Sunday, April 28, 2013

Why Would We Invent Hell?

Many theists have brought up the question from time to time that if heaven can be explained because it bares the hallmarks of wishful thinking, then it seems at odds with human desire why we would've invented hell.

Dinesh D'Souza made the following argument in a debate with Christopher Hitchens:

I can totally see why in a wish fulfillment world we would invent heaven...I don't think I would have made up hell. Hell is more severe than diabetes. It's a little tougher than death. So why would [the] wish fulfillment inventors of religion come up with the rules of self denial and so on that make our life more difficult, more sacrificial?

Hitchens has at another time responded to this by saying that hell is the place we've conjured up where we'd desire people that we don't like to go to. I agree. When we're full of hateful emotion towards someone, we tell them to go to - hell. Right? Hell is where we wish those we don't like can spend an eternity being tortured. It comes from the sadistic side of the human personality to enjoy the torments of others, and religions like Christianity and especially Islam, capitalize on it very well.

But also, on the flip side to our sadism, we're also sometimes masochistic. We want to be abused and punished and humiliated for our shortcomings. Religion aptly capitalizes on this side to our personality as well. If you look at virtually every religion, it enjoins the believer into thinking that they're a subhuman, filthy, wretched, worm, who's not even worth of the life they didn't even ask for. You see this in every religion. You see this amongst Christians and Muslims flagellating themselves; you see this amongst Jews forcing themselves to live according to absurd rules and regulations. Religious belief is partly a manifestation of sadomasochism.

I can almost guarantee you that many of the writers of religious doctrines that bare masochistic tendencies would be the kind of people paying to be whipped and beaten if they were alive today.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

So You Think Evolution And Religion Are Compatible Huh? My Challenge To Theistic Evolutionists

When it comes to the theory of evolution there are four basic positions a theist can take:
  1. Evolution is a natural process that was started by god in the beginning; 
  2. Evolution is partly natural process that god occasionally interacts with and guides; 
  3. Evolution is a process that is completely guided by god at every step; or, 
  4. Evolution is false and doesn't happen. 

If you're a theist, your approach to evolution is going to fall under one of these four categories. The naturalist position of course is that evolution is a totally unguided process that never needs supernatural intervention. I praise all theists who have accepted evolution as fact despite the many obstacles that they face. That being said, for those theists who take a position between 1 and 3 above it opens up a new book of difficult questions, perhaps even harder than the traditional problems of evil. 

I have a list of 10 questions that popped into my head recently that I think highlight some of the problems of trying to incorporate theistic evolution with theistic beliefs. I wouldn't say the two are impossible to reconcile, but asking the following questions below to various theists has yielded a wide range of contradictory answers that I think theists should stop and try very hard to come up with definitive answers for.

  1. When did the soul appear? Did it literally appear all of a sudden? 
  2. Did god say *poof* one day and man suddenly received a soul? 
  3. Did the soul evolve and appear gradually? 
  4. Was there literally one generation of human beings that had souls whose parents didn't? 
  5. Did the soul come early in human evolution or late? 
  6. If it came late, why did god wait tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years to create the soul? 
  7. What about original sin? How do we get original sin if there never was a literal Adam & Eve? I know that only Christianity has original sin, but if we don't have it, how do you make sense of Christian theology without it? 
  8. If god gave man a soul suddenly and waited until late in human evolution to do it, that means that all the human beings who died before humans got their soul possessed the same cognitive functionality in order to consciously suffer as much as their descendants did who did have souls, and yet they were not compensated for the suffering they endured. How can this be reconciled with standard Christian or Islamic doctrine that basically says heaven compensates all the suffering that humans experience? 
  9. What about animal suffering? Biology and neuroscience shows us that animals consciously suffer as most mammals have a prefrontal and neocortex. If animals consciously suffer and have no souls, why do they suffer and why isn't there suffering compensated? How could a wholly good god create beings who could consciously suffer and then just plan for them to die with no compensation to them?
  10. Why create human beings through a long slow process that involved numerous mass extinctions that caused millions of species to suffer and die who had varying levels of consciousness to experience this suffering? It seems unnecessarily cruel.

I've never heard a theist give me a satisfactory answer to a single one of these answers let alone all 10. Many of these questions should be easy to answer since they cover the same area: the soul.

I'd like to propose these questions as a challenge to any theist willing to take them on who can give reasonable definitive answers that are compatible with the concept of an all-knowing, all-powerful and especially an all-good god.

Any one up for the challenge?

(Please also check out my Evolutionary Argument Against God here.)

Can You Name Any Smart Theists?

I'm tempted at times to put all religious people and religions under one category: dumb. But the rational side to me says that this is not so. Religions make many diverse claims amongst each other, and some of those claims are more practical than others. While it is self evident to me without a doubt that the fundamental claims all religions make are equally false, you do find nuggets of truth and insight here and there.

You absolutely can be smart and religious at the same time, but you cannot be properly educated and smart while being a fundamentalist. Two examples I use of very smart religious people are Dr. Francis Collins and Prof. Kenneth Miller. Both of these guys are very distinguished in their fields of genetics and biology respectively. Kenneth Miller in particular has been a very prominent voice in the war against creationism being taught in the classroom. He testified at the Dover Pennsylvania trial on why "intelligent design" is not a valid scientific theory. He speaks and lectures on the evidence for evolutionary theory, including addressing the arguments made against it by the creationist proponents. And, he's a Catholic who's found a way to successfully reconcile evolutionary theory with his faith without any major conflict.

Prof. Miller and Dr. Collins are textbook examples of how science can be reconciled with faith in the modern world. From their impacts on society along with others that hold to their views, the number of Americans who accept evolution as fact continues to increase, although the increase has not been as precipitous as many hoped. So whenever anyone asks me if I can name some smart theists, I use these two as examples.

Why Biblical Inerrancy Makes No Sense

This is basically how biblical inerrancy sounds to me: the bible is what we have, and since it's impossible god would have wanted us to have a inaccurate book about him, the bible must be perfect and free of any errors!

This line of "reasoning" is what millions of Christians throughout history have used to justify their belief that the bible is a perfect and inerrant piece of work. It's about as dubious as the "ass backwards" logic of the fine tuning argument. Some Christians seem to think that if they can show one part of the bible to be more probably true than not, then it means that the whole entire bible can be taken as truth. Usually this is done with the resurrection. But calculating the resurrection as more probably true than not (which is problematic on its own) does not logically follow that the entire bible is therefore completely true.

There may be a few bits of truth here and there in the bible, but none of them on their own should lead to a conclusion that the entire bible is true. Every truth claim in the bible needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis, and the probability of any one part being true should not necessarily bare any weight on any other part. That being said, biblical inerrancy is intellectually bankrupt, especially in light of the fact that many stories in the bible are full on contradictions, and are scientifically and historically inaccurate.

