Black and white thinking

Imagine if you were a movie critic who could only describe movies as “good” or “bad”. You’d probably feel like a two-year-old. Which is fine when you’re two. But adults use bigger vocabularies than that. Not everything is either “yucky” or “yummy”.

That’s the feeling I have as someone who “does ethics” when people insist on reducing our rich moral vocabularies down to “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “bad”. I do use those terms on occasion. But I’ve got a whole host of other ones in my arsenal, and you do too. I’m happy to call Moonrise Kingdom “good” if I’m short on time, I suppose. But in calmer moments, other words come to mind. “Funny”. “Quirky”. “Brilliant”. And so on.

In a variety of contexts, I’ve called myself a pacifist. I’ve called myself a vegan. Those labels are shorthand for some of my moral commitments. But I don’t think violence is always and everywhere “wrong”. And I occasionally consume (some) animal products. This confuses people. I suppose I could steer clear of the labels. But this would only trade one kind of confusion for another. People would get the impression I don’t think there’s something wrong with the military-industrial complex. With agribusiness. With how we treat other sentient beings. And so the labels at least have the virtue of getting the ball rolling, of communicating a moral stance on an issue. My moral stance is typically more complex than the label itself, but labels are always misleading at the edges. And so I continue to use them.

Black-and-white moral thinking is, on my view, a holdover from moral infancy.

It is also the kind of moral thinking encouraged by certain religious traditions (not all). And so an added benefit of offering a sustained critique of religion is the possibility that richer moral thinking might be cultivated. Think about it. If the will of God is what makes something “right” or “wrong”, then “right” and “wrong” are truths that float out there, so to speak. The religious believer insists on calling something (abortion, homosexuality, war, etc.) “wrong” because that allows her to communicate the absoluteness of God’s edicts. Fancy versions of religion temper this urge with the acknowledgment that it can be hard to discern the will of God, of course. But that doesn’t really get at the heart of the issue, namely, the fact that God has a black-and-white moral will that can in principle be apprehended.

From a humanist perspective, we owe it to ourselves to grow up. To grow out of black-and-white moral thinking. To grow out of religion. It’s just us. We have to figure out how to get along. I’d be nice if we could get along well. Figuring out how to do that is hard enough. It will be harder still if we insist on restricting ourselves to binary moral categories. The world ain’t so simple.

Homophobia and the oppression of men

Men sometimes resent feminism for being primarily about women. And feminists (mostly women but also some men) are quick to point out the ways in which the emphasis on women fits the facts: masculinity continues to carry with it social privilege; femininity, not so much. But feminists also insist that rigid gender norms (e.g. the assumption that certain behaviors and forms of dress are “for” men and others “for” women) hurt women and men. So I thought I’d say a little something about the oppression of men.

Many straight men despise homosexuality or even the hint of homosexuality. This is why the label “homophobia” gets at an important truth: rejection of the social acceptability of same-sex attraction is often (not always) rooted at a deep, nonrational, visceral level (see my discussion here). In the small town where my in-laws live, my long hair invites odd comments, even though my gender performance is mostly, boringly even, masculine. If I wore heels, had a more “feminine” figure, spoke with a higher-pitched voice, didn’t have facial hair, and so on… I would honestly feel unsafe. I would feel unsafe in my in-laws’ town. I would feel unsafe outside certain bars. At night. Out running. And probably in a variety of other situations too. I would feel as unsafe as many women feel, every day of their lives (perhaps more so?–I don’t know).

Let’s be clear, it is one thing to be non-conforming–to be goth, punk, or whatever, even to walk around barefoot–and it is quite another to be gender-non-conforming. Walk around barefoot or dressed in black, and you will probably get strange looks and funny or rude comments. Some businesses might even kick you out. This is especially true in non-urban settings, but city dwellers have their prejudices too. But cross-dressing takes it to a whole new level. So rigid conceptions of masculinity are enforced to a greater degree than other social conventions. Of course, being a gay man is not the same thing as being a man dressed like a woman. But being a man dressed like a woman nevertheless invites (in our culture) homophobic violence. And gay men who aren’t “visibly” gay in virtue of their gender performance are still only safe in such contexts to the extent that they refrain from “acting” gay (flirting with that cute guy at the coffee shop, say, or holding hands with their partner).

And so the conception of masculinity that prevails in American culture is rigid. Stifling. And, as far as I can tell, what keeps the box so narrow and confining is homophobia. I don’t think it’s misogyny, at least not in any clear way, because straight men have their ways of appreciating women (provided they act straight enough, I suppose). But if a man acts or talks or dresses like a woman, all homophobic hell breaks loose.

