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Hey Religious Believers, Where’s Your Evidence?

Evidence What evidence do religious believers have for their beliefs?

And when they’re asked what evidence they have, how do believers respond?

In my conversations with religious believers, I’ll often ask, “Why do you think God or the supernatural exists? What makes you think this is true? What evidence do you have for this belief?” Partly I’m just curious; I want to know why people believe what they do. Plus I think it’s a valid question: it’s certainly one I’d ask about any other claim or opinion. And if I’m wrong about my atheism — if there’s good evidence for religion that I haven’t seen yet — I want to know. I’m game. Show me the money.

But when I ask these questions, I almost never get a straight answer.

What I typically get is a startling assortment of conversational gambits deflecting the question.

I get excuses for why believers shouldn’t have to provide evidence. Vague references to other people who supposedly have evidence, without actually pointing to said evidence. Irrelevant tirades about mean atheists. Venomous anger at how disrespectful and intolerant I am to even ask the question.

Today, I want to chronicle some of these conversational gambits. I want to point out their logical flaws. I want to point out the fiendishly clever ways that they armor religion against the expectation — a completely reasonable expectation, an expectation we have about every other kind of claim — that it back itself up with evidence.

And I want to talk about why believers resort to them.

*

Thus begins my new blog post up at AlterNet, Hey Religious Believers, Where’s Your Evidence? In it, I point out some of the specific ways religious believers dodge the simple question, “Why do you believe what you believe?” I point out the holes in these arguments, and point out how they aren’t actually arguments — they’re simply armor against the entirely reasonable expectation that religion support its claims with evidence. And I talk about why, exactly, believers resort to these deflective gambits, instead of just explaining why they believe what they believe.

This is the fourth in a four-part series about atheism I’m writing for AlterNet. I’ll be reprinting all these pieces here on my own blog eventually; in the meantime, enjoy this one on AlterNet!

Comments

  1. jason says

    what type of evidence would you be willing to except? i ask because there is a lot of compelling evidence but most atheists are not willing to consider it and dismiss it out of hand.

  2. Maria says

    Tell us the compelling evidence, Jason.

    I really tried to read the comments over there, but… there’s just so much I can take!

  3. says

    Jason: I suggest you take a look at Ebonmuse’s The Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists. My criteria for what I’d accept as evidence of God’s existence are a little different from his, but they’re close enough that I’m willing to go with them.
    And yes, I’d be interested in hearing about your compelling evidence. Before you offer them, though, please look at the end section of the abovementioned Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists, since it also spells out the kind of “evidence” that theists commonly offer but that atheists find entirely unconvincing.
    (I will add to that list: I am unconvinced by the appearance of design in life, since the theory of evolution provides a much better explanation for it than God. And I am unconvinced by the “first cause” argument, since the God hypothesis doesn’t answer that question — it merely begs it. If everything had to be created, then what created God? And if God has just always existed or came into being out of nothing, why can’t that be true for the universe?)

  4. Dirtbag2022 says

    i understand your frustration with “religious” people. I even used to be one, but the reality of what you tell me that no matter what so called religion you choose it is all based in faith. I believe that a Loving God Gave His Son to Die for me and you bank on there not being a god and we float around in an eternal abyss. Either way I feel God has changed my life, influenced my decisions, and ultimately saved me from a real evil force trying to hinder God trying to give a second chance to everyone. Whether you accept that or not is your decision. But not every person in the world is a scholar and most Christians live in a clouded faith where they feel it isn’t necessary to learn more about their Faith, because Faith is enough, so your arguments regarding someone begin able to not prove something are impossible to prove and even if I solid evidence you would just assume it wasn’t real. I’ve seen people prayed for and healed of health problems I’ve seen people stand out of wheelchairs that haven’t walked in years, but you would tell me it was fake or some “cause and effect”. The cause and effect is true, There was a need and God met it. I understand you have different beliefs than I do, and you don’t agree with the Faith belief, but remember you are having faith in No God and I simply have faith in the GOD.

  5. Maria says

    Dirtbag2022, do you believe that a stage magician is capable of fooling your eyes and make you see a rabbit coming out of a hat, and a coin disappear in thin air? Or maybe make a whole elephant or an aeroplane disappear in front your ery eyes? Do you believe that the stage magician really did these things by magic, or that it was a miracle? Or was it an illusion? Sleight of hand? Trickery? Set up to look real when in fact it’s not? Do you think it’s possible that faith healers are capable of such trickery as well?

  6. says

    What Maria said. Anyone who believes in faith healing and miracles needs to see “Marjoe,” stat. Faith healing has been rigorously tested, and it has never, ever been shown to be anything more than a placebo effect at best and outright fraud at worst.
    As to atheism being just as much faith as religion: No, it’s really not. I know that a lot of believers want to believe that, since that way they can dismiss the evidence and arguments against religion. But there is an important difference. The difference is that most atheists say, “I don’t see any good evidence for God… but show me some good evidence, and I’ll change my mind.” Believers are the ones saying, “Nothing you say could possibly convince me God is not real — that’s what it means to have faith.” Atheism is a provisional conclusion based on the available evidence. It is not a refusal to change our mind no matter what. It is not faith.
    More on the difference between atheism and religious faith: What Would Convince You That You Were Wrong? The Difference Between Secular and Religious Faith

  7. fastthumbs says

    What bothers me about the attitude of believing in supernatural faith healing (be it Christian, Wiccan, New Age mysticism, et el.) leaves one(and the more desperate) open for fraud and hucksterism.
    What frustrates me with the faith healing is the magical thinking that faith today heals any more then faith healed 2000 years ago…
    Consider (from http://skepdic.com/faithhealing.html):
    “Most cases of faith healing need no cure, since most patients will get better even if they receive no treatment at all (Hines 2003). Some serious ailments like cancer and multiple sclerosis abate for months or years for reasons we don’t understand (Nickell 1993: 134). There is an “impressive variety of … ailments, ranging from back pains to hysterical blindness, [that] are known to be highly responsive to the power of suggestion.” The “main requisite for curative effects” is “the patient’s belief in the practitioner’s assurances.” And, having a positive attitude seems to enhance the body’s healing capacities (Nickell 1993: 134).
    The majority of faith healings are successful because of the cooperation of healer and patient. Working together, believing in the treatment, strongly desiring the treatment to work, not only can relieve stress and bring about the curative effects of the power of suggestion, it can lead the patient to give testimony that is exaggerated or even false in the desire to get well and to please the healer. The power of subjective validation is enormous and essential to many, if not most, faith healings.
    The faith healer can’t lose. Any treatment he or she gives is likely to get a high approval rating. Most patients will validate their treatments. There will be no follow-up, so there will be few bothersome failures. The healer is likely to be showered with proclamations of gratitude. It is no wonder, then, that the healer comes to believe that his or her method, whether it be invoking God or the life force or some other mysterious entity, truly works. Even obvious failures can be blamed on the patient for not having enough faith in God or the healing method or for not cooperating fully. Also, many patients are afraid to admit they’re not better because that would imply that they lack faith or didn’t participate properly. They blame themselves if the treatment doesn’t work.”
    This is the path that leads to bad things happening to good people who decide faith is sufficient…

  8. says

    there is a lot of compelling evidence but most atheists are not willing to consider it and dismiss it out of hand.
    Time to back up your huge claim, Jason.
    Where’s your compelling evidence?
    You made a claim about “most atheists”, so we need a survey or a suitable random sample. (Anecdotes are not samples.)
    I’ve been asked this question many dozens of times (and have answered, it at length). The only response I’ve had is more special pleading of exactly the kind Greta wrote about.
    I will answer it again (though I am sure the universe is getting sick of me answering it for the fortieth time THIS YEAR):
    The short answer is “almost any evidence at all, if it meets a few criteria, and I know before we start what it is we’re looking for evidence of”.
    Here’s a longer version, slightly clarified from one I posted on another forum to a similar question from another theist:
    First, let’s set out what phenomenon we’re investigating:
    #1 “which god are we discussing? What are its properties?”
    #2 “what observations would rule out such a being?”

    Given suitably clear answers to those, I will accept pretty much any evidence sufficiently extraordinary to match the extraordinariness of the claimed god, sufficient to rule out alternate non-supernatural explanations, and also sufficient to rule out alternative supernatural ones
    [i.e. any evidence sufficiently strong to convince me we found what we were looking for (rather than something else extraordinary or even ordinary), and that we’re not just fooling ourselves or being fooled by someone or something else]
    In other words, if you specify which god hypothesis we’re proposing up front, and what evidence could rule the hypothesis out (otherwise it’s an hypothesis without any explanatory value at all), I’ll then be prepared to consider evidence for it. Any real evidence. Almost anything that’s not just made up in people’s heads.
    If the evidence is sufficiently extraordinary (including repeats, experiments ruling out alternate explanations and so on) compared the the extraordinariness of the claim (I’ll potentially accept almost any reasonable evidence as long as it’s essentially all consistent), then I will change my beliefs.

