Religious beliefs as a house of cards

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.

Because of the holidays and travel overseas where internet access will be sporadic, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some of my favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. New posts will start again on Monday, January 18, 2010.)

I have argued before that to sustain a belief in god requires one to construct an elaborate system of auxiliary beliefs to explain away the fact that no convincing evidence has ever been provided for god’s existence, even though there is no discernible reason why god is prevented from doing so. The very qualities that most religious people ascribe to god (omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence) are the ones that give the most trouble in explaining why the evidence is not revealed.

Since the sustaining of religious beliefs require such an elaborate construction of auxiliary beliefs, it is not hard to see that religious believers have essentially constructed an alternate reality that is divorced from the usual rules of logic and evidence that govern the rest of our lives. But alternative realities are tricky things. They are like a house of cards, with each card representing some unsubstantiated belief that must be held in order to support other beliefs. As long as no one seriously questions any single element of this structure, it may be possible for the creaky structure to remain intact. But take away any element and that whole edifice of belief collapses.

Something like that happens, I think, to every religious believer who becomes an atheist. At some point that person dares to take away a single card to see what would happen and the whole structure comes crashing down. For each person, the first card that is removed may be different but the end result is the same for all – unbelief. This is what happened to me when I started asking questions about where in the universe god existed and whether god was a material or non-material object. If god was a material substance, how come we could not detect him/her? And if he/she was non-material, how could a non-material substance interact with the material world?

These questions arose naturally out of my study of physics because questions about the nature of any entity and how its properties can be measured are standard ones in that field. To maintain the standard belief that god was a non-material entity that was able to avoid detection while interacting with the world required the construction of an elaborate set of auxiliary beliefs, each of which required yet other beliefs to sustain it. Giving up on any one of those beliefs resulted in the whole structure collapsing. Now I cannot imagine how I could have thought that that shaky house of cards was a solid structure.

Religious beliefs can only be sustained if there is a common understanding shared by believers that prevents such awkward questions from being asked or where glib and facile answers are treated as if they are deep arguments. When most people believe in something, and belief in that thing is important to them and fills some deep need, they unwittingly conspire to keep discordant facts from disturbing their faith. So maintaining those beliefs depends on having a community of believers who will sustain each other in their beliefs and this is where the common worship and ritual play an important role. Constructing elaborate and exclusionary rules and rituals involving food, dress, and behavior, necessarily results in non-group members avoiding contact, thus less likely to bring with them ‘heretical’ thoughts.

This explains why most religious groups seek to either increase their numbers by proselytizing and gaining new converts or at least maintain their numbers by indoctrinating their children at an early age. It also explains why the act of ‘blind faith’, normally not seen as a good thing, is so highly praised in religion, since it discourages questioning of core beliefs by implying that such behavior represents a reprehensible lack of faith. Seen in this way, it becomes understandable why atheists are portrayed in such a negative light, since that encourages religious people to avoid contact with them and they are thus less exposed to dangerous challenges of core beliefs.

In effect, religion is like a giant Ponzi scheme that requires new believers in order to perpetuate itself. Since there is no convincing evidence for the existence of god, people who hold religious beliefs and yet want to think of themselves as rational are forced to construct such an elaborate alternate reality, a house of cards.

By creating unwritten rules whereby questions of religion are discussed only in closed communities of shared beliefs, or if discussed publicly, ‘respect for religion’ and fear of causing offence are used to exclude questioning of core ideas, the shaky foundations of religious beliefs are prevented from being exposed. What is currently happening is that outspoken atheists like Richard Hawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Victor Stenger are encouraging more and more people to tug at the cards by looking more closely at what religious beliefs actually imply.

Why it is so hard to give up belief in the afterlife

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.

Because of the holidays and travel overseas where internet access will be sporadic, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some of my favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. New posts will start again on Monday, January 18, 2010.)

It is interesting how one’s views can be changed by a comment. Such was the case with Cindy’s comment on my post regarding the absence of proof of an afterlife. Cindy said:

I tend to think that lack of belief in the afterlife is more fundamental to atheism than lack of belief in a God. I think I would have become an atheist a lot sooner if it weren’t for my emotional aversion to non-existence (which has really gone away after a years of thinking about it). Also, while a lot of people think it’s fun to talk about arguments for an against the existence of gods regardless of their beliefs, I’ve seen reasonable people reduced to tears with just a few good points raised about the lack of an afterlife. It seems like theism of any kind is based on two strong emotional ideas: 1) I’ll never really lose anything or anyone 2) The world is inevitably fair. And if they can’t have 2, they’ll still cling to 1.

