Thursday, April 17, 2008

God Explains Nothing

When theists are asked to justify their belief in God, they often respond that God is required to explain some facet of reality that they consider otherwise unexplainable. God explains where the universe comes from, where life comes from, where morals come from, or why there is something rather than nothing. Since science lacks the answers to these questions1, they claim, we must look to religion. Enter God, stage left.

This line of reasoning is, of course, a logical fallacy known as argumentum ad ignorantiam (argument from ignorance), and sometimes called the "God of the gaps" fallacy. The argument's fault lies in the implicit assumption that the God explanation gains automatic credence by virtue of humanity's general ignorance on the subject (or, as is often the case, the personal ignorance of the one advancing the argument). The existence of anything can only be established via direct evidence, and the argument from ignorance offers none.

Ignorance, of course, goes a long way toward explaining why religions exist in the first place. The major religions of today were born in an era when life and death phenomena such a weather, disease, and natural disasters were completely unexplained. Thus myths developed to explain what was then a complete mystery, and those myths grew into religions over the course of generations. Viewed from this perspective, "God of the gaps" has a long and inglorious history -- we now understand weather, disease, and natural disasters (to name just a few) without reference to the supernatural. Nevertheless, gaps in our collected knowledge remain, and probably always will; it is a sad commentary on human rationality that many of us tend to cling to any explanation, however inadequate, rather then accept that we simply do not know.

Argumentum ad ignorantiam is closely related to what Richard Dawkins has dubbed the "argument from personal incredulity". This argument, most often deployed by fundamentalists, states that while, for example, the development of life does have a scientific explanation, it is simply too incredible to be believed. This argument can take forms ranging from the uninformed and willfully ignorant ("I just can't see how something as complex as the eye could have just formed itself") to the philosophically ridiculous ("When I consider the miracle of birth, I just can't believe there's no God"). Needless to say, reality is wholly independent of one's capacity to accept it. The argument from personal incredulity has nothing worthwhile to say about the truth, but does say a great deal about the intellectual laziness of the person making it.

Even were arguments from ignorance and personal incredulity logically valid, they would still suffer from another fatal flaw -- the God explanation always regresses to the very problem it purports to solve. If God explains how the universe (or life) came to exist, how did God come to exist? If God is the source of morality, where did God get his morality? If God explains why there is something rather than nothing, why is there God rather than nothing? God is a cheap answer, a pseudo-explanation fit only for those who are unable or unwilling to think critically. A general rule of science (not to mention common sense), known as the principle of parsimony or Occam's razor, states that we should favor economy of explanation. Thus we can dispense with any hypothesis that simply adds complexity and raises new questions, while lacking any real explanatory power in the final analysis. That seems to describe the God hypothesis quite well, as God explains nothing.

1Science does, in fact, have a great deal to say on these topics, as I will explore in future posts. Intellectually honest religious people tend to emphasise that scientific knowledge on such subjects is inadequate or incomplete; dishonest ones tend to ignore, misrepresent, or remain ignorant of the state of scientific knowledge.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Senseless Center

In the world of a moderate Christian, you can have your cake and eat it too. All of the pillars of modern science, including Big Bang cosmology and evolutionary biology, are held to be true, but Christianity is true also. Thus there is no conflict between science and religion , they are simply different ways of knowing. If fundamentalists and atheists would just relinquish their dogmatic, extreme, uncompromising positions and embrace the middle ground that moderates have staked out, we would all live in a more harmonious world. Christian moderates fashion themselves as peacemakers; they have the solution to the fruitless and often polemic debate between the two "extremes". Sounds perfectly sensible, right?

Actually, it's completely senseless. Christian moderates have committed the logical fallacy known as argumentum ad temperantiam (argument to moderation), wherein the middle ground between two positions is asserted to be the most reasonable merely by virtue of being the middle ground. The popular phrase the truth lies somewhere in between is essentially an appeal to argumentum ad temperantiam. While the middle ground is sometimes correct, it is entitled to no special claim on truth. Like any other claim, a middle ground claim must be established as true on the basis of evidence. On that score, moderate Christianity fails miserably.

