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.


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.

  • Anonymous

    Great post! However, all I can think is that A and B are not the same color…

    • Wren, a Tru Hoppist

      Ack! This was posted by me…

      • JT Eberhard

        This might help. :)

        • Sid

          I don’t see how Duck Tales Moon theme helps. I also don’t see how A and B are the same . . . oh my Cthulhu they are.

    • LeftSidePositive

      I had to open it in photoshop and place them next to each other. They are!!

      I’ve seen that illusion done before, but not with such apparently strong contrast.

    • Rieux

      Yeah. I’m sort of wondering about the implications of that illusion on JT’s later assertion that “I cannot simply choose to believe the apparently absurd.”

      I mean, I am very confident (given what I know about the provenance of that graphic) that A and B actually are the same color—but that fact is certainly apparently absurd. So I think that, by accepting JT’s assertion that A and B are the same color (and believing that I could confirm it if I could be bothered to actually compare them directly with some kind of graphic-editing software), I am in fact believing something apparently absurd.

      I suspect that either “apparently” is being used in a sort of squishy way in its sentence, or perhaps there’s consistent a point about choice here. (E.g., okay, by accepting the A = B thing, I’m believing something apparently absurd—but I’m not really choosing to do so; I am, and I feel, obligated to believe it as a result of what I know about the provenance of the image.)

      Anyway, just a lawyer quibbling irrelevantly about language. Carry on.

    • JT (Generic)

      Great post! However, all I can think is that A and B are not the same color…

      I’m in denial about that.

      Another optical illusion!

  • Ganner

    Love to see how he comes back on this…

  • sisu

    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, is just flat out silly. I can easily prove my friends exist. Indeed, I must do so before I can be friends with them.

    The way I read what he said isn’t, can you prove your friends exist? but instead, can you prove that your friends are worthy of your friendship? And again, I think that you can provide evidence in favor of or against continuing a friendship with a person. You can ask, has this person been supportive of me and my endeavors? Do I enjoy his/her company? Do we share common interests? Or, does this person make me feel bad about myself? Does s/he criticize me unasked? That’s the kind of evidence you can consider when deciding whether or not to be friends with someone.

    Hey, let’s apply these questions to god! Has god supported me? not that I’m aware of. Do I enjoy its company? Well, we’ve never hung out. And while I’ve never heard a peep out of god directly, I’ve had plenty of unwanted and unhelpful criticism from people who claim to speak for god, and try to make me feel bad about myself and my choices. So based on that… if god exists, we are definitely not friends.

    • Rieux

      I agree that Henry’s point about friends is much more about “shoulds” and emotional connections than it is about the empirical existence of the potential friends in question.

      It’s a fairly common theist trope (as I’m sure JT is aware): because things like morality and friendship and emotion and love are (from theists’ perspective) immaterial and mysterious and stuff, it must be just as legitimate to believe in gods (which are immaterial and mysterious and stuff) as it is to believe in things like morality and friendship and emotion and love. Or is the nasty atheist saying he doesn’t/we shouldn’t believe in things like morality and friendship and emotion and love?!? PwnZorD, mofo.

      Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster): I got one for you.

      Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey): Whatya got?

      Arroway: Occam’s Razor; you ever heard of it?

      Joss: “Hock-em’s Razor”–it sounds like some slasher movie.

      Arroway: No, Occam’s Razor. It’s a basic scientific principle. And it says: “All things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be the right one.”

      Joss: Makes sense to me.

      Arroway: All right. So what’s more likely: an all-powerful, mysterious God created the universe, and then decided not to give any proof of His existence? Or, that He simply doesn’t exist at all, and that we created Him so we wouldn’t have to feel so small and alone?

      Joss: I don’t know. I couldn’t imagine living in a world where God didn’t exist. Y’know… I wouldn’t want to.

      Arroway: How do you know you’re not deluding yourself? I mean, for me, I… I’d need proof.

      Joss: Proof…. Did you love your father?

      Arroway (stunned): What?

      Joss: Your dad. Did you love him?

      Arroway (choking out the words): Yes. Very much.

      Joss: Prove it.

