The Top Ten Reasons I Don’t Believe In God, Part 2


In yesterday’s post, I offered the first half of a list of The Top Ten Reasons I Don’t Believe In God. Here is the second half.

6: The physical causes of everything we think of as the soul.

Brain in thought
The science of neuropsychology is still very much in its infancy. But there are a few things that we know about it. And one of the things we know is that everything we think of as the soul — consciousness, identity, character, free will — all of that is powerfully affected by physical changes to the brain and body. Drugs and medicines, injury, illness, sleep deprivation, etc…. all of these can make changes to the “soul.” In some cases, they can make changes so drastic, they render a person’s personality and character completely unrecognizable.

And death, of course, is a physical change that renders a person’s personality and character, not only unrecognizable, but non-existent.

So given that this is true, doesn’t it seem far more likely that consciousness and identity, character and free will, are some sort of product of the physical brain and body?

With any other phenomenon, if we can show that physical forces and actions produce observable effects, we think of that as a physical phenomenon. Why should the soul be any different? Whatever consciousness and selfhood and the rest of it turn out to be, doesn’t it seem overwhelmingly likely that they are, in some way, a biological process, governed by laws of physical cause and effect?

More:
Why I Don’t Believe in the Soul
“A Relationship Between Physical Things”: Yet Another Rant on What Consciousness and Selfhood Might Be
A Ghost in the Machine, again by Ebon Muse on the Ebon Musings website. I know, I keep citing the Ebon Musings website. What can I say? Dude can write. Dude can think. Dude has a really well-organized site map that makes it easy to look stuff up.

7: The complete failure of any sort of supernatural phenomenon to stand up to rigorous testing.

Man using microscope
Not all religious and spiritual beliefs make testable claims. But some of them do. And in the face of actual testing, every one of those claims falls apart like Kleenex in a hurricane.

Whether it’s the power of prayer, or faith healing, or astrology, or life after death: the same pattern is consistently seen. Whenever religious and supernatural beliefs have made testable claims, and those claims have been tested — not half-assedly tested, but really tested, using careful, rigorous, double-blind, placebo- controlled, replicated, etc. etc. etc. testing methods — the claims have consistently fallen apart.

I’m not going to cite every one of these tests, or even most of them. This piece is already ridiculously long as it is. Instead, I’ll encourage you to spend a little time on the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer websites. You’ll see a pattern so consistent it boggles the mind: Claimants insist that Supernatural Claim X is real. Supernatural Claim X is subjected to careful testing, applying the standard scientific methods commonly used to screen out both bias and fraud. Supernatural Claim X is found to hold about as much water as a sieve.

(And claimants, having agreed beforehand that the testing method is valid, afterwards insist that it wasn’t fair.)

Scientific_method
And don’t say, “Oh, the testers were biased.” That’s the great thing about the scientific method. It is designed to screen out bias, as much as is humanly possible. When done right, it will give you the right answer, regardless of the bias of the people doing the testing.

Plus, here’s a point that defenders of the supernatural never effectively address when they accuse scientists of anti-religion bias: In the early days of science and the scientific method, most scientists did believe in God, and the soul, and the metaphysical. In fact, many early science experiments were attempts to prove the existence of these things, and discover their true natures, and resolve the squabbles about them once and for all. (Not God so much, but the soul and the supernatural.) It was only after decades upon decades of these experiments failing to turn up anything at all that the scientific community began — gradually, and painfully — to give up on the idea.

Supernatural claims only hold up under careless, casual examination. They are supported by confirmation bias (i.e., our tendency to overemphasize evidence that supports what we believe and discard evidence that contradicts it), and wishful thinking, and our poor understanding and instincts when it comes to probability, and our tendency to see pattern and intention even when none exists, and a dozen other forms of weird human brain wiring. When studied carefully under conditions specifically designed to screen these things out, they vanish like the insubstantial imaginings that they are.

More:
A Lattice of Coincidence: Metaphysics, the Paranormal, and My Answer to Layne

8: The slipperiness of religious and spiritual beliefs.

Gianttwister_2Not all religious and spiritual beliefs make testable claims. Many of them have a more “saved if we do, saved if we don’t” quality. If things go the believer’s way, it’s a sign of God’s grace and intervention; if they don’t, then, well, God moves in mysterious ways, and maybe he has a lesson to teach that we don’t understand, and it’s not up to us to question his will. That sort of thing. No matter what happens, it can be twisted around to prove that the belief is right.

That is a sure sign of a bad, bad argument.

Popper
Here’s the thing. It is a well-established principle in the philosophy of science that, if a theory can be supported no matter what possible evidence comes down the pike, it is a completely useless theory. It has no power to explain what’s already happened, or predict what will happen in the future. The theory of gravity, for instance, could be disproven by things suddenly falling up; the theory of evolution could be disproven by finding rabbits in the pre-Cambrian fossil layer. These theories predict that these things will not happen; if they do, then the theories go poof. But if your theory of God’s existence holds up no matter what happens — whether your friend with cancer gets better or dies, whether natural disasters strike big sinful cities or small God-fearing towns — then it is an utterly useless theory, with no power to either predict or explain anything.

What’s more, when atheists challenge theists on their beliefs, the theists’ arguments shift and slip around in an unbelievably annoying “moving the goalposts” way. Hard-line fundamentalists, for instance, will insist on the unchangeable perfect truth of the Bible; but when challenged on its specific historical/ scientific errors and moral atrocities, they insist that you’re not interpreting those passages correctly. (If the book needs interpreting, then how perfect can it be?)

Slip-n-slideAnd progressive ecumenical believers can be unbelievably slippery on the subject of what they really do and do not believe. Is God real, or a metaphor? Does God intervene in the world, or doesn’t he? Do they actually even believe in God, or do they just choose to act is if they believe in God because they find it useful? Debating with a progressive believer is like wrestling with a fish: the arguments aren’t very powerful, but they don’t give you anything firm to grab onto.

Once again, that’s a sure sign of a bad, bad argument. If you can’t just make your case and then stick by it, or genuinely modify it, or let it go… then you don’t have a very good case. (And if you’re making any version of the “Shut up, that’s why” argument — arguing that it’s rude and intolerant to question religious beliefs, or that letting go of doubts and questions about faith makes you a better person, or that doubting faith will get you tortured in Hell forever, or any of the other classic arguments intended to silence the debate rather than address it — then that’s a sure sign that your argument is totally in the toilet.)

More:
A Self-Referential Game of Twister: What Religion Looks Like From the Outside
Why Religion Is Like Fanfic
What Would Convince You That You Were Wrong? The Difference Between Secular and Religious Faith
The Problem of Unfishiness: Religion, Science, and Unanswered Questions

9: The failure of religion to improve or clarify over time.

The canon angier
Over the years and decades and centuries, our understanding of the physical world has grown and clarified by a ridiculous amount. We understand things about the world and the universe that we couldn’t even have imagined a thousand years ago, or a hundred, or even ten. Things that make your mouth gape open with astonishment and wonder just to think about.

And the reason for this is that we came up with a really good method for sorting out the
good ideas from the bad ones, the more accurate theories from the less accurate ones. We came up with the scientific method: a self-correcting method for understanding the physical world, which — over time, and with the many fits and starts and setbacks that accompany any human endeavor — has done, and continues to do, an astonishingly good job of helping us perceive and understand the world, predict it and shape it, in ways we could not have possibly imagined a thousand, or a hundred, or even ten years ago.

(And the scientific method itself is self-correcting. Not only has our understanding of the world improved by ridiculous leaps and bounds; our method for understanding it is improving as well.)

But our understanding of the metaphysical world?

Not so much.

Argue
Our understanding of the metaphysical world is exactly in the place it’s always been: hundreds and indeed thousands of sects, squabbling over which sacred text and which set of spiritual intuitions is the right one. We haven’t come to any sort of consensus about which sect has a more accurate conception of the metaphysical world. We haven’t even come up with a method of deciding which sect has a more accurate conception of the metaphysical world. All anyone can do is point to their own sacred text and their own spiritual intuition. And around in the squabbling circle we go.

All of which clearly points to religion, not as a perception of a real being or substance, but as an idea we made up and are clinging to. If religion were a perception of a real being or substance, our understanding of it would be sharpening, clarifying, being refined. We would have improved prayer techniques, more accurate prophecies, something. Anything but people squabbling with greater or lesser degrees of rancor, and nothing to actually back up their belief.

