“Coincidence” is powerful “evidence” to many people

Observation:

I was closing a spreadsheet, and the moment I clicked on the “X” to close the window, a dialog box popped up on my other monitor, and I thought “Oh, what did I just do?”

The dialog box was simply an alert, letting me know that I have to attend a meeting in 15 minutes. And so I then thought “Oh, OK, it’s not connected to me closing the spreadsheet.” And I went on about my business.

But note what happened.

I saw two events close in time, that initially appeared to be related. Sometimes when you close windows you get a dialog saying “do you want to save?” or some other helpful suggestion related to what you just did, or are doing, with the window you’re working in.

In the background, my brain is aware that such things are sometimes related, and without conscious thought, I knee-jerked to check to see if there was a connection between the dialog box and closing the spreadsheet. My brain is used to this pattern. And it checks to see if this pattern is in play, when it recognizes something that resembles this pattern. If it recognizes no connection between the two events, it notes that they are just unrelated events occurring close in time. And I go on, and give it no relevance.

But sometimes the events are related. As noted—maybe I would click the “X” to close, and the dialog would come up saying “Do you want to save?” It’s a reminder that is triggered by me trying to close the spreadsheet. And I am consciously aware that such reminders occur—and I’m also aware of it in part of my brain that isn’t conscious. In fact, it’s the non-conscious neural map that informs “me” (the conscious aspect of the brain) that “Hey, these things may be related.”

But sometimes we have two events, closely related in time, that have no such trigger—no such causal connection—but our brains find a pattern, anyway. This is what we call “coincidence.” The difference between what happened to me this morning, and a coincidence, is that with a coincidence, the brain is able to identify a pattern—but it’s not a pattern based on causal link. The two events aren’t actually objectively related—they simply have related meaning in the brain of the person observing.

So, you are going home after your mother’s funeral, and you find yourself behind a car, and the numbers on the plate happen to match her birthday month and day—and your brain says “that’s related to mom—who just died.” On another day, you might see that same tag and assign nothing meaningful to it. But today, mom is on your mind, and so, these DMV assigned numbers are “mom’s birthday.” And to some people, additionally, “a message from mom.”

It’s stunning how powerful coincidental meaning can be in the minds of observers. I would say that it’s a pattern in TAE e-mail for people to describe a coincidence and ask us “how do you explain this?” Above, is how I explain it. But that’s not what they’re asking. What they honestly mean is “how did my mom’s birthday end up on this tag right after her funeral?” They want an explanation of the objective event–they want to know objectively how the events are related. The problem is that, objectively, there is no reason to think they are. They are connected in the subject’s mind. And that is all the connection anyone can reasonably derive from that observation. But some people simply cannot accept this. It’s a difficult thing for many people to accept.

Proof of God by arbitrary mathematical pattern?

Recently I’ve been looking into the fibonacci sequence, I’m not a theist and I personally believe that religion is the biggest bain on society however

(…Why does there always have to be a “however” here?…)

I think it is odd how often this sequence pops up throughout nature etc.
I am quite cynical but like to think I’m open minded and I think although I couldn’t believe in any god that already exists but the fibonacci sequence does seem to hint maybe at some possibility of something.

I was wondering if you could let me know some arguments you have thought of to explain the fibonacci’s sequence throughout nature to give me something to think about.

Response below the fold.

[Read more...]

We get email: Brains, evidence, and burden of proof again

Fresh from the “Someone Is Wrong on the Internet” files, this message was sent via the contact form on the ACA website.

My understanding about atheism is you claim that because there is (supposedly) no evidence for God existing that this equates to there being evidence for God NOT existing (please correct me if I am wrong about this).

Kind of, but not exactly.

The default position for any positive claim lacking evidence is usually disbelief.  “Disbelief” doesn’t mean “proof against,” and it doesn’t mean “dogmatic certainty” — it just means, to put it simply, that you generally don’t believe in stuff without having reasons in favor of it.

To give you a small example: Suppose I told you “You know, I died last week, but I rose from the dead on the following morning, so here I am replying to your email.”  Would you believe me or not?

I think it’s safe to say that you would ask me whether I have evidence or not.  My failure to provide any wouldn’t constitute proof that it didn’t happen, but it wouldn’t look good for me.  Don’t you agree?

Or suppose I tried to sell you a car which, by all appearances, seemed to be a twenty year old lemon, but I said “This car has a secret switch which can make it FLY.  And I’m selling it to you for the incredibly reasonable price of $10,000.”  That’s actually a great price for a flying car… but I’m sure you wouldn’t buy it without evidence.

You see the difference between this position and what you’re saying?

My question to you is this:

1) Do you have a brain? You probably think so.
2) How do you know? For the sake of epistomological argument, you could be merely a computer-based machine, akin to a very advanced robot operating on Artificial Intelligence
3) How can you prove this? Given my previous challenge, you probably can’t prove the existence of your brain without cutting open your skull to demonstrate the presence of white and grey matter)

Yes, I’ve heard this one before, there’s a popular urban legend chain mail about a student who stumps a professor with it.  I have a hard time believing that anyone takes that story seriously.

