Tonight I’ll be giving my talk Dear Christian at Grand Valley State University. I first wrote the talk for Skepticon III and ages ago I posted the transcript at Atheism Resource. Here is the transcript from the talk in full.
We have had several talks over the years and in every one of them I ask you why I should believe the things you believe. These often seem to go the same way, and so I think we need to have a little chat so that we can move forward.
First we need to cover the issue of respect, since when I explain why the reasons you give are unconvincing, you frequently insist that I respect you in response. This has always puzzled me. If an atheist believes in something for bad reasons, I immediately consider them to be gullible, since that is exactly what gullible people do. If the gullible atheist is someone I respect, I immediately apprise them to why I think their reasons are inadequate. If they are a respectable person, then they do not need me to placate them, catering to potential hurt feelings and allowing them to march into tomorrow with inaccurate beliefs. That would be the very definition of disrespect and, barring any other relevant information about you, I clearly respect you just as much as I respect atheists, or any human being for that matter. Because I respect you, I will not coddle you. It is well-meaning people that should be respected, not ideas. And frankly, respecting bad ideas is far too close to affirming them for my tastes.
Faith’s non-reliance on reason is part of the reason our conversations seldom go anywhere, but there are others. For starters, you often do not answer the questions I have asked. When I ask you why you believe the things you believe you often proceed to tell me what you believe.
Why do you believe in god?
Well, we believe that mankind is born in sin…
What you believe does not concern me so much as why you believe it (which is presumably why I should believe). That is why I asked that question.
You will also argue for something’s possibility, asking me “Isn’t it possible that a god created everything?” Often you will cite that I don’t know everything, so isn’t it at least possible? Sure. But let’s not confuse possibility with plausibility.
Virtually all ideas are distantly possible – gods who drowned the Earth and left no evidence, unicorns are possible too – maybe we haven’t looked in the right forests, maybe leprechauns hiding on Mars or there might be microscopic smurfs hiding under your seats – but conceding their possibility is not the same as conceding that they are remotely likely or that anybody has any evidence for any of it, and you’re still gullible if you believe things without evidence, even if I admit there’s a non-zero possibility that it’s true. Outside of religion, who but an absolute imbecile believes something simply because it’s possible rather than because it is the best supported explanation?
Read the Bible!
When speaking to church-goers I am always sure to ask one very specific question: why should I believe the things you believe? Most frequently I am then told to read the bible. I am told that it is an amazing book that pulls you in and contains wisdom that contributes to humanity’s collective understanding to this very day.
I can only respond that I have read the bible – more than once. I stopped being a Christian because I read the bible.
But I am not an isolated case! The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a survey not even two months ago which indicated that atheists, on the whole, generally are more informed about the tenets of the various religions than religious people.
The survey revealed some interesting things…
Forty-five percent of Roman Catholics who participated in the study didn’t know that, according to church teaching, the bread and wine used in Holy Communion is not just a symbol, but becomes literally the body and blood of Christ. (But I’ll bet that PZ Myers sure-as-hell knows that)
More than half of Protestants could not identify Martin Luther as the person who inspired the Protestant Reformation.
More atheists were aware of these things. We’ve read the book.
But how many of you have read the book? According to Bill Keller Ministries, a Christian group, statistical research shows that less than 10% of Christians have read the bible. Ironically, a survey conducted by Knowledge Network at the behest of Christianity Today found that 74% of professing Christians believe the bible to be the authoritative guide to faith. If only there were a commandment forbidding people from pretending to know things they didn’t. Not that you would have read it.
Perhaps this biblical illiteracy is understandable. The bible is a hulking read at about 1,200 pages long after all. However, I can’t help but wonder how many Christians have read at least two Harry Potter books, which should say something about god’s abilities as a communicator.
I also wonder just how it is you determine that the witches in Harry Potter are obviously fiction, while the witches in Leviticus were real.
Science and the Bible
You will often tell me how science and the bible are compatible. It seems clear to me that the science of biology has quite a bit to say about people rising from the dead or being born of virgins; I think physics may have a bone to pick with someone walking on water; I think chemists may shit a brick at the notion that a human body could be converted to a pillar of salt; and I think astronomers may just have a problem with the Earth’s rotation coming to a halt as it does in Joshua 10. These things are called miracles because they violate science – and the bible is chock full of them.
