Why “Life Has To Have Been Designed” Is a Terrible Argument for God

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

Designer “Just look around you. Look at life, and the universe, and everything. Doesn’t it seem like it had to have been designed?”

A lot of arguments for religion are very bad indeed. A lot of arguments for religion aren’t even arguments: they’re deflections, excuses for why the believer isn’t making an argument, bigoted insults, expressions of wishful thinking, complaints that atheists are mean bad people to even ask for an argument, and heartfelt wishes that atheists would just shut up.

But some believers do take the question “Why do you believe in God?” seriously. Some believers don’t want to believe just out of blind faith or wishful thinking; they care about whether the things they believe are true, and they think the question “What evidence do you have to support this belief?” is a valid one. They think they have good answers for it. They think they have positive evidence for their spiritual beliefs, and they’re happy to explain that evidence and defend it.

The argument from design — that life had to have been designed, because it just looks so much like it was designed — leads the list of these answers. According to Michael Shermer’s How We Believe, the argument from design is the single most common reason religious believers give for why they believe.

Since these people are taking atheists’ questions about their religion seriously, I want to return the favor, and take their religious answer seriously.

And I want to talk about why this is really, really not a good answer. At all. Even a little bit.

Have You Heard of This Darwin Fellow?

Eye The argument for design argues that the evidence for God lies in the seemingly inexplicable complexity and functionality and balance of life: of individual life forms, of specific biological organs and systems, of the ecosystem itself.

“Look at the eye!” the argument goes. “Look at an ant colony! Look at a bat’s sonar! Look at symbiotic relationships between species! Look at the human brain! They work so well! They do such astonishing things! Are you trying to tell me that these things just…happened? How can you possibly explain all that without a designer?”

Charles_Darwin Not to be snarky, but: Have you heard of this Darwin fellow?

I’m assuming that I’m not talking to creationists here. Creationists definitely do not count as people who care about reason and evidence and whether what they believe is consistent with reality. I’m assuming that I’m talking here to reasonably educated people, people who accept the basic reality of the theory of evolution…but who still think that God had to have been involved in it somehow. I’m assuming that I’m talking to people who understand that the theory of evolution is supported by a massive body of evidence from every relevant field of science (and from some that you might not think of as relevant)…but who still think that evolution, while a jolly clever idea, is still not quite sufficient to explain the complexity and diversity and exquisite high functioning of biological life.

To those people, I say: You really need to study evolution a little more carefully.

Stages_in_the_evolution_of_the_eye_(de) The theory of evolution is completely sufficient to explain the complexity and diversity and exquisite high functioning of biological life. That’s exactly what it does. The whole point of evolutionary theory is that it explains exactly how life came to be the complex and amazingly balanced web of interconnections that it is, with species beautifully adapted to their environments — not through design, but through natural selection and descent with modification. It explains it beautifully, and elegantly, and with no need for any supernatural designer to explain anything.

Descent with modification; the survival and reproduction of life forms that are best able to survive and reproduce; great heaping gobs of time. That’s all it takes. (Here’s a good primer on what evolution is and how it works; for a more detailed explanation, you can check out Why Evolution Is True by Jerry A. Coyne, or The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins, or Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters by Donald R. Prothero, or… oh, you get the idea.) The more familiar you become with evolution, the more you understand that it is more than sufficient to explain what seems at first glance to be design in biological life.

And in fact, biological life is an excellent argument against God or a designer.

Why? Because so much of this supposed “design” of life is so ridiculously piss-poor.

The Three Stooges School of Design

Theistic evolution Yes, there are many aspects of biological life that astonish with their elegance and function. But there are many other aspects of biological life that astonish with their clumsiness, half-assedness, inefficiency, “fixed that for you” jury-rigs, pointless superfluities, glaring omissions, laughable failures and appalling, mind-numbing brutality. (Here’s a very entertaining short list.) I mean…sinuses? Blind spots? External testicles? Backs and knees and feet shoddily warped into service for bipedal animals? (She said bitterly, getting up to do her physical therapy on her bad knee.) Human birth canals barely wide enough to let the baby’s skull pass…and human babies born essentially premature because if they stayed in utero any longer they’d kill their mothers coming out? (Which sometimes they do anyway.) A vagus nerve that travels from the neck down through the chest only to land back up in the neck…traveling 10 to 15 feet in the case of giraffes? Digger wasps laying their eggs in the living bodies of caterpillars…and stinging said caterpillars to paralyze but not kill them, so the caterpillars die a slow death and can nourish the wasps’ larvae with their living bodies? The process of evolution itself…which has brutal, painful, violent death woven into its every fiber?

