Friday, December 8, 2017

Debunking God and Religion in a Single Sentence

Recently, I was challenged to provide "the most powerful argument, in one sentence, that belief in God and religion is nonsense." Now, I honestly don’t know if the person asking the question was a theist or an atheist or something in-between, but I had to laugh at the artificial stricture placed on any answers. One sentence? Why just one sentence instead of, say, a well-reasoned paragraph or two that might allow one to flesh out the argument a bit instead of just providing an easily dismissed sound bite?

[In fact, the more I think about it, the more I can’t help thinking of that old game show “Name that Tune.” “I can debunk God and religion in one sentence!”]

Anyway, there were certainly lots of ways to approach this challenge. I could, for example, have mentioned the sheer number of religions in the world and the fact that so many of them are mutually exclusive. I could have discussed the lack of any compelling evidence or sound arguments to support a belief in God. But, since the challenge was specifically to provide an argument that belief in God and religion is “nonsense” (and not just improbable or irrational), I finally decided to go with the following:
The original concepts of gods and religions were the product of ignorant and superstitious people who had little or no understanding about the world or the universe and our place in it, and just about everything else they thought they knew to be true has now been proved to be false.
Yeah, it’s a bit clunky, but that’s what you get when you expect somebody to cram an entire argument into a single sentence. Overall, though, I’m satisfied with the way it came out and I think it makes a valid point.

Of course, as expected, people immediately began taking cheap pot shots at my answer, demanding that I provide “citations” to “scientific evidence” to support my assertion that the people who first invented religions were largely ignorant about the world and the universe. Seriously? I need to prove that people living thousands of years ago, without access to any of the technology we have today, didn’t know as much about the universe as we do today?

Well, I don’t know about any “scientific evidence” of their ignorance that I can cite, but fortunately there’s this wonderful invention that actually allows me to see backwards through time and know what ancient people were thinking when first describing their gods and coming up with their religions, as well as what they thought about the universe and our place in it. And it’s an invention that has actually been around for many thousands of years.

It’s called writing.

You see, we don’t need “scientific evidence” to determine what ancient people were thinking when they first came up with their religions since they were nice enough to write it all down for us. From the ancient Sumerians who chiseled cuneiform stories into clay tablets, to the people who wrote the Bible, to the writings of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, to the author(s) of the Qur’an, to the recorded Edda sagas of the ancient Norse, etc., we have an abundant treasure trove of literature that clearly indicates that the people first writing about gods and religions largely didn’t have a clue about such basic things as the fact that the earth rotates on an axis, that the earth revolves around the sun, that the stars are actually other suns unimaginably far away and not, say, pinholes in the curtain of the night, that the universe is many billions of years old, that all life on earth evolved from earlier forms of life, that diseases are caused by germs, etc., etc., etc.

Add to that all the many, many, many different “creation stories” we have from all the various world religions and you don’t need “scientific evidence” to understand that religions and gods were all invented by people with limited knowledge about, well, much of anything, really. Not that they were necessarily stupid or unsophisticated, of course, but simply unaware of things that could only be known with the help of tools such as telescopes, microscopes, rockets, computers, etc.

And please, don’t start pointing out how one particular passage in one particular religion’s holy book can, if translated and interpreted in just the right way, supposedly indicates that the author may have actually understood something about the world that most ignorant people at the time it was written probably didn’t know. Especially if you are then going to completely ignore all the other passages that are obviously just plain wrong no matter how you squint your eyes at them. Seriously, don’t tell me that “Let there Be Light” is an amazingly accurate scientific description of the Big Bang and then try to explain why it doesn’t matter that the Bible also says the Earth was created before the Sun.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

False Equivalency and the Burden of Proof

Time and again theists argue that, since atheists claim that God doesn’t exist, it is actually the atheists who have the “burden of proof” to show that God does not exist as they claim. When this happens, most atheists respond by saying that atheists in general “merely” lack a belief in God (or gods) and that they don’t actually make any claims that need to be proven. Theists, they say, are the ones who go around claiming that God does exist, and atheists simply say, “I don’t believe you” or perhaps even, “You have not provided me with any good reason, any compelling evidence or argument, to accept that your claim is true.”

Now, this is certainly true as far as it goes, but it often comes across as just a way to avoid the burden of proof by putting it back onto the theists without actually contributing anything to the discussion aside from saying, “I don’t have to prove anything, you do!” And some atheist take this a step further by actually acknowledging that atheists would indeed bear the full burden of proof of establishing that God does not exist if, in fact, they actually asserted that He didn’t exist instead of just stating their lack of belief.

