Interview with Ben Watkins: A Dialogue on Unbelief and Christianity

Aside from authoring several of my own philosophy of religion pages, I am also an administrator for the Christian apologetics organization Capturing Christianity (CC). Upon my time spent with the administrative team and creator Cameron Bertuzzi, I came across an article entitled “Why I Am An Atheist,” by one Ben Watkins. If you were a Christian reading this, perhaps well versed in philosophy and theology, despite personal opinions on where Ben stands you might find his reasons for unbelief well-crafted.

If, conversely, you were not so well-versed in philosophy or theology you might find Ben’s reasons for unbelief quite troubling. Despite Ben’s frequent interactions and even debates with the team, I had hopes myself to approach him and try a different method.

By method of course I don’t mean a specific plan or a guide of rules to instruct my dealings with Ben and asking loaded questions. By method I simply mean a practice of attempting to discover the unknown.  Hence what I think should be taken away from this exchange is to impart a kind of philosophical flavor; a Christian’s expansion of their intellectual palate.

Though Ben will provide a brief introduction for himself, I did want to mention that you can find Ben as the host of his philosophy of religion page Real Atheology: A Philosophy of Religion Podcast. You can also find their YouTube channel under the same name.

 

Question #1: Can you give a brief background of yourself? Who are you and what ought people to know about you?

Ben: My name is Ben Watkins, and I’m originally from Columbia South Carolina, but I’ve lived in Norfolk VA for about 8 years now. My undergraduate degree was in mechanical engineering, and now I’m a nuclear engineer working for the Navy refueling submarines. Additionally, I’m the host of Real Atheology: A Philosophy of Religion Podcast. My main philosophical interests are in the philosophy of religion, moral philosophy, and the philosophy of mind.

My project with Real Atheology is mainly to explore questions within the philosophy of religion from an atheistic point of view. My secondary goal is to explore what religion can look like once we take the concept of personal disembodied minds and the supernatural off the table. What replaces religion for the atheist? What are the positive frameworks which are either implicitly or explicitly atheistic?

 
Question #2How would you describe your stance towards belief in God? If you are an “atheist” or “religious skeptic,” how do you understand these terms?

Ben: I would describe myself as an atheist, a metaphysical naturalist, a religious skeptic, and a humanist. I understand the term atheist in what I’ve called the belief-implying sense. In other words, I believe the claim “at least one god exists” is false. This is different from some contemporary usages of the word atheist. Some people call themselves atheists but only admit they lack a belief there is at least one god.

This is how we have historically used the term non-theist, which is why I call this sense the non-theist implying sense of the term atheist. I don’t find this sense helpful as both agnostics and atheists are non-theists, and lacking a belief in theism is not the same as giving reasons to believe theism is false.

I’ve also observed that the non-theist implying sense of atheist is a convenient way for some atheists to play hide-the-ball with a burden of justification. This sense seems to be most embraced by non-theists who want to take on the label or identity of being an atheist but do not want to accept the burden of justification which that label has historically implied.

But atheism is a negative thesis. It’s merely saying that the world does not contain a god. A positive thesis I also defend is metaphysical naturalism. I believe the universe is a causally closed system acting in accordance with natural laws. I believe that minds are physically-dependent things which give us access to what Wilfrid Sellars called the “logical space of reasons.” I believe humans are rational animals who can respond to reasons to have certain beliefs and perform certain acts. My metaphysical views can be described as more or less in line with the view described in John McDowell’s “Mind and World.”

In addition to my metaphysical belief in naturalism, I also have ethical beliefs. I’m a humanist in the sense that I believe humans and other non-human sentient beings matter. I believe they matter in the sense we have all reasons to care about these things for their own sake. I believe we have obligations not only to other human persons but also to some non-human animals and to the environment. My ethical views are “human-centric” in the sense they are rational responses to the human condition we find ourselves in, and I do not use any theological or supernatural concepts.

