An analogy

January 3, 2011

For quite a while now I’ve been trying to hammer out some kind of analogy or thought experiment to help deal with Christians who think the Bible is enough justification for their beliefs, to illustrate how ridiculous it is.

If 4 of your good friends came up to you separately and told you that two days earlier they’d seen a man rise from the dead, would you believe them? I’m gonna be honest, I’d think there was something in it. Maybe there was someone who everyone thought was dead, but actually it turns out they weren’t, or they were just injured or something. (In fact something very similar happened last Easter to a friend of mine from the pub, believe it or not. He hadn’t been seen for a week or so, and then one of his crazy neighbours phoned the pub on Good Friday and said they’d seen a body being carried out of the house, so word gradually got around and everyone was in the pub on Easter Sunday, mourning, when he showed up alive and well. Now he’s nicknamed ‘The Phoenix’ by some, but that’s a tangent.) I probably wouldn’t just dismiss it completely, but I wouldn’t be convinced that it actually happened.

Back to our hypothetical 4 witnesses, would you hear their account and then conclude: “Hmm, clearly this man was the Son of God and obviously when he died it was a symbol of his victory over death and only a fool could deny that believing in this sacrifice is the only way to get into heaven because we’re too sinful on our own”? Of course not! It’s a complete non-sequitor. None of those things follow from the account that a man rose from the dead.

Now consider that we don’t even have this kind of testimony in the Bible. We have 4 accounts from people we don’t know and whose trustworthiness we can’t even guess at. They did not witness the events themselves but at very best got it from direct eyewitnesses, and that’s only if Mark got his information directly from Peter. So at best it’s second hand testimony. Then consider that the first Gospel, Mark, was written about 30 years after Jesus died. So at best we’re talking second hand testimony recorded from an eyewitness 30 years after the event happened. Memories are not trustworthy.

On top of that, a lot of Biblical scholars currently believe in a 2 source hypothesis, that the authors of Matthew and Luke both used the gospel of Mark and another text as source material for their own gospels (with their own theological bents), and it’s undisputed that the author of John had read the other synoptic gospels too, so actually we’re only talking about 2 testimonies, not 4, one of which we have no access to. (Even if John the apostle did write the gospel – which is unlikely – he starts his gospel with “In the beginning there was the Word…” Clearly he’s not speaking as an eyewitness.)

So let’s get back to our analogy. A stranger called Mark comes to you and says someone told them they’d seen a man rise from the dead 30 years ago, and then over the next 20 years 2 more strangers called Matthew and Luke come to you and say they’d heard from 2 people (one of whom was Mark) that someone rose from the dead at that time as well. Then a full 30 years after Mark walked in, another stranger called John comes and says he’s been speaking to the first 3 people outside and he agreed, and in addition John swears blind that this person who rose from the dead was also present at the creation of the universe. Would you believe them?

Then consider that this testimony isn’t given in person, and we can’t question the witnesses, because it was written down thousands of years ago. And the testimonies sometimes contradict each other! Is this really enough to establish that someone rose from the dead, never mind all the theological interpretation that goes along with it? If any Christian can honestly say yes to that, then they’re gullible, and there are plenty of conmen out there who’d love to meet them.

The Problem of Evil

August 25, 2009

So following on from yesterday, I’m going to do a piece on the problem of evil. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s the argument that uneccesary and gratuitous evil exists, and therefore the idea of God held by theists cannot possibly exist, because if an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent God did exist, then there would be no suffering, because he would want to, and would be able to, prevent it. Hopefully that makes sense.

Anyway there are various ways this is explained away by Christians (I say Christians only because that’s the religious group I’m most accustomed to, I daresay it applies equally well to many other religious groups), depending often on what kind of Christian they are.

Fairly traditional Christians may point to the Fall as an explanation. They say that God created the world perfectly without sin, without death and without suffering, but man turned away from God, and this brought sin into the world. The punishment for sin is death and suffering, so it’s all our fault (as usual in Christianity).

