Why I’m not a believer – the ‘But without God we wouldn’t have any morals!’ argument

This is the third in a short series of posts I’m writing about the subject of why, after investigating reasons for theism, I ultimately became a non-believer.

For background: These investigations were in my childhood/teenage years. I grew up in a non-religious household, but was intensely interested in the whole subject from an early age. I regarded the whole question of whether or not there was a God, and, if so, what religion he wanted us to follow, as being an extremely important one; so I put a lot of time into reading and thinking seriously about the subject. These are, as best as I can remember after a thirty-year gap, my reactions at the time to the arguments I found in my reading.

This one is probably self-explanatory, but can be briefly summarised thus: ‘Without God to tell us what to do, we’d all be scratching our heads trying to figure out what right and wrong are, since there is obviously no way anybody could work this out for him/herself without some sort of Supreme Arbiter defining it for us. And you obviously don’t want that to be the case, do you? So better believe in God.’ *

I have to say that this argument, when I read it as a teenager, did send me to particular levels of facepalming “Are they serious?!” In the first place, as you’ve probably noticed, this argument is subject to exactly the same flaws as the ‘But your life is meaningless without God!’ argument that I discussed in my last post; it falls apart logically (to be technical, it has the form of logic flaw known as an argument/appeal from consequences), and it isn’t even factually correct, since, despite not being a believer, I found myself perfectly well able to make the sort of basic distinctions between right and wrong that the authors using this argument were insisting I couldn’t possibly make. But this argument also has an extra flaw over and above the ‘But your life is meaningless without God!’ argument; namely, that the very fact that someone is using it indicates that they don’t actually believe it.

After all, apologists surely use only arguments that they at least think have a chance of being effective? The ‘But your life is meaningless without God!’ argument, despite its flaws, at least has a chance of convincing someone; a person who does feel their life is meaningless is going to want it to be meaningful, so that argument has a potential audience. But a person who doesn’t care about morals… doesn’t care that they don’t care about morals. If we unbelievers genuinely were all indifferent to right and wrong, then we wouldn’t care when someone pointed that deficiency out to us. It would be as meaningless to us as the fact that we don’t keep to kosher dietary laws. The very fact that apologists use the no-morals-without-God argument as an attempt to convert non-believers shows that – at least on some level – they know perfectly well that morals matter to non-believers.

I was quite intrigued by the twisting of logic that must be required to use an argument that could only be used if you didn’t believe it was true. Surely there has to be a name for that particular logic flaw? Maybe not; I can’t think of any other examples of it that I’ve heard. If anyone knows what that logic flaw would be called, do please tell me!

*Note that CS Lewis, in Mere Christianity, used a different type of pro-theism moral argument which effectively contradicts this one; the argument that precisely because we all have innate knowledge of right and wrong, we can conclude that God must exist, on the basis that the only way such innate knowledge could exist within us would be if a deity had caused us all to be born with this type of instinctive knowledge. While I don’t agree with that form of the argument either, I do find it rather better than this form. However, I’m writing this as the story of what arguments I looked at when originally deciding whether I should believe in God or not, and this particular argument was one I didn’t run across until some years later; therefore, in the interest of vaguely chronological accuracy, I’ll leave it to a later post.

Why I’m not a believer – the ‘But your life is meaningless without God!’ argument

This is the second in a short series of posts I’m writing about the subject of why, after investigating reasons for theism, I ultimately became a non-believer.

For background: These investigations were in my childhood/teenage years. I grew up in a non-religious household, but was intensely interested in the whole subject from an early age. I regarded the whole question of whether or not there was a God, and, if so, what religion he wanted us to follow, as being an extremely important one; so I put a lot of time into reading and thinking seriously about the subject. These are, as best as I can remember after a thirty-year gap, my reactions at the time to the arguments I found in my reading.

