Friday, December 28, 2007

Religion is a Mind Virus

Suppose that through some series of quirks and kludgey combinations of features, evolution left the human organism with a set of cognitive flaws that some religious ideas exploit. Suppose that evolution left us with predispositions towards spiritual/supernatural explanations for phenomena where the natural cause isn’t immediately obvious. Imagine that it gave us a powerful set of tools for problem solving in many practical circumstances—gathering food, evading threats, finding and building shelter. But the limited scope of those tools makes it very hard for us to ponder very large systems of causes and effects, or think in terms of processes that endure for millions of years. Maybe that feeling that lots of people get when they try to imagine events receding back into history forever is a by-product of this aspect of the way our minds developed. It just seems so wrong, so counter-intuitive to so many people that there could be no first cause. It just doesn’t feel right that the world could be just physical matter with no higher being.

We have other neurological glitches that could give us some insight here. Claustrophobia affects a significant portion of the population. It could be part of the outcome of our evolution. Lots of people have an obsessive/compulsive disorder—no matter how many times they wash their hands, it still doesn’t feel like they are clean. Or they keep checking and rechecking all the locks on all the doors before they can leave the house. Something keeps nagging at the backs of their minds, no matter how carefully they try to reason through it.

So let’s entertain the hypothetical that part of the legacy that evolution left us with is a strong disposition towards religiousness. It feels like there’s a presence there listening to our innermost thoughts. It seems like some greater power is watching over us. No matter what the empirical evidence is right in front of us, we just can’t shake the feeling that there’s got to be a God up there.

One would expect, in general, that if an evolutionary process produces social creatures with sophisticated cognitive and communication skills, then a culture will spring up around them. And as that culture varies over time and different ideas, institutions, and concepts are explored, the aspects of culture that fit well with the creatures’ cognitive abilities and impairments will stick. Some ideas or patterns of information will get traction in the minds of those beings and spread through time and space. (Bans on birth control, evangelism, and pressure for large families are great ways for a set of religious ideas like Catholicism or Mormonism to rapidly spread across a population. For a very sharp blog entry about religious memes see: ) We might expect that something like religion would develop. No matter how we are cognitively configured, with enough time and enough variations on theme, human social institutions will probably stumble upon some ideas, themes, or patterns of information that will exploit whatever flaws or weaknesses there are in the human mind. It would not be surprising to find a secondary evolution of culture that produces institutions and ideas that have a powerful and deep hold on the hearts and minds of the creatures. Gambling seems to work kind of like this. The Gambler’s Fallacy is such a powerful and seductive idea that lots of people just can’t be talked out of it.

Now if religious ideas functioned like a mind virus, and you were fortunate enough to be in an era of history where we had begun to figure out what’s really going on with belief in God, how would you want to react? How would you want to spend your 74.5 years of life in the evolutionary saga? What relationship would you want to have to this set of parasitic ideas? Would you be happy to subjugate yourself to them as billions of other humans have done? Would you be content to let so many people around you continued to be hijacked? Even if this set of ideas were symbiotic in many ways and provided some emotional, psychological, or social benefits while being propagated to each new generation of humans, would you want to sustain them in your head, or would you want them out now that you know their origin?

Now we’re really turning the believer’s classic picture of the world on its head. We’re trying to propagate the atheism meme so its spreads through the population to supplant the religious ones. They say that you’re corrupted by sin when doubts about God creep in and threaten to destroy your faith. The priests, rabbis, preachers, and evangelical believers want you to surround yourself with believers, to only read their religious texts, and to purge all non-religious thoughts and activities from your life. That’s all necessary to optimize the growing conditions for the parasite in the Petri dish of your mind. If it’s dark, ignorant, intolerant, and fearful in there, it’ll take over and infect your children, your neighbors, and your politicians (shit, it’s too late already!) But it’s not really your corrupt nature and sin that’s keeping you from unity with God, it’s seductive religious ideas that have been selected through cultural evolution for maximal effectiveness, or rather, maximal infectiousness. The religious ideas would co-opt your ability to employ your powers of reason, they encourage you to doubt your own abilities. They have wound their way so deeply into the minds of its hosts, they can no longer even imagine life without believing. Imagine that those billions of years of evolution produced this human organism with so much potential to do so many remarkable things, but the vulnerability of their minds to religious infections derailed them and took over the whole race. The real sin would be to recognize what’s going on and to not say anything. The best thing you could do for humanity would be to try to reason them back to intellectual liberation.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

A 300 Year Gap

Consider some conclusions that have been arrived at by New Testament scholars:

Among the people who believe that Jesus existed, the consensus is that he was executed around 35 CE.

Mark, the Gospel that is now identified as the earliest, is thought to have been written about 30 years later in 65 CE, by Mark the Evangelist (not the apostle, not an eyewitness), based upon reports that he heard from others. We do not know how many people and how many retellings of the story separated Mark from any eyewitnesses there might have been to the events.

The oldest existing copies of Mark that we possess today are from 320 CE and 370 CE.

So between the time of the alleged events surrounding Jesus’ death and the actual copies of reports of those events that we possess, 300 years passed.

We do not know how many people, or how many tellings and retellings, writings or rewritings of the story occurred between the events in the 30s and the copies from 320 CE and 370 CE. There could have been hundreds of people and hundreds of iterations of the story that transpired in that period.

Now consider some important questions that rarely get asked:

Were the people surrounding Jesus impartial, objective observers?

Were they well-equipped with the tools and cognitive abilities to detect fraud or identify self-deception?

Did they understand the value of having careful investigations into paranormal claims?

Did they understand how frequently people giving eyewitness testimony, particularly about matters that they are passionately and personally involved in, unconsciously distort evidence, sift for confirmation, and ignore counter-evidence?

Would they have been prepared to admit it if they had come to think that they were mistaken? (Would you?)

Suppose that the Jesus stories were known to be false by someone who had figured out what was really going on. Would that evidence of their falsity have survived centuries of active culling, adjusting, and protecting of the Jesus stories by faithful adherents?

Do we have reasons to think that every single person involved in the telling and retelling of the story on its path from the events in 35 CE to their eventual recording in the manuscripts from 320 and 370 CE had the goal of preserving all the important details about those events, even the ones that, had they been present, would have suggested that the miracles were not authentic?

Would the dedicated Christians who transmitted the stories about Jesus down through the centuries have the goal of preserving all of the information about him, including evidence that would have undermined the authenticity of Christianity?

Pretty clearly the answer to all of these questions is no. And if that is right, then these questions show that it is unreasonable to believe that Jesus was a supernatural, divine being because our evidence concerning him is too weak or corrupted.

The Hidden Costs of Religious Belief

The prospects for successfully arguing that religious belief is worse for us on the whole than not believing are dim. We just won’t be able to get any clear, total picture of the positives and negatives associated with it, and even if we could, the question of associated benefit and harm is separate from the question of truth.

But our general affection for religion and the powerful, irrational urge we have to be religious often make it hard to us to see some really obvious downsides. Consider all the personal pain and ruined personal relationships that disagreements over religion have caused.

How much strife has there been between parents and children, friends, and family over differences of religious opinion? The amount is staggering. How many times has a father or a grandmother disapproved of a son or a granddaughter’s lack of religious piety? How many times have a son’s parents disapproved of his choice in a girlfriend because she is not of the right religion? How many love relationships have been ruined by the tension? How many marriages have been ruined by religious differences? How many children have suffered by being torn between parents bickering over whether or not to go to church, or which church to go to, or what they think about God? How many times has a son or daughter been heartbroken, lonely, or rejected because mom or dad disapproves of them on some religious grounds?

