I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Atheism's worst kept secret

An author by the name of Ray Comfort has recently launched a campaign to "pull the plug on atheism" at this site. It may seem odd that I, an atheist, would waste time promoting the site, but, honestly, the first argument I read there was so mind-bogglingly bad that I can't help but think he's going to be doing atheism a big favor.

In a post titled "Atheism's Big Secret," Comfort makes this supposedly shocking statement: "An atheist is someone who believes that nothing made everything." He considers this to be the ultimate intellectual absurdity. He goes on to argue: "if I say that I don’t believe that a builder built my house, then I am left with the insanity of believing that nothing built it. It just happened. " In another article he states: "You cannot have a creation without a creator. You cannot have things made without a maker."

It doesn't require a lot of effort to see the fallacies in all of these statements. Working backwards: First, I suppose it depends on what you mean by "made." If you simply mean "come into existence," then things come into existence all the time without the efforts of a conscious maker. No one makes mountains or oceans or storms. These things come into existence unguided by any sentience. A tree makes other trees, a chicken makes other chickens, but I don't think that's what Comfort has in mind. The fact is, it doesn't take a lot of effort to see that most things exist in the world without the active guiding hand of a creator. While I may wax poetic about the world and call it "creation," I do not, in fact, regard it as a creation.

The classic argument against atheism is, suppose you were walking on the beach and found a watch. You would assume that there was a watchmaker. But the main thing I find when I go walking on the beach is a bunch of sand. Do I therefore assume there's a sandmaker? It seems more plausible that the sand I'm walking on is the finely ground remnants of former mountains, which ceaselessly churning natural forces have turned into a nice place to get a suntan. Show me a beach covered in watches and you'll have an argument. (Though, if I actually found a beach covered in watches, I'd look for an overturned tanker with "Timex" written on the side.)

As for the builder who built Comfort's house: I don't think any atheist is going to argue with him. Yes, houses are obviously built by designers who plan for men (and occasionally birds and dogs) to dwell in them. The earth, alas, doesn't show such careful and intentional design for human dwelling. We are a species that lives on land and drinks fresh water. The world is 80% saltwater oceans. Of the 20% land, vast chunks of it are covered with ice, or deserts, or volcanos, or disease-ridden swamps. Man has, of course, made footholds in just about all these environments, but, still, despite the panic attacks of environmentalists, there's a lot more of this planet where people either can't live or don't particularly want to live than there are really sweet spots. If the world was created for humanity, it was created somewhat carelessly, I would argue.

Which brings us back to the first argument... the damning one that's supposed to shatter any intellectual pretense left to atheism, the idea that something can arise from nothing. First, I'll quibble a little: I don't think that most scientists would agree with the contention that our universe arose from "nothing." I think it would be more accurate to state that if you wind the clock of the universe backwards far enough, you reach a point beyond which the laws of physics fail and we are left with the unknown and the unknowable. I don't think you can factually argue for or against nothing beyond the point of the Big Bang. All evidence for what went before has been erased. It is this big void of the knowable that gets the "nothing" tag hung on it.

Some people would like to insert God to fill this void of knowledge. What came before the first click of the clock? God! But... where is the evidence? There is no more evidence of this than there is of "nothing." However, let's say for a moment that you make the serious argument that God existed before the first tick, and was the one who was there to wind the mainspring. If this is a scientific argument, then the question arises: What are his properties? What existed before him? Who made God? Most religious people would argue: No one made God. His properties are unknowable. Nothing came before. An infinity of time existed in which there was nothing... and then suddenly, God decided there would be something.

So, the very same absurdity that supposedly wrecks atheism is present in the God argument. You reach a point where you cannot know what came before. Here's the point where the atheist and the theist differ, I think: Atheists are tough enough to look at that inpenetrable moment of nothingness and shrug it off. So what if there's a wall to the knowable? We'll muddle through. Theists, however, seem crippled by the thought of nothing. What came before creation? What was God doing before us? Why did he wait for infinity before deciding it was time for some company?

Theists hold a very human centric view of "creation." All time and space exist so that we may exist. Distant galaxies, billions of years of star formation and destruction and formation and destruction and planets forming and dying and forming again all occur so that humans can exist for a few thousand years on a moral testing ground created so that God can judge their behavior and decide whether or not he wants to spend more time with any given individual, or whether any given individual should suffer unending punishment for a few decades worth of sin.

Atheists, on the other hand, can see that humanity occupies a very, very, very tiny speck of all time and all space. We aren't the point of the universe. We're not even an afterthought, or any thought at all. We're just brief blips of improbability, having fun while it lasts.

I can live with that.


Lon said...

Sandmaker, Sandmaker, Make me some saaaaaaaand!

Great post.

Richard Crawford said...

