Category: Critical Thinking


[Note: This post, specifically the cat analogy, borrows heavily from ideas I first heard expressed on the highly recommended Atheist Experience TV show. I suggest you ucheck them out, and I thank them for presenting the argument.]

 

“Why should I believe you?”

My wife and I don’t have kids, but if we ever do, that will definitely be a question they’ll be raised learning to ask.

From Power Balance bracelets (astonishingly still being sold on the internet) to miracle diets, from reiki to homeopathy, from chupacabras to sinister reptilians, from phony 2011 apocalyptic prophesies to phony 2012 apocalyptic prophesies, the informational landscape in which we live is riddled with falsehoods, and heavily populated by hucksters and charlatans who would have us believe the stories they’re peddling in order to further their own agendas – usually to our detriment – that a skeptical approach is merited.

Skepticism is important for many reasons. One of the most important is that we prevent ourselves from baselessly believing untrue things, especially in cases where accepting false or unsupported beliefs may bring undue harm or ill consequences upon ourselves. But even in cases where believing things for no good reason may not seem to invite any immediate or apparent harm – say, for example, accepting that there is a loving god which created this universe and all living things in it – the same degree of skepticism should be applied. We act, after all, based upon our beliefs. And the further our beliefs become detached from foundations in reality, the more difficult it will become for us to make decisions which are beneficial in the real world.

But not all claims are equal.

Consider two assertions I might make to you:

1) I tell you my bicycle is parked outside.

2) I tell you my Lamborghini is parked outside.

Unless you happen to believe for some reason that I’m ridiculously wealthy (if only it were true) you almost certainly won’t believe my second assertion. You will, however, believe the first easily enough, and rightfully so. The vast majority of people can (and many do) buy bicycles, meaning that the likelihood of my owning one is fairly high, and further that the unlikelihood of me lying about owning one (when it’s nothing special) is even higher. Why in the world would anyone lie about owning a bike?

These thresholds of believability are something we all are familiar with and experience in our daily lives, especially in the internet age when viral rumors run rampant and the pace of creating false stories and claims exceeds the pace of debunking those falsehoods by what seems to be an ever-increasing margin. We have all kinds of expressions, usually involving odor (“that story doesn’t pass the smell test”) that display in our vernacular language our keen awareness of the many varying levels of plausibility when it comes to the stories people tell us.

Yet, when it comes to religious assertions, hands off! Thou shalt not disrespect the claims of another, so long as they qualify them with words such as “sacred”, “spiritual”, “holy”, “religious”, “god”, or any number of phrases which serve as dogmatic antibodies to critical scrutiny. How often we all have heard it asserted that questioning another’s religious assertions is “disrespectful” or “inappropriate”.

But to those believers who would seek to assert their religious claims under the protection of such well-established social mores, it’s important that you understand that skeptics and atheists have no sacred cows. No claims are exempt from inquiry and investigation.

So when you assert, “God exists”, you may find it offensive when atheists and skeptics ask you, rhetorically, “Do you believe in bigfoot?” “Do you believe in leprechauns?” “Do you believe in alien abductions?” To many of you this may feel like a deliberately disrespectful affront to the sanctity of your religion. But it’s important that you understand this is not hyperbole or exaggeration on the part of the questioner. Skeptics do not recognize the sanctity of any claims which have not been shown to be built upon a reasonable and demonstrable foundation of evidence.

And please, if you will, consider how your claims sound to us.

Your claim is one of the existence of God. Let’s consider an analogy based on the existence of a pet. And return to the concept of varying thresholds of believability.

Like the bicycle example above, if I assert to you that “I have a pet cat”, you are more than likely to believe me. Having a cat is so commonplace, and nothing special. Why would I lie about that? And let’s say additionally that I’m your co-worker of several years, so that you feel you know me fairly well and have little reason to doubt or distrust me. Then you’ll be even more inclined to believe that a cat truly is living in my home.

So one Saturday evening I have a party and you have your first opportunity to visit my place – very much looking forward to meeting the cat I always talk so much about. But upon arriving and walking around a bit, you begin to notice first that there isn’t a cat wandering around, and then – as you move from room to room – that there isn’t a litter box in the bathroom, and there aren’t food and water dishes in the kitchen. There are no scratches on the sofa, and no signs of any cat toys, cat nip, or any cat-related anything to be found.