Well, as a humanist, I find narrow conceptions of masculinity oppressive, stifling, and wholly unnecessary. And I’m a straight, cisgendered dude. The oppressiveness of this box is all the more evident, I suppose, to men who are less conventional than I am.

So let’s all do humanity a favor. Let’s chill out about gender norms. Deal?

The problem of divine goodness

In the philosophy of religion, the Abrahamic God is typically thought to be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent (i.e., all good). Of course, what it means, concretely, to be all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, is up to interpretation. But the three “omni”s are a good starting point for philosophical discussion of theism and atheism. My own atheistic convictions connect most fundamentally to the third “omni”–the claim of God’s omnibenevolence. And this isn’t surprising, since God’s power and knowledge are nothing without his (alleged) goodness. If God were bored, disinterested, or apathetic, being powerful and knowledgeable would be pointless as far as human beings and human affairs are concerned. And so God’s being good is very important. If God is not good, then God is not God.

As I see it however, God is not good. Or, to put the same thought in a different way, there is no good god (and therefore no “God”, as conceived by the major monotheisms). Or, in yet another idiom, I cannot make sense of the affirmation that God is good. Why not?

Well, God is first and foremost (if you believe the stories) the creator of all that is. God is the maker or architect of the cosmos. God’s goodness is therefore reflected in the goodness of “Creation”–of the world. But is the world actually good? In and of itself, I think not.

You see, goodness and badness are evaluative terms that have their home in a basically functional context. A watch, for instance, is defined by its function. Therefore a watch that performs its function well is a good watch, and a watch that does not, is a bad watch. So also a good friend is a friend who does what friends do (listen, hang out, whatever) well. A friend is functionally defined (which is not to say that there’s complete agreement about what friends are for–which is also why there’s disagreement about who counts as a good friend). At the outer edge of this perspective, we can also talk about good people. A good person is a person who does whatever it is we think a person ought to do, and does it well. At the most general level, many of us (humanists, at least) will agree that a good person is a person who is a good citizen, friend, lover, etc. (or whatever other social role we happen to think is important). There’s a decent amount of disagreement about what it matters for a person to be, and so we disagree about what counts as goodness in a person to the same extent. None of this problematizes my key contention that goodness is defined in, and is intelligible in, an essentially functional context.

What of it? Well, in order to speak of God as good, we must find a way to speak of the world (“Creation”) as good–insofar as God’s goodness is supposed to be revealed in the world. But the world revealed to us by the natural sciences (and evolutionary biology in particular) is notoriously amoral. It is neither good nor bad. The physical forces that “create” biological life care nothing for pain or pleasure, for goodness, cruelty, or anything of the sort. Those who survive survive, and those who don’t, don’t. That is all. And evolution is not guided. There is no point to evolution–no direction. And so talk of the purpose or function of evolution is meaningless. For these reasons, I cannot make sense of talk of the universe’s function or purpose. And so I can’t make sense of claims of the universe’s “goodness” either. The universe beyond the realm of the human is neither good nor bad. It just is.

The universe is amoral. What claim then does its supposed “Creator” have to “goodness”? None, as far as I can tell.

I suppose many theists sense this and for this reason claim that God’s goodness is revealed (most fully) not in Creation but in his “providence” or in the Incarnation. Of course, those claims are problematic for different reasons (there is no way to distinguish providence from luck; and there is no evidence for the Incarnation–just off the top of my head).

But anyway, there you have it. I suppose this is my version of the “problem of evil”. Except, my claim isn’t that the existence of evil makes the existence of an all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing God improbable. It’s that we have no meaningful basis for speaking about goodness when it comes to the universe as a whole. And therefore none for speaking about goodness when it comes to the universe’s creator.

And if God is not good, then God is not God. I conclude: there is no God.

What matters more than God

I write a lot about God and atheism. That’s because I find value in living with both eyes open, and because I think God goes away (that is, the concept “God” loses its function) when we live with both eyes open. Atheism has been an important step in my own intellectual journey, and so I’m happy to share my reasons for disbelief with others.

But.

God–or more precisely, belief or disbelief in God–isn’t actually all that important. That is, believing or not believing in God doesn’t make the biggest existential difference for most people (in my estimation–I haven’t actually surveyed anyone). What could be more important than whether or not a benevolent superpower created the world and everything in it, you ask?