    Now your turn, Jason (after you finish putting your money where your mouth is on your claim about atheists):
    What observation(s), if any, would convince you god doesn’t exist?

  9. says

    Sorry, an editing mistake – the “this question” I just referred to (in “I’ve been asked this question many times…“) was Jason’s bit about “what evidence would you accept”; I meant to quote that question just before that sentence.

  10. D says

    Hey Greta-
    One thing you might be discounting in your pre-conceived notions of us “God-fearing peeps” is that some of us really don’t care if you believe in God or not.
    In fact, some of us (Libertarian-minded folk) are happy that you have the right and the freedom to feel the way you do in this country.
    I find it humorous that your slant on religion relies heavily on the generalization that all God-believers are there to challenge you. Such arrogance!
    Quite honestly, I have faith that one day, in your time of need; be it on a hospital bed when you’re dying of cancer, or on a plane that is going down or just amongst your family when they surround you on your deathbed, you will think about what lies beyond.
    Only then may you truly consider what you have to lose.
    See, if religious-folk are wrong about heaven, no biggie. We all end up stone-cold dead, six-feet deep; atheists and religious alike. BUT….BUT, if athiests are wrong, they have f*cked up royally. Eternal damnation. Sweet.
    Cheers!

  11. Maria says

    *LOL* OK, D, so you’re not a god-believer who would ever dream of challenging the Greta’s of the world, eh? I guess that’s why you are now here trying to challenge her with… tada, Pascal’s Wager!! :-)
    If we both die, D, and find ourselves standing in front of Oden… we’d both be fucked, eh? What would you do then? You’d have to spend eternity in Hel instead of Hell.

  12. D says

    Maria-
    I don’t see any challenge set forth for Greta (or….(ahem)YOU, I guess.) A challenge would insinuate that I care for rebuttal.
    I simply accessed the COMMENT box with my comment. Hurray for comment boxes!
    Cheers!

  13. D says

    Maria-
    I don’t see any challenge set forth for Greta (or….(ahem)YOU, I guess.) A challenge would insinuate that I care for rebuttal.
    I simply accessed the COMMENT box with my comment. Hurray for comment boxes!
    Cheers!

  14. Maria says

    Of course you don’t care, D, which is why you ignored me, didn’t respond to me, and didn’t tell me how much you don’t care :-)

  15. says

    I loved the post Greta, but there’s something I’d like to add.
    For me the God question is a two-part one. First, they’d have to show me evidence for the existence of God. As you point out, it can’t be something that can have a much more likely explanation and it can’t involve emotional blackmail *cough* *cough* (Pascal’s Wager, D).
    The second would be even more important. God itself would have to explain why I should follow its edicts. Even if it did create everything in six days, healed the sick, fed the poor, etc. it’s also responsible/approved of mass genocide, endorsed slavery, killed innocents (see the first born thing that some Christians think is a great thing), and is described as being the emotional equivalent of a 5-year-old with a bad temper.
    Oh, and D…
    Not only did you bring up Pascal’s Wager, as Maria pointed out (and Greta mentioned in the article), you never addressed why you believe in an original way. It’s the same “on your death bed”/”when you’re alone”/”when times are hard” projection that theists are always tossing toward atheists.
    As an example, let’s reverse that. What if I said that I believe without evidence (which is what Faith is) that on your deathbed you will question whether there is a God and if you’ve wasted your life following pointless dogma originally developed over 2 millenia ago and only further utilized since to keep the sheep in check?
    I find it telling that you didn’t address any actual evidence for the deity that you believe in so fervently. Instead, you rely on Pascal’s Wager, which Greta seems to have thought through much more fully than you have.

  16. Maria says

    I agree Berlzebub. Many theists seem to think that to believe is the same thing as to worship. Not so. If there were real evidence that the Christian god existed, then, yeah, I had to believe in it. So? That does not include voluntary worship in any way shape or form. I think it’s scary how they believe in such a horrible character without trying to reject and fight it with all their might! It would be more natural to try to get rid of something like that, one might think.

  17. says

    Greta
    I’ve read most of your articles at AlterNet and I like your writing. Your arguments you present are strong and I support you in your battle. I happen to put myself in the theist or deist camp but that matters not.
    I am growing tired of using what we believe as some sort of starting point for categorizing people. Especially when this categorization serves in most cases purely political purposes. Nobodies beliefs are so simplistic as to be easily categorized and the decisions to place some sort of hierarchy on beliefs is of course totally subjective. I too hate the special status that many religious arguments seem to think they deserve.
    To answer the question in your article about why someone (me) believes in some sort of supernatural force outside our perception that is influencing I’ll be as brief as I can. First I dont believe in super or other than natural occurrences or forces. There are things we cant measure (yet) things we cant see and things we may never understand but IMO there is nothing that is separate from nature. So the question becomes how does nature work and possibly why? We must consider seriously that the why has no answer or that the why may be something very distasteful if we were to learn. We all look for whys that make us feel better but the why (if its there) MAY not be nice or good. We are doing very well on the hows but the whys are purely speculative. The question to me is can the hows begin to reveal a why? I think they can. In fact I think we have shown that they can. Now, its true that there are different levels of why and the BIG level of why that is being argued by theists and atheists may elude us for some time, but enough of the little levels of why may add up to a larger level of why that can begin to be understood. I think there are appearances of “possibly purposeful” , currently unmeasurable (or clearly definable) forces at work in the universe. I cant say the evidence is strong but I think it CAN be considered faint evidence. Faint is more than none and you dont look for what you think doesnt exist. Robert Wright begins to address this in his own way in his book The Evolution of God, which I think is quite good.
    Theists need to be more forthcoming about the faintness of the evidence and the likelihood of an answer not being in line with the tents of their holy books. They should also be hopeful about some of the evidence from the study of biology and physics that MIGHT point to a purpose and participate in the only process which can help in this determination………..science. They need to stop viewing science as a threat and understand it as a process which CAN reveal truths.
    Sorry this got so long.

  18. says

    Replying to D: First, I’ll second what Maria and Berlzebub said. “You’ll change your mind when you’re on your deathbed” is a terrible argument for God. First, it’s not true — there are, as I’ve pointed out many times, atheist soldiers and police officers and firefighters. Plenty of atheists have faced death and disaster, and have come through without changing their mind about God. Even if it were true, it would hardly be an argument for God’s existence — quite the contrary, if people only believe in times of crisis, that points to religion being a comforting human construct and not a sincere conclusion based on the evidence.
    And as Maria pointed out (plus everyone else who has ever blasted Pascal’s Wager into shrapnel): How do you know which God we should worship in order to deflect judgment? What if it’s Allah or Odin or Zeus? What if you were a Baptist and God wanted you to be a Mormon, or you were a Mormon and she wanted you to be a Wicca?
    (I also want to make a brief tangent here: Pascal’s wager? PASCAL’S FREAKING WAGER?!? Probably the worst argument ever made on behalf of religious belief, and we still have to waste our time arguing against it? For fuck’s sake.)
    But I also want to say this:
    Not once in this article did I assume that all religious believers are challenging me or care what I believe. Not once. I said in my conversations with believers, that when I ask believers what they believe, they respond as described in the piece. Not once did I say or imply that these conversations represented all believers. I was discussing a common phenomenon — but nowhere did I say or imply that it was a universal one.
    D, I welcome sincere discussion and debate with believers here. But if you can’t read more carefully and take the time to respond to what I actually said, you’re not going to be very welcome in this blog.

  19. says

    Okay, Greg. I’ll bite. What is the faint evidence you think there is for the existence of purposeful forces at work in the universe? (Apart from the ones we know about, i.e. human and other animal life on this planet.) What makes you think that?

  20. Bobby Seay says

    How about the simple fact that people of faith, any faith, seem to heal faster, live longer, and be healthier. I do not have the exact website for those facts, but research it for yourself. Also what about the Shroud of Turin? I read the STUDY done on it in National Geographic in 1980. There is no explanation for it.

  21. Maria says

    Research it for ourselves, Bobby? No, YOU claim these things, YOU provide these “facts”.
    Shroud of Turin? My goodness… *moans* There is no explanation for it? How about radiocarbon dating showing that it is from medieval times? That is only ONE explanation.
    How about you follow your own advice, Bobby? Do some research! Here, I’ll help:
    http://www.skepdic.com/shroud.html
    Even if the shroud were genuine, what do you think that would prove except Jesus having been in it? That he also then rose from the dead and is god? That doesn’t follow, now does it? It would only prove some crucified guy was in it and left an impression, which is ALSO highly unlikely.

  22. Anne says

    I guess I believe in God more than my religion. Mostly I guess, because God seems to answer my prayers for important things. Logically, everything can be associated to normal things, so I have no real proof, but some of the odds of things happening were kind of extreme. Probably a selfish reason, but that is why I believe.

