Friday, November 16, 2007

Is God Imaginary?

I am responding here to a blogger named Thom (The Beauty of Grace). Although I intend to respond to some of his posts here, I don’t plan to quote everything he said. If any reader wants to see Thom’s comments please click on the links below the main articles.

Hello Thom. Welcome to my blog. Thank you for your comments. I’m interested to find the path you took to reach me because I had never heard of although I am quite familiar with as evidenced by the fact that I provide links to that site in multiple places. But the blogosphere is too vast for anyone to keep track of it. Anyway, I’m glad you pointed it out to me.

I appreciate your cordiality and graciousness in your posts. Sadly that is not always the case with theists who post here. However, I have a feeling that you will soon become frustrated with my blog because it is clearly and without question atheistic while having a firm grounding in Judeo-Christian theology. It will be nigh impossible to sneak simple theistic arguments by me since I have been a master of such arguments myself in my past life. When you say that you are interested in reading what I have written I interpret that to mean that you are interested in seeing how you can attack my premises and circumvent the purpose of my blog. I don’t intend to discourage you from this endeavor. In fact, I welcome it. I am confident that you have nothing new to offer in the way of Christian apologetics or theistic rationalization. Do your worst. I have no fear. You are fighting from a position of weakness and will fail miserably. And I love you no less for all that.

Now, let’s get down to brass tacks. You make a proposition that needs to be addressed. You say “I am assuming that anyone who claims Atheism is asserting at least some confidence in the non-existence of any God.” That’s stating the obvious but okay. You go on to say, “Now, from a science perspective, I hear that God is un-provable, so therefore He does not exist.” I would go even further and say that whether inside or outside of science God is unverifiable. It is all hearsay and opinion. But without further ado, let us proceed to your proposition.

You say, “I propose that since science, by definition, is limited to the ‘natural’ world, that by declaring the possibility of the existence of a ‘supernatural’ world - meaning a world that is not bound by nor even operating under natural law - the possibility, then, of God does exist.” That’s quite a mouthful. Basically you wish to declare the existence of an unknowable and unexplainable realm (apparently by fiat) in order to justify the existence of an unknowable and unexplainable being. Have you ever heard of Occam’s Razor? I suppose we could go on infinitely positing fantastical ideas but how does that make it any more likely to be true? It seems to me that the more we multiply entities (or realms) the more farfetched the whole notion becomes. With a supernatural being we have one item for which we have neither adequate description nor validation. After you posit your “supernatural world”, we have simply added an item to that list. It sounds to me like we are doing nothing but making our task more difficult. Aside from that, I think the very concept of “supernatural” is nonsense.

There is nothing except nature. We define what exists as nature. It’s very simply put thus: Existents exist. Nature is what is. Additionally, all things are defined by their nature. It doesn’t mean anything to say something is outside of or above or beyond nature. We obviously don’t know the extent of existence nor do we completely understand everything of which we are aware, but the natural universe is the sum total of all that exists – by any definition of existence. Let’s say that something exists or functions in some way outside of the laws we have heretofore recognized. That does not put it outside of the universe or outside of nature. It just means that we need to re-evaluate our understanding of the universe. But there wouldn’t be much point in modifying our understanding of natural reality on pure speculation. Perhaps there is a being that can create things by sheer force of will. Perhaps it can somehow defy the currently understood limitations of nature. If so, these abilities would be part of that beings nature – its attributes. But it would only be unnatural if we were to cling to our outdated understanding of nature. Once a being like that is discovered, everything about it would need to be incorporated into our understanding of nature. There would never be a need for a supernatural realm.

Your casual dismissal of the example of the Flying Spaghetti Monster tells me you don’t even understand the point of it. I hope you do not think anyone seriously believes in the FSM. It was created as a demonstration of how one could posit any being at all and claim that it was supernatural with just as much validity as any god. The only thing that makes the notion of God more respectable is how long that particular myth has persisted. It makes no difference if we are positing gods, unicorns, leprechauns, the FSM or a fire-breathing chicken. If one must rely on tradition or the testimony of others to ascertain the existence of any such being, they all have the same chance of being real. I say the chance is, at best, negligible. That’s being very generous. It is so unlikely that the only sensible thing to do is to ignore it. As my Dad used to say, “The chances are slim and none. And slim just left town.” By your reasoning, anything at all might exist. We should be open to the possibility that it might rain gumdrops next Tuesday. What we are talking about here is the logical fallacy known as “The Argument from Ignorance.” The classic example is Bertrand Russell’s china teapot orbiting the Sun between Earth and Mars. It might exist. You cannot prove that it doesn’t.

Theists have probably always argued that since you can’t prove God does not exist you should assume he does exist. If we grant there is a chance that God exists, the next step is to say, “Do you want to risk his wrath by assuming that he doesn’t?” Pascal’s Wager is a prime example of this rationale. This is the way that many people are suckered into religion. The point is that it is not up to the atheist to disprove anything. People just don’t operate on the “Believe whatever is not disproven” philosophy. We would be crazy to do so. In the case of any proposition, it is up to the claimant to substantiate his claim. There is no substantiation for the claim that God exists and therefore we have no need to even entertain it as a possibility. Whether you assume God does exist or that he does not exist, there is no difference at all in the way the universe works. The entire idea has zero value.

You repeat that science is, by definition, limited to the five natural senses. I disagree with this statement. Science is not limited to the five natural senses. Only our ability to observe is thus limited. We are limited to our natural senses but only for direct observation. Since we are humans, human science is primarily based on what we can perceive in some way. But it is not limited to mere observation. Reason is a much more important part of science than simple observation. By couching your argument this way you try to eliminate reason and rationality as major components of our understanding.

Now let’s look at your example of the ancient belief that the earth was flat and compare it to belief in God. When people were so ignorant of the facts that they believed the earth was flat and the center of the universe, they also believed, at this time, that there was a magical being in the sky called God who would answer prayers and promised an afterlife and blessings for obedience to him. The notions about the earth were based on what limited observations the people could make along with a limited amount of deductive reasoning. The notions of God were based on no observation at all but on what was passed down through tradition.

Today, we have many more facts about the earth and we know that it is an oblate spheroid that rotates on its axis and orbits a star we call the Sun or Sol which is one of billions of stars in the spiral galaxy we call the Milky Way. Our observations and reasoning about the earth have grown exponentially over the span of a few thousand years. Human understanding of God has had the same amount of time to evolve and grow, but nothing has changed. People still believe there is a magical being in the sky called God who answers prayers and promises an afterlife and blessings for obedience to him.

I just don’t see the sense in clinging to such stagnant superstitions. The only effects of belief are psychological. Some might be considered beneficial. Many are impediments to progress. Some are outright dangerous. I personally think the time has come for people to stop perpetuating useless ancient myths and superstitions. Reality is not a maleable concept.

Pastafarians in the News

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Common Misconceptions

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Nothing demonstrates that better than the way some religious fundamentalists with little or no familiarity with science use random bits of information from the popular press or casual conversation to claim that science validates God and religious dogma. A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a theist who had apparently heard about work being done in physical anthropology to trace the genetic ancestry of the human race. She ecstatically proclaimed that it had been scientifically proven that Adam and Eve were real. For anyone actually following the research this kind of statement is stunning in its ignorance. Of course I will say that many researchers tend to fan the ardent fire of these believers when they use Biblical names or Biblical references in their research. And journalists can’t resist headlines like; Have Scientists Discovered Adam and Eve? It’s a sure way to sell magazines. The problem is that many lay people don’t get past the title and a quick skim of the opening paragraph. Their conclusions aren’t really surprising. It actually seems that people are telling them that science has found Adam and Eve.

Of course, if they bothered to read the actual research (assuming they could understand it) they would see that it does not remotely support Biblical genesis stories – nor could it. Yes, we do all have common ancestors but no one is seriously claiming that two people suddenly appeared and started a family that led to the entire human race. Even if that had happened, this research is statistical analysis of a fairly small number of DNA samples and there is no way for it to trace back to specific people. It is abundantly clear that we did not all descend from one mated pair of humans a long time ago. However, this kind of research has concluded that all living humans have two common ancestors, one female who is a everyone’s common ancestor and one male who is a common ancestor of all living men. These are called our most recent common ancestors (MRCA). This does not imply that we have found their bodies. As I said, it has only been calculated through DNA analysis.

The analysis suggests that our female MRCA lived about 140,000 to 200,000 years ago and our male MRCA lived about 60,000 - 90,000 years ago (determined through molecular clock and genetic marker studies). They were obviously not contemporaries. They were separated in time by tens of thousands of years. I think it's safe to say that these two people didn't even know each other, much less have babies together. Mitochondrial-Eve is the female MRCA of all humans as traced via mitochondrial DNA passed only through the maternal line. Y Chromosome Adam is the male MRCA all living men as traced via the Y Chromosome passed only through the paternal line. We all have Mitochondrial DNA but only men have the Y Chromosome.