This Fall doesn’t make sense unless you’re a creationist, for a fairly simple reason. If someone uses this as an explanation, all you have to do is ask when the Fall supposedly happened. If they say it happened in the Garden of Eden about 6,000 years ago, you can point to geology and evolution to prove them wrong as usual. But if they’re a theistic evolutionist, it doesn’t fly, because animals were killing each other and eating each other and dying from the word go, there was no time when there was no death, certainly not right the way up until anything resembling humans came around within the last 200,000 years. That’s how natural selection works. When you’re in the middle of a debate it’s quite useful, as Stuart demonstrated once, to ask something like “so when did the Fall happen, before or after the Precambrian?”, because this divides the creationists from the theistic evolutionists. I also used this with a street preacher and he was left saying “erm erm erm” because if he’d said “in the Garden of Eden 6,000 years ago”, then everyone listening would have laughed and walked away.

I did once hear a curious answer which took me by surprise and stopped me using this argument for a while because I thought he’d put a hole in it. A geologist said that it didn’t matter when the Fall happened because whenever it happened, it had ripples of effect both forwards and backwards in time and space. Think about that, he means that it could happen in the future… weird eh? That sounds pretty solid but actually it isn’t, that’s impossible too. If humans did it, and then it had effects corrupting the creation throughout history as well, then that means in some other now-corrupted reality humans must have evolved without death and suffering, and as I’ve said, that’s impossible with natural selection. So the Fall only works if you’re a full-blown creationist.

Another way the problem of evil may be explained away is through Free Will. As you may have read in my last post, God’s Free Will is on shaky ground anyway but let’s carry on regardless. The argument is that God created the world perfectly, but he gave us Free Will and some people have chosen to cause suffering, and that’s the source of evil.

Well, first of all, not all suffering is caused by people choosing to cause evil. What about diseases? What about natural disasters? What about accidents? At this point they may try and cover the gap with the Fall argument, but then you can just go back up to the last argument. One person did try and come back to that with the argument “well, a natural disaster isn’t evil in itself, people being close to it causes the suffering”, which threw me off for a second, but then a bullet isn’t evil in itself, but if I shoot you with it then it is. If people aren’t causing it, then in Christian thinking that leaves God. God is killing people using natural disasters. Brilliant.

Other Christians may explain evil away by saying that evil is caused by Satan, and goodness is caused by God. Well it’s kind of wishful thinking really to attribute all the good things to God but all the bad things to either people or to Satan, fairly arbitrarily. But this argument (and both the above) is fairly easily knocked down by pointing out that God is supposedly omnipotent and whatever is causing this evil, be it people, the Fall or Satan, God should be able to overcome it and prevent suffering. That’s what a loving, perfect God would do.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if someone did something evil, say, shot someone, but then the suffering caused by that evil didn’t happen. Say the victim got shot but was still alive and felt no pain and had no adverse affects. That way the suffering is being prevented but God isn’t affecting Free Will. What if disease and natural disasters happened but didn’t harm people. Then suffering would have been prevented, but the Fall will still have happened. Wouldn’t that be amazing? Wouldn’t that be a good reason to believe in an all-loving God?

I think this is fairly solid but if you can put a hole in any of what I’ve written, or you can think of another way of explaining evil away, go ahead and leave a comment.

Skepticamp 2009

August 7, 2009

We had an excellent night at the Edinburgh Skepticamp 2009. The two Alexes gave presentations on statistical fallacies and paranormal investigations, respectively, whilst someone I’d never met before called Terry spoke about how best to win over the believers, and I concentrated on alternative medicine with homoeopathy being the main focus.

It was the last Q&A section that started the most vigorous debate, where we were speaking about whether it would be easier to win over a fundamentalist or a moderate believer, with all of the speakers up on stage. One man stood up and asked the question “What’s wrong with being a believer?” to which someone on stage replied that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong (depending on what you mean by ‘wrong’), as long as it doesn’t affect other things. The man agreed, but continued with the sentence “it’s wrong for religionists to force their beliefs on others, just as it’s wrong for skepticism to be forced on others”.

