Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Deliberate Efforts of the Religious to Undermine the Marketplace of Ideas

Almost everyone has some implicit idea of the marketplace of ideas.  It is the notion that ideas will be examined by everyone or almost everyone, arguments for and against ideas will be made by many people, and that eventually the best ideas will come to the fore and be accepted by larger and larger numbers of people.  It is referred to, metaphorically,  as a marketplace because it is comparable to a marketplace with a number of people trying to sell their ideas and the fact that everyone is capable of “buying” an idea by adopting it.

The underlying assumption is that a good idea will eventually be recognized as such and that it will come to dominate much like a superior product will eventually become the most popular product.  Good ideas can withstand criticism; bad ideas can’t.  The multiple participants through their contributions of new arguments and ideas, as well as the repetition of those arguments and ideas they find compelling, and their adoption of new ideas they find compelling drive this metaphorical marketplace and make it work. 

This marketplace has to have certain conditions to function properly, however, just like any other marketplace.  Fraud and restraints on trade prevent the marketplace from functioning properly.  Without free, open and honest trade, the marketplace cannot render an appropriate and accurate judgment.

The religious know of this marketplace and frequently make implicit reference to it.  They say “a lot of people believe”, or words to that effect.  Usually this is meant as an argument that their beliefs are valid; sometimes it is meant as an implicit threat of mobbing to those who dare to dissent.  As an argument that their beliefs are valid it fails miserably.  This is because the particular marketplace they mean has been tampered with extensively and doesn't work properly and because, even when it does work properly it doesn't always reach the correct conclusion.

The number of people who accept a proposition does not prove that it is true.  This is a logical fallacy known as the argumentum ad popularum, or argument from popularity.  The number of people who believe something is proof only of their conviction by some means, not of the proposition itself as the history of the flat earth theory and the Ptolemiac earth centered universe model make clear.  At one time nearly everyone believed the earth was flat—that didn’t prove it was flat by one jot.  At one time, nearly everyone believed that the earth was the center of the universe—that didn’t make that hypothesis true, either.

A quick way to make this point is simply to say:

"The number of people who believe something doesn't prove it's true.  Once upon a time most people thought the world was flat."

I recommend making both of these statements.  The second one has more emotional punch, but I find that the religious simply don't understand the implicit logic of it unless you make it explicit.  And, you may have to repeat yourself and make it explicit several times before the point sinks in.  My personal experience bears this out.  In addition, a recent study found that, in fact, the ability to absorb and process new information was an even greater predictor of non-belief than intelligence.

The marketplace of ideas is only as good as the information available and the judgment of its participants—as is true of all marketplaces.  With regard to the issue of belief, however, there has been a deliberate, long-standing effort to undermine both the quality of the information available and the judgment of the participants in the marketplace.

The religious have a long history of burning and banning books, as well as authors, that dare to disagree with them.   At one time they even burned people at the stake for translating the bible into local languages.  They have burned entire libraries and executed people for disagreeing on very minor points of doctrine.  Today, such practices can't be used in most countries.  Though, apparently, it is still possible to ban entire schools of thought in Muslim countries.  I have no doubt many of the religious in the U.S. would like to return to such practices.  In countries, where the religious hold power, blasphemy laws are enacted to force dissenters to be silent.  If that is not possible (as it isn't in the U.S.--for now) the religious must instead rely on more subtle techniques, such as bullying, discrimination, lying, slandering, bribing, blackmailing, etc., not to mention the incredible power of childhood brainwashing followed by weekly group reinforcement sessions.

Consequently, another response can be used, perhaps as a follow up to the first:

"The number of people who believe isn't even meaningful because of the extent to which you religious types have deliberately prevented the proper functioning of the marketplace of ideas."

Or:

"The number of people who believe isn't even meaningful because of the extent to which you religious types have deliberately prevented people from looking at the issue fairly and objectively."

Then you can mention the most obvious dishonest tactics they use such as childhood brainwashing, bullying and discrimination, and explain why each of them is not only wrong but an implicit admission that religion is nonsense--good ideas don't need that sort of help.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Lies, Lies, Lies

One of the most common tactics used by the religious is simply to lie.  Quite ironic considering that lying is a violation of one of the 10 commandments they hold so dear.  (I know that not all religions honor those particular rules.  I focus my efforts primarily on Christians because of its effect on my life and the threat it poses to western civilization, but even non-Abrahamic religions have rules against lying--which their members violate.)

It is important for all non-believers to keep current on the most recent spate of lies circulating in their local religious communities.  When you hear the lies, speak up and call them what they are.  Be ready to tell the actual facts with suggestions for research by the benighted believers.  Don't expect it to work in every case, however.  You are, after all, dealing with people who have rejected reality because they don't like it.  They choose their "facts" based on how they "feel" about them, not based on evidence or truth.

I will deal with these separately and at greater length in later posts, but some of the most recent outrageous lies and their brief refutations are:

The Nazis were atheists!

One of the first things the Nazis did upon gaining power was to outlaw atheism and freethinking.   Freethought Hall in Berlin was given to a christian church.  The Nazi soldiers wore belt buckles that said "God is with us".  The Nazi soldiers' highest military decoration was the "Iron Cross".  It was not a cross by chance. Most important, is the fact that the Nazi Party platform states clearly that Nazism is a Christian political party.

The Supreme Court said it was illegal to pray in school!

The Supreme Court ruled that public school officials cannot conduct or organize prayer as part of their duties as school officials or appear to do so.  The Court did not and could not ever rule that people can't pray in school.  That would be completely un-Constitutional.  It has been decades since the Court ruling came out and the believers have been lying about it as long as I can remember.  I have personally watched them continue to lie about it even after being corrected.  One wonders why they feel the need to compulsively lie about it.

Atheists are just people who want to break god's rules, so they refuse to believe in god!

This is just a clear example of naked, ugly bigotry.  All the evidence shows that this claim is a lie.  There is a disproportionately high percentage of believers in prison and a disproportionately small percentage of atheists.  Comparisons of religious societies with non-religious societies shows that the religious societies have a higher incidence of "sin" than non-religious ones.  Compare Sweden, the most atheistic society in the world, with the American bible belt and you will find a much higher rate of teen pregnancy, divorce, crime, etc., in the American bible belt.  Look for later posts on religion and morality for more evidence.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

When Theists Admit Religion Is a Delusion

A couple of years ago, Guy P. Harrison published "50 Reasons People Give For Believing In a God".  It's a wonderful book, and I highly recommend it.  Not least because it contains almost every argument you will ever hear from the religious and its refutation.  The refutations are a bit more cerebral and non-confrontational than they should be however.  They contain the essential reasons the arguments fail, but the way they are presented they will not even begin to sink in when used with an actual believer.

Of the 50 arguments listed, at least 12 consist of nothing more than implicit admissions that religion is not actually true, but rather is useful in some fashion.  Of course, I have already discussed one such argument--the "no atheists in foxholes" argument.  The ones Harrison mentions are:

"Faith is a good thing",
"Only my god can make me feel significant",
"Evolution is bad",
"Believing in my god makes me happy",
"I need my god to protect me",
"Without my god we would have no sense of right and wrong",
"My god makes me feel like I am part of something bigger than myself",
"Religion is beautiful",
"Religion brings people together",
"My god inspires people",
"Society would fall apart without religion", and
"Atheism is an empty and negative philosophy".

To that pathetic list I can add one that tops them all--one that was actually directed at me:  "Atheists don't believe in god because they have had too much education".

When you hear any of these "arguments" you can respond with some version of one of these:

"So, you admit your religion is not really true?"

"That has nothing to do with whether or not god really exists--in other words, that argument is just as valid even if god does not exist."

In the case of the last one, you can say:

"So, you admit that a person has to be ignorant to believe in god?"

Each of these arguments deserve a more complete examination and refutation, but, for now, I want to point out a basic flaw that they have in common.  When you hear any of these arguments or similar arguments, you can respond first by pointing out that the argument is an implicit admission that religion is hogwash because there is no reason to argue for the usefulness of a belief if it is true.  A rational person believes in facts regardless of their usefulness.

Monday, September 27, 2010

There Are No Atheists in Foxholes

One of the reasons I decided to start a blog was that I had begun to see my arguments used by others in more public fora than I had been using.  I don't know how the other writers came up with these arguments.  I do know that the following is a point I have been making for years and that others have started to make it as well:

"I have very little doubt that stuck in a foxhole under an intense artillery barrage I just might revert to my early training and start praying for some invisible daddy in the sky to save me.  Why?  Because my capacity to reason would be overwhelmed by my emotional need.  Little do believers realize that this pithy little assertion of theirs ("There are no atheists in foxholes") is nothing but an admission that religion is a delusion meant to meet the emotional needs of the believer."