Well, this is all well and good for atheist who really do just lack a belief in God, but it makes those of us who actually assert that no gods actually exist seem a bit irrational (which is, of course, exactly what the theists have in mind when making their claim about the burden of proof in the first place). Are we irrational to assert that no gods exist? Perhaps, but there are two important things to understand here:
  • “Absolute proof” only exists in the realm of pure mathematics in the first place, and the best anybody can ever actually be expected to provide is compelling evidence of whatever it is they happen to be asserting as true. Many theists actually seem to acknowledge this fact by claiming that the existence of God can neither be proved nor disproved (as a way of avoiding their own burden of proof) right before attempting to shift that supposedly impossible burden of proof onto atheists. Yes, they want to have it both ways: “God’s existence can be neither proved nor disproved, but it if it could be then it would be the atheist’s responsibility.”
  • While the “burden of proof” is on the person making a claim about something, not all burdens are equally onerous! In other words, there is a false equivalency in asserting that the burden of proof of somebody claiming there is no God is exactly the same burden of proof of somebody claiming there is a God.
Let me address these two points individually. 

1. Can the Existence of God Be Proved or Disproved?

Is it actually the case that the existence of God can neither be proved nor disproved? Well, again, if you are talking about “proof” as in the the absolute certainty only available in the realm of pure mathematics, then of course it is true. But that’s not really what most people mean when they talk about proving something. If asked to prove whether I have an apple in my hand, I can do so for all practical purposes by opening my hand and showing the apple that I’m holding. Nobody claims that the apple could just be an illusion, that perhaps our whole existence is merely a dream or a simulation. When somebody asks me to “prove” that I have an apple in my hand, they are merely asking for compelling evidence that I have an apple in my hand, and I can provide that compelling evidence simply by showing the apple.

Similarly, if asked to prove that I don’t have an apple in my hand, once again I can provide compelling evidence simply by opening my hand and showing that it is empty. This is what most people mean and expect when discussing proof in everyday life, and requiring something beyond compelling evidence when discussing the existence of God is nothing more than a dodge on the part of those people who know full well that they cannot provide any compelling evidence for their assertion. So the real question is not whether the existence or nonexistence of God can be “proved” but instead whether any compelling evidence can be provided as to its existence or not. 

2. Is the Burden of Proof the Same between Theists and Atheists? 

So, just how heavy is the burden of proof when it comes to providing compelling evidence for the non-existence of God and is it really the same as the burden of proof when it comes to providing compelling evidence for the existence of God? The answer to this can be summed up in a phrase made popular by the astronomer Carl Sagan, to wit: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." When somebody makes an extraordinary claim (such as, say, that there exists an omnipotent, omniscient, and all-loving intelligent being who created the universe, appeared before various people, provided moral guidelines, performed all sorts miracles, made lots of promises about future events, etc.), the burden of proof becomes extraordinarily high.

It’s not enough, for example, to simply provide an argument that suggests that something must be responsible for the formation of the universe or to claim that, since “science” can’t currently explain some aspect of the natural world that therefore the particular God somebody happens to worship “must be” (or even “possibly could be”) the actual explanation. It’s not enough to point to anecdotal stories of people who occasionally received something they prayed for (especially when ignoring all the times they didn’t get what they prayed for). It’s not enough to point out cases where holy scriptures written by ignorant and superstitious Bronze Age desert tribesmen supposedly mention something that, if interpreted in just the right way, kind of, sort of reflect knowledge that people living at that time may not have been able to discover on their own (especially when ignoring all the rest of the text that completely disagrees with what we now know about the universe). Theists who claim that God exists have a very, very large burden of proof to provide compelling evidence that the God that they actually worship (as opposed to some sort of “hidden” God who created the universe and is now wholly imperceptible by any means) does, in fact, exist.

And what of the burden of proof for those of us who claim that no such God exists? Given the extraordinary high burden of proof theists bear in the first place, all we need do is point out that the sort of God actually worshiped by theists would necessarily leave behind plenty of compelling evidence of its existence, which makes the lack of any such compelling evidence is, in itself, compelling evidence that such a God does not exist (see Absence of Evidence IS Evidence of Absence). If further compelling evidence is required, we need only point out the logical contradictions inherent with the theistic concept of God in the first place (see The Logical Impossibility of God).

