Seek And You Will Find

Bordeaux ObservatoryI have been debating on Fallen & Flawed again. This time myself and a couple of other skeptics have become engrossed in a long conversation with guest poster Rob, who has shown considerable determination to answer our questions and protests, despite moving house over the past few days. I expect he is a competent juggler too.

My most recent comment became so long that I thought it worth making an entire post out of it. It’s also a theme that I’ve heard before but never directly addressed. The quote below is Rob touching on a subject of some interest to me, that of divine concealment. (Unsurprisingly we’d deviated significantly from the topic by this point).

I personally find myself not seeking Him more than Him hiding from me. Something about if you seek you will find.

I think I understand what Rob is saying. If he believes something with certainty, it must look like laziness or stubbornness on the part of non-believers not to see what seems so obvious to him. However, I think there are some problems with the claim “seek and you will find”.

Firstly, many atheists have spent a good deal of time seeking and never finding anything more than our own feelings, fellowship of others – nothing that could fairly be called “God”. That’s why we ended up atheists. A few of us have never believed nor tried to, but most have given at least one religion a go. To the believer perhaps this means they “Weren’t truly seeking”, but to me it shows that “seek and you will find” is often false.

Secondly, this kind of justification can be used for pretty much any belief system.

Imagine you’re a Sihk who is doubting their path. Perhaps the Sikh religion is an interesting idea with some worthwhile moral lessons, but also falsehoods and irrelevancies that can put unnecessary divisions between people when they disagree on points of doctrine. Another Sikh gives this advice.

“At the end of the day, Guru, Shri Guru Granth Sahib [Sikh holy book] is the door to Waheguru [God/Wonderful Teacher].”

Muslim woman at prayerWhat if you’re a Muslim who isn’t feeling Allah’s love? Maybe Allah isn’t there at all? No, apparently you’ve just got to take the time to study harder.

Say you’ve tried Buddhism, but you’re struggling with meditation and still experiencing a life of suffering.  Perhaps Buddhism is not the answer to everything? No, apparently you’re just not doing it right. Obviously it’s because you still have an incorrect understanding of your own person and have not yet eliminated the negative actions which are affecting your Karma.

You’re not trying hard enough

The same thing seems to happen with prayer. When it doesn’t work this can’t, for some reason, be counted as evidence against the chosen deity, despite what the Bible says. No, when it doesn’t work it’s not that the god simply isn’t there. It’s because you’re doing it wrong in some way. I’ve already covered why I think intercessory prayer is a ridiculous idea, so I won’t get started on that again.

Now, I’m not saying that the near-universal, “It’s your fault” response to religious failures is necessarily wrong. If there’s anything to these world views it’s perfectly possible that people are just not getting it right.

My point is that it is definitely not the only possible explanation and to suggest otherwise indicates bias.

However, it is a very convenient explanation and, as we’ve seen above, it’s a great way to justify something whenever the evidence contradicts your claim. It’s like a Joker/Get out of jail free card that religious believers of all stripes can deploy when their claims fail.

Atheism, Agnosticism, Definitions and Misunderstandings

Leprechaun with goldIt seems some things need repeating. RD Rauser at Christian Post recently demanded evidence for atheism. Despite a number of atheists taking time to explain that it doesn’t make any sense to provide evidence for something’s non-existence including some excellent analogies using leprechauns, it seems the believers on the site still didn’t get it. Disappointingly, neither did he try to provide evidence for the non-existence of leprechauns. That would’ve been good.

One thing they insisted on repeating was that atheists are making a positive claim about the non-existence of God (we’d say “gods”, actually). Apparently, unless we’re certain, we should all be calling ourselves agnostics. Not shy of telling atheists what it is they believe, paracletus commented,

“Atheism” (speaking slowing with only the slightest bit of condescension) means belief in the non-existence of God.
And, once again, if one has BELIEF in the non-existence of God, one has a belief. One does not have the NON-BELIEF in God, which is agnosticism; one has the BELIEF in the non-existence of God.
I honestly don’t care what you are, but the term means something.

