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Jul 27 2010

Why Does God Reveal Himself to Some People and Not to Others?

Blake_god If God exists… why isn’t his existence obvious?

And is “free will” a good answer to this question?

A few weeks ago, in this very publication, I posed the question, “Why did God create atheists?” If God reveals himself to religious believers, in visions or revelations or other spiritual experiences… why doesn’t he do it with everyone? Why are those revelations so contradictory — not to mention so suspiciously consistent with whatever the people having them already believe or want to believe? And why doesn’t everyone have them? If God is real, I asked — if religious believers are perceiving a real entity with a real effect on the world — why isn’t it just obvious?

Covered face Why is God playing hide and seek?

When I wrote this piece, I addressed (and dismantled) two of the most common responses to this question: “God has revealed himself to you, you’ve just closed your heart to him,” and, “God doesn’t care if you’re an atheist — as long as you’re a good person, he doesn’t care if you believe in him.”

But I neglected to address one of the most common religious answers to this question:

Free will.

“God can’t reveal himself to us clearly,” this argument goes, “because he wants us to have free will. We have to be free to believe in him or not. If he revealed his presence to us, we’d be forced to believe in him — and our free will is a precious gift. It’s what makes us God’s unique creation.”

It’s a really, really bad argument.

I’m going to dismantle it today.

*

Thus begins my new piece on AlterNet, Why Does God Reveal Himself to Some People and Not to Others? To find out how I dismantle the “God has to hide so we can have free will” argument, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

31 comments

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  1. 1
    Flewellyn

    Well done. Of course, it is as casting pearls before swine over there…

  2. 2
    llewelly

    I have a choice about whether to jaywalk, hire prostitutes, drink beer on the street. I usually obey these laws; I occasionally disobey them.

    Hardcore hedonist atheist Gay-Agenda Advocate Militant Atheist Greta Christina baldly admits to hiring prostitutes!!!!
    Extra! Extra! Read all about it!

  3. 3
    llewelly

    It’s worth observing that “free will” – or “free agency”, as many Christians call it – is used to explain many aspects of God’s behavior. For example – I was taught from a very young age that God the evil and suffering in the world is allowed by God because if humans were not allowed to do horrible things to each other, they would not have “free agency”; they would be unable to choose between good and evil. Unable to choose between good and evil, they could not be tested. They could not be tried in the fires of this world, they could not be prepared for their duties in the next world. God would be unable to judge their righteousness, and they would not be strong enough for the tasks required of them in the afterlife. (Mormons believe strenuous duties are a part of paradise.) The problems with this argument are numerous: There is no evidence whatever of any afterlife of any sort. It contradicts the in many places the notions that God is either all-powerful or or all-knowing. It’s an argument that cannot be falsified, as any facet of life on Earth could be explained as a test for some imaginary duty in the afterlife.
    But worst of all – the whole “free agency” notion is used to shift the blame for the problem of evil onto the shoulders of mere humans – supposedly God’s creation. Revealing the fundamental, and very dangerous unwillingness of the religious to question the morality of their God. This unwillingness lies at the root of religion’s ability to encourage good people to do evil things.
    It’s worth remembering that a core aspect of the history of “free will” in our culture is its frequent use to deceptively support terrible arguments in favor of God – and, in favor of a God whose commandants are often used to justify evil actions by humans.

  4. 4
    Joe

    For some reason, I keep reading the comments on your AlterNet pieces. Negative reinforcement… not working as expected.

  5. 5
    Tao Joannes

    The argument dismantled is a bit of a straw man. Yes, I’ve heard it advanced by people that claim to understand God, but they are confused and usually not all that bright.
    Free Will is, indeed, the answer to your question.
    The experience of a relationship with God is intrinsically subjective. There is no objective standard by which to measure or understand it.
    If you don’t believe, no matter what you see, you will not see God.
    If you do believe, you will see God in everything you see.
    Basically, whether you believe in God or not, you’re right, as far as it matters.
    Atheists are not immune from the phenomenon of mysteriously finding results consistent with their expectations. It’s a trait common to all humans.
    Neither are they immune from the desire to convert those that disagree with their faith.
    The closest you can come to a scientific experiment to prove or disprove the existence of God is to accept, in good faith, that there is a God, and then pray to God for revelation.
    If you pray for revelation of God’s presence and will, honestly and faithfully, every day for a year, and don’t see any evidence in your life that God is working, then God doesn’t exist. Simple enough proof.
    Of course, if you try it with a closed mind and heart, it’s bound to fail, see above. Catch 22.
    Think of this like proving an orgasm feels good. The only way to really know is to have one. All the data in the world about pulse rate, endorphins, etc can only suggest it’s a pleasurable sensation, without the experience, there is no real point of reference or ability to understand a subjective phenomenon. You believe the word of someone who tells you that it feels good, so you try to have one, and find they are correct (unless you’ve got some horrible medical condition)
    Just as all the data from people who have found a benefit from their relationship with God can only suggest that there’s something to this faith thing. You can’t really understand it till you’ve experienced it.
    You don’t need a church, or any particular dogma to get there, just an open mind and willing heart.
    Thanks for taking the time to read this.

  6. 6
    fastthumbs

    Tao Joannes
    “Just as all the data from people who have found a benefit from their relationship with God can only suggest that there’s something to this faith thing. You can’t really understand it till you’ve experienced it.”
    What about all those “darn atheists” who were once devout? They experienced the “orgasm” of spirituality and now reject it. Or do you consider them lying?

