Tag Archive: apologetics


“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.

 

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One common fallacious apologist argument is the appeal to authority. In this fallacy, one brings up experts in particular fields or people of otherwise high repute, pointing to them and saying in essence, “Well they say this is true and they know more than us, so it must be true!”

One of the most common apologist uses of the appeal to authority is to point to scientists who believe in God. Sometimes, as with Isaac Newton, they are correct about a scientist’s beliefs, although this doesn’t remedy the fallacy. (Newton believed in all kinds of crazy crap, and what, in the first place, qualifies a scientist – or anyone for that matter – as an “expert” on whether gods exist?). Unfortunately, however, the deliberately dishonest misrepresentation of clearly atheist/agnostic scientists as believers happens all too often, as apologists engage in out-of-context quote mining to distort the original words for their own agenda, Albert Einstein being victim number one.

In his story reblogged above, Jerry Coyne breaks down a recent Huffington Post slideshow which features some classis examples of such quote mining.

Why Evolution Is True

The HuffPo Science section can’t seem to keep its mitts off religion. Why on earth do they keep dragging God into that section?

The latest theistic incursion is a “slide show” called “Science and religion quotes: what the world’s greatest scientists say about God.”  There are 21 quotes, each accompanied by a photo of the scientist, and, to be fair, there’s a mixture of atheist and pro-religion statements.  A few of them, however, seem unfair to me, since the scientists at issue were clearly atheistic or agnostic in other, unquoted statements.

Carl Sagan:

“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual…The notion…

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In this short but excellent video, youtuber DarkMatter2525 highlights the absurdity of the “if God revealed himself to us it would violate our free will” claim.

 

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.

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.

The Orange County Regiser has this account of a recent anti-religious demonstration by the Southern California group Backyard Skeptics:

Atheist group criticizes Christianity, Bible verses

ORLY? What a shocker…

About 15 members of the group Backyard Skeptics participated in the demonstration, some displaying posters with phrases such as: “Smile. You’re not alone. Millions are good without God” and “Worship me or I’ll send you to eternal hell … Have a nice day … (signed) God.”

The group’s leader, Bruce Gleason, along with a fellow member, tore up sheets of paper printed with verses from the Bible to make their point.

One paper that was torn to pieces was printed with the verse, Matthew 5:29, which states: “So if your eye – even your good eye – causes you to lust, gouge it out and throw it away.” Another, which was torn, Corinthians 14:34, states “The women are to keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak.”

A this point it should be said that prior to this event, the story was badly misreported. The media had taken the “atheists are going to rip up bibles” meme and run with it, which clearly was incorrect. And in fact I went on a little twitter rant (starting with this tweet) about how I didn’t support the group’s tactics. So I’ll take this opportunity to retract my previous criticism. Symbolically and as a matter of fact, printing up individual pages with specific verses and ripping them up is substantively different from destroying books. I have a problem with the whole book burning m.o., but not with what the Backyard Skeptics actually did.

Moving on, the part of the story that really caught my eye was this:

Isabel Moore of Huntington Beach, a self-professed “born-again Christian,” said the group is taking specific verses out of context.

“Most would have a different meaning if taken in proper context,” Moore said. “We have to read the whole passage and not just one verse.”

Perhaps the most vocal of those disagreeing with the Backyard Skeptics was Greg Allen of Santa Ana.

Allen, a Christian, said he spends most Saturdays preaching at the pier.

“There is a level of frustration when you deal with the type of argument that they bring,” Allen said. “They misrepresent the Christian view and what the Bible is actually presenting.”

“…a different meaning if taken in proper context…”

“They misrepresent the Christian view…”

The “out of context” defense of the bible is one of the most common, and most fallacious arguments that Christians (and Muslims, and most devout religious believers of any faith) put forth. The idea is usually that a) we need to understand the historical context of that time, and b) the criticized passages from these holy texts make more sense if you read them in context.

So my first question would be this: Continue reading

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