I suspect that there is hardly a single family in the United States where there have not been fights or emotional strain to some degree over religion. In lots of cases, family members get estranged and don’t speak for the rest of their lives. Relationships that are vital for human flourishing get completely destroyed over petty, pointless disagreements that are based on complete fictions. A person ends up being cut off and even despised by the people that they need and love the most over ideas that have no basis in reality.

Over the course of centuries, the amount of this kind of absurd suffering adds up to unimaginable levels. But since these sorts of harms are not the kind that will end up on the news, or get talked about openly, they remain hidden from view. The obvious question in all of these cases is, which is more important in the big picture—your relationship with your son, daughter, mother, or father? Or your adherence to a religious idea? Your marriage? Or a religious principle? The person you love? Or a religious impulse? The extended family relationships that a human needs to be happy? Or a religious idea?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

4 Important Modern Atheists Discuss Their Work

In recent years, no authors have given more influential arguments for nonbelief than Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris. A recent meeting of the four great minds was recorded and will be available soon on

The discussion can be watched online here:

Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris Discuss Nonbelief and Reactions to their Work

Here are some choice quotes from the discussion:

"Religions have contrived to make it impossible to disagree with them critically without being rude. They play the hurt feelings card at every opportunity and you are faced with the choice of articulating the criticism or buttoning your lip.” Daniel Dennett

"If you play the faith card and say that you’re a Christian and you therefore have to believe, at that point we must say, then you have to excuse yourself from the discussion because you have declared yourself incompetent to proceed with an open mind. If you really can’t defend your view [with reasons] then you can’t put it forward. You can’t defend what your holy book says as true, you can’t do it by acknowledging that all you have is faith. Daniel Dennett

"A creative intelligence who is sufficiently intelligent to create all of the finely tuned constants of the universe to give rise to us has got to be a lot more fine tuned itself. And some explanation would need to be given of it." Richard Dawkins

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Begging the Question: Miracles and Nature

There are a great many people who want to give God credit for the order, beauty, and balance of nature. Recent versions of the design argument and so-called fine tuning arguments, for instance, present the claim that were it not for the actions of God, we would not find a universe full of matter that abides by a set of physical laws. And if it were not for God, we would not expect to find the universe so finely tuned to be hospitable to life. But we do find a lawful universe that is hospitable to life, so there must be a God.

Now consider the wide array of arguments that would have us believe in the existence of God on the basis of miracles. In the past, there occurred events that were bona fide violations of the laws of nature: Jesus walked on water, Jesus was resurrected from the dead, the sick were healed, the hungry were fed. And it is on the basis of reports of these events that millions if not billions of people have come to believe that Jesus was really the son of God and that God exists. After all, only God could have been responsible for such acts.

But there’s a real problem here with these two approaches to believing in God. You can’t have it both ways. It is a manifest incompatibility to argue for God’s existence based on the orderliness, lawfulness, and regularity of matter on the one hand, and also argue that God’s existence is proven by miracles. In design and fine tuning arguments, God gets credit for all the daily non-miraculous occurrences in nature. The fact that there are regular laws of nature that perfectly predict the behavior of matter is taken to show that God exerts his power against the intrinsic lawlessness of the world (see if you can make sense of that notion on its own). The uniformity of physics is contrasted to the way that things could be or would be on their own: unlawful. But when miracles are employed to prove the existence of God, then an unlawful event is taken to show God’s existence in contrast to the way that things would have otherwise been without God’s intervention: lawful.

So it would appear that no matter what happens, miracle or not, God will be credited. But this kind of double-dealing makes a sham of the pretense at proving God’s existence from any independent grounds. The circularity of this brand of theism is painfully clear. It would seem that God’s existence is indefeasible. You can’t only allow the evidence to support your conclusion without allowing for the possibility that the evidence could disprove it. Otherwise, we can’t make any sense of what it is for evidence to support. The conclusion—God exists—is inescapable because it’s already been decided before the evidence was ever consulted. When all possible evidence is claimed in its favor, then the evidence isn’t really playing any role in the argument. When nature is orderly, that can only be because of God’s power. And when nature is violated, that can also only be because of God’s power. But if no possible states of affairs can fail to support the conclusion, then they weren’t really giving us independent grounds at all. Ordinarily, if we think that the evidence supports a conclusion, then we think that if that evidence had not been the case, then the conclusion wouldn’t have followed. If the defendant hadn’t been recorded by the security camera shooting the clerk in the gas station, and if he hadn’t been seen by a dozen witnesses who identified him leaving the scene, then we wouldn’t have as strong a case for his guilt.

So the believer is cheating when they maintains that a) the orderliness of nature couldn’t have come about by chance, only God could have done it, and b) there really have been miracles, therefore God exists. Both of these arguments are only a pretense at being reasonable when in fact there are no occurrences that they wouldn’t take to prove God. That’s not proving anything, that’s just finding the conclusion that you planted there in the first place. The evidence never mattered to them at all.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Top Ten Suggestions For Performing Better Miracles:

If God was interested in proving something with miracles here are 10 things he needs to do better:

1) The claim that a violation of the laws of nature has occurred should not be evaluated or investigated by committed, zealous believers. Humans have an uncanny knack for finding what they are looking for. The virtue of double blind testing procedures in science is that they help us prevent undue influence by wishful thinking, conflicts of interest, hedging, confirmation bias, and sloppy thinking. Many people claim that there are miracles happening on a regular basis now. It would be a relatively easy matter to have an independent panel of objective evaluators, doctors in the case of a healing miracle, examine just the evidence before and after an alleged healing without any leading or suggestive information about what they are looking for. Just show them the X rays, or the diagnoses, or the CAT scans before and after someone is alleged to have been healed of a brain tumor, for example.

2) In general, small samples of information are less trustworthy. The more evidence that can be gathered the better. If a miracle were to occur, all other things being equal, we would have better evidence if there are more people who attest to it. A few emotional believers with a great deal of investment in the cause of the miracle claim are not as reliable (or not reliable at all) as a large group of diverse, autonomous people. If God has the goal of proving his existence through miracles, he’d need to make them evident to a great many, well-educated, skeptical minded people who do not already believe.

3) The larger scale a miracle is, the greater the possibility that it can be corroborated, confirmed, cross-checked, and witnessed. A small miracle—a spiritual leader making a golden ring appear in his palm (which is an old magician’s trick)—is going to be more difficult to confirm, more likely to be faked, and less indicative of some real violation of the laws of nature than a large one. With small miracles, the rest of us are morely likely to get hearsay, anecdotal evidence, conflicting stories, and poor transmission of the information. A miracle that appears to everyone could be vastly more effective. And surely an omnipotent God, or even just a very powerful God would be up to the bigger task.

4) The power of suggestion, social pressure, and peer expectation can be very influential in getting people to believe that something special or extraordinary has happened. Countless psychological studies have shown that it takes very little prompting and only slight suggestions to get people to fabricate stories, deny what they have seen with their own eyes, and come to genuinely believe something a mistake. Any miracle claim is going to be up against this psychological background that will create challenges to its authenticity.

