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Apr 21 2009

Religion and the Difference Between Possible and Plausible, or, Why You Shouldn’t Jump Out of Windows

Does it make sense to live your life on an unsupported premise, simply because you can’t disprove that premise with absolute certainty?

And is it reasonable and right to try to talk people out of their unsupported beliefs, even if you can’t disprove those beliefs with absolute certainty?

100_percentFor some reason, I’ve been running into the “You can’t disprove religion with 100% certainty, therefore it’s reasonable for me to believe in it, and therefore you atheists are being intolerant for trying to talk me out of it” argument a lot more than usual lately. I’ve pointed out the glaring flaws in this argument before, more than once, as have many other atheists. And yet, people keep making it. (What’s the matter with them? Don’t they read my blog?)

So today, I want to get at this argument in a different way.

There’s a point that a lot of atheists make about this argument, which is this: Believers don’t apply this sort of thinking in any other area of their lives. In most other areas of their lives, believers base their actions, not on what might be hypothetically possible, but on what is most likely to be plausible. Their car might start running on sugar water, the rocks in their backyard might have turned into candy, if they jump out the window there might be invisible fairies waiting to gently carry them down to earth… but they don’t act as if these things are true. But with religion, people will happily argue that it might hypothetically be true… and therefore, it’s reasonable for them to act as if it were true, and the rest of us have to take it seriously.

So here’s the argument I want to have with the invisible theist in my head.

Fairy 2It is hypothetically possible that, if you jump out of a fourth- floor window, invisible fairies will catch you and carry you gently down to earth.

Are you, therefore, going to jump out of a fourth- floor window, based on that slim but not 100%- dismissible fairy hypothesis?

Or are you, instead, going to go with the far more plausible hypothesis that you should probably take the stairs or the elevator, since if you jump out the window, the chances are excellent that you will plummet to a squishy death?

And if you don’t go with the fairy hypothesis just because “you can’t absolutely prove that it’s not true”… then why should you go with the God hypothesis?

Now. At this point, the invisible theist in my head is arguing, “But why do you care what other people believe?” (Unless they’re trying to argue that the God hypothesis is more plausible than the fairy hypothesis, because lots of other people believe it or something. In which, I direct them here, and then go watch Buffy reruns.)

But assuming that my invisible theist is in fact arguing, “But why do you care what other people believe?”… here is my answer.

If you saw someone getting ready to jump out a window because they believed that invisible fairies would carry them to the ground… wouldn’t you try to stop them?

People are jumping out of the religion window every day.

And they’re pushing other people out.

911There are the blindingly obvious cases: the suicide bombers, the people flying planes into buildings, the Pope telling people in Africa that condoms make Baby Jesus cry. There are the less obvious cases: the children who are taught to reject and despise science and evidence and reality in general; the wives who are told by their preachers to stay in abusive marriages; the sick people who put their lives in the hands of faith healers.

And there are the cases that are so woven into the fabric of our society we often don’t even notice it. The children who are traumatized by visions of the horrible tortures of Hell. The ministers and other religious leaders dispensing life advice with no training in counseling, based only on the dogma of their faith. The families who barely talk to each other, or don’t talk to each other at all, because of religious differences. The teenagers who are taught that God thinks sex is sinful and disgusting and they should therefore save it for the person they marry. The gay teenagers who are taught to hate themselves.

I could go on, and on, and on. I have.

That is an awful lot of misery and death to be inflicting, on the off-chance that there might be invisible fairies carrying you to the ground when you jump.

Windows_1So I ask again: If you saw someone about to jump out of a window — or about to push someone out of a window — because they believed that fairies would carry them to the ground… wouldn’t you try to stop them?

That’s what the atheist movement is doing. That’s why we care what other people believe. We care what other people believe because people act on their beliefs… and with many of those actions, people are hurting themselves, and each other. We see people jumping out of the religion window, and pushing other people out of it, on a daily basis.

Now, if you think we’re mistaken — if you think God really exists and there’s good evidence to support that theory — then by all means, convince me. Show me the money.

But if all you have is “My holy book says it” and “Lots of other people believe it” and “I feel it in my heart”… then I’m sorry, but what you have on your hands is invisible fairies who are going to carry you down to the ground if you jump out the window.

StaircaseAnd it is not intolerant for atheists to try to talk you out of it. It is not intolerant for atheists to try to show you why there are almost certainly no invisible window fairies. It is not intolerant for atheists to try to persuade you that the fairy hypothesis, while not absolutely unproven, is far less plausible than the “plummeting to your death” hypothesis… and to try to persuade you to take the stairs instead. It is not intolerant for atheists to try to show you that you may be hurt if you jump… and that you may hurt other people if you push them.

8 comments

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  1. 1
    Paul Crowley

    You may also be interested in Eliezer Yudkowsky’s But There’s Still A Chance, Right? which argues a similar point.

  2. 2
    Headbhang

    The problem with the window/fairies analogy is that, if someone does it, the person WILL realise, within a few seconds, if s/he’s right or wrong (and other people too once they hear the splat). Religious people probably will never find out how wrong they were, because the ultimate test -death- is, by definition, most likely unreachable. A sad irony.
    They may hit plenty of thorny branches on the way down, we know that, but since no-one has ever seen anyone make an actual splat, they keep thinking the fairies will pick them up at the last moment…

  3. 3
    Joe

    Outstanding! Terrific post, but I’m still pretty sure that the faith heads that I’ve met will STILL not get it!
    They’ll say: “But fairies aren’t real” over and over without a glimmer of irony.
    (sigh…)

  4. 4
    G Felis

    Wonderful post. I keep saying the same thing in dozens of different ways: It’s not that I care what people believe, I care about what people DO – and a great deal of what people do springs from what they believe. Ultimately, that’s why I say that faith – believing something just because you want to believe it without regard to whether there is any evidence or reasoning that can justify that belief, and often in the face of evidence and reasoning against the truth of the belief – is not just a bad idea, but moral failing. The actions you take in the world often have moral consequences, and if your beliefs about the world are based on faith, they are vastly more likely to be false beliefs – and therefore you are vastly more likely to take actions with evil consequences.

  5. 5
    Infidel

    But if you DO jump out a 4th floor window and faeries don’t catch you, its because you didn’t have enough faith in them. You can’t prove the faeries weren’t there either way.

  6. 6
    Ola

    This piece is about the same thing:
    http://www.jhuger.com/goodnews
    If you haven’t read it yet, you’ll love it, I think. It’s from the same guy who wrote Kissing Hank’s Ass…

  7. 7
    Maria

    @ Joe. I agree. I’ve seen other versions of the argument that Greta Christina makes here, and although it seems so clear to us, some believers just do not seem to be able to get the point of it at all, since to them it’s obvious that all the other supernatural and mythical creatures and characters don’t exist, but that theirs do.
    It’s like “the best caller ever” from The Atheist Experience (see link below). I nearly fell off the chair laughing when I saw the YouTube clip the first time, but at the same time it’s rather sad.

  8. 8
    Curt Russell

    One recurring theme in your writing is that you use the sins of man to refute the concept of a god. That man is sinful is not a logical disproof of god. Further, your logic implies that if some religious thought is false, all religious thought must be false. This too is a non sequitur. Since none of us are all-knowing, we cannot definitively say there is or is not a god. We can only look at evidence and make a judgment. There are thousands of years of evidence supporting the existence of a god. Josh McDowell’s book “Evidence That Demands a Verdict” chronicles both Biblical and extra Biblical evidence. He originally set out to disprove Christianity once and for all, and ended up a believer based on the evidence.

    I also got a kick out of the G Felis comment above that in essence says that religious belief is a “moral failing”. No offense, but that logic is really funny. From where do we get our morality? If the world is simply “survival of the fittest”, what is morality? Hint: Its evidence that we were created in the image of God. The ability to think morally is what sets us apart from the rest of creation… and from a Darwinian view of humanity.

    Curt

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