To give just one popular example, moderate Christians usually claim that there is no conflict between the scientific story of the development of the universe (beginning with the Big Bang and ultimately leading to humans living on Earth via evolution) and the Bible (specifically the Book of Genesis). I have searched extensively for explanations of how to reconcile the two, and have found only weak rationalizations. I feel confident in asserting that no intellectually satisfying reconciliation exists.

The first tactic moderates often employ is evasion. The Bible is not a scientific textbook, they say, and ought not be read literally. The commentary at the beginning of my Bible (the New Revised Standard Version) says the following:

Chapters 1-3 deal with questions that have been asked in every age: "Where did the world and its inhabitants come from?" ... Genesis says: God created everything (1:1). The book does not give details as to when or how this was done. Innumerable fruitless arguments have raged as people have tried to use Genesis to prove or disprove various scientific theories. Genesis is simply not intended to be a scientific report. Rather, Genesis is a confession of faith. It declares that God is the Creator of all, and human beings are the climax of God's creation.

Similarly, Francis Collins1, in his Time magazine debate with Richard Dawkins, said:

St. Augustine wrote that basically it is not possible to understand what was being described in Genesis. It was not intended as a science textbook. It was intended as a description of who God was, who we are and what our relationship is supposed to be with God. Augustine explicitly warns against a very narrow perspective that will put our faith at risk of looking ridiculous. If you step back from that one narrow interpretation, what the Bible describes is very consistent with the Big Bang.

These attempts are hand waving are meant to distract attention from, and avoid confronting, what Genesis actually says. In Genesis 1, the entire universe is created in six days. The earth is created on the first day; plants are created on the third day; the sun, moon, and stars on the fourth; and so on, with humans appearing last, on the sixth day, and God "resting" on the seventh.

When pressed, moderates will declare this to be metaphor -- the "days" are not literal days but rather periods of time, perhaps even billions of years. To support this assertion, they point out that the sun is not created until the fourth "day", and since it is impossible to have a day without the sun, the term must have another meaning. They may also point to phrases later in the Bible, such as "with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day" (2 Peter 3:8).

This explanation is absurd. Even were we to allow the "days" is Genesis 1 to represent billions of years, the order is completely wrong. Science has taught us that the sun existed before the earth, and certainly before plants. Genesis has the earth created first, then plants, then the sun. Furthermore, we have strong textual evidence from elsewhere in the Bible that the six days of creation are meant as standard 24 hour days. In Exodus 20:8-11, the fourth of the famous ten commandments is given as:

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work. . . For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day.

Clearly, God was not telling the Israelites to work for six periods of billions of years, then rest on the seventh period of billions of years. Even if moderates could concoct an explanation for reconciling cosmology and evolution with the Bible (which I doubt), they would still have to clear the additional hurdle of showing why their position is more reasonable than the one that both fundamentalists and atheists hold -- that the Bible simply means what it says. Why would an omnipotent and omniscient God be such a poor communicator that he has misled scores of generations of humans as to their origins, and placed the Bible on a collision course with science? Why doesn't Genesis simply say what it means?

Pushing further down this line of reasoning, the moderate Christian's entire religion begins to unravel. When cornered, moderates will reluctantly concede that Adam and Eve, and the Garden of Eden, never existed. They prefer to hang their hats on the life and teachings of Jesus as recounted in the New Testament. How then does Jesus's genealogy (through his "adopted" father, Joseph) trace back to and terminate at Adam, as stated in Luke 3:23-38? What are we to make of the doctrine (subscribed to by most, but not all Christian denominations) that Jesus's sacrifice on the cross was an atonement for the "original sin" of Adam of Eve taking the forbidden fruit, a sin that all humanity inherits?