This line of questioning stems from a total confusion about the difference between “evidence” and proof.  You of course couldn’t prove with 100% certainty that any particular person has their own brain; after all, they COULD be a very clever robot.  However, the evidence that we do have is sufficient to that it’s way more likely that you have a brain than any of the alternatives.  For example:

  • Induction (an important tool of science): Every human skull we’ve ever cut open has contained a brain.  Thus the DEFAULT assumption for any given person is that they match an already observed pattern.
  • Necessity: we have built up a pretty good idea of how brains work, and that they are a the source of cognitive processes in people.  In order to say “Person X lacks a brain” you’d have to come up with a credible alternate explanation of why they’re continuing to move around, speak, and write.  Instead of, you know, lying there.  (By contrast, we don’t have any evidence of any particular processes caused by any gods, which means that’s the possibility that requires explanation.)
  • Ruling out alternatives: It’s easy to SAY that your brain’s been replaced with a computer, but as far as we know this can’t be done successfully with any modern techology.  If those kinds of transplants were commonplace, then there would be evidence for the brain switching theory, but there’s not, so following the known pattern is the simplest conclusion.

4) Do you claim to know everything, as in all possible facts? If not, then what percentage of information about the world do you claim to know? 5, 10, 15, 20, 30 %? Whatever the percentage of information about the world which you have knowledge about, it surely is not a full 100% – if this is correct, then the percentage for which you do not have knowledge could, quite possibly, include existence of supernatural phenomena such as the existence of God.

Sure, the possibility is always there, even if the odds are 10^-googol.  You don’t need to convince me that a god is possible.  I just don’t believe that it’s true, due to lack of evidence.  If you want to change my mind about the likelihood, then find some evidence.

My argument then is as follows:
1) You do not really have logical or rational proof for claiming, with certainty, that God does not exist

And, as I just said, I don’t make that claim of certainty.

2) Therefore, you are, by definition, an agnostic, in other words: you are uncertain and do not know the final truth of the matter with regards to God’s existence.

You’re right.  As I’ve said many times on the show, I’m an agnostic atheist.  “Agnostic” because I don’t know whether a god exists, but “atheist” because, given the information currently available, I don’t share your belief that the god exists.

3) You have therefore been mistaken about calling yourself an atheist, since you actually are an agnostic and are simply in need of getting your terms right before using terms such as “atheist” inaccurately

Wrong.  My usage of the word atheist is consistent with the standard definition (as I am not a theist), and also consistent with the viewpoints of many well-established atheists, such as George Smith and Richard Dawkins

Perhaps a more accurate way of describing yourself, as well as your friends and colleagues on your show, could include:
– agnostic

Yes.

- secular

Yes.

- lay

Why, because I’m not a scientist myself?  Okay, I’m a layperson, but I don’t see what that has to do with atheism.  You and I are both lay irrespective of our religious beliefs.

- irreligious

Yes.

- epistemologists

…Sure, if you want.

Now I’ve agreed to your entire list of alternate descriptions, and I’m also an atheist.  If you want to throw some more labels on there, I’m also a computer programmer, a gamer, a father, etc.  None of those things are mutually exclusive with atheism.

Atheism, however, with its claim to conclusively “know” that God does not exist, seems about as irrational as the very belief in God which it seems to have contempt for.

Atheism doesn’t require such a claim of knowledge.  I’m afraid you have been misinformed.  Withholding beliefs in the absence of evidence isn’t irrational, as is obviously the case in my example of the flying car.

Hope that clears things up.

A fairly typical email

Nothing extraordinary here, no comedy, no ridicule. This is just a typical sort of message that we receive on a regular basis, and today I decided to give it a thorough reply. I thought I’d blog my answer today because it is a long form version of a conversation that lots of you probably have often, if you’re an out atheist who knows some theists.

The original message is in block quotes; my replies follow each section.

I’ve been watching clips of your show on Youtube, and I have to say you’ve done a pretty good job in debating with theists thus far. It’s a shame many of the ones I’ve heard on there don’t slow down enough to think for a moment. Many of the points you guys have made appear to make sense to me as well.

Glad to hear it. We’d always rather be reaching out to a receptive audience with some disagreement than exclusively “preaching to the choir.”

To start off, I’m going to say that I consider myself an agnostic theist; I believe in God or the possibility thereof, but in no position to make the assumption that there is one with no doubt. So I’m relying on the whole faith thing, which can only do so much for you.

Personally, I’d go farther than that. Not only can faith “only do so much for you,” but deciding to maintain faith in something that can’t be demonstrated is very likely to mislead you. I think there should, at a minimum, be a basic standard to decide whether something is likely to be really true or not. This isn’t the same as “absolute proof,” just some sort of reasonable evidence.

You might’ve answered this question in one of your episodes, I don’t know, but you’ve repeatedly asked for evidence in proving the existence of God, which I perfectly understand and agree with. My question to you is what evidence would you need that would convince you to believe in “God”, or better yet, just know without doubt? I don’t expect you guys to know, as I wouldn’t even know for sure.

Carl Sagan used to say that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” If someone came to you claiming “It rained every day in Seattle last week,” you’d probably be comfortable believing them just on their word. If someone said “It rained every day in the Sahara Desert last week,” you probably would not believe them until you looked up more information (corroborated news reports from multiple sources, pictures, etc). The more unusual the claim, the more information you need to confirm it.

With “God,” at least in a traditional sense, we have an infinitely powerful being living outside of time and space who creates entire universes by saying a few words, tracks the lives of every human being on the planet, answers their prayers, and bends the rules of time and space to suit his will. I think you’ll probably agree that if people didn’t grow up assuming that being existed, they’d find that quite an extraordinary claim to process. It would need some pretty impressive evidence to back it up.

I confess I do not know exactly what sort of evidence that might be, although I would point out that God, being omnipotent, would probably know what to do if he existed. In the Bible, God does all sorts of impressive tricks: appears in front of people, performs miracles, parts seas, turns folks to salt. Unfortunately, the only source we have for the claims that those things happened is a very old book of questionable origin, so that doesn’t help us much today.

