It is quite extraordinary how religious people seem to be comfortable telling atheists that they are arrogant for asserting publicly that there is no god. Those on the liberal end of the political spectrum tend to be particularly prone to this failing, perhaps feeling the need to protect their flank with the ‘religious moderates’. (Connie Schultz is another columnist who does this and whom I challenged in the past.)
As part of this effort they sometimes equate atheists and religious fundamentalists. One example I came across recently is Leonard Pitts, a syndicated columnist for the Miami Herald, who in 2011 expressed his displeasure with us atheists who annoyingly keep asking believers to produce credible evidence for the existence of god. He thinks we are arrogant for saying that god does not exist since no such evidence has yet been produced.
He begins his essay with a quotation from a 4th-century Christian philosopher named Gregory of Nyssa that pretty much tells you what his argument is going to be: “That which is without quality cannot be measured, the invisible cannot be examined, the incorporeal cannot be weighed, the limitless cannot be compared, the incomprehensible does not admit of more or less.” Or as Pitts puts it, “God is not proven. God is felt.”
Unsurprisingly, Pitts finds common ground with Marilynne Robinson whom regular readers of this blog will know that I find insufferable because of her wooly-headed thinking buried under layers of metaphors that obfuscate rather than clarify.
Both of them seem to not realize that there is no difference between the imperceptible and the nonexistent. They both seem to think that because they ‘feel’ god, that this makes god real, though how they know that this feeling is caused by an external agent and not by the same workings of the brain that give them other feelings is never explained. When Pitts ‘feels’ thirsty, does he think that some supernatural agent creates his desire for a glass of water? How would he know if this is the case or not?
This argument seriously annoys me.
How in any way shape or form is the Abrahamic god imperceptible? For one, Abraham reportedly saw him, never mind all that stuff about the flood, creating mankind, destroying umpteen cities, Jesus…
Mano, I’ve heard this defense before — “Love exists. Beauty exists. Neither can be “proven.” Why then can’t God exist without proof?” I’m not quite sure how to argue the difference between intangibles such as these, and un-evidenced things. Any thoughts?
How do you know when someone loves you? By their behavior -- that’s an observable. If someone throws you off a cliff, it’s unlikely that they love you, so it was just disproven in that case.
Also, such things are starting to get amenable to examination through things like brain scans.
Perhaps it is because everyone (or at least a vast consensus) knows what love and beauty are and agree at least in general terms that can be measured. Beauty might be in the eye of the beholder, but averaged over a lot of beholders, we can find correlations with measurable reality. We can even discern the evolutionary basis for those emotions.
The correlations of religion to measurable reality are much more tenuous.
“That which is without quality cannot be measured.”
Did Gregory of Nyssa (and now Mr. Pitts) say that his god is not a quality god? Whenever I’m shopping for supernatural deities, I always go for quality. It may cost a little more, but it’s worth it!
This is just a form of “arguing from incredulity”: “hey, I don’t see how it could be otherwise”. That might give someone a “feeling” that something exists, but they shouldn’t confuse that with evidence.
I admit I have some incredulity too: when I look at our multi-billion galaxy universe, I have a hard time taking seriously the idea that there is some deity that is concerned with humans or the events of our world.
Mano Singham says
Here is how I would respond. When we say ‘love exists’ what we are saying is that we feel a real sense of emotion caused by complex neurophysiological processes to which we give the label ‘love’. But when we die, that love dies too. It does not exist apart from the person feeling it.
But people who say that god exists because they ‘feel’ it (i.e., give that label to a similarly complex neurophysiological process) will not agree that that god dies when they die. They think it exists independently of them. And so their comparison breaks down.
I explored this issue in an old post here.
J. Quinton says
The biggest refutation of the “I feel god, therefore god exists” that I’ve read is the book On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not by neurologist Robert Burton. The basic premise is that certainty is a base feeling, like anger or love, that has no necessary correlation with any outside stimulus. And that people never question their feeling of certainty because the feeling of certainty feels good. He gives a bunch of examples from the neurological literature to demonstrate his point.
For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, there is an awesome TED talk about being wrong.
To spoil it for you just a bit, it answers the question “What does it feel like to be wrong?”
It feels just like being right.
The notion that I am just like a fundamentalist for stating that God does not exist is false for a number of reasons. Firstly, I have looked at the argument very carefully from both sides, I have read the best arguments from believers and from atheists before arriving at my current position. How many, even moderate never mind fundamentalists can say the same? Secondly, I am always prepared to change my mind should evidence of the existence of a deity be produced. Thirdly, theists are always quite certain that the gods of other religions, both current rivals and religions that are now extinct, are fictitious. It never occurs to them that they are being fundamentalist when they state that Zeus or Thor don’t exist. Lastly, if one is prepared to believe things in the absence of evidence then there are an infinite number of non-existent things that you could accuse people of fundamentalism for refusing to believe in.