If you still think science and the bible are compatible, let’s look at what would happen if the Earth stopped spinning. For this to happen would violate the conservation of angular momentum. As the Earth spins, it has kinetic energy that must be altered in some way in order to stop the rotation – this variable would have had to come from somewhere, and good luck in peer review saying it was magic.
Even if a mechanism existed to stop the Earth’s rotation, the atmosphere would continue to rotate at a speed of 1,100 mph, which is enough to produce sufficient force to rip even buildings and trees into the atmosphere if the Earth’s rotation were to cease. Were this to happen, no human being would live including Joshua and the Israelites.
Likewise, the water in the oceans would continue to rotate at those speeds, even if the planet itself stopped. For this to be avoided would require a violation of the law of inertia. It would also result in largely catastrophic events that would leave a wellspring of evidence. We have found none.
In response you will often say absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. If something didn’t happen, what more evidence could we possibly have than the lack of any evidence?
For the cherry on top, the book of Joshua also says that the moon’s motion was halted. If this happened, the moon would crash into the Earth.
Take a moment and compare the likelihood that the Earth stopped spinning against the fact that it’s easy to make shit up.
Deference to Experts
So you cannot believe the bible gives an accurate account of these things while simultaneously believing that science is consistent. Forgetting the examples I previously mentioned, you will frequently counter the bible’s contempt for science by setting up a binary situation, usually by asking a question like “If there’s no god, then how do you explain the origin of life?”
Simple: A self-replicating molecule formed when a series of fatty acids congealed into vesicles which, made permeable by convection cycles in a prebiotic Earth, trapped nucleotide monomers which self-ligated via hydrogen bonds and covalent bond ligation, polymerizing within the vesicle to form a primitive cell after which the surrounding ions increased the osmotic pressure allowing the cell to acquire lipids from other vesicles, which catalyzed competition and, thus, evolution. See? Simple.
It’s entirely possible that that explanation registers as little more than word soup. There was a time when I didn’t understand it myself. I fixed that by making an appointment with biologists (who then sent me over to chemists) at my university and asked them to explain it. What I did not do is walk up to any layman on the street and ask them to explain it to me. That you elect to do the latter is suspicious, and leads me to believe you’re not really looking for an answer. It doesn’t matter if the layman has no clue whatsoever how life began – that is not evidence that a god exists. Just because someone doesn’t know how life began does not mean that you do. “I don’t know” is a perfectly viable answer.
Even you, dear Christian, have no issue deferring to scientists on a host of things you don’t understand. You will eat our abundant food, drink our clean water, fly on airplanes, and communicate by phone, almost universally with no idea how science has given us those things. But when it comes to evolution or abiogenesis, all of a sudden suspicion seems so sneak in. Why? Do you think this is the greatest coup in the history of the planet? That scientists have laid low for the last thousand years unveiling the mysteries of the world and rapidly improving our quality of life to gain our trust so that only now they can deceive us into thinking there are natural explanations (and thus, more probable explanations) for the diversity of life?
There ARE Religious Scientists!
But wait, you will often say. There are religious scientists out there. Yes, there are, though the percentage of them that are religious is significantly lower, such as with the National Academy of Science where only 7% believe in god. But for those scientists who do believe in a god, they do not believe in god for scientific reasons – otherwise they would be publishing papers in peer-review and engaging in scientific research into the matter.
But wait, you will often say again. There are scientists with groups like the Discovery Institute doing such work. Then why is their work not represented in the scientific literature, if not for science spending the last thousand years setting up a dastardly conspiracy? Here, let me explain how academics, including academic science, works…
The Poincaré conjecture is a century-old math problem. It is one of seven Millennium Prize Problems for which one of the world’s most prestigious mathematics organizations has offered a $1,000,000 prize to anybody who can solve one of them. It is also the only one that has ever been solved. It was solved in 2006 by a Russian mathematician named Grigori Perelman. The journal Science called it the scientific breakthrough of the year. This was the first time the honor had been bestowed in the area of mathematics. So complicated was the problem that it took a team of world-class mathematicians four years to confirm Grigori’s proof as correct. When they attempted to award him the prize money, Perelman refused. Repeated attempts were made to get Perelman to accept the prize, and each time he rejected it. For his accomplishment he would later win the Fields Medal, which is often referred to as the Nobel Prize of mathematics. Again, Perelman declined.
