Posts Tagged ‘Existence of God’


“Gods are fragile things; they may be killed by a whiff of science or a dose of common sense. They thrive on servility and shrink before independence.”

–Chapman Cohen


Disbelief 101: A Young Person's Guide to Atheism
Excerpted from Disbelief 101: A Young Person’s Guide to Atheism, by S.C. Hitchcock

 

Some religious people, who are dismissive of science, think that the existence of god or a spirit world can be proved through the feelings they get when they pray. “God is love,” they will say. “I have evidence for him because I can feel him.” (I wonder what would happen if I said I “believed” in evolution because I could feel the power of the gene.)

This leads to an odd argument. “Prove to me you love your wife,” a religious person might say to me, “show me evidence for love. You can’t, because the evidence is not something that can be examined.”

Sure it can. If I were to sit here and “love” a beautiful movie starlet, that would not be love, but infatuation. Sure, I’d have a feeling, but I’d have no evidence that I love her (and vice versa), and the fact that we’ve had no contact would confirm this. Love is defined through actions, as is heroism, as is cruelty. Actions define emotions.

I can’t say, for example, that I love my wife and then, if she got cancer, walk out on her. Clearly, my action would be evidence that I didn’t love her. I can’t say that I love my son and then fail to take care of him. My wife and I show our love for our son every time we feed him, cuddle him, play with him, change him, or get up in the middle of the night with him.

Someone who acts kindly toward everyone can’t be described as cruel. Cruelty is not a thing; it is a description of action. You can’t be a hero without having done something heroic. To be a genius is to have produced a work of genius.

So I do have evidence that my wife loves me. If I didn’t have evidence of it, if we didn’t show each other love every day through action, then it would be silly for me to claim that we are in love.

Certainly I have an inner warm feeling for my wife and son, but I don’t need to think that it’s spiritual in order to enjoy it. Evolution explains these feelings easily. Indivi-duals who have strong attachments to their mates and offspring are more likely to successfully raise children to the point where their children can reproduce, thus passing on the genes for strong attachments. Of course, relationships aren’t that simple, and what kind of upbringing a child has plays a huge part in its development; but there is no reason for me to think that any of my emotions come from some spirit world.

I have no doubt that people feel something when they pray or when they go to church. It doesn’t follow, however, that that feeling verifies the existence of some loving, all-powerful, invisible god that funnels people’s souls into heaven or hell and reads billions of minds simultaneously. When people feel similar emotions at movies, sporting events, or rock concerts they don’t attribute their emotions to a divine power. Praying may make you feel better if a loved one is sick, but so might taking a jog or a soak in a hot tub—and neither prove the existence of god or the devil.

So let’s continue with this idea and stretch it a little beyond its starting point in this chapter. I hear over and over again that god is love. That he’s a loving god.

What?!

Emotions and human characteristics are defined through actions. Einstein was a genius because he did genius-type things. Hitler was evil because he did evil things. Etc., etc. We define people by their actions or non-actions, and we should define our gods in the same way.

How can god or Allah be loving if he either A. actively causes horrible things to happen to people, or B. allows horrible things to happen. This question actually predates the Christian-Islamic god. The Greek Epicurus famously put it like this:

Is god willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him god?

God should be defined through his actions, shouldn’t he? Here we have a problem that religious people have never adequately resolved. If god is both good and all powerful, then why do bad things happen?

Religious people resort to all kinds of mental acrobatics to answer this question. Evil is the absence of god, some say. But how is that possible? God, being all-powerful, must have made a decision to remove himself and allow evil to happen. This brings up a real head-scratcher: How could an omnipresent god remove himself from anything? In other words, how could an omnipresent god not be omnipresent?

Evil is the creation of the devil. How does this absolve god? He created the devil, and he must have known what the devil would do.

Humanity lives in a fallen world. God created us in a perfect garden, and Adam and Eve chose to eat from “the tree of knowledge”; and all humanity is paying for their sins. What in the hell is this? There was no Garden of Eden to begin with, and even if we accept the bizarre proposition that there was, then god must have known that Adam and Eve would eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge, which meant that he must have wanted them to fall so that he could punish humanity for all eternity. Talk about sick . . . And by the way, what kind of god would punish all women with painful childbirth because of Eve’s supposed sin? Are women who accept pain-relieving drugs in a hospital making god mad because they are relieving some of the pain caused by the curse he put on Eve and all women in Genesis 3:16?

