Ongoing blogalog

Here is John Henry’s first email.

Here is my response…


Thanks for being willing to do this.  Let’s see where it goes.  :)

You asked me to define god.  Of course, I don’t believe in god.  You, on the other hand do.  You must have a set of qualities you believe god to possess, and that you think can be confirmed in some reliable way.  It seems that you should be the one defining god, since presumably you have already done so and you presumably have some evidence of its existence.

As far as a god goes that is somehow detectable or somehow distinguishable from a godless universe, I don’t believe in such a god for the same reason anybody doesn’t believe in something: I have not been presented with reliable evidence.  Since you believe in god, and assuming you do not think it noble to believe in things for no reason, I am counting on you to present the evidence that has convinced you (and which should hopefully convince me).

When you talk about “sensing god’s presence,” I think there is a better explanation than it being god giving you some nebulous hint at his existence.  It seems more plausible to me that you’re jumping to a hasty conclusion.  I suspect that when you look at the stars you feel a sense of awe or of agency.  I trust that when you pray you feel a sense of euphoria.  But what can we fairly conclude from this?  People also feel euphoria when they meditate, because meditating puts their brain into a state that produces that feeling.  I find it perfectly acceptable that prayer, like meditation, could likewise configure the brain for particular feelings.  But like meditation or stargazing, no appeal to god is necessary for this.

The other option, the you presented to me, is that a god who wants to get to know me, as you said, and who presumably wants to get to know all of his children, applied his intellect (the same intellect powerful enough to conceive and construct the cosmos) to the task and decided several things.  This god decided the best way to forge a relationship was not by coming and speaking to you directly, but that it was instead to give you some vague sense of his existence that looks precisely like the human tendency to (erroneously) infer agency where none exists.

A world in which lots of different people are feeling a bit of euphoria from time to time and calling it god would produce a world where there was tons of confusion about the nature of god.  This is precisely the world we see.  But if a god existed who really wanted to know us, this confusion makes no sense unless you’re talking about a god who values confusing us over a relationship with us, which you said in your first email was not the case.  Seriously, you and I could both come up with better plans for getting to know people than the one implemented by the god you describe.  Surely you don’t believe that you could do better than god?

You must realize, John, that human intuition is flawed.  It works most of the time, but there are some situations where it’s wrong, and even some when it’s guaranteed to be wrong.  Attached to this email is an image of a checkerboard.

Both the A and B squares on the board are the same color.  After you have confirmed this, they will still look different to you because of the way your brain is hard-wired to interpret color.  Yet, despite false sensory input, you can still establish the truth.  We must apply things like reason and science to get around the limitations of our cognition.  This is what I am asking you to do with the feelings you think confirm god’s existence.  I need you to compare them to all the other evidence rather than taking them at face value.

Compare the odds that the feelings to which you attribute your sense of god are just naturally occurring feelings produced by your brain against the odds that an even moderately intelligent god would use such a flimsy method of communication with someone he wanted to know.  Truly, if god wants a relationship with anybody, he has an awfully non-committal way of going about it.

You then say that existence without god doesn’t make sense to you.  How so?  What would look different if you took god out of the equation?

You say that, “The best I can do is tell you that he’s amazing, and that he loves you, and he wants you to get to know him.”  You didn’t provide any evidence for this, but it seems clear that this is not the case.

The god you describe as amazing is the same god that has decided the best way to communicate his existence is through a means that creates mass confusion and war, and that looks indistinguishable from a misattribution of causation for euphoric feelings in the brain.  That’s not very amazing.

The god you describe as loving is the same one that engineered cancer and hurricanes, and who devised the notion of pain.  He is also the god that decided to communicate with us in a way that generates mass confusion and false certainty such that we have, in literally every century, seen countless murders over those qualities.  This is not a god who loves us.  This god looks exactly like a world with no god in it.

