Why and How

Many years ago, a Krishna friend said to me, “People often ask ‘why?,’ when what they really mean is ‘how?’”

Initially, this statement confused me. But he explained it further. It made sense to me. And since that day, I have adopted his stance.

On Yesterday’s show, we had a Christian caller who told us that she believes in god because she has personally witnessed miracles. Matt asked her to give us an example of a miracle. She said there were so many to choose from it would take too much time to go into them. Matt asked her to just give us one example.

If you are an atheist who is ever engaged by Christians, you know that it’s important to get an example of a miracle, because Christians do not agree on what constitutes a “miracle.” Like most other religious terms, the word is meaningless, and pretty much self-defined, along the lines of something like, “love” or “freedom.”

The woman explained her “miracle” pretty thoroughly. But it didn’t take much time to see this woman defines miracle as “a natural/reasonable occurrence that I interpret as a sign from god.” Her definition is not unlike an autobiographical story I once read about a Christian woman who hated the color of carpet in her church. When it was changed out, she knew it was a sign she should marry her fiancé, because, prior to that, she had determined she must be married in that church, but couldn’t bear to be married on that hideous shade of aqua carpeting. Most atheists don’t think of these types of things as “miracles,” so it’s always good to check before assuming when a Christian uses a word that relates to the supernatural. Since none of it is available for examination/verification to anyone—we’re left with the reality that any such term has only the meaning that any individual Christian assigns.

The woman on the phone said her reason for believing in god was that she began asking questions such as “why is the sky blue?” And she prayed ardently to a god (that she didn’t believe in) to let her know if he was there. She also began to research different religions. And she found one that really spoke to her, and became a Christian. So, now, in her words, “I know that I know that I know [there is a god].”

There are some obvious issues with a claim of “not believing” a god exists while I’m repeatedly pleading to that god. But this is already going to be long, so let me jump to where it ties into another obvious problem: the problem of asking for signs from spirit beings to determine whether or not they exist.

In other words, any “sign” I receive as the result of prayer is only open to subjective interpretation, and not to any verification. Christians put forward that it’s wrong to ask for any sort of verifiable miracle or definitive sign. To do so would be “testing” god—a serious no-no. So a person making this sort of plea is open to accepting any sort of subtle influence or coincidence. They’re not asking for Earth-shattering, convincing evidence—just something “meaningful” to them, personally.

What’s the obvious problem? Well, ask them how this sounds to their ears: “If you wanted to know if Big Foot exists, and I told you that I know Big Foot exists because I prayed to god for a sign to let me know if they exist. And after a few days, weeks, and months, I got nothing. So, I started researching Big Foot online—reading all I could find. I also kept on praying and asking to feel assured and have a sign. I prayed and prayed and kept on praying, and reading about Big Foot, until I finally encounter a subtle coincidence—a better job offer, a feeling of euphoria/peace, (or even a video of Big Foot online)—that convinced me god was telling me that Big Foot do, in fact, exist. And so now, I know that I know that I know Big Foot is out there in the woods.”

Would they think I had justification for belief in Big Foot? Or would they think I wanted so badly to believe that I just drilled myself until I finally accepted anything as proof of Big Foot’s existence?

If I want to know if a god exists, why not check into it like I would check into the existence of anything else—of Big Foot? Clearly define what it means to “exist,” exactly what it is I’m seeking, and where it should be found manifesting, then check to see if it’s actually manifesting there in the way I expect. If it’s not, then what I am seeking doesn’t exist. That’s, honestly, the best anyone could do to make a determination of the existence of any item-X. Praying to item-X for assurance it exists makes no sense unless, on some level, I’ve already accepted all sorts of claims about the existence of this item and how it operates—even while I attempt to assure others I haven’t presupposed these claims to be valid. I’m certainly throwing out everything I have learned in life about how to determine whether or not something exists and how to determine truth value, and it appears I’ve also, to some significant degree, accepted all the terms laid down by superstition in my search. And if I was truly skeptical—is this really how I’d go about it? Would I see proof of the validity of a god on supernatural terms? Or would I go with what I know to be tried and true in existent reality?

But that’s a huge digression. Back to “why” and “how.” Definitions can change, I understand. And I will be the first to admit that people I know use “why” and “how,” often, interchangeably. I’m not writing to say “you’re wrong.” I’m writing to call out a subtle difference that may/may not speak to a difference in perspective that an atheist should be aware of when he or she is engaged by a Christian. When the Christian says, “I was asking myself, ‘why is the sky blue?’” I should already be wary, because the Christian is potentially starting off asking the wrong (and potentially very loaded) question. With my prior disqualifier regarding definitions firmly in place, I’m going to appeal now to Webster for a standard, accepted definition.

“Why” is listed as basically meaning: “For what reason, cause, purpose or motive.” “How” is listed as “in what manner, in what way, by what means.”

Can they be used interchangeably? I think so. However, consider this: In a discussion about whether or not the universe is the result of natural causes or intelligent purpose, doesn’t the term “why” carry with it the potential to muddy the waters with presupposition, whereas “how” is more unpresuming and more to the point? If a god did it, “how” will get to that. If a god didn’t do it, “how” will also get to that. But if a god didn’t do it, “why” may or may not get to that—depending on how we’re using it.