Let’s accept, for a second, the insane idea that each individual human being is created by god. Then explain children who are born with birth defects so severe that they are unaware of their surroundings. Why does god create children with cleft palates and place them in cultures where he knows they will be shunned? Why does god allow children to be born into war zones where he must know they will be blown apart by bombs or land mines? Why does god allow some children to be born with their organs outside of their bodies so that what little life they have is spent in extreme pain?

For that matter, why doesn’t god intervene when earthquakes bring the walls of buildings down onto children? Why do tornadoes crush people in the middle of the night? Why doesn’t god step in on the occasions when a little girl is abducted, tortured, and murdered?

To the religious, there are only two answers to these questions. The first is “god works in mysterious ways.” What this really means is that the religious person uttering this cliché has no good explanation and will not even attempt to provide one. The second answer is outright sickening: “god is testing our faith.” This answer shows the self-centeredness of the religious person. Everything that happens in the world revolves around the believer and his or her faith. Everything is a test or a lesson from god. (As Nietzsche put it in The Anti-Christ: “‘Salvation of the soul’—in plain words, ‘the world revolves around me.’”)

If this is true, if god allows evil in the world only to test people’s faith, then the almighty is not a loving god but a sociopath. What is he doing, anyway? Is he sitting up in heaven allowing children to be killed, sold into prostitution, wither away from AIDS, or be gutted with machetes just to play some sick game? Is he saying, “Will you love me now? Will you still believe in me after this?” Or, “What if I let the devil do this? Will you still have faith in me?”

This is why prayer for a sick loved one, far from being a harmless act, is actually repulsive. Why grovel before the very entity that is torturing (or standing idly by despite having the power to help) the person you care about? What does that say about the person doing the praying?

And, again, don’t tell me that god’s ways are mysterious and beyond our understanding. That’s garbage and a non-argument. I wouldn’t back out of a debate on evolution by saying that evolutionary theory works in mysterious ways.

If this is your god, then his actions or lack of action describe a petty tyrant, a sick bastard who shovels souls into bodies without regard for fairness, love, or happiness. He’s a god who must enjoy all of the suffering in the world—otherwise it would not be here.

It’s a good thing he doesn’t exist.

* * *

Let’s get back to the idea that fuzzy, warm feelings (when praying, etc.) are evidence for god’s existence. The fact of the matter is that evolutionary theory easily explains emotions. Take the strong love that parents feel for their children. How can this be explained? Well, it’s simple. In animals whose offspring have quite a bit of growing up to do outside of the mother’s womb, like elephants, humans, apes, birds, and cats, there is always evidence of parental love. In animals where the offspring come out of the womb “ready to go,” as in fish or snakes, the evidence of parental love is absent.

I watched a nature show a few years ago where a baboon grabbed hold of a baby gazelle and was planning to run off with the baby gazelle and eat her. Fortunately for the baby, the gazelle’s mother was having none of it. She used her horns to ram the confused-looking baboon until he dropped the gazelle’s baby and ran off. (It was hard not to root for the gazelle.

However, I learned the folly of this while watching another nature show where I was rooting for a group of sea lions as they swam through shark-infested waters. It was only a few minutes later that I realized by pulling for the sea lions to escape the Great Whites I was actually rooting against the penguins that the sea lions, having survived the sharks, so gleefully gobbled up. By rooting for the gazelle/mother I was actually rooting against the baboon’s probably equally cuddly babies.)

Anyway, the mother’s impulse to protect her offspring is at first surprising. Why would she risk herself to save her baby? Well, try to imagine what would have happened to the baby if the mother had no protective impulse. The baby gazelle would have been eaten, and the uncaring genes that his mother would have passed on to him would have been gone. In fact, the mother who loved her baby protected him, and those genes that caused her protective instincts survived (in the form of her baby).

The same is true in humans. Imagine what would have happen to a Stone Age infant if her parents didn’t love her. Those parents would simply have her on the ground and their uncaring genes would have died with her. In fact, the genes for creating parental love had to have been present at every stage of pre-human and human development. Love, in fact, is observed among all of our monkey and ape cousins. No wonder the feeling is so powerful.