If you hear that old chestnut about atheists in foxholes, just say:

"So, you admit your belief is just a delusion designed to meet your emotional needs?"

You can see, too, that there is a bit of a threat in this one.  The believer is engaging in a little wishful thinking here.  To bring this point to the surface you can also say:

"I guess you would really like to put us atheists in fear for our lives just to teach us a 'lesson', wouldn't you?"

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Religion Cannot Ever Be a Harmless Delusion

I reach the conclusion that there is no god neither lightly nor without sufficient thought.  For decades now I have lived as an atheist in a country where invidious hostility toward atheists reigns supreme.  My life would have been much easier if I could have believed.

But I cannot believe a lie and I cannot understand why anyone would want to.  We all do so from time to time, but it is never a good thing.  Self-delusion is a form of blindness—a blindness of which the victim is not even aware.  As such it is very dangerous.  A blind man knows he is blind and he does not attempt to drive a car on public roads.  A blind man who does not know he is blind will attempt to do things that will endanger himself and others simply because he is not aware of all the facts.  The breadth of the person’s blindness will determine just how likely this is and how dangerous.

A man who is color blind can still drive a car.  He does not need to be able to distinguish between green and red because he knows that the light at the top of the three light series is red and the one at the bottom is green, thus placement replaces the color cues for him.  A person who is completely blind does not even see the intersection, much less the series of lights.

Likewise, religion is an entire worldview—a universal view, literally.  It is not limited to a small portion of the world.  It is not comparable to a minor delusion such as believing that one’s children possess qualities that they do not.  It is not nearly so narrow or harmless.  It encompasses everything and, if it is not true, renders the believer unable to perceive anything in the universe properly.

A person in the grip of such a delusion is blind to reality and cannot deal with it properly.  Unfortunately, such a person is not impervious to reality.  Reality will interact with him in its own fashion whether he sees it properly or not.  He will drive his car (or his country, or his species) off a cliff because he does not see the cliff.  That cliff and the hard ground at the bottom of it will, however, have the same effect on anyone who drives over it regardless of whether the driver saw it properly or not.

It is vitally important that we see the cliff and avoid it--even if seeing it is unpleasant.

The religious and those who make money off them, however, actively seek to convince all of us to close our eyes and go through life blindly.  I will close with a wonderful quotation from Diderot that captures this phenomenon:
“Wandering in a vast forest at night, I have only a faint light to guide me. A stranger appears and says to me: 'My friend, you should blow out your candle in order to find your way more clearly.' This stranger is a theologian.”
Denis Diderot, Addition to Philosophical Thoughts (c. 1762)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Faith Is the Rejection of Reason

Faith is, by definition, the rejection of reason.

Dictionary.com offers this as its first two definitions of the word "faith":  "confidence or trust in a person or thing; belief that is not based on proof".

Unfortunately for those who put so much faith in faith, reason requires proof before accepting an assertion as fact.  A belief not based on proof is not based on reason.  Consciously choosing to have such a belief--even to declare it a virtue--is to reject reason.

There is little point in trying to reason with someone who has rejected reason. Or, as others have put it:  You can't reason someone out of something they were never reasoned into in the first place.  I tried it when I was younger without success.  In fact, the closer I came to success, the more dangerous they became.

I think the axiom above should be re-stated to make the actual situation more clear:  Reasoned discussions regarding matters taken on faith are oxymoronic.  You can't reason a person out of a conviction that was adopted by rejecting reason.

A person with such a strong emotional need that he rejects reason is a person not in touch with reality or in control of himself.  Such people are more comparable to wounded animals sulking in the back of a dark cave.  Cornering them with logic can lead to vicious attacks.

The bad experiences I have had with believers have caused me to change my tactics. I finally realized that they have rejected reason because of emotional need (this is the very definition of delusion), and that the emotional need in question is usually egotism.  I also finally realized that when they say fear of god is the only reason to be good, they are revealing their own utter lack of internal morality.  People are at their most dangerous when their egos are threatened and people without internal morality are always dangerous.

As I pointed out in a previous post, faith is also a sign of a very dishonest thinker.  One cannot have complete faith in a few completely unproven propositions while rejecting all the others for lack of proof without being completely dishonest.  This level of dishonesty is also a sign of someone with no internal ethical standards.  The attacks they direct at you will not usually be actual physical violence, rather, they will turn the same sort of completely biased eye on you that they turn on other religions.  Everything about you will become "proof" of how evil you are.  But, that tendency will be explored more in depth in another post.

These days, if I choose to engage a believer, I make sure that I am safe first, then I usually do no more than plant a couple of barbs of thought before breaking off the discussion or walking away entirely.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Soundness and Validity of Arguments

It is important when arguing with theists to know a bit about formal logic--in part because it gives you the high moral and intellectual ground and in part because the religious pervert the rules of logic so often.  One of the things an atheist should know is how to spot and categorize an illogical argument.

There are two primary measures by which the merits of an argument should be judged:  Validity and Soundness.  An argument is valid if it follows the rules of logic.  It is sound if the underlying factual assumptions are true.

Thus, if one assumes as an underlying premise that the moon is made of cheese, then one can make a logically valid but unsound argument that the United States did not send men to the moon.  The argument would go like this:  The United States claims it sent men to the moon.  As proof these men brought back rock samples from the moon.  If the men had actually been to the moon, they would have brought back cheese samples.  Therefore, the United States did not actually send men to the moon.  This argument is logically valid but it is unsound because it is based on a false factual premise.

A logically invalid but sound argument can be demonstrated if one assumes that the moon is made of rocks and dirt.  The argument might go like this:  The United States claims it sent men to the moon.  As proof these men brought back rock samples from the moon.  I haven't seen those rocks myself.  Therefore, the United States did not actually send men to the moon.  This argument is sound because it is based on facts but it is logically invalid because it is based on a fallacy and that fallacy is the notion that speaker and his examination of the evidence are necessary for the conclusion to be true.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Ad Hominem Arguments Are a Logical Fallacy

There is a tendency when discussing hot button topics such as religion to resort to ad hominem arguments.  These are arguments that attack the person making the opposing argument, rather than attacking the actual argument.  Usually this is an indication that the conversation is over.  One person has concluded that there is no point in continuing the conversation and attacks the other because of frustration over that person’s perceived “obtuseness” or other, even less complimentary, characteristics.

This sort of personal attack is a logical fallacy.  An argument either stands or falls on its own merits.  The motivations and character of the person making the argument may explain why that particular person is making that argument, but they do not invalidate the argument itself.  Assuming that they do is not a logical conclusion.

Furthermore, the ad hominem argument cuts both ways to the same extent.  For every personal vice or failing that those on one side might have, there is a similar vice or failing (usually the one diametrically opposite) those on the other side might have.  For instance, the religious often accuse non-believers of simply being in rebellion against authority—anal expulsive in Freudian terminology.  Similarly, the non-religious see the religious as being slavishly devoted to obeying authority figures—anal retentive in Freudian terminology.  I think the non-religious are more correct on this point and a recent study bears this out.  (Though some non-believers clearly fit the anal expulsive category.)  It is more important to realize that when it comes to the primary issue it doesn’t matter who is wrong or right on this point.  No matter what emotional motivation drives a person, the argument he or she is making is either valid and sound or it is not. 

Whenever you hear a believer slide into personal attacks on you or on non-believers in general, you should pull them up short by pointing out that they are admitting that they don't have any good arguments on the main issue:

"Usually, when a person starts making personal attacks, that means he knows he has lost the argument."

"If you have any good arguments to make on the issue at hand, then make them."

Make it clear that they are not addressing the point and that this implies that they know they can't address it adequately.

Sometimes, the ad hominem argument is a bit subtle.  A classic public example of this is Dinesh D'Souza repeated assertions that Kant explains why atheists are wrong, never explaining what exactly it was that Kant said that was so forceful, and implying that if you don't know because you haven't read Kant, then you are just "uneducated".

This is, of course, ridiculous.  He was clearly hiding behind an authority figure and insulting anyone who disagreed.  When you get this, simply point out that the person is not actually making the argument that he claims is so compelling, which implies that he knows it is not compelling.

