The Kierkegaard Gambit-1: Excuses for the lack of evidence

(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.)

I have noticed an interesting development in discussions of whether god exists. The new/unapologetic atheists have been relentless in hammering home their basic message that in the absence of any evidence in favor of the existence of god, it makes no sense to believe in such an entity. It is not a very difficult argument to understand. The position of the new/unapologetic atheists follows that of the very old ‘new’ atheist Bertrand Russell, who advised that “it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it is true.” (Skeptical Essays, I (1928).) Or, as I said in a previous post that describes my basic assertions: “There is no more credible evidence to believe in god, heaven, hell, and the afterlife than there is for fairies, Santa Claus, wizards, Elohim, Satan, Xenu, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, and unicorns.”

This laser-like focus on the need to produce evidence for god has put religious believers in a quandary. Of course ‘god’ is the name of a slippery and malleable concept and believers often try to evade any pointed criticisms of god’s existence by saying that the god the atheists deny is not their concept of god and so those arguments do not apply to them. So let’s define what at least some atheists define as god. Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion (p. 31) defines the god that he finds implausible and it is as good a definition as any: “there exists a supernatural, superhuman intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.”

One can add that atheists are philosophical naturalists. Julian Baggini in his Atheism: A Very Short Introduction explains the meaning of an atheist’s commitment to naturalism:

What most atheists do believe is that although there is only one kind of stuff in the universe and it is physical, out of this stuff comes minds, beauty, emotions, moral values – in short the full gamut of phenomena that gives richness to human life. (quoted in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, p. 13-14)

It should perhaps be clarified that the basic problem that atheists have is with a god that shares the same world as us and whose existence has some impact on the world. If believers want to postulate god as some entity wandering around in an alternate universe distinct from our own that has absolutely no contact with our universe or as some kind of metaphor that also has no empirical consequences in this world whatsoever, they can knock themselves out and we atheists would not be concerned (or even interested) in the slightest. We would pay as much attention to them as we would to people discussing whether unicorns are silver or white.

Atheists have thus set a clear target for religious believers to aim at and refute: Show us the evidence for your god. After all, most religious people believe in a god, defined as a supernatural creative intelligence who is at the very least the creator and guider of our own universe. Surely there must be at least some incontrovertible evidence of his existence? The same goes for the existence of the soul or for miracles or the afterlife.

But such evidence for a ‘supernatural creative intelligence’, which is the kind of god that atheists seek to refute because it has empirical consequences, has never been produced. This has put religious apologists deeply on the defensive because they know that after millennia of trying, they simply cannot point to any concrete and credible evidence for the existence of such a god.

It can be argued that the entire field of theology is based on trying to specify the characteristics of an entity for which there is no credible empirical evidence whatsoever. It should not be surprising then that there are so many religions offering so many versions of god, and that even within religions there are sects and divisions each with its own variations. In fact, if you get down to the level of a single individual, each person can argue in favor of a purely idiosyncratic god that appeals just to that individual alone. In the absence of any evidentiary requirement, how could you ever prove that person wrong? I suspect that if you take any two people who belong to the very same sect and go to the very same church/synagogue/mosque/temple and ask them to list the properties of their god, they will still not be able to agree on what their god is like. Such a lack of consensus is an indicator that we are dealing with a fictitious entity that never makes contact with the empirical world.

Instead of concrete evidence being provided, what is offered range from vague generalities such as ‘everything in the world is evidence for god’ to pointing to alleged miracles whose miraculous nature disappears under close scrutiny. Some naïve believers sometimes appeal to personal experience (They “feel” god’s presence; god “speaks” to them, they have a “relationship” with god, etc.) but such claims are indistinguishable from any other form of delusion. Others have tried to turn the lack of evidence into a virtue, by saying that god does not want to make it easy for us to believe by providing clear evidence because he believes that faith in the absence of evidence is a virtue. Again, they do not provide evidence to support how they know that their god has this curious notion that evidence about his own existence is a bad thing when it is so obviously a good thing in every other aspect of life.

More sophisticated religious believers want to preserve their credibility as supporters of science and realize that miracles are not only in contradiction to the laws of science, they can be and have been easily explained away. They know that personal feelings and emotions are not credible as evidence. They realize that making a virtue out of the lack of evidence is obviously special pleading at a laughable level.

So what options are left to them? In the next post in the series I will discuss two strategies that are adopted: The Nineteenth Century Gambit and the Kierkegaard Gambit.

POST SCRIPT: Author Terry Pratchett on religion

Religious texts as metaphors

(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.)

In yesterday’s post, I wrote about those religious believers who try to explain away some of the incredible events reported in the Bible as simplifications that were appropriate for the naïve people of thousands of years ago, and why that explanation was not credible.

Those believers who realize that even the simplification explanation is inadequate and that they need to go further in distancing themselves from the literal words of their text sometimes say that the Bible should be treated as metaphor. They assert that the stories are not meant to be taken as historically true but as vehicles to reveal underlying meaning, somewhat like Jesus’s parables, and so any contradiction with science is not an issue. The catch here is that such apologists are often not willing to specify precisely how far they are willing to go along this metaphorical road. For example, are they willing to concede that the entire story of Jesus’s life a metaphor? Or are there at least some elements of that story that they hold back as historical fact (Virgin birth? His miracles? Resurrection?) if the Bible is to retain any credibility to them at all as the word of god?

