Category Archives: Science

Sebastion Gunger on the Argument for Morality

This is an excerpt from Sebastian Gunger’s latest book, Tribe.  This section deals specifically with the idea of morality and how it developed among ancient hunter-gatherer tribes.  It serves as a great response to the Argument for Morality often used by apologists attempting to prove the existence of God.

Because tribal foragers are highly mobile and can easily shift between different communities, authority is almost impossible to impose on the unwilling.  And even without that option, males who try to take control of the group – or of the food supply – are often countered by coalitions of other males.  This is clearly an ancient and adaptive behavior that tends to keep groups together and equitably cared for.  In his survey of ancient-type societies, Boehm found that – in addition to murder and theft – one of the most commonly punished infractions was “failure to share”.  Freeloading on the hard work of others and bullying were also high up on the list.  Punishments included public ridicule, shunning, and finally “assassination of the culprit by the entire group” […]  

Boehm’s research has led him to believe that much of the evolutionary basis for moral behavior stems from group pressure.  Not only are bad actions punished, but good actions are rewarded.  When a person does something for another person – a prosocial act, as it’s called – they are rewarded not only by a group approval but also by an increasing of dopamine and other pleasure hormones in their blood.  Group cooperation triggers higher levels of oxytocin, for example, which promotes everything from breast-feeding in women to higher levels of trust and group bonding in men.  Both reactions impart a powerful sensation of well-being.  Oxytocin creates a feedback loop of good-feeling an group loyalty that ultimately leads members to “self-sacrifice to promote group welfare”, in the words of one study.  Hominids that cooperated with one another – and punished those who didn’t – must have outfought, outhunted, and outbred everyone else.  There are the hominids that modern humans are descended from.

For a more in depth look at this topic you can check out Christopher Boehm’s (mentioned above) bookMoral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame.  

Thanks for reading.

Can Science Answer Everything?

I’m a huge science nerd.  Anyone who knows me or reads this blog can attest to that.  Of the books I read last year, half of them were science books: biology, cosmology, psychology, neuroscience, physics, etc.  Science is a passion for me and a field that I advocate for and encourage others to also pursue.  Unfortunately, I seem to be in the minority; only 28 percent of American adults currently qualify as scientifically literate.  It seems most people in our society are ignorant of the most basic facts of science, the scientific method, and how far we’ve come in understanding the world around us.

Now, I understand that learning about quantum mechanics, string theory, and multiverses may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but I firmly believe that a very basic understanding of science should be common knowledge.  Science affects nearly every aspect of our daily lives, from the food we eat, to the medicines we take, to the computers we work on; science is at work all around us.  Yet, most people you talk to don’t understand the significance of peer-review.

This becomes apparent anytime there’s a debate in which science is brought up, particularly when the topic centers around religion.  As someone who regularly invokes science whenever religion is on the table, one of the most common responses I get is – “Well, science can’t answer everything!”  This is generally employed as a discussion-stopper; a last ditch, hail-Mary attempt to change the course of discussion.  The implication being, of course, that since science can’t explain it, then God/religion can.  I want to unpack this oft used defense and explain why I believe it is fallacious argument and needs a rebuttal whenever possible.

First, people who claim “science can’t answer everything” generally have no idea what science can and cannot answer.  Science has made some incredible discoveries in the last several decades and continues to make new discoveries almost daily.  One could spend hours trying to keep track of new insights being gained through the numerous scientific fields.  Unfortunately, our public education system also lags behind in providing students with accurate and current information.

So, I understand if people are uninformed about the latest scientific findings; but don’t then presume to know what the limits of science are.  When it comes to the topics of dispute with theists, I’ve yet to encounter one that science doesn’t have an answer for; if not an evidence-backed theory, at least a working, plausible hypothesis.  When it comes to our daily existence, science does provide us with many adequate answers.  A quick Google search is generally all that’s required to find out if science has an explanation for “X”.

Second, the use of the word “can’t” is problematic.  Look back at what life was like for people living in the 1800’s and compare it to today.  Read up on all the discoveries about the universe that we’ve made in only the last 100 years.  Things that only a century ago would have been considered unknowable are now common knowledge.  The amount of progress humanity has made in such a short period is truly remarkable.  It would be unwise to put limits on scientific discovery.  

There remains a multitude of questions that scientists have about the universe and for every new discovery, new questions arise.  But to state emphatically that science “can’t” provide an answer is imprudent.  A better way to say it would be that science “hasn’t yet” found an answer.  I have no doubt that many of the big questions we all have will be answered in the next century – what caused the Big Bang?  How did life arise on Earth?  Are we alone in the Universe? – just to name a few.

Lastly, by using “science can’t explain everything” as a reason for believing in a God, you are committing a logical fallacy.  Known as the “God of the Gaps” fallacy, it happens whenever a theist tries to establish “God” as the answer to a question that science hasn’t come to a consensus on.  By stating that science can’t explain everything, the implication is that God and/or their religion can.  Until evidence for said god is given however, and clear indications as to how it was done, “God” is not a reasonable answer.

Another fallacy related to this, is when theists assert that if a scientific theory is proven false, then their theory, i.e. “God” is automatically true.  This is what’s known as a False Dilemma – assuming that there are only two correct answers.  Let’s say for example, that evolution is falsified; that does not automatically make creationism right.  Creationists still have to come up with scientific evidence to support their claims.


In his book Everybody is Wrong About God, James A. Lindsay posits that the need for explanations, or the need to attribute cause, is one of the fundamental psychological needs that a god-belief provides people.  He states, “A particularly ugly problem regarding attributional frameworks including ‘God’ is that it isn’t only when we lack natural explanations that we resort to religious ones; it also occurs when the natural explanations before us are too threatening to our deeper psychological needs.”  By claiming a belief in a god based on scientific ignorance, theists are hanging their faith on a very fragile thread, or as Neil deGrasse Tyson calls it – “an every receding pocket of scientific ignorance that’s getting smaller and smaller as time goes on.”

There’s nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know”.  To quote Lindsay again, “Honest doubt and frank ignorance are vastly superior to pretending to know or believing for the sake of believing, so far as intellectual virtues go.”  

Science is the most reliable and currently the only method we have of understanding the natural world.  Who knows what new and wondrous discoveries await us in the future?  And as we discover more and more about the universe we live in, the less people will feel the need to rely on mythological explanations.  Thanks for reading.

An Endless Possibility of Shoes

One of the most common arguments I see being used by apologetics is the Fine-Tuned Argument.  Simply put, it asserts that the conditions necessary to support life as it exists on Earth are so specific and narrowly defined, and the odds of such conditions emerging by random chance so remote, that the existence of a deliberate guiding force or creator may be inferred.  Christian apologists naturally assert that this “guiding force” must be the particular god that they worship, without providing any evidence to validate that conclusion.

While reading Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality I came across a great analogy that demonstrates the main faults in this argument:

The only special thing about being 93 million miles from the sun is that it yields a temperature range conducive to our being here.  If the earth were much closer or much farther away from the sun, the temperature would be much hotter or colder, eliminating an essential ingredient of life: liquid water.  This reveals the in-built bias.  The very fact that we measure the distance from our planet to the sun mandates that the results we find must be within the limited range compatible with our existence.  Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here to contemplate the earth’s distance from the sun.

If the earth were the only planet in the solar system, or the only planet in the universe, you might feel compelled to carry investigation further.  Yes, you might say, I understand that my own existence is tied to explain why the earth happens to be suited at such a cozy, life-compatible position.  Is it lucky coincidence?  Is there a deeper explanation?

But the earth is not the only planet in the universe, let alone in the solar system.  There are many others.  And this fact casts such questions in a very different light.  To see what I mean, imagine that you mistakenly think a particular shop carries only a single shoe size, and are so gleefully surprised when the salesman brings you a pair that fits perfectly.  “Of all the possible shoe sizes”, you reflect, “it’s amazing that the single one they carry is mine.  Is that just a lucky coincidence?  Is there a deeper explanation?”  But when you learn that the shop actually carries a wide range of sizes, the question evaporates.  A universe with many plants, situated at a range of distances from their host star, provides a similar situation.  Just as it’s no big surprise that among all the shoes in the shop there’s at least one pair that fits, so it’s no big surprise that among all the planets in all the solar systems in all the galaxies there’s at least one at the right distance from its host star to yield a climate conducive to out form of life.  And it’s on one of those planets, of course, that we live.  We simply couldn’t evolve or survive on the others.

We live on one of millions of planets found in the Milky Way galaxy.  Scientists believe that there are thousands of planets in our galaxy alone that contain the conditions necessary for life to exist.  Just last month, NASA announced that they had found not one, but seven  Earth-sized planets orbiting a star that could potentially harbor life.  Last year NASA’s Kepler mission confirmed the first near-Earth-size planet in the “habitable zone” around a sun very similar to our star.  If we then calculate all the millions of other galaxies in the universe, each containing billions of planets, it’s mathematically improbable that our lowly little planet should be the only one that contains life.  If we are to go one step further and look at the strong possibility of there being multiple universes (the topic of Greene’s book), then the probability factor goes up exponentially.