More:
The Slog Through the Swamp: What Science Is, And Why It Works, And Why I Care
“A Different Way of Knowing”: The Uses of Irrationality… and its Limitations

10: The complete and utter lack of solid evidence for God’s existence.

SlashCircle.svg
This is probably the best argument I have against God’s existence:

There’s just no evidence for it.

No good evidence, anyway. No evidence that doesn’t just amount to opinion and tradition and confirmation bias and all the other stuff I’ve been talking about for the last two days.

And in a perfect world, that should have been the only argument I needed. In a perfect world, I shouldn’t have had to spend the last month and a half collating and summarizing the reasons I don’t believe in God, any more than I would have for Zeus or Quetzalcoatl or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

As thousands of atheists before me have pointed out: It is not up to us to prove that God does not exist. It is up to theists to prove that he does.

In a comment on this blog, arensb made a point on this topic that was so ridiculously insightful, I’m still smacking myself on the head for not having thought of it myself. I was writing about how theists get upset at atheists for rejecting religion after hearing 876,362 arguments for it, saying, “But you haven’t considered Argument #876,363! How can you be so close-minded?” And here’s what arensb said:

“If, in fact, it turns out that argument #876,364 is the one that will convince you, WTF didn’t the apologists put it in the top 10?”

Why, indeed?

If there’s an argument for religion that’s convincing — actually convincing, convincing by means of something other than authority/ tradition, personal intuition, confirmation bias, fear and intimidation, wishful thinking, or some combination of the above — wouldn’t we all know about it?

Gossip
Wouldn’t it have spread like wildfire? Wouldn’t it be the Meme of All Memes? I mean, we all saw that video of the cat trying to wake its owner up within about two weeks of it hitting the Internet. Don’t you think that the Truly Excellent Argument/ Evidence for God’s Existence would have spread even faster, and wider, than some silly cartoon video?

If the arguments for religion are so wonderful, why are they so unconvincing to anyone who doesn’t already believe?

And why does God need arguments, anyway? Why does God need people to make his arguments for him? Why can’t he just reveal his true self, clearly and unequivocally, and settle the question once and for all? If God existed, why wouldn’t it just be obvious? (See #2 above, in yesterday’s post.)

It is not up to us to prove that God does not exist. It is up to theists to prove that he does. And in the absence of any genuinely good, solid evidence or arguments in favor of God’s existence — and in the presence of a whole lot of very solid arguments against it — I am going to continue to hold the null hypothesis of atheism: that God almost certainly does not exist, and that it is completely reasonable to act as if he does not exist.

So. What do you all think? Atheists — are there arguments against God’s existence that you think are more convincing than these? And theists — do you have any thoughts on these arguments? I don’t promise to debate every one of you ad infinitum, or indeed any one of you; but I’m curious to hear what you have to say.

Comments

  1. David D.G. says

    That’s a superlative set of posts, Greta — surely to be among those in the top of your “hit list” from now on. I’m likely to refer to them myself, since your reasoning on this closely follows my own.
    Incidentally, I noticed that you didn’t provide any “additional reading” links for point #10. It so happens that Deacon Duncan at Evangelical Realism (http://blog.evangelicalrealism.com/) brings up that point a lot (i.e., the fact that God simply doesn’t show up in the real world); if you don’t have any specific blog entries of your own dealing with this, you might see if there are any of his you’d care to link to.
    ~David D.G.

  2. says

    When I’m arguing with believers, I try and stay absolutely focussed on point 10. Even the argument from divine hiddenness, which you put in under that point, I try and shy away from. The reason is that as soon as you start to make such arguments, you’re on their territory arguing about how things might be if there were a God, and they are all adept at covering their picture of the world with enough confusion to hide the problems. The problem of no evidence starts from outside religion and invites them to show a path inside, and so any tricks they want to pull there they will have to justify from scratch.

  3. says

    An 11th one that I find powerful is that most religions claim to have the monopoly on morality but advocate things that to call moral you’d have to seriously suspend your moral disbelief.

  4. Rieux says

    Fabulous as always, Greta.
    I’m interested in looking at/talking about reasons that are not, or at least not entirely explicitly, in your list. (I have to admit that, by the time I got to #8 and 9, I was wondering whether the big kahuna, the lack of evidence, was going to be there at all….)
    Two biggies that I’m a little surprised didn’t make your list:
    1. The Problem of Evil
    2. The nastiness (i.e., mostly, ethical degeneracy) of so much religious scripture, doctrine, and history
    Those two would be high on my personal Top Ten, though your #1 is certainly my #1 as well.
    I guess those two are a little less closely connected to empiricism than are most of your ten. (No value judgment implied–I heart empiricism too.) What do you think?

  5. Rieux says

    Whoops!
    When I said “your #1,” I guess I meant “your #10.”
    Would it make more sense to switch the numbering system so that you’re counting down from, rather than up to, ten? You seem to agree with the widespread atheist consensus that #10 is the most basic and powerful reason.
    Or is my David Letterman fandom just too blatant?

  6. says

    Magnificent list. You focus rightly on a lack of evidence and on evidence pointing to the belief in gods as a meme or teaching. There are also philosophical arguments against gods. Occam’s razor, The Riddle of Epicurus and determinism are three that come to mind immediately. They aren’t proofs but reasoned arguments that carry weight when deciding which or if deity or pantheon to follow.
    I say this because the lack of evidence is proof for some religionists that gods are mysterious. They see the missing evidence as a deliberate effort hide that magic footprint of theirs to allow “faith” to be a valid choice. Far too much mental gymnastics for me but apologists like that kind of thing.

  7. says

    Rieux:

    Two biggies that I’m a little surprised didn’t make your list:
    1. The Problem of Evil
    2. The nastiness (i.e., mostly, ethical degeneracy) of so much religious scripture, doctrine, and history

    I’m not surprised that they didn’t make the list. “The Problem of Evil” is at best only useful against deities that are supposed to be omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, which means that it is utterly useless against a lot of neo-pagan or New-Agey beliefs. The nastiness of religious beliefs is also irrelevant to their truth value.

  8. says

    Greta: I think this is a nice list of brief, clearly articulated objections to theistic religion. Insofar as it is a blog post, it would be unfair to expect you to anticipate and respond to all the objections that might be leveled against each. And it would be impossible for critics of your position to adequately develop their responses in posted comments. To do either would require a book.
    But I think the former book is one you might consider writing. You have the “platform” which would attract a publisher, and you already have here the sketch of ten chapters, each of which could be fleshed out by addressing the kinds of critical responses and counter-arguments that folks like me are likely to raise.
    The result would be better, I think, than a lot of what is out there (surely superior in argumentative clarity and fairness to Hitchens’ book), especially if you take into account some of the stronger responses to the lines of argument you sketch out here (responses which are sketched out in various articles and books which I’d be happy to point you to if you decided to pursue such a project).
    One thing that did surprise me, however, is that in your list of arguments for God’s existence which you found unconvincing you didn’t mention the first two of the “Big Three” that are always addressed in philosophy of religion classes (which are really three classes of arguments, since each comes in half a dozen variants).
    The two I have in mind are the ontological argument (the strongest version is the one championed by Norman Malcolm, not Anselm’s classic version undermined so deftly by Kant); and the cosmological argument (the strongest version here is, in my view, the Leibniz/Clarke version as developed by atheist philosopher William Rowe, which seeks to demonstrate that there must exist a “self-existent” being).
    You only explicitly mention the teleological argument or argument from design. While Paley’s classic formulation was derailed by Darwin, it is worth noting that the recent “fine-tuning” version has a number of contemporary defenders, the best perhaps being Robin Collins. This is not to say that I find this version convincing. I think by far the strongest of the Big Three is the cosmological argument. Hence, discussing its weaknesses is important for making the case for atheism. Michael Martin makes some good points against it, and of course there are Hume’s classic objections. But the argument still has numerous philosophical defenders (myself included, although I think the argument is best understood as making a case for the reasonableness of believing in “something essentially mysterious beyond the physical world that is the ultimate explanation for that world,” not for belief in “God” as described by the theologians).
    As to your suspicion that, were there a convincing argument for God’s existence it would have spread across the globe by now, I think the nature of the beast makes that unlikely. Like arguments for a non-arbitrary, non-relative foundation for morality, good arguments for God are almost certainly going to be philosophically detailed arguments whose accessible-to-the-general-public variants will be too simplified to capture the argument’s full force (and so will not be good arguments themselves).
    On this point, I might mention that I’m beginning to suspect that the theistic argument of 19th Century philosopher Hermann Lotze may be better than any of the Big Three—but the argument is so difficult to convey in lay terms that it will never emerge as a popular argument for God’s existence, or even as a common subject in philosophy of religion classes. It’s taken me several months of meditating on it to get the full force of the argument (which is rooted in a puzzle about how interaction among things is possible at all), and I’m a professional philosopher of religion with decades of experience.
    What you might say, however, is something like this: even if there is a philosophical argument which gives good reasons to believe in God, that argument is apparently too technical to be accessible to the average religious believer–which means that typical religious believers cannot point to any such argument as the reason for their beliefs. Hence, their religious beliefs will not be based on good philosophical reasons EVEN IF (maybe) such reasons exist.

