Wednesday, December 3, 2014

On the Nature of God

According to every theist apologist I have listened to, in order for God to have created the universe "he" must be immaterial and exist outside of space and time (since matter, space and time are all components of the universe which didn't exist until it was created). Logically, God must also not be made of energy, since matter and energy are equivalent and energy also didn't exist before the universe was created.

The problem for theist apologists is two-fold. First of all, an entity that is not made of matter or energy and that exists outside of space and time is, pretty much by definition, something that has no existence whatsoever. Second of all, even if such an entity could somehow be said to exist, there is no proposed mechanism for how such an entity could ever interact with space, time, matter or energy. Which means that, even if God did exist, there would be no way of knowing it and certainly no validity to any religious systems that claim to know the will of God.

Theist apologists go to great lengths to attempt to prove the logical necessity of some sort of creative force of the universe, despite the fact that the only such force they can logically "prove" is one that is completely unknowable and self-contradictory. After they've tied logic into complete knots to get that far, however, they then just throw logic out the window and end with, "Therefore, the God of [my favorite holy book] must be real!"

I recently watched a debate between an atheist and a Christian apologist regarding the existence of God.  In his opening statement, the Christian apologist claimed that he would prove two things: first, that God must logically exist, and second, that this God was the Christian God described in the Bible.  During the debate proper, the Christian apologist attempted to logically prove the existence of God (all the while calling atheists stupid for not agreeing with his logic).  Basically, his “proof” came down to arguing that since certain fundamental logical concepts such as “the law of identity” (i.e., a thing is equivalent to itself) must exist independent of human minds, since not all humans know about these laws and they would exist even if there were no humans, they must have been created by some being who exists wholly outside of the universe of space and time.  Aside from the fact that this argument is a load of hooey to begin with, however, the apologist never bothered to mention how this abstract notion of God had anything to do with the Christian God of the Bible.  After the formal part of the debate was over, an audience member asked him how he got from one to the other,  Despite his initial claim that he would prove it, his reply was that he knew the Christian God of the Bible was real because “He came to me in my heart.”  Oh, really?

In general, I find it hilarious to watch both Christian and Muslim apologists go through the same tortuous logic to "prove" that something must have created the universe, and then come to completely different conclusions as to what that creative force actually is. And each side is absolutely convinced because it's just obvious that their religion is true and therefore their description of God must be true as well.

Do I know exactly how the universe came into being? Nope. Do I think that it's possible that some "force" (whether the universe itself or something outside the universe, including a multiverse) was somehow responsible for the universe coming into being? I honestly don't know, which I suppose would make me an agnostic. But that would only make me an agnostic as to whether or not some "force" (whether the universe itself or something outside the universe) was somehow responsible for the universe coming into being. Do I believe that a personal God as described in the holy books of any religion or as worshiped by any religion was the force that was responsible for the universe coming into being? Absolutely not, and in that regard I remain firmly an atheist.


To sum up:

  • The whole concept of a "supernatural" being is nonsensical, since anything outside of nature would, by definition, be unable to interact with nature. Either God can interact with it (speaking to our minds, performing miracles, healing the sick, answering prayers, etc.) and is therefore part of the natural world or he is "supernatural," in which case he would not be able to do all those things. You can't have it both ways.
  • Calling something an "uncaused cause" is pure sophistry. It's a contradiction in terms and exists solely as a way of getting yourself out of a corner that you have painted yourself into. If everything must have a cause, what caused God? You've basically said that God must be "supernatural" because everything natural must have a cause, and since you don't want to admit that God himself must therefore have a cause, you will arbitrarily define God as "supernatural" with no justification other than it provides you with a loophole.
  • Even if God were somehow necessary to explain the origin of the universe, even if it actually made sense to say that some being who exists outside of space and time could actually create space and time, what rationale is there to accept that that being is the Christian God? I have listened to Muslims make the exact same arguments for the necessity of God, but strangely they are absolutely convinced that their arguments prove the necessity of the God of the Koran and not that of the Bible.
  • Since theist apologists love to twist logic in order to "prove" the existence of their personal concept of God, I think it is only fair to disprove the existence of God in the same manner (it's amazing how you can logically prove or disprove anything at all if you define your terms correctly) :
  1. In order for God to have created the universe, He must exist outside the universe.
  2. Anything that exists outside the universe cannot be said to exist within the universe.
  3. The universe is defined as the totality of all existence, meaning that nothing can be said to exist if it is not inside the universe.
  4. Therefore, God does not exist.  QED.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Accepting Evolution

Although the theory of evolution doesn't really have anything to do with Atheism, per se,  it often comes up in discussions with theists who apparently feel threatened by something which can so fully explain observable phenomena that theists have been claiming for centuries could only be explained by the existence of a divine creator.  Before the theory of evolution was proposed (and, eventually, accepted), there just wasn't any good way to explain the immense diversity of life on earth and the way it is all so interconnected.  Of course, claiming that God "must" have done it since we can't think of any other explanation is a classic argument from ignorance, but the fact remained that there were no other decent explanations for a long time.  With the theory of evolution, however, you no longer need God to explain everything, and this has led some theists to attempt to undermine its acceptance at every opportunity.  Not all theist, mind you -- the Catholic Church, for example, officially recognizes the science behind the theory of evolution and "merely" claims that God directed the process and at some point in that process injected the human soul into the mix.

Somebody once me asked whether it was possible to come up with grand unifying analogy or quote to fully explain the theory of evolution and make it more understandable and accepted by whose who deny it. Unfortunately, while analogies may be useful in understanding the general concepts underlying evolution, I don't think they are much use when it comes to actually accepting the truth of evolution. And this is the case with most fields of science that attempt to explain things that are not, and cannot, be perceived directly and which may even appear to contradict our everyday experiences.

Relativity is truly weird, especially when you talk about curved space/time. Sure, comparing space/time to a rubber sheet and massive objects to a bowling ball rolling along that sheet may help me understand the general idea that somebody is talking about, but at the end of the day it doesn't really help me to understand what space/time really is or accept that it can be somehow distorted by massive objects. That will only come by learning a lot of complex mathematics and performing (or at least studying) tons of experiments.  And if I insisted that all theories that describe reality must comport with my "common sense" view of the world, I would never be able to accept the validity of relativity, despite the fact that it is widely accepted among physicists and is actually used on a daily basis for such things as making adjustments to GPS satellites that are further away from the Earth's gravitational pull and therefore run at a slightly different speed than clocks on earth.  Seriously weird stuff, but also seriously true.

Quantum mechanics is even worse. It has been said that nobody truly understands it, and yet its principals have been borne out by experimentation and physicists can make accurate predictions based on the various laws that have been discovered regarding it.  Of course, the world we can observe with our eyes and ears does not operate on the quantum level, and once again my "common sense" experiences are not a reliable means of judging the validity of quantum mechanics.

