don’t cause you to anticipate the world being any different are gods which make no difference in this sense). But this didn’t become true at the moment you realised it, it has always been true! God did not in fact guide you or keep you from harm in the past, and you survived anyway.



What is true is already so.

Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse.

Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away.

And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with.

Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived.

People can stand what is true,

for they are already enduring it.

Eugene Gendlin



Can this feeling ever be replicated? What can I do to help guide myself through difficult times? I’ve tried to “act as if” there is a God (since I am in the camp that thinks we can never really know) but it seems empty and fraudulent.



When I was a child, I thought that my parents could make it all right and that nothing could truly harm me. It seems like your concept of God was a bit like that. Other people have suggested you can come to a kind of acceptance of the world as it is, a thread which seems common to the Buddhism and existentialism that people have been mentioning. In the real world, what hope there is must be tentative rather than sure, but I don’t see why that means there must be no hope.



There are plenty of de-conversion stories on the web where people similar feelings to yours: depending on how much you’d invested in your beliefs, it can be very unsettling to lose them. Maybe reading some of those stories would help.



But, as Gendlin says, the world is as it as always been, and you survived it before. At the end of my de-conversion story, there’s a longer quote along similar lines: there is no abyss.

Stephen Law’s paper Evidence, miracles and the existence of Jesus argues that the New Testament (NT) is not good evidence for the existence of Jesus. He takes an interesting approach: he argues that the evidence for the NT miracles isn’t good enough, and that the presence of the miracle stories contaminates the non-miraculous parts of the story such that we should be sceptical of those too.

Law introduces and defends two principles:

P1 Where a claim’s justification derives solely from evidence, extraordinary claims (e.g. concerning supernatural miracles) require extraordinary evidence. In the absence of extraordinary evidence there is good reason to be sceptical about those claims.

and

P2 Where testimony/documents weave together a narrative that combines mundane claims with a significant proportion of extraordinary claims, and there is good reason to be sceptical about those extraordinary claims, then there is good reason to be sceptical about the mundane claims, at least until we possess good independent evidence of their truth.

He then uses these in a deductive argument, concluding that “there’s good reason to be sceptical about whether Jesus existed”.

Debating P2

Most of the debate in the comments on Law’s blog is about P2. Law says that “Because once we know that a powerful, false-testimony-producing mechanism (or combination of mechanisms) may well have produced a significant chunk of a narrative (e.g. the miraculous parts), we can no longer be confident that the same mechanism is not responsible for what remains.”

Bradley C. came up with some counter-examples to P2. Bradley rightly says that the false-testimony-producing mechanism is key. What feels different about the ancient miracle reports (and perhaps Law’s “sixth islander” thought experiment) compared to Bradley’s examples is that in the ancient reports, we don’t really know what the mechanism was, we just know something has gone wrong. (In Bradley’s examples, we know that magicians and faith healers do tricks). If we don’t know quite what has gone wrong, we have to consider various possible mechanisms, which includes ones where the mundane testimony is also false. If we give such mechanisms any weight, that makes the mundane testimony less convincing (though it may still be positive evidence for the mundane events). But I think we’d have to consider how much weight to give them based on the circumstances, which makes it hard to come up with something general like P2.

So, I think Bradley’s come up with the equivalent of Gettier cases for P2 as it stands: even if they’re contrived, they show P2 needs changing.

Law responds to Bradley saying “You need to identify a mechanism as being the likely mechanism accounting for the false miracle claims, and then explain why that mechanism wouldn’t quite likely result in false mundane claims too.”

I don’t agree with Law here. If all we know is that something’s gone wrong with the testimony but the mechanism is obscure, perhaps it’s reasonable to say that it’s as likely that we’d have the testimony if it’s mundane parts were true as it is that we’d have it if the mundane parts were false. Then the testimony is no evidence for or against the mundane events: you should consider the events as likely as you did before you heard the testimony.

I’m not sure I’d want to go further than that and say that the burden of proof is on the people who believe the mundane portion of the testimony to show why it isn’t contaminated: mightn’t they equally well argue that the burden is on you to show that it is? But that’s what P2 says, I think: in P2, the testimony becomes evidence against the mundane events.

If you give a mechanism, though, maybe that’s just what you can argue: if you think Jesus’ disciples made it up, for example, who’s to say where the made up stuff ends? (Though why not make stuff up based on a real person, for verisimilitude?)

