Untouchable

“So when you criticise religion these days, you encounter people who 1. are on some level shocked that you would do so, 2. may not think they can argue effectively with you and 3. have passed judgement on you because of your criticism and may not think you’re worth arguing with.”

Question from Brian:
Hi, it’s me again. Why is religion given such an untouchable status in the minds of so many? They think they can say whatever they want, but if we respond it’s a “personal attack”.

Answer:
The following is a gross over-generalisation, but that doesn’t stop it from being essentially true.

2 or 3 generations ago, Christianity in Western countries was happily assumed to be the religion of everyone you were likely to meet. Arguments over religion either happened between Christian denominations, very occasionally between Christians and Jews or in universities where nobody was listening. In this situation, not only was there no reason for anyone to criticise religion as a whole, anyone who did was attacking beliefs apparently held by society as a whole, beliefs which were there for the good of all. Atheism had little or no public presence and those who knew its position on such things didn’t sympathise with it.

There are a great many people who think we still live in that world, and judge recent public criticism of relligion in that light. Religion is Good, and attacking something Good is Bad. Also, religion hasn’t had to seriously defend itself in public for some time, which means many believers haven’t learned how. There are a lot of crash courses going on now, after the advent of “new atheism” (which is really just ordinary atheism after a few authors made everyone take notice), but it’s still not a universal skill.

So when you criticise religion these days, you encounter people who 1. are on some level shocked that you would do so, 2. may not think they can argue effectively with you and 3. have passed judgement on you because of your criticism and may not think you’re worth arguing with.

On top of all this, there’s another line of reasoning which shows no empathy with anti-religionists at all. Basically, some people don’t understand why anyone would criticise or attack something given to us by God, who is all-powerful and loves us. This doesn’t take into account the fact that other people don’t think there is one, or think there’s a different one. It’s roughly the same logic that causes people to threaten atheists with Hell. This thinking does exist despite the obvious flaw.

As for criticising the non-religious, whether it’s honest or not there’s a catch-all rationale for it: it’s good for us, we need it, they’re doing us a favour.

SmartLX

Ghosts: Physical Evidence (…not)

“…just because you can’t explain something doesn’t make it supernatural. It merely makes it unexplained – so far.”

Question from Edgar:
I’ve met people who claim to have experienced, or known someone who has experienced, physical encouters with “ghosts”. They claim to have been scratched and had witnesses who testified to them(the scratches). Also, some claimed that they shared paranormal experiences. By that I mean, multiple people seeing or hearing the same thing. How can two or more people hallucinate, or imagine the same exact thing?

I am 19 years old and have considered myself an atheist since 8th grade. When a theist finds out I am a non-believer, they feel they have to challenge me. I have no trouble providing overwhelming evidence(to them) regarding evolution vs creationism. However, I am always stumped when the subject of ghosts emerges. When I am at a loss for words, and they feel they have “defeated” me, they inform me(in their most condescending tone) that I am so naive. That I will one day learn the error of my ways. I need help.

Answer:
If people feel they have to challenge you, imagine what they throw at a website called Ask the Atheist.

To address the specific claims above, just because someone has real scratches doesn’t mean a ghost made them (anything could have), and assuming you have several people claiming the shared experience instead of just one guy saying others had it too, if something looks or sounds like a ghost in the first impression when multiple people are present, they may well think it is a ghost and reinforce each other’s belief or credulity.

Speaking more generally, what you’re dealing with is either anecdotal evidence or at best circumstantial evidence. The stories of shared experiences are not accompanied by photos or recordings so that others might share in them, so stories or anecdotes are all they are. The scratches might have been made by a ghost, or they might be from scraping a wooden bookcase without noticing before or during the event. None of it proves anything, or goes any distance towards establishing any facts.

Even more broadly speaking, just because you can’t explain something doesn’t make it supernatural. It merely makes it unexplained – so far. Out of the possible explanations, even if they’re quirky or unintuitive, it’s worth asking out loud whether all the natural explanations combined are less likely than an actual ghost of which there is now no trace.