This struck me as rather curious because he was comparing two very different things, religion being a set of dogmatic beliefs, and science and skepticism being a method best suited to acquiring the truth. So I said so and he replied that, for example, ‘evolutionism’ was a belief that we were forcing on others. Somehow then we got into a discussion about the evidence for evolution and established that although it’s not a fact, it’s about as close to a fact as we have in science. But this man maintained that since it is not a fact it should not be forced onto others.

I struggle to see what his point was. Was he seriously suggesting that it’s just as morally wrong to teach a child about evolution, with all the evidence in favour of it, as to teach the child about creationism which has no evidence for it whatsoever? It’s obviously more wrong to ‘force’ a lie onto someone than a truth, and although we can’t possibly know for sure whether something is true, that’s not to say that all beliefs are equally valid. We can put them in order of what is more likely to be true, based on the available evidence, and we do know that some claims cannot be true based on the current evidence.

But that’s missing the larger point that skeptics don’t force their beliefs on others! Skepticism is about criticising other people’s beliefs and claims, picking them apart and saying “this is unlikely to be true because A, B, C.” We may then propose another belief that is better supported by the evidence, but skeptics would be more than happy to defend their beliefs from critical argument, if only because at the end of the process we’ll be one step closer to the truth! It’s all about the free interchange of ideas, something that skepticism and science do well, because they are always changing, and something that dogmatic belief systems like religion do very badly, since they don’t change at all.

I’m reminded of this video that PZ Myers posted on Pharyngula this week of Wendy Wright from American Women Concerned for America or something. I only watched the first part because I’m short on time right now, but that’s enough to see that she’s asking for a ridiculously high level of evidence for evolution (her version of evidence is ‘if you can’t put it in my hand, it’s not evidence’), whilst allowing her own beliefs to slip completely under the skepticism radar. Take a look, here’s the first part and I’m sure you can find the rest of them.

Back to the ECG!

January 30, 2008

Last night saw my return to the Edinburgh Creation Group meetings. They started last Tuesday but I was unfortunately at work so I couldn’t go. In any case this week’s talk was by Phil Holden, the group’s secretary, entitled “A Letter to a Pagan City”. At first I thought it would be a response to Sam Harris’ book “Letter to a Christian Nation”, but in fact it was quite unrelated.

The whole talk was based around Romans: 1, particularly verse 18 onwards. Basically St. Paul writes that when people reject God, they become pagans, which leads them to sexual immorality, homosexuality in particular, and the total moral collapse of society. Now Phil went looking for examples of paganism in Edinburgh, and examples of what’s written in Romans in our society. So there were videos of Beltane and the festival, of big parades down the streets with people dressed up as spirits and taking part in a pagan ceremony.

Now I have to say that this was taken right out of context, which was brought up in the Q&A section at the end. This isn’t an example of Paganism rife in Edinburgh, this is a cultural event. Now I’m not saying that there are no pagans around, but the vast majority of people go along to such events just because it’s entertaining, it’s out of the ordinary, and it’s fun.

Next Phil showed us some pictures of “Our Dynamic Earth“, an Edinburgh exhibition which I regret to say I’ve still not visited, and pointed out the “pagan symbolism” such as a circle of stones, and a “pagan female fertility symbol”, as well as the words “Mother Earth” on the outside (also taken out of context. In full it is “the Mother Earth of all adventures”, a play on the term “the mother of all adventures”, so that’s why it’s there, not some sinister paganistic symbolism).

Next there were lots of pictures of various witchcraft shops and occult suppliers around the city, and a supernatural event organised by the Freemasons, as if this proves that Edinburgh’s become a pagan city. But it’s all irrelevant. Paganism is a cultural and tourist thing rather than religious. Celtic paganism is a big part of Scottish history, and of course that is reflected in what we see around us, and the tourism board is going to promote it actively. So even if it is quite widespread, it’s not genuine.