I think Cindy is really on to something. Clearly people want to believe in the existence of a god and the after life, despite the lack of evidence for either. Although the two beliefs are linked, I used to think that wanting to believe in god was the primary impulse and that belief in an afterlife was something that came along with a belief in god, a fringe benefit if you like.

But Cindy’s suggestion is that the reverse is true, that what people really want to believe in is the afterlife, and that belief in god is merely a mechanism that enables that belief.

That makes a lot of sense. After all, god is an abstraction. Although you can find people who claim that god really speaks to them, hardly anyone, except Pat Robertson, would claim that they have any kind of real relationship with god. Imagine meeting god. You really would not have much to say and it could be quite awkward, like encountering a stranger at a party. After a little small talk (“Hi, god, nice place you got here. So, . . . read any good books recently?”), you start wishing you could get away to the buffet table.

But that is not the case with people whom we like who have died. It would be like meeting a close friend after many years. We can’t wait to find out what they have been up to and getting them up to speed on out own lives. We can imagine ourselves talking to them for hours and days.

All of us have had people and pets whom we have loved and who have died. We have fond memories of them and the desire to continue that relationship is very strong. A recent study reported by Elizabeth Cooney in the Boston Globe of February 21, 2007 says that:

Contrary to traditional notions of grief after the death of a loved one, a new study finds that yearning is felt more powerfully than depression. . . . “Yearning is reacting to the loss of someone or something, and once that is gone, you miss it, you pine for it, you hunger for it, you crave it. That was the primary emotional experience after bereavement, rather than depression,” Holly G. Prigerson, one of the authors, said in an interview. . . . “People never get over a loss, they just get used to it,” Prigerson said. “Even years after someone dies, they get pangs of grief, they need to think about the person, and they miss them with heartache,” she said.

What people find most difficult to deal with in the death of a close loved one is missing the companionship that person provided. It is natural to want to believe in something, such as the afterlife, that promises that that link may someday be renewed.

In my own case, now that I think about it following Cindy’s comment, giving up believing in god was not that hard. But my father died nearly thirty years ago, before my own children were born. My greatest regret is that he would not see them growing up because I know how much he would have enjoyed knowing them and playing with them and how much they in turn would have enjoyed his company. The idea of meeting him again was much more appealing to me than the thought of seeing god. Believing that he was somewhere ‘up there’ looking down on my children was comforting. Even as I write these words, memories of him and the sadness associated with missing him come flooding back, just as they do when I think of the more recent death of my mother. Giving up the belief that they were still somehow around was much harder than giving up belief in a god about whom I really knew nothing and with whom I had had no prior relationship or shared memories.

So it makes sense that belief in an afterlife is more important to people than belief in god and that maybe people desperately want to believe in god because it enables them to believe in an afterlife.

Questions for believers in a god and the afterlife

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.

Because of the holidays and travel overseas where internet access will be sporadic, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some of my favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. New posts will start again on Monday, January 18, 2009.)

In recent posts, I have spent considerable time discussing why I thought that belief in an afterlife and god was irrational. In the course of those posts, I described what kind of evidence I would need to convince me that I was wrong in each case. Now let me pose the counter-questions to religious believers: What kind of evidence would it take to convince you that (a) there is no afterlife and (b) there is no god?

To recap, for the afterlife, I said that a convincing evidence for the existence of the afterlife would have to consist of something incontrovertible, that simply could not be denied. Another way of saying it would be that an event must occur where an explanation that denies the existence of an afterlife is far more implausible and harder to believe than an explanation that accepts it.

Similarly, to convince me that god exists, convincing evidence for the existence of god would have to be something along the lines of the convincing evidence concerning the afterlife: god would have to appear in public to a random group of people, provide tangible proof of existence, and re-appear at a designated time and place that would allow for skeptics to be present.

I have since discovered that mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell, who was also an atheist, was asked the same question by Look magazine in 1953 and said something similar, that he might be convinced there was a God “if I heard a voice from the sky predicting all that was going to happen to me during the next 24 hours.”

What I am suggesting is that convincing evidence of god or an afterlife would require something along the lines that philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) argued for concerning miracles:

It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation….

The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), ‘That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish….’ When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion. (my emphasis)

My point has been that proving a negative is impossible. I cannot prove that magical invisible unicorns do not live in my office but the fact that there is no evidence at all for their existence is sufficient for me to conclude that they don’t exist. The absence of such evidence for the existence of god or the afterlife is the only kind of evidence that we can have for their non-existence. So in other words, we have all the proof that we are ever going to have that god and the afterlife do not exist.