It’s unfortunate that the Fine-Tune Argument is still so prevalent, as it has been debunked numerous times by numerous cosmologists, physicists, and mathematicians.  Yet Christian apologists (most of whom are not scientists) keep repackaging this fallacious argument and presenting it as irrefutable “proof” of God’s existence.

I think the main reason this argument keeps coming up is A) it plays into the Christian narrative of humans being the pinnacle of all nature; that this entire universe was created just for us. And B) it sounds very appealing and plausible to those who are scientifically illiterate and predisposed towards any argument that bolsters their religious beliefs.

The Fine-Tune argument is just another appeal to ignorance by theists attempting to validate unsubstantiated claims.  It’s another variation on the all too common God of the Gaps argument – “We don’t fully understand something, so it must be God.”  Apologists will likely continue use this argument, but Neil DeGrasse Tyson offers a wise warning to those who do:

“It doesn’t mean that if you don’t understand something and a community of physicists don’t understand it, that God did it.  If that’s how you want it invoke you evidence for God, then God is an ever receding pocket of ignorance that is getting smaller and smaller as time goes on.” 

Thanks for reading.

 

Paul’s Sacred Disease

A pastor friend and I were once having a discussion on what it would take to get me to believe in God again.  He asked me, “So, what would happen if you were to have a ‘Damascus Road’ experience?”  My response was, “Check myself into the nearest neurology unit.”

Hallucinations are much more common than people think.  Approximately 1 in 20 people in the general population has experienced at least one hallucination in their lifetime that wasn’t connected to drugs, alcohol or dreaming.  These are healthy people, with no background of psychotic disorder, such as schizophrenia or manic depression.  When one starts to look at experiences of people who do have some sort of medical or neurological issues, the likelihood of having some form of  hallucinations goes up considerably.   One of the most common disorder which causes hallucinations is epilepsy.

Epilepsy is a chronic disorder, the hallmark of which is recurrent, unprovoked seizures.  The human brain is the source of human epilepsy.  Although the symptoms of a seizure may affect any part of the body, the electrical events that produce the symptoms occur in the brain.  Symptoms of seizures very (depending of the area of the brain being affected), and can be motor (twitching of certain muscles), autonomic (nausea), sensory (abnormalities or hallucinations of sight, sound, smell, etc), or psychic (sudden feelings of joy or fear without apparent cause, or sudden, often unusual, trains of thought).  The location of that event, how it spreads and how much of the brain is affected, and how long it lasts all have profound effects. These factors determine the character of a seizure and its impact on the individual.  Epilepsy commonly affects higher parts of the brain, where it may evoke very complex, multisensorial “reminiscence” or dreamlike fantasies.  Essentially, anything the brain can do, it can do in the form of a seizure.

“Ecstatic seizures shake one’s foundation of belief, one’s world picture, even if one has previously been wholly indifferent to any thought of transcendent or supernatural.” – Oliver Sacks 

Hippocrates referred to epilepsy as the “Sacred Disease”, no doubt bowing to the then-popular notion that epilepsy had divine origins (Yet, he himself dismissed such notions, claiming that epilepsy, like all other diseases had natural causes), and was long thought to be a  supernatural, demonic, or spiritual disorder.

Many of histories most prolific figures are thought to have suffered from epileptic seizures which brought about vivid hallucinations and had notable affects on their lives.

Based on transcripts from her trial, many people have concluded that Joan of Arc likely had temporal lobe epilepsy with ecstatic auras.  This would help explain how a farmer’s daughter with no formal education could have been so inspired as to gain the support and admiration of thousands of people in her attempt to drive the English from France.

Vincent van Gogh believed that all expressions should be expressed through colors.  Being the loving and creative man that he was, his epilepsy had once caused him to run after his friends with an open razor, but cut cutting his own ear lobe off instead.

Aristotle was one of the first to point out that epilepsy and genius were often closely connected. He found that the seizure disorders may have the ability to increase brain activity in specific places and maybe also enhance a persons natural abilities to a certain extent.

And, in one of the Bible’s most dramatic stories, Paul was transformed from a zealous persecutor of Christianity into one of its most powerful advocates after being struck down by a blinding light.

The Damascus Road experience is recorded in a few different sections of the Book of Acts.  The accounts differ slightly from each other, but we can form a reasonable account of the events that occurred.  The best account is found in Acts 22:6-11 (Acts 9:1-9 and Acts 26:9-20 being the others), where Paul (then Saul) gives a description of the events in his own words:

“As I was on my way and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone around me.  And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’  And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’  Now those who were with me saw the light but did not understand the voice of the one who was speaking to me.  And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do.’  And since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and came into Damascus.”

Let’s note a few important points here regarding Paul’s episode.  Paul recounts that he:

  • Saw a bright light
  • Fell to the ground, no indication why
  • No loss of consciousness
  • Heard a voice
  • Was temporarily blinded

Now, let’s look at some common symptoms during an epileptic seizure:

  • Loss of vision or unable to see
  • Blurry vision
  • Flashing lights
  • Hallucinations
  • Numbness, tingling, or electric shock like feeling in body, arm or leg
  • Out of body sensations
  • Feeling detached

The commonalities are striking, to say the least.  But what about Paul’s claims of being blind for three days?  Is there a natural explanation that can account for this?  In turns out that there is.  Episodes of temporary (and even permanent) blindness have been reported among those who have occipital seizures (a type of epileptic seizure): Blindness may follow visual hallucinations and progress to other ictal epileptic symptoms but often occurs as the initial or the only ictal seizure manifestation with an abrupt onset. The duration of ictal blindness varies between less than one minute and days or can be permanent. Onset of ictal blindness in adulthood nearly always indicates symptomatic epilepsy”

This isn’t the only time we read about Paul having unique experiences.  In Acts 16:9, Paul is said to have had vision of a man standing in front of him.  The Lord appears to Paul in “a vision” in Acts 18:9, and also while Paul is “in a trance” in Acts 22:17.  In 2 Cor. 12, Paul describes having an out of body experience and seeing visions: “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.”

In the above passage, and several others, we read of Paul hinting about his ‘physical ailment‘, by which he perhaps means a chronic illness. In the above passage from Corinthians, he states: ‘But to keep me from being puffed up with pride… I was given a painful physical ailment, which acts as Satan’s messenger to beat me and keep me from being proud.‘ (2 Corinthians, 12,7). In his letter to the Galatians, Paul again describes his physical weakness: ‘You remember why I preached the gospel to you the first time; it was because I was ill. But even though my physical condition was a great trial to you, you did not despise or reject me.‘ (Galatians 4, 13-14) In ancient times people used to spit at ‘epileptics’, either out of disgust or in order to ward off what they thought to be the ‘contagious matter’ (epilepsy as ‘morbus insputatus’: the illness at which one spits).  Paul also hints at having some sort of eye disease in his letter to the Galatians (4:15, 6:11).

The descriptions of Paul’s visions and experiences have led many  to believe that Paul himself suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy.  To put things in another light – Paul’s miraculous transformation from Jewish Zealot to one of the founders of the Christian religion was not the result of some supernatural intervention, but a classic case of hallucination brought on by epilepsy.  Of course, there is no way of knowing for certain whether or not Paul, in fact, had epilepsy.  This is admittedly just an educated guess.  However, it is a far more probably explanation than the supernatural account portrayed in the Bible and believed by countless Christians throughout the centuries.  

One has to wonder what other Biblical figures suffered from then unknown mental disorders which led to their dramatic visions.  Take for example, John of Patmos, the author of the apocalyptic Book of Revelations, which features obscure and extravagant imagery.  The accounts of John’s visions are reminiscent of another well documented church figure.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1180), a nun and mystic of exceptional intellectual and literary power, who experienced countless “visions” throughout her life, and left detailed accounts of figures of these.  Modern neurologists have concluded, based on these accounts, that Hildegard almost certainly suffered from severe migraines, which resulted in her vivid hallucinations.

An example (seen above) of one of her visions is a figure of stars falling and being quenched in the ocean, signifies for the “The Falling of Angels”:

I saw a great star most splendid and beautiful, and with it an exceeding multitude of falling stars which with the star followed southward… And suddenly they were all annihilated, being turned into black coals… and cast into the abyss so that I could see them no more. 

This account sounds strikingly similar to John’s visions in Revelations.  Could John have also suffered from migraines, which led to his wild visions?  It’s certainly possible, and far more probable than John being literally taken up into heaven by supernatural forces and given a glimpse of the future.

