Monday, May 04, 2009

A pretty simple argument for theism. (Or at least not against it.)

Jessica Sideways addresses the question of why she criticizes theists. My church runs around 50/50 theist, though I've never heard an atheist express him or herself with Jessica's bluntness there. Pretty much all of it is stuff that has been addressed a million times, either you take Jessica's position or you don't.

A few examples in direct response to Jessica's examples: Yes, lots of blood has been spilled, theoretically in the name of God. Either you accept that in defending their God the people who spilled the blood got to put themselves in charge and that even more blood has been spilled over people wanting to be in charge with various other justifications, therefore were it not for religion those inclined to spill blood would just pick another reason, or you don't. I do.

Before the invention of the microscope, anyone who believed in bacteria had to, at best, say that their theory that bacteria existed was one of many theories that were possibly true. They could not show anyone bacteria or in any way prove that is wasn't imaginary. The people who didn't believe in bacteria were perfectly rational not to do so as the claim that bacteria existed surely sounded like a fairy tale.
But the people who believed in bacteria were still correct, as the invention of the microscope would eventually prove. So there is at least some precedent, in science no less, for people to believe in things they can't see and can't prove exist at this moment to turn out to be correct.

There are lots of people who justify science and religion co-existing various ways. To give my Christian parents' views as an example, which I like to do since they are smart folks, God designed a world that could be left on its own to grow and change. One of God's greatest gifts is freedom and the freedom to chose a mate that creates evolution is part of what plan God has, though it isn't our place to know God's plans, the degree to which things are planned and/or the level of detail. Stories like Adam and Eve and the Great Flood are meant to be taken as metaphor and if you think about them, provide valuable lessons. Biblical admonitions against the eating of shellfish that sound crazy now made a hell of a lot of sense in a world that wouldn't develop refrigeration for another couple of thousand years. Even if you don't believe that the ten commandments are God's rules, they make a lot of sense and we would live in a much more pleasant world if everybody took them as good advice and followed them.* Etc, etc, and soforth.

To further expand on the point, in an argument at Steve Caldwell's blog once, I made an analogy that I've always sort of liked, comparing belief in God to my appreciation of modern art. I assume for the sake of argument that one "chooses" to believe in God or not, something that I don't necessarily believe**. Anyway, I'm going to edit it what I wrote a smidge and re-post it here.

Dale McGovern wrote: Many, many theists express their supernatural belief as a necessary alternative to a world they otherwise see as cold, wonderless, and devoid of meaning.

CC responded: Just because someone says "A world without God would be cold, wonderless and devoid of meaning" does not mean they are choosing to believe in an imaginary God to please themselves.

I could say "a world without modernn art would be cold, wonderless and devoid of meaning" and that doesn't make Picasso a creature of my imagination.

You don't have to believe in modern art for modern art to exist, after all, and if modern art doesn't enrich your life, that doesn't mean that modern art isn't valuable to some people.

Steve Caldwell wrote: Given the amazingness of the natural world, do we need to "gild the lily" by adding a supernatural layer to this world we live in?

CC responded: You can say "Given the amazingness of the natural world, why do we need to 'gild the Lily' by having an style of art that focuses on finding new truths by looking for new ways of seeing and considering new materials and the nature of art itself?" all you want but:

1. Modern art still exists.

2. It's still a valuable thing that enriches the lives of those who appreciate it.

3. It gives a new perspective and new truths to those who believe in it and understand it.

At the same time, lots of people decide that modern art is a bunch of hooey and don't bother and/or only look at more representational older paintings.

Since much of the discussion has centered around a "What you see is what you get world," I will put my response in that framework.

If you don't go see Modern Art, you will never get it. You will get other things that you do see, but you won't get what you decide has no value and not to look for or at. If you superficially examine modern art and dismiss it without really understanding or appreciating what you're looking at, it's really not very surprising that you don't get much out of the exercise.

And that's up to you and fine, until you start saying "I don't see any value in modern art, so modern art must be valueless for everybody else, too."


* As one who is still considering divorce law as a potential profession, it saddens me to admit that they have a point there.

**Sitting right where you are, just for a moment, choose to believe that the moon is made of green cheese.

Go ahead. Do it. I will wait.




Can't do it, can you? Even if you really, really, try?

IMHO, all belief works about the same way. You believe or you don't and your desires to believe or not don't have much to do with it.

