Why I’m not a believer – the ‘So how could X have happened without God?’ arguments

This is the first in a short series of posts I’m writing about the subject of why, after investigating reasons for theism, I ultimately became a non-believer.

For background: These investigations were in my childhood/teenage years. I grew up in a non-religious household, but was intensely interested in the whole subject from an early age. I regarded the whole question of whether or not there was a God, and, if so, what religion he wanted us to follow, as being an extremely important one; so I put a lot of time into reading and thinking seriously about the subject. These are, as best as I can remember after a thirty-year gap, my reactions at the time.

The ‘So how could X have happened without God?’ arguments, as I now think of them, are the main ones I remember coming across in this period of reading and examining different arguments for theism. Looking back from a perspective of somewhat greater knowledge of the debate field, I think I was getting my kalam cosmologicals lumped in with my design arguments (for the uninitiated, the kalam cosmological argument is a philosophical argument around the supposed necessity of a First Cause for the universe to exist at all, and the design argument is the argument that various specific aspects of the universe couldn’t possibly have reached their current form without a creator). But the basic formula always seemed to be to be similar; how could [the universe, the origin of life, some specific complex aspect of life-forms] have possibly happened without God to bring it about?

I didn’t, of course, know. I just didn’t see how that could logically lead to a certainty that ‘God did it’ must be the only possible answer.

I was perplexed. Scientists were continually working to find out new knowledge, and, as a result of this, we now knew the answers to a lot of questions about the universe that baffled humans in the past. So surely the most logical assumption to make about any question about the universe to which we didn’t know the answer was that that sentence should probably end in ‘…yet’? Why should we leap straight to assuming that this question, unlike the many that baffled humanity similarly in the past, will be insoluble? And, as long as the possibility exists of us someday finding a natural process that could explain this problem, surely we can’t logically use its existence as an argument for the existence of God?

Of course, there was a logical difficulty with that approach as well; it also couldn’t be used to prove the non-existence of God. After all, let’s suppose that the answer to one of those ‘How could X have happened without God?’ conundrums actually was ‘It couldn’t; this time, God really did do it’. How could we exclude that possibility, given that ‘We don’t yet know what natural process caused X’, and ‘X happened because of God’ were effectively indistinguishable for any as-yet-unanswered question for as long as it remained unanswered?

I thought it over, and pictured a scenario: Scientists the world over throw up their collective hands, declaring “We’re stumped. We have absolutely no idea how this could have happened through natural causes. We don’t even have any theories left as to how to investigate this. We’re clear out of ideas.” The years go by, scientists continue to rack their brains, and yet no-one can come up with a thing. At that point, it seemed to me, theists really would have a good case – not watertight, but very good indeed – for saying “It must have been God.” And, if that happened, I would take that seriously as an argument.

Until and unless that happened, though, I couldn’t see how the argument held water. I couldn’t see any way that ‘How could X have happened without God?’ questions could be used to establish the existence or otherwise of a god.

Why I am not a religious believer

When I first started atheist-blogging, on a blog prior to this one, I figured the obvious place to start would be with the story of how and why I became an atheist. So I wrote a series of posts about the story; about growing up in a non-practicing family of mixed religious heritage, about considering different religions, and about eventually becoming first an agnostic and ultimately an atheist. Looking back, there’s a rather important aspect of the story I didn’t cover; the details of why I ended up as a non-believer rather than a believer. The short answer to that, of course, is that I didn’t find any of the supposed evidence to be convincing; but it would be worth blogging about the question of why I didn’t.

I’m therefore going to write a short series of posts on the arguments I encountered while researching the question of whether or not God existed, my reaction to them, and why I ultimately found each of them unconvincing. I weighed up the evidence as well and fairly as I could, and I’ll try to do the same in recounting it (although bear in mind that I’m relating things that mostly occurred thirty or more years ago). I’ll link each of them back to this post to give me a single place to refer back to if the general question ‘So, why are you an atheist?’ ever comes up.

(Note that – as indicated by the title – this is the story of why I’m an atheist in the sense of why I’m not a believer. The story of why I’m now an atheist rather than an agnostic is a simpler and quicker one which can be found at the fourth of the above links. Which I’ll repeat here, in case you don’t want to bother counting them.)

