Last night of few of us from the group attended a talk entitled “Living Deeper With God” given by Dr. Justin McBrayer, a Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Fort Lewis College. His talk was presented as a rebuttal to Dr. Dugald Owen’s talk last Spring “Living Deeper Without God, co-sponsored by Durango Skeptics and Atheists and the Fort Lewis Philosophy Club.
Here’s some recap (with a sprinkling of my own personal opinions on the talk):
Dr. McBrayer made it clear from the beginning that his talk was in no way about providing reasons for believing in the existence of a God. Rather, his talk focused on the quality of life for believers. He told the audience he would be arguing for the following theses:
- Theists can have deep lives.
- The case for deeper non-theistic lives (as proposed in Dr Owen’s talk) is a failure.
- Theists have deeper lives than non-theists.
He appropriately defined what he meant by “a deeper life”- including such things as knowledge, virtue, strong family and interpersonal relationships, contribution to the world, etc. He then discussed each of these aspects of a deeper life and why theists are just as accessible to them as atheists are-even more so. He then cited some statistics on various things including how those that are religious are positively correlated with higher education attendance and higher generosity in the form of charitable donations. Basically, the religious are just happier, smarter, healthier and more generous than those of the non-religious persuasion. At least according to Dr. McBrayer.
Here’s some numbers he presented showing the average annual amount given to charitable organizations:
Religious Conservatives: $2,367
Religious Liberals: $2,130
Non-religious Conservatives: $789
Non-religious Liberals: $661
These numbers came from a book entitled, “Who Really Cares? The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism” by Arthur C. Brooks. I believe it’s based on a table provided in the book. Here is a copy of it I found online:
I thought bringing in data divided between conservatives and liberals was irrelevant to his theses and politicized the discussion unnecessarily. That aside, I was curious about where the data came from. In an effort to learn more, I googled SCCBS. It stands for Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey, 2000.
Interestingly, there was another study of the same vein published in August 2013 by authors Michele Margolis and Michael Sances, both from the Department of Political Science at MIT. They concluded that conservatives and liberals are equally generous in their donation habits. Here is what they said about Brook’s use of the SCCBS data:
“One reason for this anomaly could be the unorthodox way in which the SCCBS asks about ideology, which differs from the standard phrasing used in the ANES (American National Election Studies) and GSS (General Social Survey). The ideology question wording in the 2000 SCCBS reads: “Thinking politically and socially, how would you describe your own general outlook–as being very conservative, moderately conservative, middle-of-the-road, moderately liberal or very liberal?” It is likely that this wording compels many economic liberals to identify as social conservatives, and many economic conservatives to identify as social liberals; because social liberals tend to be wealthier, this would explain why liberals in the SCCBS are wealthier. Certainly the wording affects the distribution on the ideology question. Whereas 33 and 34% of respondents in the 2000 ANES and GSS respectively identified as conservatives, the percentage jumps to 43 in the SCCBS. For these reasons, it seems reasonable to ask whether these findings can be replicated using another dataset.”
Other critiques of Brook’s book and his misuse of data are found here and here. The Friendly Atheist had another interesting take on this subject and a similar study found here.
Dr. McBrayer mentioned that religiosity was an indicator of increase in higher education attendance. In a country where around 90% identify with a belief in a supernatural god, is that really a surprise? The same can be said for prisoners, where the percentage, for example, of Christians in the prison system is estimated around 70%.
For me, the underlying irony of the entire talk was Dr. McBrayer’s initial dismissal of reason and well-grounded evidence when considering claims. He stated, “A claim is reasonable to believe only if you have a cogent argument for it? That’s crazy!” He then proceeded to try to establish his own claims by reasoned arguments and evidence. Huh?
There also seemed to be a sense of categorizing all claims as equal, particularly when he asked, “what is adequate evidence?” That which is considered adequate evidence is different for different claims. If you tell me you had eggs and toast for breakfast and I know you to be a straightforward and honest person, I will most likely believe you without needing further evidence. If you tell me, however, that there is an extra-terrestrial visiting you every night from the planet Gulang, I’m going to need more evidence than just your word.It’s been said before but bares repeating:
There was some wording that Dr. McBrayer used in reference to atheism that seemed plain odd to me- “evidence for atheism” and “arguments for atheism are not good”. To try to convey to Dr. McBrayer how that sounds to an atheist, I’m going to replace a couple of words in those statements:
-“What is the evidence for the non-existence of Bigfoot?
-“Arguments for the non-existence of Bigfoot are not good.”
To clarify, atheists simply do not believe there is substantive evidence to justify a belief in a god. In this case, the burden of proof is on the believer. To use Dr. McBrayer’s phrasing undercuts that point.
Another thing I’d like to discuss concerns a statement Dr. McBrayer said during a brief discussion during the Q and A on the “hidden god”, the god who doesn’t reveal himself but is helping you behind the scenes (or something to that effect). Dr. McBrayer illustrated this concept through a story about his young son on a camping trip. He told his son he could walk by himself to a nearby store, to the chagrin of his wife. “What my son didn’t know”, he explained, “is that I was following him the entire way”. Dr. McBrayer then conveyed that this, perhaps, is how god works. He lets us do things on our own for our own personal development but he is there watching over us nonetheless.
Here is why I think this example fails.
Let’s say that as Dr. McBrayer was watching his son, a stranger approached the young boy and began guiding him away from the campground and towards a car. As a parent myself, I have no doubt what would happen next. Dr. McBrayer would swoop in, grab his child and, depending on the circumstances, call the police. Thousands of children are reported missing every day. Why doesn’t God, the ever-present father swoop in and save them as well? I would say that Dr. McBrayer is the better Dad.
The Q and A session also brought up a point on the use of the words “religious” vs “theism”. Dr. McBrayer admitted to interchanging these words and acknowledged the differences in connotation between them.
The last thing Dr. McBrayer said as he closed out the Q and A session, however, was the most surprising to me:
“Practice is more important than belief.”
Wait a minute here! Doesnt’ that undermine your entire theses statements about how a belief in god translates into deeper living? Now you say belief is not so important?
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed Dr. McBrayer’s talk and thought it was well presented. I just don’t happen to agree with him.
Incidentally, I just read an article in yesterday’s paper that the second annual World Happiness Report was released Monday from the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network. They found that the highest levels of happiness were in Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden.
Thanks to all who attended the talk and we hope we can continue to take part in the Fort Lewis Philosophy Club’s subsequent discussions.
Coming up next week: “Skeptical Religion-What it Means and Why it Matters”. For more information, see our meetup page.