Another misconception theists take from this research is that it is tracing lines back to when only one set of people lived. However, Mitochondrial Eve was not the only woman in her day and Y Chromosome Adam was not the only living man in his day. If that had been the case, the human race would be extinct. The existence of a most recent common ancestor does not imply that there was a population bottleneck or a first couple. It is very likely that they were part of large populations. Each of these other people who were their contemporaries potentially has living descendents today although some lines have died out. As a matter of fact, the MRCA will change when a line dies out. This all might seem like a paradox but it can be easily explained, if the nature of genetic lineage is taken into account. I won't go into it. You can look it up if you are interested. There is something about this that theists can gloat about if they want. For what it’s worth this research does indicate that humans originated in Africa which is the continent where the Bible stories take place.

Note: I will be on vacation for the next week so don't expect any new posts or responses for a while. WF

Saturday, August 4, 2007

The Question of the Soul

One of the basic tenets of religion is the idea that humans have souls (or spirits) that are separate and distinct from our physical bodies, integrated only during life and freed after physical death to some fate or another. It would take volumes to discuss all the dogma religions have contrived regarding souls but that’s it in a nutshell. However, “soul” is not an exclusively religious term so talking about it can result in misunderstanding. The soul is generally considered to be the unique, self-aware, inner essence of a living person. But in religion, it has a supernatural basis. It is implanted or “breathed” into the body by God. Thus it is thought by some to be part of (or akin to) the supernatural essence of God, including immortality. To avoid confusion, I will be referring to the immortal soul here and not the poetic or philosophical notion of soul unless I specify otherwise. Some of my readers have expressed a belief in reincarnation. So let me just say that the question of the soul’s existence is not affected by its possible migration to other bodies before attaining its final goal. If anything, this provides even more ways to disprove it. I don’t plan to discuss reincarnation further. If souls don’t exist, that point is moot.

The soul is generally considered to be the true basis of sapience and one’s sense of identity. In a secular context, soul is just a convenient name for these attributes. Aristotle described the soul as the core essence of a being - that which defines a being. Although he did not believe the soul could continue after death, oddly enough, he was inclined to believe the intellect was eternal. However, he didn’t have the benefit of our current understanding of the role of the physical brain in cognition, memory and reason which form the basis of intellect. Humans have long used the term “soul” in folklore, poetry, art and philosophy. It permeates our culture. While much of this is intended to be metaphorical, that is seldom clear. Considering all this, I think it’s easy to understand why the idea of the immortality of souls is so pervasive, especially since so few people are aware of the current scientific understanding of the human neocortex and its relationship to consciousness and higher brain function. But I think close examination shows that the immortal soul is a fundamental misunderstanding of what life is and, and even more importantly, what the mind is.

It is clear that humans are conscious and self-aware. Even with our advanced understanding of the brain, we still have many different theories, conceptions and misconceptions about consciousness. My view of consciousness is that it is really nothing more than perception - awareness of reality including self-awareness. I certainly agree that consciousness is a rare thing in nature. Other animals have varying degrees of consciousness but nothing like the primate ability to think in terms of “I” and “me.” Of the primates, humans have the most developed example of this kind of self-awareness. In evolutionary terms, the most significant recent development in brain structure is the highly developed human neocortex. But for all the mystery in which we shroud these concepts, the functions of perception, sensation, memory, reason and emotion as well as maintenance of bodily functions are performed by our physical brain. How else would we lose consciousness when the brain is shut down as during surgery, brain damage or simply from a blow to the head? There are volumes of information that demonstrate inconsistency in the concept of the soul. Skeptical literature often cites phenomena such as brain lesions (as in Broca's aphasia) and conditions like Alzheimer's disease as evidence that personality is material, and exists in discrete physical components, contrary to the philosophy of the immortal soul. Owing to its complexity, most people are completely in awe of the brain as an organ and consider it, and the very act of thought, significant mysteries. To discuss all of the scientific literature would turn this already lengthy article into an unwieldy project that few would have time to read. I will try to confine my discussion to the conscious and volitional part of the human brain as I think it is the key argument for the existence of the immortal soul.

It is important to note that we naturally have difficulty analyzing the nature of our own consciousness because of our perspective. We have the same difficulty as we do when analyzing the entire universe. We can't get a “bird’s eye view” or examine it under a microscope. We also can’t avoid the observer effect. We can only know that we are conscious and self-aware. It is the irreducible basis of who we are. We know we think, but we don’t really understand how we think. We can observe others from an external perspective. But then we lose the internal perspective. To view this problem circumspectly we must consider our internal perspective to be generally equivalent with that of others who we can observe externally. This is not really a problem. As I said in a previous discussion, humans vary only trivially in our genetic structure. Our physical bodies are essentially identical. This applies to our brains as well. Why wouldn’t our cognitive awareness be effectively the same from one individual to another? We may arrive at different conclusions based on different experience and other conditions but the underlying mechanisms are identical for the purpose of study.

I think the brain/body dichotomy seems obvious to us because we understand and relate to the brain and body in different ways. To us, our consciousness seems to be completely separate from our physical body. They appear to be in totally different categories. One is obviously material and the other seems ethereal. The body is measurable. Consciousness is as nebulous as thought. Furthermore, we cannot see a connection between our brain and our consciousness. We don’t feel ourselves think. We know our brain is connected to our body because we receive the messages of our sense organs. But even with the greatest effort of will, we cannot sense that consciousness is a mere function of our brain. It is more difficult than trying to look at the inside of our own eyelids. So it is natural to speculate that it might be something different and special. We are clearly more than the sum of our parts. So, when we hear about spirits, it seems to make sense. We begin to think that maybe the mystics are right. Maybe there is such a thing as an immortal soul. After all, it is intangible and mysterious but definitely real. It doesn’t seem to get hungry or thirsty like our body. And perhaps it has a supernatural existence independent of the old “mortal coil.”

Our brain does some things that appear magical or mystical until they are understood. For instance, in the eyes of vertebrates the photo-sensitive cells called rods and cones lie behind the optic nerves and a layer of blood vessels resulting in loss of visual acuity. These nerves and blood vessels must emerge through the back of the retina, leaving a hole in the organ with no light-sensitive cells, and forming a blind spot. But our mind compensates for these blind spots by extrapolating and filling in the missing data. We don’t do this consciously but completely without thinking about it. Our mind does this in other circumstances, also without conscious effort. In any scene of our experience there are many elements including visual, tactile, auditory, and olfactory. And these are not all on one level. There are background elements and foreground elements as well as peripheral elements. There are also conditions that affect the amount of information received such as the level and intensity of each stimulus. If anything in the scene is incongruous or essentially missing, our mind can and usually does fill in the scene with what seems most likely based on our experience and expectations. If, for some reason, we are concentrating on certain specific details and don’t think about others at the moment of the experience, our memory may be a bit patchy on some details. But our mind helpfully fills in those details and sometimes when we recall the scenes for reexamination, we get the filled in details and cannot reasonably tell them from the clearly perceived data.

The cold hard fact of the matter is that when we die, our brain ceases to function. This is an observable and verifiable fact. We may be able to revive a dead body if we get to it soon enough, but dead bodies decompose rather rapidly if not preserved. Sometimes we can revive a dead body even after decomposition has started. But when we do this, we invariably find there is a significant loss of brain function. All victims of brain damage are observably not the same person they were before. The point is that all of our sensations, feelings, thoughts, memories and dreams are due to brain function. When that is damaged, there is often little left of the person we were. When we die, the body, the brain and the whole universe of matter continue to exist but the personality, intellect and consciousness of that person is gone. It is easy to see that a dead body is incapable of being aware of anything much less being self-aware. The more difficult concept to grasp is that a disembodied soul could not be self-aware. That is simply because it would have no self to be aware of. The question is: Why is this disputable? There is the notion promoted by such stories as the recent “Matrix” movies that say the mind retains a residual self-image. However, if the mind is the function of a physical brain, there is nowhere for this residual self-image to be retained. Even if we imagine a spiritual body, why can’t we detect the function of such bodies? For any information to be stored and processed requires power and substance. Where is this power and substance that allows a soul to perform the activity originally managed by the brain? If a spirit is invisible and immaterial, it cannot do what a brain can do. If it could, why would we need a brain in the first place?