Your doubt builds, and appropriately so. My simple assertion (“I have a cat”) has become less believable as your scrutiny of my claim has raised your suspicions. After a while you just have to ask me: “So, where is this cat of yours?” But I just smile and say she’s not around right now. Time passes, still no cat, you raise the stakes: “So I’m sorry, but it kind of seems like you don’t really have a cat here…” But now I just laugh. “Oh, of course I have a cat, it’s just away from the home right now, and it won’t be back until after the party…”

At a certain point, when none of the evidence you should expect to have seen if I truly owned a cat has been anywhere in sight – especially the cat itself – you will find yourself in a position in which, even if you trust me and don’t believe I’m a liar, you really are left with no other choice but believing I don’t really have a cat. My once simple “cat” assertion has now moved closer to “Lamborghini” territory. Until, at least, I can show you some verifiable evidence that I actually do have a cat.

Or in other words, absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

And in this story, the only claim I’m making is that I have a pet cat.

So how do you think it sounds to people who don’t already subscribe to your God-concept when you claim that God not only exists, but has extraordinary powers and does things which go against everything we know of how the natural world works?

Is it really so unreasonable for us to ask you to show us the litter box? To show us the food and water dishes or the scratches on the sofa? And above all, to show us the damn cat?

I hope you understand this: Atheists don’t choose not to believe in gods. We can’t believe in gods. There simply is no reason to believe the entirely unconvincing claims that any gods exist when nobody on the planet can demonstrate a single shred of evidence that those claims are true. Under such conditions, “choosing” to believe in God is akin to “choosing” to believe we can fly by flapping our arms. It flies in the face of everything we know as evident reality.

I can’t do it. Nor would I ever want to, without good reason.

Advertisements

“You had to be there.”

We’ve all heard it before.

We’ve all said it, and we all know the feeling. We want so badly to communicate exactly how it felt to experience a particular moment – a funny joke, a transportative live music experience, the electricity of the crowd at the game winning score – yet we can see on our listeners’ faces that our accounts of these stories are falling short. They’re unable to put themselves in our shoes and directly feel the states we’re trying to convey.

So we say, “Well, I guess you just had to be there.” But we’re left with that residual feeling… if only there were some way we could make them feel what we felt at that time, then they’d get it.

The problem is, we can’t do that. Subjective experiences by definition are limited to the subject who experiences them. Each human mind is an island unto itself; we cannot inhabit the minds of others, get into their heads and truly know what it’s like to feel what they feel, experience what they experience, think how they think.

Not that we human beings don’t have an amazing and beautiful capacity to approximate that sensation to what generally strikes us as a convincing degree. A shared concert experience, a shared tragedy, in all sorts of situations our great capacity for empathy enables us to understand that at that particular time, we all went through the same thing, or at least something so very similar that we confidently say, “I know how that feels. I’ve been through that.”

And of course through millennia of human culture and civilization we’ve established wonderfully refined methods to communicate, in both concrete and abstract ways, the richness of human experience. Poetry, music, literature, art, allegory, metaphor, humor, these are among the many devices that allow us to articulate our experiences with such power and beauty that we just know – or at least feel that we know – that we have had a common experience of the same condition.

These empathetic resonances touch our lives every day. And this experience – the experience of feeling that we have shared or at least understood the experiences of others – is real to us. And this makes it all too easy to accept the experiences of others as true. But in fact, it even actually goes beyond that.

It makes it difficult to accept the experiences of others as false.

To question another’s assertion of personal experience as truth is often seen as, at best, insinuating that they may be confused, or perhaps not too bright, but at worst, accusing them of being an outright liar. And so it becomes socially inappropriate to express vocal disbelief in the personal experience claims people make.

But there’s a problem with this. Two problems, actually.