The truth is that virtually no one actually reads Kant at any length anymore except philosophy majors or graduate students.  The vast majority of people in modern society can be highly educated without ever reading Kant, he is just one of a number of philosophers in history who contributed a few ideas but whose actual works consist of thick tomes full of dense prose.  Actually reading his works would be waste of time for anyone who is not studying for a degree in the subject.  Most of us get enough exposure to his ideas just from reading more modern authors whose works include his ideas.

D'Souza's point was that Kant had explained why pure reason wasn't perfect--apparently enough people pointed out his cowardly tactics for him to finally come out of hiding and try to make the argument he said was so compelling.  Arguing that pure reason isn't perfect is not an argument for rejecting reason altogether, and when a person embraces religion, that person is rejecting reason.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Emotional Comfort From Religion

Some people argue--sometimes even atheists make this argument--that religion is a good thing and should be left alone because it provides emotional comfort to believers.  To that I ask:

"Isn't that true of all delusions?  Isn't that also true of racism?"

First, the argument is analogous to arguing that machine guns should be legal because they would make some people feel safer.  I don't doubt that there are some people who would feel safer if they were allowed to own machine guns.  But, the obvious danger outweighs whatever psychological benefit these people feel like they are getting.

Second, people don't actually need religion.  People do have a strong need to understand the world and their place in it, but that is not the same thing as needing religion.  This can be expressed succinctly:

"People need a worldview, but it doesn't have to be a religion."

Other societies have survived and prospered without religion--notably Asian societies populated by Taoists and Confucians.  I know these are considered religions by many, but I have a hard time seeing a religion where there is no belief in invisible friends with agendas.  In fact, those societies did noticeably better than the ones with other religions based on invisible friends.  That is because those supposed religions are merely philosophies and thus are a system of values--and not a system of false factual assumptions.

Such non-supernatural philosophies usually have no (or very few) false factual assumptions.  They are value systems, not factual claims.  Thus, they are far less harmful than religions that make false claims about reality.  Take a look at Jared Diamond's book, Collapse, and you will understand why I say that incorporating false beliefs into your logic is very harmful.

Religion has been so prevalent because, until recently, there were no competing worldviews--except in Asia.  People today are usually still clinging to the view passed down to them from the time when other opinions were banned.  They seem to need religion because that is what they have trained to need just as they have been trained to believe in it without evidence.  (Not to mention the systematic and horrific persecution of non-believers for centuries.)

A science based worldview would substitute quite nicely for religion--with the caveat that the science incorporated has to include all fields, not just the hard sciences.  Criticisms of a science based world view are usually based on an assumption that this will lead to actions based solely on the implications of the hard sciences without consideration of morality or the emotional or social implications.  And, it is true that sometimes one sees examples of such coming from those who have trained so hard and long in chemistry and physics that they have almost forgotten that there is more to science than that and that our understanding of humanity is still growing.

Those few examples, however, do not prove that religion is needed for morality.  In fact, I think they prove the opposite.  I think such instances occur precisely because religion has so suffused our society and thinking that even people who have adopted a more rational viewpoint still have implicit assumptions about the sources of morality.  Those who behave immorally because they follow science rather than religion do so because they think, falsely, that religion is the only source of morality--even if they do not consciously realize that is what they are doing.

In fact, of course, religion is not the source of morality.  As I have pointed out elsewhere, people in a society choose their morality based on a combination of reason, empathy, and community standards, then religion takes the credit after the fact.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Atheism Is Not a Religion II

Atheists often object to the classification of atheism as a religion and rightly so.  As that term is usually used:

"If atheism is a religion, then it is a superstition to NOT believe that breaking a mirror will cause 7 years bad luck."

or

"Would you call me superstitious if I told you I don't believe breaking a mirror causes bad luck?"

I have seen various formulations of this retort over the years.  Such as "If atheism is a religion, then bald is a hair color".   I prefer this one to the others because it uses a different sort of supernatural belief for comparison, which makes it more on point.  If the broken mirror superstition seems a little awkward, feel free to substitute some other superstition.

One most often hears this accusation from a believer with cerebral pretensions, who prides himself on his intelligence and rationality and thus believes "his" religion is perfectly rational--at least as rational as your atheism and probably more so.  Thus, it might be easier and more effective to ask the believer making the wild accusations:

"Do you believe that breaking a mirror brings bad luck?"

When he responds that he does not, you can say:

"Then, by your logic, that makes you superstitious."

These are probably the best way to reply at first, but then when the believer tries to explain himself he will probably get into his mistaken assumptions about the origins of the universe that I wrote about in my first post on this issue.  That will give you an opportunity to make the points I mentioned in that post.

There is, however, a situation where atheists don't want to argue that their viewpoint isn't a religion and that is in the courtroom.

The text of the Constitution (as well as other laws, including non-discrimination laws) uses the word "religion" to cover all opinions about religion.  If atheism were not included in the meaning of that term, then it would be Constitutional to make laws restricting the free exercise of atheism, which it clearly is not.  Here is the text of the first part of the First Amendment:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof".

Except for such purpose-specific uses of the term "religion", however, it is clear that atheism is not a religion.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Good and Evil

Good and evil are subjective in part.  Believers like to pretend this isn't true of their values, but it is. They pick and choose their values subjectively just like the rest of us.  They pick and choose which parts of the bible have current validity and then they pick and choose how they interpret those parts.  But it is this firm belief on their part that they represent the "ultimate" moral authority--and that those who
disagree are just bad people--that makes them dangerous and is a large part of why I say religion is evil.

Atheists are not beyond good and evil.  I doubt any human will ever be so devoid of emotion and values as that.  To me, good and evil are determined by what I value.  I think everyone starts from this point, but I am one of those who are honest about it.  One of the things I value is mankind--including it's current and future well-being.  I also value peace and freedom for all individuals (within the limits necessary to
operate an effective criminal justice system). 

There is no doubt in my mind that religion threatens those things.  We have in the world today millions if not billions of people who want to impose their religion on everyone else--regardless of the consequences.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Is Religion Evil?

Yes!

We are all animals, and within each of us is an animal's capacity for violence.  Rational thought controls that animal; irrational thought lets it slip.  It is man's capacity for reason that leads him, too infrequently, to do that which protects the things we should value.  Deliberately crippling that capacity by poisoning it with irrationality threatens all we should hold dear.

Whenever you introduce an illogical premise into a thought matrix almost all conclusions that follow are going to be incorrect.  Anyone who has taken simple high school level geometry should know this.  For example, in Euclidean geometry if it were taken as a given that pi equals 3 and the internal angles of a triangle always add up to 210 degrees, then all attempts to construct proofs or otherwise solve problems would result in an incorrect answer. 

An atheist would never fly an airplane into a building because he or she has no rational reason to believe that there is life after death.  Atheists would never kill people because of their genetic background because atheists have no rational reason to believe that there is a supreme ruler of the universe who wants certain groups to rule the world as his highest form of creation. (Make no mistake, the crimes of the Nazis were caused by religion, and the Nazis were not atheists.  I will deal with this in a later post.)

Atheists would never support polluting and exploiting our planet without limitations because they don't believe that some preacher dead for 2,000 years is about to come back to life and solve all of our problems.  They would never actively try to aid the fulfillment of prophecies supposedly heralding the end of the world as so many Christians are doing today with regard to the Middle East.  I could go on, but I think my point is clear.

Anything which interferes so profoundly with rational thinking as religion does prevents the thinker from coming to correct conclusions.  It is this perversion of logic that leads to the atrocities.  These atrocities are not just in the past.  They are going on today, and there is no reason to believe that they will stop as long as religion prevails. 

This inability to reason correctly has given us everything from human sacrifice, to the inquisition, to the attacks on the world trade center in 2001.  A school of thought with such an effect and such a track record has no value, and, as a current threat to us, everything we value and everything we should value, we should not call it anything other than evil.

The greatest horrors of history can almost all be blamed directly and justifiably on religion.  The religious like to point to Mao and Stalin as examples of the evils perpetrated by atheists, but yet, as they do so often, they utterly fail to see their own role in those things.  First, remember that Mao and Stalin did not kill because of atheism, they were motivated by communism.  Second, most of their victims died as a result of the fact that communism was a radical change and didn't work.  Third, remember that communism was a reaction to the systems of economic oppression that the church actively fomented for centuries.