I’m sure some will bring up the idea of Near Death Experience (NDE) and Out of Body Experience (OBE). Sometimes people who die are revived before any significant brain damage can occur. And some people report the ability to move their “soul” out of their body. Under these circumstances, odd things have been reported to occur. If you read the anecdotal evidence about these things, it can sound rather convincing. People are said to report all kinds of things they “couldn’t possibly have known” that occurred during their “death” or in remote locations. But all serious scientific studies into NDEs and OBEs have shown that the reported phenomena are fabrications, guesswork or otherwise easily explainable. If you believe in these claims, I suggest you read both sides of the issue and use critical thinking. If you are one who contends there is some kind of conspiracy on the part of scientists to cover up such real events, you don’t know much about scientists. Such a discovery, if sufficiently validated by double blind studies, could make the career of a scientist. It would be big news and guarantee the fame of anyone who proved it. But consider the incentives of profit and fame that might motivate the purveyors of such claims. Many people have made lucrative careers out of writing books and lecturing about this kind of thing. They are hucksters preying on the gullible and the hopeful people of the world. The idea of the soul as a separate ghostly occupant inhabiting the body also gives rise to other notions like haunting and demonic possession. I think it is obvious that we need to develop what Carl Sagan called a “Baloney detector” that will allow us to use knowledge and critical thinking skills to relegate these absurd ideas to the category of mystical quackery and pseudoscience where they belong.

Probably the main attraction of the notion of immortal souls is that it is comforting to think of loved ones continuing to live on in some peaceful way after their bodily death. This is perfectly understandable. When we lose a loved one, it’s natural to grieve and wish that things were different. Even the desire for personal immortality is natural. But wishing and hoping for things doesn’t make them happen. There is no correlation between desire and actuality. Facts are facts. We can’t change what is. The healthier thing to do is to come to terms with mortality. We all die. Life is too short. It sucks. Get over it. Sometimes we are left alone. Sometimes children die. It is heartbreaking, but it is reality. Besides, I think the notion of an afterlife causes people to put things off assuming there will be time later in another place to do things. Fortunately, they will never have the opportunity to regret this waste of their lives. But their children and friends might.

Personally, I find the whole idea of life after death to be demeaning to actual life. One of the worst examples of this is the idea that if you kill someone, it isn’t really that bad. That is how tyrants and terrorists can justify killing innocent people. They can just say that God knows his own and will give them a new life in heaven (or the paradise of your choice). It is actually an insidious rationalization. Religions sometimes even encourage this kind of thinking especially when it applies to unbelievers. The witch hunts are a good example. Ironically, this quick path to paradise doesn’t generally apply to suicides. This has to be a serious sin that would keep you out of heaven. The churches want you to believe in a glorious afterlife, but they don’t want too many people trying to take the short way out. That would seriously curtail their revenue if it got popular. They also depend on numbers of believers to give them power. Dead believers aren’t as useful as live ones. They can’t vote or protest or proselytize.

Most believers in the soul think of it as completely spiritual, supernatural and immaterial. However there have been those who think it has some material component. Some have even tried to establish mass or weight of the soul. Many of you may have heard it said that the weight of the soul is 21 grams. This was the inspiration for the title of a 2003 movie. The origin of this 21 gram weight comes from the work of one Dr. Duncan MacDougall of Haverhill Massachusetts in 1903. Believing the soul must have some sort of corporeal mass, Dr. MacDougall conducted a series of experiments to determine if the moment of the soul’s departure could be detected. He never concluded that the weight of the soul was 21 grams. In fact, he admitted that his experiments could not be considered conclusive of anything and no one has been able to duplicate his results. But 21 grams was his measurement of weight loss at the moment of expiration of his first test subject. While this is an interesting story, it clearly doesn’t help our understanding of the question of the soul. It also goes to show you that even if you rely on the claims of scientists, you still need to use critical thinking.

Of course, the only way to believe a God that is pure consciousness could give rise to the entire physical universe is to believe that consciousness can exist outside of a living body and is itself able to be a cause. First of all, we have no experience of such a thing. Every conscious being ever known is a living being. To the believer, disembodied souls are considered invisible and immaterial. In essence they are thought of as a force of some kind. But force is not a cause, it is an effect. Just like the mind is not a cause but an effect. The law of causality is how the universe works. You can’t have a cause, without an effect or an effect without a cause. No matter how attractive or popular these ideas are, they have no basis in fact.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Question of Morality

As an atheist, I am often asked about morality. Specifically, religious people ask if I have any morals and if so, what I base them on. To most believers, all morality comes from God. I not only disagree with this, I find it repugnant. If I do something considered immoral, I certainly get the blame. And that’s fine with me because I accept responsibility for all my actions. But if I act morally, it is all God’s doing and I get no credit. I am responsible for those actions too. But God even gets credit for my good deeds. I hate it when I go out of my way to help someone just to have them say “Thank God.” That is just ridiculous. We are all responsible for what we do for good or ill. We deserve the blame and the credit.

A lot of religious people find it inconceivable that an atheist can have any moral standards. They often assume that we choose to be atheists specifically to avoid having to follow any moral code. Some bizarre people even ask why we don’t just run around killing and raping indiscriminately. This demonstrates a profound ignorance that I find nauseating. One wonders if that is what they would do if they didn’t feel constrained by God. They are basically saying that only God is capable of caring about people. Thankfully, these people are in the minority. But even those who accept that atheists can be moral usually make the assumption that if an atheist does have moral standards they are invariably due to religious upbringing or at least exposure to the religious influence permeating society. Some find it to be validation of the theory that God built a conscience into all humans so we would know right from wrong. And since religion has been monopolizing the arena of moral ethics worldwide for thousands of years, I can see why they are confused. But, if anything, atheists are more moral than religious people. And we have better reasons to be so. As my Dad used to say, “Don’t shit in your own backyard.” It’s crude but makes a point. We atheists know that this is our only chance at life. There are no mulligans, no do-overs. We don’t expect a glorious afterlife. If we foul the social climate or wind up in jail, we have wasted the gift of life on nothing. Not to mention that if we take a life, we know it is gone forever. There is no heaven and no ultimate justice. There is no reward.

Thinking themselves experts on morality, religious people often decry what they call moral relativism - the notion that what constitutes right and wrong or good and evil are not absolute but depend on the individual, group and circumstances. In some respects, they are right. All human cultures have developed strikingly similar moral codes. But moral questions don’t fit in categories of absolute black and white. There are many situations that even people of good conscious disagree about such as the death penalty, war, foreign aid, criminal justice and abortion. Even in the Bible and other scriptures there are clearly situations that demonstrate moral gray areas.

We humans do certainly view some specific behaviors as good or bad with fair consistency. But does that indicate the existence of a god-given moral law? Superficially, it is easy to see how one might think so, especially if one is predisposed to accept the notion of God in the first place. But I think we need to look at humans as a species and consider the long history of human evolution along with our interaction with our environment and each other. Looking at the miniscule variation in our genes from any individual to any other, one will realize that there is no reason to infer supernaturally mandated moral law. It seems reasonable to say that we think alike because we are alike. Humans vary no more than 0.2 percent in the active coding regions of our DNA. For all practical purposes, we are identical on a functional level. The major differences between human cultures are due to effects of our environment and experience.

I don’t want to perpetuate a false dichotomy. I’m sure there are other schools of thought. But let’s consider the two possibilities mentioned so far. One says that humans have a God-given, universal system of moral laws somehow imprinted on us that gives us the ability to tell right from wrong. It tells us how God wants us to act. This has nothing to do with what we value but what God values. It is a spiritual thing unrelated to our physical being or even our cognitive process. The common religious view is that people are naturally evil and can only act appropriately through the good graces of a benevolent deity. All wrongdoing is due to the conflict between our immoral nature and the divine spirit of God he puts inside us. Like I said, if we are good, the credit goes to God. If we are bad, we get the blame. Why we couldn’t be made with a better nature is not explained.

The second of these possible explanations for our general agreement about moral rules is that humans have evolved as a species with specific common instincts, behaviors, desires and values that cause us to care about our fellow humans and our own life. We have also evolved a complex intellect that allows us to see the benefit to ourselves in creating and abiding by moral laws and ethical codes so we can live in peace and happiness. The result of all this is that our moral codes turn out to be amazingly similar across cultures. In this view morals and ethics are evolved behaviors which give our species a better chance of survival. It doesn’t mean we are mindless meat puppets without choice but that we are predisposed to cooperate and value not only our lives but the lives of those of our social groups and, to some extent, all members of our species.

As biological organisms, humans cannot compete physically with most other species because we don’t have claws, fangs, armor, speed, size or strength like they have. Our major asset is our superior brain. We are tribal creatures that live and work together cooperatively for the mutual benefit of all. We don't operate totally on instinct. We can recognize that this behavior is necessary and it should be reinforced with rules. We can sympathize with the problems and needs of others. This is true even now when we are competing with other humans more often than wild animals. Not only do we have little genetic difference, but most of coding differences in our DNA are very minor and superficial. We are amazingly like each other no matter how outwardly different we appear.