Now, keep in mind that atheism does not exist in a vacuum, but is instead a response to a claim made by theists. Atheists didn’t just come up with the idea one day that “no gods exist” and then start running around telling everybody this. Instead, it was theists who made the original claim that gods do exist and then tried to covert everybody else to their belief. Which is to say that, even if an atheist does bear some burden of proof for claiming that no gods exist, that in no way removes the much larger burden of proof that theists bear. For more on this, see Atheism Without Theism?.
Another thing to keep in mind when weighing the relative burden of proof is that there’s a difference between denying something for which there is compelling evidence and denying something for which there is no compelling evidence. If somebody claimed, for example, that the moon was an illusion and didn’t really exist, then that person would bear a pretty hefty burden of proof to back up that claim since there is plenty of well-accepted evidence that the moon does, in fact, exist (we can see it, we have measured how it affects the tides, we have actually landed on it, etc.). Compare that with somebody who responds to a claim that a 10-mile wide cloaked alien spacecraft is currently hovering over downtown Manhattan, poised to obliterate the Empire State Building, by claiming that no such craft exists because there is absolutely no evidence of it even possibly existing (let alone actually existing). Sure, the person denying the existence of the moon and the person denying the existence of the cloaked spacecraft are both making a claim, but the burden of proof is not equal between these two claims. Similarly, atheists are not in the position of denying something for which there is compelling evidence, but instead in the position of denying something for which there is no compelling evidence, and as a result their burden of proof is much less than theists would have us believe.

Some theists, by the way, attempt to wiggle out of their burden of proof by saying that they merely “believe” in God without actually “claiming” or “asserting” that God exists (much the same, supposedly, as how many atheist claim that “lack of belief in God” is not the same as “asserting that God doesn’t exist”). Sure, there are undoubtedly some theists who don’t actually claim that God exists just as there are some atheists who actually do claim that God does not exist, but the typical dynamic is for theists to claim that God does, in fact, exist (and they have evidence and arguments to prove it), since most theists apparently understand how irrational it would be to believe in something you don’t actually claim exists in the first place. Seriously, how ridiculous would it be to go around saying stuff like, “I believe that grass is green and rain is wet, but I’m not actually claiming that grass is green and rain is wet”?

The point of all this is that many atheists have allowed themselves to be convinced that the “burden of proof” is a bad thing that should on no account ever be accepted when it comes to the existence of God, and this just allows theists to claim that, while it may not be possible to prove that God does exist, it’s just as impossible to prove that God doesn’t exist and therefore atheists are as equally irrational as theists for believing in something that cannot be proved. Once we realize, however, that “proved” in this context just means “has compelling evidence to support” and that the burden of proof on theists is significantly higher than that on atheists, we should stop being afraid of the burden of proof and feel confident asserting without reservation that no God of any sort worshiped by anybody actually exists.

Oh, and with regard to the so-called “Deist” God who created the universe and then promptly disappeared without a trace:

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Atheism Without Theism?

A while back, I was engaged in a conversation with a theist who kept trying to get me to acknowledge that atheists maintain that the billions of people throughout all of human history who believe in God were all wrong. This was obviously poorly veiled argumentum ad populum and I refused to play his game according to his rules. Instead, I kept pointing out that the majority of theists also maintain that the billions of people throughout all of human history who believe in God were all wrong, since they worship the wrong God, or belong to the wrong religion, sect, denomination, etc. Every time he tried to argue that there must be something to this whole God belief if everybody accepted it except for a small percentage of atheists, I pointed out that every single theist was also part of a small group of people who disagreed with everybody else, so there’s nothing special about atheists rejecting all other beliefs as invalid.

Well, after going back and forth like this for awhile, getting more and more frustrated at my unwillingness to play his game and concede his point, he finally said something that just made my jaw drop in amazement:
What other people believe has nothing to do with the question asked. Deflection to what theists believe is nothing more than a rationalization. You don't base your atheism on what theists believe, do you?


I mean, I know that theists like to claim that atheism is its own belief system and all, but this is just ridiculous. Of course atheists base their atheism on what theists believe. That’s the whole point! Atheism literally means “not theism” and is nothing more, nor less, than a reaction to and rejection of what theists assert to be true. Theists say, “There is a God” and atheists respond, “I don’t believe you.” If no theist ever talked about God in the first place, there would be no such thing as atheists. How can atheist know what it is that we don’t believe in unless somebody else first tells us about it? Can you disbelieve in Santa Claus or Elves or the Loch Ness Monster if nobody has first told you what they are?

