Religiously motivated opponents of legal abortion have learned that to serve their cause in secular nations they must present arguments which are at least superficially secular, if not to convince those outside their faith then at least to provide a cover.
Question from Rabbit:
I was online looking up Roe v Wade and came across a pro-life website called abortionfacts.com.
My question is are any of these facts trustworthy?
Which ones are true or false?
Answer by SmartLX:
It’s worth considering why this question would even be directed at someone whose chosen subject is atheism. The big clue is in that website; if you click the “Manifesto” link on the first page you’ll see Jesus invoked by the third paragraph. All large-scale campaigns to outlaw and otherwise prevent abortions are helmed and funded by religious organisations. (Secular Pro-Life does exist, for one counter-example, but it’s relatively tiny.) When politicians work conspicuously against women’s access to legal abortion services, they may or may not be following their own faith but they are certainly courting the religious vote.
Religiously motivated opponents of legal abortion have learned that to serve their cause in secular nations they must present arguments which are at least superficially secular, if not to convince those outside their faith then at least to provide a cover. It is of course possible to be non-religious and still anti-abortion, but that’s not where abortionfacts.com is coming from; this is an unashamedly Christian entity trying to speak everyone else’s language.
I won’t go through the front page list item by item because there are 20 “facts” on the front page and other websites repeating them all for discussion purposes is exactly what the author wants to see. But there are a few general things to pick up on.
- #1 and #7 use “kind” as a pseudo-scientific categorisation, and many of the expanded arguments do the same. #1 even names the “Law of Biogenesis”. This is a misunderstood claim by Louis Pasteur (who did not call it a law) which forms the basis of a later creationist argument, and we’ve tackled it at length here. This is what I meant by a “superficially secular” argument: the purely faith-based material is hiding in plain view.
- #2, #3, #5, #7, #10, #13, #14, #16 and #17 are aimed squarely at establishing the unborn as a human/person, capable of being murdered and deserving of independent rights. (#4 and #6 assume this is already established.) They do this mostly by claiming that it is. The classification is arbitrary because it is entirely subjective; we decide what constitutes these things, and we already disagree on it at the stages of development being discussed here. (I should mention that human tissue, which the unborn certainly is, is not the same as a human being. Here’s an article about teratomas, cysts that may develop anything from hair to teeth to a whole foot.)
- #18 says minorities are disproportionately “targeted” for abortion. This may simply be because minorities have access to less sex education, contraception and family planning. Regardless, the word “targeted” helps reinforce the idea of abortion as murder.
- #20 is strictly correct in that abortion laws affect abortion rates, but apparently in the opposite way to what the site would prefer: abortion rates are higher when the laws are stricter, and vice versa.
Personally, I am not an authority on abortion (hardly anyone in the debate really is), but I am pro-choice because I think that at the very least there is a choice to be made in each case. Often the decision is made not to abort, but that’s still a choice.
Basic form of the argument:
For all we know, the universe is infinite. There might even be infinite universes. However small the chance of a god existing in any given way, place or universe, the infinite possibilities make it practically certain that a god is out there somewhere.
Answer by SmartLX:
This one crops up a great deal, but I have yet to see it formalised. A possible reason for this is that it doesn’t hold up very well when even basic mathematics are applied to it.
Firstly, the universe may not be infinite in whatever way matters. There may have been nothing of consequence before the Big Bang, or even no time so that “before” doesn’t even make sense. The multiverse may merely be a useful way of modelling the phenomena we see in the field of quantum mechanics, while not actually being real. Therefore the possibilities may not be infinite either, and a god may have only one chance to exist.
Secondly, the presence of an infinite element in a calculation does not automatically take the result to 100% or probability 1. The set of even numbers (2, 4, 6, 8…) is infinite but contains absolutely no odd numbers. You can calculate the digits in pi forever but they will never repeat themselves. The sum of an infinite set will be a finite number if each new number is a smaller percentage of the previous one, e.g. 1 + 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + … = 2.
To speak more practically, if the multiverse is real there may well be things all universes have in common which preclude the existence of uncreated omnipotent beings. Super-advanced beings who have acquired godlike powers through evolution and technology over aeons, sure, possibly out there somewhere, but this supposition is an extrapolation of our own status and the technology we’ve developed so far, not a guess unrelated to anything we’ve ever seen before.
To make my answer as general as possible, there are any number of reasons why the probability of the existence of a god might be zero, making the number of different universes irrelevant. (Try to roll a 13 with two standard dice – you’d be there a while.) Even if it’s not zero, there are any number of reasons why a non-zero probability is not brute-forced to certainty by an infinite universe/multiverse. Infinite possibilities just mean there are things we can’t rule out, but I’ve never claimed to be certain that there are no gods.
