Why and How

Many years ago, a Krishna friend said to me, “People often ask ‘why?,’ when what they really mean is ‘how?’”

Initially, this statement confused me. But he explained it further. It made sense to me. And since that day, I have adopted his stance.

On Yesterday’s show, we had a Christian caller who told us that she believes in god because she has personally witnessed miracles. Matt asked her to give us an example of a miracle. She said there were so many to choose from it would take too much time to go into them. Matt asked her to just give us one example.

If you are an atheist who is ever engaged by Christians, you know that it’s important to get an example of a miracle, because Christians do not agree on what constitutes a “miracle.” Like most other religious terms, the word is meaningless, and pretty much self-defined, along the lines of something like, “love” or “freedom.”

The woman explained her “miracle” pretty thoroughly. But it didn’t take much time to see this woman defines miracle as “a natural/reasonable occurrence that I interpret as a sign from god.” Her definition is not unlike an autobiographical story I once read about a Christian woman who hated the color of carpet in her church. When it was changed out, she knew it was a sign she should marry her fiancé, because, prior to that, she had determined she must be married in that church, but couldn’t bear to be married on that hideous shade of aqua carpeting. Most atheists don’t think of these types of things as “miracles,” so it’s always good to check before assuming when a Christian uses a word that relates to the supernatural. Since none of it is available for examination/verification to anyone—we’re left with the reality that any such term has only the meaning that any individual Christian assigns.

The woman on the phone said her reason for believing in god was that she began asking questions such as “why is the sky blue?” And she prayed ardently to a god (that she didn’t believe in) to let her know if he was there. She also began to research different religions. And she found one that really spoke to her, and became a Christian. So, now, in her words, “I know that I know that I know [there is a god].”

There are some obvious issues with a claim of “not believing” a god exists while I’m repeatedly pleading to that god. But this is already going to be long, so let me jump to where it ties into another obvious problem: the problem of asking for signs from spirit beings to determine whether or not they exist.

In other words, any “sign” I receive as the result of prayer is only open to subjective interpretation, and not to any verification. Christians put forward that it’s wrong to ask for any sort of verifiable miracle or definitive sign. To do so would be “testing” god—a serious no-no. So a person making this sort of plea is open to accepting any sort of subtle influence or coincidence. They’re not asking for Earth-shattering, convincing evidence—just something “meaningful” to them, personally.

What’s the obvious problem? Well, ask them how this sounds to their ears: “If you wanted to know if Big Foot exists, and I told you that I know Big Foot exists because I prayed to god for a sign to let me know if they exist. And after a few days, weeks, and months, I got nothing. So, I started researching Big Foot online—reading all I could find. I also kept on praying and asking to feel assured and have a sign. I prayed and prayed and kept on praying, and reading about Big Foot, until I finally encounter a subtle coincidence—a better job offer, a feeling of euphoria/peace, (or even a video of Big Foot online)—that convinced me god was telling me that Big Foot do, in fact, exist. And so now, I know that I know that I know Big Foot is out there in the woods.”

Would they think I had justification for belief in Big Foot? Or would they think I wanted so badly to believe that I just drilled myself until I finally accepted anything as proof of Big Foot’s existence?

If I want to know if a god exists, why not check into it like I would check into the existence of anything else—of Big Foot? Clearly define what it means to “exist,” exactly what it is I’m seeking, and where it should be found manifesting, then check to see if it’s actually manifesting there in the way I expect. If it’s not, then what I am seeking doesn’t exist. That’s, honestly, the best anyone could do to make a determination of the existence of any item-X. Praying to item-X for assurance it exists makes no sense unless, on some level, I’ve already accepted all sorts of claims about the existence of this item and how it operates—even while I attempt to assure others I haven’t presupposed these claims to be valid. I’m certainly throwing out everything I have learned in life about how to determine whether or not something exists and how to determine truth value, and it appears I’ve also, to some significant degree, accepted all the terms laid down by superstition in my search. And if I was truly skeptical—is this really how I’d go about it? Would I see proof of the validity of a god on supernatural terms? Or would I go with what I know to be tried and true in existent reality?