In any case the point was that this rise in atheism/paganism (I still don’t understand how atheism leads to paganism) is leading to a breakdown of society, with higher levels of paedophilia and divorce rates through the roof, leading to unstable family life and the “total moral collapse” of society, as well as the usual stuff about homosexuality and abortion which I’ve seen in some talks before.

Stuart, a fellow member of the Humanist Society, made a good point, saying that anecdotal evidence is no way to make a hypothesis, and if there was a correlation in a rise in paganism in more atheistic countries like the Czech Republic or Sweden, that would at least be a good start, and meanwhile on the other hand there are studies that suggest that atheists are less likely to get divorced than Christians, particularly fundamentalists, which would throw a spanner in the works for anyone suggesting that atheism is linked to the breakdown in society.

Throughout all of this, there was a suggestion that noone has any excuse for not knowing that God exists, just as it’s written in Romans 1: 19, “since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.”, and everyone should just know intuitively somehow that God exists. But a big point was also made that God often punished on a societal level rather than personal, and where in Romans it says “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts”, this is also typical of God’s kind of punishment on earth, that he lets the consequences of people’s actions be their own punishment. I can’t believe people still think divine punishment exists when they freely admit that who gets punished isn’t necessarily who does the evil deed, and that the punishment takes the form of something that would have happened anyway! What kind of judicial procedure is that? Once again, this is an example of God doing absolutely nothing, and yet we’re still supposed to ‘just know’ that he exists! It just doesn’t make sense.

I like Phil. I think he’s a good man, but if he truly believes what he was saying, then he’s also very naive and deluded. He doesn’t appear to have any idea about what paganism really is. I’ve mentioned the talk to a few people and they immediately threw up the objection that generally speaking, pagans are the nicest people in the world, and that in reality they don’t go around having drunken orgies all the time, so they can’t be held responsible for the downfall of society.  I also think it’s slightly ironic that he’ll happily dismiss paganism out of hand as being a load of rubbish, but doesn’t see that the same logic can be applied to Christianity.

Not only am I unconvinced that atheism is linked to paganism at all, but I don’t think if it were, then that would be linked to the downfall of society, which may or may not be happening anyway. It’s all very dubious and circumstantial.


January 27, 2008

I’m reading ‘Farewell to God’ by Charles Templeton (don’t buy it, it’s rubbish), and one of the first things he does is point out that he is an agnostic, and then describes his position, that he’s not sitting on the fence, it’s just that he cannot prove there is no god, so he cannot be absolutely sure there is no god, therefore he cannot be an atheist.

This got me thinking. His is very similar to my own perspective (and I think the majority of non-religious people would put themselves there too), but when people ask, I call myself an atheist, not an agnostic. It’s not that I’m absolutely certain there is no god, but I have no reason whatsoever to believe there is a god, so I live my life assuming that there isn’t.

The reason I don’t call myself an agnostic is because to many people it implies that I’m 50/50, sitting on the fence, with no idea whether there is a god or not. This is not the case. In my own mind I’m fairly sure that there’s no god, I just can’t prove it.

Of course, as widely pointed out, ‘atheist’ is a term that should not exist. All it means is that you don’t believe in a god. We don’t have terms like ‘non-socialist’ or ‘non-racist’, or ‘non-postman’. It’s a negative term that doesn’t really mean very much at all.

When people ask me to define humanism, one thing that I invariably bring up is that, in a way, it is ‘positive atheism’, in that saying you’re an atheist is saying what you don’t believe, whereas saying you’re a humanist is saying what you do believe (skeptical inquiry, rationalism, objective morality etc). I think this illustrates that humanism is not just another word for atheism to escape the stereotyping often associated with the term. In fact in the strictest sense you don’t even have to be an atheist to be a humanist. I’ve yet to meet a single religious humanist, but I imagine there are some.