It looks like someone who wants to justify their belief in the mundane stuff has a motive to push the unbeliever to identify the mechanism so they can criticise it. The problem with my “average over possible mechanisms” idea, above, is that it’s pretty hard to identify them all. I don’t think we have a duty to do that with every weird testimony, though. Earlier, in defence of P1, Law correctly says that “the fact that it remains blankly mysterious why such reports would be made if they were not true does not provide us with very much additional reason to suppose that they are true.”

So, I’m not that convinced by Law’s general contamination principle, but I think he makes some good points along the way. For example, Law says:

It would also be foolish to try to construct a two part case for Jesus’ miraculous resurrection by (i) bracketing the miraculous parts of the Gospel narrative and using what remains to build a case for the truth of certain non-miraculous claims (about Jesus’ crucifixion, the empty tomb, and so on), and then (ii) using these supposedly now “firmly established facts” to argue that Jesus’ miraculous resurrection is what best explains them (yet several apologetic works – e.g. Frank Morrison’s Who Moved The Stone? – appear implicitly to rely on this strategy).



William Lane Craig’s rebuttal

The apologetical strategy Law talks about is used by William Lane Craig in his “4 facts” defence of the resurrection (see Craig vs Ehrman, for example). Craig read Law’s paper and attempted a rebuttal on his own blog, which I think was only partially successful.

Craig’s stuff about Ehrman is weird. I guess Craig’s point here is to show how reasonable he’s being by pointing out that even this bloke he beat in a debate (Ehrman) agrees with him. But Ehrman is not a radical sceptic, Law is not die-hard mythicist. The conclusion of Law’s argument is that we should be sceptical about J’s existence, not “Therefore J never existed”, so it’s not even clear that Ehrman’s ire applies to Law, or that we should care if it does, unless Ehrman’s arguments are made more explicit.

On Sagan’s dictum that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, Craig writes: “This sounds so commonsensical, doesn’t it? But in fact it is demonstrably false. … Rather what’s crucial is the probability that we should have the evidence we do if the extraordinary event had not occurred. This can easily offset any improbability of the event itself.”

Craig makes a reasonable statement of Bayes Theorem. However, Sagan’s dictum can be read in a Bayesian way (by incorporating all the probabilities Craig mentions, so that the evidence is Bayesian evidence). Craig gives no good argument that the dictum must mean what Craig takes it to mean, or that Law’s argument relies on taking it to mean what Craig thinks it means.

Craig continues: “In the case of the resurrection of Jesus, for example, this means that we must also ask, “What is the probability of the facts of the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection, if the resurrection had not occurred?” It is highly, highly, highly, improbable that we should have that evidence if the resurrection had not occurred.”

This might be Craig’s attempt at that argument, namely, Craig saying that Law hasn’t considered that it’s unlikely we’d have the evidence we do if Jesus didn’t do miracles. But Craig plays fast and loose: the facts are that we have the gospel narratives (and whatever other historical documents we have to hand). The empty tomb and post-mortem appearances are not facts, and Law’s argument against the “bracketing” strategy is that they cannot be treated as facts. Craig cannot have the empty tomb or the post-mortem appearances as “facts” without addressing Law’s arguments.

Oddly, Craig doesn’t address really P2 or Law’s arguments for it at all: he just says “oh no it isn’t”. Craig’s strongest when he says that there is extra-Biblical evidence for Jesus’ existence. I’m not an expert, but my understanding is that Josephus’ mentions of Jesus is thought by historians to have a core around which Christian interpolations accreted, for example. Since even if we grant P2, Law’s argument fails without premise 6 (“There is no good independent evidence for even the mundane claims about Jesus (such as that he existed)”), perhaps this is a good tactic on Craig’s part. Law appears to agree that premise 6 is his weakest empirical premise: “6 is at the very least debatable”. In a way, it’s odd that everyone is concentrating on P2.

So, I think Craig casts doubt on Law’s conclusion about Jesus’ existence, but he doesn’t do much to convince us that Jesus rose from the dead or did any other miracles.

Jerry Coyne’s blog has some good comments on Craig’s rebuttal.