But it’s not mysterious. Sometimes I actually hear religious believers say, “I can’t explain my belief. It’s like trying to tell your parents why you’ve fallen in love with someone who is all wrong for you. Logic doesn’t apply.” Sorry, but no; believing in god is not like falling in love with someone with whom you’re mismatched. The person with whom you’ve fallen in love, flawed as he or she may be, actually exists. See what happens if you tell mom that you’ve fallen in love with the archangel Gabriel and that you plan to marry.

Please don’t think that it degrades our emotions to explain them naturally. It doesn’t. I love my son and wife fiercely, and that love is not in the least lessened because I realize the emotion has a biological and naturally ex-plained basis. It is entirely possible, even likely, that parental love is the most powerful feeling in the universe and probably one of the most important things we would have in common with complex alien life forms (if we could contact them). That’s a beautiful thing. As for me, I’m just glad to be here, and not to be a fish.


“Let’s get a certain point straight here once and for all, shall we? Yes you can, under many circumstances, prove a negative. You can do it when definitions are tight enough and when conditions are specific enough. For instance, anyone reading this magazine can prove instantly that the Declaration of Independence is not printed on page 13 of this issue. How? They turn to page 13 and look. It’s when assertions become more and more general that they become more and more difficult to disprove. If somebody says that Jesus Christ is standing on the corner of Speedway and Alvernon dispensing tea in paper cups, all you have to do to prove it’s not so is to go there and check . . . If somebody says that Jesus Christ is dispensing tea on an unnamed street corner in this city, you have a larger number of places you have to look before the idea percolates down through your little mind that, gosh, it may not be so after all.

“If some whacko bellows that Jesus Christ is somewhere in the entire universe, can you prove that he isn’t? Strictly speaking, no. On the other hand, you don’t have to; as specificity departs, a claim becomes more and more extraordinary, and as it does so another philosophical rule takes hold, which is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

“Lacking that extraordinary proof, we can maintain that there is no such god as the religionists claim.”

–Fred Woodworth (publisher of The Match!), American Atheist, February 1984


snakeoilcover

 

(Excerpted from Spiritual Snake Oil: Fads & Fallacies in Pop Culture, by Chris Edwards)

Dinesh D’Souza’s book, Life After Death: The Evidence, is a Frankenstein’s monster of half-baked assertions, tweaked fallacies, and glaring contradictions all held together by the single thread of a new Christian narrative. These problems will all be dealt with in due course. However, the most important thing that any reader, atheist or religious, will take from his book is that science is the supreme arbiter of truth. D’Souza’s clumsy attempt to provide “empirical evidence” for the afterlife is not really a work of science at all. Instead it is an attempt to enshroud religion and science in a new narrative, one that is not detrimental to faith. But even a casual reader will be able to sense that this fails. By ceding the grounds for “truth” to scientific method, and by subjecting matters of faith to matters of science, D’Souza has posited a new revelation. In the Gospel According to D’Souza, the divide between reason and religion is only, like our lives on Earth, a temporary aberration. A better time is coming; one where the lion of science and the lamb of religion will lie side by side and the believer’s faith will be rewarded with intellectual fulfillment.

D’Souza’s entire book is a case study in contradiction. First of all, the main thesis of the book is that there is solid empirical evidence for the existence of the afterlife. Yet, mega-pastor Rick Warren wrote the Foreword. (Warren, who believes in talking snakes, invisible people, and the walking dead, blames the rise of atheism on “public gullibility.”) Also, for some reason, D’Souza includes a chapter about near-death experiences and then dismisses them but claims to keep an open mind. Why include evidence that he himself discredits? After his “scientific” case for the afterlife, D’Souza then includes a chapter about why it is good for people to believe in the afterlife even if it can’t be conclusively proved to exist. One could search through peer reviewed science journals for the rest of this life and the next and not see a similar argument made for the existence of neutrinos.

