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.


Friday, May 22, 2009

Ten Reasons to Believe in God, part 8, 9, and 10

A few months ago, I launched my "Ten Reasons to Believe in God, or Why I am an Atheist" series. I think at this point, I've tackled six of the reasons. Below is the original list, hyperlinked to relevant posts:

  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) Note: This links to the same post, but my argument against the documentary evidence is in the comment section in two long posts down near the end. I'll consolodate all this into an actual essay eventually. Right now, I'd rather tackle fresh topics than rehash stuff I've already covered.)
  3. Eyewitness testimony (plenty of people have talked to God directly) Note: Again, this is an argument I made in the comments section of the linked post.
  4. The Super Alien hypothesis (All the attributes of God can be plausibly imagined and explained by SF authors so... why not?)
  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?) I haven 't tackled this one in a coherent fashion yet. Stay tuned.
  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.) See below.
  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?) See below.
  10. Just because. Nyah! (When all else fails, you can't argue with faith.) See below.

The last three arguments are, to my mind, the closest things to strawmen I included on my list. But, what can I say? I was struggling to fill out my list due to some strange cultural need to put every concievable topic into lists of ten. And, these are actual arguments I've encountered over the years; it's not like I'm just making them up to shoot them down.

Pascal's Wager: This is an agument made by the philosopher Pascal that, even though the existence of God can't be proven, you should live as if it's true, because you have everything to gain if it is true, and nothing to lose if it's false. If you believe in God and there is a God, presumably you go to heaven. If you believe in God and there is no God, you die and that's it. If you don't believe and there is a God, you go to hell. If you don't believe and there is no God, you die and that's it. Only the first of the four possible outcomes has a good conclusion, so you'd be an idiot not to shoot for it.

Plenty of people have tackled this argument, so forgive me if this is mostly a rehash of stuff you've heard before. The first argument is: Which God? You can't simultaniously believe in the God of Islam, the God of Christianity, the Hindu dieties, the Great Spirit, and Xemu. Pascal made his argument immersed in a culture of Christianity. Today, we know that the proposed choices are many: Choosing one faith may lead to your damnation in another faith. The argument fails because God isn't a single definable quality.

The second argument can boil down to: "If God is real, he's not an idiot." If you don't really believe, but act as if you do because you think it might lead to a reward, presumably, He'll know. Acting as if you believe when you don't really believe is just hypocricy, and Jesus specifically had no time to waste on hypocrits. Maybe Marduk is more forgiving.

So, we move on to the next argument: Respect for tradition. I honestly feel that this is the dominant reason for belief in God. Your parents believe in God. They take you to church where you are taught about God. Your extended family shares the same beliefs, and the friends you make in church form the foundation of your social circle. There's a very strong need for people to be part of their group. Many faiths have traditions of shunning members who wander. The consequences of formally leaving a faith can be devastating. An atheist who was formerly Mormon or Jehovah's witness might find themselves given the cold shoulder at family reunions... a fundamentalist Muslim might find himself beheaded at a family reunion. Peer pressure doesn't stop in high school.

Of course, this isn't just the negative argument: Stray and you will be punished. There's also the positive argument: You respect your parents and grandparents, and they made a pretty good life as devout Baptists, or Catholics, or Wiccans. You witness your father going out and doing something charitable--taking Christmas hams to the poor, maybe--and he tells you that he's doing it because the Bible says it's a good thing to care for those less fortunate. You've seen good people who credit their goodness to faith in God, and you want to be a good person. The virtues of your role models leads you to emulate their faith.

This is a tough argument to refute because it's not so much an argument as it is an ingrained human cultural behavior. Christian parents give birth to babies who are most likely to grow up as Christians. Buddhists give birth to future Buddhists. So it has been and so it shall be. If religion were really something people spent a lot of time thinking about, it seems like we'd see a lot more mixing of faiths within nations and families. And, to America's credit, we do see a lot of mixing. We are simply exposed to more faiths than our forefathers were. And, the more faiths you encounter, the harder it is to feel like your ancestors had a lock on the Holy Truth. Sure, you saw your parents delivering Christmas hams and learned that Christians are charitable. But, later, you go and help build a house with Habitat for Humanity and you find you're working beside a tattooed lesbian Buddhist who drives nails in a single strike and seems to really be happy with her place in the universe.

The most effective argument against "Respect for Tradition" is that a person paying any attention at all to the world will quickly come to realize there are hundreds of different traditions that are worthy of respect. Are all these charitable acts drawn from all these different traditions? Or is there something more fundamental at work? If you strip away all religion, would you find that humans would still be charitable? Might the good behaviors of humans be attributed to their humanity, rather than to divinity?

Which brings us, at last, to number 10: You can't argue with faith. Nyah! Long time readers of my blog know about my relationship with Laura Herrmann, who died of breast cancer three years ago. Laura believed in God. She wasn't a Christian, she didn't pray, but she felt, deep down, that there was some force in the world that gave meaning to everything. There was no name for her god, other than God. There was no religion. She just believed in a "guiding force." Someone was watching the light at the end of the tunnel.

Once she got sick, I certainly wasn't going to argue with her faith. She took comfort from it; it was a source of strength. But, early on the relationship, I'd talk a lot about my beliefs and would ask her to expand on her beliefs, and her whole argument was, essentially, "It's just what I feel." It is, perhaps, the ultimate argument ender. You can't really tell people that they aren't feeling what they are feeling, or that a feeling they may have is right or wrong. You can of course argue that people have their facts wrong, but Laura's argument was free of all facts. It was pure feeling. It was her hunch, and she was sticking with it.

I've argued in a previous post that my atheism is mostly an act of faith. You can intellectually refute all the factual claims made by various religions, but you can't actually prove the non-existance of an amorphous, undefinable God. So, to make that last leap from agnosticism to atheism is, for me, a leap of faith.

Before it sounds as if I'm in full retreat in the face of argument 10, let me make a counterargument. It may be fruitless and unrewarding to argue with the faith of others, but I personally find it to be highly rewarding to argue with my own faith. It may look to the casual reader like I've compiled this list of arguments for believing in God only to shoot them down and make myself feel more smug in my atheistic triumph. The truth is much more complex: I actually go out of my way to discover new arguments for God and against atheism because I enjoy testing what I feel. Laura may have been satisfied simply believing, but I like putting my brain into gear and grinding away at questions that may, ultimately, have no answers. I actually am excited by the possibility that I may discover that some of my fundamental assumptions are wrong.

By constantly questioning and challenging my own assumptions, I think I gain a few things. First, I believe I learn empathy by trying on the thoughts of others. I may not believe their arguments for believing in God, but I can see where they're coming from. I don't walk around assuming that the faithful are all deluded fools blind to the truth; I assume they have reasons for believing what they believe. Second, I find that spending hours thinking about this stuff is good for my creative life. My novel Dragonseed (coming soon!) is driven thematically by how much faith people should have in their leaders, and what paths one can follow to discern what is true. (Plotwise, it's driven by dragons biting people and people stabbing dragons. Also, dragons biting dragons and people stabbing people. In other bits, dragons stab dragons and people bite people. It's a work with many, many facets.) Anyone could make up a fictional world and fill it with heroes and monsters. What makes my novels interesting (I hope) are the thousand sleepless nights I've spent tossing and turning as I contemplate God and the Absense of God.

So, yes, you can argue, "this is just what I believe, so shut up," and I'll leave you alone. But I'm here to testify that beliefs you can examine and argue possess their own rewards.

At least, that's what I feel.


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