Sunday, July 13, 2008

Beyond Belief - Food for Thought

In response to the recent books by people like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, many theists are complaining about the tone of the debate. This also rankles some scientists who think that such arguments only serve to make the debate about religion more contentious and confrontational. I can see their point but I am with Sam Harris when he says that it is time to stop making it taboo to criticize religious dogma.

In 2006, Dr. Melvin Konner, the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Anthropology and Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology at Emory University, expressed a desire for more sensitivity in the debate between rational scientists and the theists of the world. Whether or not there is any real validity to this approach, even the most sensitive approach cannot avoid the conclusions below. These are the statements of accepted fact that were put forth by Dr. Konner.


  • There is no verifiable evidence to support religious claims and all testable claims fail.
  • Science continually closes all the gaps in knowledge that religion has been used to fill.
  • What is called the soul is just brain activity.
  • Religion is divisive and causes bigotry, violence, hatred and war.
  • Religion is the "opium of the masses."
  • God is the product of human yearnings for:
    • A perfect parent
    • Reward and punishment
    • Companionship
    • Meaning
    • Escape from death
    • and other human penchants for agency-detection and imagining other minds.
  • More generally in psychological and psychosocial terms religion is a product of human yearnings for:
    • Identity
    • Belonging
    • A sense of superiority
    • Blameworthy enemies
    • Narrative

  • All "sacred" texts are characterized by:
    • Errors and lies
    • Internal contradictions
    • Mutual contradictions
    • Supernatural (i.e. highly implausible) origins
    • Silly or cruel behavior of gods and religious heroes

  • To validate his contention that arguing with theists is pointless, Konner points out, and I'm paraphrasing somewhat:
  1. Most religious people don't care about and are not swayed by proof.
  2. They do not generally care that religion has been the cause of great harm and injustice.
  3. They do not generally care that religious texts are fatally flawed.
  4. They do not generally care that they cannot even define God.
  5. They have been developing rationalizations and subtly fallacious arguments against all these things for millennia.

For different reasons, Dr. Konner and I don't accept the notion put forth by Steven J. Gould that religion and science are simply areas of nonoverlapping magisteria. He says "Neither one is magisteria." I agree that neither is magisteria, partially because that is a religious term. I say that science and religion do overlap and that science is better because it is the only one of the two based on evidence.

Atheism is not a religion but it is a perfect substitute for religion when it proposes to explain purpose or origins. It may not be as comforting to some when confronted with harsh reality but I don't think the vacuous promises of religion are any better. I do not mean to imply that atheism per se explains the origins of life or that it ascribes purpose to the universe. What I should say is that when religion fails to explain origins and purpose, atheism is naturally the correct conclusion.

The aim of science is not to open the door to infinite wisdom but to set some limits on infinite error. - Bertolt Brecht's Life of Galileo

It's also commonly imagined that atheists think there is nothing beyond human life and human understanding. The truth of it is that atheists are free to admit that there's much about the universe that we don't understand. I mean it is obvious we don't understand the universe. But it is even more obvious that neither the Bible or the Qu'ran reflects our best understanding of it. - Sam Harris

      2 comments:

      stephen said...

      I'm am in no way religious, but you have stated that there is preponderance of evidence that God is imaginary. there lies my problem with your list, other than that, I think it is an excellent list.

      My questions therefore are.

      How does the fact that people celebrate God's existence in ways that you find repugnant or distasteful say anything about the existence of God?

      How does the absence of a correlation between belief in God and being a moral person show that God does not exist? (*)

      How does refuting theist claims that God is supposed to behave in certain ways refute God's existence? (*)

      How does the fact that organised religions waste money indicate that God is imaginary? (*)

      How does the fact that religions have a long history of misogyny constitute any kind of evidence that God is imaginary? (*)

      How is the fact that religious scripture has errors in it any evidence that God is imaginary? (*)

      For example, how does the fact that religions are misogynistic indicate that God is imaginary?

      How does the fact that morals are human concepts indicate that God is imaginary?

      Will Friday said...

      I've had this tiresome conversation with “non-religious” people like you many times before. Let me guess; you believe in some supernatural being that created the universe but you don’t consider that to be religious just because you don’t attend a specific church or accept any specific dogma. How close did I get? Anyway, let us get straight to the point. From all that I have experienced in my life, there is no way to prove that God exists and there is no way to prove that no God exists. But we can show that the claims made by believers are inconsistent or flat out false. All that we can do is address the claims of the believers, their dogma, and their “sacred” writings. Taking them, point by point and case by case to show that they have no merit is the only sort of way to address the validity of their Gods. There are literally countless claims about gods and spiritual crap. Even when you can demonstrate convincingly that a religious claim is false, they can just fabricate a million more. Arguing against religious nonsense is a never ending struggle against the tide of superstitious twaddle that can be whatever the believer wishes it to be. Of course none of the things I've mentioned prove that God is imaginary. For a rational thinking person, the very fact that none of their claims can be remotely validated should make this a non-issue. They make endless claims and cannot support any of them.