Greta Christina finds that those who argue for metaphors are often disingenuous:

Progressive religion says, “This is simply a story”… but it isn’t sincere. You can tell that it isn’t sincere by how bent out of shape it gets when people point out that it’s just a story, and therefore isn’t really true. Progressive religion uses the “metaphor” trope as a slippery way of avoiding hard questions when engaged with skeptics… and as soon as the skeptics turn their backs, it slips right back into actual, non-metaphorical, “belief in immaterial entities or forces that it has no evidence for” religion. Progressive religion is ultimately just as willing to ignore evidence that contradicts its comforting story as hard-line conservative religion.

Truly secular “religion,” on the other hand, says, “This is simply a story” — and means it.

The difference is this:

If you say to a “Religion is a useful metaphor” believer, “Your religion is a story, it isn’t factually true, a lot of the history is mangled and some of it’s flatly wrong, and all the God stuff is totally made up”… chances are they’re going to get seriously defensive. They’ll tell you how intolerant you are, how you’re just as dogmatic and proselytizing as religious fundamentalists, how disrespectful you are to point out the flaws in religion and try to persuade people that it’s mistaken, how close-minded you are to reject ideas just because they’re not supported by dumb old evidence.

She uses an apt comparison with Star Trek to point out that you can always tell the difference between those who apply the “it’s just a metaphor” line sincerely and those who advance it as a rhetorical ploy. Avid fans of Star Trek act in ways that are very similar to religious believers, except that they can tell the difference between truth and metaphor.

Think about it. Trekkies are devoted to a story that they find entertaining and inspiring, even though they know it isn’t factually real. And there’s great diversity in their devotions, similar to those among religious beliefs. Some Trekkies are intensely dedicated to the story, to the point where it takes up a substantial part of their lives: going to conventions, making costumes, buying memorabilia, watching the shows again and again. Others are more casual followers: watching the shows when they happen to come on, maybe taking in a convention or two. And different Trekkies follow different variants of the story. Some are more interested in the original show with Spock and Kirk; others care more about The Next Generation. Some weirdo fringe cultists even follow Voyager.

But they all have one thing in common: They know that “Star Trek” isn’t real. Unless they’re certifiably mentally ill, they know that the story they’re devoted to was made up by people. And they act accordingly. Avid convention-goers don’t treat casual fans as apostates; Original Showians don’t treat Next Generationists as sinners and blasphemers; and none of them write editorials lambasting people as immoral sociopaths if they prefer documentaries to any sort of science fiction. And they — okay, fine, we — don’t insist that “Star Trek” is just a story… and then get bent out of shape when people point out that it is a story, and hence that it’s not true. Trekkies have a good time trying to fit the inaccuracies and inconsistencies into some sort of continuity (that’s half the fun); but we understand that the show is a fictional story, with all the flaws that fiction is heir to, and we don’t treat it as a divinely-inspired guide to reality and life.

That’s what “it’s just a metaphor” religion would look like.

Unless religious believers specify which parts of the Bible are metaphors or stories and which parts are historical (something they find hard to get agreement on even amongst themselves) the “it’s just a metaphor” argument just won’t fly. And they also have to address the even more difficult question of how they decide what is historically true and what is not.

In some ways, those who take the Bible as strictly a record of historical events, those people who are labeled as creationists or fundamentalists, have a more well-defined challenge. They have to create an entirely alternate science that conforms to their history. Doing so leads to its own insurmountable contradictions such as how they can live and take advantage of all the benefits that “standard’ science provides while denying its validity. But at least they have drawn a clear line. Those who argue for the metaphor model have no clear and agreed-upon beacons of what should be taken as historically true and are thus navigating blind.

POST SCRIPT: And now, here is some person with his opinion

For some reason, news operations like CNN have decided that it is newsworthy to read the tweets of random, anonymous people expressing their opinions on news stories. My local newspaper, the Plain Dealer also devotes a considerable amount of its rapidly decreasing page space to actually soliciting such terse opinions, most of which are ignorant, banal, or smart alecky. Whoever coined the proverb ‘Vox populi, vox dei’ (‘The voice of the people is the voice of god’) clearly had no idea what the vox pop would sound like in the 21st century.

That Mitchell and Webb Look has the appropriate response to this trend.

The Genesis story: Simplification or fabrication?

(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.)

Religious believers occupy a continuous spectrum that range from those take their religious texts as literally true to those who say they treat them as metaphors.

For those who treat them as literally true, books like the Bible serve as infallible history texts. Although religious texts are not meant to be scientific textbooks (in that the material is not organized in a way that seeks to elucidate the laws of nature) and are not considered so even by ardent literalists, the events described as history (such as the Genesis story and the miracles) do have scientific consequences and treating those events as factual leads to conflicts with science that have to be resolved in some way.