(Quick edit – This series will cover general arguments for the existence of God. I also spent a lot of time researching the more specific issue of whether I should believe in Christianity, but, while that’s obviously a linked subject, it’s still a separate one which I hope to cover in a separate series of posts at some point in the future. Therefore, any arguments regarding the Christian faith specifically won’t be covered in this series.)

Links to posts:

‘So how could X have happened without God?’

What I’ve been reading – The Maze Runner trilogy

(Content note – This post contains spoilers for the books. Also mention of post-apocalyptic scenarios, though I don’t go into that bit very much. Also, at the end, a bit about fantasy high-tech medical stuff described in more graphic terms than you might want to hear.)

Caveat: I read the first book and the first part of the second book, but then skim-flipped from there through to the end of the third, as by then they’d moved into the ‘post-apocalyptic wasteland populated by crazed, doomed survivors’ part of the setting, which is something that just doesn’t float my boat. It is therefore possible that I might have missed an explanation that made at least somewhat more sense out of the plot. If so, do let me know, and my apologies.

Anyway, this is going to be a summary of my thoughts on the trilogy as a whole. If you want a really good chapter-by-chapter deconstruction of the first book, do check out Whitley Birks’ excellent review (plus her other reviews while you’re there; it’s a superb blog with all kinds of interesting points about what well-known authors got horribly wrong through lazy research/not doing the writing).

Here’s the overriding impression with which this trilogy left me: the author had a lot of good ideas but then had no idea how to write a coherent plot that would properly account for them all.

I mean, you can picture James Dashner thinking “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to write about a large group of children trapped in a meadow in the middle of a maze, with no idea what was going on! Or for them to have some sort of trial that involved making their way a hundred miles across a post-apocalyptic wasteland within a time limit! Or to have a dilemma about whether it’s OK to do terrible things to children if it’s the only chance of saving the world! Or a government agency with the acronym WICKED and the slogan ‘WICKED is good’ and amnesiac people remembering this slogan but having no idea what it means! Doesn’t that sound great?”

And, yes… it was. For a while. Right up until the point where we got what was supposed to be the Big Reveal explanation for each of those. At which point I would be looking at it and thinking “What?! That doesn’t make any sense! What about…??”

Main plot points that evoked the “What?! That doesn’t make any sense!” explanation from me:

The reason WICKED are experimenting on the children is to find a cure for a deadly plague (known as the Flare) which is ravaging the rest of the human race; most of the children are naturally immune (some of them are apparently there as control subjects) so WICKED desperately need to study the children and find out what accounts for their immunity, in hopes of finding a cure for everyone else. So far, so good. The trouble is, they’re doing it by studying the way their brains function (by putting them through various stressful situations and monitoring their responses). Which makes no sense whatsoever. If you want to know what makes someone immune to an illness, surely you start by studying their immune system? Tissue biopsies of the brain would probably also be useful, but the only time we see WICKED trying to do that, it’s when they want to dissect Thomas’s entire brain (and only Thomas’s – they don’t seem to feel any requirement to compare biopsies from a variety of the children).

They’re also, apparently, taking a bizarrely long time to do this. The children get taken away from their parents at an early age and kept by WICKED for years until they’re old enough to take part in the Maze trials, which then go on for two more years. Since the time from infection by the Flare virus to destruction of your functioning brain doesn’t, from what I could see, seem to be that long – how exactly is it that the virus hasn’t wiped out everyone non-immune during those years and left the whole question of a cure moot?

WICKED are also quite extraordinarily profligate with money. The Maze walls, we are told, are hundreds of feet high and move into different positions every night. (Wait, what?! How do you even make a wall that high stable enough to be moved?? Now I’m all ‘Ye canna change the laws of physics, laws of physics, Cap’n!’ and that wasn’t even the plot hole I was about to discuss.) We also learn that the Maze is eight times the size of the central area (the Glade) which is in itself the size of eight football fields, so that is one bloody big maze. All made out of moveable walls hundreds of feet high. And the children live there for two years, with the walls being moved every night and supplies being sent in weekly. In fact, we learn in the second book that there are two such groups of children, not just one. So… how much did all this cost?? The cost of first building and then maintaining two such mazes would be… so colossally expensive that we need a new term for ‘colossally expensive’. I mean, which planet do you sell to whom in order to finance something like that? And this is all meant to be taking place in a post-apocalyptic world when even basic services are likely to be going belly-up. (We are told at one point in the third book that WICKED have managed to corner available funding and resources due to being the only ones holding out the promise of a cure, but… funding and resources available for cornering at that point are still not going to be that great.)