5) Stage magicians have devised ways, through entirely natural means of trickery, to perform feats that are stunning for what they appear to be. They make large objects like cars disappear and reappear. They make people disappear and reappear. They appear to be able to levitate, walk on water, and transport from one location to another instantly. The ability of con artists and performers to do these tricks casts substantial doubts on any alleged miracle that resembles them. Wouldn’t it be perverse of God to bring about a real miracle, but it was the sort of thing that is easily duplicated by a teenager with a magic kit or a magic how-to book, and thereby completely obscure its significance and occurrence?

6) For the miracles we have been confronted with in religious history, having all power and all knowledge might be sufficient conditions for performing them, but they are not necessary. That is, for alleged miracles like healings, levitations, resurrections, making objects appear and reappear, and so on, it would appear that an all-powerful and an all-knowing being could be capable of doing them. But having those properties are not necessary. All that would be necessary to resurrect someone from the dead, for instance, would be just enough power to perform that act (provided it wasn’t faked or mistaken altogether). The occurrence of a miracle by itself, therefore, isn’t evidence for an all-powerful, all-knowing being. It would merely be consistent with such a being’s existence. You wouldn’t want to convict a murder suspect on the grounds that he was in town the night of the murder, would you, since that evidence is consistent with his committing the murder. You were in town that night too. So God’s got a big challenge trying to convince anyone of his existence with miracles. It looks like miracles simply aren’t up to the task.

7) Events that are merely fortuitous for the person considering them, like having a baby, or surviving a car wreck (while many babies are still born, and many other people die in car wrecks), even if they really are the result of God’s violating the laws of nature, just aren’t going to be convincing to anyone who thinks about it very much. These sorts of events don’t look special at all when viewed from a distance. In fact, they appear to be completely predictable and ordinary—every day there will be some people who will survive car wrecks, especially with seatbelts and airbags, and every day there are babies born, especially when people have unprotected sex. Couldn’t I throw a ball up into the air and just as well claim that its coming down is a result of my divine powers and is evidence of my miraculous powers? If it was going to happen anyway, can’t everyone equally claim credit for it, and doesn’t that show that no one gets credit for it as a miracle?

8) Powerful feelings of awe, religious significance, excitement, and enthusiasm themselves are not indicators that something special has happened in the world. We have too many examples of cases where people got very worked up over things that turned out to be mistakes, deceptions, or just insignificant events. Recall that eclipses have been treated in history as indicators of profound supernatural significance. Presumably, God would have the ability to do something more than induce such feelings in people, and he’d know how much those feelings cloud the truth.

9) As the people living in the Iron Age saw it, the world was infused with magical and supernatural events. Their minds and lives must have been overrun with spooks, spirits, supernatural forces, mysteries, and frightening possibilities. Virtually none of the facts about nature that you take for granted were a part of their knowledge base. They didn’t know that such a thing as oxygen exists, they didn’t know that infections are caused by viruses, they didn’t know that it gets dark at night because the earth is turning, they didn’t know what made water boil, and they didn’t know that there are no evil demons. The vast majority of them did not know how to read or write. The average life expectancy was 20-30 years because of their staggering ignorance of medical science and basic hygiene and public sanitation.

If you were God and you were going to pick an audience with the intention of proving your existence and communicating your desires, you almost could not find a more gullible, easily impressed, and more ignorant group. It would take surprisingly little to completely stun them—a toaster would appear to be a wondrous, and miraculous artifact from heaven.

10) The placebo effect is well-documented in human beings. When they have the expectation that they are getting treated for a medical problem, the expectation itself has a substantial effect on their state and their reporting of their state. A minimum requirement for even the most modest over-the-counter cold medicine is that it must demonstrate effectiveness significantly beyond the placebo effect level. If it does not, the FDA will not allow manufacturers to claim any real capacity to treat illness. The effects felt in many putative spiritual cures, alternative medical therapies, faith healings, and alleged miracles are undoubtedly the placebo effect. If you’re God and you’re performing miracles, you need to do better than that. And presumably, you’d have the power, the knowledge, and the will to do so.

Conclusion: As far as I know, not a single religious miracle in all of recorded human history satisfies even a single one of these modest, reasonable, and obvious suggestions. Yet they are the sort of requirements that even 14 year-old high school science student understands and learns how to investigate empirically. How can it be that the most powerful, most knowing, and morally perfect supernatural being in the universe can’t seem to do any better? Answer: there isn’t one.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Double Standard of God’s Goodness

With the most morally praiseworthy people among us, when they acquire more knowledge or more power, their highest priority is to alleviate suffering in the world. Consider Jonas Salk, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Martin Luther King, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and Bono. In these cases, as soon as they were able, when they become more influential in the world, accumulated more money, or learned more about the world, they dedicated their lives to employing that expanse of power and knowledge to achieve good in the world. They devoted themselves, sometimes with a great deal of associated personal risk and sacrifice, to eliminating any human suffering they could find. They worked tirelessly to learn more about the world, discover an AIDS vaccine, or find a cheap and efficient way to distribute necessary food to starving people, or achieve social justice against racism.

And we recognize their sacrifices. We praise them. We give them Nobel Prizes. We create awards and honors to acknowledge the great things they have done.

But with God, who has limitless power and knowledge, suddenly our sense of moral responsibility vanishes. Our recognition of human suffering evaporates. Our sense of right and wrong lapses. With God, we make excuses. Somehow, inexplicably, the moral sense that led us in the case of a multi-billionaire who donated hundreds of millions of dollars to prevent the spread of disease in Africa disappears. It would appear that it is a priori that God can do no wrong; he can fail no moral duty; he can be held responsible for nothing awful that happens; he cannot be criticized for not doing those very same things that we would give a human the highest praise for; he cannot be faulted in any way for failing to prevent the same moral atrocities that we would imprison or execute a human for committed or allowing.

Our perverse double standard leads us to blame the victim when some horrible suffering happens. “It must be God’s will that that hurricane killed hundreds and made thousands more homeless.” “There must be some divine plan for all of this.” “It is human arrogance and sin that leads to human suffering—God is infinitely loving and just.”

How can we simultaneously praise the humanitarian efforts of selfless, hard-working rescue workers and philanthropists, while completely absolving a being with more power, more knowledge, and more goodness of any responsibility? How can a person praise God and be thankful to him for sparing them from death from a tsunami while simultaneously refusing to assign any blame to him for causing or allowing the disaster that killed thousands others? How can we imprison or execute child molesters and genocidal dictators for their crimes while simultaneously insisting that there is an infinitely powerful, good, and knowing being who was present but did nothing to prevent those same crimes?

Many people have argued that from the highest vantage of knowledge and power, God would have objectives that could not be clear from down in the trenches. They justify the double moral standard by arguing that God’s infinite capacities will fundamentally change God’s relationship to the world. So God could be infinitely good in light of the full span of history.

Perhaps an infinitely good being would wish that suffering unfold in the world exactly as it does in ours. But the double standard argument above should raise some substantial defeaters. It is profoundly difficult to see how it could be that God’s goodness resembles in any respect the real, concrete, and best examples of goodness that we see among human beings. It is so difficult, in fact, that there is an enormous burden of proof upon the believer to explain how it is that “divine goodness” that in every regard resembles what we would ordinarily call neglect, indifference, criminal culpability, cruelty, hatred, and evil can be goodness at all. It is also obvious that the confidence that believers frequently have about God’s goodness is completely unwarranted. At the very best, the reasonable believer ought to have a great deal of skepticism and caution about the claim that God is good.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

God or Gratuitous Evil?