  9. Valhar2000 says

    Wow, I’m agreeing with J.J. Ramsey; I guess the world really is full of surprises…
    Anyway, J.J. is correct. The Problem of Evil comes up a lot because it is a serious dilema for those who maintain that God is omnipotent AND all-loving. Similar qualifications apply to the nastiness or immorality of scripture. These things are refutations of the general concept of religion, or of the supernatural.
    The items Greta listed, on the othe rhand, can be applied to all forms of religious or supernatural belief.

  10. says

    Paul Crowley: I totally understand and support your wanting to keep your arguments focused on Argument #10: the complete lack of evidence for God’s existence. But here’s why I chose not to, and continue to choose not to:
    Many religious believers think they do have evidence for God’s existence. They think that their sacred text, or the feeling in their heart, or the appearance of design in life and the universe, or that time their Aunt Minnie saw a ghost, count as evidence.
    So if all atheists ever say in our arguments against religion is “There’s no evidence for it,” I don’t think that’s going to get through. We also have to explain why the things they think of as evidence really aren’t. In other words, Arguments 1 through 9 (or a lot of them, anyway) are, in a sense, really just versions of #10.
    And J.J. Ramsey is right. The reason I didn’t address the problem of evil here, or the unpleasantness or inconsistent morality of many religions, is that the former only addresses specific religions, not all of them; and the latter doesn’t address the question of God’s existence of non-existence (and also doesn’t apply to all religions). They’re good points, and I’ve made them before: they just didn’t seem to fit this list.

  11. says

    Thanks for the shout-out, but I should really credit The Atheist Experience (probably Matt Dillahunty) for bringing the gist of the “why isn’t that argument in the top 10?” argument to my attention.
    Of course, he probably didn’t think of it himself. Rather, it’s just another case of an argument propagating itself on its own merits. And look! It just made your own top 10 list.

  12. terrence says

    Counterpoint: God does exist, he’s just radically changed his behavior, dare I say, has evolved? In both Old and New Testament times, you would have to be a complete moron to be an atheist – your desired evidence was EVERYWHERE — he was parting seas, turning women into salt, raining down food from heaven, manifesting all over the place sometimes as a burning bush, sometimes as a carpenter’s son, slaughtering Egyptian babies, etc etc. But now, according to the most progressive and sophisticated believers, he is “hidden” or “unknowable” — see? A proof of both evolution AND God!

  13. says

    Eric R: The reason I didn’t address the cosmological argument is simple: I was irrationally attached to keeping this a Top Ten list.
    I considered adding “#11: There are thousands and millions of things that are better explained by the physical than by the metaphysical; there is nothing that is better explained by the metaphysical than by the physical.” That would have touched on (among other things) the First Cause argument, pointing out that the God hypothesis doesn’t answer the question of “Where did all this come from?” — it merely begs it. But the piece was already insanely long, and I decided against it.
    As for the ontological argument: I think it’s patently ridiculous on the face of it. I haven’t seen Norman Malcolm’s version of it, and would be curious to; but I have never seen any other version of it that didn’t just make me laugh. And I also don’t think it’s one of the arguments that most ordinary, rank and file, non- theology- scholar believers care about or even know about. (Except in the “God is Magic and therefore he can do anything” version.)
    Finally: I don’t agree that a good argument for God would have to be too technical and complicated to be understood by the average believer, and therefore wouldn’t become a successful meme. Complicated ideas can and do filter into the mainstream — or simplified and sometimes garbled versions of them, anyway — if they have real power. The theory of relativity is one example; Marxism is another.
    If there were a truly killer argument for the existence of God, I’m not saying we would have all understood it. I’m saying we would have all heard about it. Theology schools would be making it their centerpiece; religious leaders and teachers who understood it would make the teaching of it one of their main pursuits. (If they didn’t, simply because they thought it was too complicated, then they’d be guilty of gross negligence, or appalling elitism, or both.)
    Since that’s clearly not the case, then, without knowing what the argument is, I would have to guess that it’s not actually the most solid and convincing argument for God’s existence. It’s just one that you personally like.

  14. says

    A quick point about the cosmological argument: in its most powerful versions, it does not precisely seek to explain the world by reference to God. Rather, it identifies one property that an adequate explanation for the existence of the physical universe would have to have, and then points out that nothing in the physical world possesses this property. This leads to the conclusion that either the existence of the physical world has no explanation (it’s a “brute fact,” to borrow Russell’s phrase), or its explanation is found in something beyond the physical world (leading to what I will call “supranaturalism,” since supernaturalism has so many connotations I don’t want to evoke).
    You haven’t OFFERED an explanation of the physical universe by invoking supranaturalism. Rather, you have said that in order for an explanation to be possible, supranaturalism must be invoked. At this point you will either give up on the possibility of explanations, or become a supranaturalist. If you believe, as I do, that no convincing reasons beyond mere intuitive appeal make the one disjunct more plausible than the other, it follows that the most reasonable thing to do is follow your intuition. And this entails that both naturalism and supranaturalism can be reasonable, depending on what your intuitions happen to be.
    It may be that such disjunctive conclusions, which so often result when philosophical argumentation moves beyond the initial arguments to assess the rebuttals to the rejoinders to the objections, don’t make for good memes. A muddled version of a knock-down argument for God would likely spread like wildfire, but a muddled version of an argument for the view that there are reasonable people on both sides of the theological divide isn’t likely to inspire the same enthusiasm, especially in a world where the propensity is to favor ideas that reinforce in-group/out-group allegiances.

  15. Rieux says

    Hi again, Greta.

    The reason I didn’t address the problem of evil here, or the unpleasantness or inconsistent morality of many religions, is that the former only addresses specific religions, not all of them; and the latter doesn’t address the question of God’s existence of non-existence (and also doesn’t apply to all religions).

    Well, don’t those drawbacks apply to several of the reasons you’ve listed? Sure, per J.J. there are various goalpost-shifting theists who can sneer “Ha! That doesn’t apply to my theology; my god isn’t like that!” to the Problem of Evil or the Problem of Bad Religion–but our opponents consistently try that same tactic on nearly all of the reasons you’ve listed:

    1: “My religion doesn’t rely on ‘supernatural explanations of the world’.”
    3: “My religion doesn’t depend upon ‘weak religious arguments, explanations, and apologetics.'”
    4: “My God hasn’t been ‘diminished’ over time.”
    5: “My religion doesn’t ‘run in families.'”
    6: “My religion doesn’t deny physical causes.”
    7: “My religion doesn’t depend upon ‘supernatural explanations.'”
    9: “”My religion HAS ‘improved’ and ‘clarified over time.'”
    10: “My religion has plenty of evidence.”

    The above tactics generally involve equivocating wildly about what words like “religion,” “God,” and “evidence” mean–and Greta more than most atheists has shown what a ridiculous tactic that is. (Indeed, the stupidity of mobile-goalpost tactics represents a fair portion of Reason #8, I think.)
    But isn’t the evasion of the Problem of Evil and the Problem of Bad Religion just that same tactic? In point of fact–as lots of prominent atheists have pointed out, including Greta, I think–the huge majority of theists in the world in fact believe in a deity (or a Top Deity) that (a) has prodigious knowledge and prodigious powers and (b) is morally praiseworthy. That makes the PoE relevant to atheism as it exists in the real world, big-time.
    And Christians, Muslims, and Hindus (among other relevant groups, but those are the three biggest) make up a huge proportion of world theism–which makes Bad Religion centrally relevant to atheism.
    Sure, our opponent can gesticulate at demographically fringe flavors of religion that allegedly escape one of the two problems I listed. But that kind of silly evasion is available in response to pretty much any reason to be an atheist. The Invisible Pink Unicorn, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Russell’s Teapot God–they all escape my two reasons and Greta’s ten. Why should we accept special pleading on behalf of deities that are patently concocted to evade major atheistic arguments? Which is to say, why should we take the god that escapes the PoE by being powerless more seriously than we do the FSM?