The Bible contains multiple accounts of very vivid, other-worldly, visions.  While some of these are certainly just the creative imaginations of it’s authors, it’s likely that some are also the very real experiences of the people who had them – as the result of the some then-unknown neurological disorder.  When talking about Paul,  John of Patmos, or even Jesus, one should never overlook the possibility that they suffered from mental illness which led to their behaviors, beliefs, and claims.  Remember, when it comes to extraordinary claims, a natural explanation (no matter how unlikely) is always more likely than a supernatural one. 

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

Ray Comfort’s “The Atheist Delusion”: A review

 

The other night a good friend of mine (who also happens to edit this blog, thanks Paul) came over and we sat down and forced ourselves to sit through all 62 minutes of Ray Comfort’s latest film, The Atheist Delusion.  Comfort is well known in the Christian community for his books, tracts, and films on apologetics.  Previous films include Audacity, Noah & The Last Days, and Evolution vs. God.  I’ve had the displeasure of seeing some of these other films, so I had an idea of what I was getting myself into.

Paul and I started drinking right from the start, as we figured we would need the liquid courage to make it though without throwing something at the TV.  We were right.  I’m not going to go minute by minute on this one, but I am going to hit on several of the main points where Comfort fails miserably.

  • The beginning of the movie starts with Comfort interviewing college students, asking them about nature and evolution.  He hands them a book, and asks them if the book could have put itself together by chance.  That’s right, kids; it’s the watchmaker argument! Comfort has simply repackaged an all too familiar and thoroughly denounced fallacy, and claimed it as his own.  He uses a false analogy to try and claim that since a book can’t create itself, neither can anything in nature.  This is the one scientific question that Comfort claims will “destroy atheism” and sets up the premise for the whole film.
  • He then moves right into talking about DNA, claiming that like the book, some Intelligent Designer (ID) must have created it – it didn’t just come from nothing.  It’s ironic that Comfort uses DNA to try and prove his point, as DNA is unequivocal proof that evolution is true, a point that he conveniently ignores.  He uses a common metaphor that DNA is the “instruction book for life” and then goes on to claim that since the Bible talks about writing the “Book of Life”, then DNA is proof of ID.  Again, using a false analogy, he attempts to claim that “book – book designer, DNA – intelligent designer, i.e. God”.  The problem with this is that the idea of DNA “encoding” information is purely an analogy, since the DNA precedes the information rather than vice versa.
  •  Comfort asks a lady if DNA happened by accident and she rightly replies that it developed over the course of many thousands of years of evolution and development.  Not getting the answer he was hoping for, Comfort moves the goalpost and response with, “The origins don’t matter”.  Yeah, they fucking do, Ray!  Isn’t that what we’re talking about here – evolution vs ID and the origins of all living things?  Like all living matter, DNA also evolved from simpler simpler molecules.
  • Comfort asks one guy if he thinks that the eyes of mammals could have come about by chance.  Again, eyes are a clear example of evolution at work.
  • Comfort spends an inordinate amount of time asking people if “something” can come from “nothing”.  This is what’s commonly know as the Cosmological Argument, a fallacious argument that has been debunked six ways from Sunday.
  • In one of my favorite scenes from the film, Comfort uses an old riddle to try and prove ID.  It goes something like this: “What came first, the chicken or the egg? If the egg came first, what fertilized the egg?  The rooster did.  Therefore – GOD!”  Yes, that is really his argument.  Once again, Comfort’s ignorance and denial of evolution are apparent.  Neither a chicken or an egg just popped into existence, they both evolved over time. 
  • The egg riddle leads into a confusing series of questions regarding eyes, brains, lungs, the heart, blood vessels etc. Comfort falsely assumes that these things couldn’t have simply evolved (hint, hint -they did) and must have been created together just as we see them.  He then asks a strange question, “Do you know of anyone who isn’t fully evolved? Anything on earth?”  His assertion is that everything is created perfectly just the way it is.  There are two problems with this claim.  First, there is no end-point with evolution.  Second, there are species that are continuing to evolve, in fact most species do, including humans.  This has been observed in numerous species, everything from e coli bacteria to elephants.  Oh, and to Comfort’s claim that we don’t see people who have half-evolved legs or other extremities because we are “perfectly evolved”; explain this.
  • Comfort makes the very bold assertion that Richard Dawkins “isn’t really an atheist, he’s an adulterer.”  (Almost threw something at the TV at this point.  Thanks you alcohol)  His reasoning is that Dawkins (like all non-believers) has the wrong idea about God because he cherry-picks the Old Testament and therefore doesn’t understand the true nature of God.  Comfort doesn’t actually address Dawkin’s point, however, regarding God’s character.
  • “The Argument from ID isn’t to convince people of the Christian message, it’s just to just to show them the insanity of atheism”.  Bullshit.  That is exactly why Comfort spends the first half of the film trying to prove ID, so that he can spend the second half of the movie proselytizing to people.
  • Comfort claims that the Bible contains “scientific facts that weren’t discovered tell thousands of years later”.  He first mentions the Earth hangs from nothing, but then goes on to list a number of things which the the writers of the Bible absolutely did not know about, things like germs and the Earth being round.  He then says that the writers of the Bible knew that “life was in the blood”.  This is hardly rocket science.  People long before the Bible had figured out that if the blood leaves your body, you’re going to die.  No mention of all the areas of the Bible which demonstrate how scientifically illiterate its writers were.
  • Two thirds of the way into the film, Comfort changes gears and starts talking about hell.  Because no good Christian witness would be complete without threatening people that their going to burn for all eternity.  Comfort’s “proof” of Hell is that there has to be some sort of retribution for things like the Holocaust.  “When you look at Nazi Germany, instead of saying ‘If God is good, how can He create Hell?  You’ve got to come out saying, ‘If God is good, how can there not be a Hell?'”  No, Ray; I still want an answer to first question, and actual evidence that Hell is real, beyond your assertion that it is.
  • Then comes the “Are you a good person?” part of the film, where Comfort makes people admit what shitty people they really are.  It’s honestly one of the hardest parts of the film to watch because you can see people getting uncomfortable by his questions.  Comfort doesn’t care, of course, because in the Evangelical world, there’s no such things as personal boundaries.  Even to the point where if they give an answer he doesn’t like he’ll keep pushing them tell they admit what he wants them to admit.  More on this later.
  • A couple of times in the film Comfort compares humans to other animals, by wrongfully assuming that they don’t have much of the same emotions and desires that we have.  He implies that animals have no sense of morality or compassion.  This is false.  He also tells one person that they are not like an animal because he has a desire to live.  The will to survive is literally the most foundational force in nature!  Every species of live on this planet carries it.
  • Pascal’s Wager makes an appearance in the film – “The Bible says that Jesus Christa has abolished death. Now, if that isn’t true, we shouldn’t look into it.  But if there’s once chance in a million that it is…  Your good sense should just open your heart and say, ‘I’ll check it out'”.
  • The last bit of the film is Comfort trying to get people to accept his bullshit “Allow Jesus into your hearts” by telling them that they’re going to go to hell for their sins if they don’t.  He makes it very clear that Christianity is all about correct beliefs; our actions are irrelevant.

A few more thoughts about some general themes throughout the film.

Comfort spends the entire film equating evolution with atheism.  He makes the case that if evolution isn’t true, then there has to be a God, and not just any god, but his God.  Comfort is fond of using straw man arguments to make his points, saying things like, “You’re an atheist, so you believe the scientific impossibility that nothing created everything?”  First of all, atheism and evolution are two completely separate topics.  Atheism is the assertion that a God can not be demonstrated.  That’s it.  Whether or not evolution is true has nothing to do with it.  Also, even if evolution was to be proven false, that does no automatically make ID true; it’s a false dichotomy.  Nor would it prove that God exists.  You still need to provide sufficient evidence for both claims.  Comfort also ignores the fact many Christians accept evolution.  Believing in ID is not a prerequisite for believing in God.

All but two of the people Comfort interviews in this film are under-graduate college students; just random kids he’s meeting on the street.  He doesn’t interview any experts in the fields that he is discussing.  If he really wants to know about evolution, why isn’t he interviewing biologists?  If he wants to talk about DNA, why didn’t he interview Francis Collins, a fellow Christians and expert in the field?  Instead, Comfort interviews a bunch of dumb college students, and holds them up as shining examples of what all atheists believe.  This is incredibly dishonest and manipulative.  Ever heard of “bearing false witness”, Ray?  Ray doesn’t include anyone knowledgeable in his fields of inquiry because he knows they would have solid answers for his questions, wouldn’t buy his bullshit, and would make him look like a idiot.  The only expert included in the whole film is a short, edited clip of his interview with Lawrence Krauss, in which Krauss sharply refutes his arguments.  (You can see the full interview here)  Of course he doesn’t pose the “something from nothing” question to Krauss, a man who literally wrote the book on the subject.  The same can be said for atheist in general – why didn’t he interview one of the more well know atheist like Matt Dillahunty or PZ Myers, who he’s spoken with before?  There are a number of atheists and scientists who I’m certain would have been in this film if Comfort had asked them.  Instead he chooses to interview young, ignorant college kids to make his point.  Comfort also has a habit of giving ignorant, but easy answers to complex questions.  Subjects like DNA and evolutionary biology are fields which experts spend decades studying and can’t generally be summed up in a sentence or two.  Comfort chooses to remain ignorant of these topics and instead insists that “God did it!” is a suitable answer to any topic he doesn’t understand.