I have met one guy who, when given this exercise, claimed that he was able to turn on his belief in lunar cheese and turn it back off again like a light switch. That dude sorta scared me.


Joel Monka said...

"IMHO, all belief works about the same way. You believe or you don't and your desires to believe or not don't have much to do with it."

I agree. I speculated about that in this post , and finished with the question, "Is it possible that we can no more choose how we believe than we choose our sexuality?"

I tend to think we are born with a strong predisposition to belief or non-belief, just as we are born with a sexual orientation. While one may change from one specific religion to another, it's quite rare for one to change from a true believer to a hard atheist, and vice-versa.

This is something for theists and atheists alike to remember in their dealings with one another... talking about the horrors of religion is not going to make someone stop believeing, and talking about atrocities committed by atheists isn't going to make anyone start believeing... all you're going to do is make each other mad.

Jessica Sideways said...

I have to agree except for the fact that I see belief like addiction, you are guilty for the first cause as to why you start believing.

I'm of the opinion that if Christianity weren't so violent and against equality for all people, I wouldn't have such a problem with it. I would just see them like I would see some weird rock worshipping cult. But it's when it's hurting innocent people that I have to draw the line in the sand (no pun intended) and say no.

That's why I am so opposed to theism, or more specifically Judeo-Christian theism. I can't say much about Hindu theism but I know that for a long period of time, Jainism, Hinduism and Buddhism coexisted in India peacefully. Whereas in the middle east, we have wars against Muslims and an alliance of Christians and Jews.

Chalicechick said...

(((I tend to think we are born with a strong predisposition to belief or non-belief, just as we are born with a sexual orientation. While one may change from one specific religion to another, it's quite rare for one to change from a true believer to a hard atheist, and vice-versa.)))

Interesting. I will pass this specifically on to theCSO because you make a point that I've tried to make in his and my religion discussions before and not made as well.


kim said...

CC -- I do think Christianity is against equality. (as are most religions). After all, how many Christians would entertain the idea that Heaven is a democracy? That's supposed to be the real "Kingdom of God", and, well, it's a kingdom, not a democracy. Do you think they've rebelled and had a heavenly Magna Carta since we last checked?

Jess said...

Re "Christianity is against equality" :

That really depends on which Christianity you're talking about. They're not all the same, from one denomination to another or single congregation to another or even from one Christian to another. There is no ONE Christianity.

And it seems to me that none of the organized Christianities of today, particularly in the U.S., are the religion that history tells us Jesus himself practiced, which was all about equality, acceptance, and the dangers of fundamentalism in the Jewish faith as he saw it -- at least these are the things that have been written and passed down.

The "Christianity" that is vilified in many UU (and secular humanist) circles is a mixture of a fundamentalist approach to the Old Testament and a glorification of Jesus's violent end in the New Testament that together have become today's Evangelical fundamentalism. But we don't have to throw the baby out with the bath water just because many people have taken elements of those traditions and teachings and done horrible things to and with them.

I consider myself a theist but not a Christian, and find it insulting to be told that I'm the equivalent of a drug addict because I like the idea that the singular human being is not all there is to the universe, that there is something larger even if we don't know exactly what it is. It would be nice to have conversations like this without such hurtful analogies.

PG said...


I don't know how much you've read up on lynching, but it's actually quite rare for it to have been done by a "lone shooter" type. I think we've had this discussion before, but I'll just reiterate that lynching, unlike school shooting, actually was a social behavior. People would bring a goddamn picnic to watch a black man get strung up, and postcards were sold of it. It's more comparable to modern gay-bashing; people felt socially approved for doing it and didn't routinely try to kill themselves as well (as these mass murderers today often do). The school shooter type is much more typified by events like those described in "In Cold Blood."

fausto said...

To further complicate matters: you don't have to believe as a matter of unswerving faith that the moon is literally made of green cheese to be able to find meaning, at least occasionally, in the metaphor of a moon made of green cheese.

Jess said...

Fausto: EXACTLY.

I'm all for railing against fundamentalists, of all kinds (including the atheistic fundamentalism of Jessica Sideways, who wrote the post provoking CC's). But I think it's beyond useless to throw out millennia of religious thought because one doesn't like what others might do with it.

Steve Caldwell said...

