Posts Tagged ‘belief’

Murder is illegal in this country.

But I couldn’t tell you where it says that in the statute-books without doing a bit of research. I can’t cite the exact law off the top of my head, or provide the precise codified wording which strictly speaking makes it illegal to murder another person.

But it’s definitely illegal. I could look all that up if I wanted to. But even if I don’t want to, I’m still justified in believing that murder is illegal. My indirect observations have led me to place a very high probability of truth on that statement, and I don’t think that’s an indicator of poor calibration.

This is relevant to yesterday’s discussion of how homeopathy doesn’t work.


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Let’s talk about not believing in God.

Atheists often frame their position as a simple lack of a belief; they don’t take the active, affirmative, assertive position that theists do, don’t make any direct claim, and simply don’t hold the positive position that “God exists”.

I’ve written before about why the extent to which some atheists take this feels like an unnecessary cop-out.

Atheists should totally be making positive claims. Part of the reason why many are reluctant to do so, is because of an implicit idea that “belief” is a binary thing, something you either have or you don’t.

Christians believe the claim that “God exists”, and atheists don’t. Some atheists might conversely believe the claim “God does not exist”, but many deny holding any such position, and define their own godlessness as a kind of belieflessness. It’s not that they don’t believe in anything – we often have to remind people of our strongly held convictions in favour of love, truth, beauty, cheesecake, and the basic goodness of humanity – but when it comes to God, we simply don’t buy it, and are otherwise keeping out of the argument.

I don’t think this holds up. I think that the usual ways we describe belief are necessarily short-hand for a more complex set of ideas, and that we can afford to start being clearer in our positive declarations.

As an analogue, let’s say I’ve flipped a coin but not yet revealed the result. Do you “believe” that it’s landed on heads?

Assuming you have no improbable insider knowledge about the coin or my tossing abilities (steady), you haven’t a clue which way it’s landed. So, I guess you “lack the belief” that it’s landed heads. And you lack the equivalent belief that it’s fallen on tails. It’s not that you disbelieve either option – they’re both possible, and wouldn’t be especially surprising.

Now let’s say I’ve rolled a fair six-sided die, and am also temporarily hiding the results. What beliefs do you have about the number that’s showing? Presumably you lack each individual belief in its landing on any given number – but it seems like this is true in a different way from the coin-toss. In that first case, if you’d arbitrarily picked one option to guess at, it would’ve been no big deal whether you’d been right or wrong. With the die, if you randomly picked the right one, you’d be a little more impressed. On seeing what number it landed on, you’ve now adopted one particular belief you formerly lacked, just like with the coin – and yet this feels like a bigger deal.

Let’s step it up again. I’ve got a lottery ticket here for last night’s £7,000,000 jackpot. It’s either a winner or a loser, but I’m not telling you any of the numbers on it. Clearly you’d expect some evidence if I wanted to convince you it’s a winning ticket. But do you simply “lack the belief” that I’ve won the lottery, just like you “lacked the belief” that my coin had landed on heads (or tails)? Or are you actually pretty sure I haven’t won?

I’d argue that you’re easily justified in believing I’ve not become a millionaire overnight. The evidence in favour of the idea is so slight, and the odds against it so great, that it seems like a hypothesis worth ignoring. (Even before you consider the odds that I’m lying about having a ticket in the first place. Which I am.)

Now, you might change your mind later, when I invite you round for tea and diamonds in my new gold house, but for now, you’re safe assuming that I haven’t won the lottery. It’s not dogmatic to work with that assumption; it doesn’t imply you’re unwilling to be persuaded by evidence. But come on, clearly I haven’t won the lottery. Frankly, you should be quite content telling me “James, you have not won the lottery”. We’d all understand what you meant. If you can’t make that positive assertion now, then I don’t know when declaring anything to be true is ever going to be possible.

It may seem as if it’s incompatible with acknowledging the possibility that you might be wrong – this possibility can be calculated precisely, after all. But the fact is, we don’t append the phrase “to a reasonably high degree of probability, barring the arrival of any further evidence” to the end of every other sentence we utter. When we have conversations with each other, there’s generally a subtext of “I am not absolutely and immutably 100% certain that this is the case, it is simply the most appropriate conclusion I am able to draw and it seems strongly likely, but I will be willing to reconsider if there’s a good reason why I should do so” to most of what we’re saying.