The first is that there isn’t just a single delineating line between believable and unbelievable claims. It’s a many layered threshold; it’s a wide spectrum. It is possible that people could lie when they say, “I’m hungry.” But such a lie would be so rare – not to mention pointless – that we generally would never have reason to doubt that claim. A claim such as, “I see dead people”, on the other hand, appropriately raises the red flag of skepticism. The extraordinary nature of the claim rightfully brings upon itself increased doubt, increased skepticism, and increased disbelief. Hunger is not only a universal experience for us humans, it also has countlessly abundant evident examples in the natural world. The natural world does not, however, provide us with examples of ghosts, and further, only a certain percentage of people claim to have personally experienced them.

Which brings us to the second problem, which is that some things are demonstrably true when scrutinized using logic, reason and the scientific method (inasmuch, that is, that anything can be said to be “true”, which, in science, is never said with 100% certainty). Hunger is not only universal as an experience, it’s universal as a biological reality which can be measured, tested and validated. However, there is no reliable scientific demonstration that ghosts exist at all, let alone that even if they did the type of equipment that “ghost hunter” types use in their pseudoscientific pursuit of spirits would be the right kinds of tools for the job. There simply are no evident, naturalistic signs of the existence of ghosts.

Or gods. And here we get to the point.

“I know God is real because I experience him every day.” “I know Jesus is the Savior because I accepted Him into my heart.” “I know Mohammed is the one true prophet because I feel Allah’s presence at all times.”

We’ve all heard it before.

Chances are, if you’re a believer, you’ve probably said it, too, and may well say it many more times again. It is one of, if not the most common appeal that believers make in efforts to convince others of the truth of their beliefs. And the reason for that, as mentioned above, is that it’s a powerful appeal.

Our sense of empathy is strong, as is our reluctance to question the validity of the personal experience of others. Appealing to this empathy and respect for boundaries not only creates the appearance that “there’s really something to it” when it comes to religious beliefs, it also corners the skeptics into being the bad guys if they dare question the factuality of those assertions.

How dare we disrespect others’ beliefs!

Here’s how: Because they have no place in the discussion of what is actually true. Because the things we can recognize and demonstrate as being true are, by definition, not subjective, but objective and demonstrable under the scrutiny of multiple observers.

Not only that, but there is plenty of evidence that what actually can be demonstrated about personal religious experience claims is that they are, practically without fail, limited to the cultural parameters in which the subject was raised. When a farm boy from Nebraska “sees God”, we can be quite certain that that god will not be a Hindu god such asVishnu or Shiva. The personal experiences of “God”, or “Allah”, or “Vishnu”, or whatever that people have are, almost without fail, confined to the strict limitations of their culturally familiar religions. So objectively speaking, is it more reasonable to assume that most Americans who claim to be experiencing Jesus are actually experiencing Jesus, or that they believe they’re experiencing Jesus because they’ve grown up in a majority Christian nation, raised by Christian families?

Furthermore, if we start from the default position of atheism (as we all are born atheists, and are only taught religion later in life), which personal experience claims are we to believe? People of different religions assert that their own is the only true one. But given that we cannot access any other individual’s personal experiences, how should we determine whether the Christian’s “only true religion” (or for that matter, which of the hundreds of Christian denominations), or the Muslim’s “only true religion”, and so on, is actually the right one? If the argument is limited to the subjective personal experience, then it can never be demonstrated as true to an outside observer.

And so all such religious truth claims, all of which conflict with each other, are equal in the eyes of the neutral observer. And, given that there’s no evidence for their veracity to be found in the natural world, they’re all equally unlikely, equally implausible, equally unbelievable.

And that’s why, when believers ask me (as one did recently) questions like, “Doesn’t personal experience matter? Doesn’t it count for anything?” My answer is:

No.

Not when it comes to demonstrating the truth of your claims. It doesn’t mean a damn thing.

 

As a parting post before I break for vacation, I thought I’d post this video.

As much as I respect Hitchens, Dawkins, and the rest of the more famous intellectuals in the atheist visibility movement, I’d have to say that my favorite counter-apologist is probably Matt Dillahunty. Being well versed in the Bible, and having previously aspired to become a preacher, he just has a way of engaging theists on their own terms.

My greatest hope in writing this blog is not to “convert” anybody to atheism, but only to encourage anybody and everybody (theists and atheists alike) to apply skepticism and critical thinking to their own beliefs.

