They're coming, and they're aggravating

The conversation with Leah Libresco may be two weeks away, but various religious types are finding their way to my inbox now.

Matt:

Can reason lead a person to a belief in god?

Curious as to what you think.

Me:

Yes, but only if their facts are bad.

Good reasoning combine with true facts cannot.

Good reasoning combined with wonky facts can lead to all manner of insanely wrong conclusions.  For instance, if you believe that perfectly faithful prayer can cure any ailment, it makes logical sense to pray for your child instead of taking them to the doctor.  This is why philosophy makes the distinction between sound and valid arguments.

Matt:

What would be the bad facts that could lead a person to a reasoned belief in god?

Me:

The bible is inerrant.

Matt:

OK.  JT I’m not trying to convert you at all, and I truly respect your position. I have more in common with a thinking atheist than a non-thinking theist. I’m a theist but my interest is more in the mechanics of the reasoning that takes people to one position or another.

Personally, it’s very hard for me to feel respect for people who arrive at a belief in god based on the bible as inerrant.  BTW, I don’t believe that that is the position of the R.C. church.

At the same time, it’s hard for me to understand the reasoning of the atheist who seems to discount the existence of god because it doesn’t stand up to scientific rigor.  There are two things I think that are wrong with this. First, I think that all of us would be hard pressed to list out all of the beliefs we have that we have subjected to scientific rigor. Second, there are things that are undeniably real (like love, ambition, sympathy) but do not stand up to scientific rigor. We live in a world appointed with these things (love, ambition, sympathy) and they would be real even if science did not exist to explain them.

I guess what I’m looking for is consistency in the argument for atheism.  There are many veins of it.

Atheism doesn’t stand up to scientific rigor?  What does that even mean?  Science has not found god (and it has looked for god constantly and for a very long time).  Quite literally everything science has explained has turned out to be the product of mindless forces acting upon inanimate objects.  All of it.  Everything.  This is quite literally all the evidence we could possibly have that a natural universe is all that exists.

And then we get the whole “love exists and is intangible” argument.  In this case he says love “doesn’t stand up to scientific rigor.”  This is, of course, horse shit.  Science does study love.

Conflating love with god also doesn’t work.  Love describes a state of the brain just like the words “sad,” “happy,” and “confused.”  How do we generally know when someone’s brain is in a particular state?  By clues in their behavior.  A sad person might cry, a happy person might smile, etc.  Those are words used to describe particular emotions that typically lead to certain behaviors.  Similarly, people who love something/someone will behave in certain ways which we can often detect (usually pretty easily).

The clues aren’t exactly hidden…

What “love” doesn’t describe is a tangible thing the way words like “tree” or “duck” or “god” do.  For external objects like those, they’re not just describing a state of the brain, they’re describing things that actually exist and are directly observable, not just detectable by the behavior of others.  So if you’re arguing that belief in god exists, even though it’s an intangible thing we can’t directly touch like love or sadness, I must agree that belief in god exists.  The evidence is just as good as the evidence for love.  We see evidence of belief in god in the (often ridiculous) behavior of others.

But if your argument is that a god exists, you can’t just say “states of the brain aren’t tangible, therefore this tangible being exists.”  That’s just plain stupid.

Me:

Wanna have this discussion publicly?

Matt:

Sure.  It might take a bit of time to get my parts in.  I have meetings most of the day, but I’ll be able to get them in, and I’ll be thoughtful about what I say.  I think that what I’m most interested in exploring is the thinking on both sides.  I’m not looking for a final position or conclusiveness.  Also, I might be a rare person in that I think that well thought out atheism is a perfectly legitimate position.  When you get to the outer edges of the debate, to the real “ultimate questions” on why one holds or does not hold a certain position, it can be fascinating stuff.

Ironically, in a way we have common cause.  I see you help younger atheists “come out,” as it were.  Nothing bothers me more than someone who takes a position like “I am an atheist” and can’t defend it.  Same thing for theists.  So it could be a very interesting discussion.

Me:

If you think atheism is a defensible position, why are you not an atheist?

Matt:

Well, for a few reasons. I think that any claim of truth — whether the truth be that there is no god or that god exists — should be based on evidence. And by saying this, I am not saying that the atheist does not have evidence, in a manner of speaking. But I don’t think that it’s a perfectly valid, unassailable thing to hold that there is no evidence of the existence of god, therefore god does not exist. I think that the largest problem atheists confront is that the logical framework in which they move is not as rock solid as some would like it to be, and in some ways it’s not substantially different (in its shortcomings) than the one in which theists move.

And when I say evidence, I don’t mean perfect evidence.  From a certain viewpoint, one can reasonably say that because I do not experience god the way I might experience an elephant or a car or a hamburger, god probably does not exist.  That’s not an unreasonable position.

At the same time, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for a theist to say (of revealed religion) that god exists because he has told us he exists.  I know that from your vantage point, that might seem extraordinary, but I don’t know that it’s extraordinary.  It’s extraordinary if your premises is that god does not exist, but it need not be so.

The hell?

Of course atheism is not “unassailable.”  Why would we want it to be?  If the proposition of atheism is untrue, we want to change our minds.  Anybody who is saying atheism is unassailable is lying or really missing something.  The problem is that we never get a sensible argument for god’s existence.

I don’t think that it’s a perfectly valid, unassailable thing to hold that there is no evidence of the existence of god, therefore god does not exist.

Why not?  If something doesn’t exist, what more evidence could we have than the complete lack of evidence that it exists?  Does this mean we’ll never find it someday?  No.  Does the lack of any evidence mean you’d have to be an absolute fool to believe in it now?  Yes.

