This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Monday, 26 November 2012

Some Theist Arguments Dissected

This post isn’t meant for my – probably many – theist friends; it isn’t meant for theists who keep their faith as their own affair and out of their interaction with the outside world. If you believe in live-and-let-live, this isn’t for you.

It is, however, meant for those theists who hold their “faith” (I’ll get to why I put that word in quotes in a moment) up like a combination badge/shield/banner and window through which they peer at the Universe. It’s for those who choose to use their religion as the primary identity with which to define themselves.

If you read on further, you’ll know if I’m referring to you.

So listen.

Up above, I put the word “faith” in quotes, and I did it specifically foryou.

I did so because your faith is built on sand. Why did I say so? I did, because if it were secure, you would not need to make a fetish out of it. As they say, you can’t insult a person by calling him a bastard unless he’s secretly not confident of his mother’s fidelity. And also I did, because faith has to be backed up by concrete reasoning for it to have meaning – and of reasoning, you have none.

I’ve debated your tribe for some years now, and I have found that you tend to divert any attempt at logical discussion into a set of fairly predictable channels. Let’s see what they are and why your try won’t fly.

1. The argument: “My holy book says so.”

Your method: This is your first line of defence, the one that comes automatically to you. I might mention, say, the background radiation from the Big Bang, or the fossil evidence for evolution, and you’ll respond by quoting some Bible or Koranic verse purporting to negate what I said.

The advantage: Just about anything can be answered by this. You don’t have to use your mind to think of counters to my points if you can hide behind the pages of a retranslation of an interpretation of a faulty initial translation of Bronze Age mythology, itself accumulated over generations.

Why it fails: Because of the simple reason that I do not accept the authority of your holy book. What’s written in it has no relevance to me.Therefore, if you want to argue, find a common ground. I’m perfectly willing to debate and analyse facts and history, not mythology.

Your line of argument basically goes like this: “I have faith in such and such because the Bible/Koran/Gita/Book of the Great God Zog says so, and if it said something totally different I would have faith in that as well. The reason I have faith in this is the fact that the Bible/Koran/Gita/Book of the Great God Zog says so and no other reason is required. If the book said the sun rises in the west I would be duty-bound to believe that as well.”

This is not a line of argument acceptable to any thinking individual, and you choose to pursue it at your peril.

2. The argument: “(The scientific point under discussion) is only a theory.”

Your method: This is your second line of defence. If cornered on the Holy Book, you’ll counter-attack, as you think, by claiming something Science says is “only a theory,” and, therefore, implicitly not worthy of discussion. Usually, but this is the line taken to attack evolution, but far from always only evolution. For instance, I came across someone recently arguing gravity was “only a theory.”

The advantage: You can adopt what you imagine to be the moral high ground. This will endear you to your fellow flag-waver theists, if nobody else.

Why it fails: You have, quite obviously, no idea what a scientific theorymight be, or how it differs from a hypothesis. Unless you can, firstly, prove that a scientific postulate is a hypothesis and not a theory, and further, that said hypothesis has sufficient basic flaws to merit its being sidelined for a better hypothesis, you can’t attack something by calling it only a “theory”.

Let us, for example, take the case of a scientist who decides one morning that the sun is a gigantic light bulb hanging in space, and that when it burns out, there is a solar eclipse which ends when invisible hands replace the bulb. That is not a theory; it’s a hypothesis, based on the observation, perhaps, that the sun gives out light like a bulb, and that burned-out light bulbs need replacement, and the fact that periods of darkness occur during eclipses.

So, we have the sun-as-light-bulb hypothesis. Can it be verified by further observation? Can telescopes observing the sun show us the source of the electric power lighting up this bulb? No? Can we at least find logical arguments telling us why this bulb exists, how it can function as it does, and predict its future behaviour? Can anyone else obtain the same results by independently replicating the same experiments and observations? If the answer is yes, we have the sun-as-light-bulb theory, which will remain a theory until someone or something can journey to the sun and test its veracity directly. If not, it remains a hypothesis, and not even a very good one as far as hypotheses go.

And, yes, while we are on the subject: gravity is not a theory or even a “theory”. It is one of the very, very few things that can be called a natural law. So there.

3. The argument: “Scientists keep changing their minds.”

Your method: “Scientists said one thing yesterday, another thing today, and who’s to say they won’t say another thing tomorrow? So why believe them?”