Given these facts, and that the biggest determinant for differences in moral viewpoints is the heterogeneity of our cultures, it seems that the more compelling of the two possibilities is the scientific one. And even if the two possibilities were equally feasible, the scientific one invokes no unverifiable, unexplainable supernatural entities. On the level of pure reason, the religious notion of morality is unsupportable.

There is a very good website that explains morality from a logical and rational perspective that you might want to peruse. I covers a lot more than I did here and has some excellent references that can be helpful in your study of this question. It is called, The Bible of the Good and Moral Atheist I highly recommend it.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Just God, Hold The Religion

One of the most frequent comments I have heard from believers regarding this blog (and my arguments in general) goes something like this: “Sure religions cause a lot of problems but it’s not God’s fault. There’s nothing wrong with believing in God. You should be arguing against religion, not God.” I have to scratch my head when people make such statements. Where do they think the concept of God comes from? What do they think religion is? The fact of the matter is that belief in God IS religion. God concepts are codified and perpetuated by organized religions. Left to themselves people would never come up with a consistent view of God if they did it at all. And organized religion is nothing more than groups of people who agree on a certain definition of God. The beliefs are their religion. The organization is secondary. The dogma that goes along with belief in God merely differentiates the groups.

It seems that a lot of people these days are noticing the hypocrisy, oppression, bigotry, intolerance, cruelty and greed associated with organized religion. But instead of questioning the core concept of God, they simply take their God with them and step away from the organization. (Julia Sweeney has recorded a great comedy routine where she talks about this) Some people are even raising their children with this God-only religion. They think this somehow makes them non-religious. And it is important to note that the God concept they take with them is almost invariably the one their religion gave them. When you ask them to describe God and what he wants or what he does, their answers usually sound just like the religion they left. If they were Christians, they usually keep Jesus and all the dogma of virgin birth, resurrection and salvation. They may be physically disassociated with the group but mentally they might as well be right back in church.

I can certainly see the attraction in this approach. You only have to give up what you don’t like. The great thing about this is that no one can question your beliefs because they aren’t tied to some label with all its ancient dogma, ritual and pageantry. It is appealing because it allows a person to modify their beliefs anytime they feel like it. You can say Jesus was gay if you want to because it’s no one’s business but yours. Too bad most of these people don’t change their beliefs noticeably. That seems rather pointless to me. For those who have the confidence to actually make a real change it turns out to be one of the first steps in becoming an atheist or agnostic. Whether consciously or not, what they have usually done is switch from thinking emotionally to thinking rationally. They have analyzed the claims of religion and cleared away a lot of unexplainable and incoherent nonsense. That is a good thing, but it’s only the beginning.

I think there are several reasons people hang onto God when they abandon organized religion.
  1. To let go of God is like saying goodbye to an old friend or a family member. They have normally grown up with this God as their ready companion or confidant or confessor. Even if they don’t always think about God, he has been a fixture in their lives - albeit an imaginary fixture.
  2. It’s built in. God concepts are part of human evolutionary development. It is a basic human instinct to anthropomorphize things like forces of nature and infinity that we don’t understand. But being a rational, civilized human means we have to overcome many of our natural instincts.
  3. The problems of religion are obviously the fault of people, not God. They think God is as much a victim of religion as they are. But if God does exist, who are they do decide this for him and if God doesn’t exist they are just keeping their imaginary friend.
  4. They are hedging their bets. According to many, the one truly unforgivable sin is to turn your back on God once you’ve known him. Leaving a church is bad enough but leaving God is like worshipping the devil. So they are covered if it turns out there is something to this God thing. These people probably aren’t very committed to it. They need to just fish or cut bait.
  5. They are worried about what their family would think if they were to announce that they had become atheists. That is a serious concern. Many families have disowned people for becoming atheist. I remember the story of a young man who told his mother he had something to tell her about himself that she wasn’t going to like. When he finally got to the point and said he was an atheist, she said she could have accepted it if he said he was gay or a pedophile or a gangster but he was no longer her son if he insisted on being an atheist. She would have rather found out he was terminally ill. In some parts of the world it is legal to kill your child if they deny God.
A person who leaves organized religion is usually a more observant, analytical person who likes to do their own thinking rather than blindly and obediently following ritual and custom. Either they are turned off by the hypocrisy and intolerance or they see the contradictions and circular thinking of religion and don’t want to be associated with obvious nonsense. But when you leave the realm of organized religion and start to analyze the things you know about God, you realize that you know absolutely nothing about it. God is completely unknowable. You may have imagined what God is like. It’s not as if there is such a thing as God that can be discovered. Usually all you have is the dogma you were taught or absorbed from your culture. A very thoughtful person will eventually realize that the concept of God is intellectually bankrupt and childish as Santa Claus. Leaving organized religion does not make you a non-religious person unless you rid yourself of the mystical magical nonsense called God.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Without a Prayer

I was raised from birth as a Christian and taught to believe in a God that cared about people. Naturally I believed it was true. Our culture was steeped in Christian beliefs and virtually no one questioned them. I had no reason to doubt the authority of my parents, relatives, pastors, and teachers. As a kid I just accepted it all without question. In my early teens I began trying to establish a personal relationship with God and Christ. Prayer was a huge part of this process. At that time, it was an integral part of life for our family. We said grace when we sat down to eat. We prayed for help when times were hard or when someone was ill. We also said bedtime prayers. It was part of our daily routine. In those days, we even said prayers in school.

I’m not looking for sympathy here but I had a pretty rough childhood. Sometime during my youth, I began to think of prayer as a way to try to escape my problems. We were poor and times were hard. My parents fought a lot. Dad drank too much and was abusive. Also, I was not popular as a kid. I had a weight problem and kids picked on me. Dad was a marine and we moved a lot. I had very few friends. And none of my friends were girls although I began thinking romantically about girls at an early age. I didn’t fit into most groups because I wasn’t athletic and I didn’t follow the fads. I drew pictures, read books and wrote poetry or short stories. I was a daydreamer and not really very interested in the real world most of the time. I usually lived in a fantasy world.

Religion was much like the other fantasy worlds I created in my mind. It was exciting because it was full of emotion, stories and camaraderie. I could feel accepted there. It was magical. One could have the power to change the world. I believed what Jesus said in Matthew 17:20 "For verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you." I recall several times when I prayed for specific things in my youth. Praying gave me confidence because I thought God was on my side. I prayed to get out of trouble. I prayed for a girlfriend. I prayed to succeed in sports. When these things eventually happened I believed that my prayers were answered. I prayed that my Dad would survive Viet Nam and he did. Lots of people survived Viet Nam but, in true Christian fashion, I considered this an answer to my prayers.

Looking back on it I can see that it was having confidence that enabled me to make some things happen. If people had been teaching me how to build self-confidence and how to believe in myself as a child, I wouldn’t have needed religion. I don’t need it now. Other than what I made happen myself, what happened was pure chance. My prayers were naïve. I trusted God to be there for me and I was shaken when I began to realize that it wasn’t really so. When prayer failed, I was confused. I prayed for God to help my parents resolve their problems and stay together. But they got divorced. I prayed for my baby brother to get well. But he died before he was a year old. I didn’t see the difference between the prayers that I believed were answered and those that were not answered. I knew that the things I was asking for were good things. I didn’t ask for riches or fame. I wasn’t trying to test God.

I had not yet learned the rationalization that God sometimes says “No” to prayers. It wouldn’t have made sense to me even then because I had read the scriptures that made it clear that God would give you whatever you asked for in faith and righteousness. These and many more scriptures say it in no uncertain terms.
Matthew 7: 7-8; “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened”
Mark 11:24;"Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them."
John 14:12-14 "Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father. And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it."

I believed that then. For God to refuse such a request made no sense. How could God say “No” when I asked for my baby brother to get better? I had no idea why God would want him to die. What conceivable plan could God have in letting an infant die? And if everything is going to happen the way God wants it to happen, what’s the point of prayer?

These questions haunted me for a very long time. However, I didn’t give up on God. I thought it would make sense some day when I learned more. I was told; “God works in mysterious ways.” And everyone else seemed to accept it as normal. I continued to be faithful and even felt that I had received a call to the Baptist ministry when I was fifteen. Looking back on it I am sure that I was responding to suggestions in the pastor’s sermons but then I attributed it to a call from God. I eventually got ordained. However, it was in a different religion. My questions about religious dogma had caused me to switch religions a couple of times by then. I was never a pastor because I entered the military under a different specialty but I did work as a lay minister for several years. I taught classes, counseled people and helped with the services. All this time I read the Bible and the scriptures of other religions. I read apologetics and religious discourses. And, of course, I prayed. I wanted to be sure I was doing what God wanted and serving the right church.

