Young Sheldon is the precursor to Older Sheldon in the popular TV series, The Big Bang Theory. So says Wikipedia. Here's a video of Young Sheldon showing his scientific and logical skills as he gets the best of a church pastor. This clip gets Einstein wrong. He didn't believe in the Christian God. Einstein believed in Spinoza's god, which is Nature.
Sometimes I feel like praying, even though I don't believe in God. The only prayer that I remember from my brief time in Catholicism as a child is the Lord's Prayer.
So I enjoy interpreting the familiar words from a scientificatheist point of view.
Our Father who art in heaven,
The laws of nature aren't bound by time and space, being both universal and responsible for the space-time continuum of our universe. These laws are our father, mother, sister, brother, and every other sort of familial relationship we might consider ourselves having with them.
Hallowed be thy name.
We humans have an evolved consciousness that allows us to not only experience the universe, but to conceptually understand its workings -- which includes giving names to entities within our experience and formulating mathematical equations that reflect many of nature's laws.
Thy kingdom come.
Of course it comes. It is already here. The cosmos is unimaginably vast, but more and more of it is being comprehended through the advances of science.
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
This "will" is the expression of the laws of nature, which govern the most minute subatomic earthly goings-on as well as the course of the hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe. So far as is known, nothing in the cosmos fails to fall under the sway of those universal laws.
Give us this day our daily bread,
Nature provides for our needs through the presence of solar energy and the marvelous habitability of our one and only planet Earth.
and forgive us our trespasses,
Everybody screws up regularly. There is no such thing as omniscience, so human life is a continual effort to find the best way forward while avoiding danger spots as much as possible. Of course, the worst "trespass" is failing to preserve the natural environment that makes our planet so suitable for us Homo sapiens to prosper here.
as we forgive those who trespass against us,
Nobody is perfect, since there is no transcendent God or any other divinity able to rise above human frailties. So it makes sense to be tolerant of imperfection, since this is the way of the world. We can strive for the best, but we should be content with the good.
and lead us not into temptation,
It is temping to believe in a nonexistent God, because this belief can provide some comfort and solace, but we need to resist the lures of supernatural fantasies.
but deliver us from evil.
Which includes falsehood, superstition, and failing to recognize reality. Religion is one of the most common guises these "evils" come in, so we need to do our best to be delivered from it.
One of the best arguments against believing in God is that there so many varieties of religious belief.
This doesn't happen in science, where there isn't an Eastern or Western science. Nor is there a Chinese or American science. Because modern science deals with entities that are real, there's agreement on, say, how subatomic particles behave, or the equations needed to put a satellite into orbit.
A friend of ours recently overheard a conversation between two men sitting behind her while she was on a plane. It started with one of the men asking the other, "Are you a believer?"
Turns out he was, so they launched into a rather loud discussion about Christianity. All went well until friction arose after it was learned that one of the men was a Jehovah's Witness.
Then the conversation became rather heated. Is God a unitary being, or is God a trinity of Father, Son, Holy Spirit? Our friend said they argued about this question for the rest of the plane trip.
What this shows is that nobody knows.
Whether God exists. What God would be like, if God does exist. There's very little agreement among religions about God's nature. Even Christians disagree about what God is like. Mormons and Catholics have little in common other than faith in Jesus.
(I think they agree on this; maybe they don't.)
Now, I used to argue that there was a common denominator among religions. It just was necessary to focus on what mystics in various religions taught about God.
But now that I've left behind my true-believing days, I'm aware that what I was doing was selectively choosing evidence for commonalities between mystical beliefs, because actually Christian mystics have a very different take on what God is like than, say, Sikh mystics or Islamic mystics.
So the fact that religious believers can't agree about God's nature is pretty conclusive evidence that God isn't real. The god of the Koran is very different from the god of the Bible. And Buddhists don't believe in any god at all, along with Taoists.
I don't believe in God. I'm virtually certain that God doesn't exist, because there is no demonstrable evidence for a god or gods.
Thus I deeply doubt that anyone, alive or dead, has ever known anything about God other than what they make up in their own mind.
So I've got some simple questions for religious believers -- a number of whom are regular readers of this blog (which is kind of weird; it's sort of like avid meat-eaters frequenting a vegetarian web site).
I understand that many religious believers just have faith that God exists. They don't claim to have any special knowledge of a supernatural divinity. They hope to be ushered into God's presence after death. My questions really aren't for these people of faith.
Rather, I'm interested in those who purport to have experienced the presence of God, or at least a reflection of God, such as a holy spirit, angel, divine energy, or whatever.
Here's my questions to them:
(1) Do you claim to know something about reality that isn't known to ordinary people? If so, what is this special knowledge, and how do you know that it is true?
(2) Do you claim to have an elevated sense of morality that isn't possessed by ordinary people? If so, what makes you a better sort of moral person from ordinary people?
(3) Do you claim to understand what God is like? If so, enumerate some attributes of God and how you came to comprehend them.
I ask these questions because I've spent many, many years talking to people who believe in God, and I've never met a single person who had a convincing story about an actual experience of God.
One would think (as I do) that anyone who has had a glimpse of God, if not a full- blown vision, would come away from that experience with some special knowledge, special goodness, special morality, special understanding, special something.
If they can't demonstrate what this special something is, then they shouldn't expect that anyone else should take them seriously when they claim to have experienced God. Talk is cheap. Truth is expensive, in that it requires proof, evidence, facts.
In everyday life, if someone says, "I know X," it is perfectly appropriate to ask, "How do you know X? What reasons do you have for believing your knowledge is true? Show me some evidence for X."
But in the realm of religion, people are allowed to spout all sorts of crap without being challenged. Well, this atheist, along with many of my atheist friends, is tired of religious believers getting a free pass on the Truth Train.
So I'm curious to see if any religious person steps up to the Truth Plate (to mix metaphors) and takes a swing at my three questions.
First off, I've been there and done that: thinking God is on my side. So when I say that this is a crazy belief, I'm criticizing an earlier version of myself -- along with everybody else who has an ego massive enough to believe such a thing.
Here's a transcript I made of part of the podcast where Pesca and Moss discuss how the Green family just knew that God looked favorably upon their decision to close Hobby Lobby stores on Sunday.
Pesca: In fact, they made a decision early on, the family did, to close the stores on Sunday. How they decided was kind of interesting. They kind of rolled it out slowly, and it wasn't going well at first. But then when it did, they took that as proof it was the Lord's plan all along.
Moss: That's right. They started with states that only had a few stores and closed them there. And by the time they were done with Texas, which had the most stores, then their profits took off again. And they interpreted that as a sign that they had won God's favor.
Pesca: It seems like there are so many instances in your book where that wouldn't be the accurate interpretation, or even a logical interpretation, or an interpretation, you know, that a reasonable person, or anyone approaching a reasonable person would have. But they always interpret everything as telling them that they're right and God is on their side.
Moss: That's right.
This is a dangerous belief.
What makes it dangerous, rather than just plain crazy, is the fact that the Green family has billions of dollars to spend on promoting their fanatical brand of evangelical Christianity, spurred on by their conviction that whatever they do, God approves of it.
Don't shop at Hobby Lobby, which just opened a store in Salem. Here's the headlines of my 5 reasons why. Those who shop there are having their money go to: (1) Denying contraception coverage to women employed by corporations owned by religious zealots. (2) Teaching the Bible in public schools as "true" and "good." (3) Smuggling artifacts from Iraq, an act that supports terrorism. (4) Supporting the election of Trump. (5) Helping fund a $500 million Museum of the Bible.
Item (3) above resulted in Hobby Lobby having to pay a $3 million fine to the government after the company was caught smuggling Iraqi artifacts. So I guess the Green family believes that God approves of illegal acts that support terrorism.
I realize how easy it is for religious believers to look upon themselves as God's chosen people. This belief is comforting. It soothes the ego, even though religious people put on a false humility with words such as "God is doing everything" and "I'm just a servant of the Lord."
False, because I've seen how religious egos go wild when devotees of a particular faith are told that they are looked upon with special favor by God. Or, in Eastern religions, by a guru who is considered to be God in human form.
I've both seen this in other people, and also in myself.
For example, when I used to give spiritual talks at a Sunday meeting of fellow believers, and I was late leaving for the place where the meeting was held, if I found that all of the traffic lights were green when I came to the intersections between my house and the meeting location, I'd look upon this as a sign that God was helping me be on time.
Crazy? Yes. Just like the Green family believing that God is on their side? Yes.
It took me many years, decades, really, before I came to realize that I'm nobody special, and that the universe isn't treating me any differently from everybody else.
That realization was a relief, actually. I could stop pretending and start living an authentic, honest, down to earth life.
God isn't on anybody's side, because almost certainly there is no God. (I'd leave out the "almost," but I'm scientifically minded, and in science nothing is 100% certain.)
A recent letter to the editor suggested the a decline in "respect for God," even by newspapers, is responsible for an increase in crime (as supposedly evidenced by the space given to sports versus religion).
The newspaper is merely keeping up with the times and focusing on fact versus fiction.
In this day and age, people are smarter than in the past, (especially younger people) and as science evolves, they see the conflict between science and religious myths. They are increasingly non-religious and would rather spend their free time in enjoyable activities (like sports) rather than meaningless rituals and hearing someone spout the same old ancient stories that have little to do with modern life.
Perhaps if ancient religious writings are found that support facts of modern science, evolution, and which predicted a world of automobiles, solar cells, and gene therapy, people would read a big scientifically supported "religious section."
Humans gave up believing in the sun god and a myriad of other gods as science evolved. Religion is not needed for moral behavior. A number of non-religious European countries have far less violent crime. Newspapers should report on realty, not myth. That is up to churches.
I admit that I haven’t read the many comments on this post in much detail. In my current irreligious frame of mind it just strikes me as mostly meaningless to discuss/argue about subjective experiences as if they reflect some objective reality. There’s no way to tell whether someone’s supposed “mystical” experience is anything other than a projection of their own mind absent some sort of convincing demonstrable evidence.
Logical or reasonable arguments can lead anywhere. To me, most of the content of the comments is akin to debating the details of how unicorns look and act. The first question to ask is, “Do unicorns exist?” If they don’t, then it is just an exercise in creative fiction to delve into details of an imaginary creature.
Philosophical debates aimed at how one lives in this world strike me as quite different. I read a lot of philosophy, both explicit and implicit. Finding meaning in this world clearly is a subjective exercise. But the world itself is objectively real, which gives meaning to the search for meaning.
Trying to find meaning in supernatural realms and powers for which there is no evidence of their existence strikes me as a waste of time. And I say this as someone who has wasted a lot of time in this pursuit.
Here's another way of expressing what I was trying to say in my reply: believers should be clear about what sort of belief they are claiming is valid, and so worthy of being embraced by other people.
The basic distinction is between subjective and objective reality, as I noted in my reply. Now, I realize that "subjective" and "objective" mean different things to different people. But the dictionary definitions make good sense.
Subjective: characteristic of or belonging to reality as perceived rather than as independent of mind : relating to or being experience or knowledge as conditioned by personal mental characteristics or states
Objective: of, relating to, or being an object, phenomenon, or condition in the realm of sensible experience independent of individual thought and perceptible by all observers : having reality independent of the mind
So let's say that someone speaks of experiencing God, heaven, or some other manifestation of a supernatural reality beyond the physical universe. For example, as in the above-mentioned comments, some people talk about astral realms, radiant forms, divine light and sound.
I have no problem accepting that a person had an experience along these lines. After all, the mind is capable of creating many mental manifestations that are much different from everyday reality.
If you take a psychedelic drug, likely you're going to have profound personal experiences. If you have a psychotic form of mental illness, likely you're going to have profound personal experiences. If you meditate for lengthy periods, likely you're going to have profound personal experiences. If you meet with a holy leader you're deeply devoted to, likely you're going to have profound personal experiences. And if you deeply desire to have a certain religious experience, likely you're going to have profound personal experiences in line with that desire.
Naturally this doesn't exhaust the ways religiously-minded people can have deeply moving experiences of what seems to be a divinity beyond themselves. Every religion is awash with stories about devotees who have experienced a glimpse -- or a full-on encounter -- with the divinity they believe in.
I'm interested in these stories in much the same way I'm interested in hearing someone talk about going to Glacier National Park, a Monster Truck event, Paris, a Taylor Swift concert, or any other experience that leaves this person with an amazing feeling best expressed as "You had to be there to believe it."
Meaning, I accept that they had a profound experience. But I don't accept that this was an objective manifestation of reality.
Well, in the examples above the experience was of something objectively real, such as Taylor Swift. However, the person's experience of a Taylor Swift concert was their own, whereas the objective reality of the concert was independent of their individual mind.
In the case of religious, mystical, or spiritual experiences, often the discrepancy between subjective and objective is much greater.
After all, there is no shared experience of God, heaven, soul, spirit, or any other supernatural entity. All we have are descriptions of individual experiences, and there is no way to prove that these are anything other than the manifestation of a person's subjective mind.
So I wish religious believers would be clearer about what they claim to have experienced.
I had numerous profound encounters with what seemed to be a higher reality in my college days, when I imbibed LSD, mescaline, and other psychedelics. But I rarely, if ever, told other people that my psychedelic experiences were of an objectively real reality.
Yes, at the time the sensations I experienced seemed like a doorway to a higher state of consciousness. And maybe they were, in a personal subjective sense. Meaning, for me. Not for anybody else.
Yet religious believers often extrapolate from their individual personal experience of some supposed divinity and claim that their experience proves that the divinity is objectively real. Which, of course, it doesn't.
"I had a subjective experience of X" is very different from "X exists as an objective fact." The first statement doesn't demand proof, because subjective experiences basically are unprovable. The second statement does demand proof, because it is a claim about universal reality.
I no longer believe in God. Meaning, a God who is this or that, a God who can be described, who can be known, who can be experienced.
But I'm very much open to the notion that One is at the heart of reality. Heck, I wrote a book called "Return to the One" about the teachings of Plotinus, a Neoplatonist Greek philosopher.
After all, something has to have always existed, or existence wouldn't exist. So why not call this the "One"? Just don't ascribe any attributes to the One, because the One couldn't have any attributes, being, obviously, One.
Interestingly, Osho Robbins asked a question of Gurinder Singh, the current guru of Radha Soami Satsang Beas (the spiritual organization I belonged to for about 35 years), that shows the guru looks upon God in much the same way as Plotinus did.
Which isn't how most RSSB disciples do.
They still think of God as some sort of person, or at least as a being that can be known. Likewise, they consider that heaven, or Sach Khand as RSSB terms it, is some sort of place rather than a quality of being or an essence of existence.
Here's what Osho Robbins sent me as a guest blog post. I'm pleased to share it. "BabaJi" is an Indian term of respect for the guru, Gurinder Singh.
I asked BabaJi a question at the last Sunday gathering. I asked him to explain about SARGUN and NIRGUN.
His first response was “Are you trying to test me?”
I said “No,”, because I wasn’t – I just wanted him to comment on the subject.
The response he gave was pretty impressive but I somehow think hardly anyone in the congregation understood him.
What he said was that SARGUN is God with attributes – the path we all follow and NIRGUN is the goal – the God without any attributes – the ONE. Sargun is the MEANS and Nirgun is the END or GOAL.
So the Goal is to get to the ONE – where these is no duality.
This is in line with the notion that the Guru cannot come at the time of death because there is only ONE, and there is no place to take the soul.
The idea of the guru coming at death and taking the soul to Sach Khand is as naïve as the notion of Father Christmas.
Sach Khand is not a place – so why is everyone keen to go there? What do they think is awaiting them in Sach Khand?
The true goal of Sant Mat is to DIE. Meaning the EGO (the ‘I’) dies, which means there is no longer a YOU who wants to go to Sach Khand.
That is the real meaning of “die while living”. Eliminate the ego WHILE you are alive – realize there is no YOU – no separate self. Just a deluded little disciple who thinks he is privileged and will go to Sach Khand.
After getting a haircut a few days ago I reached into the pocket of my jacket where I'd put my checkbook. Problem was, no checkbook.
"I'll have to give you cash," I told Kim, my haircutter. "Cash is good," she said. "I like cash."
"Me too. But I also like my checkbook, and I'm pretty sure I stuck it in my jacket pocket before I left home."
The next stop of the day in my retired life was my Tai Chi class in downtown Salem (Oregon). After I'd gotten in my car, post-haircut, I looked through my backpack and the floor of the car for the missing checkbook.
So where the heck is my checkbook? was very much on my mind as the Tai Chi class started. I was going through the motions of the movements, but my mind was absorbed in thinking about the missing checkbook.
I recollected taking it out of a drawer before I left for my haircut appointment, since I always pay Kim with a check, not cash. I was pretty sure that I'd put it in the pocket of my jacket. I wasn't as sure that I'd zipped up the pocket.
"I threw my jacket on a chair before Kim started cutting my hair," I mused inwardly while doing a Tai Chi form. "Maybe the checkbook slipped out and fell behind the chair. If so, hopefully either Kim or a cleaning person will notice it. But what if it gets picked up by someone else, or maybe the checkbook fell out after I parked my car and walked to Kim's salon."
These sorts of thoughts consumed my mind for about the first 20 minutes of my Tai Chi class.
