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.


Sunday, February 08, 2009

Ten Reasons to Believe in God (or Why I am an Atheist)

While I frequently discuss atheistic themes on this blog, I've never thought about writing an actual book on the topic before. But, today while I was out for a walk, a book title popped into my head: Ten Reasons to Believe in God (or, Why I am an Atheist).

The book would take the very best ten arguments for the existence of God, or at least for reasons we should act as if there is a God, and tackle the arguments one by one.

In the comments of my previous post, I found myself playing devil's advocate with Mr. Cavin over "evidence" for God. But, the truth is, while I put forth this evidence tongue in cheek, plenty of people take holy documents as literal truth, and believe eye-witness testimony. There are others who look at DNA and see a code that could only be the product of intelligent design. Some people see evidence all around us that humanity has been visited and guided by superior intelligence since the dawn of time.

Still, I wracked my brain trying to come up with ten reasons that weren't obvious straw men. Here's the best I could do:
  1. Argument from design (life is just too complex to have arisen randomly... AKA the watch in the beach argument).
  2. Documentary evidence (various holy texts)
  3. Eyewitness testimony (plenty of people have talked to God directly)
  4. The Super Alien hypothesis (see the previous post)
  5. The God Shaped Hole (Something in the human psyche needs God. Why would this be if there was nothing there to fill that need?)
  6. The Master Plan (Life is too full of meaningful coincidence not to think there isn't a guiding intelligence behind it.)
  7. The Unthinkable Alternative (We must believe in God because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate. Take God away and we'll all be cannibals inside of fifteen minutes.)
  8. Pascal's wager (You have more to gain by believing in God than you do by believing in no-God.)
  9. Respect for tradition (My father, my grandfather, my greatgrandfather, etc. all believed in God and it worked out great for them. Why disrespect a winning formula?)
  10. Just because. Nyah! (When all else fails, you can't argue with faith.)

So, am I missing something? Do any of these feel like overly obvious straw men (even if some are worded somewhat playfully)? Is there an even better argument than these that I'm overlooking?


Eric James Stone said...

Perhaps you're lumping this in with "eyewitness testimony," but there's also personal testimony: having felt the influence of God in one's own life. I think it's different from eyewitness testimony because that relies on believing what someone else says about their experience, while personal testimony is about believing in God due to personal experience.

James Maxey said...

Eric, you're right, I'm including that as "eyewitness testimony," though I do appreciate the subtle distinction you're making.

There's also a bit of interaction with reason #10, Just Because (You can't argue with faith.) I can't really argue that you shouldn't believe the testimony of your own brain. I once knew a woman who believed in ghosts because she had personally interacted with one. There was no question she was being honest that she'd had this experience. And yet... I don't believe in ghosts. In the specific details of her encounter I found reasons to doubt her interpretation of the experience, if not the experience itself.

I grew up in a church that placed a great deal of weight on personal testimony. Every week, people would stand up and "witness." Some of this involve prophecy of messages received directly from the Lord. This is how I learned He was coming back in 1978.

I also had a Sunday School teacher who had personally experienced an alien abduction, but that's a whole 'nother can of worms. Unless it's all the same can.

The question I would ask of people who believe the eyewitness testimony of others when the speak of supernatural encounters is: How do you pick and choose who to believe? You can't believe everyone, due to the contradictions built into the diverse testimony. What would the objective standard of judgement be?

John Brown said...

James, I think the question you pose is incredibly fundamental and important.

There are the reasonable tests that we all apply, just as you did with the person who interacted with a ghost. But I think the most important way to verify someone else's testimony is direct evidence you obtain yourself that confirms the testimony is true.

John Brown said...

James, since it appears the topic is still on-going, I thought I'd point out you're missing the most important evidence here. All of these 10 are evidences from an observer's point of view.

However, it seems to me that any religion should be able to say, "don't take my word or logic at face value--you can be a direct witness yourself. Here are the conditions. Run the experiment yourself."

The real proof is in replicating test results. Meeting the conditions and either obtaining the same results (direct verification) or not.

In my mind, this list is incomplete until this reason is added.