You’re really saying that all of this was designed, on purpose, by an all-powerful God who loves us?

Low back pain Evolution looks at all this epic fail, and explains it neatly and thoroughly. In the theory of evolution, living things don’t have to be perfectly or elegantly “designed” to flourish. All that matters is that they be functional enough to survive and reproduce, and to do so more effectively than their competitors. In fact, in the theory of evolution, not only is there no expectation that the “designs” be perfect or elegant — there is every expectation that they wouldn’t be, since every new generation has to be a minor adaptation on the previous one, and there’s no way to wipe the slate clean and start over. And the comfort or happiness of living things matters not in the slightest bit to the process of evolution…unless it somehow enhances the ability of that living thing to survive and reproduce.

The argument from design looks at all this epic fail, and answers, “Ummm… mysterious ways?”

Before and After Science

Origin of speciesIf we didn’t know about evolution, the argument from design might have some validity. Even Richard Dawkins, hard-assed atheist that he is, has acknowledged that atheism, while still logically tenable before Darwin, became a lot more intellectually fulfilling afterward.

But once you know about evolution — not just about Darwin, but about the rich and thorough, broad-ranging and finely detailed understanding of life that evolution has blossomed into in the 150 years since On The Origin of Species — the argument from design collapses like a house of cards in a hurricane.

The theory of evolution provides a powerful, beautiful, consistent explanation for the appearance of design in biological life, one that can not only explain the past but predict the future. And it’s supported by an overwhelming body of evidence from every relevant field of science, from paleontology to microbiology to epidemiology to anatomy to genetics to geology to physics to…you get the point. The argument from design explains nothing that evolution can’t explain better. It has massive, gaping holes. It has no predictive power whatsoever. And it has not a single scrap of positive evidence supporting it: not one piece of evidence suggesting the intervention of a designer at any point in the process. All it has to support it is the human brain’s tendency to see intention and design even where none exist, leading to the vague feeling on the part of believers that life had to have been designed because…well…because it just looks that way.

And if “it just looks that way” is the only argument you can make for why life was designed, you’re going to have to find a better argument.

Also in this series:
Why “Everything Has a Cause” Is a Terrible Argument for God

Atheist Meme of the Day: “I just believe in one fewer god”

Scarlet letter I’ve decided to make it Quotations Week on the Atheist Meme of the Day. Here’s today’s Atheist Meme of the Day, from my Facebook page. Pass this on; or don’t; or make up your own. Enjoy!

“I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” -Stephen Roberts

Atheist Meme of the Day: “Of course we should ask that question”

Scarlet letter I’ve decided to make it Quotations Week on the Atheist Meme of the Day. Here’s today’s Atheist Meme of the Day, from my Facebook page. Pass this on; or don’t; or make up your own. Enjoy!

“I listen to all these complaints about rudeness and intemperateness, and the opinion that I come to is that there is no polite way of asking somebody: have you considered the possibility that your entire life has been devoted to a delusion? But that’s a good question to ask. Of course we should ask that question and of course it’s going to offend people. Tough.” -Daniel Dennett

P.S. Thanks to Jerry Coyne for posting this quotation on his blog. I’d never heard it before, and am gobsmacked. That Dennett is one smart cookie.


Please note: This piece discusses my personal sexual fantasies and tastes in erotica, in a whole lot of detail. Family members and others who don’t want to read about that stuff — you really don’t read this one. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

Tears As promised earlier: my exegesis on crying in spanking porn, and what makes it so hot.