Here’s how I understand the difference between atheism and agnosticism. Atheism and theism describe beliefs. Theists are people who believe in one or more gods. Atheists are people who do not believe in gods.

People in either of these groups can also be agnostic. By agnostic I mean “without knowledge”, uncertain.

Theists believe in a God, but some may not be completely certain about it. They are still theists. They believe, but they do not know. We might call them “agnostic theists”.

Likewise atheists can lack a belief in gods, yet be agnostically uncertain about that. They may have considered various forms of theism carefully and found them lacking (Explicit Atheism), or, as in the case of a new-born child, they may never have considered the possibility of gods (Implicit Atheism).

Varieties of atheismI think it’s still correct and normal to call all these people “atheists”. More specifically this is sometimes called “agnostic atheism”, “weak atheism” or “negative atheism”. Wikipedia.org provides a more thorough explanation. However, “atheist” is a shorter and simpler term which encompasses all these things. Most atheists are not philosophy geeks (despite what you might think from reading the Internet), so I can’t blame them for using the single word to describe their non-belief.

As PhillyChief pointed out, the vast majority of atheists are “weak atheists”, those who’d say, “I don’t believe in a god”. They don’t “claim knowledge of the non-existence of gods”.

I think the confusion arises when a weak atheist describes their belief by saying something like,

“There are no gods”.

At which point a theist jumps up and points at him with a retort along these lines,

“Ah-ha! You made a positive claim, provide evidence or you’re just as irrational as believers!”

Strictly speaking the theist is right. It is a positive claim. However, I think unless stated otherwise this is generally the weak atheist being lazy in their speech. The majority of atheists who say this kind of thing are not claiming 100% certainty, nor intending to make some positive truth claim.Gruffalo book

To be completely accurate, they should say,

“I do not believe there are any gods.”

But most people aren’t concerned with being completely accurate in their everyday speech, so we fall into bad habits. When I say,

“There’s no such thing as a gruffalo.”

I am expressing my fairly-confident belief, not a 100% certainty. But yes, to be completely accurate perhaps I should say,

“Based on my experience, I do not believe that gruffalos exist.”

With self-proclaimed “professional philosophers” such as paracletus around I guess I should be using the latter phrase in all cases. Presumably even if it spoils the rhyme. If I don’t then I could be asked to provide evidence for my claim about gruffalos.

Why all the fuss?

If you read the comments following RD Rauser’s post, you’ll see a great deal of effort on both sides of the debate (some 84 comments at the time of writing). When paracletus said, “I honestly don’t care what you are…” he was telling a bit of a fib. Yet, to the rest of the world the distinction is academic and I’m sure most people I know would exasperated by the amount of electronic ink being spilled over it. Why do theists care so much about the precise definition of an atheist?

I can only speculate. My guess is believers feel that agnostics can be more easily ignored; after all, they’re not sure. Meanwhile if all other atheists can be characterised as strong atheists, they bear an equal burden of proof as theists and arguably look equally irrational. Perhaps this is an unconscious “smear” tactic by believers who, on some level, know their beliefs are irrational and so insist that everyone else’s beliefs are likewise.

Atheists care about this issue in part because it is their own beliefs being discussed and their rationality questioned. I think it’s important that atheism is understood by all and not allowed to become the subject of unchallenged ridicule and demonisation. I applaud sites such as Ask The Atheists for their helping people to understand atheism better. I get the impression that RD Rauser and friends are more interested in derision than understanding.

Review: 50 reasons people give for believing in a god

I stumbled upon Guy P. Harrison‘s book in an online bookshop, knowing very little about it. When buying some other books I added it to my shopping basket on impulse hoping that it would give some insight into the psychology of belief. However, psychology isn’t really what the book is about so in that respect I was disappointed. 50 reasons people give for believing in a god is instead a series of responses to the most commonly cited reasons for god-belief, intended to promote critical thinking. Despite the above misunderstanding, I’m glad I shelled out for it because it is, in many respects, an excellent book.

