This week, I tossed off a casual, flippant comment that launched a thousand ineffectual bastinados. I described a map that purported to show the frequency of religious adherents in the US this way:
It shows the concentration of ignorant, deluded, wicked, foolish, or oppressed victims of obsolete mythologies in the United States, with the lighter colors being the most enlightened and the dark reds being the most repressed and misinformed
Fury, outrage, and massive snits ensued. Blogs were riven to their very foundations by anger — “How dare Myers insult me…I am offended!” — and the sun was darkened in the sky, while badgers gave birth to raccoons and other abominations occurred with alarmingly elevated frequency. Mostly, though, people wrote more blog posts pro and con, commenters were roused to furious typing, fora were inundated with tirades, and my in-box was overflowing.
I was much amused — man, wait until I really cut loose — but basically thought the to-do was far too much noise about nothing. Please try to get used to it, O Pious Ones: atheists think your beliefs are wacky. Just as wacky as you find idols to monkey gods or cargo cults or Mormonism or Seventh Day Adventists or Bratz dolls. But now that the bonfire is cooling to a few scattered glowing embers, I thought I’d offer a few general responses to the most common complaints.
So here they are, the three most common protestations, distilled down and paraphrased.
Why do you say that? Don’t you know that will alienate our allies/I will hate science with a passion because of you?
There was an immense amount of speculation about my motives. People were arguing about whether this helps the cause of atheism, whether it hurts the cause of science education, whether it’s all part of my plan to rally the godless to my uncompromising, invigorating banner, yadda yadda yadda. I hate to tell you all this, but in all the guesswork, no one, not even those sympathetic to me, got the right answer, except for Revere. The explanation is very, very simple, and you’re going to kick yourself when I say it.
I said it because it was true.
There is no god, or to say it in the most optimistic and sensitive way possible for a rational person, there is absolutely no evidence for a god. In particular, there is no sensible support for the multitude of peculiar doctrinal, dogmatic, and delusional weirdnesses documented in this (much better) map. You’ve got crazy-ass megalomaniacal evangelical kooks telling people to hate their gay/muslim/hindu/godless/female/evolutionist neighbors, you’ve got mobs believing them, you’ve got people electing presidents on the basis of how fanatically they will wage a crusade, and you’ve got even more swooning with the vapors at anyone who criticizes religious belief. Religion makes you nuts. It makes ordinary people identify with invisible spirits, it turns them into caterwauling flibbertigibbet idiots at any slight to a magic man who has never done a thing for them, and it makes them center their lives around head-dunkings and cracker-eating and gibbering chants to an unheeding phantasm.
I’m not saying you’re a bad person or even stupid if you’re a believer. I’m saying that you are possibly wicked if you’re promoting it, probably ignorant if you accept its contradictions with reality, almost certainly foolish if you think rituals will get you into heaven, definitely deluded by centuries’ worth of lies, and most definitely oppressed by your deference to baseless superstition.
As for my cause, ultimately it’s not anti-religion or pro-science education, although those are subsidiary goals. My cause is simply the truth — the truth stated plainly and openly.
So all those people squawking that they were offended were wasting their efforts. I don’t care if you were offended. There is no god (or no evidence of one), and you aren’t rebutting my claims by telling me how deeply your feelings are hurt. If you walked into a doctor’s office and were told that, to improve your health, you need to lose weight and stop smoking and exercise more, would you start shouting that you were insulted? (Yeah, I know, some of you would.) Do you think the depth of your indignation would change the diagnosis?
You’ve been given your prescription, people of faith: you believe in a lot of goofy, stupid, ridiculous ideas. You can resign yourself to them if you aren’t strong enough to part from them — I’m not going to follow you to church and drag you out with a choke-chain — or you can wake up. It’s all up to you. One thing you don’t get to do is silence the people who point and laugh.
As for those other causes, truth is always going to be anti-religion, and science is a process that aspires to uncover the truth, so I’m entirely self-consistent. It’s those who think they can reconcile a mythology of lies with honest attempts to learn the nature of reality who have muddled objectives.
Here’s the second most common complaint I got.
You’re an asshole. All you do is insult people.