If those sorts of things happened on a regular basis, it would help. Some atheists would say that even that’s not enough to demonstrate INFINITE power, but I say it would be a good start. An example I always use is that if the stars one night spontaneously rearranged themselves in the sky, spelling out “I am the lord thy God, you fools, everything in the Bible is true” that would be a good effort. Arthur C. Clarke wrote that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, so we couldn’t really rule out the possibility that superintelligent (though not actually omnipotent) aliens were messing with us. But I still say I would be much more willing to consider the possibility that it’s a god.

This is all academic speculation, however, because the evidence that people give for believing in God is nowhere near that interesting. As you said, people generally rely on “faith,” which obviously wouldn’t be necessary if there was anything approaching a good reason to believe in God. When they do try to present convincing evidence, it tends to be of a very mundane sort: They couldn’t find their car keys and then they turned up; an earthquake happened in a place full of people they don’t like; somebody was very sick and then got better; and so on. It’s not enough. Not even close.

I think you’d have to start off with figuring out what exactly God is and work from there, which is difficult since there are so many interpretations that assume to be true. If I had to toss a theory for the sake of debate, I would guess “God” is just energy, which would explain the whole “eternal” or “always existing” part since it cannot be created or destroyed, according to the Law of Conservation of Energy. I won’t add on the idea that this energy or “God” has to have a self-thinking conscious, which seems to be what many of us like to attribute when discussing the concept of a “creator.”

Okay, if that’s what you want to call “God” then you’re welcome to do so. I think it’s unnecessary, though. We already have a perfectly good word for energy. It’s “energy.” Why call it God? What new information does that label convey? If the god you’re envisioning isn’t intelligent or purposeful, then in what sense is it useful to apply such a loaded term? How is a universe where all energy is God different from a universe where energy is just energy?

I might’ve just gave the answer you would give (or a variant thereof), but if you have a different response, I’m curious to know, via email or on-air. Like you guys, I seek to know the truth, whatever it may be.

I don’t see any reason to try to define God myself. If even the billions of people who believe in the concept can’t agree on what it means, then why would I spend time trying to define something I don’t believe? For any individual God claim, I’ll be happy to discuss whether it seems to have any merit or not. What I’ve found so far is that the most impressive and specific definitions of God have no evidence for them; and for dull and uninteresting meanings of God (such as energy) I would say they may exist, but so what?

On public arguments

Today’s email comes from Mark in Colorado.

I work in a Defense firm where everybody is either a fundamentalist Christian or Mormon. I got into a discussion with a mormon guy who is always spouting some stupid shit. Anyway, I confronted him about his ideas and after a few minutes of discussion he realized I wasn’t a pushover, so he switched tactics and started bringing up quantum physics (he feels that proves everything), psuedo science, non sequiturs, real science mixed with nonsense — usually in the same sentence. Just for an example, he said he believed in evolution but described a cartoonish if not naive version. I tried to correct him and tell him he had it wrong, but he switched scripts and said loudly, “You don’t believe in evolution”! It went on with a lot of stuff like that to muddy the waters and it seemed to have impressed people in my group.

My question is, have you ever run across anyone like that and how did you handle it?

In a situation like that, my first rule is that it’s important to keep your cool. I understand that it’s difficult in this situation, but you should calmly step back and assess what you are getting out of the argument. There are, in my mind, three reasons that you would want to argue with somebody:

  1. You think you can change that person’s mind in some way.
  2. You think you can influence the opinion of people who are observing the discussion.
  3. You are genuinely interested in the other person’s arguments, or would like practice responding to them for your own education. Or it’s fun.

These three points boil down to a question of “Who’s your audience?” The answers are, respectively, 1. the Mormon; 2. somebody else; 3. Yourself. How you answer the audience question will have a lot of influence on how you should approach the discussion.

If the Mormon is your audience, you’ve already decided that he is kind of an idiot, so obviously you’re not going to make major gains with him. Your best bet is to find the areas where he’s most badly misunderstanding mainstream science, point out what is wrong in a straightforward way, and steer him toward credible literature on how it actually works. In order to do this, you’ll have to understand the real science well enough to break it down that way, so maybe some extra reading is in order.

If a third party is your audience, you can start out winning big just by keeping your cool. If the other guy is visibly upset, and you are not, then it’s hard to side with him. You said that his rant seemed to impress people in your group, so it’s possible that they were swayed by it. Maybe you’re having your discussion with the wrong person. If you think there is somebody a bit more reasonable who is on the fence and simply doesn’t understand the issues involved, I’d look for an opportunity to talk privately with that person (or people). By expanding your influence to other people and getting them on your side, you’re less likely to find yourself alone in future discussions.

If you are your own audience, then go ahead and argue to a frustrating standstill, then evaluate the specifics of the conversation later. Toss out the points which sounded like a stupid waste of time to you, but remember the points that left you struggling. Maybe the claims about quantum physics sounded like bunk to you, but you couldn’t express why they’re bunk. In that case, it’s time to educate yourself. Go find some real information about science, preferably from a good, well-spoken popular science writer. It won’t help in the current discussion, but it will improve your broad base of knowledge the next time the discussion comes up.

If none of the above are a good audience in this situation, maybe you should check your motives again and see if it’s really worth your time to be talking to this lunkhead. I wouldn’t pick an argument with a homeless guy in the street shouting at people, and you shouldn’t waste time in a situation where nobody has anything to learn.