I couldn't stop thinking about the hassle it would be if I'd lost the checkbook, especially since it was time to balance our bank's monthly statement, and I'm obsessive about reconciling it perfectly, to the penny.
Eventually, though, my philosophical side started gaining some power over my worrying side.
I remembered reading in Daniel Dennett's new book, "From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds," about the distinction between manifest and scientific reality. Here's a passage that will give you a feel for how Dennett uses these terms.
Here are a few other folk convictions that need Hume's strange inversion: sweetness is an "intrinsic" property 0f sugar and honey, which causes us to like them; observed intrinsic sexiness is what causes our lust; it was the funniness out there in the joke that caused us to laugh.
Oversimplifying somewhat, in these instances the causes and effects in the manifest image have become inverted in the scientific image. You can't find intrinsic sweetness by studying the molecular structure of glucose; look instead in the details of sweetness seekers.
It is how our brains respond that causes "us" (in the manifest image) to "project" an illusory property into the (manifest) world.
...Our brains have tricked us into having the conviction, making the judgment, that there seems to be an intrinsically wonderful but otherwise undescribable property in some edible things: sweetness.
So even though my way of looking at manifest and scientific was rather different from Dennett's meaning of the words, I had this intuition after I began to grow tired of thinking about my checkbook when I should have been focused on Tai Chi:
All of the worries, thoughts, concerns, and such I was having about the checkbook were manifesting in my own mind, not anywhere else. The checkbook itself -- the scientific objective reality of the checkbook -- was a different thing entirely. My checkbook was somewhere; I just didn't know where. There was a good chance it was sitting on a counter in my house, even thought my mind was almost certain that I'd put it in a pocket of the jacket that I wore to my haircut.
Once I started thinking along these lines, I relaxed.
I realized that the checkbook was either lost, or it wasn't lost. I wouldn't know which was true until my Tai Chi class was over and I could return home. I could talk myself into believing in either possibility -- lost or not lost -- but only one of those possibilities was true, and I wouldn't know which until I walked through my front door and looked at the counter.
Where, after my Tai Chi class was over, I immediately saw my checkbook. Really Real Reality had made itself known, replacing the Might Be Reality my mind had spent considerable time pondering after my haircut.
Now, I realize that it isn't as easy to confirm the existence, or lack thereof, of God as it was to confirm that my checkbook was on the counter and hadn't been lost.
My point is just that beliefs can lead us anywhere. Religions ask us to fill our heads with possibilities about God, heaven, life after death, and such -- just as my mind had been filled with possibilities about what might have happened to my checkbook. I came to realize that no matter what I believed about where my checkbook was, the reality of where it was wasn't up to me.
And that was a big relief. Almost as big as returning home and finding my checkbook on the counter.
One of my favorite sayings comes from Philip K. Dick: "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."
This applies to lost checkbooks as much as it does to God.
We can believe whatever we want, but this doesn't change the reality outside of our believing mind. In my case reality confirmed that my checkbook wasn't lost. I'm not aware of any demonstrable evidence that God is real, so I continue to not believe in God's existence.
A Church of the Churchless reader just sent me this thought-provoking exchange between two hosts of The Atheist Experience Internet television show and a Christian caller.
It's well worth watching. The first six minutes of the 12-minute video pretty much sums up the devastating arguments the hosts make about faith being an unreliable guide to truth.
Basically, the Christian believer considers that his commitment to God is justifiably based on faith. But the hosts point out that there are thousands of Gods, each of which can be believed in on faith.
So the chance of choosing the correct God (assuming any are real) is 1:1000. Not good odds.
Shermer cites physicist Sean Carroll's book (The Big Picture, which I enjoyed) in this passage.
Take our understanding of particles and forces, which Carroll says “seems indisputably accurate within a very wide domain of applicability,” such that “a thousand or a million years from now, whatever amazing discoveries science will have made, our descendants are not going to be saying ‘Haha, those silly twenty-first-century scientists, believing in ‘neutrons’ and ‘electromagnetism.’”
Thus, Carroll concludes that the laws of physics “rule out the possibility of true psychic powers.” Why? Because the particles and forces of nature don’t allow us to bend spoons, levitate or read minds, and “we know that there aren’t new particles or forces out there yet to be discovered that would support them. Not simply because we haven’t found them yet, but because we definitely would have found them if they had the right characteristics to give us the requisite powers.”
Excellent points. After thousands of years of recorded human history, there is precisely zero solid demonstrable evidence of supernatural psychic powers. Which means, the chance is extremely close to zero that such powers exist.
In his next concluding passages, Shermer also demolishes the likelihood of a supernatural God.
What about a supernatural God? Perhaps such an entity exists outside nature and its laws. If so, how would we detect it with our instruments? If a deity used natural forces to, say, cure someone’s cancer by reprogramming the cancerous cells’ DNA, that would make God nothing more than a skilled genetic engineer. If God used unknown supernatural forces, how might they interact with the known natural forces? And if such supernatural forces could somehow stir the particles in our universe, shouldn’t we be able to detect them and thereby incorporate them into our theories about the natural world? Whence the supernatural?
It is at the horizon where the known meets the unknown that we are tempted to inject paranormal and supernatural forces to explain hitherto unsolved mysteries, but we must resist the temptation because such efforts can never succeed, not even in principle.
When I believed in a divine power that existed above and beyond the bounds of the natural world, arguments like these threatened my spiritual sensibilities.
Now, I worship at the Altar of Reality. So I'm attracted to whatever brings me closer to what is real, even if these truths are difficult to accept. I'd prefer that a loving God was waiting to embrace my immortal soul after I die.
But what I prefer and what is real outside of my preferring brain often are very different things. We've got to choose which to pay the most attention to.
I so love it when someone writes a book that says stuff I've been saying on this blog for a long time. Except he says it even better.
Which explains why I'm liking Paul Singh's "The Great Illusion: The Myth of Free Will, Consciousness, and the Self" so much.
Singh is a scientifically-minded professor of obstetrics and gynecology who was raised in the Sikh religious tradition, and believed in Indian forms of spirituality/healing for a long time.
Until, he saw the light of reality.
Here's an excerpt from his book that speaks to an oft-spoken theme in my blog posts. It is up to religious believers to offer evidence that God exists, not to skeptics to come up with evidence that God doesn't exist.
Carl Sagan's tale of "A fire breathing Dragon lives in my garage" is a perfect example of how those who make scientifically unfalsifiable claims try to shift the burden of proof to others by special pleading at every step of the way.
Someone tells you there is a dragon in his garage. So you take a look in the garage and you don't see any dragon. He tells you the dragon is invisible.
So you decide to spread some flour on the garage floor to detect the dragon's foot prints, but there are none. And so it goes. Your friend will always have an excuse as to why there is no evidence that there is a dragon in his garage.
You tell your friend that there is no evidence that there is a dragon in his garage. But he tells you that you can't prove there isn't. And he is right, you can't prove there isn't a dragon in the garage.
But that is precisely the point of Sagan's tale. The burden of proof is not on you to prove anything. The burden of proof is on the person who makes the claims about the dragon. It is his responsibility to provide evidence for the dragon.
And he can't provide any because there isn't any. And you can't prove his claim wrong because his claim is unfalsifiable. And it is unfalsifiable because it makes no predictions about what you will perceive when you look in the garage.
Such unfalsifiable claims are nonsense.
This is how all superstition, pseudo-science, and religion works. Believers in such things make extraordinary claims that cannot be falsified. And when they are forced to admit that they don't have any evidence to support their claims, they respond by saying that you cannot prove that they are wrong.
But, again, the burden of proof is on the person making the extraordinary claim about miracles or UFOs or whatever to provide evidence for their claim. The burden of proof is not on the other person to prove them wrong -- something that is absolutely impossible to do given that their claim is unfalsifiable.
The take home lesson is that we should never believe a claim to be true simply because no one can prove it to be false. Theologians are experts at this kind of nonsense.
Are delusional people making things up? Evidence shows that the human brain is universally delusional in many ways and therefore people who promote superstitions are not particularly more delusional than the rest of us.
It is just that examples of religious delusions are rather classic examples of how the brain creates illusions and delusions. The use of logic and scientific skepticism is a skill that can be used to overcome the limitations of our own brains.
This skill is like any other skill such as learning to play the piano. It involves training in metacognition as well as basic education in all basic sciences.
I really have no idea how he can defend statements such as this:
Dwelling in a state of doubt, uncertainty and openness about the existence of God marks an honest approach to the question. There is no easy answer. Indeed, the question may be fundamentally unanswerable.
Here's how the question of the existence of God is answered: with the best evidence available. This is how we humans answer all questions. There's no other way.
Yes, the history of science, indeed the history of everything, shows that answers often are wrong or incomplete. Aristotle famously thought that heavier things fall faster than lighter things. People believed this for a long time.
Until Galileo came up with the bright idea of experimenting to see if the evidence fit the supposed fact. It didn't. So Galileo provided a better answer to the question of gravity.
Which also was wrong in certain ways. Einstein's Theory of General Relativity was a further advance in our understanding of gravity. So it would have been absurd for someone to say that "Gravity is a Question, Not an Answer."
Gravity is a question with different answers, depending on the state of knowledge and evidence at the time. Ditto with the question, Does God exist?
Except in this case the answer has always been the same: there is no demonstrable evidence that God exists. Likewise, there is no demonstrable evidence that fairies or goblins exist. Sure, there are myths about fairies and goblins, just as there are myths about God.
Yet would any philosopher seriously argue that "Fairies are a question, not an answer"? We can be pretty damn sure that fairies are nonexistent, so there is no point debating any other questions about the nature of fairies.
The only reason Irwin can have his essay published in the New York Times is that so many more people believe in the God myth, compared to the fairies myth. But a myth without any convincing evidence that it is true is still a myth, no matter how many people believe in it.
I enjoy reading the top-rated "readers' picks" comments on NYT essays like this one. They're always well-written and thoughtful. Here's #1 and #2 on Irwin's piece:
This atheist has no doubts. I don’t spare a thought for Zeus, or Baal or that Old Testament genocidal monster or any other fairy tale creature conjured up by illiterate iron-age tribal collectives to cement their authority and frighten the peasants.
The current trend is for atheists to say that we don’t claim that there definitely is no god, but that we have examined the evidence for god and find it unconvincing.
Sorry, but I say there is no god. It’s not merely about lack of evidence. It’s because the stories of miraculous visitations and resurrections and invisible worlds full of superbeings are patently absurd. If any of these things were true the world would have the consistency of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Everything we know about physics, biology, chemistry, cosmology and every other science would be wrong.
The appeal to agnosticism as the only logical position is insidious. Agnosticism has been a boon to theists because it raises the epistemological floor from “you must be kidding” to “you might be right” with no more effort than making an unprovable claim.
History is strewn with discarded gods that weren’t even there to receive the prayers of the faithful or the sacrifices that they made, sometimes at gruesomely high cost. It is an insult to our integrity as rational beings to sacrifice our self-respect on the altar of mindless credulity and superstition.
----------------------------- "Any honest atheist must admit that he has his doubts, that occasionally he thinks he might be wrong, that there could be a God after all - if not the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition, then a God of some kind."
This atheist has no doubt that God - of any kind - does not exist.
Why do believers feel they can speak for non-believers? (They don't.) It's a common, but empty, tactic when debating an issue - suggest your opponent doesn't really believe what he says.
Of course atheists can't prove that God doesn't exist. But that doesn't lessen our certainty. As Christopher Hitchens said, if something is asserted without evidence, it can be rejected without evidence.
The fact is, there is no evidence that a God of any kind exists. Maybe one day humans will dispense with belief in imaginary beings, and use the time they spent worshipping for more productive activities.
This isn't an either-or question where the only possible answers are "yes" and "no." There are many shades of unbelieving and believing when it comes to God.
Many outwardly religious people aren't inwardly sure whether God exists. This includes a surprisingly large number of clergy.
Similarly, many atheists hold on to spiritual beliefs of one form or another, up to and including the possibility of a divine being or universal consciousness.
Personally, I've found that after 35 years of being a believer in an Eastern/Indian variety of religion, then becoming a spiritual sceptic, I've gone through a slow but steady process of discarding religious beliefs, moving from the most obvious (like "God is guiding me") to the more subtle (like "Consciousness could pervade the cosmos").
Although I’ve been a content atheist for a decade, somehow God has found a way to stick around in my mind. Not the God of the Bible who created heaven and Earth — the God that lingers with me is harder to explain. The best way I can think of to describe it is like a character from a movie that I’ve seen over and over, or like the memory of my first friends. He’s not real, but He’s present.
The idea of God pesters me and makes me think that maybe I’m not as devoted to my beliefs as I’d like to think I am and would like to be. Maybe I’m still subconsciously afraid of hell and want to go to heaven when I die. It’s confusing and frustrating to feel the presence of something you don’t believe in. This is compounded by the fact that the God character most often shows up when I’m already frustrated.
...If asked whether I believe in God, I would answer with a quick and emphatic “no.” But given that I will send a word up to a proverbial heaven if I’m on a turbulent flight, or silently ask that someone make sure my little niece and nephew stay safe, I can appreciate how some atheists may be inclined to say they believe.
...Boyer contends that there is not one part of the brain solely responsible for religious belief, but rather that the particular overlap of several cognitive systems renders religious beliefs desirable to, and easily accepted by, the human mind. This also means that when we opt for atheism, we are doing hard work to battle against what our minds are generally inclined and well-equipped to do: believe.
Religious people often consider that believing in God is difficult, requiring faith, courage, commitment. This is wrong. It is easy to believe. Evolution has hard-wired us for some form of belief in a supernatural being.
Having arrived at a churchless view of reality, I'm amused when true believers accuse me of taking the easy way out by being a skeptic about God and other things divine'ish. They see religious belief as a courageous stand against rampant secularism -- a bold independent search for ultimate reality that transcends materialistic boundaries.
Actually, the truth is far different.
Religious belief is the default human condition. What takes courage, effort, and determination is going against the religious current that sweeps the vast majority of people into a faith-based ocean.
Interestingly, the evidence for this is scientific.
Evolutionary psychology has arrived at well-founded explanations for why religious belief is almost ubiquitous in cultures around the world. So those who decry the theory of evolution as undermining the Bible and other holy books are doing so because of evolutionary influences.
They can't help themselves.
Belief in the supernatural essentially is hard-wired into humans.
Thus it isn't surprising that, as King says in her piece, remnants of religious belief continue to rattle around in an atheist's brain even after the existence of God no longer appears at all likely.
I’m not sure what to do about God. If I could figure out a way to banish this figure from my psyche, I would. But psychology is not on my side. Having been conditioned to believe in God for so many years, and having a brain hard-wired for belief, I may be stuck with his shadow forever.
It's hard for me to get my atheist head around the furor over the assertion of a Wheaton College professor that Christians and Muslims "worship the same God."
Wheaton College, an evangelical college in Illinois, had placed associate professor of political science Larycia Hawkins on administrative leave after she made a controversial theological statement on Facebook that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. The school has now begun the process to fire her due to an “impasse,” it said in a statement released on Tuesday.
Hawkins said on Wednesday that she is “flummoxed and flabbergasted” by the college’s decision.
Well, I'm flummoxed and flabbergasted that anyone is taking this whole thing seriously.
Hasn't anyone thought about this obvious fact: There is no evidence that any God exists. So it's ridiculous to debate whether one non-existent entity is the same as another non-existent entity.
Hey, maybe the Tooth Fairy is the same as Santa Claus.
Could be. They both bring gifts to children. Let's have an argument about this. Fervent believers in the uniqueness of the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus can make their case for not the same. Those who see a hidden unity between these beings can argue for the same.
Of course, since both the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus are creations of human imagination, the whole debate would be unfounded in any sort of objective reality.
We'd be analyzing works of fiction, tales that people tell to entertain themselves. It'd be somewhat akin to discussing whether a character in one novel is the same as a similar character in another novel.
The question doesn't make any sense, since both are fictional characters. But I guess it could give lovers of literature something to quibble over after they've had several glasses of wine and aren't thinking very clearly.
Theological debates are absurd, especially when taken seriously. Again, it isn't possible to discuss the inherent nature of something that doesn't exist outside of human imagination.
This is no minor issue that should be debated. Islam denies that God has a Son. They deny that Jesus is God. They do not believe in a Triune God – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I can tell you – Islam and Christianity clearly do not worship the same God. How the faculty council can now support this professor being allowed to teach students is deeply concerning.
I do agree with Graham on one thing: this issue shouldn't be debated. It should be laughed at. Religious believers arguing over whether one imaginary God is the same as another imaginary God.
Religious craziness is a form of socially-acceptable insanity.
Case in point: Ammon Bundy is one of the militants who have taken over buildings at the federal Malheur Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon.
Here's a short 90-second excerpt from a longer video Bundy made where he talks about what led him to try to help Dwight and Steven Hammond, ranchers in Harney County who were convicted on arson charges when they burned rangeland illegally -- endangering hunters and firefighters.
Somehow Bundy believes that when he needed to clear his mind about what to do, it was the Lord who did this for him. (Me, I've found a nap and coffee work just fine without God.)
Bundy also says that with his mind all clear, he understood how the Lord felt about the Hammonds. And the Lord wasn't pleased about how they'd been treated by government prosecutors, a jury, and the courts.
