Some pushback by religion

August 18, 2021 • 1:15 pm

What I thought would be a pretty uncontroversial post the other day about Ross Douthat’s ridiculous arguments for God as the most parsimonious explanation for nature, turned out to generate a lot of heat. You didn’t see all of it because some came down in the form of emails and of comments so inordinately intemperate or stupid that I didn’t post them.  I don’t want interminable discussions of dumb and long-refuted arguments for God to contaminate this website, though I did allow a few believers to have their say.

Among the accusations were these:

a. You can’t prove atheism. This amuses me because atheism is simply the failure to accept the existence of gods, mainly because there’s no evidence for them. But yes, you can’t prove that there’s no god because you can never prove a negative like this. But you can’t prove that there are no fairies, either, yet I remain an a-fairyist. All I can say is that the less and less evidence we have for God, when (as Victor Stenger often said) there should be evidence for God, the less likely it is that God exists. Just look at it from a Bayesian perspective.

b. The presence of God is not an empirical matter. This was said by someone who characterized himself as a “firm believer”, in which case I wonder why he believes so firmly!

c.  The question of moral evil in a world run by God was solved by Alvin Plantinga, and most philosophers accept his explanation as a valid one. However, my argument was not about moral evil—Plantinga’s explanation is that we have free will, a higher good than the moral evil it creates)—but about physical (or natural) evil, like tsunamis or childhood cancers.  Plantinga’s explanation for that is outlined on pp. 148-149 of Faith Versus Fact, and involves invoking Satan. It’s ridiculous and no sane person would accept it.

d. Even physical evil is compatible with God, for what is a mere lifetime of suffering from disease compared to the glory of eternity with God? My response: what kind of sadistic god would allow even a mere lifetime of suffering if he could prevent it?

e. Atheism is a faith, like religion. This old chestnut is equally risible. Atheism is LACK of faith, for faith is believing in something without sufficient evidence. Atheism rejects belief in god because there is no good evidence for him (or her or it). If atheism is a faith, so is a-fairyism—the refusal to believe in the existence of fairies. Those who say that atheism is a faith must also say that everything they themselves reject because there is no good evidence, is also a faith like religion.

I guess I saw what we already know: much of America is religious, and not religious in a liberal way like the Unitarian Universalists or Quakers. People are willing to make the most ridiculous statements to defend their belief that God exists. One of the most ridiculous is that “atheism is a religion, too”, which I always read as “See? You’re as bad as we are!”. But it ain’t so.

The persistence of belief in God in an age where all evidence once adduced for His existence has vanished (creationism was the most powerful argument) still perplexes me. I can give reasons, like people want something MORE than what exists in the natural world, people want an afterlife, or people want to fob off on God things that they don’t understand (consciousness, or, in the case of Intelligent Design, “irreducible complexity”). There could be evolutionary reasons behind it, like Pascal Boyer’s “agency” theory, and so on. But explaining the ubiquity and strength of religion gives religion no credibility at all; it is a sociological question, not a theological one. Nevertheless, some people still claim that because religion is pervasive, that goes on the “God exists” side of the ledger.

In Faith Versus Fact I lay out a scenario that would convince me—provisionally, of course, because I’m a scientist—of the existence of a divine being. Even my rigorous criteria have been criticized, because they could, some say, merely involve trickery by space aliens. So be it. But nothing has come close to the kind of evidence I’d require.

I’d like to know what evidence would convince believers that there is no God. That evidence, of course, is already there: childhood cancers, tsunamis, the failure of prayer, the failure of God to instill a single religion in humanity, the failure of God to appear to humans for the vast majority of the hominin lineage, the disappearance of miracles that used to occur all the time, the uselessness of invoking supernatural forces to understand nature, the failure of Jesus to return, the paucity of evidence for Jesus, and so on, and so on, and so on. What about Auschwitz and the Nazis? Doesn’t that count against God, at least a benevolent and powerful one? I guess not—not if killing 10 million people was necessary so that Nazis could have free will.

If you’re a believer reading this, let me know what it would take to convince you, in this life, that there is no God.

90 thoughts on “Some pushback by religion

  1. My favorite response to the “atheism is a faith/religion” is the classic “atheism is a religion the way abstinence is a sex position”. But even that undersells the difference. It’s just silly. And it’s remarkable how few people come to their “conclusions” that there must be a god, but then say, “However, it might not be god as I worship…it could be Ahura-mazda or Quetzalcoatl or Amaterasu.” Nope, it’s always the god they believe in.

    1. “Atheism is a religion without sin or salvation, and it doesn’t require tithing.

      So, okay, why is yours better?”