Whatever the case, remember that a casual debate is a skirmish, not the war. You can lose a battle and it doesn’t ruin you as a human being. Just try to bear in mind your long term goals: becoming a knowledgeable and well-rounded individual; and helping good and correct memes to spread through the general population.

Some thought experiments on “potential life”

An ex-theist emailed to say that, although he has made a lot of changes to his thinking regarding gay rights and race issues since abandoning his theism, the abortion issue still bothers him.

The human egg and sperm are not in and of themselves able to “live” and reproduce/multiply on their own. Once they are joined, something happens that causes them to “become alive” and the cells will them multiply on their own without any external influence other than feeding off the body of the mother.

The glob of cells will in the vast majority of cases eventually become a human and the progression of its growth can not be physically stopped by the mother or father without the prescribed use of a poison pill, or physical instrument where a doctor must physically cut it or smash it until the growth stops.

I’m no legal scholar, but I can not see how this action can not be defined as anything other than “killing” an immature human.

Rather than just send him off to another site, I gave a little more thought to the implications of requiring the care of a fetus on the basis of it being a potential future life as soon as the sperm and egg join. For starters, you can’t go wrong reading Carl Sagan’s essay on abortion from Billions and Billions:

 

Despite many claims to the contrary, life does not begin at conception: It is an unbroken chain that stretches back nearly to the origin of the Earth, 4.6 billion years ago. Nor does human life begin at conception: It is an unbroken chain dating back to the origin of our species, hundreds of thousands of years ago. Every human sperm and egg is, beyond the shadow of a doubt, alive. They are not human beings, of course. However, it could be argued that neither is a fertilized egg.

In some animals, an egg develops into a healthy adult without benefit of a sperm cell. But not, so far as we know, among humans. A sperm and an unfertilized egg jointly comprise the full genetic blueprint for a human being. Under certain circumstances, after fertilization, they can develop into a baby. But most fertilized eggs are spontaneously miscarried. Development into a baby is by no means guaranteed. Neither a sperm and egg separately, nor a fertilized egg, is more than a potential baby or a potential adult. So if a sperm and egg are as human as the fertilized egg produced by their union, and if it is murder to destroy a fertilized egg–despite the fact that it’s only potentially a baby–why isn’t it murder to destroy a sperm or an egg?

For context, here’s support for Sagan’s claim of the frequency of spontaneous abortion from the University of Ottowa:
“The incidence of spontaneous abortion is estimated to be 50% of all pregnancies, based on the assumption that many pregnancies abort spontaneously with no clinical recognition.”

So if a fertilized egg is more likely than not to not grow into an adult human being, why draw arbitrary lines in the sand saying that it becomes murder in that particular moment?

For the sake of argument, I’d like you to imagine that time travel is possible in order to consider the following eight thought experiments.

  1. You go back in time and deliberately prevent somebody’s parents from meeting. To be concrete, we’ll call him “Biff”. History has now changed and Biff is never born. Have you killed Biff? (If you’re like me, the answer is “Maybe. I’ll have to think about it a bit.”)
  2. Suppose that, instead of preventing Biff’s parents from meeting, you go back to the night of his conception and strike up a conversation with them. The three of you have a delightful time until late at night, and they never get around to having sex. Again, Biff is never conceived. Again, have you murdered him?
  3. Now suppose that Biff’s parents were already actively planning to have a kid, and so they go at at the next night. A child is conceived but — due to the statistical issues involved — a different sperm implants in the egg, and the genes express themselves in very different ways. Returning to the present, you find that Biff doesn’t exist at all. In his place, his not at all similar brother Griff was born. Is Biff now dead?
  4. In order to fix the timestream, you travel back and prevent yourself from meeting Griff’s parents, thus restoring the original history. Biff is born and Griff is not. Have you now killed Griff?
  5. You and your partner discuss having a child of your own, and almost decide to do it, but in the end you decide that the cons just barely outweigh the pros. Had the argument gone a little bit differently, you might have had a kid. Have you killed your future child?
  6. You (or your wife) are pregnant, but there are complications — possibly not fatal, but definitely not something you would like to deal with. You agree to abort the baby and try again. The original fetus is never born, and the new baby is healthy, happy, and grows to adulthood. If you had chosen to bear the original fetus, you wouldn’t have wanted any more children. By deciding not to have the abortion, would you have been killing the healthy baby?
  7. Some religious groups teach that child bearing is a responsibility and a duty. Protection of any kind is never allowed during sex, and therefore they have fifteen kids. Compare them to a couple who bear two children by choice and then use protection for the rest of their lives. Have they killed the other thirteen children that they might have had? Do thirteen murders simultaneously occur as soon as the man gets a vasectomy? What if they decided to have no kids, is the murder count now bumped up to fifteen?
  8. Similarly, is an abstinent couple committing murder by giving their future children no opportunity to come to life?

Unequally yoked: Advice for atheists in a relationship with a theist

The following is a guest post by Lynnea, whom you probably know by now from The Non-Prophets. You can read her regular blog at http://everythingelseatheism.blogspot.com/.

The Atheist Experience TV show gets a lot of fans asking them for advice about how to deal with a loved one who is still into religion. The circumstances are frequently different: the atheist might have started out as a believer, or there might have been a known philosophical difference from the start. They might be considering getting more serious, or they might be already married with kids in the mix. It’s always tricky to offer relationship advice on a problem that has been building and building. There are no simple answers for relationship compatibility issues, but I’m hoping to offer some concrete starting points where you can suss out the issues yourself.