Now, ordinarily if someone claims that an Invisible Friend left messages in their mind to do this-and-that, we'd be inclined to think that's crazy.
But if a religious person asserts that God is the Invisible Friend, a cloak of cultural OK'ness protects them from most criticism.
Except from secular skeptics like me.
I'm 99.99% sure that the voice Ammon Bundy heard in his head came from him, not God. Hey, I've got mental voices speaking to me all the time, as we all do. But since they sound just like me, and almost always are in tune with the way I see the world, I correctly conclude that my urge to do something emanates from moi.
Which is both psychologically true and socially beneficial.
Because what Bundy says in this video isn't far removed from how Islamic terrorists and other fundamentalist extremists see reality. They also believe that God is impelling them to engage in certain acts.
Granted, so far Ammon Bundy and his band of Malheur Wildlife Refuge occupiers haven't harmed anyone. However, they're armed. And previously the Bundy family was the centerpiece of an faceoff between federal officials and militants that came dangerously close to a shooting war.
"The Lord was not pleased with what was happening to the Hammonds," Bundy said in the video. "If we allowed the Hammonds to continue to be punished, there would be accountability."
Bundy and his brothers were among hundreds who protested Saturday on behalf of the Hammonds and later led a group of about 20 to take over an office at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
One militant interviewed by Oregon Public Broadcasting only identifies himself as Captain Moroni, a historic general who, according to church scripture, threatened to "stir up insurrections" and fight "until those who have desires to usurp power and authority shall become extinct" because he felt the government did not care about the country's freedom.
"I do not fear your power nor your authority, but it is my God whom I fear," Moroni said in the Book of Alma, "and it is according to his commandments that I do take my sword to defend the cause of my country."
That name is not a silly response to deflect responsibility: In many ways, it encapsulates a deeply intertwined anti-federal sentiment mixed with Mormon symbolism. Captain Moroni is a crucial figure in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He’s also a heroic figure for anti-federalist extremists.
In the modern day west, Captain Moroni has become one of several powerful symbols for the Bundy militia’s anti-governmental extremism.
After Ammon Bundy called on militants to join him in Oregon, the OPB story says: "The man identifying as Captain Moroni said he was inspired by the call, and that the inspiration was validated by God in the form of a flock of geese he saw flying."
Well, I live near the Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge in western Oregon. I see geese flying overhead all the time. Yet I've never used this as a reason to claim God wants me to do something.
That would be freaking crazy. Unless you're religious.
I just define "God" differently than religious believers do. Which is pretty much how Paul Harrison does in his book, "Elements of Pantheism: A Spirituality of Nature and the Universe."
The word Pantheism derives from the Greek words pan (="all") and theos (="God"). Literally, Pantheism means: All is God. In essence Pantheism holds that the universe as a whole is worthy of the deepest reverence, and that only the Universe and Nature are worthy of that degree of reverence.
The statement "Nature is my god" is perhaps the simplest way of summarizing the core pantheist belief, with the word "god" here meaning not a supernatural being but the object of deepest personal reverence.
Pantheism is a spiritual path that reveres and cares for nature. A spiritual path that joyously accepts this life as our only life, and this earth as our only paradise, if we look after it. Pantheism revels in the beauty of nature and the night sky, and is full of wonder at their mystery and power.
Pantheism believes that all things are linked in a profound unity. All things have a common origin and a common destiny. All things are interconnected and interdependent. In life and in death we humans are an inseparable part of this unity, and in realizing this we can find our joy and our peace.
I learned more about Pantheism after I got an email from a man who said:
I live in a rural area. A conservative area. I am 70. I become more and more cynical about organized religions with each year. Too much emphasis on the afterlife. Too much emphasis on accepting things on faith alone (like the afterlife or the Bible.) But I do believe in a supreme being I call God.
I suppose if I lived in a large metro area I could find a group - maybe even a brick and mortar organization - of persons who are fellow cynics about these things. But I don't, so I turn to you for guidance! Is there a cyber-group I could consider joining. I'd really like some interaction on other persons' non-traditional "religious" beliefs.
Thank you for any suggestion.
Here's part of my reply to him.
You’re sort of unusual — and that’s a compliment. I mean, believing in a supreme being yet not being religious. Well, maybe this isn’t all that unusual. I recall reading about polls that show quite a few people have a similar point of view. I guess the key is what is meant by “God.”
You might want to take a look at this Pantheist site. I just took the quiz (link at top of page) and learned that I’m a Scientific Pantheist. Which seems to be a pretty good description. It’s easy to take the quiz. Maybe you’ll get some insights into what word describes your point of view.
That web page is pretty cheesy looking -- like something out of the Dawn of the Internet -- as is the World Pantheism site. But if you ignore appearances and focus on the content, there's some interesting stuff here.
Whenever I take one of those quizzes that tell you what religion/ philosophy melds best with your beliefs, pantheism always ends up close to the top. That makes sense.
I've got a naturalistic view of the universe, but I also have a powerful sense of awe when I contemplate the cosmos -- either in its incomprehensibly vast totality, or the mystery of how a single flower has come to be.
Awe, in fact, is the quality that Harrison says distinguishes Pantheism from Atheism.
Critics of Pantheism often suggest that in this case "God" is simply an extra and unnecessary name for the Universe. However, when pantheists refer to the Universe as their "God," what they really mean is that they feel the same profound sense of awe and reverence that other believers feel towards their gods.
To call the Universe "God" or "divine" is not at all meaningless. Although it does not tell us anything extra about the Universe, it expresses the powerful emotions that pantheists feel towards the Universe. It is similar to using the word "beauty" of a natural landscape.
"Beauty" is not just another word for the landscape, it expresses our positive aesthetic feelings towards it.
...It is quite possible for an atheist to regard the universe as absurd and hostile and human life as depressingly meaningless. Clearly, this approach is emotionally very distant from Pantheism.
Of course, you can feel wonder and awe when contemplating the Universe without calling that feeling "Pantheism."
But to me it does no harm to use that word. After all, that's what we humans do: use words to describe things that otherwise would remain indescribable.
I agree with Harrison that "atheism" has a more negative connotation that "pantheist," even though atheism and pantheism are completely compatible. In fact, atheism is the foundation of pantheism.
Pantheists just flip over the coin of unbelief in God, revealing the side that displays a positive sense of feeling at home in an awe-inspiring cosmos.
On the whole, I embrace the World Pantheism Movement's statement of principles. Here's a few that particularly resonate with me.
We revere and celebrate the Universe as the totality of being, past, present and future. It is self-organizing, ever-evolving and inexhaustibly diverse. Its overwhelming power, beauty and fundamental mystery compel the deepest human reverence and wonder.
There is a single kind of substance, energy/matter, which is vibrant and infinitely creative in all its forms. Body and mind are indivisibly united.
We honor reality, and keep our minds open to the evidence of the senses and of science's unending quest for deeper understanding. These are our best means of coming to know the Universe, and on them we base our aesthetic and religious feelings about reality.
Every individual has direct access through perception, emotion and meditation to ultimate reality, which is the Universe and Nature. There is no need for mediation by priests, gurus or revealed scriptures.
The whole idea of the devil is ridiculous, but the notion of an supernatural power in opposition to God (who is another absurd idea) can be found in Eastern as well as Western religions.
For a long time I belonged to an Indian spiritual organization led by a line of gurus. They taught the existence of Kal, the Negative Power, who bore some resemblance to the Devil.
One weird thing, among many, about those teachings was that the human mind supposedly was the vehicle that allowed Kal to lead people astray. Yet the gurus used their minds to communicate words, concepts, arguments, and such about Kal to their disciple's minds.
Well, one truth about religion is that it doesn't have to make sense to appeal to people. Here's some quotes from Garst's "The Devil Made Me Do It."
While this saying is often made in jest, the underlying meaning is much more sinister. It implies that there is either a supernatural entity or a cosmic force that preys upon humans to encourage them to commit heinous acts. The shooter in the recent tragedy at Umpqua Community College in Oregon is reported to have left a message on social media saying that he would be “welcomed in Hell and embraced by the devil.”
How can people believe in such a malevolent force if they also believe in an omniscient and all-powerful deity? How is the fear of evil used to motivate and control people to accept religious dogma? How does this concept of the devil and hell impinge on our ability to get at solutions to tragedies such as the one at UCC?
...But what if there is no cosmic evil force? How would our actions change?
Instead of stating as Jeb Bush did in response to the UCC shootings—stuff happens—maybe we would look harder for solutions and seek to understand the various factors at play in a tragedy such as that of UCC: identifying and providing support to youth, especially males, with tendencies toward violence or with mental health difficulties; examining how we can reach a compromise on gun control; looking at what in our culture leads to young males feeling they are victims or losers, etc. Yes, it would require more thinking than just saying—the devil made me do it—but we might actually prevent these acts from reoccurring.
Most people are familiar with Pascals' Wager. (If you aren't, I've written about it here and here.)
Pascal's basic idea was that it makes sense to believe in God, because if you're right the benefits are eternal and unlimited, while if you're wrong you lose nothing.
(Or very little. Such as listening to a bunch of boring sermons and not eating meat on Fridays.)
Over on the New York Times web site, there's an interesting piece by a philosophy professor, Gary Gutting. In "Pascal's Wager 2.0" he argues that doubting God is a better bet than denying God.
The wager requires a choice between believing and not believing. But there are two ways of not believing. I can either deny that God exists or doubt that God exists. Discussions of the wager usually follow Pascal and lump these two together in the single option of not believing in God.
They don’t distinguish denying from doubting because both are ways of not believing. The argument then is about whether believing is a better option than not believing. My formulation of the argument will focus instead on the choice between denying and doubting God.
Denial of God means that I simply close the door on the hope that there is something beyond the natural world; doubt may keep that door open. I say “may” because doubt can express indifference to what is doubted. I don’t know and I don’t care whether there is an even number of stars or whether there are planets made of purple rock.
Indifferent doubt is the practical equivalent of denial, since both refuse to take a given belief as a viable possibility — neither sees it as what William James called a “live option.” But doubt may also be open to and even desirous of what it doubts. I may doubt that I will ever understand and appreciate Pierre Boulez’s music, but still hope that I someday will.
Well, at first I was pretty much on board with Gutting. But after reading his entire essay, and some of the intelligent reader comments (check out the "reader's picks"), his arguments came to seem weaker to me.
Gutting's distinction between atheism and agnosticism, which seems to basically line up with denying and doubting -- atheists deny, agnostics doubt -- is spurious.
As I've noted many times before on this blog, I don't know any atheist who wouldn't be convinced of God's existence if there was highly persuasive demonstrable evidence of this. Atheists like me aren't 100% sure that God doesn't exist. We're just highly confident, given the lack of positive evidence that God is real.
So I'd say that virtually every atheist is a doubter, not a denier. Meaning, atheists don't deny that there is some possibility that God exists. They simply strongly doubt this is true.
Further, I'd be overjoyed to learn that God is real and I'm going to spend eternity in a really nice heaven. So nice, I won't be bored with it, even if I'm there for forever.
I'm pretty sure most atheists feel the same way.
Who wouldn't like to be proven wrong about God, if this means both life and the afterlife are going to take on a much more pleasurable appearance? This assumes, of course, that God is a good guy/gal/sexless being.
If God is a nasty piece of shit who enjoys seeing people suffer -- not a bad hypothesis, actually, given the way the world is -- then it is great news that this God doesn't exist.
Anyway, give "Pascal's Wager 2.0" a read. Make up your own mind about Gutting's arguments. Then scan the reader's picks comments. New York Times subscribers always leave thoughtful comments that often are better than the piece being commented on.
Here's a few comment samples:
Professor Gutting writes that belief in God's existence enables people to "find a higher meaning and value to their existence by making contact with a beneficent power beyond the natural world." What is his evidence that God is beneficent? He is ignoring the evil in the world. Even if God were beneficent, what is Professor Gutting's evidence that believing in God provides people with a higher meaning and value to their existence? It may for some people, but not for others.
Professor Gutting adds that "we have good reason to expect much greater happiness if there is a beneficent power we could contact." What is his evidence for that? Maybe God's beneficence won't affect me personally. Or maybe it would increase my happiness just a little and not make it "much greater."
Professor Gutting, like all believers, is just making stuff up.
More nonsense from Gutting.
We should "hope" that there's a god? Why? God, based on man's made-up descriptions of him, is cruel, capricious, arbitrary, violent, and perverse. We should "hope" that there's NO god. And that's before even factoring in the evils of self-interest and self-indulgence inherent in the concept of "heaven" and "god's goodness."
If Gutting wants "meaning," there is plenty of it in the real world; we do not need fantasies and fairy tales to create meaning. People need help and care, communities need development, the natural world needs protection, human relationships need improvement; and the world needs progress and enlightenment. There can be found enough "meaning" in seeking these paths as would fill a million million lifetimes.
Let's just drop the supernatural, superstitious pablum once and for all, and deal with what actually exists in reality: an often terrible, often beautiful, always imperfect world.
Atheism is not a form of belief. It is the absence of belief. I think it was Sam Harris that said calling atheism a belief is like calling not collecting stamps a hobby. Also, I fail to see how agnosticism is closer to science than atheism. We all acknowledge that there could be a God since the concept is not falsifiable. If simply believing makes it so, than anything I believe in can become real, whether or not it is so. So how is this more like science?
Aside from the fact that God appears to be a psychotic monster in his disregard for human suffering, the evidence for his existence is entirely apocryphal. This raises several issues. First, who would want to make contact with such a creature? The ways in which he works are supposed to be mysterious, but they're mysterious in the same way that randomness is mysterious. Further, the "evidence" for god appears to come from some misfiring of our human presumption that there is a human-like cause behind all phenomena.
There is no good reason for engaging in any wager about the benefits or even the physical reality of such a being. When there are sightings of Elvis we don't make such wagers. We dismiss the claimants as deluded and get on with our lives.
God belief says nothing about reality, but it says a lot about our psychology. We've only recently evolved from creatures who instinctively revere the alpha male. He's the smartest and the strongest. He doles out rewards for good behavior and punishes transgressors. We're careful not to challenge him, so we abase ourselves before him and tell him that we are unworthy. These tendencies are in our DNA, shared by our ape cousins to this day. They don't have the language to create metaphors and poetry to personify this instinctive imperative, but we do, and we call it God.
It's one thing to lose money on a bad bet. It's quite another to wager your intellectual integrity on a chimp's fantasy.
I understand from whence cometh Gutting's argument. I long ago gave up on God, but I find value in the teachings of Jesus and Buddha: values for living a worthwhile life, and values that increase my spiritual connection with the universe. People often mistake me for a Christian, but I tell them "No, I'm not. I know too much to believe the fairy tales of that religion; however, I do assess my life by the words of Jesus and Buddha, both of whom tell us to eschew a material-centered life and care for our fellow humans and refrain from activities that might soil our being and reduce our ability to be a good person." I try, not always successfully, to do that.
Atheism derives from what one knows: One knows that no evidence of God's existence has been found. An atheist does not assert definitively that God does not exist, because to assert it definitively would require a leap of faith. We cannot prove the non-existence of God. But an atheist will not take seriously the possibility that God exists until evidence turns up.
We cannot prove the non-existence of unicorns, flying pigs, or the tooth fairy either. Therefore, we should not deny their existence. But that doesn't mean we should be agnostic about them. Agnosticism implies that we take their existence seriously.
Quadracci nails a theme that I like to harp on also. It isn't up to atheists to prove that god and supernaturalism don't exist; it is up to theists to prove that god and supernaturalism do exist. He writes:
I could try to convince you that we reside in a purely naturalistic universe. I could attempt to demonstrate the human authorship of all of history’s gods and the holy books ascribed to them. I could labor to show the historical, scientific and logical fallacies of many of religion’s claims. All of this could be done.
But these aren’t the reasons I abandoned my belief in God. The reason has nothing to do with the substantial evidence for the nonexistence of a deity. They have only solidified my position. The reason I’m an atheist has everything to do with the entire lack of evidence for a god.
Theism makes a positive claim about the nature of reality: “God exists.” Atheism is simply the lack of that belief. Atheism makes no claims. Therefore, the burden of proof falls exclusively on the theist. Yet, the fact that we continue to debate the topic of God’s existence proves theism has thus far failed its probative responsibility.
Certainly, if God manifests himself in reality, we should be able to detect him in some way. If he doesn’t, then he would be indistinguishable from nonexistent and should be treated accordingly. Yet, no one, ever, not even once, has been able to demonstrate anything supernatural. And so we are told to take it on “faith.”
As are many of the comments on the piece. Here's selected parts of an interchange between several commenters, including Quadracci, that I particularly enjoyed. I've corrected a few spelling errors.
Jeff Norman: I liked the first half of this story. In particular, I liked that Quadracci wrote, "Atheism is simply the lack of...belief [in God]. Atheism makes no claims."
Pity that he then goes on to make a whole host of claims—starting with the assertion that faith is "intellectually dishonest" and going on to indict the religious as being responsible for most of the world's problems. And most ironic of all, he proselytizes for the atheism he'd said makes no claims, stating that he wants to "plant the seed of doubt in someone's mind...[and] move another person away from superstition."