I don’t “believe” that any given flipped coin has landed on heads or tails. But I can put a probability of 50% on either outcome, which says something more useful than just “I lack belief in any direction”.

With a six-sided die, the probability is 1/6 each way. Is it fair to say “I believe it hasn’t landed on 6”, since I believe the odds are 5/6 against that outcome? Probably not, but I don’t think it matters. If you understand the numbers I’ve placed on each possible outcome, you understand what I believe.

I don’t believe an asteroid is going to crash into the Earth tomorrow and wipe out humanity. Further, I believe an asteroid will not crash into the Earth tomorrow and wipe out humanity. I believe this more strongly then any of the other examples so far. How strongly? It’s hard to put an exact number on it, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong somewhere on the scale of increasingly improbable things. In this case, just saying “it’s not going to happen” is a useful short-hand way to get my point across, without going into a lengthy spiel about percentages and Bayesian priors. It gets the gist of my position across in a manner I think most of my audience will understand.

There is no God.

Does that mean I think God’s existence is less probable than, say, flipping a coin and getting ten heads in a row? Would I be more surprised to meet Jesus after I die than to roll a string of double-sixes throughout an entire game of Monopoly? Whether or not I have an exact numerical value for my god-belief, these are the terms we should be thinking in. Not that there’s simply a thing called belief which some people possess and I lack and that’s the end of it.

So can we agree that a flat denial of God’s existence is not dogmatic and unfounded now, please? Can we accept all the implied background understanding that goes along with other conversations about the things we believe? Can we maintain useful phrases like “does not exist” without burying them under a mound of tentative qualifications each and every time, when we all know damn well that Carl Sagan’s garage is a dragon-free zone?

And could we stop acting as if being sure you’re right about certain things makes you an inflexible ideological bad guy, regardless of how reasonable it is to be strongly convinced of your position?

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Why does God get to be the one thing you have to believe in before you’re allowed to see any evidence?

I’m getting bogged down in that thing about “believing is seeing” again. Have faith and the way will be shown to you. Put your trust in the Lord and you’ll feel the truth in your heart. Even atheists can find God if they just open their hearts to him and accept his presence.

In other words, if you start believing now, for no reason whatever, then you’ll be provided with a reason to.

What’s struck me recently is that I can’t think of a single other question, in any other field of study, where this kind of excuse-making is necessary.

If you drop something and watch it fall, it doesn’t matter what you believe about the laws that govern the force of gravity. Your object will act in accordance with those laws, and in so doing will give you hints as to what they are.

Reality’s good like that. It doesn’t care what you think. It just gets on with its own business. It just is. Reality doesn’t wait and hide, until you agree to have blind trust in it, and only then agree to give a demonstration of E = mc2 in action.

And yet God is often claimed to be a special case. Again and again, atheists are advised that if they just believe as hard as they can, by force of will, then in a complete reversal of the rules of cause and effect and basic logic, they will become aware of the reasons to believe as a result of their belief.

Which is kinda weird, isn’t it?

I mean, I suppose it could just be a fact about the character of this all-powerful tyrant demanding our fealty. It may be that God’s personality is such that he deliberately chooses to hide from anyone being rational, and reveals himself only to those who’ve already bought into his claims based on no evidence at all.

That could be the kind of dick your god is, I guess, though that claim itself doesn’t seem to have much supporting evidence. At least, none he’s chosen to share with me.

But the way some Christians make it sound, knowledge of God is in an entirely different category of information than literally any other kind of thought processes humans are capable of having. Despite God’s omnipotence, and despite all the dramatic healing and sea-parting and genocide he used to demonstrate his presence with, the responsibility is apparently on us to set the bar much, much lower for him than any other human endeavour.

If you want to know about reality, you go and test it, and base your beliefs on what the evidence indicates. But with God? You have to believe first, and then you get the evidence. Or not, if you weren’t believing properly. Or something.

(Even Christians who use the above arguments would, I suspect, have problems with applying the same approach to any gods other than their own. But guys, if you could suspend your faith in Yahweh for a sec and just believe in Ganesha real hard and let him into your heart, you’d finally have a chance to see all the evidence that you’ve been blind to all this time. C’mon, what’s stopping you? Is it maybe the same thing stopping me from “just believing” in your god? D’ya think?)

Doubting Thomas is an example of a religion explicitly rejecting the whole notion of basing your beliefs on what really exists. He takes a position antithetical to faith in the Bible, and is denigrated for it, despite his methods basically being that of rigorous science: he’s skeptical of an outlandish proposition, investigates the evidence, and updates his position based on new data. He doesn’t believe that Jesus is really back from the dead after crucifiction, but then has a poke at the guy’s hand-holes, and changes his mind.