Jess -- if you're using the "atheistic fundamentalism" term, I'm calling "Blake's Law" on this:

Blake's Law describes online and other discussions surrounding atheism and skepticism:

"In any discussion of atheism (skepticism, etc.), the probability that someone will compare a vocal atheist to religious fundamentalists increases to 100%."It's similar to "Godwin's Law" ("As a discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 100%"). Like Godwin's Law, anyone making a Blake's Law analogy automatically loses the debate.


Personally, I consider myself in the weak atheist - agnostic end of the atheist - theist spectrum. I don't believe because the evidence offered so far has been insufficient.

Furthermore, the trend in past 500 years in our culture has been moving away from theistic and supernatural explanations for the world to naturalistic explanations.

Over time, there is less and less for god or gods to do. Of course, it's possible for this trend to reverse itself. But there has been no sign of that happening.

Keep in mind that I'm not making any claims here about the existence or non-existence of god or gods -- simply an observation about the lack of evidence and the burden of proof falling on those who are making such claims.

Nor am I making any claims about the ethical implications of theism in this reply.

Jess said...

fun⋅da⋅men⋅tal⋅ism: –noun1. (sometimes initial capital letter) a movement in American Protestantism that arose in the early part of the 20th century in reaction to modernism and that stresses the infallibility of the Bible not only in matters of faith and morals but also as a literal historical record, holding as essential to Christian faith belief in such doctrines as the creation of the world, the virgin birth, physical resurrection, atonement by the sacrificial death of Christ, and the Second Coming.

2. the beliefs held by those in this movement.

3. strict adherence to any set of basic ideas or principles: the fundamentalism of the extreme conservatives.While the term fundamentalism does usually refer to militant Christianity, the third definition of the word, listed above, does encompass those who advocate One True Way theology of any kind -- those who insist that their answer is the only answer and that everyone else must conform because they're wrong otherwise. Go read the original linked post and tell me that's not what's happening there?

Just because one does not understand something does not make it wrong for everyone else -- a lesson for all sides of this issue.

fausto said...

Steve calls Blake's Law.

Fausto calls Blake's Law an irrelevant tautology and an invalid rebuttal.

To understand why, consider it in generic form: "As any discussion of A grows longer, the likelihood that someone will compare A to a B that possesses the substantive characteristics of A approaches 100%." Of course it does, because in fact they resemble one another. Pointing it out neither diminishes the resemblance nor invalidates the observation.

Chalicechick said...

As any given thing is discussed, the probability that any other thing will be compared to it goes up.

Now if you are discussing, say Camilla Parker Bowles and waiting for someone to compare her to a radish, the probablity will not approach 100 percent very fast, but it is surely more likely in a conversation with 1,000 posts about Camilla Parker Bowles that someone would compare her to a radish than in a conversation of 10posts.

who was content to leave it at that, but then Jana-who-Creates had to go and point out
that if you're discussing Prince Charles
and Tampons
the comparison will come up much faster.


fausto said...

Good point, although to extend it, the more similarity that exists between the two candidates for comparison, the more rapidly the probability approaches 100% that someone will think to compare them.

Steve Caldwell said...

Jess -- even if you think the original post from Jessica is an example of "fundamentalism" (and by extension compare the author to fundamentalists) does it really help create a respectful climate for discussion?

Throwing out the "fundamentalist" or "fundamentalism" label just puts the discussion on a fast-track to pissing off folks and derailing a respectful discussion. This is sorta like calling someone who is in favor of censorship or gun control a "Nazi" -- it just derails a discussion. And it may be an inaccurate exaggeration.

Yes ... there appears to be a lot of anger in Jessica's original blog post.

And given the marginalized place that atheism has in our society, anger may be an appropriate response for some persons.

Would you tell a woman who is angry over sexism in our society that her emotions are inappropriate?

Would you tell BGLT folks who are angry over heterosexism that their emotions are inappropriate?

Would you tell Jessica who is angry over the overt "Christofascism" in our society that her anger is inappropriate?

One of my favorite atheist bloggers is Greta Christina -- she wrote an excellent essay on the appropriateness of the "Blasphemy Challenge" and anger. Here's a brief quote:

"Now, maybe that's not fair. Maybe it's not fair to be sympathetic with atheists who are angry about religion, and yet expect religious believers to get over their anger about atheists. But I feel the same way about women's anger towards men versus men's anger towards women; queer folks' anger towards straight people versus straight peoples' anger towards queers. The difference is in which group has the power. And in this case, it's not atheists."