    2. People broaden the meanings words superficially. To say that having an absence of religious belief is a itself a religion is a bit like saying not being superstitious is a superstition.

        1. That reminds me of an Arthur C. Clarke quote:

          “I don’t believe in astrology; I’m a Sagittarius and we’re skeptical.”

          1. That reminds me of what is said to be Niels Bohr’s favorite joke:
            A visiting professor sees that his distinguished host professor has a horseshoe hanging over his office door. The visiting professor is shocked that his host would be so superstitious, and tells him so.
            The host professor says, “Oh no, of course I don’t believe in such nonsense!!! But they say it works even if you don’t believe in it!”

    3. It’s not only “…always the god they believe in”, its also the same god that was taught to them as children to believe in. So it mostly depends on who one’s parents are and where and when you were born. Just another reason why faith in a god is fantastically absurd.

  2. If you’re a believer reading this, let me know what it would take to convince you, in this life, that there is no God.

    I think we know full well that nothing could convince anyone who wants to believe that their belief is unjustified. Besides which, I remain convinced that many so-called believers already know that there is no God. They just enjoy the respect of their neighbors by saying that they believe. And they allay any suspicions that their neighbors might harbor by composing ridiculous arguments! I might even imagine that Douthat belongs in this camp.

    1. Trump sure belonged in that camp. He loved the religious worship he got from afar, and the laying on of hands in the oval office; I’m also sure that he loved the fact that he wasn’t religious, and they were all dupes caught in the biggest con of his pathetic life.

    2. Eh. I wanted to believe when I was still a Christian, but I was also curious and honest enough to not simply bury my head in the sand and ignore skeptical arguments. I know not everybody is like that, but there is some percentage of religious folks that you can reach. Of course, don’t expect a single exchange in a comment thread to have an immediate effect – it took me a couple years to.

  3. “But yes, you can’t prove that there’s no god because you can never prove a negative like this… All I can say is that the less and less evidence we have for God, when (as Victor Stenger often said) there should be evidence for God, the less likely it is that God exists. Just look at it from a Bayesian perspective.”

    I’m somewhat confused about the assertion that it’s impossible to prove a negative, with “prove” being in the Bayesian, not the logical sense. Lack of positive evidence for the proposition “God exists” when there should be evidence to me sounds like positive evidence that there is no god. Similarly, if I open my refrigerator door and find no evidence of an elephant living inside, that lack of evidence is positive evidence for the proposition “no elephant in my fridge”. Not so?

    If that is so, my atheism isn’t just a lack of faith, but a positive belief, based in evidence, in the proposition “God does not exist”. Or so it seems to me.

    1. If I were born and spent my life in a place where no one ever mentioned the possible existence of a “God,” then my lack of belief in a “God” would merely be the same as my lack of belief in ice if I lived near the Equator. I didn’t have to decide to “lack” a belief, it just never happened. That’s how I see it.

      1. Not seeing anything does not require me to decide to have a lack of belief in the things I don’t see.

      2. In fact it could be an elephant built out of particles which never interact via any of the ‘forces’ in the standard model, including of course those involved in seeing things. Could be an entire universe using our own spacetime (oops! gravitational waves, so I better make the above more comprehensive). I must avoid a dark matter elephant with a gravitational effect, that might eventually be detectable. If the elephant has an inaccessible- to-us universe, the inside of your fridge isn’t there. I have my tongue pretty close to my cheek here.

        Also this ‘proving a negative’ stuff can get silly sounding because it needs a more careful formulation. I’ll take ‘I exist’ as a very believable premiss, and immediately conclude a negative, namely ‘\neg \neg I exist’ , i.e. ‘It is not the case that it is not the case that I exist’.

        A god supposedly made out of stuff even more undetectable than dark matter could be safely claimed to exist, except she would have no effect whatsoever that delivers what believers fervently desire and mindlessly believe in.

    2. It’s a burden-of-proof asymmetry. Atheists stand alone in _not_ making extraordinary claims.

      The atheist does not need to justify a naturalistic world-model, and has every right to be skeptical of a supernatural world-model.

      The proper response to “You can’t say god doesn’t exist!” is, “Define ‘god’. Be specific.”

    3. I would say theists have spent at least the last thousand years trying to prove there is a god, and they have got nowhere. If I spent a thousand years searching your refrigerator for an elephant and not found even a single footprint in the butter, I think you’d be entitled to conclude your pachyderm infestation is mythical.