Like relativity and quantum mechanics, the theory of evolution describes reality as it occurs on a scale not generally observable by our standard senses.  In the case of evolution, the scale has to do with time rather than size or speed or distance.  And, just like relativity and quantum mechanics, we cannot rely on our own "common sense" experiences as a guide to determining whether or not it is an accurate description of reality.  Once again, however, just like the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics, the theory of evolution provides an explanation as to why the universe behaves the way it does and also lets us make falsifiable predictions as to what will happen in the future.

[As a side note here, let me point out that the word "theory," when used in a scientific sense (like the theory of gravity or the theory of relativity), does not mean an unverified guess or idea.  In scientific terms, that would be a "hypothesis".  Instead, the word "theory" is used to describe a system of interrelated laws and principles that have been tested, validated and confirmed and that are used to describe a particular area of  observed reality.  In other words, you don't get to call something a "theory" in science unless it has been proven to be be true.]

To understand evolution, all you really need to know (and I hope I'm getting this right) is that (a) small, random changes are occurring all the time within all biological organisms due to such things as random cosmic ray bombardment, (b) the environment in which most organisms live is constantly changing as well (either due to a change in the environment itself or because the organisms have moved to a different environment), and (c) these two factors frequently combine so that some members of any given species find themselves better suited to the current environment (and thereby survive to pass on their genes to future generations) while other members of that species find themselves less suited (and thereby do not survive to pass on their genes to future generations). Add to that a time span of billions of years for small changes to accumulate, et voila!

The best analogy I have read to help me accept the truth of the theory evolution is the one described in Dawkin's "Climbing Mount Improbable." It doesn't lend itself to a pithy quote, unfortunately, but the general analogy compares the evolution of, say, mammals from their ancient fish-like ancestors to a sheer-faced cliff hundreds (thousands?) of feet high. To somebody standing at the base of the cliff, the very thought of leaping to the top in a single bound is impossible to consider, just like it may be impossible to imagine a fish turning into a mouse. But, the analogy continues, what if you could look at the other side of the cliff and see a gradual slope extending for tens (or even hundreds) of miles in the distance, leading from sea level all the way to the cliff's edge? If you started a journey from the very beginning of the slope, the incline would be so gradual that at no point in your journey would you ever even notice you were rising. You could travel for days, weeks, months and still appear to be traveling on perfectly level ground. And yet, at the end of your journey you would eventually find yourself thousands of feet in the air despite never having made any perceptible leaps whatsoever.  Replace "hundreds of miles" in the cliff analogy with "billions of years" in the theory of evolution, and the analogy is complete. The analogy only works, however, if you fully understand the processes involved with evolution in the first place.

Hopefully, this analogy  provides with a framework to understand how evolution is even possible, similar to how the bowling ball on a rubber sheet analogy might help somebody understand the concept of warped space.  It's not an exact analogy, but it should help (assuming, of course, that somebody actually wants to understand how evolution could possibly be true instead of just rejecting it out of hand).  Having said that, let me just address a few of the most common criticisms I have seen and heard lobbed at evolution by those who clearly do not understand how it could be possible:
  • If humans evolved from apes, why are there still apes around today?  This is an easy one to answer -- humans did not evolve from apes!  At least, not from the apes that are around today.  Instead, humans and apes both evolved from a common ancestor species millions of years ago and we turned out different from modern apes because we moved to different locations than they did, encountered different challenges than they did, faced different environments over time, etc. It's sort of like asking, "If the English language evolved from Germanic roots, why are there still German speaking people today?"

  • If evolution is true, why don't we ever find any "transitional" fossils that are clearly in between two other species?  The answer to this is that scientists have actually found many different transitional fossils, especially in recent years.  Numerous fossils have been found in the fossil record that show some characteristics of fossils found earlier in the fossil record and some characteristics of fossils found later in the fossil record.  The problem is that some people either are not aware of these discoveries (willful ignorance, perhaps) or require impossible standards for "transitional" like a fossil that is half duck and half crocodile, despite the fact that the theory of evolution clearly states that evolution is a gradual process with no sudden leaps from one species to a wholly unrelated species on in a single generation.  No duck ever gave birth to an animal that wasn't a duck, but over millions of years what is a duck now may be quite different from what was a duck back then.

  • If evolution is true, that means we are just animals and therefore have no reason to act morally toward one another.  Well, aside from the fact that this is basically arguing from the consequences (a logical fallacy where you try to disprove something simply by pointing out the possible negative consequences of that thing), I would have to take exception at the "just" part of this criticism.  True, evolution means that humans are animals, but why do we have to be "just" animals?  A dolphin is not "just" an animal -- it is an animal with a highly specialized, perhaps unique, ability to navigate underwater using sound.  An eagle is not "just" an animal -- it's an animal with exceedingly keen vision and the ability to soar through the sky.  And man is not "just" an animal, either -- he (or she) is an animal with a highly developed intelligence and moral sense that has evolved over time to help us better survive in our environment.  The fact that we are animals doesn't mean we can't be different from other animals in significant ways, and it certainly doesn't mean that we have to act like other animals any more than you would expect an eagle to act like a dolphin (or to act like a penguin, for that matter).

  • Evolution is just a "theory" that Darwin made up and scientists have blindly put their faith in it ever since!  Actually, no.  As mentioned above, the scientific use of the word "theory" (as in the "theory of gravity" and the "theory of relativity") used to describe a system of interrelated laws and principles that have been tested, validated and confirmed and that are used to describe a particular area of  observed reality.  Darwin (and others like him) may have first proposed the idea of evolution, but it didn't become a scientific "theory" until it had been thoroughly tested, revised, expanded upon, and confirmed by generations of scientists looking at many different fields for corroboration.

  • The odds of a complex organism like a human arising purely by "chance" are as ridiculous as a tornado whipping through a junkyard and assembling a complete, working jumbo jet airplane purely by chance! You're right, that would be rather ridiculous. But the theory of evolution doesn't actually state that everything happened purely by chance. Yes, it requires chance mutations to occur and accumulate over time, but that's just an ingredient in the recipe and not the recipe itself. The actual process of evolution is driven by the pressure of natural selection. It may be chance when one animal develops more hair than another member of the same species, but it's not chance when that hairier animal survives when the climate gets colder and the less hairier animal doesn't.

  • Evolution can't explain how life got started in the first place.  You are right, it can't.  But, then again, neither can the theory of gravity or the theory of relativity.  And that's because none of those theories actually claim to answer that question and their validity therefore does not rest on whether they can answer it or not.  There is a completely separate field of biology called Abiogenesis that does try to come up with theories to explain how life could first arise (whether from inanimate matter or some other way, such as having been carried to Earth on a comet).  Evolution, on the other hand, starts with the assumption that life exists and then explains how it became so diverse.

  • But, what about [insert anomaly mentioned exclusively on creationist websites that seemingly "disproves" some tangentially related principal]?  I don't have room to mention every single thing that creationists have come up with over the years in an attempt to "disprove" evolution.  The important thing to remember, however, is that not only does evolution stand as the best explanation ever devised for every bit of observed biological phenomena, and not only has it shown again and again that it has strong predictive powers, it is also corroborated by many other branches of science.  If the theory of evolution were just based on the observed fossil record, then maybe attacking the validity of the fossil record could be an attack on the theory itself.  Instead, though, the theory of evolution is based on corroborating observations from the fossil record, from the genetic analysis of living species, from field examinations of species evolving in the wild, etc.