      Stephen, I can't help it if you don't understand what "preponderance of evidence" means. The point is that all of the actual evidence in the world indicates the probable nonexistence of any sort of god. It is an unnecessary and superfluous hypothesis. Perhaps you think that showing perfectly valid and mostly provable alternative explanations for everything God is used to explain is not a valid approach to demonstrating that God is a myth. Maybe you can explain why that is an invalid approach in your opinion. Maybe you could start by looking at the arenas where we discuss the validity of claims such as science, law, philosophy and religion. Of these four, religion is the only one with an axe to grind. The other three, at least ostensibly, start without preconceived notions and look at the evidence to determine what is true. Religion starts with the notion that there is some sort of supernatural, omnipotent God and then tries to explain everything in the universe within that framework. To discuss the validity of religious claims, we cannot use religion. We must look at it within the other arenas. In science, if you are trying to explain phenomena you evaluate theories. If there are multiple theories, you go with the explanation that needs the fewest assumptions and is consistent with all data. As it turns out, there isn’t a single thing for which God is the best explanation. In law, you don’t accept some fanciful, imaginative story of how something happened if there is a rational, plausible and more likely alternative explanation. We use this reasoning all the time in our lives. If my seven year old tells me that the family dog got on the kitchen counter, opened the cupboard and got the cookies, I’m more likely to think that she did it. As for philosophy, all of the philosophical arguments for God turn out to be circular or based on one fallacy or another. There simply isn’t any good reason to believe in a God.

      As I said, all evidence in the world points to the nonexistence of god. For example; when I point out that there is no correlation between belief in God and being a moral person, I am addressing the typical religious claim that morality comes from God. It clearly does not. There is no need for a god to explain this. It does not prove that God does not exist but it is one bit of evidence that God is a superfluous hypothesis.

      What you are doing is asking how each part of my argument proves my point all by itself. Clearly I am telling you that all the evidence taken together is what puts God’s existence in question, not that each individual statement is enough to make that point. Refuting theist claims that God is supposed to behave in certain ways does not prove God is nonexistent in itself but it does add to the mountain of evidence to that effect. If their claims don’t hold water, that may only indicate that their particular God hypothesis is false. But when you see that the same is true of all God hypotheses, it becomes clear that there is most likely nothing to the notion of God. Is it possible that there is something that created the universe? Sure. Is it possible that a disembodied consciousness affects reality? Maybe. Is any of this probable given all of the evidence before our eyes? Not remotely. God notions are extensions of primitive superstitions, myths and legends. With enough study you can see that they are all fictional. Now, are they based on something real that is totally different? Maybe. But supporting the myths because there is a remote possibility that there is some underlying basis that is nothing like the myth is, in my opinion, intellectually bankrupt.

      The fact that organized religions waste untold amounts of money does not show that God does not exist. It shows that what they say and what they do are different things. It indicates to me that they cannot be following a perfect, omnipotent God. I think a reasonable person would expect such a being to guide his people to do wonderful and important things rather than grasping for more and more power and money. It indicates to me that people are the source of religion and not an all-knowing, perfect God.

      I don't think I ever said I find the ways people celebrate their belief in God's existence to be repugnant. So that question seems to be contrived. I said that what I find repugnant is blaming people for their transgressions and giving credit to their myth god for anything good they do. I object to them imposing their beliefs on me and everyone else. My feelings about their silliness do not bear on the question of God’s existence. I mention these things to show the damage such nonsensical superstitions do to society. Why would a perfect deity be so harmful to society?

      I guess if you think misogyny is what a perfect being would tell people to practice, it wouldn’t be an argument for God being imaginary. But think about what it would mean to be a perfect, omniscient and infinitely wise being. Would you expect such a being to be a misogynist or tell his people to impose such a vile and unfair system where one class of people is consistently treated as inferior? Misogyny is just as socially backward as slavery and racism. It doesn’t really argue that there is not God but it does tell me that God is not the grand being they claim him to be. And if God is such a dipshit, why should anyone worship him or even care about him?

      The fact that religious scriptures contain errors doesn’t prove that God does not exist. It does indicate that the common claim that God is a perfect being is untrue. That particular claim just doesn’t stand the smell test. And if God is an imperfect being, how can he be considered a God? Do you think it is likely that there is a being powerful and intelligent enough to create everything in existence and cares about humans so much and yet he is incapable of ensuring that his word is promulgated correctly? Would God be such an incompetent nitwit?

      When we discuss the God hypothesis, we have only the claims of theists to go on. If I show how all of the claims they make are false, then the God they are promoting is obviously just a fairy tale. Does this prove that there is no God of any type? No, of course not. But I see no reason for a God to explain anything and it is not my responsibility to imagine a god for them that actually fits all the evidence. Perhaps there is some sort of God that exists. If you or anyone has evidence that isn't contrived nonsense, bring it on. If all you want to do is quibble, go bother someone else.