    4. Not cool to comment on one’s own comment, but…

      Per my understanding (not a philosopher of science or anything..) “evidence” for some proposition H is is just some state of affairs that would be expected given the truth of H, that wouldn’t be expected given H’s falsity. So since elephants leave footprints (among other things), that state of affairs- the lack of footprints in my fridge – is evidence that there isn’t an elephant living there. Again, not just an absence of evidence for H, but positive evidence for “not H”.

      Not proof- the elephant may be wearing slippers- but taken together with other evidence such as the fact that the peanut butter hasn’t been tampered with, begins to look like a pretty solid case for, say, a court of law. I can only imagine how that court case would unfold… 🙂

    5. I agree completely. As with your elephant, it should be there and if it is not, it is not.
      I too have an evidence based belief that no God exists. After all it is a God, if you can’t see a God when you look for one it isn’t much of a God.

    6. Absence of evidence IS evidence of absence, IF EVIDENCE WAS TO BE EXPECTED.

      Otherwise you’re stuck admitting that the lack of the appearance of a cat *in a particular place* is not evidence that there is no cat in that place. Aphorisms =/= logic.

  4. Although I’ve asked the question many times (“What would it take to convince you, in this life, that there is no God?”) I can only recall one Christian giving me a direct answer. He said he’d no longer believe in God if they found Jesus’ body.

    It’s at least something — though how we’d verify it lead to an interesting discussion and admission that it would be “hard.” I was bothered more by his ignoring the possibility that it could be some other version of God, or some other religion, which existed as truth. It was really only a possible reason for him to reject Christianity.

    He had no such concern. Nope. It was Christianity or nothing, because he had good reasons to dismiss all the other religions.

  5. most philosophers accept his explanation [free will to explain theodicy] as a valid one

    This is, AFAIK, pure bunkum. Philosophers in general to do not accept Plantinga’s free will defense as solving the problem of moral evil.

    1. It doesn’t explain the amount of evil – i.e. this is not the best of all possible free-will worlds.

    2. It doesn’t explain why humans often want to do evil – i.e. why is anyone born a free willed Charles Manson, when we could all have been born free willed Gandhis.

    3. It doesn’t explain why God’s not right here in front of us intervening to reward good and punish evil. It can’t be because intervening directly removes our free will, because God intervenes directly, regularly, in the bible.

    4. Somewhat related to #1, the free will defense undermines the traditional Christian notion of heaven – a place where supposedly everyone retains their free will, yet there is no moral evil done. If Earth can’t be like that because it’s not possible, then either there’s no free will in heaven, or there’s evil in heaven

    1. I was going to make a comment along your points 2 and 4, but you beat me to it. I mean, it’s not like Christians believe God creates our personalities by rolling multi-sided dice up in Heaven. He presumably custom makes each one of us exactly how he thinks we should be. And that apparently includes the inclination and desire to do bad thing.

  6. Even my rigorous criteria have been criticized, because they could, some say, merely involve trickery by space aliens.

    So in effect they are saying that no evidence would ever convince them that their god does exist as no matter how rigorous the evidence is, it could be trickery.

    It is a strange corner that believers have painted themselves into.

  7. I thought the least terrible argument was the claimant who said the presence of god was not an empirical matter. But of course since they said in effect that god was a “subject without an object”, I guess they just rebutted themselves.

  8. A good reply to the statement that God has no empirical existence was made by Thomas Jefferson in a letter (which was reproduced by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion):
    “To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise .. . without plunging into the fathomless abyss of dreams and phantasms. I am satisfied, and sufficiently occupied with the things which are, without tormenting or troubling myself about those which may indeed be, but of which I have no evidence.”

  9. “…childhood cancers, tsunamis, the failure of prayer…”

    I disagree that any of this is evidence for the absence of god(s). The whole thodicy argument is only evidence for the lack of a *benevolent* god (perhaps the god that Xhristers claim to exist), but it does nothing to disprove the existence of an indifferent god, or even a malevolent one who takes great pleasure in torturing his (or her or its or their…whatever) creations.

    I think that the better argument is the “then what created this god?” one. Faithiests will then trot out Aquinas’s “Five Proofs,” but Aquinas was a cheap-ass used-car salesman whom no sane person would take seriously.

    My apologies, of course, to used-car salesmen, cheap-ass and otherwise, everywhere.

    1. Theodicy pretty much wrecks religious belief. No one is going to worship an indifferent God, much less a malevolent one. Every church leader knows this…their job rests on their ability to square the circle of the benevolent, perfect God and how he lovingly created things like parasites and smallpox.

      1. While not obviating your main point, deists worship an indifferent god. This may be why deism never really caught on with the masses but only among the intelligentsia. Anyway, I see deism as a transitional stage between theism and atheism. Since the cosmological argument has been well refuted, there really is no foundation left for deism.