For 16 centuries, at least in the West, there was an unsavory alliance between religion and those in secular positions of power.  The clergy and the aristocracy combined to enslave the rest of the population.  (And, make no mistake, that is religion's purpose--and a topic I will discuss in a later post.)  Was it not predictable that in places where a middle class was not permitted to rise that there might eventually be an upheaval brought on by the resentment of the poor?  If you aid in the perpetration of evil, don't be surprised if the victims hold it against you.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Word of Caution

Trying to get believers to re-examine their religion is a difficult thing to do.  You have to be just subtle enough and just friendly enough so that you don't leave them feeling insulted and angry.  But, you can't be so subtle and friendly that they actually think they "won" the argument.

Usually you want to throw barbs, not hand grenades.  Barbs that get stuck in their thoughts, pricking them, bothering them until they give the point more thought. You can't expect to ever win.  They will probably never de-convert right before your eyes

Sometimes you just have to realize that you are trying to change something that you can not.  There actually are people so lacking of capacity for independent thought that precipitously depriving them of their delusions could be harmful to them--or to you.

When someone believes in something that is patently false, it is because he has an emotional need to believe it and trying to dissuade him will only arouse a dangerous emotional reaction.  You are threatening to force him to face something that he simply cannot face.

With regard to religion, I think the threat is most often to the believer's ego.  Religion is a huge part of the believer's self-image and his social status.  Getting someone to face the fact that he is wrong about something so important as his entire worldview would be tantamount to getting him to face the fact that he is an utter fool.  He will likely become enraged.

In cases where believers actually face the reality of the way they have been duped, they often become enraged at those who played them for fools.  Believers usually, however, will not take that step--and that step has to come from within, you can't force it on them.  If you try, and I have, if you corner them with logic they will usually become enraged at you.  This video clip presents a classic example.  Many of them, in fact, are always enraged at atheists for this very reason.  They know what we represent.  We represent the viewpoint that they are fools.

I have found that this particular rage is extremely dangerous.  Especially when dealing with "intellectual" believers who are vain about their mental capacities.  Usually this vanity is abnormally large and is extremely important to their self-image.  Usually, it is nothing less than pathological narcissism.  I know this because I know that when you corner them with logic, they engage in a primitive psychological defense mechanism known as "splitting", meaning splitting the world into absolutes, "good' and "evil".  They will see you as being completely evil from that point on.  Everything you do and say will be seen as evil and will be twisted to support this view.  An example of this is Chris Hedges' reaction to being bested in debates by Sam Harris and, particularly, Christopher Hitchens.  I respect and admire Chris Hedges as much as any person on this Earth, but he is still a believer and still only human.

I gather, too, from my experiences with older religious "intellectuals" that most of them have indeed been cornered with logic at some point in the past and chose to engage in "splitting" rather than face what logic told them.  As soon as they are sure you are an atheist and not an agnostic, they will see you as just as evil as the one who cornered them in the past.  This puts you in more danger than you know.  They won't assault you physically, but they will thenceforth nurture an undying hatred for you and do everything in their power to disrupt and damage your life.

People are at their most dangerous when they are not thinking rationally and when their egos are threatened.  Trying to argue a believer out of his religion causes both of these conditions to occur simultaneously.  Always protect yourself and always remain emotionally aloof.  Never let your ego become too involved and never threaten theirs too directly.  Plant your barbs and walk away.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Burden of Proof II

The religious are so convinced by their own circular reasoning and implicit, unconscious assumptions, that they are sure that the existence of god is "obvious".  So much so, that they argue with bald faced audacity that the burden of proof is on the atheist.  They "can't imagine" another explanation for the universe, therefore it must be god.

As I pointed out previously, this reasoning is obviously circular because the mere existence of a mystery does not suggest that a particular answer is true, unless one has implicitly assumed that the particular answer must be true and that there is no other answer.  Whenever believers pull out the old "god is the only explanation" argument, you can respond with:

"This is the same logical fallacy indulged in by primitive people who assumed that the world must be flat and held up by a giant god because they had no other explanation for the fact that neither they nor the earth seemed to be falling."

You can follow it up with:

"Why can't you just admit that you don't know?  I know you don't know; you know you don't know.  Just admit it."

They will reply with some non-responsive blather about their belief or perhaps with a statement that "there must be an explanation".  To which you can reply with either:

"There is probably some natural explanation, but I can live with admitting that I don't know what it is.  I'd rather not make a fool of myself by believing in magic just because I can't explain something."

or

"What kind of person can't admit when he doesn't know something?"

Better yet, combine the two.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Burden of Proof

This post turned out rather long, so I am going to put some of the suggested arguments here at the beginning.

"And you can't prove that Harry Potter doesn't really exist but that doesn't make believing in him any less crazy."

"I don't have the burden of proof because I am not claiming to know anything except that you have clearly failed to make your case even though you have had centuries to do so."

 "How can believers rely on faith to reach their conclusion and still have the audacity to claim they do not bear the burden of proof?  The mere fact that they rely on faith shows that they know they can't prove their case.  You don't rely on faith when you have facts."

"The lack of evidence for god, or any supernatural thing, meets whatever burden of proof that I might have."

Or, as Christopher Hitchens put it so eloquently:

 "That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence."

One of the tactics theists use when arguing against atheism and for their delusion is that atheists can't prove that god doesn't exist.

One of the things you can say is:

"And you can't prove that Harry Potter doesn't really exist but that doesn't make believing in him any less crazy."

Many atheists use a variation of the first part of that sentence mentioning fairies or Santa Claus, but it doesn't have the same punch if you don't finish the thought, because, frankly, many of them just don't get it unless you spell it out for them.  I recommend using the Harry Potter analogy with anyone who might know the story because it is more closely analogous to the god hypothesis.

Those books are about fictional sentient beings using magical powers to hide their existence from those without magic powers.  Any sentient being with magical powers could do that, so even if someone actually devised a test to prove or disprove the infinite variations of god, the results would not be conclusive because we mere mortals would have no way of knowing whether god used his magic powers to make us think the test showed he didn't exist.

Of course, feel free to substitute fairies or Santa Claus if you like, just remember to make sure that the theist understands that they are sentient beings with magic powers and the implications of that fact:  It makes it impossible to disprove their existence.

In order to buttress their argument that atheists have to prove god doesn't exist the theists have successfully planted two false notions in the public consciousness:  1. That to be an atheist one must have a positive, 100% certain, belief that god does not exist, and 2. that the burden of proof does not rest upon them to prove that their god exists because it is so "obvious".

Their basis for both assertions is that there is no other explanation for the existence of the universe.  That may not be as obvious with regard to the first as the second.  The second notion is, however, clearly based on that assumption.  The first notion grows out of their confusion regarding the fact that the existence of god is not the same issue as the origins of the universe.  The fact that they can't see this is complete proof of the circularity of their thinking.  I will speak more to these points in tomorrow's post.

Generally, the person making the assertion has the burden of proving it.  So, unless atheists are making a positive assertion, then it is difficult for the theist to argue that the atheist has the burden of proof.  They know that they must somehow shift the burden of proof to atheists because they know that they cannot meet the burden of proving god's existence.

Unlike the atheist, the theist could, theoretically, prove god's existence.  It really wouldn't take much.  Just one undeniable miracle (which, of course, does not include alleged miracles from 2,000 years ago) or even just one study showing that praying for sick people worked.  I would happily believe if there were a good reason.  I don't want to be an atheist; what I want is to know the truth.

The whole idea behind trying to box all atheists into the 100% certainty corner is that then the religious have a basis for arguing that atheists have the burden of proof.  Such a claim of 100% certainty simply cannot be proven and thus can be more easily de-legitimized.  Such an atheist is claiming to know something he cannot know:  the secrets of the universe.  This is what the theists claim to know and likewise cannot know.  We should refuse to join them in this intellectual gutter.

You can say:

"I am not claiming to know anything except that you have clearly failed to make your case even though you have had centuries to do so."

You can also make the point I made in a previous post:

"Being agnostic regarding the origins of the universe doesn't make me agnostic regarding the existence of god.  Those are two separate questions."

A rational, logical seeker of truth acts much like a judge in a court.  He looks at the proposition before him and determines what proof should be brought forth in order to determine its truth.  In the case of god, the proposition is infinitely malleable and thus can never be disproven--only an infinite number of experiments could do the trick assuming one could devise the right experiments and instruments.  Furthermore, the proposition is quite extraordinary, given that it concerns an invisible magic man in the sky with infinite magical powers, and thus one would like to see some shred of proof of any of this before proceeding any further, such as proof that invisible men exist (without the use of mere advanced technology), that magic exists, etc.