I struggled on with my questions and growing doubts for many years. The more I thought about the results of prayer, the more I realized that it just didn’t seem to make any difference. People were always praying and these prayers were about as effective as wishing on a star. I had thought that God would answer the prayers of those who were truly faithful and sincerely believed. What I began to see was that people could rationalize anything into an answer for a prayer. I talked to a lot of people about prayer and they all had different ways of looking at it. But their experiences were all the same no matter what their faith. When they prayed, whatever happened was the same thing that would have happened by sheer chance. Statistically speaking, there wasn’t any difference.

When I talked to people about what they experienced as answers to prayers, some people said they heard a voice in their head. Others said they felt a warm feeling in their chest or other part of their body. Some people just said they felt calm. I had never experienced that kind of answer. I wondered if there was something wrong with me. When I prayed, I just talked to God silently or vocally but never got any response. The only way I ever had to determine if a prayer was answered was by the results. And I could see that was no help. When I told people this they sometimes said that I wasn’t faithful enough or that I needed to pray for God’s will to be done. As for the faith part, I knew that I had at least started out with unquestioning faith. And to pray for God’s will to be done seemed pointless. If no one ever prayed, wouldn’t God manifest his will anyway? There seemed to be no end of suggestions for rationalizing away the failure of prayer.

One of the most common things people said that confirmed prayer to them was the miraculous remission of disease they had actually seen as the result of prayer. Well my family and I had often prayed over sick people and the recovery rate for all diseases in my experience is precisely the same with prayer as it is for the disease normally. People died from the diseases that were fatal and they recovered from those that weren’t. I never saw a miraculous cure. People have said they believe in the power of prayer because one of their friends or family members recovered from something like cancer when the odds were 1000 to 1 against it. But that doesn’t prove anything because if a disease is not 100% fatal, some people will survive. It might seem miraculous but it is just that some people will recover even given terrible odds. That’s just the way it works.

A lot of people have told me of experiences where they or their loved ones were destitute and prayed for help. Lo and behold someone just came to the door or stepped up to them and gave them money or some other kind of aid. They always say it was just out of the blue and that no one had any reason to help them out. They say; “it must have been from God.” I guess they lived in a vacuum and no one had any idea they were poor. But I’ve been on both sides of this kind of situation. When we were poor there were times when people just showed up with food or money. And since I’ve become relatively successful in my life, I’ve done the same thing for others. People know who the poor people are. There are many groups who take up collections for the poor and, if they don’t already have someone in mind, they find them by checking with welfare organizations or churches or they just drive around until they see someone in need. It’s not a miracle. It is just people caring for people.

Some say that since most of this aid comes from churches, that makes religion a good thing. They say that in effect it is God who is helping. I applaud the humanitarian works of churches especially when there are no strings attached. But I don’t think it takes religion for this to happen. It would be hard to determine the difference in the amount of humanitarian work done by non-religious people and religious people. But since more than 90% of the people in this country believe in God, no one can use the fact that most aid is given by churches as an indicator of anything. For example, if 90% of the people are religious and they provide 75% of the aid, then the 10% who are non-religious people are providing 25% of the aid. That would mean non-religious people are more generous and would not look good for religion. Even if we could determine the exact amount of humanitarian aid provided by churches, it is not clear whether the people who contribute are themselves believers. Many non-religious people donate to religious charities. There are also secular sources of humanitarian aid and we cannot know whether religious belief motivates those who donate to those charities. Anyway, who cares about the source of aid provided when you are in desperate need? The point is that good people care about others and that is who is providing the help. It doesn’t matter if they believe in God. To attribute humanitarian work to God is gratuitously crediting God for what people do.

The Bible and the scriptures of other religions make it clear that those who follow a religion other than the “true religion” will not receive help from God. In fact they are reviled. They are sinful unbelievers. Their prayers will fall on deaf ears. Christians are told in the Bible by Jesus to hate even their family members who don’t follow him (Consider Matthew 10:35-37 and Luke 12:51-53). Even so, the efficacy of prayer is the same no matter the religion of the person praying. If there was a true religion then the followers of that religion should benefit more from their supplications. But there is no difference. So there is no one true religion and it is quite obvious that they can’t all be right.

Recently there has been a lot of buzz among people of faith about studies that supposedly show the efficacy of prayer in helping people overcome disease. I’ve seen many an article by the likes of Dr. Uwe Siemon-Netto touting 1,200 studies at research centers around the world that show a correlation between faith, prayer and recovery from illness. While Siemon-Netto has a Ph.D, it should not surprise anyone to find out that it is a theology degree. That’s like being a doctor of astrology. I don’t know why people can get a doctorate in a field that is based completely on superstition. But this is getting to be a long article and I’ll save that for another day. What I’m saying is that there is no scientific evidence of the efficacy of prayer. The studies people refer to and that you may have read about in the news are not scientific. They are not double-blind studies that can achieve meaningful results (even when they claim to be). I’ve read as many as I can find and even the most hopeful ones have a margin of error that makes them statistically insignificant. They also totally ignore the placebo effect. For more on this see:
Straight Dope about Prayer Studies

For those of you who are tempted to say that God should not be tested I refer you to the Bible: Malachi 3:10 "Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this," says the LORD of hosts, "if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows."

God doesn’t appear to have a problem being tested.

For more in-depth discussion of the failure of prayer see:

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Ultimate Purpose

Many religious people say that a life without God is meaningless. They seem to think that life is pointless if we don’t have some higher purpose. Apparently the only way for us to have value is to serve God. Of course, a lot of their concern over this seems to be due to the impermanence of life. It dismays them to think that it all comes to an end. And they think that without the continuation of life that God promises, there is nothing worth living for.

This seems to me like a particularly morbid and depressing outlook. Even when I was a Christian, I never felt that life was meaningless without God. I have always thought that life is special in and of itself. For life to be meaningless without God there would have to be nothing but God in life. But there is so much more to life. The purpose of life is to live it and enjoy it. That would be true even if God did exist.

Life doesn't have to have some special ultimate purpose. Life is precious. It is full of emotions, challenges and experiences. Personally I love life. It’s certainly better than the alternative. My relationships with my family and friends are priceless. And learning new things is exhilarating. The joy of life is not in some ultimate goal but in the experience of it. To use a cliché, Life is a journey, not a destination. There are so many things to do and see. And we can build or create things that have the potential to go on after us. If we want immortality we should seek it by trying to make the world a better place and improve the human condition instead of tearing it apart with religious strife. I’m not anxious to die, but the fact that I will not exist after I die doesn’t bother me in the least. As Mark Twain said, “I was dead for millions of years before I was born and it never inconvenienced me a bit.”

If life is nothing more than serving God, it brings to mind the Euthypro Dilemma. What can we possibly do for a perfect being? If God lacks nothing and needs nothing he does not need us. To imply that our actions, no matter how pious or holy, can benefit God is nothing more than hubris. If God doesn’t need us and the only purpose in life is serving him - that would be a meaningless life. And in my opinion, a God that keeps people around solely for the purpose of praising him would be a petty being unworthy of that praise.

On the flip side theists say we need God to help us behave properly so we don’t run amok and allow the world to fall into chaos and sin. But is that really true? Why would we want to do that? What would it benefit us? Humans have the intelligence to see that working together cooperatively is better than the alternative. Why would we create a world of suffering for ourselves and our posterity? We have built societies where we can all live together in peace - but only when religion is taken out of the equation. One of the major impediments to world peace is religion. Religions can't cooperate because their dogma is unchangeable. Religion could easily be the downfall of the human race. For me, life seems to be more meaningful without God.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

God is Out of Time, in More Ways Than One

Recently I was reading C. S. Lewis’ acclaimed work of Christian Apologetics, Mere Christianity. No, I’m not a masochist. I was doing this because I have been told by many Christians that it is a really well written and intelligent examination of the beliefs of their faith. I always try to give their ideas a fair hearing. Many people say that this one book motivated them to become a Christian. One of these people is Francis S. Collins MD, PhD, director of the Human Genome Project. As an unbeliever, I am always interested in studying what makes people believe in something that seems to me to be ludicrous nonsense. And I know from experience that if an atheist fails to read all of the recommended references of religion, the believers will accuse him of being closed minded or being afraid that he might find out the truth of the matter. Heaven forbid! Actually, I don’t really care what they think of me. And frankly, nothing an atheist ever does will convince them that he honestly tried to understand their religion. However, it does lend credibility to your arguments when you can intelligently discuss these works and show that you have read and understood them or at least thought seriously about them.