1. Should We Stay Together?

First of all, don’t consider your long term history together. This may sound strange, but dwelling on the past is not healthy, even if the past is positive. You need to be addressing the issues as they are now. Are the two of you getting along well? Is the religion issue making one of you hostile or walled off? Are you afraid of hostility or being shut-out if you were honest? If so, that’s not a healthy relationship now. Don’t consider how the relationship was years or months ago, and guiltily linger on that. Relationships should be continually developing and loving and giving, not something that just cuts off after a certain amount of time. There is no excuse, no reason that allows someone in a relationship to be treated poorly.

On the flip side, if the two of you are reasonable and caring to each other and you know about your religious differences, then you are at a good start. Relationships are built on respect and care, and if that’s something you have then you are doing well. Being nice to each other a great indication of a good relationship, but there can still be some warning bells.

A slight caveat to considering your history: if things are peachy right now, but there’s a history of extreme ups and downs then things will probably not get better. The cycle of abuse shows a relationship model of attacks, apologetics, happiness, tension building, and then more attacks, whether it’s physical, psychological or emotional. If there’s a history of domineering, disrespect, manipulation, hostility or other outbursts, then do keep that in mind. The cycle describes an relationship built on dominance and inequality, and the only way to break that cycle is to just get out. Watch out for a partner who refuses to allow your atheist books in the house, disallows you to go to atheist meetings, who forces you to come to religious worship, who tells you (with no remorse) that you deserve Hell, or doesn’t allow you to talk about religion to the family. Those are all kinds of controlling behaviors, and abuse is about control. Here’s a great guide about the kinds of relationship abuse, along with great extra resource links at the bottom.

Another warning bell to consider is if the two of you alright with your religious differences only because the differences are never discussed. Do the two of you avoid discing all difficult topics? When was the last time you had a serious discussion about politics, moral qualms, money, social problems, gender structures, etc? Do the two of you only talk about superficial stuff? If so, you might want to reevaluate if this relationship is really substantial or if you’re just in the honeymoon stage of the relationship. If there’s no deeper connection, no deeper common ground, then why would you want to be in a long-term relationship with this person? Seriously consider if you’re there just because it’s comfortable and tough to leave.

Now, it’s quite all right to have topics that are avoided. If the two of you talk about social, financial, political and other issues issues, while religion is just the odd duck, then that’s probably fine. Russell and I have topics that we’ve just agreed to disagree on and never bring up, because they’re fruitless discussions (male infant circumcision, for example) but we are pretty much in agreement when it comes to other debates, and we enjoy those discussions thoroughly. There’s only so much time we two can spend discussing World of Warcraft and other superficial things, before our conversations would go silent. Having these deeper connections keeps our conversations constantly new and fresh. Having deeper connections is important, and if those are lacking and have been lacking for quite awhile, then it’s pretty easy to see where the relationship will go in the future: nowhere. It can be tough, but really look at these outside issues.

2. Trying to Deconvert a Partner is Usually Not a Good Idea

Perhaps a more popular question from atheists about religious partners is how to deconvert their theist partners. That’s a much trickier topic to navigate.

The approach I take to this sort of question is to generalize it out. Instead of making it about religion, let’s say instead, “I have a partner with a large character flaw. How can I fix that flaw?” It’s the typical problem of starting a relationship with someone and then expecting them to change for you. Now, a small amount of personal change in a relationship is healthy and normal. It’s part of being accommodating, loving and exchanging: imagine a relationship where Partner 1 improves zir habits about picking up the laundry, and Partner 2 works on their problem of calling when zhe will be late. Maybe one picks up bicycling in exchange for D&D and they both increase their sphere of hobbies. That’s good. In a normal relationship, there is a certain amount of change that is willingly and happily made to accommodate and improve each other. It’s a positive embracing of newer and better habits, hobbies and experiences. When it becomes unhealthy is when that change is forced or coerced, (or when the change is in forbidding previously enjoyed activities). If there is someone who feels continually pressured to change, then the relationship ceases to be based on mutual respect and love. Here, I recommend a deep evaluation of whether pressuring is an appropriate tactic. You might win and deconvert them, but more than likely you will just put an extra strain on the relationship.

And the thing is, religiosity is a very strong emotional and religious meme, and it is a tough thing to shake. In a way, it’s like an addiction, as strong as an alcoholism. Try reframing this relationship deconversion problem as trying to get an alcoholic sober. You can see the problem, you can see the logical gaps, you can see how it’s possibly destroying their lives and eating up their money, you can see everything. And you deeply care about this person, and would love for them to be freed from this one affliction that is ruining an otherwise perfectly good person. But anyone who has tried to help an alcoholic will tell you how fruitless it is. That person is in an addiction and sees no reason to change. You will have to accept that probably they will never want to see the light. You will probably have no influence on them leaving their religion or their alcoholism.

Now, this feels hypocritical for me to write, because I used to be a Christian who was in a relationship with atheists, and now I am quite the atheist myself, so I know change is possible. But I feel like my story is merely one anecdote, and I prefer to trust general facts instead of indivi
dual stories, even if that individual story happened to me. This is tough to do, but an essential part of being a skeptic. And looking back, I don’t think I would have deconverted while I was dating my high school atheist sweetheart. At that time someone pointed out to me the bad things the bible says about women, and I had flippantly excused it with “Oh, that’s only The Old Testament.” I don’t know that I was emotionally ready to deconvert, and any attempt to do so would have probably just made me feel hostile and disrespected. I did change my mind later, but that was only because it was something I came to slowly, and independently, through a love of skepticism and evaluation (and not until I was single). I changed not because of who I was with, but because I chose to follow the facts and they slowly led me to disbelief.

