Category: Naturalism


“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.

 

When it comes to comparing atheists to the likes of Pol Pot, Mao Tse-Tung and Joseph Stalin, Bill O’Reilly  just can’t help himself, even in an interview about a children’s science book.

And when it comes to science, he apparently just can’t learn a damn thing at all:

Now the last time you were here you were honest enough to admit that you don’t know the origin, whether it was a meteor, or something like that. And you said to me, “We’re working on it”, and I said to you, “Let me know.”

Richard Dawkins responded much too politely by saying, “That was only about two years ago”, cutting himself off there instead of continuing on to the natural conclusion of that sentence. What I wish he had said:

“That was only two years ago, you imbecilic fucking creatard who can’t grasp even the simplest scientific concepts such as how the gravitational pull of the moon causes the tides. A meteor? Really? Two years? Really?!? “

Anyhow, here’s the video:

Breaking down some of O’Reilly’s utterances:

“…atheist Richard Dawkins”

How about showing the basic journalistic integrity of calling him biologist Richard Dawkins? Oh, that’s right. Because you don’t have a sliver of integrity in your tiny, angry little mind.

“He’s on a crusade to convince believers they’re idiots.”

No, idiot, he’s appealing to people’s reason based on science and rationality, in order to get them to see that some of their beliefs are unfounded, not that they as individuals are idiots.

“…you were honest enough to admit”

As if it should be assumed automatically that atheists are usually dishonest.

“A-HA!!!”

Colbert would be proud.

“The Judeo-Christian philosophy isn’t a myth, it’s reality.”

Even a solid majority of biblical scholars and theologians wouldn’t agree with this statement. So thank you for demonstrating that you know as little about your own religion as you do about science.

A few days ago, twitter user @BenjiLeeT invited atheists to comment on the image below. (And just to be clear, I’m only posting his twitter handle to credit him as the source for the picture. My criticisms below are in no way directed towards him personally).

So, here’s the pic, which appears to have fairly widely circulated:

Now of course this is meant to be humorous, and perhaps on those grounds it shouldn’t be taken seriously at all. On the other hand, it’s a perfect example of how apologists attempt to misrepresent the views of atheists in order to construct straw men and cartoonish stereotypes which are easy to ridicule and dismiss. So on those grounds I find it worthwhile to break down this deeply flawed message in all its fallacious glory.

Starting from the beginning, then, “Atheism: The belief…”

Stop. Three words in and we’ve already arrived at…

Falsehood Number 1: “Atheism is a belief”

Atheism, by definition, is not a belief. It is the lack of belief in any gods. We remain unconvinced of any theistic or supernatural claims because there is insufficient evidence that those claims are true. At its core, atheism is not a belief or viewpoint at all, but rather the natural conclusion that results from a skeptical, rational approach to the observable world. Thus far, every argument for the existence of gods has failed to deliver a shred of substantial, empirical proof that it is based on anything more than human imagination and cultural tradition, and so we remain unconvinced.

Falsehood Number 2: “Atheism equals evolution and the Big Bang”

Now, it’s probably a very large majority of atheists who embrace the validity of the scientific method, and by extension the theories that are the most widely accepted among the scientific community, including evolution and the Big Bang. However, this is not an exclusive club. In fact, the majority of Americans who believe in evolution are theists, being that there are so many more believers than non-believers. The Vatican has officially accepted the Big Bang and evolution, and “theistic evolution” is likewise accepted by a wide range of Protestant Christian denominations as well as many other religions.  So while it’s probably safe to say that most atheists embrace these concepts, it’s patently absurd to suggest that we’re alone in this.

A subheading under this category would be the falsehood that most people who are the loudest critics of the Big Bang and evolution have even the slightest understanding of the science they’re denouncing. When creationists converse with people who actually understand evolution, they will often interject things like, “Well, if evolution is true then how did life start in the first place?”, or, as in the picture above, “Well, if evolution is true, then how did everything come from nothing?” When blurting out these utterances (usually to sidetrack or derail), all they really do is show their complete ignorance of the science they’re talking about. Very few would be able to tell you, for example, that abiogenesis and evolution are completely separate areas of research.

Abiogenesis is the study of how organic matter (which is to say, life) emerged from inorganic matter. The theory of evolution seeks to explain how the complex life forms we know (and are) evolved from simpler previous forms going back to a common ancestor. But evolutionary theory in no way attempts to explain how life originated in the first place. Likewise, the Big Bang theory is an explanation for the beginning of the physical universe, but makes no claims about the origin or evolution of life, or anything biological whatsoever. Apologists will often juggle around elements from all three of these, none of which have any claims to make regarding theological beliefs in the first place, obfuscating and muddying the conversational waters, probably because making good, rational arguments is hard when you don’t have any.