      – Robert Zemeckis’ movie Contact (which is not in fact a pro-atheist film, and don’t let anyone tell you differently)

      • Rory

        Rieux, that’s the same example I think of whenever I see a theist arguing that proving the existence of god is like proving the existence of love. It’s silly and trivially dispensed with. One of the things that annoys me about that film is that the novel seems to imply that we can have a ‘religious’ experience which may not be amenable to scientific investigation in the short term but which does not require the supernatural. The film, on the other hand, seems to want to spike the stupid scientist’s face into the ground and chortle about how they’ve put her in the position of having a true belief without any evidence. I still like the film, but I wonder how Carl Sagan would have felt about how it represented the themes of the novel.

        • Rieux

          I think Sagan would have done backflips in his grave if that were possible—and I think Zemeckis and his producers and writers should be fucking ashamed of themselves for dishonoring Sagan’s ideas so severely.

          That said, I thought Sagan himself was pretty cruel to Arroway at the end of the novel—though not in the “ATHIESTS R SUCK” manner Zemeckis’s movie is. I think the novel is an interesting work with a needlessly ugly ending, while the move (though it’s well crafted) is an offensive disaster.

          I’ve blathered a lot more about this here and here, the latter including a short exchange with a pre-FTB Jen McCreight. It’s sort of a hobby-horse of mine.

          • Rory

            Looking forward to reading through those links. I recently re-read the book and watched the movie, and the film certainly didn’t sit as easily as it did when I watched it as a teen before I deconverted. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

          • jolo5309

            Hah! I was just about to write”
            Thanks spock, I am not the only one to hate that movie!

            When I realised I had said that when you first posted this!

          • Joshua Fisher


            You are my new hero. I have always seen that movie as an attack on atheism. I was only a few years into my atheism when that movie came out and I was excited to see the movie cause I was luvin on Sagan at the time. Needless to say I was a little disappointed. I think your post on it sums up my feelings about the movie quite handily.


      • brianpansky

        Contact (which is not in fact a pro-atheist film, and don’t let anyone tell you differently)

        There was so much religious/faith centrism in that movie. I basically thought I was viewing a session of “so when did you decide you were homosexual? why should we be okay with homosexuals teaching children?” And it was obvious that the atheism wasn’t written to actually address/correct the ignorant centrism, but rather to reinforce the centrism. And thus the ignorance was obvious.

  • Art Vandelay

    Every time I read JT respond to a theist I become 10% more Godless. I’m pretty sure that if I ever wanted to convert, I’d have to kill you first. That was brilliant.

  • Carina

    @Wren…due to the shadow they are in fact the same color. Print it, cut out the squares and place them next to each other ;) It will then be clear.

    JT – great argument especially the bit about choice – also why would god need to get to know us if he made us and has the added bonus of reading our thoughts? Really now!

  • jatheist

    JT wrote: “For the record, I don’t believe we have free will anyway.”

    I’ve never heard this before… can you explain what you mean by this JT?

    • t2tb

      I’d be curious about this, too. Though first we’d need an operational definition. I think a lot of the debates about free will get sidetracked because the concept in and of itself is often much more fuzzily defined than we realize.

    • JT Eberhard

      I’m a determinist.

      Essentially, I think we can perceive options and that we feel we can choose, but we can’t. The brain is made of matter that ultimately behaves mindlessly. We have conscience and we perceive choice, but we ultimately don’t have it.

      The most concise way I’ve ever heard it explained is by looking at what it means to make a choice. To make a choice is to decide that one option is more likely to get you what you want, right? Well, quite literally every choice you’ve ever made has landed on whatever you thought would get you what you wanted the most (though, you could be wrong about that). It is this way for every person. We’re powerless to do otherwise.

      • jatheist

        Thanks JT – you explained yourself perfectly and I have to say that your explanation makes a lot of sense!

      • MurOllavan

        The more I read this blog the more I like. I think people’s belief in total free will is a source of much misery in the world.

    • sqlrob

      Not trying to put words in JT’s mouth, but I don’t believe it exists either, and I’m fairly sure his views coincide with mine:

      The brain is a state machine, based on deterministic laws of macroscopic physics. You have inputs, you get outputs. How does free will fit into this model?