      2. No one is going to worship an indifferent God, much less a malevolent one.

        I wish I could agree, but the fans of the world’s authoritarians convince me otherwise. The might makes right crowd is sizeable.

      3. I remember when I was still religious, standing in the pews one day while we were all singing some hymn of praise to God, and the whole thing struck me as groveling – that we were all putting on this show because of how fearful we were lest God become angry with us. Of course, I tried to suppress that thought pretty quickly. But I do wonder how many Christians, at least subconsciously, recognize that their God is the bad guy in their mythology, but still manage to convince themselves to worship him out of fear.

        In other words, I think a great many people already do worship a malevolent God since they believe the alternative is eternal punishment in Hell. It’s one thing to stand up for your principles against malevolent people – they can only inflict so much suffering before you eventually die. Eternal punishment is something else altogether.

        1. “In other words, I think a great many people already do worship a malevolent God since they believe the alternative is eternal punishment in Hell.”

          That is a very good point. Apparently, God loves you, but if you do this or don’t do that, you will suffer for eternity.

          Theologians have attempted to explain this with the most tortured logic, such as “an eternal, perfect God would need to institute an eternal, perfect punishment” , or “the logic of free will demands that we suffer the consequences of our actions, which would entail complete separation from God. It hurts God to do this, but his perfect morality and sense of justice compels him to do it.”

          It reads like an emotionally-scarred child who tries to defend the schizophrenic behavior of an abusive, tyrannical parent!

    2. You are right, but this is also pretty well known. The theodicy problem only applies to conceptions of God like Christianity’s – omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly benevolent. Remove any one of those three attributes and the problem goes away – non tri-omni gods either can’t remove evil, or don’t know how to solve the problem, or don’t want to solve the problem.

  10. Not directly related, but a good number of yrs ago someone here posted that some [preacher-type, presumably] asked him, “When did you lose your religion,, son?” He replied, “I didn’t lose it, I simply set it down on the curb and walked away.”

    If whoever originally posted that would raise their hand, I’d be happy to quote them whenever I mention it.

  11. People are indeed religious, but often in a very vague and shallow sense. For example, many who identify as Christians don’t seem to have thought much about the implications of their religious beliefs.

    I give you the following scenario. Let’s say humanity is unambiguously contacted by benevolent, highly advanced aliens from another planet. As part of their benevolence and desire to contribute to human flourishing, the aliens give us a book (written in all human languages) containing their immense wisdom.

    So literally, you could sit down every night and read from this book of advanced knowledge. If this was true, as in you really had in your possession the product of a hyper-advanced intelligence, just waiting for you to read, wouldn’t we all be reading this every night? Like, obssessively?

    Wouldn’t it be the only thing really that anyone was talking about at all?

    Christians not only believe that such a book exists, but that it is BETTER than my hypothetical alien book. Yet most Christians rarely open it!

    Again, think of the implications of believing that a Bible is the product of a perfect intellect and moral expert, and yet never reading it. Either one does not really believe in the proposition, or is incredibly lazy! “Ah, I’ll read about the secrets of life tomorrow…right after this Netflix show…”. I tend to think the former, that most people do not really believe in the notion that the Bible is the perfect word of God.

    We can see therefore that true Christians are probably a very small minority, limited to those who actively study their Bibles (or if one is a Catholic, they also read the Catechism and various Church interpretations).

    The rest are flaky, “I believe in something greater than me” sort of folks.

    1. I find it damning (pardon the contradiction) that the supposed sacred book of divine knowledge does not automatically update itself as humanity learns more about the world. After we understood evolution, or discovered DNA, a book that was really given by a god would change to give us directions and insights into how these things related to its religious and moral themes. Instead, we have a book that never updates itself and is more concerned about trivialities of importance only to ancient goat-herders than about atomic weapons, biological warfare, covid masks, or whatever.

    2. No is the answer.

      We wouldn’t all be obsessively reading the book. We know this because we already have such a “book” but written by some of our cleverest humans. It’s the sum of our own knowledge. It tells us, for example, how to reduce our chances of getting COVID19. Plenty of people ignore it and even actively denounce it.

  12. The difference between me and all believers, and I don’t care if you’re the Pope, an ayatollah or a Scientologist, is that all believers think that holding certain thoughts in their heads while their cells are dividing will cause a material shift in the universe when their cells stop dividing. That, to me, is delusional. If believers take offense because of my view, they can use their imaginary super powers to condemn me to an eternity of fire and brimstone in their imaginary hell.