Seriously, if belief in something is justified just because we haven’t scoured this universe to its very edge to look for places where that thing might be, then there’s all kinds of crazy shit we should believe.  Leprechauns?  Maybe we haven’t looked at the end of all the right rainbows.  Absence of evidence is predictive of something’s non-existence, especially in the case of god where there should be all kinds of places we should’ve found proof of his existence (scientifically and otherwise), and haven’t.

At the same time, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for a theist to say (of revealed religion) that god exists because he has told us he exists.

God hasn’t told anyone he exists!

We have books written by human beings who claim god told them.  These are the words of people, not god.

At the very best, virtually all of them must be lying, deluded, or crazy because their claims of god are incompatible.  Just like if one says god told them he was a square and god told another he was a circle, they can’t both be right.  Similarly, if one says Jesus is the only god and another says there are multiple gods or that Allah is the only god, they cannot both be right.  But they can both be wrong, and since most of them must be wrong, why not all of them?  Given that most of their claims about communicating with god look precisely like human beings making shit up (god made us with a foreskin and then commanded us to cut it off, seriously?), and given that the starting probability of a random person claiming god speaks to him/her is full of shit is much higher than the starting probability that they’re telling the truth (because remember, most of these claims must be false), it’s perfectly reasonable that god hasn’t spoken to any of them.  All we see are people manipulating other people or jumping to hasty conclusions and conflating their feelings with hearing god’s voice.

Consider all the people to whom god hasn’t spoken.  Unless you really believe in Zeus, Poseidon, and the litany of gods we all now believe are the exclusive province of myth, then god didn’t speak to the followers of every other deity throughout history.  The people who heard the voices of those gods were either mistaken, deluded, or outright crazy, because they can’t have been right.  The people that recorded the commands of those gods for other humans to read were either lying, deluded, or straight up intentionally pulling a bunch of nonsense out of thin air.  People do this, and other people believe it.  They have throughout history.

God also doesn’t speak to every Muslim that lives today or to every Muslim that has lived since the 7th century.  Many of the claims in their book conflict with what we know about the world.  Whatever those people were hearing (and telling us they heard), it wasn’t god.  They were either mistaken, deluded, or outright crazy – every last one of them without exception.  God didn’t speak to the pious men who believed in Jesus as well; men who were certain god commanded them to start and maintain the fires of the Inquisition.

Imagine how this scenario must look from within a religion such as Christianity.  For the Christian, god did not speak to Andrea Yates, the Christian woman who drowned her children because god told her to.  God spoke to Abraham and commanded him to murder his son, but not to Andrea.  And what Christian believes Daphne Spurlock, the deeply Christian woman who slit her son’s throat at the behest of god’s voice?  So while god truly spoke to Jephthah, binding him to immolate his daughter, Daphne was just hearing voices.  God also didn’t speak to the Neumanns, who watched their daughter die of a treatable illness rather than test god’s benevolence by taking her to the doctor.  Truly, like literally every other follower of every other religions, even Christians can make the mistake of thinking they’re really hearing god’s voice.

So, to whom does god really speak?  Well, god speaks to whatever believer is presently making that claim, that’s who.  So many fakers, so many people fallaciously thinking they communicate with god, but this one, individual believer?  They’re the real deal.  They see almost everybody insisting they had the ear of god being sincerely mistaken, and haven’t thought for even a second that they might be in the same boat.  To someone like me, this strange, lone exception would seem quite extraordinary.  But not to Matt, who seems to be resting his case upon such a claim not being extraordinary.

It’s a pity god only seems to convey his will to these people, but never a good reason for anybody else to believe this person isn’t just like every other believer: either deluded, lying, or crazy.

Here’s the deal: I shouldn’t have to explain why the idea of god speaking to someone is extraordinary.  There are plenty of complex concepts in the debate of god’s existence.  This isn’t one of them.  To waltz into my inbox and say, “I know that from your vantage point, [god speaking to someone] might seem extraordinary, but I don’t know that it’s extraordinary.  It’s extraordinary if your premises is that god does not exist, but it need not be so” tells me you didn’t do a whole lot of thinking before you decided to occupy my time.

Even if you believe in god, the claim is extraordinary because of all the people making it who must be full of shit.  Consider the Christian who says god speaks to them, but not to all those other Christians who say god has told them differently, all of which who believe differently than the bible at least in part.  Does god really speak to humankind not through almost every Christian on the planet, but instead through Moses, through Abraham, through Jephthah, through only particular filicidal people millennia ago, through Jesus…and through whatever Christian you are speaking to at the time?  Fuck.  No.

If god wants me to receive a message, and if he has a fraction of the sense it would take to construct a universe, he would fucking tell me, not some other yahoo who looks no different than every dishonest or deluded person in the pantheon of humanity.

If god gave the first shit about anybody believing in him, he’d make his existence as palpable as trees or ducks, since that question would necessarily be more important.  He hasn’t done that.  He hasn’t spoken to anyone and it’s high time we stopped treating people as though he has.


Dad and I were chatting about this post and I want to include what dad said.

Like most all of them, when we say “Show us the evidence”, he says, “You really shouldn’t ask for evidence”  wtf???  It’s what he said. ‘You can’t really hold god to physical evidence”….why the fuck not?  God or Christianity is a hypothesis about how this world works. Nothing more, nothing less…and it gets held to the same standard of evidence as every other hypothesis about how this world works. No special pleading, no privileged position.  Just put up or shut up.

Bingo.  Sadly, most of the people crawling into my inbox suck equally at both putting up and shutting up.

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.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X