Here's a brief excerpt from Greta about the role of anger in social justice movements:

"So when you tell an atheist (or for that matter, a woman or a queer or a person of color or whatever) not to be so angry, you are, in essence, telling us to disempower ourselves. You're telling us to lay down one of the single most powerful tools we have at our disposal. You're telling us to lay down a tool that no social change movement has ever been able to do without. You're telling us to be polite and diplomatic, when history shows that polite diplomacy in a social change movement works far, far better when it's coupled with passionate anger. In a battle between David and Goliath, you're telling David to put down his slingshot and just... I don't know. Gnaw Goliath on the ankles or something.

But if you want to piss folks off, shut down communication, and deny the grievances that a marginalized community may have, keep on using the "fundamentalism" label. It's very effective for these purposes.

Chalicechick said...

I don't think anger is the smart way to approach injustice most of the time, especially in a Democracy where a crucial part of getting people to support your cause is convincing them that you and those who agree with you are people they can work with.

People love to discuss whether or not they are justified in being angry. I've never gotten the point of that. There have certainly been times in my life when I was rationally aware that I was unjustly and even pointlessly angry*. So what? I was still angry. Conversely, even if I think someone is justified in being angry, I'm unlikely to want to help them if I think their anger has blinded them to the most intelligent ways to solve their problems.

Anger and insulting people pretty much never gets you what you want. Especially when you're insulting the very people whose support you need to get what you want. Like it or not, women's rights didn't become a reality until men were convinced. The civil rights movement didn't get any teeth until white people started to vote for polticians that supported it.

And yeah, if you don't want people to compare you to Christian fundamentalists, the quickest way to make that stop would be to knock it off with the "anyone who disagrees with me believes in fairy tales" and that you do people a disservice when you "let them believe" things that aren't what you believe, and talking about people who disagree with you like they're stupid.

Even if you still think people who disagree with you are stupid, you're hurting your cause by telling the whole world your opinion on the matter.

I have been both a Christian and an atheist and literally no one, ever, in my entire life has called me a fundamentalist about either of those beliefs. (I'm tempted to write that no one has ever called me a fundamentalist at all, but Robin has probably called me a UU fundamentalist at some point.)

Anyway, that one possible counterexample notwithstanding, I don't get called a fundamentalist because I don't act like one. Theologically, conversion could not interest me less, collaboration could not interest me more.

Joe-the-Math guy wants to make a case for atheism here when he's done grading his exams. I invited him to post it as a full post because I'm willing to accept that I might be wrong and even if I'm not, that reasonable people can and do often disagree.


*I tend to get angry at situations rather than people. Those of us who share this quality live a life of frustration at times, but we do tend to have more friends.

Steve Caldwell said...


"Anger" can be a responsible part of the political process -- it's a variation on the "good cop / bad cop" approach.

The 1969 Stonewall riots are an example of effective anger.

Then CC wrote:
"Joe-the-Math guy wants to make a case for atheism here when he's done grading his exams. I invited him to post it as a full post because I'm willing to accept that I might be wrong and even if I'm not, that reasonable people can and do often disagree."One possible case is it's the conjecture that fits the available facts with the fewest assumptions.

Again, it's not the job of an atheist to defend the "null hypothesis." It's the job for folks making the theist claims to provide evidence for their claim.

Most atheists that I know don't make any claims beyond "the evidence for god or gods so far has been insufficient."

fausto said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
fausto said...

Steve says,

Yes ... there appears to be a lot of anger in Jessica's original blog postbut asks,

Jess -- even if you think the original post from Jessica is an example of "fundamentalism" (and by extension compare the author to fundamentalists) does it really help create a respectful climate for discussion?To which I answer, the “climate for discussion” was poisoned by Jessica, not Jess. I won’t try to diminish the pain and anger Jessica must feel at being unjustly victimized. Yes, Jessica is entitled to feel hurt and angry. Yes, she has been treated cruelly and spitefully. However, Jessica uses her feelings of anger to justify a wholesale attack on the validity of an entire belief system that does not, in fact, value the kind of cruelty she has suffered. Her response to an unjust attack is to issue another. Steve apparently condones this.

