Posts Tagged ‘atheism’

Believing in one less God is actually a pretty big deal

by Hang

I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours

This is a quote that I see thrown around a lot in atheist circles and it sounds reasonable until you try some word substitution:

I contend we both believe 9/11 didn’t happen. I just believe in one fewer cause than you. When you understand why you dismiss all the 9/11 conspiracy theories, you will understand why I dismiss Arabs flying planes into the buildings

I content we both believe Shakespeare didn’t exist. I just believe in one fewer identity than you. When you understand why you dismiss the theory that Shakespeare was Francis Bacon, you will understand why I dismiss Shakespeare being William Shakespeare.

When you dismiss other Gods, you are claiming that those Gods are not adequate explanations for your religious experience, Thor and Mohammed and Thetans are not the reason why your prayers get answered. When you dismiss all Gods, you are claiming that there is no religious experience to require explanations for, the illusion that your prayers are answered are caused by a trick of the brain. Believing in zero Gods is categorically different from believing in a God and atheists should stop pretending otherwise.

February 13 2009

Evolution is not compatible with God

by Hang

To a lot of liberal Christians, evolution has become, dare I say, almost a point of identity. Even the Catholic Church has reaffirmed it’s view that evolution is totally compatible with faith and that Intelligent Design is a cruel sham of a belief. A lot of Atheists are keen to encourage this because anything that gets liberal Christians on our side and away from the Fundamentalists is a good thing. Unfortunately, I’m about to take a massive piss into this font of goodwill by stating that I think the belief that evolution is compatible with faith is based on a misunderstanding of evolution that is so prevalent even Atheists are guilty of perpetuating it.

The easy part of evolution to understand is the mechanistic aspect, the “how” of evolution. Mutation happens and features get evolved and some things become more popular because they lead to increased survival and this is how we have the natural world we see around us. Based on an understanding of this how, it’s perfectly plausible to then believe the why comes from God. God works through evolution and gives it a nudge once in a while at the right points. Evolution is just a cog in God’s plan. Of course, this is an unfalsifiable assertion so it falls outside of the domain of science. The scientists are happy, the liberal Christians are happy, why make so much fuss?

But to understand why evolution had the profoundly explosive effect it did on the scientific world and why Darwin was named the most influential scientist of the past millennium by Scientific American, one must move past the mechanistic understanding of evolution and understand the teleological aspect of evolution: the why of evolution.

Imagine for a second that you rolled a pair of dice a million times and noticed that they added up to 7 roughly 1/6th of the time. Why did the dice land the way it did? Why 1/6th and not some other number like 1/3rd or 1/12th? If you were wholly ignorant about probability, then you could believe that God decreed that all dice rolls should fall to his accord and the reason for 1/6th was because it was pleasing to his eye. But what probability does is it not only explains how it is 1/6th, but also to boil the why down to *shrug*, that’s just the way it is. Fundamentally, the why of it is that there is no why, not only is the why not God, it’s not anything. What probability does is explain away the why.

The real impact of evolution was not that it explained the natural world, it was that it provided science with a path to explain it away. Why do birds fly and beasts walk? Why are we the most intelligent of all the animals? Why do we love and war and yearn for the stars? *shrug*, that’s just how the world is. Evolution showed how complex forms and intelligent beings could have arisen following the same natural laws that govern how dice roll and planets move and by doing so, it not only removed the need for an intelligent creator, it removed the need for anything. Even 200 years after Darwin this is the basic point of evolution that is still misunderstood and this is why evolution is far more of a dilemma to faith than most people will admit.

It’s important to note though that this process is far from complete. Darwin only put humanity on the first step towards this understanding and in the last 200 years, scientists have been steadily working away towards this goal. Our understanding of how is still gradually improving every year but none of this could have happened unless Darwin had the stroke of insight that there could be no why.

Is it possible to believe in evolution and still in God? Sure, but It would be akin to showing how you could bend a spoon via sleight of hand and still believing that Uri Geller is bending them with his mind. If that’s the way it’s done, then he’s doing it the hard way.

December 21 2008

What atheism isn’t

by Hang

Several of the reactions to my most recent post that “No one is born atheist” contain some variant of the argument:

Since atheism is defined as the lack of belief in a god or gods, and babies are born without any supernatural beliefs or opinions whatsoever, children are clearly atheist until they engage in this ‘animistic behavior’ – 180andback

and

Atheism is simply the lack of belief in a deity, nothing more. – Zaki

Sure, if you literally break the word down into a-theism then you can interpret it to mean the lack of a belief in a God but I don’t think this is a useful way to talk about atheism.

If I made the claim that “I don’t think dinosaurs exist” then your natural first reaction might be “Well, what about all those fossils?”.

If I went on about how Satan buried those fossils as a test of my faith, you could safely label me a-dinosaur as I’ve made an active assertion about how the world could be without dinosaurs.

On the other hand, if I simply choose to ignore your question about the existence of fossils, it would be more accurate to label me as a dinosaur denier. Someone who doesn’t want to confront the issue of dinosaur existence.