  • But, there's no actual proof of evolution!  Oh, go read a book.  Preferably one written by an actual scientist with a degree from a real university with a degree in a field actually related to the study of evolution.  That is, of course, if you actually want to learn all about the proof instead of just repeating what others have told you. Creationists have been shouting "there's no proof of evolution" for over a hundred years, ignoring or dismissing every single bit of evidence that comes along, as if simply stating that something isn't true will somehow make it not true. Or, in other words, yes there is actual proof of the theory of evolution. Lots of proof. So much proof that it could (and actually does) fill entire libraries. You just have to be willing to look at it.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Problem of Evil

One of the most compelling arguments against the existence of God (or, at least, the sort of all powerful, all knowing and all benevolent God worshiped by most religions) is the so-called “Problem of Evil”.  Stated simply, it asks how a God who is supposed to be an all knowing, all powerful and all loving being could allow so much suffering to occur.  The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus put it this way:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
There seem to be two standard responses to this argument that are made by theists, each of which I will address below:
  1. God gave mankind free will, and if one person wants to do harm to another person then God cannot prevent that from happening without taking away that free will.  In other words, God could prevent suffering, but that would cause something even worse to occur (the loss of our free will).
  2. Adam and Eve’s transgression in the Garden of Eden caused the entire world to become a cursed place, full of pain and suffering.  The “fall” from God’s grace affected all of creation, and all of creation therefore suffers as a result of man’s sin.
The first response to the problem of evil is actually a fairly persuasive argument for why God permits suffering that is actually caused by other people (or even caused by people themselves).  Yes, free will is a wonderful thing and it would be pretty bad if we were all just a bunch of mindless robots forced to act the way God wants us to act.

However, this argument says precisely nothing about why people suffer as the result of natural causes such as diseases, famine, blizzards, droughts, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc., none of which are the result of man’s exercising his free will.  OK, sure, I suppose an argument could be made that some of what we call “natural causes” do, in fact, have some basis in man’s exercise of free will.  Perhaps you could argue that some people get lung cancer, say, because of the choice they made to smoke cigarettes.  Or that some people needlessly die in hurricanes because we as a species have largely chosen to ignore the evidence of anthropogenic climate change.  I would argue, however, that those cases are few and far between when compared with all the other forms of suffering that clearly have nothing to do with our free will, unless you want to get completely reductive and claim that, since person X chose to live in a part of the world where tornadoes occasionally happen, it’s his fault that he (and his family, of course) are later killed by a tornado.

Moreover, this free will argument does not address why there is so much suffering in the rest of the world.  Sure, you can blame man’s free will for some of the suffering (deforestation, pollution, etc.), but man’s free will can’t be blamed for the fact that the majority of animal life either need to feed on other animals in order to survive or get eaten by other animals.  It doesn’t explain why animals also get painful, debilitating diseases.  It doesn’t explain why there are species of wasps that lay their eggs in the bodies of living creatures that die a slow and agonizing death as the wasp larvae hatch and eat their way out.

So, yeah – free will is important and can explain man’s inhumanity to man.  Aside from that, though, it’s not a particularly compelling argument.

The second response to the problem of evil has many flaws, but the primary one in my opinion is that it apparently takes away God’s free will and/or renders him powerless.  It’s basically saying that God didn’t want all of creation to suffer but had no choice due to Adam’s transgression.  Really?  He had no choice?  Let’s think about that for a minute, shall we?  If God is all powerful, surely he could have come up with a way to punish Adam (and all of his descendants) without punishing every other living thing on the planet (and perhaps even the universe).  Either God had no choice in the matter, in which case he is not all powerful after all, or else he chose to inflict as much suffering as possible on all of his creation, in which case he is not all loving.

I suppose one could argue that God really only cares about humans and just isn’t concerned with the suffering of lesser creatures who (presumably) have no souls and just exist to make the world a more colorful place.  That doesn’t seem to match the biblical description of God as a being who cares about a single sparrow falling to the ground.

Again, this argument assumes that it’s man’s fault that the world fell from grace into a state of suffering, but that’s only valid if you also assume that God was powerless or unwilling to prevent it from happening, or at least from happening in the way that it did.  If God really wanted to punish man for Adam’s sin (and I’ll leave the morality of punishing people for a sin committed by a distant ancestor for another post), wouldn’t it have been more effective to make man suffer and die while simultaneously leaving the rest of creation in an Edenic state as a constant reminder of what was lost?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Scientific Method vs Theism

As an atheist, I have come to appreciate the scientific method as the best – if not only – way to determine truth. The basic principles of the scientific method are (a) observing a phenomenon, (b) coming up with a hypothesis to explain that phenomenon, (c) performing experiments and/or gathering data to support that hypothesis and (d) refine the hypothesis to fit the experiments and data (or even reject the hypothesis entirely if the experiments and data disprove it). The key point is that the hypothesis needs to match the evidence and not the other way around.

When I was a theist, however, I was taught to start with an acceptance that God existed, the scriptures were true, etc., and then look for evidence to support that belief if necessary. This is superficially similar to the scientific method (and many theists claim that they in fact follow the scientific method), with one key distinction. Whenever data is discovered that fails to support (or even contradicts) the belief in God, the data needs to be tweaked (or sometimes outright ignored). If, for example, geological evidence clearly shows that the Grand Canyon was created via slow processes over millions of years and this data contradicts the notion that the earth is only 6,000 years old, it’s important to selectively ignore the evidence until you can explain the remaining evidence as having been produced by a global flood.

Proponents of “Creation Science” (a.k.a. Intelligent Design”) often point to, say, the perfection of the human eye as proof that it must have been the product of a divine, perfect creator. The eye, the argument goes, is just too complicated and works so well that it couldn’t possibly have happened just by chance. Ignoring for the moment the fact that this is really just an argument from ignorance (“the eye is just too complicated and works so well that I personally can’t understand how it could possibly have happened just by chance”), and also ignoring for the moment that the Theory of Evolution explicitly posits the concept of natural selection as the driving force behind the development of complex structures such as the eye instead of chance, this argument does have the superficial appearance of following the principles of the scientific method. The phenomenon of a complicated, perfectly functioning eye is observed, and the existence of a divine, perfect creator is offered as a theory to explain that phenomena.

Where things go off the rails, however, is when you point out that the eye is not, in fact, perfect. The human eye has a blind spot inherent in its design, which is perfectly explainable when you consider how the eye might have developed over millions of years but doesn’t make much sense for a perfect creator to have done it that way. In addition, human eyes are susceptible to all sorts of abnormalities and diseases, and many people have to resort to corrective lenses or surgery in order to see clearly. In fact, many people are actually born completely blind. Under the scientific method, evidence that contradicts a particular theory causes the theory to be refined or rejected. Under “Creation Science”, however, the response is typically that we live in a fallen state due to the sins of Adam and that is why the eye is currently not perfect (or why people get diseases or why animals feed off each other or why there is so much pain and suffering in all aspects of the natural world, etc.). And this is because, rather than truly following the scientific method to fit the theory to the facts, theists start with a set of assumed “truths” (i.e., that God exists, that He created the universe in a perfect state originally and that we now live in a fallen universe due to the sins of Adam) and then look for any observable facts that support those “truths” while rejecting any that don’t support them.

