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 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."

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