Furthermore, if I had simply never even heard of dinosaurs before and had no reason to suppose their existence, then it might be accurate to label me as a dinosaur agnostic.

In each of these three cases, I don’t hold a belief that dinosaurs exist but these three lack of beliefs are of a very different nature and calling them all a-dinosaurism confuses the issue.

It is not enough to claim that gods do not exist to become atheist, you must also provide a explanation that explains the evidence for the existence of gods. Any justifiable atheism must be at least about to adequately answer the following phenomena:

  • Every single day, hundreds of faith healers across the globe cause countless miracles of healing
  • I had a dream about my Aunt Marge dying and when I woke up, I got a phone call that she got into a horrific car accident
  • Every time I go to the 5th floor of my office,  I feel incredibly sad and lost. I later found out that someone had committed suicide on that floor. I had no idea it happened but I still felt the presence of his ghost.
  • My friend had a terminal cancer and the doctors told her that it was incurable but when she prayed to God, it miraculously went into remission. The doctors all said they had never seen anything like it.
  • When I rub my lucky coin 3 times in a clockwise fashion, I win much more at roulette
  • I can feel God guide me in my life and feel his presence in my soul. It’s impossible for such a feeling to be faked

What’s amazing about atheism is that it can adequately answer these seemingly amazing phenomena in a purely naturalistic manner. However, the answers to these questions are neither simple nor obvious. Any answer requires a great deal of sophisticated understanding of both philosophical and empirical matters and it’s the ability to answer these questions that separates genuine atheism from a simple denial of gods.

Such a confusion does atheists and atheism no favors. Because this distinction is not made clear, most of the Christians I talk to believe that atheists are God deniers. Atheists are atheists because the implications of a God existing is so morally threatening that atheists must construct a psychological shield that justifies their immorality and secularism. The idea that atheists are actually capable of answering the preceeding questions is so astounding that it’s never even considered.

Atheists need to become much more clear about what atheism is and isn’t if they want atheism to be given the respect it deserves as an intellectual position. Atheism is not simply a denial of gods. Instead, it’s an active assertion that the universe can be explained better in the absence of gods.

December 19 2008

Noone is born atheist

by Hang

One argument I’ve been hearing about with increasing frequency from the atheist community is that “everyone is born atheist” with the implication that religion is some unwitting indoctrination forced upon children too young to object. To me, such an argument represents a shockingly naive tabula rasa view of human development and, what’s more, invalidates the significant intellectual achievements of atheism as an intellectual stance.

A far more accurate view of human development would reveal that “everyone is born animist”, that is, ascribing human like traits to naturalistic phenomena. Our propensity to find and explain patterns of behavior is a product of our deep evolutionary background and even in modern, technological society, we curse our computers as malicious and believe that we can influence the timing of traffic lights. All religion does is impose an organizational framework upon our original animist intuitions. It provides a ready explanation for what we were already pre-programmed to believe.

Only atheism seeks to directly challenge the validity of our animist intuition and promote a wholly naturalistic view of the world. As a result, atheism is a deeply counter intuitive claim and one which can only be justified by deep intellectual inquiry into rationalism, skepticism and the scientific method. The argument that “everyone is born atheist” wholly discredits the significant intellectual effort that atheists must take to reach an intellectually defensible point of view.

So let’s retire this tired old canard that “everyone is born atheist”. It’s intellectually embarrassing and gives a grossly inaccurate viewpoint to outsiders on what atheism actually is.

Oct 30th (day 18): Further thoughts on the existance of god

by Hang

My post yesterday on how to think about the existance of god seemed to generate a fair bit of commentary, both on the blog and on reddit. Many people popped up with alternative rebuttals to the claim “you can’t prove that god exists”, all of which I was aware of. But here’s the fundamental problem with all the conventional claims: They don’t work. Yes, they might be strictly, logically sound. Yes, they might require less of a leap of logic. But the problem is that concepts like burden of proof and occam’s razor sound totally convincing to people who have already accepted that it’s true but it’s hard to overestimate just how bizarrely counterintuitive, highly abstract and just plain wrong-sounding these concepts are. Atheists don’t have an argumentation problem, they have a communication problem.

Here’s what atheists seem to be missing when they encounter a Christian who disagrees with them: There are actually two legitimate reasons why a Christian would hold the position that Atheism is not merely wrong, but absurd on the face.

the philosophical argument

One is that they disagree from a fundamentally philosophical standpoint. It’s a perfectly legitimate model to posit that God only reveals himself to those who have made the leap of faith and, indeed, the power of religion lies in the difficulty in finding God. The evidence for God does not lie in naturalistic experiment, it lies in the human quest for meaning or the structure and order of life. It’s not a position I agree with but it’s definately one I respect as a internally coherent explaination of the world. In this case, of course atheists can’t find any evidence of God’s existance, they’re simply too stubborn and persist in looking in the wrong place despite huge and obvious signs of their ineptitude.

The urn example in this case lays down explicitly the areas of agreement and disagreement. You can move from there to the much more philosophically demanding areas of how occam’s razor and burden of proof affect each side’s claims.

the factual argument

The second reason is that they simply disagree with you on a factual level. To them, faith healing is real and demons have a manifest effect on the world. Miracles happen all the time and you would have to be stupid and blind to be an atheist. It’s so obvious that supernatural events are happening that it becomes impossible to consider that another person could view the world differently.