These examples are just a few of the many instances in which the moderate position ignores, downplays, or rationalizes away what the Bible actually says. As Sam Harris notes in An Atheist Manifesto, at least "fundamentalists tend to make a more principled use of their brains than 'moderates'", who are "apt to produce the most unctuous and stupefying nonsense imaginable". "Religious moderates", he writes in The End of Faith, "betray faith and reason equally".

Furthermore, in employing argumentum ad temperantiam, moderates tend also to commit the fallacy of false equivalence, wherein atheists are viewed as mirror images of fundamentalists. Since fundamentalists tend to be dogmatic, intolerant, and closed-minded, those traits are projected onto atheists. This is where the meaningless term "atheist fundamentalism" comes from2. Thus Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens are viewed as no more reasonable then Jerry Fallwell or Pat Robertson, just the opposite side of the same coin. This is how moderates give themselves license to dismiss atheists' arguments without meeting the burden of carefully and rigorously considering them.

As I discussed in An Honest Conversation, religious moderates are not harmless, as they shelter fundamentalists from the full force of a collision with reason, and unwittingly give rise to the very religious excesses they are likely to oppose. It is time to call moderation out for what it is: self-contradictory, incoherent nonsense.

1Francis Collins served as the American head of the Human Genome Project, and is a moderate evangelical Christian. He is also the author of The Language of God, in which he attempts to harmonize science and Christianity. I have not yet read the book, but I do recommend Sam Harris' review on TruthDig.

2Oxford theologian Alister McGrath used this phrase in the subtitle of his book The Dawkins Delusion, a response to Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. I have not read McGrath's book, but I expect it to be underwhelming.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Fifty Million Frenchmen Can Be Wrong

Religious believers often draw support from the fact that most of the world's people (about 80-90%) are religious, or at least profess to be. This argumentum ad populum (argument from popularity) is logically fallacious, but nevertheless does considerable work in propping up the faith of waverers -- we can't all be wrong! Actually, you can. Just a few centuries ago, nearly every human believed the Earth to be flat, and to be the central feature of the universe. To take a more modern example, Al Gore never claimed to have invented the internet, contrary to popular opinion. The word myth is in our lexicon for a good reason. While many widely believed ideas are true (George Washington was the first President of the United States), they are widely believed because they are true, not vice versa.

Furthermore, properly construed, popular appeal cuts strongly against the religious believer. While it is true that Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Taoists, and Zoroastrians believe in some form of a "higher power", their beliefs diverge widely from there, to the degree that they are often mutually incompatible. It is fundamentally dishonest for a Christian to count a Buddhist as a believer for the purpose of argumentum ad populum, while simultaneously embracing a theology that consigns that same Buddhist to hell (or at least denies her entrance to heaven) for being an infidel. The 2001 edition of the misleadingly titled World Christian Encyclopedia identifies 9,900 distinct world religions, not to mention the numerous denominations and sects the world's major religions have splintered into. When a Presbyterian honestly considers what portion of the world's population holds beliefs compatible with his, he will find himself in a distinct minority. That same statistic would look downright bleak were he to consider not just those alive today, but all humans who have ever lived. So much for popularity.

Popular appeal probably has its strongest impact on the local level. Most Americans find themselves in communities populated by believers, and the urge to fit is hard to resist. While many of us have a bit of a rebellious streak (some more than others), the plain truth is that humans are largely conformers. Many evolutionary biologists believe this to be an evolved trait -- conformity helped early human societies cohere, cooperate, and thrive. This helps to explain why many atheists and agnostics remain "in the closet" -- they want to be popular ,and to avoid the risk of becoming societal outcasts. This serves to entrench the problem, because by continuing to identify as believers, these doubters contribute to the perceived popularity of religion.