Not only do the desperate efforts of the believers to force us all into the positive atheism camp show that they are aware of the intellectual poverty of their position, so too does their reliance on faith.  Faith is nothing but the imaginary fig leaf over their nakedness, the willing suspension of disbelief that gets them past the logical hurdle presented by the absence of evidence for their invisible friend.  If the burden of proof argument comes up one of the things I recommend saying is:

"How can believers rely on faith to reach their conclusion and still have the audacity to claim they do not bear the burden of proof?  The mere fact that they rely on faith shows that they know they can't prove their case.  You don't rely on faith when you have facts."

You can follow up with a version of this:

"Accepting a proposition on faith and then daring any challenger to prove you wrong--denying that the burden of proof is on you--is the same as having no standard and worse.  It is a perversion of logic and all norms of intellectual integrity."

There aren't that many atheists who define themselves as "one who believes there is no god" or "one who is sure there is no god".  I think that most of them do so only because they have looked the term up in a dictionary with such a definition. I think this is a clear example of a straw-man argument that has been slipped into dictionaries by religious lexicographers. At worst, this is manipulation of the marketplace of ideas on an outrageous scale. At best it is a reflection of their own muddled thinking because, like most religious people, they confuse the question the origins of the universe with the question of the existence of god (clear proof of their circular reasoning).

Although usually the burden of proof is on the one making the assertion, in the case of god's nonexistence, I am no longer certain that this should be the case.  Perhaps a better way to look at it would be to say that in such instances, a person who has assumed this burden of proof can meet that burden simply by showing that there is no evidence for the opposite proposition. For most purposes, however, this distinction would be lost in translation and called a distinction without a difference. I think it may be correct, however. It is just a reformulation of something I have long maintained: That the lack of evidence for such a proposition gives rise to a rebuttable resumption that the thing doesn't exist. In other words, the ball is in the theist's court. If they have evidence to offer in rebuttal, I will be happy to listen, etc. (Of course, if they had such evidence, we would all be long since aware of it and would not be here having this discussion.)


The best way to get this point across would be to say:

"The lack of evidence for god, or any supernatural thing, meets whatever burden of proof that I might have."

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Don't Let Them Use Ad Hominem Arguments

Personally, I stopped believing purely because of the application of logic.  I believe the discussion should start and end with that.  Examining the emotional states of the people in the debate is a logical fallacy as well--at least when done as part of the logical debate.  Once a proposition has been accepted or rejected and shown to deserve such acceptance or rejection, only then do the emotional states of those who refuse to accept logic become legitimate topics for discussion.

When a theist starts to attack you personally, or atheists in general, simply point out what they are doing:

"So, you admit you have neither proof nor logic and are just going to attack me now?  If you have proof or logic, let's hear it."

They know they don't have it, but make them take their best, honest shot anyway, because it is bound to help you just by its sheer weakness and dishonesty, if nothing else.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Atheism Is Simply the Correct Logical Conclusion

Atheism is not a belief, it is simply the correct logical conclusion based on the facts as we currently know them.  In this post I am going to lay out what I think are the logical steps that lead inexorably to atheism for any honest, logical thinker.  Please note that belief based on faith plays no part in any of the steps.

1. There is no evidence for god, nor for any supernatural being or thing.

2. The existence of god and the origins of the universe are two separate questions.  (As I pointed out in a previous post, they are not even necessarily linked.  Those who insist they are linked are engaging in circular reasoning--as well as pretending to know things they cannot know.)

3. No one knows why the universe exists.  One can be agnostic on this point--as, indeed, every sane, rational person should be--yet still conclude that the god hypothesis is false.

4. A lack of evidence for a thing tends to prove the thing doesn't exist, and, in fact, the lack of evidence is usually accepted as conclusive.  Those who don't accept this with regard to their own beliefs in the supernatural readily accept it with regard to other supernatural claims, indicating that they know it's true but are too biased to admit it with regard to their own beliefs.

5. The god hypothesis is unfalsifiable because it is infinitely malleable and because it involves an alleged sentient being with limitless magic powers.  (There would have to be an infinite number of proofs to cover the infinite possibilities, and even then no one could know for certain that god wasn't using his magic power to cause the results in order to "test" or fool us.)

6. Extraordinary propositions require extraordinary proof.  (An invisible man in the sky with sufficient magic powers to create the universe is probably the most extraordinary proposition possible.)  There is NO evidence of a god, much less extraordinary evidence.

7. When circumstances indicate that a proposition is false, more than mere circumstantial evidence must be shown to prove it is true.  (There is a great deal of evidence about the falseness of various religions and the irrational, unreliable nature of the human minds that cling to religion--and about human minds and perceptions in general.) 

8. In the case of the god hypothesis, the only evidence we have is the mountains of evidence indicating that gods are manmade--including all the evidence regarding ridiculous cults and former "gods of the gaps" used to fill gaps in scientific knowledge in the past such as the Zephyrs to explain wind and Atlas to explain gravity.

9. A complete lack of evidence supporting an extraordinary proposition (with circumstances indicating falsehood--even if it cannot be proven false) justifies concluding that it is false with a level of certainty that is as near to complete certainty as any human can ever be about anything.

10. The proponent of a proposition has the burden of proof.  With regard to an extraordinary proposition (with circumstances indicating falsehood but which cannot be proven false), the lack of evidence for the proposition proves the negative of it to the extent that the negative can EVER be proven and meets the burden of proof for the proponent of the negative of the proposition.

11. The possibility that sufficient evidence to prove an extraordinary proposition (with circumstances indicating falsehood but which cannot be proven false) might turn up at some point in the future is not cause to reserve judgment in the present.  It is merely a reminder to keep an open mind IF new evidence ever appears (but not a reminder to keep an open mind with regard to the question under the present state of evidence).  Absolute certainty about any conclusion is not possible, and the remote possibility that most seemingly certain conclusions might be false is generally ignored.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Atheism Is Not a Religion

Believers very often call atheism a religion.  They do this because of their muddled thinking about cosmology, which they assume is true for atheists as well.  In fact, they assume their muddled thinking is an accurate assessment of facts that are beyond their knowledge.

They assume that there are only two possible explanations for the universe's existence:  Either god made the universe or else the universe magically popped into existence without the help of a magician.

(Note that both "theories" are based on some sort of magic--meaning that a natural cause is deemed impossible from the start.  I am re-phrasing for them, but I do not think I am doing violence to their thoughts.  If you listen carefully, this is what they clearly mean.  They see the question as a choice between only two alternatives, each requiring belief because each is supposed to answer a question that cannot be answered: the origins of the universe.)

The religious then engage in a classic "straw-man" argument where they claim that atheists believe something that atheists do not believe, which is the magic without a magician theory.  The religious then use this alleged belief to support their conclusion that atheism is a religion.  The religious claim that it takes a "leap of faith" to believe that the universe created itself or popped into existence on its own and that a universe made by a creator is a far more credible scenario.

What one might ask in reply is:

"Why is a resort to a belief in magic more credible than thinking that an unknown natural process was involved?"

One can also simply say:

The question of the universe's origins is a separate question from that of god's existence.  Being agnostic about the first doesn't mean you are agnostic about the second.

(You could also say "Why can't you just admit that you don't know how the universe came to be?"  But, in my experience, this one sails right over their heads because they don't get its logical implications.)

You see, once again, the religious are assuming that everyone shares their confused and circular reasoning in which those two questions are one in the same.  You have to break it down for them.

If you really want to get into the details, you can follow up with:

Who says the universe couldn’t have simply come into being without an outside force?”  “What evidence do they have for this conclusion?”  “What assumptions are they making?

Equally important is to ask:  "What evidence do you have that this is the only other possible explanation?"

The answer to these questions is that they have no evidence on these points.  The origins of the universe are outside human knowledge.  We barely know what questions to ask.  An initial reply, though it may lack punch, is to simply point this out:

"We think there was an event called "the Big Bang", but we have no evidence of why or how that event came to be."

You can follow up by pointing out:

"Any evidence concerning why or how the universe began would have to be all or partly outside our universe and thus outside our knowledge.  Why would anyone claim to know something he can't possibly know?"

I find that often theists simply have no answer.  (Other than the one previously covered:  That they personally can't think of anything else.  Don't fall into that trap.  See previous post.)  They have taken it for granted since infancy that this reasoning that the universe couldn't have just come into existence without an outside agency is a given.  They can't defend it.  If you refuse to accept this premise without proof, then they don't know what to say.  Don't let them duck out on this, because it is crucial to their argument.  They have made an assertion, you should demand proof.