And lastly, the god you describe has allowed the world to be littered with countless religions, each as at odds with reality as the next.  He has hidden all evidence of his existence from me.  The most popular arguments in his defense seem to rely almost purely on human ignorance rather than fact and/or evidence.  Perhaps you can do what god has not, but that would seem to confirm that you love me more than god.  So far both in my life and in your description of why you believe god does not appear at all to be a god who wants us to know him.  Hell, it doesn’t appear that god even cares if we believe he exists.

It should also be noted that god created me with a malfunctioning brain.  He is either incompetent, which doesn’t sound very godly, or he is malicious, which means he doesn’t love me.  You may counter that he is trying to teach me some kind of lesson, but god is not limited in the same way humans are.  He could teach me a lesson without giving me a brain that seriously inhibits my ability to normally interact with the world.

You then say, “In my experience, it’s pretty pointless to tell someone they “should” believe in God.”  I must vehemently disagree.  There are lots of things people should believe.

  •  You should believe that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor (you should not believe it was the French)
  •  You should believe that Neptune is the eighth and most distant planet in our solar system (you should not believe it’s Venus)
  •  You should believe the earth orbits the sun (you should not believe it’s the other way around)
  •  You should believe that Barack Obama is currently the president of the United States (you should not believe it’s Justin Timberlake)

The list goes on and on, and it exists because there is a multitude of evidence to support these conclusions.  If the evidence favors god as much as it favors the fact that the sun is at the center of our solar system, which it should since god’s existence is a much more important fact, then I should believe in god.  It is up to you to present convincing evidence to me.  If you have no convincing evidence then I shouldn’t believe in god, and neither should you.

You then say that, “logical proofs are about as relevant to the central question of faith as they are to the question of whether or not you should be friends with someone.”  But that’s not true.  I have vast amounts of evidence that my potential friend exists.  I can touch them.  I can ask others to confirm all the qualities I see in them.  The argument that proofs are irrelevant to friendship is, forgive me for saying so, just flat out silly.  I can easily prove my friends exist.  Indeed, I must do so before I can be friends with them.

After that you describe, “a moment of choice, where you can choose to accept or reject God’s love and existence.”  But I do not choose my beliefs.  I cannot choose them.  The brain is an engine that generates a map of reality based on what facts are rattling about inside.  It is the reason if I were to walk to the edge of a rooftop that I could not convince myself that gravity stopped working by sheer force of will.  I cannot simply choose to believe the apparently absurd.  My brain won’t let me (not would I want to choose to believe something ludicrous even if I could).  If god exists then this is the brain with which he made me.  It makes no sense then, to say that he expects me to do what he specifically made impossible.

Consider how this syncs up with various religions that demand, on pain of eternal torture, that I choose to believe in something ludicrous, like another human being rising from the dead, with no evidence to change my mind.  Any god that implemented that system is a god who is giving people the worst chance at salvation, not the best.  It is not a god who loves me, or anybody for that matter, save for the gullible.
You conclude with the assertion that faith and free will couldn’t coexist without it choosing to believe in god.  Could you distinguish faith from credulity?  If you cannot, why should we want that kind of faith?

As for free will, why couldn’t it exist without god.  For the record, I don’t believe we have free will anyway.  But even if I were to grant the existence of free will, why must we choose to believe in god’s existence in order to have it?

I will close by saying a couple of things.  First, with the burden on you to defend god’s existence, how much of your email was dedicated to that task?  You flat out said that your first paragraph shouldn’t convince me.  Your second paragraph exclusively told me what you believe, but did nothing to explain why you believe it (or why I should).  Your third paragraph followed suit, except that in it you also said I could choose to believe the thing for which you had not lifted a finger to provide any evidence.  Not only should this not have convinced me, I’m baffled at how it could convince you.

I realize some of the things I have said may sound harsh, but please don’t think they are said out of impatience or disgust for you.  Quite the contrary, I think you can (and should) do better.  I am merely honest in my disagreement and in my assessment of an argument’s quality.  Please don’t interpret that as ill will or disdain for you, John Henry.

Looking forward to your response.


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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.