I don’t think my story is all that typical of theists. After all, most of the theists I know are still theists. There are always those alcoholics who independently decide to kick the habit and cure themselves. There are those religious people who slowly realize that their faith is based on nothing. But it shouldn’t be your job to sacrifice yourself on the unlikely chance that they will spontaneously change themselves, or that you can be the one to “fix” them. It likely won’t happen. That spark and desire for change has to come within, and there’s nothing you can do to put that into someone else’s brain.

As another example, Russell and I took a premarital class to waive a marriage license fee, and in it the director gave a story about how on his honeymoon he flipped out and punched through the glovebox of the car. A scary story by itself, but then he then he continued that kind of behavior for 9 more years before finally figuring out that was unacceptable. He slowly realized he needed to change, and turned himself around. I’m glad that he had that self-realization, but would you have wanted his partner to have stayed through that for 9 years on the hope that he would change? Do you think that there was anything this woman could have said to make him re-evaluate his behavior, or would he just have ignored her? The truth is that something clicked in his head on its own, and he self-motivated his own change. A good method for self-evaluation is to pretend that a friend is in a similar situation, and ask yourself how you would give them advice. In my opinion, they shouldn’t have stayed together. Take a step back and look at your relationship as if you were looking at a friend in a similar situation: would you advice your friend to wait it out? Can they be happy together if they stayed the same, for years and years? If you can’t accept them for how they are now, then you need to re-look your standards or re-look your relationship.

3. Can Deconversion Attempts Be Acceptable?

I would like to point out a mitigating factor, even though I worry that it might just add confusion and false hope. Many people who are stuck in religion are there only because they’ve never been presented with contrary views or information. Their religion is treated with some sort of reverence that shields it against scrutiny, and they might be simply ignorant about their own faith. If they are the kind of person who cares about truth and knowledge and logic, then they might just need a bit of nudging in the right direction, and you never know where that nudge might come from. It might be from you, it might be from someone else, it might even be from someone religious. Faith is a Jenga tower, and you can never be sure which block will topple the whole thing down. In this case, it might be helpful for you to offer advice and arguments about religion and reason. Address concerns and doubts they have. Ask them the tough questions: always ask questions instead of telling them. Let them do their own research and point them in the right direction. Asking questions allows them to think about it themselves, telling them allows them to just shut it out. I recommend reading 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God, and The Demon Haunted World. And of course, Iron Chariots and TalkOrigins are fantastic guides as well.

Most importantly when communicating, evaluate how you have these kinds of discussions. Different ways of approaching a relationship disagreement can lead to vastly different results. If there is accusing, storming out, stonewalling, ignored olive branches or any other number of bad arguments habits, then you need to take a moment to work on your own communication skills. I highly recommend John Gottman’s The Relationship Cure, which is all about how to communicate effectively, really in any situation. Interestingly, one of the best summaries of proper relationship communication techniques I could find quickly was in a section of a wikipedia article about open marriages (it’s been flagged as inappropriately placed, so enjoy it while it’s there).

As an atheist now, I frequently feel frustrated that I was a christian so long around so many atheists and skeptics who rarely questioned my faith, but on the other hand, I honestly could not tell you if attacks on my faith would have sped up my deconversion or whether I would have entrenched further. For example, this incredibly long YouTube series tells the story of a student decoverting after fervent debate with his professor, a guy who I would have chalked up as a lost cause. Meanwhile, as I’ve already said, I defended biblical subjugation of women with the dumbest argument that I actually believed made sense. I was a pretty hopeless case, and maybe I did benefit in some small way from having my faith prodded a bit when I was younger, but it took years after that. It’s always worthwhile to try presenting arguments against religion: even if they fall on deaf ears now they might produce logical responses years down the line. Deconversion is a slow, gradual process that frequently requires input from multiple sources. They might thank you years down the line.

That said, I would like to reiterate that it is not your job and not your place to change and fix your partner. It might be possible to point them in the right direction, but if these debates go nowhere, then you really need to accept that this is how they are and this is likely how they will be for a long time. I’ve hesitated to give the above advice about how to deconvert a partner because I am worried that it might be used as a sort of grasping at straws for those who are in a relationship with someone who really is stuck. I’d say most people are in the kind of situation where their religious partner is not likely to be swayed. The majority of Christians I’ve ever known and discussed religion with are still Christians. And if you think that doesn’t apply to your partner, then you’re probably deluding yourself. Go ahead and attempt to change their mind, but be prepared for it to fail, and then be prepared to move on. You should not sacrifice yourself and your happiness to try and fix someone who is a lost cause. When was the last time you watched a romantic movie? They are formulaically based on the fantasy of changing a fundamental flaw in the love interest. That this is so attractive of a fantasy really speaks to how unlikely the chance for change really is. If you’ve tried to communicate your desire for a change, and that desire has been ignored, then
you need to accept that this is a person with their own free will and thoughts and you might never be able to change them. Are you alright with coupling with someone who will have this attitude forever? Would this permanently leave your relationship more strained than positive?

4. Should I Just Go Through the Motions?

One of the side questions that gets brought up is that of going through the motions, for the sake of the relationship. Whether it’s a religious ritual in a marriage ceremony or attending a religious service. If you are an out atheist to your partner, this pressure can feel uncomfortable. Perhaps you feel awkward about going through these motions, but are uncertain about why: after all if you don’t believe that sprinkling water on a child does anything magical, then why not allow it to happen? This discomfort comes not from the actual act, but from the attitude of respect and mutuality in a relationship. The ceremonial implications with god might be imaginary, but the ceremonial implications between the two of you are very real. If there is a situation where you are expected to take the backseat and have no input, then that is being disrespectful to you. It is disrespectful to say that one person’s views must be followed and the other person’s must be ignored, for the sake of someone outside of the relationship. Here is where you need to find some sort of compromise that shows respect to your feelings and your partner’s feelings. Have that wedding chapel ceremony, but exclude references to god from the vows. Compromise, and be wary of inflexibility. Inflexibility now means inflexibility in the future. It means you will be in a relationship where you will be pressured and coerced to continue going through the motions, and as we’ve already discussed, pressure to change is a real relationship-killer. Is that something acceptable to you?

Alternatively, if your partner doesn’t know that you are an atheist, then you are in a bit of a bind. You are now in a relationship that’s not based on mutual respect and trust, but instead lies and deceit. If you are afraid that telling your partner about your atheism will damage the relationship, then you have to examine how strong your relationship really is. If something like that can shake your strength, then be honest with yourself about if there are deeper issues: lack of deeper common interests, inabilities to communicate, etc. You need to ask yourself if this is a relationship worth keeping together on such shaky ground. Now sometimes relationships can be solid, but the religion has entrenched itself so deeply that even strong relationships will be torn apart by a commitment to the faith. In this case, it can be painful to admit that you are in a relationship with someone who would hurt you for something imaginary. But does that sound like a deep love, a faithful commitment? Does that sound like the sort of person you would want to rely on? Would you recommend a friend stay with someone who doesn’t accept them, who has to lie? This can breed a relationship where you feel resentful and disrespected and trapped, and your partner feels an unknown distance growing between the two of you. It’s much better to come clean, and then to accept the repercussions of that. Do it gently, if you are worried: say that you don’t believe what you used to and that you’re still the same person and that you care about your partner and will always be open to answering different questions, and that you hope they still care about you in the same way too. Give a negative reaction some time to cool off, but if there continues to be hostility, then realize that this is someone who does not respect you for who you are and is not contributing to a loving, respectful relationship.

5. What About Kids?

One of biggest and toughest questions I’ve saved for last: the issue of children. The easier issue of children comes with those who don’t have them: discuss if you want children and come to some sort of agreement about how they would be raised, and how much religiosity they will have. Discuss schooling and strictness and punishment, really consider if you want to bring someone into the world who might be pressured into believing a religion. Can you accept watching your child be taught to believe for life in the imaginary? That’s a pretty tough burden to accept.

If there are already children in the picture, it can be tough. Very young children really do benefit from having two parents, and you should consider the fact that splitting up might leave your religious partner as their primary source of religious information. Consider also that many atheists now are the children of very religious parents, myself included. All you need to do is instill a love for truth and knowledge, and atheism can come naturally later on its own.

When it comes to divorce, the damaging effects on kids is actually a bit overblown. The connection between emotional damage is actually with parents who are frequently negative and attacking of each other. If you and your partner argue frequently and heatedly, then a divorce might actually be more positive, because it would reduce that negative element by giving the two of you some space. Similarly, if the two of you have a loveless marriage, kids will pick up on that. Then, that sort of unfulfilling, unaffectionate relationship will be normalized for them. There’s no positive in that.

If you choose to divorce, make a conscious effort to do so respectfully and calmly. There is a lot of societal/religious pressure to keep marriages together at any cost, but this might not always be healthy. Obviously it’s not good to get flightily at the first few whiffs of trouble, and if trouble has just started then it might be a good time to look into relationship help. But if there are deep relationship issues, don’t be afraid to break those off just because of children. Whatever choice is made, be sure to impress upon your children how much you care about them and reinforce that you will still be there in their lives because they are important; that’s the biggest thing that kids need from their parents.

6. Where to go from here

I’ve covered a lot of ground here, but I hope that this can serve as a good starting point for those who are currently in a relationship and aren’t quite sure what to do next. I find that frequently people know exactly what to do, but have trouble admitting that to themselves, and look for outside advice. So think about your relationship, think about the implications, think about the status of your relationship together. Think about how deeply committed and respectful and loving you are to each other. Think about how you would advise a friend in a similar situation. Think about what sorts of things you care about in a relationship. Think about if your decisions are influenced more by comfort or by true respect.

If you do decide to split up, don’t focus on finding someone else. Focus on yourself; improve yourself; join classes and expand your interests and hobbies. Follow your passions and then if you are active with them, maybe you will find someone that way. If you don’t, know that happiness and healthiness are more important than being in a relationship. There’s plenty you can do to make the world a better place, and it’s always nice to focus on ways you can improve the world.

Next time, pray to recognize confirmation bias

A viewer wrote to say that he is a former Christian, but became a Jew rather than an atheist because of an experience he had as a teenager. He asked: “Please tell me if the following story should be proof to me that there is a God and what you would think if it happened to YOU.”

One day when I was a Christian I was praying to God and saying, “God please let me meet somebody to witness to today”. Later that day a man just walked up to me out of nowhere and said, “If your religion goes bad do you go bad with it?” I said “No” and he said “Thank you” and walked off. I had always wondered if there is no God, how my prayers got answered when nobody heard me praying that day in the car since I was praying under my breath and the doors were closed.

I replied:

It’s an interesting story, but does not impress me as an outside observer as much as it obviously impressed you when you were in the situation.

