The burden of proof and God

Because I recently discussed a blog post from March 2013, I was wondering what *I* was writing around the time.  So here’s a blog post from that period.  Please note that my opinions from six years ago do not necessarily reflect my current opinions.

One of the more tedious arguments concerning gods is the argument over who has the burden of proof.  Whereas many atheists argue that the theist must first make the argument for the existence of gods, their opponents argue that this is a cop out.  For example, on NY Times:

Contemporary atheists often assert that there is no need for them to provide arguments showing that religious claims are false. Rather, they say, the very lack of good arguments for religious claims provides a solid basis for rejecting them. The case against God is, as they frequently put it, the same as the case against Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. This is what we might call the “no-arguments” argument for atheism.

I take the side of atheists; I think theists have the burden of proof.  This is not about giving atheists an unfair advantage in the debate, nor is it about making a “no-arguments” argument.  In fact, I do not believe it is an advantage, fair or otherwise, at all.  It’s simply about who takes which role.

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The ghost of atheist past

A few days ago, PZ Myers pointed to Atheist Day, a new annual event sponsored by Atheist Republic and a handful of other organizations.  PZ didn’t care for the idea, and described Atheist Republic as

very 2005

Glancing at Atheist Republic‘s website I thought this description was apt.  However, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing for an atheist organization to be 10+ years behind the times.  Let me expand that thought.

Last month I looked at some postmortems of the atheist movement, and there were two main themes: 1) atheists screwed up on social justice issues, and 2) atheism is simply declining in relevance as a personal identity.  The atheist movement is dead to me, because I lived through the entirety of the atheist gender wars, and also because I live in a location where nobody cares that I’m an atheist.  However, it stands to reason that this is dependent on your personal background and geographic location.  A social movement doesn’t just go poof, and there will definitely be hangers-on for a long time to come.

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Religion as an axis of oppression

Earlier, when I was talking about the death of the New Atheist movement, and I mentioned the idea that New Atheism contained an implicit critique of social justice norms. In social justice, it is common to treat religion as just another axis of oppression, similar to race, gender, or orientation. Religious minorities, such as Muslims, are seen as an oppressed group. However, New Atheism problematized the social justice framing by pointing to the harm caused by religion. New Atheism wanted to make it socially acceptable to argue about religious beliefs.

So, I’m curious how this all rolled out, especially among readers who participated in New Atheism and then shifted towards social justice. How did you view religious minorities around five years ago? Have your views changed since then? If so, why?

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Atheist movement postmortems

PZ Myers recently linked to a postmortem of New Atheism written by a Jacob Hamburger, and offered his own postmortem. I looked around and it seems this is a bit of a genre, with articles appearing in The Stream, Slate Star Codex, and The New Republic.

I also wrote my own postmortem, when I finally quit atheist student groups in 2017. I would identify the problem as a lack of organization, and lack of ambition to do better. But perhaps that’s symptomatic of a movement that was simply failing to engage people, which could itself be symptomatic of even deeper problems.

I don’t think anyone really knows what caused the death of New Atheism, but it gives everybody an opportunity to raise their favorite grievances about the atheist movement, and pretend that’s why it really died. It’s fuuuuuun. Let’s look at what people are saying.

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Seeing Job from both sides

The interesting thing about the biblical story of Job is that it permits diametrically opposed interpretations. From an atheist point of view, it’s a terrible story about how terrible God is. From a Jewish or Christian point of view, they may have multiple ways of reading it, but they certainly wouldn’t see it as a terrible story about a terrible God.

But what I really want to talk about is A Serious Man, a 2009 black comedy by the Coen brothers.  A Serious Man is a retelling of Job, and just like Job it permits diametrically opposed interpretations.  But unlike the book of Job, people on both sides can enjoy A Serious Man.

The book of Job

The book of Job is about a man named Job who has had a very fortunate life.  Satan tells God that the only reason Job praises him, is because of Job’s good fortune and wealth. God accepts the challenge, and allows Satan to take away Job’s wealth, his children, and his health. But Job still remains faithful to God. Thus proceeds a TL;DR dialogue between Job and his friends, where they argue that Job must have sinned, and should repent. At the end, God speaks to Job, and he doesn’t need to explain himself, he laid the foundations of the earth! In the end, Job is blessed with twice as much wealth as he started with, and with new children.

The book of Job is a popular target among atheists, because it’s just so easy. God is obviously a jerkass, allowing Job to be punished for a petty bet. God’s defense is like an abusive parent saying “Who was it that brought you into this world?” And the happy ending seems to brush aside Job’s dead children. I have to strain to see this story from the other side, but we’re gonna try.

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FTA part 4: Anthropic reasoning

This is the fourth and final part of a series discussing the Fine Tuning argument (FTA). The outline is here.

Mundane multiverses

A “multiverse” is a set of multiple sub-universes, which together comprise a single super-universe. The idea is that the universe that we know is a single sub-universe, and there are multiple other universes like ours. So we can imagine another sub-universe where everything is the same, except that ever coin flip comes up on the opposite side.  Or a sub-universe where everything is the same, but we’re all evil and have goatees. Or another sub-universe where

Typically, when physicists talk about parallel sub-universes, what they mean are non-interacting sub-universes. So, you can’t ever talk to the evil goatee’d version of yourself. Although, people sure like to imagine that sort of thing in sci-fi.  So let’s talk about the kind of parallel universe that we could, in principle, interact with. What if I told you that this kind of parallel universe is one we already know exists?

To travel to a parallel universe, just hop in a space ship, and travel 4 lightyears over to Proxima Centauri. You will find a universe exactly like ours, except that the sun is different, and the planets are different, and the constellations are different.

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FTA part 3: Ignorant hypotheses

This is the third part of a series discussing the Fine Tuning argument (FTA). The outline is here.

Uncertainty vs Ignorance

Earlier, I showed this plot showing probability distributions for three possible hypotheses of the universe. The FTA contends that the naturalism hypothesis predicts distribution A, and the God hypothesis predicts distribution B.

A graph showing three possible probability distributions. A is a very broad probability distribution. B is a sharp probability distribution centered at x_0. C is a sharp probability distribution centered away from x_0.

Three possible probability distributions. x0 marks the parameters of the universe that we have in the real world.

I will refer to a distinction that is commonly made between “uncertainty” and “ignorance”. “Uncertainty” refers to a situation where you don’t know what’s going to happen, but you at least have probabilities, a way to quantify how much you don’t know. “Ignorance” refers to a situation where you don’t know what’s going to happen, and you don’t even know how much you don’t know. When we compare probability distributions in the FTA, the probability distributions are just cartoons.  We don’t have any real probabilities.  We’re operating from a state of ignorance, not uncertainty.

Or, in other words, we pulled these probability distributions out of our asses.

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