Living Deeper With God

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:

  1. Theists can have deep lives.
  2. The case for deeper non-theistic lives (as proposed in Dr Owen’s talk) is a failure.
  3. 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.



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3 responses to “Living Deeper With God

  1. As always, it’s easy to pick apart someone’s argument and ONLY address the weakest points as Dr. McBrayer did. I understand the logic of this tactic as it’s an effective way of rebuttal. However, he really offered nothing new to the discussion other than claiming Dugald Owen is wrong, and weakly trying to substantiate that claim.

    I found Dr. McBrayer’s talk quit boring; it was the same drivel that we hear from theists trying to convince us that their lives are much better. He repeatedly used the age old argument that atheists, Dr Owen in particular, have responsibility to disprove god. He extrapolated this to include it’s atheist’s responsibility to show they live deeper. For this reason i found his presentation bland; I’ve heard similar versions over and over.

    Dr. McBrayer’s evidence was weak at best. His Boston chart/graph was pretty empty, and left a lot of information out. This alone could have been a debate lasting hours. Of course religious conservatives donate more! They are told they have to by their church. Tithing and donating to the Sunday collection plate count towards this number. Many theists, US christians in this case, also beleive they have an obligation to share god, so they donate to pro-life, christian relief groups, etc…

    I’d venture that while religious conservatives donate more money, that the fewer dollars non theists donate actually accomplish more. My donations don’t buy bibles, and I hope my money helps without proselytizing. Some of the most inefficient non profits in the county are Christian based. has a great break down of many non profits. I’d venture a theists will preferably chose “Their Church Food Bank”, over a secular food bank. Having worked and traveled in Central America I’ve seen lots of late teen folks on Church sponsored trips providing ‘aid’. Eyeglasses, vaccinations, and education came with a heavy dose of Jesus. Again these are all great things, but how much of the budget goes to theism. Many of these ‘aid workers’ spend a week or more learning how to share god with those less fortunate. What a waste.

    How many Christian relief organizations provide birth control in Africa? How many teach overpopulation and global warming? How much of the Christian dollars donated go to PACs that want to ban abortion and gay marriage? Tax churches and see what the donation chart looks like….

    I find the idea of god ridiculous, Dr. McBrayer’s ‘invisible god’ concept and analogy was even more so. The invisible/hidden god is a tried and true tactic theist’s use. It’s another way to shun logic and responsibility when it come to argument. It’s analogous to saying l 6 year Timmy was abducted and dismembered because God needed another angle in heaven. However, if Timmy escaped unharmed it was God’s divine intervention. I work around death & destruction- I can easily claim God hides equally from theists and non theists, ie he is never around when the car hit’s the semi. I find that all outcomes I see, positive or not, are a result of physics, chemistry, and biology.

  2. Excellent overview, Kathleen. I especially like your extension of the analogy about McBrayer’s son being given more autonomy…to make this analogous McBrayer would indeed have to watch something bad happen to his son and not intervene. We wouldn’t worship him for this…we would have him indicted.

    And something else occurred to me about the stats about religious people donating more to charity. While information like this should challenge us to devote more effort to putting money where our mouth is, I also think that for the religious, donating money to causes that are at least partially based on ideology is their way of voicing their opinions in the form of dollars. Against sex? Donate money to programs advocating abstinence-only education. Against homosexuality? Donate to one of those weird gay therapy programs. It’s a way of being generously opinionated. And help pad the stats that go into that cute little Boston chart.

    With that said, I think we liberal types tend to have our emotional need for altruism filled by simply advocating that the government do something to help others. It is hypocritical to some degree for a person to argue that someone else should do something to help this person in need that we claim to care about.

    Thanks for the post Kathleen!

  3. I would like to do two things: (A) respond to some reactions and (B) offer some reaction of my own.

    A. Politics: Some persons took Justin to be taking a swipe at liberals by using the Brooks chart, but to be fair I think his main point was that the most reliable indicator for strong charitable giving is religiosity not political persuasion. Some have also suggested that Justin is a typical American Christian Conservative, this is false (check out his paper on Christianity and homosexuality!). On the other hand it is good to note that Brooks work is controversial!

    Like Scott, I am also a sympathetic to the idea that the nonreligious gives more effectively–but I don’t really have decisive evidence for that claim. (However, I would recommend checking out GiveWell over Charity Navigator as their work is much more rigorous and is explicitly focused on doing the most good.)

    I think Clayton is spot-on when it comes to liberal attitudes about philanthropy. It’s really strange to to vote for the government to take one’s money instead of giving it voluntarily.

    Evidence and arguments:

    Note that the claim “I reject that all beliefs need reasonable arguments in order to be justified” doesn’t entail the claim “No beliefs need reasonable arguments in order to be justified.” Someone could subscribe to the former, without subscribing to the latter. Suppose you think the former is true, then for every claim you believe in order for that belief to be justified there must be an argument for it for it. But this leads to an infinite regress. For some belief A will have to be supported by argument B in order to be justified, and then the argument B will have to be supported some other argument C in order to be justified and so on. So it’s hard to see how one can escape accept the first claim!

    Accepting that not all claims need arguments however doesn’t entail that religious beliefs are as justified as any other though it does seem to entail that at least some religious believers are justified in their beliefs (this isn’t crazy, and is roughly my view at the moment). Of course, unlike Justin I don’t think that religious beliefs are justified as a type of belief more generally, even though some religious believers (a minority perhaps?) may well be justified in their beliefs.


    Justin’s example had to do with the problem of hiddenness, I think your example Kathleen would switch the topic to the problem evil–these problems are distinct. It’s unfair to expect Justin to tackle both, when he was addressing the problem of hiddenness. On the other hand I don’t think the analogy will be successful for either problem (disanalogy: Justin’s son can be said to be in a relationship with him whereas nonbelievers cannot be said to be in such a relationship). And when we consider the fact that God is hidden (even to those who are nonresistant and capable of entering a relationship with her) and that people suffer horrendous evils (even though such sufferings are not necessary for their deepest good, namely a relationship with God) in combination the plausibility of this world being one in which a maximally loving and powerful being vanishes!

    B. Some reactions of my own: this post is getting a bit on the long side so I will keep it quick!

    First, I wonder if Justin was unfair to some of Dugald’s arguments. Take the moral argument. Though it’s true that most theistic scholars don’t hold the view that Dugald ascribes to them, this doesn’t entail that theists don’t tend to hold the view that Dugald ascribed to them (the crude view of divine command theory)! Additionally Justin didn’t address what was one of Dugald’s more interesting arguments: that thinking of reality as the creation of another person is limiting in several ways that make ones live less valuable.

    Second, it seems to me that the prima facie case for thinking religious believers live deeper lives is probably going to cancel out due to a just as plausible case for thinking that the nonreligious live deeper lives (a lot of facts for this claim have already been mentioned). There are reasons to think that both lives correlate with certain goods, and I don’t see any reason to prefer one over the other (excluding reasons like: most religious views are false).

    Finally, I think some the a path like Schellenberg’s may be the best here. Skeptical religion may enable us to get the goods of a religious life without the epistemic loss that comes with religious belief. It is an option worth considering.


    Caleb O

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