People in general are notoriously bad at calculating the odds of an event occurring. Events which strike us as “unlikely” are actually fairly commonplace, especially because we are able to invent patterns and attach significance to a very wide range of possible events. For example, the request you made was extremely unspecific, and could have been fulfilled by all kinds of different things happening over a long period of time. You said that the person came up to you “later that day,” which doesn’t make it nearly as interesting if, say, you had prayed and somebody had shown up immediately. And “meet somebody to witness to today” isn’t all that specific either — you might well have tried harder to push some kind of religious topic into any conversation you had that day, and seen it as scoring a hit. The witnessing you actually did in the end (you were asked a question and you gave a one-syllable answer) doesn’t strike me as especially significant, although I’m sure it struck you that way at the time.

People are also very susceptible to confirmation bias. Stuff happens every day that does not seem significant, but when it matches some kind of expectation we have, we tend to notice that one event and attach special importance to it, while ignoring all the other things that didn’t fit our conception of something unusual or miraculous. For instance: in your story you didn’t specify if that was the only time in your young life that you ever prayed for anything, but I bet it wasn’t. And I’ll bet that you didn’t waste too much thought on all the times you tossed out a casual prayer and nothing happened.

If you wanted to do a real test of the power of faith, you shouldn’t need to say “God, please cause [some fairly commonplace event] to happen before [some fairly long span of time] has elapsed.” You ought to be able to say: “God, please let a bird with blue spots and a crooked beak fly past my window within the next ten seconds.” If something that specific happened in that small time span, that would be interesting. If you could repeat this demonstration of the effectiveness of prayer multiple times consistently, that would be really interesting.

As it is, the impression I get from your story was “I prayed for something just barely unusual to happen eventually, and on this one occasion it did.” If that’s the main reason why you’re a theist today, then I think I can say with confidence that I could have experienced an identical occurrence and still not acquire your faith.

Email: Why can’t science ever prove God?

Andrew writes:

I’ve stumbled across your show and personal beliefs aside, I just have to say that people are really stupid. As a Catholic, I’m ashamed of the logic of Christians trying to prove the existence of God as it presents itself on your show. I do have a question which I don’t get about what atheists state: God can never be proven through science. If something exists, it can be proven. Yet with the logic that the Christians use, they change Christian belief and twist it into personal assumptions rather than going by fundamental doctrine. I guess my questions are: 1) Why can’t science ever prove God? ; 2) What, besides God walking up to you, can be proof for the existence of God?

And by God, I mean a physical entity that can come down and walk amongst us, wrestle with us and looks like us. Basically, if you stood next to God, you’d see that humans were created to be in the image of God. I know how you love to get definitions of God.

Andrew,

You have to understand that we can only respond to claims that we are offered about God, and there are thousands of conflicting versions of God. I know many atheists have put forth the case that God should be possible to investigate through science, and have suggested specific ways that the claim could be testable.

However, to understand how much the waters have been muddied, you ought to familiarize yourself with the history of the creationism movement. A hundred years ago, it was illegal to teach evolution in schools at all. By the 1960’s, evolution was accepted as standard science. However, there was a movement to demand that creationism must be taught as science by law. This was finally rejected because creationism, at the time, was considered purely religion with no scientific merit.

So in the mid 60’s there was a push to create “scientific creationism.” At the time, creationists still attempted to make testable claims, generally centered around a literal interpretation of the Bible. For instance, they attempted to prove that the global flood was real. But the problem with such specific claims is that science can not only test them; it can prove them wrong. And it did, which eventually led to more legislative defeats for creationists.

Since that time, creationists have gotten a lot more crafty in trying to advance a watered down form of creationism in schools. The 1990’s saw the rise of “intelligent design” which, while heavily borrowing elements of traditional creationism, made the definition of “the designer” continually more vague and without specific testable claims. In their effort not to be labeled as yet another drive to teach religion in schools, they refuse to say anything specific about God. They just say “we logically infer that there must be a designer” and they don’t propose any claims about what the designer is like or how he could be tested.

This achieves the objective of being harder to counter with observable facts, yes, but it also renders meaningless any efforts to actually investigate “God” or some other sort of designer.

So can science investigate God? It depends, of course. If the concept of God is attached to specific claims about the way he interacts with the world, then yeah, you’re right, that God should in principle be testable. Of course, no scientific investigations have ever revealed anything like the God of the Bible.

But on the other hand, when people propose a God that is deliberately made vague, that is untestable. An amorphous “intelligent designer” can’t be investigated, and as I’ve explained, that is pretty much on purpose. Likewise, vague claims like “God is love” or “God is a universal consciousness” don’t lend themselves easily to testing. If we ever said that God is not a scientific concept, you can bet that we were probably responding specifically to a person who was advancing this kind of nonspecific notion of God.

As for your second question: “What, besides God walking up to you, can be proof for the existence of God?” Well, I mean, God walking up to me would be a pretty good one. It’s not even all that outlandish a request. After all, according to the Bible, God used to appear to people all the time. He talked to Moses in a burning Bush, he showed his puncture wounds to Doubting Thomas, he dropped in on Saul of Tarsus, he told Abraham to kill his son (before going on to say “just kidding!”).

If God is bothered by the existence of atheists, then clearly he knows how to fix that. What’s weird is that God is seemingly so selective. A few scattered people get to have a fireside chat with God. The rest of us apparently have to make do with clearly apocryphal stories about the appearances, and believe blindly with no such concrete evidence whatsoever. If this is the way God works, then either he enjoys playing mind games with the millions of atheists on the planet, or else he really does want them to remain atheists.

As for me, I don’t think there is a god. If it turns out I’m wrong, he knows where I live.