Friday, July 29, 2011

Why don't you believe in God?

In the New Statesman, 24 public figures explain why they don't believe in God - people such as Richard Dawkins:
I don't believe in leprechauns, pixies, werewolves, jujus, Thor, Poseidon, Yahweh, Allah or the Trinity. For the same reason in every case: there is not the tiniest shred of evidence for any of them, and the burden of proof rests with those who wish to believe.

Even given no evidence for specific gods, could we make a case for some unspecified "intelligent designer" or "prime mover" or begetter of "something rather than nothing"? By far the most appealing version of this argument is the biological one - living things do present a powerful illusion of design. But that is the very version that Darwin destroyed. Any theist who appeals to "design" of living creatures simply betrays his ignorance of biology. Go away and read a book. And any theist who appeals to biblical evidence betrays his ignorance of modern scholarship. Go away and read another book.

As for the cosmological argument, whose God goes under names such as Prime Mover or First Cause, the physicists are closing in, with spellbinding results. Even if there remain unanswered questions - where do the fundamental laws and constants of physics come from? - obviously it cannot help to postulate a designer whose existence poses bigger questions than he purports to solve. If science fails, our best hope is to build a better science.

And Sam Harris:
The most common impediment to clear thinking that a non-believer must confront is the idea that the burden of proof can be fairly placed on his shoulders: "How do you know there is no God? Can you prove it? You atheists are just as dogmatic as the fundamentalists you criticise." This is nonsense: even the devout tacitly reject thousands of gods, along with the cherished doctrines of every religion but their own. Every Christian can confidently judge the God of Zoroaster to be a creature of fiction, without first scouring the universe for evidence of his absence. Absence of evidence is all one ever needs to banish false knowledge. And bad evidence, proffered in a swoon of wishful thinking, is just as damning.

But honest reasoning can lead us further into the fields of unbelief, for we can prove that books such as the Bible and the Quran bear no trace of divine authorship. We know far too much about the history of these texts to accept what they say about their own origins. And just imagine how good a book would be if it had been written by an omniscient Being.

The moment one views the contents of scripture in this light, one can reject the doctrines of Judaism, Christianity and Islam definitively. The true authors of God's eternal Word knew nothing about the origins of life, the relationship between mind and brain, the causes of illness, or how best to create a viable, global civilisation in the 21st century. That alone should resolve every conflict between religion and science in the latter's favour, until the end of the world.

In fact, the notion that any ancient book could be an infallible guide to living in the present gets my vote for being the most dangerously stupid idea on earth.

And PZ Myers:
I am accustomed to the idea that truth claims ought to be justified with some reasonable evidence: if one is going to claim, for instance, that a Jewish carpenter was the son of a God, or that there is a place called heaven where some ineffable, magical part of you goes when you die, then there ought to be some credible reason to believe that. And that reason ought to be more substantial than that it says so in a big book.

Religious claims all seem to short-circuit the rational process of evidence-gathering and testing and the sad thing is that many people don't see a problem with that, and even consider it a virtue. It is why I don't just reject religion, but actively oppose it in all its forms - because it is fundamentally a poison for the mind that undermines our critical faculties.

Religious beliefs are lazy jokes with bad punchlines. Why do you have to chop off the skin at the end of your penis? Because God says so. Why should you abstain from pork, or shrimp, or mixing meat and dairy, or your science classes? Because they might taint your relationship with God. Why do you have to revere a bit of dry biscuit? Because it magically turns into a God when a priest mutters over it. Why do I have to be good? Because if you aren't, a God will set you on fire for all eternity.

These are ridiculous propositions. The whole business of religion is clownshoes freakin' moonshine, hallowed by nothing but unthinking tradition, fear and superstitious behaviour, and an establishment of con artists who have dedicated their lives to propping up a sense of self-importance by claiming to talk to an in­visible big kahuna.

It's not just fact-free, it's all nonsense.

Well, you get the point. And there are brief statements from 21 more nonbelievers.

Now me, I already wrote a series about my non-belief. But it boils down to a lack of evidence, as it does for most atheists.

Still, there's even more to it than that. Science can't explain everything, not yet, but it's doing a very good job of providing natural explanations - often for things that used to be explained by resorting to the supernatural. And science backs up those explanations with evidence, good evidence.

Religion explains nothing and also has absolutely no evidence to back up its assertions. It's a traditional explanation from a primitive time when we didn't know any better. Never once has anything we thought to have a natural explanation turned out to have a supernatural one. As we learn more about the universe, our discoveries all go in the opposite direction.

Really, none of us would give religion the slightest consideration if we hadn't been inundated with the whole thing since infancy (different beliefs depending on the accident of your specific birth, but each as ridiculous as the others).

And yeah, people want to believe, especially those beliefs that promise eternal life - not only for ourselves, which is appealing enough, but for the people we love. But if you hadn't been raised from infancy to believe such nonsense, it's unlikely that you'd seriously entertain that kind of thing now, no matter how much you wanted to.

Yes, it's very easy to believe what you want to believe, but some things are so ridiculous that you must catch a child while he's still young and gullible. It's harder to give up Santa Claus when you've believed in him all your life, and when your family and friends have, too.

In April, the New Statesman also asked 30 believers why they did believe in God. I think it's instructive to compare the comments there with those from the atheists and agnostics.

Over and over again you see people admitting that they believe because they want to believe. You also have believers who just feel that their religion is true. Of course, other believers feel the same way about their beliefs. And when you go by feelings, rather than evidence, how would you ever know when you were wrong?

There are also variations of the "god of the gaps" argument, that we don't know everything and that they just can't believe that the universe happened by accident. But that's no reason to propose a god, not at all (maybe intelligent aliens did it; or maybe we just haven't discovered the natural process involved). And if we don't know, we don't know. Our ignorance says nothing about whether or not a god exists, let alone which one.

And you see people who can't "believe" in evolution. But they're not biologists. I think it's pretty clear that they're just too ignorant of biology to really understand it. Of course, they don't want to understand it, either. And finally, many of these people find that God gives their lives meaning. Of course, that's not evidence it's not just a pleasant fantasy, is it?

Well, I don't find any of those arguments convincing. But then, I wouldn't, would I? I've already thought about these things - for many years, in fact - and there was never any question where I stood. But maybe you think differently. Well, read both articles and see which makes the most sense to you.


Tony Williams said...

Bill, the interesting thing is that I have identical arguments with people on some websites who are convinced that UFOs are alien spacecraft, that there are alien artifacts on Mars, that aliens built the pyramids (because humans couldn't possibly have done so), that the British crop circle phenomena are being created by aliens (despite people confessing to it, and demonstrating how they do it), that 21 December next year will be a really bad day, and so on.

And it's all basically for the same reason: as the film title put it: "I want to believe".

What is interesting to me is WHY people want to believe such things. Clearly, it's more than just a practical hope that eternal life is on offer, there's something more fundamental going on. Humanity seems to be programmed to believe in the improbable without any evidence at all, despite developing brains capable of conceiving and implementing the scientific method.

WCG said...

Good point, Tony. As you say, people really want to believe those fantasies, too. After all, they're exciting. They make the world seem magical. And the believer feels like he's one of the select few who understands these things.

But, yes, it's hard to believe there's not something more fundamental going on, as well. Is it just wanting to believe? Then why don't we believe our daydreams? Why these particular beliefs? I don't see Bigfoot as being all that attractive, myself.