What 50 reasons is not is a book of complex theology. You’ll find little discussion of apologetics, no mention of the Kalam Cosmological Argument, nor any discussion of, for example, what text was or was not interpolated into Josephus’ writings. The author aims to treat all religions equally and so doesn’t spend a disproportionate amount of time on any one belief. Each chapter is prompted by the justifications that ordinary believers across the world have given Guy on his travels, so the book is accessible and relevant to the ordinary person. Examples of the 50 reasons include, “My god is obvious”, “Our world is too beautiful to be an accident” and “Without my god we would have no sense of right and wrong”. I’m sure these are all arguments that those of us who frequent atheist blogs or debate with believers will have heard before, perhaps many times. In which case, the brief discussions in 50 reasons probably won’t be particularly new. What is noteworthy is the tone of this book.

It’s not that Guy Harrison compromises with regard to evidence; he never seems to shrug his shoulders and say, “Well maybe your religion is true”. Instead he makes simple observations and encourages the reader to make comparisons with other beliefs from around the world. The book is clearly intended to speak to god-believers and to get them to think more critically about their beliefs. With that in mind the author goes to some effort to avoid insulting them. For example, when interviewing a believer who claims to feel his god when he prays, Guy describes the problems faced by a skeptic.

“I asked the believer who said he had heard a god how he can be sure that he did not imagine it. It was at this point that I began to sense his rising irritation and decided not to push any further. So how does one question this amazing but common claim of personal contact with a god?”

The answer he comes up with becomes a reoccurring theme in the book. There are thousands of gods that people have believed in. Those believers have had similar experiences and present the same arguments as you – so why should these arguments work better for one god than any other? By treating all religions with equal skepticism and making reasonable comparisons, the arguments for belief are shown to be weak and often flawed.

The book’s simple approach has obvious benefits – 50 reasons is very readable. Probably the most readable book I’ve read on religion or atheism. The author is an accomplished journalist rather than an academic and the style of language is as accessible as you would expect. There are some great insights in the book, many of which will be familiar, but they are expressed with such simplicity and clarity that I found them sticking in my mind. One of my favourite quotes is in chapter 41, “Science can’t explain everything”.

“Gaps in our scientific knowledge are not shortcomings or failures. They are shining examples of why science is better than religion. Science can’t answer everything because science doesn’t cheat by providing answers without evidence.”

Noting the simple style is not to say that the book lacks real content or research. To his credit, Guy Harrison has obviously done his homework and 50 reasons contains some good examples, research and anecdotes to illustrate his points. A good example is in chapter 10 – “Believing in my god makes me happy”. Guy cites research surveying some eighty-thousand people worldwide to discover the world map of happiness. As it turns out, some of the happiest countries are also the least religious.

Superficial?

Critics of 50 reasons have accused it of being superficial and lacking the detail of other similar books. It’s true that others can and have written entire books discussing the points which Guy Harrison covers in short, roughly 5-page, chapters. However, that’s not what this book is about. To thoroughly debunk all religions ever would require many volumes and probably amount to several lifetimes’ work. In any case, as the author points out, the vast majority of believers don’t believe because of convoluted apologetic arguments; they may not even be aware of them.

Conclusions

In my opinion, 50 reasons is the ideal book for a non-believer to swap with a believer as part of an attempt to understand each other’s points of view. I’ve previously taken part in book swaps with believers and found them worthwhile. So I look forward to lending 50 reasons to my religious friends; I’d even consider buying additional copies for this purpose.

But is it worth reading, even for the well-read atheist who isn’t planning a book-swap? Well, such a person may not learn much about the arguments against religion from the book, but the concise insights, style and tone are worth experiencing. It demonstrates a different approach to debating with believers – one which I think is more suitable to discussions with friends and colleagues, especially in person. In these situations it is more important to keep things simple and amicable, whilst encouraging critical thinking. I must confess that several times I’ve made valid arguments which were insensitive and relationships have suffered as a result. I think the approach Guy Harrison uses in 50 reasons is a good example which I’d like to emulate in future.

Being A Curious Skeptic

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The thoughtful Christian blogger Demian Farnworth asked me recently,

…what do you hope to get out of talking to me? I’m seriously curious.

Which is a fair question. I’ve been asked similar things by other believers. I’m sure I’m not the only atheist who has been told to ask God to open their spiritual eyes. I know I’m not the only person who spent years trying this and got nothing but their own thoughts (aside:  If God actually opened your eyes it might be somewhat more shocking).

I spend a fair bit of time commenting on other people’s blogs. Often I think believers are unsure if I’ve come to mock and argue or whether I really want to know all about their beliefs. Am I just arguing for the sake of argument? Do I want to change their minds? Am I genuinely willing to change my mind? Why do I get into these debates?

For the sake of argument

I don’t actually like heated arguments. So I try to stick to the Socratic method, asking questions to help me understand and reveal flaws in other people’s arguments.

Changing other people’s minds

Yes, I admit I’d like to change people’s minds. Doesn’t everyone? Most of the beliefs I discuss here and on other blogs I consider to be mistaken. I feel an instinctive desire to put people right, educate them if possible. Whether they’ve said that atheists have no morals or that testimonials are a good indication of truth I’d at least like to encourage them to think a little more critically about their beliefs. Although some believers have expressed shock that atheists might want to convince people that they’re right, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to make a case for what you believe and express your opinion. Others can do the same, maybe we’ll all learn something.

I know many non-religious people think it’s unrealistic to try to de-convert believers by debating with them. Believers seem impervious to reason. In many cases, I’m sure that’s true, but there’s also clear evidence that atheist and humanist writing on the web can have a positive influence on readers’ thinking. Perhaps my blog and comments haven’t yet changed anyone’s mind or pointed them in the right direction, but it is something I aspire to. Somebody said that false beliefs lead to bad decisions, which is one reason I try to find out what is true and help others do the same.

Changing my mind

I am absolutely willing to change my mind. If I see that there is good evidence of something I have no choice but to change my mind. For example, let’s say I see a specific prediction made by a psychic looking at a human hand. Something that could not have been influenced or come about by chance like, “In three weeks time an asteroid will crash outside your house causing you to spill leek and potato soup on your trousers”. I’ve already changed my mind about palmistry once, I’d have to do so again if the evidence was there. The same is true of religion. If believers can provide me with satisfactory answers to the many gaping holes and paradoxical illogicalities in their religion and provide me with some reasonable evidence, I’d be happy to reconsider. Alternatively, if a god or gods show up in an unambiguous way making it clear which religion they represent (an intricate flower could represent any religion or none), then I’d be a believer.

Yes I’d have to admit that I was wrong, but I think it would be worth it to then be right. I wonder if the people I debate with would say the same?

cat_curiousThat said, I’m reasonably confident that I’m right about philosophical naturalism. I’d say I’m about as certain that there are no gods nor genuine psychic fortune tellers as I am that the Earth orbits the sun. Not 100% certain by any means, but pretty close. I don’t expect to see amputated limbs regrow before my eyes or orbs of light behaving intelligently, but I’m keeping my eyes open. Keeping your eyes open is the reasonable thing to do and in the long run is more likely to lead you to the truth than grabbing an idea and sticking to it unquestioningly. Being skeptical means being open-minded as well as critical.

Curiosity

However, the main reason I get into philosophical debates online is my curiosity.

I’m curious to learn about the diversity of people’s beliefs and how they justify them. I’m curious about the psychology of apparently healthy, intelligent people who believe things which seem ridiculous to me. How do they do it? Imagine you met a regular-seeming person who genuinely believed that the Earth was flat. Wouldn’t that make you slightly curious about what goes on in their head to make that work? How could they manage it with all the evidence to the contrary?

I don’t know if this is an unusual fascination, maybe it’s just me. Either way, I want to know what people believe and why. The more illogical the belief and the more mentally normal the believer, the more interesting it is.

Choosing the right belief for the wrong reasons?

Religious conversion stories often seem to be emotional affairs. I think many religious groups exploit this (whether deliberately or not), using stirring music, intense group attention and other techniques to provoke an emotional reaction. This probably helps to convert people, causing them to cry, faint or be otherwise emotionally overwhelmed with the feeling that something really special has happened.

There are sometimes also emotional reasons why people people de-convert as well as convert, although they are not generally cunningly choreographed*. Certainly many of us who end up as atheists also go on to read up on theology and the many atheistic arguments against religion – particularly those who are online reading and writing blogs. However, I think in many cases, the thing which triggers the journey into critical thinking is emotional, or at least, not a rational argument in itself.

When I was a Christian, the main argument that had always bothered me was the injustice of divine judgement – Someone makes the world and everything in it, then gets His knickers in a twist when some of it (specifically the human bit) doesn’t turn out as He wanted. I managed to mostly ignore this problem while attending church as a teenager, until I went on a youth group holiday. The sheer quantity of preaching I was subjected to during this time bored, puzzled and frustrated me. I didn’t get any satisfactory answers, but I could no longer ignore the problem, so I drifted out of the church group in frustration.

I don’t think my reasons were especially carefully considered or rational – I only discovered proper atheist arguments later – it was frustration and boredom that made me leave. I wonder if the first step believers make is often something which in itself isn’t a damning logical argument against theism? Perhaps some fellow believers being unfriendly or cruel? An obvious lie told by their religious leader? Wanting to lie in bed on Sunday mornings? A personal disagreement with another believer on a non-religious matter? A close friend who believes something different? Or, as in my case, resenting boring lectures.

There are some great arguments against theism, but these are not amongst them. If a fellow Christian you know well deliberately ignores you when you happen to pass in the street that doesn’t make the existence of a god any less likely – they might just be having a bad day. Even if a religious leader is dishonest, he could still put this down to man’s inherent sinfulness. Sure, church hypocrisy doesn’t look good, and it even features at number 5 on Kieran Bennett’s list of reasons why people de-convert. The Church ought to practice what they preach, but if they fail to do so, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are completely wrong about God.

While none of these reasons are very rational, I think they might give people the nudge they need to reconsider their beliefs, hopefully with a view to what is rational. There are some examples of this in the comments by former believers on Greta Christina’s post asking what changed people’s minds about religion. For example, kc said:

Slowly I became more frustrated by my own questions, and more angry about hypocrisy and intolerance in my own church. That led me away from Catholicism.

A slightly different example is when events in a person’s life force particular atheist arguments into the foreground. Heather replied:

It wasn’t an argument that persuaded me away from my faith, it was a series of emotional experiences. One of the primary benefits of religion espoused by believers and non-believers is comfort.[…] But I hit a time of extreme distress, and I prayed and turned searchingly to my faith and found… nothing. No comfort, no warm fuzzies. I felt my pain exactly as it would feel were there no caring deity there to help me with my suffering. That was the crack in the ice that led to me to look at the situation through the lens of reason.

In a guest-post on de-Conversion explaining why she de-converted, DeeVee writes:

Watching my religious mother and both aunts die of cancer, while begging Jesus/god to save them, and he did not.  Not only that but I also worked in the pediatric ward of a cancer hospital in Houston and watched entire churches praying for god to save babies from cancer, and he did not.

The “Problem of Evil” was always there and a lot of religious people have probably heard it or even pondered it themselves. But when things are going well such worries can be put to the back of a believer’s mind. When personal tragedy affects a person, the problem of evil becomes large and unavoidable.

It seems anything from a subtle change in attitude to fellow believers to a major emotional upheaval can create a crack of doubt into which critical thinking and reasoned arguments can be inserted. This seems more likely if the believer is already aware of these arguments.

Well reasoned arguments against the veracity of religious belief are great for making a point or explaining atheist beliefs. However, we shouldn’t underestimate the part that non-rational factors play in changing people’s beliefs – in either direction.

(* Given the examples above, to choreograph the kind of emotional reaction that might lead someone to reject their religious belief would be an extremely vicious act.)

Divine injustice

Confusing signsA common atheistic argument is that any kind of divine judgement which requires people to have heard and believe a particular religion is unfair. This was in fact the first argument against religion that occurred to me as a teenager and set me on the road away from Christianity.

In response to this, in the plethora of comments which followed an article on de-conversion.com, a Christian called Joe advanced the following argument by analogy.

…if you won free tickets to Hawaii, but were told some others will not be going there because they refused the free tickets, would you give up your free ticket? Would you reject the free trip to Hawaii, even though you knew that the other people had been “offered” the same thing but rejected it? How lame and stupid would that be?

His analogy differs slightly from the commonly accepted ideas of the Bible. The tickets are offered but not accepted. This is different from Christianity, and most religions, which are not offered to everyone, because not everyone gets to hear about them.

During a discussion in a pub a Christian friend of mine recently made a similar argument. His version imagined the protagonist bobbing around in the water as the Titanic sunk. As a helicopter approaches and offers to pull them from the water, they wouldn’t say, “Hey, why aren’t you saving that guy too?”.

As is often the case in face to face debates, that sounded wrong to me, but I didn’t have an answer ready off the top of my head. However, on later consideration, the analogy of the helicopter rescue is flawed for a different reason. It would be unreasonable to complain that the helicopterHelicopter rescue is not rescuing everyone because the helicopter:

  1. Does not have the ability to do so.
  2. Does not claim to provide perfect justice.

Now it seems obvious that neither of those apply to any judgemental deity. Most monotheistic deities are generally considered omnipotent and at least in the case of the Christian God, having perfect judgement is reputedly one of his qualities. So when people question a doctrine that requires belief in a particular god for salvation, they’re asking “What kind of justice is that?”. They’re not just saying it’s unfair, they’re saying it’s unfair and yet it claims to be fair.

Responses to this usually invoke the ineffability of God – “God’s ways are not out ways” or “We cannot know the mind of God”. The trouble with those answers is if you go down that route then all bets are off. You might as well give up trying to understand anything about what God thinks or wants from us. Your guess would be as good as mine.

Neither of these contemporary examples are the first to use this line of reasoning. In Mere Christianity, C.S.Lewis says:

Here is another thing that used to puzzle me. Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him. But in the meantime, if you are worried about the people outside, the most unreasonable thing you can do is to remain outside yourself.

C.S. Lewis statueThere are several problems with this. I’m going to gloss over the “We knows” which assume the Bible’s accuracy. For the sake of brevity I’ll even ignore the Bible verses which do explain what the arrangements for the ominously-named “other people” are. In my opinion, the important issue here is this: A being claimed to dispense perfect justice appears to be monstrously unjust. It’s not justice to require that people chose the one true religion out of the many that exist and have existed, some of which many people will never hear about. Worse still the choice is made on pain of death or eternal damnation (depending on how you interpret the scriptures). Yet this being is supposed to be loving, just and omniscient. It casts doubt on the whole idea.

By saying it is unreasonable for us to worry about the people outside, Lewis seems to be trying to appeal to our selfish side. You don’t want to be on the outside, do you? It’s dark out there and well, we just don’t know what happens to people who get left out there. Stop fussing and come inside.

If this used to puzzle Lewis did he resolve it merely by ceasing to think about it? This doesn’t strike me as very intellectually honest. Simply suggesting that people should stop worrying about this issue is not addressing the argument.