From what little I understand from my reading of modern Big Science books, there is an increasingly sensible model of a universe that didn't just spring into being, but sort of... Well, "fuzzed" into being, a model which makes a beginning point not even entirely necessary. No boundary conditions, because there is no boundary. Regardless, of course, it certainly makes no sense whatsoever to talk about what came "before" the Big Bang, or "where" the Universe is expanding into.

This is a pretty good post, though I think you're equivocating toward the end. I'm not sure that Comfort is a representative sample of all the theists in the world.

James Maxey said...

Thanks, Lon.

Richard, there are theories of what came before the Big Bang, but most don't have testable predictions so they are doomed to forever exist as mere speculation. The brane theory of universe formation, as I understand it, does have a testable prediction in that we should be able to detect the gravity waves of the colliding universes that gave birth to our own. But, even if that were proved, then we have the question of where the colliding universes came from. At some point, it's turtles all the way down, as the old joke goes.

I don't claim that Comfort is representative of all theists, by the way. The theistic universe is so fragmented I don't know that anyone represents a "typical" believer. In my experience, if you put ten randomly selected self-described Christians in a room and start tossing out questions about their beliefs, you would eventually discover that you actually have believers of ten different religions in front of you.

The only unifying theme of theists seems to be the notion that our lives are being judged by an external force, and that this judgement is pretty much the whole point of life.

Lon said...

A further thought: I'm not entirely convinced I even NEED to know where the (effectively) closed set of the universe came from in order to live in it, whether from a creation or a big bang.

Any more than fart particles need to know the scientific laws of the room volume they are stinking up, or believe in the existence of "noses".

John Brown said...

The only unifying theme of theists seems to be the notion that our lives are being judged by an external force, and that this judgement is pretty much the whole point of life.

Well, you could say that gravity judges you when you step off a cliff. It's an external force, always acting upon you. And the punishment is quite severe. Same with all the forces we observe in nature. If there is a God, then why would the laws of glorification etc. be any different in nature? Computers, antibiotics, and even toilet paper might all seem pretty miraculous depending on what you're used to. Could it be, when the nonsensical chaff is swept away, that glorification et al is simply a higher technology?

If you look at is this way, then the point of life isn't a judgment--it's uncovering and following natural law.

Also, even though some theistic tenets have similar surface features, it would be a mistake to think they are all the same. As big a mistake as saying that because a ball bearing and a Whopper are round they must have insignificant differences.

The fact that some theistic doctrines and evidences do not consider post hoc or other fallacies, doesn't mean they all do. :)

Having said all that, one of the things I appreciate about Maxey's profession of athiesm is that it's a profession of faith. I think it's as hard for athiests as it is for thiests to recognize the limits of their knowledge and evidences. I find it refreshing.

Hel said...

One of my favorite quotes:

First there was nothing. Then god said, 'Let there be light!' There was still nothing, but you could see it better.

James Maxey said...

Hel, a curious tidbit of Genesis is that God created light about three days before he got around to creating the sun. He creates light on the first day, but he doesn't create the sun and the moon and the stars until the fourth day. How, exactly, days were being measured in the absense of a sun isn't really explained.

John, I definitely do NOT think that all theistic tenents are the same. Every faith seems sliced and diced to such breathtaking fineness that it really seems like there are six billion religions.

I have to admit, I'm both intrigued and baffled by the question, "Could it be, when the nonsensical chaff is swept away, that glorification et al is simply a higher technology?" The word "technology" isn't computing for me. Is this some sort of Matrix argument? We're all bits of data in a big God machine?

As for the "laws of glorification," what can you point to in the physical world as evidence of such a thing? Gravity, sure. I can see how that works. But glorification? Physical laws should work the same no matter where you are in the universe. Gravity works the same on Mars as it does on Earth. Gravity worked the same a billion years ago, and all evidence points toward it working the same a billion years from now. Was there a law of glorification a billion years ago? What was it glorifying? Trilobites?

John Brown said...

Hel, that was funny :)

James, no, not a matrix argument. It's a model that assumes the premise that natural law is natural law. End of story. God is bound by it. But God knows it and we don't. And what God is trying to do is help us, and every other living thing, to meet the conditions of those natural principles that would allow us to enjoy things we might not otherwise. And that how it all works and what the ultimate nature of all these natural principles are is not what we'd imagine.

In some of the comments here one theistic interpretation of Genesis is assumed. But there are others, one with the premise that there was never nothing. That "creation" was taking existing materials and doing some real world-building, and that the account was simply referring to this earth and this solar system and things from that point of view. When this becomes the model, then it might be easier to explain the order of creation. Which, interestingly enough, matches up what the current scientific theories posit, e.g. things in the sea preceeding things on land etc.