David B Marshall’s rebuttal

David Marshall also had a go at rebutting Law. He didn’t do as well as Craig, as his arguments relied on attempts to differentiate Law’s thought experiments (“Ted and Sarah”, and “The Sixth Islander”) from the claims about Jesus, but the distinctions he made between these, distinguishing magic from miracles, weren’t relevant to Law’s arguments, as far as I can tell. You can see my response to him here , his reply here and my response to that here, another attempt by Marshall here and my final response here.

I think this rebuttal is interesting for what it shows about what ordinary believers (rather than super-apologists like Craig) think are good arguments. Marshall appears to think that because the Jesus story is more fleshed out and more meaningful, it’s more likely to be true. I’m not sure whether this is a straightforward example of conjuction bias (obligatory Less Wrong link), or of the notion that the point of religion is to be in a meaningful story. Charitably, it might be an attempt at inference to the best explanation, but I don’t think the stuff that Marshall mentions means that the best explanation of the NT stories is that they are true.

So what do you think?

There was bloke called Jesus who was the basis of the NT stories. Pre-moderns had porous selves, so it’s pretty difficult to understand their writings in modern terms, but there is no good evidence that this bloke did miracles or rose from the dead. I don’t know how much of the NT is true, but I don’t accept Craig’s bracketing or 4 facts arguments: taking out the core miracle but leaving the context which points to a miracle does look like cheating without independent evidence of the context, because mechanisms where both the context and miracle are made up seem pretty likely to me.

I’ve been commenting in other places. You might be interested in where:

The Evil God Challenge

Stephen Law’s Evil God Challenge is a new take on the problem of evil. The challenge is to ask theists why it’s more reasonable to believe that there’s a good God (accepting the standard theodicies for the problem of evil) than it is to believe there’s an evil God (accepting flipped theodicies, for example, that evil God created us with free will so that we could freely choose to do evil).

Law has been dealing with responses to this challenge ever since his debate with William Lane Craig. On his blog, he mentions a conversation with Glenn Peoples. That blog entry attracted a few comments, so I joined in.

What does good mean?

There’s been a lot of chat about just what Law means by good or evil, how this is “grounded” and so on, as theists often want to say you cannot have meaningful morality if there’s no God (there’s no reason to suppose this is true, as far as I can tell, but it’s psychologically appealing even to atheists). Law says he’s using the terms in a “pre-theoretic” sense (I suspect because he doesn’t want the whole thing to turn into an argument about meta-ethics). Interestingly, I found a quote from Craig which says that theists shouldn’t argue that atheists can’t meaningfully use moral vocabulary, so I commented on that: it seems perfectly reasonable to use terms like (morally) good in the common sense way, or to point to cases like gratuitous suffering and call those evil (in fact, Law says he can make his challenge about suffering rather then morality: the challenge is then why it’s reasonable to believe there’s a God who doesn’t want us to suffer unnecessarily, I guess).

Thomist God

I’ve also been responding to some comments by someone called BenYachov. He’s been arguing that if you believe in the God of Thomas Aquinas (which apparently is the official God of the Catholic church), Law’s challenge won’t faze you. I was trying to tease out why. BenYachov claims that God “grounds” moral goodness but isn’t himself a moral agent (a moral agent being something which is capable of acting on moral considerations). As Thomist God is not a moral agent, he cannot be said to be morally good or morally evil. Nevertheless, he is still Good in some sense related to “grounding” all goods and being perfect (the Thomists seem to like to use lots of Capital Letters for Significant Concepts).

I wondered at this Thomist God’s “goodness” if it means nothing like moral goodness. I went on to say that this God is morally alien. He’s a bit like what happens when weird aliens build an artificial intelligence. I was also still not sure what it means for Thomist God to “ground” moral goodness as he’s not morally good, only Good: as I’ve said before, the word “ground” should be a red flag in debates like these, as it often means the other person is skating over something for which they don’t really have a good explanation. Finally, I responded to another comment of BenYachov’s, by saying that there’s no reason to worship something because it created you or because it’s mysterious.

I get the impression that there’s a lot of work being done by Capital Letter Concepts in BenYachov’s world, and a lot of trading on different meanings of the world “good”. There’s also the weird idea that these meanings have something in common and that there’s an attribute called “Goodness” which somehow incorporates them all. This seems a bit like what Jaynes calls the Mind Projection Fallacy, the idea that every property we perceive in something is out there in the world.