A Question of Ethics

December 7, 2007

After the ECG talk on Tuesday, a little, middle-aged Christian lady in a wheelchair came up to me and asked me a few questions, which I obliged to answer. First of all was the usual one about how I became an atheist. I explained my story (which can be found… 2 posts ago here I think), and she replied with “oh, so you were basically angry at God after he didn’t answer your questions and your friend died”. I found this quite patronizing, actually, but I didn’t want to offend her, so I refrained from replying “well, actually I just realised it’s a load of bullshit”, and opted for the more diplomatic “it was more of a general disillusionment than that”. I didn’t get the opportunity to ask her how she became a Christian, which I suspect would have been quite illuminating.

Anyway the next question was the good old classic, “so where do you get your morality from?” Again, I didn’t want to offend her, so I didn’t use Roger’s favourite question “so, if God wasn’t watching your every move, would you be out there stealing, raping and killing people?”, instead I said “well how come you know that ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is something good in the Bible that you should follow, but that stoning homosexuals is a bad commandment and you shouldn’t follow it?”

She really didn’t answer my question, instead deciding to tell me that homosexuality is a perversion. My favourite part of this discourse was when she told me she’s got nothing against homosexuals, she was about to say “I know some homosexual people”, but corrected herself to say “I’ve met some homosexual people”, as if knowing them would be too sinful.

Anyway she didn’t answer the question so I approached it a different way and said “do you not think it’s possible for me to be moral without being a Christian?”, and she replied that it was possible for me but only because there are vestiges of Christianity remaining in me from my parents’ influence. She went on to say that the world is getting more immoral because people are more selfish, and this is because they’re turning away from Christianity. Now people put themselves first instead of God first and themselves second, so we’re all getting more selfish.

During that entire discourse she seemed to use ‘Christianity’ as a synonym for ‘religion’, so I asked her the old classic, “so there are so many other religions out there, what makes Christianity the true religion?” She said that in other religions, their God hasn’t come down to us in human form, and in other religions their God doesn’t love them like the Christian God does. “Well,” I said “that’s what makes Christianity different from other religions, but it doesn’t make it any more legitimate or true than the other religions, does it?”

– Stumped.

“And do you not realise that if you were living in another part of the world, you would be saying the exact same thing about another religion, giving me other reasons why Islam, for example, is the true religion.” She waffled on for a couple of minutes about how other religions can be partly moral too because they have some things in common with Christianity, which of course wasn’t the question I asked.

“And do you not think the ancient Athenians, for example, had at least some morals, centuries before Christianity even existed? So that’s proof that our morals don’t really come from the Christian Bible.”

– Stumped.

And my final question was “don’t you think it’s better that people think about their actions, and their consequences for other people, and make their morals that way, rather than just read their morals in a book and simply do things because God says so?” Her reply was “ah, but you have to remember that God made those rules, laws and commandments with the consequences for other people in mind.”

Our conversation was interrupted there, but I’d like to discuss that here for a little while. I’m aware this post is already quite extensive, so I won’t go on for too long. One of the most common secular ways of assessing whether something is moral or not is to decide if it causes the least suffering possible to the least amount of people. Now generally speaking the morals of Christianity do that, but there are exception, mainly to do with sexual immorality.

Why is it ok to kill homosexuals, or even just to judge them, when all it is is two people who love each other? Surely judging them inflicts more suffering on more people than the ‘sin’ itself does? On abortion, scientists go to a lot of effort to make sure that feotuses aren’t aborted once they’ve reached an age where they would suffer physically by it, but having the baby born could inflict a lot of pain on the mother in many different ways which I’m sure you’re all aware of. Stem cell research could alleviate suffering for countless thousands of people in the future, but the Church opposes it because it involves chopping up a human blastocyst (or very very young embryo). Now blastocysts are little clumps of about 150 cells. They don’t even have any specialised cells, never mind brains or anything as complex as that, so we can be relatively sure that they do not suffer. To quote Sam Harris, we should be more troubled by people swatting flies than we are about the suffering of blastocysts in stem cell research.

So if God really does make these laws with the consequences for other people in mind, then he’s made some pretty grave errors here, for an omniscient God. To quote the late George Carlin, “mistakes like these do not belong on the resume of a supreme being”.