But then Jesus completely fucks up the moral, by saithing unto him:

Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

Repent of your common sense, foolish mortals. Accept improbable claims at face value before there’s any evidence for them. That’s how to make Jesus love you.

Of course, there’s one simple way to explain all this, one reason why the evidence for God’s existence might depend on your own expectations and beliefs at the time – besides God being a malevolent ass, I mean.

The observer effect is a real thing, after all. People behave differently in experiments when they know they’re being scrutinised, and researchers’ reports of their observations is demonstrably affected if they’re told what result they’re meant to be looking for. If you’re primed to see a particular result, or to view some aspect of the world through the lens of God’s work, then you’re more likely to encounter evidence that seems to support your idea, than if you didn’t have this pre-existing “belief”. This could explain why the observations might depend on the observer’s state of mind.

But that would imply that God is just a set of psychological conditions inside people’s heads. And he’s got to be more than that if he’s so powerful and worth all this worship, right?

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The short answer, I think, is “yes, but”.

Actually no, that’s too short. Even the short answer’s fairly long, by normal short-answer standards.

Let’s just dive right into the long answer, then.

Hayley Stevens wrote something recently, in which she takes serious umbrage with some of the mockery directed by many skeptics toward those who believe in irrational things.

Despite a stereotypical affiliation with old white men – and perhaps a preponderance filling that demographic which justifies the stereotype somewhat – the skeptical movement is a pretty diverse thing, with people from various different backgrounds and walks of life. Hayley has spent more time firmly embedded in “woo” than many, having started involving herself with research into the paranormal as a believer in various weird things. She spent a significant part of her life on that side of matters, and has lingering sympathies to people who still feel as she once did.

As a result, it’s clearer to her than most that – although she doesn’t phrase it as such – being skeptically active sometimes looks a lot like being a dick.

Before it sounds like I’m doing that obnoxiously smug thing of claiming some sort of moral high ground, over all those other nasty skeptics out there who just aren’t as sensitive and caring as me (or that I’m asserting that Hayley is doing any such thing either), it’s worth remembering the status that skeptics tend to hold in discussions with the rest of the world. They’re used to being decidedly in the minority. Everyone has some kind of critical thinking skills, and employs some level of skepticism in their day-to-day lives, but the basic things the skeptical movement focuses on – logical fallacies and so forth – don’t have much of a place in mainstream discussion. And some of the results of people’s skepticism – such as atheism – are deeply unpopular in many parts of the world.

So many skeptics are kinda accustomed to being a fringe group, and they do many of the things fringe groups do, to try and maintain group solidarity and security. This can include banding together, tending to be wary of outsiders, and using satire, mockery, and ridicule against those they deem to be an oppressive majority, whose acceptance they never feel they’ve had, and have now decided they neither need nor want.

I don’t say any of this to criticise; I’ve been an active part of everything I’ve just described for years. Elements such as mockery and acerbic humour make total sense, and in many cases are justified and necessary parts of pushing a reason-based agenda.

Around half of people in the USA are young-earth creationists, including the last President and many major public figures and commentators. This religiously inspired fiction is a big, bold, mainstream view with widespread support and respect and long-established kudos. And whatever it’s based on, it sure as hell ain’t reason or science or things that make a lick of sense.

Beliefs like this, and the misunderstanding and contempt of science that they both depend on and exacerbate, are worth opposing, and sometimes ridicule and mockery is justified. In many hard-fought battles, skeptics have been the little guy punching up rather than down. Making powerful, establishment ideas look silly is a useful tool for undermining their authority, and for spreading the idea that they don’t need to be taken so seriously after all.

But it gets tricky. Rational assessment of the evidence leads us to conclude that the Earth is rather older than a few thousand years; it also brings us to many other conclusions that, while not 100% guaranteed, are pretty solidly reliable – for instance, that the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist.

Unfortunately, with this same flavour of rational assessment, you also often get the same flavour of mockery and disdain for people who get it wrong.

In many cases, we’re not punching up any more. We’re not taking a brave stand against a wide-reaching and dangerously misguided establishment that can take a few hits. The targets of our piss-taking end up being huge crowds of regular people who, with the best will in the world and no hate in their hearts at all, just don’t think the way we do about something.