But that’s a huge digression. Back to “why” and “how.” Definitions can change, I understand. And I will be the first to admit that people I know use “why” and “how,” often, interchangeably. I’m not writing to say “you’re wrong.” I’m writing to call out a subtle difference that may/may not speak to a difference in perspective that an atheist should be aware of when he or she is engaged by a Christian. When the Christian says, “I was asking myself, ‘why is the sky blue?’” I should already be wary, because the Christian is potentially starting off asking the wrong (and potentially very loaded) question. With my prior disqualifier regarding definitions firmly in place, I’m going to appeal now to Webster for a standard, accepted definition.

“Why” is listed as basically meaning: “For what reason, cause, purpose or motive.” “How” is listed as “in what manner, in what way, by what means.”

Can they be used interchangeably? I think so. However, consider this: In a discussion about whether or not the universe is the result of natural causes or intelligent purpose, doesn’t the term “why” carry with it the potential to muddy the waters with presupposition, whereas “how” is more unpresuming and more to the point? If a god did it, “how” will get to that. If a god didn’t do it, “how” will also get to that. But if a god didn’t do it, “why” may or may not get to that—depending on how we’re using it.

Depending on what the Christian means by “why,” the word comes preloaded to presume purpose and motive in creation. When I hear a Christian ask “Why X?,” where X is a natural function, I will say, “I think you mean ‘how’ X.” The less biased and more accurate question is “How is the sky blue?”

We use “why” rather than “how” so often that that last question may sound awkward to some. But I recommend getting used to it. And I recommend pointing out the bias that comes with a preloaded word like “why” when a Christian uses it. “Do you recognize that a more appropriate word would be ‘how’—since ‘why’ presupposes motive in natural functions and causes? You’re potentially already starting off with a bias that the universe has purpose. And since that is the very point of our debate, I have to declare that I don’t know if there is any reason ‘why’ the sky is blue—but I believe we can discuss something of how the sky is blue; and if it leads to a purpose, so be it.”

Am I being over-analytical here? I don’t think so. Consider that the Christian on the phone was responding to Matt’s question about what made her believe a god exi
sts. She answered that she was putting questions to herself, such as “Why is the sky blue?” What does that have to do with god unless you perceive a motive behind the reality that the sky is blue? If Matt had asked her a question about determining truth values or finding the cause of natural realities, then there probably would be no reason to consider the word “why” to have any ulterior meaning beyond it’s interchangeable use with “how.” But in the context of “Why do I believe an intelligent being is behind the natural universe?,” the idea that someone pondered “Why is the sky blue?,” takes on a whole new (pardon the pun) shade of meaning.

Make of it what you will. Draw your own conclusions. If you think I’m being too detailed in analyzing the language people use, then disregard my point entirely. But I find that definitions often are key source of misunderstandings in any discussion with a Christian. And, so, I see no reason to allow for more than will certainly already occur. “Why” has, over the years, become a red flag to me in discussions with Christians. I don’t know there are any “why”s for the things they want to know. But we can talk about “how”s, if they’re ready to investigate nature in an unbiased fashion.

Strictly for Austinites

Okay, so everyone’s looking forward to Dawkins’ appearance at UT this coming Wednesday. That will be at 7:00 PM. I suspect it will go about two hours, including Q&A. So I thought that following the talk, unless you’re all going to be a bunch of pathetic gotta-go-to-work-tomorrow candy-asses, we’d have an Atheist Experience Blog meetup somewhere in the vicinity. I’m announcing this early so that people will have a couple of days to think about it and add it to their schedules accordingly. There are any number of kewl coffeehouses or bars or late night restaurants to repair to in the UT area, up and down the Drag and elsewhere. Hell, even Amy’s Ice Creams is an option. So, all you locals chime in, and if you’re interested, offer your suggestions.