The ‘But your life is meaningless without God!’ argument almost got left out of this list, as it was such a poor argument I’d actually forgotten about it; however, I was reading John Blanchard’s ‘Does God Believe In Atheists?’, which spends a lot of time on it, and I thought ‘Oh, yes… now I come to think of it, I do recall coming across this when I was researching the whole God subject’. So here it is.

This argument consists of telling the reader or hearer, in impassioned terms, about… well, obviously, about how meaningless lives are without God, with the implication that we should therefore believe in God. Or, to put it another way, ‘We should believe in God because we really want [our version of] Him to exist’.

This is what is technically known as an argument from consequences (or, if you want to get fancy about it, an argumentum ad consequentiam) – the claim that a particular viewpoint is true because the consequences of it being false would be bad. (Or, conversely, that a particular viewpoint is false because the consequences of it being true would be bad.) It’s the logic flaw that’s the downfall of the cancer sufferer who ignored that lump or worrying symptom for too long because they didn’t want it to turn out to be cancerous, the gamblers who convinced themselves that that long shot just had to pay off because they so much wanted it to.

It can work if used as an appeal to emotion, but it’s an argument too flawed to stand up in the light of day. Which is why you will probably never see anyone spell it out quite as blatantly as I did a couple of paragraphs above – if anyone attempting this argument ever did explicitly state ‘And because it feels so awful not to believe in God, God must therefore exist’ then the crashing failure of logic would (hopefully) be far too obvious to take seriously.

(Ironically, if this type of argument actually had worked well in converting me, it would have backfired on any Christian apologist who tried it, since I always found the idea behind Christianity quite horrifying. The idea of God existing – a wise, kind, all-knowing being in charge of the universe and steering its ultimate destiny – sounded lovely to me, and I always hoped my studies would lead me to theism as a conclusion. But the idea that this being had set things up so that people would burn in hell forever simply for having the wrong beliefs? It appalled me. If I hadn’t recognised the fallacy behind this sort of believe-what-you-want-to-believe argument, I’d have rejected Christianity in a heartbeat without further thought, simply because I so much didn’t want it to be true.*)

A more important problem I had with this argument as a teenager, however, was that the premise was so obviously false. Plain and simple, my life did have meaning without God. Plenty of meaning. I loved being alive, I loved enjoying life’s pleasures, I loved looking forward to everything life had to bring. Sure, I liked the idea of a God existing (as long as it was a nice one, not the horrible variety of god that I was hearing about from Christian sources), but I was in no way dependent on God’s existence for finding meaning in my life.

So all of these arguments about how meaningless life was without God got a rather blank look from me. I was sorry for the people who felt that way, who obviously needed very much to hold on to their beliefs and who seemed to struggle inexplicably with enjoying life for its own sake; but their attempts to persuade me that I felt the same way simply fell flat.

 

*Obviously, I ended up rejecting Christianity anyway. But I did so only after spending a lot of time, over many years, reading and thinking about the various arguments and holding myself to strict standards in terms of whether I felt any particular argument actually disproved the belief system or not. It was not just a case of ‘I don’t want to believe it so I’ll assume it’s not true.’ (All of which will make for another post series which I do hope eventually to get round to writing.)

Why I’m not a believer – the ‘So how could X have happened without God?’ arguments

This is the first in a short series of posts I’m writing about the subject of why, after investigating reasons for theism, I ultimately became a non-believer.

For background: These investigations were in my childhood/teenage years. I grew up in a non-religious household, but was intensely interested in the whole subject from an early age. I regarded the whole question of whether or not there was a God, and, if so, what religion he wanted us to follow, as being an extremely important one; so I put a lot of time into reading and thinking seriously about the subject. These are, as best as I can remember after a thirty-year gap, my reactions at the time.