So here we have a man who is not asking for accolades for his work (in fact, he’s flat out refusing them), and yet the academic and scientific community is trying repeatedly to award him his just due. On the other hand we have the Discovery Institute incessantly whining that they are not being given the proper accolades, and scientists are just brushing them off. Why do you think this is?
The dichotomy between academia and the way creationists work is even more pronounced than that. When Perelman came up with his answer, do you think he wrote a book attempting to convince plumbers, secretaries, restaurant managers, and all other manner of laymen that he was correct? Do you think he launched a political campaign to try and get his work into the public school curriculum? Or do you think he did the responsible thing and went first to professional mathematicians to make sure that his work was sound, laying it before the judgment of people who have spent their lives studying mathematics?
Science Can’t Go After the Supernatural
So it makes no sense to think that science is anti-god, but maybe science is incomplete. Next comes the claim that science is biased – it can only go after the natural, but it cannot go after the supernatural. Neither can you, because human beings can only go after the natural. The second you experience a sensation, whether it’s visual, auditory, emotional, whatever, that sensation is natural. Sure you may feel that god exists, but that feeling is produced by a litany of chemicals in the brain, and the catalyst for their release may or may not be god. Either way, you are naturally feeling them.
If god exists, he made us that way. It is a strange god indeed who would create us with only eyes, ears, taste, nothing but receptors to the natural world, and then cover all natural evidence of his existence. If such a god exists, the only reasonable conclusion is that he does not want any of us to believe in him.
We Do not Choose Our Beliefs
This is especially true because of the way he made our brains. So often, dear Christian, you talk about how we must choose to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. I counter that this is asking the impossible. Why? Simple. We do not choose our beliefs.
You may test this by climbing to the top of a tall building and then attempting, through force of will, to convince yourself that gravity doesn’t work (or that it’s just a theory). Or try choosing to believe that you open doors by doing a jig, rather than by turning the handle, and try to leave your house in the morning.
God made our brains this way. I’m not an atheist because I’ve chosen to be one. I’m an atheist because no religious person, to my satisfaction, has given me a legitimate reason to believe that they rightly possess knowledge of god’s existence and I am therefore powerless to believe otherwise. I contest that only a malicious god would make belief in the absurd the only means to escape eternal torment after making me with a brain incapable of doing so.
Your salvation can only be that you think you have a good reason to believe in god. And so we trudge forward…
Argument from Design
But god, you’ll tell me, is self-evident. Just look at that tree, that building. They’re so complex! Mustn’t they have had a designer?
Lots of complex things are produced all the time in our universe by natural, mindless forces acting upon inanimate objects. Snowflakes, for instance, are always unique and they are highly ordered. Yet we do not need to invent a snowflake-making god, since we are fully aware of the processes that crystalize water in that fashion. The same can be said for exceedingly complex things like stars, which are formed when a large hydrogen cloud collapses into itself in a process called the Jeans instability. We do not need a god to explain the stars, and we especially don’t need a god who created the stars in the same day when stars are still being made throughout even our own galaxy.
Our personal complexity is explained perfectly soundly by evolution – unless the same science that gave us laptops and projectors is really out to get us.
Science is not Faith
But don’t I need faith to believe that science works?
Let’s get one thing straight: the universe operates on a set of rules, and this is the only assumption science makes. This is how we’ve been able to throw things to the edge of our solar system with uncanny accuracy and invent light bulbs, by counting on the consistency of the universe. And it works.
You already accept the universe is consistent. If you put your finger on a hot stove and burn yourself, then you pass the same stove a week later, you’re probably not going to put your finger on it again. Such inductive rules could not be formed without consistency. This is why you’d be shocked as hell if an animal spoke to you, but less shocked after it had happened twenty times.
And for all of us the assumption of consistency is confirmed every single day. At that point it really stops being a terribly problematic assumption. Our problem is that you use consistency to get about your daily lives, but then want to tell me that a Canaanite Jew rose from the dead.
Faith is NOT a Good Thing
While we’re on the subject of faith…
You’d think that the scientific discrepancies with the bible would be enough to confirm the bible, and thus the religion based upon it, as fiction – but you, dear Christian, always have a trump card. That trump card is faith, which you will no doubt hide behind once all other arguments are exhausted. When you do, I always ask you to distinguish faith from gullibility for me. After all, the word “gullible” was invented for people who believe things without adequate reasons. So why is belief for the sake of belief suddenly a virtue, rather than a point of embarrassment when it is applied to god?