For example, the Bible does not come right out and give the age of the Earth but its genealogies and the chronology of the kings, if assumed to be historically true, enable one to calculate it quite precisely, as was done by Bishop Ussher, Isaac Newton, and others. (See here and here for how those calculations were done.) The more fundamentalist religious believers who take everything in the Bible literally are stuck with these conclusions that impinge on science, however many contradictions and complications it causes them. That is why they eventually become essentially anti-science.

Other religious believers, being more sophisticated and not wanting to be seen as anti-science, know that they have to escape the shackles of being bound to the literal truth of the religious texts while not discrediting them entirely. One device is to argue that although the Bible is the word of god as revealed by him, at the time he chose to make his revelations god was dealing with a population that was generally ignorant, especially of the concepts of modern science, and thus had to greatly simplify the truth of how creation came about. He thus gave them the Genesis story, telling a tale of creation in a way that could be understood by the people of that time.

The implication in this mode of thinking is that if god had waited a couple of thousands of years more before revealing himself, and chosen Pat Robertson as his Moses and taken him to a mountain to whisper in his ear, he would have revealed his creation story in terms of the big bang theory, conservation of energy, and other modern scientific concepts. (Though Pat may still not have understood, not being the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, if you get my drift.)

Although this sentiment is widespread among those who are not literalists but want to preserve the idea that the Bible is a source of great and eternal truths, is it reasonable? Jason Rosenhouse doesn’t think so. He takes this argument apart by pointing out that there is a big difference between simplifying and fabrication, and he gives as an example of how we try to answer small children when they ask deep questions.

When you explain something to a small child you routinely simplify the situation. You omit details and context, and express yourself in language the child will understand. It is rare, and almost never appropriate, to lie outright to the child about what is going on. Surely God could have presented the essential spiritual truths without embedding them within a fictitious story. Accommodating His presentation to the level of His audience calls for simplification, not fabrication.

Rosenhouse does not specify the rare instances where it may be appropriate to fabricate but may be thinking of stories like the stork delivering babies, because people are uneasy with talking about sex with their children until they reach a certain age. But even in such cases, it is possible to finesse the sex issue but still preserve the essential truth that a baby emerges from the mother’s womb.

As a general rule, it is desirable to follow the advice of Albert Einstein who said:

It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience. (“On the Method of Theoretical Physics”, The Herbert Spencer Lecture, delivered at Oxford (10 June 1933); also published in Philosophy of Science, Vol. 1, No. 2 (April 1934), pp. 163-169.)

More popular variants of this sentiment that have been attributed to him are “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler” and “Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.” In other words, don’t simplify to the point of distortion. It can be argued that any major simplification necessarily implies some distortion but the caution to bear in mind is to not simplify to the point where you have changed the very core of the idea.

One could think of many ways to tell a simplified story of the origins of the universe that approximate the best scientific ideas of current times in ways that should have been understandable, at least in their general outlines, by children now or people who lived several thousand years ago. Recently I was asked by an elderly relative who has absolutely no scientific background to explain the big bang theory to him “in words of one syllable.” i.e., without jargon or the assumption of knowledge of even slightly esoteric scientific concepts. It is not that hard to do and I am preparing such a document and may post it later. In doing so, I will follow Einstein’s dictum.

Rosenhouse argues that the story of Genesis does not fit the description of simplification. It so disconnected from the way we now believe things actually happened that it cannot be viewed as anything but a total fabrication. Take for example the implications of the Genesis story for evolution:

The question is: If… the Bible was not meant to provide us with scientific information, then why does it say anything about science at all?

Let us assume for the moment that evolution is God’s means of creation. We can understand that He would not lay out the technical details of the Neo-Darwinian synthesis, since those details would not have meant anything to ancient readers. How does it follow that His only option was to present the story of creation via an entirely fictitious sequence of events? A story which, if you accept the results of modern science, has led astray enormous numbers of sincere seekers over the centuries.

Rosenhouse correctly argues that the Genesis story cannot be re-interpreted as a simplification of the big bang theory or of evolution. For those who think that evolution was guided by god and that the Genesis story was meant to hint at that, I could easily think of a simplified story that would have served god’s purpose better. “And god created the Sun and then later the Earth. In the waters he created life, first as tiny beings from which came forth worms which then became fishes that later crawled upon the land and became a multitude of animals and birds. And finally there came man. And the morning and evening were many, many days. And he saw that it was good.” It needs work, but you get the idea.

The purpose of the Genesis story, as Rosenhouse says, is clearly something else, to drive home the idea of original sin and the fall from grace.

The stories in Genesis are central to the grand narrative of fall redemption, yet modern science tells us these stories are completely fictitious. Given this basic fact I can understand why so many people believe you must choose between science and scripture. What I do not understand is people trying to maintain the idea that the Bible is holy and inerrant some of the time, while utterly unreliable at other times.

Good points.

Next: What about the idea that the events in the Bible are not simplifications but are metaphors?

POST SCRIPT: A mystery solved

Ever wonder why so much of TV is so awful? That Mitchell and Webb Look explains.