May 21 2010

Religion and evidence-3: Evidence-based belief

One of the interesting things about letting people know that you are an atheist is that you learn quite a lot of new stuff from religious people who try to persuade you that there is more to this life than a material world that runs according to scientific laws that are either known or yet to be discovered. The arguments that you hear run from one extreme of highly sophisticated theology (consisting of mostly esoteric words seemingly designed to avoid saying anything concrete) to the middle ground of believing in a supernatural power because of miracles (events that seemingly defy scientific laws and explanations) to the other extreme of people claiming to hear voices in their heads, that god actually speaks to them.

Of these three broad groups, to me the most interesting and reasonable is the middle group that believes because of miracles. It is much harder to have a reasonable discussion with the people at the two extremes.

The highly sophisticated theologians start by pretty much defining god in such a way that he does not do anything at all (which is why I call them ‘religious atheists‘) and thus is immune from examination. For them, this slacker god seems to be just an evidence-free idea and one wonders why they bother to invoke it at all, unless they are emotionally and psychologically unable to accept the non-existence of a divine entity, however ineffectual that entity might be. Sometimes, like John Lennox, they use this slacker god as merely a rhetorical device, to build a bunker in intellectual territory within which they can hunker down and defend their god from refutation by atheists. But once they have done so and their atheist opponents have moved on, they emerge to make extraordinary, evidence-free claims for their god that differ little from the miraculous claims of more na├»ve believers.

At the other extreme, what can one say to people who say they believe because they hear voices in their heads that they think is god speaking to them? One can suggest that they seek treatment because hearing voices that others cannot discern is a symptom of psychosis and needs to be investigated and treated before it takes a turn for the worse and leads to danger for themselves and others. But such advice, however well-intentioned, is not likely to be well-received by religious people and I do not recommend offering it unless you know the person really well.

One can, however, talk with the middle group of believers because such believers are at least appealing to evidence, to the existence of phenomena that seem to defy scientific principles, and one can have a reasonable discussion about whether the phenomena are actually miracles or not by looking at the evidence proffered and seeing if there are alternative and non-supernatural explanations.

(I include in this group only those who offer specific events, such as the claim that in one case transubstantiation of the wafer the wafer during the communion service actually occurred and the wafer actually became the body of Jesus with all the characteristics of physical flesh and the wine became his globules of blood. I exclude those who simply assert that the whole of creation is so miraculous that it must have been done by god. These latter kinds of claims are so broad that one cannot even begin to address them. The people who make them have essentially rejected science altogether and there is no point talking with them because there is no common ground.)

On my trip to Sri Lanka recently I had a long and thoughtful conversation about atheism with an old friend. He has known me from the days when I was a religious believer and we had both attended the same ecumenical church youth group. He was still a Catholic but had been reading my blog and was curious as to what had caused me to abandon my religious faith. During our conversation, he offered as evidence for religion the fact that their religious faith had been the basis for courageous action for people such as Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela.

I was not aware that Mandela was especially religious or had claimed that his religion had driven his actions. I read later that his mother converted to Christianity when he was seven, his father died when he was nine, and he was sent to missionary schools. Mandela is grateful for the values he learned from his religious education and is definitely not anti-religion, but it is not clear that he was driven by religion the way that King clearly was and Tutu is.

But that is incidental because, irrespective of the specific case of Mandela, no one will deny that there have been a huge number of people (both well-known and anonymous) who have been inspired to do great and noble things, to fight for justice and the poor and oppressed, because they felt that god called them to do so. My friend pointed to such people as evidence for god.

But this been discussed many times and is an old argument. There is no evidence that religious people are any more moral than non-religious people (see also the book Moral Minds (2006) by Marc Hauser) and for every person to whom we can point who has been inspired by their religion to do great and good things, we can point to others who have been inspired to do truly awful things.

What was new to me and more interesting was when my friend later sent me an email that had photos of the bodies of 16 Catholic saints that when exhumed had revealed that they had not undergone the usual degeneration that we think rapidly follows death. (See here for some images.) He said that this was evidence for god.

Now this is a concrete claim of evidence that one can address and I will examine this phenomenon in the next post.

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity and transubstantiation

What might happen if transubstantiation really changed the wafer and wine into the actual body and blood of Jesus?


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  1. 1

    “for every person to whom we can point who has been inspired by their religion to do great and good things, we can point to others who have been inspired to do truly awful things.”

    How about for every person who has been inspired by their religion to do great and good things can you point to a person who is an unabashed atheist that has done great and good things?

    Browsing the list of Nobel Peace Prize winners I don’t see many atheists.

  2. 2
    Kyle J

    For the record, I know of at least two; Linus Pauling (1962) and Mikhail Gorbachev (1990) are both atheists. But I’m skeptical that you can scan a list of the winners and accurately pinpoint their personal beliefs, and it’s also still an irrelevant argument in terms of whether god exists.

  3. 3
    Kubrick's Rube

    Not to mention, the sample size of atheists is still very small relative to the entire pool, so fewer unabashed (which narrows things further) atheists doing “great and good things” needs to be examined relatively, not absolutely, for this argument to work. (Either way it falls apart for the reason Kyle J stated.)

  4. 4
    Pandora Battery

    Yes, I agree, many people have been inspired to do great and noble things – that is no “proof” that God exists!

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