That’s not great, you guys.

I’m not going to go trawling the history of this very blog, to look for examples of when I’ve done exactly this. I know there are a bunch of things back there that I wouldn’t say now, now that I’ve studied a little more rationality and cognitive bias, grown up a little more, and essentially tried to become more patient and compassionate (as often happens when you grow up and start understanding more things).

Already, as I mentioned the other day, my rationality has bolstered my compassion. Meanwhile, on the other loop of the virtuous circle, adopting a position of compassion and understanding helps my rationality along too. To see how that works, it’s worth briefly analysing my immediate reaction on reading Hayley’s post – in what direction my lizard hindbrain flinched, before any actual thinking started going on.

Remember a while ago, I talked about noticing myself get a bit huffy over an entirely un-huff-worthy remark by Jon Ronson on Twitter? Some irrational, reactive part of me took his comment as an assault on reason, which was then interpreted as a personal attack on me. I started automatically running through all sorts of defensive arguments, for a belief that hadn’t actually been argued against in the slightest. And something similar happened in an unhelpful corner of my head on reading Hayley’s dismay at some skeptical mockery.

I don’t think the problem was that I’ve mocked believers in the past, and I was resisting being told that I was personally wrong or mean-spirited to do that. I think that I was leaping to defend the notion of ridicule as a legitimate tactic, and to fight the idea that any instance of careless or disrespectful language is a sign of a cruel and unsympathetic character (which, like in Jon’s case, isn’t at all what Hayley said).

So I started rehearsing my cached thoughts about comedy being an important part of a robust discussion, the history of satire’s influence on dangerously wrong-headed thinking… All the things which require taking the least charitable interpretation of Hayley’s words possible, and the grandest sense of personal righteousness, for them to make any sense at all.

Whereas, if I actually think about it, and grant her any reasonable benefit of the doubt, it’s not hard to see that her intentions are surely far more benevolent than my involuntary, instinctive, superficial judgment of them. I can stop to examine what arguments she’s actually making, and what ideas and feelings are at their source. And it becomes quite clear that she has a point.

While mockery may be an important and useful part of the broader public debate – used in carefully chosen moments, directed more at the ideas themselves than the people espousing them – it’s an extremely rare case when it’s actually employed with such precision tactics. Much more often, it’s just because it feels good to vent some of that frustration at those other people who are just such idiots you guys, like, ugh.

And we can do better than that. It’s not the worst thing in the world, and I’m not decrying some terrible rift in the skeptical movement because of how mean some people are. But we all spend a lot of time believing irrational things, and skeptics are the one group who should’ve studied enough psychology to know that there is literally not a single exception to that generalisation, in the entire global set of “people who are awake”. There are people like us, who are mistaken, and we can do better than to punch down at them.

Hayley explains the way she feels some of this ridicule personally:

If you laugh at people because they believe in stupid things you’re laughing at me six years ago…

When skeptics mock believers, they’re mocking my people.

Which is simply what empathy is.

Hayley’s experiences have broadened her innate conception of how her “in-group” is defined. But we can broaden it even further, and do even better.

If you laugh at someone for the human failing of believing something unreasonable, you demean what it is to be human. When people are cruel to people, they’re being cruel to my people, because all the people are my people.

That’s the stance I’m aiming for. I’m not there yet, by a long way, but it’s worth the effort.

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When I get around to it, anyway. And after I’ve done enough housework and drunk all the tea that needs drinking. So, these questions you asked ages ago before I got lazy – or busy, let’s go with busy – again:

Internally, I self identify as agnostic, although socially, I tend to self identify as atheist in those settings in which I think someone would be more pissed off by atheism than by agnosticism. Are you of the view that agnostics are simply atheists in denial, or do you see us as a distinct flavor of unbelief?

I like your style in going for whatever will agitate people more. Outside of the capacity to be annoying, though, I think a lot of the debate over whether someone is “really” an atheist or an agnostic is pretty fruitless.

It’s not that there can’t be meaningfully different positions, or that there’s nothing worth debating and disagreeing on here. But when your language is starting to obscure the subjects it should be elucidating, or when your discussion is getting sidetracked into an argument about what words mean, or what they should mean, or what you mean by them never mind what anyone else means by them, then it may be time to change tack.

Let’s taboo the words “atheist”, “agnostic”, and any obvious derivatives for a couple of paragraphs. Now I can’t fixate on my own interpretation of those words and assume everyone else is just using them wrong. So, what do I actually believe?

