Archive for February, 2014

An Atheist’s Perspective: The Lesson of Doubting Thomas

February 26, 2014 1 comment

One of the strangest and most infuriating experiences of changing from one belief system to non-belief (or any other belief) is the look back to the lessons of that a person just accepted because they were told. Realizing that most of the time I was not permitted to make any kind of judgment about the lesson. I was told at the outset what the conclusion that I was supposed to draw was, then given the lesson. There was a system to it. Take Noah’s Ark, the lesson was that god would never destroy the people of the earth again and that is a good thing. I was never permitted to ask or even try to understand how it was that every single person on the planet was so evil, so wicked, that divine wrath was the only way out (this is ignoring the logistical problems which make the story extremely improbable to the point of being impossible). The story of Job is taught to reflect the value of faith and dedication first. It’s never taught whether or not it was immoral for god to even make the bet with Satan. One of the more subtle stories of my religious education was that of Doubting Thomas.

The title of the story gives away the lesson that you are supposed to learn, that doubting is somehow a stigmatizing characteristic which given the communication of all the other lessons means that doubting is bad. Right before I even heard the story my young self was drawing the conclusion that I did not want to be Thomas with his doubt. This is also the only time we ever hear of Thomas aside from a roll call test in which I was supposed to be able to name all twelve of Jesus’s buddies. He simply only exists for this one purpose.

Revisiting the story now, it is tough because like most New Testament stories it seems so much bigger than it actually is. It’s actually tucked away in the back of the gospels…only it’s not there either. The problem is that doubting Thomas only doubts for John 20: 24-29, five verses and an entire group of people…I’m getting ahead of myself.

The story is, and this will be probably longer than the actual story, that Jesus dies on the cross then comes back to life. He makes a collection of appearances and at one point he appears to eleven of the apostles. See, Thomas is out on a beer run or whatever and he misses it. The other apostles tell Thomas what they have seen and he doesn’t believe it. He tells the others that he needs to not only see Jesus but also put his fingers in some wounds, only then will he believe. Eight days later (this is so important that it gets mentioned specifically unlike most of the details that gospels leave out), Jesus reappears to the Apostles and Thomas gets to see the wounds, touching them and believing. Jesus comments that Thomas is good for believing, but true goodness is for those that believe without evidence. Forever now, Thomas is a bad person.

If, however, the story is looked at objectively is Thomas really wrong for doubting? What he is being told is that a friend of his, someone that he knew for a couple of years and was publicly executed was now walking around having beaten death. He has done what no person in the world, aside from Lazarus who disappears from history has done. It would seem that wanting evidence some kind of evidence would be necessary.

It’s important to remember that the other Apostles didn’t believe without proof either, they are eye witnesses. They saw Jesus, so Thomas isn’t the only person that believed without evidence. It’s a curious fact that gets dropped from all of the lessons that I was given as a kid. We just accepted that the other apostles were better than Thomas without considering that they already had the evidence Thomas was asking for. He only doubted because he hadn’t been with the others when they had seen.

The lesson of the story is that belief without evidence is a virtue. If that is the case then why are we taught the lesson at all? If belief is more important than knowledge, than why as a young kid was I given the knowledge of the story? Shouldn’t they have just let me try and believe without having any of the story or is there some kind of line where the evidence is sufficient but beyond that line the evidence is begins to lessen the virtue of the belief?

Ultimately the story serves to demonize doubt and skepticism. IF you question you are a worse off than someone who just believes everything that they were told no matter how preposterous. The story that Thomas is being told is preposterous, in modern parlance that would be like someone telling me that my car all of the sudden was a silver Aston Martin. I would need to look, because coming back from the dead is just as incredible as my car turning into a Bond mobile. I would think that if, like Ken Ham suggests, rationality is a gift from the divine then shouldn’t it be a virtue to actually engage it? The story serves to make to drop a final nail in the coffin of questioning. It’s a simple story that attempts to end the idea that some stories need evidence, they need support before they are relegated to being nothing more than fairy tales. Which is how we know that this story never happened.