  16. says

    Greta – as an agnostic Christian I think that as well as theists belief that there is evidence, #10 falls down with its assumption that there should be one individual knock-down argument. There isn’t, at least for me – there’s the accumulation of lots of different pieces of evidence, which put together make Christianity more likely than not.

  17. Nurse Ingrid says

    “Why should we accept special pleading on behalf of deities that are patently concocted to evade major atheistic arguments?”
    Very nicely put, Rieux. I like the cut of your jib.
    And to Eric R, may I say that I find your arguments…underwhelming? Beneath all the references and jargon I can’t find any reasons or evidence other than your own wishful thinking.
    You have conceded that the “best” arguments for the existence of God are so complex and esoteric that the average believer couldn’t possibly understand them. Apparently they are also beyond the comprehension of those of us who are reading this blog. So what are you saying? That we should just trust YOU? Just take your word for it that the arguments are there, and that they are persuasive? You seem like a smart enough guy, so I hope you can see how preposterous that is.
    I don’t know about Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism, but I know that as far as Catholics and Jews and many Protestant sects are concerned, 12 and 13 year olds are capable of making the decision to become full members of those religions (through Bar/Bat Mitzvah, Confirmation, or baptism). If intelligent adults — even those of us with Master’s degrees — can’t understand your highly sophistima-cated beliefs, then how in the world are children supposed to? I guess they’re also supposed to accept it on authority — that of their parents or their clergy.
    As Greta points out, if there really is a God, why is it that there is no information about his existence that does not rely on the testimony of other humans?

  18. Nate says

    Please, please, PLEASE write a book on this topic! I know I’m echoing other people, but if you could devote yourself to a book on the reasons that people do not believe in god, I promise I would be the first person in line at Barnes & Noble.
    Great post though

  19. says

    I like this list! You know, I tried to think of something else I’d have added to it, but I couldn’t. :)
    The point about religious beliefs constantly shifting to avoid the possibility of disproof is a very good point that’s not made often enough. Sam Harris put it well: A belief that is designed to be unfalsifiable isn’t really a belief about the world at all, since, by definition, such a belief has no implication for any state of affairs we might possibly observe. Or, in simpler terms, a belief that’s unfalsifiable is necessarily a belief that’s empty of content.
    Eric R: Even if we grant your point that nothing currently in the physical world possesses such-and-such a property needed to explain the existence of the cosmos, I really don’t see how it follows that that property must be possessed by something “supranatural”, to use your term. An equally likely possibility is that something with that property existed at some point in the past, but as the state of the world evolves according to its governing principles, that thing ceased to exist and the property in question is no longer instantiated anywhere.

  20. James says

    I am writing you briefly not to argue with you but infact support you in your disbelief. I do think that you would be wasting your time writing a book to dispell the existence of God. The fact is, it has been done. I think your tallents would be well spent on non-religious ethical writings. To put it simply, people are not going to let go of God unless they have something new and concrete to hold on to. Stamping out the use of superstition based religion is as simple as replacing it. No need to keep beating a dead horse. Just for clarity, I am an agnostic. I won’t be checking this post as I am not a regular reader, but feel free to comment. I did.

  21. says

    Rieux: You have an interesting point. Theists do think that their particular belief avoids Arguments 1-9.
    My point is that… well, they’re wrong. :-)
    But I’m really not trying to convince you, or anybody, why your Top Ten list should be the same as mine. I’m just explaining why I did mine the way I did. Of course the problem of evil and suffering is important, and needs to be addressed. I was just trying to come up with arguments that, in my opinion, opposed all forms of religion, not just certain specific ones. And the problem of evil didn’t fit that criteria for me.
    Elise: I don’t actually think there should be just one drop-dead argument or piece of evidence. I just think there should be any good argument, any good piece of evidence. Something that isn’t the argument from tradition, or personal intuition, or the appearance of design, or the fact that lots of people believe it, or any of the other terrible arguments people typically make for theism. If you have a set of arguments, or a set of pieces of evidence, that collectively add up to a convincing argument for God, I’d be interested to hear it. But just saying “there’s an accumulation of lots of different pieces of evidence that I find convincing” doesn’t count as an argument or evidence. You need to say what those pieces of evidence are, and why they’re a better hypothesis than the hypothesis of naturalism.
    And Eric R: The version of the cosmological version that you cite is exactly what I’m talking about when I talk about the “God is Magic” argument. It’s this argument: The physical universe must go by natural laws, and we don’t yet have a natural-law explanation for X (the original cause of the universe, say). But God is magic, and he can do anything. So God could have caused X, since he’s magic and can do anything. And since we don’t currently have a natural explanation for X, therefore God is the best explanation we have.
    It is, in my opinion, a terribly unsatisfying argument. But I think it’ll take more than a comment to really get into why. I’m working on a blog post about it now; hopefully it’ll be up on Sunday, but we have a busy weekend ahead of us, so I make no promises.

  22. Ezekiah David says

    Hey Greta, I can’t think of a post of yours I haven’t enjoyed, so kudos on this one as well.
    Just thought you might like to know about a typo. It’s in the slip’n slide paragraph: “or do they just choose to act is if they believe…”

  23. says

    I like the theory part you bring up.
    In case people don’t know, there are two strict rules a theory has to follow. One is that they MUST be able to be disproven. If you have a statement that is impossible to disprove, you don’t have a theory.
    (Which then inevitably leads into the intelligent design crap, but I’ll stay away to keep my sanity intact.)
    And in case you need another reason to dislike christianity, it’s because the bible is so very vague. For example, three requirements for getting into heaven are being born again, becoming like a little child, and not being rich.
    The bible inconveniently doesn’t provide a definition for any of them. And in many cases, like baptism, every single denomination of christianity has a different method for doing it. Even if a follower of Jesus is doing everything the bible tells him/her, how does that person actually know if they’re doing it right?

  24. says

    Greta: I don’t really have evidence outside the catagories you claim; I just disagree with you that it’s all terrible. I think that scripture is at least as convincing as Herotodus or Plato or Ptolemy. I think the conviction of the early Christians is significant, and I find the cosmological argument valid as an argument for theism, although not for Xianity.
    I find personal experience moderately convincing for myself, although I don’t expect it to convince anyone else. I acknowledge that I could be deluded, but I find it fairly unproductive to not live life as though it actually is the way I experienc it.

  25. Thorin N. Tatge says

    Excellent work. There’s just one major reason for atheism I would have put on the list that you left out. That’s just the fact that there are so many feasible motivations (as opposed to reasons) to believe in God. After all, if you’re discrediting an argument or belief, it’s a nice touch to try and explain why the misguided argument or belief is widespread in the first place. And it isn’t hard to identify some of these motivations. Wanting an afterlife to exist is a big one. Wanting justification for thinking of one’s own group as superior is another. Wanting a sense of grand understanding of the universe (but not quite being able or ready to grasp science) is one of the more noble ones. And so forth.

  26. says

    Kind of related to #9, but I think it’s solid enough as its own point:
    There is no change or improvement of the moral precepts of a specific religion. Religion is supposed to be our guiding light to live a moral and decent life, yet it does not change to incorporate the new moral dilemmas that arise through time? Issues like capital punishment, stem cell research, equal rights regardless of sexual preference: religion looks at centuries-old documents for an interpretation of what have now become moral dilemmas, either as a truly new situation (stem cell research) or usually as an old situation that now merits closer attention (equal civil rights for GLBT).
    A particular religion can rarely change their views on these matters, as they fear it will lessen their authority over the moral lives of its followers. However, secular morals, including the morals of religious adherents, do evolve, and when they evolve enough to make waves in a religion, one of two things happen: a small group of followers splinter into their own sect or, such a splinter group is too large, the religion will change. This second is a rarity that I’ve only seen in the Catholic Church, which seems to be fighting tooth-and-nail to keep their faithful.
    If a group splinters off, then the same pattern will hold. It’s only when a religion is in danger of complete irrelevance and death that they will change a moral code to keep followers. There is no natural evolution of moral values because there is no questioning of them. Instead of thinking about what is truly right and wrong, they look for and interpret references in old books. If there is not thought on morality and ethics, then there can be no improvement on them, only stagnation and irrelevance. Since morality is a leading excuse to believe in god, I see the apparently inability of his doctrine and followers to improve morally as a prime reason to think it is all a fiction.