The religious are assuming that they can reason by analogy using their experiences on Earth.   Children are not born without parents, therefore things don’t simply spring into being without a creator of some sort.  That reasoning is all that underpins the two assertions that are critical to their argument.  Those two implicit assumptions/assertions are:  1. that there is only one other possible explanation aside from the god hypothesis and 2. that the only alternative is that the universe came out of nothing spontaneously.  If the theist still wants to continue the discussion, then you can point out, again:

"We have no basis for assuming those are the only two possible explanations.  Nor do we have any basis for assuming that something that looks to us like the universe came out of nothing is not possible."

Then I suggest pointing out that the theist's reasoning has been tried before and proven wrong.

"That is precisely the sort of reasoning that led primitive people to believe that the earth was flat and held up by a god.  In their experience, no other explanation seemed possible."

The first problem with this reasoning is that it isn't explained what the god holding up the world is standing on.  Likewise, the parents of a child had to have parents of their own.  When you  ask where god came from they usually reply that "god always existed".

This is a dishonest attempt to avoid the question by pretending that it is only a question of timing of the moment of god’s hypothetical creation and not also a question of how or why god exists.  Pretending that god had no beginning doesn't answer the question of how his existence is possible.

If god always existed, then it is possible for something to exist without having been created, which contradicts directly one of the believers' own premises that led to the god hypothesis.  We are only talking about god because believers insist that nothing can exist without being created.  Furthermore, we are talking about a situation where time may have no meaning and we are asking a question about causation, not timing.  For that question, they have no answer--that is why they try to avoid it by pretending to misunderstand.  They should not be allowed to get away with this dishonesty.  The fact remains that they have posited a rule that they insist must be followed (that something cannot exist without being created) and then violated it flagrantly.

You can say something like:  "So you believe that god 'just happened' to exist."

(One can short circuit the whole discussion by meeting the initial theist salvo with a  re-phrasing of it to highlight the fact that this same mistake in logic has been made before:

  "It takes a leap of faith to believe that the earth is simply a ball hurtling through the universe and that we stay on it because of some unknown natural force.  A flat earth held up on the shoulders of a god with infinite legs is a far more credible scenario.")

There are two points to be made here: 

First, (and this one will probably violate the soundbite length rule, but I don't know any shorter way to phrase it):

"The claim that god always existed no more answers the question of how god’s existence is possible than hypothesizing that Atlas had infinite legs answers the question of what he was standing on while holding the earth on his shoulders."

The premise upon which the hypothetical god was said to be necessary in each case is that such things are not possible without magical intervention.  It was assumed it was not possible for something to be stable unless it had something to hold it up and it is assumed that it is not possible for something to exist without being created. 

Second, attempting to analogize from human earthly experience to answer cosmological questions is not valid reasoning.  The scenarios are radically different--as the Atlas example makes clear.  Again, this may violate the soundbite principle, but here is a potential way of making the point:

"What primitive man didn’t know was that there was a force at work in the universe that we now call gravity.  Likewise, until we are sure that there is no natural explanation for the universe’s existence, there is no justification for assuming that only a supernatural explanation will do.
"

If you like, you can combine the short-circuit response in parentheses above with this last point and say:

"Primitive man might have said that it takes a leap of faith to believe that the earth is simply a ball hurtling through the universe and that we stay on it because of some unknown natural force.  A flat earth held up on the shoulders of a god with infinite legs is a far more credible scenarioWhat primitive man didn’t know was that there was a force at work in the universe that we now call gravity.  Likewise, until we are sure that there is no natural explanation for the universe’s existence, there is no justification for assuming that only a supernatural explanation will do."

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Atheist Arguments That Pack Too Much Punch

Oftentimes when debating with theists, atheists make arguments that pack too much emotional punch and arouse the theist's emotions so much that he can't see the logic in the argument.  There is a fine line between making the theist see his error and insulting him so that you can't communicate with him anymore.  If you recognize which arguments cross that line, you can re-phrase them so that they are actually communicative.

A classic example is the situation where the theist says that he can't imagine another explanation for the existence of the universe other than god, and the atheist responds with "Sounds like a personal problem to me".  The atheist is essentially saying that the theist is stupid because of his lack of imagination--or, at least, that will be the message received by the theist.

There is a good atheist argument lurking in that retort, however.  The trick is to re-phrase it.

In fact, the theist's ability to imagine another explanation is not relevant to the issue being discussed (thus it is literally a personal problem)--though it certainly helps explain why the discussion is occurring.  I suggest saying:

"Your ability to imagine other answers doesn't mean they don't exist.  A long time ago, people couldn't imagine that the earth was round but that didn't make it flat."

You could follow it up with:

"Before Einstein people couldn't imagine that matter and energy were the same thing but that didn't make him wrong."

(Though, be warned, this will probably cause the theist to make the false claim that Einstein believed in god.  He did not, as a letter discovered a couple of years ago made clear.)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Absence of Evidence

The religious like to say that the absence of proof is not proof of absence.  They are being disingenuous when they say this, however.  They are deliberately confusing the argument by their choice of words, substituting "proof" for "evidence" in this saying:  The absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

It should be clear that both of these sayings are generally true even though seemingly contradictory.  The reason for this apparent dilemma is the subtle difference in meaning between the words "proof" and "evidence".  When one uses the word "proof", a secondary meaning, "conclusive proof", comes into play.  The word "evidence" does not imply the same level of conclusiveness.

When there is no evidence for a thing, that lack does tend to prove that the thing doesn't exist and thus is "evidence" of that fact--the question of the conclusiveness of the evidence being a separate issue.

Thus, when the religious bring this up and use the word "proof", they are saying that the absence of evidence doesn't conclusively prove the atheist's point, but, more important, they are trying to confuse you regarding the fact that the absence of evidence does, in fact, tend to prove absence.  When you hear this type of argument (no matter how it is phrased--they might get it wrong), simply say:

"The absence of evidence for a thing is evidence of its absence.  Whether or not it is conclusive evidence is another issue."

Or, you can say:

"I think what you mean to say is that is doesn't conclusively prove absence.  It does, however, tend to prove absence."

As I will explain in a later post, in the case of the god hypothesis, the lack of evidence is sufficient.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Religious Morality Is Not Morality At All

I promised to write about religious notions of morality at the end of my last post, and, rather than wait, I thought I might as well post a quick thought, especially given that a study was recently published that echoed my opinion on this subject.

The religious have a very skewed view of morality.

"Most theists think that what is morally "good" is obedience to authority combined with a determination to control their private parts."

"In short, the religious are pathologically anal retentive. " 

This is why they have no trouble watching movies with appalling violence but become outraged at any nudity.  They are completely unconcerned with preventing harm to others or with helping others.  The study I mentioned may be read at this link.

This infantile definition of morality is consistent with their oft heard statements that they (and everyone else, in their estimation) behave morally only because they fear god's punishment.  Behaving morally only when failure to do so will be punished is the lowest stage of moral development, called the "obedience and punishment orientation".

"The religious are trapped in the lowest stage of moral development."

W.C. Crain. (1985). Theories of Development. Prentice-Hall. pp. 118-136:

http://faculty.plts.edu/gpence/html/kohlberg.htm

The following sums it up:

"Morality is doing what is right, no matter what you  are told.  Religion is doing what you are told, no matter what is right."

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Religion and Homosexuality

Whenever you hear the religious say that homosexuality is a "choice" or a "temptation" that people should resist with god's help, simply say:

"There is a name for people who think homosexuality is a choice; they're called bisexuals."

You can follow it up with:

"Of course, that's not always accurate, sometimes they're just repressed, closeted homosexuals."

Non-believers often wonder why the religious are so obsessed with homosexuality.  I suspect it is because many of them are desperately fighting the "temptation".  They can't stop themselves unless they convince themselves that it is an evil sin forbidden to everyone.  That would explain why they implicitly assume that we are all fighting this "temptation" and that gays and bisexuals are simply craven hedonists who have given in to temptation.  They can't seem to comprehend that some people are inclined to these activities and some people aren't.