  13. The difficulty with the “what would change your mind?” question is that I suspect True Believers believe first then justify their beliefs with spin and PR reasoning afterwards. So contrary reasoning will be seen as adverse spin and PR which can be safely ignored – because it is subordinate to belief.

  14. you can’t prove that there’s no god because you can never prove a negative like this.

    That is philosophic theology, which is the reason I have no use for the theist/atheist scale any longer. Since a few years it is fairly accepted that our robustly tested LCDM universe is the result of an expansion process, which excludes magic wishes or other notions on nature.

    Of course you can always reject empirical results and entertain theology-of-the-gaps, but that is a delusional game. If the question is if religion – of say the notion of monotheist “gods” – could have any smidgen of factual support, the answer is empirically and emphatically “no”. The bigger the notion, the harder it falls.

    What more needs to be said!?

  15. In my experience, most believers believe because they have absolutely NEVER examined their beliefs. They and everyone they knew believed certain things, and that was that — much the way that I believe there is a Pocatello, Idaho even though I have never been there. Even worse, a critical examination of those beliefs has almost always been discouraged. Instead, they actually consider believing things with no evidence (or contrary to the evidence) to be a virtue that they can be proud of. Why would anyone examine their beliefs under these circumstances?

    It’s been proven time and again that non-believers know more about various religions than the adherents themselves.

  16. At some point your realize that God is the Abyss and the Abyss is God. Its not what they teach you in Sunday School, but if you stare long enough into the Abyss. . .

  17. The “can’t prove a negative” is pernicious nonsense.

    “Is there milk in the fridge?” can be settled to the negative by looking in the fridge and checking. It’s exactly the same evidence-gathering process as confirming there is milk in the fridge.

    I think what people are trying to say when it comes to God isn’t that you can’t prove a negative, but that God’s absence in one case doesn’t mean God’s absence in all possible cases. Which is different. But without good evidence in favour of God, and good evidence of God’s absence, there’s simply no good reason to believe God exists and good reason to believe God doesn’t exist. So it doesn’t help the theist, but tries to get the problematic advance of God off on a technicality.

    1. In any case, Antony Flew’s parable of the gardener is the best reference point on the burden of proof when it comes to theism. God dies “the death of a thousand qualifications”.

  18. I cannot say there is a god, because in my gut I don’t believe there is, and saying I do would be a lie, and lying is a sin. And I would have no respect for any god that held that against me.

  19. Nobody proves anything. There are a set of worldviews out there, if you try hard, you may be able to try out a few of them. World views are circular, you see what they allow you to see. Culture, media, and a lot of unconscious forces shape world view whether you notice it or not. There are certain questions you are not even capable of asking because of the way you view the world. There are certain questions that will cause you to become emotionally upset, limbic system engaged.

    How does this relate to science? Well, I suppose there is something like a scientific worldview (or world views) but ultimately science is practical, beautiful, and interesting. It doesn’t stand in need of a justification anymore than a love affair or a math problem. It doesn’t need missionaries. It doesn’t need to write legislation. It doesn’t need to fight wars. That is the province of religions and ideologies.

    The atheist movement is mostly pushing up against Evangelical movements in the cultural and political realm. Atheists don’t really have much relevance to Shinto or even Confucianism. Its just two historically and culturally bound worldviews duking it out. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter, or that you shouldn’t take a side, Side A has a metaphysics, Side B has an alternative metaphysics, but please don’t pretend people won’t still be haggling over metaphysical questions one thousand years hence. [Perhaps they aren’t real questions.] As far as science, every ideologue, even atheists, likes to ignore science when it doesn’t suit their ideology, hence the Soviet suppression of genetics. Yes, Fundamentalists are really terrible on science, but atheism is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for the production of good science and perhaps some humility is in order. [Can we call it Newton’s Law of Physics?]

    We all want to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, but reality is that we are limited creatures dependent on social networks and social conventions to even communicate and conceptualize our world, we evolved for fitness, not to boldly seek truth, and no one’s cognitive ability is infinite. Yes, we are pretty good at detecting a hungry tiger racing at us, but that is about it.

    1. I suspect you are correct in that we are limited creatures dependent on social networks and social conventions to even communicate and conceptualize our world…

      Alan Watts suggested that there were 3 different views of the constitution of nature. The Western world considered nature to be a construct, a made item (implying a Creator) or a machine. The Eastern (Hindu) world viewed nature as a drama – actually God himself playing a game. And the Far East there is no real thought of there being a divine creator or a divine actor behind the world, but rather the world is thought of as being self-moving and self-creating, an organism.