  7. 7
    Rick M

    @ TaoJones
    If you pray for revelation of God’s presence and will, honestly and faithfully, every day for a year, and don’t see any evidence in your life that God is working, then God doesn’t exist. Simple enough proof.
    Should I wait for a leap year to try this experiment? That 366th day may be the one when I get my revelation. If I skip a day do I have to start again or can I just add a day at the end? What should I conclude if I get a revelation of the deity on the 283rd day but experience doubt again on the 284th day?

  8. 8
    Nurse Ingrid

    @TaoJoannes:
    Tried it. Didn’t work.

  9. 9
    Tao Joannes

    If you tried it and it didn’t work, you must be doing it wrong. ;P
    Sincerely though, one persons lack of success doesn’t detract from another’s success, and vice versa.
    Ultimately, it’s whatever works for you. What bugs me is folks on either side that are so insecure in their belief they feel they have to convert the “opponents” of their faith.
    Personally, God’s presence in my life is undeniable to me. I don’t go to any silly church, or send money to anyone, I don’t believe in eternal heaven or hell after I’m dead. I was a devout atheist for most of my life until I had a change of heart. The power and value of faith is an immediate benefit.
    There are a lot of bullshit churches and practices out there that preach the good news but don’t really understand what they’re getting at. They focus on fundraising and maintaining power and prestige, and teaching the golden-book child’s version of spiritual truth. I’d wager to guess that anybody who tried their method would find it unfulfilling, likely resulting in a conversion to atheism.
    You put unrealistic expectations on God, you’re bound to get disheartened.

  10. 10
    Doug From Dougland

    Tao Joannes:
    “Basically, whether you believe in God or not, you’re right, as far as it matters”
    The statements leading up to this showed a lot of reasoning, but then you took a nose dive off the logic tower. The problem with this statement is that you actually have to redefine “right” in order for it to be true.
    That is, most people would say in order to be right you have to be correct. Either God is there or he isn’t, there isn’t a middle ground. You’re saying that to be right, all you need is to think you are correct. It doesn’t take much to realize why that is simply not true.
    Just like schizophrenics who see everybody as a secret agent out to report on their whereabouts, you are making the case that our perceptions of reality actually constitute reality. You are, in effect, saying that the statements “Stars are balls of hydrogen and helium that are constantly undergoing nuclear fusion” and “Stars are my dead relatives smiling down on me” are equally valid because they’re both perceptions about the way stars work. They are equally perceptions. They are not, however, equally right.
    And they’re not both right because they can’t both be right at the same time. It’s impossible for a star to be both a hugely massive collection of burning gas and also the shining dead body of somebody vaguely related to you. Now, you’re saying that they’re both right because you can’t prove either of them is right, but there too is a problem.
    Why do we know that “Stars as gas” is more tenable than “Stars as people?” Is it because we’ve been inside a star and made sure we saw it’s fusion happening? Of course not, if discovery was always relegated to direct experience we wouldn’t discover very much. We do it through observation. We observed the way the star interacts with the bodies around it, we measured the energy coming off of it and we had several other people take those measurements who came up with the exact same readings. And we found that it doesn’t work if stars are dead people and works remarkably well if the stars are supermassive nuclear reactors.
    Now, the only logical thing to do is to declare that the “ancestor hypothesis” is false and procede with the gas hypothesis. What you’re saying is that the ancestor hypothesis is still valid, because some people who really want to see dead people are actually seeing dead people.
    I’m sure you would never claim that stars are equally likely to be dead people as gas (or if you would, you wouldn’t admit it because it’s unsupported by any evidence whatsoever), so why are you saying the same for God? “God exists” is just another hypothesis about the world, the same as “stars are exceptionally shiny people” and “everybody is out to get me.”

  11. 11
    Tao Joannes

    Thanks for acknowledging the reasoning behind my logic there, but you left the qualifying clause off the end of that particular statement.
    “Basically, whether you believe in God or not, you’re right, as far as it matters”
    “as far as it matters” is the important part, there.
    A positive belief in God can provide benefit to the believer.
    A lack of belief in God denies that benefit, but you’re not going to miss it.
    As far as it matters, it doesn’t matter what you believe.
    Will the sun stop shining simply because you don’t believe in it? Neither will God disappear in a puff of logic from your lack of belief. But your ability to experience God’s presence is directly tied to your belief in God.
    Bringing it back to the original question “Why does God reveal himself to some people?” and the answer “Free Will”. If you do not believe, you cannot experience revelation, your belief or lack thereof is a product of free will, hence free will determines whether or not God will be revealed to you. Q.E.D.
    God exists as a source of strength for anyone who wishes to tap into that power. Just like the internet exists as a source of information for anyone who wishes to go online.
    If you’ve never had a chance to be exposed to anything on the internet that you consider to be worthwhile information, you may not understand the value of committing your time and resources to finding anything of value online. Likewise with developing a personal relationship with God.
    Going back to the sun metaphor.
    If someone doesn’t believe in the sun, but goes outside, they will experience the effects of the sun, whether they believe or not. They will sweat, tan, vitamin D will be produced. These are physiological processes that are engaged in response to the presence of the sun’s light and heat.
    The problem with God is that, outside of simply sustaining the universe, there isn’t much in the way of a direct physical presence. Spiritual contact is a subjective experience, but when that contact is made, there are measurable physiological responses.
    http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1879016,00.html

  12. 12
    Doug From Dougland

    Tao,
    Before you go on rationalizing subjective experiences as objective observations, please read this piece:
    http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2010/05/i-feel-it-in-my-heart.html
    Greta does an excellent job talking about subjectivity and the difference between realness and wishful thinking.