Christians trying to destroy education altogether in Oklahoma

What do you do when those damn pesky facts keep throwing cold water on your precious, precious Bronze Age superstitions? Why, just rewrite the law so that no facts can be taught in classrooms, ever. There is always an option of classroom rental Singapore, though, for those who’s against this policy.

This is the goal of HB 2211 — named, with typical Christian-martyr self-absorption, the “Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act” — in Oklahoma, which essentially allows any stupid fundie student to substitute “Duhhhhh…Goddidit!!!1!” in lieu of the correct answer on any test or homework assignment, and, by law, a teacher could not grade that answer as incorrect! I am not shitting you!

The school would be required to reward the student with a good grade, or be considered in violation of the law. Even simple, factual information such as the age of the earth (4.65 billion years) would be subject to the student’s belief, and if the student answered 6,000 years based on his or her religious belief, the school would have to credit it as correct. Science education becomes absurd under such a situation.

Whatever shenanigans Kansas has ever gotten up to in the past will look like tiddlywinks compared to this, people. This is a bill that renders the practice of education itself pointless.

And naturally, the damn thing has actually passed the House Education Committee. All of which argues for a state run by fools who are not merely anti-intellectual but actively hostile to knowledge. I may disagree with that wacky old lush Christopher Hitchens on many, many things. But on this point, he’s hit nothing but net: Religion poisons everything. And here, we see religion poised to poison the educational standards of literally millions of young children in the worst way possible, by making it effectively impossible for any teacher in that state to teach them anything factual at all.*

So if little Trailer Park Timmy is asked on his American History exam, “Who was the first president of the United States?” and he answers, “Jesus!” that answer could not be counted as wrong.

And people whine about that horrible Professor Dawkins and how he dares to call religion a form of child abuse.

Oklahoma citizens, if any of you are reading this, it’s time to get out the big guns. If you care, not only about your state’s reputation, but about the future of your children and anything resembling truth and intellectual integrity at all, you need to be bombarding your state representatives and senators day and night with angry mails and phone calls expressing your dismay in no uncertain terms, that a piece of legislation this patently absurd and outrageous could even be written in the first place, let alone get passage out of committee, in this day and age. And remind them that it’s 2008 C.E. (actually, you’d better use AD), not 2008 B.C.E.

Millions of minds are in the balance here.


Addendum: *Okay, I can see some readers responding to that part with “Hyperbole much?” After all, there’s no reason to think that this bill would mean that students were suddenly not learning that 2+2=4 or that the Third Reich lost World War II if it were passed. Of course, this just illustrates more succinctly than ever that the whole purpose of the bill is — here we go again — to target science education specifically. Still, the way it’s worded, it would be very easy to poison other courses apart from science if it actually passed. I can see the Reconstructionists using it to warp history curricula in order to reflect the “Christian nation” pseudohistory of America promoted by such groups as David Barton’s Wallbuilders, for instance.

Suffice it to say that if HB 2211 does become law in Oklahoma, the ink won’t be dry on the governor’s signature before the federal lawsuits get filed. And then you’ll have the entire course of education in that state needlessly disrupted as the Christian Right finds itself having to fight and lose yet another Dover. As Barbara Forrest pointed out when she spoke here last fall, all that these attempts by anti-science religionists actually achieve is the tearing apart of communities, the unnecessary waste of millions of dollars in legal fees, and the disruption, not enhancement, of the students’ educations. It just isn’t worth it.

Expelled = epic fail!

An invitation-only (of course) private screening for Expelled in Florida, held expressly to influence state legislators to support a bogus “academic freedom” bill that’s been introduced to counter the recent ruling that schools must teach evolution, tanked miserably, drawing only about 100 viewers. There’s a report here. It seems no one (least of all lawmakers, thank goodness) is fooled by the movie’s disingenuous message, or its amateurish attempts at stealth marketing.

A truly tragic meltdown

Matthew Murray, the poor messed up kid who shot up his church in Colorado back in December, had a lot wrong with him. Beyond his ADHD, there were overwhelming feelings of rejection, and not belonging. With his brain chemistry so badly screwed up (he was taking medication, but it’s impossible to tell if he was on it at the time of his rampage), it’s hard to say what could have prevented him from doing what he did.