As I read this particular book, I was amazed at Mr. Lewis’ certainty about things which no one has or could have the slightest knowledge. Although Lewis often says that there really is no way to know such things, he prattles on as if he has inside information. One of the things about which he is absolutely certain with no basis at all is the notion that God must exist outside of time. Obviously, this is nothing new. I have heard it said many times, but never in so much detail. To give the idea a fair hearing, I tried very hard to conceive of a God who might exist outside of time. Before I go into what I think about the matter, I must say that Lewis doesn’t seem to really understand what it would mean for any being to exist in a timeless state because throughout the book (both before and after he claims that God is atemporal) he refers to God as eternal (a reference to time) and he talks about what God did in the past and what he will do in the future. How is it that he can say God is not subject to time and then refer to him as if there is some chronology to what he does or is? It is very curious.

The first thing that occurred to me when trying to conceive of a God outside of time is that a vast amount of our language could not apply to such a being. This certainly appears to make it rather impossible to understand anything about God even though Lewis himself seems to think we can. He boldly states that God cannot be thought of as having a past or future and that all time is as a single moment to him. But he blithely ignores that assertion as he goes on to say many rather ridiculous things about God. I got the feeling that this notion of an atemporal God was developed as a refutation of some complaints about the concept of God. For instance, Lewis says that some people wonder who was minding the universe while God, as Jesus, was living a temporal human life. Of course, this could also be answered by referring to the belief that God is actually three people in one. Lewis attempted to make a case for this as well although he flatly denies that this makes Christianity a polytheistic religion. He claimed that this is because in the spiritual realm of God it is possible for multiple beings to constitute one being. Apparently they are somehow dimensionally analogous to how squares make up a cube. Anyway, I’ll leave that for another time and go on with the discussion of an atemporal God.

I think it might be useful to make a short list of words that have no meaning when referring to such a timeless God. Obviously, references to time are out of the question including nearly any statement using words such as: then, now, next, before, later, after, when, again, whereupon, begin, end, start, stop, because, while, during, duration, progress, history, happen, occur, plan, intend, attempt, interval, wait, dwell, develop, proceed, abide, delay, etc. Needless to say, when referring to such a god it is meaningless to refer to any past, present or future tense or the passage of time. As a thought experiment, try writing a story about something happening without ever using a word or phrase that explicitly or implicitly mentions the passage of time. Truly, this God he speaks of is so alien to us that it is simply not possible to understand it at all. This all makes me more certain of my claim that the God these people worship is incomprehensible, unintelligible and incoherent. Ah, but there’s more.

It would be equally nonsensical, when referring to this God, to speak of cause and effect since a cause must come before an effect. There is just no other way for things to work. Oddly, Lewis tries to make a case for Jesus being the begotten son of God while simultaneously claiming that Jesus has always existed. This puts a rather insufferable strain on any notion of begetting. But this problem would crop up with any claim that God performed an action that had a beginning or an end. Similarly, nothing can be said to move or act if time does not exist. Movement requires time because it implies that a thing is in one place and afterward is in another place. If no time elapses, there is no movement. If the thing is in both places at once, it is overlapping itself all through the phases of the movement. And that is just ridiculous. Even thought requires time to progress from one idea to another. Progression is meaningless without time. To gain knowledge implies time because there must be a state before the knowledge was gained where it had yet to be gained. Oh, it hurts my brain to think about it.

Lewis says that God knows our future and past actions because, for him, they are all happening at the same moment. Just think about that. If all things exist at the same moment at every stage of development and every point of movement then everything would overlap itself and everything else using that space at what would otherwise be another time. Matter takes up space and it moves around in space. A dynamic system like the universe cannot all be contained in the same instant irrespective of time. All change and movement depends on time. If there is no time, everything would have to be static and frozen in space.

And everyone with the understanding of grade school science knows that our bodies and all physical things are made up of the elements of the universe. Each cell in our body and every molecule are replaced numerous times during our lives. As Francis Collins stated in his book, The Language of God, at one time the same molecules that were part of a rock or plant can at some other time be part of a person’s body. If time is an illusion created by God, as Lewis states, and all things really exist at once, how could the same matter simultaneously be part of a rock or tree and a person or fish? It makes no sense. We can also see an interesting result of this thinking in logic. Even believers in an omnipotent God will agree that he can only do what is logically possible. For instance, he can’t make 2 + 2 = 5 or make a rock too heavy for him to lift it. And virtually everyone will accept the rule of logic that says mutually exclusive things cannot coexist although they may exist at separate times. However, if time is illusory, this rule is either untrue or else mutually exclusive things cannot exist at all.

The whole concept of God existing outside of time is harder to swallow than a bowling ball. I even tried to invoke Quantum Mechanics, String Theory or M Theory to explain a being like God existing outside of time. But even though it might help to avoid some of the dynamics of matter coexisting in real space, it cannot explain how any sort of being or mind could exist apart from time in a complete void. I think I have gone further to try to understand this concept than is strictly necessary but I don’t want to be accused of intellectual dishonesty. I conclude that the proposition of an atemporal God is a baseless assertion. And even if I have not made a convincing enough argument that this type of God is impossible, at least I have shown that there is no explanation of how it is possible to know this about God. And Lewis himself says that there is nothing doctrinal or factual to base this idea upon. I really tried to give Lewis a chance but I have to say that, all in all, Mere Christianity is mere rubbish. And I didn’t even talk about the unsupported nonsense he preaches about a universal moral law. I’m going to save that for a later time.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Question of Faith

"Faith" is a term that has many nuances of meaning. It connotes belief in someone or something. It implies confidence and trust in its object. It is up to reasonable people to infer the condition that faith should be based on evidence and experience. Although it is a perfectly good word, it has been tainted by its religious use. Religions call for unquestioning obedience to dogmatic principles that have no rational justification. They ask for faith without factual evidence and offer no experiential basis for trust. Religion provides no better justification for faith than anecdotal evidence and appeals to nebulous spiritual ideas. This kind of faith has no practical application to the real world. In fact, religious faith can make people act contrary to common sense. For example, someone who has faith in God may believe that they are more likely to get a better job by praying for it than by improving their employability through education, experience and appearance.

To counter such disparaging remarks about their dogmatic faith, religious people (especially fundamentalists) sometimes say that faith in science is the same thing as faith in God. This argument sounds hollow. Generally speaking, those who can be said to have “faith” in science don't have a blind belief in the infallibility of scientists or of the scientific results. I just don’t think "faith" is the best term to describe their confidence in science. I think it behooves us to use the words that best indicate what we intend to say. Only if you intend to convey a blind following of scientific dogma would you be correct in using the term "faith". But this isn’t usually how rational people think of science.

It simply isn’t necessary to have blind faith (unfounded belief) in science. Science proves itself every day. We are the beneficiaries of innumerable products and conveniences that have been brought about by science. Many diseases have been eradicated through science. None of this scientific knowledge came from God. And religious faith doesn’t produce any such results. With science, it becomes less about confidence and more about what is obvious. Whether God can be proven true or false is beside the point. Either way, the reality of nature is staring us right in the face. Historically, we have been able to make the most progress as a species when we weren't worshipping Gods but are working with nature and observable facts.

Life and the universe are mysterious and they give up their mysteries grudgingly. And it is good to be open to any way to achieve understanding. But it is questionable whether anything valuable can be learned by following ancient superstitions and myths. One big thing religion claims to do is help people live moral lives. Perhaps that’s true in some cases, but overall there is no basis for that claim. Statistically there is no positive correlation between morality and religious belief. Trying to live a good life is a noble thing. I personally think it imparts meaning to life in the process. However, it doesn't require God or religion to do so. Nor does it require science. But here, there is definitely a conflict between religion and science. It is expressed in the difference between trying to find meaning that makes us comfortable and trying to find meaning in reality. In the end, there may be no ultimate purpose or meaning to life. That doesn’t mean our lives are meaningless. It just means we have to find meaning in the experience of life itself.

The common view of the relationship between religion and science is that science attempts to answer the "how" and "what" questions of observable and verifiable phenomena, while religion attempts to answer the "why" questions that deal with morality and purpose. Actually, science looks to answer all relevant questions that deal with reality. Religion doesn’t really answer any questions although it claims to have all the answers. It gives us comforting stories with lots of nice sounding metaphors and analogies to our own human experience. It promises us rewards for good behavior. In contrast, science definitively answers many questions. But because science goes where the evidence leads, we don’t always find comforting and pleasant answers. Unlike religion, science doesn't start with a predetermined conclusion.