  23. says

    Greta
    Is there a word limit on the comments. I tried to respond as you asked me and I cant post it. It doesnt say that there is a word limit so I was just curious.
    Thanks

  24. says

    Bobby: First, that’s not true. Those studies were poorly done, and didn’t take into account social differences between atheists and believers — such as the fact that believers have built-in social support networks, which improves health, and the fact that atheists are hated and discriminated against, which is harmful to health. More recent studies that were better done showed that, when you factor out these influences (e.g. by studying atheists who belong to atheist social groups), atheists and believers have about the same rates of health and happiness. (I’m trying to find the link, but it’s buried; I’ll post it as soon as I find it.) And in fact, countries with high rates of atheism tend to be countries with high rates of both physical and social health.
    Second, even if that were true, it wouldn’t be evidence that God exists. It would only be evidence that religion is psychologically beneficial, and therefore beneficial to physical health. (For one thing: Why would rates pf good health be higher for *all* believers — even ones who believe in different gods?)
    Anne: What you’re describing is what’s called confirmation bias — the human tendency to notice events that confirm our beliefs (and to exaggerate their importance), and to ignore or trivialize events that contradict our beliefs. Believers in prayer notice and remember the times that their prayers are answered, and ignore, forget, or rationalize the times that they’re not. There is not a scrap of evidence that prayers get answered; in fact prayer studies showed that sick people who are prayed for don’t get better at any higher rate than sick people who don’t.
    Greg: There shouldn’t be a word limit on comments. I don’t know why your comment didn’t publish — it’s not in my spam filter. In any case, I notice that you posted your reply on your own blog, so I’ll point other people to it. If I have time to reply, I’ll cross-post here and in your blog.

  25. says

    Oh no someone found my blog. You are probably the first visitor Christine. Thank you.
    I guess thats my next step into the blogging world……………………visitors.

  26. says

    The question of evidence is really a two part question- Do I have evidence that makes me believe? Yes. Do I have evidence that would convince you? No.
    As we all know, any and all personal experiences that were not captured on film are hallucinations. Proper scientific methodology means denying the evidence of your own senses anytime it runs contrary to conventional wisdom, so I know my reasons for believing are unscientific. But poor as that reason is, it convinces me.

  27. says

    But poor as that reason is, it convinces me.

    Why?
    Why does it convince you?
    Why — when you know that the mind and the senses can be deceived, when you know that evidence needs to be corroborated for it to be considered valid, when you know that your evidence wouldn’t convince anyone other than you — does it still convince you?
    Why — when considering not what is subjectively true for you, but what is objectively true about the external world — do you give your own admittedly fallible subjective experience so much more weight than you’d give anyone else’s fallible subjective experience?
    Why does it convince you?

  28. Bruce Gorton says

    It struck me with going through the theist responses on that article just how many of them seem to have read the article and then gone straight back to making the arguments the article points out are bollocks.

  29. Bruce Gorton says

    D:
    Pascall’s wager fails on so many levels.
    First, it is intellectually dishonest. It amounts to a bribe based belief system – you believe it because you are promised a reward for believing it.
    Second, it is morally monstrous. If you applied the same reasoning to real world regimes you would end up supporting some of the most evil people on earth because they would torture you if you didn’t.
    Third, it is logically flawed:
    What if there is a God who rewards skepticism and punishes faith? There is nothing to say that isn’t the case, never mind whether or not the various other religions out there count as the one true religion.
    Fourth, heaven isn’t all that attractive a bribe in the first place:
    Heaven is a perfect realm, which means anything you did in it would ruin it, which means that after the first hundred years or so you would get bored out of your tree. Next to the eternal purity of heaven, hell sounds, well, heavenly – at least there it could be made better.
    I could go on, but I trust you see my point as to why this argument isn’t a convincing one right?

  30. Maria says

    It struck me with going through the theist responses on that article just how many of them seem to have read the article and then gone straight back to making the arguments the article points out are bollocks.
    Exactly, Bruce. That’s why I sometimes despair and think that trying to discuss with a certain kind of believers is more hopeless and meaningless than Sisyphos work… Their brains seems to be made of Teflon! They read words but don’t see them. You say: ‘This is not logic because of X’ and they immdiately retorts with: ‘But what about X? HA!’ It’s very frustrating.

  31. says

    From Greta, “Why does it convince you?”
    Because the fact that senses can be deceived does not mean they must have been deceived, if I have no reason to think so. If none of the obvious reasons to doubt my senses are present, including any of the crowd psychology effects, why does it make sense to presume they were deceived?
    If it had only been wishful thinking made exceptionally vivid by stresses or psychological effects I was unaware of, why would the experience have been so different from anything I been led to expect that I could not return to the faith I was raised in, and had to look for new explanations instead? I would have thought that having been raised Christian in a largely Christian country, any religious experiences that were merely stress induced would have led me to a Christian conclussion- or at least some Abrahamic answer- rather than away from it. I mean, how many people go to a Benny Hinn revival, get whipped into a religious frenzy, and then have non-Christian visions? (That’s not how it happened, just an illustration)
    I’m willing to be convinced. If a new test of some kind were developed that could show my religious experiences to be the artifact of some medical/psychological effect instead, I would return to my previous agnostic state. But absent such evidence, what reason is there for me to reject experiences as (subjectively) real as the computer I’m typing this on? If I reject the evidence of my senses without reason to do so, aren’t we entering into the realm of the emperor’s new clothes? Other than a knee-jerk “it can’t be”, why shouldn’t it convince me?

  32. Maria says

    But, Joel… Even people who claim to see Jesus in the wood grain of a bathroom door, and think the Jesus woodgrain eyes can make their headaches go away – reason pretty much the same way you do here. Though usually not as eloquently!

  33. says

    why shouldn’t it convince me?

    Joel: It shouldn’t convince you because there are strong, positive arguments and evidence against religion, and against religious experiences being real perceptions of a real entity or phenomenon.
    I’ve summarized and explained some of my favorites in my Top Ten Reaons I Don’t Believe In God. Just a handful of quickies: Because religion has never, ever proven to be the right answer. Because in all of human history, natural explanations for phenomena have replaced supernatural ones thousands upon thousands of times… while supernatural explanations have replaced natural ones exactly never. Because the history and variety of religious beliefs and experiences are so wildly different and inconsistent, even contradicting one another — unlike our perception of the physical reality we know exists, which, when carefully measured, is relatively consistent. Because every single time testable religious claims have been rigorously tested, they’ve fallen apart. Because over thousands of years, religion has failed to improve in the ability to either perceive or predict the supernatural world that supposedly exists. Because religious hypotheses utterly fail to make accurate predictions about the world. Because religious apologetics look uncannily like contorted rationalizations and defense mechanisms rather than straightforward arguments. Because nobody in the history of the world had ever been able to provide solid, independently- verifiable evidence for their religious beliefs.
    I could understand trusting in your own personal experience if there were no good evidence or arguments contradicting it. But there are. A massive preponderance of evidence points to religion being a human construct, made up by fallible human minds.
    Given that — and given that you know that the human mind is fallible and prone to creating weird experiences — it seems clear that “this experience was a weird construct of my fallible mind” is a much, much more plausible hypothesis than “I was perceiving a real entity or phenomenon.”

  34. Sasha Forte says

    The evidence is rooted in the First Cause idea:
    Everything in the material universe is the result of a combination of matter and energy. Anything that is made from a combination of materials will eventually fall apart. We know the universe is not eternal; it is made entirely of combinations.
    Before the universe begins and after it ends, what exists? And by
    universe, I mean the entire universe, including spacetime itself. Empty space still exists within a manifest universe, just a very cold, lonely and boring one.
    If everything disappears, what’s left? One possibility is non-existence: absolutely nothing. But absolutely nothing would be absolutely static. How could the material world arise from nothingness of that magnitude? What would be able to disturb non-existence into existence? Think about it deeply, and the idea is absurd. That leaves only one possibility: an immaterial existence that engenders the manifestation of the material world.
    What can we posit about such an immaterial existence? It must be able to exist outside of time and space, and it must not be subject to the creative and destructive effects of combination. Therefore it must be absolutely singular, unified and unchangeable. Beyond space, it would be infinite; beyond time, eternal. The manifestation or non-manifestation of the universe would be irrelevant; it would simply continue to be under any and all conditions.
    What hard evidence has been found that this is the case?
    The best evidence is the testimony of enlightened beings, people who through phenomenal self-control have transcended the ordinary human mind and enabled themselves to comprehend God directly. The character of these men and women far exceeds that of any worldly person I can think of, no matter how brilliant, in any field. They are able to solve the question of God through direct personal experimentation and arrive at a conclusion by their own experience. They are beyond lying, greed, lust or ambition; they are able to conduct their lives without desires, attachments or suffering. Their minds are firmly merged in God.
    Not only that, but they actively encourage all humanity, regardless of religion or caste, to undertake the same experiments and experience it for themselves. What is proposed is not faith, although it will certainly help on the long road of spiritual attainment; what is needed is courage, character and resolve. Religion, real religion, is not for the weak and fearful. Only the boldest ever say, “Who cares what happens to me? I want to know for certain whether there is anything eternal and immortal in existence.” The findings of these great explorers can’t be ignored, because they are the most unimpeachable witnesses humankind has been able to produce.
    For more information on the lives and teachings of the great titans of spirituality, I refer you to Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda and Ramana Maharshi, all of whom lived with the last 200 years, and who produced the simplest, most cogent and rational explanations of God that have ever been
    recorded.
    It’s easy to scoff that people have only a gut feeling to rely on to justify their belief, but isn’t un-belief the same? Aren’t you simply relying on your own gut feeling?
    (Posted by GC on behalf of Sasha, who had trouble commenting.)

  35. says

    Maria- thanks! Your Jesus-in-the-woodgrain example illustrates the point I was trying to make. The guy who cures his headaches with the woodgrain Jesus eyes saw Jesus, not Odin or Vishnu. In other words, his religious experience is consonant with his religious training and cultural experiences. Mine have not been; that’s why I’m not Christian.
    I mention this because many of the ways of explaining away religious experiences that have no obvious drug or medical condition origin involve psychological conditions in which you would expect more conventional kinds of religious expressions- like the woodgrain Jesus. That my experiences are different in no way negates the possibility that there is some sort of psychological effect causing them, I fully realize. But the fact that they are different does make me lean on the side of trusting my senses.
    Greta- I did read your “Top Ten Reasons”, and was moved to answer them in my own blog . the short version: Most of your points only apply to the Abrahamic faiths; I am not Jewish, Christian or Muslim. The rest would take too much space to answer here, though I would enjoy a one point at a time discussion- but if you read my blog post, I didn’t find them compelling. My answers could be wrong, but no one has pointed out where yet.

  36. says

    Sasha: First of all, First Cause is a terrible argument.
    It’s true that the question “Where did the universe come from? How could it either have always existed or come into being out of nothing?” is a valid and interesting question, and one we don’t currently have an answer for.
    But the God hypothesis doesn’t answer that question, even in the slightest. The God hypothesis only begs the question. If things can’t just have always existed or come into being out of nothing… then where did God come from? And if God always existed or came into being out of nothing… why can’t that be true of the universe?
    The God hypothesis doesn’t answer this “Where did it come from?” question. It just moves the question from being about the universe to being about God. (And then says, “Well, God is magic, so he can do anything, so therefore we don’t have to bother trying to answer those questions about him.”) It’s cheating. It’s punting the question.
    I’ve written about this in more detail in my piece,
    God Is Magic
    As to the testimony of people who have had amazing religious experiences: That definitely does not count as good evidence. The human mind is deeply weird, and it can create very strange experiences under the right mind-altering circumstances… and things like extensive meditation and whatnot (which is what I assume you’re talking about) definitely counts as mind-altering circumstances. And the fact that different people’s religious experiences are so wildly varied and even contradictory makes the reality of these experiences even more suspect. No matter how nice and good these people are, unless they can produce verifiable, replicable evidence that their experiences were real perceptions of a real entity or phenomenon, then, given the strong arguments against religion, it makes much more sense to assume that these experiences are a construct of the human mind.

  37. Maria says

    Maria- thanks! Your Jesus-in-the-woodgrain example illustrates the point I was trying to make. The guy who cures his headaches with the woodgrain Jesus eyes saw Jesus, not Odin or Vishnu. In other words, his religious experience is consonant with his religious training and cultural experiences. Mine have not been; that’s why I’m not Christian.
    I did see that part of your first comment, Joel, and I am not buying it. I don’t know which religion/god/variant of god you are believing in instead of the Christian god, but I doubt you were completely unaware of whatever you believe instead before. If there was a way to prove that you couldn’t possibly have been influenced by anything else than Christinaty and still got visions (or whatever it was)of something else, then I agree it would have been interesting. But most people don’t live totally isolated within just a single image, but have access to a lot of images from the cultures around the world. We don’t have full control over, and certainly are not able to remember, all the images that we pick up. Yes, it is considerably more common that people see Jesus or Virgin Mary in the pancakes than other deities if they are raised in a Christan environment. But do you really think if a Christian suddenly saw Ganesha in the pancake instead of Jesus I would have thought that the fact that he’s Christian alone now makes it more plausible that it IS Ganesha? It’s still more plausible that he picked this image up somehwere (whether he remembers it or not) than that there really are an elephant-nosed god.
    You are only slightly more uncommon, Joel, but your underlying reasoning are still the same, and you still don’t have that big of a reason to believe these things just because of your subjective experiences.

  38. Maria says

    Joel, I will add this. Maybe your visions (or whatever it was) was so unusual that that particular combination of images hasn’t even occurred before. It doesn’t really matter. The originality of the subjective experience in itself is not proof enough. People come up with rather original ideas all the time. Look at the history of literature, some remarkable strange and original visions have been created and described by humans, some of which we might stand in awe before wondering where on earth that might have come from, and which was quite, quite different from the images they were fed in their upbringing. Creative writers have done this over and over again through history and still does. It’s called imagination! Humans have it!
    It’s not reasonable to lean towards that it might be true because you think it’s odd that you got this grand idea and not a more common one. It has to be verified in other ways, or there is no reason whatsoever for anyone else to think your experiences are even remotely connected to reality, and knowing this it shouldn’t be a reason for you to think this either.
    Congratulations on a truly creative mind, Joel (and I am not being sarcastic at all, I really do mean that) but value that creativity for what it is, and realize it is no good reason to think it describes reality without other verification.

  39. says

    What Maria said, Joel. Religious experiences that cause people to convert aren’t as common as religious experiences that fall within the religion they already believe… but they’re not at all unheard of. And there’s still no good reason to think of them as anything other than a psychological phenomenon. Just a somewhat more unusual one.
    As to your responses to my Top Ten Reasons: I find them terribly unconvincing. But it’s four in the morning and I really need to go to bed, so the point-by-point fisking is going to have to wait. (I will point out here, however: My arguments are very much not directed only at the Abrahamic religions. They were very much tailored to cover any belief in the supernatural. I’m a little surprised you didn’t see that. But then, I’m always a little surprised when believers say, “Your criticisms aren’t relevant to my religion, surely you’re not talking about me.” Yes. Yes, they are. Yes, I am. I’m talking about all of you.)

  40. says

    Oh, btw: As promised, here’s my response to Greg, which I posted as a comment on his blog:
    The main problem with your argument is the assumption that cooperation is universal. It’s anything but. Cooperation is a common survival strategy — but competition, predation, and parasitism are also common survival strategies, not only on the level of macroorganisms but on the microorganism level as well. Cooperation is far from universal.
    Perhaps more to the point: There’s no evidence that cooperation exists anywhere outside the biology of life. There’s no evidence of cooperation between planets, stars, quasars, galaxies, black holes.
    Your assumption that, because there are probably dimensions outside the ones we perceive, therefore we are part of a larger organism… that’s an unsupportable leap. The universe is larger than we are, and we’re a part of it… but that doesn’t mean we’re part of it in the way cells or organs are part of an organism. Life is a pretty specific way for matter and energy to be structured… and the universe as a whole looks nothing like that structure.
    Finally, on a similar note: You seem to be implying that the universe is not only an organism, but is an organism with consciousness. But a preponderance of available evidence points to consciousness being a physical, biological process of the brain. And the universe does not have a brain. It has stars and planets and black holes and stuff. Again: It’s not alive.

  41. says

    There’s no reason for you to buy it, Maria; Hells Bells, if I were sent back in time to convince myself I wouldn’t have bought it, either. If used as an argument to convince someone else, it’s an extraordinary claim with no corroborating evidence whatsoever. You’re right that my experiences being different is not proof, but to me it does weaken the argument, and I need pretty strong arguments to deny my own senses. Tell me, what would it take to convince you that the computer you’re reading this on doesn’t really exist? Would you accept “Well, the mind does wierd things sometimes” as sufficient proof to stop believing that can really see these words?
    But the original question was “Why do you think God or the supernatural exists? What makes you think this is true? What evidence do you have for this belief?”. Greta asked partially from curiousity; I answered partially to demonstrate that many of us do have a better answer than “I was raised that way”. Perhaps it’s not a good reason- but it is a reason.

  42. Maria says

    There are outside verification for the existance of my computer, Joel. Or do you want to argue that we can’t really be 100% sure of the existance of anything at all? People who claim that don’t live like they learn, at least they don’t seem terrified about what will happen every time they try to sit down on a chair, or starts to go down a flight of stairs.
    If you wouldn’t have bought it if sent back in time, why do you buy it now?
    and I need pretty strong arguments to deny my own senses.
    It is well described just how easy it is too fool human senses, and just how often it happens. That’s a pretty strong argument, why do you reject it?
    Perhaps it’s not a good reason- but it is a reason.
    It is not only not a good reason, it’s a bad reason.

  43. Maria says

    Joel, would you mind describing what your beliefs actually are, and these experiences? It would be interesting to know exactly what it is we are discussing here. Not a demand, just being curious.

  44. Maria says

    Joel, I brought up stage magicians before as an example, and I’m going to do it again. Let’s take just one of the human senses – vision! Any stage magician can easily fool most human’s eyes with very simple sleight of hand tricks. I’ve seen magicians perform such a simple trick once at normal speed, and then perform it once again right after the first one, in slow motion… while describing exactly how he does it, and the eyes of the person in front of him was STILL fooled!
    Of course the person from the auidence is aware that that doesn’t mean that it’s real magic, and that it must be true just because his or her eyes kept insisting on seeing the impossible. Would you agree that it would not be reasonable for this person to now start to believe in magic, but to think it’s more reasonable to believe that it’s just very skilled sleight of hand, and that human eyes are fallibe in discovering exactly where the trickery is being done?
    Now, think about how easily all of your senses can be fooled, and how complex the human brain is, how much imagery it can store, how convincing it can be in its altered states whether caused by drugs or your own inclinations to be suggestive.
    No matter if you claim that we can’t know anything for sure, you are not being conistent if you agree that it’s reasonable to think stage magician’s do not use real magic, but think it’s reasonable that your experiences are real. If you want to claim that we can’t be 100% sure of anything (so that I must doubt my computer) to defend why it’s reasonable for YOU to believe your experiences that there are no other verifications for… then you should also believe that stage magicians use real magic and not sleight of hand, no?
    Though sometimes when I use this as an example it falls flat on its ass, because wouldn’t you know, there are actually people who actually believes that David Copperfield and Chris Angel performs real supernatural magic! Sometimes I truly despair…

  45. says

    I’m sorry, Joel, but, “I had a personal experience that anyone else would chalk up to a weird but not all that unusual psychological phenomenon” is not — repeat, NOT — better evidence than, “I was brought up believing this.”
    You keep talking as if your religious experience was comparable to physical perception — but it’s just not. Physical perception is verifiable, measurable, replicable. You admit yourself that your religious experience is anything but.
    You clearly are able to step back from your own experience and see how others would see it — as an interesting psychological phenomenon, a product of the quirks of the human brain. Why are you not therefore taking the next logical step, and treating it as such? Why aren’t you treating your own mental experience as just another data point, instead of the final answer to the ultimate truth? Are you really so convinced of the infallibility of your own mind?

  46. says

    Great,
    Thanks for posting my comment for me, but I’m disappointed in your response.
    “If things can’t just have always existed or come into being out of nothing… then where did God come from? And if God always existed or came into being out of nothing… why can’t that be true of the universe?”
    Because we already have pretty strong evidence that the universe is not eternal. It, and everything in it, is made out of combinations of matter and energy. These will one day fall apart. One of the immutable laws of creation is, everything changes. Also, we know the universe had a definite starting point. No one has ever observed or posited anything existing that starts but never ends. No one has ever discovered anything permanent or persistent in nature.
    Therefore there is either nothing permanent and eternal at all (the atheist view) or there is. If there is, it would have to have these qualities:
    Be able to exist even if the universe doesn’t. OK, this is a tricky thing to try and wrap your brain around, but if material things fall apart, then what doesn’t fall apart must be non-material. Something that is non-material would not be detectable through our senses, but that doesn’t mean it is impossible to find. We can do it using the supreme concentration of our non-material faculty- our mind.
    Only people who have succeeded in controlling their minds are able to perceive God- and teach the rest of us to do so too. If you discount their well-documented experiences and the results of their experiments, why do you believe the findings of science, embarked on by people with the same prejudices and blinders as anyone else? Science has not reached a consensus on many of its most important objects of reasearch- super strings, anyone?- and scientists are forced to revise their conclusions all the time. Spiritual explorers have declared the same findings for 6,000 years- God is One. You are That. Sit down, shut up, and see for yourself. Otherwise, you’re no different from those of blind religious faith.

  47. says

    Maria- wise suggestion to discuss my experiences and beliefs first; Aristotle said any discussion should begin with a definition of terms. From my direct experiences, I believe in the Divine as an actual consciousness, origins and exact nature not understood. (I do not know if the Divine is a creator, or came into being with the Big Bang- nor care, actually) This being is a source of comfort, strength, and understanding. I make no claims of certain knowledge beyond that; I do have a lot of other beliefs, but they would fall into the category of speculation to explain what I have experienced, not doctrines worth fighting over. I do not believe the Divine causes disasters to punish, nor does she save one from disasters as a reward. (I use the term “Divine” and the feminine articles only avoid the baggage that comes with “God” and “He”- I’ve never gotten a sense of gender) I do not know the nature of the afterlife, if any; one reality at a time is my motto. I do not believe in the inherent depravity of Man, nor the need for “salvation” from anything other than our own folly.
    I have speculated on (and published some of my speculations on my blog) how such a being could exist within our knowledge of the physical universe; studying engineering doesn’t leave one very susceptible to woo woo- but it’s only speculation to explain observed phenomena, not a claim to truth.
    I concede that it’s possible that all benefits I have received from contact with the Divine could be previously unsuspected and untapped resources within myself, thoughts and understandings gained the natural benefits of meditation and altered states of consciousness. I have studied this… the evolution of the brain is a story of adding new layers on top of the old, not creating a new type of brain with each advance- the little lizard is still under there, our conscious personalities merely a tool the lizard brain uses to assist in manipulating its environment, as the hands are. Perhaps the reason I felt these things coming from outside myself was that for some reason I actually felt different layers or hemispheres communing with each other.
    But that was not my perception. I do not believe, as you asked, that we cannot truly know anything- I do believe in the rules of evidence. I used the example of your computer only to show the depth of my experiences. So what evidence do I have for believing my experiences were external? First, as I mentioned, the strength of the perception itself- not conclusive by any means, but valid as a single datum. Second, if the resources are all internal, why did they wait more than three decades to manifest? Those untapped resources would have saved me much agony under duress at earlier times in my life. Third, if my contact with the Divine was a change in brain function, why have there been no other detectable effects? I’m still a linear-thinking kind of guy; fellow Pagans laughingly say that my education shows- I treat my religion like an engineering problem. That’s also the answer to your question, “If you wouldn’t have bought it if sent back in time, why do you buy it now?”; the earlier me, not having had the experience, wouldn’t accept someone else’s subjective evidence. Not even a future me.
    Now the evidence against: there ain’t no such thing as God. Is there another reason? When you or Greta say some weird psychological effect can explain all I have experienced, I agree that it’s possible- but why should I prefer that explanation? My line of evidence in favor of trusting my senses may seem weak, but I don’t see that “Well, it just can’t be” is any stronger.

  48. Maria says

    but why should I prefer that explanation?
    I think this says a lot. You don’t prefer explanations. You go with the ones that are most plausible and most supported by evidence.

  49. says

    Greta- granted that from your viewpoint, neither argument is valid, but from my viewpoint, “seeing is believing” is better than “believe because I told you to”.
    “Physical perception is verifiable, measurable, replicable.” No, actually it isn’t. Physical objects and phenomena are verifiable, but my perception of them is not, unless you have my brain wired at the time. We have no way of determining what a person has perceived in the past tense. Nor is perception replicable unless the subject being perceived makes another appearance. You don’t know how much I wish it were verifiable- either way.
    Maria- and Greta both, for that matter. I’m not claiming any absolute truths, nor final answers- Hell, I have more questions now than before; that’s why I don’t proselytize, why I have said from the beginning that I neither expect nor even desire to convince you. But you threw out the question to the world: Why do you believe? My experiences felt real. So let me rephrase the question: Why is it more plausible to reject the evidence of my senses than to accept it? Absent objective evidence, why is “the logical next step” to preemptively strike one possibility from the list?

  50. says

    I’m sorry to grouch, but the narrow- column design makes a long thread like this really hard to read. (Also, the thing where only a limited number of comments show on one page, but I assume that was TypePad’s idea.)

  51. says

    I don’t see that “Well, it just can’t be” is any stronger.

    But that’s not the argument I’m making, Joel. I’m not saying, “It just can’t be.” I’m saying, “These are the specific reasons why it probably isn’t.” I’m providing positive evidence and arguments against the plausibility of religion: arguments and evidence from history, from science, from philosophy, from psychology, from logic.
    I will repeat some of those here once again: Because religion has never, ever proven to be the right answer. Because in all of human history, natural explanations for phenomena have replaced supernatural ones thousands upon thousands of times… while supernatural explanations have replaced natural ones exactly never. Because the history and variety of religious beliefs and experiences are so wildly different and inconsistent, even contradicting one another — unlike our perception of the physical reality we know exists, which, when carefully measured, is relatively consistent. Because every single time testable religious claims have been rigorously tested, they’ve fallen apart. Because over thousands of years, religion has failed to improve in the ability to either perceive or predict the supernatural world that supposedly exists. Because religious hypotheses utterly fail to make accurate predictions about the world. Because religious apologetics look uncannily like contorted rationalizations and defense mechanisms rather than straightforward arguments. Because nobody in the history of the world had ever been able to provide solid, independently- verifiable evidence for their religious beliefs.
    Balanced against all of that… why do you think that “I had this personal experience that anyone other than me could easily explain as a weird but not all that unusual psychological phenomenon” is the stronger argument?
    I ask again: Why aren’t you treating your own mental experience as just another data point, instead of the final answer to the ultimate truth? Are you really so convinced of the infallibility of your own mind?
    I’m not saying “You should agree with me because I say so.” I’m saying, “You should agree with me because I’m making a better argument than you are.” I’m not asking you to strike religion from the list of possible explanations for no reason at all. I’m giving reason after reason after reason. If all you can reply to those reasons is “Yes, but I had this amazing experience”… then I have to wonder if there is any possible evidence or arguments at all that would persuade you to change your mind. (And if the answer is “no,” then I have to wonder whether this conversation has reached a dead end.)

  52. says

    Sasha: Your arguments don’t follow. How does “The Universe seems to have had a beginning” (i.e., the Big Bang) imply “Therefore, God created it”? How does “The Universe is changing and impermanent” imply “Therefore, something changeless and permanent must have created it”?
    Moving on: I trust the findings of scientists more than the experiences of religious leaders because those findings are replicable and verifiable. I can repeat the experiments and get the same results. That is definitely not true for religious experiences.
    Yes, there is disagreement on frontier science, science that’s still being researched and debated. But there is consensus on many, many, many ideas. That’s how science works: it asks a question, it examines and debates the question, it eventually reaches consensus, it moves on to the next question. And it re-examines the consensus conclusion if new evidence appears to contradict it. That is one of its greatest strengths. How is it that you see that as a weakness?
    And the notion that religious believers have had the same beliefs for 6,000 is flatly wrong. Religious beliefs vary wildly and contradict one another significantly, and the idea that “God is one” is absolutely not universal. Polytheistic religions have been common throughout history, and still exist today.
    Finally: Please do not ever again tell me to shut up in my own blog. Thank you.

  53. Chad Groft says

    Sasha:

    Because we already have pretty strong evidence that the universe is not eternal. It, and everything in it, is made out of combinations of matter and energy. These will one day fall apart.

    I’m not sure what you’re referring to here. Maybe you’re saying that matter and energy will eventually disappear; which, no, Conservation of Energy is as close as we can get to a certainty. Maybe this is an oblique reference to the Second Law of Thermodynamics; but this doesn’t give you what you want, since eternally existing, eternally disorganized stuff is still stuff, and anyway it’s probably a mistake to speak of entropy as a property of a system rather than a property of our knowledge about a system. Finally, maybe this is a reference to the Big Rip; but even this doesn’t work, since isolation is not the same thing as nonexistence.

    One of the immutable laws of creation is, everything changes.

    Does that include the immutable laws? :P

    Also, we know the universe had a definite starting point.

    No, we don’t. We know that the universe expanded from a very hot, very dense state; but how it got there and what came before it is a mystery. It’s clear that we’ll need a good theory of quantum gravity to clarify the situation, and we don’t know which of our theories, if any, is correct.

    No one has ever observed or posited anything existing that starts but never ends.

    Not true. Before the Big Rip model, there were so-called hyperbolic models of the universe that expanded for all time.

    No one has ever discovered anything permanent or persistent in nature.

    If there were such a thing, how would we know? And anyhow, the smallest elementary particles appear to be stable for all time, once interaction breaks down (I think).

    We can do it using the supreme concentration of our non-material faculty- our mind.

    If you think the mind is non-material, you need to read up on neuropsychology—fast.
    As to the validity of the whole picture you’re presenting, I see it this way: We all, individually and as a species, have an ever-expanding horizon of ignorance. At first it’s very small, and we only understand stuff that happened recently, nearby, on our physical scale, in hospitable environments. By careful investigation and engineering, we can expand our knowledge to include the deep past, the deep future, the faraway, the very very large, the very very small, and the deeply hidden (this is a very loose notion of “far away”). But everything we learn is connected to something we already know.
    Your argument seems to be that we can skip merrily past our horizon of ignorance to reach new knowledge entirely disconnected from the old. I can’t help but see this as a form of cheating, and doomed to be unreliable. If the universe we understand was caused by an earlier “something”, well, we’ll find that something by being patient, thorough, and rigorous, and expanding our horizons step by step.
    In the meantime, I’m not losing any sleep over it.

  54. says

    Hey Greta.
    I want to thank you HERE for a post over THERE on my page.
    As you might suspect I did have a response to your response. You cannot have the last word on MY site; )

  55. says

    Greta- “I’m saying, “You should agree with me because I’m making a better argument than you are.” I’m not asking you to strike religion from the list of possible explanations for no reason at all. I’m giving reason after reason after reason.” You’re giving me great reasons to strike religions I do not believe in anyway from the list. I’m not saying “Yes, but…”, I’m saying your arguments are against religions, generic, rather than specific beliefs, mine. I do not claim that all atheists are alike, and demand that you defend words that are not yours, and say that the weak arguments of others invalidate your arguments; why do you do that for all religions? I’m responsible only for my own beliefs; your critiques rarely touch upon me at all.
    “Because religion has never, ever proven to be the right answer.” To what questions? I’m not saying that because I’ve had this experience, therefore God created the world in seven days. I’m claiming that I’ve been changed by the experience, which is demonstrably true because I’m here, talking about it. The only religious “answer” here is the cause of the experience, not it’s existence- which has yet to be proven or disproved. So this one is not applicable to me
    “Because in all of human history, natural explanations for phenomena have replaced supernatural ones thousands upon thousands of times… while supernatural explanations have replaced natural ones exactly never.” I don’t question any scientific explanations for natural phenomena. The only supernatural explanation I’m proposing is the source of my experience. Not applicable to me.
    “Because the history and variety of religious beliefs and experiences are so wildly different and inconsistent, even contradicting one another — unlike our perception of the physical reality we know exists, which, when carefully measured, is relatively consistent.” I have proposed possible explanations on my blog, but have no proof, so I’ll hold this one out as an argument against.
    “Because every single time testable religious claims have been rigorously tested, they’ve fallen apart.” I have made no testable claims, at least not testable with technology in its current state. Should we develop the ability to record memories, and determine their origins- whether from true sensory input or imagination- we could rigorously test my claims. But at this point in time, not applicable to me.
    “Because over thousands of years, religion has failed to improve in the ability to either perceive or predict the supernatural world that supposedly exists.” I haven’t had thousands of years yet to devise ways one might do this. Not applicable to me.
    “Because religious hypotheses utterly fail to make accurate predictions about the world.” I have no idea how to make predictions or see the future, accurately or otherwise. I’m not sure why this matters to my situation, but am willing to discuss it- neutral impact, pending further discussion.
    “Because religious apologetics look uncannily like contorted rationalizations and defense mechanisms rather than straightforward arguments.” Why should the weak efforts of people I don’t know from Adam to defend religions I don’t believe in invalidate the nature of my experiences? Not applicable to me.
    “Because nobody in the history of the world had ever been able to provide solid, independently- verifiable evidence for their religious beliefs.” As mentioned above, absent the mind-reading machine, I don’t see how my past experiences could be proven or disproved. I suppose it would be possible to prove it one way or the other for future occurrences if I were to be wired up 24/7 just in case. Can we tell, just from brain activity, whether sensory inputs are coming from an outside source, or within? I don’t know.
    So it looks to me that the arguments are as follows:
    Arguments in favor of a Divine explanation for my experiences: it seemed utterly real, and there are no demonstrable medical reasons to challenge the accuracy of my senses.
    Arguments against, I don’t know why other people’s perceptions should be different from mine.
    I fail to understand how my not understanding how human perception works refutes the possibility of the existence of the Divine. If that is your argument, can you develop this point?
    As to what evidence would convince me of the unreality of my experiences, I can think of several. 1) The brain reading machine described above. 2) Any new developments in the understanding of brain function that can show that those experiences are false. 3) My developing some medical condition that would result in such things, and could have been operating in the background for 20 some years. 4) Any other development I haven’t thought of, but would show not the possibility, but the certainty that I didn’t or couldn’t have had the experiences as I perceived them.
    Is there anything at all that would change your mind?

  56. Maria says

    Joel, the fact that you can’t even see how the things we have said ARE actually applicable to you shows just how futile it is to discuss with you.
    You talk of your run of the mill newage (rhymes with sewage) bullshit as if it’s so special – no SPESHUL!!11!! that whatever argument we have it’s not applicable to you. It is! As Greta has mentioned several times, her words are not only applicable to specific organized religions such as Christianity, but ALL magical, unsubstantiated thinking. You are so typical this kind of thinking that it isn’t even funny, and it’s so very applicable to you that it isn’t funny either… I take back my words about you having a creative mind.

  57. says

    Allrighty then… I could point out that saying an aphorism is applicable to all religions isn’t the same thing as showing how it’s applicable to mine. But as we’ve now descended into personal insults, I guess you’re not going to. A pity. A wise woman onced said, “But when I ask these questions, I almost never get a straight answer.” Guess it’s true.

  58. Maria says

    We have showed you, Joel! And you’re right about one thing, I’m not going to butt my head against this brick wall anymore. You have just ignored every straight answer given, that’s pretty insulting too. Guess it’s true that some people who claim they don’t get straight answers actually decided to just ignore the ones they actually got because it didn’t appeal to them. How was it? You can prefer your explanations? That you didn’t prefer ours didn’t mean they weren’t straight.

  59. says

    Hey Greta. Thanks for being the first respondent on my site. I wish I had some sort of prize for you. Maybe I’ll print your response and tape it to my desk kind of like the first dollar at a business.
    I appreciate you taking the time to consider my argument and I’m not surprised you have an argument against it.
    Here is my rebuttal/clarification
    I’m not sure I assume cooperation is universal… well yes it is universal but not exclusive. There are many strategies that have emerged at the biologic/behavioral level as you noted but all those (except predation) do require a degree of cooperation to be successful. A parasite lives off something else but must not live too well or it kills its host so its not completely selfish. Plus if you are aware of Axelrods game theory work (using iterated prisoners dilemma games where no one knows when they will end) the ONLY strategy that was capable of exisiting within 100% of the population was a cooperative strategy. Non cooperative (defectiion) strategies were unable to take over a population for obvious reasons. You cannot have a complete society of selfish/cheaters. A cheater needs some “marks”. So my point is that yes not everyone is a cooperator but cooperation IS the only strategy that could flourish if 100% of the agents adopted it.
    Its true to an extent that measurable cooperation doesnt exist outside biology but molecules are “cooperating” on a certain level to form compounds are they not. Besides the cooperation I’m most interested in is biologic. That is who is seeking purpose on this planet. I think biology may end up falling into a category of “emergent” properties within this universe.
    I think you may have conflated two different things I said regarding a mega organism here on earth and the universe as a whole. Regarding human evolution here, I was referring to a mega organism possibly emerging, using the same basic non zero sum logic (cooperative) that has brought us to today. I see possibly a group consciousness (here on earth) emerging from our biology. Its not inevitable by any means; One predatory idiot with the right size nuclear weapon might ruin it for all of us.
    I see I did use the term organism when talking about our existence in 4 of possibly 11 dimensions. That was sloppy language in that context. My point should have been there that all the physical world we measure only occupies four of possibly eleven dimensions. That leaves a lot to account for. What we see and know is miniscule to what there is.
    To further my thinking I dont think the universe has a brain but it may have a “command”. Just like a computer has a command to perform a particular operation. Now this command played over and over on the variety of molecules and atoms in this universe resulted in us. We emerged from the milieu and we are STILL emerging, no longer only as individuals but as cultural/collective beings. I think the “purpose” might emerge eventually and it will be the result of the command iterated gazillions and gazillions of times on every conceivable atom in the universe.
    I saw a science channel program where some robot designers were trying to replicate ant foraging behavior in their robots. They wanted them to go into an environment of black and white discs which were randomly strewn and separate them. The ants behavior (real ones) appears random; picking up food turning and then dropping it and turning again picking something else up but in the end the desired stuff gets separated from the undesired stuff. The robots were given a variety of 3 line commands and eventually they found one that made the robots identify and separate the whit from black discs.
    In this vein I wonder if maybe one of the commands that our universe is “giving” is “Its not about you”
    Thanks again for the grist for my brain mill.

  60. says

    Joel: I’m sorry, but I’m beginning to lose patience here, and I don’t know how much longer I’m willing to pursue this.
    My arguments are arguments against *all* beliefs in the supernatural. If an argument is an argument against any supernatural belief, than it is also an argument against your supernatural belief. An argument against a general case that includes yours is also an argument against your specific case. These arguments aren’t absolute 100% proof against these beliefs — but they are strong arguments, and in the absence of strong arguments supporting the supernatural, they should be taken seriously.
    You haven’t explained enough about what you specifically believe for me to argue specifically against it. But based on what you’ve said, I’m going to give this a shot, and try to explain why my arguments do, in fact, relate to your situation. (Some of them, anyway, I don’t have the time or patience to explain all of them.)
    “Because religion has never, ever proven to be the right answer.” Explanation/ clarification of what this means and why it’s relevant: Not once in all of human history has a phenomenon turned out to be caused by supernatural forces. Not once have we said, “After careful observation, it turns out that (X) phenomenon is caused by (angels, spirits, disembodied souls, a universal spiritual consciousness, etc.). Never. Nada. Zilch. Thousands upon thousands of times, the answer to “What causes this? has turned out to be physical.
    Does this 100% conclusively prove there’s no supernatural? Of course not. But it does mean that, with any given phenomenon — including your personal religious experience — it makes much more sense to assume that it’s physical, unless we have strong evidence to the contrary. (And you yourself have acknowledged that your evidence is weak.)
    How does this apply to your belief in a divine consciousness? Supernatural explanations have never once proven to be right. So when it comes to your personal religious experience, it makes much more sense to assume “physical process” as the cause rather than “divine consciousness.”
    “Because in all of human history, natural explanations for phenomena have replaced supernatural ones thousands upon thousands of times… while supernatural explanations have replaced natural ones exactly never.” See above. What sense does it make to say that every single other unexplained phenomenon that we’ve come to understand has turned out to be physical cause and effect… but your personal religious experience is still somehow more likely to be caused by divine consciousness?
    “Because every single time testable religious claims have been rigorously tested, they’ve fallen apart.” Religious claims are either untestable — in which case they should be discarded on that basis alone, as we discard all untestable hypotheses — or they are testable, and have failed the tests miserably. Given this track record, why would we ever assume that any phenomenon — including your religious experience — was probably caused by divine consciousness or any other supernatural cause, without some compelling evidence to back it up?
    “Because over thousands of years, religion has failed to improve in the ability to either perceive or predict the supernatural world that supposedly exists.” This isn’t about whether you personally have lived for thousands of years. This is about whether your personal belief in a divine consciousness fits into the category of ideas that have been rigorously tested over hundreds or thousands of years and that have provided accurate explanations and predictions about the world… or into the category of ideas that, over hundreds and thousands of years, have failed to improve in either accuracy of perception or accuracy of prediction.
    I know that you like to think of your belief as somehow radically different from all those other crummy religious beliefs… but I’m sorry, it’s really not. Your belief is no better at explaining or predicting the world than any other religious belief — present or past. It’s in the exact same category: an unfalsifiable belief in an invisible supernatural world affecting this one.
    “Because religious apologetics look uncannily like contorted rationalizations and defense mechanisms rather than straightforward arguments.” I think it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to see how this applies to you, since people are rarely able to see their own rationalizations for what they are.
    But everything you’ve said in these conversations has looked exactly like contorted rationalizations and defense mechanisms. You have not offered one convincing piece of evidence for why your religious experience was probably caused by divine consciousness. All you’ve done is try to explain why it’s reasonable for you to believe that this is so… despite the admitted weakness of your “evidence,” and despite the strong arguments against the supernatural generally (which do apply to your supernatural beliefs specifically), and despite the absence of any corroborating evidence whatsoever. Your arguments are not an exception to this point. They’re Exhibit A.
    And yes, there are absolutely demonstrable medical reasons to challenge the accuracy of your senses. Those reasons: Human senses and minds — including your specific ones — are fallible, and when they seem to perceive something that we have absolutely no reason to think exists other than that person’s perception, there is a strong demonstrable medical reason to think that the experience is a product of that person’s brain rather than a real perception of an external phenomenon. This applies to you personally as much as it does to anyone else generally. (People don’t have to be certifiably mentally ill or brain damaged for this to be the case — it’s part of the quirky wiring of the human brain, and can happen to anyone.)
    Finally, I will say this:
    I have seen this phenomenon time after time after time. Believers will say to atheists, “Those are excellent arguments, but they don’t apply to my religion!” — when they very clearly do. The human capacity for selective blindness seems to be very vast indeed. Your unwillingness to step back from your own experience and treat it as just another data point, your unwillingness to step back and say, “Yes, that was an intense experience — but looking at it the way an outside observer would, there’s no reason to think it was anything other than a quirky psychological phenomenon,” your insistence on treating your demonstrably flawed and fallible personal experience as if it were the single most reliable source of information available despite your conclusion never once in all of human history having been the right one… well, let’s just say once again that I’m beginning to lose patience.
    It’s not that I’m unsympathetic. I had intense religious experiences myself back when I was a believer in the consciousness of the universe — and it was very hard to acknowledge that I was probably wrong about what those experiences meant and what caused them. But ultimately, when I looked at the strong arguments and carefully gathered evidence about the supernatural generally and about personal religious experiences specifically, when I stepped back from my experiences and looked at them the way I would anyone else’s, I had to acknowledge that the evidence just didn’t support my beliefs. I had to agree that my fallible subjective experience should not be given more weight than a massive preponderance of logic and evidence. I encourage you to do the same.
    (Oh, P.S.: As to what would convince me that I was wrong, I’m going to piggyback on Ebonmuse’s answer to this question. My answer is subtly different, but it’s similar enough that I’m willing to go along with his until I find the time to write my own.)