I was writing recently about acquired tastes in sexual fetishes. I was writing about how being repeatedly exposed to certain images in porn can inspire you to pick up a fetish — not a true, clinical, “can’t get off without it” fetish, but a more casual, peripheral, “I really like to do this/ see this in my porn/ think about this when I whack off” fetish. I was giving, as an example of one of these pornographic tropes that I’ve acquired as a personal fetish, crying. Specifically, crying in spanking porn.

And I started wondering:

What’s that about?

BettiePage-hairbrush Other standard tropes of spanking porn make more obvious sense to me. The classic implements, the classic outfits, the classic roles being played — they’re mostly pretty straightforward, and they don’t take an expert in semiotics or psychology to analyze where they come from and why people find them hot.

But the crying trope is, at least on the face of it, a little more unsettling. It’s the sort of thing that rabid anti-porn activists point to when they’re trying to prove that all porn actresses are forced into the business, either by financial hardship or at gunpoint. I mean, if the actress in a spanking porno is dressed as an underaged schoolgirl… well, even if you find the fantasy disturbing, you can always remember that this is adults consensually playing out a fantasy they both enjoy, and not actual child abuse. But if the actress or actor is actually crying, the line between “acting out a fantasy” and “genuinely upset” is a whole lot more blurry.

And it occurred to me:

That’s the point.

The point is that it’s real.

Crying in spanking porn is like cum shots in regular porn.

Not in the sense of “a trope that’s become so ubiquitous it’s now just part of the background noise.” That’s not what I mean. It isn’t. (I actually wish it were a little more ubiquitous, since I find it really hot.)

Crying is like cum shots because it’s proof that what’s happening is real. It’s proof, not only that the actors are physically engaging in the sexual acts they’re portraying, but that they’re feeling them.

Diet_Coke_Mentos There are lots of analyses out there about why cum shots are so ubiquitous in porn; why heterosexual men are so fixated on watching other men ejaculate, to the point where they won’t be satisfied with porn unless they see it. But the most convincing analysis I’ve seen is that the cum shot is proof that the male actor was really feeling it. It’s proof, not only that the sex was real, but that the sensations were real. (The man’s sensations, anyway — which is what hetero porn aimed at a male audience tends to prioritize.) It’s proof that the arousal, the excitement, and of course the orgasm, all felt real to the man having the sex. Which makes it easier for the male viewer to project himself into the fantasy.

And that’s what crying is in spanking porn.

I’ve seen plenty of spanking porn where the spankings themselves were obviously real — you could hear the sounds of the slaps, you could see the impacts and the reddening bottom — but where I had no idea whether the person on the receiving end felt anything at all about the matter. I’ve seen plenty of spanking porn where the recipient was so silent, so stiff, so unresponsive, that even with the sights and sounds of the smacks, I still had no idea whether the performer was feeling helpless, or defiant, or turned on, or anything at all except bored. The sights and sounds might as well have been done by special effects. The only reason I trust that they weren’t special effects is that special effects are a lot more expensive than just paying someone to get their butt smacked.

But if the recipient is crying… I know they’re feeling it. Not just that they’re feeling the physical sensations of skin or wood or leather striking their skin. I know they’re feeling it inside: the helplessness, the fear, the shame, the pain. The good stuff.

And that makes it easier for me to project myself into the fantasy. Regardless of whether I’m fantasizing about receiving the spanking or giving it. If I’m fantasizing about receiving it, and if the actress or actor is crying, I can project myself into their helplessness, their fear, their shame, their pain. I can feel these emotions and sensations myself. If it’s a really good video, I can practically feel the tears welling up in my own eyes. And if I’m fantasizing about giving it, I can project myself into how powerful it feels to make somebody else feel all this: to make someone else feel so helpless, so frightened, so ashamed, so much in pain, that I make them cry.

You know. The good stuff.

Hardcore_Spanking It is sometimes unsettling. If a spanking model is crying, then that means the fantasy of helplessness and fear and shame and so on have crossed over into some sort of real feelings of helplessness and fear and shame. And that can be a little unsettling to watch in a total stranger. If you’re the one who’s crossing that line, if you’re the one who’s experiencing these difficult emotions and who knows exactly how you eroticize them — or if it’s your lover or fuckbuddy or whatever, the person on the receiving end of your chastisements and whose blend of arousal and suffering you’re reasonably familiar with — that’s one thing. If it’s some spanking model you’ve never seen in your life… then that’s a little unnerving. It is to me, anyway.