What the urn example demonstrates is that yes, atheists too would be convinced by supernatural events. A ball with the number 417 would convince an atheist the urn is red just as easily as a bona fide miracle would convince them of God’s existence. The point of contention is on an interpretation of evidence and this can be used as a starting point to segue into skepticism, levels of evidence, basic human psychology and burdens of proof. If you differ on a factual level, then Occam’s Razor is completely a non convincing argument. If miracles are happening on a daily basis, then the simplest explaination really is that god exists.

The fundamental problem that I’ve seen is that the average atheist argues with a Christian like they’re an atheist but stupider and believing in silly things. This is a wholly ineffective way to argue with anyone and it’s not going to change anyone’s mind.

Oct 29th (day 17): Thinking about the existance of god

by Hang

I’m going to break my sequence of concepts to present an interesting analogy I just came up with to explain why this argument is subtly wrong:

“There’s no way to prove that god does not exist”

Say I have two urns:

  • One is filled with numbered green balls, all of which lie in the range of 1 to 100.
  • The other is filled with numbered red balls all of which lie in the range of 1 to 500.

I draw a sequence of balls from a single urn, announce the numbers and I then ask you what color you think the urn I picked was.

Obviously, if there is a single ball >= 101, then you can assert with 100% probability that the urn is red. However, there’s no possible sequence of balls that could definitively prove a green urn. But if I keep on drawing balls under 100, consistently and without a single ball over 100. The more balls are being drawn, the more sure you are that I picked the green urn.

I view this as analogous to the problem of the existence of god. The space of possible universes in which god does not exist is a strict subset of the space of possible universes in which god does exist. It’s therefore strictly impossible to prove that god does not exist.

Each observation is like drawing a ball out of the urn and each observation can be consistent with an atheistic or supernatural interpretation of the world. Say you observed stones independently arranging to form the words of the koran, the ten commandments written in fire across the sky and routine, repeatable, spontaneous limb regeneration after praying. If any one of these happened (and they were verified to be bona fide miracles and not just what seemed like miracles), it would be the equivilant of drawing ball 328: absolute proof that god exists. But we keep on picking balls and observing the world and they keep on being strictly naturalistic phenomena.

Sure, it’s still possible that god exists and we’re going to find evidence of him if we keep on looking harder. But to me, we’ve picked enough balls that it’s not where the smart money is anymore.

October 7 2008

Religulous

by Hang

I’ve been thinking a bit about the movie Religulous since I saw it last night and I wanted to post my thoughts on it in case anyone comes out of it confused. Religulous is not designed to be a religious conversion movie. If you expect to drag your Christian friends to a showing and have the scales fall from their eyes, you will be sorely disappointed. Make no mistake about it, Religulous was not designed to make Christians uncomfortable, it was designed to make Atheists uncomfortable.

Round and round the Atheist blogs, the message is the same. Maher is smug, smarmy and wholly incompentent. He doesn’t have a competent grasp of the key arguments of atheism, he isn’t a particularly good debater. In fact, his arguments are riddled with fallacies and flaws. In short, he’s not good enough to be an atheist.

But the simple question the movie asks is why do we need brilliant, educated, calm, charming people to spearhead atheism? Why do we set the bar so high? Why do we seek out ever increasingly sophisticated arguments and argue with so much patience and cede so much respect to the religious? Why can’t it be just some schmuck going “A talking snake? Really?”

Because when Atheists stop ceding religious beliefs the respect they give to no other form of belief, that’s what it boils down to. What the movie was trying to say was that it’s you who are the problem. You, the ones that say such an ignorant smarmy bastard isn’t allowed to be the face of atheism. That the atheist agenda has to be run like a high priesthood managed by a slick PR team.

Maher showed the world what the other face of atheism could be. To stop arguing religion on their terms and to start arguing it on ours. To stop battling their strongest arguments as if that had any hope of converting them but to resort to simple ridicule because such beliefs are not even worth thinking of a smart argument against. When the other side is bringing to the table big fishes and bushes and talking snakes, do you really need to bone up on the intricacies of carbon dating in order to defeat them?

Personally, I disliked the movie. I thought the Michael Moore style editing was odious and Maher, like most non-religious people, seriously underestimates the profound impact of a genuine religious experience. But that doesn’t stop me from appreciating what they were trying to do. Religulous was designed to be uncomfortable to atheists because it’s completely non-threatening to religious people.

August 20 2008

aTheists and atheists

by Hang

aTheist = not believing in Gods, ie: Jehovah, Allah, Vishnu
atheist = not believing in gods, invisible men who we need to be looking down at us for our actions to make sense.

Christians have atheists pegged pretty well. They’re rightfully terrified of them because atheists are pretty scary people. They make the mistake of not realizing that most people who claim to be atheists are really aTheists.

Is aTheism a stable state though? The mental gymnastics that keep Christians from turning aTheist are the same ones that stop an aTheist from becoming atheist.

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