  27. says

    Elise: Here are my problems with the points you find convincing.
    1: The Bible is a wildly inaccurate document. Both Old and New Testaments are demonstrably shot full of historical and scientific inaccuracies, internal contradictions and flat-out absurdities. What’s more, it was written by people with an agenda: not by historians trying to discover and describe historical truth, but by true believers trying to codify and spread their beliefs. There is serious doubt as to whether the historical Jesus even existed, much less whether the events described in the Gospels really took place. (There is no confirmation from any other historical source of many of the larger events described in the Gospels, and the Jesus story is eerily similar to other Messianic myths that were common at the time.) It is a huge mistake to rely on the Bible as an accurate source of historical information.
    2: As to the “conviction of the early Christians”: There are two huge problems with this one. One is the one I just described. How do we know what the apostles and the early Christians did? Our source is the Bible — which is both unreliable and deeply biased. The authors of the New Testament believed in Jesus’s divinity and were trying intensely to convince others of it. Of course they’re going to write stories that support that view.
    The other problem is even more serious: Even if you believe the Bible, with its stories about the conviction of early Christians and their willingness to sacrifice and even die for their beliefs… that proves exactly nothing. History, even recent history, is full of people being completely committed to patently false beliefs, even sacrificing and dying for those false beliefs. Look at the Heaven’s Gate cult, or the followers of Jim Jones. They were willing to die for their religious beliefs. Does that make those religious beliefs correct?
    3: As to personal experience: You seem to be an intelligent and thoughtful person. Therefore, presumably you know that your life experience includes instances of your intuition being wrong. Presumably you can think of times when you’ve had really strong instincts and feelings that have been totally inaccurate. You’ve strongly liked or disliked someone on first meeting them, and found later that you misjudged them. You had a really strong feeling about a new job, a new roommate, a new apartment, that turned out to be wrong. You were absolutely convinced that you knew what the outcome of an election would be, or the gender of someone’s baby, or what was going to happen next on a TV show, and turned out to be mistaken. Things like that.
    That’s part of your experience, too.
    And that part of your experience should tell you that intuition, while a useful tool, is very, very fallible. And in particular, intuition is extremely fallible when it comes to believing things that we already believe, or that we’re strongly motivated to want to believe. When we know that wishful thinking and confirmation bias are slanting us in the direction of believing something, we have to be extra- rigorous about making sure that there’s good external evidence for it.
    That’s what I was getting at in my piece “A Different Way of Knowing”: The Uses of Irrationality… and its Limitations. When it comes to hypotheses about what is or is not true in the real, external world (as opposed to matters of personal opinion), intuition is a terrible tool for determining the truth, one with an appalling track record.
    And the question of whether God does or does not exist is a hypothesis about what is or is not true in the real, external world.
    So we need better evidence for God’s existence than, “A biased, grossly inaccurate book says it,” or “Some other people who were around at the time believed it,” or “I feel it in my heart.”

  28. says

    The version of the cosmological argument I sketched out has this general form: (1) For Y to be the case, there must exist something with property P; (2) Nothing in set S has property P; (3) Therefore, for Y to be the case, there must exist something outside set S; (4) Y is the case; (5) Therefore, there must exist something outside set S. Since this is a valid argument form, an argument in this form must be challenged based on the substantive case for each premise. My own view is that once we plug in “Everything has an explanation” for Y, “self-existence” for P, and “everything in the physical universe” for S, we get an interesting argument whose key premises (1,2, and 4) have been and can be challenged and defended at length by intelligent people.
    While the basic argument can be grasped by a twelve-year-old, what becomes tricky is the back-and-forth dialectic by which the force of the argument is assessed: the objections to each premise, the responses to these objections, the rebuttals to the responses, etc. My own conclusion upon examining this back and forth is that there is a stalemate regarding premise 4 and that the strongest objection to 2 requires a re-conceptualization of set S (the physical universe) that sounds a lot like pantheism. Hence, I conclude that the best way to avoid any quasi-religious outcome is to reject 4—and that reasonable people can go either way on the merits of 4.
    While I don’t have the space here to do justice to the philosophical back and forth on the premises, I would be a poor philosopher if I demanded that anyone accept my conclusions on my say-so. If you want my own detailed assessment of this back and forth, it is laid out in chapter 6 of my forthcoming book. Or, if you distrust my analysis, you can read atheist philosopher William Rowe’s philosophical essays examining Samuel Clarke’s version of the argument. Rowe ultimately rejects 4 (plug in his name in The Philosopher’s Index to find his articles, or for a simpler statement of it read the chapter on the cosmological argument from Rowe’s introductory text, _Philosophy of Religion_).
    Ebonmuse: Your reply is a criticism of premise 2. In effect, your argument is that just because nothing in the universe TODAY has property P, it doesn’t follow that nothing in the physical universe has property P, since there may have been something at the start of the universe that had it. This won’t work if “P” stands for “self-existence,” by which is meant the property of being such that one’s own nature explains one’s existence. If X’s nature explains the existence of X, then so long as X exists the sufficient condition for its existence is in place, and so X could never cease to exist.
    Greta: “Self-existence” sounds like magic (how could something possibly explain its own existence?), so I see why you read the cosmological argument as you do. But there is a difference between saying, “Here’s a magical property that nothing in the physical universe has, but God is magic, so there’s no reason why God can’t possess it,” and saying “Here’s a mysterious property that nothing in the physical universe has, and here’s an argument which says that in order to explain the physical universe something must have such an astonishing property.” The latter makes no mention of God, and isn’t an argument for God but for the necessity of something with a “magical” property. It certainly doesn’t appeal to God’s magical nature to lend credibility to the claim that something with this magical property exists. Instead, it simply says that given these starting points (which many find reasonable) we are led to the astonishing conclusion that there must be this magical thing. Of course, you can follow Hume’s lead and treat this version of the cosmological argument as a “reductio ad absurdum” argument: since such a magical property is inconceivable, the fact that these starting points lead to the positing of such a property entails that one or more of these starting points must be false. If you follow that line, I’d say that the most reasonable premise to reject is premise 4.
    Ingrid: I don’t believe that anyone should be expected to make a life-long commitment of belief, or decisive allegiance to some creed, at the tender age of 12 or 13. I certainly don’t think they should be expected to do so on the mere assurance that some esoteric philosophical argument has settled the question of God’s existence. Rather, I think everyone should be continually exploring these questions throughout their lives and following the direction that their own best judgment takes them. How this relates to the issue of the propriety of raising someone within a particular religious tradition is a different matter. Dawkins and Hitchens both maintain that to do so is child abuse, and I believe that it can be…but I also believe that it needn’t be, if approached in the right way. But that is a topic for later discussion.

  29. says

    I am often confronted with impatience when I begin to use the words “logic,” “reason,” and “evidence.” Theists argue, “you can’t use reason to explain everything, particularly God!” It’s senseless. It’s so senseless, I am often struck speechless by its senselessness. Lately, however, I stumbled upon this quote:
    “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” –Galileo Gailiei
    I feel like I have something to go on now, but how do you respond to this rejection of logic and reason in general?