  13. 13
    Tao Joannes

    Who said anything about it being an objective observation? My first post denied that God could ever be measured objectively.
    “The experience of a relationship with God is intrinsically subjective. There is no objective standard by which to measure or understand it.”
    The benefits of developing the relationship ARE objective, the Time article I linked above talks about some of the recent findings concerning correlations between prayer and frontal lobe development, and faith and health.
    In short, whether God exists or not is immaterial, belief in God is of scientifically measurable benefit, and that’s good enough for me. :)

  14. 14
    Doug From Dougland

    If what you’re saying is that belief in God has been proven to produce causal beneficial effects, I would love to see the research. Not from Time magazine html’s that lead to non-existent articles, but of real honest-to-goodness research on the benefits of prayer and belief done in carefully studied, scientifically plausible ways. In fact, at the risk of sounding antagonizing, I challenge you to provide real proof that belief is a primary causal factor (beyond any others) in health and well-being.
    I’m not saying this to sound condescending, and I apologize if I come off that way, but I would honestly like to see a real scientific stuidy prove conclusively that belief in god conferred natural benefits to its believers not shared by non-believers or believers in other deities. I think if you research it, though, you’ll find that that simply is not the case. See here:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16569567
    or peruse this site:
    http://www.csicop.org/
    or maybe here:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Placebo
    But if what you’re saying is that you don’t care if what you believe is true or not, why do you even bother posting on atheist websites?

  15. 15
    Tao Joannes

    I’m not arguing for or against the existence of God, merely about the straw man of this particular article.
    My stance is that God is only revealed to believers due to free will. The arguments are above, no need to repost them.
    As to why. Why not? Proselytizing atheists intent on robbing people of their faith are just as much hypocrites as ninnys in short-sleeved shirts and black ties knocking on stranger’s doors on Saturday mornings. Both groups are simply reinforcing their own belief systems by seeking to convert others to their way of thinking. Atheists just tend to deny their similarities and shortcomings. Bemoaning the character assassination of believers, while calling them misguided fools. Intellectual dishonesty is always appalling.
    Now, as far as my secondary point goes, like I said, it doesn’t matter whether God exists or not, belief in God provides benefits.
    It’s important to note that I don’t hold any particular conceptualization of what God is to be any better or worse than another. Jehovah, Cthulu, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, it don’t matter what deity you’re praying to.
    Any conception of God that can fit in a human mind is inherently flawed and limited, as the human mind is flawed and limited.
    Links, okay, the Time link was a bit long, you can double or triple click on it to select the hidden parts, then paste it into your browser’s address bar if you want to follow up on that. I’m using chrome, and a right click will give you an option to open the link.
    A researcher cited is Andrew Newberg, professor of radiology, psychology and religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania
    http://www.andrewnewberg.com/research.asp
    http://www.andrewnewberg.com/qna.asp
    “Our brains are set up in such a way that God and religion become among the most powerful tools for helping the brain do its thing—self-maintenance and self-transcendence.”
    Religious Involvement and U.S. Adult Mortality
    http://www.jstor.org/pss/2648114
    The research states that a number of beneficial independent factors are bundled into the meta-factor (my term) of religious practice. It’s not necessarily that God is providing the benefits seen, but belief in God, and adherence to a religious program, is beneficial.
    I feel the placebo effect is given an unfair treatment, faith can be viewed as a kind of placebo, objectively, in that it gives the believer assurance that a higher power is looking out, allowing the believer to perform beyond normal self-imposed limitations or increase control over lower functions.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neural_top_down_control_of_physiology
    Belief in Religious facts same as belief in ordinary facts, as far as the brain is concerned
    http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0007272
    There are a ton of links to supporting studies on FMRI imaging and prayer and meditation off of that article.
    When it comes down to it, my original point stands, if you don’t believe, you can’t see it, if you do believe, you can’t unsee it. The nature of a relationship with God is inherently subjective, immeasurable objectively, and can only be experienced through faith. Any evidence of God’s work in someone’s life can only be shared anecdotally, which has no value in science. Furthermore, cognitive bias sees to it that the atheist will rationalize events to support their hypothesis, and the believer will rationalize events to support theirs. Any attempts to change someone else’s bias is futile, selfish, and, indeed, casting pearls before swine.
    Does God exist? Who can say for sure. All I can say is that my life is better with it than without it. Your mileage may vary.

  16. 16
    Greta Christina

    If you tried it and it didn’t work, you must be doing it wrong.