Meh. Everyone is free to think that. It was bizarre, though, that the single most common epithet people were flinging around was “asshole”. Even people who were defending me would often say things like, “You’re an asshole, but…”. The weird internal contradiction in my example above was fairly common, too — I saw so many arguments that I’d never be able to persuade people to my side with insults that culminated in furious descriptions of the deep inner assholishness of my character, and oh, I’m ugly, too, that the only reasonable conclusion I can come to is that logic and self-awareness are dead. Or that a lot of assholes were writing to me.
Anyway, there’s not much to say about that one.
This last one may be true for individuals, but it’s missing the point.
You’re boring. I never read your garbage about religion, and it’s gotten so boring that I never read Pharyngula anymore.
I think these are patent attempts to make my brain meltdown and explode, ala the super-intelligent computers in Star Trek that could be destroyed by telling them a paradox. How is it that my science posts get only a small (but usually appreciative and intelligent) response, while my incendiary godless atheism posts drag all these strangers out of the woodwork to complain, if they are so boring? Is inciting a riot boring? Maybe you aren’t interested (even if the fact that it’s driven you to write to me or about me contradicts that claim), but so what? I am not writing for you. I am writing for me, and I find it interesting.
Allow me to make a constructive suggestion. I seem to be a fairly successful blogger, at least in terms of traffic and linkage and all those other artificial metrics. Now there are good reasons to ignore those metrics — there are excellent blogs with low traffic, obviously, and I do not pick my readings by how many other bloggers read them — but if you’re complaining that I’m boring or that your avoidance of my blog is some kind of chastisement, you’re clearly thinking that entertaining a readership is something of value. Now think about how a blog could attract a large following.
One strategy is to pick a topic with a wide base, and pursue it well and deeply. Politics comes to mind; it’s a subject of broad interest, with lots of built-in contentiousness. Some of the biggest and most popular blogs around are built on that foundation. But you should also look at sports blogs: they’re completely alien to me and of absolutely no interest (“boring”), but they’ve got huge readerships. There are blogs dedicated to particular makes of car that are thriving!
Science, alas, does not have quite so much general support. There’s solid interest among a small and healthy percentage of the population, but if you’re a pure science blogger you’re drawing on a small slice of the pie. Maybe it’s the most marvelously tasty slice and your presentation is superb, and it’s an entirely respectable and worthy focus, but if you want the big traffic numbers, face it, science won’t do it. Maybe after Seed and scienceblogs grow the audience, though…
Anyway, by chance (no, by the contingent details of my personal interests) and definitely not by design, this particular blog has multiple foci that work together to draw in an audience.
Science, of course. It’s why I started the thing, and why I invest much more effort in the individual science posts than anything else here.
Godlessness. This is the most contentious subject and also the one with the broadest appeal — like politics, it draws in the arguments.
Anti-creationism. Another good source of battles that draws in a crowd.
Liberal politics. A subject of varying interest here, and I think better handled by the numerous specialist blogs, but I care about it.
Cephalopods. This one attracts the weirdos. You gotta have a few freaks to liven up the place.
There are people who read Pharyngula just for one of those topics, and I get email all the time telling me that one or the other of those is “boring” (except the cephalopods, everyone loves those). I’m not surprised that many people are utterly uninterested in some part of what I write — probably the only person on the planet with exactly my constellation of interests is me, and that’s who I write for. So telling me that some aspect of this blog is “boring” will never have any impact at all, especially not when it is apparently exciting enough to stimulate you to write.
And if you’re a blogger and want a hint on how to increase traffic, there it is: tap into multiple audiences. If you’re a scienceblogger, go ahead and pick some other subject that excites you and invest some effort into expressing your enthusiasm for it. Why not make a third of your posts about your favorite sport, for instance? You’ll enjoy it, if that’s your thing, and you’ll build a following among football fans, and occasionally enlighten them with an article about chemistry. I’ll find the football intensely boring and will skip those posts, but I promise I won’t ever complain to you about how tedious they are — somebody else will find them fascinating. Open up and write about anything you love, and trust me, readers will love you back (some will hate you, too, but that’s all good for traffic.)
This is obvious advice, that the key to successful blogging is to follow your passions and follow them well, but from all the people who complain that my passions aren’t the same as theirs, I clearly need to explain the obvious.