  30. Bart v.d. M. says

    (responding to both blog entries)
    Nice list, Greta! Whenever I see reasons such as the ones on this list I realise with surprise that there are actually people out there who read the arguments and just miss the logic, people who read this and supposedly understand it, but illogically aren’t convinced. Isn’t it just obvious that their fairytale is wrong? To them apparently not.
    However, I do have to say reasons #1 and #4 don’t seem convincing to me. You are pointing at a pattern and you assume it will continue, but you don’t assert a specific cause (except for the idea that no God etc. exists, but that’s actually the conclusion). A pattern like that should either be explained by coincidence (all those claims happened not to be true in the end without any universal cause), in which case you can’t predict anything with it, or they should be explained by a natural law (the claims are all wrong because of a universal cause), in which case you *can* make predictions with it. The way the two reasons are formulated at the moment they kinda remind me of the roulette player who notices that in 20 of the previous 22 rounds, the ball hit the number 15, and thinks the chances are that the ball will hit 15 next time again.
    Also, I think there is one reason that reduces the credibility of any religion: the reward for belief and the penalty for non-belief. You see this in any religion that has ever had believers and this is what makes it so powerful (and dangerous). The requirement of belief is a nasty built-in trap that convinced the primitive people who lived at the dawn of religion and still convinces children today. The easiest way of explaining how it works is by comparing it to superstitions and insurance companies.
    Why do people turn around when they see a black cat crossing their path? There is a really small chance it actually brings you bad luck to keep on walking and some people just are not willing to take that risk. The same goes for buying an insurance. If say, you estimate there’s a 0.1 percent chance your car will be stolen in the next four years, you’ll be willing to pay 0.1 percent or less of the original cost of the car to eliminate that risk (by having the car refunded entirely when it is stolen). It’s the same principle: there’s a small chance of a big bad thing and you’re sacrifice a small good because you aren’t willing to take the risk.
    Any religion I’ve seen has set up a trap in this way of reasoning: it talks of either a great reward or a great penalty or both, and it talks of a way of gaining/preventing them. So far it is just like superstition, a big unlikely risk you aren’t willing to take, but then it gets tricky: the cost of preventing the big unlikely risk is believing. The only way of “insuring” your big unlikely risk is by thinking it is not just likely, but indisputably true. Out of fear for the unlikely you start believing it *is* likely, even a hundred percent true.
    When later you hear of another worldview that uses the same concept of ‘believe or suffer’, you don’t start believing it because… you don’t think it’s likely, you assign a zero percent credibility to it. You already sold your hundred percent believing to the first religion that came by and you are afraid to give up that belief. You have one insurance and you won’t get another, because the first insurance made you blind to all the other risks.
    That is in my opinion a particularly nasty mechanism that should pop out to any intelligent person and ought to get you thinking ‘That smells fishy.’. Is there any reason for belief to be required other than someone trying to benefit from someone else’s gullibility?

  31. Warren says

    Hi,
    Yes I agree these reasons are very poor sounds like someone who doesn’t want to believe. And look if you don’t want to believe that is fine.
    Amazing that I read all the same stuff from all the same sites like this, and it is an argument from ignorance.
    In any case, why put up a list like this, that is, about why you don’t believe in God? Does anyone else find this strnage? I mean, who really cares about why? I find this really odd. For example, I wouldn’t personally go around putting up commnets about why I don’t believe in Budda or the other many religions, and if people want to believe in Budda good luck, I’m not going to post something to bag what they believe. It is like me putting up 10 ten reasons about why I don’t believe in Budda. Now that would be odd. So for someone to do this may be you should ask yourselve why?
    Also many people don’t realise that there a lot of Christains who believe in God and the Bible but don’t actually believe in Hell as a place of torment. When you really study the bible Hell is discovered just the grave. The devil isn’t really there either, study the greek and you’ll find it is just personafication of evil, not really a super natural being of evil. Sure there are some tricky verses that need study, but when you do and with an open find the evidence points to what I am saying. This isn’t knew either, many Christian religions have believed this for 100’s of years. Nor does man need a devil, man is quite capable of evil and we clearly see this in the world today, God allows it because this world is passing away and only temporary.
    Likewise the Trinity isn’t something all Christians believe. Post modern Christianity is now getting back to the roots of the first century apostles. Jesus was yes the “son of God” but he wasn’t very God himself. He was divine, but he has a man (born of God) who was raised to God’s right hand.
    You may think.. what why then do so many people believe in those doctrines if they are in the bible. Well even in Bible history itself, majority wasn’t always right… people did go astray in their beliefs. So that isn’t a valid argument.
    I do find it a shame that those truths that there is no Hell or Trinity (which are stumbling blocks to a lot of people), are taught by the majority.
    Now turn the tables? One thing atheists fail to provide is answers!
    Evolution doesn’t even exlain the origin of life (it has major problems even explaining macro evolution let alone the origin of life). Universe can’t be eternal because we are at the end of time today. But something outside of time/space could be. But atheists have no answers to anything, have no hope, atheists are basically saying “Life is nothing, meaningless, it doesn’t matter what you do you, your family the entire human race will one day be forgotten no one ever, never, no where will remember anything”…. Wow that really inspires us (NOT) and the moral declince of society over the last 40 years trumpets your success!
    Please provide us with some better answers otherwise it probably isn’t a good idea to criticise!
    Something created from nothing? Ha… things that rocks think about.
    I’m not returning to this site, and excuse the typo’s, but hope someone gets something out of this.

  32. says

    Ignoring all of your argument about evolution as it is not an argument and in response to your ego-centric view on existence and morality.
    “Life is nothing, meaningless, it doesn’t matter what you do you, your family the entire human race will one day be forgotten no one ever, never, no where will remember anything”…. Wow that really inspires us (NOT).
    Facts are not there to inspire us, facts just are. They are the immovable workings of the universe, my or your existence is irrelevant. The universe is not to give us meaning, a poor recycled version of the teleological argument holds even less sway than ever before.
    The reason I find Greta’s post important is that I believe religion is damaging. As long as religion is seen as reasonable or sensible or unquestionable it is damaging.
    An attempt to question ANYTHING should never be held back. It helps us to understand and make sense of the world. Suspending reason over a half-arsed religious book is dangerous for believers and non-believers. If Greta’s fine post helps one of the deluded to question their, previously unquestioned, belief it has been a force for good.

  33. Debra L Bunger MD says

    Religionists (theists) are like people in psychotherapy – – they are so resistant to learning a truth about themselves, that they become angry at the therapist, or accuse her/him of “not understanding” them. Sadly, our humanity includes a desire ‘not to know’ anything that might make us uncomfotable or change the status quo. Otherwise, psychotherpay would only take one session, and theists would capitulate after one discussion with an atheist.

  34. says

    Good post. As a representative of “theists” I would be happy to share my thoughts.
    I’m not exactly a typical one, though. I’m in grad school (just the Master’s, maybe I’ll get my bubble popped before the PhD ;) ) focusing on neuroscience, and I just came off of being an atheist for ten years.
    I look at your points, and seven of them strike me as statements that I totally agree with: “Religion is bullshit.” Specifically 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, and 9, can be explained as “Religion since the beginning of time has been using peoples’ fear of death to justify and secure the political and economic power of society’s elites, and, ergo, it is all bullshit.” I mean just look at the founding of basically any big huge church we have a history for, and you see some sackful of rich guys conspiring to con the SPQR. Look at Pat Robertson or anybody he’s buddies with today, and you see the same thing. It sure has been a long time since we saw a Pope starve. And it’s been a long time since I saw a day pass when we didn’t see a preacher cause somebody to do something evil or stupid. So religion’s bad, no doubt, and may God save us from his preachers.
    So that leaves 1, 6, and 10. Obviously by my stated field you can tell I spend a lot of time thinking about 1 and 6.
    1 is easy: there are more and more naturalistic explanations, because the world is mostly natural. In the past our ignorance was even more vast than it is today, and so whenever the Village Dude asks the Village Elder anything, the Village Elder had to come up with some bullshit line lest he be shown to be undeserving of his big fancy hat. So, we have the proliferation of supernatural explanations for all kinds of natural phenomena, and once natural explanations starting getting good a couple hundred years ago, there’s a whole lot of whittling away to be done.
    6 is tough. You’ve got to admit, no doubt about it, that the experiences we have are not divorced from brain chemistry or the physical substrates of all those things. My response is, so why is there any experience at all? The information processing of the brain can be simulated on a (hell of complicated) computer, from input to output. So why should there be any subjective experience of this brain, any more than we assume that computer simulation to have a subjective and emotional experience? Commonly I get responses like “it’s an emergent property of the brain,” (from a Chemistry student) or “it’s the result of making choices/information processing” (from a Communications student), but none of these are convincing. Whenever you see an emergent property, it’s derived simply and obviously from it’s subparts. Like the polar nature of a water molecule- you’ve got two positive ions and a negative ion. There’s no way to arrange ‘em so that you’re not looking at a bilaterally symmetrical, polar structure. The emergent property is a rational and obvious extension of it’s sub-properties, indeed at no point does it develop a fundamentally separate quality.
    But consciousness is a quality that we assume chemicals to not have. That brain is made up out of gross structures that are made up of neurons and glia of types multifarious, and those cells are made of membranes, organelles, lipids and ion channels and G-proteins and so on. Who’s bringing the consciousness? Where’s the awareness? Like in the Chinese Room Experiment, what makes something aware?
    (To the latter point, “making choices,” the response was “what possible objective definition can be given for ‘making choices’?” Indeed we got down to the idea that an electron can be said to be ‘making choices’ just as much as you or I do.)
    So to summarize my answer to 6, allow me to quote Robert Anton Wilson:

    it seemed to be a matter of wandering through room after room of
    my brain looking for the owner and not finding him anywhere, sweat broke out on my forehead, it
    was becoming desperate because I was running out of rooms and the Padre was still watching me.
    “Nobody home,” I said finally, sure that the answer wasn’t good enough.
    “That’s odd,” he said. “Who’s conducting the search?”

    And for 10, well, you’re right that that’s definitely the big dog. But I’d say the evidence is so big and grand that asking that question is akin to standing in the woods and demanding evidence for evolution: you’re soaking in it. The dude Aquinas came up with it 700 years ago. Specifically, why does anything exist? What strictly naturalistic explanation for existence even begins to address it, at all? Where’s that First Mover, and if there’s no need for a First Mover, then what is the nature of existence outside of this matrix of causality in which we’re so deeply mired?
    How’s the No-God gonna dodge the same batshit irrationality of the “First Cause” argument when the God can’t? In either case what we must conclude is that a strictly causal, naturalistic, eliminative materialistic explanation of the existence of anything, is doomed to fail. So Something Else must be going on. I’d be so presumptuous as to be flippant if I were to claim to understand it.
    These are my answers. These, combined with other things which you will correctly call anecdotal and therefore I won’t bring ‘em up, free me from the profound existential anxiety that used to (and to a lesser extent continues to) dog me so constantly. I ditch the hideous social baggage of the churches, I ditch all the stupid “fairies push the rainclouds” explanations, and I love life and the amazing beauty in transience and the complexity of biology and all the things I find beautiful. I strive to treat people right, without really understanding or expecting some karmic or heaven/hell reward for it. Basically I take life in the exact same way as I expect you do, except I’m not bothered by the stuff that used to bug me (Heat death, the K/T extinction event, my lover’s death) in the profound spiritual way I used to be. Enjoy life as good, and try to make it better. And reject the stupid shit that typically accompanies this way of looking at things. I’m honestly damned glad to see the rise of atheism- it beats hell out of the wars people fight over religion.
    I hope that’s a satisfying response.

  35. Eclectic says

    Puf_Almighty: Nice response. I agree, the question of the first mover is the Big Question, and I’d like to respond.
    But first, your comment on point 6: I take that to mean that we don’t understand consciousness well enough. I think that once we do, the chinese room paradox will be resolved. Just like the boundary of an object (inside vs. outside) seems completely binary, but once you understand that solidity is electromagntic repulsion between electrons that live in clouds, the boundary of the most solid object is actually somewhat fuzzy. But we actually understand the idea much better than we did before. I think (have faith, if you will!) that the same will happen to consciousness.
    As for the prime mover… yeah, I have no idea, either. But the question is why does a prime mover have to be intelligent? I remember someone saying “the universe is what happens when hydrogen atoms get together in large numbers”.
    Now, that’s mindbogglingly huge numbers of hydrogen atoms (on the order of 10^80, if I recall), but that seems a lot more credible to me than a personal god, who cares about my morality or sex life.
    I can’t really argue with a deist (which is something like you sound like), but it’s the idea that the universe has a purpose that we puny humans are in any way involved in, that makes no sense to me.

  36. says

    Well done. Here’s an item that I’d add to it, having thought this way for quite some time. In fact I’m surprised no one has already piped in with this one (unless it’s in one of your other related blurbs I may have missed):
    Rob’s #11: If God is (a) my omniscient creator, who wired my brain himself and apparently knows me to the last hair on my head, and (b) he is a just and loving god who wants me to be with him in Heaven, then what sense does it make for him to intentionally build (or allow into being) a creature like myself whom he knows will not believe in him and who’ll he will eventually have to send to Hell or “leave behind?” If he knows I’m not prone to buy into his existence, then creating me is not a very intelligent gamble by any standard. And if I’m doomed for not believing in him, then it’s not very loving of him to allow my birth, only to be cast away in the end.
    In short, either he didn’t create me after all, or he’s someone I don’t like very much.

  37. Warren Master says

    First time reading your ideas, Greta. Terrific job! Colorful, too. I may have missed this, but the one retort to us skeptics that I find disarming is “Yes, but faith and belief in the Almighty is what holds people together in the most distressing times – the tragic illness or loss of your child; inexplicible genocide, ethnic cleanising & pogroms; the WTC suicide attacks; etc.
    This might be referred to as the “religion as sky-hook” defense.
    Any thoughts?
    Best,
    Warren

  38. Noodler says

    Forgive me if this was covered above…it was a lot to absorb…but for me, one approach I take is to consider the God that most Americans cling to…one who is all good, all knowing, and all powerful. Then take just one (one!)instance of human experience ..say, the unspeakable suffering of some children (one kidnapped and killed by a serial killer, or one crushed in the Haiti earthquake)…could those situations for a child exist in a world where the 3 quality god existed? Only if “he” gives up one of the 3 canonized attributes can such events happen.

  39. says

    By the way, Reason #11 put forth sometimes, is: The Lack of Miracles.
    That is, that in a world where someone who is running it has the ability to do anything (i.e. suspend physical laws) …we should see some pretty interesting things sometimes, but we don’t….that for processes that we understand well we have never ever observed an exception to the rule. In other words…that on some given day, to see that gravity failed to act on one particular object, or that a plane flew even after its wing fell off, or that the sun sat still in the sky for two minutes, or that a predictable chemical reaction failed to take place. The enormous predictability of our world is good evidence for non-plausibility of miracles.
    On occassion, some will say this does happen in medical situations…even doctors, but just because we don’t understand the process yet that led to an outcome, that doesn’t mean it was a miracle or had a supernatural cause. Further, if prayer were the answer..why would we bother with medical intervention and not just start w prayer?
    And by the way, there have also been double blind studies done testing the power of prayer in medical recoveries. Turns out the people who do the worst, are those who are prayed for and know that they were prayed for. The hypothesis at this point is that those who “let go, and let god” take the power of their own mind out of the healing process….they just lay back and wait for someone to fix them vs having any kind of internal determination. Of course we don;t’ understand those processes either but we do know that those with postive attitudes always do better…we just don’t know why yet.

  40. Stutz says

    I love your Incredible Shrinking God argument, but I usually formulate it a little differently. Ebon Musings’ take is similar, but mine is a bit more detailed:
    1. God creates the world, literally walks and talks with Adam and Eve.
    2. God retreats to heaven but still speaks to certain people himself in the pentateuch and “historical books” of the Old Testament (burning bush, Noah, Jonah, Job, the Ten Commandments, etc.)
    3. In the last half of the OT he speaks through advice, parable, and the prophets.
    4. In the New Testament he sends his son to earth to do the miracles and teaching, sort of a God-by-proxy situation.
    5. After Jesus’ death, God’s vessel is the early church and its founders, especially Paul.
    6. After a few centuries the old writings are collected into what we call the Bible, but for further centuries it is reserved for the holy Catholic priests to read and interpret for the masses. The Pope and his church are God’s representatives on earth.
    7. We have a Reformation and the Bible itself, a mere book, is now how God speaks to the people.
    8. The ascendancy of Science and the Enlightenment Age leave most serious thinkers, including the US’s founding fathers, believing in a deist God, a clockmaker who created the universe and its laws and left it to play out.
    9. Darwin’s theory combined with subsequent leaps in the fields of geology, astrophysics, and human psychology, not to mention the contributions of 19th and 20th century thinkers like Bertrand Russel and the existentialists have made it possible, to paraphrase Dawkins, “to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” If you believe God literally speaks to you today, most people will deem you mentally ill or a charlatan.
    This picture doesn’t speak to me as one of an eternal, perfect, loving God interacting with his creation. It speaks volumes about the maturation of the human species, however.