If perfection of design proves the existence of a perfect creator, imperfection of design can’t somehow also prove the existence of the same perfect creator.  Looking just at the observed phenomena, without any preconceived, unchallenged assumptions as to the existence and nature of God (which is, of course, the very thing that is supposed to be proved so it can't be assumed), imperfection of design is instead evidence of an imperfect creator, or perhaps a malevolent creator, or of no creator whatsoever.  The one thing it absolutely cannot be is evidence of a perfect creator, unless you already believe in the God of the Bible and are simply looking for a justification of that belief instead of actually trying to come up with a theory that best explains the evidence.

People are, of course, free to believe whatever they choose to believe, and the whole reason churches exist is to let people with similar beliefs congregate and share those beliefs with one another. And there’s nothing wrong with that (assuming, of course, those beliefs don’t lead the believers to harm other people as a result). But this essential difference between the scientific method and theism is one of the main reasons why “Creation Science” or “Intelligent Design” has no place whatsoever in a science classroom. Call it what you will, it just isn’t scientific as long as it exists to fit the facts to the theory instead of the other way around.


Monday, July 14, 2014

Puny God

I was re-watching “The Avengers” the other day (the one with the Marvel superheroes, not the 60s TV series with Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg) and once again got a chuckle at the scene where Loki brags about how he is A GOD and everybody else are just mere mortals, after which Hulk casually beats the living daylights out of him and declares, “Puny god” as Loki lies whimpering on the floor. And as I watched that scene, I started thinking about how God (the Christian God, at least) really gets the short end of the stick in most forms of popular entertainment, whether it be books, movies or television series.

Although Christians pay lip service to the notion of an all-powerful, all-knowing supreme being who created the entire vast universe of which we humans inhabit only the tiniest of tiny parts, whenever it comes to actually depicting God (or his handiwork) in popular fiction, it seems that they just can’t get beyond medieval (or far earlier) concepts of a universe that consists of our planet and a bunch of pretty lights in the sky. Hundreds and even thousands of years ago, when the Greeks, Romans, Norse, etc., were imagining their gods, they didn’t have the concept of “all-powerful” or “all-knowing” deities. Instead, their gods were frequently tricked (either by other gods or even by men), and it was always possible to defeat a god if you just had the right magic weapon or spell or some such. The God of Christianity, however, is supposed to be far different from those pale, pagan imitations, right? And yet, you wouldn’t know it by looking at popular fiction.

How many movies have there been about a poor innocent soul possessed by a demon and a priest who has to spend the entire movie screaming and yelling at the demon to leave in the name of Christ? If God were really all-powerful and all-knowing, would the priest really need to shout, “The power of Christ compels you” that many times before God finally notices?

Or how about all the stories where some ancient artifact – whether it be the Ark of the Covenant, the Spear of Destiny, the Holy Grail, the Shroud of Turin, or what have you – was imbued with God’s divine essence long ago and now just lies around waiting to be discovered so that somebody can use it to take over the world, bring Armageddon, live forever, etc.? It makes for a great story, sure, but does it really fit into the Christian notion of God that he would basically just forget about these things that supposedly have His own divine power? And why would he let thousands (or millions or billions, depending on the story) of his children die before finally lending just enough help to let the hero save the day, especially when the whole problem was His fault in the first place?

Or how about all the stories where various angels wage war against humanity because they’re not happy with the fact that humans are more favored in God’s eye than they are?

Now, I’m assuming that many Christians get annoyed at these depictions of the divine as well. Perhaps they feel that it is sacrilegious to imply that God could be fooled, or that He wasn’t paying attention, or that His divine essence could be captured in an artifact and that He would let somebody perform evil acts with that artifact. But I’m also assuming that not all Christians feel this way (or perhaps not even most), or else these stories wouldn’t keep getting made and they wouldn’t be so popular.

If I think back to my days as a Christian, I can remember how easy it was to compartmentalize my beliefs so as to avoid any sort of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, it was important to believe that God was the all-powerful and all-knowing creator of the entire vast universe, since that was the only sort of God worth worshiping in the first place. It didn’t matter that our current concept of “the universe” was massively, unrecognizably different from any concept understood by people who actually lived in Biblical times. The Bible says that God created the Heavens and the Earth, so that’s the God we must worship regardless of how vast we now know “the Heavens” to be.

At the same time, however, it was important to always think of God as a personal God who cares about every one of his children, listens to (and occasionally answers) our prayers, and notices every single good and bad thing we think or do for our entire lives, since that was the only sort of God actually worth praying to. You don’t pray to some immaterial, timeless “force” who neither cares about you nor responds to prayers in the first place.

And I think this is where the popularity of all these “puny god” depictions in popular fiction come from. Christians (well, most Christians) acknowledge that the universe is a vast, extremely old place and that, as a result, it’s important to claim that the God they worship is big enough to have created it all. At the same time, though, they want to cling to the notion that whatever being is powerful enough to create the entire vast universe is also a being who cares about them personally and will listen to their prayers and reward them for being good. As a result, there is a compulsion to shrink God down whenever he is portrayed or discussed in stories, because talking about God as a being powerful enough to create the entire universe (as opposed to just our planet) leads very quickly to the realization that there’s no way such a being would ever have anything to do with us.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Difference Between Theists and Atheists

[Hopefully, I’m not about to set up a straw man as I represent what the typical theist believes (assuming there even is such a thing as a “typical” theist), but the following is based on my own personal experiences growing up as a theist and a wide variety of conversations I have had with theists since becoming an atheist.]

In recent years I have watched and/or engaged in numerous discussions (sometimes rising to the level of a debate, sometimes much more informal) between atheists and theists of one sort or another. What I find most interesting about these discussions is how each side approaches concepts such as “proof,” “evidence,” “truth” and “reality” from radically different perspectives, to the point where it’s almost as if each side is having a completely different conversation. And, as I reflect on my days growing up ensconced in a religious worldview, I realize that the same arguments that I find least convincing now are the ones that made the most sense to me back then, and the ones that seem the strongest now were the most laughable to me then. I think, when you get right down to it, both sides feel their beliefs (or lack thereof) are just so obvious as to not even need explanation and can’t understand why the other side just doesn’t “get” it.

So, without further ado, here are some of the key differences I have noticed between atheists and theists that affect and shape their world view. You’re mileage may vary, of course, but I’m hoping this exercise will at least help each side understand where the other side is coming from and dispel the notion that one group is just too stupid or too wicked to ever see the light.