Question from SL:
Why do atheists always insist that radical theists will kill at worst but radical atheists will only criticize or make videos? I met Eastern Europeans and Tibetans who will say that is an outright lie. Atheist Soviet Union and atheist China did more than make videos. Why do atheists insist on saying that only theistic societies oppressed people when clearly the 20th century proved that atheist societies were not much better. Please do not tell me they were not truly atheist, Marx and Leninist writers clearly state that atheism was a central core to Marxism. I am not trying to be argumentative but, I only met a handful of honest atheists who say that bad mass murdering oppressors can be theist and atheist. Why is that?
Answer by SmartLX:
The distinction you describe is not the correct one to make for just the reasons you describe. Yes, communist regimes (and related ideologies, in case any you mention aren’t considered fully communist) are officially and proudly atheist, and have committed atrocities. The difference is that atheism does not drive them to these things.
Communist regimes do the horrible things they do to spread and maintain Communism, not atheism. They enforce atheism for the same reason. In his famous “opiate of the masses” passage, Marx wrote that religion needed to be removed to deprive people of its comfort, so that they would feel their pain and drive societal change. Atheism to communists is a tool, a means to an end. The likelihood of the existence of gods, or any other intellectual consideration of religious faith, is irrelevant. Additionally, national communism in practice tends to become a pseudo-religion itself (North Koreans actually pray to the deceased Kim tyrants, for instance) and thus religion is suppressed as a direct rival to it.
There’s never been a government regime determined to remove the oppression of religion without putting something similar in its place, and to build a free society based on the ideals of atheist figures like Voltaire or Thomas Paine. (Secular, pluralist systems are a different approach again.) There has never been a large enough concentration of atheists in a place with enough religious oppression to bring it about. If it ever happens, we’ll be able to compare its conduct with that of the world’s theocracies. Right now there’s really no basis for comparison at all.
As for independent radicals, there might well be some atheist loose cannons out there and we should consider their stated goals as available, but you’ve only provided examples related to communism. Know of anything else? Stick it in the comments.
Question from Jeff:
I’m sort of in a searching phase of life where I really don’t know what to believe. I recently heard a compelling argument for the existence of god and want to get some input. The argument goes like this:
If there is no god and the world is just an accident, if everything about people, including what they think and feel, is just the chance combination of molecules and is explained in terms of chemistry and physical laws, why be rational? On the basis of atheism, weeds grow because they are weeds (laws of physics) and minds just do whatever they do. People act like they are free to think about different kinds of ideas and then choose the best one. On the basis of atheism, that’s impossible. Our minds are just a bunch of atoms vibrating and will do whatever they have been programmed to do. If there is no god and the physical world is all there is, there is no logical basis for logic. But people, including atheists, do trust reason and logic even though they have no reason to assume that it works.
Any thoughts you have would be greatly appreciated.
Answer by SmartLX:
Minds, or brains to be more specific, indeed do what is dictated by their physical structure combined with the electrical signals travelling through them, so you could say that they do what they’re programmed to do. The thing is, they are programmed to think. They have the necessary complexity to store something as abstract as an idea, among other information, and they apply ideas to the world around them. This leads them to make choices based on the information available to them, and act upon those choices. This can be called a person’s will. Its ultimately deterministic nature in the absence of supernatural influences (like a soul) leads many to stop short of calling it free will, but it’s will all the same.
We have plenty of reason to assume that reason and logic work, because we live in a world where reason and logic regularly help us make predictions about the world that turn out to be correct. It’s not a matter of philosophy, it’s simply a lifetime of observing the practical power of understanding the logical workings of an apparently consistent universe. We don’t know why it’s that way (and many religious people jump on that fact to make an argument from ignorance in favour of gods – back to this in a moment), but we learn that it is so and we use it to our advantage. That’s what learning is, really. If the world weren’t consistent we couldn’t learn anything.
The argument you heard is rather close to the transcendental argument for God (TAG) and ultimately has the same problem: to establish a god as the source of logic in its premise it has to assert that there’s no other possibility, when there’s merely no other KNOWN source. In fact the possibilities are endless, but the simplest one is that logic has no source and has always been in place, much like God is supposed to have been. The other important thing about the TAG, in my experience, is that its persuasive power is not targeted where you think it is. It almost never convinces non-believers, but it very often convinces believers that their belief is justified when they might be in doubt. It is primarily a tool for reassurance, not conversion. The same may be true of all apologetics at this point, but TAG more than most.