Anyway, in this explanation the purpose of life is not judgment and God choosing who he wants to hang with (your issues were so well put). It's joy and learning, for all creatures (which were also not created but existed before, this life being only a part of a long progression). And the pain that comes when we don't meet the conditions. It's about learning a few key natural laws which then allow us to move closer to a true uplift.

But those key natural laws that are paramount at this time of our progression are not so much mechanical as something else, of which love is a huge factor.

John Brown said...

So, one last addition. What this means is that in some way there is a science, a technology of love. And that it's as basic and universal as gravity.

I know I'm probably sounding like a SF hippie. But I'm not. In this theistic explanation the universe is this strange.

James Maxey said...

John, I have to admit there is a hippie slant to your theories. As to the premise that there was never nothing, that God came along and assembled Earth from existing parts, it sounds suspiciously like one of the subplots of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It's a fun theory to BS with, but evidence-wise I'm just not seeing it.

One other point: I've heard various religious folks point out that the sequence of creation in Genesis is similar to the sequence argued by scientist. After all, the oceans are formed before life is made; fishes come before cattle.

But, examining the actual Biblical sequence shows a rather lackluster matchup:

Day 1: Creates light.

Day 2: Divides water from sky.

Day 3: Gathers the waters into seas to that dry land can appear. Then covers the land with grass, herbs, and fruit trees.

Day 4: Creates sun and moon and stars.

Day 5: Creates fishes and birds. Also sea monsters. Why not?

Day 6: God really crams on day six. He creates beasts to populate the land, though only cattle are specifically named. He also makes "creeping things of the ground," so, ants, I guess, maybe snails. Then, the crowning achievement: He whips up Man, male and female. He then specifically gives them dominion over all the fish, birds, cattle, creeping things, herbs, and trees. He doesn't mention the grass... a tidy lawn is apparently not a Biblical mandate.

Day 7: God sleeps late. Who can blame him?

Several things about this sequence are seriously out of whack, the most notable being the creation of the sun, moon, and stars on day 4, while he creates plants on day 3. Then come fishes and birds, before he populates the earth with land animals. Alas, fish come long before fruit trees. Land animals come before birds. Creeping things probably come before fish (in the form of land snails and various crablike land visitors). On the other hand, I concede that all these things were indeed around long before humans, so at least it gets the end game right.

Still, it's just six steps, and at least four of the six are partly out of sequence, and one is grandly out of whack (day 4). It's about as good as a child might get arranging the sequence of things on a test he hadn't studied for.

John Brown said...

I think these are all interesting questions.

Day 4: Creates sun and moon and stars.

This isn't a problem if the earth is wrapped in a thick atmosphere which slowly clears. Remember, the creation from the pov of what was happening here.

The days, while we may assume they're 24 hours, don't have to be. There are other records of this story that use period. All this is happening before, as you note, the sun is even visible. A better way to think of it is periods. And we do see in the geologic record periods where there are explosions of change.

Some other points.

Where in the geologic record does it suggest that large animals preceeded plant life?

As for what happens first in each period, it's not specified here.

"Creeping" things doesn't have to mean snails and bugs. It could very easily mean larger animals.

As far as the mention of cattle, you have to realize who wrote the book of Genesis. It's never claimed in that book that God penned it. Or that he took mind control over the person who did. These are claims made by others who had nothing to do with the writing. If cattle were important to the writer, then it would be natural to note it, I'd think.

A key thing to remember is that the primary purpose of Genesis is not to detail a history of the creation. It's very broad brush. The hows and wherefores are not mentioned. Only that God was there.

Also, I don't see why assuming material always existed is odd or Hitchhikerish. Matter, as far as we know, has been around in one form or another. Perhaps you're talking about the notion of us existing before this life.

But I think the whats of the model are probably the secondary issues. I believe your real question is the one you started the post with. It's nice to have a model, but what's the evidence for it?

John Brown said...

Did a bit more noodling on "creepeth" and it appears just a few chapters later in Gen 6:20 it's used as I suspected talking about what's to go in the ark.

Here non-aquatic animal life is broken down into 3 groups, the last lumping all sorts of creatures together: fowl, cattle, and the creeping things.

In other parts it mentions specific creeping things as moles, ferrets, tortises, and even some fowl that creeped on all fours (this one in the Moses law time). What kind of fowl does (or did) that I have no idea.

Of course, isn't there debate now that dinos are fowls of a sort? After which mammals became dominant?

But, of course, that's all speculation. The Bible doesn't go into great detail. None of this proves anything.

BTW, I've never read Hitchhiker's Guide. Although that would be a great character for a story--the Hitchhikers subplot guy. This is actually part of the Mormon worldview.

James Maxey said...