  1. The Vastness of Creation As a theist, I was taught to see the glory of God in all of creation. The beauty of a flower, the majesty of a sunset or a rainbow, the magnificent panoply of stars in the night sky, etc. As science revealed more and more of the wonders of the cosmos (thank you, Hubble space telescope), it just showed how much more vast and beautiful God’s creation was than we previously knew. The bigger the universe got, the more impressive God seemed.

    As an atheist, I still marvel at the beauty of the universe. The more our knowledge of the universe expands, however, the smaller man’s place in that universe seems and the notion of any sort of personal God who created us, watches over us, answers prayers, etc., seems more and more ridiculous. Instead of proving how great God is, the vastness of creation proves that God was invented by people who thought the observable world was all that existed and that the concept of God is no longer relevant today.

  2. The Burden of Proof As a theist, I was taught that faith in God is something we were supposed to have without any hard evidence or proof. In fact, I was taught that life was a test to see who had enough faith to believe without such proof and that man would somehow be deprived of his free will if God ever provided irrefutable proof of his existence. One frequent analogy was comparing life to taking a test in school, where having all the answers written on the board in front of you would totally defeat the purpose of taking the test (and presumably studying and learning before the test). Therefore, if somebody doesn’t believe in God, it is up to them to somehow prove that God doesn’t (or can’t) exist. And even if somebody does manage to prove that God (or specific descriptions of God) doesn’t or can’t possibly exist, it doesn’t really matter since it’s all about faith. In other words, you cannot disprove something that does not require proof in the first place.

    As an atheist, I’ve come to realize that the mere act of stating something does not, in and of itself, make that thing true. Sure, there are some things that we all accept as true in order to make our way in the world (e.g., that actions have consequences, that we are not all just living in a Matrix-style dream world, that the basic laws of physics aren’t likely to change from one day to the next, etc.), but we should also not accept as true anything that has no good evidence to support it. Similarly, we should reject any statement or belief when there is sufficient evidence to its contrary. Therefore, if somebody believes in God (or aliens, or Bigfoot, or homeopathy, or chiropractic, or magic), those beliefs are wholly irrelevant unless the person has some good evidence to support them. And, similarly, an abundance of evidence to the contrary of those beliefs is a good reason to reject them. In other words, you can’t prove something without actually providing proof.

  3. Evidentiary Standards As a theist, I was taught that the best sort of evidence for the existence of God was personal experience, both my own and those related by others (so called “faith promoting stories”). Since God doesn’t want to take away our free will by revealing himself directly to us and since he also “moves in mysterious ways,” we have to rely on our feelings. If we pray to accept Jesus into our hearts and be forgiven and then feel all warm and fuzzy inside, that’s all the proof we need. If we hear stories about how other people accepted Jesus into their hearts and felt all warm and fuzzy inside, that’s all the proof we need. After that, we can see the hand of the Lord wherever we look. If I pray to get a new job and I get it, it’s proof that God exists and loves me. If somebody I know survives a car accident, it’s proof that God was watching out for him. Anything and everything good that happens to me, especially when I pray for it, is sufficient proof that God exists and cares about me. Interestingly, I find that many theists actually do require higher evidentiary standards when it comes to other areas (magic, aliens, Bigfoot, etc.) but seem to lower those standards when it comes to their religious beliefs. Of course, I also know some theists who are willing to believe anything (that doesn’t contradict with their religious beliefs, that is) as long as there is anecdotal evidence for it, whether it be chiropractic, homeopathy, reiki, etc., but I don’t think there’s necessarily a connection.

    As an atheist, I have learned that anecdotal evidence is worthless unless it is reproducible under controlled conditions. Some people misinterpret what happens to them. Some people just plain lie about their experiences. The human mind is great at self-deception and you can make yourself feel all warm and fuzzy inside about just about anything if you want to hard enough. Plus, there’s a little thing called “confirmation bias” which is the nearly universal tendency to remember anything that supports your beliefs and discount, ignore or forget anything that doesn’t. If I pray for ten things and one comes true, I become convinced that the one time it worked “proves” my beliefs are right and I just ignore the fact that the other nine times equally “disproves” my beliefs.

  4. Appeals to Authority As a theist, I was taught that it didn’t matter what “most” people thought about a subject – what mattered was what the Bible said. And, since the Bible is often hard to understand and seemingly contradictory, it’s important to follow the words of those who have been appointed by God to reveal His truth to us. And it really only takes one so-called “authority” who agrees with what I already believe to counter a multitude of authorities who disagree. And this expands beyond religious beliefs to any science that may possibly contradict my religious beliefs. If, say, the theory of Evolution seems to contradict with the revealed truth of the Bible, all it takes is one “expert” (regardless of his background and education) who points out what appear to be flaws or contradictions in the theory to disprove it. Or if, say, the idea that mankind is contributing to climate change seems to contradict my belief that the Earth was created for our benefit and God will always protect us, then all it takes is one “expert” (regardless of his background and education) who points out what appear to be flaws or contradictions in the theory to disprove it.

    As an atheist, I also need to rely on authorities. As much as I would like to learn everything about everything, I simply don’t have the time, resources or, quite frankly, intelligence to do so. The difference is, however, that I rely on those who actually have the background and education and experience to know what they are talking about. And I rely on experts whose views are shared by other experts in the same and related fields. If I have trouble understanding the mechanisms of the Theory of Evolution, for example, I don’t just rely on the fact that a smart guy named Charles Darwin came up with it over a hundred years ago. Instead, I rely on the many thousands of people that have devoted their lives to studying it, verifying it, and expanding it since that time. If 97% of all climate scientists – those actually trained to do the research and understand the data – have stated that the evidence unequivocally shows that man-made climate change is real and dangerous, I will accept their authority on the subject over a lone geologist who thinks he has discovered the “truth” that everybody else has missed.


Sunday, June 8, 2014

Timing Is Everything

OK, so this has nothing to do with why I am atheist, but I just wanted to share...

For a couple of years now, I've been a semi-regular visit to Richard Dawkins's website at richarddawkins.net.  Partly for all the interesting articles there about science and religion, but mostly because the site allowed ordinary people to submit their own articles for discussion and engage in conversation with fellow atheists as well as the few brave theists who wanted to explain just how and why we were wrong about everything we believed (or didn't believe, as the case may be).

I personally found the discussions a great way to expand my scientific knowledge and had some great experiences posting some questions I had about things like biology and evolution.  It wasn't quite the same as sitting down for a discussion with Sir Richard himself, but still a very valuable and rewarding experience.  In addition, I enjoyed engaging in debates with a number of the aforementioned theists on a wide variety of topics.  In fact, many of the posts I make on this blog are based on those discussions.

Anyway, a few weeks ago, when I first thought of creating this blog, I decided to go through the discussion archives at richarddawkins.net and save some of the posts I had made there onto my hard drive.  I didn't really need to, I figured, since the archive would always be there, but it would just be easier to look things up on my own hard drive than having to keep running queries.

Well, as it turns out, timing really is everything.  As of a few days ago, the entire discussions forum has been completely removed.  And I do mean completely.  There are no links to it on the main page and any old links elsewhere return 404: Page Not Found errors.  The archived discussions are likewise completely gone as if they had never existed.