Depending on what the Christian means by “why,” the word comes preloaded to presume purpose and motive in creation. When I hear a Christian ask “Why X?,” where X is a natural function, I will say, “I think you mean ‘how’ X.” The less biased and more accurate question is “How is the sky blue?”

We use “why” rather than “how” so often that that last question may sound awkward to some. But I recommend getting used to it. And I recommend pointing out the bias that comes with a preloaded word like “why” when a Christian uses it. “Do you recognize that a more appropriate word would be ‘how’—since ‘why’ presupposes motive in natural functions and causes? You’re potentially already starting off with a bias that the universe has purpose. And since that is the very point of our debate, I have to declare that I don’t know if there is any reason ‘why’ the sky is blue—but I believe we can discuss something of how the sky is blue; and if it leads to a purpose, so be it.”

Am I being over-analytical here? I don’t think so. Consider that the Christian on the phone was responding to Matt’s question about what made her believe a god exi
sts. She answered that she was putting questions to herself, such as “Why is the sky blue?” What does that have to do with god unless you perceive a motive behind the reality that the sky is blue? If Matt had asked her a question about determining truth values or finding the cause of natural realities, then there probably would be no reason to consider the word “why” to have any ulterior meaning beyond it’s interchangeable use with “how.” But in the context of “Why do I believe an intelligent being is behind the natural universe?,” the idea that someone pondered “Why is the sky blue?,” takes on a whole new (pardon the pun) shade of meaning.

Make of it what you will. Draw your own conclusions. If you think I’m being too detailed in analyzing the language people use, then disregard my point entirely. But I find that definitions often are key source of misunderstandings in any discussion with a Christian. And, so, I see no reason to allow for more than will certainly already occur. “Why” has, over the years, become a red flag to me in discussions with Christians. I don’t know there are any “why”s for the things they want to know. But we can talk about “how”s, if they’re ready to investigate nature in an unbiased fashion.

You don’t take me seriously, but I’m disrespecting YOU?

I found an odd irony in an exchange recently.

On another blog someone asked if atheists can expect fair treatment from presidential candidates who state their religious beliefs are very important to them in their own lives. While I do think it’s possible for a person to value X, but still understand and respect others who don’t value X, I also understand the reason for the question. Some religious people see their views as simply being their own personal choice, and they don’t really extend that outward to consider what other people might choose. Maybe they don’t care what other people choose so long as we’re all getting along OK. But some religious people express real difficulty even understanding how a person could be moral, trustworthy, or honest (with themselves or others) if they aren’t also religious.

Without asking each person, it’s not possible to know how an individual views their beliefs or how they judge others based on the beliefs others may hold. But it made me recollect an online exchange I had, a very brief one, with a theist recently. And here’s why: I was accused of not being objective when I questioned an inference he made. I asked, “…are you claiming [your argument] is a rational justification for belief in the existence of god (any more than it constitutes rational justification for belief in the existence of fairies)?”

The person was pretty obviously offended by my equating his god to fairies. He became defensive. So, I I responded that I wasn’t trying to be funny, that my question was in all seriousness. He never wrote back.

I have no doubt that this person truly felt I was only trying to get a rise. But I can honestly say I never was. He wrote to an atheist list. He knew in advance that atheists do not believe gods exist. Why it would surprise him that I would equate gods to fairies, in that case, and in all seriousness, I cannot fathom. Apparently, I’m supposed to pretend to grant his belief in god a special status over belief in fairies—even when he knows, before he addresses, me that I don’t. And if his arguments support the existence of fairies as much as the existence of gods, I’m not supposed to notice that or ask about it.

In other words, by expressing my perspective of god’s existence, and by not accepting his view as a given, I’m being offensive. If I say that I—honestly—can’t see how fairies wouldn’t be proven just as much as gods by the arguments he’s providing, I’m not being serious, and I’m just being a jerk. But what’s really happening is that this theist isn’t taking MY position seriously. I REALLY do not see the difference between his belief in god and a belief in fairies. And he refuses to accept that as a serious assertion on my part—even though it is asserted in 100 percent seriousness. Am I offended by that? No. After all, I didn’t go to a theist forum to push my view on anyone. What do I care what he thinks? I was just responding and asking what I thought was a fair question about claims he was making.

But, how does this tie into respect? Well, I respected his belief by treating it like any other. He didn’t care too much for that. But if he’d have come to me saying he could prove fairies, and given me the same arguments he provided for gods, I would just as well have asked, “How would this not also prove leprechauns?” And so on. Would it be offensive to compare fairies to leprechauns in that case—just because someone actually believes in them?

If I can’t even ask a question without being considered an ass; if I can’t give my view without being considered an offensive jerk; If my perspective is automatically interpreted as sarcasm and cruel joking, even though it’s not. How is THAT respect for MY belief (or in this case, lack of it)? What if, instead of asking him how his claim for god did any less to prove fairies exist, I had written back and said, “Well, if you’re just going to write to us with ludicrous claims, trying to be funny about ‘god exists’—I mean, what sort of idiots do you take us for? You can go send your joke e-mails about gods existing to someone else’s list you arrogant prick!”

THAT’S respect? I asked a serious question. He blanketly refused to take me seriously. And it appears to me that he is totally incapable of taking my view seriously on any level. Yet, somehow, that makes ME disrespectful of HIS beliefs.

While I’m not concerned about one online theist, I have to wonder how many others feel this way, or how many politicians share this view? That is a concern. Not an offense (to me, at least), but a real concern.