If you’re dealing with any famous claims, rather than friend-of-a-friend stuff, send them in as questions or comments to this question and I’ll see if I can help with some basic research.

SmartLX

Changing Christians

Question from Brian:
Hi, I’m a recent christian turned atheist. I’ve found multiple atheist friends at my school, and they’re closer than I’ve ever had before. But there’s only one problem: I love this girl, but she’s a hardcore christian. She refuses to even consider anything beyond her blind limitations. Do you have any ideas for me? I’d really appreciate it.

Answer:
Just as there are as many specific rationales for Christian belief as there are Christians, there are as many specific escape routes as there are ex-Christians. There’s nothing which works for everybody, and the process can take so long that you don’t know what really did it. I took 15 years.

So, help us out by providing the answer to this question: why, as specifically as possible, does your girlfriend believe in the first place? If you know this already, or if she’ll tell you when asked, great, otherwise try to figure it out. I don’t think you’ll get far without this information.

Get back to me in a comment and we’ll have a think about it.

– SmartLX

Dawkins’ Reasoning

“For something like a god to form by any known undirected process, it’d have to start out simple and proceed slowly.”

Question from Amber:
In his book “The God Delusion”, Professor Dawkins states that given the improbability of life originating in the universe, the creator would presumably have to be as improbable, if not more. Please expound upon this, for I do not quite understand why probable creator cannot do improbable things without being improbable himself(I say ‘himself’ for the sake of convenience). Also, Richard notes that the creator of the universe would have to be a simple one (to start out from nothing?), God is complex thus he could not have created the universe?

Answer:

Creationists and other theists argue that one reason life must have been deliberately created is that it’s so complex. By that logic, God as understood by most religions is even more likely to have been created because an all-powerful, all-knowing being would have to be more complex than any known life, or even the whole universe. If God exists without a creator, why is is less likely for beings infinitely less complex, like you and me, to do the same?

Dawkins’ other point is that complexity in the universe has arisen very gradually over time, right up until the first living things existed and could design their own creations (most likely pre-human primates shaping rocks). Life, for example, took a billion years after the formation of Earth just to get started and then a billion more to get past microscopic organisms. For something like a god to form by any known undirected process, it’d have to start out simple and proceed slowly.

If on the other hand God can have existed forever without having formed at all, why is it less likely that the (less complex) universe itself has always existed in some form? Why does the insertion of an even more complex entity into our origins help us at all?

– SmartLX

The Anthropic Principle

“…the nature of people (hence “anthropic”) is that we consider only the aspect of this calculation which gives a low probability and therefore makes us feel special.”

Question from Alanis:

In Richard Dawkins’ widely acclaimed book “The God Delusion” he dedicates a few pages to the Anthropic Principle, emphasizing that it is an alternative to the argument for fine tuning/design, rather than a factor of it. Please elaborate on what Richard could possibly mean by that. From my (admittedly weak) understanding of the anthropic principle, all it states is that given the fact that we are here to observe it, it should not be surprising that life originated in the universe. I do not see how that debunks or supports intelligent design in any way.

Answer:
Dawkins’ point relates to probability. The fine-tuning argument as it relates to Earth, for example, is that it’s so staggeringly unlikely that Earth would be just the right size, distance from the sun, elemental composition, etc. that it must have been created specifically so that life could exist here. The anthropic principle is that we would be considering the same thing from whichever planet we had emerged on.

The sheer number of planets in the universe (probably within one order of magnitude of the number of stars, about ten thousand billion billion) goes a long way towards balancing out the low probability that any given planet will produce life, giving the universe as a whole a more reasonable chance of naturally producing life somewhere. Even so, the nature of people (hence “anthropic”) is that we consider only the aspect of this calculation which gives a low probability and therefore makes us feel special.

Of course there’s also the fine-tuning argument which relates to the whole universe, not just the planet. The anthropic principle applies in that case if you consider the possibility of a multiverse. That hasn’t been confirmed or debunked, but there are other replies to that sort of fine-tuning argument which don’t rely on the anthropic principle at all so it’s not a critical point.

Games of chance make a good analogy. Whoever wins the lottery feels special, or even blessed, but they forget that millions of people have also played and the chances that someone won’t win the jackpot decrease rapidly as successive weeks are considered. The chances for an individual are millions to one, but someone’s going to get rich eventually.

– SmartLX

The Atheist’s Riddle

“Perry Marshall presents himself as an invincible defender of his supposed proof of an Intelligent Designer, standing atop a mountain of vanquished counter-arguments from hordes of atheists.”

Argument taken directly from Cosmic Fingerprints:
1) DNA is not merely a molecule with a pattern; it is a code, a language, and an information storage mechanism.
2) All codes are created by a conscious mind; there is no natural process known to science that creates coded information.
3) Therefore DNA was designed by a mind.

Answer:
Perry Marshall presents himself as an invincible defender of his supposed proof of an Intelligent Designer, standing atop a mountain of vanquished counter-arguments from hordes of atheists.

The plain logical error in the argument is in the second premise, and it’s the one logical fallacy I come across more than any other: an argument from ignorance. “There is no natural process known to science that creates coded information.” That’s not the same as saying there really is no such natural process (which would be a simple unsupported statement rather than a fallacy), but it expects us to assume as much. Is Mr Marshall, or any human alive, familiar with “all codes” in the universe? What qualifies anyone to make such a sweeping statement? This attempted proof by elimination of the origin of DNA must leave room for unknown alternatives to maintain any honesty, and is therefore not a real proof.

I realise that the fact of the logical error is not such a brilliant counter-argument when you’re actually trying to convince people. There are plenty more objections, and Marshall has posted and replied to many on his site. He hasn’t always done so convincingly, though you can judge that for yourself. I’ll just take one approach as an exercise.

As support for the argument that all codes are designed by a mind, Marshall argues that random processes do not produce information. (I’ve been through this at length, years ago.) His primary demonstration is his own text-based random mutation generator which takes a sentence and, through single-letter changes, turns it to nonsense.

Marshall admits that the mutation utility does not simulate natural selection, the non-random element of evolution. Furthermore, he’s not interested in adding that functionality to test his own argument. (He says instead that the reader is free to do it for him. Several people have, beginning thirty years ago with Richard Dawkins’ “Methinks it is like a weasel” program and continuing with browser-friendly programs like Mutate.)

He argues that natural selection would only create sensible sentences if words only mutated into other meaningful words, but that’s not applying natural selection at the letter level. An ideal extension of his program would present several choices of mutation at each step, and allow those letter mutations which destroy the legibility of a word to be manually or automatically ruled out. (The real world equivalent is a serious birth defect, which would keep a creature from breeding or even living long enough to breed.) In Marshall’s program, detrimental mutations are allowed to compound until all sense is lost. Of course we won’t likely get anything useful out of it.

Forgetting even the mechanism of natural selection, I submit a basic argument for the possibility of chance creating information which I’ve used before: think of a large grid of squares which can be either black or white, but all start as white. If you randomly pick the colour of every square at once, there is a chance, however small, that the newly black squares will form a simple but clear picture of a rectangle, or the letter G, or Elvis. Without adding any extra material, chance can increase the amount of information the grid provides. The prebiotic chemicals only had to manage a feat like this once, given potentially unlimited opportunities, to come up with DNA or its precursors.

SmartLX

Naturalistic Pantheism

“The only practical difference between a naturalistic pantheist and an atheist, therefore, is that an atheist doesn’t bother to call the universe a god. It’s just a universe.”

Question from Jim:
I wanted to ask you if atheists in general, consider a person who is naturalistic pantheist to be an atheistic person.

Answer:
Generally, I think we do. I certainly do.