An Atheist’s Perspective: Well It’s an Opinion

February 18, 2014 4 comments

There are very few statements that infuriate me more than “well that’s just your (my) opinion.” The reason that this statement is said, is to shield a statement or set of beliefs from assault by virtue of being subjective opinions of which we are all taught are never wrong. Operationally, if I tell a person that the theory of evolution is scientifically justified by the evidence, they would dismiss what I said as just being an opinion. This is so they could protect their ridiculously delicate worldviews from assault. Or it is wielded as a cudgel in order to dismiss an argument as being only applicable to one person. It is however, quite absurd to think that this is a successful gambit for which any statement. This is because there is an essential problem with this idea: that is that opinions are sometimes about facts, and that if you have the facts wrong your opinion is wrong.

One might be tempted to defend their opinion by claiming that they would be right if the world was somehow different, just as 2+2=5 in a world where the math is changed. While this is interesting from the modal standpoint in considering possibility against necessity; it is the facts of this world which matter as opposed to the imaginary world where evolution is a guess. Think about it this way: if your opinion of the blue color of my car is that it is pretty, and my car is silver not blue; you are either wrong or being non-sensical. It’s one or the other. Calling something an opinion does not permit that person to make carte blanche declarations that cannot be assailed. It is the position of the weak and the lazy to use as a defense rather than actually offering up something in counter.

The reverse of the “shield” is also true. Wielding “it’s only an opinion” as the “cudgel” to dismiss the facts of the world by pretending that they are mere opinions. My above assertion regarding the evidence for the theory of evolution is not merely an opinion, it is am estimation of scientific knowledge based on the actual definition of the word “theory.” Yet those people dismiss scientific theories by beating them into opinions with the claim that everyone is free to disagree, which is what makes them opinions.

For example, I believe that the objective evidence to sufficiently establish the existence of a divine power is lacking. Now there are some issues with the previous statement, the first is the word “sufficient.” This word indicates a threshold, a mark by which could be considered subjective. I would not contest this if someone challenged me on it, yet to arrive at the truth, instead of merely dismissing my statement one could initiate a debate about what constitutes sufficiency. The thing about my statement is that it is about the objective world. There are criteria that I can make available by which we could agree on a threshold. If I do not agree to a threshold then my statement can be disregarded as a stone belief unaffected by the realities of the world.

Being an instructor in philosophy, my entire discipline gets disregarded as being just a collection of opinions. I’m sure that part of this is related to the fact that there are no experiments in philosophy. Mostly though the claim is used as a polemic by people who do not wish to even try and understand the subject. This claim could not be further from the truth.

At the root of the problem is that there are two separate kinds of evidence. One is the tangible kind, with data, and physical changes (like that establishing evolution); while the other is argumentation and appeal to rationality. The first is much easier because it can be displayed that bacteria change over time with response to their environment. Whereas the other kind of evidence would seek to prove the same thing by argumentation, such as the proto-evolutionary theory of the Greek Empedocles. The initial hypothesis which produces both kinds of evidences is the closest thing that philosophical thinking comes to, an opinion, but even then the opinion can be tested.

Anselm’s Ontological argument is a good example. Anselm of Canterbury claimed that god existed. He based this not on what other people told him, or what some book told him; but on philosophical argumentation. His claim was that if we define the word “God” as being that by which nothing else can be superior, then god by necessity must exist. It is known as the Ontological proof and it is so famous that French Philosopher Rene Descartes, completely ripped him off several centuries later. His reasoning is that if nothing can be superior to god, god must exist because existence if a quality. E.g., pick a thing, it doesn’t matter what it is and then list all of its qualities. One quality that you probably left out, and most people would because they don’t think about it, is that this thing exists. Anselm’s point was that the pen he is writing with has the quality of existing, and if god didn’t exist then the pen would be greater than god.

It’s not his opinion, it’s an argument. An argument that fails, for two reasons: the first is that, like Kant argued you can’t make the jump from thought to reality with just words. If you think about an amount of money in your pocket, the amount doesn’t make it more or less real. The second is that it is unclear whether “existence” is a quality of a thing. That is a matter of argumentation but it is not an opinion. It is also not an opinion that Anselm is wrong, his argument fails by a logical standard. Even though my initial hypothesis, that the sufficiency of evidence isn’t met, disagrees with Anselm’s argument, I would do a disservice by just dismissing his argument as a mere opinion. It is more important to engage those ideas that we disagree with rather then belittling them as something that is beneath the very status of argumentation.