The advantage: You can claim that since your Book doesn’t keep mutating, therefore you have ultimate truth on your side.

Why it fails: Science isn’t a final product. Science is a process, which continually seeks new information, tests it, and either adopts or discards it. Science questions everything. That is the essence of Science, and it will continue to change as new information becomes available and is tested. If something believed yesterday is disproved by today’s discoveries, Science has the courage to dump yesterday’s belief and move on. Faith doesn’t.

4. The argument: “Anyone arguing against faith is an agent of the Devil.”

Your method: “I have God on my side, so if you oppose what I say, you’re obviously acting as an agent of the Evil One, who is attempting to force me to deny my faith.”

The advantage: As in point no 1, above, this is a get-out-of-jail-free card that you can use to try and end just about any argument. After all, you’re only telling Satan to get behind you, as Jesus allegedly did. And who wouldn’t take your side in an argument with the servant of the Devil?

Why it fails: Because it takes two hands to clap. And I don’t believe in the existence of the Devil any more than I do in the existence of God.

Also, this is so obvious a cop-out that you ought to be ashamed of yourself for even trying to use it. It’s not even primary-school level in its childishness.

And, no, I don’t give a damn if you do call me the Devil. I might even take it as a compliment, depending on my mood of the moment.

5. The argument: “Atheists are evil – look at all those evil atheist dictators.”

Your method: “Hitler and Stalin (for some reason, Hitler and Stalin arealways specified; poor old Pol Pot scarcely ever gets in a mention) killed millions of people. Therefore, atheists are evil.”

The advantage: You’re on the side of good, see? The other side, meaning us, are obviously evil because there were monsters among our ranks.

Why it fails: First, apart from the misconception about Hitler and Stalin (the former was a Catholic and the latter spent his formative years in a seminary), this is just a slightly more nuanced version of argument no 4, replacing a theological monster with flesh-and-blood monsters.

If one can condemn all atheists because some of them have done horrible things, then one can, with possibly more justification (read some of the more lurid passages of your holy books, and of your histories) condemn all theists due to the sins of a substantial segment of them, sins, furthermore, which are usually committed in the name of religion. Atheists seldom commit crimes in the name of atheism.

Then, and this is a point I have made many, many times before, atheism isn’t a belief or a religion or anything of the sort. It just means that atheists choose not to believe in the existence of an unseen and unverifiable supreme being. It has no other effect on their social, economic or political views. Therefore, if an atheist pimp on the other side of the world kills one of his women, it doesn’t necessarily make any other atheist either a pimp or a murderer any more than a Talib suicide bomber makes all theists terrorists.

6. The argument: “I know God exists because I have felt Him.”

Your method: “My God is loving and caring, unlike your cold Science, and I know of his existence because I have felt Him in my heart.”

The advantage: Your personal epiphany, obviously, is yours alone and beyond challenge by anyone else.

Why it fails: Because your personal feelings, unverified and unverifiable, are not evidence. Nor do they lend concrete existence to their subject, any more than the hallucinations of delirium tremens cause pink elephants to materialise into reality.

7. The argument: “Science says so-and-so, which is patently untrue, therefore my faith is right.”

Your method: “Since Science says XYZ happened (note that Science may actually state that it happened or may not have stated anything of the sort, or it may have said XYZ happened but you change the parameters and logical interpretation of what it said), and that is not true, therefore it proves Science wrong.”

Classic example: “Darwin said humans evolved from apes. If that was true, there should not be any apes around today. Since there are apes around today, this proves Darwin wrong and automatically proves my faith in Divine Creation correct.”

Another classic example, still used on children (it was used on me in school): “You can’t see air, but it exists. Similarly, you can’t see God, but He exists. QED.”

The advantage: You can actually convince those with only a smattering of knowledge (pace Alexander Pope, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”) of the rightness of your position.

Why it fails: Because you aren’t arguing here on a kindergarten level. For instance, Darwin never said humans evolved from apes; he said humans and apes evolved from the same common ancestral stock. Therefore, there is no reason why apes should be extinct just because humans are around. And in the second example, even middle school kids should be able to enquire if God can be fractionated in the laboratory, separated into His component parts, reconstituted, and the like. And if God can exist because He’s invisible, why can’t – let’s say – equally invisible air-unicorns exist?