The depth of the problem of evil is frequently not appreciated by either believers or, ironically, by non-believers. If someone believes that there is a God, then they are committed to the view that every single instance of suffering that any sentient being has suffered in the entire history of the universe is such that it could not be decreased, eliminated, or altered in any way without making the world, on the whole, a worse place.

An infinitely powerful, knowledgeable, and good being would not tolerate the existence of any truly gratuitous or pointless evil. So the believer can’t be satisfied merely with the possibility that there could be a God and that that God could possibly have optimized every instance of suffering in the universe. In order to be reasonable in believing that there is such a being, the believer’s sum evidence must indicate that in fact, there has never been a single instance of gratuitous suffering or an instance of suffering that could have been reduced, eliminated or altered in any way without making the world a worse place.

The irony here is that on a daily basis, we all operate with the view that there are countless instances of suffering that should be eliminated, reduced, or altered in order to make the world a better place. We see homeless people on the street that need help, there are countless people suffering from war, disease, famine, and starvation. There are animals that need to be protected. The examples of suffering that we ordinarily take to be gratuitous are countless. Call all of those cases the evidence for gratuitous evil. To believe in God reasonably then, one needs to have such compelling evidence that there is an omni-being that it eclipses and is more convincing that the evidence for gratuitous evil. That is, one needs to have better evidence for the existence of a divine being who would not tolerate any gratuitous evil than one has evidence for the existence of any gratuitous evil.

So here’s the crux: many people have argued for the existence of God, although the consensus among philosophers of religion is that no such arguments are successful. And many people believe that they have evidence for the existence of God. But does anyone think they have evidence for God that is more compelling than the evidence that we all have for the existence of gratuitous suffering in the world?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

How the Surreal becomes Commonplace

Religious beliefs demonstrate that even the most outrageous and bizarre stories can come to feel perfectly normal and plausible when they have settled deeply enough into the background of cultural familiarity. When we hear something often enough because too few people are willing to speak up, the absurd becomes common sense. The terms of the discussion get set to a new default, and people who might have reacted critically are discouraged or diverted by the shifting baseline. We end up talking about how best to be religious rather than whether we should be religious at all. We end up debating pointlessly about whether or not we support our troops, rather than whether or not we should be at war. In time, if a story is repeated often enough and if it comes to be believed by enough people, raising fundamental questions about it are scarcely tolerated. It may not be overtly banned, but subtle social pressures evince self-censoring that we are scarcely aware of. Non-believers, skeptics, and doubters are made to feel as if they are doing something untoward, socially inappropriate, rude, or even dirty by even asking the simplest questions.

Sam Harris has made this point remarkably well: consider going to a public speech by Presidential candidate Mitt Romney who is an avowed Mormon and going to the microphone and asking this question: “Mr.Romney, do you believe that Jesus is going to come back to earth very soon and build a temple near the courthouse in Independence, Missouri?” The question is a perfectly fair one: it’s a standard part of Mormon doctrine. But we all know that to even ask it in public would be remarkably embarrassing for the questioner, Mr. Romney, and everyone present. Most likely, even asking such a question would get one quickly thrown out of the meeting. The central question is, why would it be so embarrassing? And on the other side, we must also ask why no one was embarrassed at all at a recent Republican candidate forum where several of the candidates proudly stood up and announced that they do not believe in evolution.

The repeated complaints in critical reviews against recent atheist authors like Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens about their tone, their hostility, and their intolerance, instead of addressing the real content of their arguments speaks volumes about how the baseline of accepted discussion of religion has crept up on all of us. The critics are either too blinkered by their affection for religion to even acknowledge the root criticisms of religious belief, or the part of them that secretly appreciate the atheist’s case has been eclipsed by their embarrassment that masquerades as personal indignation, and blustery, moral outrage.

We’ve all been blinkered by it. The prevalence of religious stories in our fiction, our stories, our schools, and our families has deadened our acuteness. And our affection and need for religious belief has a soporific affect on our common sense. Here’s how deep it’s gotten into our heads, and how comfortable the preposterous has become. Consider this first bit of Bible speak that will slide comfortably through most of our brains with hardly a hitch:

Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, sacrificed himself on the cross in order to give us salvation for our sins. God loved us so much that he gave his only son so that we could have eternal life.

And consider this revision that captures the same ideas with terms that are not part of the familiar and mesmerizing dogma:

A magical being who cares about our welfare used his supernatural powers to authorize another, lesser magical being to come to us and arrange for us to have an eternal existence if we agree to perform certain acts. That lesser being was given a choice to either allow himself to be executed by some humans or not, and through the prior arrangement with the superior magical being, choosing to allow himself to be executed would authorize the agreement for eternal existence. But the option whether or not to accept this agreement still stays with the humans who can choose to be obedient and loving towards these magical beings or not. If they do accept the deal, then they get to go to a magical place after they die and live forever with the super beings.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

You don't Really Expect Us To Believe That, Do You?

In many cases, responding to a person’s belief by explaining the physical, psychological, historical, social, emotional, or biological causes of it misses the point if that response is somehow intended to refute or disprove the belief. The truth of the claim and the reasons given in support of it are completely independent of any of these other facts about the genesis of the belief. The genetic fallacy is making the mistake of thinking otherwise. Suppose Smith believes the Pythagorean theorem and some sneering critic points out, “Well, you just believe that because you were indoctrinated to believe it by everyone around you. Your teachers and parents and everyone else believed it and pounded it into you and now, just like a sheep, you believe it too.” Suppose Newton was driven to relentlessly organize and systematize everything he encountered by an obsessive, compulsive disorder. The fact that a psychological disorder contributed to his work wouldn’t affect whether or not g=9.8 m/sec2. The causal origin of the belief, it should be obvious, is irrelevant to its truth or its justification. So when people similarly sneer that religious believers are just obedient sheep who believe because it gives them emotional comfort and because they were indoctrinated, they are making the same mistake. The causal story about what may have happened psychologically to bring about the belief just has no bearing on whether or not it is true. Even if the description of the belief is accurate, it’s not therefore false. And even if the belief owes its origin in part to some neurological or psychological facts, the disbeliever isn’t justified in rejecting the view because of that. It would be fallacious to reject religious beliefs because of these causal accounts alone.

But there is a point of importance here. When we have good reasons to believe that there’s really nothing else supporting the belief besides the causal explanation, then we do have grounds to reject the truth of it. The Inuit Eskimos believed that the moon god, named Aningan, chased his brother, the sun, across the sky, and lives in a giant igloo in the sky. We don’t take such a claim seriously, and we know that there’s not much more to account for this belief in a particular Inuit Eskimo than that his mother and father believed it, everyone else around him believed it, they told him it was true, and it fits in well with the rest of what he believes is true about the world. Maybe the belief provides some emotional comfort. Or maybe there is a neurological disposition to believe such things. Here the psychological, social, causal explanation of the belief explains it away entirely. There are no good reasons for us to believe that the story about Aningan is true, and there are many plausible causal accounts of why the Inuits believe. That’s why you’re an atheist about Aningan.