See a list here of the numerous biblical contradictions from evilbible,com

Friday, April 26, 2013

Does Evil & Suffering Disprove God? A Debate Review Between Walter Sincott-Armstrong v. William Lane Craig

Professor of philosophy Walter Sincott-Armstrong debated William Lane Craig once upon a time long ago on the topic of whether the existence of evil and suffering disprove that god exists. In the debate, Armstrong makes some pretty compelling arguments that there cannot be a god who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving to the maximal degree. He says god could be mostly powerful or mostly loving for example, but not all of all of those three attributes. He opens his argument with a personal anecdote of a friend who had lost their child and whose death split the family apart. What justification does god have, Armstrong asks, for allowing such evil?

Part 1: Summarizing the debate

In the debate Armstrong makes a deductive argument using the existence of gratuitous evil as the source of evidence against the compatibility of god’s most commonly agreed upon attributes mentioned above. Armstrong’s argument is as follows:

1. If there were an all-powerful and all-good god, there would not be any evil in the world unless that evil is logically necessary for some adequately compensating good.

2. There is some evil in the world and some of that evil is not logically necessary for any adequately compensating good.

3. Therefore, there can’t be a god that is all powerful and all good.

Armstrong defines evil as “anything that all rational people avoid for themselves unless they have some adequate reason to want that evil.” This would include things like pain, ignorance, disability, death. He says “evil is justified when there are no other ways or better ways to avoid it.” For example, going to the dentist might cause immense pain and suffering, but it’s for the long term benefit of your teeth and health. The only evil god is justified in allowing he says, are those that are logically necessary in order to promote some compensating good.

After making his opening argument against god’s existence using evil, Armstrong then preempts some of the most common objections.

Possible responses:

1. Evil is imposed by god as a punishment for sin. But evil is not distributed evenly according to sin. Original sin is unfair. We view group punishment as barbaric and unjust.

2. The child who suffers in this life is repaid in heaven. Isn't it better to have a fulfilling life while also going to heaven? God could send the child straight to heaven instead of having it suffer.

3. Free will is so valuable that god let us have even though he knew we’d misuse it. But this doesn’t address natural evil, disease, earthquakes, etc. Free will cannot provide god with a reason for allowing natural evil.

4. Evil builds character. Observers and sufferers of evil might become more compassionate. But god can make people compassionate in many other ways than to force someone around them to suffer and die. It’s unfair to make someone suffer so that somebody else can learn something.

5. Evil is used by god to maximize the number of people to know god and glorify god. If god allows babies to suffer for other people to glorify god, it seems very narcissistic. God can bring people to him voluntarily in other ways that don’t involve evil.

6. God has a reason for permitting evil, we just can’t see it. Imagine your neighbor lets his kids starve. He has plenty of food but doesn’t feed his children. We’d think he’s a bad parent. But imagine if someone says “maybe he has sufficient reason to starve the kids, maybe he has some better purpose later on.” Because we cannot know this reason we are justified in concluding that the parent is bad based on what we know.

7. Evil gives us some reason not to believe in god but theists insist that this evidence is overridden by other evidence for god. Even if the other arguments for god are good, it’s hard to show how that kind of creator is all-good and not just very good or mostly good.

In conclusion Armstrong says, it seems that theists have a choice: they can say that god is all powerful, but not all loving. What they can’t do is face the evidence of evil in this world and still believe in the traditional god.

Before I weigh in, let me summarize from the debate the main points that Craig argues in favor of god’s existence.

Craig's Arguments:

Craig opens his arguments by saying that the problem of evil does not count as a disproof of the existence of god intellectually. He offers the following summary of Armstrong’s syllogism as he sees it:

1. If god exists, gratuitous evil does not exist. (Evil that is morally unjustified)

2. Gratuitous evil exists

3. Therefore, god does not exist.

Craig argues that gratuitous evil does not exist because we cannot know that it does. He then says that the atheist assumes that if god allows these evils to exist, then it must be evident to us, which he says is ungrounded.  We shouldn’t expect to see the reasons why god permits evil, he argues. Evil that exists today “could” according to Craig, might not be understood why god allowed it until centuries later. Our limitations in time prevent us from knowing this, but that is not the case for god who’s timeless.

Craig then argues that certain Christian doctrines mention that we’d expect to see evil in the world that appears gratuitous, making it harder for Armstrong’s case. He says Armstrong cannot infer the appearance of evil to the fact of evil. Craig then offers three arguments to make this case:

1.  The purpose of life is not human happiness, it is to know god. We naturally assume that if god exists, the purpose of this life is to be happy, and that god should make all of our lives happy. It may well be the case that only in a world involving natural and moral evils that the maximum number of persons would freely come to know god and his salvation. Armstrong has to show that it is feasible to create a world which has the same amount of the knowledge of god and of his salvation, but that has less evil.

2. Mankind is in a state of rebellion against god and his purpose. He’s spiritual alienated. Christians should expect to see terrible evils in the world. God has given mankind over to the evil that he’s chosen. God lets it run its course.

3. God’s purpose spills over into eternal life. In the afterlife god will reward those who’ve suffered and who’ve trusted in god. We shouldn't expect to see the reasons in this life for why permits evil. The glory of eternal heaven outweighs any suffering in the world. Given the prospects of eternal life, some suffering may be justified only in light of eternity.

Craig then goes on to say that Armstrong would then have to refute these three doctrines which he hasn’t done in order to show that natural evils are indeed gratuitous. Then in another tactic Craig is so fond of, he tries to turn the tables and argue that if god exists, then the evil in the world is not gratuitous. So he then puts forth a modified version of his summary above of Armstrong’s argument above:
1. If god exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.

2*. God exists

3*. Therefore, gratuitous evil does not exist.

Then Craig goes onto argue for god using the cosmological, the fine tuning, and the moral arguments which I've written about before so I won’t summarize here.

Interestingly, there is no back and forth rebuttal in this debate and they just go right into a dialogue after their opening speeches.

Part 2: My Analysis of the Debate

I want to summarize for myself the arguments made in the debate and of course I will be especially critical of Craig.

I've just recently written of the inadequacy of speculating whether god has morally sufficient reasons for doing what he does so this will allow me to critique someone who thinks he actually knows.

Let me now argue against Craig’s 3 points that he justified human suffering with.

1. The purpose of life is not human happiness, it is to know god.

Is that so? Well, of course that’s Craig’s opinion, and is not verifiable. One must have faith in Christian doctrine in order to accept such a proposition. But if we take it at face value, why is it true that millions of people who have been born and who are alive today have suffered from such levels of mental retardation that they are incapable of the cognitive functioning necessary to know anything truthful of the outside world, let alone that god exists? You cannot know god unless you’ve got a reasonably functioning brain. If the purpose of life is to know god, it would seem at odds with his plan that he’d build into the design the very impediments that prevent one from actualizing the whole purpose of the plan. In light of this fact, the purpose of all our lives we’re being told by Craig is fundamentally flawed.