We UUs have been so conditioned to respond to unjust victimization with righteous indignation that we are tempted to identify victimization presumptively with righteousness. Elsewhere, I have called this “the soteriology of victimization,” and it is not only a false doctrine, but an absolutely evil one. Anger is a reality, but it is no excuse. Anger cannot make behavior right that without anger would be wrong. In reality, victimization far more frequently provokes a response of reciprocal and escalating unrighteousness than of purgation, transformation and restoration.

Rather than equating victimhood presumptively with inherent righteousness, I will adamantly insist that two wrongs don’t make a right. Responding to an old wrong by committing a new one is never right, but that is exactly what we see in Jessica’s bitter accusations. The righteous, just, restorative response would be to seek healing and wholeness for the victim and repentance and transformation for the oppressor, but Jessica instead uses her feelings of victimhood to lash out again, at others who don’t deserve to be wounded any more than she did.

What is “fundamentalism”? To me it connotes a sense of absolute, “fundamental” certainty in one’s way of looking at the world, together with a contemptuous intolerance of any contrasting view. In the original Christian sense, it arose as a defense in response to the dual challenges of text criticism and scientific discovery. However, whenever someone responds defensively to a similar threat with a similarly counterphobic attitude of aggressive absolutism and intolerance, to me, the attitude appears similarly “fundamentalist”. Those who exhibit such attitudes may be offended to be identified with others who share them, but that is no reason not to make the comparison if it validly applies. In Jessica’s case, her comments are every bit as intolerant, absolutist, oppressive bigoted, and unfair as any words that ever crossed Jerry Falwell’s lips.

And her anger only serves to magnify the similarity, not to justify it.

fausto said...

(hm, html formatting seems to be feeling rebellious today)

Steve Caldwell said...

CC wrote:
"I think that principle only holds true in the place of extraordinary claims and I think enough reasonable and rational people have made the claim that there is a God that theism is not conventionally considered an extraordinary claim and conventional wisdom gets to decide what's extraordinary, not you."CC -- actually, the burden of proof issue doesn't change as one moves from "ordinary" to "extraordinary" claims.

If one is speaking from a naturalistic - scientific perspective, the burden of proof is on the person making the claim.

I'm not making any claims about the existence of god or gods -- I'm simply commenting that we have a lack of evidence here.

Joel Monka said...

"I'm not making any claims about the existence of god or gods -- I'm simply commenting that we have a lack of evidence here."

This is a subset of CC's B. You still demand the right to define what is and is not evidence. There is no lack of evidence. In fact, there's evidence enough to convince hundreds of millions of people. You're still insisting that what *YOU* see is what *WE* get. If you say "We don't have God's mug shots and fingerprints", fine, cool, I'm down with that. If you say "I'm incapable of believeing anything I haven't personally seen", fine, we have no problem. I'm not trying to convert you. But "There is no evidence" is so often merely the first sentence of what many atheists say outright, and even your words occassionally seem to imply, that believers are idiots and/or emotional cripples who can't handle reality.

I'll make you a deal: I'll stop using the phrase "fundamentalist atheists" if you stop saying "There is no evidence".

Chalicechick said...

(((I'm not making any claims about the existence of god or gods -- I'm simply commenting that we have a lack of evidence here.)))

Right, and that point was addressed in my post. Once there was a lack of evidence for bacteria, bacteria still existed.

That, if one chooses to define "evidence" your way there is a lack of evidence is not something that will surprise anyone on this blog.


fausto said...

My Unitarian Jihad t-shirt has a picture of a revolutionary cadre with clenched fists holding up a book titled, "Reason and logic, dammit!" Let's run with that.

One of the classic logical fallacies is:

If A, then B.
A is false.
Therefore B is false.

It's a fallacy because A is not a necessary condition of B. A can be false while B remains true.

Steve's argument takes the same form:

If I see evidence of God, he must exist.
I see no such evidence.
Therefore no one should take his existence as a seriously credible proposition.

Here's another classic fallacy:

Some A's are B.
Therefore A = B.

Again, it's a fallacy because A is not a necessary condition of B. There can be B's that are not also A.

Jessica's argument takes the same form:

Some Christians are hateful, bigoted, violent and hypocritical.
Therefore all Christianity is hateful, bigoted, violent and hypocritical, and has nothing of value to offer anyone.