A pantheist thinks that God is everything, that is, the whole universe. The naturalist view is that the laws of nature, whatever they may actually be, cannot be broken. A naturalistic pantheist, therefore, thinks that God is beholden to His inherent natural laws and cannot go against them to serve His own purposes. In other words, not only can’t He perform miracles, He can’t make anything happen which wouldn’t happen anyway.

The only practical difference between a naturalistic pantheist and an atheist, therefore, is that an atheist doesn’t bother to call the universe a god. It’s just a universe.

SmartLX

Sin

“The idea that we are punished for all our bad deeds after death requires the existence of an afterlife, and atheists generally don’t believe in an afterlife.”

Question from Louis:
Does an atheist believe in the concept of sin? Do they believe they can be punished for sin?

Answer:
Not usually.

The idea that we are punished for all our bad deeds after death requires the existence of an afterlife, and atheists generally don’t believe in an afterlife.

The competing idea that our bad deeds follow us around ethereally in life and cause misfortune requires the existence of either an interventionist god or an unknown and purposeful energy, which ancient Indian religions named karma, and atheists generally don’t believe in that either.

This doesn’t mean that atheists think bad deeds go entirely unpunished. That’s what the law is for, to begin with. Besides judicial punishment for illegal deeds, other selfish and destructive acts turn other people against us, and provoke revenge and grudges. They also make us feel guilty and want to atone.

That’s why we don’t need a god to enforce our morals. We have other people, and we have ourselves.

SmartLX

Eternal inflation? No. Eternal universe? Maybe, nevertheless. And what’s it to ya?

“These three scientists in particular, by virtue of their joint paper, are name-checked more often than any others by apologists not just arguing for an absolute beginning to the universe but claiming that this has been established beyond doubt.”

Question:
Scientists Arvin Borde, Alan Guth and Alexander Vilenkin, in their 2003 paper “Inflationary Spacetimes Are Incomplete in Past Directions”, ruled out past-eternal inflationary models of the universe. Does this prove that
1. the universe had an absolute beginning,
2. that it must have had a cause and
3. that the cause was God?

Answer:
No, no and no.

These three scientists in particular, by virtue of their joint paper, are name-checked more often than any others by apologists not just arguing for an absolute beginning to the universe but claiming that this has been established beyond doubt. Apologists up to and including William Lane Craig do this to support the cosmological argument for God, which requires such a beginning to be indisputable.

So what does the paper actually say? Feel free to read it via the link above (it’s dense but short), but the thrust is in the title: spacetime can’t have been inflating infinitely into the past.

That seems obvious since you’d think you’d eventually reach a singularity if you worked backwards, but models have been proposed wherein the farther back you go the slower the expansion is. Some reasoned that perhaps the universe has spent eternity inflating extremely slowly from a size barely larger than a singularity, speeding up as it went along.

Borde, Guth and Vilenkin examined this idea and found, essentially, that it wouldn’t work in the real world. In doing so they pretty much dismissed every model of an expanding universe (or multiverse) that doesn’t involve a proper singularity and Big Bang. Therefore, according to apologists, the universe definitely had an absolute beginning, which must have had a cause, and that cause was God.

That’s going way too far because, for a start, the paper doesn’t take a position on whether the now-confirmed Big Bang was an absolute beginning. There are many more universe/multiverse models wherein the Big Bang was merely an event in an ongoing sequence – where the matter in the singularity came from somewhere, not nowhere. Borde et al only intended to rule out a family of models that clearly don’t work.

Get that? Borde, Guth and Vilenkin did NOT rule out an eternal universe, even if the result of their paper is correct. They merely ruled out one kind of eternal universe, the kind where the Big Bang never happened. The fact that there was a Big Bang does not mean there was nothing before the Big Bang.