      These views underpin our language and metaphorical cognition and affect how we conceptualize the world. Western thought gives science a head start in understanding ‘the machine’ but ‘the machine’ also has a hidden foundation of ‘creation’ – and so the atheists’ arguments (in the West) have already unconsciously conceded home advantage to the Creationists.

    2. A bit of a tangent, but I’m always amused by the expression of ‘pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps’. In the engineering office where I work, we use that expression derisively quite a bit, in the more original sense from the late 1800s as something that’s physically impossible to accomplish. Of course, we use it in relation to mechanical designs from inexperienced engineers or bone-headed mistakes (where you’re embarassed when you see what you did).

      I suppose that is a bit symbolic of the metaphorical way some people use the expression – insisting that the less fortunate could improve their lot if only they did something physically impossible. Feel good advice that is, in fact, useless.

      (Not meant to criticize KD specifically – just something I’ve noticed)

  20. It is highly unlikely that any rational argument will persuade a sincere and convinced believer in God that her belief is unfounded. The determinants of that kind of belief are uncontrollable for the believing subject, not only for her reason but also for hier emotional processes whatever their nature. She does not need any evidence to believe, her own belief is sufficient “evidence”. All that is required to sustain and keep her faith alive is her imagination and a few sensitive stimuli and emotions that motivate it to fullfil that objective: images, rites, temples, prayers, fear, hope and stories of all type, especially the latter and better if they are in the first person. In regard to this feature she is no different from any devotee in any ideology in vogue today (CRT, radical feminism, etc.). Any possible cognitive dissonance is resolved by consuming and spreading “testimonies” from like-minded believers. The dream of the Enlightenment has given way to a new obscurantism with old roots.

  21. I don’t find agnosticism a tenable position, even in its strongest versions. We already know there is no Christian God. The tentativeness of knowledge, or that you can’t prove anything outside of formal systems are no problem gnostic atheism (/antitheism).

    Let’s acknowledge first that believers prefer an arcane philosophical-theological framework and want to use it rigorously, but then fill it with ridiculous ideas. While they get hung up on the meaning of “existence” or that there is no mathematical proof for God’s non-existence, they themselves cannot be bothered to outline clearly what they even mean by “God”, or how they establish that Christian A and Christian B mean the exact same referent, the same entity. How can they know that? These are very basic problems. While that’s not an argument, it has a strong smell of stacking the deck beforehand.

    I think there are five or so different collections of arguments against God, I’ll scratch just one. The most convincing collection to me is broadly “History of God as an Idea”. The best part: we know this. No absense of evidence, no silly word games or other such trickery. We know for a fact what people — Jews and Christians — believed in the past, and how they believed this with utmost conviction. And that changed all the time. Occasionally, beliefs diverged too much and they split up. Occasionally those other branches were cut off as heresy, like the non-Trinitarian branches. Today we can show that two Catholics, one from Sicily, Italy and one from Scranton, Pennsylvania have little in common in their beliefs.

    Beliefs always instantiate a specific deity through practice, not the other way around. I.e. God becomes one guy in one faith, and someone else in someone else’s faith and they cannot be the same guy, and especially could not possibly be the same guy Israelites worshipped allegedly two thousand years ago. He also doesn’t match criteria he supposedly has, e.g. being all-knowing (having a revelation but giving a bottleneck of free-willing actors the liberty to change it at will, forget parts, distort it unwittingly etc. knowing that this would jeopardise the entire “revelation” project, lead to religious wars and so on).

    It’s all too easy. We should not treat this with any respect. They got absolutely nothing. And all we know confirms a universe without a Christian God.

    1. What may be missed is that “faith” mostly consists of stipulative definitions. A Catholic points to consecrated wine and bread and says “That is the Body of Jesus Christ, Son of God”. That is a definition. Likewise, there is a performative script about how you treat a consecrated host and consecrated wine. Further, the entire content of “faith” is a performative script. [And look at all the games with redefining sex on the progressive front, its no different from the Catholics.] Religion, law and politics is about Forms, science is about Substance. Religion says this is how we talk (a form of behavior), this is how we behave (a form of morality), this is how we conduct rites and rituals (a form of worship). Legal disputes are about how we talk (hate speech, the limits of how we talk, social forms), how we behave (look at all the sex harassment/sex assault debates), how we conduct rites and rituals (kneeling for the flag, confederate flags, U.S. flags, etc.).

      You don’t “prove” that your form is superior to someone else’s form. You sometimes are called up to justify your form, and perhaps you can’t justify it to someone else. Also, when you want to proselytize or force people to embrace your form, you try to use persuasion alongside coercion, but at the end of the day, coercion settles accounts.