Death.

Life after death.

Or, as I see it, the fact that there is no life after death, that death is the end of all conscious experience (for the organism that dies).

The most existentially important realization I’ve had, and I think, one of the most existentially important realizations anyone can have, is that my life will end, and there is no hereafter. This is it. This one small shot at living well, and then the lights go out. Of course, I can’t imagine not thinking, what with my own nonexistence being quite literally inconceivable from a first-person standpoint. But the realization that this life is it is life-changing.

More life-changing, I contend, than whether or not there is a God.

The two are hard to separate of course. For most religious folk I know, the belief in an afterlife is all bundled up with belief in a benevolent diety. As some of my undergrads have asked, what’s the point of believing in God if there’s no afterlife? What indeed!

I have no plans to halt my attacks on (the idea of) God. But I thought I’d take a minute to meditate on this wonderful, profound, recalibrating thought.

We’re all going to die.

Two baptist gods

I became an atheist because I became convinced that Christians didn’t have any special epistemic access to God. Or, to put the thought a bit differently, it became apparent to me that, beneath the many gods worshiped by Christians (even within my own small denomination) there was no true “God” to be found. God really is just whatever we think he is (which is why, as feminists note, he is so often a he–but that’s a rant for another day).

Here’s an example. In the small Baptist denomination I came of age in (the Baptist General Conference, or “BGC”), two popular pastors have become very famous for their very different pictures of God. According to Greg Boyd, God is the ultimate source of the universe, but he does not preside over the world like a meticulous architect. He is rather like an artist looking for co-creators. And so, while he may arrange for some things to happen, much of what happens on Earth is not in accordance with his will. The choices of human beings (and of invisible spiritual agents!) are causally important, as is sheer dumb luck. Prayer, on Greg’s view, exerts causal pressure on the world to change it. Christians, on this model, are individuals who have chosen to follow God and who at any moment can act with or against God’s purposes. If they fail to act (through prayer, or some other means), it is possible that God’s will might be thwarted. Though God is in principle “omnipotent” then, he does not exercise that power. Which is just to say that, practically speaking, God is not omnipotent on this model.

According to John Piper, God is not only the ultimate source of the universe, of right and wrong, and of everything everywhere, but he is also the causal source of everything that happens everywhere. If something happens, it is because God has willed it. Though prayer can be said to “change things”, prayer itself is seen as God’s foreordained means for making things happen. God’s will, in other words, cannot be thwarted. Whether someone lives a long happy life, a short miserable life, or whether someone is “saved” or burns in hell for ever and ever… it is all, on this model, because of God and to the glory of God. (Though I should note that Piper does think human beings are responsible for their actions, in spite of their being foreordained, which is why God is not a moral monster for sending sinners to hell.)

If we were to boil down (a bit artificially, I admit) each model to a single buzz word, we could say that, on Greg’s view, the love of God is supreme, and on John’s view, the glory of God is supreme. Of course, each pastor claims to view God as both loving and glorious, but clearly, that plays out differently for each of them. For Greg, the glory of God is his love–and human beings can know what love is without too much hassle. It’s not a big puzzle. For John, God’s glory is his love of himself (since he is so glorious)–a love into which (some) human beings are invited. But human beings, on John’s model, don’t really know what love is until they fall on their knees in front of God (said falling, of course, being itself foreordained for some, but not all, of us).

Let me now state the obvious: these are two different gods.

And, as both pastors are fond of noting in their published works, one’s picture of God is essential in structuring one’s religious and spiritual practice. Which is why followers of Boyd and of Piper (umm, I mean, of Jesus, of course) are so different. Are there similarities? Yes, of course. Enough similarities to warrant calling the Jesus and God of Boyd and Piper the same? Ehh… that’d be stretching it.

For anyone who has traveled a bit–whether literally (geographically) or figuratively (by going to a church of a different denomination, say)–the fact that Christians follow and worship different gods is no surprise. It turns out people tend to follow a god who serves their needs. Not their superficial needs, mind you (like for a new car or bike or lover, or whatever), but their existential needs. Most Christians will refuse to admit this. But it sorta jumps out at anyone who cares to learn a little about different denominations and religions. The fact is, different denominations are different religions. The names of some of the symbols are the same (“Jesus”, “God”, etc.), but the concepts and the practices vary as widely as do human lives.

I suppose there could be a true God and a true Jesus hiding behind all the wrappings and trappings. But then the question remains: how do we learn about such a God? And how do we know this isn’t just another human version?