James Maxey said...

John, one problem is that if you tried to verify every religious claim people make, you'd spend your whole life pursuing claims. Presumably, you don't believe in the claims of Wiccans. Why not? Have you actually attended their ceremonies? Stripped off your clothes and danced around the fire a little? Buddhists also make claims about transcending this reality, often by chanting and meditation. Have you pursued these claims? I've attended church services where the Holy Ghost entered the room and people started speaking in tongues. Would you be willing to attempt to enter the prayerful, trancelike state that the worshippers enter before glossalia ensues? How about voodoo? Would you slit the throat of a cock and invite the loa to enter you? Would you attend black mass at the Church of Satan? Pay to be hooked up to an e-meter by a scientologist? Allow a past life counselor to hypnotize you so that your previous lives could flood back into your memories? Confess your sins to a catholic priest? Make a pilgrimage to mecca? Smoke pot until you see the face of Ja?

In order to possess a faith--be it Mormon or Muslim or Marducian Mysticism--you have to reject the claims of thousands of other faiths.

I have no doubt you have experienced mytical, transcendant moments when you were certain you were in touch with a higher power. But, I also believe that other people also experience these things and wind up attributing them to a different God who gives them different guidance. And, I feel like I have also experienced these pseudo-mystical moments where I feel as if I'm channeling some universal force. It can come to me when I'm writing. It can seize me when I'm listening to music. I fell full force into it the other night while devouring a damn hamburger.

But rather than becoming a burgurfarian, I assume that this is just a normal function of the human mind. Our brain chemistry sometimes takes us strange places. There are shared ways of getting to these places: Music and chanting seem to play a role in several traditions, meditation and prayer in others, fasting, the search for release from deep seated guilt, the search for release from the essential isolation of being an individual.

If you believe that others experience these transcendent moments, but don't believe their interpretations, why should you give your own interpretation any more weight? Or, are you and a chosen few in touch with the universal truth, while the rest of the world is utterly deluded?

One more thing, kind of veering off topic, but something I was thinking of the other night: Why are so many religious claims so damn recent? Suppose Jesus did come down and deliver the word of God 2000 years ago. What took him so long? People have been around for tens of thousands of years. Why did God wait so long to start putting his rules in writing? Why did he choose such narrow bands of people to talk to? Why, for instance, did he choose a small tribe of goat herder to make his own while despising and disowning Egyptians and Philistines and Indians and the Chinese and the Celts and the australian aborigines?

I can never prove there are no gods. But, I feel like I have good and appropriate reason to approach any claim made with a fair degree of skepticism. I don't view mystical experiences as proof because they are so common and so conflicting. And once you strip that away... what's left?

John Brown said...

James, they're good questions. And whether the task merits the effort is an individual call. But the task not as big as you make it out to be. Besides, if we were to reject all large tasks, we would have have to abandon research into cures for all manner of disease.

But here's the point: you don't have to verify all the thousands of religions.

A. Most don't claim you can get verification. That takes a huge chunk out.

B. Once you've received a direct answer on one thing, it often excludes other things, e.g. once you've caught the Sasquatch and pulled off his mask, a number of speculations fall by the wayside.

C. There's fuzzy, late night burger joy and then there's direct, clear communication. Not the same thing at all. You keep wanting to lump all supernatural experiences togther. If it were me, I'd want to try the clear communication first. This narrows the field down even further.

Furthemore, I don't understand why you say believing in one religion means you must reject everything else. In the realm of science, just because I think dinosaurs were more bird than reptile doesn't mean I have to reject everything about the reptile version. There is sometimes huge overlap. And while some scientific models are incompatible, we talk about more complete or more predictive models all the time. Why should it be any different in religion?

On your third point. Who says any one scientist's experiments are any more valid than another's? You run the test and you either were careful to meet the conditions or you weren't. You either get the results or you don't. What else is there to say? There's no special status. All one person can say is I ran the experiment, these are my results. Why do you want to treat this any differently?

Finally, your issue with records and peoples assumes a number of things that may not be correct.

(1) We don't have ANY records of earlier periods, so this isn't specific to religious texts.