Once again, I ask the readers to my blog to raise their consciousness -- argumentum ad populum is doing some of the work to hold together the foundation of sand that religion rests on, and needs simply to be exposed. If the religious had a sound basis for their beliefs, they would have no need to fall back on logical fallacies.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

I'll Take That Bet, Blaise

Perhaps you were raised Christian, but are starting to doubt the truth of what you've been taught to believe. If you're honest enough to admit that to yourself, you've already gone farther than many of your coreligionists. Still, Christianity might be true, and if you reject it and you're wrong, endless torment awaits in hell after you die. Better to play it safe and remain a believer, just in case.

This line of reasoning is known as Pascal's wager, named after French mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), who apparently was the first person of any prominence to write it down. I suspect that it is actually nearly as old as Christianity itself, as thoughts along the lines of Pascal's wager are inevitable in anyone who has been exposed to the idea of hell as a punishment for nonbelief. Indeed, many wavering Christians, most of whom would not know Pascal from a pastel, remain at least nominally in the fold due to the threat of hell. In high school, a friend once told me that although he did not believe in God, he considered himself a Christian and continued to go to church as "fire insurance".

Viewed from the outside, Pascal's wager is absurd. Christians seem to lose little sleep over whether they are in danger of ending up in hell for their unbelief in Islam, or over whether they will be reincarnated as something undesireable for their unbelief in Hinduism or Buddhism. Furthermore, as an atheist, I cannot will myself to believe in God. I could attend a Christian church, go through the motions, and profess belief, but an omniscient God would not be fooled. Would he not prefer honest disbelief to disingenuous bet-hedging? At any rate, why should we accept the idea that God regards belief as paramount? Is he a megalomaniac? Perhaps there is a God, but he only rewards those who have the intellectual courage to be atheists, given the paucity of evidence.

Pascal's wager is nevertheless effective because it is usually viewed from the inside, not the outside. Most people are indoctrinated into religion as children, and thus they are believers by the time they are old enough to subject their faith to critical examination. When doubts start to surface, believers do not immediately abandon their religion; rather, they enter the vast continuum that exists between complete belief and complete nonbelief. It is in this region that Pascal's wager is effective. If the concept of hell seems at least plausible, then the threat of hell can be truly terrifying.

Some Christian clergy may protest that they would never stoop so low as to maintain their congregations through the threat of hell, or any other threat. Some do not even believe in a literal hell, while others do believe but never bring it up. It makes very little difference. Anyone growing up in the United States (or any country where Christianity or Islam is common) cannot reasonably be expected to be sheltered from the idea of hell. If he/she does not learn of it from church, it might instead be from family, friends, media, literature, etc. Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme" to refer to an idea that is prevalent in a society and spreads from person to person like a virus. The meme of hell is simply unavoidable. Some clergy may be loathe to admit it, but that meme does much of their dirty work. Without it, their congregations would be much smaller.

Ultimately, Pascal's wager is an example of the logical fallacy known as argumentum ad baculum (argument with a cudgel) in that it is not a logical argument at all, but rather a threat masquerading as one. Raise your consciousness to what hell really is -- a morally bankrupt attempt to intimidate into submission.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

An Honest Conversation

When is the last time you had a truly honest conversation about religion, in which no topic was off limits and the existence of God was not regarded as axiomatic? For most Americans, the only truthful answer that can be given is "never". Politics and religion are the two things we are not to discuss in polite company, and we are much more likely to relax that "rule" with politics than with religion. Our discourse on religion tends to range from nonexistent to highly stunted, and for this we are paying an unacceptable price. We have unwittingly given rise to the conditions under which fundamentalism thrives, and a healthy dose of consciousness raising is in order.