Shoddy reasoning. When truth is low-hanging fruit, anyone who tries can pick it, and people agree on obvious truths. But it doesn’t follow that if people agree on a thing, it is an obvious truth – or even an obscure one.
Pretty bad, especially for someone who it’s been estimated had an IQ upwards of 190.
Skimming the above, I spotted something that reminded me of one of my fave quotes:
Congrats on posting comment #500. Bud Selig is waiting for you at home plate.
Re: Voltaire’s remarks. I agree. That argument always seemed kinda facile to me, but I didn’t dismiss it because IMO:
1. “The point in which they all agree” was more likely to be true (or more to the point, more useful) and “the systems in regard to which all differ” have proven to be nothing but trouble.
2. The process of formulating doctrine by consensus yields a result that by virtue of its striking simplicity is far superior, despite its shortcomings, to the hopelessly byzantine and contradictory tangle of “truths” provided by world religions in the aggregate.
I have a feeling this may get some nasty responses but im interested in everyone’s thoughts. Everything had to come from somewhere. Things dont just appear right? It seems logical then to say every creation has a creator. Someone please explain to me how the universe just popped up one day and i swear i will not write anymore “boring posts about what a true christian believes and what God is.” Any takers? Steven_c maybe youd like to put a stop to my tortuous posts. If anyone can give me an answer I would love to hear it. Btw im not ignoring everyone’s comments; I just want to do a little digging myself about what you all said before I agree or disagree.
Here is the wikipedia article on the Big Bang.
If you’re trying to evoke the metaphysical First Cause or Cosmological argument, you should know that you need evoke a number of apologetic arguments for why any first cause (or creator deity) is exempt from the rule that any entity needs a preceding cause, otherwise you’re forced to postulate an infinite regression of creator gods that were created by earlier creator gods.
2,500+ years’ worth of theology has not solved that dilemma to widespread satisfaction.
I’m much more comfortable with an “I don’t know” than a “god did it”.
I don’t know requires investiagtion.
God did it requires nothing but faith.
God by definition doesnt need a creator; hes the ultimate.
Oh? We can just as easily say that the universe by definition doesn’t need a creator, so it’s the ultimate.
(Of course, some philosophers have been quite comfortable in saying that God and the universe are the same thing.)
Anton Mates says
Sometimes they do. “Virtual particles” pop into and out of existence all the time; they’re responsible for the fundamental forces in quantum theory. Some cosmological theories have the universe spontaneously popping into existence by a similar mechanism.
There really isn’t a general “everything must come from somewhere” rule in science. Some quantities generally stay constant over time in a closed system–energy, momentum, etc.–but even they fluctuate, although briefly and rarely. And we have no way of knowing if the laws enforcing their approximate constancy were in effect before the Big Bang.
Not really. Even if you assume that something existed before the known universe, that something need not be an intelligent God which made it. It could be a prior universe, or a parent multiverse, or a sea of chaos, or a giant computer which is running our universe as a simulation, or just about anything. Physicists are exploring some of the simpler options, and may eventually be able to demonstrate that one of them is particularly likely. For now, we just don’t know.
As Kseniya pointed out, the “divine creator” option runs into all the same problems you describe above. If nothing comes from nothing, where did God come from? If God doesn’t need to be created because he’s always existed, why couldn’t the universe have always existed as well? Remember, the Big Bang was simply a significant moment when all the space we can currently see was compressed into a very tiny volume. It’s not, so far as we know, the actual moment when reality began. For all we know, the world could have an infinite past.
Good job. I’d be much happier if you thought long and hard about these issues and stayed religious, than if you deconverted for no good reason. Although I warn you, I know several ex-Christians who started on the road to atheism/agnosticism by studying this stuff…so that they could argue more effectively with atheists. :-)
Anton Mates says
Then God by definition does not exist, since according to your previous argument, everything in existence has to be created by something else.
Kseniya, OM says
Cool, I’ve posted so much on this thread, I’m starting to get credit for comments made by people like Brownian and Owlmirror, who are much smarter than I. Perhaps this will raising my standing in the community somewhat, and add at least five points to my virtual IQ. Awesome. Carry on.
(Anton, the check is in the mail.)