The main philosophical argument that D’Souza (and Warren) makes goes like this: No one knows what happens after we die, even scientists are guessing, so when we are dealing with the unknown at least Christians and religious people have faith, which is better than nothing. In other words, when there is an absence of evidence it is best to bet on faith. He sums up this up by illustrating how he quieted one of Daniel Dennet’s followers at a Q and A session after a debate. After a wordy explanation of David Hume’s philosophy, which states that in the absence of evidence that no claim can be made, D’Souza writes:

When I heard the student’s question, the first thought that occurred to me was that his so-called principle of parsimony not only wiped out religious claim; it also wiped out atheism. Consider the statements “God does not exist” and “there is no afterlife.” Are these statements inherently true? No. Nor can they be shown by external verification. Consequently they, too, are incoherent by this standard…Well, then, I said, by your own criteria the principle is meaningless. We can toss it out and not bother with it any further.
This was a good moment for me…. (29)

It is unclear why this was a good moment for D’Souza. First of all, he needs to understand that his argument is out of alignment with his claim. He’s claiming a belief in an all-powerful deity, and the best he can come up with is to say this can be proved with the statement, “there is no evidence for the deity, which means that his non-existence and his existence are equally plausible.” That’s pretty thin ice for a very big god to be standing on.

Secondly, in regards to the afterlife D’Souza doesn’t understand that atheists don’t make absolute statements. We merely assess odds. For example, looking at the afterlife is like looking at a locked door to a room without windows. If a rationalist and someone who believed in the supernatural were standing outside the door they could assess odds as to what is happening inside. The rationalist would concede that he doesn’t know what is going on in that room, but that it’s a pretty good bet that whatever is in the room is acting in accordance with the law of gravity. The supernaturalist, in contrast, could insist that Jesus and the twelve apostles were drinking beer and eating jalapeños in the room while levitating a foot off the floor—and that because the rationalist couldn’t prove that they weren’t there was a 50/50 chance that they were.

The point here is that the burden of proof falls on the positive, that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and that D’Souza offers no proof whatsoever for his extraordinary (afterlife) claim. Instead, he makes the bizarre assertion that absence of proof is somehow proof.

Oddly, D’Souza responds to the atheistic criticism that one can justify faith in any bizarre idea in this way:

A little scrutiny of these examples will quickly show that the craziness here is entirely on the part of the atheists. We have combed the earth without locating a single unicorn, we seem justified in rejecting unicorns…Celestial flying teapots are also very unlikely, as are Flying Spaghetti Monsters, but our derision is prejudicially solicited by the particular examples chosen. Teapots do not fly, and past is an unlikely ingredient to produce flying monsters. (27)

I might add that seas don’t part, men don’t rise from the dead, serpents don’t speak, and virgins don’t give birth. But that is beside the point. Here D’Souza makes a properly worded rationalist argument against absurdities like unicorns and pasta gods. He says they are unlikely and, since we haven’t found any evidence for them; they probably don’t exist. This is exactly what atheists say about god and other supernatural beings. But D’Souza then makes a very strange argument:

On the other hand, if we modify the examples slightly to involve matter and energy that is undetectable by scientific instruments yet is presumed to exist in order to account for the motions of the galaxies, we have just described “dark matter” and “dark energy,” widely accepted by scientists today. (27)

How the purported existence of dark matter works as proof of the afterlife is beyond me. I suppose D’Souza’s vague point is that since things (apparently) exist that can’t be scientifically measured (yet), that heaven could exist and be made of the same stuff. It’s a bit like saying that since we know there are tiny particles like quarks, then there must be microscopic horses. The two have no connection. Besides, dark matter is something that is posited in order to make sense of observations of gravitational effects. Likewise, before we had technology capable of detecting high frequency sounds above the human hearing range, it would have been acceptable for a bat-watcher to assume that such sounds existed so that he could explain bat behavior.

The problem of assessing statistics and odds is endemic in D’Souza’s book. Oddly, for a book that is supposed to be about the afterlife, the author insists on bringing up traditional (and thoroughly discredited) arguments for the existence of a god or gods. He spends considerable time going into detail about the “fine tuning” of the universe, and then tries to state that scientists, blinded by that pesky scientific method, are afraid to resort to a supernatural explanation. The message is that the odds that the universe is fine tuned for human life are so bad as to require some “tuner.”