    Tao: Do you see how unfalsifiable that makes your claim? Do you see that it makes your claim a perfect example of moving the goalposts? “In order to see God, all you have to do is pray everyday for a year… but if that doesn’t work, you must have just done it wrong, and I’m still right. No matter how hard you tried, it obviously still wasn’t hard enough — since you didn’t end up agreeing with me.” The logic here has holes you could drive a truck through. How could Ingrid, or any other atheist, ever possibly prove to you that they’d tried hard enough? And what about the many, many atheists who were believers at one time, and changed our minds?
    You are certainly right that both atheists and believers are prone to finding results consistent with their expectations. Yes, it is a trait common to all humans. Which is exactly why, when we’re trying to decide what is and is not true about the real, non-subjective world, we need to try to screen out these biases to the best of our flawed human ability. And trying to believe in God, wishing and hoping and praying to believe in God, looking to find signs of God, is the exact opposite of that. If the only way you can see God is to work as hard as you can to convince yourself that he’s real, that’s a very strong sign that you’re making him up in your head, and he probably doesn’t exist.
    And both your orgasm analogy and your sun analogy actually work against your argument. The question of whether orgasm feels good is a subjective question: if it feels good to you, then it feels good to you. The question of whether God exists is not. It is a question of what is literally true in the non-subjective world — and therefore, if God is real, we ought to see evidence for that in the world, not just in our heads. And your sun analogy makes it clear how weak the case for God is. Yes, we experience the sun whether we believe in it or not. We most emphatically do NOT experience God whether we believe in him or not. Doesn’t that suggest that God is a subjective experience, made up in the heads of believers?
    And the question of whether God exists or not is most emphatically not immaterial. To those of us who care about reality, to those of us who think reality is way more important and way more interesting than anything we could make up about it, to those of us who want to understand how the world really works so we can make the right decisions about how to act in it, it is very material indeed. And I am highly skeptical of your claim that you don’t care whether the thing you believe are true. If you really think it’s irrelevant whether God exists or not — then, as Doug pointed out, why are you wasting your time arguing for his existence in an atheist’s blog?
    Finally, as to whether belief in God confers beneficial effects: How is that even remotely relevant to the question of whether God exists? It’s an arguable point — I’ve seen studies showing that believers are happier than non-believers, but I’ve also seen more recent studies showing that, when the social support provided by religion is accounted for and believers are compared to non-believers who belong to atheist support groups, this difference disappears. But it’s irrelevant in any case. If you have to fall back on “But religion makes me happy!” as an argument for why God is literally real, you are conceding that you have lost the argument.

  17. 17
    Greta Christina

    Posted the above, and then saw Tao’s most recent comment about “proselytizing atheists.”
    Tao, do you think it’s “hypocritical” and “simply reinforcing their own belief systems” when people try to persuade others that global climate change is real? That vaccines are a safe and effective method of preventing disease? That needle exchange programs can reduce transmission on HIV without an increase in drug abuse? That the earth orbits the sun, and not the other way around?
    And if not — then why is religion an exception?
    Religion is a hypothesis about the world, a claim about how the world works and why it is the way it is. It is therefore valid to criticize it, question it, point out its logical flaws and lack of evidence, and try to persuade people out of it. In any other area of human life — in science, politics, philosophy, art, etc. — we think it’s not acceptable, but positively admirable, to try to persuade people that our ideas are better and more accurate. It’s a major part of how we improve our understanding of the world. It’s called the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion be exempt from it? Why should religion, alone among all other ideas, be protected from criticism and questions? Why should religion get special treatment? Is it so weak that it can’t stand up to the kind of scrutiny that every other kind of idea is expected to stand up to?
    And I can’t help but notice a certain contradiction in your own position on this. You joined this conversation trying to persuade atheists that God is real, and exhorting us to pray every day for a year so we would be convinced of this. You are now calling us hypocrites for trying to persuade others that God is not real. Why are your attempts at persuasion okay, but ours are not?
    Finally, I will point out to you that nobody is making you read this blog. I am not knocking on your door asking if you’ve heard the good news about atheism. You came here, voluntarily. Many religious believers are interested in hearing what atheists have to say about religion. They care about whether the things they believe are true; they want their ideas tested and questioned. If you are not one of these, you are free to leave at any time. But it is unreasonable for you to try to get atheists to shut up about our atheism, simply because you don’t want to hear it.

  18. 18
    Tao Joannes

    “If you really think it’s irrelevant whether God exists or not — then, as Doug pointed out, why are you wasting your time arguing for his existence in an atheist’s blog?”
    As I pointed out above, I’m not arguing existance or non-existance, merely that 1) The argument against free will being the determining factor in spiritual revelation is based on a straw man and 2) whether or not God exists, belief in God, faith in any power greater than yourself, really, is of benefit due to the way the human brain works.
    As far as it being a waste of time, it doesn’t matter to me what anyone else thinks, your beliefs are your own business, but this is proving to be a stimulating discussion for me.
    “And what about the many, many atheists who were believers at one time, and changed our minds?”
    What about the believers who were once atheists, and changed their minds? In either case, that argument relies on anecdote, not science.
    “How could Ingrid, or any other atheist, ever possibly prove to you that they’d tried hard enough?”
    They couldn’t. As noted previously, your mileage may vary. I like sushi, some folks don’t. That doesn’t mean sushi is or is not good for everyone. It just means some folks like sushi and some don’t.
    You may note that I used a “sticking my tongue out” emoticon with the “you’re not doing it right” statement. Take it for what it’s worth.
    When it comes to the question of God’s existence, there is no way to prove with absolute certainty in favor of either camp. Even Richard Dawkins admits to .7% uncertainty
    “Finally, as to whether belief in God confers beneficial effects: How is that even remotely relevant to the question of whether God exists?”
    That’s the crux of the question, isn’t it?
    When we “want to understand how the world really works so we can make the right decisions about how to act in it” isn’t it wise to choose a path that offers some benefit over one that offers no benefit? Particularly since the ultimate truth can not be objectively established with certainty?
    Whether God exists or not, “the way the world really works” is that it has been shown (or suggested) that belief offers positive benefits. What positive benefits does atheism offer?
    I’m reminded of Huck’s speech in Secondhand Lions, here.
    “Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most. That people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and I want you to remember this, that love… true love never dies. You remember that, boy. You remember that. Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in.”
    “Doesn’t that suggest that God is a subjective experience, made up in the heads of believers?”
    Does that detract from the worth of faith? Regular exercise causes muscles to grow, that is a purely internal response to external stimulus. Regular spiritual practice is shown to provide cognitive and health benefits, also an internal response, but the argument is whether it’s an internal or external stimulus. Does it matter, when it comes down to practical value?
    Certainty is the the enemy of growth.