Problem page

Over on Metafilter, there’s a section where people can ask questions. Someone recently said they’d been talking to their father-in-law about religion and philosophy and ended up accidentally de-converting him from Christianity. Now the mother-in-law is trying to cut her daughter and son-in-law off. I posted a response trying to explain what the in-laws might be thinking, and suggesting that the best way back with the mother-in-law might be to talk about seeking truth.

Brains, sex, fat

livredor posted about brain sex differences and fat acceptance. I commented: I think the popularisation of research into neuroscience and evolutionary psychology leads to unscientific statements (see also this Less Wrong article about one way to misunderstand it), but there’s also a set of feminists who don’t believe in innate brain differences between men and women because it contradicts their ideology, making them equivalent to creationists. In the case of fat acceptance, I was also a bit suspicious of activist claims that the medical establishment is wrong about fat being unhealthy being linked with the desire to see fat people treated more kindly. I owe livredor some replies there.

Stöwer TitanicSo, I’ve been looking into ways of running a “proper” blog, and I’ve come down to PyBlosxom or WordPress. In either case, I’ll get my own hosting for it.

Advantages of PyBlosxom over WordPress:

  • Keeps entries in text files. I fear databases.
  • Seems to have a better security record than WordPress.
  • In Python, so hackable and I’d feel I’d have some hope of understanding what it’s doing (WordPress is in PHP).

Advantages of WordPress over PyBlosxom:

  • Very active developer community, so lots of nice plugins. (PyBlosxom isn’t abandoned but doesn’t have so many people working on it).
  • More themes, some of which are pretty (PyBlosxom has a few themes in their repository, none of which are that pretty).

Anyone who’s used either of those care to comment?

A thing I found while investigating how to get journal backups going again in the wake of LJ’s most recent debacle:

A while back, geeks kept saying that LiveJournal should be Usenet news, that is, instead of mucking about with all the tedious web forum stuff, it’d be nice to have a program which let you read comments and entries, kept track of threading and which comments you’d already read, and so on (remembering what you’ve read on LJ was the motivation for my LJ New Comments script, but that doesn’t avoid LJ’s clunky interface).

This was tricky as there was no obvious way to get all the comments from an entry. There was the old comment export thing, but that only works on your own journal. You could “screen scrape” with a program that tried to pull the comments from the human-readable versions of LJ’s pages, but that’s considered rude because of the load it’d put on LJ’s server, and it’s fragile as it might break if LJ changes the human-readable output.

Luckily, LJ added a bunch of new stuff to its existing interface for “clients” (programs which access LJ, like Semagic). This includes the getcomments method, which allows you to get all the comments on any entry you can see.

Add this to the existing machine-readable stuff (Atom feeds, getfriendspage) and you could probably write either a client specific for LJ (the iPhone client is the reason LJ added the getcomments method, by the looks of it) or a proxy to turn the whole thing into NNTP and let you use conventional Usenet clients. Who’s first?

(Personally, I still plan to be off once I can actually back up this journal, including the comments of my esteemed readers. But I won’t stop reading, so this would be a nifty toy even for me.)

Edit: another thing this allows is third parties offering comment feeds of your journal: someone could write a thing which turned the comments from an LJ entry into an Atom feed. Real blogs have these, so LJ could too.

The latest code release onto LiveJournal has introduced a problem where people are randomly getting logged into the wrong journals. This exposes friends locked and filtered entries belonging to those journals to those random people. There’s no indication that this used to read the locked entries of a specific, targeted user, but there’s no analysis of the problem available, so we don’t know that it can’t be, either. Edit: It looks like this was a problem with caching. If that’s true, it’s unlikely that it could have been used to read posts from a specific user. More here from cahwyguy.

More information is available here.

This has been going on since at least yesterday morning, yet LJ still hasn’t responded officially to reports of the problem or warned users that their private data is at risk. Edit: LJ has posted about the problem, however, they don’t seem to have some details right. For instance, they’re claiming it was only a problem for a few minutes, when people were noticing it all day on Thursday.

This is the second time that LJ has dealt with a major security incident with staggering incompetence. It illustrates that they apparently don’t have a test server, i.e. they’re a bunch of coyboys. My vague plans to move this blog just got a lot less vague.

Top Christian William Lane Craig is on his UK tour, and recently had a debate with the atheist philosopher Stephen Law. Premier Christian Radio seems to be organising the tour, and they’ve posted the audio of the debate.