(2) Just because one record was preserved doesn't mean there weren't others made. Nor does it mean God didn't talk to other peoples at different times and places. It just means only one text made it through. I would think early texts written in wet environments would quickly decay.

(3) You assume if God speaks, people will automatically record, preserve, and obey. And then transmit to their children generation after generation. And that there will be no changes. This defies history. It defies human nature. Who's to say he didn't communicate to individuals among the Celts and early Indians? The best we can say is we don't know. You keep assuming a God of tests. That may be an incorrect assumption.

(4) Not all religions believe that God spoke only once to one small sliver of people. Again, you cannot take issue with one idea and paste every religion with it.

I think it would be stupid not to be skeptical. At the same time, I think it's profitiable to examine whether we're making this area clear a bar set higher than other areas of equal ramification.

John Brown said...

I don't view mystical experiences as proof because they are so common and so conflicting. And once you strip that away... what's left?

I guess I can be more succicnt. So don't go for mystical. Go for direct and clear.

James Maxey said...

I guess you and I have different standards of what constitutes direct and clear evidence.

The direct and clear evidence you speak of comes down to internal experiences. When God speaks to you, or the Pope, or Pat Robertson, he does it in private. It's a brain event--possibly even a sensory event--but it leaves no physical or external evidence. Pat Robertson, the Pope, and you, can tell other people that you've spoken to God, but you can't provide photographs, voice recordings, skeletons, DNA, or other evidence. (I suppose the pope can trot out the shroud of Turin and some nails from the true cross, but that's a different argument.)

Scientists ask me to believe in things I can't see and can't directly witness. But, I can't think of a single claim they make that relies purely on personal experience. If they tell me the world is covered with microscopic creatures, they can provide me with microscopes to look at these creatures, and photographs of them, and genetic sequences, and drugs that kill them. If they claim that birds descended from dinosaurs, they can show me the imprints of feather and the anatomical matches between t-rex and turkeys. Darwin didn't just receive the idea of natural selection through a wise and knowing voice in his head--he went out and collected bugs and skulls and finches. He built a vast collection of physical evidence, then made an argument based on evidence that other people could judge.

No similar evidence exists for claims made by the world's religions. The only evidence we are given are things indistinguishable from imagination and fiction.

The communications of god are often shockingly mundane. God tells drunks to stop drinking. He tells misers us to be kind to their neighbors. He tells people not to worry about things beyond their control. His communications are mostly common sense.

Where are the bones? Where's the videotape? Where's the x-ray photo? I'm not asking God to jump a higher bar than dinosaurs, bacteria, or comets.

John Brown said...

The direct and clear evidence you speak of comes down to internal experiences.

I've been unclear because that's not accurate. It's NOT limited to internal experiences. Seeing and hearing God and angels are certainly two ways of interacting. In fact, seeing and hearing are fundamental and possible. But it is true that the most common communication is internal.

I think I finally see your issue. However, I don't see why such communication should be discounted. It does require the premise that there's a way to recieve such communications as part of our makeup. But that's not such a difficult thing to assume.

However, I don't think that assumption is your issue. Nor do I think it's about why God might communicate about seemingly mundane things.

It seems your issue is that you can't see a way to distingush between this type of supposed communication from God and other internal insights or feelings.

I think that's a valid question. But it's not one without answers. In my experience there are times when it is possible to confuse the two. But there are other times when the communication is unmistakeable. But to describe it would be like trying to describe salt to someone who had never tasted it. Like any sensory input, it has to be experienced to be understood.

I think the desire to have a clear answer, not something you could question and wonder about, is exactly what we should seek in this matter. So the test isn't to feel something. I can eat grapes and feel something. Nor is it to get an idea. I get ideas that jazz me all the time. The test is to get a communication that's clearly from God.

But to make the effort to run that experiment requires one to entertain the idea that such a thing is possible.

I've not tried to provide reports of the many people who have run the experiment and obtained these particular results, myself included, that would support entertaining such an idea. Because that would be trying to convince you to some action, and I don't think that was the intent of the blogs.