What about Christianity? The early Christians were a small group of people embedded in an Iron Age world view. The world, as they saw it, must have been heavily populated with magical events and forces, supernatural beings, gods demanding tribute and obedience. They had been raised their entire lives to believe that a spiritual and political messiah would come and provide them with salvation. They were illiterate for the most part. Science as we know it wouldn’t be invented for another 1500 years or so. They had no general expectation that there were natural explanations for lots of the events that people often take to be of religious and supernatural significance. Religiousness and spiritual devotion to some sect or other was a normal way of life for them.

I won’t propose any particular alternative explanation for what might have happened surrounding the beginning of Christianity. I don’t think the non-believer needs to commit themselves to one natural explanation or another being true unless the evidence is really compelling. What should be obvious, even to the staunch believer, is that there are a host of possibilities that could explain why someone might have thought or said he was the son of God and why a lot of people might have believed him besides his really being the offspring of a divine entity who was the creator of the universe. People get confused, they make mistakes, they are enthusiastic, they have ulterior motives, they lie, they cheat, they manipulate, they get duped, they perpetrate cons, they have mental illness, they hear voices, they see things, or they succumb to social pressure. And then social, political, and religious movements can spread by historical accident, through social fads, by political mandate, and so on.

The firm believer must think that one of these alternatives or some combination of them give the real explanation for all the false religions that compete with Christianity. The mainstream Christian would need to conclude that Muhammad, for instance, and his prophecies and the rise of Islam can be explained away in this fashion. The Christian who thinks that the one, true, authentic path to God is through one doctrine or another, say Catholicism, or some kind of fundamentalist creed, they would have to conclude that the vast majority of religions that ever arose in human history are grounded on mistakes and some natural account like those above. There have been tens of thousands of religions in history, and thousands of those claim to be “the one, true religion,” while all the others are false. For them, the precedent is already set for many religions to based on a grand, historical mistake.

The book, The Secret has sold millions of copies. In it, a supposedly ancient secret is revealed that people who have positive thoughts will receive positive events in their lives, and people who have negative thoughts will have unfortunate things happen to them. That such a transparent, and ridiculous scheme could draw in so many millions of people with modern educations, college degrees, and a vast background of scientific knowledge compared to the people in the first century shows how strong the transcendental temptation is, and how easily people are suckered by preposterous metaphysical and supernatural fantasies. If millions of Americans, who have such a vast advantage in education and background knowledge, can be seduced by this sort of scam, then how surprising is it that the people in the early centuries of Christianity’s growth bought that farfetched story hook, line and sinker?

So now, consider what that “one, true religion” must look like to those of us on the outside. Sure, it’s possible that a magical, and divine super being decided to have a son, however that happens, and to send that person to in a tiny village in the middle east in the first century. And it is possible that the magical super being did it in order to tell people to be kind, loving, and forgiving to each other. And those people who believe that all of this story is true will be rewarded in a special magical place after death that no one has ever seen, while all the ones who have doubts and don’t believe will be tortured for eternity.

But doesn’t it really strain credulity for you to really take all that to be true, and for you to expect us to take you seriously? You’ve got to admit that given all the far-fetched, crazy metaphysical schemes that religious traditions have come up with over the centuries about giant igloos in the sky, crocodile gods in the bottom of the Nile, animal spirits, and positive thinking, it’s just common sense to look at one of these stories with a healthy amount of skepticism, and to suspect that the more plausible explanation is that some people who just didn’t know better got confused, or made some mistakes, and the whole thing managed to catch on and spread through a series of interesting historical developments. All of those thousands and thousands of other religions arose from just those sorts of mistakes, so how likely is it that Christianity didn’t?

Monday, October 29, 2007

Everything is to the Glory of God

Now it’s thought by many who are religious that we evolved. It turns out, they claim, that natural selection is God’s means of achieving his ends. Futhermore, that evolution was aided from time to time by God giving it a little nudge when necessary.

Now it’s thought by many people who are religious that the physical constants that physics has found in nature—the strong nuclear force, the weak force, Planck’s constant, the mass of the top quark, and so on—are all part of God’s doing. God is responsible for the narrow range of values for the laws of nature that keep our universe on the knife edge that makes life possible.

When we discover that the universe is 15 billion years old and not 6,000, and that humanity has been around for 100,000 years and didn’t start with Adam and Eve, they acknowledge (reluctantly) “yes, that’s right. That was God’s plan. Isn’t the breadth of God’s plan sweeping?”

It would appear that every conceivable discovery is interpreted as evidence of God’s existence and God’s transcendent power, knowledge, and goodness. And no possible developments in our empirical investigations will be accepted as counter evidence. It’s a sort of reverse conspiracy theory. The conspiracy theorist takes everything that happens to be more proof that the government is watching him. The fact that he can’t get any pictures of the black helicopters surveiling him just shows how stealthy they are. The fact that no one around him lets on that they are spying on him just shows how good they are at covering their tracks. The fact that we cannot find compelling evidence that links the CIA and the mob as conspirators in the John F. Kennedy’s assassination itself shows that the CIA and the mob did it because no one else could have so effectively concealed their scheme. But with God, everything we discover, including the fact that there appears to be no need to invoke any supernatural agency to explain any phenomena we analyze, is taken to indicate just how transcendent God is. Even the fact that the universe appears to be just the sort of place you’d expect if there was no powerful, knowledgeable, and caring supernatural being itself is taken to indicate that that sort of being has good reasons for making its presence completely undetectable.

In all seriousness, if God were to build the universe and then give us a book, a doctrine, and a religion with which to worship him, and if all of the remarkable things about God’s role in the creation and sustainance of the universe that believers claim are true, then wouldn’t we have expected to find some hint about them from God, from his religion, from his book, or from his believers before they were discovered by science? In every, science forges ahead through hard work, insight, and struggle, to discover some truth about the world. And then, after science has done all the heavy lifting, the religious dogmatists snatch the discovery, “Of course, we knew that all along because that’s a part of God’s remarkable creation. It all just suggests more praise to God’s glory for his universe.”

There remain many unanswered questions in science now. We aren’t sure about the existence of the Higgs-Boson, or the graviton, or the relationship of the gravitational force to the other fundamental forces. We don’t have a clear, developed picture of the origins of consciousness in evolutionary history. We don’t have adequate information to ascertain the prevalence of life in the universe at large. But presumably with time, hard work, and human ingenuity, we will find answers to all of these questions. So here is the challenge for the believer. If all of those future discoveries in science are going to be co-opted and neatly adapted to show that God is such a profound being, then we should be able to find some indicator of these mechanisms of God’s handiwork in religion, religious doctrine, or the words of God himself without science to do all the hard work. If the four fundamental forces—gravity, strong, weak, and electromagnetic—are all God’s means of constructing the universe, afterall, then why can’t we find any indication of that anywhere in any religious doctrine or tradition before physics discovered them. If evolution was the method whereby God brought life into the universe as so many Americans now believe, then why can’t we find even the slightest hint of it in any religious source or the word of God prior to Darwin’s hard fought battle with those same believers? If the intelligent design hypothesis about God’s interventions in evolutionary history is correct, then why did no religious source ever give any indication of it until the 1990s? If viruses, not evil demon possession, were the source of disease all along and part of God’s plan, why has religious doctrine always been so clearly in favor of demons? If the abundant amounts of apparently pointless suffering and death in the world has always been part of God’s plan to build moral character, then did we not get any indication that this was true from religious sources until after atheists like William Rowe in the 1970s argued that pointless evil is evidence that there is no God?

