Regular readers of The Cow will know that I don’t much go in for blog memes, but also that I do make the occasional exception. Yoo has thrown down the The Atheist Thirteen Gauntlet and so, in light of all the current religious insanity in these parts, and my increasing concern that rationality is being eroded faster than a sandcastle in a tsunami, I’m sitting in The Comfy Chair for this one. Mr Parkinson, let the questioning commence:

Q1. How would you define “atheism”?

Well, as I said in comments on my post God Creates Atheists I’m more inclined toward the Wikipedia definition that says that atheism ‘…as an explicit position, either affirms the nonexistence of gods or rejects theism. When defined more broadly, atheism is the absence of belief in deities, alternatively called nontheism’ than the more conservative Oxford Dictionary interpretation that it is ‘the belief that God does not exist’.

I believe that there is no persuasive evidence for the existence of a God or Gods, and no reason to expect that any such evidence is likely to be forthcoming. The Oxford definition implies the need for proof of a negative, which is scientifically foolish, so I try and avoid falling into that particular pitfall. I hold that the likelihood of there being such a creature as God, especially a personal God that has any interaction with me or cares about what I do, is as remote as the likelihood that there are fairies or angels or unicorns.

Q2. Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?

I was raised in an Anglican Christian church-going family and attended church every Sunday until about the age of 15 or 16, if I remember correctly. I sang in the boy’s choir and was ‘Confirmed’. In my teens I also believed that Tarot Cards could tell the future, that the Earth was being visited by aliens and that homeopathy could make my flu go away.

Q3. How would you describe “Intelligent Design”, using only one word?


Q4. What scientific endeavor really excites you?

The work by mathematicians like Stephen Wolfram and Stuart Kauffman on the theories of emergent complexity and their application to the way we understand the world. I am completely fascinated, perhaps to the point of obsession, with this subject. From following their work (which is substantiated by many other lines of research), I agree with them that is possible that very simple rules underpin all the extraordinary, vivacious, astonishing intricacy of the living universe.

(And if one more evangelizing Christian thinks that posing the question “Aha! Yes, but who made the rules!” is clever, or even pertinent, I may very well turn violent).

Q5. If you could change one thing about the “atheist community”, what would it be and why?

Well, I’ll interpret this question a little more widely than it might be intended, if I may, because my own view is that atheism follows on from adopting the basic tenets of proper critical thinking (although I know there are people who would disagree with me on that). So. If I had the means I would give the JREF and people like them billions of dollars in cold hard cash. Religions, especially the legacy religions like Catholicism and to a certain extent Islam, are cashed up in a manner that makes them extraordinarily powerful. The newer Evangelical religions, and whack-job cults like Scientology, are also rapidly gaining ground. Fear is a tremendous motivator when it comes to reinforcing religious belief, but there can be no doubt that in the Great Gears of the Irrational, money is the lubricant. The ‘atheist community’ (whatever that means), and more generally the skeptical community, both need money for education. Education is the best tool with which to fight superstition.

Q6. If your child came up to you and said “I’m joining the clergy”, what would be your first response?

“Here, my child, I’ve had your robes in the closet waiting for this moment. Welcome to the Church of the Tetherd Cow.”

Oh. Sorry, you meant a conventional religion didn’t you? Why would a child of mine ever want to do that? They’re not insane.

Q7. What’s your favourite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?

Favourite? Hmmm. Interesting word. It kind of depends so much on definition – Paul Davies, in his book The Goldilocks Enigma, puts up persuasive arguments for some kind of ‘creator’ of our universe, but it’s such a theoretical, distant and, to my mind, entirely inscrutable entity that it recedes into meaninglessness for any practical consideration. It’s a position that is quite literally irrefutable, and as a consequence, interesting to consider, perhaps, but pointless to debate.

As far as arguments for a personal God go, then the best one that I’ve ever had advanced to me came from a dear personal friend who once studied to be a Catholic priest (and who is still quite devout, despite being a gay man and therefore an abomination in the church in which he worships – go figure). This is how he put it (it was much more skillfully rendered than this, so I apologize to him for making it simplistic for the sake of brevity. I think he would agree that the essence is the same):

If your car breaks down (assuming you know nothing of mechanics) you take it to a mechanic who will have the knowledge to diagnose the problem, the ability to tell you what’s gone wrong, and the skill to fix it. You don’t need to understand much at all about the process to be able to get back in your car and drive away happily. What you do have to do, though, is put your trust in someone with more knowledge and skill than yourself in an area in which your expertise is limited. So, says my friend, we should use that same reasoning when it comes to God. In other words he argues that we should listen to those people who have thought more deeply and studied more widely, when it comes to religion, than perhaps we have done. And trust their judgement.

It’s a cogent point of view. And it’s not entirely easy to refute, if you think about it. But its weakness, in my view rests on a problem that besets religions and all other irrational belief systems at their very core. It is this: human beings are so very easily deceived by themselves and others, especially when the payoff is perceived to be high. For instance, if your mechanic does a bad job, your car starts sputtering and groaning and you take it back for another look. It’s pretty obvious, as is the quality of his work. If it keeps happening, you go find another mechanic. But if your priest does a bad job, and screws up the absolution of your sins, how are you ever going to know? “Just trust me,” says your priest – but unlike the mechanic, he is unable to offer you any graspable proof that he’s doing his job to the best of his ability. Or at all. He could be fooling you – how would you know? Worse, he could be fooling himself – how would either of you know…? Of course, he says that he has studied Aquinas and Paley and Hume and Pascal, and you know he speaks fluent Latin and has kissed the Pope’s ring, but really, he is just a human man and as easily deceived as anyone else. As are all the people he has studied. I think you can see where I’m going with this.

And if you think you’re the kind of person who can’t be fooled, you’re wrong.

Q8. What’s your most “controversial” (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?

I’m not sure what this question’s getting at. It seems to me that the only ‘controversial’ viewpoint an atheist could really hold (among an atheist community) is a belief in something irrational. I try not to hold such beliefs.

(I do maintain that the Earth is hollow and home to a superior race of lizard-like Supreme Overbeings, but that’s obviously a matter of fact, not an irrational claim).

Q9. Of the “Four Horsemen” (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favourite, and why?

I don’t really do ‘favourites’, but Harris plays to my sensibilities best I guess. Dawkins is a little brash, if completely coherent, Dennett rather rarified, but indisputably eloquent, and Hitchens a little too ‘rock star’ but amusing and credible. Personally, I think we should try very hard not be divisive, but instead use our common strengths to allow us to put forward simple and effective arguments in favour of critical thinking.

Q10. If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?

I don’t believe it would make a jot of difference to convince just one theistic person. Think about it: if The Pope renounced God tomorrow, they’d simply replace him, no matter what his reasons or how good an argument he put up. Single people do not make religions. Religions are created by a mass need for belonging. We have to supplant ‘religion’ as the fulfillment of that need with a stronger and greater respect for Humanity on its own terms. We need to outgrow superstition and look squarely into the face of truth. It’s a frightening prospect to embrace. I should know – I did it and it scared the crap out of me, and still does.

But one thing it didn’t do is turn me into an axe-wielding hedonistic anarchistic psychopath with loose morals, bankrupt ethics and a coke habit.

I was already one of those.


So there you have it. I’m not going to tag anyone with this – if you feel like it would be helpful to wave the flag, feel free to have at it and let us know.