The ‘So how could X have happened without God?’ arguments, as I now think of them, are the main ones I remember coming across in this period of reading and examining different arguments for theism. Looking back from a perspective of somewhat greater knowledge of the debate field, I think I was getting my kalam cosmologicals lumped in with my design arguments (for the uninitiated, the kalam cosmological argument is a philosophical argument around the supposed necessity of a First Cause for the universe to exist at all, and the design argument is the argument that various specific aspects of the universe couldn’t possibly have reached their current form without a creator). But the basic formula always seemed to be to be similar; how could [the universe, the origin of life, some specific complex aspect of life-forms] have possibly happened without God to bring it about?

I didn’t, of course, know. I just didn’t see how that could logically lead to a certainty that ‘God did it’ must be the only possible answer.

I was perplexed. Scientists were continually working to find out new knowledge, and, as a result of this, we now knew the answers to a lot of questions about the universe that baffled humans in the past. So surely the most logical assumption to make about any question about the universe to which we didn’t know the answer was that that sentence should probably end in ‘…yet’? Why should we leap straight to assuming that this question, unlike the many that baffled humanity similarly in the past, will be insoluble? And, as long as the possibility exists of us someday finding a natural process that could explain this problem, surely we can’t logically use its existence as an argument for the existence of God?

Of course, there was a logical difficulty with that approach as well; it also couldn’t be used to prove the non-existence of God. After all, let’s suppose that the answer to one of those ‘How could X have happened without God?’ conundrums actually was ‘It couldn’t; this time, God really did do it’. How could we exclude that possibility, given that ‘We don’t yet know what natural process caused X’, and ‘X happened because of God’ were effectively indistinguishable for any as-yet-unanswered question for as long as it remained unanswered?

I thought it over, and pictured a scenario: Scientists the world over throw up their collective hands, declaring “We’re stumped. We have absolutely no idea how this could have happened through natural causes. We don’t even have any theories left as to how to investigate this. We’re clear out of ideas.” The years go by, scientists continue to rack their brains, and yet no-one can come up with a thing. At that point, it seemed to me, theists really would have a good case – not watertight, but very good indeed – for saying “It must have been God.” And, if that happened, I would take that seriously as an argument.

Until and unless that happened, though, I couldn’t see how the argument held water. I couldn’t see any way that ‘How could X have happened without God?’ questions could be used to establish the existence or otherwise of a god.

Why I am not a religious believer

When I first started atheist-blogging, on a blog prior to this one, I figured the obvious place to start would be with the story of how and why I became an atheist. So I wrote a series of posts about the story; about growing up in a non-practicing family of mixed religious heritage, about considering different religions, and about eventually becoming first an agnostic and ultimately an atheist. Looking back, there’s a rather important aspect of the story I didn’t cover; the details of why I ended up as a non-believer rather than a believer. The short answer to that, of course, is that I didn’t find any of the supposed evidence to be convincing; but it would be worth blogging about the question of why I didn’t.

I’m therefore going to write a short series of posts on the arguments I encountered while researching the question of whether or not God existed, my reaction to them, and why I ultimately found each of them unconvincing. I weighed up the evidence as well and fairly as I could, and I’ll try to do the same in recounting it (although bear in mind that I’m relating things that mostly occurred thirty or more years ago). I’ll link each of them back to this post to give me a single place to refer back to if the general question ‘So, why don’t you believe in God?’ ever comes up.

This list will be for posts on the topic of atheism vs. theism. While I was looking into this, I also spent a lot of time researching the more specific issue of whether I should believe in Christianity. However, while this is obviously a linked subject, it’s not one I’m covering here; I want to write a separate series of posts on that issue.

Becoming an atheist – posts:

 

‘So how could X have happened without God?’

‘But your life is meaningless without God!’

‘But without God we wouldn’t have any morals!’

‘What about prayers and personal experiences?’

How I became an agnostic

From agnosticism to atheism

What I’ve been reading – The Maze Runner trilogy

(Content note – This post contains spoilers for the books. Also mention of post-apocalyptic scenarios, though I don’t go into that bit very much. Also, at the end, a bit about fantasy high-tech medical stuff described in more graphic terms than you might want to hear.)