I'm not sure how that's any different from someone with a tie and a Bible showing up telling me how to think. As an atheist myself, I strongly dislike the arrogance of many publicly outspoken atheists, who seem to have made a new religion of their beliefs. I wish Quadracci had acted in accordance with the idea that "atheism makes no claims": it's a description, not a position. It's entirely possible to reject the claim of divine reality without insulting those who still accept it.
Jeff Ferris: I'm an atheist, I make no claims. But I do desire evidence. Why is that a contradiction? Why cannot I not, when told of the "beauty of god", ask for someone to provide evidence? Should I keep silent, allowing the claim to be interpreted as fact, then taught as dogma? Would you apply the same argument to any other claim, such as politics, where a conservative position should never be challenged by a progressive because it might insult the conservative? When my kid's school district wants to celebrate a god, should I be silent unless I offend someone?
Voice Sanity: Jeff Norman: "Pity that he then goes on to make a whole host of claims—starting with the assertion that faith is 'intellectually dishonest' and going on to indict the religious as being responsible for most of the world's problems."
You are confused. Theism and theists make claims, claims that go on for all eternity it seems. There are libraries full of them, people spend their lives making these claims and even interrupt you on the street and knock on your door to make them.
And there isn't even a wisp of evidence for any of this. If you'll accept claims without evidence, then why not accept this:
Xenu (/ˈziːnuː/), also called Xemu, was, according to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, the dictator of the "Galactic Confederacy" who 75 million years ago brought billions of his people to Earth (then known as "Teegeeack") in a DC-8-like spacecraft, stacked them around volcanoes, and killed them with hydrogen bombs. Official Scientology scriptures hold that the thetans (immortal spirits) of these aliens adhere to humans, causing spiritual harm.
Might as well. Because evidence is how we decide what is really something to believe. You reject all other claims because of the lack of evidence. We reject yours for the same reasons.
Jeff Norman: Voice Sanity -- Pretty sure I never said that theism doesn't make claims. Of course it does. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the way Quadracci moves from *rejecting* those claims (perfectly fine - and I'm in agreement with him there) to making claims of his own *on behalf of atheism*, as if it, too, is just another belief system. It's not: It's not about "belief" at all, but about (as you note) what there is and is not evidence for. But see, just as I don't come knocking on your door arguing my beliefs that (say) Roger Daltrey's singing on The Who's 'Quadrophenia' is the best male rock vocal performance ever...same thing: it's when Quadracci gets on the case of people who are just living their lives that he bugs me.
Mario Quadracci: Mr Norman, beliefs and the processes we use to ascertain and hold them inform our actions and dispositions. Therefore I have a huge problem with people's claims about "knowledge" gained through simple assertions based on books written by people for whom the hammer was emerging technology. I just don't think it's a valid method to explain the beginning of the cosmos by appealing to a story that must be true in order to validate the feeling of Jesus in someone's heart. That is not an honest exploration of reality.
Also, I am not synonomous with atheism so the claims I make (faith is intellectually dishonest etc.) are not being made by atheism they are being made by me who counts atheist amongst a wide array of descriptive language about myself. You are right in that I could have ended the story at "Atheism makes no claims," and in a way I adopted some burden of proof when I expressed my views on faith. But that's a whole lot different than writting "atheism is the belief no gods exist." As for my burden of proof here, I don't think it's an immense challenge to defend the proposition that faith is dishonest etc. I welcome any debate on this.
Tjaart Blignaut: Jeff Norman -- the problem is that people of faith do claim to know things they cannot possibly know, like how the universe was created. We don't need to put on velvet gloves just because there is a perception of atheists as being annoying or constantly picking fights. No matter what we do we will be perceived negatively. If we are too nice we will be accused of trying to be manipulative. I don't think this is a fight we can win.
As for Dawkins, I have to come to his defense despite his many mistakes. If someone didn't come out and say it boldly like The God Delusion did, nobody would be questioning their strongly held beliefs. Yes we have a voice, but if we are too quiet nobody will listen. Not everybody needs to rock the boat, but I think you owe some empathy to those who do. Understand their goal of starting the conversation without just being ignored.
So here's a thought experiment to ponder, religious believers...
Aliens have come to Earth. They're from an advanced civilization in a galaxy far far away. Their spaceship is way beyond anything our scientists have even imagined.
Technologically, it's immediately apparent that we are as sophisticated in their eyes as a chimpanzee with a termite-removing twig is to us.
Fortunately, the aliens haven't come to destroy humanity. Well, let's rephrase that: they're fine with destroying us Homo sapiens one at a time. It's part of a game they like to play with denizens of the planets they visit.
The rules are simple. They ask intelligent beings (though, obviously, nowhere near as intelligent as they are) questions about reality.
Not super-tough questions. The aliens understand that few, if any, cultures on the worlds they visit possess knowledge about the cosmos that's anywhere near as complete as what they know.
So their game is to quiz members of the most advanced species on this planet, Earth, about things we should know. The aliens are expert at gauging the overall planetary I.Q. of the worlds they visit.
What they like to do is test individuals on their knowledge base -- sort of like an educator with a Ph.D. quizzing pre-schoolers on what they should have learned about the world.
Except, in this game a wrong answer has a nasty consequence: death. These aliens are like planetary ant farmers. Aside from simply being fun to them, their game ends up with a planet inhabited by the beings most knowledgeable about reality.
Which to them is an open book.
There's a few nooks and crannies of the cosmos they don't totally understand, but not many. So they play a fair game -- especially since they only ask questions of humans that people should know the answers to.
Called to play the game (naturally you don't have a choice), you're pleased to see that the first questions you're asked are easy to answer.
Water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen. Photons move at the speed of light. Our planet is spherical, not flat. You're beginning to feel pretty confident about winning this game and staying alive.
Until you hear the final question: "Does the God you believe in actually exist?"
The aliens know your religious beliefs. After all, they know virtually everything. It won't work to respond with "I don't believe in God." They know that you do.
Your problem with this question, compared to the others, is that you had good reasons for answering the aliens' previous queries the way you did. Facts are facts. A religious belief though... that's very different.
The aliens are waiting for your answer.
You're tongue-tied, but your mind is racing. After all, for as long as you can remember you've been sure that God exists. Your faith is super strong. You've had no doubt, none at all, that the God of your religion is the most real entity in the cosmos.
Yet here you are, faced with aliens who know the truth about God in the same way they know the truth about every other significant fact about reality. There's no way to argue with them. They know if the God you believe in exists.
What's your answer? Yes or No. Choose the wrong answer and your life is over. (The only upside is that you've learned whether your God is real before you die; the downside is that you're dead.)
Of course, the aliens could ask a similar question of human atheists: "Does any God actually exist?" We'd find it easier to answer, though, since the evidence points to "No." Religious believers are the ones who will have a much tougher time with "Does the God you believe in actually exist?"
So how would you respond deeply religious person? Are you willing to stake your life on your belief, knowing that the aliens possess the factual answer?
I'm only a few chapters into a new book by evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, "Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible." But it's pretty darn clear that those four words are a good summary of his thesis.
Which I totally agree with.
Coyne has no patience for accommodationists who believe that science and religion are somehow complementary, offering up different ways of understanding the cosmos that, when combined, produce more knowledge than either science can alone.
In a summary of what the book is about, Coyne writes:
I also take up the notion of "other ways of knowing": the contention that science isn't the only way of ferreting out nature's truths. I'll argue that in fact science is the only way to find such truths -- if you construe "science" broadly.
...I will have achieved my aim if, by the end of the book, you demand that people produce good reasons for what they believe -- not only in religion, but in any area in which evidence can be brought to bear. I'll have achieved my aim when people devote as much effort to choosing a system of belief as they do to choosing their doctor.
I'll have achieved my aim if the public stops awarding special authority about the universe and the human condition to preachers, imams, and clerics simply because they are religious figures. And above all, I'll have achieved my aim if, when you hear someone described as a "person of faith," you see it as criticism rather than praise.
There's a great passage in the book that Coyne introduces in this fashion:
...Religions make explicit claims about reality -- about what exists and happens in the universe. These claims involve the existence of gods, the number of such gods (polytheism or monotheism), their character and behavior (usually loving and beneficent, but, in the case of Hindu and ancient Greek gods, sometimes mischievous or malevolent), how they interact with the world, whether or not there are souls or life after death, and, above all, how the deities wish us to behave -- their moral code.
These are empirical claims, and although some may be hard to test, they must, like all claims about reality, be defended with a combination of evidence and reason. If we find no credible evidence, no good reasons to believe, then those claims should be disregarded, just as most of us ignore claims about ESP, astrology, and alien abduction.
After all, beliefs important enough to affect you for eternity surely deserve the closest scrutiny. Christopher Hitchens was fond of saying that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." His inevitable corollary was that "what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence." The philosopher L.R. Hamelin describes what happens when we apply science to the existence of God, stipulating five criteria for the "God theory."
Here's the Hamelin passage. I think it's wonderfully brilliant and persuasive. Deal with these criteria, God-believers. You can't, but your failure will demonstrate why it makes no sense to believe in God.
First, we hypothesize that God is real, with real properties. Second, we create a theory about what a real God and HIs properties means. A God doesn't just sit there; what does He do? Third, we make this theory testable: we must be able to determine whether it is true or false. Fourth, we must test the theory by observation or experiment. Finally, we ensure the theory is parsimonious: that is, if we took out God, the theory wouldn't explain as much.
Once we have followed all these steps, we have a scientific theory that includes God, which we can test against what we actually observe.
But constructing this kind of theory of God puts believers on the horns of a dilemma. Centuries of scientific investigation show that the best scientific theories, testable by observation, include nothing like a personal God. We find only a universe of blind, mechanical laws, including natural selection, with no foresight or ultimate purpose.
Alternatively, a believer could reject one or more of the criteria for a God theory, but doing that has profound implications.
If she admits that God is not real, she's already an atheist. If she says God doesn't do anything, who cares? If her theory cannot be tested at all, then there's no way of telling if it's true or false. If her theory can be tested only by private revelation, not by observations available to everyone, she unjustifiably claims private knowledge. And if her theory is observationally identical to a theory that does not include God, then she's again an atheist, for a God who makes no difference is no God at all.
The only remaining question is whether some people would find this analysis useful, and I know many people who, applying this analysis, have abandoned their religion.
After spending half an hour or so perusing articles about, and reviews of, a book called "A God That Could Be Real: Spirituality, Science, and the Future of Our Planet," I've pretty much concluded that...
This God doesn't strike me as potentially real enough to buy what Nancy Abrams wrote.
But I'll give her credit for this: creativity, thought-provoking'ness, poetic prose, and a semi-gallant attempt to explain a God that is compatible with modern science.
Since I don't understand how her God is any different from the collective imagination of humanity, I don't feel like I can explain Abrams' conception of a divinity that doesn't exist as an objective reality, yet supposedly is real enough to be prayed to.
So I'll just point to what I found interesting and intriguing, though not quite enough to buy the book. (I might change my mind, though.)
We have learned from the evangelicals in Luhrmann’s study that if we are motivated enough, it’s possible to train our minds to experience whatever we believe is real. What if we directed toward the real universe and the emerging God even a fraction of the effort that millions of religious people make every day to experience the presence of their image of God?
This is embarrassingly bad. I had hoped that this might deserve an in-depth critique, but such aspiration vanished in the first 40 pages. PZ Myers has sliced and diced this pretty effectively over at his blog (Pharyngula), so I'll be brief. I skipped a bit, so I apologize for any errors.
The author -- an atheist, or at least an apatheist -- suffers from an eating disorder, and is impressed by the fact that in a self-help group that she joins, the people who put their trust in a "higher power" seem to do well. Rather than wondering about the psychosocial aspects of this observation, she feels compelled to find out if there's any natural phenomenon which would fit that description. She hypothesizes that perhaps there is some entity that is "emergent" from human consciousness, and opines that such an entity might be "worthy" of the term "god".
Now she provides no evidence for the existence of such an entity, nor does she attempt to explain what "emergence" might involve. She seems to view emergence as a mysterious process that requires no explanation -- a bit like the Gaia hypothesis, or some of Deepak Chopra's quantum nonsense.
A song that could be silent. An ocean that could be dry. How about a book that could be nothing but deepities? That last one exists: it’s called A God That Could Be Real: Spirituality, Science, and the Future of Our Planet by Nancy Ellen Abrams, and it’s one of the more empty-headed collections of glib clap-trap I’ve seen in quite a while. It’s also really hard to describe, because the contents are so slippery.
...In other words, she recognizes that there is no good reason and no respectable evidence for believing in any of the existing religions, but she really, really wants to keep believing, so she’s going to go looking for a hook to hang the label “God” on. I could have spared her the effort of writing a whole book on this nonsense: get a sharpie and a piece of cardboard, write GOD on it, and then tape it on some random object that will then become the focus of your reverence. It’s easy, and just as useful.
I looked for a cogent review of the book, but couldn't find one. A Publisher's Weekly piece was more descriptive than review'y.
Abrams, a lawyer and coauthor of books on cosmology (The New Universe and the Human Future), had long-standing disdain for organized religion and oversimplified approaches to faith and God. But a personal crisis with an eating disorder prompted her to deeply rethink her views about God and religion.
She came to understand God as something consistent with what is real in the universe. “God persists and always will because it’s a fundamental characteristic of the connection between ourselves and the universe,” Abrams writes.
She argues that God emerges in the world through the human mind and that humans have the responsibility to create a better world for themselves and future generations. She urges readers to pay close attention to climate change and the destruction of the planet.
Prayers are answered, she maintains, and yet no one is there to hear them. Much is possible for the planet and its people, she concludes, and she “want(s) to conserve this divine explosion of possibilities.” This book will appeal to scientifically minded readers and those intrigued by process theology.
I have a question for religious people: most religions believe that God or some other divine being created the universe. Which, naturally, includes Earth.
I read a lot of science books. I'm not expert in the details of cosmology and evolution, but I'm familiar with the broad outlines of these fields. I know how much solid evidence supports certain basic facts.
The universe started off in a big bang some 13.8 billion years ago. Stars and galaxies eventually came into being, along with our sun and the solar system.
Chance, in the form of countless unpredictable chaotic deterministic events, led to the formation of Earth. The orbits of planets in our solar system have been much different in the past than they are now, and those orbits are continuing to change.
Earth was hit by a very large object fairly early on in its history, which caused the Moon to be formed. Other objects have impacted Earth over billions of years, leading to mass extinctions of the life forms existing at the time.
All life existing now on Earth has a common ancestor. Almost certainly this is a single-celled organism, such as a bacteria. The relatedness of humans to other species is evident in our DNA. Our ancestors include not only bacteria, but fish, birds, and mammals.
Before Homo sapiens came to be the only Homo species, quite a few other species closely related to us (such as Neanderthals) existed. Human DNA reveals that our Homo sapiens ancestors interbred with some of these species, leaving genetic traces that are evident in our cells today.
At one point the number of Homo sapiens dwindled from thousands down to a few hundred. If these early humans hadn't survived, our species wouldn't exist now. Neanderthals or some other Homo species would.
I could go on in this vein, but I've described enough to ask my question of religious believers.
Given all of this scientific knowledge about how the universe, Earth, and humans came to be, how is it possible for you to believe that God or some other divine being created all of this?
What plausible story do you have for creation that incorporates what I've broadly outlined above? What sort of God or other supernatural entity would utilize natural mechanisms for bringing about the supposed creation of everything that has existed, and does exist, in the cosmos?
It sure seems to me like religions either have to ignore scientific facts (which many do), or twist "divine will" into an exceedingly bizarre shape. Meaning, if divine will is equated with the evident laws of nature that have led to the world we have now, why bring God into an act of creation at all?
I've never come across an answer to my question that even begins to make sense to me. Maybe some reader of this blog will be able to share one. I'm waiting...
Dick's adage came to mind today when I gave some thought to another quotation by Gregory Bateson that I see mentioned fairly often in science books.
Information is a difference which makes a difference.
So let's ponder the notion of "God" a bit from the perspectives of what Dick and Bateson said. Or, if you like, of supernatural religiosity in general.
What difference does the divinity so many people believe in make in their lives? I'm not talking about their belief in God/divinity, but the reality that "when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."
Out of the corner of my eye I can see a white hold-the-newspaper-down rock on the patio table where my laptop sits. Whether or not I believe in the rock, it’s there. My wife senses it too. So does everyone else who walks onto our deck. The rock is real, no doubt about it.
On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve thought once about God today. Certainly not this evening. I was focused on playing ball with our dog, eating dinner, and then watching a recording of the Oregon State—Boise State football game.
God hasn’t been in evidence, unlike the rock. Ditto for Jesus, Buddha, Allah, Krishna, Holy Spirit, Tao, Big Foot, Godzilla, King Kong, and every other entity that requires a thought to bring it into existence. Beliefs are sustained by thoughts. No thoughts, no beliefs. (Or so I believe; I could be wrong; but even if there is such a thing as a thoughtless belief, I’ll bet that it was born through thought).
Religious believers sustain their faith through (duh...) believing. Without concepts, thoughts, ideas, emotions, and such, God or some other form of divinity fails to exist.
So when religious people talk about God making a difference in their lives, that actually isn't true. Their believing brain is what makes the difference. No beliefs, no difference.
