Unpleasant Family Discussions

Question from Chance:
I grew up Christian, I’m not anymore. I don’t consider myself anything, just a human.

My question is how can I deal with my family that is all Christian and talk down to me? It’s starting to piss me off, but I’m always the bigger person. I’m kind when we debate ideas and religion, but they are the total opposites. Any opinions?

Answer by SmartLX:
There’s not a lot to go on here. If your family sees you as lesser or inferior as a result of your apostasy, it’s likely because of their underlying assumptions about the nature of believers and non-believers. You may wish to go beyond a discussion of the religious topic at hand and question their treatment of you directly, because it will very quickly lead back to the topics of faith and reason.

Comment with some extra information if you like. How do these exchanges begin, and how do they usually end? How do you go about being the “bigger person”? In what ways are they unkind, and what triggers this behaviour?

Fine-Tuned Gravity: Don’t Touch That Dial

Question from Cedric:
Victor Stenger says supporters of the Fine Tuning argument make the mistake of holding all the parameters constant and varying just one. He says “changes to one parameter can be easily compensated for by changes to another, leaving the ingredients for life in place.”

“The ingredients for life” is a more complex case since it involves several parameters but if one were to examine a simpler case involving only one parameter then the legitimacy of Fine Tuning might be easier to discern.

Take the force of gravity. The Fine Tuning argument says it had to be precisely what it is in order for the universe to expand as it did after the Big Bang. Too strong and the universe would collapse back to a singularity. Too weak and the universe would expand too rapidly. This doesn’t seem to depend on other parameters. So doesn’t the exactness of gravity alone imply design?

Answer by SmartLX:
If you’re going to circumvent Stenger’s argument by focusing on a single value, gravity is the wrong one to pick because it didn’t have to be all that exact. In Martin Rees’ book Just Six Numbers he finds that the gravitational constant would have to increase by a factor of 3000 to preclude the formation of stars. (I’ve never seen anyone use the same approach on another constant, so I suspect none of the others have similarly obvious independent significance.)

Creationists and other apologists have not contradicted Rees; they’ve taken two other approaches to dismissing this inconvenient amount of leeway. Both are found in this article, which is typical of a fair few apologetic articles attacking Rees’ conclusion of a lack of fine tuning. (Their abundance suggests to me that Rees struck a nerve.)

1. If gravity were nearly 3000 times stronger, they say, stars wouldn’t last even a billion years and life wouldn’t have time to form, so the universe is still fine-tuned for the really important thing, life. Well, the fact that this aspect of the extreme case isn’t workable doesn’t negate the fact that gravity could change an awful lot before there was any real difficulty.

2. A factor of 3000, they say, is still tiny when you consider that the different forces in the universe differ by factors of up to 10^40. True, but it’s still 300,000% so it’s huge compared to the actual value, and there’s no evidence to suggest that gravitational forces in a fresh universe are even capable of reaching the levels of our universe’s strong nuclear force. There’s an underlying assumption that each of the constants was selected from the same huge or infinite range of possible numbers, and there’s no basis for that assumption.

Even if gravity had to be what it really is for life to form, to within a zillionth of a percent, it would not simply “imply design”. We don’t know nearly enough about what went into the physical “setting” of the constant to jump to that conclusion. Alternatives include but are not limited to the following:

– A huge or even infinite number of universes exist, each of them with different constants, such that the probability of one of them hitting the magic spot is really quite reasonable. Ridicule the multiverse hypothesis if you like, but evidence has emerged suggesting its likelihood. (Additional universes seem more likely to me than a god because we know there’s at least one universe. If your cabbage patch is destroyed and you find one little rabbit, you don’t imagine that Bigfoot did the rest; you wonder where the other rabbits are hiding.)
– The value of the gravitational constant is a result, not a parameter. When a Big Bang happens, gravity comes out at 6.673 because of how a Big Bang happens, or else the constant is dependent on the other constants. (Pi is a good analogue for this; the value near 3.14 results from the physical properties of a circle.)
– The gravitational constant might have started anywhere, but it varied before it reached a stable equilibrium at its current value. Something about 6.673 stops it from wanting to shift. (This is one possible explanation for cosmic inflation.)

Finally, if you disregard all of the above, we’re ultimately comparing the probability that a universe with incredibly fortunate physical qualities arose naturally to the probability that it was designed by an even more complex, exotic, powerful, hypothetical entity with no origin at all. That might be a contest if the existence of the other entity were assumed, but you can’t take that liberty when the whole point of the discussion is to establish that entity’s existence.

Interview with the Preacher

“…you’ll have a better time in the interview if you know roughly what he’ll say beforehand, and that’s not difficult.”

Question from Bailey:
I’m an atheist and a freelance writer. My dad’s preacher has agreed to answer some questions I have about the Bible and his views on things of the religious matter. Trouble is, now that I have the opportunity to ask whatever I want (and get an entirely silly response I’m sure), I am a bit stumped. I have in mind:

1.) If the Bible is as black and white as they say, why ignore the laws in the Bible such as “don’t eat shellfish” and the like, and follow rules like “homosexuality is a sin?”…I will be referring to the laws in Leviticus.