I’m a “religious skeptic” in the sense that I’m skeptical of religious truth claims and opt to allow reason and evidence to bear on questions of religious significance. There is an important sense in which I am anti-faith. If there is some sort of divine reality or religiously significant feature of the world, then my belief is that we can all discover it using reason and evidence. In this sense, I’m not anti-religion, but I am anti-dogma and anti-superstition. I insist on our religious beliefs being reasonable rather than contrary to reason. If your concept of faith fits within this framework, then we will have a wide range of common ground.

 
Question #3What is your opinion on the atheist-theist debate today? Do you have any thoughts on the debate taking place between Christians and atheists today? Theists and non-theists?

Ben: What I’ve called “The Great Debate” is any discussion or set of questions surrounding the existence of god where a god is understood as a disembodied mind which is of religious significance to our lives. As of today, I believe there are two clear and distinct conversations occurring within the Great Debate.

First, there is the lay-debate between contemporary Christians which I call the creationists and what I’ve called pop atheists or more commonly known as the new atheists or internet atheists. This is the familiar internet discussion we’ve all seen online between Christians and atheists. The discussions spend a disproportionate amount of time arguing over definitions, burdens of justification, which side is intellectually superior or morally superior, and what should or should not be taught in public schools or allowed on government property.

The second clear and distinct contemporary conversation is between academic theistic philosophers and non-theistic philosophers within the philosophy of religion. This is obviously the more serious conversation. Between these two conversations there is a middle ground emerging. They are the Christian Apologists and atheologians like myself who are trying to bridge these two discussions, albeit, in different ways and for different reasons. Apologists want to equip other Christians with the intellectual tools they need to reinforce or “give a defense of” their faith.

However, I, and many of my fellow atheologians, have no goals of equipping pop atheists with the intellectual tools they need to reinforce their atheistic beliefs. In fact, we are often critical of pop-atheist beliefs and arguments. Our goal is more about getting all side of the discussion to take these questions seriously by getting creationists and pop-atheists to be less confident in their religious beliefs and attitudes.

We are still very early in human history with respect to religious inquiry and none of us is justified in the confidence we all too often find on both sides of this question. Many people mistakenly believe the goal of an atheologian is to convert people to atheism, to give a defense of atheism, or to advocate for an atheist movement.

The actual goal is religious skepticism. We want both sides of the discussion to realize they haven’t been thinking about these questions in the right ways, and their confidence in certain claims is often misplaced.

 
Question #4: What is some advice you wish you could give to “Christian apologists?” What do you wish Christians understood before they engage in arguments, discourse, etc. with you?

Ben: The best piece of advice I can give anyone is to take arguments on both sides seriously. What you believe is not nearly as important as how you think and your attitude towards certain questions. Take the risk of thinking for yourself. You will discover much more truth, beauty, and wisdom if you do.I wish more Christians understood I don’t hate God. I find the suggestion silly and annoying.

 
Question #5: What are some the best arguments against theism, in your opinion? What do you think counts as the best defeaters for theism?

Ben: The different variations of the argument from evil are almost certainly the most important arguments against theism. The 20th century not only gave us logical and evidential formulations to reflect on, but it also gave us a new variation of the argument in the form of the argument from divine hiddenness. The problem of evil is something a misleading title, because the problem of evil is really a family of different problems.

To my mind, these are the most pressing defeaters for theism because they undermine nearly all cosmological and teleological arguments for God’s existence since those arguments tell us nothing about the moral properties of the first cause or intelligent designer. Those are considered some of the stronger arguments for God’s existence, so the fact that they cannot, even in principle, undercut the argument from evil makes the force of problem of evil that much more difficult to overcome.

Combine this with the fact the arguments which do make reference to moral properties (the ontological and moral arguments) are rejected by nearly all philosophers. This seems to me a nearly insurmountable mountain for theism to have to climb and is without a doubt one of the driving reasons for my being an atheist.

 
Question #6: Who are some of the intellectual influences in your life? What thinkers have contributed mostly to your personal thought? Who do you enjoy reading, discussing, etc.?