For the most part, the adverse effects of religion, which I touched on in my Introduction, are the result of fundamentalism. Most moderate (and liberal) believers would agree that fundamentalism is a bad thing, but by failing to discus religion in an open and honest way, moderates shelter fundamentalists from any serious intellectual challenge and give them relatively free reign. This is not surprising, as moderate believers have already acquiesced to the foundational pillars of fundamentalism -- in the case of fundamentalist Christianity, that there is a singular God, the Bible is his word, and faith in God is a virtue1. Once those ideas are accepted, the only additional element that fundamentalism requires is the belief that the Bible means what it says. Moderate Christianity is an intellectually bankrupt position that cannot survive contact with the first few pages of the Bible2. This gives rise to deep (though probably subconscious) insecurities; thus moderates don't want to talk about their beliefs, lest their insecurities be exposed. Moreover, moderates hold a weak hand with which to challenge any religious claim to which they do not subscribe, as those who live in glass houses ought not throw stones. Their way out is to discourage skeptical inquiry, promulgate the idea that it is uncivil to challenge religious beliefs, and console themselves with wishful thinking about fundamentalism being rare and impotent3.

I understand that honest conversations about religion are difficult. In many circles, to broach the subject is to break a taboo. Thus I suggest starting by having the conversation with yourself. If you are a believer, raise your consciousness to the real reasons why your identify with your particular religion. If you are an agnostic, raise your consciousness to the reasons why you continue to hedge your bets. Chances are, they have little to do with truth.

I have already touched on two reasons why we believe, profess to believe, or at least fail to fully disbelieve. First, most of us are taught, from as soon as we are old enough to understand the concept, that God is a fact, and many of us never closely examine that alleged fact. Second, we fear the possible adverse consequences of rejecting our religion. We may fear the loss or weakening of family ties and friendships, social ostracization, loss of self-esteem, and a crisis of identity. We may be reluctant to give up the comforting feeling that a higher power is looking out for us. We may not want to face the fact that a deceased loved one is really gone forever, nor want to come to terms with our own mortality. We may fear that without religion, society would collapse into chaos. It should go without saying that whether or not these fears are well-founded, they do not give the slightest reason to believe that any religion is true.

1Similarly, agnostics contribute to the problem by dignifying those positions as reasonable, even if they do not personally hold them.

2Here, I am assuming a moderate who believes in the scientific story of the development of the universe (beginning with the Big Bang and segueing into evolutionary biology) but believes that God was ultimately behind it all. I am aware that apologists have put forth various attempts to square the circle with the highly discrepant account given in the Book of Genesis. They amount to nothing more than pathetic rationalizations, as I explore in The Senseless Center.

3Polls tend to show that about half of American Christians are fundamentalists, or about 40% of the overall population. For example, a 2001 Barna Research Group poll reported that "41% of adults strongly agree that the Bible is totally accurate in all that it teaches", which meets my definition of fundamentalism. See

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

I Stand on the Shoulders of Giants

When I was in 9th grade, I was asked in social studies class to name the person whom I most admire. That's a simple task on its face, but I found it exceedingly difficult. I have the same difficulty when asked to name my favorite movie. It's not that I can't find a person or movie that I like, but rather that I am not the sort of person who ranks things.

A few months ago, when I participated in something called the American Values Survey, I was again asked the most admired person question, but this time I had no trouble coming up with a name. Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has done more than any other person to promote and energize atheism in recent memory, and atheists in the United States are more confident and more vocal then ever before as a result. His recent book The God Delusion not only solidified my nascent atheism, but also inspired me to take a greater interest in the subject, ultimately leading to this blog. Superbly reasoned and elegantly witty, The God Delusion makes an unapologetically devastating (from a theists point of view) intellectual and moral case for atheism. I recommend the book to everyone. Dawkins' web site,, is also an excellent resource for a wide array of topics related to both religion and evolution. Dawkins is a top tier scientist and author who rose to prominence by proposing, in The Selfish Gene, the now widely accepted idea that the gene is the principal unit upon which evolution acts. His success in advancing the cause of atheism is in no small part due to the gravitas his name carries. It is a measure of how far atheism has to go that most Americans have nevertheless never heard of him.

