Response to Melissa

As promised, here is my personal response to Melissa’s email.

I am confused as to how you’re “fighting religion tooth and claw” without becoming one.  It may be that your the format of your website is satirical but it seems very similar to that of “religious” websites, and the articles and groups talked about on your website seem to be about bringing “like minded” individuals together and spreading “the word”. How is this different from what religions try to do?

Sure there are similarities between myself and evangelists.  We’re both passionate, we’re both trying to build communities for like-minded people.  But I feel those similarities are less consequential than our differences.  I seek a world that is more rational, since I believe reason is the key to a better world.  Religion, on the other hand (specifically Christianity), gives us the message that not only is it ok to be irrational, but that we must be irrational.  So how do I fight religion tooth and claw without becoming one?  Simple.  My concern is the soundness of the methods by which I reach my conclusions, not the conclusions themselves.  I fight religion without becoming one by endeavoring to be reasonable.

Consider the differences in our messages.  For Christianity, the message is that a person must accept an arbitrary conclusion and an arbitrary set of rules because some invisible being, who cannot be questioned, says so.  Conversely, I’m insisting that people have a moral obligation to be reasonable and that, once reasonable, they will arrive at my conclusion on their own.

Is it that you are fighting against ALL religions or just Christianity, the website did not seem to address many others?

All of them.  Christianity is just the one causing the most problems in the country in which I live.

Did I miss a news bulliten somewhere…. has science been able to prove that God does not exist?  Is the non-existence of God represented in science textbooks?

No, we have not disproven god.  A god might be out there somewhere.  What I can say is that nobody who believes in god, and in so doing implicitly or explicitly claims to have good reasons for believing in that god, including Michael and yourself, have advanced a single argument in defense of that belief that isn’t horribly reasoned.

Consider all the things that have not been disproven that you don’t believe in: smurfs, unicorns, bats that deliver flowers to rattlesnakes, invisible flying penguins in the stratosphere, etc.  And what if someone came running to you and said they believed in smurfs, but when you asked them why they believed they pointed out that nobody has proven that smurfs aren’t out there somewhere!  Does that prove that smurfs exist, or that the person claiming to know they exist is exceedingly credulous?

The plain fact of the matter is that when you claim to know something, the burden of proof is on you to explain what evidence you have for that belief.  When you do something like point out that it hasn’t been disproven (since most things, even ludicrous things, haven’t), this suggests to me that you don’t have a good reason to believe what you do.  And if you lack a good reason to believe it, why should I believe it?  Threats of hell?  Those are as irrational as god, and just as unbelievable.

I loved biology in school and learning about Darwin’s research and about evolution

This is a lie, and I’ll tell you how I know this.  It’s because in quite literally the next sentence you say:

And correct me if I am out to lunch but isn’t the “big bang” theory, well just that a theory?

Anybody who utters the phrase ‘just a theory’ cannot have anything but the most minimal exposure to science.  In science the word ‘theory’ does not mean a guess, as it does colloquially.  This is something you learn in intro level science courses.  It is information you could not have made it through a single science book without learning.  I have written an evolution primer for Atheism Resource in which I explain the scientific definition of the word.

While I may have a theory regarding what two cards my opponent is holding at the poker table, this is not the way scientists use the word. A theory is a hypothesis or collection of hypotheses, which has stood up to repeated rigorous testing and passed the test. A theory explains all relevant facts and is contradicted by none.

The difference between a scientific theory and a scientific law is not their degree of acceptance or explanatory power. It is typically (there are a few exceptions) whether or not they include an equation explaining the phenomenon in question. That’s it.

For instance, on one hand we have theories like germ theory or the theory of gravity. On the other hand, we have something like Newton’s Second Law of Motion:

The relationship between an object’s mass m, its acceleration a, and the applied force F is F = ma.

See the difference? Is germ theory really more or less accepted than Newton’s Laws of Motion? Not at all.

The fact that gravity is ‘just a theory’ has thus far prevented you from exiting your house through the third-story window.  Or the next time you’re in the hospital, tell the doctor you’re paying to save your life how germ theory is ‘just a theory’.

I’m currently unsure how your website and literature is not another “I cannot prove my position, but you should believe it”.

Our positions cannot be compared because they are fundamentally different.  You are making a positive claim.  I am making a negative claim.  Proving a positive claim is easy – as easy as providing evidence.  If someone says that smurfs exist, the immediate question we would all ask is how they know this.  Shouldn’t they have to show us a picture, produce a smurf, or at least show us to the place where they saw one so we can investigate further?