The answer should be obvious. With every new development and empirical discovery, believers (usually, after resisting the truth with all their might,) construct an ad hoc explanation that allows them to coopt that discovery and contort it into their worldview and use it to their advantage. That their worldview previously contained no indicators of what is now taken to be obvious because of what science has forced them to accept is conveniently written off as metaphor, discounted, neglected, or forgotten. “Adam and Eve? Oh, we never really believed that literally. “The earth is only 6,000 years old? That’s so quaint—it isn’t what we really believe.” All of the ad hoc re-engineering and reverse conspiracy gymnastics in order to salvage an Iron Age ideology is gross intellectual dishonesty when it is clear that the space left for the God of the gaps is rapidly shrinking.

How Big Would God's Universe Be?

Nicholas Everitt gives an argument from scale (in The Nonexistence of God, and excerpted in The Improbability of God, eds, Martin and Monnier) where concludes that the sheer size of the universe and insignificance of humanity in it gives us strong evidence that theism is false. He offers this argument:

1) If the God of classical theism existed, with the purposes traditionally ascribed to him, then he would create a universe on a human scale, i.e., one that is not unimaginably large, unimaginably old, and in which human beings form an unimaginably tiny part of it, temporally and spatially.

2) The world does not display a human scale, So:

3) There is evidence against the hypothesis that the God of classical theism exists with the purposes traditionally ascribed to him.

He likens our situation to that of Robinson Crusoe, wondering whether or not there are other humans on our lonely island. Crusoe provisionally forms some expectations about what sort of evidence he would expect to find if there were someone else—they would leave evidence of their presence, make themselves manifest and not hide, send smoke signals, and so on. Then finding none of the things he would have expected to find, he draws the preliminary conclusion that he is alone.

There’s a substantial problem with this argument. Suppose, as Everitt indicates, we had found ourselves in a universe of a manifestly human scale. Instead of a hundred trillion galaxies, we found a few hundred. The Sun is a mere 10,000 miles from earth instead of 93 million (presumably cooled down to scale). We look beyond the Sun and the next star is a mere 100,000 miles away instead of 3 billion light years. And our natural history is discovered to be 5,000 or 10,000 years instead of 100,000. Would we look at that world and draw the implication that any God worthy of the name was responsible for it? Would that sort of world be indicative of an infinite supernatural force with all power, all knowledge, and all goodness?

Most certainly not. What would be much more obvious in that world is that whatever sort of force or being was responsible for it did not need to have a nature or power or knowledge much beyond our own. If the world displayed a human scale, then the humanness or near humanness of its author would be much more strongly indicated.

My point is not that the scale of the universe we find ourselves in does indicate the infinite power, knowledge, and goodness of God. It does not. (see several previous posts on the question.) But a universe of such staggering scale is at least more prima facie consistent with the claims about God’s profound transcendence that believers typically make. A small, comprehensible universe would make the inference to a being worthy of the title “God” even more difficult, not easier as Everitt suggests. It’s a bit like Groucho Marx’s dilemma when he remarked that he wouldn’t want to be a member of a club that would have him as a member. If the universe were scaled down to anthropomorphic proportions, then the inference to a merely human or near human creator would be obvious.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Possible, Possible, Possible: Overdrawing the God Account

If we do our due diligence and try to consider all the most substantial defenses of God seriously it is evident that inadequacies in the arguments leave them at best able to argue for possibilities, not actualities. There are insurmountable objections to the God positions and arguments. But even if we overlook a host of problems, at most they might show that God possibly exists. Even if we are exceedingly charitable and grant these arguments their preliminary conclusions, they still don’t close the circle—they don’t give us grounds to conclude that God exists. What is frequently happening in these situations is that theists acknowledge difficulties on one topic and expect to be able to overcome those difficulties with a successful argument elsewhere. But when we look at the problems with the whole network of justifications, it becomes clear that there is no actual anchor for the whole tenuous fantasy.

Consider the first cause argument. The universe must have begun to exist, it is argued. And everything that begins to exist must have a cause. Therefore, the universe must have had a cause. Therefore the cause of the universe is God.

Consider design arguments: The universe, or objects in it, exhibit properties that seem to indicate planning, purpose, design, or intent. The best or only explanation for the presence of those properties is that some designer was responsible. Therefore, God designed the universe.

Consider miracles: Many people claim to have witnessed miracles performed by other people who claim to have divine powers. The testimony about those miracles is taken to be evidence that some supernatural event occurred. Therefore God exists.

Consider evil: It’s even more damning that when confronted with the problem of evil as counter-evidence for the existence of God, prestigious philosophers and conscientious believers are reduced by their own admission to arguing that it is possible that there is a God and it is possible that this possible God has a plan (that we don’t understand) that justifies all the gratuitous suffering.

Even if we allow that there was a first cause, or that the universe had a designer, or that miracles occurred, the strongest conclusion we can infer from these arguments is that it is possible that God was responsible. It’s possible that an all powerful, all knowledgeable, and all good being was the first cause, but an argument for a first cause doesn’t require that conclusion. There’s always the powerful alien problem, or the possibility of a lesser divine being, or magic dragons, and so on.

It’s possible that the designer of the universe is the all powerful, all knowledgeable, and morally perfect God of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, but the design argument doesn’t require that conclusion. At most, the design argument would show that some force with a plan introduced order. Again, that force could be aliens, Allah, a lesser deity, an idiot god, a committee of idiot gods, and so on.

It’s possible that miracles (if they occurred) are authored by God, even though having divine properties are not required to perform them. The force that brought them about might only have enough power or knowledge to do that feat, but is a far lesser being than God.

It’s possible that evolution had some supernatural intervention to help it along, even though an argument for intelligent design doesn’t require an omni-God to be that helper. Aliens, and idiot gods again.

It’s possible that the feelings of a sublime, divine, cosmic supernatural force you’re having are brought about by contact by God, even though we know that contact with God isn’t necessary to induce those feelings. Fasting, sleep deprivation, hallucinatory drugs, and aliens again.

It’s possible that your cognitive faculties are working correctly and the feeling of having veridical access to God is in fact veridical, even though it is not necessary for the feeling to be veridical in order for it to feel like it is. History has shown us over and over again that merely having an intense feeling that you are right is an unreliable guide to when you are.

And it is possible that every single instance of suffering in the history of sentience is actually part of the plan (that we don’t understand) of a possible God. It’s also possible that there is no such plan and no such being.

An important note is that I am not alone in singling out these problems with these arguments. Some of theism’s most accomplished philosophical defenders like Plantinga, Hick, Swinburne, and Van Inwagen acknowledge the short comings of these approaches to the God question.

There is a stunning gap in justification here. In order for a belief in God to be justified for a person, that person needs to have grounds that render the belief likely to be true. It won’t be enough to just sketch out possibilities on every side of the topic: Well, possibly God was the first cause. And possibly God had a reason for tolerating evil. And it is possible that the designer was God. And it is possible that if God designed us, then when our cognitive faculties are functioning properly, we will have a reliable, justified belief that there is a God.

If it is possible that one of the winning lottery numbers tomorrow will be 39, and it is also possible that one will be 7, and another one will possibly be 71, we don’t now have reason to think that the group of numbers: 39, 7, and 71 will probably win the lottery tomorrow.

Theism isn’t reasonable until we have some grounds that make it probable. All of these possibilities added up don’t make theism reasonable.