Question from Steve R:
If the big bang was an inevitable consequence of the laws of physics, please tell me: which law of physics supports spontaneous creation? I have not found any laws or principles of the physical universe which support the idea of bridging the infinite gap between non-existence (quantity zero) and existence (quantity one) using no previous resources. In fact, I think it’s the opposite – there is a law (and a quite significant law) which clearly state that both matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed (1st law of thermodynamics). If there was no one to make this law, then it is just part of the universe. But if it is just part of the universe, then the universe would have to violate its own laws to create itself. So please tell me, again: which law of physics supports spontaneous creation?
Answer by SmartLX:
No law so far, but multiple scientific theories. Lawrence Krauss regularly talks about quantum mechanics spontaneously generating matter and anti-matter, which have a combined energy of zero when there’s the same amount of each, from a previous state which can be called nothingness. (Something can come from nothing, he says, because “nothing” is unstable.) In Stephen Hawking’s book The Grand Design Hawking makes a claim based on both quantum mechanics and relativity that gravity creates universes and this is only one of them. I recommend reading the work of both to get some idea of the mechanisms science has actually proposed for what you call “spontaneous creation”.
All this may be moot, however, because there is a much simpler solution. As you say, the law of conservation of energy based on the first law of thermodynamics isn’t concerned with the above and states unambiguously that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed. The universe would therefore have to violate the law to create itself, but if it exists now then the law implies that it has always existed in some form, and it wasn’t created at all.
The idea of anything creating itself from nothing is absurd, because it would mean that the effect existed before the cause. For the idea to make any kind of sense it needs to be an emergence or formation from nothing. Once you get away from the word “create”, it stops being a contest between creation by an intelligent being such as a god and creation by unintelligent phenomena, and seems much more plausible in the absence of a god. This is of course why religious apologists use variants of the word “create” even when they refer to natural hypotheses.
Question from Darian:
What would be defined as legitimate proof of god(s) within the accepted community of atheists? And, is there any proper scientific research being done to find said proof? Another way to word, what would be the atheist definition of god(s)?
Answer by SmartLX:
There’s some argument about this within the atheist community (for example between biologist bloggers PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne) so I don’t think there’s a definitive answer I can give you. Some atheists name grand gestures (say, huge letters in the sky) as evidence they would accept, and some think even that kind of thing would be insufficient.
The more general attitude is that if evidence for an entity which might qualify as a god presented itself, there would be two questions to answer: whether the evidence was valid, and if so what kind of presence was actually indicated. The resulting investigation would make as few assumptions as possible, which might be difficult given the subject, to get as close to the facts as possible.
Religious apologetics, and the idea that a god might be demonstrated by an argument alone, are considered differently. Each of the prospective arguments that aims to do this makes its own presumptions and inferences about the qualities of the supposed god. If an apologetic argument were established and accepted as valid and sound, thereby unambiguously confirming the existence of a god, what that argument said about the god would implicitly be accepted too.
Since the ontology of a hypothetical god (i.e. what it is) isn’t settled, there isn’t a lot of scientific research of any kind being done to discover evidence for it. If scientists knew what to look for, it wouldn’t be too difficult to get a grant or sponsorship with the help of religious politicians, philanthropists or venture capitalists. As it is, scientists are exploring the universe as best they can to find whatever happens to be there, and evidence for a god might turn up under a microscope or millions of light years away when they least expected it.
On the other hand plenty of work is being done to establish the existence of a god (usually a specific god) by those who want there to be one, though a lot of it doesn’t qualify as research, let alone scientific, because it doesn’t uncover anything new. A famous example is that expeditions have set out to find Noah’s Ark, and some claim to have found it (in several different places). The much more common approach, though, is simply finding new ways to interpret existing biological, paleontological and geological data in order to support the idea.
Question from Moses:
I’m not going to enlighten you on my personal beliefs, because it is moot to my question that I will pose momentarily.
I have made note that your readers all seem to agree that science and rational thinking should be revered above all else.
And further understanding that choice is a free will, individual thought process or belief that may or may not be brought into actions.
So here is my rational, scientifically proven, free willed, intellectual question: “If there is no creation theory, then why isn’t the earth filled with abundant quantities of deuterium just as the rest of the solar system is?”
p.s. The world’s space agencies has sent, and continues to spend billions of dollars for, probes and robots searching for life, but science has proven that the water here on earth is certainly different than elsewhere in our solar system.
I await your response in earnest.
Answer by SmartLX:
Thanks in advance Moses, it’s almost never this simple.