Religions claim to tell us where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going after this life. Science has answers to all these questions, but they don’t make us all feel warm and fuzzy. The reason answers to these big questions don't appeal to some people is that we sometimes don't like the simple, unvarnished truth. The answer appears to be that we have no external purpose and that each of us has to determine what we want our purpose to be. It’s simple, but not comforting. Imagining a more satisfying answer leads us to difficulty and often delusion.

Don’t get me wrong. Imagination is one of the greatest things mankind has. Science is advanced by our imagination. It takes imagination to come up with a "what if" question and then test our theories against the facts, especially in the face of "conventional wisdom" that tells us the answers lie elsewhere. It leads us to greater understanding of our existence and can usually lead us to consistent answers that everyone can use. Religion (organized or not) leads to a lot of possible but implausible answers. By its very nature, it cannot give us consistent, unambiguous answers with consistent results. But it can make us feel good. Science may not be appealing to some people because it is utilitarian instead of warm and comforting. But it has a track record that warrants faith in scientific answers.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Perfectly Impossible

While there are many areas of dogma over which theists of even the same denomination will disagree, one thing that most believers agree upon is the notion that God is perfect. However, it seems that many people don’t really stop to consider the full ramifications of this simple statement. It is too easy to just accept that a being capable of doing what God is credited with doing must be perfect. But, is it reasonable to make that assumption? I don’t think so. Although I won’t attempt to cover every possible angle of this question, I will look at what perfection means in human terms, how the perfect state of God is defined and how these definitions interrelate. I will also look at some arguments for and against God’s perfection and then propose a conclusion about the feasibility of the actual existence of a God who is perfect.

I do not intend to belabor the usual objections to God’s perfection by repeating such things as the “problem of evil” or asking how a perfect Creator can preside over an imperfect creation. Nor do I want to go into the details of God’s actions and statements in scriptures that show him to be less than perfect. These are valid points but I would like to take a little different approach in my treatment of the subject. What I really want to discuss is what actual ultimate perfection would mean. This is a question that has often been raised by philosophers and logicians. But my goal is to make this article less complicated and more accessible for the average person. I hope to state it in a clear and understandable manner without resorting to the use of formal logic or philosophical jargon.

Perfection is a very subjective thing. For most of us, perfection is a standard by which we measure our progress. It isn’t really a goal. It isn’t something we generally expect to achieve. Standards of perfection are typically not instantiated. They are ideals but are unattainable in any practical sense. If perfection is ever achieved, there is nothing left to achieve. Since we don’t generally strive for perfection in all things at once, I suppose that a person could try something different and still have something to look forward to. At least we have that option. An ultimately and universally perfect being would have no such option.

While there is a range of definitions of the word “perfect”, it is generally defined as: being excellent or complete beyond practical or theoretical improvement. Indeed this seems to be what most people mean when they say God is perfect. Another common definition refers to something conforming absolutely to the description or definition of an ideal type. It is doubtful that this could refer to God. Since the vast majority of theists are monotheists, the statement seems rather pointless. If there is only one God, he is both the best and the worst sort of God. To say that there is an ideal god type sounds ludicrous. There isn’t even a consistent definition of what a god is much less an ideal type.

We also use perfection in the sense of being without any flaws, defects, or shortcomings. But this definition also implies a standard by which to compare. For this definition of perfection, there must be the possibility of imperfection. Applied to God it would mean there must also be flawed or defective gods. Perfection can also refer to something that precisely fits a specific need or purpose. However, this would not explain God’s perfection as a being but merely his suitability for a purpose.

Anselm’s Ontological Theistic Argument from his Proslogion of the late 11th century is well known. It claims that we can use reason alone to prove that God exists. It states that God is “something than which nothing greater can be imagined.” God is the most perfect thing imaginable. Anselm further states that something that exists is greater or more perfect than something that is imaginary. So he concludes that God must exist. But there is no justification for saying that existence is more perfect than imagination. While I think we would all prefer to be real than imaginary, existence has nothing to do with perfection. We all exist and few of us would say that fact makes us perfect.

Anselm’s argument was refined and logically formalized by Decartes in the mid 17th century. But it is still little more than a gratuitous assumption. In his Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant makes the observation that no matter what properties we may imagine for God, existing is not a property of a thing at all. To put a finer point on it, existence is a state of being, not a perfection. The question is whether our concept of God corresponds to anything real. Kant says that pure reason cannot answer the question of God’s existence (unless the concept of God is self-contradictory, in which case God cannot exist). He illustrates the error in Anselm’s assumption by rephrasing the argument thus: "Utopia is the most perfect ('the greatest') society conceivable." To conclude from this that Utopia must therefore exist is clearly ridiculous. Observation and experience are required to make that determination.

Saint Anselm’s argument is fallacious and it is also vague. It lacks specificity. He says that God is “something” and it is the greatest “something” that can be conceived. To say God is the greatest there is without specificity would seem to say that God is the ultimate in every category and aspect of being. But how could that be? That would make God the greatest conceivable author, criminal, philatelist, politician, mime, liar, comedian ad infinitum. So, I don’t think the ultimate “everything” is quite what Anselm had in mind. If he is saying that God is the greatest possible God imaginable, we need to know what the definition of God is and what standard is used.

If a comparison is to be made between a perfect being and a less than perfect being, it seems we must concentrate on specific attributes to compare. Given the anthropomorphic view of God it is not surprising that the attributes generally proposed for this comparison are those we humans find appealing. They are: knowledge, power, presence and goodness. The perfect versions of these attributes are: Omniscience (ultimate knowledge), Omnipotence (ultimate power), Omnipresence (infinite presence) and Omnibenevolence (ultimate goodness).

I suppose it would be silly to include tongue length in the list. Except that as mere imperfect humans we are woefully inadequate to dare decide what attributes are important when referring to God. Maybe God is very proud of the length of his tongue. Since we are told by theists and their scriptures that we cannot fathom the mysteries of God, perhaps we go too far when we presume to exclude any seemingly trivial attribute. God’s attributes are said to be nothing like what we mere mortals experience. Indeed, many will tell you that we can only understand a fractional approximation of what God is. At the risk of rendering God completely unintelligible, theists undermine our every attempt to gain any sort of understanding of God.

A thorough reading of the scriptures of Abrahamic religions will show that God displays many emotions and passions other than love. We read of emotions like jealousy, anger, hate, and pride. If God is a being than which no greater can be imagined, it seems that God’s attributes should include the ultimate version of these. But you will probably never hear God described as Omnipassionate, Omnisensual or Omniconceited. The obvious reason for these things existing in scripture is that some people got a little carried away with anthropomorphizing God. To top it off, some of these emotions are considered negative. But I guess its going too far to suggest that God might also be optimally bad.

Because God is said to be the ultimate in each of his attributes, he is the standard of perfection in each of them. For example, God is the absolute standard for goodness. But, in order to avoid circularity we have to refrain from using God as the standard of goodness when we are talking about God. The essential question posed by the Euthyphro Dilemma (derived from Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro ) is whether something is good because God says so or does God say so because he recognizes a universal standard of goodness? In other words, do actions or attributes have an absolute quality of goodness independent of God? This has to do with the question of what standard makes God perfect. Is God perfect because he meets an absolute standard of perfection, or is perfection defined as what God is? Is there a separate standard or is God the standard? If God is the standard then to say God is perfect is to say God is God. We have gained nothing. If God is not the standard, then something else exceeds or preceded God in perfection.

According to most theists, God has finished the journey to perfection or he was there to begin with. In either case, he is there, fully realized in all his perfect glory, and not in just one limited sense but in all ways. God is the epitome of the concept of perfection. He is omniperfect. The problem is that from a state of absolute perfection there is no room for improvement. What could a perfect being possibly strive for? What goals could he have? Once perfection is reached, by definition, no further progress can be made. Thus God must be become static because the only place to go is down. God simply has nothing to look forward to. If he has already reached the pinnacle of perfection in all things, what else could he do?

If this is a difficult concept to grasp, think of it this way. Let’s say you are climbing a mountain and you reach the summit. You have attained your ultimate goal. Since you cannot fly, if you move at all, you have started back down the mountain. Any change reverses your progress. You may stay there and stagnate but you cannot advance. This all demonstrates the fallacy of saying that God is perfect. If God has achieved ultimate perfection in all things, he can do nothing to increase his perfection. He must stop or go backwards. God would have to do nothing because doing anything beyond perfection could only make him less perfect. Not least because, even if the thing he’s doing is the best possible thing to do, it means he had not already done it which makes him less than perfect. In this case, it seems God would have to cease to exist because existence without action would render him useless. And that is an imperfection.