Ben: he thinker who has undoubtedly influenced me the most is the late Derek Parfit of Oxford University. To my mind, he is the paradigm example of what a philosopher should be, how they should think, and how they should write. The other philosopher to really influence me has been Thomas Nagel of New York University (NYU). He was probably my first really serious dive into philosophy as I poured over his works for months and months. As far as reading goes, I still love the stoics and I’m still mesmerized by eastern thought such as the Tao te Ching and contemporary Buddhist writings on mindfulness. I highly recommend “The Art of Living” by Thich Nhat Hanh.

 
Question #7: What are your thoughts on beauty? Are there any philosophical, existential or personal elaborations you can add to the concept of beauty?

Ben: What I think is the key concept when discussing beauty is the idea of an aesthetic response. Brilliant pieces of artwork or masterpieces of symphonies can illicit different sorts of aesthetic responses. Beauty is one of the things which I believe makes life worth living. Whether it be smelling our grandmothers cooking or staring deeply into the sky at night. Whether it be reading a poem or carving a statue out of marble. Or whether it be listening to our favorite song or running our hands through a cool stream; beauty gives humans ideals worth striving for and worth appreciating.

Nietzsche plausibly, though I believe mistakenly, said that, “without music, life would be a mistake.” Art and the beauty it gives us are something worth struggling for. The world with all its faults and all its terrible tragedy and irony can also give rise to great works of art which can inspire us, move us, and help us understand what it is to be human. This is the case regardless of whether or not God exists. I find it profoundly moving.

 
Question #8: Do you believe that man has a purpose? Do you think that there is meaning in life, or that life is meaningful? If so, what advice would you have for atheists? For Christians?

Ben: So there are two distinct questions here. One about purpose and the other about meaning. I do not believe there is any purpose to life, because I do not believe a purpose is something which can be imposed on an autonomous agent. Some things have purposes because we intend of them to have them. For example, hammers are made for the purpose of hitting nails, and cars are made for the purpose of transportation.

However, if there were no people, then hammer’s would no long be for hammering nails, and cars would no longer be for transporting people. Humans are not relevantly like hammers, because we are autonomous and give ourselves our own purposes or “aims.” We can choose our own aims and judge for ourselves whether they are relevantly good or worth achieving and whether or not we should dedicate our lives to them.

In this sense, we create our own purpose in life. So while I don’t believe there is a purpose to life, I do believe there can be purpose in life. For example, I believe my purpose in life is to be a philosopher and a teacher. I once thought it was to be an engineer, but I no longer believe that. These are the purposes which I’ve given myself over my life because I’ve judged them, at one time or another, to be worth achieving.

This brings me to the question of meaning. I do believe that by striving and struggling to be a philosopher and a teacher, I can create meaning in my life and the lives of others. But the meaning in my life is not limited to this. I also believe I can create meaning in the relationships I develop in the world. I love my family, my wife, and I love spending time with my friends.

All of these relationships are meaningful in my life- regardless of whether or not God exists. God’s existence is an irrelevant metaphysical question in comparison to the question of meaning and the role my answer to it plays in my life. So what advice would I give to atheists and theists?

For theists I would say your life is the purpose you give it, and you cannot escape this choice. This is the case regardless of whether or not God exists. Even if you believe your purpose in life is given to you by God, then you are still choosing that to live up to that purpose. You are still judging that purpose as worth achieving and a source of meaning in your life.

For atheists, I would say your life is not meaningless even if you no longer believe you are for something like a hammer is for hammering nails- or even if you believe the universe is absurd! Just because you are not an instrument of someone else’s will, it does not follow that you cannot live a good or meaningful life. To both atheists and theists, I would say the meaning of life is love and work. Love who you are with and love whatever it is you are doing. If you seek that, then happiness will find you.

 
Question #9: Are there any arguments for the existence of God that you may have struggled with? Do you have any thoughts on these arguments that you wish to share?