My preferred explanation will be obvious: there is no God behind all the gods. It’s all wrappings and trappings.

Nationalism and humanism

To be a humanist, as I understand it, is to be concerned with the well-being of all human beings (at the very least–all sentient beings at the most). As a humanist therefore, I’m no fan of patriotism. I understand that patriotism can be ironic in a way–not unlike the team spirit of some sports fans who, in their more detached moments, view their allegiance to this or that team as grounded in ultimately contingent facts. But patriotism often has not been ironic in this way. And, I want to suggest, ironic patriotism isn’t really patriotism. Ask any true patriot.

So tomorrow being the Fourth of July, I’m looking forward to time off work (mostly for my partner, who has a ‘real’ job). I’m looking forward to time with family. If we catch fireworks, that’ll be nice too (actually, I think they’re tonight). But I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in the nationalistic fervor that often accompanies this holiday. And I submit that people with humanist leanings should always accompany their whole-hearted celebration of life, family, food, and even national history, with a wary sense of the way in which patriotic mythology functions to hide from us the ugly truths of this nation’s past and present.

So happy Fourth of July! And remember, you’re not a unique and precious snowflake. And your country is mediocre at best. And yet, may both you and your country improve.

And yes, that includes me too.

Maybe there is a god…

I’ve said this before, but it’s worth saying again: there are many different versions of Christianity. Personally, I think this should give sectarian Christians (who view their own tradition as the “right” tradition) pause, but that’s a story for another day. I rant and rave about Christianity’s errors on this blog. How do I reconcile that ranting and raving (actually, I try to make reasoned posts, but, you know) with the acknowledgment of multiple targets? After all, some Christians think atheists are basically right about the god of fundamentalists–but they don’t worship that god (see here, for example).

Well, let me say this much. Traditional Christianity, by which I mean the lived faith of most Christians in most of the world, centers, as far as I can tell, on or around the following points:

(1) There is an afterlife. For some (Christians, narrowly or broadly defined) it will be wonderful. For others, it will be dreadful. Going to heaven (or “being resurrected” or whatever) requires something on my part (belief in Jesus, baptism, the Holy Spirit, a “personal relationship” with Jesus/God, and/or whatever–varies from denomination to denomination).

(2) The universe does not exist of its own accord, but was rather created (and is presently sustained) by a personal Creator, who gave the universe its general structure (at the very least), and perhaps also controls much or all of what comes to pass on Earth (as Reformed folk tend to believe). For this reason God deserves our praise, love, and worship.

(3) The Creator God cares about me as an individual. He has a plan for my life. He wants my worship, and unless I explicitly reject him (perhaps even after that) he will “woo” me. This means my life (at least insofar as I am in line with God’s Purpose) has Meaning (given to it by God).

Those are what I would call the big three. Concretely, this is what drives most people. God created the world. God loves me. God wants me to x.

I suppose we could also add these doctrinal afterthoughts (afterthoughts for most Christians, that is):

(a) Jesus of Nazareth, who lived and walked in first century Palestine was and is one with this Creator God. We know the Creator best and most through Jesus. Jesus is therefore metaphysically unique. He is radically unlike other wise folk (Socrates, Buddha, etc.) throughout history.

(b) Jesus performed an act of spiritual and moral magic on the cross (the “atonement”), reconciling those of us who “accept” it to the Creator God.

And there are many, many others. Of course.

When I attack Christianity, I attack it because I think it can be shown that (1), (2), and (3) are false. (a and b are false too, mind you, but they don’t drive most Christians.) There is no evidence to suggest that we should expect the conscious experience to continue beyond death. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence to the contrary (from evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and psychology, primarily). The claim about God’s “creating” and “sustaining” the universe is philosophically problematic. The claim about God deserving worship is morally problematic, because there is no valid inference from the fact of the universe’s existence to the alleged “goodness” of God (which is presumably a prerequisite for being legitimately worshiped). And finally, there is no reason to suspect that anything other than the generic laws of physics govern our everyday experience. Psychologists have amply documented the way in which we misattribute meaning and purpose to what in fact occurs merely by chance, or through otherwise well understood, non-mysterious, and non-supernatural means. I’m not aware of a single peer-reviewed article documenting rigorous research on ESP, the efficacy of prayer, or anything else Christians and other theists associate with God’s existing and being the God Christians believe he is that supports those beliefs.

For these reasons I say here and I will say again and again, there is no evidence for Christianity.