2.) Do you believe in creationism or evolution and why?

3.) Why are there so many contradictions in the Bible? (I will be using specific examples, but would like as many ideas as possible).

Yeah, that’s pretty much it. Help?

That lot’s a good start, but you’ll have a better time in the interview if you know roughly what he’ll say beforehand, and that’s not difficult.

I’ve only just answered a question about the nasty Leviticus laws, so check that out first.

Whether your father’s preacher is a creationist depends rather a lot on his denomination. Evangelicals are generally creationists to some extent (with some high-profile exceptions such as Francis Collins), whereas Catholics usually toe the Vatican’s line of theistic evolutionism which is basically, “God caused evolution.” Either way, what he believes is almost certainly what his church officially believes, and you’d do best to look that up.

You may be at a disadvantage if he does turn out to be a creationist. There are a great many creationist arguments which, unsound as they are, take 5-10 seconds each to say and require a bit of research to rebut properly. About the best thing I can do for you is supply a slightly old but still exhaustive list.

If you’re looking for contradictions, you can’t go past the Skeptics’ Annotated Bible. It’s got a huge collection of them. Best of all, it’s been around long enough for other sites to write replies, and in a grand example of sportsmanship the SAB links to them directly. If you have a selection of apparent contradictions you’re going to bring up, you can get a very good idea of how this preacher will respond if he decides to defend them.

Besides your suggested questions I have one more, which I always try to ask believers: quite simply, “Why do you believe?” Once you know that, it’s only natural to work through the follow-up question with them: basically, “Is that a good reason?” It’s why I’m an atheist, really. I examined my own reasons for believing in the Christian God, and they just weren’t good enough. Self-examination, if you can manage to provoke it in others, is a powerful tool.

Best of luck with the interview, whatever your goal is. (You didn’t really make that clear. I hope you actually have one.) Let us know how it goes.


Bad Arguments Never Die

There seems to be no argument in favour of gods and religion, or against areas of science deemed incompatible with these, which has been entirely discarded by people of faith for its poor merit and performance.

Question I’ve been pondering:
There seems to be no argument in favour of gods and religion, or against areas of science deemed incompatible with these, which has been entirely discarded by people of faith for its poor merit and performance.

People are still proclaiming that the second law of thermodynamics prevents order and complexity from increasing at all without divine help, or that the continued existence of apes disproves the idea that we evolved from apes, or that we all ought to worship a particular god because the only alternative is that there are no gods.

Do these people not see or understand the counter-arguments? Are they preaching on auto-pilot?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

The hypotheses I’m about to put forward don’t only apply to religious people. Advocates of any position in any area (including my own positions) may have the same issues with their thinking. It’s just that working on the sites I do, I mostly see these in the context of religious and anti-atheist arguments.

Here are three reasons which together, I think, can fully account for the persistence of invalid or unsound arguments.

1. Ignorance
It’s an unpleasant word, but it’s not necessarily an insult. Ignorance simply means there’s something a person doesn’t know. Some people really think, for example, that evolution causes entire populations of one species to change en masse into another, leaving no precursors and no diversity. Thus if there are humans, supposedly there can be no remaining apes.

The reasons for ignorance can often be deduced when trying to inform people and reduce ignorance, because either they welcome new information or they don’t. They could be genuinely incapable of grasping the essential concepts in their current frame of mind and merely parroting the arguments, or they could be deliberately shielding themselves from dissent to preserve their own determination (e.g. standing “firmly in Christ”), or their mentors could be the ones doing the shielding (e.g. warning against “the devil’s words“).

2. Overconfidence
I came to this realisation only a few days ago. There are some people who presume that any argument in favour of their position, no matter how old, incomprehensible or well-refuted, must be perfectly sound and is therefore worth repeating and defending. They will not concede a single aspect of a single point to their opponents, so sure are they that every person who has ever argued alongside them was correct in every way. (It seems to follow often from the idea that gods don’t lead their own soldiers astray.) As opposed to not knowing or understanding enough to find the flaws in their arguments, they just never try.

3. Sophistry
This is broadly defined as using arguments which one knows are unsound, which is a dishonest practice at its core. One might know exactly why an argument doesn’t hold water, but if one’s objective is to convince as many people as possible then one can spread the argument far and wide regardless, aiming it at those who don’t yet know its flaws. It’s a way of exploiting the ignorance of one’s opponents or the public without attempting to inform or educate anybody. It’s a very self-serving approach, and I’m pretty sure it goes on all the time.

Sadly, thanks to the above three phenomena, bad arguments can still serve misguided or unscrupulous people, so they never go away. It’s worth trying to determine which of the three is responsible in a given case, because it will inform your response or reaction.