Sophia, we are taught that God is exempt from the intuitive “Everything must have a creator, right?” argument. Even if God does exist, we grant this exemption on the basis of nothing more robust than an arbitrary assumption we’ve made about His nature and origins. Some of the problems with that assumption have already been stated by Owl, Brownian, and Anton. I’d like to add something.
Intuitive arguments like that one apply a common-sense logic that works well in our day-to-day earthy lives, but which rarely extends to more fundamental aspects of reality or to those which are too small or too large to observe directly. Intuition led us to believe, for countless thousands of years, that the earth was flat and that the sun traveled overhead like some kind of flaming balloon. Intuition was clearly wrong in such cases, and it took many, many years of scientific inquiry to correct these misconceptions.
To make matters worse, quantum physics is notoriously counter-intuitive – nothing about it “makes sense” – but it is there we must look for answers to some of the questions we have concerning the mechanics of existence.
Schroedinger’s Cat demonstrates not that a cat can be alive and dead at the same time, but that extrapolating quantum-level phenomena to the macroscopic level yields such absurdities. Similarly, applying mundane common-sense thinking (“a painting implies a painter”) to questions about the origins of the universe yields logical fallacies.
A painting may imply a painter, yes, but the universe is not a painting. We already know that paintings are painted by painters. We know no such thing about universes. It’s a turn of phrase that has meaning only in a conversation about man-made objects. Even if we concede that we know nothing about the existence of God or the origins of the universe, we know enough about our corner of it to say that “a volcano implies a volcano-maker,” or that “a planet implies a planet-maker,” is not only wrong, it’s ridiculous.
Here’s something to chew on:
“Quantum events have a way of just happening, without any cause, as when a radioactive atom decays at a random time. Even the quantum vacuum is not an inert void, but is boiling with quantum fluctuations. In our macroscopic world, we are used to energy conservation, but in the quantum realm this holds only on average. Energy fluctuations out of nothing create short-lived particle-antiparticle pairs, which is why the vacuum is not emptiness but a sea of transient particles. An uncaused beginning, even out of nothing, for space-time is no great leap of the imagination.” ~ Taner Edis, Is Anybody Out There?
(Emphasis mine). :-)
All things youve said are interesting and for the most part appear to be true. I wouldnt worry about my deconverting because everything that has been said so far does not rule God out as a possibility. Thats what i was trying to get. So i have come to a conclusion that i had already known but am now convinced. There is no way to know if there is a God or not based on science or any other natural way. I am still positive there is. I will continue to learn more about everything i can and be ready to change my positions based on what knowledge i attain. The knowledge of the existence of God will not be one of them since it is not provable or disprovable. Plus just the words “quantum physics” irk me. Is it really believable that the order with which everything operates and works together in such perfection really just kinda happened randomly, without any guiding force? March of the Penguins really made appreciate the incredible precision and organization that is found in nature and im not big on watching that kind of stuff.
Randomly? I’m not sure what you mean. Without any guiding force? Yes, it is believable.
Why does quantum mechanics trouble you? That’s like saying “chemistry” or “math” troubles you on some cosmic level. You can’t make it go away. It is what it is. It has implications. You can’t make those go away, either.
Penguins are not subatomic particles. Penguin behavior tells us nothing about the origins of the universe, or even of life on earth.
What makes you think that “everything” works together perfectly? There is so much imperfection in nature that any claims of perfect order, organization, or optimal biological “design” border on the ridiculous. One word: Appendicitis.
There is balance in nature, but no design. Cats eat mice. Were mice put here for cats to eat? Lizards eat insects. Does that fact demonstrate how remarkable it is that insects exist? Seagulls eat garbage. Is the existence of garbage is a sign of divine intervention?
Drop a baby in a bathtub full of water, and it will be dead in minutes. What’s “perfect” about that? Life’s power supply – the sun – can give you skin cancer and kill you long before your time. What’s perfect about that? Why do so many people develop back problems, some even before they turn 20? This list is so long, it could take us years to get through it.
If things work so perfectly, like clockwork, why do species go extinct? Why are there plagues? Famines? Why are there birth defects? Why is there cancer? Diabetes? Autism? Why do some men rape their own daughters? Why? Why are some babies born without brains? Why? Why so many signs of apparently arbitrary imperfection? Why? Because God wants us to suffer? Or because God has no control over any of it? Those would appear to be the only possible explanations.