However, proving a negative is near impossible.  If you doubt that, then prove that smurfs don’t exist.  How would you do it?  You’d literally have to comb the universe to its very edge to make sure there is no rock under which smurfs might be hiding.  This type of search would be exhausting and impossible, and it abandons any concern of whether or not the person believing in smurfs has so much as a single good reason to do so.  Same with god.  We’re working on searching the universe, but to my knowledge we’ve found no evidence of god.  If you have evidence, as you imply with your belief, produce it.  If a positive claim can exist for the atheist, it’s that no religious person ever had advanced a good reason to believe in god.  Just like your position with regard to smurfs.

In short, the burden to defend their claim is on the person making the positive claim.  All I’m saying is that you have failed (and dramatically so).

I was just struck by your arguments about the non-existance of God and wondered if there are sea creatures you don’t belive exist until they prove themselves somehow or “allow” themselves to be found by us.  If there is a God, what makes us so important that he needs to show or prove himself to us by making “spiritual realities as perceptible to our physical and rational senses as the rest of the world?”

There is a wellspring of undiscovered fauna on this planet.  That conclusion is reasonable due to the fact we’ve found so many new animals and continue to do so (comparatively, no evidence for god has been found previously).  When we have reached previously unexplored portions of the ocean in the past, we have generally found new forms of life.  Compare this to god.  For everything humanity has explained, the explanation has turned out to be mindless forces acting upon inanimate objects.  The explanation has not been god.  So like undiscovered wildlife, it makes sense to make the provincial conclusion that all subsequent explanations will follow suit, since all previous explanations have borne that result.

And why are we so important that god should make his existence known?  I answered this question in my post to Michael.

The truth of his existence, if heaven and hell exist, is more important than any other fact.  Why has god made virtually every other fact so much more perceptible …

Why conceal his existence if acknowledging it is the means to escape eternal torture?

Because if the story of heaven and hell is true (thank goodness it’s not)  and belief in Christianity is the way out of ceaseless suffering, then if god cares in the least he should make his presence perceptible.  If he wants any kind of relationship with the species he supposedly created, he should give us evidence of his existence.  Perhaps myself and many others are not important enough to not be tortured for all time, but a god who would do that is evil and unworthy of worship.  So if you’re worshiping the god you’re painting, the one who doesn’t think the eternal suffering of sentient creatures is important enough he should give us a legitimate shot at the means to escape, then you are lending support to a sadistic creature.  If that’s truly the case, then you too are sadistic – you’re just as evil as he is.

The tube-nosed fruit bat did not allow itself to be “officially” perceptived to our physical and rational senses until 2009 so does that mean it did not exist prior to this?

No, it existed.  But it did mean that anybody claiming to have a good reason to believe in the tube-nosed fruit bat without seeing it should not have been listened to.

There is an infinite number of animals we could dream up that may be out there somewhere.  Once more, what if somebody went to the presses saying they believed that in the rainforests of South America there was a bird with six legs, two heads, purple feathers, and it pooped gold nuggets?  There are really two possible responses here:

1.  “How do you know this?”
2.  “Well, the tube-nosed fruit bat did not allow itself to be “officially” perceptived to our physical and rational senses until 2009.  There are lots of undiscovered things out there, so I’m sold.”

Is there anybody with a functioning brain who could possibly believe that the second response is the reasonable one?  I doubt it.  Yet this is precisely the situation you are in, Melissa, and it is precisely the argument you are making.  You are the one saying hey, there’s this thing out there with x, y, and z qualities!  We skeptics are merely asking the reasonable question: how do you know this?

Actually, what you are doing is even worse.  You are taking things we do know (men don’t rise from the dead, walking on water is impossible, people can’t survive in the belly of a fish, there was no global flood, etc.) and saying that because we don’t know everything that there is some manner equivalence to all truth claims, such that these ideas should get the same weight as their corollaries.  This is just plain wrong.  It is one thing to admit a possibility of something, such as the existence of god or smurfs.  It is another to confuse possibility with plausibility.  I am open to the idea of god and to the existence of other animals, but I (and most other atheists) want you to provide some evidence so we know you’re not just making yours up.  We accept the possibility, no need to keep arguing for that.  But acknowledging the possibility of something is not the same as acknowledging it to be true (or acknowledging it to be anywhere close to likely).

Admitting that there are unknown things in our universe is the proper thing to do.  However, it takes self-delusion of biblical proportions to say that because there are things we don’t know that we can just claim to know specific things without evidence.  The proper thing is to draw the best provincial conclusions we can (‘there are likely more animals out there’ or ‘natural explanations are likely all that exist’) and keep exploring the unknown and to revise our position as new evidence presents itself – but not a moment sooner.

This is kind of a “personal” question but it seems you like to pick apart the “personal” experiences of others, so I was wondering if it was just because you did not feel that God proved himself to you or made his existance obvious and above reproach that you are an athiest or if there is some other logic and “experiences” that led to you to believe what you do?

No worries on the personal question.  The story of my deconversion from Christianity can be read here.

What would it take God to convince you that you are wrong? How could he “prove” himself for you? Where is the bar for Him?”

I can think of several things that could convince me of god’s existence.  One easy way is that he could stop by my house.  I have tuna helper.

I don’t ask for much, Melissa.  I don’t ask that people agree with me, I simply ask that they treat their beliefs as though they are not a substitution for research and reason.  I ask that if you think your beliefs are important that you treat them like their accuracy matters.  This is the minimum we should expect from ourselves and from our peers.  Sadly, it is a standard beneath which religion consistently drags its adherents, as it has done to you.  You don’t know about science, and asking somebody to prove a negative before you’ll abandon some ludicrous belief is a piece of bad logic that could have been eliminated with a few minutes of introspection.  I do not say this to be mean, I say it because it’s the truth and because I truly believe you can do (and should do) better.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Sheri

    “I have tuna helper.” lol
    Great response…well-written and and a very entertaining read.

  • Madmax

    “However, it takes self-delusion of biblical proportions…”

    I see what you did there.

  • http://www.willisweb.com Jon Willis

    Excellent response. Too bad it will be wasted on poor Melissa.

  • Rob

    Laws, just like theories can be overturned / updated. Newton’s laws are superseded by Einstein’s Theories of Relativity.

    And since Relativity has equations, isn’t that a counterexample to your law / theory dichotomy?

    (and don’t forget the (#*&$@(7 stupidly named String Theory)

  • Mike

    The difference between a law and a theory is not determined by the presence of equations, nor does relativity change Newton’s laws of motion when considering an inertial reference frame.

  • Jonathan Burnett

    As I have understood it, a law is essentially a descriptive statement about how things are, a body of observations describing how things comport themselves within a given domain; whereas a theory is our best explanation/prediction as to why/how.

    For example, to bastardize the law of gravity, “things fall.” This describes what happens, and from a large body of such observations one can presumably employ math to derive/quantify more precisely the forces in play.

    The theory of gravity then, would represent both the ongoing convergent understanding as to why things behave in this manner and the refining characteristic of predicting how things will behave in future.

    Preemptively comparing/contrasting that, I don’t know that evolution should be described as both a law and a theory, though I think that would be valid. That evolution is a fact, that it happens, emergent from physical laws, is surely a descriptive statement; but our understanding of how and why it happens is more properly described as theory.

    Note also that Newton’s laws are still applicable, now, within a better delineated domain; if you’re not playing with incredible gravities or objects moving near the speed of light, relativity is a cumbersome model.

    In close, the above represents an approximation of my rather cobbled together understanding; please do let me know if you spot any errors.

  • Compuholic

    Very well written. As some of the commenters before, I would slightly disagree on your definition of a theory.

    I wouldn’t say that a theory mustn’t be contradicted by any evidence. I would only say that within its scope the vast majority of experiments confirm its correctness.

    Example: Quantum theory and General Theory of Relativity. Both are very well tested and nobody with a sane mind would question that they both are the best current explanation for their domain. But they contradict each other. So it’s a pretty safe bet that they won’t be the end of the story. Most likely there will be a theory that resolves this problem.

    But admittedly this is nitpicking and doesn’t change the validity of your arguments at all.

  • Joshua Fisher

    EXPLAIN SCIENCE, MUSICIAN!!

  • http://www.atheistfaq.com Jeff Hebert

    “I can think of several things that could convince me of god’s existence. One easy way is that he could stop by my house. I have tuna helper.”

    That made me laugh right out loud, thank you sir!

  • Newt

    The Tuna Helper thing slayed me as well. Like, yes – yes that WOULD convince me of god’s existence. In fact, it wouldn’t even have to happen to me; if enough people of reasonable sanity claimed that god swung by and ate Tuna helper, I think I would at least be more open to the possibility of his existence. You know, like Colecanths…

    The only rational explanations for his failure to do this are he doesn’t exist, which is fine…he hates us and wants nothing to do with us, which ISN’T fine, he can get bent…or he’s “testing us,” as the believers like to think, which also isn’t fine, and he could also get bent over. Regardless of which of the three it is, I’m still not getting up early on Sundays and worshiping him, thanking him for a damn thing, or coddling his adherents. Ever.


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