8. The argument: “Science cannot explain XYZ, which religion has already explained. Therefore, my faith is right.”

Your method: “My religion has already explained how the Universe came into being. Science cannot explain what was before the Big Bang or why the Universe should have come into being. Therefore, my faith is correct.”

The advantage: Just about anything that Science is unable to explain, or you claim that Science is unable to explain, can be cited as a proof of the rightness of your faith.

Why it fails: I’ll give an illustration from my schooldays. We had this fanatically Catholic teacher (a former seminarian, as it happens) who spent a great deal of his time belittling atheists. One of his arguments “proving” the existence of God went like this: “Can your Science make something out of nothing? Can your Science make even a single-celled organism? So how can anything exist unless it’s here because God made it?”

Well, now, scientists have created an artificial living cell*, and it’s probably only a few years more to a fully-functioning artificial organism (unless theist governments forbid research on the subject, in which case it will go underground and take longer).

As I said, Science is a process. A hundred years ago the world was just beginning to get its mind round the curved nature of space, and nobody had even imagined black holes. As Science advances the frontiers of knowledge, it’s certain that more and more mysteries will be resolved; and in fact many “mysteries” cited by theists have long since been resolved.

9. The argument: “Many great scientists believe in God.”

Your method: “As great a scientist as Einstein (he’s always mentioned here, just as Hitler and Stalin make the cut as evil atheists) believed in God.”

The advantage: This immediately puts the other side on the defensive.

Why it fails: Because Einstein used “god” as a metaphor for the physical laws that rule the universe. And as for the other ‘great’ scientists, a little research usually shows that these “scientists” aren’t exactly held in high regard by their peers. Most of them, alas, seem to make the cut as the Erich von Dänikens of the scientific community, scientists in name only.

10. The argument: “My faith provides an equally good reason as Science does to explain everything.”

Your method: “My Holy Book explains how things happened just as clearly as Science does, so at the very least my Holy Book deserves to have equal place with Science.”

The advantage: This offers a compromise to the faint hearted – give equal space to both and one’s free to choose what one wishes to believe.

Why it fails: First, because your competing Holy Books scarcely ever seem to agree on the fundamental points where it comes to explaining phenomena. Sometimes the different Holy Books of your one single faith have competing explanations. Should all these competing explanations share equal space with each other and Science? If not, how do you chose which gets prominence?

Then, there’s a principle called Occam’s Razor, which states that when there are two different ways of explaining something, the simpler explanation is likely to be the correct one.

Let me, again, provide an illustration from something I’ve written before. Suppose I, sitting here in this room, toss a coin in the air. It falls down, right? Now, I can either say that it “fell”, i.e. moved as far as it could towards the centre of this planet, due to the fact that all objects in the Universe attract all others with a force that varies inversely to the square of the distance between them, a fundamental property of the Universe known as “gravity.” Or, I might choose to claim that invisible angels are floating around, all ready to grab tossed coins and bring them forcefully down to earth. If any of these angels should, God forbid, miss, the coin will keep drifting upwards till it strikes the ceiling – and stick there.

Which of these two seems to be the simpler explanation? And which seems to be the more correct?

11. The argument: “Can you disprove the existence of God?”

Your method: “You can’t disprove the existence of God, can you? Therefore, I’m absolutely within my rights in claiming God exists.”

The advantage: This ties in with the legal maxim that one’s innocent unless proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt, and so garners instinctive sympathy.

Why it fails: Science isn’t a court of law. If you make the proposition, it’s up to you to prove it. It’s not for me to disprove it. You can go ahead and claim the moon’s made of green cheese, but it’s for you to prove it, and unless and until you can and do, I have no reason to give your proposition the time of day.

Bertrand Russell made the point in positing what’s called Russell’s Teapot**. Say, there’s a teapot orbiting the sun, too small to be seen by telescopes or detected in any other way. Suppose one claims to have faith in the existence of this teapot. Should one automatically obtain the right to have this Teapot Hypothesis share equal space with theories which make no mention of its existence? If you say no, dear theist, you’ve just shot yourself in the foot, haven’t you?

I may have missed out on a few other arguments this breed of theists makes. Also, each of these broad arguments has further branches, of course, and there are considerable overlaps between them. But, on the whole, these things are what they say.

Yes, I know many of you will be angrily denying that you fit into this category, but as I said, this doesn’t apply to all theists – only to some.

If the cap fits, wear it.


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