At the same time, it is clear that many of the religious are simply stuck in an infantile state of moral and emotional development where echoing the words and values of the "authority figures" (god or the clergy) seems necessary to be "moral" as they understand the meaning of that term.  I suspect that for many religious people their homophobia results from a combination of these two motives.  These suggested replies should have the effect of countering the "moral choice" argument, the infantile morality will have to wait for a later post.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Subjectivity of Religion's Alleged Morality

The religious claim that their morality is the only true morality because it comes from the ultimate authority on all things.  The most obvious objections to this claim are the fact that the existence of the ultimate authority is highly questionable and even more questionable is the claim that this ultimate authority actually communicated the rules to humans.  The various religions have writings that they claim reflect this alleged divine communication, but these writings are inconsistent with each other and even with themselves.

But, that is not the best objection to be made to this claim because it goes back to the basic question and makes the non-believer seem like he is evading the believer's argument.

A much better objection is:

"The religious pick and choose which moral rules they want to follow just like everyone else."

The religious pick and choose which parts of holy writ to apply and then pick and choose how to interpret them.  If the church they are going to doesn't do this picking, choosing, and interpreting in a manner that they agree with, then they either switch churches or privately choose to disagree and console themselves with a privately held belief that god agrees with them and not the church leaders.

These alleged holy writings are never followed strictly.  The religious think about the rules of their religion and society and decide whether or not to follow them--more or less--based on their particular character and values.  Examples of this abound.  In virtually every modern society, there are rules in the dominant local religion's holy writ that no one would ever think of actually trying to apply.

Deuteronomy 21:18-21 actually says that disobedient children should be stoned to death by the community.  This verse technically applies to Jews and Christians, but no one would dream of even proposing that it be followed.

So, where do people actually get their morality?

"Everyone, religious or not, gets his or her morality from a combination of empathy, logic, and community standards."

The weight each person gives to these factors depends on the individual's character.  Some value empathy more than community standards, others do the opposite.  A few even make logic pre-eminent.

Unfortunately, in many cases, a fourth factor--rationalized self-interest--will play a role in how the person chooses to apply the rules.  But, as I pointed out in a previous post, there is no reason to believe that atheists do this more often.  In fact, the evidence is to the contrary--as is the very structure of religion (because it is embraced through dishonesty and then it allows easy absolution for the most heinous of moral breaches).

To show both the universality of objective reasoning and to prove that intelligent people have been refuting religious nonsense for centuries, I will close this post with a quotation from Albert Einstein that I found after drafting this post.  His thoughts echo my own on this matter almost precisely:

"A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties; no religious basis is necessary.  Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death."--Albert Einstein.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Religion Allows the Immoral to Feel Good About Themselves

"I'm for decency -- period. I'm for anything and everything that bodes love and consideration for my fellow man. But when lip service to some mysterious deity permits bestiality on Wednesday and absolution on Sunday -- cash me out."
FRANK SINATRA, Playboy Magazine, Feb. 1962

One doesn’t usually think of Frank Sinatra as a deep thinker or a moral philosopher, but the quotation above shows that he very clearly saw the central problem with religion as a source of morality.  He was able to capture the illogic of that idea in one sentence.  There can be no real threat of punishment in religion when absolution is offered merely for the asking.

Most Christian sects hold that merely accepting Jesus as your savior and asking his forgiveness is all one need do to gain absolution for the most heinous offenses.  Under such circumstances, the only way the threat of hell could constitute a threat of punishment is if the sinner were to die with such complete suddenness that he could not mentally work through this thought process in his head before losing consciousness.  That may happen to people on occasion, but it is so rare in ordinary life that the possibility approaches zero.  Consequently, the threat of divine punishment is so small as to be illusory, even if such a threat actually exists.

Some churches impose penances of one sort or another, but they are usually quite mild in comparison to the offense committed.  The archetypical example of the worthlessness of penance is captured by an interview with a former organized crime hit-man that appeared on the television news show "60 Minutes" a few years ago.  The man had killed 20 people by his own admission.  After being caught he went to a priest, confessed, and received an assignment of penance and then absolution.  His penance:  Recite 10 Hail Marys and 10 Our Fathers.  That's it: one recitation of a meaningless religious mantra for every life he took.  After that, as far as he and his church were concerned, he was no longer going to hell, no longer going to be punished for murdering 20 people.

If that is the threat of punishment that belief in god offers, then it is meaningless.  It can form the basis for morality only in the most simple of minds.  Only in the most childlike mind, where the mere idea that someone is watching can be persuasive, does this constitute a deterrent.

When this specious argument rears its ugly head, simply say:

"If all you have to do is ask god's forgiveness, then it doesn't seem like there's much of a threat of punishment."

"When I was a kid, I used to pray every night for a new bike. Then I realized, the Lord doesn't work that way. So I just stole one and asked Him to forgive me... and I got it!"
EMO PHILLIPS

Morally, the function of religion is obviously to make the believer feel good about himself in spite of what he or she may have done wrong.  It allows the believer to give himself an imaginary forgiveness that he imagines to be absolute (because from the absolute authority) without having to gain the forgiveness of anyone he may have actually victimized, without having to suffer meaningful and proportionate punishment or make meaningful and proportionate restitution--without really having to do anything.

The evidence in the real world bears out this interpretation.  Not only has it been my own experience that religious people are actually less moral--and that they don't really know what the word means (more on this later)--but as I mentioned before there are a disproportionate number of religious people in prison compared to their numbers in the general population.  Societies with a significant presence of religion suffer more greatly from the social ills that are most often considered sin by the religious than societies that are more secular.

Thus, an alternative response to this argument is:

"Actually, the moral function of religion is to allow bad people to feel good about themselves."

Then explain why this is so.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Religion and Morality

The religious like to say that people can't be moral without belief in god.  This is nonsense; there is not one shred of objective evidence that backs it up.  In fact, empirical data suggest the opposite.  There are a disproportionate number of religious people in prison and more religious societies experience greater problems with behaviors that the religious would call immoral.

If this supposed moral benefit is offered as an argument for the existence of god, then it falls in the category of arguments that are implicit admissions that the belief is a delusion.  If something exists, there is no reason to argue for belief in it because the belief is useful.  If it exists, then that alone is sufficient argument for belief.

If this is offered as a reason to believe, just point out that the person is admitting that religion is not really true--simply useful.  If you want to be polite, you can say something like:

"So you don't actually believe in god, you believe in belief."

Usually this is not the case, however.  Usually the person is using it as a setup for an argument from authority (because god is the authority we all need, we know this because his "spokesmen" have told us so on his behalf) or the person is implicitly threatening you with social disapproval--the most common stick used by believers in civilized countries to beat up on non-believers.  (In other countries, they use real sticks.)

The best thing about this argument, however, from an atheist's standpoint is that it is an admission of the moral depravity of believers.  If they behave morally only because they fear god, then they have no internal morality.  Only small children and psychopaths have no internal morality.  If someone tries this tack, simply say:

"If the only reason you behave morally is fear of punishment, then you are either a psychopath or have the mind of a small child."

If the person actually says that he or she personally behaves morally only because of fear of god, then say:

"So, you're a psychopath?"

When the person protests, point out the reasoning discussed above.  Fear of punishment is not morality, it is naked self-interest.  Pointing this out undercuts the religious person both on the logical level and on the emotional level--the hallmark of a good argument.

Finally, one of the best responses (credit Sam Harris) is:

"Ninety-three percent of the members of the National Academy of Science are non-believers.  If what you say is true, why aren't they guilty of raping children at the same or a greater rate than priests?"

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Religion Is Dishonest

It is dishonest to use different intellectual standards when looking at different religions.

If one were honestly seeking the truth, then one would judge all similar propositions by the same standards.  Thus, all religions would be examined with the same set of criteria.  Instead, the religious approach their own religion with unshakable faith--immune to all doubt or evidence--while at the same time they regard other religions (even closely related ones) with absolute skepticism, seeking only to find fault and reason to reject it.

Faith and skepticism are not only different, they are polar opposites.

Using faith to judge one version of the god of Abraham while using skepticism when judging other versions of that god (and other gods), is not intellectually honest.

It is, rather, an admission of complete bias.  Such an admission would disqualify any judge in any contest.

Even if the believer claims to be ecumenical and have no criticisms of the "other ways of knowing god", you can bet he will approach other supernatural claims with skepticism.  Ask if he believes in fairies, leprechauns, genies, or magic carpets.  If he still won't be honest about his skepticism, ask if he really gives all these ideas equal credence with his own religion.  (Though, if you have to do that, then you are probably dealing with someone who simply will not tell the truth in any event.)