So, are we seriously meant to believe that at absolutely no point in the design of the Mazes did anyone in charge point out “Hey, I realise walls hundreds of feet high sound exciting, but surely we can get the same effect at a fraction of the price by making the walls something like eight or ten feet high”? Or that at no point during the two years that all this was going on and that both groups of children were making zero progress on cracking the code or figuring out how to escape did anyone say”‘Guys, this experiment isn’t getting us anywhere and you can’t justify claiming these levels of funds any longer. Find something to hurry it up”? I’m sorry, I just do not buy the idea that any government agency anywhere in the history of government agencies who were, are, or will be can get away with being that blithely unconcerned about funding availability for that long.

Nearly done (not because that’s an exhaustive list, just because it’s a list of the things that bugged me the most) but I do have to mention the Retractor that we learned about in ‘The Death Cure’. This is, supposedly, a hi-tech device that removes implants from the children’s brains by sending wires in via their ear canals. Because apparently Dashner either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that ears aren’t just holes stretching straight through to the brain. You send a wire in through someone’s ear, the first thing it’s going to meet is the eardrum, which seals the outer canal off completely from the middle ear. Go through that, and you’re getting into some complex and delicate anatomy – the tiny bones of the middle ear, and the inner-ear organs that process sounds and monitor your balance. I’m a GP, not an ENT surgeon, but trying to pull an implant out via that lot strikes me as a really bad idea.

Also, since they are apparently going for this appallingly bad via-the-ear plan, why do the Retractors go on the children’s faces to perform this procedure? Wouldn’t it make far more sense for them to go on one side of the head? I mean, if it’s on the face, the wire it sends out has to curve sideways and downwards to find the ear and then upwards and forwards again to negotiate the ear canal… I think Dashner was, once again, going for the ‘this is such a cool scary image’ approach over actual practicalities.

OK, I’m done. What did everyone else think of the books? Did I miss anything important? Do let me know.

Happy blogging anniversary!

Yes, indeed – ’tis one year exactly since the day when I received the great news that I had been granted the high honour of a FreeThoughtBlogs blog. Since then, I’ve been privileged to get to know some great people and, of course, to actually post on here on those admittedly infrequent occasions when I get time to do so.

I know I haven’t posted nearly as often as I’d like to, but I’m still thrilled to be here; getting this blog really was one of the best things that happened to me in 2016, and that would be the case even if it hadn’t been a basically sucky year overall. So, happy blogging anniversary to me and to the many other bloggers who started at the same time as I did.

(Aaaaaaand… I am marking the day appropriately by, once again, being almost late for dinner, which is more of a problem this time since I’m the one making it. So, apologies for the brevity of this, but I must go.)

I Aten’t Dead

You may have noticed that I’ve been around very little over the past several months. Actually, it’s more likely that you haven’t noticed – there are, after all, plenty of excellent blogs on this site and a regular stream of posts from all directions – but it’s still something I feel guilty about.

The reason for my near-absence is that, on top of all the other stuff involved in being a mother and part-time GP, as of this school year I’ve also had to start part-time homeschooling my son. (The other part of the time he’s with tutors.) This certainly has its benefits and has been an interesting experience, but it’s also a huge suck of time and energy that I didn’t really have to spare. So, at any time when I could potentially be sitting down to blog, invariably either I have stuff that genuinely is more important to do right then (getting son’s lessons ready for the next day, getting work letters done), or I’m just plain too exhausted to face getting my brain to string sentences together, or both. On top of that, there’s the whole thing where my brain keeps going “But.. terrible political situation in the US… I should be helping out by making incisive posts! But I have no incisive posts to make! So how can I post about anything less important when so much important stuff is going on!”. Which doesn’t help.

Anyway… all of that is still going on, so this isn’t exactly the ‘and now my problems are solved and I can return to normal blogging’ post. It’s just the ‘sod it, I’m fed up of working my way through endless to-do lists and want to do something for me for a change’ post. Yeah, maybe the stuff I blog about isn’t going to be terribly interesting or important. But I still have things I want to write about, and I think that taking a break from everything else to write about them is something I need to do right now.