But that unnerving quality — the place where fantasy crosses into reality, the place where pretend situations conjure real emotions, and where difficult emotions cross their wires with intense sexual arousal — that’s a huge part of what makes kinky sex interesting. To me, anyway. It’s a huge part of what I get out of my kinky sex life. It’s a huge part of what I think about in my kinky fantasies. And it’s a huge part of what I look for in my kinky porn.

And crying is what shows me that it’s real.

Diet Coke and Mentos picture by Michael Murphy.

Atheist Meme of the Day: Religion Does Not Confer Morality

Scarlet letter Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day, from my Facebook page. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

Religion is not necessary to be a good person. If it were, religious believers and authority figures would be better, kinder, more socially responsible, and less likely to commit grossly evil acts than atheists — and that is patently not the case. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

“But Everyone Else Does It!” Andrew Brown and the Defense of the Catholic Church Child Rape Scandal

If everyone else jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you do it too?

And if everyone else raped children, would you defend it?

St. peter's basilica The child rape scandal in the Catholic Church (like Stephen Fry, I am no longer willing to call it pedophilia or molestation or child abuse) has been heating up lately, with new stories about the widespread rape of children by priests in Germany, an admission from the senior cleric in Ireland that he was present at meetings where two abused teenagers were made to sign vows of silence, questions about Pope Benedict’s handling of an abuse case when he was an archbishop, and more.

Andrew-Brown So via Pharyngula, we have the story of one Andrew Brown of the Guardian, who has written a defense of the Catholic Church child rape scandal and an excoriation of those who are condemning it… on the grounds that everyone else does it, too.

No, really.

From this it emerges that the frequency of child abuse among Catholic priests is not remarkable…


This is vile, but whether it is more vile than the record of any other profession is not obvious.


There are, however, some fragments of figures from the outside world suggesting that not many professions do better.



Where to begin?

Elementary statistics First of all, as many commenters in the Pharyngula thread have pointed out: Brown’s analysis of the child rape statistics are appallingly ignorant, both of statistics in general and of these statistics in particular. There is every reason to think that child rape among Catholic priests occurred — and for all we know, is still occurring — at a much higher rate than in any other field where adults have access to children and authority over them.

But as far as I’m concerned, that question is only tangentially relevant. And for Brown to focus on it so fixatedly shows that he is completely missing the point.

What makes the Catholic Church child rape scandal so morally repugnant, and what is making it have the effect of turning people away from the Catholic Church, is not the rapes themselves. Of course the rapes themselves are morally repugnant. And of course we need to be looking at whether there is some institutional force that makes Catholic priests more likely to rape children than other people in positions of trust and authority: such as the celibacy requirement for the priesthood, or the Church’s fear and loathing of sexuality as a central part of their theology, or the special power that priests have because they purport to have a special line to God, or religion’s veneration and armor against criticism which makes people less comfortable making accusations against it. (Indeed, it’s fair to look at whether it’s even true that Catholic priests rape children at a higher rate than other trusted authority figures.) But it is certainly the case that child rape does occur in other fields where adults are in positions of trust and authority with children: teachers, coaches, etc. Brown’s not wrong about that.

That is not where the depth of the scandal lies. What makes the Catholic child rape scandal so morally repugnant, and what is giving it the effect of turning people away from the Catholic Church in horror, is the way the Church handled it.

Deliver us from evil The Church knew about widespread reports of priests repeatedly molesting children… and instead of acting to protect the children, they acted to protect the priests, and themselves. Thus deliberately and knowingly putting more children in the way of known child rapists, solely for their pure self-interest.

Repeatedly. Time and time again. In every part of the world. As a cold-blooded matter of Church policy.

That is the scandal.

The fact that some adults in positions of trust and authority over children violated that trust by raping them? That is a tragedy. The fact that the Catholic Church knew about it — and instead of reporting the child rapists to the police, they deliberately shielded them from detection and criminal investigation? The fact that the Church moved child rapists from parish to parish, thus exposing even more children to them? The fact that they lied to law enforcement, concealed evidence, even paid off witnesses… purely to protect their organization from looking bad?