In the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, it's revealed that the Earth was built by an advanced alien race to serve as a powerful biological computer that was supposed to produce the ultimate question of life. (Another computer had been built earlier to seek the answer... and it produced the answer "42." When asked what question this was supposed to answer, the first computer recommended that a second computer be built to tackle such a ponderous task.) So, all the rest of reality rolls along pretty much as science understands it, but life exists on earth solely due to the tinkering of these aliens who are looking for the question.

How this overlaps with Mormonism, I am unqualified to speculate.

Going back to Genesis, I'm prepared to take it as a myth rather than a serious attempt at explaining the actual sequence of creation. I am also prepared to accept that it was written by men, a whole bunch of them, not all of whom bothered to read the stuff the guy before them had penned. For instance, in Genesis, there seems to be one author who tells the story of creation and specifically mentions that both male and female humans were created on day six. However, in the next chapter, which picks up after God's day of rest, Adam is kicking around Eden kind of mopey because all the other animals were created in males and females, but God didn't create any women, or anyone other than Adam, it seems. So, God creates woman on what is presumably day 8 at the earliest.

On the other hand, you can interpret the Bible as saying that God created lots of men and women on day 6 and put them all over the place, and it's just Adam who wound up in a particularly lonely spot. But then, if there are lots of people, when Adam and Eve sin, why is the sin passed on to all of humanity? The other humans didn't even meet Adam and suddenly they are stuck with dying all because some fruit got eaten. What a bummer.

The fact is that the Bible--and pretty much every other religious text--is full of stuff that makes no sense with even a little bit of thought. This is acceptable if it's written by men... men are constantly making no sense. But, if God had any influence on the writing of the Bible at all, shouldn't it be at least modestly more coherent? We're asked to believe that God is powerful enough to ignite stars, but as a literary editor, he can't even get to the second page of his biography without contradictions popping up? So, perhaps God, if he exists, had nothing whatsoever to do with this or any other holy book. In which case... what makes them holy?

I don't want to come across as specifically picking on you John. I'm glad you've stuck around to make your case. You're obviously someone who has put some thought into his positions. I can respect that.

John Brown said...


All my life I've been looking.

James, I don't feel picked on in the least. I find the issues and the way folks state them here enjoyable :)

The fact is that the Bible--and pretty much every other religious text--is full of stuff that makes no sense with even a little bit of thought

I agree that there are confusing and sometimes contradictory statements in holy texts.

On the other hand, there are a lot of assumptions in these posts about God and holy texts. Many issues resolve if the assumptions change.

1) I've already suggested different assumptions about the creation. Another assumption that we make (this ex nihlo business) is God made it all from scratch. Why do we assume this?

The text doesn't claim it.

If I say I made a cake, nobody thinks I brought eggs and butter forth out of thin air. Furthermore, if God was simply building, might he have employed some type of terraforming? Would he have imported things from another place? Not pan-spermia per se, but if we think about it this way many things become possible.

2) There's an assumption that God would make all records about himself infallible. It's all based on a specific set of premises about how God should work with man and the purpose of this life.

Again, nowhere does the text make this claim for itself.

What if a holy text isn't THE tool for disseminting truth? What if God values agency and isn't going to force people into never messing with original messages?

The assumption is that it's all about a test and the Bible or whatever is the text we're being tested on. What if that isn't the case?

One general theistic tradition keeps getting knocked down, but what if it was never the correct one to begin with?

Of course, then your next question is raised--if we can't count on an infallible book, then how can we know anything about God and what's the book good for anyway?

But before I suggest some answers to those questions, I want to make an observation.

I find it interesting that any lover of science and science fiction has a hard time imagining a God.

I can see how it might be difficult to accept some of the specific Gods offered up over the centuries, but the idea of a God in general?

We can imagine man terraforming planets, we can imagine immortality, genetic manipulation, technological singularity, even FTL travel, but we cannot imagine that there's a being out there who has already learned all this stuff?

I find this as geo-centric a view as any astronomy that suggests the universe was created solely for the inhabitants of this earth.

Is it not possible that somewhere else in this vast universe life exists and progressed long before humans ever arrived on this earth?

If so, then why is it so hard to imagine that they have progressed far enough to do what we say God has done? Build a world. Terraform it. Do things people not of his technological level find hard to explain.

It seems to me that it's difficult for science and SF not to lead the mind to a belief in supreme beings. Maybe not the specific beings described by any given creed, but certainly supreme beings.

And if this is a possibility, then why is it so hard to imagine that they just might be involved with us?

Of course, then we find it hard to imagine anyone without human failings. Anyone with that much power just pulls out a Death Star and begins to blow up worlds. Again, why do we limit ourselves to such a homo-centric view? In all the vast universe, nothing arose more benevolent than men?

Are you truly saying that you find the idea that life has arisen elsewhere and progressed past the intelligence found here on earth fantastically remote?

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