By the way, if anyone wants to throw out a word of encouraging interest in any of my currently planned topics, that would be great. They are, in no particular order of priority:

  • Homeschooling
  • Whatever I happen to have been reading lately
  • A description of the first episode of 11.22.63. (That one may have to wait… writing a detailed description of something like that is a big time-consuming project that probably isn’t ideal to take on when I’m just trying to get back to blogging anything, but it’s still something I’d like to do eventually.)
  • Actually finishing the detailed breakdown I promised nine months ago of the many errors in Lenny Esposito’s ‘but we should stop transgender people transitioning because science!’ of which I have so far managed only two posts out of a planned four.
  • Counter-apologetics, including short series of posts on a) why I became an unbeliever and b) why, specifically, I concluded Christianity’s claims not to be true.

Obviously, you may not care as long as I write something/not care anyway, which is fine. But any of those did make you gasp in glee and say “Wow, that’s exactly what it’s always been my dream to read about!” or even just think “Hmm, that sounds kind of interesting”, then, y’know, leave a comment and tell me so.

Friday the 13th and advocacy for sex workers

So, there’s this thing I’ve been taking part in for the past few years where I and some other bloggers/Internet users make Friday the 13th a day for speaking up for sex workers’ rights and the abolition of restrictive laws that harm sex workers rather than helping them. I don’t want to miss doing so this year, but I’m afraid that time constraints and general exhaustion mean that this is going to have to be my shortest post so far on the subject.

Firstly, the above link is to the post I wrote for the last Friday the 13th, which in turn links back to a couple of others. If you read that, it’ll fill you in pretty well on my views.

Secondly, and more importantly, I’d like to take this opportunity to direct you to what our national prostitutes’ organisation, the English Collective of Prostitutes, have to say on the importance of decriminalisation of prostitution. This statement of theirs summarises the reasons for decriminalisation of sex work and provides two links with summaries of useful information on the harm done by current British sex work laws (the US ones, by the way, are even worse, as prostitution itself is illegal in nearly all of the US, which is an appallingly unjust and harmful law) and debunking of several myths about sex work.

So, once again; let’s put an end to laws that harm sex workers, listen to what sex workers want from the law, and look at how best to reform the law with the actual needs and opinions of sex workers in mind.

Well, f&*%

I don’t normally use the F-word on my blog even with asterisks (I’m not squeamish, but my mother reads this blog) but there’s simply no other response to the results at this point.

Last night, when the polls were suggesting Clinton would just squeak through, my husband told me something he’d read in Reason magazine; that it was worrying to realise that if a competent racist without a history of sexual assault allegations was running for president in America today, he’d win. It now seems that an incompetent racist with a history of sexual assault allegations can do so. It’s beyond terrifying to think how many voters may have found his racism a feature rather than a bug. Or how many disliked the idea of a woman as president so much that they would literally vote for any available alternative.

An article by my sister: the problem with the term ’empowerment’

Back when I was pregnant with each of my children and reading antenatal literature and forums, one thing that cropped up now and again and annoyed the hell out of me was the habit of some health care providers of claiming that they wanted to ’empower’ women to have better births. While I’m sure it was very well meant, I also recognised that anyone who talked about ’empowering’ me was implicitly assuming that a) I wasn’t really all that powerful already and b) I wasn’t capable of becoming so without their kind help.

I was reminded of this when I read my sister’s latest article (nothing to do with childbirth, by the way) on the way that the word ’empowerment’ is essentially a meaningless distraction: Empowerment’ is Warping Women’s View of Real Power.

You can safely assume that if an activity is described as “empowering,” no one in any actual position of authority will be going anywhere near it… Empowerment has become the sparkly pink consolation prize for the gender that continues to be excluded from actual power.

And good points about the sexism in how Clinton is viewed/portrayed by the media.

The FTB Ethics Committee Statement

So, I interrupt that thrilling if admittedly glacially slow trawl through the errors in one conservative Christian’s attempt to write about transgender therapy, to bring you this post on an entirely different topic.

In response to events of recent days, of which many of you will already have heard a great deal, there has been a very great deal of discussion on the FreeThoughtBlogs backchannel about the issue of how we should handle allegations of gross misconduct in one of our members. This is ongoing, and you will hear more about it with time (and can read more about it now on other blogs). For the moment, however, we have drawn up a statement which we are posting on our various blogs to make our feelings known about this topic. Herewith:

Freethought Blogs unequivocally condemns any behavior that threatens the safety of atheist community members, including particularly marginalized groups. Freethought Blogs also recognizes the role of sexual harassment as one of numerous barriers for women that limits access to and participation within atheist conferences and spaces.