The basic argument I am making is, I hope, clear. To be convinced of the existence of god and/or an afterlife, events should occur for which explanations without god or the afterlife are far more implausible than explanations that call for them.

Clearly there are things that all of us do not believe. Presumably the adult readers of this blog definitely do not believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy, with the same level of certainty with which I do not believe in the existence of god. They may have believed in them as children, just as they believed in god, but outgrew it in adolescence. Presumably, they do not also believe in those gods that are not in their own religious tradition.

I don’t believe in any of these things for the same reasons that I do not believe in god or the afterlife – because of the lack of any positive evidence for their reality. But why do religious believers definitely not believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy and the gods of other religions while still believing in their own god? What is the essential difference that enables people to believe one and not the other? What evidence convinced them of one and not the others?

And back to the questions addressed to religious believers: What kind of evidence would it take to convince you that (a) there is no afterlife and (b) there is no god?

I am really curious about this because it seems like this is a central issue. I have posed these questions before in the comments discussions but never got a clear and direct answer.

POST SCRIPT: Tech support in the middle ages

Is there an atheist philosophy?

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.

Because of the holidays and travel overseas where internet access will be sporadic, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some of my favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. New posts will start again on Monday, January 18, 2009.)

I received a private email from a reader of this blog asking what exactly an atheist is and pointing out that my critiques of god and religion are written with a primarily western and Christian concept of a personal god in mind. I was asked how I felt about eastern concepts derived from religions such as Buddhism and Taoism, which the reader points out, do not require belief in a personal god.

It is true that I have focused primarily on Christianity. This is because it is the religion I was brought up in and is the one I am most familiar with. I have also studied it in some depth and am aware of much of its subtleties and apologetics, and of the differences in beliefs among its various sects. If I wrote about other religions, I would be necessarily less familiar with their details and more likely to commit gross generalizations that might be considered unfair by followers of those religions.

But one can make some general statements about atheism. As far as I am concerned, atheism rejects the idea of any supernatural entity that can influence the world. It does not have to just be a personal god in the western sense. Even if the word god is not used and the idea is called a ‘force’ or ‘principle’ or ‘consciousness’ or something else, as long as it represents some non-material intelligent entity that influences the material world, an atheist is likely to reject it for the same reasons he or she rejects god, unless some convincing positive evidence is produced in its favor.

Having said that, we should understand that atheism is not really a philosophy in itself. It is also not merely rejection of religion. Instead, atheism is a consequence of taking seriously the necessity of using evidence as a basis of beliefs. In other words, atheism is a particular result of a general policy of adopting a rigorous scientific worldview to things. I suspect that most atheists take the minimalist point of view expressed by Laplace in explaining to the emperor Napoleon why he had not mentioned god in his treatise on the working of the universe: “I have no need of that hypothesis.”

Sam Harris in his Letter to a Christian Nation (p. 51) says:

Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. In fact, “atheism” is a term that should not even exist. No one needs to identify himself as a “non-astrologer” or a “non-alchemist.” We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.

But the reasons (the lack of evidence and the high degree of implausibility that there exists a non-material entity that can interact with the material world) that lead a person to reject any specific god, also lead them to reject all gods. I would suggest that all atheists reject the idea of a supernatural entity or supernatural behavior in all its forms, which would rule out the Jewish god, Muslim god, Hindu god, and the like, in addition to the Christian god. It would also rule out ideas of an afterlife.

If one asks followers of one particular god why they do not believe in a different one, you will usually find that they argue much like atheists, citing the lack of evidence or reasons for belief. The difference is that they apply the rule only selectively, to rule out all other gods except their own preferred one, although there is no empirical difference between them.

An atheist applies that principle uniformly across the board.

The consequences of atheism

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.

Because of the holidays and travel overseas where internet access will be sporadic, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some of my favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. New posts will start again on Monday, January 18, 2009.)

While atheism is not a philosophy as such, the reasons that one has for being one (mainly, the rejection of those beliefs for which there is no evidence) necessarily lead to certain consequences. Collected together, this set of results may look like a philosophy, but is not really. It is merely the playing out of the consequences of a scientific approach to every aspect of life.

For example, the same arguments that atheists use to reject the existence of god also lead them to the rejection of an afterlife. This has profound consequences for the way one lives and how one relates to others. For me, the fact that this life is all there is makes more imperative the importance of everyone being able to make the best of the one life they have. There is no heavenly compensation to satisfy the yearnings of people who are suffering here and now. All people have a right to, at minimum, adequate food, shelter, clothing, and health care, and there is no excuse for societies not being structured to provide them with those necessities.

Similarly, all people have a right to seek happiness wherever they can and with whomever they wish as long as they are not harming others. Hence gays, lesbians, and transgendered people are entitled to every right enjoyed by others, and atheists oppose objections to their behavior based on reasons like “god considers such acts sinful and they will go to hell” or because some religious text forbids it. (It is only such kinds of reasoning that is rejected. There may be atheists who disapprove of homosexuality on other grounds, such as that it is ‘not natural’ (whatever that may mean), but that is a different issue not involving religion.)

The same reasons that lead atheists to reject god also lead them to reject the idea of an independent soul that can survive the body. The problems of reconciling the idea of a non-material soul (or mind) interacting with the material brain and body are just as great as trying to figure out how a non-material god interacts with the material world. So I would argue that another corollary of being an atheist is to reject the idea of having a soul that can exist independently of the body. One can retain a concept of a ‘soul’ as long as it is merely a euphemism for the mind, a creature of the brain that ceases to exist when a person dies.

The idea that there is no god out there setting the standards of ethical and moral behavior also means that, rather than fighting to see which version of religious morality and behavior should prevail, atheists believe that we have to figure out what are the common bases on which we can live with one another in peace and justice in the world.

So in other words, the fact that atheism correlates with rejection of an afterlife and souls and religious text-based moral and ethical values means that the whole package has the trappings of a philosophy. But actually they are the almost independent consequences of having a philosophical naturalism philosophy that uses a scientific approach (empirical evidence and logical reasoning) to determine which beliefs are worthy of acceptance and which are not.

How to talk to religious believers-5: Dealing with irrational beliefs

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.

Because of the holidays and travel overseas where internet access will be sporadic, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some of my favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. New posts will start again on Monday, January 18, 2009.)

People can be persuaded to relinquish, at least intellectually, small-scale beliefs like superstitions, although the reflexive habits associated with them may be hard to give up. Deeply held religious beliefs are not like that, though, even though they have the same lack of evidence as superstitions. Believing in god has enormous ramifications and why people strongly hold on to that belief requires some explanation and understanding. Those beliefs are far more closely intertwined with people’s self-identity and are not as easily conceded to be irrational. In fact, people will go to great lengths to make them appear rational. Why this is so is the fundamental question.

In trying to answer why otherwise rational people believe in such a hugely irrational idea like a god, there are certain ideas that are not helpful in reaching an understanding. For example, just as there is no evidence that religious people are more moral or ethical than atheists, there is also no evidence that atheists are smarter than religious people. So we should rule out differences in intelligence in explaining the difference. Belief in god is irrational but that does not mean that people who believe in god are irrational in general.

I speculate that the problem is that more sophisticated religious believers know that they believe things that are not supported by any empirical evidence but have found reasons to come to terms with it. Michael Shermer in his book Why People Believe Weird Things (2002) puts it well when he says that the people who believe weird things are not stupid. He says: “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.” (p. 283).

Almost all our religious beliefs and superstitions are acquired early in life, as young children, for non-smart reasons. Children arrive at their beliefs about god, Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, fairies, ghosts, etc. not on the basis of a reasoned judgment based on empirical evidence, but simply by trusting that the authority figures in their lives (especially parents, teachers, and priests) are telling them the truth. As we get older, some of these beliefs tend to get undermined and disappear while others remain. The difference lies in the level of effort made by the people around us to sustain the beliefs.

Some parents will go to extraordinary lengths to perpetuate the myth of Santa Claus while their children are young but then wean them away from this belief as they get older, because Santa Claus is not a belief sanctioned by adult society and a grown up who believes in him will be considered nuts. The same is true with the Easter bunny. As the child grows up and finds that none of the adults around him really believes in those things, he relinquishes the beliefs with perhaps only a faint nostalgic regret for a loss of childhood innocence

But that is not the case with beliefs about god. Because the adults around him continue to believe, the child continues to be given reasons to believe in the absence of any evidence and even in the face of massive counterevidence. And the reasons for belief become more and more elaborate the older people get and the more sophisticated they are.

Shermer describes a 1981 study by psychologist David Perkins who found “a positive relationship between intelligence and the ability to justify beliefs, and a negative relationship between intelligence and the ability to consider other beliefs as viable. That is to say, smart people are better at rationalizing their beliefs with reasoned arguments, but as a consequence they are less open to considering other positions. So, although intelligence does not affect what you believe, it does influence how beliefs are defended after the beliefs are acquired for non-smart reasons.” (p. 302)

If children are not taught their religious beliefs when they are young, they are very unlikely to adopt them when they are old. The very fact that the religion of children is almost always the same as that of their parents, and that they have no difficulty in dismissing the beliefs of other religions as weird and unbelievable, is a testimony to the power of this childhood indoctrination, because their own religious beliefs are learned when they were impressionable children, unquestioningly accepting the authority of their parents, while they usually encounter the beliefs of other religions later in life. The fact that parents usually teach their young children that other religions are wrong helps to maintain this allegiance.

The people who have defended the existence of god and the afterlife in the comments to my previous postings on why belief in god is irrational or the afterlife are clearly people who have arrived at sophisticated reasons for believing in both. And they are helped by the fact that many very smart people (such as theologians, philosophers, and other scholars) have devoted their entire lives to find reasons to continue to believe in the absence of evidence and in the face of massive counterevidence. As a result, one finds the curious result that people find the supernatural elements and bizarre practices of their own religions quite plausible while the equally supernatural elements and bizarre practices of other religions are seen as unbelievable.

Recently, former Republican congressman Tom DeLay said the following: “God has spoken to me. I listen to God and what I’ve heard is that I’m supposed to devote myself to rebuilding the conservative base of the Republican Party.” When religious people say things like this, there is a surprising lack of curiosity among those who claim to believe in the same religion. You would think they would ask questions like: “Really? How exciting! Was it a male voice? What did his voice sound like? Did he speak in English? Did he have an accent? Where did you hear the voice? Did you take down the exact words? Was anyone else there to hear it?” And so on. But they don’t because, I suspect, asking such questions would expose the silliness of the whole idea of god “speaking” to people. Religious moderates have learned to keep things vague and unspecific and not ask probing questions, so that they can believe what they like and shift their beliefs when convenient.

This illustrates how important it is to religion that children be indoctrinated early and that they be brought up in an environment of like-minded believers. This also explains why ‘mixed’ marriages, where the parents are practicing members of different religions, are frowned upon by religious institutions, because children in such households are unlikely to receive the kind of thorough indoctrination necessary to maintain religious beliefs into adulthood.

How to talk to religious believers-4: The liberal or moderate believer

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.

Because of the holidays and travel overseas where internet access will be sporadic, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some of my favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. New posts will start again on Monday, January 18, 2009.)

In previous posts, I wrote about how to talk to the devout concerned believer, the devout offended believer, and the fundamentalist religious intellectual when you tell people you are an atheist. Today I will deal with the last case.

The liberal or moderate believer: The hardest group for the atheist to deal might be, strangely enough, the people who are religious believers of the ‘moderate’ and ‘liberal’ variety. This may seem odd because such people tend to be rational and scientific about almost all aspects of their lives, so one would think that it would be easy to have a dialogue with them. But we know that often the most severe disagreements and arguments occur within families or like-minded groups, mainly because we understand each other so well and know each other’s weaknesses.

The reason for the awkwardness between atheists and liberal or moderate religious people arises for the same reason. Most people grow up with the same beliefs as their families and their communities. Once you become an atheist, the scales fall from your eyes and you realize that many of the religious beliefs you used to cherish make no sense at all anymore. But the rest of your views and values have not changed much and the people around you still are the same. So you have the difficult challenge of trying to understand how you could have unquestioningly believed all this stuff for so long and also why the people around you still continue to do so.

This is especially true if your epiphany occurs later in life, as in my case. The whole religious belief structure seems so preposterous and outlandish to me now that I am incredulous that I could ever have believed in any of it before. How could I have possibly believed in an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving but invisible god? How could I have not seen that the entire structure of the universe is consistent with the non-existence of such a god? How could I have ever taken the story of Jesus seriously? And, even more difficult to answer, how can those around me, who are like me in so many ways, not see the world as I now see it?

And it is precisely this attitude that causes problems. It is hard for you to understand how the religious people around you could be so like you and yet believe such different things from you. Author Douglas Adams captured this sentiment when he said: “I find the whole business of religion profoundly interesting. But it does mystify me that otherwise intelligent people take it seriously.” (Thanks to MachinesLikeUs for the quote)

Suggested response: It is tempting to think that because these religious believers are just like you in almost everything else, and are open to scientific ways of looking at the world, that one can hope to persuade them to have the same kind of epiphany that you had, that religion and god makes no sense. This is a mistake and can lead to long and fruitless discussions. While it is true that you can discuss things on a deeper level that you can with fundamentalist religious believers, I think that moderate religious people are harder to persuade because they are much better at finding sophisticated reasons for belief.

It is easier to get a handle on understanding this if you bear in mind that the world is not divided into rational and irrational people or between intelligent and stupid people, but only between rational and irrational beliefs. None of us is purely rational. All of us are irrational in some areas of our lives, in that we believe things for which there is no evidence.

There are many examples of irrationality in my own life. I think my dog is smarter and better looking than most dogs. I also think that I am a better-than-average driver. I cannot really provide any evidence in support of either belief. Sri Lankan society is riddled with all kinds of superstitions and one absorbs them as one grows up. Even now, I sometimes find myself doing something mechanically that, on reflection, turns out to be based purely on superstition.

We are not in a position to provide evidence to justify everything and in most cases this kind of belief is quite harmless. For example, most people will wish someone ‘good luck’ when they are about to go for a job interview or take an exam or take the field in a sport. Many people have their own superstitions, especially concerning sports, like wearing a lucky shirt or waving a towel when their favorite team is playing. Many people try not to say something that will jinx their team. Many read their horoscopes every day and some even take fortune cookies seriously. They will not walk under a ladder and are uneasy when a black cat crosses their path. A Friday that falls on the 13th day of a month causes them anxiety.

All these things are completely irrational and atheists are as susceptible to them as anyone else. But when questioned about any of these minor irrationalities, most people (religious and atheists alike) are sheepishly apologetic and will concede that what they believe and do is just a relatively harmless superstition and will not try to defend the practice as having any kind of real justification.

But religious beliefs do not belong in this class and understanding the nature of this difference is crucial if we are to have a cordial dialogue with moderate religious believers.

To be continued. . .

How to talk to religious believers-3: The religious fundamentalist intellectual

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.

Because of the holidays and travel overseas where internet access will be sporadic, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some of my favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. New posts will start again on Monday, January 18, 2009.)

In previous posts, I wrote about how to talk to the devout concerned believer and the devout offended believer when you tell people you are an atheist.

Today, I will address the religious fundamentalist intellectual: These people are the most fun to deal with because there is usually no rancor or personal element involved in the disagreements. These are people who have essentially constructed an alternate reality. They believe that the Bible is literally true, that Noah’s flood and ark are historical events, that humans lived alongside dinosaurs, that the Earth and the universe is less than 10,000 years old, and so on. They have satisfied themselves that what they believe can be substantiated and will try to convince you of it. They are usually not offended by you being an atheist but are convinced that you are mistaken. If you are lucky enough to engage such people in conversation and have the time, you should probe their beliefs and why they believe them and you will witness the unfolding of a fascinating and complex set of hypotheses that are invoked to explain why their beliefs are so out of step with the results of mainstream science.

I met a lot of these people when I was in Kansas is 2002 to debate the intelligent design creationists. People who attended the debate would take me aside and read passages from the Bible to try and convince me why it was true and I was wrong. They were mostly very nice people. Even though they were convinced I was going to hell, they were nice about it and did not gloat, and only a few fell into the angry offended devout believers category I described earlier. But they were living in an alternate world from me. A professor of constitutional law who was on the same debate panel with me captured the situation very well when he said that he felt like he was at a Star Trek convention. Those who are on the outside cannot comprehend the devotion of such people to a fictional world, but can only marvel at it.

Suggested response: There is no point in trying to win such people over by arguments, especially standard scientific ones. They have heard most of them before and their responses take a standard pattern. They will start from a fairly mainstream scientific and historical position and at a crucial moment insert some piece of esoteric information that they claim throws doubt on the entire theories of evolution or geology or physics or any science that contradicts their worldview. This is then used to make a leap to justify their alternate reality. This leap will seeming totally lacking in logic to you but they are convinced it makes perfect sense.

A good example of this can be seen in the set of videos called Chatting with Charley. Charley is typical of this attitude. For example, he accepts the fact of continental drift but argues that it separated America from Africa in a couple of months, and a great flood caused the Grand Canyon to be formed in days rather than millions of years! I think that I would enjoy talking with Charley because it is just fun to listen to his ‘arguments’ because they are so weirdly fascinating.

I would similarly enjoy talking with Kent Ham, the force behind the new creationist museum that opened in Kentucky yesterday. An article in the May 18, 2007 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education (page B10) has the author asking Ham how many sheep Noah’s Ark would have to contain in order feed all the dinosaurs. This question was based on an article published by Bishop John Wilkins in 1668 claiming that the Ark contained 1600 sheep, sufficient to feed the carnivores. But the existence dinosaurs weren’t known then, and their presence would increase the numbers of sheep required beyond the capacity of the Ark, prompting the question.