This is the best short, real time example I know of what that actually looks like, and it is Dillahunty at his finest:

“So maybe I should just trust myself not even listen to the Bible.”

Yes, Mark, that’s exactly what you should do. Or, at the very least, if you listen to the Bible first, examine the claims and laws written therein with a critical, skeptical eye, and accept them not on faith, but only if they withstand the scrutiny of empirical evidence and a secular morality.

I’m no artist, but when I saw this tweet by David Silverman, President of American Atheists (click the link to see the picture he posted), I was inspired:

Atheists don’t Tebow, we Thinker. http://pic.twitter.com/W2yjJYgb

Needless to say, I put my immaculate MS Paint skills to work, and did up this rough, simple, but hopefully to-the-point picture. I hope you like it:

I’ve been trying to write this for over two months. I never know where to start. The reasons why I’m an atheist now aren’t exactly the same (though they overlap) as the reasons I left the faith I was brought up in. My adult understanding of why I value evidence based belief above all other forms is better thought out, more deeply analyzed, and rooted more in rationality and naturalism than my more emotionally based adolescent rejection of religion was.

Yet when people on twitter or at bars ask me, “Why are you an atheist?” or “Why don’t you believe in God?”, the questions I feel they’re really asking are, “Why don’t you believe in my religion?” and “Why don’t you believe in my God?” I suspect that, for the most part, they’re not as interested in hearing about my views on the irrationality of faith-based beliefs as they are about my personal experiences. After all, they’re experiencing religion in a personal way right now, and so the question is an attempt to understand how it is feeling, viewing, and thinking about life from a non-religious perspective. What experiences led me to this (happily) godless life? What was my visceral reaction to abandoning all notions of gods and embracing a worldview in which religion and the supernatural hold no sway? How could my life possibly have any meaning, how could I feel complete without God? How could I possibly not believe in the first place?

This seems to be the more pressing nature of these questions, and so I’ll start at, or near, the beginning, in my early childhood, when the church’s own actions sowed the seeds of my atheism. [Note: There isn’t enough time or space for me to complete my story in a single blog post, so this will be part 1 of several.]

I was raised in the Christian faith by parents who were both ministers. Yep, I’m a double P.K. But to be clear, they were not overbearing regarding religion when I was a little kid. Both were (and are) progressives, both participated in the Civil Rights Movement. Both embraced more a modern, liberal ministry and were, in their own respective ways, pushing to modernize the church.They weren’t fundamentalists, and I wasn’t beaten over the head with a Bible. As a very young child things were, for the most part, pretty loose on the religion front.

But as far back as I can remember, I always hated going to church. It was boring. I hated having to dress up in the uncomfortable child-suit with the clip-on tie. My father was the preacher so everyone knew of me, and I was always intimidated by all the strange strangers (and often stranger familiars) who wanted to make sure I knew how cute (or whatever) they thought I was. To me, the services were little more than an exercise in alleviating boredom until those final bells rang and harkened my freedom to go outside and play. Mostly, it was just a thing I had to do when I’d rather have been doing something else. The dullest, most annoying time of the week.

But all this seemingly harmless malaise turned out to be the calm before the big storm hit that nobody had seen coming.

Before I continue, I need to say here that I do love both of my parents, and that anything harsh or critical, or even just personal I say regarding my folks is not intended to publicly throw either of them under the bus (in fact, maintaining their anonymity with regards to my blogging is a big part of why I write under a pseudonym), but only because it would be impossible for me to tell my story in a complete, cohesive way if I were to eliminate certain critical aspects of it. I can’t get personal about myself without, to some extent, getting personal about them, too. And so:

It turned out that my father was gay. This was made known nearly simultaneously to my family, the congregation and (as soon as the press got wind of it, which was quickly) the public. All hell broke loose. In one fell swoop both my family and the church were torn apart. I was too young to understand what really was going on, but I knew it was important because the kids at school were talking and asking me about it, and things were getting ugly at home. It was a big deal.

The church fired my father. The congregation divided, a significant percentage of it leaving with him to form a separate, more accepting alternative church. At the time, I was pretty much on the level of, “Okay, I guess I’m going to this other church now sometimes, too.” Adults did their own things for reasons beyond my comprehension. Like most kids, I had no interest and no choice but to roll with it.

