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.