This point was also addressed by Armstrong in his point number 5. God certainly could bring people to him using other means besides natural evils like suffering and disease. In his infinite wisdom, he surely could bring about the same number of people, perhaps even more, to know him than if he allowed natural evils and could still achieve the same overall goal. For one thing, god could simply give us more evidence that he exists. That would convince billions to freely worship him and jettison their pagan gods. And why couldn't god have chosen to bring about the maximal number of people freely to him in a world without natural evil, but that still contains human evil? To say god could create any possible world he wants, and chose to create one with human and natural evils is to say god willingly chose to create the world with more suffering in it. The debate never addressed the origin of natural evil, whether it was through original sin or not, but such investigations lead to numerous other problems for theism in light of modern science.

And what about current and future advances in medical technology? If we can cure the diseases and remove the pain and suffering that god inflicts on us or allows us to experience, are we thwarting god’s plan? What if we alleviate suffering on a massive scale? Would the alleviation of suffering then not produce the kinds of positive outcomes god is hoping for down the road?

What does naturalism have to say about natural evils like disease and earthquakes? Well, we live in a volatile and imperfect world; you’d expect to see natural disasters harm people and animals.  Diseases are just other forms of life trying to survive in the same way we are – they just have to harm other beings in order for them to flourish, much like how we kill millions of animals for food in order for us to flourish. Under naturalism there’s no mystery why there exists natural evils and suffering in light of the knowledge we have of what causes them.

2. Mankind is in a state of rebellion against god and his purpose.

From god’s perspective, was there ever any expectation that mankind wouldn’t rebel? Assuming the Christian story to be true, god creates mankind and gives him and all his descendants thereof freewill and the desire to be free and to want to live autonomously. Then god imposes a set of very strict and impossible to follow set of rules and morals, and commands that his creation love him and submit to him and essentially be his slaves. Then god gets angry when he sees his creation rebelling against him. Really? What did god expect to happen? If you enslaved a nation of people and ordered them to worship you, of course you’d expect them to rebel against you.

I think that the Christian doctrine of man’s rebellion and the wrath he suffers from is better explained by the masochistic aspects of the human personality. It is just far too easy to believe that we rebelled against god, and that that’s why we live in a world with diseases and earthquakes. This also ignores the fact that suffering and disease predated the evolution of mankind by millions of years and therefore cannot be due to man’s rebellion against god. I think this debate occurred before Craig came to accept evolution as fact, which happened rather recently. In light of evolution and the fact that there was no literal Adam and Eve, this argument based on the fall of Adam in the Garden of Eden falls flat under its erroneous assumptions.

3. God’s purpose spills over into eternal life.

The promise of eternal life is really all the Christian has to justify natural suffering in this world. The problem is that this does not address the existence of animal suffering at all. Why should an animal suffer a horrendous ordeal only to die and be forfeited the same possible rewards human suffering is worthy of under the Christian worldview? A YouTube user going by the name of “skydivephil” recently made a video critiquing the many fallacious attempts by theists like William Lane Craig in order to try to argue that animals are not consciously aware of the pain they suffer and that animal suffering could not be used as an argument against god.

Craig invites to his own website’s weekly Q&A Prof. Michael Murray whose book Nature Red in Tooth and Claw is what Craig bases his justification on that animals are not consciously aware of pain. “Those parts of the brain most closely associated with consciousness of pain,” Murray writes, “are also the parts that were the last to arrive among mammals: the pre-frontal cortex.” As such, he concludes that there exists 3 levels of pain awareness:

Level 3: a second order awareness that one is oneself experiencing (2).
Level 2: a first order, subjective experience of pain.
Level 1: information-bearing neural states produced by noxious stimuli resulting in aversive behavior.

But it is simply not true that only advanced mammals have a prefrontal cortex. In fact, animals as wide ranging as opossums, guinea pigs, and rats all contain a prefrontal cortex or a neo-cortex. And this is attested by the majority of the scientific community. So it is simply not the case that non-primate lower mammals are not aware of their pain and suffering as apologists like Craig make it out to be.

Furthermore, from PZ Myers’ website on this outright lie of Craig, he mentions the implications of arguing that the prefrontal cortex is necessary for level 3 conscious awareness. “Craig has actually just rejected Cartesian dualism (and neo-Cartesian views of the ‘soul’) in that claim. If you assert that the neurological processes that are involved in self-representation are necessary for the existence of self-representation, then you are rejecting the possibility that something can self-represent without those processes. That’s the basic mode.

With this evidence in place, Craig fails ultimately to rebut Armstrong's second premise of his argument which is what he intended to do. The problem with Craig is that he knows how to deliver his arguments such that you sometimes need to play back the tape in order to break his false claims apart minute by minute, and point by point in order see determine their untruth. 


In Craig’s closing arguments he reads an emotional letter from a person who wrote him who was grieving over the recent loss of a child. No doubt this was a last ditch appeal to the audience’s emotions to try to win them over. In the letter he reads of a man who finds hope that he’ll one day be reunited with his deceased daughter in heaven. Now there’s no doubt that religion offers hope and consolation to those going through difficult times, but it’s also true that a false religion that wasn't true would have the same exact effect on people who believed in it. A false religion that offered hope would be just as effective as one that was real, so long as it was believed to be true. So the fact that religion provides some people a way to cope and face death with a bit more courage, says absolutely nothing about whether that religion is true. In fact, I’d argue that the consoling powers of faith are in part the reason why religions were created by our fearful ancestors in the first place – as a wishful thinking measure to sooth the inevitable pain of death.

Could God Have Created The Laws Of Logic?

Where do the laws of logic come from? If god cannot violate logic, if god cannot create a square circle, or a married bachelor, then he cannot be the author of logic. For if he was, he would be able to violate logic at will. So if logic is not created by god, then it could be said that logic exists necessarily in some sense. Was logic created at the beginning of space and time and did not exist prior? If there was no “prior” to an absolute beginning of time, then is logic timeless? Is it possible for logic to have not existed and then exist at some point? Before space and time existed and all matter and energy, did logic exist? If so, then we can never say that absolute nothing ever existed; there were always the laws of logic, even if there was no time for them to exist before time. And if it’s possible that the laws of logic exist necessarily, and in some sense, timelessly, then it is not a stretch to say that the fundamental laws of physics exist necessarily and timelessly.

Of course, it is possible to believe that the laws of logic begin to exist at the moment of the origin of space and time, and that they govern all activity in every universe created thereafter. But why these laws and not other laws of logic? Was it impossible for there to have been other laws? Is there a necessity to why there must be these laws of logic? Perhaps these laws of logic are indeed necessary because there must exist rules preventing contradiction and other paradoxes. But when it comes to the hotly debated existence of “nothing”, and by nothing I mean absolute nothing - not anything or the complete absence of anything – the necessary existence of logic puzzles me because in some sense, logic exists prior to anything. So it does not seem likely that absolute nothing ever really existed. 

More Thoughts On God's Timeless Paradox

We’re often told that god is a disembodied mind - he’s a mind with no physical body. Well what is it that minds do? Well, minds think! That’s what minds do. A disembodied mind that doesn't think, in some sense, doesn't exist. But thinking is a temporal process, it is a temporal event. How is it logically possible that a thinking immaterial mind can truly exist outside of time? What many theists often do in their description of god is that they simply just assert that god is timeless but they offer no evidence how such a being could actually exist. They simply just declare that “god exists outside of space and time”, but the burden of proof is on the one who makes such a claim to explain how it is logically verifiable.

Christian apologist William Lane Craig says on his own website on the nature of god and time, “A sequence of mental events alone is sufficient to generate relations of earlier and later, wholly in the absence of any physical events.” This means that if god were to count from one to five, “1,2,3,4,5” there would always be a moment prior to him counting and a moment after him counting. This means that in order to think, you cannot logically escape the dimension of time, even in the absence of physical matter. This puts a heavy burden of proof on the theist who asserts that god is a thinking mind and a timeless mind. It would also seem that the absence of time and of possessing temporal qualities prevents any ability to think along with the ability to execute one’s will, and it certainly prevents god from being able to impregnating an underage Palestinian virgin, so that god could have her give birth to himself.

All of these events are temporal events, requiring temporal qualities.

We have no evidence whatsoever that a mind can exist outside of a brain let alone one that exists outside of space and time.

Craig's alternative is that god becomes temporal with the creation of the time. This is kind of like believing god is a caveman frozen in a block of ice from eternity who not only cannot move and cause things to happen, he cannot even think. Then when the ice thaws, he's suddenly free from the constraints of timelessness. I think this is perhaps the only way that I'm aware of that can explain god's nature after time begins. But, in my assessment of the ontological argument, this path leads to its own logical paradoxes. 

Does God Have Morally Sufficient Reasons For Doing What He Does?

We hear a lot of times theists making the case that god must have morally sufficient reasons for doing something the way he does but that we don’t know or cannot know those reasons. Well this is essentially tantamount to those two old adages, “The lord works in mysterious ways” and “Who can know the mind of god?” When I was a kid and was debating about god with my grandmother, who was a devout Catholic, whenever she came to a tough answer that she didn't know, she’d always resort to that old saying. But if your line of reasoning concludes with basically admitting that it doesn't make sense and that you don’t know how to answer it, then when I place this up against the naturalistic explanation and compare the two – naturalism vs. the lord works in mysterious ways – then to me it seems perfectly reasonable and logical to conclude with the naturalistic explanation over the theistic admittance of ignorance.

Why is it that we need to rely on “sophisticated theologians” to give us “reasonable” answers to religion’s toughest questions? Why aren't the answers obvious or at least more easily knowable if they indeed are true? For example, if your evidence that Jesus rose from the dead is based on what you think most New Testament scholars say, then it’s true that most people over the past two thousand years have not been able to have access to what any scholars have had to say on whether or not Jesus existed or rose from the dead. Most people over the past two thousand years were illiterate and completely uneducated. They were forced to believe in god and Jesus’ divinity, purely on faith. So if god wanted us to have evidence to know he’s real and that Jesus is his son (or himself), why is it that this “evidence” was unavailable to billions of people throughout history? And even then, the evidence is speculative at best in many areas, just as the Christian justifications for the problem of evil are.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Meta-ethics: Moral Realism Vs. Divine Command Theory

Meta-ethics is the branch of philosophy that is concerned with the metaphysical, epistemological, semantic and psychological presuppositions and commitments of moral theory and practice. It can be nicely described visually in the following chart:

I personally lean heavily towards moral realism and so my ethical theories fall under cognitivism. The divine command theory of ethics, which in some ways is the antithesis of moral realism, also falls under cognitivism, but is actually sub-categorized under subjectivism, despite its claims to be universal. Let me quickly compare and contrast the two.

Cognitivism is the thesis that moral statements are propositions in that they express beliefs that are either true or false. Let's define moral realism and ethical naturalism along with subjectivism and divine command theory.

Moral Realism:
  • Moral realism is the claim that there are objective moral facts.
  • Ethical naturalism states that moral facts are knowable through and reducible to non-moral facts about the universe and can be determined or understood through empirical observation. 
  • Moral subjectivism states that moral facts exist but they are dependent on subjective minds. 
  • Divine command theory states that moral facts are determined by the commandments of god.
Each of these theories has their pros and cons, as do all ethical theories. Let me highlight some of them for each.

Ethical naturalism:
  • Pro: Provides an objective foundation for morality
  • Con: Needs to solve the Is/Ought dilemma and the open question argument
Divine command theory:
  • Pro: Tries to establish moral facts without the problem of moral realism (Is/Ought and the open question argument)
  • Con: Epistemic problem (who can know for sure what god's commands are?), the Euthyphro dilemma, and god's existence is not observable. 

Moral Realism

OK. So now that we've defined each ethical theory and outlined some of their pros and cons we can compare and contrast the two. Under the ethical naturalism branch of moral realism, in order for a moral to truly be objective, it must be based off of facts that are independent of anyone's opinion. So no one's opinion, whether it come from a human mind, the mind of an advanced species of extra-terrestrial alien life, or god's mind, can determine an objective moral fact independently of the motives and consequences of the moral in question. Morality is founded in nature itself, in the real experiences that affect conscious beings, and where our intentions and the effects of our moral actions hold the objective foundation.

When it comes the is Is/Ought dilemma we do have to grant an extra premise to come to the conclusion that an action is moral. For example, consider the following syllogism:

P: Torture is harmful
C: Therefore, torture is wrong

The premise states a fact about the action of torture that it is indeed harmful. That is the non-moral fact that the conclusion is founded on. But how can we conclude that something is morally wrong just because it is harmful? To address the Is/Ought dilemma, we must rationally justify the conclusion by positing another premise. In this case, to conclude that torture is wrong because it is harmful, we must grant that harming someone is wrong. This goes without saying, but you can reach the conclusion that harming someone is wrong by knowing whether or not that person consented to being harmed and whether it will negatively affect them. So now consider the following addition:

P1: Torture is harmful
P2: Harming someone is wrong 
C: Therefore, torture is wrong

The open question argument says that moral facts cannot be reduced to natural properties (i.e. torture is harmful) because any attempt to conclude morality with a set of observable natural properties will always be an open question. So for example consider the syllogism:

P1: If X is good, then the question "Is it true that X is good?" is meaningless.
P2: The question "Is it true that X is good?" is not meaningless (i.e. it is an open question).
C: X is not (analytically equivalent to) good.

The objective morality found in ethical naturalism is not necessarily known a priori, it requires meaningful analysis. The open question argument assumes that "X is good" is knowable by definition. So for example, let's replace "X" with "kindness". 

P1: If kindness is good, then the question "Is it true that kindness is good?" is meaningless. 

I disagree. We cannot know if kindness is good without a meaningful analysis of its intentions and effects. Therefore the first premise of the open question argument might be analytically equivalent to good, and asking whether it is good can be meaningful. 

Divine Command Theory

Now let's turn to divine command theory. According to the theory, god, existing outside time and space reveals to us his moral commandments that determine what is morally right and wrong. Although this theory is classified under subjectivism, proponents claim that it provides a clear objective foundation for moral values and duties that bypasses the Is/Ought dilemma and the open argument dilemma. But it does have several of its own problems. Let's examine them.

The first problem is the epistemic problem. How can we know for sure what god's commands are? There are many competing religions each making their own truth claims, and there are many ways to interpret religious scripture. Also, texts were transcribed through many languages and many bare contradictions and signs of editing. People also claim to hear revelations from god all the time and we have no empirical way to validate any of them. 

Divine command theory proponents would all say that their religious scriptures are the only true messages of god and the others are either partly or wholly fabricated. It is possible to assess a probability factor to all religious texts based on their internal consistency, their metaphysical claims compared to current scientific knowledge, and their historicity compared to archaeological records, but all religious texts essentially fail a validity test on this standard.

Then there's the Euthyphro dilemma. A modern iteration of it asks, "Is something good because god commands it, or does god command it because it is good?" Neither the former or the latter are particularly welcoming to the theist. The former implies that good is arbitrarily determined by god, and the latter implies that good exists external to god, and god is just a mere messenger of the good. 

The most common response to avoid either horn of the dilemma is to say that god is good. The problem with that is that it fails to demonstrate that goodness cannot exist independent of god. For example, an intrinsic property of fire is hotness, but hot can exist independently of fire (i.e. microwaves, friction). Likewise, if goodness is an intrinsic property of god, that doesn't prove that goodness cannot exist independently of god. Also, if god can command something that would otherwise be wrong (i.e. to sacrifice one's first born), then the only factor determining the action's rightness or wrongness is god's commandment at that moment. That would mean that goodness is arbitrarily determined by god's commandments. 

There seems to be no way out of the Euthyphro dilemma, no matter how hard one tries.

Finally, god's existence is not observable and not verifiable. We must take his existence on at least some amount of faith. Unlike moral realism, which is based on observable and analytically verifiable facts, divine command theory might guide us towards values that are not corroborated with facts, and may even run counter to what we know benefits us. And we will be asked that we obey them essentially on faith, which we all know is fraught with problems. 

There seems to be no way to reconcile these problems when judging morals on a case-by-case basis under the divine command theory.

Now is this a totally fair and unbiased analysis of these two ethical theories? No, of course not. I admitted right from the get-go that I'm a moral realist. I've addressed the problems of moral realism and presented some arguments for divine command theory but my conclusion is that given the arguments against each theory, moral realism fairs better overall.

So in conclusion, we must all admit that every ethical theory contains its pros and cons. I certainly believe that moral realism faces challenges, but on analysis, I think its problems are more easily reconcilable than those of the divine command theory.

*I want to give special thanks to Nykytyne2 who made the following video here that helped inspire this blog posting and whose work I based much of this posts information off of, along with the help of Wikipedia and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Is Islamophobia Justified?

The recent debate between Lawrence Krauss and Hamza Tzortzis in London a month ago highlights the suspicions and fears that many people have who are weary of the growing presence of politicized Islam in the West. Some Muslims today are trying to play the "Islamophobia" card to accuse anyone who criticizes Islam or Muslims of being bigots. But what they're really just trying to do is suppress warranted criticism of their faith.

According to the reports, when Dr. Krauss agreed to the debate he was told that the audience would not be segregated on gender, but when he arrived he had discovered that all of the women in the audience were forced to sit in the back. There apparently was also a "couples" section too. Mind you, this debate was organized by the Islamic Education and Research Academy (iERA) but took place at the University College London and was open to the public.

After noticing the "sexual apartheid", Dr. Krauss stormed out in protest but was eventually convinced to return when organizers desegregated the audience. It is amazing that in a modern 21st century country like England, in a cosmopolitan city like London, we are having to deal with Muslims trying to enforce gender segregation on our free lands. The iERA has been accused other times of forced gender segregation and following the incident at London they are now banned from further organizing events there. 

Muslim apologists like Hamza want to tear down secularism. That is part of their agenda, and it justifies our fears and concerns about Muslims in the West. I know the usual PC response is to say that these people don't represent all Muslims. I totally concur, but Islamist Muslims like Hamza are not a tiny fringe minority, they represent a very large percentage of the Islamic world, and reports show that support for Sharia law in many Muslim majority countries is very high.

So heavy criticism of Islam and its modern followers and interpreters is massively justified and no one should ever fear being labeled an Islamophobe just because they cast due criticism. Stand up for free speech against those who would like to see it taken away.

....and see the debate for yourself to see Hamza admit that he'd make criticism of Islam illegal if he had his way:

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Natural Born Skeptic: My Atheist Journey Part 10

The Journey Ahead

This blog originally was part of a school assignment for an English class I had after I decided to go back to college and get my bachelor's degree. The assignment required that I create a blog and write 5 weekly posts about anything I wanted. This is why if you look at my early posts from 2009, you'll notice that many of them are hastily written and are not concerned with religion. This blog was originally called "Mike's Mandatory Blog", which was my way of making it known that my hand had been forced. Slowly it grew on me to write about what was becoming my obsession - my atheism and philosophy.

Looking toward the journey ahead, as a passionate secularist, atheist and humanist, I know the challenges people like me face. Our agenda is to preserve secular democracy here at home, and to help nourish it abroad. We want a fair, just, and humane society for everyone. We want peace - but we're not afraid to fight for it. Fundamentally, we feel that a reasonable and just society is possible, and it's only when we succumb to ignorance, superstition and ill-conceived ideologies that we impede its progress. And no, there are no hollow dreams of a perfect utopia that we are chasing after. We are not communists. We support freedom and individual rights, and the sincere democratic process.

I have many lucid fantasies of becoming a skilled debater and counter apologist for the atheist and secularist movement. I've joined a debate meetup group in my area and have learned that I'm pretty good at it. Over the past few years I've become more active in my local atheist and skeptic communities, and I look forward to further contributing to the cause for reason. I was also thinking of making videos and become an active YouTuber like so many other atheists since video as we all know can more easily reach a wider audience. I will certainly continue to keep writing about my philosophy and my journey where ever it takes me.