      Religion, like law and politics, is a means of social control. The West has a separation of Church and State because you had a powerful Catholic Church and you had powerful Secular Rulers, and there needed to be a truce, at least where you couldn’t kick out the Catholics and form a state church controlled by the Rulers. I am not trying justify religion, its just another means of social control, just like all the purity councils in social media companies deciding what the commoners get to see on social media.

      As I get older, I keep getting closer and closer to dialectical materialism. You have social relations between classes, you have institutions that keep those lines in place, you have ideologies that justify the system of social relations and the institutions, and it doesn’t matter whether you call them “religion” or “ideology” or something else, and at the end of the day, their justification arises from the willingness of the state to use force to protect them. What they create is, of course, an Order of Being. When we talk about world views, we talk about people imagining or nostalgic for different orders of being. Further, this is not relativism, physics works just as well in a monarchy as in a republic.

      1. I agree to this Durkheimian view of religion as a social practice. I also agree that religious people just try their best to convince others that their forms are superior and should be adopted by everyone, which is where they naturally try to use rhetorical tools they think might work on outsiders. That’s where their appeals interface with epistemology and knowledge, and why “god of the gaps” arguments, for instance, don’t strike them as weak as it does to us.

        It can only be ever a weak argument, but it might still work on some people. It cannot truly backfire, because their use of knowledge, truth and any such conceptions are purely rhetorical — they want to persuade others, but it’s not the root of their own convictions.

        They are interested in the stocks they have in a religious-social hierarchy, which can be thought of as a sort of political party. They benefit from its rise, as their views grew aligned with those of this party. The more power this hierarchy or tribe has, the better it is for such aligned individuals we call believers. Old Europe has grown a vast number of overlapping social circles, as if everyone trades in bonds that include always a collection of stocks. European societies have a stronger cohesion, and Churches aren’t important vehicles to gain social power. That’s why their rhetorical appeals are also much weaker, and defensive at best.

        Nonetheless, these reasons can be ignored when we enter the domains of knowledge, and knowledge production (i.e. science). We can rule out the existence of a Christian deity by now. And we should reject agnosticism right away.

      2. My basic criticism of “atheism” as it is popularly expressed, is that it is reductive, substance is all that matters, and the forms (which can only emerge from relations between things) can be reduced to substance and/or don’t matter (while fighting a pitched political battle against prayer in school). If this is correct, does it mean you need God? No, I think you can get by with holism and probably micro-teleology, and pick up from Hegel and Marx.

        Otherwise, I think it is going to be very difficult to produce a coherent account of language, mathematics, money and economy, politics, ethics, and religion, which all emerge from networks of people, demonstrate reflexivity (as Soros would put it) and exhibit teleology.

  22. Excellent points all – for me the big thing is the HARM it does and has done. Which makes sense – the communists and fascists can only promise a better life on earth (which they can’t deliver, either), religion promises an eternity in paradise for you and your buddies/family: that puts the price worth paying to ANYTHING. No act or belief can be too stupid, screwy or violent given the enormous payout. That to me is the root of religion’s evil (which other nutty ideas – even crystals and woo – can’t go near).

  23. On whether God is an empirical matter, I don’t think anyone actually believes in such a God. It’s a cute line, but to exclude empirical matters would be to exclude everything from revelation, to the historical truth of Jesus, to those moments of private experience that are meant to reveal God’s hand.

    The theists I’ve talked to who make this move very quickly retreat once the implications of the claim are spelt out. Theism is an irreducibly empirical claim because theism necessitates God being a force in the world. There are degrees of this, of course, and many theists are happy for God having a very limited role (no doubt in part because it means God can’t be falsified) compared with fundamentalists who take it too far.

    This gets to what I think the theists who use this argument mean. It’s not that God isn’t an empirical proposition, but that God shouldn’t be treated like one because the concept is too otherworldly to fairly assess by the tools of empirical measurement. A fair restatement might be: “Of course God is the author of all things, and of course God intervenes in this world, but we cannot measure this claim. We can merely interpret events within the context of the belief system.” The implication is then that claims to the truth of theistic statements are purely subjective, but it’s psychologically preferable to the alternative…

  24. “It’s ridiculous and no sane person would accept it.”

    This is a pretty good summing up of Plantinga’s argument. And it isn’t even Plantinga’s most ridiculous argument. Odd that this argument is so often used as some sort of triumph of theist thought.

    That Mackie accepted it as a refutation of his own point of view suggests that Mackie was some sort of philosophical version of the Washington Generals.

