Thursday, June 18, 2015

Why I Am an Atheist

The following is long, and somewhat heavy. I have randomly inserted cute animals pictures in it to make it more palatable.

Part One: Miracles and Revelation

I realized that I’ve never explained why I am an atheist.

My Junior year, my usual Philosophy prof took a sabbatical, and we got a guy in by the name of Klaus. Klaus taught somewhere in New York. The class I took from him in the Fall was Logic.

After a formal study of logic, things shift, substantially, in your mind. At least, I’ve never met anyone for whom it didn’t. (Fallacy: Anecdotal evidence.)

Around that same time, I was also first sitting down to actually read the Bible. This was in 2006-07. For the Spring semester, after my class with Klaus, I went to England to study, and, amongst reading the Bible and starting this blog, began to apply logic to the world around me.

There are two ways to figure out truth, evidence and logic. (Apologists would claim a third, revelation.) Both are good for different things. The classes I took while living at Leeds were Introduction to Religious Philosophy and a Hume – Leibniz comparison course. I’d read some Leibniz before, but not tackled much Hume yet. One of the critical books I read was his account of miracles, which detonates the revelation argument.

The book is called Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. The argument runs, essentially, as follows:

First, let’s start by saying that, in the books of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, miracles “are supposed to confirm the authenticity and authority of scripture and the prophets and, more importantly, establish that God has revealed himself to human beings through these special acts or events. From the point of view of Christianity, one miracle of particular significance is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. To doubt or question the truth of this event is to doubt the core and distinct meaning and doctrine of the Christian religion. It would be to cast doubt on the claim that Christ is God and the savior of human kind.”

Hume argues that any explanation that is natural would be preferable to a supernatural explanation, if reasonable or evidential. That is, if you can explain something through natural explanations, you must do that before prescribing a supernatural cause.

Let’s say you’re moseying along the beach, glancing at shells and seaweed, and the sunset. Your mind wanders, and you recall you need to buy a new cutting board. Then, from the surf, a cutting board washed onto the shore. Remarkable! …Miracle?

Well, Hume would say, can we come up with a non-supernatural explanation? And, yes, as it happens, we can. A cutting board, being wooden, could easily have floated from another, non-miraculous source to the beach. We can easily picture a yacht, cutting limes for tequila shots, and the board falling over the ship’s side, into the waves. The fact that you happened to be thinking about a cutting board when one showed up is remarkable, and a heck of a coincidence, but, let’s get real: coincidences do happen.

Many everyday “miracles” are of this sort. Long-shots, coincidences, an arrangement of the universe that, for the moment, is pleasing to you and your condition, or wants. But that’s not so incredible – we can picture all this without a supernatural cause. These stories often have the phrase “can you believe it?” in them, and, with truly minimal effort, yes, yes I can.

But what of the big miracles? Say my friend Phil starts levitating, glowing, and speaking in Swahili. This is not some coincidence. My next step, of course, just like a b movie from the 50s, is to call in the scientists. Let’s say they examine him thoroughly and accurately – no wires, no tricks.

You can also check the control of the observers, see if this is drug-induced, a hallucination, or even a mass hallucination (reported cases do exist, after all). But perhaps it’s not this either – we’re not hallucinating, and we’re not on drugs. Three days later he’s still hovering there.

At this point, most people I should think, would say “miracle!” What makes Hume so remarkable is that he does not.

“So?” Hume may ask. “You’ve learned something new about the universe. Previously we didn’t know this was possible, and now we do.” This is the brilliance of his argument. Think of how many times this has happened. Quantum physics alone – prior to this it was impossible, fundamentally impossible, for something to be in two places at the same time. But it is true. The work at CERN is not a miracle – it is a new discovery of the way the world works. Many scientific discoveries have been hard to accept at first. A clock in motion keeps different time than a clock at rest?! Surely not… And yet it is so, and explained scientifically.

If floating Phil was real, science would need to rewrite some of its rules – it wouldn’t be the first time, and, of course, this would lead to a more accurate, more descriptive, and better explanation for the world we live in.

If you get rid of miracles, things get real problematic, real fast.  And hearing a voice in your head isn’t going to cut it either, if you accept the common sense stance of accepting the supernatural as a last resort.

This is how baby sloth feels about miracles.

*          *          *

Part Two: Evidence?

Since the 1990s even the Israelis have said that Exodus didn’t happen. Ze’ev Herzog, who has done extensive research in the area put it bluntly: “the Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the 12 tribes of Israel. Perhaps even harder to swallow is the fact that the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described by the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom. And it will come as an unpleasant shock to many that the god of Israel, Jehovah, had a female consort and that the early Israelite religion adopted monotheism only in the waning period of the monarchy and not at Mount Sinai.”

Not to mention nothing – zip, nada – in Egyptian sources. The Egyptians had a bit of a thing for writing this stuff down, anything important shows up in their records during the reign of a pharaoh. There are three pharaohs who “got rid of the hated foreigners” but you’d think the plagues might’ve shown up somewhere… And of course, archaeologists have now shown that the pyramids weren’t made by slaves, so…

It didn’t happen. It’s simply not true.

This is a problem. And it is not the only one. Scientific inquiry raises a host of others. The world-wide flood didn’t happen. Damningly, there is proof there was a flood – in the locality of the Middle East where the story was written. But if they found evidence in one place, why not find in others? They’ve looked, but its not there. A local flooding event was distorted to be global.

And then there’s the Genesis story. The Earth is not – cannot be – 5,000 years old. The Bible, tracing the ages of its direct descendants of Adam, get to Eden at a time after humans had managed to make Stonehenge and the Pyramids. The Universe, presumably, is a couple of days older. All scientific disciplines point to this being wrong. Biology shows its wrong because of the timescales needed for evolution. Geology, through the study of Antarctic ice cores and the stratification of places like the Grand Canyon, disproves it. Chemistry, via the study of carbon particles, and how their radioactive isotopes decay, prove it not to be so. Physics and Astronomy study light, speed, velocity, gravity, heat – all of it points to the big bang, billions of years ago. The planet itself is a few billion years old.

Of course, it may be wrong. Science admits mistakes, and acknowledges the new evidence it acquires. It is possible that this is not so. But it would take a simply vast, enormous, quantity of data and new findings to undue three hundred years of reciprocally supportive evidence that crosses all the scientific disciplines and suggested the world was only 5,000 years old. A good Hume-ean  would accept this – I can’t cite the ground shift in quantum physics in one section and then ignore it in the next. We could be wrong. But, like Hume argues, you need to go through life assuming the evidence it good until proven otherwise. True: just because last time you opened the hall doorway it was the hall on the other side doesn’t mean it will be this time. Maybe this time, like a cartoon, half of the house fell down, and there’s nothing but air. I mean, it’s possible… But to go through life it sort of makes sense to presume when you open the hall door you won’t be faced with the surrealism of a desert dunescape, or some other ridiculous thing. And an Earth of 5,000 years is a ridiculous thing.

Science has made it impossible to accept many of the claims of the Bible. Joshua did not stop the sun. Jonah was not swallowed by a fish. The human population did not originate from two people. And without miracles or revelation – there is no foundation to believe any of this. For miracles and divine intervention are the usual explanations, the frequent explanations, for how the laws of the universe were suspended in these, and other, cases. But if we are bold enough to eschew miracles, then what other explanation is there? Adam and Eve were not real. The continents were not ever covered it water.

The Israelites were not in Egypt.

 Baby owl has looked for things, but not found them. 

*          *          *

Part Three: Logic?

God is the issue here. The only source of information about God, of course, is the Bible. No other sources of the time talk about any of this stuff.  So the Bible is what’s being scrutinized. We’ve already seen that it would need to be a very impressive book, indeed, to overcome our skepticism of miracles , revelation, and scientific evidence.

The Bible, however, is not this book described. In fact it is a logical mess, a hodgepodge of contradictions and obvious falsehoods.

As stated earlier, if you don’t have evidence to back your claims, you better have some very strong logical arguments. Logic it is important to note, is not a replacement for evidence. Logical validity does not equal truth. A statement can be logically valid, but not true: that is, to be valid the conclusions must follow from the premises. The premises need not be true, though.

Here’s an example: Premise 1: If it is a Monday, I go to work. Premise 2: It is a Monday. Conclusion: Therefore, I go to work. The conclusion follows from the premises. But it is not true – I do not go to work every Monday (it is currently summer break, or I could be sick) and today is Thursday.

You can make them as outrageous as you like: Premise 1: All cats a birds. Premise 2: All birds can fly. Conclusion: Therefore all cats can fly. I mean, come on. But, it is valid. If all cats were birds and if indeed all birds could fly, then it would follow that all cats could fly. It’s valid – it’s just not true.

So if the purpose is to determine if the Bible is accurate, why deal with logic at all? The Bible makes truth-positive claims, but these, as we’ve seen, seem to be in the domain of evidence – claims about the reality of the world, that only evidence could disprove or support.

Unfortunately, since the Bible, by definition, is a book who has as a premise that evidence is circumvented by God via miracles and revelations, we need to stop and look at logic as well.  The Bible never asks us to suspend logic even though we must, at its request, throw out science and evidence. So since the Bible says nothing about throwing out logic we can try, for its benefit, to use this tool as a support for Biblical claims.

But almost immediately, the project fails.

The most obvious contradiction comes in the definition of God. Genesis, Psalms, Job, Romans, Acts, and Timothy all say God is 1)All knowing and 2) All powerful. Follow along closely, because this is an important argument, the thesis of which is that no, God cannot be defined as these two things.

Let’s say God is all-knowing. This would imply that God knows the future, right?

A: No, it does not mean God knows the future, because that’s not something to know.

B: Yes, God would need to know the future, to be considered all-knowing.

If it is A, then God cannot be all-powerful, really. If you don’t know the consequences of your all-powerful actions, are you really all-powerful? Is God just messing about – doing the best he can with the information at hand? (That may explain some of the screw-ups, eg. The Tree of Wisdom, the Flood, the Crucifixion to absolve sins, etc.) In this case God has a lot of power, but not knowing what’s going to happen, for he does know the future, he can’t claim that his power is going to be beneficially applied or even useful. But that’s not really what the Bible seems to be saying.

The Bible is pretty darn clear about this, with the Book of Revelations. The Biblical line is B – God does indeed know the future.

But what about free will?

If we have free will, we can defy God, we can choose to not do what God wants, right? Otherwise what’s the point about Hell? We can make our own choices – and that means God can’t doesn’t have control of those actions. I choose to be writing this, if there is free-will, and the Bible supports the notion that we can do things against God’s will, right? (Isiah, Genesis, Ecclesiastes, Deuteronomy, and to some extent Proverbs all make this plain.)

So then,

A: God is not all-powerful. If I can do what I want, outside of God’s control, he’s not omnipotent.

B: God is all-powerful, and therefore we cannot act outside of his control, and there is no free will.

B suggests determinism. A common attempt to get around this is the following argument: God is all-powerful, but he doesn’t interfere and control every little thing. Sure, but this still leaves the all-knowing problem on the table. God could intervene, and make sure we all go to Heaven, but doesn’t. Oh! And he knows the future, so he already knows who is going to Hell and who to Heaven. So we have free will…but he knows our future? And presumably, if all-knowing, he knows the outcome not only of our lives, but every action therein. So even if God is a dick, and just doesn’t use his all-powerfulness to get involved, it’s still clearly contradicted by the Biblical stance on God being all-knowing.

And option A is insisted upon as well. According to the Bible,  God must be all-knowing, all-powerful, and we have free will. As stated above, these tenants can’t logically coexist. I’ve made a chart:

Okay. So the Bible, at the very foundations, is an illogical mess. The very core definition of the deity who is supposed to be able to suspend the laws of the Universe, and have us pooh-pooh evidence and scientific conclusions can’t logically exist, as defined in the Bible. And, I remind you, the Bible is the only thing we have to go off of. People who cite, say, Jesus’ miracles in the modern day only can do that in the context of and referring to the Bible.

And again, since I can’t underscore this enough, if God knows the future, what the hell’s the point? If Earth is a soul-strainer, a sieve for the good souls and bad, why create it at all, if the fate of each soul is already predetermined by God’s knowledge of the future?

You can’t have an all-powerful, all-knowing God, and have humans also have free will. Yet the Bible insists on all three of these premises.

'Whaaaa?' - Baby Turtle

*          *          *

Part Four: Morality

So there’s no rational reason to accept miracles and revelation, there’s no evidence to support any of the claims of the Bible, and the work is a logical nightmare of obvious contradictions that taint the apple’s very core.

Now, many Christians, in light of all this, give a really shitty answer: “God works in mysterious ways.” There are many equivalents to this intellectual laziness. “God is inscrutable”, “God’s ways cannot be known to man”, “These aren’t logical inconsistencies for God,” etc.

This is akin answering of the old logical poser, ‘Could God create a stone so heavy he couldn’t lift it?’ with ‘Yes. And then he’d lift it anyway.’

What’s so obviously bothersome about this is that we are supposed to be made in God’s image. And we are reasoning creatures – endowed with minds to think, as the Bible would have it. Why do all of these logical contradictions even occur to us? Why do little children have big, important, unanswered questions? Why can an eight year-old ask ‘Why do good things happen for bad people – and why are good people sometimes punished for no reason?’ To quote Stephen Fry, “Why is there bone cancer in some children?”

Let us set aside that the Bible is totally unsubstantiated by anything, and a logical monstrosity with no answers beyond the lazy shrug of “mysterious ways”. Perhaps, despite all this, we could get something out of the bible in terms of morality.

Note, that, at this point, there’s no reason to accept the Bible or it’s God as real. The lack of evidence, the rejection of miracle and revelation, the absurdity of the Bible’s own definition of its deity should be enough, for a reasonable person to reject the Bible to having any truth claims as to the reality of the way things are. There’s no reason, then, to accept that the Bible is a good account for why we’re here (evidence contradicted) that there is a God as the Bible describes (logically contradicted) that further experiences could dispel these claims and provide supernatural explanations (revelation and miracles have been rejected). An atheist says “I would believe it if I had proof.” But if Jesus came back to Earth tomorrow, I for one, would say “Okay, he does exist, and now, like any other phenomenon, we need to look at what this means for scientific laws. Especially biology.” Jesus would be his own taxonomy.

The Bible does not, then, explain what it says to. It is not, then, a good source of truth. To determine reality, we should not turn to the Bible. And this is a book that insists that it is right and true, despite all other books with similar claims, and the evidence, and our own logical prowess. Indeed, if it did not insist it was true it would be of no more value or persuasion than a fairytale, and certainly not the basis of a religion.

But the Bible, besides attempting to describe an impossible deity, a story of what this is, and where it came from, and what to expect – attempts to give a why and what we should do about it.

The Bible’s morality I’ve addressed before, especially in my post about my own tencommandments. To recap, briefly:

Is rape wrong? Yes? Congratulations, you have better morals than the Bible. Rape, slavery, cannibalism, incest, torture – none of these makes the top ten. Some aren’t condoned. Some are even encouraged. So either

A: Rape, slavery, torture – these aren’t actually evils.

B: We can have moral values – superior moral values – without the Bible.

I’ve made a pretty extensive study of ethics, and have never encountered a reasonable argument in favor of torture, rape, or slavery that wasn’t tissue thin and easily torn through. We all know these are terrible, horrible, traumatic things. The fact that we know they are wrong regardless of, or in spite of, the Bible, shows that we base humans have superior moral standards and capabilities to that of the Bible.

The Bible is arguably one of the most immoral books ever composed. Innocent people are tortured, people are enslaved, the Jews are commanded to commit genocide, the whole planet is wiped out (once saving a few people, latter, it will be total) and an all-powerful God who can come up with any loophole decides, to correct his error of original sin, to kill his son.

This is insane.

The whole narrative of the Bible, hitherto unaddressed, is problematic. From a certain, disturbing, perspective it looks something like this:

An all-powerful God decides to make creation. He knows how it’s all going to turn out, but he does it anyway. He puts fragile creatures, with the power of reason, in a garden with a tree that will screw up everything. Why that tree exists is unclear, or why it would be in proximity to his creations who’ll be screwed up if they eat it. Guess. What. They eat of the tree! (I mean, he knew they would, but…) and so he punishes them, and their children, who, of course, are innocent of anything. And all generations following. But they turn out to be assholes (as he knew they would be) and so he kills all of them but one family in a flood. Then enslaves his favorites. And tortures the one who is the most faithful, ‘cause he made a bet with the devil. Of course, he knows that the flood and all this won’t be good enough, really. So he has a son, who is himself, and has him killed in an excruciating way because, as an all-powerful deity, he can come up with no better means of fixing the fact that, once again, his creations turned out to be assholes (as he knew they would). Once he has sacrificed himself to himself he basically stops intervening, or having prophets, and, with the introduction of Hell, ensures that what you do here on Earth will affect you forever. So fear him, and love him. To quote George Carlin:

“Religion has actually convinced people that there's an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever 'til the end of time!

But He loves you.”

'Please, God, make the terrible morals go away. PS I understand how ironic this prayer is.'

*          *          *

Part Five: History

After all this, what’s left? Many do say the Bible is metaphorical, and shouldn’t be taken literally, but this makes no sense. The Bible says it is perfect, all true. How can you tell which parts are false? Is this the ‘God of the gaps’ argument – anything science and reason can’t explain you chalk up to God? That argument doesn’t work.

What about the so-called logical proofs of God? Anselm’s ontological proof, the uncaused cause, etc? Carl Sagan handled this nicely:

In many cultures, the customary answer is that a God or Gods created the Universe out of nothing. But if we wish to pursue this question courageously, we must of course ask the next question: where did God come from? If we decide that this is an unanswerable question, why not save a step and conclude that the origin of the Universe is an unanswerable question? Or, if we say that God always existed, why not save a step, and conclude that the Universe always existed? That there's no need for a creation, it was always here. These are not easy questions. Cosmology brings us face to face with the deepest mysteries, questions that were once treated only in religion and myth.”

There are historical considerations against the Bible, that lead to odd logical and rational conclusions. I mean, first of all, why on Earth, if you are God, would you have the Spanish be the ones to spread your word? There is hardly a worse legacy of global destruction and genocide beside s that of the Spanish from Columbus to turn of the 20th century. If it’s a metaphor, why did God wait until the Bronze Age? What’s the fate of the hundreds of generations of Homo Sapiens from 200,000 years ago until the last two thousand years? Why a book? If you’re all-powerful, why write a book, in one language, that will be known only to a few people, and will take time to get around? Why not, in an omniscient voice comprehensible to all persons, speak the truth from the sky (or into our heads) simultaneously? I call this the Filipino problem. The Philippines is one of the most Catholic places on the planet. They, not being part of the Roman Empire 2000 years ago, didn’t hear about Christianity for 1,500 years. What happened to the souls of those Filipinos in the interval? Were they unworthy until the Conquistadors showed up? The Bible makes it very clear that you can’t get to Heaven without Jesus…

My question, then, is: why do people believe it at all? If they’d been born in ancient Greece in the time of Zeus they’d not be Christians. They are, as some call it, atheists of all religions but one. There’s no rational reason to believe God any more than Zeus – no more evidence, scientific findings, or even logical conclusions. Shiva and Allah are equally improbable. Osiris and Thor have equal credibility to the Judeo-Christian faith. The only difference is numbers. Could 1.whatever billion people be wrong? Yes. Yes they could (cf. the Earth being round, the earth’s orbit of the sun, Nickleback fans).

You know it’s nonsense. The only reason you believe it is historical, arbitrary, circumstance. The metaphorical argument is too weak for words: there’s no methodology, since the Bible says it is all true, by which you can sort out the useful parts excepting by the measure of your own, superior, better-informed, mind. So why bother with it at all? The morality is disgusting, the truth claims invalid and not true.

Mysterious ways?

The final argument, and a very pathetic argument it is, is some people say it is comforting. But this, of course, does not have any weight in considering if it is true, or right, or even good. Something harmful can be comforting, after all. Cigarettes for the smoker, booze for the alcoholic, mental fantasy for the unwell. You are, in fact saying “Yeah, yeah, it’s not true, and doesn’t explain anything, and I know a lot of it is wrong, in a moral sense, but I like it anyway.” That is delusion. And delusion can be a very dangerous thing. Especially in the hands of such a book as the Bible, what if someone lets the delusion control their actions and burn a witch? Stone an adulteress? Kill people of other races? Engage in a hundreds-years long crusade against other religions? Persecute other religions? Enslave others?

Christianity, like all religions, is an historical accident, incomprehensible in other way. To cleave to it for comfort is not only the sign of weakness of mind, but potential danger.

"I am an impending genocide."

*          *          *

Part Six: Conclusion

In high school I started wondering these things. By my senior year in college, after reading the Bible, and a few basic classes discussing things like Pascal’s wager and predetermination, I was pretty well convinced that it didn’t make any sense.

By the end of grad school I was confident of my atheism. This was in 2009. I’d spent the year teaching with a nice, Catholic man, and he did things in the classroom regarding religion that I felt uncomfortable about. He never, as a fellow world history teacher, had any good explanations for the legacy of Catholicism, or Christianity in general, on war, misery, and torture throughout the centuries.

I wasn’t going to church – I’d done so of my own accord when I was in middle school – and hadn’t been since high school, either. Maybe Midnight Mass on Christmas.

But I kept quiet.

Until this past year I’ve not felt it was wise to discuss, openly. It’s sad. I’ve been reading the letters of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and neither one of them was believers. Adams called the trinity metaphysical nonsense, and further: “We can never be so certain of any Prophecy, or the fulfillment of any Prophecy; or of any miracle, or the design of any miracle as We are, from the revelation of nature, i.e. nature’s God, that two and two are equal to four. Miracles or Prophecies might frighten us out of our Witts; might scare us to death; might induce Us to lie, to say that We believe that 2 and 2 make 5. But We should not believe it. We should know the contrary.”

But accompanying these letters are cautious words of hush and confidence – they were both scared that these opinions might be known by the public. Two of the smartest founding fathers both said to each other “Christianity? Nonsense.” But only in hushed tones, delivered by secure courier.

If they were not able to come out and say it, how could I? Our country is overwhelmingly Christian. I can’t even say the pledge of allegiance anymore, that my job asks of me, every day. It’s not comfortable to be atheist in America today.

But here I am. Now, where are all of you?

Toad is judging you.

No comments: