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Apr 23 2011

How strawman arguments and shitty authors undermine #atheism

I haven’t read anything by Anthony DeStefano aside from his anti-atheist screeds on various news journals like USA Today, but I have no doubt merely by looking through the title list that he is a man of deep conviction in that which he cannot see. He’s written a book for children called Little Star, all about how the baby Jesus is very tiny but is our Lord. He’s written a book for grown-up children about how awesome a place Heaven is. And he’s written a book about all those things you can’t see but that the Bible assures you are really really real. And since you know other people believe it, they must really really REALLY be real.

So today we have a Serious Author writing a Serious Article in a Serious Journal about how atheists are superstitious “Materialists” who are simply incapable of comprehending that the parts of this natural world that we haven’t figured out yet are actually impossible to decipher, because God wants it that way.

Of course, it’s not quite fair to say that atheists believe in nothing. They do believe in something — the philosophical theory known as Materialism, which states that the only thing that exists is matter; that all substances and all phenomena in the universe are purely physical.

What nonsense.

We’re off to a running start.

I personally know an atheist that firmly believes in Reiki, among other metaphysical nonsense. I know an atheist that believes evolution can’t possibly have happened, but that there’s a higher power “one plane up” running all of us in a gigantic computer simulation and tweaking the life parameters manually. In fact, I know of atheists that believe in a transcendent higher state of pure energy consciousness where one is attuned with the entirety of the spiritual undercurrent of the universe — they’re called Buddhists. Atheists are not uniformly monistic. Period.

Monists — people who believe the world is only made up of material “stuff” (yeah, by the way, “Materialists” is entirely used only by asshats trying to make atheist scientists or rationalists look evil!) — rely entirely on evidence for making a determination as to whether or not something is true. If you could give us an example with some form of evidence of something demonstrably outside the realm of the purely physical, you might even have a point. The fact is, the only things we CAN show to exist, exist within the physical realm. Everything else, every shred of “immaterial” or “intangible” or “spiritual”, can as easily be made from whole cloth.

If all you have to do to keep a claim alive in the face of scrutiny is to keep piling on the pat answers when someone questions it (e.g., the invisible unicorn in the garage that’s also intangible so it doesn’t take space and doesn’t make any sound so you can’t hear it and doesn’t consume any oxygen or food so it won’t die locked in your garage for days and doesn’t otherwise leave any trace of its existence but is DEFINITELY REAL), then what you’re claiming is nonsense. Anything unfalsifiable is therefore also rejectable out of hand as nonsense.

The claim you’re making is that the positive belief of NON-existence of things that aren’t physical, is nonsense. Certainly, that’s fine, one cannot make a positive claim about something’s non-existence unless one has a thorough inventory of everything that does exist. However, in the face of the total lack of evidence, it is certainly not nonsense to believe that the best way to take stock of how this universe works is to simply count among the things that exist only that subset of ideas that actually have evidence for their existence.

We can’t reduce the whole of reality to what our senses tell us for the simple reason that our senses are notorious for lying to us. Our senses tell us that the world is flat, and yet it’s not. Our senses tell us that the world is chaotic, and yet we know that on both a micro and a macro level, it’s incredibly organized. Our senses tell us that we’re stationary, and yet we’re really moving at incredible speeds. We just can’t see it.

How does one reconcile what you’ve said with the fact that most monists are actually also of the belief that this universe is deterministic — that each iterative state of the universe is a direct result of the previous state, combined with some unified Grand Theory of Everything calculation to suss out what the next state will be? That these deterministic monists recognize a grand order to this universe but believe the equations were self-determining, that they are a byproduct of whatever natural process created this and every other potential universe with every other potential set of equations? That we are here on this planet because we happen to be in one of those universes where this stuff works in such a way that we CAN exist?

Or how does one reconcile the fact that some of these monist determinists reserve one special-pleading metaphysical case for a creator deity that started the whole shebang?