God didn’t, of course, but that’s because there isn’t one, so you can’t exactly be bitter about that. But not only didn’t Christianity provide the path to peace and healing Murray needed, but it may well have exacerbated his situation. An angry letter from Matthew written to God has come to light. In it, Matthew rails against the hypocrisy he sees all around him in the Christian community.

“The more I read your stupid book, the more I pray, the more I reach out to Christians for help the more hurt and abused I get,” he wrote.

“I’ve heard good things about what Jesus can do, yet everywhere I go in Christianity, all the Christians I see or meet are miserable, angry, selfish, hypocritical, proud, power hungry, abusive, uncaring, confused, lustful, greedy, unsure of their doctrine and mean-spirited … Am I too lost to be saved? My soul cries for deliverance. I’m dieing (sp), praying, bleeding and screaming. Will I be denied???”

This stuff is just heartbreaking. And revealing in the way so much of his anger and bitterness is directed at the religious beliefs in which he’d been raised, setting an ideal for which he never believed he was good enough, while all around him, he saw people who had been accepted, loved and successful within the church (like Ted Haggard, whose sex scandal was especially appalling to him), revealed as hypocrites and liars.

I’m sure his family tried to help as his mental chaos overtook him, but his suffering was beyond them. It would have been so nice if there really was a God for guys like Matthew, who could hear a guy like Matthew’s pleas and reach down from whatever otherworldly, higher realm it lives in and simply, magically take the pain away. But that God’s just not there, for him, his victims, you, me or anyone. We’re the ones who have to look after and care for one another. You don’t heal the problems of someone like Matthew Murray by filling his head with ideas about heaven and hell and being a horrible sinner who must please a jealous God if he wishes to “be saved.” Build up a person’s life, help him realize that he has value and worth here and now. Because this is the only shot at life any of us gets. And it’s tragic to see anyone’s life go down in flames — especially when it takes others with it — the way Matthew’s did.

Proud of my bud!

Nothing to do with atheism, really, but just thought I’d give a shout-out and high-five to my buddy Kat Feller, who’s enjoying much newfound fame and fortune as part of the cast of the TV Land reality show High School Reunion. They’re plugging her as “The Lesbian,” which I think is kind of lame, because there’s a hell of a lot more to her than her sexual identity — she’s one of the most talented voice actresses I know, for one thing, appearing in a number of video games and animated movies, and she’s got a role in Madagascar: The Crate Escape, which is hitting theaters in November. But I notice part of the gimmick of the show is to fit everyone into one-dimensional labels, kind of like high school itself — “The Bully,” “The Jock,” that kind of thing. Anyway, she’s getting press and interviews all over the place (here’s one), and I’m really proud of her. So go Kat! Say, what do you think knowing that you’re more dangerous to America than a terrorist!? LO-fuckin’-L.

What’s your G.D.I.?

That’d be “God Delusion Index.” Mine is a healthy zero, thanks very much. Now, I’m not exactly sure how this fellow has set up his methodology. I do note that the more absurd a question is, the more points you’re awarded for answering yes. This may not be a, ahem, scientific poll. But I think his results are reliable. And funny.

More embarrassing press for Expelled

The more these clowns responsible for Expelled get any press outside the protected confines of the fundamentalist anti-science subculture, the more desperate and dishonest they look. Now the New York Times has published an article about the whole fracas involving Orlando Sentinel reviewer Roger Moore, the absurd press conference and screening he attended where people were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, and the total harshing of the movie he eventually wrote for the paper.

Hilariously enough, the Times doesn’t have to do anything other than let Ben Stein and publicist Paul Lauer speak for themselves to make them look foolish. For instance, the hilarious excuse Lauer gives for disinviting Moore to the screening is that “the film was not polished enough for professional scrutiny,” ironically implying that to pass muster amongst the fundamentalist Christian audience they’d hand-picked for their screening, professional polish wasn’t necessary. Hey guys, never let it be said you don’t respect your audience!