Regardless of what you say the way that universe and all the things in it function together in cycles is amazing. The design is obvious. There is a chain in nature. There is an order. Everything is dependent on something else. I wasnt saying penguins show us anything about the origins of the universe. I was just saying what they do, like other animals, is incredible. They have this order that they work in. The fact that if the sun moved its position at all we would burn up or freeze to death means its in exactly the perfect position for us to live. Its not accidental. There are imperfections but that is the result of the fall in my opinion. I think God put things in motion and gave us the freewill to mess it up. Quantum physics doesnt “trouble” me; im not trying to make it or its implications “go away.” I just happen to dislike all things related to math. It was a joke. Thats all i can say about it. Why do you only concentrate on negative things? Your making me think atheist is synonymous with pessimist.
Anton Mates says
What imaginary beings can be ruled out as a possibility? There’s no way to prove that demons, leprechauns, Bigfoot and invisible phantom tigers in your bathroom don’t exist. There’s no way to prove much of anything, outside of mathematics. We have to go with presence or absence of evidence instead.
Depends on the God, really. The hazy deist sort of God who’s responsible for nothing other than kicking off the universe is pretty hard to But it’s quite possible to show that an active, prayer-answering, miracle-working God probably does or doesn’t exist–just study whether the miracles actually happened and the prayers are frequently answered! Sure, you don’t get proof, but again, proof isn’t really available for any belief about the real world.
Heh. Very few people are comfortable with quantum theory. Unfortunately, it’s the most accurate and well-confirmed physical theory the world has ever known. It just works very, very well.
Do you see the contradiction there? Earlier you said that there’s no way to answer the God question based on science and observation of nature; now you’re saying that science and observation of nature give you evidence for God!
If you’re going to use evidence, you’ve got to look at the whole thing. Take emperor penguins–the fathers spend months huddling together in the coldest, nastiest place on the planet. It starts with the mother handing off her egg to the father, which has to be done with their feet, and if they fumble the pass for more than a few seconds (as they often do) the egg freezes to death. Then the father gets to just sit there as the egg hatches, and if the mother doesn’t get back in time, he has to leave for the ocean and the chick freezes–only slowly this time. Then more chicks die once both parents are regularly going fishing; they get lost in blizzards and can’t make it back to the creche. And all of this death and waste because–unlike virtually every other large animal in the Antarctic–penguins have to lay eggs instead of bearing live young! This is not incredible precision and organization; this is a kludged-together critter barely surviving in a habitat its ancestors were never intended to colonize. Penguins have some amazing adaptations, but they’re jury-rigged onto the pre-existing basic bird model that really is not suited for their lifestyle.
More generally, there are lots of examples of organization and precision in nature, but they seem to come after chaos and simplicity, and to follow from it by natural means. If you find this hard to believe–and of course many people do–you might look up the computer program Aveda. It’s an evolution simulator, using random changes and natural selection to create astonishingly complex and effective artificial life forms, without any human design at all.
Anton Mates says
Not really. There were no emperor penguins 20 million years ago, and there won’t be 20 million years from now. Species are constantly appearing, disappearing, and shifting their niche within the ecosystem. In the short term, of course, every species has to fit into its environment in a workable order–that’s why it hasn’t gone extinct yet! But the list of organisms which ultimately failed to adapt is far, far longer than the list of currently surviving successes. There is no long-term natural order.
A million people play the lottery; one person wins. “There must be a God,” she thinks, “because he gave me exactly the perfect combination of numbers to win!”
You focus on Earth, and ignore the other nine planets which aren’t in the perfect position for us to live. 99.999% of the universe is completely unsuited for us–of course we live in the other tiny fraction, because we couldn’t evolve anywhere else! This is the anthropic principle–any life form which looks around at its surroundings is going to see that they’re amazingly suited to its existence. Otherwise it wouldn’t be there!
Heck, even the early Earth would have instantly killed any human who was unlucky enough to walk around there. No oxygen, lethal levels of UV, volcanoes and meteorite impacts…but our ancestors developed there, and if single-celled critters could think, they probably would have praised their god for creating a world so perfectly suited to them.