Yes, our senses are poor measures of reality. They were not designed to sense the full electromagnetic spectrum in our specially evolved eyes; they were not designed to sense the full range of frequencies in our ears. We cannot see beyond a certain distance through all the atmospheric haze, despite some animals being specially evolved to see much further, sharper and broader-spectrum than us. We cannot process every piece of information perfectly, and sometimes get caught up in some repeated and self-replicating memes, such as those of theism. We use the scientific method to determine that there’s even more to reality than our senses can detect, and we continuously refine the tools we use to detect more and further, reaching out to create things like the Higgs boson, which we understand probably only could have happened once in our universe’s history, just so we can observe how it works. We never stop searching for the truth.

Well, some of us stop, when we find a book whose ideas resonate very much with us, regardless of how contradictory to reality those ideas happen to be.

But the most important things in life can’t be seen with the eyes. Ideas can’t be seen. Love can’t be seen. Honor can’t be seen. This isn’t a new concept. Judaism and Christianity and Islam and Buddhism have all taught for thousands of years that the highest forms of reality are invisible and mysterious.

It isn’t a new concept, meaning that meme has been repeated since antiquity. So has the idea that the Earth is flat, again because of our limited senses. And so has the idea that “ideas”, “love”, “honor”, etc., have any meaning outside the scope of humankind. Each of these is an abstraction of a state of mind, one that can be transmitted from person to person through certain acts, like conversation, admiration, chivalry. Each of these states of mind, triggering each of these acts, is itself admirable. But none of them mean anything outside of the context of a human being acting as their vehicle.

That means these ideas don’t exist outside of the context of humans. (Or, mind you, any sentient being, should we happen across any others capable of communicating such to prove that fact.) The mere fact that many theistic traditions have elevated these ideas to some kind of metaphysical throne does not mean they belong there. Nor is it evidence that they exist divorced from humankind.

No less a genius than Albert Einstein once said: “The most beautiful thing we can experience in life is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: for his eyes are closed.”

Too many people go through life today with their eyes closed. They miss out on the mysterious because they’re so fixated on what they can see and smell and touch and taste and hear.

Carl Sagan calls this the sense of the numinous. I call it fascination for the splendour of the machinery that has self-arranged in the nearly fourteen billion years since the nigh-unknowable event that started the gears turning, the Big Bang. And I find myself often enraptured with some unique, beauteous, and wholly natural temporal event. The walls of my office at work are outfitted with pictures of other planets; size charts demonstrating how small our planet, or our sun, are in cosmic scales. I wax philosophic about the possibility of discovering life on another planet, proving the possibility of abiogenesis in initial conditions far differing from those on our own planet. And none of this lends credence to a tiny, personal, creator god.

But is it wishful thinking to believe in hell, the devil and demons? Is it wishful thinking to believe we’re going to be judged and held accountable for every sin we’ve ever committed? Is it wishful thinking to believe the best way to live our life is to sacrifice our own desires for the sake of others? Is it wishful thinking to believe that we should discipline our natural bodily urges for the sake of some unseen “kingdom”?

And while we’re at it, is it wishful thinking to believe God wants us to love our enemies? For goodness sake, what kind of demand is that?

In fact, it is wishful thinking to believe that a) humankind is somehow fundamentally broken, and b) that one person can scapegoat themselves in order to carry away all that brokenness and all you have to do is accept that scapegoating — err, sorry, “blood sacrifice”. It is wishful thinking to believe that one can totally subvert their natural impulses, even while society requires that we reign in the darker ones at the risk of destroying the fabric of that society from which we humans benefit so greatly. It is wishful thinking to believe in heaven, and it is wishful thinking to believe that the injust will go to hell. It is wishful thinking to believe that everyone who isn’t as good as you will be punished even when you can’t see any justice during your short tenure on this planet. It is wishful thinking, period.

If you had any evidence for any of this outside of the heresay passed down for generations that you call a historical record, I might be convinced otherwise. The burden of proof, of course, is on you.

If human beings were going to invent a religion based on wishful thinking, they could come up with something a lot “easier” than Christianity. After all, why not wish for a religion that promised eternal life in heaven, but at the same time allowed promiscuous sex, encouraged gluttony, did away with all the commandments, and forbade anyone to ever mention the idea of judgment and punishment?

Oh, finally! An easy one! All you have to do to get to this point of supplication to the father deity you proposed, is to have a very long history of never being able to please said deity. No matter how good you are, he never gives you preferential treatment on Earth! So either you’re not doing enough to please him, are doing something “natural” that displeases him, or you’re actually good enough and will only obtain your reward after you die and pass on to that ethereal plane. Because each of these is simply a “doubling down”, another layer of unfalsifiable apologetic on top of the previous, and because earlier versions of the religion you practice show definite signs of evolution in such a manner, it’s very easy to trace the lineage of each of these unsubstantiated “commandments”.

Sure, some of them are good, like “don’t kill” and “don’t steal”. But where’s “don’t rape?” Where’s “don’t have slaves?” Where’s “don’t fuck over your neighbor in order to amass as much wealth as humanly possible”? (Surely that last one would preclude political conservatives ever claiming religiosity!) And for that matter, what the hell’s with all the jealousy commandments, like “don’t have other gods before me”, when there’s supposedly only one god to begin with?

You can be a good person without believing any of the nonsense you described. I know. I’m a good person. I try my damnedest to make others’ lives better whenever and however I can — even when that “however” involves writing a two-thousand word smackdown on some nonsense written by someone whom I otherwise respect as a human being, putting that human being in their place for their attempt at marginalizing a whole class of people who by their own admission is growing to the point of being more than just a dirty little secret underclass.

Some of the members of this underclass you are so desperate to subvert have our eyes open to the wonders of this universe in ways you cannot even begin to imagine, as fixated as you are on your mythologies and your apologetics, much of which attempt to wield the very science you denigrate (as in your hamfisted attempt to prove senses fail by describing the motion of the planet around the Sun and around our galaxy by turns). By retaining your presuppositions about reality, you are the superstitious one. You are, like it or not, the person in this debate who believes in the supernatural, and your pitiful attempt at judo in painting atheists as superstitious fails spectacularly.

Christianity and Easter do nothing to undermine atheists — they are merely just-so stories in an ocean of such stories, and have no more compelling argument to offer against atheism than do any other theistic flavor. Atheists believe in no gods, not just your god. The only thing undermining atheists in your post is your complete and total lack of comprehension of the “atheist state”, believing it to be, as you do, a monolithic dogma.

That smacks of projection. Very likely because it is.

Oh, by the way, you’re welcome @chaosagent23. Do point out if I’ve missed any bits of his sandcastle that you’d like further stomping.

3 comments

  1. 1
    chaosagent23

    I’d say it’s just about perfect. Beautiful in it’s simplicity and the facts… well, we know the purveyor of the original nonsense wouldn’t know a fact if it bit him in the ass.

  2. 2
    Mechelle

    I find it sad that, even with all the beauty and wonder of the universe there is to marvel at, it’s not enough for theists just to be a part of it. There’s this need to feel like the apple of some super natural force’s eye. To feel superior to every other component of the universe. Perhaps it’s the only way they can cope with living in the here and now, to believe there is some reward waiting for them, postmortem, for their “struggle”. It’s a shame they have to gild the lily with dryads and dream catchers.

  3. 3
    Shari

    Hmm. Mechelle, I would like to offer a correction to your assumption – or, for all I know, your retelling of a direct report! – that theists ‘feel superior’ to every other component in the universe. Superiority is not something Christianity hinges upon. I can’t speak for all, so I’ll just go with our congregation – it’s pretty roundly condemned. We aren’t guided toward condescension of the world around us. Respect for the world and our part in it is closer to the message I get. Also, the concept of heaven is reunion, rather than reward. Life is the reward, and struggle is part of that – without struggles, challenges, personal growth and character growth don’t get tested. That aspect of struggle is hardly unique to Christianity. Struggle is respected, despite it being anything that anyone can fully understand.

    Mechelle, I’m not a theologian, nor a philosopher. I can only tell you of the viewpoints I adhere to in my experience of Christianity. I would just really, really hate for you to have the opinion that Christians walk around with univeral superiority as part of their teaching and their worldview. It certainly could be true of some, and it almost sounds like you’ve experienced that first hand – but it’s not the case for all. Certainly not for me. (Er, and we don’t get to have dryads either ;-)

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