I dunno. I’m used to theists constantly trying to shift the burden of proof to make their arguments seem less irrational (“Atheists can’t prove that God doesn’t exist, so their belief in no God is just as faith-based as our belief in God”). And I’m used to theists constantly trying to portray atheism as some sort of “belief system” instead of simply a lack of belief. But it never occurred to me that somebody would actually complain that atheists dare to define their lack of belief according to what other people believe in.

What a world.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Incomprehensible and/or Imperceptible God

In a previous post I wrote about the hypocrisy and hubris evidenced by people who claim to be the only ones who “really” understand what the Bible actually says (see The Hypocrisy and Hubris of Biblical Interpretation). The basic point was that it was incredibly arrogant for anybody to think that (a) God actually wants people to know what He wants people to do and (b) throughout all of human history nobody has been able to figure it out until now (meaning, of course, that billions of people in the past got it all wrong and were presumably doomed to go to Hell as a result).
On a related note, I have recently run into a similar group of incredibly arrogant theists. No, they don’t claim to understand the Bible better than anybody else. Instead, they claim to understand the essential nature of God better than anybody else. God, you see, is wholly incomprehensible to the human mind and therefore every single religion throughout history that has ever described God in any particular way just got it wrong.
For example:
As “God”, by the very nature of it’s defined and understood being, exists outside of the physical Universe, there will be no exclusively applicable, scientifically validated or accepted physical or empirical “evidence” of the existence of God.
Or this:
God is an inner experience that no words can explain. The one Creator God created all other gods (small “g”) including the ones you named. None are equal to the Creator God who created them.
The truth of God can be known only by reaching beyond the relativity of the material realm consciousness. It is an inner experience perceived when the human’s consciousness is raised to its higher mind.
Those who meditate know of the higher mind. There are no outer writings or teachings that can explain God for the conscious mind of the human and no religion is necessary for the inner experience of God. When the human is ready the teacher will appear. That teacher is the inner experience of God.
Now, as I mentioned, this appears to be just another example of people who are so full of themselves, who think they are so special, that they honestly believe that they are among the select few in the history of religion to truly understand who and what God “really” is. I’m sure it makes them feel good about themselves, but what type of person can believe in a God who actually cares about us and then thinks that billions of humans throughout history just got it wrong.

However, I think there may be more to it than just sheer arrogance. I suspect that at least part of this has to do with an acknowledgement that there really is no valid evidence to support a belief in the existence of God. And rather than just admit this, these people have decided to redefine God in a way that does not require any evidence. As with the deist notion of a non-interventionist God, however, what’s left is an empty meaningless concept of a god who doesn’t perform miracles, doesn’t promise an afterlife or salvation, doesn’t provide moral guidance, etc. It’s just yet another cop-out to justify why they can’t provide any evidence for God’s existence.

Of course, one question that never seems to get fully addressed is how, if God is so incomprehensible, do people like this seem to know so much about Him what He wants us to do, what He can do for us, etc. Now that’s the real mystery! For example, somebody recently posed the following question to me:
If the maker of a show is not inside the shoe, why do scientists expect God to be perceivable inside the universe?
The clear implication being, of course, that the reason scientists have never been able to detect God is because He is not actually perceptible within this universe. Oh, really? The thing is, if you’re actually talking about one of the many, many gods actually worshiped by anybody throughout all of recorded human history, its not scientists who expect “God” to be perceivable but believers themselves. After all, the gods that people actually worship have not exactly been shy about showing themselves (or allowing themselves to be perceived, if you prefer) in the past, at least if you believe all the various accounts in the various holy books that provide the only source of knowledge that believers actually have regarding their gods.

It’s rather disingenuous to claim that the particular “God” you worship created the universe, performed a multitude of miracles, talked to various people, sent down representatives to interact with humans, made specific promises, provided moral guidelines for us to follow, etc., etc., etc., and then go on to claim that this “God” cannot be perceived in any way. After all, if your “God” cannot be perceived in any way, how do you even know about it in the first place?

Sure, if you define your “God” as wholly imperceptible, then science has nothing to say on the matter. But then again, neither do you. That’s what imperceptible means. On the other hand, the minute you claim to be able know anything whatsoever about your “God” (what it has said, done, promised, etc.), then you are making testable claims that should be verifiable by scientists.