Clearly, the universe is equally fine tuned for the existence of smallpox and venereal disease as it is for the existence of puppies and chocolate milkshakes. An African orphan dying of AIDS and malnutrition will find little comfort in the recollection that a series of highly unlikely events had to occur for her to be in her state of agony. Still, this “fine tuned” argument is often used by theologians to prove there is some power, nice or not, somewhere out there. The trick that D’Souza is playing here is simply to take an ordinary statistical principle and make it seem cosmic and mysterious.

The recipe for this statistical trick is simple. Simply state the odds that should be calculated before an event after the event. If you want the event to appear even more unlikely, begin adding complicating factors (which is very easy to do after the fact). Pretty soon, (voila!) you’ve made an ordinary event appear to be extraordinary.

D’Souza’s claim that in order to explain how our solar system is set up “just right” for life to exist on our planet, scientists must assume a fanciful polyverse is outright false. Life is here, the odds against life existing before the fact are meaningless after the fact.

D’Souza also tries to make the case that almost all cultures have a vision of the afterlife, going back to pre-Christian societies. Well, all cultures also produced language. Does this mean that each culture was tapping into a mysterious “language realm” or is it better explained by the fact that all humans share a voice box and flexible tongues?

Chapter six of D’Souza’s book begins with the old Platonic trick of reifying verbs:

[A]sk yourself, how much does your mind weigh? What are the dimensions—length, width, and height—of your consciousness? (92)

He might as well be asking how much running weighs, or what are the dimensions of eating. Thinking is a description of what the brain does. It is not a thing to be measured. This reification of thinking is a serious problem. How can “thinking” go on without a brain any more than “running” can go on without legs? States of consciousness can be changed by altering, through disease, education, experience, or trauma, the stuff of the brain. When the brain dies, consciousness ends—its supporting “hardware” is gone. Similarly, when the legs are gone, it’s safe to assume that running stops. Sure, it might go on in some nether realm, but, I mean, come on.

Even worse than his misunderstanding of statistics is D’Souza’s shocking misreading of evolutionary theory. I say it is shocking because D’Souza is neither a creationist nor a proponent of Intelligent Design. D’Souza seems well aware of the fallacy inherent in William Paley’s “Watchmaker Argument,” and his argument is just another form of the hourglass fallacy I detailed in the chapter about Deepak Chopra.

In chapter six, D’Souza attempts to fuse faith and evolution by citing two scientists, Christian de Duve, and Simon Conway Morris:

[T]hey insist that evolution among several species has followed predictable pathways. Eyes, they content, have evolved on separate evolutionary lines on multiple occasions. Placental and marsupial mammals are not closely related, and yet they have developed with similar structures and forms. Morris writes that “each group has independently navigated to the same evolutionary solution.” Duve and Morris don’t deny the factor of chance, but they insist chance itself follows a largely predetermined trajectory. (104)

This is where, D’Souza implies, god hides. Scientists can’t see it because they are trained not to look for supernatural causes, but it is there. D’Souza breaks up the big god that creationists and ID’ers so covet and puts the pieces in the cells. We have here not a single big god but trillions of tiny gods.

D’Souza is right that there is a principle which guides evolution—there are two in fact, which explain how complexity evolves, but there is nothing mysterious about them. The principles are “survive” and “mate.” The reason that eyes develop in so many animals is because it is useful for animals to detect visual (electro-magnetic) sensory data in a way that best suits their purposes. This is why flies and humans, both of whom have eyes, perceive and make sense of light in different ways. It’s the same with the other senses. Think of a rotting carcass. For humans, the smell is revolting. For vultures, it’s the olfactory equivalent of a dinner bell.

Virtually every page of D’Souza’s book is lousy with fallacies and false metaphors, and to point every one of them out would require a book in itself. It would also be to miss the point. D’Souza is not seriously trying to meld logic and faith. He’s trying to change the prevailing narrative in secular society, which is that religious dogma has given way to scientific truth. In a society that cherishes medical and technological advancement, one can hardly challenge the precepts of science any longer. The only thing left to do is to assert that religion and science are compatible.

The problems with trying to create a narrative around such notions are legion. First of all, atheism and science cannot be separated. Science is the daughter of atheism. Smallpox was only cured when people began looking at the disease as a natural phenomenon and dismissed any supernatural cause. In fact, everything that works in the world is a result of atheism. One has to begin with the assumption that there are no supernatural entities that interact with the world and then one can proceed. For example, despite what the tired cliché says, everyone in a foxhole is an atheist in practice. If they believed that a divine power would stop the bullets flying at them, they wouldn’t be in the hole.