Skipping tracks to a brief aside. I remember a specific conversation with an elementary school friend which must have happened around two years later, given the friend and the school I was attending at the time. That friend was also a churchgoer. We left my house, were walking down the street, and started having what must have been an unusually profound conversation for our age. It went something like:

Friend: So, like, do you really believe in God and Jesus and stuff?

Me: Well, uh, I dunno. I mean not really. But I guess so. But I mean, I dunno.

From all I can recollect of my memories, I was never reverent, I was never devout, the faith that I had (if any) was severely weak, and although I can distinctly remember times when I sincerely wanted to believe, I really never was quite thoroughly convinced.

Back on the main storyline, where several years later I’m living alone with my mother (hopefully the divorce story is self explanatory) and, to her great frustration, developing the capacity to think for myself. As I grew into adolescence and, like most kids (although perhaps a little moreso) into a more rebellious attitude, she was growing stricter, more forceful, angrier and, at the worst times, emotionally violent. This tension wasn’t limited to religion or churchgoing, but those were the points around which it flashed the hottest.

And now we come to it.

By the time I was in high school, I’d developed the self awareness, the social awareness, and the reflective and analytical capacity to form a few opinions about the events which not only had shaped my life up to that point, but continued to dominate it on a regular basis.

The first, and probably most important: My father was a good man. He made all kinds of mistakes, to be sure. But the degree of castigation, ire, demonizing, shunning, betrayal by those he had trusted – or to put it more simply, the amount of plain old hateful bigotry – which not only was dumped on him by his peers but was essentially officially sanctioned by the church as they sacked him from his position and relegated him to second class status within their organization, was downright fucking despicable.

The second, and more urgent to me during my latter adolescence: My mother was a deeply emotionally troubled woman who no longer had the capacity to deal with me in a non-abusive way. As I write this now, I’m trying to put this in the most gentle, fair way I know how. But at the time I was an emotional trainwreck, fairly well tormented by her undermining of my dignity and self esteem at every opportunity she had, and her incessant attempts at severe, micromanagerial control over every detail of my existence.

And on Sundays I was made to go to church.

The sermons were all about the usual Christian stuff. The preacher said we should love our neighbors and accept those who are different than us, even as the church had hated and rejected my father. The preacher – my mother – said we should follow the teachings of Christ and try to be pure of heart, even as I knew well that she had done some pretty impure of heart shit that very morning before church.

The hypocrisy in the air was so thick I could practically see it. It was so rancid I almost could physically taste it. It was morally repugnant, and nauseated every corner of reason, rationality, and good sense in my brain. I could not have been more repulsed.

I was done with the church, and with religion in general. I had learned – correctly – not to trust any person who claims authority based on a self-professed assertion to speak for gods, or to be better trained in interpreting and espousing divine messages. I had seen the man behind the curtain, and he was a cheap, charlatan trickster – even if he truly believed himself to be playing The Great Oz with all good intentions.

And don’t get me wrong. I do not say my mother was, or many other members of the clergy are, lying about their beliefs. She did, and does, I’m sure, sincerely believe in the truth of every Christian message she has uttered. But having not only witnessed, but experienced and been on the shit end of the disconnect between  lofty religious claims of truth, love and beauty,  and the ugly, unacceptable, insipid reality which – in fact – belies them, I simply could no no longer believe or have faith in that, or any other gods, if I even ever had at all. The words rang hollow, the stories untrue, a big masquerade celebrating an illusion which no longer had any power over me.

I was an atheist.

[Note: It has taken me months to articulate this origin story of how I first became an atheist. There will be further installments picking up where this left off and culminating with why I am an atheist now. Hopefully this will be finished before 2013.]

Browsing through the #atheist twitter hashtag, I came upon this tweet by @LaurentRA:

Okay #atheists, where the hell is your raising a stink about this?? http://bit.ly/s4ghcS

The shortened url links to an absolutely horrific article in the Daily Mail on the beheading of a Sudanese man in Saudi Arabia for the “crime” of … “sorcery”.