The author (who felt that the whole idea of the Ark being historical was preposterous) feared that Ham might feel that this question was a mocking one, but Ham answered in all seriousness. He suggested that the dinosaurs that Noah saved might be young ones, before they were full grown and thus needed less food. Ham also suggested that more animals might have been vegetarian then, becoming carnivores only later.

Ham also suggested that the Biblical ‘kinds’ of animals that were saved in pairs were not meant to be species but a higher category (say the genus or even higher) thus requiring fewer animals. In other words, Noah did not save a pair of every breed of (say) dog, but only a single pair of dogs. Of course, this means that the present number of species had to evolve and differentiate into their separate species types in a few thousand years, but this can probably be explained with another ad hoc hypothesis.

People like Charley and Ham tend to not understand in a very deep way the nature of science and how science acquires and creates knowledge, and the basic interconnectedness of scientific knowledge. You cannot invoke ad hoc hypotheses to take care of one problem without exploring the consequences for other related situations where that hypothesis has applications.

They also skip over the basic problem of Cartesian dualism of how a non-material mind could interact with the material body. They cannot be convinced by arguments. After all, Ham has convinced religious people to spend $27 million dollars to build a museum enshrining this weird belief structure and that bespeaks a serious devotion. Because they are determined to believe at any cost, at any tricky point they invoke the Mysterious Ways Clause (Shorter version of the MWC: God has a reason for doing this and for keeping the reasons hidden from us and anyway our minds are too puny to understand god’s plan.)

What is best in such conversations is to take an anthropological attitude and try and understand how these alternative realities are created. Simply posing questions about their beliefs, asking for evidence, posing counter-evidence and seeing how they respond, are the best ways to deal with them. Since you are not trying to convince them of anything but simply trying to understand why they believe what they do, this enables you to be detached and thus subject their beliefs to a clinical examination.

When you do so, you will find yourself gazing through a window into a world that is truly bizarre, in a fascinating kind of way, as if you had entered a looking glass world.

How to talk to religious believers-2: The offended devout believer

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.

Because of the holidays and travel overseas where internet access will be sporadic, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some of my favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. New posts will start again on Monday, January 18, 2009.)

In the previous post, I discussed how to deal with the concerned devout believer. Today I deal with a more difficult case.

The offended devout believer: Like the concerned believer, this reaction will come from someone who is devoutly and unquestioningly religious. But their reaction will be to take strong offense at the idea that you have rejected beliefs that they hold dear. Some of them will be people who are close to you. Parents often fall into this category since they are the ones who taught you their religious beliefs and your rejection of the beliefs will be interpreted also as a rejection of them.

Julia Sweeney, who grew up as a devout Catholic, in her show Letting Go of God describes her parents’ reaction when she said she was an atheist.

My first call was from my mother was more of a scream. ‘Atheist? ATHEIST?!?!’

My dad called and said ‘You have betrayed your family, your school, your city.’ It was like I had sold secrets to the Russians. They both said they weren’t going to talk to me anymore. My dad said, ‘I don’t even want you to come to my funeral.’. . . I think that my parents had been mildly disappointed when I’d said I didn’t believe in God any more, but being an atheist was another thing altogether. (The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, p. 324)

But more likely it will be people who are little more than strangers or acquaintances. Some of these people will jump to the conclusion that because you are an atheist, you are a person with no morals or ethics and someone to be avoided for fear that you are a bad influence. Such people will also sometimes say “I will pray for you” but what they mean by this is quite different from the concerned devout believer. In this case it is merely a code for saying that they have no doubt that you will suffer the torments of hell and that they relish the prospect of looking down and seeing you suffer while they sit in their Laz-y-Boy in heaven, sipping their lemonade. They do really tend to think of heaven and hell in such concrete terms and have no doubt that they are the apple of god’s eye and have lots of treats in store for them when they die. This reaction will likely come from people who believe in the most extreme Biblical literalism, and even totally bizarre ideas like the Rapture.

Suggested response: There is no point getting angry with people who delight in the idea of their tightness with god and think that they know god’s mind so well that the things and persons they like and dislike are identical with what god likes and dislikes. God is so real to them that they would likely not understand what Anne Lamott was driving at when she said that: “You can safely assume you’ve created god in your own image when it turns out that god hates all the same people you do.” (Thanks to MachinesLikeUs for the quote)

Such people are hopeless. What can you say to people who actually delight the thought of other people suffering torments in hell? Sophisticated religious believers tend to think that such views are held by only ignorant people with an Old Testament mentality but that is not the case. Richard Dawkins writes (The God Delusion, p. 320) about the manifest relish with which many people write about others going to hell, smugly assuming that they are not in danger of ending up there.

Whatever they believe hell is actually like, all these hell-fire enthusiasts seem to share the gloating Schadenfreude and complacency of those who know they are among the saved, well conveyed by that foremost among theologians, St Thomas Aquinas, in Summa Theologica: ‘That the saints may enjoy their beatitude and the grace of God more abundantly they are permitted to see the punishment of the damned in hell.’ Nice man.

(Dawkins adds a footnote about proud Christian Ann Coulter who said ‘I defy any of my co-religionists to tell me they do not laugh at the idea of Dawkins burning in hell.’)

The only reaction to such people is to keep your sense of humor. You have to simply smile or laugh when people say these crazy things about atheists and atheism and express weird ideas about what might happen to you after you die. There is no reasoning with them because the ideas are so irrational and trying to do so is a waste of time. The best thing to do is to joke about going to hell and the like. Such people thrive on being fearful and creating fear in others. They cannot defend their religious ideas on any rational grounds. Heaven and hell are the only things they have and they use them to try and intimidate their opponents.

To treat the whole thing as a joke will infuriate them because it turns their biggest weapon into a damp squib.

Next: The religious fundamentalist intellectual.

POST SCRIPT: Comedian George Carlin on god and hell

How to talk to religious believers-1: The concerned, devout believer

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.

Because of the holidays and travel overseas where internet access will be sporadic, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some of my favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. New posts will start again on Monday, January 18, 2009.)

One of the consequences of the outspokenness of the new atheists is that it enables people who are quasi-atheists to become more frank about their doubts about religion. Unlike closet atheists who are people who keep quiet about their atheism, ‘quasi-atheists’ those people who would not call themselves atheists but are already tugging at the some of the beliefs that hold together the fragile structure of belief and are thus close to bringing down the whole house of cards. Such people tend to say they are agnostics and not identify any specific religious group and instead hold on to some unspecified notion of spirituality.

Quasi-atheists’ religious beliefs are just hanging on by a thread. Most thoughtful people have serious doubts about the existence of god and the afterlife. How could they not since everyday experience provides no support at all for such beliefs? But given the climate of official piety, most people will just keep their doubts to themselves to avoid the attention that expressing views that are different from the mainstream brings.

But the new atheists, by being so public in their dissection and dismissal of religious beliefs and the lack of evidence for them, are creating room in the space of public dialogue for regular people to take their more limited and hesitant doubts public. When they find that the heavens don’t come crashing down on their heads for expressing doubts about religious dogmas, they will be on the road to a more complete disavowal of religion.

So my prediction is that within the next few years one will find opinion polls that show a dramatic rise in the numbers of people who describe themselves as non-religious, as more and more people become willing to express their doubts publicly and respond frankly to such polls. People may still shy away from the word ‘atheism’ and use euphemisms, but the shift away from belief will be palpable.

As more and more atheists and quasi-atheists speak about their lack of belief in god, it is going to be increasingly common for them to have to deal with the reactions of the religious believers around them. The kind of reaction they will experience will vary widely and require a flexible attitude, so here is my contribution to keeping the dialogue friendly.

Dealing with the concerned devout believer: This is the reaction of a devoutly religious person who knows you well, either as a family member or close friend. They will experience complete incredulity that you have rejected ideas that seem to them to be so obviously true. For them, everything that they see around them is testimony to god’s existence. They are unshakeable in their beliefs and cannot imagine how anyone could think otherwise. Since they are good people, they will not be angry with you but will worry that you risk losing your soul and going to hell. They will make earnest attempts to convince you of your error, suggesting that you try different churches and pastors and Bible study groups, they will recommend books for you to read, and they will tell you that they are praying for you.

Suggested response: It is important to realize that such people are well meaning and have your best interests at heart. One should take react graciously to their efforts to try and bring you back into god’s good books and not get upset. Such people are so wedded to the rightness of their beliefs that they do not see the irony of saying that they will pray for you to someone who thinks the whole idea of prayer is a waste of time.

With such people, one should simply and gently tell them why you don’t believe in god. Remember that these people genuinely care about you and are concerned about you, even if in a misguided way, and such people are to be valued and treasured. Eventually, over time when they realize that you are still the same person that they always knew and loved and haven’t suddenly become a mass murderer or rude and abusive and a person who is cruel to animals and children, they will learn to accept you for who you are.

Next up: The offended devout believer.