For what I’m calling “traditional Christianity”, that is.

But maybe, just maybe, this is a straw man. Liberal Christians do not view God as a personal being, perhaps. They do not view prayer as changing anything in the world outside of the mind’s dispositions. God is something else. Jesus’ significance isn’t in his skills at metaphysical moral voodoo. Being a Christian isn’t about believing things at all, but about looking at the world in a certain way, being a certain kind of person, loving others. Etc.

Ok, fine. If that’s all God and Christianity are, maybe there is a god. I’m not sure what the assertion means, if it’s good for anything. But there you have it.

But here’s the counterpoint: pick a Christian at random. From your Facebook friends, say. Tell them: there is no afterlife. There is no personal being governing the realm of human affairs. Jesus didn’t erase an invisible moral “debt” on the cross. And then tell them you’re a Christian. How do you think that conversation will go?

Gods and dragons

Have you heard the one about the fire-breathing dragon? It’s a dragon that lives in my garage. An invisible dragon. That breathes heatless fire. That floats in midair. Undetectably.

Actually, it’s not my dragon, it’s Carl Sagan’s dragon (see here).

But the point is, it’s no dragon at all. An invisible dragon that can’t be detected is just as good as no dragon at all. Because there’s nothing to tell it apart from no dragon at all.

It might not surprise you to learn that atheists think God is kind of like an undetectable dragon. A fantastic creature that curiously seems to evade all recordable detection. Let’s call this atheist argument one.

But since theists are clever and resourceful, there’s an atheist argument two, which is a response to this line of thought: the mistake of the invisible dragon analogy is to think that God is merely one being among others. As if God were a part of the furniture of the universe. But in fact God is beyond being. God is the ground of being. God is the condition for the possibility of being. It is through God that beings are.

Confused? So am I.

This theistic thought is clearly an attempt to bypass the idea that God is just a really big (powerful, smart, clever, generous, etc.) being. Like us, only bigger and better. The theist thinks that imagining God as just a bigger thing is kind of demeaning. And so there’s this attempt to use categories that show that we depend on God, rather than the other way around.

But of course that begs the epistemic question:

Dear Christian, how do you know about this God?

Did he reveal himself to you? How? When? Isn’t this the kind of evidence that could be tested?

If so, then aren’t we back to the dragon scenario? (And I’m still waiting for the evidence.)

If not, how do you know about him?

I’m actually really interested to hear how Christians think this line of thought can be answered. I’m genuinely at a loss. Christianity hasn’t produced any empirically verifiable (or falsifiable) claims. And attempts to bypass the requirement that such claims be produced raise the unanswerable question of how knowledge of a completely transcendent beyond-being being is possible.

The only attempt I’m familiar with is the line of folks like N. T. Wright, who think that history is the key to making sense of Christianity’s truth claims. But their research is… well, controversial, to put it kindly. And should you really need a Ph.D. in early Christian history to know whether or not there’s a God (who loves you!)? Seems odd, no?

Help me out here.

Dietary advice

It’s hard to know where to turn for dietary advice. The U.S. government had its pyramid for a long time. Now it’s got that funky plate. Various self-proclaimed healthy living folk advocate for a wide variety of diets: low-fat, high-fat, low-carb, no-carb, high-carb, super-high-protein, meh-protein, etc. Is soy good or bad? Butter? Dairy? Red meat? Seafood? Legumes? Gluten?

I have dietary advice of my own to give. The diet I eat is mostly vegan, but I’ll write about that some other day. The point I want to make here is more important.

There’s an important continuity between how one ought to approach eating and how one ought to approach ethics. It’s tempting to look for a reliable authority and then to depend on that authority in every way. The trouble is this. Authorities give conflicting messages, and adjudicating properly between them essentially requires one to become an authority. And most of us simply don’t have the time (or the desire) to spend 20 years studying nutritional and biological science. Even the people who do aren’t always the most helpful.

As in ethics, so with eating: it is probably wise to listen to at least some authorities, and to inform oneself about the justification they claim for their views. Personally, I look to see if the claims of a self-declared culinary guru are grounded in social scientific studies that examine the long term outcomes of types of diets (Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, “Asian”, etc.). I’ve found it less helpful (and more confusing) to read about studies that isolate particular nutrients to observe their effects in artificial settings. The body’s response to food is more complex than that. (To use a buzzword, the reductive studies typically need to be counterbalanced by more “holistic” studies that take into account both the whole of an individual’s diet and that individual’s social setting.)