This leads to many other interesting questions. Does an absolutely perfect being need anything? The traditional God seems to need things of us. But being in need of something implies a lack. And that means imperfection. I wonder how our praise or worship could benefit a perfect God. Indeed, what could a completely perfect being possibly gain from us? We can only spoil his perfection. And why must we serve God? What can our service to God do for him? This is effectively what Socrates was saying to Euthypro in one of Plato’s dialogues. To imply that when you perform a holy or pious action you enhance God in some way, is a dangerous example of hubris. What then is the purpose of serving God?

If God is absolutely perfect and complete, why would he need or want to create us? I have heard some theists say that since God is perfect, he is perfectly free to do whatever he wills. That may be true, but in exercising that freedom he can only move away from his state of perfection. No matter the reason, if God created us, we became a part of what defines him. That makes him the God that created humanity. We would be forever intertwined with what God is. He would be diminished by our imperfection. But perhaps he was simply tired of stagnation. Or perhaps, ignoring the oppressive baggage of traditional religious dogma, a perfect being might simply create things as a mere byproduct of its nature without will or intent. God might be a perfect force that throws off creations in its wake. But if we are talking about a force without intention and purpose, why call it God? It sounds like a scientific theory of how things formed due to the natural forces and laws governing the physical universe. This tends to demystify the concept of God. It is probably unsatisfying for most theists.

It appears that a perfect being is no more than a myth, for several reasons. First of all, perfection is a subjective opinion and not an actual quality. Perfection is undoubtedly in the eye of the beholder. Absolute perfection implies a universal standard that is not in evidence. It also cannot circularly refer to itself and be meaningful. Ultimate perfection in an active being is impossible because any change can only move it away from ultimate perfection. I think it is also clear that vague appeals to our imagination are no help. There just isn’t any substitute for observation and experience. Unfortunately, regarding God, these are things we cannot have.

The entire point is rendered moot when we are denied our own definitions as tools for understanding. We cannot be expected to use some presumed supernatural definition. When trying to discuss any attribute of God, the final outcome will inevitably be that we, as mere humans, cannot understand a supernatural being. This tends to make the entire concept of God incoherent. We try to understand the concept of God but in the end God is so different from us as to be totally incomprehensible. Believers say it is important to know God and what he wants for us. But when pressed, they admit that God is ultimately unknowable. In that case, everyone is necessarily agnostic. The question is this: when faced with something unknowable, is it best to accept it as true or to reject it until there is some way to at least comprehend it?

Friday, February 23, 2007

My List of Problems with Theism

  1. There is not one iota of unequivocal evidence that any God exists.
  2. God cannot explain all that exists because God itself cannot be explained. This claim just gratuitously swaps one mystery for another.
  3. Religions do not explain any mechanism or process whereby God created everything. It is effectively an appeal to magic.
  4. Religious faith is generally indistinguishable from gullibility. Trust and faith, as human concepts, are normally based on experience and reason. Religious faith is necessarily based on belief in unproved and unknowable things.
  5. A god or anything that exists outside the realm of natural reality is necessarily unknowable, unintelligible and incoherent. It is therefore irrational to believe in something that is supernatural.
  6. Religious scripture:
    1. is man-made
    2. contains many translation and interpretation errors
    3. is often self-contradictory
    4. often contradicts known facts
    5. promotes conversion by violence
    6. calls for punishment and death to unbelievers
    7. contains virtually no specific and unequivocal predictions
    8. contains only vague predictions beyond its own time
    9. contains many failed prophecies, predictions and unfulfilled promises of God
  7. Scripture contains too much that is vague, metaphorical and symbolic to be instructions from a divine being to humans. A perfect being would be expected to be able to communicate much better than that.
  8. In order to render most of scripture useful, it must necessarily be interpreted. This makes it easily twisted to support nefarious purposes.
  9. The problems with scriptures outweigh any good messages they may contain. If read at all, they should be considered opinion and philosophy and taken with a grain of salt.
  10. Morals are based on human sympathy and empathy, not on divine guidance. Establishing moral codes based on theism is unnecessary, riddled with contradictions, and fraught with danger.
  11. Religion is divisive in that it pits groups of otherwise indistinguishable people against one another. There are already more than enough differences for humans to fight over. And religion is the most intransigent of such divisions because many people feel it is a divine duty to revile those who believe differently than they do even if they don't see the reason in it.
  12. Religions are generally intractable when it comes to substantive compromise with other religions or belief systems.
  13. All suggested ways to perceive God rely on internal mechanisms that are subject to personal desires, suggestion, and mistakes. On the question of communicating with God, religion insidiously asks us all to deceive ourselves.
  14. People are animals. We are only special due to our more developed brain. (We share 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees)
  15. Abrahamic religions teach that the earth is only about 6000 to 10000 years old. All claims of a young earth are refuted by volumes of clear and mutually corroborating evidence in multiple scientific disciplines as well as a host of mutually confirming dating techniques that are not subjective or rationalized.
  16. Every culture that has existed has had God myths and other superstitions. This is often used as an argument for the existence of God. Rather than indicating that there is a true God, this indicates that people are simply attracted to the idea.
  17. Goodness, truth, wisdom and all other purported attributes of God are human concepts. When applied to a presumed entity so completely different in kind as to be supernatural, they are meaningless. The idea of God is thus incoherent.
  18. Infinity is a concept humans cannot comprehend except in a limited mathematical sense. If God is infinite, this also renders him unintelligible.
  19. Belief in an afterlife is insidious and detrimental to social responsibility and mental health. It demeans actual life and frequently leads to the notion that killing someone is, at least conceivably, doing them a favor.
  20. Organized religion wastes untold amounts of money and resources that could be used to care for people, promote real knowledge, and advance the human race.
  21. Theism puts God above people thereby making people subservient, unimportant and expendable.
  22. Religion relies on guilt, fear and outlandish promises to gain obedience.
  23. Theism generally precludes any possibility of testing God or questioning his existence substantively. It is something like the wizard of Oz saying, "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."
  24. The methods used in proselytizing for religion bear an unmistakable resemblance to the methods of confidence men. But the scriptures consider this the great commission of mankind.
  25. There are many good rational and logical arguments against theism but not one argument in favor of it that doesn't rely on a fallacy or assumption.
  26. There are so many Gods put forth by thousands of religions that no one could ever be certain of picking the correct one, assuming that one exists.
  27. Prayer is totally subjective and cannot be shown to have any more efficacy than pure chance.
  28. There is no discernable difference between believing in God and having an imaginary friend.
  29. People generally rely on facts and evidence in every human endeavor except religion.
  30. Unequivocal miracles do not occur.
  31. God supposedly speaks directly to the human spirit. This must be, at least partly, the same concept as mind. People who receive messages in their minds are invariably delusional.
  32. There is no positive correlation between belief in God and being a moral person.
  33. Populations that are predominantly theistic are almost invariably poor and undereducated. The converse is almost invariably true of populations that are predominantly atheistic.
  34. Populations that are predominantly theistic almost invariably have higher general crime rates, higher violent crime rates, higher murder rates, higher infant mortality rates, more disease and starvation as well as inadequate healthcare. The converse is almost invariably true of populations that are predominantly atheistic.
  35. Belief in religion has spawned uncounted cults that draw people in by appealing to the concept of faith without proof and the promise of prophets to come. Some examples are: Jim Jones and the People's Temple, David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, Marshal Applewhite and Heaven's Gate. These groups had religious followers who were convinced to brutalize, mutilate and kill themselves and their children on the basis of this kind of blind faith.
  36. Religion has an extremely violent history that includes such things as crusades, inquisitions, genocide, terrorism and holy war. Untold millions have died in the name of religious icons and for religious beliefs.
  37. Religions have a long history of misogyny.
  38. Religion can be and has been used to support the concept of slavery.
  39. Religious dogma is practically immune to the incorporation of new facts. The best it can do is strained reinterpretation.
  40. The argument that God cannot be proven not to exist is irrelevant when one considers that to do so requires that the concept of a supernatural God be intelligible and coherent, which it is not.
  41. There is a well known argument commonly called "The Problem of Evil". It basically says that if an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God exists, unnecessary or gratuitous evil would not exist in the world. Thus if God sees this type of evil and does nothing he is either not omnibenevolent because he doesn't care or not omnipotent because he is unable to stop it. There are many counter-arguments that have been used. However the only one that really could defeat the Problem of Evil is if one says that we cannot apply human standards to decide what is or is not gratuitous evil. This may well be true, but that argument renders God unintelligible and meaningless to humans. Either way, the concept of God seems to be highly doubtful.
  42. Theists claim that God has given humans free will. However, this free will is anything but free. The choices are forced on pain of death and eternal suffering. It is equivalent to having a slave and saying something like: "I grant you your freedom to leave at any time. But if you do, I will torture you mercilessly and kill you as slowly as possible."