Sure, religious believers feel good when they worship; they are uplifted by their rituals; they get consolation from the words in holy books. And so on, and so on. All of these positive feelings arise from thoroughly worldly experiences.
Being in a church. Taking part in a ritualistic action. Reading books. Sensing a supposedly sacred object or person.
These are part of the reality Dick speaks of which doesn't require belief to exist. These things don't go away when belief does (though the inner experience associated with them likely will change). God, though, does go away when believing in divinity disappears.
There's nothing wrong with believing. We all believe in things that aren't objectively true, because doing this makes us feel subjectively good. Believing is part of being human.
However, we should keep in mind that everything within our mind isn't part of objective reality. That's the beauty of Philip K. Dick's one-sentence metaphysics -- perhaps better termed ontology.
It reminds us that not believing in something is the best way to determine whether it is part of the reality outside our own head.
For example, stand on a first-floor balcony and get yourself to believe that an invisible floor extends beyond the railing. Which is equivalent to not believing in falling through empty space. Then jump off the railing. See what happens.
If you fall to the ground, hopefully without breaking any bones, you've learned something about the reality that doesn't go away when you stop believing in it.
You can do the same with God, of course.
Stop believing in God. I've done this, as have many others. What I've found is that nothing changes. Nothing went away, other than my belief in God. Because, I'm quite sure, there is no God outside of human belief.
It's meaningless to say God is everything. That's the same as saying God is nothing. If there is no way to distinguish something called "God" from everything else in existence, then God doesn't exist.
Just call everything by a more accurate name. Here's one good idea: everything. Or existence. Or reality.
There's no need to add an empty conceptual layer by callling everything, or all there is, by another name: God.
The author of the piece, Nikki Sapp, says:
Everything is God. God is all there is. Just let that sink in for a second. There is no other material or fabric to make anything in this universe out of other than the fabric of God. Every person, every leaf on a tree, every planet, it’s all God. Nothing can exist independently of God since it would be impossible for something to exist that is not made from the only material there is to make anything out of.
I have no idea what Sapp is talking about. But whatever it is, I'm sure it appeals to many New Age types who aren't bothered by empty ideas.
Let's substitute two of my suggested words for Sapp's "God." Nothing can exist independently of reality. Hard to argue with. Ditto for Nothing can exist independently of everything.
The bullshit arises when an extra extraneous word, "God," is introduced as a synonym for reality and everything.
Sapp's God has no attributes, because for her there is no difference between God and everything in existence. This allows her to argue that, since everybody looks upon the world in a unique way, there are 7 billion ways of looking upon God -- one for each person on Earth.
There is no “right” way or “wrong” way to experience God. Even if a person chooses to exist in a reality where God does not exist, such as an atheist, this is not wrong either. They are just choosing to experience God in a “non-God” way. Another person may choose to experience God in a way that their God punishes them for sinning and blesses them for resisting temptation, this is also not wrong.
,,,Since there are over 7 billion people living on the planet, there is 7 billion different ways to experience God. And even though there are groups of people that may experience or see their God in a similar fashion, no one person will experience God in the EXACT same way as the next person, because God is a completely personal experience.
Well, it is more accurate to say, Every person has personal experiences. Again, there's no need to bring a notion of God into it.
Strangely, Sapp contradicts what she said above just a few paragraphs further on. After telling us that there is no right or wrong way to experience God, she reverses course by describing some wrong ways.
It doesn’t really matter which spiritual teacher we choose but almost all say the same thing. God is within us. God is not separate from us. This isn’t something that we just can know and that’s it, but it is a level of consciousness that we must reach.
This is why so many of us can intellectually know this, but we still seem to get caught up in the trivialities of everyday life. We still get angry when someone cuts us off on the road, we still worry about getting our bills paid on time, and we still get slightly perturbed when someone tries to push their version of God on to us.
If we TRULY were existing at the level of consciousness that we KNEW we were God, things like traffic jams and bills and hearing other people’s views on religion probably wouldn’t have the power to upset us in the slightest way.
Hmmmm. If God is a completely personal experience, I should be able to experience God by getting pissed off by bad drivers, having to pay bills, and reading ridiculous stuff like Sapp's views about God.
How does Sapp know what truly knowing God is like? Didn't she just say that each of us was free to have our own unique way of knowing God, since God is everything?
Religions are ridiculous. New Age crap like this piece -- also ridiculous.
With Christmas just a couple of weeks away, it's time to start thinking about what to get your atheist friend who, of course, doesn't believe in Christ (but still enjoys giving and receiving presents).
Here's a book idea: Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart: Rewriting the Ten Commandments for the Twenty-first Century, by Lex Bayer and John Figdor.
Yeah, it's a bit spendy, even in the Kindle version.
That didn't stop me from getting a copy, though, because I was fortunate to get a free one from a publicist who thought churchless me would enjoy the book and write a review of it.
I am indeed liking the book. A lot. Here's a down payment on a full review.
I've read about half of it -- the introduction and Part 1: A Framework for Facts. Part II: A Framework for Ethics awaits my next morning pre-meditation reading sessions. Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart is one of the best-written explanations for why atheism makes sense I've ever come across.
And believe me, my bookshelves are filled with a lot of other books in this genre.
The notion of writing some "ten commandments" for atheists is genius. Bayer and Figdor correctly say that while atheists are notorious for not believing in something most people do believe in, God, many people think that atheists are amoral, with an anything-goes who-gives-a-shit view of ethics.
This isn't true, of course. As the book's title says, an atheist mind usually goes along with a humanist heart. Which brings to mind an anecdote from my college days.
In 1968 I spent the second semester of my sophomore year at San Jose State College with a small group of students and professors in Zadar, Yugoslavia. I was a long-haired existentialist hippie at the time (well, I still am, just a old one now).
I remember being invited to talk to some local students with a good grasp of English. They asked me some questions about how I looked upon the world, and indeed the cosmos. After I'd held forth for a while, the group's leader said, "So it sounds like you are a humanist, yes?"
Rather embarassingly, I didn't really know what a humanist was. But I recall saying "yes," since humanist sounded like something I certainly could be. After all, I didn't believe in God, but I did believe in humanity.
Most people have about as good a grasp of what "humanism" means as I did back then.
So this book fills a void by systematically laying out an approach for deciding what is important to those for whom religion isn't. These folks are called atheists and agnostics. I agree with the authors that these terms essentially are synonymous.
Atheists do not believe in a God or gods. Agnostics say they don't know whether a God or gods exist, and many go further to say that the existence of a deity or deities is unknowable. On first glance, it may seem as if these are two distinct categories, but it is actually possible for one person to be both an atheist and an agnostic. In fact, it's extremely common.
The reason relates to an oft-repeated adage on this blog: nothing is 100% certain (basic message of my blog post, "Keep open a crack in your belief system"). The authors go on to say that even about something so seemingly certain as your age, how old you are:
...you would probably have to admit that, yes, there was a tiny chance that you were wrong, a chance that's so small that it wasn't worth mentioning.
That is how most atheists feel about God.
Most agnostics have views that are impossible to distinguish from most atheists, but they choose to emphasize the doubt, while the atheists choose to emphasize their confidence. That is why it is possible and common for an atheist to also be an agnostic and an agnostic to also be an atheist. Each has simply chosen to emphasize a different aspect of his or her belief.
The commonality between the beliefs of atheists and agnostics is much greater than the differences. Both groups recognize that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and both agree that there isn't extraordinary evidence for the existence of God.
The difference is that the atheist moves from the recognition that extraordinary evidence for the existence of God hasn't been presented to the confident (but not certain) belief that God probably doesn't exist.
How, though, can the atheist be so confident in his or her belief that God likely doesn't exist? There's considerable truth in the religious retort, "Science and religion are both belief systems," which God-believers assume puts both on the same rung of the epistemological ladder.
Bayer and Figdor spend the first part of their book showing why this assumption is wrong.
Yet, they say, we do need assumptions. Not source beliefs that are taken as givens ("God exists"), but provisional, alterable, evaluatable assumptions.
The approach of treating starting beliefs as assumptions removes the predicament of not knowing how to pick and choose between unjustifiable beliefs. If these beliefs are going to be rudimentary enough to form the basis of any belief system, no other system can be used to pick them because such a system would then become a core belief itself.
By adopting the notion of starting assumptions, there's no need to be forced to choose source beliefs. Rather, different combinations of these beliefs can be evaluated in light of the results they yield.
As you will see, the heuristic of this book is that we need to be willing to reassess our lives with empirical checks. We need to continually test our assumptions rather than presuppose them. We must look at everything with fresh eyes and not adopt the biases of others.
There's a lot to unpack in that passage. The authors are Stanford guys. They don't talk down to the reader. In line with their theory of knowledge, they keep things as simple as possible, but no simpler than is necessary to cover all of the factual bases.
One reason for the principle of simplicity (a.k.a. Ockham's Razor) is that when probabilities are multiplied, the resulting "certainty number" gets smaller. For example, if the probability of the next person coming through a door being a female is 50%, the probability of her being a black female is lower.
Likewise, they say, if the probability of God existing is low, then the probability of the Christian God (or any other specific God) existing is lower. As is the probability of God having certain specific attributes such as omnipotence, omnipresence, or omnibenevolence.
So Bayer and Figdor build up their assumptions -- Ten Non-commandments -- in a simple yet rigorous fashion.
Here's the first six, which comprise the part of their book that I've read. I'll share the other four in another post after I've finished Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart.
1. The world is real, and our desire to understand the world is the basis for belief.
2. We can perceive the world only through our human senses.
3. We use rational thought and language as tools for understanding the world.
4. All truth is proportional to the evidence.
5. There is no God.
6. We all strive to live a happy life. We pursue things that make us happy and avoid things that do not.
Thanks to a David Chapman tweet, I came across an academic article about religious belief. Interesting stuff. Below I've chosen some excerpts from Pascal Boyer's piece which capture, pretty much, the gist of his commentary on another scholar's book, "When God Talks Back."
Since for many years I was a member of an India-based organization, led by a guru, which believed it was possible to communicate with God in a supernatural fashion, I was intrigued by how similar the basic process used by Christian evangelicals is -- when they try to convert their "reflective" beliefs into "intuitive" experiences of God's presence.
Yes, belief is hard work.
Not so much a conceptual belief that God exists and cares about us, but a belief founded on some sort of experiential evidence that God is communicating with us. This requires cultivating a conviction that a thought (or sensory perception) isn't "ours." It is a message from God. Read on...
----------------------------------------- Excerpts from Pascal Boyer's "Why 'Belief' is Hard Work: Implications of Tanya Luhrmann's When God Talks Back": -----------------------------------------
The London practitioners of “witchcraft” among whom Tanya Luhrmann did her first fieldwork engaged in practices widely perceived as ridiculous, indeed preposterous. Their stated beliefs were eclectic and generally couched in rather inchoate metaphors. By contrast, American evangelicals practice a respected version of mainstream Christianity. What makes them special is a clearly articulated belief that God can, precisely, talk back.
But the rub is, he does not. Or, to be more specific, the definite intuition that an agent is around, that this agent really is the god, that the god is talking, requires a lot of work, and is rather rare and frustratingly elusive. Even among the most accomplished of believers, a few islands of intuition are surrounded by oceans of doubt and disbelief.
...As Luhrmann’s book demonstrates at length, it takes a considerable amount of work to reach some degree of intuitive belief that “God” is around, that “He” is listening and talking back. From the outside, Evangelicals are often perceived as people with certainties: they know there is a god, they know what he is like, they communicate with him.
Inside the group, we find more or less the opposite. Christian beliefs are of course held with fervor, but the crucial element, the presence of and communication with a superhuman agent, are described as goals to achieve rather than a starting point. Many Evangelicals readily admit that they have not (or not yet) reached that point.
...Practice works—somewhat, sometimes. Many members of the group have experienced the “breakthrough” when inchoate thoughts or images seem to organize themselves into a coherent feeling of presence and a clear message from the imagined agent. Personality variables clearly help in the process, as Luhrmann’s data on interpersonal differences demonstrates, but the main factor remains dedicated practice—one is led to the intuition of a god’s presence through sustained practice.
But why on earth is it that difficult?
......In the spirit of Lurhmann’s ethnography, one should generalize the observation. Many religious practices seem exceedingly odd if we see them as based on preexisting unproblematic beliefs. Once we realize that the belief is a conjecture, these activities make more cognitive (and existential) sense.
Initially, spirits may or may not be around. But after the whole night of ritual and the 10,000 verses, to some people at some junctures this conjectural representation becomes more vivid, more accessible, is associated with actual experience, is given some explanatory power—in other words is potentially turned into what we commonly call a belief. It is highly doubtful that shamanistic songs ever helped deliver infants—but making people think that might be the case is the real “symbolic efficacy.”
...The distinction is relevant to the question at hand, because in most places, at most times, most people’s representations of superhuman agents (gods, spirits, etc.) are of the reflective type. People entertain deliberate thoughts to the effect that, for example, “So-and-so’s illness had to do with the spirits” or “God has a plan for me.” These are the metarepresentational “beliefs” that we anthropologists elicit or infer from people’s statements and behaviors.
But such reflective thoughts can, sometimes, be associated with specific intuitions. This happens for instance when a magician announces that his “mystical force” will “annihilate” the object placed on the table (such statements create reflective, explicit representations in the minds of the audience), and, indeed, touching the object makes it disappear, or so it seems. The reflective thoughts about “mystical force” are now associated with intuitions (remembered perceptions), which of course makes them vastly more attention-grabbing, and potentially more plausible.
One should not look down on such cheap tricks. They are important, if not essential, in many religious traditions. Getting to see an image of a god in a piece of toast may not seem to us the most profound instance of religious experience, but that is because we are used to highly intellectualized, institutionalized forms of religious activity. In many places the world over, conjuring tricks and manufactured illusions are perfectly respectable adjuncts to more sober myth and ritual.
...The Evangelicals in Tanya Luhrmann’s group have set themselves the Herculean task of associating reflective beliefs with intuitions without ever resorting to cheap tricks. Instead, the process requires gradual changes to their conscious appraisal of their own thoughts. Starting with material that most Christians would agree with, for example, that “God is everywhere, can hear all our thoughts and talk to us,” they endeavor to calibrate their own mental systems until this conceptual description fools, so to speak, their perceptual systems.
How can one achieve that? The techniques used are all “empirical,” fashioned though trial and error in the various Evangelical communities, and taught largely through individual testimonials. I cited above the various domains of training—imagination, sensory imagery, emotion. But how does this lead to the intuition of superhuman presence? Given a variety of specific thoughts and experiences, some more coherent or vivid than others, how is one to judge that a particular one is the real thing?
This is indeed the pivotal question in the Evangelical’s progress. A crucial element here is the ownership of thoughts. To become (somewhat more) convinced that a thought of yours is a direct message from the god, you have to feel that it is not yours.
More accurately, once you feel that a particular thought did not come from your own cogitations, the conjectural reflective interpretation, that it came from another agent, is considerably strengthened. This is why believers train themselves to identify and monitor those thoughts, the ownership of which is not certain. They are told about and pay special attention to various diagnostic signs.
First, pay attention to emergent thoughts that seem too odd or unexpected to feel like “yours.” Second, check that the thoughts in question “fit” what you would imagine the god might tell you. Third, most important, others around you should agree that the thought may be of divine origin. Fourth, the thought should trigger a unique feeling of peace, the emotional signature of an experience that supposedly cannot be self-generated.
...At the beginning of the book, Luhrmann comments that evolutionary psychology (so far) does not explain why many people think of their gods as real. That is quite true. In fact one could go further. The more we know about our evolved psychology, the more we understand why most people, at most times, in most situations will not consider their gods real, in the sense of having a definite intuition that the gods are actually there.
Our agency-detection and behavior-interpretation mechanisms were tailored to allow the smooth operation of human communication and coordination. Getting ownership right is part of the design of the system, so we should expect that, barring severe pathology, intuitions of nonownership will remain exceptional and difficult to cultivate.
This of course may seem surprising, as a reflective notion of superhuman agency, and its involvement in human affairs, is so pervasive in human cultures, indeed probably one of the most easily acquired pieces of socially transmitted information. But, as I indicated above, the paradox is mostly an artifact of our folk understanding of “belief,” which gets in the way of a proper understanding of mental states.
We cannot really understand why a successful cultural notion describes an exceedingly rare intuition as long as we confuse intuitive mental content with explicit reflections, as is very generally the case in anthropology, but also, sad to report, in many areas of cognitive psychology. Sometimes ethnographers have to step in where cognitive scientists got it all muddled up. We should be grateful to the rare anthropologist who, like Tanya Luhrmann, does just that.
I'm feeling pretty damn good about my afterlife. Mostly because I don't think I'll have one. So almost certainly I won't be feeling anything at all after I die, which takes away worries about what will happen.
Notice that almost certainly, though. I'm open both to the possibility that my consciousness could survive bodily death, and God could be waiting to greet the soul I don't believe I have.
In that event, no problem. I'm confident that my encounter with divinity will go just fine. Here's why I'm so sanguine.
Nobody knows which sort of God, if any, exists.
Broadly speaking, us humans have conceived of God in two general ways: Western (personal, anthropomorphic, involved with the world) and Eastern (universal, beyond conception, above it all while also being all).