The believer can’t keep dodging the burden of proof forever. They are writing checks all over town to answer the challenges about these different lines of defense, but there’s no money in the account. If a table has 4 possible legs, we can’t expect it to stand up.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Giving God A Free Pass

One of the most popular responses to the problem of evil from believers has been to argue that we are not in a position to be able to judge the rightness or wrongness of events that we observe because for all we know, somewhere down the line what appears to be a case of pointless evil today will in fact play an indispensible role in a greater good that justifies it. So ironically, the believer here presses for agnosticism about whether or not instances of horrible suffering and death that have every appearance of being utterly pointless or not worth any good that we would accept. We just can’t know, they argue, whether or not the case will turn out to be pointless, so we must suspend judgment about whether or not it actually is gratuitous evil. And therefore, God cannot be faulted.

This agnosticism is coupled, not surprisingly, with a confidence derived from other sources—faith, revelation, the sensus divinitatus, the cosmological argument—that there is indeed an omnipotent, all knowing, and all good God. So even though those cases of suffering appear to be evil, and even though we should be agnostic about them, we can be confident that in fact every case of suffering in all the history of sentience on this planet will work out as a necessary part of God’s plan and are for the better. This shift of the burden of proof for God puts a tremendous amount of pressure on those other sources of information about God to be correct, of course. And none of them prove to be up to the task.

One point that deserves comment here is that no morally decent person would ever accept these kind of logical gymnastics as a defense of any other sort of morally evil act by a person.

Imagine if a serial killer, or a war time rapist, or a prolific pedophile offered up a similar kind of defense: “Your honor, and ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I know that it appears that what I did was truly pointless and evil. But consider if you will that we do not know whether or not what I did will in fact turn out for the worse. For all we know, my actions may have actually done my victims, or their families, or humanity in general a great service that far outweighs the suffering created by my actions.”

A man named Ottis Toole is suspected of being the killer of Adam Walsh. After Adam was abducted from a Sears store and killed, his father John Walsh, who was leading an relatively unremarkable life until then, was motivated to become one of the most influential and effective anti-crime activists in American history. His program “America’s Most Wanted,” and legislation that he was instrumental in helping to pass have been responsible for putting tens of thousands of criminals in jail. Although Ottis Toole was suspected of being the culprit, he was never charged. But suppose that he had been, and suppose that he offered the “For a Greater Good” defense. Suppose he had argued that he shouldn’t be condemned for murdering (by decapitation) that little boy because of all the good that it created.

What should be obvious is that morally decent people would never accept either the agnosticism defense, nor the greater good defense, in real world cases.

But what is stunning is that ordinary people with normal, appropriate moral reactions to real cases of moral evil like the Adam Walsh case will suddenly abandon all sense of moral decency when the question comes to God. They will accept any justification, no matter how tenuous, as long as it gives them some slender thread of an excuse to absolve God of responsibility for things that they would never let anyone else get away with.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Does the Atheist Need to Respond to Faith?

In order to secure reasonable justification for atheism, does the non-believer need to answer the faith defense for theism? Your typical atheist feels compelled to say something (negative) about believing in God on the basis of faith, but do they need to? The answer is no. The faith account of belief in God presents no challenge to non-belief.

When one has faith that something is true, they believe it despite inadequate or contrary evidence. No one would say that they have faith that their basketball team was going to win the playoffs if by all measures the team is vastly superior to all of their rivals. People invoke faith when the chips are down, when life looks grim, when they can’t conceive of why God would allow someone innocent to suffer, or when it doesn’t look like there’s adequate justification in terms of evidence. If we had ample, compelling evidence, then there’d be no need and no room for faith.

Reason is prescriptive. When there is compelling evidence in front of someone and they understand it, and it is clear that it implies a certain conclusion, then they ought to believe that conclusion. Suppose that Smith is a defendant in a trial where the prosecutors have shown video of Smith holding up the liquor store, they found the gun registered in Smith’s name with his fingerprints on it, multiple witnesses all testified that Smith did it, the store owner identified him as the robber, other witnesses heard Smith promising to rob the store the day before, and Smith’s alibi has been shown to be false. The jurors, if they are reasonable people, should convict him on the basis of the evidence. If they don’t, they’re being irrational or unreasonable, and they’re failing to fulfill their epistemic (and moral) duties. So when the right conditions have been met, the evidence prescribes belief (there can be lots of mitigating circumstances that we will ignore for the moment). When someone doesn’t believe under those conditions, then they are epistemically culpable or at fault. By not believing, they make an epistemic mistake that they should rectify.

But faith is not prescriptive. When someone chooses to believe in God despite the fact that the evidence underdetermines or even contradicts the conclusion, on what grounds could they maintain that others who haven’t done the same have somehow failed in their epistemic duties, or are rationally culpable? In what way could the non-faithful possibly being doing something wrong by not also having faith? A believer by faith simply has no grounds from which they can argue that others who don’t have faith ought to. They can’t criticize the non-faithful for doing something contrary to reason or ignoring the evidence by not believing. In not believing by faith, the non-faithful are seeking to accept only that which is supported by the evidence. What is the faithful believer going to say: “You’re not listening to reason! You need to accept the obvious implication of the evidence! All of the evidence indicates that you should believe on faith!!”

In order to secure justification for believing that there is no God one would need to seriously consider the best arguments that have been made for the conclusion that there is a God. Those arguments are at least prima facie grounds against the reasonableness of non-belief. Believing there is no God is premature until one has good reasons to think those arguments are unacceptable. But the fact that many people have opted to believe even though they acknowledge that they don’t have reasonable grounds for doing so presents no challenge whatsoever to the person who concludes that the reasonable conclusion is to disbelieve. If their belief is acquired by faith, then they can make no claim against the rationality of atheism. They have made it clear that reasons and evidence are irrelevant to them—they’re going to believe what they want and to hell with being rational. Rejecting the relevance of having justifications for beliefs leaves them with no leverage and no possible complaint against the atheist.

Many atheists feel compelled to respond when a believer says, “Well, I have faith that God exists.” The atheist will offer a variety of criticisms of believing by faith. But it should now be clear that justifying atheism doesn’t require discounting faith. Furthermore, trying to rebut faith is typically futile. The faithful have already implicitly (or explicitly) acknowledged that what the evidence or arguments indicate is irrelevant to them. By invoking faith, they have already embarrassed and made a mockery of themselves more than any thoughtful reasoned rebuttal could accomplish.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Self-Deception: Religion and Science are Compatible

Many very smart, otherwise ungullible people, have an affection for religion that belies their true motives and their intelligence when they offer accounts of how science and religion can coexist. Those same people can show such acumen and clarity of thought when it comes to matters in their fields—in biology, physics, and philosophy. But for religion there’s no contortion, no rationalization, and no accommodation that they won’t stoop to because they are so deeply in the clutches of the urge to believe. They so want the religion in their hearts to settle nicely and comfortably with the science of their minds that they’ll do anything to make them fit together. And they get hearty applause and accolades from eager audiences who are delighted to have their craving for religiousness validated. Consider Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project, who has sold countless copies of his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.

Stephen Jay Gould, former Harvard biologist, coined a name for the position that has been taken up by hopeful compatibilists all over the world: NOMA, or science and religion are Non-Overlapping Magisteria. Here’s a few of his comments in the famous essay about NOMA:

[Concerning science and religion] No such conflict should exist because each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority—and these magisteria do not overlap (the principle that I would like to designate as NOMA, or "nonoverlapping magisteria").