Ultimately however, we need to move beyond authority. Part of a healthy diet, for most of us, is eating a diet we approve of. That is, we have to own the diet. It does me no good to eat lots of red meat, for example, on the advice of some “health expert”, if I have strong ethical qualms about eating meat. The qualms are not the whole of the story, but they are a part of it. The point is to be experimental: find out what you like, what works for you, and what you feel good about. Self-monitor: how do you feel after a cup of coffee? Before? Can you tell how low blood sugar makes you irritable? Do you feel the need to nap in the early afternoon? After certain kinds of meals but not others? Learn how your body works and how it interacts with its food. Try new things. Keep the good, leave the bad.

What is the point of eating? Are you trying to lose weight? Gain weight? Get healthy? Healthy like who? Do you want to run a marathon? Or just not feel like crap when you get up in the morning? You have to decide what your goals are. The point is that you should take responsibility and think about your diet.

The days are gone, for most of us, when we had the option of not thinking about what we eat. The reality for most of us is that we have at least some choices. Microwave dinner? Popcorn? Pizza? Eating out? Carry out? Chinese? Thai? Crockpot? Lentils? Chili?

Try out a variety, see what works. It’s the only way.

Do the same for everything else in life.

Predictive equivalence

A picture of the world (or “worldview”), such as naturalism, theism, or animism, is what we use to make sense of our past and present experience. But it is also and especially how we make predictions about what is likely to happen in the future, to us and to others. Those predictions then guide our behavior.

The extent to which two worldviews are different, concretely speaking, is the extent to which they make different predictions about what is likely to happen in the future. For example, many American evangelicals believe the world will end soon, in some sort of apocalyptic fashion, and that Jesus will return to Earth, riding on the clouds. There’s a “rapture” in there somewhere too, I think. Less dramatically, many religious folk the world over believe that praying about events or people can change how those events occur or how those people are doing. This is a prediction that flows from their worldview.

A naturalist and a theist then, differ on what effects one ought to expect to follow from prayer. They can agree on certain psychosomatic effects perhaps, but beyond that, the theist is likely to expect divine action of some sort, whereas the naturalist expects nothing of the sort.

The reason I am a naturalist is because I have found naturalism’s predictions to be borne out with a consistency that was quite unheard of in Christian circles. The reason Christians struggle with “unanswered prayer” is precisely because they’ve been taught that God answers prayer. When Christian leaders redefine “answering prayer” to mean “whatever actually happens that you can drawn some sort of lesson from”, believers subconsciously sense the switcheroo. Their predictions constantly need to be adjusted because they don’t fit what actually happens. Things happen in the world as if there were no God. And so to maintain the belief that there is a God, and that he answers prayer, the believer’s understanding of God and of prayer has to constantly evolve.

The endpoint of that evolution is predictive equivalence with naturalism.

There comes a point in the life of reflective believers when they succeed in managing their disappointment. Typically this involves giving up any hope for interesting divine intervention in their lives. Debates over so-called “cessationism” for example (roughly, the view that fancy supernatural signs from God no longer occur) are debates over what it makes sense to expect in our lives. The cessationists have realized that impressive miracles don’t happen, and that we shouldn’t expect them. They fit their theology to their experience. Anti-cessationists see that that concession is uncomfortably close to naturalism (to denying that God is the kind of God who can answer prayer), and so find ways to claim as “signs” from God phenomena which fall far short of the really supernatural (exhibit A: glossolalia; a.k.a. “speaking in tongues”).

So a key question to ask believers is this: what difference does your worldview make in terms of your concrete expectations for everyday life? We could put it more bluntly: please make a falsifiable claim by which your faith might be evaluated.

Believers might well return the favor, so here are some predictions I’m comfortable making as a naturalist:

– All my mental striving / praying / hoping / whatever won’t make a difference to what is in fact a matter of luck (e.g. the ratio of heads to tails in an iterated coin toss, the result of an election).

– If the world “ends” anytime soon, it will be because of boring causes: e.g. ecological devastation, asteroid impact, etc.

– When people die, absent radical medical intervention, or zombification, they stay dead (in their tomb say, or cremated).

Etc. You get the picture.

If a believer can’t identify a single thing that makes their worldview predictively different from naturalism, it’s worth asking them if they aren’t in fact naturalists. They might cling to a label (for understandable reasons, even). But if it doesn’t make a difference to your life, it’s probably not worth believing.

Just sayin’.