I would also add that the deist type of god is the only one that is in any way plausible. Having read the Bible, I can state that the Abrahamic god is an absurd character who is no more likely to actually exist than Shrek.
kemist, Dark Lord of the Sith says
“Love” is an emotion.
“Beauty” is an appreciation of something.
(And every time someone vomits some nonsense about these two things as if they were special, I always want to inquire why they never want to talk about “Apathy” or “Ugliness”. It’s as though they were not quite as real).
Whatever it may be in the fuzzy heads of believers (and getting them to define the damn thing is a rage-inducing exercise in futility), “God” is certainly not an emotion or a qualificative.
You don’t pray to adjectives and feelings.
To pray is to ask something. You can only ask things of a conscious agent, preferably a conscious agent that can influence the physical world, i.e. one that actually exists. Things that influence the real world by definition leave traces of their existence, and cannot be so intangible.
Asking things from “Love” or “Beauty”, as those words are defined by most people use them, makes no more freaking sense than expecting them to meet you for dinner at the local pub. To compare those things to “God” as if it meant something deep is not even wrong, as it is a category error.
If “God” is as intangible as “Love” and “Apathy” or “Beauty” and “Ugliness”, it makes no sense to pray, worship or organize religions around it. A feeling or adjective is not a conscious agent but simply a way to interpret the world that is a results of what goes on in human brains.
No actual, praying and believing member of a theistic religion would recognize such a thing as their god.
Marcus Ranum says
And why aren’t they arrogant for saying that god exists?
Thanks, that helps a great deal. Unfortunately, your link didn’t work for me, but if you’ll give me a search word I’ll definitely look it up. And thanks too, to kemist — also very useful. I’m a “casual” atheist (never thought about it much) but as a homeschooler, I’m around a lot of religious people and sometimes am caught short with what are probably very weak arguments. I want to up my game!
Thanks other respondents for your thoughts.
Mano Singham says
Sorry for the broken link. I have fixed it.
I too think that the believers are the ones being arrogant. They think the whole universe was specially created for them and that their feeling that god exists is more than enough proof. That seems to me to be extremely arrogant.
Also, there is evidence love exists, outside of the emotional response.
Comparing love and beauty with God is a faulty argument.
I think most people would agree that love and beauty only exists in our minds, so if people wanna argue that God too only exists in our minds, then sure, I agree, in fact I would argue God only exists in our minds.
But that’s not what they think, they think God exists outside our minds, and therefor comparing something which we agree only exists inside our minds with something we all agree doesn’t exist inside our minds is just wrong.
Now then, they would argue that we have some God-tuned sixth sense, which we use to sense God, but if that’s true then they’ve got to prove we’ve got this sense. However if it’s true we’ve got this sense, it must be pretty useless compared to our other senses, since almost everyone on this planet can agree upon what information we receive through our other senses, such as sight, hearing, touch, taste etc. While our God sense gives us about as many different impressions as there are people, which makes this sense useless. Imagine if our sight or hearing would be as bad as our God-sense, then people would stop at stop signs and argue with each other over whether the light is green or red, or orange, or if it’s working at all, and everyone would start smashing their cars into each other and drive over walkers.
“As part of this effort they sometimes equate atheists and religious fundamentalists.”
This is sometimes justified -- there are atheists who think a literal interpretation of the Bible is the only possible one.
“there is no difference between the imperceptible and the nonexistent.”
That’s an assumption of course, but it’s not any worse than assuming the opposite. So I don’t see any need to remain silent about it.
I find Patricia a bit silly; in that respect I agree with Pitts. Living in a religious community like I do it’s safe to assume that some christians pray for me. Well, they don’t harm me with it and if they feel like wasting their time that way it’s their full right. They shouldn’t expect me to be thankful though, but if their belief is genuine that isn’t the point anyway. Thus everybody is happy.
“our faith in our tools to now definitively disprove God”
And here Pitts is attacking a straw man. I don’t know any atheist who claims that “our tools definitively disprove any god.”
“I’m OK with I don’t know,”
Says it all, doesn’t it?
No, it’s not any worse, it’s better. Let’s rephrase it in slightly different terms:
“Without evidence the Null Hypothesis holds”
Free floating love? Can I catch that with my butterfly net?
What get’s called love is a pattern of behavior between people (usually). If that person isn’t there, that love doesn’t persist.