When the recent allegations against Richard Carrier were made public, Freethought Blogs initiated a process to investigate these claims and formalize its policy concerning the conduct of its members. The FtB Ethics Committee received several reports of Carrier’s behavior and was in the process of reviewing them when Carrier chose to leave the network. A thorough review of the allegations against Carrier cannot be completed by Freethought Blogs without his cooperation.

As part of our commitment to equitable access to freethinking spaces for all, Freethought Blogs members who violate our commitment to social justice by creating or maintaining barriers to participation will be removed from the network as a matter of policy. All reports submitted to us in furtherance of this policy will be kept in the strictest of confidence, unless the accusation was made publicly or in the event we have express permission to reproduce the complaint.

-The FtB Ethics Committee

That is (for the moment) all. We now return you to your regularly scheduled mishmash of, well, all the stuff we blog about.

Fact-checking transgender treatment myths, Part 2 – the David Reimer fallacy

In my last post, while discussing an inaccurate claim about transgender treatment recently made by Lenny Esposito on the Come Reason blog, I promised to come back to his past post Today’s Snake Oil Includes A Scalpel: The Damaging Treatment of Transgenderism for some much-needed fact-checking. In that post, Esposito claims that gender reassignment therapy is ‘a dangerous falsehood that many times proves deadly to the patients that should have been helped’, and goes on to cite various pieces of evidence to make a superficially convincing case for this claim. However, this is extremely misleading; Esposito’s post not only contains several significant errors and fallacies, it also ignores all the research that actually shows gender reassignment therapy to be beneficial overall for nearly all the people who opt for it. Some proper fact-checking is clearly sorely needed here and, with apologies for the delay in getting back to it, here we go.

There’s quite a bit in his post to discuss, so I plan to break it down into several short posts dealing with each point separately. First up, his discussion of David Reimer’s story.

[I]n 1967 he [Dr John Money] sought to change a two-year-old boy whose genitals had been damaged by a botched circumcision into a girl, reassuring the parents that the child would grow up never knowing the difference. But, as the Los Angeles Times reported, “the gender conversion was far from successful. Money’s experiment was a disaster for Reimer that created psychological scars he ultimately could not overcome.” David Reimer committed suicide at the age of 38.

While it’s not clear to what extent Reimer’s suicide was a response to his history of gender surgery and to what extent it was related to other significant problems in his very troubled life, there is no doubt at all that the gender conversion attempts performed on Reimer were, indeed, psychologically disastrous for him and contributed hugely to the distress in his life, and it is very likely that they played at minimum a significant role in his final tragic end. However, there’s a big problem with using that as an anti-gender reassignment argument: Reimer wasn’t transgender.

As Esposito himself states, Reimer was a boy who was reassigned to be raised as female after a badly botched circumcision operation destroyed his penis and John Money (who was hugely influenced by his wish to prove his particular theory about gender fluidity) convinced his family that raising him as a girl was the best way to salvage the matter. There were never any claims that Reimer was transgender. From a very early stage he clearly knew he was male and wanted to be male.

Now, of course, Reimer’s situation was unique and there are limits to how much of a conclusion we should draw from that one story; but it does strike me as notable that what we have in Reimer’s story is the story of a person being raised as female who knew all the time, on some level, that he should actually be male.  In other words, the experience that a transgender man [a person born into a female body but with an inner gender of male] grows up with. And he found it devastating and destroying. That really doesn’t strike me as a good argument for trying to convince someone who identifies with one gender that they’re actually the other.

Of course, I have little doubt that Esposito and his followers would argue that a transgender man’s experience of distress over growing up in the wrong body shouldn’t be treated in the same way because he isn’t ‘really’ a male (by which they would mean that he’s not chromosomally male, or possibly that he wasn’t born with a penis – I’m not quite sure what, specifically, their criterion is). But, whichever way you look at it, it strikes me as pretty illogical to take an example of someone who found it deeply distressing to grow up with an assigned gender that his own inner certainty was telling him to be wrong, who could not refuse his need to live as the gender that matched his inner knowledge of himself – and use that to bolster your claim that people who are deeply distressed at growing up with an assigned gender that their inner certainty tells them is wrong should not be allowed to live as the gender that matches their own inner knowledge of themselves.