Caveat: I read the first book and the first part of the second book, but then skim-flipped from there through to the end of the third, as by then they’d moved into the ‘post-apocalyptic wasteland populated by crazed, doomed survivors’ part of the setting, which is something that just doesn’t float my boat. It is therefore possible that I might have missed an explanation that made at least somewhat more sense out of the plot. If so, do let me know, and my apologies.

Anyway, this is going to be a summary of my thoughts on the trilogy as a whole. If you want a really good chapter-by-chapter deconstruction of the first book, do check out Whitley Birks’ excellent review (plus her other reviews while you’re there; it’s a superb blog with all kinds of interesting points about what well-known authors got horribly wrong through lazy research/not doing the writing).

Here’s the overriding impression with which this trilogy left me: the author had a lot of good ideas but then had no idea how to write a coherent plot that would properly account for them all.

I mean, you can picture James Dashner thinking “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to write about a large group of children trapped in a meadow in the middle of a maze, with no idea what was going on! Or for them to have some sort of trial that involved making their way a hundred miles across a post-apocalyptic wasteland within a time limit! Or to have a dilemma about whether it’s OK to do terrible things to children if it’s the only chance of saving the world! Or a government agency with the acronym WICKED and the slogan ‘WICKED is good’ and amnesiac people remembering this slogan but having no idea what it means! Doesn’t that sound great?”

And, yes… it was. For a while. Right up until the point where we got what was supposed to be the Big Reveal explanation for each of those. At which point I would be looking at it and thinking “What?! That doesn’t make any sense! What about…??”

Main plot points that evoked the “What?! That doesn’t make any sense!” explanation from me:

The reason WICKED are experimenting on the children is to find a cure for a deadly plague (known as the Flare) which is ravaging the rest of the human race; most of the children are naturally immune (some of them are apparently there as control subjects) so WICKED desperately need to study the children and find out what accounts for their immunity, in hopes of finding a cure for everyone else. So far, so good. The trouble is, they’re doing it by studying the way their brains function (by putting them through various stressful situations and monitoring their responses). Which makes no sense whatsoever. If you want to know what makes someone immune to an illness, surely you start by studying their immune system? Tissue biopsies of the brain would probably also be useful, but the only time we see WICKED trying to do that, it’s when they want to dissect Thomas’s entire brain (and only Thomas’s – they don’t seem to feel any requirement to compare biopsies from a variety of the children).

They’re also, apparently, taking a bizarrely long time to do this. The children get taken away from their parents at an early age and kept by WICKED for years until they’re old enough to take part in the Maze trials, which then go on for two more years. Since the time from infection by the Flare virus to destruction of your functioning brain doesn’t, from what I could see, seem to be that long – how exactly is it that the virus hasn’t wiped out everyone non-immune during those years and left the whole question of a cure moot?

WICKED are also quite extraordinarily profligate with money. The Maze walls, we are told, are hundreds of feet high and move into different positions every night. (Wait, what?! How do you even make a wall that high stable enough to be moved?? Now I’m all ‘Ye canna change the laws of physics, laws of physics, Cap’n!’ and that wasn’t even the plot hole I was about to discuss.) We also learn that the Maze is eight times the size of the central area (the Glade) which is in itself the size of eight football fields, so that is one bloody big maze. All made out of moveable walls hundreds of feet high. And the children live there for two years, with the walls being moved every night and supplies being sent in weekly. In fact, we learn in the second book that there are two such groups of children, not just one. So… how much did all this cost?? The cost of first building and then maintaining two such mazes would be… so colossally expensive that we need a new term for ‘colossally expensive’. I mean, which planet do you sell to whom in order to finance something like that? And this is all meant to be taking place in a post-apocalyptic world when even basic services are likely to be going belly-up. (We are told at one point in the third book that WICKED have managed to corner available funding and resources due to being the only ones holding out the promise of a cure, but… funding and resources available for cornering at that point are still not going to be that great.)