The Big Bang as absolute zero, or an absolute beginning in general, is a poor platform for apologetics in any case. The idea that whatever begins to exist has a cause is not based on anything which physically began to exist in the same way the universe supposedly did, completely ex nihilo (literally “from nothing”). We’ve never seen anything like that happen, so:
1. it’s curious that so many people assume the universe came about in this way,
2. there’s no basis for assigning a cause if it did and
3. even if it had a cause, it’s a huge leap to declare it any kind of god, let alone someone’s specific personal deity.

SmartLX

Why do you care?

“Simply thinking that what people believe is wrong isn’t the only reason to try to convince them otherwise.”

Question from Katie:
I am a very strong Christian. I have studied my religion in depth and I have no doubt that it is true. My sister recently married an Atheist. He is intent on destroying my family’s faith. We have had several theological arguments and always run into the same wall, his logic versus our faith. I recognize that faith and belief in God is not logical. But that does not diminish my faith.

I have told my brother in law that I will never take away his right to not believe in God and that I will never try to convert him. He can not show me the same courtesy. He is determined to “stop the Christian movement”. What I want to know is why does he care so much? If I believe something he doesn’t why is he so adamant to change my feelings? I don’t believe in the tooth fairy but I don’t visit local elementary schools to tell children the truth about the fairy conspiracy.

I have never tried to convince him that he is wrong because I believe everyone has the right to believe in what their conscience dictates. He is constantly trying to change my thoughts. I am not an Atheist hater and I mean no disrespect by my question. I am looking for an answer and I hope you can shed light on this dilemma.

Answer:
Simply thinking that what people believe is wrong isn’t the only reason to try to convince them otherwise.

Imagine if the tooth fairy wasn’t just a game of pretend that children grew out of soon after the “age of reason”. Imagine if a huge number of people believed in the fairy their whole lives. (Practically speaking, since parents were still the ones taking the teeth from under the pillow, they’d have to believe that the tooth fairy received the teeth after parents ritually disposed of them.)

Imagine therefore that:
– A child losing a tooth was a huge event, and the child was severely punished if he or she lost (or, Fairy forbid, swallowed) any loose teeth.
– Once they were adults, people nursed a feeling of inferiority from having no more teeth to give, and some even knocked out their adult teeth as offerings.
– Zealous Toothians travelled to Third World countries with the primary goal not of helping the people with their existing problems but of collecting as many of their children’s teeth as possible, and some Toothian missionaries even refused aid to those who didn’t offer teeth.
– Those very rare occasions when a person grows a third set of teeth in adulthood were treated as miracles, and unscrupulous people conned Toothians out of their life savings and adult teeth by claiming to have the power to give them that third set.
– Toothian politicians legislated in favour of Toothian interests whenever possible, at the expense of everyone else’s rights.

If you personally didn’t believe in the tooth fairy but all of this were happening around you, you would see that these people weren’t just wrong in their beliefs, but were also spending huge amounts of time, energy and money on an essentially pointless enterprise at the expense of their own finances, health and wellbeing. Furthermore, you’d know that some of the more extreme Toothians were doing great harm to others and to their own, physically and psychologically, some unknowingly and some deliberately, as a direct result of being Toothians.

After realising all this, you might well come to the decision that it would be better for everybody if belief in the tooth fairy were dispelled. Whatever benefits humanity had to gain from Toothianism in terms of community, comfort and so on could come from other sources, but the specific excesses of radical Toothians simply would not occur without Toothian doctrine. So you’d do whatever you could to challenge general fairy belief as well as belief in the specific fairy which is most popular. You’d see it as doing people a favour.

I’ll let you draw your own parallels to elements of Christianity which appear to non-Christians in much the same light, Katie. The main issue is not usually the simple idea that one is right and others are wrong; it’s the effects that incorrect beliefs have on people that make those beliefs worth challenging.

I will say that your brother-in-law is being awfully confrontational about it, causing so much strife in what is now his own family. It’s obviously not having the desired effect either, so it’s not a great approach in this case.

SmartLX

P.S. Don’t bother spelling “atheism” with a capital A. You wouldn’t spell “theism” with a capital T.