  25. For what proof would be required I can offer two examples of what worked (as opposed to what would hypothetically work):

    1) I grew up having a vague and ill defined soft belief in Jesus that social and x-spousal pressures were starting to solidify in my mid 20’s. I decided to start reading the Bible in earnest to see what evidence was being used for the holy trinity, Jesus being the son of god, the resurrection, Virgin Mary, and the like (being curious I also looked for support of snake handling and Jehovah’s Witnesses prohibition against medically indicated blood product transfusions). I quickly concluded that there was better support for the snake handlers’ and Jehovah’s Witnesses beliefs than for the holy trinity (ridiculously contrived) or Jesus claiming to be the son of god (one direct quote in one book). This was followed by reading Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman, after which I could never again think of the Bible as anything but fiction. I don’t remember how many children born with trisomy 13 or trisomy 18 (among many other awful diseases afflicting children) I watched die slow and miserable deaths before I realized any being who allowed or caused (important as I was flirting with intelligent design) such misery was either incompetent or an A-hole. I have never looked back and am still amazed at the ridiculousness of any attempted religious explanation for disease (especially congenital).

    2) My best friend growing up was always deeply religious just like the rest of his family. This persisted and he was who I most frequently questioned while I was looking to understand Christianity and religion in general. Sometime after my experiences, he became a tenured insurance professor at a large public university and started intermittently asking me for the biological explanations of why Hgb S exists, how the human clotting cascade could evolve, and the like. Then, 2 years ago, he invited me out for a beer and told me he was now an atheist. This was a big deal for him since if his family knew, they would refuse to see, be around, or speak to him again unless and until he “accepted and embraced Jesus” again. Curious, I asked what changed his mind. His reply was that science consistently gives more detailed, deeper, and more logical answers for any topic or question that actually matters.

    So oddly, I think religious people are correct when they say, “the truth is obvious and all around you, all you have to do is look”. The trick is to get religious people to look with an open mind. “Losing their faith” really means leaving their tribe in significant and deeply personal ways. Little wonder that process often takes years and unfortunately, is all too easily derailed by any hint of condescension from people seen as representing other tribes.

    (Apologies if that sounded like a sermon, I will get off my soap box now)

    1. I grew up without religion, except 1 or 2 Christmas masses that my waning Catholic mother took me to when I was young. Religion was just this sort of strange thing that lots of other people did that I thought was a bit spooky and weird. Being one of those people that has never been religious it’s always fascinating to me to read accounts like yours. I’m glad you took the time to comment.

  26. “Much of America is religious, and not religious in a liberal way”. This is my problem with Neil Degrasse Tyson’s position on attacking religion. It does not adequately address authoritarian problems with religion in the United States. I bet a lot of scientists that are lenient with religion did not grow up in reactionary religious households.

  27. (Warning: Some soul baring follows:)

    As an erstwhile believer, I suggest for many people, Christians in particular, there is more than superstition, cultural connection and fear of punishment involved in their faith. Part of our social cognition is based on our ability to model other people in our minds, to anticipate their actions, see through their deceptions, and engage in all the ways people interact with one another. Little children often have imaginary friends about whose ontological status they may be unclear. We don’t lose that ability (many of my friends are imaginary! 🙂 ), just hopefully the ability to realize those friends don’t exist apart from our imaginations.

    But to the punchline- as a Mormon missionary in South Korea, I came to believe strongly in the reality and goodness of God. I had a number of “spiritual experiences” in which I experienced a level of joy I have never known in any other setting. He became my best friend. Years later as I began to develop a more scientific worldview and could see the walls closing in on my faith, I became desperate. I couldn’t care less about Mormon artifacts such as angels and gold plates, but the thought of losing God himself was nothing less than losing my best friend, of turning my back on all that had brought me the greatest joy in life. I well remember walking the streets, tears running down my face, begging God to exist. Of course I knew the irrationality of that stance. It didn’t make it any easier.

    Sometimes I think I’m still grieving a bit over the loss of my best friend. So when I look at other believers trying desperately to hold onto their faith, I’m not about to call them irrational or mentally deficient- they’re just being human.

    To round the story out, one of the things that helped me most in my transition to atheism was the sheer sense of wonder and beauty conveyed by the popular science books I read by people such as Dawkins and Sagan. I remember getting chills and almost hearing the music from “2001” when I read the chapter “Making tracks in animal space” in Dawkins’ book the Blind Watchmaker. Later, as I wrestled through his more difficult book, The Extended Phenotype, the power and simplicity of the high science he so artfully conveyed quite literally made feel me short of breath.

    So stepping into an abstract, empty living space where God is not is a bit much for people deeply steeped in their faith, as I was. Discovering that that universe is wonderful and terrifying, and all the more because it is real, provided the emotional bridge I personally needed.

Leave a Reply