So, are we seriously meant to believe that at absolutely no point in the design of the Mazes did anyone in charge point out “Hey, I realise walls hundreds of feet high sound exciting, but surely we can get the same effect at a fraction of the price by making the walls something like eight or ten feet high”? Or that at no point during the two years that all this was going on and that both groups of children were making zero progress on cracking the code or figuring out how to escape did anyone say”‘Guys, this experiment isn’t getting us anywhere and you can’t justify claiming these levels of funds any longer. Find something to hurry it up”? I’m sorry, I just do not buy the idea that any government agency anywhere in the history of government agencies who were, are, or will be can get away with being that blithely unconcerned about funding availability for that long.

Nearly done (not because that’s an exhaustive list, just because it’s a list of the things that bugged me the most) but I do have to mention the Retractor that we learned about in ‘The Death Cure’. This is, supposedly, a hi-tech device that removes implants from the children’s brains by sending wires in via their ear canals. Because apparently Dashner either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that ears aren’t just holes stretching straight through to the brain. You send a wire in through someone’s ear, the first thing it’s going to meet is the eardrum, which seals the outer canal off completely from the middle ear. Go through that, and you’re getting into some complex and delicate anatomy – the tiny bones of the middle ear, and the inner-ear organs that process sounds and monitor your balance. I’m a GP, not an ENT surgeon, but trying to pull an implant out via that lot strikes me as a really bad idea.

Also, since they are apparently going for this appallingly bad via-the-ear plan, why do the Retractors go on the children’s faces to perform this procedure? Wouldn’t it make far more sense for them to go on one side of the head? I mean, if it’s on the face, the wire it sends out has to curve sideways and downwards to find the ear and then upwards and forwards again to negotiate the ear canal… I think Dashner was, once again, going for the ‘this is such a cool scary image’ approach over actual practicalities.

OK, I’m done. What did everyone else think of the books? Did I miss anything important? Do let me know.

Happy blogging anniversary!

Yes, indeed – ’tis one year exactly since the day when I received the great news that I had been granted the high honour of a FreeThoughtBlogs blog. Since then, I’ve been privileged to get to know some great people and, of course, to actually post on here on those admittedly infrequent occasions when I get time to do so.

I know I haven’t posted nearly as often as I’d like to, but I’m still thrilled to be here; getting this blog really was one of the best things that happened to me in 2016, and that would be the case even if it hadn’t been a basically sucky year overall. So, happy blogging anniversary to me and to the many other bloggers who started at the same time as I did.

(Aaaaaaand… I am marking the day appropriately by, once again, being almost late for dinner, which is more of a problem this time since I’m the one making it. So, apologies for the brevity of this, but I must go.)

I Aten’t Dead

You may have noticed that I’ve been around very little over the past several months. Actually, it’s more likely that you haven’t noticed – there are, after all, plenty of excellent blogs on this site and a regular stream of posts from all directions – but it’s still something I feel guilty about.

The reason for my near-absence is that, on top of all the other stuff involved in being a mother and part-time GP, as of this school year I’ve also had to start part-time homeschooling my son. (The other part of the time he’s with tutors.) This certainly has its benefits and has been an interesting experience, but it’s also a huge suck of time and energy that I didn’t really have to spare. So, at any time when I could potentially be sitting down to blog, invariably either I have stuff that genuinely is more important to do right then (getting son’s lessons ready for the next day, getting work letters done), or I’m just plain too exhausted to face getting my brain to string sentences together, or both. On top of that, there’s the whole thing where my brain keeps going “But.. terrible political situation in the US… I should be helping out by making incisive posts! But I have no incisive posts to make! So how can I post about anything less important when so much important stuff is going on!”. Which doesn’t help.

Anyway… all of that is still going on, so this isn’t exactly the ‘and now my problems are solved and I can return to normal blogging’ post. It’s just the ‘sod it, I’m fed up of working my way through endless to-do lists and want to do something for me for a change’ post. Yeah, maybe the stuff I blog about isn’t going to be terribly interesting or important. But I still have things I want to write about, and I think that taking a break from everything else to write about them is something I need to do right now.