The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the arch clichés, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.

I believe, with all my heart, in a respectful, even loving concordat between our magisteria—the NOMA solution. NOMA represents a principled position on moral and intellectual] grounds, not a mere diplomatic stance. NOMA also cuts both ways. If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world's empirical constitution. This mutual humility has important practical consequences in a world of such diverse passions.

Religion is too important to too many people for any dismissal or denigration of the comfort still sought by many folks from theology.

As plausible, and reasonable as this may sound at first glance, realize that no one would even consider accepting an analogous defense of the place of magic or astrology in our lives:

The worlds of magic and science are non-overlapping magisteria. One concerns the realm of physical, empirically confirmed, objective, testable facts. The other concerns a realm of magical forces, wishes, spiritual entities, and the mystical power of symbols. Science addresses what is the case in the empirical world. Magic fulfills a vital and universal need in human hearts for personal and spiritual guidance. It provides meaning and counseling for a side of humanity that is not addressed by science. The two worlds do not overlap—they concern themselves with different subject matters. Nor do they conflict because they take essentially different topics, principles, and phenomena to be their subject matter. They don’t conflict any more than the study of art and its principles conflict with the study of botany. Furthermore, magic is so deeply loved and needed by so many people that science should not presume to overstep its bounds and claim to have an authority on the truth in that realm where it has no standing.

I deeply love and respect the separate domains of science and magic and the NOMA solution to their apparent conflict.

We should not be seduced by the compatibilist, “separate worlds” view that has become so popular. Science makes claims about the world, about humans, about our anthropological origins, about morality, and about the way we came to exist that are directly in conflict with and incompatible with the worldview of religion. Religion makes assertions about what is true in the world, what the nature of being human is, what our origins are, what our destinies are, and what sort of activity science should be that are in direct conflict with the worldview of science. The earth cannot be both 6,000 years old and 3 billion years old. Humans cannot both have a consciousness or soul that depends on the brain to exist and one that is immortal and independent of the body. Humans cannot both be evolved by means of natural selection from other earlier life forms and also created complete, all at once before the existence of any other animals. We cannot have the biodiversity that we have on this planet today if a flood a few thousand years ago killed all but a few pairs of animals on Noah’s ark. Prayer cannot both work and have no plausible empirical evidence in its favor. Humans cannot be both inherently wicked and corrupted by sin, and essentially sympathetic, social animals like their great ape cousins. The world cannot both be a natural, physical place explainable by science and capable of empirical explanation, and inhabited with spirits, demons, evil satanic forces, miraculous violations of physical laws, and an all powerful, magical supernatural deity.

Nor can we continue to ignore these profound incompatibilities by only focusing on those aspects of science and religion where the conflict appears to be less acute. Religion, religious movements, and religious adherents have a fundamentally different set of social, political, moral, educational, and personal goals and views that the rest of humanity. Whether you think that the truth is the province of science or of religion has a profound and direct affect on what sort of person you are, who you vote for, what kind of parent you are, what you think the future of humanity is, what kind of future you want for humanity, what sort of government you think we should have, what laws we should pass, which people are criminals, and which wars we should fight. And the only way that you can conclude that on the whole, the scientifically inclined and the religiously inclined have no substantial incompatibilities on all of these accounts is if you just haven’t been paying attention.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Gibberish? Non-Cognitivist Speech Act? or Serious Truth Claim?

In meta-ethical theory, they have come up with a salient view about moral claims that sheds light on a lot of puzzling religious utterances. Non-cognitivism is the view that strictly speaking, moral claims are neither true, nor false. They are not the sort of speech act that can or should be evaluated with objective criteria of truth. Instead, when someone condemns an act as immoral, what they are saying is more like “I have bad feelings about what’s going on. I need to express those bad feelings. You should have bad feelings too!! Boooo."

Now consider “Jesus loves you,” “Jesus died for you sins,” “God be with you,” “Accept Jesus into your heart and experience salvation,” and so on. If you take these sorts of claims seriously, they’ll make you crazy trying to figure out just what they mean. Like Flew’s frustrated skeptic in the parable of the invisible gardener, it’s hard to see just what’s the difference between a world where these things are true and a world where they aren’t. There appear to be no experiences or no events that could possibly occur that are inconsistent with Jesus’ loving you, or with God’s cherishing you. For comparison, consider your typical university president, or political candidate who keeps fervently repeating that he’s committed to the future, and who says he’s got a vision of excellence.

We can all save ourselves a lot of trouble if we acknowledge that these sorts of speech acts just aren’t the sorts of claims that make and sort of true or false difference in the world. No state of affairs would count against them, as their utterers maintain. Even as he’s being carried off to jail for embezzlement, the university president or the politician insists he’s a vision of integrity. And no matter how severe the suffering from earthquakes, malnutrition, war, and child abuse get, the religious leaders steadfastly maintain that God loves you. What many of these claims really amount to is something more like public emoting, singing, poetry, or cheering. They are expressions of personal desires, hope, feelings of subjugation, admiration, and humility. And so they aren’t really a matter of true or false, right or wrong. They can be annoying, condescending, or self-righteous, of course.

What “Jesus died for your sins, accept him into your heart” really means is something like “I have sympathy for your plight, we are all lowly and pathetic and in need of paternalistic comforting, you can have it if you perform certain kinds of behaviors and adopt a certain kind of personal posture with regard to your place in the world. When I do these things I feel joyful, I want you to feel joyful too.”

It should be obvious to you that religious ceremonies, rituals, and liturgies all tend to slip away from being true/false sorts of assertions and more towards some kind of religious expressionism. If you’re really taking many of these behaviors as the sort of thing that can be evaluated with reason the way evidence in a court case can, you’re wasting your time and your breathe. It would be absurd to raise your hand at a poetry recitation and say, “I think your claim in the second line of the first verse about love’s being a furry puppy is mistaken. Here’s why . . . “ wouldn’t it?

The problem is, of course, that lots of religious people who are making these utterances do not think that what they are doing is non-cognitive. They think that Jesus really did die for your sins, and that Jesus really does love you, and that those clichés actually mean something. It can be hard to dismiss such behaviors as non-cognitive when the speakers themselves insist that they are making true assertions that make all the difference in the world.

The answer, I think, is that the real measure of whether or not some speech act is cognitive or non-cognitive is not something that is always settled by how the speaker feels about it. The speaker may or may not appreciate the non-cognitive aspects of what they are doing. The university president insists that he is committed to excellence, no matter how poorly his university is doing under his guidance. That what they are saying is non-cognitive will be revealed by the way that the speech acts weave themselves into their worldview. One telling question that I always come back to is this, “just what would it take in principle for you to change your mind about X?” We can’t imagine the university president conceding that in fact he’s not committed to excellence under any circumstances, and it’s hard to imagine how many people who are fond of repeating “Jesus loves you,” and “Jesus dies for your sins,” would ever change their minds about that. Suppose we found compelling archeological (maybe including DNA evidence) grounds that showed that Jesus wasn’t crucified and just live out a normal life as a carpenter. Do you imagine that the people who now insist that Jesus died for our sins would ever accept that evidence and conclude that they were wrong? If a speech act has working its way into a person’s psyche in that fashion we have good reason to think it’s become a non-cognitivist dogma.