Secondly, science has taken human knowledge further and further away from the narrative of the religious texts. This has been true in the Western world since Galileo. How can D’Souza square this circle? Early on he writes:

As an atheist friend of mine quips, “How can these Christians be against logic and inventions?” Actually, Christians aren’t opposed to either. Rather, they recognize that, to a large degree, science and reason have become enemy-occupied territory. Science and reason have been hijacked by the bad guys… (12)

However, D’Souza claims that if Christians will only embrace reason and science they will see that “it stunningly confirms the beliefs that they held in the first place. What was presumed on the basis of faith is now corroborated on the basis of evidence, and this is especially true of the issue of life after death.” (13)

If this is the new narrative, then it has serious problems. D’Souza tries to explain his point by stating that the authors of Genesis, for example, claimed that the universe had a starting point and did this despite the pre-Hebrew idea that the universe was eternal, and that this controversial notion has recently been confirmed by science’s Big Bang theory. This is an outright con. Will science one day come to prove the biblical assertion that the Earth was made before the Sun?

Occasionally, by chance, scientific theories and conclusions seem to coincide with ancient, vaguely worded mystical claims or predictions. But there are major differences. Scientific theories and conclusions are always orders of magnitude more specific than mystical claims and predictions. As well, science advances, mysticism doesn’t. Scientific understanding of the universe is constantly improving, while mystical (in D’Souza’s case, Christian) understanding of the universe has not improved in two thousand years.

D’Souza, spends a lot of time in his book explaining how quantum physics presents a universe which acts in ways we don’t understand, and he then builds a rope ladder to the moon from this.
His odd syllogism seems to be:

A. The universe doesn’t make sense
B. Therefore things that don’t make sense sometimes are true.
C. The afterlife doesn’t make sense so it must be true.

D’Souza then tries to dismiss the claim, based on quantum physics, made by Stephen Hawking, that the universe doesn’t need a starting point. Why does D’Souza dismiss this? Because it doesn’t make sense.

Anthropologists might more plausibly point out that the brain evolved for the purpose of survival in the wild in Africa. It is capable of abstract thought, but only after rigorous training. So it’s not surprising that the workings of the universe defy common understanding. It was not created to be understood nor were we created to understand it.

D’Souza’s theme about science supposedly proving what had once been presumed by faith is the only coherent thread in the book. He writes:

So what does modern physics have to say about the Eastern and Western conceptions of life after death? In Newton’s time, the verdict was decidedly negative. Today, however, the situation is completely different. Modern physics has expanded our horizons and shown how life after death is possible within the existing framework of physical reality. The materialist objection has proven to be a dud; in fact, modern physics calls materialism itself into question. In a crucial area, and sometimes against the objections of the scientists themselves, modern science has proven itself not the foe of religious believers, but an unexpected ally. (89)

And here is the New Narrative: Up until now, science has made a mockery of faith. However, this can only be because we have an incomplete understanding of the universe. As our understanding grows, we’ll see that science will come to prove the precepts of faith to be true. We are just now entering a stage where the spotlight of science has become broad enough to reveal that religious truths were right all along. This whole religion versus science thing has just been one big five hundred year misunderstanding that will be cleared up now that science is getting its act together. This process of reconciliation has been delayed only because close-minded scientists are trained not to see the supernatural.

One might add that very few people in the world, a very few scientific specialists, truly understand quantum physics. Dinesh D’Souza is not one of them. And the chutzpah of D’Souza in citing concepts he probably does not even vaguely understand as “proof” of his wishful thinking is breathtaking.

It is not possible to argue that god or the afterlife exists and that there is evidence, but that faith in him or it is required. An all-powerful god who wanted his existence to be known would not rely on inferences and statistical fallacies for his proofs. If he existed and wanted to be found, there would be no debate. A measurable afterlife would be something we could directly detect, not something we should believe in. D’Souza encourages Christians to embrace reason and science and trust that eventually this will support their faith. Maybe they will grasp what D’Souza didn’t, that you can’t have your faith and prove it too.

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