      Please note, deterministic is NOT the same thing as predictable. There are a huge number of inputs that include the past state of the system, all in non-linear relations. There’s no way, even theoretically, to predict the changes and keep track of them for any prolonged period.

      And even adding randomness to the equation (say quantum effects on neurons, noise, whatever) doesn’t effectively change this. It just perturbs the state and/or transition. How is this the same as free will?

  • eric

    I liked these bits the best:

    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

    To add – people from different religions claim to feel euphoria when they speak to different gods. So either all such gods exist, or feeling euphoria when praying isn’t very good evidence that the object of your prayer exists.

    If John doesn’t take a Hindu’s euphoria in praying to Vishnu as evidence of Vishnu, why should we take his euphoria as evidence for Yahweh?

    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.

    The fact that world is filled with people with functioning brains also implies one of two things: (1) the “lesson” you’re learning isn’t needed for salvation, since not everyone is subjected to it, or (2) God could have taught you the necessary parts of the lesson some other way, since he’s obviously teaching many of us the necessary parts of the lesson another way.

    You might call this the Paris Hilton refutation of the need for suffering. Think of the wealthiest, happiest, healthiest, least-suffering person you can. Ask a Christian if they can get to heaven if they have faith in Jesus, ask for forgiveness for their sins, etc… If the answer is “yes,” then any suffering more than that person gets is unnecessary. It must be, because someone who is not suffering any more than that can get to heaven.

    If I have to learn lessons to get to heaven, then I want to learn them the way the rich, healthy, never-suffered-a-day-in-their-life people learn them.

    • Ibis3, denizen of a spiteful ghetto

      Great argument, eric. I hadn’t heard the argumentum ad Paridem before.

  • Peter N

    Let’s not be put on the defensive about the question of having to “prove” whether love exists. Love is a thought, a brain state. Of course I feel love, but my love doesn’t have an existence outside of my idea of it. I can find love, have love, and lose love — possibly all on the same day! But that’s not at all like finding, having, and losing, say, a five-dollar bill.

    So it is with god! Insofar as god “exists”, it exists as a thought and a brain state. So, sure, god is as real as love. So?

    • sqlrob

      You can prove^wdemonstrate love exists – it impacts actions, so it can be observed.

      • Drakk

        As a sort of corollary, you can falsify its existence in certain cases. For example, I do not accept the idea that abusers “love” their victims, because their actions are inconsistent with those that should result from love.

  • Ibis3, denizen of a spiteful ghetto

    How exactly would a person distinguish between the feeling of “God”s presence”, the “presence” of Krishna or Isis, and the “presence” of an imaginary character made up in the person’s own mind? I would challenge John Henry to make up a character and cultivate a “relationship” with him or her (make it a her, just to make it interesting) over the course of a month or so. Is there any difference, really?

    As a writer, I have characters that are as real as can be for being products of my own imagination. I can even do thought experiments like “how would X resolve this problem?” “what advice do you have for me, Y?” I can deposit upon them affectionate feelings towards me if I need some support or “external” validation. I used to do similar things in a religious context with gods and goddesses (based on myth, but ultimately my own creation). At the time I saw it as a way of communicating with a panentheistic or pantheistic deity, but it was still deliberate and conscious make believe.

  • Matthew

    I find the friend example bizarre and amusing. If John Henry received an email from a “beautiful russian woman” seeking friendship would he (a) assume that she exists, (b) check to confirm her existence or (c) assume it is a scam? If (a) then I’ve heard there are some Nigerian civil servants that could use his help.

  • Anteprepro

    Excellent work. I am amazed at how many cogent arguments JT was able to write in response to the original. I thought that original said very little of substance that could possibly be responded to, so I am very impressed that JT was able to drag something of substance out of them in order to politely mangle it for his bloodthirsty audience. I can’t wait to see how this turns out. Hopefully Mr. Henry doesn’t get overwhelmed by the length of the reply.

    Anyway, PEDANTRY!

    Yet, despite false sensory input, you can still establish the truth.

    In the case of illusions like that, it is perception that is false. The sensory input it is just fine; our brains simply run into little problems when interpreting that input.