I listened to the debate. A short summary is below, with a longer one underneath the cut.

The debate topic was “Does God exist?”. Craig ran some of his standard arguments

  • The Kalam Cosmological argument, a First Cause argument which avoids the usual “who made God?” riposte by only claiming that “everything that begins to exist has a cause”.
  • The moral argument.
  • An argument based on the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus.

Law relied heavily on the evidential argument from evil, and his own variant of that, the one from his paper The Evil God Challenge, which Luke Muehlhauser has previously summarised here. Law has summarised his main argument in the debate on his own blog.

If you want to see my notes on the whole thing, read on, otherwise, skip to the end for my thoughts on how both of them did, and how atheists might do better.

There’s an atheist bad argument which runs something like this: “Faith is believing stuff without evidence, believing stuff without evidence is always bad, therefore faith is bad”.

This seems reasonable at first, but sooner or later you meet a William Lane Craig or similar apologist type, as Jerry Coyne did recently:

Craig argues that science itself is permeated with assumptions about the world that cannot be scientifically justified, but are based on faith. One of these is the validity of inductive reasoning: “Just because A has always been followed by B every time in the past is no proof at all that A will be followed by B tomorrow.” To suppose the latter requires faith.

According to Coyne, as well as the problem of induction, Craig mentions last-Thursday-ism and the idea that we’re all in the Matrix as beliefs that we reject on faith. Some of commenters on Coyne’s blog react as if Craig is advocating these ideas that we all reject, that is, as if he really thinks that the Sun might not rise tomorrow or that we’re in the clutches of a cartesiandaemon. But that’s not Craig’s point. Nor is Craig being inconsistent if he gets on an aeroplane assuming that the laws of physics will carry on working as they always have to keep it flying. After all, he’s not the one claiming that it’s always wrong to believe things without evidence.

The problem here, which makes the atheist’s argument a bad one, is that the atheist has cast their net too broadly. Craig is right to say that there are things that atheists (and everyone else) believe “on faith”. To say that these beliefs are always unwarranted leaves the atheist open to Craig’s counter-argument that, to be consistent, the atheist should then discard those beliefs or admit that it’s not always wrong to believe things without evidence.

Doing better

Nevertheless, something has gone wrong with Craig’s argument if it’s supposed to be a defence of religious faith (as all Craig’s arguments ultimately are). Religious faith is different from belief in induction or the existence of an external world. The atheist should abandon the claim that unevidenced beliefs are always bad, and concentrate on the distinction between religious beliefs and, say, the belief that the external world is real.

One way of doing that would be to turn Craig’s allegation of inconsistency back on him. As Chris Hallquist puts it

belief in the Christian God isn’t very much at all like most of the common-sense beliefs commonly cited as threatened by Descartes & Hume-style skepticism (like belief in the reliability of our senses), but is an awful lot like beliefs most Christians wouldn’t accept without evidence – namely, the beliefs of other religions.

The atheist’s discomfort is now the apologist’s: either he must accept that, say, Muslims or Scientologists are right to take things on faith (in which case, why not join up with them instead?); or further distinguish his religion from theirs (probably by making arguments about the resurrection of Jesus). The atheist’s acceptance of the real world doesn’t come into it.

Hume’s own solution to radical scepticism was to note that he couldn’t entertain that sort of thing for long. Creatures like us soon fall unavoidably back on treating other people as if they were conscious, the world as if it were real, and so on. The great man tells us:

Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of back-gammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I wou’d return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain’d, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.

Among educated folk, thoughts of gods rely on meetings with other believers to keep them going: believers are chronic sinus sufferers. They rarely anticipate the world being any different from a godless one, and those who act as if God is real are called crazy even by their fellow believers. To be sure, that doesn’t mean their avowed beliefs are false. But again, they are not like the commonplace beliefs that everyone takes on faith. In my experience, they fly forgotten, as the dream dies with the dawning day. How about a nice game of backgammon?

Edit: gjm11 suggests another reasonable response in this comment: admit that believing stuff without evidence is bad, and try to minimise it, and say that the problem with religious faith (in so far as that means holding unevidenced beliefs) is that it means having way more unevidenced beliefs than necessary.

Edit again: I’ve also commented with a shorter version of this on Coyne’s original posting, so there’s some discussion there too.

See also