Reasons allow us to elevate one truth claim over another in terms of their credibility. It’s the reason we think the Earth is round, rather than flat, for instance. But faith doesn’t seem to do this. I cannot help but think that you surely realize this, and that you see the hollowness of faith in the hands of non-Christians. A Muslim believing because faith is insufficient to convince the Christian, for instance. In the hands of religions incompatible with your Christianity, faith is merely the means by which people maintain a series of errors, errors that could cost them eternal paradise (and then some) – not a virtue at all.
At its very best faith, it seems, is an immeasurably poor means to separate one idea from another in terms of credibility. In fact I can only wonder if there is any idea so at odds with reality, so positively lunatic, that faith cannot be used in its defense. It seems to me there is not, which reduces faith in my eyes to nothing more than gullibility pursued, and that is something no respectable person should be proud of. If you are honest with yourself, can you really expect me to think you are justified in believing impossible things merely because you have faith?
Faith and Morality
So why have I elected to be so vocal about your religion? Because Christians are good people with good intentions. Sadly, good intentions are not enough. Almost all of us have good intentions and are trying our very best to be moral. The problem is that what is moral changes based upon what is true. I’ll give you an example.
Imagine for a moment you are the mayor of a city and one day a man bursts into your office screaming that an Earthquake of sufficient magnitude to level the city will strike tomorrow and that everybody needs to be evacuated. However, upon talking to the man you remain unconvinced. In this situation both parties agree that if such an Earthquake is imminent that leaving its inhabitants to die would be immoral. You simply disagree on the reality of the Earthquake.
And so it is with religion. If what an individual says about god is true, then I’d wager most of his moral judgments logically follow. The nub, what changes everything, is whether or not that god exists.
This is how Christianity and the bible are used by perfectly well-intentioned to engage in actions that are counter-productive to societal well-being. Can there be any doubt that Christians who engage in this behavior do so because they are well-intentioned people who simply believe god commands it?
That’s not MY Religion
At this point, many more moderate believers will respond that the Christians I’m speaking of are not true Christians and will assure me that god commands something else. I will counter that I don’t believe it is enough for you, dear Christian moderate, to simply assert that your theology is different. The villains of faith are trying to act in accordance with god’s will, as are you. You just believe god wishes something different. But both your reasons for believing you are privy to the will of a Creator equally suck, and I cannot criticize unreason on the one hand while giving it a free pass on the other just because it happens to line up with reasonable conclusions sometimes. Faith is the corrupting factor in our religious enemies, and I cannot allow you to keep it alive because you have survived its application. As Sam Harris concisely put it; we do not need bad reasons to be good, and I will not disrespect you enough to treat you like you do.
Bad ideas survive because of bad reasoning. It makes no sense then to advance the apotheosis of bad reasoning as the best (or even as a good) antidote for them. If we do, then what you deem as ‘good’ is very much the enemy of our effort to be better.
It has not been faith that has cured illnesses over the year, but medicine. If god exists, he created a world in which finding enough food was a day-to-day challenge. Through the application of reason, we have conquered that hurdle. If god exists then when he created the world he constructed tropical storms, presumably in such a way that they do not give warning of their approach. But with our minds alone we have robbed hurricanes of the element of surprise. Throughout human history we have faced a plethora of challenges, all of which we have conquered by keeping reasonable ideas and by rejecting unreasonable ideas, based entirely upon the consistency of the universe – because it works. It works so well that our lives are a veritable Utopia compared to those of generations before us. Reason is clearly mankind’s salvation, not faith. Not Jesus.
Even if I lament that irrationality barricades itself within good-natured people, I see what irrationality can do to their good intentions. I see how often believing inaccurate things takes someone’s good intentions and twists them into evil in both religious and non-religious people. The problem, the enemy, is not human nature (as many Christians would have us believe), but irrationality, and nothing canonizes irrationality as a virtue like faith. Because of this I must continue to fight faith with all of the facts at my disposal. Because of that, dear Christian, I must continue to assault your cherished beliefs. How can you blame me?
It is not because I hate you, but because it would be immoral not to, and I don’t wish to live as an immoral person.