The article makes it abundantly clear just what a hypocritical exercise Expelled is. While on the one hand it assaults its imaginary villain, “Big Science” (led, no doubt, by Michael Myers in full Dr. Evil getup), for disallowing “academic freedom” in “suppressing” ID, on the other hand it clearly only intends to preach to the converted, gearing its marketing solely towards a fundamentalist audience already sufficiently scientifically illiterate to lack the knowledge to know how badly they’re being lied to. Keeping out critics from the mainstream media, or anyone who isn’t already part of the fundamentalist camp, is something they’re dead set on.

As has been remarked upon, if Stein and Lauer and the liars-for-God behind this movie really wanted a free and open exchange of conflicting ideas, they’d host numerous press screenings, not require nondisclosure agreements to be signed (talk about wanting to “control the message”!), and in fact enthusiastically encourage scientists and academics to come to those screenings and debate the film’s claims. That they don’t is clear indication they don’t want knowledgeable people exposing Expelled‘s campaign of deceit, at least not before that campaign has gained a foothold and spread even more anti-science poison among a populace who’s already been crippled by too much of it already.

“What would convince you?”

Christians often get frustrated with atheists. They complain that no argument is good enough, that we must be even more dogmatic in our unbelief than they are in their belief. You see this whine reflected in the swiftness with which believers, desperate to refute Dawkins and the “new atheists,” began referring to them as “atheist fundamentalists.” Nothing they can possibly say to persuade these closed-minded heathens will ever change their minds.

What believers don’t see is that this has nothing to do with the presumed intellectual constipation of atheists, and everything to do with the lame quality of their arguments for faith. You must realize that to a lot of believers — not just the rank-and-file Jack and Jill Churchgoer, but even to apologists who write books and ought to know better, like Ray Comfort and Dinesh D’Souza — laughable nonsense like Pascal’s Wager or Lewis‘s “lord, liar or lunatic” are excellent arguments. The simple fact is that, to an atheist who has spent years living his/her life rooted in reason, the feeble, emotionally comforting justifications that believers use to prop up their beliefs won’t work.

So what can believers do to change our minds? Often I’ve been asked, “What would it take to convince you? What evidence would break through your intellectual front lines?” Maybe you’ve been asked this yourself.

My response is to tell the believer that they should be directing their question at themselves and not me. Here’s what they should do.

Ask yourself, “Why do I believe in God?” Be brutally honest in your answer. Do you believe simply because you’ve been raised to believe and have never thought to question your upbringing? Or do you think you actually have sound intellectual reasons for your theism?

If you answer in the former, then you need to ask yourself if that is really good enough. Believers like to throw around terms like “intellectual honesty,” so any believer who is willing to admit they hold on to their theism simply because they were raised Christian ought to ask themselves if it is truly intellectually honest not to question beliefs just because you were raised in them.

If you answer in the latter, then ask yourself this: If your reasons for belief are intellectually satisfying to you, and are in your opinion well supported by evidence, then are those reasons on their own strong enough to sway unbelievers? If you think of yourself as a smart person, and your reasons to believe were strong enough to sway you, shouldn’t they be good enough for anyone else also?

If yes, then by all means, present them. And expect them to be scrutinized and evaluated. Don’t be angry if they aren’t just automatically accepted.

But if you don’t think your reasons are strong enough to sway an atheist, then ask yourself, why did they sway you? Are they really especially good reasons? Or did you allow something else — your emotions, your desire for acceptance and fear of rejection by your neighbors and family — to overpower your reason? If other smart people aren’t convinced by your reasons, should you have accepted those reasons as good enough for you, being that you’re a smart person too?