By the way, if anyone wants to throw out a word of encouraging interest in any of my currently planned topics, that would be great. They are, in no particular order of priority:

  • Homeschooling
  • Whatever I happen to have been reading lately
  • A description of the first episode of 11.22.63. (That one may have to wait… writing a detailed description of something like that is a big time-consuming project that probably isn’t ideal to take on when I’m just trying to get back to blogging anything, but it’s still something I’d like to do eventually.)
  • Actually finishing the detailed breakdown I promised nine months ago of the many errors in Lenny Esposito’s ‘but we should stop transgender people transitioning because science!’ of which I have so far managed only two posts out of a planned four.
  • Counter-apologetics, including short series of posts on a) why I became an unbeliever and b) why, specifically, I concluded Christianity’s claims not to be true.

Obviously, you may not care as long as I write something/not care anyway, which is fine. But any of those did make you gasp in glee and say “Wow, that’s exactly what it’s always been my dream to read about!” or even just think “Hmm, that sounds kind of interesting”, then, y’know, leave a comment and tell me so.

Friday the 13th and advocacy for sex workers

So, there’s this thing I’ve been taking part in for the past few years where I and some other bloggers/Internet users make Friday the 13th a day for speaking up for sex workers’ rights and the abolition of restrictive laws that harm sex workers rather than helping them. I don’t want to miss doing so this year, but I’m afraid that time constraints and general exhaustion mean that this is going to have to be my shortest post so far on the subject.

Firstly, the above link is to the post I wrote for the last Friday the 13th, which in turn links back to a couple of others. If you read that, it’ll fill you in pretty well on my views.

Secondly, and more importantly, I’d like to take this opportunity to direct you to what our national prostitutes’ organisation, the English Collective of Prostitutes, have to say on the importance of decriminalisation of prostitution. This statement of theirs summarises the reasons for decriminalisation of sex work and provides two links with summaries of useful information on the harm done by current British sex work laws (the US ones, by the way, are even worse, as prostitution itself is illegal in nearly all of the US, which is an appallingly unjust and harmful law) and debunking of several myths about sex work.

So, once again; let’s put an end to laws that harm sex workers, listen to what sex workers want from the law, and look at how best to reform the law with the actual needs and opinions of sex workers in mind.

Well, f&*%

I don’t normally use the F-word on my blog even with asterisks (I’m not squeamish, but my mother reads this blog) but there’s simply no other response to the results at this point.

Last night, when the polls were suggesting Clinton would just squeak through, my husband told me something he’d read in Reason magazine; that it was worrying to realise that if a competent racist without a history of sexual assault allegations was running for president in America today, he’d win. It now seems that an incompetent racist with a history of sexual assault allegations can do so. It’s beyond terrifying to think how many voters may have found his racism a feature rather than a bug. Or how many disliked the idea of a woman as president so much that they would literally vote for any available alternative.

An article by my sister: the problem with the term ’empowerment’

Back when I was pregnant with each of my children and reading antenatal literature and forums, one thing that cropped up now and again and annoyed the hell out of me was the habit of some health care providers of claiming that they wanted to ’empower’ women to have better births. While I’m sure it was very well meant, I also recognised that anyone who talked about ’empowering’ me was implicitly assuming that a) I wasn’t really all that powerful already and b) I wasn’t capable of becoming so without their kind help.

I was reminded of this when I read my sister’s latest article (nothing to do with childbirth, by the way) on the way that the word ’empowerment’ is essentially a meaningless distraction: Empowerment’ is Warping Women’s View of Real Power.

You can safely assume that if an activity is described as “empowering,” no one in any actual position of authority will be going anywhere near it… Empowerment has become the sparkly pink consolation prize for the gender that continues to be excluded from actual power.

And good points about the sexism in how Clinton is viewed/portrayed by the media.