Deuterium IS abundant on Earth; one in about 6,400 hydrogen atoms in ocean water is a deuterium isotope (which is just a hydrogen atom with a neutron) instead of the usual type. This ratio is higher than some of the objects in space we’ve been able to analyse, and lower than others. All measurements within the solar system including on Earth have been within 1-2 orders of magnitude (specifically a factor of ~30), with Halley’s Comet and Comet Hale Bopp near the high end and Jupiter’s atmosphere near the low end. The fact that our ratio is closer to the comets has caused some to theorise that comet collisions with the early Earth are the source of much of our water. There’s nothing special or unique about the ratio at all.
Your personal beliefs may be moot, but to an extent they are also obvious. Only a creationist would make an argument from ignorance based on the supposedly unknown reasons for a scientific factoid (and I’m not surprised that the factoid itself is bogus, though perhaps you are surprised), or use the term “creation theory”. Only devout theists are creationists because faith in a creator is ultimately the only compelling reason to be one. You might be a Christian creationist or a Muslim creationist; few other religions have so many.
As for the water, we’ve known about the ice crust on Europa since the 1970s and it’s likely that Mars and Venus had liquid water in the past. Multiple extrasolar planets are the right distance from their stars to have liquid water, provided water exists there; here’s a list.
Question from Shanoon:
Do you really believe the people like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Poy, Mao and all those terrorists, Rapists, killers, and suicide bombers are considered to be criminals and as such should be judged and punished one day?
1- If the answer is NO, then they are innocent. ( and they are not only supporters but promoters of these kinds of innocent (!) evils.)
2- If the answer is YES then how?
Answer by SmartLX:
Some of those you list have been punished, some haven’t, and some won’t be punished ever in their lives for certain things (for instance, way too many rapists get away with it). Without going into horrible detail regarding their crimes, I’ll simply agree with you that there are people in the world who deserve to be punished. Religious and secular ethics frequently agree on cases like these, because the same conclusion is reached multiple ways.
Therefore, if there is no God or Hell then some people who deserve to be punished will never be punished at all, no matter how hard we try to enact justice. This isn’t a happy thought, but if it’s true then there’s nothing we can do about it, except to work to ensure justice is served whenever it IS possible. But the fact that the implications of a state of affairs are unfortunate does not support the argument that it’s not the case, and the alternative isn’t true just because it would be better (objectively or otherwise). An argument from consequences is essentially an unsupported argument, and the only reason to accept it is that it makes you feel better.
Question from Jon:
At most, we all choose what is rational in believing or being convinced about something. While searching for answers, I have stumbled upon studying atheism as a choice for my belief but a find it highly irrational. Firstly, atheism appeals that believe in a god/cause/deity is highly irrational because there is no objective evidence to back-it up. But when I analyze it in terms of pure rationality (because the counter option can’t also be validated), I stumble upon choosing between
A) the universe is just a brute fact, nothing caused it to exist, its here because it is here
B) the universe is caused into existence by an agent/cause/god (in my case I don’t define the cause)
And option A which is (correct me if I’m wrong) the heart of Atheism is highly irrational, because so far, inferred from the existence of humanity, humans discovered things or events to be caused by “something” and yet option A completely contradicts it. I believe science breaks apart when something is just assumed as a brute fact. If I have inconsistencies in my analysis, please enlighten me. How does atheism become rational with these arguments taken into hand?
Answer by SmartLX:
Atheism takes no position on the universe’s origin or lack thereof, except to say that it’s unlikely at best that a god was responsible because belief in a god’s mere existence (let alone agency) isn’t justified. Option B is fine for a lot of atheists because if there was a cause, it doesn’t have to have been anything like a god. It could be the quantum foam, or another universe in an infinite series, or any number of phenomena we haven’t even thought of.
That said, option A is counter-intuitive but it’s not as absurd as it sounds. If the universe is as eternal as many gods are supposed to be, then it doesn’t need a beginning, and it’s simpler to just suppose that the universe has this quality than to inject a hypothetical separate entity. More significantly, though, everything we’ve ever seen come into existence is made of existing material. Human beings are made of elements found all around us on this planet, and fueled by energy largely traceable back to the Sun. Thoughts and ideas come together in networks of neurons in our heads, powered by electrical energy. Most every building is made from things harvested from, or grown in, the earth. If, by contrast, the universe came to existence out of what could be defined as nothing, it wasn’t like anything we’ve ever seen occur and therefore we have no authority to declare that there must have been a cause. Following on from that, there’s no reason to suppose the existence of a god just for the lack of alternative explanations, and if as you say there’s no objective evidence for gods then there’s no reason to believe in them at all. Thus atheism has a rational basis at least to some extent.