Ben: I don’t know if there are any arguments I’ve struggled with per se, because my attitude is to follow arguments wherever they may lead. I more struggled with arguments when I was a Christian than as an atheist. Since my deconversion, I find changing my mind an exciting process, so I only find myself struggling with arguments in the sense of struggling to understand them or their relevance to some question. I have found some very interesting theistic arguments, though, I wish theists would make use of.

For example, I’ve been impressed with the argument from moral agency for the existence of God. The argument claims our universe contains moral agents that have the capacity to make morally significant decisions. I think there is good reason to believe an omnipotent and morally perfect being would choose to create such beings. However, metaphysical naturalism gives us no reason to expect moral agents. In fact, moral agents are surprising if metaphysical naturalism is true.

There is obviously much more to unpack in this argument, but I find the premises plausible and the argument is valid. I think this is the strongest form of teleological theism has going for it. I think it keeps the Great Debate an interesting discussion.

The other arguments I spend a lot of time reflecting on are arguments from personal religious experience. I myself do not have religious experiences, so I’m curious as to how they influence other people’s beliefs about religion. Theists have access to the same third-person evidence that I do, but what theists seem to have that I don’t are first-person religious experiences. One question which nags all philosophers about any question they tackle is what sort of consideration could change their minds. I believe a cogent religious experience of a theistic sort may be able to change my mind.

I don’t know, which makes my lack of religious experiences even more frustrating. The closest experience I’ve had to what I believe could properly be called religious was my experience of witnessing a total eclipse in the summer of 2017. It was an experience of an entirely different sort that I’ve never been able to replicate, and is not captured in any video or picture I’ve ever seen. It is the closest thing I can imagine to a consideration which would change my mind. Is this an argument I’m struggling with? Perhaps it is in a sense.

 
Question #10What do you make of suffering? Are there any philosophical, personal or existential elaborations you can add to your understanding of suffering?

Ben: In short, I believe that suffering matters in the sense we all have reasons to care about suffering for its own sake. That there are children who still starve to death or die of preventable diseases is something of a moral failure to put it lightly. My views about suffering have obviously been influenced greatly by Derek Parfit and Thomas Nagel, but they have also been influenced by a much more controversial figure: Peter Singer.

Whenever I discuss the topic of suffering, I think the most important argument to turn our attention to is Peter Singer’s “Drowning Child” thought experiment. Whatever your feelings about Peter Singer may be, this thought experiment is, I think, the single most important one we can focus on when we ask ourselves whether suffering matters. In the thought experiment we are asked to imagine a small child drowning in front of us in a shallow pond. We can either save this child are ruin our expensive leather shoes, or we can let the child drown and save our shoes.

Most people would morally object to allowing the child drown. The cost of leather shoes is simply not a morally relevant factor when it comes to saving the child’s life. But now let’s imagine that instead of a child drowning in front of you, it is a child starving to death in Africa. Now you have the option of donating money to an aid agency which would save this child’s life or going to movie and allowing the child to die. Nothing relevant has changed in the scenario except for the distance between you and the suffering child, the child’s form of suffering, and your method of saving them. None of these considerations is morally relevant.

What this thought experiment helps us see is that we are not giving nearly enough to help the suffering in the world. We have become so fixated over the protection of the legal right to our excess wealth that we’ve become morally blind to fact that we don’t have a moral right to our excess wealth when there are people suffering in ways that are just as morally serious as if a child was drowning right in front of us.

We have no more excuse for not helping more than does someone who doesn’t want to save a drowning child for fear of ruining their expensive shoes. I find this a powerful argument, and one that almost certainly makes the problem of evil more difficult.

 
Question #11: What do you make of the central figure of Christianity, Jesus Christ? Is there any historical, philosophical or personal elaborations you wish to add?

Ben: I see the figure of Jesus as an ethical pioneer of sorts. His notion of loving your enemy and turning the other cheek were radical ethical ideas for his time, and they are also ethically wise, so we can learn a great deal from these teachings. However, there are other parts of Christian theism which I think are positively corrosive to ethics- some of these things surround the figure of Jesus.