Perhaps it's best that I leave this part of the journey with a quote from the late Christopher Hitchens' untimely memoir Hitch-22. In the closing page he summarizes the noble struggles of the rational non-believer:

The defense of science and reason is the great imperative of our time, and I feel absurdly honored to be grouped in the public mind with great teachers and scholars such as Richard Dawkins (a true Balliol man if ever there was one), Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. To be an unbeliever is not merely to be "open minded." It is, rather a decisive admission of uncertainty that is dialectically connected to the repudiation of the totalitarian principle, in the mind as well as in politics. But that's my Hitch-22. I have already described some of the rehearsals for this war, which relativists so plainly call "endless" - as if it were not indeed the latest chapter of an eternal struggle - and I find that for the remainder of my days I shall be happy enough to see if I can emulate the understatement of Commander Hitchens, and to say that at least I know what I am supposed to be doing.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Natural Born Skeptic: My Atheist Journey Part 9

Purpose And Meaning In A Godless World (Continued)

We all seek purpose in our lives, and we all seek a deeper understanding and meaning to why we exist. I think that the naturalistic worldview can serve many more minds in ways that religion has traditionally done so. From my earliest memories as a child I was captivated by science. I wanted to know. I was driven towards the way science can explain things in precise detail. I poured over statistical reference books – illuminated by the knowledge of knowing the true facts about the world. Religion never gave me such information; it glosses over detail and is purposely vague and light on specifics. Perhaps that’s why it never intrigued me as a kid. I just couldn't accept the idea that our world was a mere 6,000 years old when all the geologic data I had learned said otherwise. And I just couldn't accept that my purpose in life was to serve an invisible being called “God”, who I was told is perfect and free from all earthly desire, and yet still got extremely jealous when I did not recognize him.

When I discovered that religious belief - even when it's in some of its moderate incarnations, poses a terrible threat to the progress of the free world, my insulated secular bubble had burst. I had recognized that the world around me is teaming with faith-based ideologies that seek to diminish that freedom to their liking, and that the freedoms I take for granted in the US should never be. My purpose became one dedicated towards thwarting the tide of oppression that seeks to enforce its mind-forged shackles upon the liberated.

I've come to recognize that the purpose driven life is up to each one of us to create for ourselves. I don’t need my life or my actions to have cosmic significance in order for them to have purpose. Why should I care if the universe doesn't notice my noble efforts? And why should you care either? What matters is what happens in our celestial neighborhood to the living conscious beings that are affected within it. To require universal recognition mandates the kind of arrogance religion often produces. I've always thought that the religious worldview that demands the greatest cosmic significance to human life and its talents was anything but the humble portrayal that we so often hear. Nothing could be more arrogant, more self-centered and conceited, and more solipsistic than thinking that the entire cosmos – all that exists and all that ever will – billions upon trillions of stars and galaxies – were all created and designed for us. And I say to those folks who need this belief to feel special, you can believe that if you like, but please don’t insult my intelligence and try to tell me that this human-centered worldview is humble.

I don’t deny that there's something special about human life. We have evolved the unique ability to figure out nature’s deepest secrets. Humankind is in a sense, nature becoming conscious of itself. And although at a purely physical level, we are all just matter in motion, naturalism does allow for emergent properties like consciousness that allows us to perceive the awe and mysteries of the cosmos, and the recognition that we are alive and can experience joy, pleasure, pain and suffering.

Along the path of my atheistic journey, I went from a skeptical kid to an adult who found passion and purpose in advancing the case for atheism and secularism. But my goal in life is not merely to get everyone to disbelieve in supernatural gods. I want to eliminate what prevents people from being rationally informed with the best evidence based knowledge that exists, and the two main culprits are ignorance and religion. Now if religion disappears, something will inevitably replace it. For most atheists today, the ethical framework that we feel should replace religious belief and morality is secular humanism. I'm a secular humanist as much as I'm an atheist or a naturalist. Secular humanism is the best overall philosophical framework that we can use to build a humane society because it emphasizes reason, scientific inquiry, and human fulfillment in the natural world free of the impediment of dogma. Religious morality is believed simply because it is believed to come from god. There often is no secular justification for many of its "morals" without reference to believing that it's what god wants. If a belief prevents someone from accepting scientific facts about the world and affects their ability to make rationally informed decisions based on evidence, and if the belief requires one to make others believe it too, then I’d feel an imperative to put a stop to this growing meme. And if that isn't a noble life purpose, I don't know what is.

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Saturday, April 20, 2013

Natural Born Skeptic: My Atheist Journey Part 8

Purpose And Meaning In A Godless World

I guess it’s fair to say that I had become obsessed with the debate about whether god exists or not after I started taking my atheism seriously. There were no deeper questions to ponder than ones about existence and meaning to the philosophy lover like myself. It seems that ever since mankind evolved the ability to think deeply and reflect upon his world, he has been on a permanent quest to know the truth. Now there are “Why?” questions and then there are “How?” questions. It may turn out that the “Why?” questions are really answered by the “How?” questions. Then there are questions of purpose that can be answered the same way as “How?” questions. For example, imagine being asked, “What is the purpose of mountains?” Well, there is no purpose of mountains of course! Mountains exist because of natural geologic activity from within the earth. Mountains just are; there is no deeper ultimate reason or plan as to their being.   

In my journey in search for life’s ultimate meaning and purpose, I have arrived at a similar conclusion. Life just is, human beings just are, there is no ultimate meaning or purpose for our existence. We are in a sense just complex chemistry made possible by the laws of physics. Now let me stop for a moment here because some of you who aren't familiar with the atheistic worldview or who might have misconceptions about it may be thinking that this sounds just like nihilism. That would actually depend on how you define nihilism. If you define nihilism as I do, as simply just meaning that there is no ultimate meaning or purpose to life, then I’m a nihilist. But if you define nihilism as believing that there is no purpose to life at all, not even a subjective one, then I would disagree with you. The meaning of our lives is subjective. Every one of us is born out of a random and chaotic chance meeting between a particular sperm cell and an egg, and once we’re born it is up to us to find and decide meaning for our lives.

I find this much more liberating than the theistic worldview. To illustrate the point, imagine that when you were born, you were told that your purpose in life was to carry on your grandfather’s shoe shining business. Now imagine, like most people probably would, that the idea of spending the rest of your life shining other people’s shoes makes you extremely depressed. You don’t want to spend the rest of your life shining shoes, you have other passions and interests that you would like to pursue. Then you’re told that if you don’t want to shine shoes for the rest of your life you will not be forced in any way to carry on your grandfather’s business – it’s all up to you – and you breathe a huge sigh of relief. But, there’s a catch. Of course there is. If you freely reject the purpose given to your life – the very reason why you were born, you will spend a hell in eternity being tortured after you die.

This is basically how the idea of having an ultimate or objective purpose to life that we have no say over sounds to me. What if I don’t like this supposed “purpose” that I’m told is the reason for why I was born? The only answer I get from theists is a resounding “tough luck.” I should, according to them, just accept this belief and adjust my life accordingly, or else face the possible consequences. The theistic worldviews of the Abrahamic faiths basically say that the purpose of life is to freely come to know and love god, as he commands of you, and to obey all of his moral and lifestyle commandments. And in return for obeying, loving and worshiping god in this world, your reward will be eternal life in a hereafter, whereby you will receive the pleasure of being in the presence of god where you will be gifted the ability to worship him for the rest of eternity while he showers you with love in return. All three monotheisms have a different view of the afterlife but essentially they all pretty much involve the eternal worship of god. So basically, the reward for freely worshiping god in this world is to get to worship god for eternity in the next world. I struggle to find any reason why any atheist would embrace this idea with enthusiasm.

I’m also told by many theists that without god my purpose in life is only subjective and just an illusion that I make up, and that somehow I’m supposed to be depressed over this. But why should I be happy, why should I jump with joy over the idea that my objective purpose in life is to be told what to do by somebody else? And let’s not forget that god never appears to me personally to tell me what this supposed purpose is. Instead he tells other people what my purpose in life is, and they tell other people, who then tell other people, who tell other people, and this goes on many, many times over until it finally reaches me, and I’m supposed to take this message at face value and simply just trust that it hasn’t been corrupted somewhere along the way. I’m sorry, but I’m not that desperately lost and in need for a direction in life. I’d much rather live in a world where I get to make my own custom life purpose instead of taking orders from some conceptual being, who other people tell me to believe is real.

Most atheists like me clearly have a problem with this “objective” purpose. First of all, we atheists are not compelled to worship. That urge to worship that so many others have is not innately present within us. We feel that there is no justification for one to spend their life worshiping an invisible god whose exact nature no one can agree upon. That of course makes the “reward” of heaven a lot more like hell to the atheist. Second of all, I am told that in heaven there is no free will according to most monotheistic concepts. There is no freedom to do what one wants because that would allow one to sin, and sin cannot be allowed in heaven. The Islamic view of heaven for example describes it as containing rivers of the best tasting wine which you can drink to your heart’s content – but there’s a catch: the wine is non-alcoholic and cannot get you drunk. Even the 72 virgins a Muslim could enjoy who had died for the faith would definitely become monotonous eventually. I don’t think many theists have really thought about the concept of existing for eternity. What could one possibly do for an eternity even if they are happy? If there is no freedom of the will in heaven it must mean that those who go to heaven exist in some sort of quasi-mental state where they are essentially turned into drone-like robots. I don’t know about you, but the idea of worshiping god for eternity, while existing in a drone-like state with no freedom of the will doesn’t appeal to me whatsoever. My flaws are just as much a part of who I am as my strengths, and any attempt to strip me of them, is an attempt to strip me of my identity. 

Coming to terms with my atheism, I actually like the finitude of life and existence. I don’t mind existing for a finite amount of time and then dying and ceasing to exist. To me, the finitude of life makes it immeasurably more precious. Think about how important a special moment is with a loved one. It’s special because it’s just a moment; if it lasted an eternity its preciousness would be diluted into utter monotony. A common argument made by theists is that a life without an eternal afterlife would just be utterly absurd. They say we’d just be specks of dust and chemicals with no ultimate meaning or purpose and then we’d just die. But having no ultimate purpose does not mean one can’t have a finite purpose. The freedom in being able to devote your life to what you feel naturally fits you is I say one of the most liberating freedoms of the atheistic worldview. That is one of the main reasons why atheists today are generally huge lovers of freedom from tyranny, regardless of whether it’s theistic or secular.

Now suppose a theist argues by asking, “If everyone can decide their own life’s purpose, then what’s to stop someone from just being selfish and gratifying their own desires with no care for the effects it has on others?” That’s a fair question. We know society as a whole functions better when we are all empathetic towards the suffering of others and when we curb some of our natural selfishness for the greater good. Considering this fact, unless we enforce limitations on greediness, all we can do is appeal to reason when dealing with a selfish person. They can be explained why selfishness hurts others and is harmful and why they wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of it. The alternative option - appealing to authority, which is the choice theism gives us, is no better than teaching a selfish child that they should share simply “because god said so” or "because daddy says so”, rather than teaching the child why sharing is good for us all. Isn't it better to appeal to reason rather than authority? I think so.  

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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Natural Born Skeptic: My Atheist Journey Part 7

What Kind Of Atheist Are You?

Perhaps it would be important that I define what I mean when I call myself an "atheist". I've often noticed that when I get into disagreements with theists, agnostics and even other atheists on issues related to philosophy and religion that we get caught up in disagreements on semantics. There is for example, no clear consensus on the definition of religion, and anyone who looks up the term will get about 5 or 6 different variations. I generally define religion as the belief in, worship of, or obedience to a supernatural power or powers considered to be divine or to have control of human destiny because this definition clearly delineates it from philosophy, politics and secular worldviews like naturalism and atheism. Others however, define religion as being any worldview or ideology that one believes to be true. It's easy to see from the wide assortment of definitions that some words can carry that if one were debating the virtues of secularism, one could get into a semantic dead end with their opponent.

So when it comes to belief in god, I don’t think it’s proper to think there are only three choices in approaching the question: theism, agnosticism, or atheism. (I’ll leave deism and pantheism out for now because I'm focusing on monotheism.) Rather, it’s much more apparent to me that belief or disbelief in god comes on a scale encompassing at least 9 different views, instead of just three rigid choices. So what I did was I developed a scale of belief that outlines strong, moderate, and weak forms of theism, agnosticism and atheism.

Strong Atheism              
There is no god!
Moderate Atheism 
There almost certainly is no god. I therefore don't believe in god. 
Weak Atheism 
The existence of god is unlikely, so I'm willing to say I don't believe in god.
Strong Agnosticism
I have no idea if god exists. It is unknowable.
Moderate Agnosticism    
There may or may not be a god, it's anyone's guess, the evidence is about equal. 
Weak Agnosticism
I'm open to the possibility that god exists, but I'm not sure myself.
Weak Theism                
The existence of god is likely, so I'm willing to say I believe in god.
Moderate Theism          
There almost certainly is a god. I therefore believe in god.
Strong Theism                
There is a god!

At the top of the scale is Strong Atheism. Strong atheists are people who assert there is no god, and that perhaps it is impossible for god to exist. Some say that this position is as unjustified as the strong theist’s is since no one can know with certainty whether or not god exists. Even Richard Dawkins considers himself a “6” on his scale of belief between 1 and 7 (1 being 100% sure god exists, and 7 being 100% sure god doesn’t exist)[i]. I have met a few strong atheists over the years cocksure that god doesn’t exist. Although none of them can empirically prove it, I suppose the absurdity of religion and contradictory nature of the concept of god lead them to such a position.

Next is Moderate Atheism. The moderate atheist is someone who doesn’t assert they know god doesn’t exist because they feel such a claim must be one taken on at least some faith, just like the theist’s. The moderate atheist simply disbelieves in god because they feel the preponderance of evidence for and against god leans overwhelmingly towards there being no god. They may also have problems understanding the coherence of god like the strong atheists but stop short of asserting god doesn’t exist because it cannot be proved. Weak Atheism is similar to the moderate atheist position although they feel that the evidence for and against god isn’t as strong as the moderate atheist. Weak atheists therefore disbelieve in god because they find the god hypothesis unlikely to be true. All three of these atheistic positions could fall under the terms nontheist or nonbeliever.