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Categorizing Religious Arguments

The "arguments" presented by religious people generally fall into five categories:  Circular reasoning; arguments from authority; implicit admissions that religion is a delusion; lies; and threats.  The first step in any discussion is deciding which of these categories best describes the argument being presented.  Once you know the basis for the argument, then you know it's weakness because each of these categories is inherently a logical fallacy.

The next step is presenting that weakness in a way that will have an impact on the believer.  To do this, you have to make sure it resonates emotionally with the believer and you have to make sure it is short.  Mark Twain referred to this idea as "a minimum of sound to a maximum of sense."

Remember two things:  Believers are much more aware of the emotional content of what is being said than non-believers usually are, and they will not usually retain anything that takes longer to say than the standard 7 second soundbite.  After that time, their short term memory will be full and their attention will start to turn to their reply--even though they haven't really heard what the non-believer is saying.  The longer you take to refute a point, the less effective you will be.

Circular reasoning is based on an assumption that the conclusion is true.  Without that assumption, the reasoning fails.  The argument that existence proves god is a classic case.  As is the argument from personal incredulity, in which the believer says he can't believe the beauty and complexity of the universe wasn't designed and created.  Both of these arguments are based on the assumption that the existence of a god is the only possible explanation.  Thus, the conclusion is implicitly assumed by the argument in order to reach the conclusion.

When faced with a circular argument, simply say that the reasoning is circular and, if necessary, explain why it is.  If that doesn't work, then point out that there is no reason to assume that "magic" (which is what the god hypothesis really is) should even be included in the set of possible explanations for the universe.

Arguments from authority can be countered simply by citing examples of where the authorities have been wrong in the past.  Every church and every religion has its share of those incidents, which all but the most fanatical believers will admit.

Implicit admissions that religion is a delusion can be met with a simple statement to that effect:  Believer:  "I just can't live with the idea that my life has no meaning."  Atheist:  "So, you admit that religion is a delusion?"

Lies have to be countered with truth, even though it probably won't work.  If the believer is so fanatical that he or she can't see objective facts, then pointing them out may be a waste of time.  Do it anyway, however, because sometimes it can work and even have a profound effect on a believer.  If a person starts to recognize that his or her religious leaders are feeding him lies about some things, then he may soon realize that they are not reliable at all.

Threats can be either implicit or explicit.  If explicit, take appropriate steps to secure your safety.  Such a person is not sane, and it would be better to have absolutely no further contact with him or her.  If the threat is implicit such as the threat of damnation, then point out that belief based on fear is extorted and not true belief.  If the believer says that god would be satisfied with extorted belief, then point out that he seems to be saying that god is a psychopathic bully who is satisfied by the lies of yes men.

(By the way, I realize that these brief posts leave loose ends and finer points unaddressed.  That is the nature of these brief posts, however.  I will attempt to tie up the loose ends and address the finer points in later posts.  I am, after all, just getting started in this format.)

Friday, September 3, 2010

Does the Universe's Existence Prove God's?

Believers ask:  Well, where do you think the universe came from?

Recommended replies:

1. Anyone who claims to know the answer to that question is a liar, a fool, or a madman.

(If they don't get your point and have proven that they don't deserve politeness, you can add "Which one are you?" )

2.The question of the universe's origin and the question of whether or not god exists are separate questions.  If you don't see that they are separate questions, then you are engaging in circular reasoning.

Followed by:

3.  No one knows the answer to the origins of the universe, including me, but as to the second question, it is clear that the correct conclusion is that god does not exist.

or

4.  I'll tell you what I do know:  The invisible magic man in the sky theory is obviously a primitive myth and not a serious theory.

or

5. Listen to yourself.  What you are saying is that just because we don't know the answer that means it must be supernatural.

The problem with almost all arguments posited by believers is that they are wrong on so many levels that it is difficult for a logical person to know where to start.  Furthermore, they almost always have an emotional appeal as well.  The often posited "argument from existence" is a classic example.  It is wrong in that it implies that the answer is currently known or knowable by mankind.  It is wrong in implying that mankind currently knows all (indeed, any) of the potential explanations and can therefore choose from among a competing set of explanations.  It is wrong in implying that atheists claim to know the answer.  It is wrong in implying that if atheists can't come up with a better explanation, then we have to accept the one offered by religion.  It is wrong in implying that there is only one possible answer.

The emotional appeal of the argument lies in the knowledge on the part of both parties that the atheist does not know where the universe came from.  The believer has subtly put the onus on the non-believer.  Unless this is made explicit, the believer will feel that he has put himself in a superior position and the non-believer may feel that he is in an inferior position.

When we hear the most common argument from believers that the very existence of the universe is evidence of god’s existence we must keep several points in mind and try to make them all if we can.

First,  the argument is simply based on circular reasoning.  The existence of the universe is the very mystery that god is meant to explain.  To use the existence of the question to prove your answer to the question is to engage in circular reasoning of the purest sort.  The mere existence of the universe tells us nothing about its origins UNLESS one assumes on some level that creation is the only possible explanation.  Such assumption implicitly includes an assumption that there was a creator—because that is the very nature of what is meant by the word creation.

Second, the biggest weakness of the assumption that a creator is necessary is obvious:  It is unfounded.  Human knowledge simply does not begin to extend far enough to begin to say what might or might not have caused the universe to exist.  At present, no hypothesis can be ruled out.  In fact, at present most potential hypotheses can't even be formulated, much less ruled out.  (I have been trying to make this point with theists for years without success.  But, I am happy to report I recently learned that I am not alone in thinking this.)

Third, not only is the assumption invalid and the reasoning circular, the supposed conclusion doesn’t really help answer the question.  This line of reasoning merely serves to introduce another mystery in the place of the first.  In other words, the question has merely been swept under a hypothetical and specious rug.   The alleged existence of the hypothetical magic man in the sky is at least as big a mystery as the universe itself.

Fourth, the universe's existence provides no more proof of the god hypothesis than it does any other hypothesis.  This point can be used when refuting both the assertion above that the universe is proof of god and its underlying (and mistaken) premise below that a creator is needed.

That underlying premise that a creator is necessary is usually expressed as the idea that something cannot come from nothing.  The most common response from atheists is to say:  If something can’t come from nothing, then where did the something that supposedly made the universe come from?"  This is a good start.  It points out that the theist's argument is self-contradictory--and thus logically invalid--and that it fails to give us a resolution because it merely substitutes a new mystery.

There are two points to make here.  First, this is where the believer's incorrect assumptions about his own knowledge become clear.  The origins of the universe are outside human knowledge and experience.  None of us can possibly say what is or is not possible in that situation.  Furthermore, compare this with primitive man believing that something had to be holding up the Earth because, in his experience, it was simply not possible for the Earth to simply be a ball hurtling through space.  Believers are making the same incorrect assumption here.  Call them on it:

"This is something beyond human knowledge.  We don't know what all the possible answers are and thus cannot conclude that god or nothing are the only possibilities."

or

"Who says something can't come from nothing?  Based on what evidence?"

This second question sometimes gives them pause, but probably only because they have never been challenged on the assertion and haven't thought about it.

If they start to explain that this assertion is based on their knowledge of how things are in our universe, point out that this question deals with things completely outside our experience and no such assumptions are warranted.  If the theist is dumbstruck, as sometimes happens, just go ahead and explain why he is wrong, using the "Earth cannot possibly be a ball hurtling through space" example.

Another revealing point about this line of religious reasoning is the way in which believers “solve” this dilemma.  They assume that the creator is somehow different from the rest of the universe.  In other words, they assume that the rules they were previously applying (after mistakenly assuming they know the rules) don’t apply anymore because god is "different" from the universe.  The problem is that they can't know this unless and until they prove god's characteristics, which would entail proving his existence, of course.  Thus, the argument is circular on yet another level because the conclusion has to be implicitly assumed to be true in order to explain a rather obvious contradiction between one of the assumptions and the conclusion.

(This assumption that god could have characteristics that would otherwise seem impossible to us is close to the right assumption but it is being made at the wrong juncture in the reasoning process.  This is the assumption that should have been made in the previous step when the believer assumes without evidence that his earthly experience can be analogized to the cosmological question of the universe’s origins.  In fact, the origins of the universe could well involve principles that seem impossible to us.)

Finally, at an opportune juncture, should one arise, you can make the argument that the existence of the universe does indeed prove that something can come from nothing.  After all, "everyone knows" that there is no such thing as invisible magic people and that the universe exists, therefore the universe must have just appeared out of nothing.  (Alternatively, use this reasoning to support some other explanation that the theist can't accept.)