I sent an e-mail to support and eventually received the following response:
Discussions have been removed.  The time and personnel required to moderate them are simply not available to us at this time.  Given our current resources, we felt that focusing on high-quality reputable content was a more efficient use of those resources.

Thank you for your feedback and understanding.
Well, they are certainly welcome for my feedback, but not for my understanding.  Unpaid moderators don't typically require a great deal of resources, but that's not for me to decide.  What bothers me most, however, is the loss of all archived discussions.  You don't need any resources to moderate archived discussions, especially if you lock them so no additional posts can be made.  I suspect there was more going on here than simply a lack of moderation resources but, again, that's not for me to say.

What I can say, however, is that I doubt I will be spending much time at the site anymore.  I still support Richard Dawkins and the mission of his Foundation for Reason and Science, but the thing I valued most about his website -- the ability to ask questions of and engage with like minded people -- is now gone.

Just wanted to get that off my chest, especially since nobody else seems to be talking about it anywhere (not that I can find, at least).  We now return you to our regularly scheduled programming...

Friday, June 6, 2014

Man's Place in the Universe

At the core of most theistic beliefs seems to be the assumption that the universe was created for the benefit of man. That may be overstating things a bit with regard to the wide variety of religions in the world, but it’s certainly the case with religions based on the Bible.

Now, it certainly made sense to think this way when the entire known universe consisted of the small amount of land you and/or members of your tribe had personally visited together with a bunch of lights in the sky that appeared to be just out of your reach. And that’s basically where human knowledge stood at the time the Bible was written.

Well, that was then and this is now, as the saying goes. Modern cosmology has shown us just how vast the universe actually is. Not only is the Earth much larger than was imagined back in Old Testament times, we now know we are just one (relatively small) planet in an entire solar system of planets. And our solar system is just one of billions in our galaxy. And our galaxy is just one of billions in the observable universe that extends for billions of light years in every direction. A universe chock full of weird phenomena like black holes and distant quasars and galactic nebulae – most of which mankind was completely unaware of until extremely recently.

I understand that many people take comfort in the thought that God created it all just for us and that he cares about each and every one of us as individuals because we are so special to him. To think that Earth is just a random speck of dust in a vast universe can be a bit depressing. I look at it another way, however. To me, the thought that in the entire vast universe there is only being exactly like me is awe-inspiring. I am wholly unique, and when I am gone there will never be anything just like me. And the same goes for every single person who has ever lived or who ever will live. It gives my life a purpose to know this, since I have the chance to improve the world in my own unique way and cause ripples that will potentially continue on throughout eternity.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

On Morality

As an atheist, I have often been told that I am incapable of being a truly “moral” person and that if I raise my son as an atheist he will grow up without morals as well. The argument is usually that “morality” (in the sense of knowing right from wrong, good from bad) comes directly from God and is defined by his nature. Therefore, the argument goes, if one does not believe in God there is no place to look for a source of absolute morality.

I reject this argument for two main reasons:

  1. The argument presupposes that there is, in fact, such as thing as “absolute morality.” At best, I think you can say that humans are naturally social and empathetic creatures and that certain behaviors help the survival of the species as a whole. But what the specifics are can and do change from one society to another and one era to another within the same society, and I think you would be hard pressed to find many moral principles that are shared across all cultures or even all religions. Even within a single religion, moral principles regularly change over time. For example, in the days of the Old Testament it was apparently perfectly moral to own slaves and commit wholesale genocide (as long as God commanded it, of course). Conversely, it was immoral to eat shrimp or wear fabric made of two different types of thread. If you ask a Christian why such things are not followed today, you will usually get a response along the lines of how those commandments were given to meet the needs of the society that existed at the time and don’t apply to our society today. Which is, of course, the very definition of moral relativity.

    I think the closest one could get to any sort of “absolute” moral principle (despite the fact that it was violated repeatedly in the Old Testament on the direct order of God) would be the principle that we should treat each other the way we ourselves want to be treated (the so-called “Golden Rule”). Christians seem to think that Christ came up with this, but the principle existed for thousands of years prior to Christ’s supposed birth in a variety of other cultures. And, as I mentioned, the Old Testament is replete with examples of God commanding his people to commit all sorts of atrocities in his name in direct contradiction to this principle.

  2. Our only knowledge of God’s commandments and essential nature comes from the scriptures, and those scriptures portray him in large part to be capricious, jealous and vindictive (especially in the Old Testament where people get smitten left and right for all sorts of trivial crimes). It’s all well and good to use logical arguments to hypothesize as to what God’s essential nature “must” be, but if you look at what is supposed to be an accurate record of what God actually said and did, we see a being at odds with his supposed goodness.

    I would argue, in fact, that nobody actually gets their moral guidelines directly (or exclusively) from the Bible. Instead, they use their own innate sense of morality to decide which parts of the Bible they want to follow. Perhaps you really like the bits about loving thy neighbor, honoring thy father and mother and taking care of the poor and afflicted? Are you not quite as excited about the bits commanding you to stone homosexuals to death or permitting you to beat your slave as long as he doesn’t die? Morality isn’t doing what God tells you to do – it’s deciding which parts of “God’s words” are actually worth following in the first place.

    Now, I have been told that this “innate moral sense” of which I speak is actually some sort of "Light of Christ" which comes directly from God. If that were the case, however, then it doesn’t explain the inconsistency of having God tell us one thing in the supposedly inerrant scriptures and then giving us the ability to determine which parts are false...

As an aside, I’ve frequently been struck by the observation that theists tend to have a much lower opinion of humanity than atheists. Most atheists I have talked with seem to accept that morality, while not absolute, has it's origins in the social and evolutionary development of our species. It evolved as a survival trait and is simply part of what makes us human. We treat each other the way we would like to be treated because, on the whole, it makes living together easier. Most theists I have talked with, on the other hand, seem to think that man is basically a depraved animal driven by the basest of motives, perfectly willing to lie, cheat, kill, rape, steal, etc., at all times, held in check solely by enforced obedience to a set of divinely revealed rules and regulations. OK, so they never actually say it quite like that, but the implication always seems to be there.

I just have always found it ironic that Christians (in particular) rail against evolution because it somehow debases humanity and makes us appear no better than any other animal, and yet they are the ones who think we would all run around acting like "animals" if it weren't for their archaic moral codes.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

God of the Gaps

As we discover more and more of the laws of nature and are able to explain how everything in the universe came to be in its current state through purely physical means, where does that leave God? God is necessary, according to most religions, to explain what cannot otherwise be explained. He is a supernatural force that becomes the default explanation for anything we don't understand. Once we understand everything, however, what is the rationale for still believing that the universe needed a God? And if God is not a necessary force, then he is nothing more than a figment of our collective consciousness.