  19. 19
    Doug From Dougland

    You’re seriously confused about several things Tao.
    For one, you think God is a subjective entity along the lines of how someone thinks Sushi tastes. It very clearly is not. Nobody is ever going to say they don’t like the way sushi tastes because it doesn’t exist. Arguing that you like the way God feels and atheists don’t is a serious misunderstanding of the nature of the argument. You say “I like the way God makes me feel,” atheists say “What God?”
    This is waht the argument looks like from the outside. You are saying “I just love riding unicorns”
    Somebody else is saying “What unicorn? unicorns don’t exist.”
    You retort, “Well they exist to me! I ride them when I’m alone and away from everyone with no witnesses and absolutely no evidence of them.”
    That person says “Really? Please show me evidence of this unicorn, I’d like to ride him too”
    You say “The existence of the unicorn is immaterial. The fact is I feel better about riding him and riding him improves my life. you asking me to prove the unicorn’s existence is intolerant and hate-mongering! You proselytizing fundamental a-unicornist, why are you trying to rob me of my unicorn?!”
    …See the problem?
    As far as there being any pragmatic difference between belief in something wrong and in something correct, of course there is. People, and say this out loud to yourself, act on their beliefs. I’ll say it again, people act on their beliefs. If you hold a mistaken belief, you’re eventualy going to do something that jeopardizes your well-being, and worse, other people’s well-being.
    I’ll use your quote’s example, if you believe that all men are inherently good, that might get you through a good many things in life, and that might even be beneficial in certain places. Appealing to someone’s humanity has certainly been successful…. At times. However, I challenge you to find somebody who wants all the police to be let go because they’re unnecessary; or all the prisons let out because everybody will do good anyway.
    Holding mistaken beliefs is damaging simply because they are mistaken. Mistaken beliefs might get you a little ways, but eventually they’ll come back to bite you in the ass. Greta has some excellent posts on this, and literally every other Atheist blogger I have ever read has covered something along these lines as well. I suggest you take a look at the links she has provided for you.
    Finally, falling back on the crux “you can’t prove it wrong, therefore it’s true” is simply another way of conceding defeat. You’re not providing any evidence that belief in God is not mistaken. I’m sure plenty of other people have already tried to impress this upon you, and it is a hard and counter-intuitive way to look at it for somebody who believes strongly, but saying that regardless of the data my assertion is still right is not and argument in your favor. Un-falsifiablility is the point where an idea becomes useless in any sort of effective way.

  20. 20
    Greta Christina

    I’m not arguing existance or non-existance

    If you’re not — then why are you writing your comments in response to a piece on the question of whether God does or does not exist?

    What about the believers who were once atheists, and changed their minds? In either case, that argument relies on anecdote, not science.

    You miss my point. I’m not arguing from popularity; I’m not arguing that, because many believers became atheists, therefore atheism is right. I’m pointing out that, contrary to your assertion, “trying really hard to believe” is not a guaranteed path to belief. For years, I not only wanted to believe — I did believe. As did many other atheists. Therefore, your claim that trying hard enough to believe will lead to belief is false.

    When it comes to the question of God’s existence, there is no way to prove with absolute certainty in favor of either camp.

    So what? Trying to prove just about anything with absolute certainty (outside of math or logic) is just about impossible. As you yourself point out, even Richard Dawkins isn’t absolutely certain about his atheism. And neither am I. Atheism doesn’t mean absolute certainty that God does not exist. It means being certain enough. It’s the conclusion that the God hypothesis has not met a reasonable standard of evidence, and that there’s no good reason to think that it’s true. No, neither side can prove their case with absolute certainty — but we can still reach a reasonable conclusion about which side is more plausible. We don’t apply the 100% test to any other type of claim — why should we apply it to religion?
    As to your argument from utility, that religious belief is good for people whether it’s true or not: First, I am unconvinced that this is so. Look at countries with high rates of non-belief, such as France and England and Holland and the Scandinavian countries. They actually have higher rates of happiness and social health than countries with high rates of belief. This doesn’t prove that atheism causes happiness and high social health — it’s probably the other way around — but it does show that it doesn’t interfere with it, either. And again, while some studies show that believers are happier than non-believers, more recent studies show that, when the social support provided by religion is accounted for and believers are compared to non-believers who belong to atheist support groups, this difference disappears. And the tremendous stigma and hostility against atheists undercuts this argument as well.
    And even if it were true… given the tremendous amount of grave and terrible harm that religion has done over the centuries, when I weight that harm on one side, and weigh the warm fuzzy feelings of comfort some believers get from their beliefs on the other, I find it hard to see the warm fuzzy comfort as having the greater weight.
    But more to the point: Even if it were true, it would still be a terrible argument. If it made people happy to think that global climate change wasn’t real, would you argue that people ought to cover their eyes and stick their fingers in their ears and pretend that it isn’t real?
    Yes, I think we ought to care why the things we believe are true. I think prioritizing reality over the inside of our heads is a moral obligation. I think understanding reality enables us to know how to act in it, enables us to know what causes will have what effects. I have made that argument in more detail in my piece, Do You Care Whether The Things You Believe Are True? I don’t want to make it again here. Please read that piece before continuing, so I don’t have to re-write the whole thing here in the comments.
    And finally: The “free will” argument I addressed in this piece is not, as you have now accused three times, a straw man argument. It is a real argument made by many, many believers. In fact, if you read the piece and follow the links, you’ll see that I wrote this piece in direct response to comments being made on another piece I wrote. It may not be the argument you’re personally making — but that doesn’t make it a straw man.

  21. 21
    Tao Joannes

    “For one, you think God is a subjective entity along the lines of how someone thinks Sushi tastes.”
    That’s not my position at all, a subjective entity doesn’t make any sense. I said that the experience of a relationship with God is intrinsically subjective.
    “Arguing that you like the way God feels and atheists don’t is a serious misunderstanding of the nature of the argument.You say “I like the way God makes me feel,” atheists say “What God?”"
    Again, that’s a slight misunderstanding of my position.
    Atheists say “God does not exist, therefore you are wrong to have faith in God.”
    I say “I don’t know if God exists, but I find that faith in God is beneficial”
    The unicorn analogy is just ridiculous, you’re comparing a hallucination to measurable physiological phenomena. Another straw man.
    “If you hold a mistaken belief, you’re eventualy going to do something that jeopardizes your well-being, and worse, other people’s well-being.”
    That’s a slippery slope fallacy. If you claim to rely on logic, it’s best to remain within bounds.
    “I’ll use your quote’s example, if you believe that all men are inherently good.”
    The quote is that believing men are basically good is a beneficial belief, whether they are or not. Again, it’s a slippery slope to take that to mean we should dismantle the police force.
    “Holding mistaken beliefs is damaging simply because they are mistaken.”
    Again, the belief I am stating is that, whether or not God exists, the practice of active faith in God has tangible benefits.
    There is no way to conclusively prove the existence or non-existence of God, and so coming to a final decision on the matter is ultimately an act of faith, either for or against. This is not “you can’t prove it wrong, so it’s true” it’s “there’s no way to be sure, I’m going with door number 1 because it’s more useful in practical application” sort of like Pascal’s wager, but I don’t believe in hell. This is more of an “it seems to produce repeatable results, must be something to it”
    “Un-falsifiablility is the point where an idea becomes useless in any sort of effective way.”
    I agree. An atheist will not admit to the presence of God no matter what evidence to the contrary might be presented. Unless a man with a beard and white robes descends on a beam of light and says “Yeah, I’m real, believe in me” they won’t even entertain the idea.
    And chances are, if that DID happen, they’d write it off as hallucination, lol.
    Therefore, atheism as a guiding philosophy is useless in any effective way. Anecdotal evidence of subjective experience is the only way to experience God, and is not scientifically admissible, and science is the only means of proving faith to an atheist, so it’s a bit of a Mexican standoff.
    Atheism did nothing for me, faith has done much for me. There’s nothing that anyone can tell me or show me that will make me deny the benefits I’ve experienced, personally. You can’t write a paper that will convince me an orgasm doesn’t feel good.

  22. 22
    Greta Christina

    That’s not my position at all, a subjective entity doesn’t make any sense. I said that the experience of a relationship with God is intrinsically subjective.

    But you keep comparing belief in God to subjective questions of personal taste. And that’s our whole point — subjective questions of personal taste have different truth values, and thus different standards of evidence, from non-subjective questions of reality.
    “Believing in God makes me happy” is a subjective question — only you can answer that for yourself. “God exists” is not a subjective question. And “Religion is, on the whole, good for society” is also not.

    There is no way to conclusively prove the existence or non-existence of God, and so coming to a final decision on the matter is ultimately an act of faith, either for or against.

    No, no, no, no, no!
    Simply because we can’t prove or disprove a claim with absolute certainty doesn’t mean we can’t reach reasonable conclusions about which claim is more plausible. I can’t disprove the existence of unicorns, either — but it’s not an act of faith on my part to not believe in them, and to conclude that they almost certainly don’t exist. It’s not an act of faith. It’s a reasonable conclusion based on the evidence and the lack thereof. And the same is true for my lack of belief in God.

    An atheist will not admit to the presence of God no matter what evidence to the contrary might be presented.

    This is simply and flatly not true. Most atheists can tell you exactly what kid of evidence would convince them God was real. Most atheists will happily say, “Show me some good evidence, and I’ll change my mind.” In fact, I recently posted a piece on this very subject on this blog, What Would Convince This Atheist To Believe?, spelling out the evidence for religion that I’d find persuasive.

    There’s nothing that anyone can tell me or show me that will make me deny the benefits I’ve experienced, personally.

    Then with all due respect, please stop wasting our time. We are open to being persuaded: both of God’s existence, and of the utility of religion regardless of whether God exists. If you are not open to being persuaded that you’re mistaken — if none of the evidence I cited above (about the happiness and social health of largely atheist countries, about how differences in happiness between believers and non-believers disappear when social support is factored in, etc.) — then it is unreasonable for you to try to persuade us that we’re mistaken.

  23. 23
    Maria

    I was a devout atheist for most of my life until I had a change of heart.
    What on earth is a devout atheist? The use of that word in this context alone makes me seriously doubt the truth of the original statement!

  24. 24
    themann1086

    There is no way to conclusively prove the existence or non-existence of God, and so coming to a final decision on the matter is ultimately an act of faith, either for or against.

    SMBC responds. For those who don’t feel like clicking:
    Man 1: You shot my dog!
    Man 2: You can’t prove that! It’s only a theory!
    Caption: My revenge on the creationists may have gone too far.

  25. 25
    Tao Joannes

    Wasting time, yes, lol. Definitely, last post here.
    “It’s not an act of faith. It’s a reasonable conclusion based on the evidence and the lack thereof”
    It’s an act of faith. To say with certainty “this is true” lacking complete and irrefutable evidence that it’s true requires a leap of faith. Lack of proof of God’s existence is not proof God lacks existence.
    Reasonable evidence is examined through the lens of cognitive bias. See my first post on this subject.
    An aspect of God I do believe in is the Logos, or word, taken as the basic organizing principle of the universe. A way to conceive of this is like a fractal, a simple equation repeated to produce apparent complexity. Or like a seed crystal in a supersaturated solution. The four fundamental forces/interactions of physics, to me, are evidence of the logos. You may not see them as such. Again, cognitive bias creeps in.
    Is that proof that the old man in the sky made it that way because he wanted it that way? No, of course not. Personally, I feel that sort of belief in God is ludicrous. A personality that we can comprehend as such, that actually gives two shits about any individual human life? Poppycock. The body of Adam Kadmon, however, and the existence of one true source of all things, without which the universe would implode on itself, I definitely agree with.
    But even understanding what the true nature of these concepts means takes quite a bit of dedicated study, and faith. Deciphering the allegorical and symbolic meanings behind the overt teachings and synthesizing the knowledge into a received understanding is no less arduous an undertaking than earning a phd in theoretical physics. Most people simply aren’t capable of it.
    This is a major reason why the church kept information from the masses for as long as they did, and why certain aspects of Christianity were suppressed in early history, resulting in a stripped-down, incomplete children’s fable passing as THE TRUTH. The early church felt that the idea of “secret teachings” and “elite knowledge” would destroy precious unity in the church, leaving it more vulnerable to destruction.
    In honesty, it caught me by surprise, I began studying it in order to disprove it, categorically, but the more I learned of it, the less sense atheism made, and the more sense faith, specific teachings of religions, and the universality of a divine spirit made.
    When I approached the material, starting with even the King James bible, with, as you say, an open mind, as free from cognitive bias as possible, with the possibility of it being either true or untrue in my mind, I came away believing.
    The key element is approaching the subject in a search for truth, not simply a means of denying the existence of God.
    When you understand the Bible, in its entirety, as it is meant to be understood, the truth of God’s existence is undeniable.
    Of course, that doesn’t mean that faith isn’t useful without a complete understanding, any more than a complete knowledge of electronics engineering, computer programming, and manufacturing technology is necessary for you to use an iPhone.
    However, when an intelligent person is taught obviously conflicting information that comes from an incomplete understanding, the obvious reaction is “This is a load of shit”. Try using an iphone without a battery.
    This is anecdotal evidence, not admissible.
    “This is simply and flatly not true. Most atheists can tell you exactly what kid of evidence would convince them God was real. ”
    This is very simply true. In your article, for example, you state conditions that you already know are not fulfilled. That’s evidence of a closed mind on the subject. Outside of “a miracle” such as words written in the sky, which could easily be the work of a technology advanced beyond our current level of understanding, which would make it no more special than, say, bringing a set of walkie talkies or portable DVD player to a remote civilization and showing them the “God talking box”.
    But, in deference to your stated requirements, I’m going to put something together for you, to test your sincerity.
    de·vout/diˈvout/Adjective
    1. Having or showing deep religious feeling or commitment.
    2. Totally committed to a cause or belief.
    Definition 2 can easily fit atheistic beliefs.
    I love SMBC, wiener is hilarious. Creationists are largely a bunch of buffoons.
    I believe it was St Thomas Aquinas who warned the church that holding onto and promoting dogmatic teaching that contradicted the findings of “modern” science was foolish, and would only lead to the church’s authority being diminished.
    Thank God for that, at least.

  26. 26
    Maria

    Yes, not to mention how utterly committed I am to my aleprechaunism! It’s a cause for which I show much devotion.

  27. 27
    DSimon

    Lack of proof of God’s existence is not proof God lacks existence.

    a. “Proof” is for liquor and mathematics. We’re talking about science here, the study of the messy real world, where the best we can do is to pick a point on a variable scale of confidence, a scale where 0% and 100% are often approached but very rarely achieved.
    b. Atheists do not generally believe that God absolutely cannot exist. However, without positive evidence for God, there’s no reason to assign God’s existence a higher level of confidence than, say, leprechauns, or Russell’s Teapot, or us all being stuck in The Matrix.

    The four fundamental forces/interactions of physics, to me, are evidence of the logos. You may not see them as such. Again, cognitive bias creeps in.

    You keep using that phrase, “cognitive bias”. I do not think it means what you think it means.
    Yes, we know what cognitive bias is. We’re familiar with the fact that everyone is potentially vulnerable to it, including us.
    However, just saying “Atheists are wrong cause you’re falling prey to cognitive bias”, without specifying what exactly it is we’re supposedly messing up, cannot in any way help us escape that bias. Please elaborate on which cognitive bias we’re falling into, if you’re going to keep on bringing up the concept.

  28. 28
    Nigel

    “When you understand the Bible, in its entirety, as it is meant to be understood, the truth of God’s existence is undeniable.”
    Unfortunately, knowing how the bible is meant to be understood remains an impossibility. Of course, this has not prevented believers, including, apparently, Tao Joahnnes, from claiming that they know exactly what all the authors, translators and copyists, intended to convey when they wrote the bible.
    Any interpretation of the bible is just that – an interpretation – and as such all interpretations are equally valid or invalid. Even those with a ‘complete’ understanding of scripture can’t agree completely on what it means. Conversely, an iPhone with the battery jammed in backwards does not work equally well as one with the battery right-way-in, and moreover there is a clear consensus amongst those who understand iPhones on how a fully functioning iPhone is defined.
    Instead, what we have here just another example of goalposts moving so fast they make a sonic boom. ‘If you can’t tell that god is real by praying/reading the bible/observing nature/wasting your time with some other religious blarney, then you aren’t doing it the right way, or doing it hard enough.’ Whatever.
    “Lack of proof of God’s existence is not proof God lacks existence.”
    Not quite. This statement is getting ahead of itself. Before we can talk about whether lack of proof is adequate reason to discount a claim, it is necessary to establish a reasonable basis for making that claim in the first place. The burden of proof lies with those who make the claim. No, this isn’t a convenient rule that people just made up so they can win arguments. It’s the only practical approach to judging the validity of a claim, because there are so many claims that could be made without basis in fact. If the originator of a claim cannot demonstrate how they reached their conclusion in a way that allows others to reach the same one independently, there is no reason to grant such a claim any credence whatsoever, not even to reserve judgement one way or the other until better evidence comes in. This is precisely the concept exemplified by Russell’s Teapot.
    There’s a monster under your bed. Tonight, after you fall asleep, it’s going to kill you. You should hire an armed guard to protect you while you sleep. What? Don’t believe me? I’m being ridiculous, because monsters don’t exist? In fact, I was speaking metaphorically. When I said ‘monster’, I really meant ‘serial killer’. They definitely exist. I should know. Still don’t believe me? There’s no proof, you say? Just because there’s no proof that the serial killer is there doesn’t mean that they aren’t. Maybe you should go and check again…still nothing? Well, you probably didn’t look hard enough, or didn’t look in the right place. How do I know anyone’s there at all? I had this subjective, personal experience that allowed me to gain privileged knowledge. It caused a physiologically measurable response, though, so it must represent an accurate construct of reality. Even if I’m wrong, I just have your best interests at heart, and what harm could it do to be safe rather than sorry, eh?
    This is why atheism is not a certainty, or an act of faith. It’s simply a reasonable conclusion to make when someone presents an unfalsifiable claim about the existence of a deity, just as de facto disbelief is an acceptable conclusion with regards to any other unfalsifiable claim, extraordinary or not.
    I’d also like to address the claim that it would be impossible for anything to convince an atheist of god’s existence. I admit, I would need some pretty good evidence to change my mind, but I know that many believers, and even some non-believers(!) think that such proof would have to be in the form of crude, unsophisticated, miracles, like hundred-foot tall letters spelling ‘there is a god’ in the sky, or my car bursting into one thousand flames. Anyone who thinks that some tiresome miracle is the way to prove god’s existence has even less imagination than those who authored the bible.

  29. 29
    Simon Adams

    It’s interesting that the fundamentalist followers of scientism (as opposed to popperist science) believe that spacetime has an acausal progenitor that must not be discussed due to it unknowability given current evidence.
    It’s okay to suggest that the cause of the big bang is a black hole in another universe (for which we have no evidence), or all kinds of other speculation that avoids the real question about ‘why anything’.
    Because evolution has given us brains weighted towards survival rather than reconsidering every possibility from first principles at every decision, your natural response will be that lack of understanding is no excuse to fill the gaps with “god”.
    So why not be bold and mentally relabel the primary causative source of the first spacetime as “god”, and forget your emotional, social, cultural, and psychologically based rejection of the concept ?
    That way we can language barriers and false assumptions can be avoided. Would the next question then be ‘why would “god” allow suffering? No – because that first cause would not be conscious in your mind.
    You would be wrong, but at least you would be thinking.

  30. 30
    Eclectic

    While there’s nothing formally false about attaching the label “god” to the current gap in our knowledge about the origins of the big bang and times before, it’s a pretty disastrous move in anything but formal logic.
    We don’t really know enough about what happened there to discuss it very much. Physicists and cosmologists have a bunch of crazy ideas, and hopefully the LHC will shed some light on the issue.
    Speculations taken seriously include the suggestion that the early universe had fewer spatial dimensions than the 3 we have now!
    When you use the word “god”, however, people tend to import an enormous amount of mental baggage. They think of a sky-father with a white beard and a stern demeanor.
    Getting back to the basically deist position you want to talk about is a huge problem that could be avoided by just using a different word.
    But please don’t assume that because people aren’t using theological language, they aren’t thinking about the issue. An awful lot of very smart people are working on it full time.

  31. 31
    Eclectic

    A reply to a similar (but, I agree, not identical) suggestion can be found on The Atheist Experience blog.
    Attaching a name to something you know nothing about doesn’t help you know any more. But picking a name that billions of people think they know something about is a recipe for confusion.

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