When it comes to agnosticism, Strong Agnosticism is the position whereby someone has no idea of whether god exists or not. They will often make the claim that the theist and atheist doesn’t know either and accuse both of them of taking positions on faith. The strong agnostic also generally asserts that knowledge about whether or not god exists is unknowable or unverifiable, and so we’re all forever relegated to ignorance on the matter. Moderate Agnosticism is right in the middle of the scale. It’s a person who thinks the evidence for and against god is more or less equal. They might also conclude that both atheism and theism each have their own logical conundrums that cannot ever be resolved, at least not without better evidence. Weak Agnosticism is the position of someone who’s open to the possibility that god exists, but isn’t sure. They think that the evidence for god is somewhat convincing, but not enough to make them take a position on whether or not god exists. Weak agnostics would be the easiest kinds of people to convince that god exists.

Finally we get to the ranges of theistic belief. Weak Theism is the position that the existence of god is likely given the evidence, so they’re willing to say they believe in god. The weak theist is a person most likely raised into their faith and generally is not too religious about it. They generally don’t question the existence of god too strongly and accept god’s existence as a default given their environment. They are most likely to justify god’s existence by believing that “something” must have created the world. Moderate Theism describes the person willing to believe in god because they interpret that the evidence for god is overwhelmingly scaled towards the existence of god, but they don’t assert that they know god exists and leave open the slight possibility that they’re wrong. Strong Theism is the confident assertion by people that god absolutely exists and that they know with certainty. How they know it with certainty is questionable. Many strong theists interpret their internal feeling that god exists as “knowing” god exists. They are also deeply convinced that the arguments for god are “irrefutable proofs” that god exists.

So most people who take a position about the god of monotheism can be accurately described in one level on the scale of belief that I've described above. Where do I stand? I generally consider myself a moderate atheist. I don’t say that I know or can prove god doesn't exist, I say that there’s no reason for me to believe in god given the poor state of evidence for god’s existence. All the atheist needs to do is to be able to provide a plausible natural alternative explanation about something that is commonly believed to only be explained by god to justify their doubt. The theory of evolution for example, for the first time made it possible for one to even have serious doubts about the existence of god because it provided a natural alternative to explain how we got the diversity of species. Previous to evolution, the only commonly understood explanation for extant life was that god had created all the species all at once at some time in the past. Darwin in some sense, made god redundant.

Atheism is planted by the seed of doubt, that’s why many atheists consider themselves skeptics. As the late Christopher Hitchens once said, “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” 

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[i] Dawkins, Richard (2006) The God Delusion. Boston Houghton Miffin p. 74

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Natural Born Skeptic: My Atheist Journey Part 6

Chapter 2: Atheism With A Purpose

Why Fight Religion?

If I could pinpoint the one thing that I despise most about religion, it’s that it hinders intellectual and moral progression by asserting that its frozen philosophy and claims to knowledge are true and should reign supreme just because they are written in a book and are believed to be the words of god. Why should we ever refrain from doing what we believe to be right and that we can justify through reason and scientific evidence simply because a book that someone tells us is the word of god says otherwise? And why should we ever disbelieve what the most accurate scientific data tells us to be true simply because a book that someone tells us is the word of god says otherwise? I could rail on and on about what I don’t like about fundamentalist religion and theism, and I could cite a plethora of examples why that view of religion is bad for society, but that’s not exactly the purpose of why I’m writing this. It's not religious fundamentalism that I have a bone to pick with here, it's religious moderation that I'm aiming my sites on.

Although the fundamentalist view of religion is its most malignant strain, I've increasingly become aware that its own intellectual ignorance is killing itself off. To adapt to the twenty-first century, religion has had to evolve, lest it become extinct. In evolutionary terms, it has had to adapt to a changing intellectual landscape. The theory of evolution is no longer a fringe theory – it has for decades been mainstream science on which the whole field of biology is founded on. A growing number of Christians, Jews and even Muslims today are accepting evolution as fact and are retrofitting it into their theological worldviews. (Some even have the balls to claim that the complexity of the evolutionary process is actually proof that god exists!) Since growing numbers of theists are abandoning young earth creationism at an alarming rate and are accepting that we live in an old universe that’s billions of years old, and not a mere few thousand, for the purposes of this writing, I will not be focused on the theists who interpret their religious texts literally. I will instead focus on theists who accept Big Bang cosmology, micro and macro evolution and most of what modern science demonstrates to us is true. This kind of theistic worldview perhaps can best be summed up by the PowerPoint slides in a lecture made by the American geneticist Dr. Francis Collins on science and belief that he gave at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2008:

Slide 1: “Almighty God, who is not limited in space or time, created a universe 13.7 billion years ago with its parameters precisely tuned to allow the development of complexity over long periods of time.”
Slide 2: “God’s plan included the mechanism of evolution to create the marvelous diversity of living things on our planet. Most especially, that creative plan included human beings.”
Slide 3: “After evolution had prepared a sufficiently advanced ‘house’ (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the moral law), with free will, and with an immortal soul.”
Slide 4: “We humans used our free will to break the moral law, leading to our estrangement from God. For Christians, Jesus is the solution to that estrangement.”
Slide 5: “If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It’s all an illusion. We’ve been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?”. 

It is my sincere belief that fundamentalist religious worldviews will continue to grow more and more untenable as we progress through the age of science and will decrease over time. It is therefore this modern theistic adaptation described in Dr. Collins’ slides that I believe will become the prevailing monotheistic interpretation into the future. This new scientifically friendly brand of theism, something I like to call theism 2.0 (or Christianity 2.0, Islam 2.0) is certainly for the atheist a sign of relief. It means we will no longer necessarily have to waste significant amounts of time debating over whether evolution exists (although we will still have to debate the interpretations of it) or whether the universe and earth were created in six literal days. We will all finally be free to accept what modern cosmology and biology tells us and focus on some of the bigger issues. Despite this modified theism however, the question over the origin of the cosmos will still allow the theist to insert the hand of god where it is not needed. And on issues of morality as you can see from slide 5 above, the debate will continue on as to whether there are evolutionary underpinnings of ethical behavior.

Nevertheless, this theism 2.0 is kind of like moving the goal posts. How is the atheist going to successfully demonstrate religion to be false if theists can just concede entire swaths of their religious dogma, and simply just modify their beliefs to fit science? If the entire argument against evolution can simply just be abandoned and conceded when the evidence becomes too strong, what’s next? It'll be interesting to see as our knowledge progresses what further concessions theists will be willing to make.

Finally, despite these concessions, as long as theists are able to insert the hand of god somewhere into our understanding of the natural world, it will allow them to keep the doors open to all kinds of superstitious thinking, unjustified pseudo-science, and the denial of certain scientific theories and facts that contradict their theology. This will enable them to hinder and sometimes even reverse the moral and intellectual progression that a naturalistic worldview free of dogma allows, and even this modernized theism 2.0 is susceptible to this kind of backward moving ignorance. So that’s why I fight religion – even moderate religion – along with any way of thinking prohibits an honest assessment of the evidence and that opens the door to dogmatic unjustified beliefs. And that’s why you should fight religion too.

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