Life was a lot simpler back when we didn't understand anything and it was easy to just posit God (or gods) as the explanation for everything. Why did the sun rise each morning? God did it. Why did it rain yesterday? God did it. Why didn't it rain today? God did it. How did we get here? God did it. Why is there so much pain and suffering in the world? God did, er, well let's just change the subject, shall we? We laugh at ancient cultures who invented gods to explain natural phenomena that we fully understand today. And yet, some still cling to the "god" explanation for the few things that we still don't have good explanations for (or things which they personally don't understand).

As our knowledge of the universe has expanded, however, we've pushed the necessity for God as an explanation into a smaller and smaller box, until he's limited to having started the whole thing in motion in the first place but hasn't really done much since then.

Science has done a wonderful job of explaining just about every facet of creation to the point that "God" is no longer a necessary explanation for anything. We're still a bit fuzzy on how it all got started in the first place (although I don't think modern scientists actually think it all suddenly appeared "OUT OF NOTHING"). At most, that leaves open the possibility that some sort of "god" started the whole process going and then left it to run unassisted. Since there's no actual evidence of such a god apart from our lack of understanding, however, there's really no good reason to assume that such a god actually exists. Any more than there was a good reason to assume the existence of Thor simply because we didn't understand how thunder and lightning happened.

Yes, scientific theories come and go (or get refined over time), and some things that we think we can fully explain today may turn out to have a different explanation later on. But (and this is probably the most important point of all) even if every single scientific theory ever advanced to explain the universe was completely and utterly wrong, there still wouldn't be a single bit of good evidence to believe in the God of the Bible (or any of the many, many other gods that have been written about over the past thousands of years). And there are plenty of Muslims who are just as convinced that Allah, as described in the Koran, is the one true God and not the God of the Bible and they make the same exact arguments as Christians do to justify their belief. They are just as sure, just as convinced, and just as wrong.

...

Some have argued that since “science” (or, more properly, the scientific method) does not currently provide an overarching and all-inclusive description of reality, we therefore need God to explain what science cannot. To this argument, I offer the following rebuttals:
  1. The proper question is not does science offer an overarching and all-inclusive description of reality, but whether it can offer such a description. Just because we can't explain everything at the moment doesn't mean we won't ever be able to.

  2. This is a false dichotomy. Even if science can't explain everything about everything, that doesn't mean that religion can (or that it can explain the "gaps" where science fails). Made up stories by ancient civilizations have no claim whatsoever to any sort of explanatory authority.
In other words, the scientific method is the only way we can explain anything about anything. If something can't be explained via the scientific method, it can't be explained, period. Lot's of room for ideas, suggestions and general wishful thinking, true, but not actual explanations.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Fine Tuned Universe


A frequent argument used to prove the existence of God (or some form of God, at least) is the so-called “Fine Tuned Universe” argument.  In a nutshell, the argument is that the universe is so perfectly and improbably “tuned” to support life (human life in particular) that there’s no way it could have happened just by chance.  Some have phrased the argument more particularly as follows:

The entire universe is governed by 6 mathematical constants:
1.      The ratio of electromagnetic force to gravitational force between two electrons
2.      The structural constant that determines how various atoms are formed from hydrogen
3.      The cosmological constant
4.      The cosmic anti-gravity force
5.      The value that determines how tightly clusters of galaxies are bound together
6.      The number of spatial dimensions in the universe

If the value of any of these constants had been off by even an almost infinitesimal degree, a universe like ours, that’s capable of supporting life, would not exist.  The odds of each of these constants just happening to all be exactly what is needed to support life, purely by coincidence, is infinitesimally small.  Therefore, they must have all be set on purpose by an intelligent being who wanted them to be that way.

There are (at least) four huge problems with the "fine tuning" argument that I can come up with:

1.      The argument assumes that the values of the various constants supposedly required for the universe to be capable of supporting life could, in fact, have possibly been different than what they actually are. It's not "fine tuning" if there were no other options available.

2.      There's a huge difference between "capable of sustaining life" and "capable of sustaining life as we know it." Even if the various constants could have had some other values, who is to say that some other form of life wouldn't have arisen instead?  In other words, it’s more accurate to say that life evolved to fit the way the universe is rather than saying the universe was designed to support the life that would eventually evolve within it.

3.      For a universe that is supposedly "finely tuned" to support life, it seems awfully strange that the vast majority of said universe is not, in fact, capable of sustaining life.  Even here on Earth, there are plenty of regions totally inhospitable to life.  And what about all the other planets in the solar system?  And the vast emptiness of interstellar space?  What about planets near supernovas and black holes?

4.      What makes life so special? Why not say the universe has been finely tuned to support the existence of diamonds? Or black holes? Or the rings around Saturn?  All of these things (let alone the vast multitude of non-human life on this planet such as insects) are also only possible because the universe is exactly the way it is.

I like to compare the fine tuning argument to the odds of my own existence given the vagaries of my ancestry. In order for me to be here in exactly the way I am, every one of my ancestors over the entire course of human history must have met and mated with the exact right person. If my great-great-grandmother on my father's side had married the boy her parents had forbidden her to marry instead of the man they approved of, I might have a different shaped nose, no genetic disposition to diabetes, bigger feet, etc. Or I might not have been born at all. In fact, given the size of the human population throughout time and the size of the mating pool, the odds of every single one of my ancestors mating with the exact person they did is so ridiculously low that it can't have happened by chance.

No, it's crystal clear that some external force must have been guiding each and every ancestor from the dawn of time until my mother met my father, ensuring that they met and mated exactly on schedule (did I mention the two miscarriages my mother had before having me?) In fact, given the fact that many of my ancestors traveled across the globe before meeting each other due to various political upheavals, I think it's fair to say that the majority of human history was manipulated by this external force in order to ensure that I would be born exactly the way I was, small feet, diabetes and all.

Except, of course, that had anything been different in the past then the outcome would have been different and I wouldn't be here discussing it.  If you tried to estimate in advance (say, 10,000 years ago) the odds of me coming out exactly the way I did, the odds would be ridiculously, impossibly small.  But if you try to estimate the odds now of me turning out the way I did based on my past ancestry, the odds are exactly 1:1.

Another analogy I have heard compares the improbability of the universe turning out just the way it did to the improbability of someone dealing out a shuffled deck of cards and just happening to lay down a complete suit (e.g., all clubs, all hearts, etc.).  From a purely mathematical standpoint, the odds of doing this from a shuffled deck of cards are 635,013,559,600 to one.  Which is, of course, incredibly improbable and you would be right to suspect that the dealer had somehow rigged the deck in his favor.

Except… let’s say I deal out thirteen cards from a shuffled deck and get a totally random mixture of hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades.  What are the odds that I laid down the exact combination of cards that I did?  Still 635,013,559,600 to one.  How can this happen? Well, it's all because 635 billion to 1 against was the chance of getting it right before the cards were dealt. In fact, now they've been dealt, the probability is actually 1. Talking about how improbable something was that has actually happened already is not helpful.

Similarly, one can look at a lottery where the odds of any one person winning may be 250,000,000 to 1, but the probability of somebody winning the lottery is pretty close to 1 before the drawing and exactly 1 after somebody actually does win it.