I was baptized Catholic. Also had my first communion. Christianity-wise, I'm saved! My salvation ticket is in hand! Well, sort of, theologically speaking. But I only paid attention to the good parts in this article about baptism.
That covers the Western front. I'm even better off if God has an Eastern character.
I was initiated by an Indian guru who is considered to be God in human form. I meditated diligently as instructed for about thirty-five years. A central promise of the guru's teachings, a form of Sant Mat, was that union with God was guaranteed within four lifetimes.
Meaning, three rebirths max, and I'm connected with The Source! Even if my faith faltered in this incarnation, as it did with Catholicism when I was a kid.
But like I said, it's impossible to know what kind of God might exist. The dude could be completely different from the Catholic and Sant Mat conceptions. Recognizing this, eight years ago I founded a new all-encompassing religion, Galobet.
Everything was becoming crystal clear, in much the same way as I remember my college statistics textbook becoming so much more interesting after a Benzedrine or two. Except, this natural high came from organic Fair Trade beans. And Galobet was directing my thoughts. He wanted to be known. I was to be his messenger.
I started jotting down the names of God associated with the major religions. I threw in Neoplatonism, even though it isn’t really a religion, because it is a philosophy that forms the root of many faiths. Not that I need to explain myself. Galobet can do whatever he wants; I am simply a tool in his mighty hand.
There was something here. I knew it. But Galobet wanted me to struggle with his revelation a bit. I wrote down the first letter of each name of God. I rearranged them in various ways. At first I had “Jehovah” for Judaism, but suddenly “Lord” struck me as a better choice.
I went from JAGBEOT to JAGOBET to LAGOBET. And then came the divine inspiration:
GALOBET. Right away it just seemed so…right. I had revealed the name of God, the God who encompasses all other gods, the God who was using my caffeine-soaked brain as his revelatory blackboard.
Thus if any of the major earthly religions have got God's nature roughly correct, I can confidently give God a cosmic high-five in the afterlife and say, "I was your devotee. Shower me with divine delights, the spiritual rewards I so richly deserve."
Ah, but what if God is completely, absolutely, unimaginably different from any conception a human being could have of the dude? (I will continue to refer to God as "dude," since the word is so marvelously all-encompassing).
What I say is: I open myself to reality, however it may appear.
Though I don't believe in God, just the possibility of God, I like to picture God smiling when she/he/it hears this. If I were God, that's exactly the sort of "prayer" which would please me. I wouldn't want people to guess about the sort of God I am, which is what religions do.
I'd want people to say "Great Dude God, whatever you're like, whatever you're all about, we're cool with that. Just show us your stuff and we'll go Yeah... nice!"
No egocentric guessamatic expectations. Reality welcomed, godly or otherwise, in whatever form is, well, real.
Bottom line: I am SO saved. Without believing in God.
For many years I Iooked upon the world through a conceptual prism where my belief in God, a being unseen and unknown, altered the perspective from which I saw things.
Now, I do my best to cast off the filter of spiritual imaginings, desiring to view reality as clearly as possible as it is rather than how I'd like it to be.
I've discovered something interesting: when I don't try to fashion the world into a place that it isn't, full of illusory ideas about salvation, divinity, soul, eternal existence, and such, what is turns out to be wonderfuly satisfying.
Not nirvana. Not perfection. Not an idealized Platonic realm. But a glorious fully natural godless corner of our vast mysterious cosmos.
Sure, it's easier to feel this way in beautiful locations.
Recently I walked along the Metolius River in central Oregon, where I took the photo above. The sun was setting. I wasn't aware of the beam of light making its way through the tall Lodgepole pines until I transferred the iPhone image to my laptop.
What should we call such moments? Spiritual? Elevating? Transcendent?
Or just... experiencing how the world is.
I fully understand the lure of adding fantasized extras on to existence as it is known to be. Death is scary. Suffering sucks. Disappointments abound. The gap between is and should be begs to be bridged by theological consolations.
All I can say is that I've tried both ways of living: with and without religious beliefs.
I've enjoyed the feeling of having a special relationship with God, one that promised me both eternal life after my stay here on Earth and a way of looking upon happenings as having cosmic significance because of God's plan for me.
I'll admit that sometimes I miss the warm spiritual blanket, woven of pleasing beliefs, that sheltered me from the cold winds of reality for about 35 years. Well, I really should say "seemed to shelter me."
Because now that I'm committed to looking upon life naturally, rather than supernaturally, I realize that reality offers me a much firmer foundation than the fantasies I used to embrace so enthusiastically. Quaffing one ounce of "what is" is more satisfying than a pound of "what might be."
Even when I'm experiencing something painful, disturbing, distasteful. I'd rather feel the honest touch of life, even if it hurts, than shut myself away in an antispetic conceptual room where, I believed, I was protected from the world's dark side.
LIke I said before, dark and light appear to me as one now. The world seems to shine more brightly when I don't try to bring an illusory spiritual radiance into it.
Say what you have to say, not what you ought. Any truth is better than make-believe. Tom Hyde, the tinker, standing on the gallows, was asked if he had anything to say. "Tell the tailors," said he, "to remember to make a knot in their thread before they take the first stitch." His companion’s prayer is forgotten.
My daughter, following in her father's churchlesss footsteps, doesn't believe in God. Or other religious fantasies.
So it surprised her when my granddaughter, who is almost seven, popped up with this back-seat observation when they approached Disneyland recently. (They live in southern California.)
"Praise God for Disneyland."
"What do you mean?" my daughter replied. "I'm the one who is driving you to Disneyland. So praise your mother for taking you."
My granddaughter thought for a while. "OK, then let's praise Walt Disney for Disneyland."
That makes much more sense than praising God. But I can understand why my granddaughter said what she did. She goes to an independent Episcopal school that, though embracing children of all faiths and no-faith, still has daily prayers, a chapel, and such.
I reassured my daughter that children go through all sorts of phases.
I wouldn't be surprised if my granddaughter has one or more religious upswings where she tries out believing in some form of supernatural God. I certainly did, though my daughter has never swerved from her unbelieving attitude.
On the plus side, my wife and I just attended a "Grandparent's Day" at the school. I was much impressed with the school's commitment to science and scientific thinking.
With the help of a parent, my granddaughter and a first grade classmate carried out a pretty sophisticated study of bacteria levels at various locations around her school. They cultured swabs, displaying the results as part of other experiments on review at the Grandparent's Day event.
Hypothesis: boys have more germs than girls. Their conclusion was, yes, based on swabs taken at locations frequented by boy students (can't remember where; might have been handles of boy's restrooms).
The great thing about this is what my granddaughter is learning about reality at such an early age: the truth is out there; it can be known by observing the physical world in certain ways that separate truth from untruth.
My daughter helped teach her this lesson when she challenged my granddaughter's unfounded hypothesis that God is responsible for the existence of Disneyland.
There is no demonstrable evidence that this is true. "Praise God for [whatever]" is just a manner oif speaking, a religious utterance that points to nothing real in the world. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that Walt Disney created the park that bears his name.
Walking through the room that housed the student science experiments, I couldn't help thinking that these elementary students had managed to learn more about the universe in a few weeks than religions have learned in all of recorded history.
Some aspects of reality likely always will remain mysterious.
But this doesn't mean that we can't learn about the many aspects that can be understood by humans. Including the fact that Walt Disney came up with the concept for Disneyland and supervised its construction.
Sure, one could then trace the existence of Walt Disney back, and back, and back, and back until the first stirrings of life on Earth, and even farther -- back to the big bang that brought the universe into existence.
Nowhere, though, will God be found. At least, not any God which isn't just another name for the laws of nature. People can choose to believe in religious dogma; this doesn't make it true, even if billions accept the same untruths.
Regarding whether boys have more germs than girls... this is a question that can't be resolved by a simple first grade science experiment. A bit of Googling revealed some evidence that my granddaughter is right. Also, that she is wrong.
At least scientific questions have answers that can be either right or wrong. With religion, the phrase "not even wrong" holds sway.
As churchless as I am, after reading this TIME story I'm more open now to the possibility that God exists. Or at least, that I could worship God.
The idea for merging marijuana and ministry came through prayer, the couple said during testimony. They had been exposed to medical marijuana when a doctor recommended Lanette Davies’ daughter use it to alleviate symptoms from a bone disease and it “made her life livable,” she said.
Bryan Davies became a convert after finding it helped ease an arthritic condition that affects his spine. Trying to live on Social Security benefits and short on cash, Davies says he asked God for guidance. “I got on my knees, and I prayed to the Lord,” he told the court. “And God said … ‘Open up a pot shop.’”
I've been praying that Oregon will be one of the next states to legalize recreational marijuana. (We already have medical marijuana, along with dispensaries.) The New York Times says that Oregon and Alaska are the most likely states to do so this year.
It's nice to know that God is on the side of potheads. The Christian "Ganjapreneur" who is the subject of the TIME story offers up some perusasive theology is support of this.
The Davies’ use the Bible to reconcile selling marijuana with their faith, believing that cannabis was among the “seed-bearing plants” the book of Genesis says God gave man on the sixth day. “You’ve got to remember who created it,” Bryan said recently, shortly after the dispensary employees finished their daily 6 p.m. prayer.
The title of this post comes from a passage I liked a lot in Adam Gopnik's terrific New Yorker piece, Bigger Than Phil: When did faith start to fade?
“Cosmically, I seem to be of two minds,” John Updike wrote, a decade ago. “The power of materialist science to explain everything—from the behavior of the galaxies to that of molecules, atoms, and their sub-microscopic components—seems to be inarguable and the principal glory of the modern mind.
"On the other hand, the reality of subjective sensations, desires, and—may we even say—illusions composes the basic substance of our existence, and religion alone, in its many forms, attempts to address, organize, and placate these. I believe, then, that religious faith will continue to be an essential part of being human, as it has been for me.”
Does religion alone address the reality of our subjective sensations? It’s perfectly possible to believe that there are many things that will never be subjects of science without thinking that they are therefore objects of faith.
Human beings are unpredictable. We can’t know what songs they will sing, what new ideas they will come up with, how beautifully they will act or how badly. But their subjective sensations do not supply them with souls. They just make them people.
Since Darwin’s starting premise is that individual variation is the rule of nature, it isn’t surprising that the living things that are able to have experiences have them in varied and individual ways. The plausible opposite of “permanent scientific explanation” is “singular poetic description,” not “miraculous magical intercession.”
It's amusing when people leave comments on my blog posts accusing me of being all hyper-rational, intellectual, unfeeling, unwilling to embrace the mysteries of the cosmos. When I read crap like that, I think, What the hell are you talking about?
Today, in my churchless frame of mind, I am just as attracted to irrationality, intuition, flights of fancy, and mind-blowing experiences as I was back in my religious days.
The only difference is that now I don't believe some supernatural entity is at the root of my subjectivity, or that my personal awareness is anything other than that: personal.
I still look up at the night sky on an evening dog walk, while listening to owls hooting in Oregon fir trees, and feel a sense of awe that this, wherever it came from and however it will end up, is just so amazingly freakingly wonderful I'm astoundingly thankful to be a conscious life form able to perceive it.
I'm not a person who has, or is, a soul. I'm just a person. Here today; will be gone tomorrow. Just like everything else on Earth, though "tomorrow" has a different meaning for gnats and Giant Sequoias.
Yet I did feel unsettled while reading parts of his piece. In the course of Googling his New Yorker article, I came across Jerry Coyne's "Adam Gopnik on atheism in the New Yorker." This helped me understand where those feelings came from.
Coyne is mentioned by Gopnik. He knows and respects Gopnik. He also disagrees with Gopnik on some important points. Such as:
Throughout the piece Gopnik errs, I think, in mistaking instinctive likes and dislikes with religious faith. Yes, both are “irrational,” but they’re irrational in different ways.
Our penchants and loves are the result of our experiences and genes, and often not the result of reflection but simply instinctive feelings, while one can indeed reflect on whether the tenets of one’s faith are correct.
It’s possible for me to reject (often influenced by others) the tenets of Judaism, but not my liking of a Chateau d’Yquem or the music of Smokey Robinson. In fact, I can’t even defend my love of Sauternes against someone who simply doesn’t like sweet wine.
Coyne's essay makes so much sense, it'd be futile for me to try to add anything to his critique of what Gopnik said. Coyne articulated my reservations about Gopnik's article way better than I could ever have.
Come on, religious believers. I'm asking. No, begging. What is One Good Reason I should believe in God? (I'm capitalizing those three words to show how serious I am about wanting to know.)
Believe me, I've considered all the reasons for believing. Including, for many years, not needing any reason at all except faith.
That was good enough for me back then. Not now. I love reality too much to keep on believing in God.
I doubt whether anyone can come up with a new One Good Reason that makes any more sense than the reasons that have been debated, discussed, and dismissed over many centuries. But, hey, it doesn't hurt to ask.
Share a reason, and I almost certainly will shoot it down. Unless your reason is so persuasive, I'm left dumbfounded by the brilliance of it. Unlikely, yet possible.
Please... don't give me the "everything must have a cause to exist, except God, the always-existent" argument. That one is easy to dismiss. If something has always existed, why not assume this is the universe? Or the cosmos, assuming a multiverse.
No need for God.
Another weak argument is called the argument from self-authentication in James Lindsay's book, "God Doesn't, We Do." This is a favorite of many commenters on this blog: I know God exists, because I just know.
Apologist William Lane Craig has boldly hung his reputation as a philosopher, but notably not as a theologian, on an impossibly narrow reed by standing firmly with his ultimate argument for the existence of God: the argument from self-authentication.
Craig often refers to it as the "self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit," as he is a Christian apologist and therefore argues from the perspective of the only aspect of the triune Christian God that directly interacts with human beings since Jesus' purported ascension (the tales of Paul and Joseph Smith notwithstanding).
In brief, the argument goes like this: "Christianity is true because I have felt that it is true, and the feeling I have had about it authenticates itself because it is genuine and unmistakable."
To put it more on the level where it lies, this claim attempts to prove that God exists by saying more or less the same as many less sophisticated believers: "God exists because I know he does." This, though, does not qualify as an argument.
...The big, stupid elephant in the room with this sort of claim is that it can be used to establish vastly too much. Who wouldn't claim this of essentially any magic they wanted? All they would need to do is invent some aspect of their beliefs that subjectively interfaces with human minds, claim that aspect is self-authenticating, and then use it to support any argument they wanted!
For example, I could deny human-caused global warming by claiming that I have a profound, unmistakable connection to Gaia Spirits that inform me that the changes we are seeing are entirely natural and non-problematic, and that Gaia Spirits genuinely self-authenticate.
It is philosophically indefensible to tell me Gaia Spirits do not exist or self-authenticate and, to assume theological privilege, rude to point out that I might be talking out of my ass.
God doesn't provide self-authenticating experiences through His Holy Spirit, but people may mistake certain psychological experiences for exactly that.
The question is: what if religious believers are wrong about God, afterlife, ultimate reality? Usually the consequences of being wrong are thrown in the face of atheists and infidels.
You'll spend eternity in hell if you're wrong! So you should believe. Running the risk of sacrificing eternal joy for transient earthly pleasure is stupid.
Well, not really.
It comes down to probabilities. As I've noted before, the existence or non-existence of God isn't a 50-50 proposition. Virtually all of the demonstrable evidence points to no-God, no-afterlife.
In fact, mathematician and religious skeptic James Lindsay argues in his book "God Doesn't, We Do" that the probability of God being real is as close to zero as it is possible to get.
Here's what Lindsay says in a God doesn't exist, almost surely section.
First, when considering the claim that titles this chapter and section, observe that making it is not lost to philosophical indefensibility because it does not flatly deny the possibility of the existence of God. It claims only that the probability that God exists is zero, almost surely.
Second, notice that it serves as the perfect default position in dealing with any existence claim before evidence is provided for it.
In every situation where there is a question about a positive claim that is not settled, the only honest point in investigating the matter is one that assigns the lowest possible philosophically defensible probability for the truth of that claim.
...Since it is not the case that assuming "probability zero" means "no possibility," the severe lack of satisfactory evidence that we see in the world concerning every question about God renders probability zero, almost surely, as the only acceptable starting guess that is philosophically defensible.
Later Lindsay asks religious believers some tough questions in a "What if you're wrong?" section. Here's a sampling.
-- What if you, believer, are right about there being a God but picked the wrong one?
-- What if you're right about God but picked the wrong religion to worship Him, as Muslims, Jews, and Christians mutually claim about each other?
-- What if you're right about God and your religion but wrong about which denomination, sect, or church has it right?
-- What if no demomination or person has figured it out correctly yet?
-- Can you, in your little corner of faith, in your tiny denominational box, shaded by your own personal perception, interests, likes, and dislikes, really be so sure that all of these billions of others have it wrong and that you have it right?
-- What if you are wrong about God's existence?
-- What, then, are you doing with some or much of your life?
-- How much time and effort are you wasting chasing fairy tales out of a book that is ancient literature turned social-control manual?
-- What are you doing to yourself, to your psychological well-being, when you must constantly lie to yourself about your worldview, which does not match your view of the world anywhere you look without relying on rationalizations and contortions of facts?
-- What are you ignoring or failing to learn about the world or yourself because you think you already have answers or because you want them less than your cherished beliefs?