For example, I believe the notion of Hell is a morally abhorrent one and could not possibly be something created by a perfectly good and unsurpassably loving being- and it’s one mentioned specifically by Jesus. Additionally, I think the notion of vicarious redemption does not make any sense. First, I don’t understand how humanity can be somehow blameworthy or responsible for the acts of Adam and Eve.

Second, I can make no ethical sense of the idea that Jesus’ torture and sacrifice was somehow necessary for the salvation of mankind. I do not believe we can absolve ourselves of responsibility in these ways. So I see Jesus as a mixed bag. There are some wise lessons we can learn from studying his teachings, but there are others we should do away with.

 

Question #12: Why, in your view, do you think people ascent to religion or belief in God? Why do you think people follow religious belief?

Ben: I don’t think there is any one cause of religious belief, but I do believe wishful thinking is a major part of it. It’s one thing the theist can almost always be charged with, but it cannot be charged of almost any non-believer. Some people have their religious beliefs because they unreflectively adopted the same ones from their family or culture.

Other people claim to have powerful religious experiences which undoubtedly contribute to their beliefs. I’ve also met people who believe religion was a way of gaining meaning in their lives or overcoming some hardship like the death of a loved one or an addiction to some vice. I’ve often heard Christians claim they are better people as Christians than they would be if they were not Christians. That’s an obvious pragmatic reason for belief. So these are all ways in which I believe people ascent to religion, but I doubt this list is exhaustive.

 

Question #13: What, in your view, is the worst argument theists or Christians use? What are some of the bad arguments of Christianity or natural theology?

Ben: Christians can use all sorts of bad arguments, but the ones which stand out the most are of the Young Earth Creationist variety which attempt to undermine our scientific understandings of biological evolution and the age of the universe. These arguments have no real chance of being true or vindicated by future discovery. The views are so untenable as to be not worth discussing and are an embarrassment to other thoughtful Christians who must live down their influence.

When it comes to serious natural theology, those arguments are not nearly as bad as those of YECs, but there are some really bad ones in my opinion. The first is the ontological argument. Such an argument seeks to prove the existence of God a priori from the very concept of God. It makes for a cute puzzle, but it is not a serious argument among philosophers. The other argument I believe is really bad is the moral argument. Apologists attempt to get a lot of mileage out of the assumption that atheism implies moral nihilism, but reasons to believe this claim are seldom offered.

This assumption is even used in attempts to undermine the argument from evil! But, to my mind, there is no good reason to believe it is true. There are plenty of moral realist theories which are both objective and make no appeal to theological premises. Apologists pretty much have to ignore these theories and pretend they don’t exist.

 

Question #14: What is your view of the Bible? Do you have anything to add in terms of biblical ethics, historiography, doctrine, etc.?

Ben: My view of the Bible is mixed. There are some parts which I really enjoy reading such as some of the Psalms and the Sermon on the Mount. However, I find much of it too obscure or dated to be of much use to practical life or religious inquiry. I’ve found much more wisdom in the Tao te Ching’s 81 short chapters than I have in the entirety of the Bible.

 

Question #15: Can you give some general, philosophical/existential advice? Is there anything you would communicate to atheists or theists about living a good life? Thinking existentially or seeking the truth? What are some general beliefs you would share with others?

Ben: One piece of advice I would want to get across is to value the truth for its own sake. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain from an honest pursuit of truth. All good philosophy begins there. So far as existential advice, I would emphasize the claim money doesn’t buy happiness. It only affords a better quality of misery. Happiness cannot be bought. It can’t even be taught. It must be lived.

However, life is suffering. You will suffer. You will fail. And you will die. But you have everything you need right now to be happy. You only need to look within yourself. Look within yourself until you are as still as calm water. Then respond to the world as it presents itself to you. When the world gives you something you love passionately and is worth struggling for, then let it kill you.

 

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*The featured image to this article was taken from https://hyperallergic.com/90646/painting-and-philosophy-an-assessment/

*The image is Philippe de Champaigne’s Vanite (17th-century). Oil on canvas.

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