An Atheist’s Perspective: Two Different Conversations (Nye vs. Ham)

February 11, 2014 Leave a comment

If your reading this blog, you are probably aware of the debate last week between Ken Ham of the Creation “Museum” and Bill Nye. I think Rebecca Watson of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe said it most saliently, that whatever expectation you brought to the debate was the result of the debate. If you thought that Nye was going to out science Ham and win the debate then you were correct, if you thought Ham was going to out Bible Nye then you were correct as well. The only way that you were going to lose is if you thought one person was going to change the mind of the other. This was not possible, for reasons that shall be the subject of this post. I want to say upfront that I disagree with Richard Dawkins’ and the SGU’s assertion that this type of debate should be turned down.

I understand their position, that by engaging them in debate you are lending credence to where none exists and thus become a tool for their propaganda. Engaging them in debate is important and turning them down will make them solidify their position that secularists are out to get them. Instead the rules should be restricted to discussing Creationism/Evolution and not dragging moral issues into it as Ken Ham was so fond of doing.

As far as the debate is concerned neither debater stuck to the core issue. Ham dragged in gay marriage, abortion, and whatever right wing Christian scare tactic that he thought he needed to. The reason he did this is because he was playing to his crowd. Grown adults who believed that Noah’s ark was populated by tigers that could be fed vegetables for forty days despite their biological incapacity to even chew the stuff. Nye brought the science, once in awhile succumbing to Ham’s bait, but otherwise sticking to what we know are facts which all support the theory of evolution. Yet for all of that, he didn’t change their minds and the best case scenario is that he may have planted some scientific seeds in the minds of some member of the audience but his effort was largely doomed to fall flat.

The reason for this is that Nye came to the debate speaking an entirely different language than Ham, and while they both spoke English translation is impossible. Ham speaks the language of infallibility, a language best illustrated by his unwillingness to even entertain the possibility of being wrong. It wouldn’t matter if you could show Ham video evidence of evolution happening (which is possible at the single cellular level) he would still deny it, because the Bible doesn’t say that it exists. We can point to all of the contradictions the bible makes of itself, the ridiculous scientific claims that are wrong (Earth being flat, where Zebras come from, that the moon generates its own light), and none of this would ever matter because Ham believes that the Earth was created in seven days as he is selective about what parts of the Bible are literally true and which are apparently just filler.

The goalposts cannot be moved fast enough or frequently enough for someone like Ken Ham. The bible is only literally true where controversy exists in the science…even when, like in the case of Evolutionary theory, there actually is no controversy. Yet if the scientifically uneducated person doubts the biblical assertion then that’s one of the things the Bible didn’t really mean. Nye can talk all he wants about the improbability of Noah’s boat actually floating based on the specifications given in Genesis, but all that means is that the dimensions were mistaken…not that the story is untrue.

Nye had no chance to win. The best he could do is explain how the science was arrived at and not get angry. For all of the anomaly hunting that the Creationists do, they are ironically oblivious to the numerous anomalies in their own position. They fail to understand that science is not a thing, it is a progress. Our knowledge of space began with mythological fables regarding stars and firmaments, but progressed to the understanding that we know possess. That understanding may be wrong, in a thousand years our knowledge of the universe may be regarded as laughable as we regard a flat earther’s position now, but the difference is that the scientific position does not make the absolute claim. It makes the claim based on the best evidence available which establishes what we determine as a theory. Ham’s view of the world is already set, it’s permanent.

Another example is Ham’s assertion that we can’t know the past because no one was there, but it’s a good thing that god was there to write the bible in English to communicate it to us. This is problematic as it is self-contradictory, the bible never tells us who wrote the book. It implies that Moses wrote the first couple of books but as the author of Common Sense, Thomas Paine, proved, that simply cannot be. Ham is assuming the only justification for his entire argument, not only that but it cannot be proven false nor true. It is unscientific, and he knows that no science can disprove it. By that logic he would have admitted that it does not belong in a science class.