A bit hard on all the creatures which didn’t make that free choice, don’t you think? The freezing penguin chick didn’t decide that disobeying God was a good idea; neither did the child dying from malaria in Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s as if God let someone burn down an orphanage so he could enjoy the freedom of choosing to light a match. How depressing!
And here you were just saying we were naive optimists, for thinking humans and other social animals have an innate tendency to do good!
Atheists don’t think the world is any worse than Christians do; they simply think the imperfections are what you’d expect in a natural, undesigned universe. To believe there’s a God who actually wanted to set things up so the entire universe would be degraded and filled with suffering, just because a couple of humans disobeyed his dietary rules…that’s pessimistic.
Wow is it hot. I worked all week, worked 15 hours on Saturday, and had to drive seven hours today. Whew. Me tired.
Ok then… where were we?
First, I’m not a pessimist. (And why do you assume I’m an atheist?)
Anyway, you said “perfection” and I cited examples of imperfection. That’s all. Don’t read too much into it – but please DO read what was intended.
You seem to be arguing that cancer, diabetes, anencephaly, plague and famine are the result of free will. Please offer some examples of how free will has caused abnormal cell growth, birth defects, epidemics, and terrible weather.
Anton, kudos for another nice response, particularly on the pessimist comment. Sophia, I hope you’re enjoying the beautiful weather. (Heck, I hope you’re GETTING the beautiful weather!)
Anton Mates says
I’m currently in Berkeley. Ironically, it’s not only one of the most atheist-friendly places in the country, it’s also the place whose weather most supports the privileged planet hypothesis.
Returning to Ohio in a month is going to be miserable.
The privleged plant hypothesis? What the heck is –
Oh. Never mind.
Well, that explains the sequoias, I guess.
kysenia, are you saying youre not an atheist?
Sophia: welcome back!
And yes – Kseniya is [whisper] not an atheist [/whisper].
You can find her commenting elsewhere (on more current threads) so why not go find a current thread where she’s participating and simply ask her – alternatively go root around here & other threads for her posts. she does not hide her personal thoughts and beliefs – nor does she proselytize!
I trust you have taken some time to think on Anton’s points re your (changing) position and the strength/integrity of your belief structure.
Belief is fine. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s a binary relationship: lack of belief is also fine.
there’s more here at Pharyngula, and elsewhere on Scienceblogs, if you’d care to look.
Participation is not mandatory, but it is encouraged.
Kseniya is a realist. Not a pessimist.
When one can look at the world as it is and not in a deluded way,
as in “all this was designed for me”, when has a better appreciation for it.
Because any one of us if we had the “supreme power”, would make the world
a much different place.
I’m saying that I don’t self-identify as an atheist. You may think of me as an atheist sympathizer.
Does it matter?
I don’t mean to be cryptic. I guess you could say I’m in some kind of transitional phase. It’s like, intellectually I’m atheistic, but my inner life doesn’t totally reflect that. That’s all I have to say about that.
Anyway, my beliefs, whatever they may be, have NO BEARING WHATSOEVER on what the truth might actually be – which is why I don’t bother mentioning them much.
Thanks, Steve, I appreciate that. I try, anyways, to see things as they are.
To amplify and generalize, somewhat, Kseniya’s statement….
I don’t even know *what* or *if* I believe.
However, I hold a lot of positions on things — pretty much all tentative, but some much stronger than others. eg. my position on the Theory of Gravity is pretty unassalable – so long as you’re talking about ‘macro scale physics’. At pico-scale all bets are off (lots of hypotheses – no firm conclusions)
Some people would say I ‘believe’ X – I may (and often so) use that phrase as a verbal shorthand, but what I really mean is that my current position is ‘X’ until other strong evidence comes along to refute that position.
Not at all sure if that’s meaningful to anyone but me, but hey.. this isn’t a test.
Bob Wardrop says
Reference the comments calling you an “asshole.” I would agree except for the fact that an asshole has a function; I do not believe that you do.
looks like this blog has been abandoned. the misunderstandings are hilarious though
Sophia: welcome back…
the ‘blog’ is alive and weel – but this particular is dead. participate in something more current, whydoncha.
Lots of the files from the Megaupload system at the global web are available for downloading at http://megauploadfiles.com/ without registration!