-- What are you doing when you support inhuman social policies, hold back education, suppress healthy expressions of sexuality, oppose beneficial measures in regards to sexual health, deny others their basic human rights, curse the names and lives of your enemies or go to war with them, vote for idiotic politicians because you like their beliefs, held without evidence, enough to act without regard of their backwards ideas on key matters of policy?
-- What are you asking from those of your friends, your family, and your community who do not believe and yet are currently all but forced to listen to and to pretend to respect your religious beliefs, delusional rambling, misplaced thanksgiving, and unflattering solipsism?
-- What actions and thoughts do you deny or attempt to deny yourself on the grounds of your faith, activities and mindsets that might bring enjoyment, pleasure, meaning, or fulfillment to your life?
-- Which of those do you do anyway, needlessly hating yourself for it even while you do it?
-- What do you do only because you hope for bonus points with your imagined creator, selfishly trying to improve the chances that you will get your reward?
Below is a highly persuasive answer to the question, "Is God real?"
I like the answer a lot, mostly because it is the answer I would have given to the question if I was as neuroscientifically wise as Michael Graziano, author of "Consciousness and the Social Brain," a book I've blogged about here and here.
Near the end of his book, Graziano asks Does God Exist? Here's extended quotes from that section. Graziano is such a good writer and thinker, I'm wary of paraphrasing this Professor of Neuroscience at Princeton University.
Across all cultures and all religions, universally, people consider God to be a conscious mind. God consciously chooses to make things happen. In physical reality the tree fell, the storm bowled over the house, the man survived the car crash, the woman died prematurely, the earth orbits the sun, the cosmos exists.
For many people these events, big and small, must have a consciousness and an intentionality behind them. God is that consciousness.
Without consciousness, the God concept becomes meaningless. If God is a nonconscious complex process that can create patterns and direct the affairs of the universe, then God obviously and trivially exists. The physical universe itself fits that description.
The critical question is whether consciousness lies behind the events of the universe. If so, then God exists. If not, then God does not exist.
Armed with a theory of what consciousness is and how it is constructed, we can directly address the God question. Are the events in the universe associated with an awareness? If yes, then God. If no, then no God.
According to the attention schema theory, consciousness is information. It is information of a specific type constructed in the brain. It is a quirky, weird product of evolution, like wings, or like eyebrows, or like navels. It is constructed by a brain and attributed to something.
Like beauty, another construct of the brain, consciousness is in the eye of the beholder.
A brain can behold consciousness in others (consciousness type B as I have called it) or behold consciousness in itself (consciousness type A as I have called it). These two types of consciousness have clear differences but are essentially two flavors of the same thing.
The universe has consciousness type B. That consciousness is an informational model constructed in the brains of many (though not all) people and attributed to the collection of all events that are otherwise inexplicable.
The cosmos is conscious in much the same way that anything else is.
Its consciousness is made of the same stuff as our own consciousness -- information instantiated in the hardware platform of the brain. The universe is conscious in the same sense that it is beautiful. It is conscious because brains attribute consciousness to it, and that is the only way that anything is ever conscious.
The universe almost certainly lacks consciousness type A. It lacks any mechanism to construct its own informational models of minds and attribute them to others or to itself.
Does God exist?
In the attention schema theory the question is moot. Or at least, the question is more no than yes, but not entirely one or the other. In the present theory of consciousness, no conscious intentionality preceded the universe. Consciousness is a construct of the brain and thus emerged only with the evolution of the brain.
Consciousness is probably only a few hundred million years old at most, in a universe that is, by the latest estimate I've heard, about 13.75 billion years old. There is no God of a traditional form, no being made of pure thought or will or spirit that created the universe.
...And yet there is another side to the story.
...In this theory, a universal, deistic consciousness does actually exist. It is as real as any other consciousness. If brains attribute consciousness to X, then X is conscious, in the only way that anything is conscious.
If we can say the universe is beautiful and find no difficulty with that claim, even knowing that it is beautiful only as a result of intelligent, emotional, and aesthetic beings perceiving it that way, even knowing that before any complex beings existed the beauty of the universe was undefined, then likewise, the universe has an encompassing God-style consciousness, and it does so as a result of intelligent biological beings constructing it that way, because all consciousness is attribution.
...The spirit world exists but only as information instantiated on the hardware of the brain.
It has a perceptual quality that is hard to ignore, if not a literal reality. In the same way, the deistic consciousness does and doesn't exist. A ventriloquist puppet is and isn't conscious. Spirits are and aren't present. Consciousness can and can't survive the death of the body.
I enjoy feeling spiritual. But I don't believe in spirit any more.
I know what it's like to be soulful. But I don't believe in soul any more.
I like to talk to God. But I don't believe in God any more.
I'm not crazy. Nor at odds with myself. Nor out of touch with reality. I'm just a normal human being, living a normal human life.
As noted in my previous post, the brains of Homo sapiens' have come up with all kinds of amazing concepts. We are creative thinkers. Unlike other mammals (so far as is known), people can come up with ideas about abstractions that don't exist in the same way tangible stuff like trees, rocks, and water do.
So "spiritual," "soulful," and "God" are meaningful notions, even if those words don't point to anything objectively real.
Being spiritual can mean a commitment to experiencing life as deeply as possible.
Being soulful, much the same -- throwing oneself into living with abandon, intensely feeling, sensing, communicating, loving.
Being a God-talker doesn't require a divinity who listens, just a desire to express one's awe at the cosmic mysteries lying beyond our understanding.
Us agnostics, atheists, and who-the-hell-knows'ists can enjoy the tasty frosting of religion's belief-cake without gobbling down entire unhealthy dogma slices. There's no reason to divorce ourselves from any and all cultural influences which emanate from religious origins.
(As if we could.)
Like most children, I was taught to say prayers before I went to bed. My mother didn't believe in God, but apparently she believed it was good to act as if you did. At times, at least.
So I remember "Our father who art in heaven...," "If I die before I wake...," and a few snippets of other prayers. Once in a while I still like to get down on my knees before I climb into bed. For old times sake.
I talk to God. I don't believe God hears me. I don't believe God exists.
But I feel awesome awe when I ponder unfathomable mysteries. Existence, existing. Evolution, evolving. Life, living.
I have no idea how or why the universe banged itself into being some 14 billion years ago. No one does. Neither do I know whether "how" and "why" are anything more than meaningless human concepts when applied to the existence of everything.
Much of the time I go about my life routinely, doing what needs to be done, experiencing what comes along.
Yet, like everyone else, I have my moments. Moments when the veneer of life's ordinariness cracks a bit, offering up a peek into... who can say? I sure can't. It just feels like More. More what? I'm clueless.
That's when words like spiritual, soulful, and God come in handy. They don't really express what I'm feeling, but when I use them, I'm able to communicate something of an inner sensation that otherwise couldn't be communicated at all.
Yes, almost certainly I'm talking to myself when I talk to God spiritually and soulfully. But, hey, I enjoy chatting in this way now and then. No harm in that.
I'm not big on praying. A few days ago I called it absurd, even in the face of tragedy. Prayers alone have zero effect on anything or anyone. Prayers plus action to change things... that can work.
Philosophically, though, praying raises some interesting questions.
Is the entity being prayed to a personal being, or not? Usually we assume that it is, for good reason. Impersonal entities, like a stone, gravity, or a computer, aren't considered to be capable of responding to prayers.
(Nonetheless, I've engaged in quite of bit of dialoguing with computers over the years; particularly Windows machines where my side of the conversation consisted mostly of profanity and marvelously creative curses.)
This is why "people of the Book," Christians, Jews, and Muslims, pray, while people who believe that impersonal forces guide the cosmos, such as Taoists and Buddhists, don't. At least not in the same sense as monotheists do.
A Taoist or Buddhist prayer (using that term loosely) really is more of an intention directed to oneself.
It's main purpose is to alter the consciousness of the person uttering the "prayer" than to appeal to a separate and distinct conscious divinity. Likewise, Taoists and Buddhists don't believe that humans are separate and distinct from the cosmos, possessing (or being) an individualized self or soul.
So we see a certain symmetry operating here.
Those who pray to a personal God view themselves as "persons." This allows them to have a personal relationship with God, to enjoy the prospect of eternity in heaven, paradise, or wherever with their Best Godly Friend, to survive the demise of their body by virtue of an immortal soul.
Those who embrace an impersonal sense of the cosmos view themselves as integral aspects of the whole. There is nothing and no one to pray to, because nothing and no one is in control of the universe. Rather, everything is interconnected naturally.
This is a pleasingly scientific conception of reality. Also, in my opinion, the most genuinely spiritual (using that term loosely) way of looking upon the world.
Modern neuroscience agrees with ancient Taoism and Buddhism: there is no distinct "me" inside my head, or yours. No ethereal self or soul gazing upon the contents of consciousness from some supernatural height. No entity standing apart from the web of relationships that guide the course of everything in the universe.
In this sense, prayer reflects a lack of faith.
Those who pray for anything other than "thy will be done" (whether this be a natural or supernatural "will") are complaining that what did or will happen, shouldn't have. Instead of acceding to the reality of is, prayerful people substitute their personal vision of what should be.
Like I said, action is inevitable. We are born to act, born to desire, born to have goals we want to achieve. But we should realize that men and women propose, while nature disposes. And we are an integral aspect of nature.
No need to pray when there is no one to pray to, and no one, really, who is doing the praying.
I've done a lot of praying myself. It's a natural reaction to appeal to a higher power when a loved one is seriously ill, lives are in danger, or some other unwanted event begs for divine intervention.
But while the motivation for prayer is utterly human, so is prayer itself. Almost certainly there is no God watching over us, listening to pleas for this and that, deciding which to grant and which to ignore.
I'm thankful for this. Because it would be worse if actually there were a God to pray to, a supernatural being like Zeus who threw thunderbolts on those he was angry at, while bestowing gifts on favored humans.
On my car radio I heard a survivor of the horrific Oklahoma tornado destruction say, "I prayed, and prayed, and prayed... for the tornado to head another way."
However, what a strange thing to want -- to have a tornado tear apart another area, instead of where this woman was. This probably wasn't in her mind at the time; it's the natural consequence of her prayer, though.
Kill someone else, not me. What kind of a God would respond to a prayer like that? For sure, no God I want to believe in.
If I believed in God, which I don't, I'd much prefer a naturalistic "god" which plays no favorites, treating all alike. Such an entity would be much more akin to Buddhist and Taoist notions of the cosmos: it is up to us to adapt to unavoidable circumstances, rather than appeal to some divine being to produce a miraculous avoidance of them.
A LA TImes story about how religious people responded to the tornado contains this Bible verse:
I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things. -- Isaiah 45:7
What a horrible God this Old Testament nightmare is.
Like I said, thank god he doesn't exist. I have no use for a God who kills school children by creating a tornado calamity. If that is God's idea of a good time, God can go to hell. Tragedies aren't made less tragic by invoking God's will.
Let's cry, be thankful, act courageously, be fearful, express gratitude, and engage in all the other human emotions that arise naturally when awful things happen. Leave God out of it.
"In the middle of difficulty, the one thing we know is that God is good," Alan Danielson, the church's senior pastor, told the few dozen attending parishioners.
Actually you don't know that, Pastor Danielson.
What we know after a disaster hits is that most people are good. They rush to help others; they comfort; they support; they embrace; they cry with the pained and smile with the relieved. And these people don't wait for prayers to spur them into action.
They do so naturally. To me, this is truly godlike.
I love to get free books. One of the benefits of being an active churchless blogger is getting review copies of books in the "spiritual but not religious" genre.
I'm about a third of the way through Galen Guengerich's "God Revised: How Religion Must Evolve in a Scientific Age." I like the title, and I''m liking the book -- though this isn't really a review, since I've still got most of the book to read.
Today I reached one of Galen Guengerich's core theses in the "What's Divine" chapter (he's the senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in Manhattan).
A central premise of this book, and perhaps its most controversial and counterintuitive claim, is that God is not supernatural, and yet belief in God is necessary. Ironically, both atheists and traditional religionists agree about the nature of God; they disagree only about whether this God does or does not exist. For my part, I agree with the atheists that God is not supernatural, yet I agree with the advocates of traditional religion that belief in God is necessary.
My first reaction when I read this was, Good luck making that argument. It's tough to make a case for a "God" who/that isn't supernatural.
I've looked into pantheism, and it's less appealing (to me) variant, panentheism. Pantheism basically says that the universe is God, while panentheism posits that God interpenetrates the universe while extending beyond it.
When Guengerich said he agrees that God is not supernatural, yet belief in God is necessary, I thought "he's a pantheist." This would have been disappointing, because I've never understood why the concept of "God" needs to be added to the concept of "universe" if the two are identical.
Sure, its easy to say that God is everything there is.
But how is this different from saying the universe/cosmos is everything there is? Likewise, I could say God is love. Which, if God isn't anything supernatural or distinct from the universe, seems to be no different from saying love is love.
Thus the problem with pantheism is that it doesn't add anything to our understanding of reality other than calling the universe by another name: God.
Good writer and smart thinker that he is, I hoped Guengerich wouldn't take this easy philosophical way out in his attempt to salvage a belief in God while rejecting supernaturalism. Though I've got quite a few chapters left to read, it's looking like he has come up with a fresh way of looking upon a scientifically-defensible notion of God.
Because a few pages further on, I came to this:
For reasons that will become apparent in the next chapter, I believe this experience of being extensively connected to the universe and utterly dependent on it is an absolutely necessary aspect of a fulfilling human life. It also provides a foundation for the experience I'm referring to when I use the word "God." God is the experience of being connected to all that is -- all that is present, as well as all that is past and all that is possible.
When people ask me whether I believe God exists, my answer is yes. I believe God exists in a way similar to the way beauty exists, but not in the way a person or an apple exists. An apple is a physical object that can be weighed and measured.
...God, by contrast, is an experience, akin to our experience of beauty. Beauty itself never appears to us, but we find the idea necessary to account for our delight in the symmetry and form of certain objects and experiences: sunsets, symphonies, and sculptures by Degas. While different in many other respects, beauty and God are both qualities of our experience.
OK. This is a different take on pantheism. Rather than focusing on the objective existence of everything there is, the universe/cosmos, Guengerich seems to be emphasizing the subjective experience of everything there is, including its past, present, and future manifestations.
When I look up into the night sky while on a dog walk around our neighborhood's lake, and marvel at how mysteriously vast the universe is, along with the mysterious ability of conscious beings like me to marvel at it, seemingly I'm experiencing Guengerich's God.
I'm still skeptical about what is gained from calling my experience "God." I'm sure Guengerich will do his best to convince me why this is necessary or desirable in his book's remaining chapters.
There's so much to like about reality. It's got real stuff in it. Way cool. This is what makes living so satisfying. And so frustrating. Yet always interesting.
We bump into real stuff that isn't us.
Maybe that bump is with an attractive sexual partner. Maybe it is with a mountain whose steep slopes challenge our climbing skills. Maybe it is with sitting still on a meditation cushion, aware of air going in and out of our nose. Maybe it is with cancer cells that have invaded our body.
There's no end to the variety of encounters with physical reality. Which to my churchless mind, we might as well simply call reality.
Perhaps you disagree, believing that concepts like "God," "soul," "spirit," "heaven," "angels," "Brahman," "Allah," or whatever refer to something real yet non-physical. I understand why you hold to that belief, having done so myself for many years.
Now I've come to the conclusion that giving up imaginary ideas is the way to go.
I've spent enough time talking to imaginary friends: a God I imagined could hear my prayers, a guru I imagined was aware of everything I did, deceased loved ones I imagined being able to listen to my one-sided conversation with them.
My imagining made me feel good, or I wouldn't have done this for so long. But not nearly as good as reality makes me feel.
Concepts that aren't grounded in the world that isn't us lack substance. We can fool ourselves for a while -- or even a lifetime -- but imagination always fails to authentically satisfy our hunger for real contact with stuff in the real world.
Yesterday I went land paddling again, a favorite activity of mine since I discovered it last summer. My senior citizen self jumps on a five foot bamboo longboard/skateboard, which I then push around using a stick on multi-use trails in a rural'ish park for about an hour, going 4.5 miles or so.
The words I most often use after a land paddling excursion are "That was real."
I've never used those words when talking to God, guru, or a dead relative inside my head. Or in connection with any other supposed "spiritual" experience that wasn't demonstrably physical.
At one point in my longboarding an approaching Oregon storm unleashed a brief frenzy of wind and rain. Boarding along a part of the trail I knew was mildly downhill, I could barely move, the wind was so strong. I had to exert a lot more strength than usual to push myself along.
I felt great. Wet, tired, and... real.
I don't deny the possibility of reality extending beyond the bounds of the physical. But if such exists, it needs to be experienced with the same sort of undeniable reality as I felt land paddling on those Minto Brown Island Park trails.
If our experience of the divine is merely us communing with ourselves, this will be as satisfying as masturbation is compared to sex with another person: pleasant, yet lacking the authentic wildness of an encounter with someone or something other than ourselves.
Our own minds are tame territory. We create the concept zoos within which our mental creatures live. Then we observe them in their enclosures, feeding them with more thoughts, more imaginings, more beliefs.
This interior realm is within our control. That's what makes it so appealing. And also so lacking.