So don’t let atheists’ insistence on arguing these things down to the bone frustrate you, and don’t waste time asking us what would convince us, because that effectively amounts to your giving up. (And if you’re doing that, what does it say about how supportable your beliefs are?) Instead, take a moment to really evaluate your reasons for being a believer, and be coldly, unforgivingly honest with yourself in that evaluation. It will be difficult, but it’s worth doing. In my case, I must admit it was that process of self-evaluation that steered me towards my eventual atheism. But if such self-scrutiny only reassures you your reasons are sound, and that they are sound enough to trounce all of us “new atheists,” then bring ’em on. And prepare to defend yourself in a hearty argument. Much as people might like to think of us as “atheist fundamentalists” as an excuse to avoid getting in such arguments with us, just remember, we aren’t fundamentalists, we’re rationalists who insist on strict fidelity to evidence and reason. If we can be proven wrong, we’ll admit it when we are.

Blasphemy is, as they say, a victimless crime

Over in the UK, the population may be predominately non-religious, or at least indifferent to religion, in stark opposition to the way Americans can’t seem to get enough of the stuff. But it’s only been this week that the House of Lords* voted to strike down the nation’s laws against blasphemy. Nice of them to recognize it isn’t 1437 any more. Unless you’ve got a fascistic, Talibanoid theocracy going on, having blasphemy laws in a modern enlightened culture is like attaching a carburetor to your pyjamas: pointless and utterly silly.

Of course, some people are upset at learning the Middle Ages ended long ago.

Prominent Christian activist Baroness O’Cathain launched a blistering attack on the amendment, with particular fury aimed at Evan Harris. Lady O’Cathain maintained that abolition of blasphemy would unleash a torrent of abuse towards Christians.

Huh. I thought blasphemy was defined as making insulting or disrespectful remarks critical of gods, not their followers. As far as hate crimes against the religious are concerned, the UK has its Racial and Religious Hatred Act, a piece of legislation that makes it an offense to incite deliberate violence and hatred towards a person or group of people based on their race or creed. (I know it’s a law that feels problematic from a free speech standpoint, but the wording of it does try to make it clear that it’s only an offense when there’s clear intent to incite harm. I imagine it’s only a matter of time before it’s actually put to the test in the courts. After all, where’s the line between saying something like “Somebody ought to do something about those damn [insert minority here],” and “Kill the [minority]!”?)

One gets the impression that Baroness O’Cathain is merely troubled by the idea of anyone’s criticizing belief at all. As Tracie pointed out a couple of posts ago, it can be awfully hard for atheists to engage Christians in conversation about belief, simply because the minute you make one statement that’s even the tiniest bit snarky (like comparing their god belief to unicorn belief), many of them are so thin-skinned they’ll storm off in a huff right there. Not surprisingly, Dawkins and The God Delusion came up quite a bit in the House debates. The simple fact that atheist books exist, and are actually finding an audience, is enough for some Christians to think they’re suffering “a torrent of abuse.”

Well, let’s talk abuse. What about the people in the past who were actually the targets of the blasphemy laws in question? Ol’ Wikipedia tells me that the last guy to be prosecuted under the laws was John William Gott in 1921, who was sentenced to nine months’ hard labor simply for publishing pamphlets making fun of Christianity and Jesus. So Christians got their knickers in a twist because Gott snarked on their imaginary friend, and he got nine months breaking rocks. Call me crazy, but I consider that pretty damn torrential abuse. “Hey,” you might say, “that was 87 years ago.” Yeah, but I’m sure it still sucked for him.

Anyway, it was clearly time to get rid of the laws, because they were irrelevant and never used anyway. And as for Christian fears of persecution, again, I never cease to be amazed at these. Check your Yellow Pages and see how many pages it takes to list the churches in your city. Go to any bookstore in the US, and see how many shelves are swallowed up by the Religion category. Only Borders that I know of delineates a section to “Atheism and Agnosticism” within that category, and that section usually only amounts to about two or three shelves, as opposed to the fifty or so shelves devoted to Bibles, apologetics, and the usual twaddle from fundies like LaHaye and Strobel and Colson and their camp. But to many Christians, those two shelves for atheism are two too many, and amount to a horrifying all-out assault on their precious faith.

Cry me a river.


* I had to note my favorite comment about this on Richard Dawkins’ site:

Dear Britain, what the hell is a “house of lords”?? Signed, the 21st century.