  61. says

    Greg: I’m tempted to make specific responses to some of the specific things you say. (One that I will make: It flatly is not true that parasites don’t kill off their hosts. Parasites kill their hosts all the time. My wife is an HIV nurse. I know this all too well.)
    But I want to address what I think is a more important point. Which is this: The topic at hand here is “What evidence do you have for religious beliefs?” What you’ve presented here isn’t evidence. It’s not even close to evidence. It’s an entertaining hypothesis about what might possibly be true: a hypothesis that can’t be absolutely disproven (no, I can’t conclusively prove that there’s no universal “it’s not all about you” command programmed into all matter) — but it isn’t falsifiable, and it has absolutely zero evidence to back it up.
    Which is more or less the point of this piece. When atheists ask believers, “What’s your evidence?” we get either (a) terrible, logically flawed evidence (such as First Cause or the Argument from Design); (b) entirely untestable hypotheses that are essentially flights of fancy, for which the best that can be said is, “Well, you can’t absolutely prove that it isn’t true”; and most commonly (c) defenses and rationalizations for why it’s mean and unfair to expect religion to support itself with evidence. Your argument falls squarely into (b).
    Do I think the evidence of physics and chemistry and biology point to a universal program of cooperation being programmed into all matter? Absolutely not. Not even in the slightest. But I’m not that interested in getting into why, since that’s not the point. The point is this: When atheists ask, “What evidence do you have for your beliefs?”, this is consistently the kind of answer we get. It’s better than “These questions are beyond evidence or reason” or “You’re a big meanie even to ask”… but it’s still not evidence.
    (Cross-posted to Greg’s blog)

  62. says

    Greta, thank you for expanding your answer! You’ve made your position much more clear to me- more so than your Alternet article did. And seeing your point more clearly, I see that my point wasn’t well communicated, either.
    It wasn’t a question of the specific points of your argument fitting my experiences and conclussions exactly, it is that all those clear faults cast serious doubt on the concept of supernaturalism. So even if my experiences were different from say, Christian or Shinto mystics, their underlying principles are equally suspect. That’s where my confusion was.
    I think I failed to communicate a portion of my point. When I said “no demonstrable medical conditions”, what I meant was that there were none of the obvious and usual suspects- no neurological conditions, no schizophrenia, no LSD, no combat-level stressors, etc. I had already aknowledged that there are other, less obvious possible human quirks.
    The only point of debate is which explanation is more plausible. A difficult question, because to the old hardheaded rationalist I used to be, both explanations seem lame.
    Suppose someone had told Galileo that he was wrong in his famous disproof of Aristotle; the large cannonball really had fallen faster than the small one, and it was only an optical illusion that made it look like they had fallen at the same speed. He might well have been confused; he knew about optical illusions. But he had an easy answer- go back up the tower and try it again.
    Unfortunately, my experiences aren’t so easily replicable. So I’m left with two possibilities: something supernatural occurred. Unlikely; that explanation has never worked in the past- I know this full well. The other possibility is that my senses failed me utterly- without warning, without side effects, without aftereffects, without obvious cause, and failed in a manner indistinguishable from reality. Also unlikely; most times, hallucinations are known to be unreal even while they’re happening, even if they terrify you- and they are almost invariably recognizable after the fact. Episodes indistinguishable from reality that have no aftereffects and no obvious, testable causes are virtually unheard of.
    Both are unlikely in the extreme. Neither, as things stand, can be proven or disproved. Well, there is a third option- pretend it never happened, and try to drink the memory into oblivion. I suspect that is a frequent choice, but I’m just too damn stubborn to do that.

  63. Harold Ennulat says

    It seems that just asking even good questions does not prove anything? Like can God make a rock he could not lift? It is just as likely we just don’t understand. (BTW, my current thinking is that he can’t… or wouldn’t). Or the “first cause” argument shifting the question from “what is the beginning of the universe” to “what is the beginning of God”? Wouldn’t we all agree that not all questions can be answered?
    And wouldn’t all the questions just evaporate if God just showed up? For the believer they would. For the Atheist it sounds like they would believe it was some kind of a magic trick and they were just fooled?
    If God himself can not convince, then what? It seems like faith is required to believe anything… including things like the chair that you are sitting on will hold you up 1 second from now…
    I admit I’m new to some of this kind of thinking that I’ve been reading about in reponse to this article. I don’t know many atheists that stimulate me to think through this.
    Also I still need to look up some of summary atheist arguments that Greta, you have referenced including one I saw about what would convince an atheist…
    On the subject of people persuading each other to their belief system. Is it possible to somehow not do this? Is there such a thing as absolute truth? or even just truth? Or does that just raise another subject requiring additional discussion?
    Anyway, since I believe there is such a thing as truth, I want to pursue it with some passion. Therefore I believe that believing the same thing about God is a worthwhile goal because despite the difficulties with “proof” or even with accepting “evidence”, God either exists or he doesn’t. What we think about his existance doesn’t change the fact of his existence or non-existance. Does that seem agreeable/reasonable to both camps?

  64. says

    Joel: Thanks for clarifying. Here’s my response:
    The hypothesis that your experience was caused by psychological phenomenon is not at all unlikely. Your conclusion that it is unlikely is based on a misunderstanding of psychology and how the mind works.
    I strongly urge you to read “Why People Believe Weird Things” by Michael Shermer. In it, he talks about experiences that seem vividly real, but are not — or rather, are “real” in the sense that they occurred but not real in the sense of being a real perception of an actual external phenomenon. He even talks about an experience he himself had where he “saw” an entirely convincing UFO. And he talks about experiments done in which a part of people’s brains were stimulated magnetically… causing them to have intense religious experiences. (Shermer’s “How We Believe” is also excellent, on a similar theme — I recommend them both.)
    It’s not at all an implausible explanation. It’s entirely plausible. And balanced against the massive weight of the arguments and evidence against supernaturalism generally, it is by far a more plausible explanation than “this was caused by divine supernatural forces.”

  65. says

    Harold: Your point is based on a misunderstanding, both of what atheism and what faith is. If God showed up with overwhelming conclusive evidence of his existence, most atheists would change our minds. I point you to The Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists, in which the author discusses the kinds of evidence that would convince him God was real… and challenges theists to do the same.
    As for faith: The secular meaning of the word “faith” and the religious one are entirely different. Secular “faith” means confidence, trust, confidence. It means the willingness to make a decision or reach a conclusion and move forward, even if you don’t have 100% certainty. Religious faith means believing in something in the absence of any good evidence… and holding onto that belief no matter what, even if evidence contradicts it.
    My secular faith that the chair I’m sitting on will keep holding me up… that’s a reasonable conclusion based on evidence and past experience. And if the chair collapses, I’m willing to let go of that conclusion. That’s not what religious faith is like.
    I do agree that this is a question that has a real answer, and that what we think of God’s existence doesn’t affect whether he really exists. But I also think that humanity has come to our clearest understandings of reality co-operatively, through careful observation and putting our heads together to think things through. That’s how we came to understand (for instance) that the earth orbits the sun and not the other way around. So I think talking about this question and sharing our ideas and observations is useful.

  66. Harold Ennulat says

    Greta, my point about the faith in the chair was to claim that belief in God is or can be or should be the same thing.
    Your article convinces me that I am likely not in the majority on this view. However I used the Hebrews 11:1 definition of faith (in another comment on your post on faith that you referenced) to try and show that this view is not inconsistent with this passage of the Bible anyway…

  67. Carlos Moya says

    Hello miss Greta.

    I was looking for a page with copyright information or something (other than the Notice saying that the copyright is yours) but I haven’t been able to find any, so I will ask directly instead.

    I happen to be translating this here article into Spanish (as a hobby); I was planning to share it with people as a guest post on Noé Molina‘s blog “Atheism For Christians: for a rational dialogue with modern Christianism” if I have your permission — either by asking for it as an one-off thing or because that license I couldn’t find is one that happens to allow it (“license” as in “BY-SA-NC” or “GNU/FDL” or whatever it is).

    Having said that, ¿am I allowed to do so? If so, ¿under which conditions? If you already have said something regarding this matter and I missed it, ¿would you kindly point me to where?

    Thank you very much in advance, and sorry for disturb.

    El Suscriptor Justiciero.

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