What we really crave is to bump into what is not us. This is why sensory deprivation soon becomes torture. Circling within the claustrophobic confines of our own mind, there is no exit to a reality not of our own making.
Therein lies the sadness of religion. Though smiles may rest on the faces of believers, this is a mask hiding the emptiness of supernatural imagination. Only reality can truly satisfy.
Drinking a cup of coffee will teach you more about what is real than the loftiest thoughts about God. Guaranteed. (And I've gotten no kickbacks from Starbucks for saying that -- though I'd like to.)
Usually on this blog I say what I think, and other people comment. Tonight I'm going to do something different.
I want to ask you, whoever you are, whoever might read this post, whether you are absolutely confident that God exists.
Meaning, you don't just believe, hope, suspect, hypothesize, have faith that God exists. You're sure. And not just pretty sure. You're 100% sure. You've got no doubts about the reality of God.
If that describes you, leave a comment on this post.
Explain the reasons for your absolute surety about God's existence. And while you're at it, tell us about the God that you know exists. What is he/she/it like? Describe his/her/its characteristics. Enlighten me.
I'm serious about this. I'm a skeptic about God. I haven't come across any demonstrable evidence that God is real. But often religious believers argue with me. They say, "Brian, you're wrong about God."
OK. I want to give those people a chance to explain why they are so sure God exists. Again, not in the sense of a belief, or of faith. Why are you certain that God is real?
Please, no quotations from holy books. I'm interested in your personal conviction, your personal certainty, your personal evidence for God's indisputable existence.
In addition to increasing the chance that Democrats will maintain control of the United States Senate by winning an open seat in Indiana, Republican senatorial candidate Richard Mourdock opened up an interesting line of theological questioning with his instantly infamous rape comment.
“I’ve struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God,” Mr. Mourdock said. “And even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”
Hmmmmm. Let's agree with Mourdock that life is a gift from God. And that if life is conceived after a rape, God intended this to happen.
The big theological questions then become: What isn't a gift from God? What isn't intended by God to happen?
If the answer is "nothing," this really is the same as "everything."
Meaning, if there's never any difference between what happens and what God wants to have happen, there's no point in bringing God into the cause and effect equation. Stuff would happen, or not happen, in the cosmos exactly the same whether or not God is viewed as the intentional cause.
Now sadly, it's too late for Richard Mourdock. These comments have left his campaign in shambles. But you know what? Don't shed a tear, folks. Because I've come to realize that this is just something that God intended to happen.
Sure. Makes sense. If conception after a rape is God's will, why isn't Mourdock's political embarassment after saying "conception after a rape is God's will" also God's will?
Since nobody knows what God wills or doesn't will (assuming God exists, an assumption I strongly doubt), guessing God's intentions seems absurdly misguided. Anyone who claims to know what's in God's mind is either so delusional or gullible (at one time I was probably in this camp), they deserve to be as soundly ridiculed as Mourdock has been the past few days.
If someone believes in God, he or she should either consider that God is utterly uninvolved with the world, or completely in control of everything. Anything inbetween, where God wills some events but not others, strikes me as theologically absurd.
I'm fond of quoting the medieval mystical theologian Meister Eckhart on this subject.
“Now I hear you ask, ‘How do I know that it is God’s will? My answer is that if it were not God’s will even for a moment, then it would not exist. Whatever is must be his will. If God’s will is pleasing to you, then whatever happens to you, or does not happen to you, will be heaven.”
So abortion is God's will. Not having an abortion is God's will. Homosexuality is God's will. Heterosexuality is God's will. Life is God's will. Death is God's will. Freaking everything is God's will.
Which, as noted above, basically says nothing.
God is irrelevant if God is responsible for everything that happens. We're left with a pantheist abstraction in which we call "God" the entire cosmos, and "God's will" whatever happens in the cosmos.
Personally, I'd rather leave God out of the answer to Why does stuff happen? But if believers want to include God as a cause of earthly happenings, it makes more sense to go all the way: assume that everything which happens is God's will.
That way, at least, encourages humility, acceptance, gratitude, flexibility, and non-judgmentalism. Go the other way, and you get guys like Richard Mourdock.
Jeez, I was beginning to think that the Democratic Party to which I belong really was a coven of atheistic religion-haters who got their kicks from burning the Bible while high on illicit drugs (that'd be a good thing, of course).
My hopefulness arose from reading that "God" had been dropped from the 2012 Democratic platform. The Christian Broadcast Network reported:
Guess what? God’s name has been removed from the Democratic National Committee platform.
This is the paragraph that was in the 2008 platform:
“We need a government that stands up for the hopes, values, and interests of working people, and gives everyone willing to work hard the chance to make the most of their God-given potential.”
Now the words “God-given” have been removed. The paragraph has been restructured to say this:
“We gather to reclaim the basic bargain that built the largest middle class and the most prosperous nation on Earth – the simple principle that in America, hard work should pay off, responsibility should be rewarded, and each one of us should be able to go as far as our talent and drive take us.”
I much prefer the godless paragraph. It sounds much more American to me. Hard work. Responsibility. Talent. Drive. Those words seem more in tune with our national ethos than "God-given potential."
God-given potential? Sounds like whatever we're born with, that's what we're stuck with, because God gave us what we have to work with, and nobody can argue with God.
Well, I watched video of the voice vote at the convention which needed a 2/3 majority to be approved, and it sure sounded to me like an equal number of delegates approved and disaprroved of God in the platform (plus Jerusalem being the capital of Israel).
Maybe in 2016 the Dems will hold firm on their godlessness. I'll start praying for that!
I think that “atheist” is a term that we do not need, in the same way that we don’t need a word for someone who rejects astrology. We simply do not call people “non-astrologers.” All we need are words like “reason” and “evidence” and “common sense” and “bullshit” to put astrologers in their place, and so it could be with religion.
If the comparison with astrology seems too facile, consider the problem of racism. Racism was about as intractable a social problem as we have ever had in this country. We are talking about deeply held convictions.
...Of course, I’m not saying that racism is no longer a problem in this country, but anyone who thinks that the problem is as bad as it ever was has simply forgotten, or has never learned, how bad, in fact, it was.
So, we can now ask, how have people of good will and common sense gone about combating racism? There was a civil rights movement, of course. The KKK was gradually battered to the fringes of society. There have been important and, I think, irrevocable changes in the way we talk about race—our major newspapers no longer publish flagrantly racist articles and editorials as they did less than a century ago—but, ask yourself, how many people have had to identify themselves as “non-racists” to participate in this process? Is there a “non-racist alliance” somewhere for me to join?
Attaching a label to something carries real liabilities, especially if the thing you are naming isn’t really a thing at all. And atheism, I would argue, is not a thing. It is not a philosophy, just as “non-racism” is not one. Atheism is not a worldview—and yet most people imagine it to be one and attack it as such. We who do not believe in God are collaborating in this misunderstanding by consenting to be named and by even naming ourselves.
...rather than declare ourselves “atheists” in opposition to all religion, I think we should do nothing more than advocate reason and intellectual honesty—and where this advocacy causes us to collide with religion, as it inevitably will, we should observe that the points of impact are always with specific religious beliefs—not with religion in general. There is no religion in general.
...Nobody wants to believe things on bad evidence. The desire to know what is actually going on in world is very difficult to argue with. In so far as we represent that desire, we become difficult to argue with. And this desire is not reducible to an interest group. It’s not a club or an affiliation, and I think trying to make it one diminishes its power.
I rarely call myself an atheist, because that word doesn't capture how I feel about my non-belief in God. I don't go around thinking to myself, "Oh, it is so satisfying to not believe in an imaginary God."
I just don't believe in God. If I wasn't surrounded by many millions of people who do believe in God, I'd never think about God at all, just as I never think about unicorns unless I come across some mention of them.
Harris is correct. Those of us who don't believe in God shouldn't be drawn into ridiculous debates between "theists" and "atheists." Actually, as he says, the debate is between those who favor evidence and reason over faith and guesswork.
We will have won this war of ideas against religion when atheism is scarcely intelligible as a concept. We will simply find ourselves in a world in which people cease to praise one another for pretending to know things they do not know. This is certainly a future worth fighting for. It may be the only future compatible with our long-term survival as a species. But the only path between now and then, that I can see, is for us to be rigorously honest in the present. It seems to me that intellectual honesty is now, and will always be, deeper and more durable, and more easily spread, than “atheism.”
Babbling is the first sign of human language. These vocalizations do not generally contain meaning or refer to anything specific.
People who have had an ineffable experience of something that seems spiritual also babble. There are many varieties of babbling, of course. The Buddha supposedly held up a flower. Did he have a point to get across? Nobody knows. Sounds like spiritual babbling to me.
Mystics often resort to poetry when they try to describe what can't be described. Poetry is a form of adult babbling that directs our attention to what can be felt, yet not tied down in words.
Wow! Far out! Unbelievable! I'm speechless! Mind-blowing!
Once we grow into word-using beings, forsaking concept-less baby babbling, we're less prone to express our wonderment at what the world offers with meaningless sounds. So we substitute words that don't really convey any meaning to others other than "I'm incapable of conveying any meaning."
This is how I feel when I read or hear descriptions of someone's spiritual experience.
I have little or no idea what they're talking about, because I'm not them. Likewise, if I tried to describe an experience that was deeply meaningful to me, yet was purely subjective (or at least didn't involve any objectively observable entities), other people would react as if I was speaking about a dream.
In this case "You had to be there (inside my head)" is the only response to "I don't understand what you're trying to say."
Dreams, though, are more describable than visions of God or any other supposed supernatural reality. If a dream is based on worldly people, objects, and events, we can find words which come close to validly conveying the essence of our subjective experience.
But most religious believers view God as other-worldly, beyond description, transcending reason.
OK. I'm fine with someone claiming to have had an experience of God which can't be put into words. If they want to simply ooh and ah as a babbling baby would, I'll view their meaningless vocalizations just as positively as I do an infant's coo'ing.
So cute! Delightful!
It's natural to express ourselves when an intense experience causes us to feel joy, love, pleasure, awe, or some other overflowing emotion (of course, the feeling also could also be despair, hate, pain, apathy).
Thus babbling away about God if you've experienced something that strikes you as Godly... go for it. Just realize that what seemed so real to you won't be perceived the same way by others.
This is the nature of personal experiences. They're personal.
Babies don't worry if anyone else agrees with their babbling. They just babble away. Naturally, unself-consciously, uncontrollably. LIkewise, I love listening to spiritually-minded people who don't care at all whether anyone else agrees with them. They say what they say because they feel like saying it.
Take it or leave it; both are equally fine to a babbler.
Such is my advice to those who leave comments on this blog. Say how you feel. Just don't expect anyone else to agree with you or even understand what you're trying to convey. And if they call you a babbler, respond with thank you!
That's how my churchless self reacted when I opened a drawer full of forgotten books and re-discovered "Irreligion" by John Allen Paulos. I'd read this short book before, as evidenced by my highlighting, but decided to read it again after flipping through a few pages and thinking Oh, my God! So true!
Paulos, a mathematics professor, demolishes the most common arguments for God. His logic is impeccable, so far as I can tell. And his writing is entertaining, often simultaneously amusing and thought-provoking.
To the question "What will any of my concerns matter in one thousand years" we might, of course, react with stoic resignation. Instead, however, we might turn the situation around. Maybe nothing we do now will matter in a thousand years, but if so, then it also would seem that nothing that will matter in a thousand years makes a difference now, either. In particular, it doesn't make a difference now that in a thousand years, what we do now won't matter.
Some of the classic arguments for the existence of God are so flimsy, it doesn't take much to tear them apart.
The Argument from First Cause, the first taken up in the book, runs in this fashion according to Paulos.
1. Everything has a cause, or perhaps many causes. 2. Nothing is its own cause. 3. Causal chains can't go on forever. 4. So there has to be a first cause. 5. That first cause is God, who therefore exists.
But Paulos says that assumption 1 is better put as "Either everything has a cause or there's something that doesn't."
Such as existence. Perhaps physical existence simply is. Always has been, always will be. Just like God supposedly is. So why can't physical existence be the first cause?
A related objection to the argument is that the uncaused first cause needn't have any traditional God-like qualities. It's simply first, and as we know from other realms, being first doesn't mean being best. No one brags about still using the first personal computers to come on the market. Even if the first cause existed, it might simply be a brute fact -- or even worse, an actual brute.
And this is just one of the arguments for God persuasively rendered unpersuasive by Paulos. Just about any argument someone could come up with for why they believe in God is so full of leaky logic, that belief is rendered unbelievable.
Including the "I just know..." or "I just feel..." argument. I get this all the time in blog comments. Brian, spirituality isn't a matter of logic, thinking, analyzing. It's all about direct experience.
OK, so what?
I've got direct experience of my life. You've got direct experience of your life. We each could claim to have known or felt something supernatural as part of our experiencing. Yet why should someone else accept that claim as being anything other than a subjective personal experience?
Paulos acknowledges the seeming validity of subjectivity arguments.
One response which can't be summarily dismissed is simply the example of their belief and its effect on their lives. This effect can be impressive, but certainly doesn't compel assent. Still, one shouldn't reject the insights and feelings of those with perfect pitch because one is tone-deaf. Or, to vary the analogy, it wouldn't be wise for the blind to reject the counsel of sighted people.
But he then continues to a counter-analogy.
The undermining disanalogy in this response is that a sighted person's observations can be corroborated by the blind. A sighted person's directions, for example, to take eleven steps and then to turn left for eight more steps to reach the door of a building can be checked by a blind person. How can an agnostic or atheist learn anything from someone who simply claims to know there is a God?
Unlike the situation with sighted people, whose visions and directions are more or less the same, the "knowledge" that different religious people and groups claim to possess is quite contradictory. Blind people might wonder about the worth of being sighted were different sighted people to give inconsistent directions to get to the door.
Instead of the directions just mentioned, say a different sighted person directed someone to take four steps, turn left for seventeen more steps and right for six more steps to get to the same door.
This is exactly the case with religions, spiritual systems, mystic practices, and meditation approaches. They're all over the map when it comes to finding God, nirvana, satori, Brahman, Tao, Allah, enlightenment, or whatever other goal is espoused.
(Some even counsel against having any goal, or taking any steps, offering another alternative to the ultimate reality-seeker.)
So feel free to have your feelings about God.
Just don't expect me, or anyone else, to regard those feelings as being anything other than subjectively personal absent demonstrable evidence that you've experienced some sort of objective shared reality.
Today a gunman killed at least 12 people and wounded 59 in a Colorado movie theatre. My wife watched news coverage of the disaster this evening. She told me that a man was interviewed who praised God for saving his life.
Maybe it was this guy, Zach Golditch, a football player in an adjoining theatre who was shot when a bullet went through a wall.
And then at 8:57 a.m., he tweeted, "Thank you God for the gift of life! i promise it will not go to waste."
Don't take this too personally, Zach, but I think you're an idiot. It's understandable that you're happy to be alive. Thanking God for keeping you alive when the Holy Fuck-Up in Heaven just caused a dozen people to die is absurd, though.
You can't have it both ways, Zach (or any religious believer).
If God is omnipotent, omniscient, and all that shit, this means he/she/it is in complete control of everything that happens in the cosmos. Mass murder? God is responsible.
But if God is a detached CEO who doesn't get involved in minor details of creation, like 12 people being killed in a movie theatre, then God is worse than useless. What's the point of a divine being who looks down from on high and allows all sorts of fuck-ups to happen?
When tragedies like the Colorado shooting happen, the ridiculousness of believing in a personal God becomes even more apparent. Invariably God is praised for saving the lives of some people. God never is cursed for killing those who perished.
Yet if God saves, God also kills.
This is the God of the Bible's Old Testament. It's a nasty, vengeful, all-too-human God. But at least the Old Testament God makes some sense. Like all of us, sometimes he gets destructively angry; and sometimes he gets all lovey-dovey.
The God of confused modern day Christian theologians, though, is unbelievable. When people do bad things, it's due to the free will God gave to us. However, when good things happen, God is responsible.
Such is the attitude of an Olympics distance runner who thinks God is his coach. Somehow he manages to believe that God is the reason for his successes, yet blameless for his failures.
Ryan Hall is the fastest American distance runner competing in the London Olympics and he says he owes it all to his omnipresent coach who has been there with him every step of the way.
“I’ll just be straight forward, my coach is God,” the 29-year-old Hall told CNN.
...For Hall, running is more about the experience of peace and joy he gets from training. At times he says he does feel down and in said in the past he blamed God for not doing his best in a race, but now he said that has changed.
“I don’t think God causes me to fail in races," he said.
Why not, Ryan?
Why do you limit God's ability to fuck you up, as well as pick you up? If you're going to believe in God, believe in a goddamn macho GOD who does whatever the hell he wants, bad, good, or indifferent, not a wimpy divinity who only involves himself in human affairs when things are all orderly and nice.
That's ridiculous, but not as ridiculous as believing that God only is reponsible for the good stuff that happens in life. At least Zimmerman has a consistent Old Testament view of God: someone who murders, rapes, and pillages, then flips into a loving, caring, nurturing father-figure.
I'd rather leave God out of the "why stuff happens" equation entirely.
Having faith in a God who fucks things up so often makes no sense to me. Us humans are perfectly capable of screwing things up on our own, no God required. And also... making things better. On our own.