That, Mr. Brown, is the scandal.

You fucking moral imbecile.

We don’t know what makes people into child rapists. It is a serious mental illness as well as a profound moral failing. But the Church hierarchy who shuffled around known child rapists from diocese to diocese — not out of uncontrollable impulse, but consciously, thoughtfully, with a cool evaluation of the pros and cons, in a calculated attempt to prevent a PR disaster and protect their own self-interest? We know what makes people do that. What makes people do that is utterly craven moral bankruptcy. They don’t even have the excuse of mental illness.

And for Andrew Brown to defend this moral bankruptcy? For him to use the “Everyone else does it, too” defense — a defense that doesn’t even stand up at third grade recess, and that absolutely has no validity in a serious adult discussion of morality? For him to insist that the Church is being picked on, unfairly singled out among all the teachers and coaches and babysitters and so on who have raped children?

That suggests a moral tone-deafness that makes me physically ill. Brown is essentially doing exactly what the Church has consistently done in the face of this scandal. He is placing a higher value on the well-being of the Catholic Church than he is on the people, the children, who trust in it.

Shame on him.

Atheist Meme of the Day: Religion Is Not Exempt from Criticism

Scarlet letter Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day, from my Facebook page. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

The idea that it’s rude to criticize religion is one of the central pieces of armor protecting religion against legitimate questions. Religion is a hypothesis about the world, and it is no more rude to criticize it in the public square than it is to criticize any other hypothesis. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Some Evolving Thoughts About Weight and Sex

I swear: This is the last I’ll be writing on this topic for a while. But I promised that I’d write a piece about the effects of weight loss on my sexuality… so here it is.)

Bare foot on scale I want to start by saying this: I am just talking about myself here, and what’s true for me. These issues are heavily loaded, emotionally and psychologically and politically, so I want to spell that out right from the start. I’m not evangelizing for weight loss; I’m personally finding it to be beneficial, erotically as well as in other ways, but I’ve also found it to be complicated and a whole lot of hard work, and I know that the cost- benefit analysis about it is different for everyone. I’m not talking about what’s right or true for anyone else. I’m talking about what’s right and true for me.

As regular readers know by now, I’ve been losing weight for close to a year now, and have so far lost 50 pounds. This isn’t something I’m doing for aesthetic reasons, btw: I’m doing it primarily for health reasons (mostly a bad knee that was getting worse).

But the weight loss is having a complicated set of effects on my sexuality: on my libido, my sexual self-image, my feelings about my sexual history, my cultural politics about sex and bodies. Mostly good… but complicated. And I haven’t seen a lot of writing elsewhere about these effects. Most of the writing I’ve seen about weight and sex has either been your standard “Lose weight and magically fix your sex life!” jargon (which I think is bullshit), or fat-positive, body-positive, “fight body fascism and connect erotically with the body you have” activism (which I more or less support, but with a few serious caveats). I haven’t seen much writing about weight and sex from people who are controlling their weight and feel good about it… but who are still informed by the cultural criticism about how our society views weight and sexuality.

So, as usual, when I don’t like the news, I’m making some of my own.


Thus begins my new piece on the Blowfish Blog, Some Evolving Thoughts About Weight and Sex. To read more about physical mindfulness, the minefield of compliments, the hotness of self-love, alienation from one’s sexual history, humping tree trunks, and more, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Atheist Meme of the Day: Don’t Start Arguments You Aren’t Willing to Have

Scarlet letter Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day, from my Facebook page. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

It is not fair or reasonable for religious believers to get into debates with atheists about religion… and then accuse atheists of being rude, intolerant, negative, or close-minded for debating back. If you don’t want to hear your religious beliefs criticized, don’t start arguments with atheists. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheism Is Not About Absolute Certainty

Scarlet letterToday’s Atheist Meme of the Day, from my Facebook page. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

Atheism is not the absolute certainty that there is no God. It’s the willingness to move forward with the reasonable conclusion that there is almost certainly no God — even though we can never be absolutely sure about it, and even though we understand that if new evidence for God appears we’ll have to change our minds. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.