In terms of the universe, nobody was around before it began to estimate the probability that things would be as they are today. Had there been someone, then they'd have calculated a very, very slim probability indeed. But here's a universe and here we are in it. The probability of this having occurred is exactly 1.

Again, there are two possibilities. Either the universe was made just to suit life, or else life evolved to fit the way the universe is.

--------

One other point to consider...  Let's assume that the "fine tuned universe" argument  is actually correct and that the odds of the universe turning out the way it did by chance are mind-bogglingly, infinitesimally small (further assuming that it did, in fact, happen by chance and not because of some immutable laws of nature).  How can you say that the odds are any better of it being created by some timeless, immaterial being whose very nature would contradict all we know about existence?  How would you even go about calculating those odds?  Regardless of how unlikely a naturally caused universe is, you have to first show that a supernatural cause is even possible before you can argue that it is plausible (let alone more probable than a naturally cased universe).

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Absence of Evidence IS Evidence of Absence



It has often been said that there is no way to prove a negative and therefore it is impossible to ever prove that God does not exist.  Or, as it is often phrased, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”  In fact, however, as an atheist I am not trying to prove the non-existence of God.  At most, I am trying to disprove his existence, which is a whole other kettle of fish as far as I’m concerned.  Or, to put it another way, absence of evidence is evidence of absence when the evidence required to prove something is missing.

Let’s say, for example, I claim that a full-size adult African elephant is living in my backyard tool shed.  If such a thing were true, there would necessarily be certain evidence of the fact.  I would need to have, for example, an unusually large tool shed at the very least.  You would expect to hear the occasional trumpeting sounds at odd hours of the day and night.  There would be some indication that large quantities of hay were being delivered and that copious amounts of waste products were being removed on a regular basis.  A certain elephanty smell would be unmistakable as it wafted through the air.  And, above all, you would expect to actually see the elephant if you opened the door and looked in.

Keeping all that in mind, the fact that my tool shed is barely five feet wide would be an indication that maybe I don’t have a full-size elephant there after all.  The fact that nobody has ever heard, smelled or seen the elephant would be telling, as would be the fact that there is no indication of any hay deliveries or waste removal going on.  In sum, the lack of all the evidence of an elephant that should be there is conclusive proof that I do not, in fact, have an elephant in my shed.  Unless, of course, I want to argue that my elephant is a magical, invisible, shape-changing elephant that subsists only on air, excretes only sunshine, is very shy and hides in another dimension whenever anybody opens the door.  In which case, the only proper response is that the creature I have described can’t even properly be called an elephant in the first place assuming it even exists.

The same logic applies with regard to disproving the existence of God.  If God exists – at least the God as described in various scriptures and actually worshiped by those who claim to be religious – then there would necessarily be specific evidence of his existence.  All prayers offered to God in faith would be granted, for example, since this is what the Bible explicitly promises (granted, mind you, and not just “answered”).  Prophecies made in God’s name would unequivocally and unerringly come to pass in exactly the way they were prophesied to occur.  Miraculous events performed by God, including the creation of the entire universe in six days, the flood in Noah’s time, etc., would all be verifiable by modern science instead of being completely contradicted.  And yet, time and again, every place where there should be evidence to support the existence of God, it is mysteriously lacking.

Of course, some would argue that God’s existence requires no evidence because God is an immaterial being that exists wholly outside space and time and that once he created the universe he has had no interaction with it or us ever since and doesn’t expect us to worship or fear or obey or even acknowledge it in any way.  And that’s perfectly true if you want to define God that way, except that it’s most definitely NOT the way God is actually described in the scriptures and is not a God that is actually worshiped by anybody.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Why I Am an Atheist

The glib answer to the question of “why I am an atheist” is to say it’s for the same reason I don’t believe in the existence of invisible pink unicorns or teapots orbiting the planet Jupiter. In other words, since there’s no good reason why I should believe in these things, I shouldn’t need to justify my lack of belief in them. And this answer is perfectly valid and true insofar as it goes.

One problem with this answer, however, is that – unlike invisible pink unicorns and interplanetary teapots – a lot of people currently believe in God (or at least some form of being that can be called “God”). Which is to say that it’s not blindingly obvious to most people that there is no good reason to believe in God, and so my answer as to why I am in the minority probably does deserve a bit of fleshing out.

I will say that, in a sense, I have been an atheist all my life, despite having been raised in a fundamentalist Christian faith by my parents. [As an aside, I know that many people will object to my characterization of Mormonism as a “fundamentalist Christian” faith, but doctrinal differences aside, the important thing is that I was raised to believe in the existence of a personal God and the literal truth of the Bible (and other scriptures).] The thing is, despite being taught from an early age to believe in God, I was never able to wholly internalize that belief. I mean, I accepted that it “must” be true because it’s what my parents believed and it’s what I was taught at church, but there’s a difference between accepting something must be true and actually believing it to be true. As I grew older and learned more about the world around me, I became very good at compartmentalizing my acceptance that God “must” exist to protect it from the lack of any empirical evidence for his existence and the increasing evidence that actually contradicted his existence.

Majoring in philosophy (even at a religious school like Brigham Young University) really opened my eyes in a number of ways. It taught me both about logical thinking in general and about the many different worldviews held by different cultures throughout history. And it made it harder and harder for me to accept that there “must” be a God simply because of what I was taught by my parents and teachers. Since that time, I have continued to use the tools I learned in my philosophy studies to analyze the various reasons why somebody might believe in God and all the reasons why such belief is not justified.

For me personally, it comes down to the realization of just how ridiculous it is to believe that this entire vast universe was created just for our benefit.  It made much more sense thousands of years ago when people thought that stars were just lights in the sky and that the Earth really was all there was.  Now that we know just how many billions of galaxies there are, each with their own billions of stars, it's pretty obvious that the notion of a personal God who created us and watches over us and pays attention to us and cares about us is just wishful thinking.

On top of that, of course, is all the scientific evidence that has been gathered over the years that directly contradicts almost everything stated in the scriptures, whether it be the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Koran, etc.  At most, you can look to scriptures as allegorical stories that (hopefully) tell you how to live a good life, but if they're not based on facts then there's really no need to worship anything described therein.

Think about Santa Claus.  When you're a little kid with no knowledge of science, it makes perfect sense for there to be magical flying reindeer that can travel all over the entire world in a single evening carrying a magical sled filled with billions of toys.  After all, that's what your parents told you and how else could those toys mysteriously appear under the tree?  As an adult, however, it's hard to imagine that anybody (let alone you) could have ever been so naive and gullible.  Not only is everything about the Santa Claus story impossible, but there are much more plausible explanations available for the gifts.

The final piece of the puzzle for me was the realization that people are very good at self-deception and that plenty of folks are probably 100% sincere when they claim to have had a conversion experience or "felt the spirit" or what have you.  That's why so many people cling to so many different faiths.

So yes, the short answer is that I am an atheist because there’s no good reason not to be one. The longer answer, which I’m still working on, is what I hope to express through the posts I make to this blog.