My favorite atheist writer is actually not Richard Dawkins but American neuroscientist Sam Harris. His books The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation are unparalleled, as are many of his other writings and speeches available at his web site, The best introduction to atheism available on the web (that I am aware of) is his essay An Atheist Manifesto. If you can get past the title -- it has a unfortunate tendency to evoke A Communist Manifesto, or a deranged anarchist writing an antigovernment rant in a remote cabin -- it is an excellent, and fairly quick, read.

Physicist Victor Stenger's God: The Failed Hypothesis and journalist Christopher Hitchens's God is Not Great are also excellent and highly recommended books. Author and journalist Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven, ostensibly about Mormonism, is a fascinating case study of how religion begins, and how it can spiral out of control and spawn abuse and violence. Others that I have not yet read but come highly recommended by others include Daniel Dennet's Breaking the Spell, Dan Barker's Losing Faith in Faith, and Ayan Hirsi Ali's Infidel. Although I have only so far read small parts of their works, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the freethinkers of yesteryear such a Bertrand Russell and Robert Ingersoll. Lest I forget, the greatest argument for atheism ever written (or the most ironic, at least) is the book I am currently reading, the Bible.

For those of you with the time to listen to podcasts, I can recommend Point of Inquiry, Freethought Radio, The Non-Prophets, The Atheist Experience, and The Way of Reason. Some of these podcasts are better than others, but all are worth listening to. Excellent web resources include the aforementioned Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris web sites, PZ Meyers' Pharyngula blog, The Secular Web, TalkOrigins, and the Iron Chariots Wiki.

Although I believe I have some novel ideas to add to the debate, I gratefully acknowledge that I draw heavily from the aforementioned sources, among others. I truly stand on the shoulders of giants.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Just One More Definition

It occurs to me that I also need to define the term religion. My definition is "a system of beliefs involving worship of or reverence for the supernatural, divine, or sacred." Religion also encompasses the institutions, doctrines, scriptures, and practices associated with those beliefs.

Terminology tends to be a dry subject, and I do not wish to dwell on minutiae. However, terminology is important for establishing a common framework for discussion and avoiding misunderstandings. In arriving at my definitions, I have applied 3 principal criteria:
  1. A definition should be defensible based on word etymology and definitions given in major dictionaries.
  2. A definition should be in common usage.
  3. A definition should be useful, in that it serves to draw distinctions important to the discussion.

I sometimes come across people using the word religion to mean any activity pursued with zeal or devotion. For example, devoted fans may be said to watch football "religiously" on Sundays. People who use this definition tend to describe me as religious for being passionate about my atheism. I could object to this definition on the basis of all 3 of my criteria, but I object mainly on the basis of the third. If religion encompasses everything from football fans to fundamentalist Christians, it is a nearly useless term. Yes, I share passion and conviction with fundamentalist Christians, but there is also a world of difference between us, and it is that very difference that I wish to highlight and explore. Calling atheism (or at least passionate atheism) a religion is an exercise in conflation and obfuscation. Atheism is no more a religion than baldness is a hair color.

I have particularly little patience for people who engage in word games, casually tossing around loaded terms in ways that violate my criteria without acknowledging this. Indeed, word gamers tend to keep definitions vague, so that they can be shifted when convenient -- a subtle form of a logical fallacy known as equivocation, whereby a word changes definition in the course of an argument. For example, a word gamer might say "God is love. Don't you believe in love?"; or "God is in those deep and profound mysteries of the universe. Surely you agree that there are things we don't understand?"; or "God can be thought of as a metaphor for the meaning of life. Surely you don't think that life is a meaningless, pointless waste?" If the responder agrees that yes, love exists; yes, there are things we don't understand; or yes, life has meaning; the questioner shifts the definition of God and takes the response as vindication for the God of the Bible. The ontological argument for the existence of God is a word game, relying on a vague and shifting definition of "perfection" (or "greatness", "existence", etc., depending on the version used).