But I will say this. Until someone has tested, I think the only honest thing they can say is that they don't know if it's true, and to this point they haven't found enough reason to motivate them to check it out.

Would you agree?

Izgad said...

"1. Argument from design (life is just too complex to have arisen randomly... AKA the watch in the beach argument)."

This is the weaker version of the teleological argument. A far stronger version is to point to the constants in the laws of physics. For example the fact that H2O is denser in a liquid state (water) than it is in a solid state (ice). If it were not for this little quirk life could not evolve. Pointing to the laws of physics being just right for the creation of life is important. It gets around the issue of evolution. Also, and for me this even more important, it actually points in the direction of a traditional deity, outside of the physical world. The standard Paley argument, even if we accepted it, would only point to a highly sophisticated alien, a physical being of this universe still bound by the laws of physics.

James Maxey said...

Thanks for joining in the coversation, Izgad. I'm not certain, however, how it follows that the laws of physics point to evidence of intelligent design. It's true that our universe exists within some tight tolerances. If gravity were a little weaker suns might never have been able to form. If carbon compounds didn't have the ability to join in long protien strings, the material world as we know it would be a very different place.

But, the fact we are here to observe these physical laws is sort of a philosophical axiom. In a universe where these laws didn't exist, we couldn't exist to discover them. (I'm sure this argument has some formal name, since I've heard it a zillion times before, but I don't know what it's called.)

The overlying theme to all these arguments is that our current existence is so unlikely it couldn't have arisen just by chance, but must be evidence of a guiding hand.

However, unlikely events can and do occur every single day. We live in a world absolutely dripping with unlikely events. For instance, right now in the US, there are undeniably hundreds of people who live among us who have won millions of dollars in lotteries. I'm willing to bet that many of these lottery winners had hunches, or said prayers, or felt like they had only one last hope left when they won. With many, it would probably be very difficult to convince them that there wasn't some guiding force that chose them as winners.

Yet, if you could rewind time by fifty years, then bring it back to today, we'd have a completely different set of lottery winners. The unlikely events would still occur, they would just occur with different results. Similarly, if you could rewind time far enough, mankind might never arise from the chance string of events. We live in an unlikely world, but the world of the dinosaurs was equally unlikely, as was the world of trilobites.

We might argue that it's extremely long odds that would allow our world to exist in the perfect range from the sun to allow the formation of liquid water. But, we are now looking out among the stars and discovering, that, yeah, there are thousands of solar systems where this didn't happen. The odds might eventually prove to be a billion to one. But... there are way more than a billion solar systems. We just happen to be on the one.

Sorry if this is somewhat rambling. I've been editing the galleys of my latest novel, and after a certain amount of that my brain turns to mush.

Izgad said...

Thank you James for responding to me. I recently read Bitterwood so it is an honor to be able to speak to you. The purpose of my comment was not to argue for or against it. (I am not a physicist so I do not view myself as qualified to comment one way or another.) This is just an argument that I have seen used and it strikes me as a way to get around some of the obvious problems of the traditional design argument. Let us assume for the moment that the physics for this argument work out. Even with this argument you still have the problem of getting design. It is not enough to simply go from something being complex and unlikely to there being a designer. That being said there is still the issue of the less problematic alternative. Either the universe just by chance seems to run on laws that are uniquely suited for life or we something or someone fixed them to operate as such. It would seem that this is enough of a reason to at least put theism across the line into the realm of serious plausibility. As opposed to the traditional design argument which at this point can safely be ignored. When strange things happen I am going to look for some sort of mechanism either the role of the dice, the lottery, natural selection or if I get into a real jam I may start to finger that theism card and begin to weigh that against some theoretical naturalistic explanation that we do not yet possess.

James Maxey said...

Glad you enjoyed Bitterwood, Izgad. If you're interested I just posted the galleys of the first three chapters of Dragonseed, the concluding book of the Bitterwood trilogy. There should be a link on the right side of the page called "Galley Slave." That will lead you to the link to the galley.

And, if you enjoy debating religion, stick around. Once I get the galleys behind me, I plan to keep tackling my top ten list.