The Road to Atheism XXI: Someone Else’s Journey

February 4, 2014 1 comment

Ryan Bell was a seminary trained minister in the Seventh Day Adventist Church, I use the term “was” because he was forced to resign due to his questioning of certain doctrines of that particular church. In particular he opposed their stance regarding gay marriage, and then he began to question the religion in total. He is moderately famous for the focus of today’s post: he is giving one year 2014, to “try on atheism.”

Having heard about him several times, and hearing him for the first time recently I felt the need to comment on what he is doing. To be upfront about it, I think this is a great idea and not, like other atheists, a stunt. Nor do I think that he is “going undercover” for the simple reason that there is no place to go undercover to. Despite what American right wing extremists think there is not some vast atheist network that is trying to destroy Christianity, while the reverse is true although not in the same scope. Having listened to him being interviewed, I also understand that the reports of his atheism are greatly exaggerated.

He’s not trying on atheism, he is focusing on his doubt. That horrible horrible doubt that infects the mind and slowly erodes the stable worldview that we have learned from birth. The doubt is important because it either has the consequence of eradicating his faith or strengthening it (I should also be clear that it would appear that his ties with the Seventh Day Adventists are permanently severed but not his belief in the divine). The question of why we believe seems complicated to other people, but for me it is always simple: we believe because we are taught to believe and then we merely accept that belief as a matter of fact. There is no reason to believe, there is only the reason to trust that what we were taught as children was true. For Mr. Bell the question is whether or not those early teachings are enough to sustain one year of no god.

Recently I was told that religion is important because it gives children structure and that is why they need it. Well this seems like one of those challenges that would be hard for the average atheist to answer it really is not. Because it is a strawman, it assumes that a structure is needed, and that religion provides that structure. The correct response is, other than going to a building once a week (SDAs go on Saturday), what is the structure that religion provides? Is this what Mr. Bell is going to realize, that other than the weekly service and his choice of reading materials, that there isn’t going to be a noticeable difference in his life?

The most interesting thing about his experiment is how he will be exposed to atheists. As one, I understand the religious mindset since I used to be one; but I also know this: the religious do not understand atheists. We don’t have sacred texts. There isn’t a book in any one person’s home that could identify them as an atheist. I do not own a single copy of Hitchens, Dennet, or Dawkins. Any accusation that I hate religious people is a lie. There is no organization that we are all beholden to and no systematic network that tells us what to believe, how to vote, and how we are supposed to think. The reverse is, unfortunately, the case only it is not underground and in fact, counts as members a far majority of the population.

I have no idea why anyone would oppose Bell’s experience, unless they believed that he was being insincere. The atheists that oppose him seem to do so on the claim that he is some sort of poser. That he’s just faking it. To them I would ask: what do they think he is doing? Is he going to secretly pray or put on a fake mustache to sneak into a church service. Being non-religious isn’t a matter of making some mark of authenticity, all it is is a matter of recognizing that the same thing you were taught at 5 doesn’t hold up to the same intellectual scrutiny that you have at 20, 30, or 40. If his claim is sincere, and he reads the arguments against, what more can he do? I think he’s made it.

To the actual religious, I ask the question: what are you afraid of? The fact that he’s being honest about the questions that everyone ought to have shouldn’t be scary. It should be refreshing, unless of course this is the reason that religions would rather their believers not read whatever books or arguments they want because they would rather not chance that exposure which challenges their authority. Why do they not make it part of the doctrine to spend a significant period of time with this period of doubt? If these religions have all of the answers then there ought to be no harm in letting their followers see how wrong the rest of the world’s ideas are. The only answer, and the one that I think Mr. Bell has forced his former church to realize is that of insecurity.

They are afraid that if everyone realized that you can be good without god, that you can love life without some other person telling you how to do so, and that appreciating this world, this life for being the only thing that we know; that no one would willingly come back. I think that the only thing that would drive them back would be fear of divine punishment, making them hostages and not willing followers.