Monthly Archives: February 2012

Reasons Part 4 – Unconvincing Arguments

Continuing on from last week I’m listing some of the more common reasons why many people fail to believe in gods or God.  So far I’ve talked about different kinds of atheism, about evidence and how it does not lead to gods and about how god isn’t necessary to living.  Alone each of these reasons may not be sufficient to reject belief in gods in the face of the reasons that people do have for belief.

This week I’ll look at some of the common proofs of god(s) existence and try to explain why they are not convincing enough for many atheists to make that leap of faith.  This time I want to start off by saying that I accept that these arguments are enough to convince some, they just don’t convince me.

The Argument from Design

Many theists talk about the “totality of existence” being evidence for God.  We live in a universe that seems perfectly suited to life.  It is beautiful and apparently orderly, at least the rules of physics remain orderly wherever we look.  Surely such a wondrous thing is proof of design?  If we can infer design then there must be a designer and only God or the gods could have designed it.   The argument for design says that the universe exists so God or gods must exist.

On the face of things this seems pretty reasonable.  Well apart from the fact that the universe isn’t that beautiful or that orderly.  Look at evolution for example and you see massive waste.  Evolutionary dead ends have seen the extinction of 99% of all life that has ever lived on this planet.  You see carnivores that have to kill in order to survive.  You see lives snuffed out for no reason.  You see suffering and death, destruction and torture at every turn.  Human beings, supposedly the pinnacle of God’s creation, are wrought with flaws too numerous to mention.  We are less created in God’s image than thrown together out of whatever working parts could be found.

However, even if the universe were a perfectly ordered and beautiful thing, and I’m not disputing that we can see beauty and order within it, even if it were perfect, why should there be a designer?  Modern science has shown us that natural explanations exist for a wide variety of thinks we once thought of as designed.  Laws are devised to explain the effects of gravity, theories are formed that explain natural processed like evolution or the chemical imbalances in the brain that lead to some mental illnesses.  Gods offer no such explanations.

The “Ontological” Argument

The ontological argument uses logic and reasoning based on an a priori proof proposed by Anselm of Canterbury way back in the 11th century.  It is an argument that seeks to put God in a place where He is necessary for existence.

  1. God is that entity than which nothing greater can be conceived.
  2. It is greater to be necessary than not.
  3. God must be necessary.
  4. God necessarily exists.

Ever since I first heard this I’ve always disliked it.  I find it childish and silly and I really don’t see why anyone takes is seriously.  That’s why I’m not going to bother with it beyond saying that you could apply this to anything at all.  Simply substitute the word “god” for something else silly like the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Eric the Time Travelling Viking.  The “logic” then seems less compelling, doesn’t it?

The First Cause Argument

Unlike the ontological argument I actually like the first cause argument.  Among my “real life” friends who hold to no particular religion but retain a belief in a mysterious “something” the first cause is a favourite reason.  “Well something must have started it all off” they say and they are quite correct.  If everything has a cause then the universe must have a cause.  Isn’t it fair to say that this cause must be God?

Actually, no.  If you want to put God up as a first cause then that is just begging the question of who or what caused God.  If everything needs a cause then so does God.  If God doesn’t need a cause then why does the universe?  Saying that God is uncreated and perfect, that He somehow lives outside of the universe and outside of time, well, that isn’t satisfactory.  It’s just begging the question again.  If God was already perfect then what reason did he have for creating the universe?

Also, if the universe was caused why does that mean that God was the cause?  Perhaps Odin was the cause, perhaps Ra, perhaps some unknown, natural process.  There is room for doubt and lots of it.

Many believers assign properties to a creator in order to get the idea to fit their preconceived notions. For example some might say “if God is the designer, then He would have designed the natural processes by which these things are created.” How would we possibly be able to tell if that were the case?  It is an unfalsifiable assertion.  That isn’t objective and it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The truth is that we simply do not know what caused the Big Bang event (or last Big Bang event) and so it would be dishonest to claim to know. Perhaps it was a creator, perhaps it was an unknown but natural event. I’ve read some mind boggling theories about overlapping dimensions and quantum states of existence that try to explain mathematical ideas for a natural first cause. They make my head spin and I haven’t a clue if they are even close to the truth.  However, at least they don’t rely upon an unverified entity.

Many theists assume a priori that their god exists and try to fit evidence around that assumption.

“If everything has a first cause” is an assumption based on powerful evidence. Everything we know has a cause but we’re not talking about everything we know, we’re talking about a unique event in space time that is beyond our experience and possibly beyond our conception. It is unrealistic to claim knowledge of this event and assign it to a god. What connection do you have to God that makes him the first cause? A 3400 year old collections of scrolls dealing with two distinct creation myths. Everything else has been assigned to God based on your presupposition that God exists.