Well, I believe it’s very unlikely that any god actually exists. It’s possible that some such being, by some reasonable standard of “god”, is actually real and part of the world, just like it’s possible that an elephant wandered into the garden a minute ago and is about to trample over our guinea pigs. I can’t offer an absolutely cast-iron guarantee that’s not the case, but for all practical purposes I can get so close that it’s not a situation I spare even a moment seriously considering.

Any particular named deity – Yahweh, Zeus, all the rest – I give about the same probability of being non-fictional as I do to Spiderman, to within a negligible degree. Does that make me a “strong atheist”? Could my position be summed up by positively asserting “I believe that God does not exist”? I think so.

You might argue that, unless I think God’s non-existence can be proven to 100% certainty, then that remaining shred of doubt makes me an agnostic, not an atheist – but if that’s the way you’re using words, I’d be amazed if the word “atheist” is ever remotely useful to you. It seems linguistically unhelpful to set the bar that high.

If I’m actually engaging in a discussion with someone, and they care to hear an explanation of my views longer than a single word, then I’ll explain something like the above, without simply relying on the tabooed words. They can decide whether they think I’m an atheist, or an agnostic, or something else – it doesn’t really matter how they use language, or what ideas they associate with those words, so long as they understand what I actually think.

But if I’m just looking for a succinct, approximate label – something to identify myself with as a shorthand, which doesn’t need to be nuanced or precise – then “atheist” is probably my best shot at giving the largest number of people the most accurate impression of what’s going on in my head. Many of them will still be way off, but that’ll always be the case in a conversation about something complicated where you rely on individual words with no single uncontroversial definition to carry a large amount of information.

Does that help? I sort of forgot the question for the last couple of hundred words and just kept typing.

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Here’s something else I’ve not done a great deal of lately: a good old-fashioned dismantling of some bog-standard, classically inane, long-since-refuted-yet-still-infuriatingly-ubiquitous religious piffle.

I suppose it’s important that someone keeps explaining over and over again what a burden of proof is, and why atheists are moral, and all that malarkey, while so many people seem insistent on failing to understand any of it and keep repeating the same tired old shite. Usually, though, I just can’t find the strength.

But I’m getting back into the swing of it for Mehdi Hasan, who was featured in the Lines of Dissent section of the New Statesman a few months ago (the issue edited by Robin Ince and Brian Cox). The density of painfully simple errors and failures of reasoning packed into a relatively short space just begs to be addressed. Ooh, and I’ve just noticed there’s an online version too, so you can read along here.

The first mildly teeth-grinding moment comes from his defense of “faith”. He criticises Richard Dawkins’s characterisation of faith as “belief in something without evidence” as “sheer nonsense”, and goes on:

Are we seriously expected to believe that the likes of Descartes, Kierkegaard, Hegel, Rousseau, Leibniz and Locke were all unthinking or irrational idiots?

If you can find me an instance of Dawkins, or any atheist, making such a harsh judgment on any of the aforementioned thinkers, feel free to let me know in the comments. The fact is, “unthinking or irrational idiots” are Hasan’s words, which he extrapolated from someone’s definition of faith which doesn’t line up with his own.

And while I would dispute that “belief in something without evidence” is unprecedented as a description of faith that believers positively embrace and hold to, it’s fine if Hasan understands it differently. But his understanding is explained as “without proof, but not without evidence”. And frankly, this distinction is inadequately explained.

I don’t know how to interpret “proof” except as something like “evidence sufficiently convincing and voluminous that to withhold acceptance would be empirically unjustifiable”. That could probably be tighter and more pithy; the point is, evidence and proof are not two disparate things. The convincingness of evidence is on a scale; “proof” is what we call the upper end of that scale.

So he seems to be claiming that faith is believing in the truth of propositions for which there is more than zero evidence… but not enough evidence to actually support those propositions convincingly.

It’s like if you were talking to a stranger on the internet, and they tell you they’re actually Michelle Obama. Do you believe them? Well, if you don’t ask for any evidence at all, then you’re an unthinking or irrational idiot if you buy such a story. But say you ask for proof, and she sends you a picture of Michelle Obama which she says she just took on her phone. It’s not proof, exactly – it could be a picture someone just grabbed off the web – but it’s evidence, however weak. Now you’re having faith!