Although I disagree with LaurentRA’s implication that atheists would generally not be outraged by this, I absolutely agree that we all should be. I urge you to read the entire article in all its gruesome detail, which literally turned my stomach and left me wondering if there is any Islamic blasphemic equivalent to “Jesus fucking Christ!”, which happened to be my first utterance upon reading the article.

I won’t presume to know LaurentPA’s exact reasons for directing the tweet at atheists, but there are common complaints, usually issued by the Christian faithful (“Christian” is in LaurentPA’s twitter profile description), that for various reasons – sometimes political correctness, sometimes bitterness at the faith in which people were raised, sometimes purely out of spite or animosity – atheists are “too hard” on Christian religions and “too soft” on Islam.

There may be a degree of truth to this. And there may be some good reasons as well as some bad reasons why it happens. One factor that comes into play is that Western atheists generally react most strongly against Western religions, which hold majority positions of social and political power in their regional societies. Atheists in Nebraska are legitimately more worried about Christians replacing actual biology with pseudoscientific creationism in school science classrooms than they are about the potential implementation of sharia law because, well, there’s a much higher chance of the former really happening. So in terms of immediate concerns most American atheists (and I see that LaurentPA is in Virginia) locate Islam on a less immediate orbit of concern.

That said, it is absolutely true that what concerns atheists about religion – the harm that it does to the well being of individuals and societies, to human rights and to prospects for peace and civility – should not be contained in a localized bubble, but should encompass a global awareness.

I’m reminded of the Bruce Springstein song, The Ghost of Tom Joad:

Now Tom said “Mom, wherever there’s a cop beatin’ a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there’s a fight ‘gainst the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me Mom I’ll be there
Wherever there’s somebody fightin’ for a place to stand
Or decent job or a helpin’ hand
Wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free
Look in their eyes Mom you’ll see me.”

Whenever, wherever there’s a religious justification for beating down the human rights of individuals or populations, whenever and wherever people are dehumanized in the name of imaginary legends and ancient texts, all atheists who are humanists (and most of us are) should be there, ready to fight against them.

Fight against unjust beheadings in Saudi Arabia.

Fight against the religion-based oppression of women in Afghanistan.

But also:

Fight against unjust executions in Texas and Georgia.

Fight against the religion-based gender oppression (most specifically in the areas of reproductive rights and sexual orientation) in the United States.

Yes, LaurentRA, in terms of the harm which is being done by the religious these days, Islam probably wins first prize.

But that is no automatic exemption for Christianity, or any other religion which causes people to accept believing in things for no good reason with no good evidence, and therefore opens the door to people actually doing harmful things for no good reason and with no good evidence that their actions are, in fact, morally justifiable. For the most part:

Only the religious (especially Catholics) institutionally cover up child rape and protect the rapists.

Only the religious (including Christians) engage in “ethnic cleansing” (which is in fact, in practically every case, religious cleansing)

Only the religious (including Christians) mutilate genitalia (and yes, this includes circumcision).

Only the religious (including Christians) believe homosexuality is a sin.

Only the religious (including Christians) commit holy wars and genocides in the name of their gods.

And, LaurentRA, only skeptics (as, again, you describe yourself in your twitter profile) who fail to apply their skepticism to the theological realm remain theists. The only logical conclusion for skeptics who apply their skepticism to all aspects of their belief system is atheism. Skeptics require evidence, most especially in regards to extraordinary claims. And religions (including Christianity) make the absolute most extraordinary clams while providing absolutely no evidence of their veracity.

Atheism and secular humanism, on the other hand, are the only hope for a future in which we will see no more socially or nationally sanctioned executions or human rights abuses. Because the the only way the world will be free from the moral sanctioning of such crimes is to free itself from the fairy tales which people create to perpetuate them.

Unreasonable Faith digs up “the good stuff” regarding the addictive nature of getting offended. Just go read it.

I highly recommend following the youtube channels of both AronRa, speaking in this video, and The Thinking Atheist, who produced it. Their shows The Magic Sandwich Show and The Thinking Atheist Podcast, respectively, both explore a wide range of issues, provoke and promote critical thinking, and are just a lot of fun to listen to.

 

%d bloggers like this: