Emotion is not a cognitive tool

Oh, we get email.

A lot of it is simple enthusiastic “thumbs up!” fan mail from atheists around the globe, who’ve discovered the show on Google or YouTube. Big hug to you lot. A surprising amount is from atheist wags with a surfeit of spare time, who think it would be fun to Poe us and see if we catch them out (we usually do, but it’s still funny). Some are challenges and demands from Christians to be guests on the show, where they promise to clean our clocks with their ironclad arguments for God, usually backing it up with the requisite playground taunts (“…of course, I understand if you’re reluctant…”) as if trying to make us insecure about our manly manliness were some sort of exploitable chink in our armor or something. These guys we politely invite to call any time they please: 4:30 – 6:00 PM CST Sundays, just make sure you dial in within the show’s first 15 minutes to be assured a place in the queue…

I’ll be dealing with one of those writers soon. But here’s a nice theist email we got just tonight, that I responded to as an exercise in pointing out just where the rationality of atheism and the irrationality of theism clash most profoundly. It’s the old “appeal to other ways of knowing,” a falling back on emotion over reason that is an all too common refrain in Christian misology. With only minor edits, here’s the letter with my replies included.

The writer, who doesn’t identify him/herself, begins…

I have been listening to your show on the internet. It is very interesting. I cringe when people get so upset at you. I like how you can put them on mute so they will listen because you often make very good points.

Without getting to much into everything, can I ask you Why? Why would you not want to believe in a God who is wise, creative, and loving? I know most people don’t see him that way. They see him as the Old Testament God who zaps people when they disobey, but if you really study the Bible this is not true. He is long suffering.

Whether this god that believers wants us to believe in is wise, creative, loving, vengeful, long suffering, or a Miley Cyrus fan (and one thing we always see is that believers define God in a way that makes God most appealing to them personally, which is why this person’s God is kind and long suffering and the God of, say, Donald Wildmon is a total homophobe and the God of white supremacists is a racist), none of God’s supposed character traits matters. Describing a being for which we have no credible evidence in appealing ways is not in and of itself evidence. Reassurances that a being is a really really nice being does not validate belief in its existence.

See, you might as well ask, “Why wouldn’t you want to believe in a loving and sweet magical pink flying unicorn who will give you rides to the Candy Mountain?” The same answer applies: What is the sense in embracing such a belief?

In the next paragraph, our writer offers emotional reasons, predictably enough…

I understand the desire to want proof that you can touch, feel, taste, multiple, divide, equate. However, you can not understand the unknown Creator solely on science because He is more than science. He is personal and emotional. Just as we are capable of reason, we are also capable of emotion. So you can not figure out God only using reason and discount your emotions.


“However, you can not understand the Magic Pink Unicorn solely on science because He is more than science. He is personal and emotional. Just as we are capable of reason, we are also capable of emotion. So you can not figure out the Magic Pink Unicorn only using reason and discount your emotions.”

Do you begin to see what’s wrong with this argument?

There are several things a believer needs to consider, if he really wants to hold onto an argument like this when trying to persuade unbelievers.

First, why should God hide himself behind some kind of reason-dampening cloaking device? The simple question “Does God exist?” is epistemologically no different than “Do unicorns exist?” It is a question that simply pertains to whether or not something — in this case, a deity’s very existence — is a factual proposition. There is a reason people consider evidence and reason valid tools for distinguishing true claims from false claims: these tools work. And if God gave us our reason in the first place, then why — to quote Ben Franklin (I think it was Franklin) — would he want us to forego its use?

If you are relying on your emotions rather than your reason in making decisions about what is true or false, how do you determine the difference? How precisely do emotions help to establish facts? Our writer doesn’t explain how, choosing simply to insist that emotions must take precedence over reason in deciding to believe in God. I happen to agree with that. It’s just that I recongnize that exercise as an indicator of the pure irrationality of religious belief, whereas believers seem to see it as something positive.

But here’s the thing. Say that our humble correspondent encounters someone from another religion, who believes in a different God. And let’s say this non-Christian theist gives exactly the same argument for his God. “Just rely on your personal emotional feelings, and you’ll realize my god is the true god!” Does our Christian think he’s right or wrong? If wrong, how does he propose to demonstrate that? After all, the non-Christian theist has the exact same emotion-based rationale for his beliefs as the Christian has! Will he now propose that his emotions are somehow “truer” and more reliable than the non-Christian theist’s, because his led him to Christianity’s God and the other guy’s didn’t?

In such a circumstance, face it. Christian’s got problems. He’s got no viable means to show his God-belief is any more valid than the other guy’s, because they’re both bypassing reason and the need for evidence in order to trust their emotions.

Simple fact that many theists have a hard time with: REALITY IS NOT THERE TO SATISFY YOUR EMOTIONAL DESIRES. Everyone has emotional insecurities to deal with in life. But it’s the smart person who recognizes that dealing with those in a rational manner is part of the lifelong process of growth. There’s no growth in covering up your emotional weaknesses and neediness under a security blanket of beliefs.

A second point to consider, and this one involves studying the Bible more closely:

When you say we cannot rely on evidence or our reason and senses to know your God exists, remember the story of Saul’s experience on the road to Damascus. The Bible is full of stories in which God is revealing himself directly and unambiguously to his followers: disembodied hands writing on walls, etc. But in Saul’s conversion story, God reveals himself in the most direct possible way to a man who was not merely an unbeliever but an active persecutor of Christians. Hell, God forced himself upon Saul. So why, suddenly, when regular folks like us ask for evidence of God’s existence, he’s this being that we just can’t know through our reason, but have to rely on our emotions, etc.? Fer pete’s sake, if direct physical revelation was good enough for Saul, why not us?

Can I ask you, if you were born but never saw your father because you were stolen at birth and raised by a group of women, would you still not have a father even though you know nothing about him, have never seen, touch or heard him. You could chose to tell yourself that you have no father, because of the evidence, but you would be missing out on a loving father who longed to see you, talk to you, be with you.

Sorry, but that’s a lovely exercise in Analogy Fail. For one thing, unless this group of women kept me locked in a closet all my life, they’d have a hard time keeping me from finding out that, from a standpoint of plain old biology, babies are made when a man and woman have do the nast-ay. So it would stand to reason I had a biological father out there, about whom I’d likely bec
ome curious. I’d have to find out the full circumstances of my life at that point: was I kidnapped or given away? Did my biological father really love me, and if so, has he been looking for me or not? And you know what I’d have to employ in order to learn these facts about my life? That’s right, my reason. I’d have to dig up the evidence of my past. My emotions might play a part in determining how dedicated and involved I got in the search, but they alone would not be the tool that ultimately revealed the facts to me.

We could get into the whole debate about the laws of science and how do they come into existence without intelligent design but I will never prove and you will never disprove God absolutely.

Yes, well, that would be another short discussion, as it would be quickly pointed out that fundamental physical laws would have to exist in the first place in order for an intelligent designer of any kind to exist. But no matter. Just remember, it’s not our job to “disprove God absolutely”. All that it’s necessary for us to do is give sound reasons for our skepticism. The burden of proof for any claim, whether it’s a God or a flying pink unicorn, always rests upon the person claiming the existence of the thing in question. And since our writer confesses he cannot provide that proof, allow me to say in a friendly way that 1) it’s not like I didn’t see that coming and 2) his admission constitutes a sound reason for me to remain a skeptic.

I’m okay with it if this fellow’s/lady’s religious beliefs provide emotional comfort, though I can assure you that, if one day, realization comes that such “security blanket” beliefs do not in fact contribute to personal growth and that real emotional contentment lies in accepting one’s reality, for better and worse, and learning to make your life today the best it can be, it will be a great day for him. That’s just my view, but I think I’ve got good evidence for it.

Our writer wraps up on a pious note.

God tells us that He will prove this one day. Every knee will bow He says. But for now He tells us to love one another. And so I end this with love and wish you blessings and peace in whatever you choose to believe. Just don’t sell yourself short, you are a child of God, created in His image. You are beautiful and perfectly loved by God and not so perfectly by some of His creation.

That’s sweet and all, but frankly, if God exists, and he’s a big boy, he can tell me that himself.

Ray Comfort odds and ends

There seems to be a lot of Ray Comfort related stuff on my radar lately, so I’ll dump it all in one post.

  • Sam, a grad student in New Zealand, debated Ray for $100.  Considering all the sneaky tricks regarding format, and Sam’s status as a novice speaker, I would have asked for a lot more.  But according to people I’ve heard from, Sam made a surprisingly good showing, and Ray turned out to be incredibly bad at it.  You can judge for yourself by reading Sam’s post, and there are even audio files attached.
  • Everything Else Atheist mocks a recent blog post by Ray for his very, very bad understanding of sex and relationships.
  • Guy P. Harrison, author of 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God, made us an interesting offer.  He wanted to see a good takedown of Ray Comfort’s new book, You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence, But You Can’t Make Him Think: Answers to Questions from Angry Skeptics.  But he didn’t want to read it himself, so he sent it to us instead.  I’ve read it, and now Matt’s reading it.  At some point in the near future, the plan is to either appear together on Atheist Experience or do a Very Special Episode of Non-Prophets that will give this, ah, very enlightening book the attention it deserves.

Science fiction story

I’m sure this is not terribly original, but here’s my story.

One day, spaceships appear in the sky.  Appearing on every television screen, radio, and pool of water, the ships broadcast the following message to everyone:

“Greetings, citizens of Earth! We are a race of life forms so vastly superior to you that our ways cannot be understood by your puny human brains. We also possess knowledge of morality that is advanced far beyond your own understanding and cannot be refuted by any of your Earth philosophers.

“According to our high moral standards, which we cannot explain to you, you all deserve to die the most painful deaths imaginable.  We shall now execute this sentence. Your insides will be melted, and your eyes will explode in their sockets. Your children and spousal units will be vaporized before your eyes. Your planet will then be incinerated.

“However, our laws also require mercy, and therefore you will have one chance to save your own miserable lives. If you become our slaves and do as we say from now on, you will be transported to another planet and allowed to survive. However, your unrepentant family members will still remain behind and be destroyed.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen this movie many times. It involves the entire human race justifiably uniting to fight off the alien menace. Depending on what kind of movie it is, either we’re victorious or everybody dies for nothing.

Now the question I have is: How is this scenario any less outrageous if you rename the alien beings “God”?

Can the SBOE be abused enough? No

Another brutal editorial excoriating the Texas State Board of Miseducation appears in today’s Statesman. Now that they’ve voted to undermine evolution, the next target of the theocratic ideologues is climate change. And this is take to task by Jim Marston of Texas’ Environmental Defense Fund. Again, he exposes that the board’s seemingly reasonable “teach the controversy” position is really designed solely to allow politically motivated and ideological objections to science to be introduced into curricula as if those objections were equally scientifically sound simply by virtue of being voiced.

On its face, the board’s requirement that Texas science textbooks “analyze and evaluate different views on the existence of global warming” seems reasonable. It’s not. Just because you can find a handful of “experts” who disagree with thousands of climate scientists doesn’t mean our children should be taught that the science is still up in the air….

But besides tainting the reputation of our children’s science education in the eyes of the world, the board’s mandate has other ramifications: It suggests to our children that their economic and lifestyle choices might have no effect on global warming, thus eroding many parents’ efforts to instill in their children the ethic that they must be responsible for their own actions.

Hasn’t Marston been paying attention to fundie rhetoric? We don’t need to protect the environment, or be responsible stewards of the Earth at all. Jeebis is coming! (Or at least, that’s what they keep saying. It looks like the right’s getting a little worried about that, actually.)

Kirk Cameron to Host Atheist Experience


In a press conference today, Matt Dillahunty, host of The Atheist Experience, announced that he would retire and hand over the reigns to film actor, long-time atheist, and master comedian Kirk Cameron.

The 38 year old Cameron is a former child actor who starred in the hit comedy series Growing Pains, before going on to perform in popular Christian apologetics movies including Left Behind and Fireproof. “I’m thrilled and honored to be joining the cast of the prestigious Atheist Experience,” Cameron told reporters today. “This apologetics thing has been a great joke to pull, but I think it’s time for me to move on to a new challenge worthy of my stagecraft.”

Cameron staged a fake conversion to Christianity in 1987, at the height of popularity for Growing Pains. He went on to deliberately alienate many of his friends and coworkers by loudly complaining about the “immorality” and “pornography” on the family sitcom.

“I’m a lifelong fan of Andy Kaufman,” explained Cameron. “Even after a few years had passed, the world was still abuzz with stories about Andy’s death.  The guy had terminal cancer, and still everyone believed that he faked it. I mean, his practical jokes were legendary — the myth has long outlived the man. Once I grew out of my ‘cute kid’ stage, I knew that my acting career was in danger of stalling out. That’s when I decided that the best way to jump start it would be to take on the role of a lifetime. I had to convince the world that my whole personality had changed.”

Cameron went on to ingratiate himself with unsuspecting Christian filmmakers, conniving his way into several promising film projects and ultimately ruining them. “This was my gift to atheism,” said Cameron. “I’m just relieved that I can finally say what I really think on The Atheist Experience, and stop playing a double role.”

Some of Cameron’s dupes took news of the prank in good humor. “Now there’s an actor,” gushed Left Behind director Vic Sarin. “Everybody else seemed to recognize that the script we were working with was complete crap. But Kirk approached the project with such apparently sincere excitement that we kind of felt bad… we were all just collecting a paycheck. Now I understand that his awful hack performance was all part of a grand meta-theater project of his own devising. What an artist!”

Not everyone took the news kindly, however. New Zealand evangelist Ray Comfort, 59, was shocked by Cameron’s revelation. “I’m simply stunned by this turn of events,” Comfort told reporters despondently outside his home in Bellflower, California. “My goodness gracious, I’ve known the bloke since 2001. The crocoduck was his idea when we debated the Rational Response Squad. We bloody well worked on every episode of Way of the Master together. To receive news like this out of nowhere? I mean… crikey.”

When told of Comfort’s distress, Cameron was nonchalant. “Yeah, you kind of have to feel sorry for the guy… but come on, fooling Ray was not exactly the feat of the century. I mean, he fell for Christianity.”

Cameron then added: “God damn it, where’s the nearest bar? I haven’t been laid properly in 22 years. I can’t believe I passed up on that Julie McCullough chick for the sake of a joke. Now she was one fine piece of ass.

“What can I say? I’m dedicated to my craft.”