If there are incorrect assumptions about God then we need to strip them away. We need to start afresh and reexamine the evidence and the ideas without assumptions. Not an easy task with thousands of years of culture and faith built on the back of earlier creation myths and earlier ideas.

The problem, of course, is that when we strip everything away we are left with nothing but our own thoughts. We are placed in the same situation as Descartes and must define our knowledge from a tenuous grounding. “I am thinking, therefore I exist” tells us nothing of the past or future. We must build on our reason with evidence and assumptions but keep in mind at all times that we may well be deceived by our assumptions or by bad evidence. Descartes use the ontological argument to escape this trap, something that I would consider a false assumption and some pretty circular reasoning.

I originally wrote this for Off the Map – Atheist in 2009

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The Christian Label

The label of Christian is of little value when seeking to understand what it means about the person taking on that label. It doesn’t tell us what that persons moral values or outlook are nor does it really tell us what they believe.

The label itself is an umbrella term or superset of a wide variety of beliefs. Take some examples to highlight this.

Fred Phelps, that hateful bigot of the Westbro Baptist Church who spends his days spewing his hatred of gay people and anyone else who can think of in the name of a tyrant god. This man represents everything that is twisted and cruel about modern Christianity. Is he a Christian? Of course.

John Shelby Spong is a liberal theologian, an academic who talks of compassion and reform. He seeks a move away from theism and an embrace of a shared system of values across all faiths and none. His religion is a hope rather than a certainty and, as far as I know, he doesn’t use his Christianity as the blunt tool to bludgeon others into supporting it. Is he a Christian? Of course.

Joseph Alois Ratzinger, Bishop of Rome and current Pope is another academic. While Spong is liberal and open, Ratzinger is conservative and insular. The recent child rape scandals that have rocked Catholicism have turned his policies into protection of the church. In my view he is a criminal responsible for the continued protection of child molesters from secular justice and he should be tried in a court of human rights. Is he a Christian? Of course.

Rowan Williams is Archbishop of Canterbury and is currently presiding over a near schism within the Church of England. He seems to be a decent enough fellow with liberal views regarding the ordination of women and with the open acceptance of gay clergy but he plays a game of internal politics against other bishops who want the opposite. He is undoubtedly intelligent and articulate and he believes in a literal God rather than Spong’s conceptual god. Is he a Christian? Of course.

When someone announces that they are a Christian which of these models do we most closely associate with them? Are they liberal or conservative? Are they pro-gay or anti-gay? Are they feminist or misogynist? Are they pro-life or pro-choice? Are they hateful bigots or compassionate advocates for equality? Who knows? All we can tell about them from the label is that they believe in some sort of god in a loosely Christians tradition. We don’t know anything more about them than that.

So when someone introduces themselves as a Christian it tells us very little about their views and so cannot, in all fairness, be judged on those views because we don’t know what they are.

The same applies for those who judge atheists based on nothing more than pre-conceived notions.

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Secular Humanism – Need to Test Beliefs

Secular HumanismThe first tenet of secular humanism is the need to test beliefs. To quote from the council of secular humanism “A conviction that dogmas, ideologies and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted by faith.”

I want to point out that this isn’t a rejection of faith but it is a willingness to examine our beliefs. Secular says nothing about God, god(s) or the beliefs or lack thereof that people hold about them. Atheistic denotes an actual position being taken (no positive belief in god). A secular humanist with a religious belief can focus on the human aspects of living without rejecting their god. Faith and secular humanism are not mutually exclusive but I think it is still rare to find a religious secular humanist or at least a person who takes on both labels for themself.

Buddha wrote: Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who has said it, not even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.

The need to test beliefs is not the need to reject everything that is held on faith. It is a requirement to ensure that those beliefs are meaningful. They should have some basis in reason, logic, fact or function that make them worthwhile retaining.

Let’s take the life of Jesus Christ as an example, not to be contentious but to illustrate the point. Assume that you hold that Jesus lived a life as a teacher and example to man on how to live a good life. You decide to emulate the man and his actions in your own life. The actual events are not provable in the independent historical record. The miracles performed are not repeatable in the modern age. Are the lessons still valuable though? Does this way of living work? Does the philosophy of helping others and personal sacrifice that Jesus personified make for a happier and more fulfilling life? I think that even the non-religious could agree with these points in a general way.

On the subject of religions though lets take a specific Christian ritual and test it in accordance with the first tenet of secular humanism. Something that has frequently been mentioned in atheist blogs is the issue of the communion wafer representing the flesh of Christ in Roman Catholic ritual. What purpose does this serve? A Roman Catholic might tell you that it is a literal transubstantiation and that by taking bread and wine as the flesh and blood of Christ they are bringing themselves closer to the divine. For me the issue of transubstantiation is purely one of faith. The bread is not literally divine flesh, I could test it to determine this if I wished. Is it spiritually divine flesh? I see nothing to indicate that it is or that it isn’t so I must reserve judgment until evidence is provided or reject the idea based on what I do know.

What benefit does the transubstantiation ritual provide? For the faithful it is a way of drawing the group together in something that is shared only between them. It fosters ties within the religious community. It also marks them as separate from other factions of Christianity and other faiths. This could well lead to divisions within disparate communities. Indeed it has. The same could well be said of any other ritual from Sunday service to morning prayer, from the Bah-Mitzvah to the ritual ablutions of the Bahá’í Faith.

As human beings we learn things as we grow. We take what works and pass it on. Sometimes a lesson that is passed on does not keep the reason with it. An example might be the avoidance of pork in Jewish and Islamic religions. Pork spoils easily and contains a number of parasites that can be passed to humans. Avoiding this meat may make a lot of sense to a people who live in a hot country with poor sanitation and methods of long term food storage. Does it make sense today with modern refrigerators, relatively clean meat processing plants and more hygienic storage of food? The religious restriction remains, independent of the food hygiene issue. Perhaps it didn’t arise from that or perhaps society moved on and the lesson remained behind.

It is important to take stock and reassess the things that we have learnt or discovered in order to ensure that we haven’t got them wrong. I should point out that this obviously includes the assumption of atheism as well as religion. Are my views on religion appropriate given what I know about the world, history, philosophy and science? Have I been introduced to new information or a new way of looking at current information since taking on the label of atheist? Do my views still remain valid given this new information? In all honesty I can say that they do, although my views on religion have changed considerably in the last few years. There are some interpretations and rituals that I view as horribly destructive or socially repressive but there are equally some that I see as positive and worth retaining in a secular life.

I walk away believing I am right, but open to the idea that I am not.

Finally the tenet states that it is the individual who must test and assess a conviction. We all have our own criteria for belief. Some of us require hard evidence, some accept witness testimony, others believe second hand evidence or viable theories, others still place value on workable ideas and axioms even when they can never be proven. I think most of us take a mixed approach to ideas and the burden of proof. That’s why we must all make up our own minds about what is true and what is false.

That’s my take on the first tenet. Hopefully I’ll write about the second tenet next week.

I originally wrote this for the Off the Map – Atheist web site. Feel free to share and comments are welcome.

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Reasons Part 3 – Necessity

I had no need of that hypothesis. (“Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là”, as a reply to Napoleon, who had asked why he hadn’t mentioned God in his book on astronomy.)

– Pierre-Simon Laplace

Leading on from last week where I tried to provide an explanation for a lack of belief due to a lack of compelling evidence, this week it is a lack of necessity.

I’m sure that anyone who has kicked around religious debates for more than a few months will be familiar with William of Occam and his eponymous razor.  The principle of Occam’s Razor is to explain a phenomena with as few assumptions as possible and to remove those elements that make no difference to the explanation.  “Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity” is one of his ideas.

So, when we examine a phenomena, we do not count God in the hypothesis.  Not because God is or is not there but because the presence or absence of God makes no difference to our examination. It has been said that you cannot put God in a test tube but the nature of an infinite being is that you cannot keep God out of a test tube either.  By not counting God into hypotheses we are left to other devices to explain them.  An atheist like me extends the idea and discounts God from all things as unnecessary.

Perhaps one day I will be confronted with a question that needs God to explain it.  Science is such a satisfactory way of explaining things in the universe that it has no need for God and I am happy to accept that sometimes I don’t have enough information to provide an answer.  Yet, since we can explain so much with the tools of science then we don’t need to call on God to explain things.

Does this prove God doesn’t exist?  Not at all.  What it shows is that the assumption that God exists isn’t needed.  If the assumption isn’t needed then why not abandon it?

William of Occam, a Franciscan monk, would not agree.  The presumption of God was the very best way of explaining the universe in the 14th century.  In the 21st century we have other tools at our disposal.  Tools that make the God hypothesis unnecessary.

Whenever you have more than one hypothesis, only one is necessary. You could always throw the others out on that basis as ‘unnecessary’. The question is, how do you decide which to throw out and which to keep?

The god hypothesis involves more assumptions.

However a) fewer assumptions aren’t necessarily correct even though William of Occam preferred them and b) theists disagree that my assumptions that make God unnecessary are better/fewer/more tenable than their assumption of God which make my alternate assumptions and ‘no God hypothesis’ unnecessary.

That is where the null hypothesis comes in.  The alternative hypothesis is that god(s) exist and the null hypothesis is that the alternative hypothesis is false.  Unless sufficiently compelling evidence and reason exists to support the alternative hypothesis then the null hypothesis is preferred.

I originally wrote this for Off The Map – Atheist in 2009 as part of a series explaining why I lacked belief in gods.


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