  41. Stutz says

    As an ex-Christian, the thought that finally did in my belief grew out of trying to view things from outside of my Christian bubble. I did understand that if I had been born into the Hindu bubble or the Islamic bubble or the Mormon bubble, I’d think that the mainstream Christians were the lost souls, but I always tried to rationalize it away, usually by saying people have free will to choose or reject God. But then it occurred to me that for eons, people had been born into these other bubbles, and how could they honestly be expected to know any better? God may have granted us free will, but he also (if he exists) has situated each one of us in a society, at a particular point in history, and created all the evidence with which we are surrounded, so how is it fair to say that an Aztec, who was born and died long before the Europeans came, should have worshiped God? And for not doing so, they are doomed to eternal torment in hell? I did not want to believe that at all. How is it fair, even for a modern Buddhist or Muslim, even if they have heard the Christian story? For that matter, how is it fair to doom any lowly human to eternal (think about what eternal means…) torture, no matter what they’ve done, especially if we are all “God’s children”? Would you do that to your own child, even if you were Hitler’s parent?

  42. AmnesiaCane says

    Just for the record, a lot of these are good points to not believe in God.
    A lot of them are not.
    “Religion is inherited” is an argument against religious people, and maybe religion, but not God. Several of your arguments are not evidence in any way against a belief in God or religion. Atheism is also inherited, and these atheists rarely consider religion more than religious consider another religion/atheism.

  43. Adam says

    I enjoyed reading this list. I may not have seen every comment left here, but it seems that most are from atheists. Interesting. Either “believers” are not reading your blog, or are not leaving comments? (at least recently)I could list several questions, or make a point by point argument for each of the 10, but for now I have just one question. I assume that you have been asked this, but I am genuinely interested in hearing your answer. When you consider the number of highly intelligent atheists that have attempted to “disprove” or “dismantle” the Bible throughout history (as well as those alive today) and have actually become believers in the process, how do you explain this? I’m sure you know the names of many of them without needing to see a list. Please don’t answer that there are not such people, or that they were not intelligent, or that they were brain-washed or threatened, because these answers will not suffice. It is quite likely that these are people that had all of the information that you have and that looked into all of the “so-called” contradictions in the Bible, and “problems” with faith in God and the bottom line is that these people decided that belief in God was the most plausible of the options.

  44. says

    Adam: That’s what we call “the argument from authority,” combined with “the arugment from popularity.” “Some other famous or important people think X, therefore X must be true.” It’s a terrible argument. There are lots of reasons people believe in God, from cognitive errors to wishful thinking. The fact that some people believe is not an argument for why those beliefs are true. I’d be interested in seeing some actual arguments for why God is real and/or the Bible is a trustworthy source of information — but “some other people believe it” isn’t one of them.
    (And even if that were a good argument, it actually goes against the case for God. Rates of non-belief are going up at a dramatic rate, all over the US and all over the world. Including among many smart people, and many former believers and theologians. Using your logic: Why would that be true, if religion were plausible?)

  45. says

    Greta, this marks the first time I have read your blog and I absolutely love your thoughtful and intelligent, clearly–detailed posts. I must say you’ve given a fabulous and convincing list there.
    I would like to add a few points to the whole ‘theists must prove god exists’. I don’t believe they need only do that. They also need to show that their particular brand of deity exists (I come from a muslim background, so would need convincing that the god shown to exist does or does not match allâh). In addition, they need to show why we must worship god. Why can I not simply acknowledge god’s existence intellectually and then go on living my life as I normally do?

  46. Blondin says

    I’m sure you know the names of many of them without needing to see a list.

    I wouldn’t mind seeing a list…

  47. says

    How would you catagorize things such as ESP, remote viewing or the near death experiences? I believe that not all hunches are correct but would not put that in the same catagory as true intuition. There were some very compelling studies done on remote viewing by Berkley University years ago that found a select group of people DO exhibit amazing abilities not to mention the occasional usage by police orginizations to find clues to missing people. I’m not trying to make an arguement for spiritualism or any religion or higher power. I simply think there are things about the human experience that can’t be explained nor discounted as irrational. Haven’t you ever said to yourself ” Damnit, I knew I shouldn’t have done that”? or felt someone staring at you? Your thoughts?

  48. says

    I have a problem with the cosmological argument advanced by Eric R.
    Firstly, the property of “self-existence” could just as easily be a property of the universe itself. Since it already exists, we have no evidence as to whether it began to do so via an external cause or through its own innate property of “self-existence”. Viewed this way, it’s no greater a leap to suggest that the universe is “Brute Fact” than to suggest an external cause – they both postulate an unobserved (indeed, unobservable) property of self-existence. The argument is at best neutral with respect to the “supranatural”.
    The second and deeper problem I have with this argument is one of relevance to the question of God. Regardless of what this item with property P might be, there is nothing in the argument that suggests it should have any of the properties associated with God, such as consciousness, intent, design, omniscience, omnipotence, judgement, receptiveness to prayer or tribute, existence and intervention in present times, etc.
    To put this another way, let’s say I’ve lost my key to my garage. Because I can’t get into my garage to look, I can’t verify what might be inside. Shall I then claim that I am on equal rational footing to say that unicorns do or don’t exist, because there’s something in my garage I can’t observe, which could thus be a unicorn?
    That is the missing link in the cosmological argument. If you are using the argument solely to demonstrate the existence of something currently unknown to science, it (sort of) works. But as soon as you try to claim that this unknown is evidence for any particular class of entity (such as something a theist would worship), you are no longer on solid ground.

  49. OSU_Matthew says

    Yet another riveting and well thought out deliberation, Greta. I always thoroughly enjoy reading your works as everything you write is so wonderfully clear and concise. I have no doubt I will be referring to this article in the near future.
    I guess my one specific qualm, if I may, is the argument that religion is inherited. While that is certainly the case for many people, I personally know just as many (myself included) who have been raised in a fundamental protestant church and never for a minute have believed the heap of lies, contradictions, and thinly veiled hypocrisy that characterizes the church (in my personal observations).
    Perhaps that is an argument for the religious gene though?

  50. Jeffrey Soreff says

    Many thanks for this post, and also for your
    “If You’re Just Going to Read Five Things…”
    list.

    A couple of quips:
    Re gods of the gaps: Another way of noting what happens to them
    as the gaps get filled is that they get chewed down to
    Cantor dust

    In (6), love your
    “Drugs and medicines, injury, illness, sleep deprivation, etc…. all of these can make changes to the “soul.””

    Yup – I tend to phrase it as: evidence from CNS-active medications,
    evidence from brain trauma studies, (and, I’d add, some weak but
    strengthening evidence from biomemetic AI work)

  51. Jaime says

    Actually, Greta, your atheism is Unfalsifiable.

    By that I mean that from your perspective there is no possible evidence you would accept.

    As an atheist, you believe that all existence, life, mind, and reason itself can be explained by mindless processess…now, don’t get mad, but that is what you think.

    “Nature”…mindless nature…explains it all.

    So, no matter what evidence provided…from a miracle to a rational argument…you could claim there was some natural explanation, even if you didn’t have it at the time.

    You wouldn’t accept it…even if a man were to reise from the dead.

  52. Steve says

    No, if you come up with some positive evidence we’ll accept it. Don’t have any. They never have. And that even if someone rises from the dead is just scaremongering. Prove it, and we’ll believe it. Something that would convince every atheist on the planet and quell all arguments is – God showing he exists. Till then. . .

  53. jimlogan says

    In this universe, or possibly multiverse there is an undeniable truth that scientific thought wants to ignore … there is something instead of nothing !!. On the other hand no instrument of man can define who or what created that anomaly or singularity, which eventually spawned human thought, sentience, emotion, reasoning. Everything is energy, and mass is simply frozen energy, therefore everything is composed of photons, Yet i being constructed from the same exact thing as a rock, can appreciate beauty, feel love, and eat donuts … things that trillions and trillions of other conglomerations of photons cant do . it is quite apparent that something exists besides photons and mass, something nebulas that can not be composed of photons or mass , things we are all quite familiar with , we think, no one taught us how and we don’t know how we do it, it make no sense that we can do it (we are just trillions of frozen photons) which is analogous to building snowmen and one of them starts dancing. logically this points to a creator .

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