Hopefully the first (slightly bizarre) example to spring to my mind helps demonstrate that it’s not a meaningful distinction Hasan’s making here. Is belief in God supported by the facts, or not? If so, you don’t need faith. If not, you’re not justified in that belief, and faith isn’t going to help you.

Then he goes onto the “absence of evidence” trope, and comes out with this:

I can’t prove God but you can’t disprove him. The only non-faith-based position is that of the agnostic.


First, I think Mehdi Hasan just confessed to being agnostic on the subject of leprechauns, dragons, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, 9/11 conspiracies, alien abductions, Islamic creationism, Ganesh, crop circles, and the fact that I control the tides with my big toe. It’s the only non-faith-based position, after all. Unless he thinks he can disprove any of the above, which I’d be interested to see.

Secondly, the truism is seriously misleading. Absence of evidence can in fact be evidence of absence – if the particular absent evidence is something you would have expected to be present, if the phenomenon in question was real.

Example: there’s a decisive lack of evidence supporting the claim that there’s an elephant under my bed. This lack of evidence does, in fact, fairly conclusively suggest that no such elephant exists. I would go so far as to say that it “proves” it, to my satisfaction.

It doesn’t always work. Just because we’ve never found convincing evidence of alien life in the universe, for instance, doesn’t mean it’s not out there. This is because some models of reality in which alien life exists are entirely compatible with our continued ignorance of them. Whereas with the elephant under my bed, you’d have to come up with all sorts of excuses and amendments and provisos (it’s a special breed of tiny elephant, which is also a very good hider, and so on) for it to be possibly true, given the lack of evidence.

So if atheists assert that the lack of evidence for God is indicative of his non-existence, this isn’t by definition irrational. Some formulations of the God hypothesis aren’t explicitly contradicted by our observations of the world – but these tend not to be testable, or positively supported by any evidence either, so they’re not very interesting (see: deism). Other times, a particular interventionist God is actively refuted by the evidence. And yes, absence of evidence can itself constitute evidence in this regard, in some cases. (And yes, I do really mean “refuted”. I’m almost positive.)

Hasan cites multiverse theory as an aspect of science which can’t be proved, and requires faith. But you’ll notice he has to go to an extreme corner of niche physics, which is highly controversial and not uncritically accepted in its own field, to find such an example. When a theory is supported by mountains of evidence, science recognises that and no faith is required. The theory of evolution, for example, has been “proved” to the satisfaction of every credible biologist around. Its truth is asserted confidently, because it’s so firmly supported by data. It may be that multiverse theory isn’t similarly supported, and yet some scientists have some sort of “faith” in it, believing in its truth beyond what’s supported by the currently available evidence. If this is the case, then that’s not a good thing, as Hasan himself strongly implies.

He then seems to think that an argument for the existence of God, such as the cosmological argument (which doesn’t even mention God, incidentally, only concluding that “the universe has a cause”), is supposed to score some sort of points “whether you agree with it or not”. Which is odd, because I don’t see many atheists denying that appeals to reason to support God exist at all. We’re just not convinced by them. Do an immense number of bad arguments sum up to one good one?

Here’s a perfectly valid logical syllogism:

1. If pie is delicious, I am a world darts champion.
2. Pie is delicious.
3. Therefore, I am a world darts champion.

And yet people remain unconvinced. My prowess at throwing a pointy thing at a flat thing just isn’t taken seriously. Odd, that.

He then brings up Anthony Flew, an atheist who prominently converted to some kind of theistic belief a few years ago, and says:

To pretend that Flew, of all people, arrived at such a belief blindly, without thinking it through, “without evidence”, is plain silly.

Which is another rather tedious appeal to authority. The fact that somebody who wrote some learned books on a subject now believes a particular claim doesn’t demonstrate that there’s any evidence for that claim. You know what would demonstrate that there’s some evidence? Demonstrating the evidence. I don’t care how smart and supposedly thoughtful Anthony Flew is; if he hasn’t got a convincing line of reasoning leading to his conclusion, then I’ll call him out for being irrational just as I would anyone else.

Hasan’s closing paragraph brings him back to the title of the piece:

In short, most of us who believe in God do so not because we are irrational, incurious or immature but because He is the best answer to the question posed by Leibniz more than 300 years ago: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

No he’s not. I’ve got a better answer. One that’s more intellectually honest and more conducive to the genuine progress of discovery and rigorous questioning of our understanding of things. Want to hear it?

Ask me the question.

I don’t know.

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So, this thing I was sorta doing officially wrapped up a few days ago. To be honest, my attention had drifted from it somewhat by then, and for the last ten days or so I hadn’t really been engaging. The Facebook conversations were becoming more frustrating than anything else, and the praying itself was just dull.

Seriously, when you’re not even particularly hoping for God to be there, talking to him gets really tedious. And I had very little of note to say. When I have things to say, there are people I say them to. Or there’s Twitter – admittedly I don’t tend to get much more of a response there than from God, but he’s never even RT’d me once.

Still, Justin’s asked for some feedback from the participants, and I feel like I ought to give some closing thoughts here too, rather than just leaving that whole thing hanging. My weekend was busy and it may be too late for this to be any help now, but here goes anyway.

1. Was God revealed to you during the course of the Atheist Prayer Experiment?

No. Which isn’t to say that nothing noteworthy happened to me over the course of a month or so, but if God can’t reveal himself in any way distinguishable from life simply taking its course, then he’s not worth paying attention to.

2. Did you find any value in taking part in the experiment?

At first I did, I think. It’s something that might be arguably worthwhile for an intellectual honest atheist to try, to see if it helps them understand what the rest of the world gets out of this strange activity. Most of what I got out of it was the chance to analyse other people’s arguments for or against the experiment (or prayer in general), and critique some of the assumptions (religious and non-religious) that many people seem to work with. It put me in a place to wrangle with some interesting theology in ways that are new to me, at least.

But there was an inescapable feeling of fruitlessness to it all, what with God’s non-existence.

Please share any relevant thoughts, experiences or feedback

Concise version: The god debate is ongoing and immensely multi-faceted; the Atheist Prayer Experiment has one small but potentially interesting part to play in it. Its significance (and the importance of its “results”) shouldn’t be inflated, but it needn’t be dismissed out of hand as an effort to engage people in an interesting discussion.

Less concise version:

If I’d been more inclined to verbosity over the past 40 days, I’d have stood up for positive atheism a lot more vehemently. Because the context demands it.

There’s no point paying any attention to something like the APE, if you’re just going to go along with its superficial aims, make an honest search for God, and admit when he doesn’t turn up that, well, this doesn’t prove there’s no god out there, in a way that the believers can nod and smile about and suggest that maybe if you keep searching with an open heart you’ll find him one day.

There’s only any point to it if you challenge the normative assumptions behind it. I don’t care what get-out clauses theists come up with about their god being picky in who he chooses to reveal himself to – God doesn’t need disproving any further than the obvious facts of reality have already done so. There is no god, for the same reason there aren’t any leprechauns who live in my beard.

In considering how a “revelation” for a praying atheist might go, it’s suggested that, until we actively seek God out, he may just “not want to intrude on your atheism”. But this is privileging a very particular hypothesis – one no more likely on the face of it than a god who doesn’t want to be bothered, likes atheists the best for leaving him alone, and takes every prayer directed at him as a personal affront.

Frankly, if your god is anything like Christians describe him, and is sitting out there and waiting patiently for me to drop everything, stop debating his existence, stop asking rhetorical questions, stop analysing the arguments of believers, and talk directly to him as if he were there, in direct conflict with what I strongly believe – and only then is he going to make his presence clear to me in even the vaguest of ways…

… then your god sucks.

My openness to the evidence for his existence has been amply demonstrated by the many times I’ve publicly announced my commitment to that very thing. I’ve been explaining for years, in as coherent terms as I can put together, why none of it seems convincing to me yet. But because I haven’t closed my eyes in silent contemplation lately, because I haven’t hit enough of his Christian-normative buttons, he’s still in hiding?

This is yet another arbitrary barrier, a hoop which no god has any reason to expect us to leap through. If there’s anything good to be got out of our knowing that he exists, he could do something about it at any time. If this kind of pettiness isn’t beneath him, he’s not worth my respect, let alone worship.

He also continues to let us murder and enslave and torture each other, without intervening to end all human suffering, because free will. This guy’s priorities are fucked.

My various other scattered thoughts about this are going to wait for another time, or I’ll just let them go. Suffice it to say that nobody’s isolated data points resulting from the APE should be considered persuasive in any direction. Ample data already exists in all the relevant areas, in forms much more amenable to appropriate critical analysis. It can be a useful way to acquire some direct experience, but there’s no need to tacitly support the continuation of the religious default setting.

There is no god. The fact that he didn’t answer my prayers needn’t even come into it.

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