Falsehood Number 3: “Magic”

The use of this word – twice, just to drive the point home, I suppose – just goes to show how willing apologists are to be blatantly dishonest as long as it serves their purpose. It’s obviously thrown in there to suggest that atheists are foolish and silly for believing in the crazy, “magical” fantasies of scientific theory (which again, do not even equate to atheism in the first place). However, most atheists don’t even believe in the mundane David Blaine variety of magic, let alone outlandish tales found in religious scripture of talking snakes, virgin birth and the like. It should go without saying that for believers to ridicule atheists for “believing in magic” is beyond ironic. It is a deliberate and intellectually dishonest ruse to discredit the findings of science, which are supported by natural, empirically verifiable evidence. And beyond that, unlike religion, science is honest and open about the limits of its explanatory powers. Religion takes advantage of that honesty with a childish, “Ha! You even admit that you don’t know!”, and then sleazily proceeds to fill in the gaps with whatever stories suit its purpose. Science is not capable of explaining everything, but everything which science can explain it can do so in entirely naturalistic, empirically evident terms. Religion can’t even come close to claiming the same.

Falsehood Number 4: “Atheists carry the burden of proof of their ‘beliefs'”

The last line of the graphic basically states that religious beliefs (ie. supernatural beliefs) are more rational than naturalistic beliefs, by ridiculing the validity of science. This is fairly sneaky, because what it’s really doing is engaging in an absurd attempt to shift incredulity from supernaturalistic claims to naturalistic claims, even though the latter are objectively observable and the former are not. Another way of saying this is that it’s trying to shift the burden of proof from those who make claims without any scientific evidence to their skeptics who justifiably won’t take their word for it. “I’ll keep believing until you prove me wrong,” the believer says.

Yet, Christians are not obligated to disprove Hindusism, and Hindus are not obligated to disprove alien abductees, and alien abductees are not obligated to disprove Muslims, and Muslims are not obligated to disprove believers in Santa Claus, and believers in Santa Claus are not obligated to disprove 9/11 truthers, and 9/11 truthers are not obligated to disprove Christians.This shifting of the burden of proof is one of the most common apologist tactics, as they demand of atheists time and again that we “prove there is no god”. Sorry folks, but  that’s not our responsibility.

Again, atheism is not in itself a belief, but is instead the insistence that:

a) if people are going to make truth claims regarding the existential reality of gods or other supernatural entities or phenomena, and…

b) if they want us to accept their claims as serious, plausible, rational and believable, then…

c) they are obliged to provide us with evidence of their claims, and it must be both empirically observable under testable conditions and also sufficiently convincing as to merit (cautious) credulity and further testing.

In fact, the majority of atheists are agnostics who not only do not claim any absolute knowledge of the lack of existence of gods, but would absolutely love to see such evidence provided if there were any. But as of yet, there hasn’t been.

But for their part, many theists, rather than being intellectually honest and attempting to make positive proofs for the existence of their gods, resort to the “I know you are but what am I?” deflection method, insisting that we atheists disprove that for which they have absolutely no evidence, and which in reality can’t be disproven (much like you can’t prove I don’t have a tiny Sasquatch living in my top desk drawer), and which we skeptics are simply unable to believe without good reason.

In terms of logic, this is a fallacy known as the argument from ignorance. This is not to call anyone ignorant, but simply to recognize that humans have limits of knowledge, and therefore remain collectively in the dark about the as yet undiscovered and unsolved. The fallacy is to exploit the unknown areas (the “filling in the gaps” described above) and say, “Well, if nobody knows, then therefore that’s God.” Without any justification. Without any legitimate reason. Without any evidence. On nothing but desire and a”faith” in translations of translations of rewrites of rewrites of ancient texts of stories told mostly not by eyewitnesses but handed down in large part orally from generation to generation, somehow finally resulting in what they call the Truth, otherwise known as The Word Of God (as decreed by whichever “holy” scripture they happen to believe in), stories written by people who weren’t there about desert dwellers hundreds or thousands of years ago whose knowledge and understanding of life and the universe was extraordinarily miniscule compared towhat we know of the world today.

And then they have the audacity to call us foolish for not believing. That does not make perfect sense to me.

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.

 

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