Or, most likely he did interview some knowledgeable atheists and scientists and simply left those interview out of the video.  As with his interview with Krauss, the entire movie is heavily edited and pieced together.  It’s hard to know for sure what kind of answers the people being interviewed were actually giving.  I’m willing to bet there were interviews which were intentionally left out because they didn’t provide the answers Comfort was looking for, i.e.; they don’t make atheists look stupid enough.

Comfort’s cheery nature and New Zealand accent aren’t enough to masquerader what a self-righteous, judgmental prick he can be.  Around the half-way mark of the film, he accuses pretty much everyone he’s been interviewing that the real reason they’re atheists is because they want to sin, they love their porn, they love their pre-marital sex, etc.  He’s fond of using that the one line that makes every atheist want to punch someone in the face, “You know deep in your heart that God exists; you’re just denying it!”  This comes up several times throughout the film with Comfort insisting people believe in things they just got done telling him that that they didn’t.  This is what’s know as gaslighting – a form of psychological abuse in which a victim is manipulated into doubting their own memory, perception, and sanity.  When talking to people, Comfort attempts to draw out all the bad things they’ve done in their lives to show them how wicked they are and how much they deserve Hell, to the point of actually calling people names.  He does all this “out of love” of course.

When it comes to apologetics, the old saying, “There is nothing new under the sun”, really strikes true.  The Atheist Delusion is nothing put a repackaging of the same tired, fallacious arguments that Christians have been using for decades in an attempt to justifies their baseless claims.  Everything from the Cosmological Argument, the Argument for Design, Pascal’s Wager, to the overall theme that since Evolution is false, then God must be true.  Not once in the 62 minutes of this film did Comfort make a solid, plausible case for either God or ID.

But that really isn’t the point, is it?  Comfort isn’t trying to convert atheist – he’s pandering to his audience of Christians who already buy into his particular brand of religion.  Comfort makes a pretty good living reinforcing stereotypes, pandering to the Evangelical world-view, and remaining willfully ignorant of reality.  It’s not like Comfort’s arguments haven’t been challenged before; he just chooses to ignore any evidence which refutes his position.  Confirmation bias at its finest.

The only redeeming quality of this film is the stock footage that is used as filler between scenes, and to emphasize some points  But it’s not worth watching the movie for, just watch Planet Earth instead.  If you really want to see what the movie is about, just watch the first half to get the gist of Comfort’s fallacious arguments, and skip the sermon at the end.

One final note.  At the end of the film, we get a message from the president of the company that produced the film, Living  Waters, directs you too the movies website, were you can get a four session video course “that will equip you to do what Ray did in the movie, and reach atheists with the love of Christ”.  If there are any Christians who have gone through this course and would like to try it out, contact me and I would be totally game, as would Paul.  I’ll even buy lunch.

If you would like to check out a more in-depth and humorous review of this film, be sure to check out The Bible Reloaded’s great commentary below.  Thanks for reading.

 

Not All Opinions Are Equal

You’ve likely encountered this scenario: You’re in a debate with someone, either on-line or in person.  You are discussing a topic of which you and the other party disagree.  You’ve laid out your case, presenting sound and difficult to refute evidence, yet the other person persists that they are right and you are wrong.  The other person ends the conversation in frustration by boldly proclaiming, “I have a right to my opinion!”

Sound familiar?  Most of us have probably been in this situation and walked away shaking our heads at the seemingly ignorant responses.  Some of us have likely used that very same line as a way of dodging any further discussion.  Because that’s what remarks like “I have a right to my opinion!” are: a close-ended statement meant to shut down the conversation and get the last word in.  More on this later.  First, let’s start with some definitions.

“Opinion” is defined as, “a belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty; a personal view, attitude, or appraisal.”  This is a very different concept than the concept of facts, yet it’s surprising how many people consider their own opinions iron-clad.  Opinions can range from tastes or preferences, to views about  politics, to views grounded in technical expertise, such as legal or scientific opinions.  However, there is a very big difference between subjective claims, such as tastes in music, art, sports teams, etc., and objective claims; those which carry the weight of empirical evidence.

Professor of Philosophy Patrick Stokes tells his students when they enter his class: “I’m sure you’ve heard the expression ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion.’ Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself, maybe to head off an argument or bring one to a close. Well, as soon as you walk into this room, it’s no longer true. You are not entitled to your opinion. You are only entitled to what you can argue for.”  He goes on to explain: “The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.”

The digital revolution has done much to connect the world, yet it has also done much to divide it as well.  No longer are Americans merely holding opinions different from one another; they’re also holding different “facts”.  For example, arguments are no longer about what we should be doing about climate change, but whether or not climate change is actually happening.  People are now fighting over competing versions of reality.  And now more then ever, it is becoming convenient for some people to live in a world built out of their own facts.  Stephen Colbert has coined this alternate reality as “truthiness” – something feeling true without any evidence suggesting it actually is.  

This “feeling” of being right has led to this ingrained idea in much of the populous that their views, beliefs, and opinions should be given equal standing in public discourse.  To be clear, no one is suggesting that people cannot hold differing opinions or even speak them publicly.  What I (and Stokes) am saying is that if “entitled to an opinion” means “entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth”, then it’s clearly false.

“We don’t respect people’s beliefs, we evaluate their reasons.” – Sam Harris

All too often, when one sees a debate, it is between only two individuals on opposite ends of the issue.  This can give the illusion that both sides of the argument carry equal weight.  This, however, is not always the case.  When it comes to many issues, including climate change, vaccines, or Evolution vs Creationism, there isn’t equal weight on both sides.  There is overwhelming consensus, and then there is the fringe science-denier who feels that the evidence conflicts with their own personal views.  This false equivalence was perfectly explained and demonstrated on an episode of Last Week Tonight dealing with the “controversy” surrounding climate change:

Best line of the video:

Who gives a shit? You don’t need people’s opinion on a fact. You might as well have a poll asking: “Which number is bigger, 15 or 5?” or “Do owls exist?” or “Are there hats?”

People’s misconceptions about their own opinions are very often the result of what is known as the Dunning-Kruger effectthe unshakable illusion that you’re much smarter, and more skilled and/or knowledgeable, than you really are.  Far too many people labor under the illusion that their knowledge about things is at least as good as, if not better than, the actual facts. For these people, their knowledge isn’t just superior – it’s superior even to those who have an intimate and detailed knowledge of the subject at hand.  To put it simply – it’s possible to be too dumb to realize you’re dumb.

While everyone is susceptible to having an over-inflated view of their own intelligence, you can see the Dunning-Kruger effect most prevalent in conspiracy theorists, radical political groups, fundamentalist religions, and science-deniers.  Donald Trump supporters are also an excellent example of the Dunning-Kruger effect in action.  David Dunning himself wrote an excellent op-ed about this phenomenon in Trump supporters and even Trump himself:

“Trump has served up numerous illustrative examples of the effect as he continues his confident audition to be leader of the free world, even as he seems to lack crucial information about the job.”  

“In voters, lack of expertise would be lamentable, but perhaps not so worrisome, if people had some sense of how imperfect their civic knowledge is. If they did, they could repair it. But the Dunning-Kruger Effect suggests something different. It suggests that some voters, especially those facing significant distress in their life, might like some of what they hear from Trump, but they do not know enough to hold him accountable for the serious gaffes he makes. They fail to recognize those gaffes as missteps… Again, the key to the Dunning-Kruger Effect is not that unknowledgeable voters are uninformed; it is that they are often misinformed—their heads filled with false data, facts and theories, that can lead to misguided conclusions held with tenacious confidence and extreme partisanship, perhaps some that make them nod in agreement with Trump at his rallies.”  

cox

So what are we do do about this.  Is it possible to have informed opinions without being an expert on the subject(s)?  Yes it is.  But it takes some careful thought, time doing research, an awareness of our own biases and limitations, and a willingness to consider we could be wrong.

Science blogger Fallacy Man came up with a good rule of thumb that is helpful to remember when discussing empirical claims, particularly those made by science – you don’t need to be an expert to accept a consensus, but you do need to be an expert to reject one. In other words, your default position should always be the one held by the majority of experts in that field, especially if it is a very large majority. To be clear, it is always possible that the consensus is wrong. I’m not advocating that you view a consensus as irrefutable proof of a position. Rather, what I am arguing is that you, as a non-expert, should be very, very cautious about claiming that the majority of experts are wrong. To put this another way, how likely do you actually think it is that you figured out something that the majority of experts missed?”  

You don’t need to be a climatologist to accept climate-change, but you do if you’re going to claim it’s a myth.  You don’t need to have a Ph.D in biology to accept evolution, but if you’re going to claim that it’s not true, you better have some serious credentials and evidence to back it up (you listening Ken Ham?).

This really shouldn’t be a difficult concept for people to grasp.  We rely on experts all the time in our day-to-day life, yet somehow there are those who think they know better than scientists and experts when it comes to topics they don’t agree with.  As Fallacy Man puts it, “If we go to several doctors with a problem and all or most of them tell us the same thing, we usually have no trouble accepting their diagnosis, because they’re experts. We defer to expert lawyers, contractors, mechanics, etc. all the time, but for some strange reason, when it comes to science, people suddenly feel empowered to reject the expert consensus and side with some internet quackery instead. This is a very dangerous thing to do. On topics like global climate change where roughly 97% of expert climatologists agree that we are causing it, it seems rather risky to side with the 3% who disagree with the consensus.”  

It never ceases to amaze me how scientifically illiterate people can honestly believe that their opinions carry more weight than that of educated, experienced, professional scientists.  Case in your point:

A few months ago I posted a link to an interview with Lawrence Krauss talking about how the universe can, in fact, come from “nothing” and that no supernatural agency was necessary.  One persons reply was, “Just another viewpoint”.  The implication being, of course, that this person doesn’t agree with Krauss’s position, and her position is equally valid.

No, it’s not.

Said person has no formal, or even informal, training or education in any scientific field.  Krauss, on the other hand, is a renowned theoretical physicist with over 300 scientific publications under his belt.  Her opinion is not equal to his on this subject; not even close.  Ironically enough, Krauss is asked about science being a matter of opinion in this interview:

Nogueira: Do you think there is a misconception that science is a matter of opinion and that we should hear all sides of the story?

Krauss: Yes. As I often like to say, a great thing about science is that one side is usually wrong. There are open questions where there is uncertainty and debate. However, the resolution of these debates is not rhetoric or volume but rather nature. So, if you have an idea that simply disagrees with observation, then you throw it out; there is no discussion. There is no need to debate the question of whether Earth is round or whether it’s flat. There are still people who claim Earth is flat, but they are just simply wrong. Similarly, there are some people who don’t think evolution happens, but they are wrong. And those people who argue against human-induced climate change are also simply wrong.

None of this is to say that you can’t be skeptical about the general consensus or empirical claims.  You should always make every effort to learn as much about a topic as you can, but after you have carefully reviewed all of the evidence, if you have reached a different conclusion than the vast majority of credentialed experts, you should be very trepid and cautious about that conclusion.

Thanks for reading.

 

Mythbusters: Intelligently Designed Humans

One of the most common arguments for the existence of God, particularly from Creationist and Intelligent Design advocates, is the human body.  They will often cite Bible verses that claim humans are “fearfully and wonderfully made” and designed in God’s image.  We humans have a very long history of being full of ourselves and unfortunately religion has only reinforced this view.  Since Darwin’s breakthrough discoveries regarding human origins, science has come to understand homo sapiens real place in the natural world.  Despite geneticists proving through DNA that humans are in fact, evolved from other animal species, there are many who still want to believe that we came into existence just as we are and are the greatest of all creation.

Let’s suppose for a second that human were designed by an intelligent creator  and really are the greatest of all creation.  Shouldn’t this intelligent design be evident in our makeup and abilities?  Shouldn’t humans have a long, glorious history of being “king of the jungle”?  You would think so, but that’s not what we find at all.  Let’s look at some examples of design flaws in humans:

  • One of the things that sets apart humans from other mammals is our ability to walk upright, or be bi-pedal.  This frees up our hands to do others things like use tools.  With this advance came the increase in size of our craniums.  But with evolution, everything comes with a cost.  Our skeletons were developed over millions of years of walking on all fours and having relatively small heads.  The price paid for becoming bi-pedal and having larger craniums is having back problems, foot problems, and stiff necks.  Women paid extra.  An upright gait required narrower hips, thus constricting the birth canal.  This not only made childbirth painful, but also dangerous.  Prior to modern medicine, childbirth often lead to the death of the mother and/or child.
  • Speaking of children, human infants are some of the most helpless of the mammalian species.  Colts are able to run only hours after being born, and a kitten can forage for food on its own after only a few weeks.  Humans, on the other hand, are totally helpless and dependent for many years on their elders for sustenance, protection and education.  This poses a problem for the mothers as well, as a lone mother can hardly forage enough food for their offspring and themselves with a needy child in tow.
  • Compared to other creatures, humans are relatively weak and marginal.  Despite having large brains and inventing the use of tools, humans still spent around 2 million years somewhere in the middle of the food chain.  Our sense of smell, eye sight, and hearing are no match to other mammals.  Our overall strength, speed, reflexes, and agility is also outmatched by hundreds of other species.  Humans lived in constant fear of predators, were always in danger of exposure from the elements, and had to forage for food daily just to survive.  This did not change until the Agricultural Revolution, which brought its own set of problems.
  • Of all the things that a human can die from, diseases accounted for more deaths then any other.  Every since the Agricultural Revolution when humans were forced to live in close proximity to animals and other humans, diseases have wiped out untold amounts of the human population.  Why do humans have such weak immune systems?  A wild vulture can eat anthrax and not be affected thanks to their strong stomach acids.  Cockroaches are well known for their survivability, even able to withstand nuclear radiation.  Yet humans can be taken down by a simple cold.
  • Some species of coral and sponges can live thousands of years.  Bowhead whales can live over 200 years. A lobster can live to be over 140 years old, as can a tortoise.  There are in fact, hundred of species of animals that live well past 100.   Yet humans life expectancy is roughly 80 if you live in a developed county, thanks to modern medicine.  At the turn of the 19th century, life expectancy in the US was only 46.  During the Bronze and Iron Age it was 26.
  • One of the unique features of some lizards is their ability to grow back their tails should they lose them.  This is a good escape technique, as a lost tail will continue to wiggle, which might distract the predator and give the lizard a chance to escape.  Most lizards will have regrown their tail within nine months.  Other spices of animals also posses this neat trick, know as regeneration.   The Mexican axolotl can regenerating a missing limb; tail; and parts of their brain, heart, and lower jaw.  If they’re paralyzed in the back they can recover the functions of their legs by making all new neurons and new connections.  Starfish also have the ability to regenerate their arms and sometimes their whole bodies.  Why aren’t humans able to grow back missing limbs?  It’s clearly not outside the realm of nature, yet no amount of medical treatment or prayer has ever brought back a missing limb.

The fact is, the only things that set homo sapiens apart from other animals is our cognitive capacity and our ability to cooperate in large numbers.  

If you want to believe that humans were designed by a God, you have to then explain why he did such a shitty job of it.  I’ve demonstrated just a handful of ways in which humans fail to be the pinnacle of creation despite the prevalence in nature of better designs.  If humans are the greatest of all creation, why not incorporate some of the amazing abilities found in other animals into humans to make a species that would experience far less suffering then humans have?  If humans are designed by a God, he needs to go back to the drawing board.

However, the design flaws in humans make perfect sense when viewed through the lens of evolution.  Natural selection provides a working model to how humans evolved and why.  Evolution is a give-and-take system; if an animal increases in efficiency in one area, it will decrease in another*.  Human’s large craniums gave us a larger brain which lead to our greatest asset – our cognitive abilities.  But powering that brain takes a tremendous amount of energy, which meant compromises had to be made.

The weaknesses found in our species has led to untold numbers of deaths and immeasurable suffering.  It’s time humans accept their place in the natural world.  It’s time we stop fooling ourselves into believing that we are somehow “special” and intelligently designed.  We are simply animals, or as Robert Ardrey wrote, “We were born of risen apes, not fallen angels”.

With this knowledge we can work towards caring for and sustaining nature so that we can preserve the world for future generations.  Humanity has risen to the top of the food chain, but with that comes the responsibility of making sure we don’t screw it all up.

Thanks for reading.

 

* For example, elephants have no natural predators they need to worry about thanks to their large size.  However their large size means they can only have one offspring at a time and they have a two-year gestation period.  In humans, our large craniums meant greater cognitive abilities, but it also meant more difficulty and potentially life-threatening births.

 

 

Is Atheism Foolish? – A Response

I recently came across a post on a conservative, Evangelical website called Inspired Walk, called “5 Reasons Why Atheism is Foolish.”  I saw the link via Twitter, and being the glutton for punishment that I am, I clicked on it.  The post reads like every other apologetic argument I’ve read – presuppositionalism mixed with a healthy dose of logical fallacies.  So, I decided I should write a response to the reasons listed.  Not because the author lays out a good, reasonable argument; just the opposite, in fact.  But because the points that are brought up are ones that atheists hear all… the… time!  

You can read the full post in the link above.  I’ll be using the main bullet points here and quoting the article when needed.

At the very start of the article, the presuppositional theology comes out – “Below are various reasons why the word of God is 100% true and correct according to Psalms 14:1 when it states that atheism is foolish.”   This is a great example of the Begging the Question fallacy –  The author concludes that atheism is foolish by assuming (presupposes) that the Bible is the literal word of God, and therefore “100% true” and universal.  Logical fallacy #1.  You’ll notice that he continues to use verses from the Bible as “evidence” of his claims throughout the article as a means of bolstering his arguments.  Let’s look dig into some of these arguments.

1. Atheist Don’t Appreciate That Every Design Has A Designer

The author spends the first half of this point talking about complex machines, such as jet liners and the Large Hadron Collider, how long they took to build, how many people were involved, etc.  It is then stated that, “if we were to use the same thought process or the same thought pattern that the atheist uses in relation to creation, it would be very easy to understand why atheism is extremely foolish and why atheists are regarded as being fools by God. Somehow, the atheist cannot appreciate the complexity but yet harmonious aspects of nature or the universe and come to the conclusion that there is a vastly superior Being behind creation.”

Let’s start by pointing out logical fallacy #2 – a False Analogy: when someone applies facts from one situation to another situation but the situations are substantially different and the same conclusions cannot logically be drawn.  In this case, the author is comparing man-made machines build over the course of several years, to nature which has evolved over millions of years.  It’s apples and oranges, but let’s address the point.

This is what’s commonly known as the Watchmaker Analogy or Teleological argument.  This argument relies on a complete misunderstanding of evolution and how it works.  First, it fails to understand that seemingly complex systems in nature did not suddenly appear in their natural form, but are the product of millions of years of natural selection from much simpler organisms.  Second, it assumes that nature has an end-goal in mind and that what we currently see is what we get.  In fact, nature is continuing to evolve and most species on earth will continue to change over time.  Lastly, it’s very easy for scientifically-illiterate people to look at certain aspects of nature and gasp in wonder over how “complex” it is, but are either unaware or don’t acknowledge the endless examples in nature of things that aren’t “properly designed”.  For example, sea turtles having to come to shore and dig a hole in the sand for their nest, a long and difficult process with flippers.  The turtle needs to lay 50-200 eggs at a time to assure that some of them, when hatched, actually make it through the gauntlet of predators trying to eat them.  Also, the fact that human babies have heads that are generally too big to fit through the birth canal, not only resulting in a long and painful delivery, but a dangerous one as well.  Prior to modern medicine, childbirth was dangerous business.

The argument from design takes place in another form known as the irreducible complexity argument.  From The Logic of Science blog:  The basic idea is that some systems are too complex to evolve because they aren’t functional until all of the parts are in place. For example, an eye that is missing a single piece no longer sees, and a bacterial flagellum that is missing a single protein can no longer act as a flagellum. So the argument claims that these systems could not have evolved because there would have been steps that served no useful function, and nature could not have selected for those steps. The problem is that this argument ignores the fact that evolution is blind. Traits don’t need to function for some ultimate final product in order to be selected for. Rather, if they provide any useful function at all, nature will select them. Indeed, no one has ever been able to find a truly irreducible system, and we have evolutionary pathways that explain how complex systems evolve. For example, an early precursor of the eye would have simply involved a few light sensitive cells (much like some flatworms have). They don’t function as an eye, but they still function, so nature will select for them. Similarly, the proteins that make up a flagellum all serve other functions in the cell, and we have even figured out a step-wise series of events that would form a flagellum with each step serving a useful function for the cell, even though only the final step actually serves as a flagellum. So there is just no truth to the notion that some systems are too complex to evolve.

It’s unfortunate that this argument is still used today, as Darwin addressed it 150 years ago in Origin of the Species.  Yet, theists with little or no understanding of how evolution works continue to regurgitate it.  This is a common theme in apologetics – keep rehashing the same arguments in hopes that they will eventually stick.

2. Atheists Think Accidents Can Create Complex & Harmonious Systems & Life-forms

Again, a simplistic and inaccurate understanding of how evolution works.  Evolution does not rely on chance, but on natural selection.  These are two very different ideas.  Evolution works through a process of non-random selection of random variation.  Dale Thomas writes:

One main criticism of evolution from creationists is that it is based on random chance. That’s kind of true, there is chance involved, but it is important to know where the chance is and how it is used.  When organisms reproduce, the genetic duplication is not perfect, leading to some variation in the genes (mutations). That is where the randomness is. But then that individual grows up and interacts with the world. Those random changes in the genotype may or may lead to a small change in the body or behavior.  If this change helps the individual in its goal of surviving to adulthood and finding a mate, then those genes will be reproduced in the next generation. The point here is that the environment (which encompasses everything, from the laws of physics, the terrain, weather, climate, predators, prey, vegetation, mates, etc) will do the ‘selecting’. If the organism dies or cannot find a mate, those genes have been deemed unworthy of reproduction, but if it can, they are worthy, and will persist in the species.  It is such a beautifully simplistic, and easily understandable process.”

I also want to address a point the author brings up regarding word usage.  The author states: “The atheist thinks he is clever but yet is foolish because he cannot understand that the fact that our solar system is called a system is because there is a methodology & a harmony to how our solar system works and exists.”  This is similar to an argument I often hear regarding the “Laws of Nature”; Creationists will claim that if there is a law then there must be a lawgiver.  This is another logical fallacy – false equivocation.  In this case, misunderstanding the difference between a word that is prescriptive versus one that is descriptive. 

Oh, and contrary to what the author asserts, the universe is not as harmonious as he thinks, but is in fact full of chaos and unpredictability.

3. The Atheist Foolishly Thinks Science Has The Answers To Everything

Here we have your classic Straw Man fallacy – when a person simply ignores a person’s actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position.  In this case making the claim that atheists think science has the answer to everything, when in fact you would be hard pressed to find an atheists (or scientist) that makes such a claim.  Most atheists are scientifically-literate and understand the limitations of science, but also its accomplishments.

The author then claims that since science deals with the physical and natural world, and God resides the supernatural realm, that “science is NOT the best means by which a person can learn or observe the nature of God” nor can it disprove His existence.  This argument presupposes that there is a supernatural realm and that his god is a part of it.  The problem with this argument is that science can test supernatural claims and has been doing so for centuries.  Most all claims of the supernatural involve forces acting upon the natural world, thus we are able to test these claims using scientific means.  As Jerry Cohen puts it: “If you invoke a form of the supernatural that claims to have real-world consequences, then those consequences necessarily fall within the ambit of science.  This means that any type of theistic faith involves hypotheses that are ‘scientific’. Dawkins was right to call the existence of God a ‘scientific hypothesis.'” 

4. Atheists Don’t Know That Atheism is a Belief System

First, let’s address the authors claim that, “Neither evolution nor the big bang can be proved by experimentation or observation.
None of these 2 theories can scientifically explain nor give observable evidence of the origin of life.” Yes they can – and have.  The evidence to support both is immeasurable.  Creationists’ continuing insistence that there is no scientific evidence for evolution, the Big Bang, or the origins of life is willfully ignorant and empirically false.   I’m not even going to waste my time putting links here, because the amount of information out there is overwhelming.  The author’s ignorance of science is not a good argument against it.

The author claims that since there is no evidence to support evolution and the Big Bang theory, atheists have to accept them on faith.  This is another example of false equivocation.  There are two definitions of the word “faith”: (1) confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing; and (2) belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.  Atheists’ “faith” in science fits under definition 1, theists rely on faith as defined by 2.  Atheists don’t have faith in a religious sense of the word – we have evidence-based trust. 

5. The Atheist Cannot Disprove The Existence of God

This is perhaps the best example of an Argument from Ignorance – because something cannot be completely disproved, it must therefore be true.  It’s a ridiculous argument, but it’s surprising how often it’s used.  This same argument could be used for aliens, UFOs, unicorns, fairies, vampires, or a tea pot floating around the sun.  It’s an attempt to shift the burden of proof.  The burden of proof always sits with the person making the claim, not the person refuting it.  It’s not an atheist’s job to disprove God, it’s the theist’s job to provide evidence that he exists.

We also can’t skip past the well-worn anecdote used by theists that, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Therefore just because a person has never seen a physical manifestation of God, it does not mean that God does not exist.”  This is only partly true.  Absence of evidence, when evidence should be presentis evidence of absence.  Going back to the discussion on natural vs supernatural, theism makes claims of God interacting and intervening in this, the natural world, which would leave evidence.  Therefore, such claims can be tested, and thus far no evidence for supernatural intervention in the natural world has been found.  Carl Sagan brilliantly counters the “absence of evidence” argument in his story “The Dragon in My Garage”.  After asking multiple questions regarding evidence for a dragon living in a garage and coming up empty handed, this is his response:

“Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all?  If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists?  Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true.  Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder.  What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.  The only thing you’ve really learned from my insistence that there’s a dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on inside my head.  You’d wonder, if no physical tests apply, what convinced me.  The possibility that it was a dream or a hallucination would certainly enter your mind.  But then, why am I taking it so seriously?  Maybe I need help.  At the least, maybe I’ve seriously underestimated human fallibility.  Imagine that, despite none of the tests being successful, you wish to be scrupulously open-minded.  So you don’t outright reject the notion that there’s a fire-breathing dragon in my garage.  You merely put it on hold.  Present evidence is strongly against it, but if a new body of data emerge you’re prepared to examine it and see if it convinces you.  Surely it’s unfair of me to be offended at not being believed; or to criticize you for being stodgy and unimaginative — merely because you rendered the Scottish verdict of ‘not proved.'” 

I’ve underlined the parts of this paragraph that I find most fitting the current discussion.  Just replace “dragon” with “God” and you can see my point.  The author is right in positing that because we don’t have evidence of theism, it does not prove empirically that god(s) do not exist.  But it does mean that until such evidence is found, it is far from foolish to discount the idea.

 

 

Two things become apparent when reading through this article.  The first is that the author has no idea what atheists actually believe.  The entire article reads like one, big Straw Man argument.  The author projects his own idea of what atheists believe (as opposed to what they actually believe) and then attempts to tear down those beliefs.  His overall view of atheists can be found in the article itself where he states, “I would personally prefer the following definition of atheism that I once saw on one of the social media platforms: Atheism is the belief that there was nothing and nothing happened to nothing and then nothing magically exploded for no reason, creating everything and then a bunch of everything magically rearranged itself for no reason what so ever into self-replicating bits which then turned into dinosaurs, birds, trees, fish and the like.”  

Second, the author shows that he is completely ignorant of the most basic principles of evolution and how it works.  This isn’t surprising as Creationism depends on a willful dismissal of science and all the evidence that it provides, as well as how the scientific method works.  This makes the author unsuited for having any debate in which science is going to be one of the main topics.

It’s also worth noting the condescending nature that the author takes throughout the article.  His contempt for atheists comes through loud and clear throughout the article, and he takes special care to use “fool” and “foolish” as often as he can.  For all his use off scripture, he conveniently left out Matt 5:22 – “…whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”

As I mentioned at the beginning – these are not strong, well-thought-out arguments.  This is what Matt Dillahunty would refer to as “Kindergarten Theology”.   Lest you accuse me of going after low-hanging fruit, it should be noted that these are very common arguments used by apologists, both amateur and professional.  Hopefully this post will prove useful for anyone who comes across these types of arguments in future discussions.  Thanks for reading.

 

Take Aways: The “God” Part of the Brain

In previous posts I’ve discussed the role that studying neuroscience and psychology has in my de-conversion from religion.  From Why We Believe in God(s) by J. Anderson Thompson to The Belief Instinct by Jesse Bering; all offer great insight into the propensity of people to believe in the supernatural, and give rational, scientific, evidence-based reasons why.  I just finished reading what I consider to be the best book on the subject – Matthew Alper’s The “God” Part of the Brain: A Scientific Interpretation of the Human Spirituality and God.

This book chronicles Apler’s own personal journey of seeking God.  First, he was trying to determine if there was a God by studying the various religions and philosophies on the subject.  He then turned to many disciplines of science looking specifically at the origins of the universe.  When these failed to produce sufficient answers, Alper’s turned inward, seeking to understand why people believe in god(s).

The overall premise of the book is that since every culture in recorded history has believed on some sort of god, gods, or spiritual realm, humans are genetically predisposed towards a belief system.  He talks a lot about sociobiology – any trait we universally posses that are unique to a species, must have a genetic component.  That same rule also applies to a species behaviors.  For instance, all cats meow.  Even a cat that is separated at birth from other cats and kept in isolation will meow.  This is because cats have a “meow” part of the brain.  When looking at humans we see examples of these universal traits in such things as language and music.  All cultures, regardless of how isolated, will posses some form of language, because humans posses a “language” area of the brain.  The same principle applies to spiritually and religion.  There are regions in the brain that are generating these behaviors, so therefore there must be genes that create these regions in the brain.  The bulk of the book is spend on answering the central question – why would human have evolved such a behavior of believing in supernatural agents?

Alper leaves no stone upturned on his quest for answers.  He looks into the science behind such things as pain, anxiety, prayer, near-death experiences, drug-induced visions, religious conversions, speaking in tongues, etc.  This is important, as believers will often try and use such personal (and to them, very real) experiences as “proof” that their is a god.  Using science, Alper explains how and why people have these experiences and shows that there are natural, as opposed to supernatural, explanations for them.

 I was a little skeptical at first when I found out that Alper himself is not a scientist or psychologist.  However, those fears were laid to rest once I got into the book and saw the reference notes to credible science journals.  The book has also been widely praised by Pulitzer Prize-winners, scholars and scientists.  However, Alper is considered one of the founders of a new branch of science that deals with the ideas presented in the book – Neurotheology.

As, I mentioned earlier, this is one of the best books I’ve read on the subject of natural explanations for religion and spiritual beliefs.  This is going to be the book that I give to people who are having doubts and are on the fence with religion.  It’s approachable, easy to read and comprehend, and doesn’t focus on any one religion.  He also doesn’t spend any time “bashing religion” which can be a turn-off for some people.  Alper’s approach is methodical, objective, and evidence-based.

Rather than insert excerpts from the book throughout the post like I usually do, I instead want to leave you with part of the last chapter of the book, titled: What, If Anything, is to be Gained From a Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God?   Honestly, the book is worth reading just for this last chapter.  I went back and re-read it myself three times as it was just so packed with great insight.  Unlike some other notable atheists, Alper is not on a quest to rid the world of religion.  Understanding that humans have a genetic predisposition towards faith, Alper understands that religion and beliefs in the supernatural are here to stay for at least the immediate future.  But, Alper has another idea for how to deal with all the tribalism, hatred, and violence that often stems as a direct result of religious beliefs:

So what if it should turn out that human spirituality and religiosity are nothing more than the consequence of an inherited biological impulse?  IF indeed this is the case, shouldn’t we at least inquire into the underlying nature of such an essential part of us?

As stated previously, no trait is perfect,  Though each physical characteristic we posses provides us with some adaptive utility, each comes with its drawbacks.  Consequently, if spirituality and religiosity constitute inherent physical characteristics of our species, what might be some of the drawbacks?  Only once we determine this will we be able to maximize this impulses positive aspects while minimizing its negative.  Once we begin to view spirituality and religious consciousness as evolutionary adaptations, only then will we be able to objectively determine the negative impact they might have on us and, from there, begin working on turning them into strengths.

Generally speaking, humankind’s spiritual propensities are pretty harmless, just a means by which humans can temporarily abate some of the psychoemotional strains that comes as an inherent part of the human condition.  It’s really only when our spiritual sensibilities become bound up by some restrictive and dogmatic religious creed that problems arise.    

For all the advantages of possessing a religious instinct, for all the social cohesion it brings, the sense of community it fosters, and the alleged purpose and meaning it provides, religion has proven itself time and again, to be a potentially hazardous impulse in us… Religion continues to act as a divisive force, promoting discrimination and intolerance, inciting enmity, aggression, and war. […]

Perhaps if we could learn to view religiosity as nothing more than a genetically inherited impulse, we’d be better able to contain its more destructive influences.  If we could come to understand the underlying nature of this instinct, perhaps we could learn to temper the inevitable antagonism that each religion inherently feels for each other. […] Only once the human animal comes to terms with the fact that it has been born into a mental matrix – a neurological web of deceit – will we have a chance of offsetting this potential destructive impulse in us.  Knowledge is power, and it is high time that the science to spirituality and religiosity be made available to the world so that our species might see that there is another way.  It is time the study of spirituality and religiosity be taken out of the hands of philosophers, metaphysicians, and theologians and “biologized”.

Not to suggest we should seek to eradicate religiosity altogether, but rather that we try to put it into a scientific perspective.  In itself, there is nothing wrong with the religious impulse in that it bonds us with our communities and, through faith, helps us reduce stress levels and bolster general health.  It is rather the excess of nearly any impulse – be it food, love, sex, or materials – can be potentially dangerous, if not lethal. […]

As we find ourselves living in what is an increasingly global community, maintaining a diversity of belief systems may no longer represent a viable option for our species.  Instead, we may have to learn to adopt one unified set of religious and spiritual principles through which to achieve global harmony.  Perhaps if we could learn to embrace a single humanistic ideology based on such principles as equality, tolerance, compassion, and forgiveness, we might be able to optimize our potential for happiness, while minimizing our potential for fostering pain and suffering in the world.  […]

Until we stop teaching our young to honor and respect those with whom we share the same religious ideology, we are only encouraging the type of discriminatory values and behaviors that can only lead to our eventual mutual destruction.  What else can come from generation after generation being brainwashed to believe that the lives of those outside their religious fold are less sacred than their own?  The boundaries of respect for others must be extended beyond the narrow margins of any one religious paradigm and applied to the whole of humanity… United, our species may have a chance of standing; divided, however, we are sure to eventually fall.  As stated by Einstein in an impassioned plea to the nations of the world after our last world war, “Only a few short years remain in which to discover some spiritual basis for world brotherhood, or civilization as we now know will certainly destroy itself.”

Thanks for reading.

An Atheist’s “Holy Trinity”

I recently had a conversation with a friend that I hadn’t seen since my de-conversion.  We had gone to the same church for a while and had played together on the worship team several times.  He was genuinely curious about my experience and we had a great discussion.

One of the questions he asked me was this:

“For me, Jesus is the standard; the goal that I strive for – to try my best to live according to his teachings and his example.  As an atheist, what standards do you live by?”

I thought this was a good question, and I’ve decided to expand on the answer I gave him here.

It’s a common misconception that you have to believe in God and/or be religious to have any sort of standards of living.  This is empirically false.  Everyone, no matter what their lifestyle, faith, or background lives by some ethos the disposition, character, or fundamental values particular to a person.  Put another way, it is the spirit which motivates our ideas and customs.  James Fowler used the word “faith” in the same way.  He described faith as a person’s way of leaning into and making sense of life.  More verb than noun, faith is the dynamic system of images, values, and commitments that guide one’s life. 

For myself, and likely many other non-believers, I live according to the following principals:

Naturalism

Greg Graffin in his book Anarchy Evolutiondescribes naturalism in the following way:

“From a philosophical perspective, naturalists believe that the physical universe is the universe.  In other words, there is no supernatural entities or forces acting in nature, because there is no empirical evidence for anything beyond or outside of nature.  Naturalists posit that the universe is made up of only four things: space, time, matter, and energy – that’s it.  Naturalism can provide the foundation for building a coherent and consistent worldview on which we can base decisions.  In fact, I would contend, it is the only perspective that can secure both our happiness as individuals and survival as a species.”

Naturalism leaves supernatural entities and forces where they belong – in folklore, mythology, legends, and tails.  There is no scientific ground for the belief in spirits, angels, demons, vampires, witches, faeries, ghosts, or gods.  Nor is there any evidence for such thing as telepathy, ESP, astrology, miracles, intercessory prayer, faith healing, resurrections, or telekinesis.  Naturalism disregards any beliefs or entities that necessitate defying the laws of the natural universe. 

This isn’t to say that science has it all figured out or that there is no mystery, far from it.  There is plenty of mystery left in the universe and much that science has yet to discover, however we can be reasonably certain that any new discoveries will still fall in line with the natural laws and order of the universe.

Naturalism also hold the position that all life on this planet is connected.  We, as humans, depend on nature for our survival, so it is paramount that we do everything we can to take care of this planet.  This includes sustainable living, promotion of alternative energies, fighting climate change, sustainable agriculture, and the fair and ethical treatment of animals.

For myself, this means growing my own garden, supporting local farmers who raise livestock ethically, a zero-waste lifestyle, and volunteering for a local animal rescue.

Humanism

Humanism is an outlook, or system of thought, attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems.

Those things that make life better for humans, both collectively and individually, should be sought after.  While those things which cause harm to humanity, should be eliminated.  This means standing against such things as sexism, homophobia, racism, classism, bigotry, abuse, and discrimination.

Key to be a good humanists is understanding and having empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.  The video below aptly describes empathy and why it’s so important:

Empathy is a far better standard of morality than any religion –   empathy seeks the good and understanding off all people, not just those who belong to one’s particular tribe.  And unlike sacred texts, empathy is timeless and universal.  To quote Graffin again, “The capacity for empathy enables us to organize our societies in a beneficial way.  Because we can see at least some aspects of our selves in one another, we can derive ways of acting that are good for us and for society as a whole.  But in order for this to occur, we have to be open to accepting other people’s experiences as equally valid to our own.  This is simply impossible if prescriptive codes are too strictly enforced, particularly if these codes are underlain by the unverifiable “truths” of the supernatural realm.  Empathy is the best basis for human ethics that we have.  It provides a solid foundation for strong personal relationships and a productive society.”

Science

“Only those willing to submit to submit themselves to the rigorous constraints of scientific methodology and to the canons of scientific evidence should presume to have a say in the guidance of human affairs. Just as freedom of opinion makes no sense in astronomy or physics, it is similarly inappropriate in a the social sciences.” – Auguste Compte

In this age of information it can often be difficult to determine what is real and what is not; do distinguish fact from fiction.  No longer are people simply forming different opinions, but they are forming different realities as well.  Large amounts of resources are being dumped into perpetuating false ideas, pseudosciences, myths, and unrealistic ideologies.  With all this information floating around, how can anyone come to a solid understanding of the world?

All humans have the unfortunate quality of being able to be deceived.  We have all been wrong about something at sometime.  Just because something feels true to us doesn’t mean that it is.  With this in mind, it is important to think critically about matters and have some sort of “filter” through which we can run information through to verify it’s accuracy.  This filter is science.

Science is the most accurate and reliable source of information any method, system, or paradigm has offered thus far.  The use of the scientific method – the collecting of measurable, empirical evidence in an experiment related to a hypothesis, the results aiming to support or contradict a theory – is the most reliable means of deciphering fact from fiction.  In fact, science is currently the only way that we can understand and learn about the natural world.

It’s worth noting that “science” includes many different disciplines – history, archaeology, linguistics, psychology, sociology, etc.  Yet, all of these, to a greater of lesser degree, still use methods of science: verifiable, tested, and generally agreed-upon results of empirical study.

For skeptics like myself, the need for empirical evidence is paramount.  That which can’t be demonstrated through tested, demonstrable, and falsifiable means should be either disregarded, or put aside for later review when more information becomes available.  Notice that I said “put aside” – not outright dismissed.  This is an important difference that comes up a lot in conversations with believers.  As an example, I can’t say with absolute certainty that there isn’t a God – there simply isn’t any evidence to demonstrate that there is one.  Until such evidence is presented, I will put this idea “on the shelf”, but will remain open to the possibility.  The same principle would apply to extraterrestrial life, Bigfoot, conspiracy theories, etc.

Finally, any good skeptic, critical thinker, or scientists must always be open and willing to accept; the possibility that they could be wrong.  This can be difficult, as most of us avoid thinking that we are wrong.  Most people feel that if they are wrong about something then their is something wrong with them.  Kathryn Schulz does a great TED talk on this subject that is well worth the watch.  She points out that it is important for people to be open and OK with the idea that we can be wrong and probably are wrong about a great many things.  But, trusting too much on the feeling of being right can actually be a harmful and dangerous thing.  This is what leads to fundamentalism, nationalism, wars, genocides, toxic religions, and many other atrocities.  If you can be comfortable with the idea that you might be wrong, you are able to think more critically and are more open to new information and ideas.

I often hear creationists criticize science by saying that science has been wrong in the past.  They’re right, but the critical difference between science and religion is that science changes as new information is obtained.  To quote comedian Tim Minchin, “Science adjusts its views based on what’s observed.  Faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved.”  In fact, being wrong is one of the fundamental elements of the scientific method, and the methodology of science is equally important in every-day life.  In his excellent article in Scientific America titled, “The Key to Science (and Life) Is Being Wrong”, Steven Ross Pomeroy writes,

A good scientist must be willing to be wrong. Such an inclination is liberating, for it allows him or her to investigate potential answers — however unlikely they may be — to the difficult questions inspired by this vast, wondrous universe. Not only that, a willingness to be wrong frees a scientist to pursue any avenue opened by evidence, even if that evidence doesn’t support his or her original hunch.

This principle is one that I live by in my own life, as do many other skeptics and freethinkers.  It’s amazing; once who’ve gone through a major transition of realizing that you’ve been wrong about a great many things, such as a de-conversion experience, it becomes very easy to accept the possibility that you can be wrong about other things.  Having faced the cognitive dissonance head on and struggled through it for years, admitting to yourself and others that you were wrong seems rather simple.


 

I hope this has been informative and helpful.  Thanks to my friend, Joel, for inspiring me to think about this more deeply.  I would like to hear from other “nones” what principles they live by.  What other ethos’ do you hold?  Please leave your comments below.  Thanks for reading.