Saturday, August 23, 2008

Christian replies that lack substance

Peter: “I wish he’d just given me some sort of proof”
Lucy: “Maybe we’re the ones who need to prove ourselves to him”

Peter: “Why didn’t I see him [Aslan]”
Lucy: “Maybe you weren’t looking”

There are a group of theistic clichés that, at face value, seem quite profound, but under closer scrutiny turn out to be quite vacuous, simply because they fail to set God apart from all other imagined beings. The quotes above, from the movie, Prince Caspian, fall into this category.

I remember another example from the movie, Contact, which is based on Carl Sagan’s book of the same name. Ellie Arroway, the film’s protagonist – who does not believe in God – challenges her friend, Palmer Ross – who is deeply religious – to prove that God exists. He replies by asking if Ellie loved her father, who had died earlier in the film, and when she answers yes, Palmer says “Prove it!” In the movie, Ellie is stumped, and does not reply.

The problem with Lucy’s replies, as well as Palmer Ross’ argument, is that they cleverly sidestep the topic at hand (i.e., evidence for God’s existence), and distract the skeptic by shifting focus onto something completely irrelevant, often onto the skeptic herself, highlighting her motives (e.g., “you don’t want to prove yourself to God”), or perceived deficiencies (e.g., “maybe you are not looking hard enough”). So although these one-liners sound impressive, notice that they don’t actually provide any evidence?

This is what I explained at the TGIF interview about why I reject Pascal’s Wager. Not only does Pascal’s Wager use fear as a motive for belief, as I’ve explained here, but it also doesn’t argue, or provide any support, for the existence of God. Rather, it argues for belief in God.

You see, the human mind can dream up a plethora of gods and mythical creatures that might possibly exist, but which are hidden from our five senses. These creatures and gods all have an equal possibility of existing. To convince me that Thor exists, one of the things you have to do is present arguments that specifically provide support, in terms of verifiable evidence, for Thor. In other words, you have to show that Thor exists outside the confines of the human mind, that the likelihood of Thor’s existence is higher than that of any other imagined being.

A person can believe anything they like, but if they want to convince me that what they believe is true, they have to provide support. Pascal’s Wager, as well as the quotes listed above, fail to do this; they fail to set God apart from all other conceived, possible gods. And this is why these clichés and replies can be used just as effectively to argue for any kind of god: replacing Yahweh or Aslan with Allah or Apollo makes no difference. In other words, what proves too much, proves nothing at all.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Living life as a spiritual atheist


One of things I thank my father for is introducing me to the beauty and wonder of nature. I remember, as a young boy, accompanying my father to his work on some weekends, where he showed me the many gadgets and instruments in his lab. To a young and enquiring mind, the visits to this magical room of test tubes, centrifuges, and colourful chemicals was awe inspiring and amazing. It was here where I was shown the counter-intuitive properties of mercury, the metallic liquid in which metal balls would float, and how two inert metals, when mixed together in powder form, would suddenly burst into flame.

But the instrument that was my favourite was a small glass vacuum chamber. My father, who was always willing entertain his kids with the lab equipment, would fill the chamber half-way with water, seal it, and then turn on the vacuum pump. As the air was sucked out of the chamber, the water inside, to my utter amazement, started to boil – at room temperature! And I asked my dad: why is this boiling without any heat?

When I’ve come across mystery, I’ve always asked such questions. How do clouds form? What is lightning? Why are plants green? Where did we come from? These questions have always flowed out of me, like an excited bubbling brook, from the intense wonder that I have always had regarding the universe and our place in it. I guess one of the reasons why I eventually left religion is that the answers it provided to some of these questions seemed somehow weak and unsatisfying, always wrapped up in mystery and riddles, forever out of reach of human intellect. And the answers that science provided – through fields such as physics, chemistry and biology – have always instilled a sense of empowerment within me, a sense that I could, as a simple human being, grasp – to some extent – the world around me. As I’ve written before, the beauty of nature is awesome, and a source of great inspiration, but understanding how nature works has been, for me at least, even more incredible.

Could I be so brave as to label this wondrous sense of nature, together with the tool of my understanding – science – as a form of spirituality?

How can an atheist be spiritual, you may ask?

Well, I would reply with a question: does a person have to believe in the supernatural to be spiritual?

Carl Sagan, who was an atheist as well as a scientist, wrote in his book, The Demon-Haunted World (page 32):

Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in the immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Lurther King Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.

As an individual who has always found meaning in understanding, empowerment through knowledge, and excitement in detail – this is how I feel. Finding out how nature works has been incredibly enriching for me. And as my father, standing over that vacuum chamber, began to tell me the story of water molecules and how they react under different pressures, I started my journey to the realisation that for me, I don’t need the supernatural or a form of mysticism to provide me with meaning in life or a sense of spirituality. As the cartoon above illustrates, nature is all I need, and nature is enough.

Friday, August 15, 2008

God does play dice!

The other night, while playing Trivial Pursuit with Cori’s family, God – yes, the God of the universe – moved the dice we were playing with. How do I know this? Well, at one point in the game we were amazed when we threw the dice six times, and got six every time!

Was it by intelligent design that the six was thrown six times in a row? Did some mysterious, intelligent force tweak the roll of the dice? Yes, I’m sure it did. After all, the chances of throwing any number six times in a row, if my calculations are correct, is 1 in 46 656. Wow, what a large number! The odds of this happening by pure chance is pretty slim, and we didn’t even throw the dice a dozen times before this occurred. So it must have been by divine design, and not by pure chance, that this happened!
Not only did God move my dice, but he also created the universe. Hugh Ross, an old earth creationist, in his book, The Creator and the Cosmos, lists 26 characteristics of the universe, as well as 40 characteristics of the solar system, that seem to be ‘fine tuned’ for life. If any one of these were slightly different, then life wouldn’t exist! Did all of these come together by pure chance? Impossible, argues Ross. He calculates that the odds of all of these parameters coming together naturally and by chance is so large, that must have been by divine design.

True, something that is improbable – even highy improbable – doesn’t mean that it is impossible, but it’s difficult to believe this when you see how many zeros are attached to the end of Ross’ numbers, which are so large they boggle the mind! And well, although the numbers he comes up with are much, much larger than 46 656, he doesn’t specify the exact probability when something that is ‘naturally created’ becomes ‘intelligently designed’. Without this dividing line, I can use my relatively small, but still large by everyday standards, number to argue for a case of divine meddling in dice throwing.

At least I now have evidence that God exists!

(I wrote this tongue-in-cheek to make it an interesting read, and to point out some of the problems I see with probability arguments that apologists use. For those who are interested: yes, we did throw six sixes in a row).

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Thoughts from an atheist-Christian marriage

Most emails that Cori and I receive concerning our blogs are from readers who are interested in our cross-faith marriage. I am an atheist; Cori is a Christian. How do we make it work?

From all the emails that we have received, it seems as if many couples are struggling with cross-faith issues, and in the last few months alone, both Cori and I - in our immediate circle - have met several friends who are embarking on relationships where one partner is a Christian and the other a non-believer.

Cori has written a recent blog post here about our marriage. Take a read of it, she always seems to express this issue much better than I ever could :-)

Cori has also written about this topic before. I've also written a previous post about our marriage here.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Feeling cheated, somehow

Is it right to ban religiously offensive material from the media? I was thinking about this the other day, especially with regards to when, two years ago, the Muslim world exploded in uproar over the Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammed. In South Africa, which has a sizeable Muslim community, the Johannesburg High Court at the time banned newspapers in the country from publishing the cartoons, arguing that the sketches impinged on the constitutional rights of the Muslim community to dignity. This in turn set off a debate about the freedom of press in this country.

I understand how offensive the cartoons were, and still are, and I can understand the pain that some Muslims feel about the tasteless depiction of someone who they respect and admire, but after much thought, I now believe it was incorrect for the High Court to ban the cartoons from the press. The reason is this: through the ban, the High Court removed the ability for me to make my own decision on whether the cartoons were offensive or not. The Court – in response to the Muslim Judicial Council, who applied for the interdict – in affect forced a Muslim point of view on thousands of non-Muslims in South Africa. It was as if the entire population, irrespective of religious belief, were forced to live – in terms of deciding about the cartoons – by the Muslim code. In a strange way, as a non-Muslim, I felt cheated by this decision.

But thank goodness for the internet. The cartoons were displayed on thousands of blogs and websites, and after surfing the internet, looking at the cartoons, reading different points of view, I came to the decision that the sketches are indeed offensive in nature. But the important thing was that, through the use of the internet, I had arrived at this decision without any help from the Muslim Judicial Council, or the High Court. I had made up my own mind on the issue.

Not only does general banning of religiously offensive material forcibly remove from others the freedom to choose for themselves, but it also has a negative consequence for the group who calls for the ban. If someone bans offensive material, then they miss out on the opportunity to educate broader society on what offensive material actually looks like. The Muslim Judicial Council would have been a lot more progressive in their approach if they had allowed the printing of the cartoons, but at the same time write a piece, appearing next to each printed cartoon, explaining why such material is offensive to Islam. This would have raised general awareness of, and sensitivity to, Islam through public debate, and would have reduced the chances that someone else in the future, acting out of ignorance, might produce something just as offensive.

So we should tread carefully when there is a call to ban offensive material, because censorship stifles both intellectual autonomy and healthy public debate.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Conversation with an atheist - TGIF

Yesterday I had the unique opportunity of being interviewed at TGIF, a Christian based coffee-shop meeting that occurs every Friday morning at Brooklyn Mall, Pretoria. The interview revolved around my journey away from Christianity, and my current beliefs as an atheist. Roger, who I’ve known for a number of years through blogging, and Thorsten, who leads the TGIF talks, originally came up with the idea as a way of presenting, through a non-confrontational discussion, some of the reasons for unbelief.

This is the first time that I’ve articulated my beliefs in front of such a large group of people, and naturally I was quite nervous. Thinking back over the interview, I thought I spent too much time on some of the answers, wasn’t too clear in others, and at one point I lost my train of thought (next time I will remember to bring notes!) But I think I did okay in terms of bringing the central points across.

The formal questions that were asked of me:
  • You were once a Christian. Tell us about your Christian story.
  • You say you are an atheist, but your position sounds agnostic. Why is this?
  • What do you do about Jesus?
  • What are the common theistic arguments you come across, and why don't you accept them?
There were many more formal questions, but we were running out of time (probably due to me), and I think Roger decided, quite wisely, to spend the remaining time on questions from the audience.

There were many questions from the floor, but these are the few that I remember off-hand:
  • Isn't atheism just like any other religion?
  • How do you find meaning in life as an atheist?
  • Do you think your current beliefs about God are influenced by the relationship you had with your own father?
  • How do you make sense of evil and good?

I want to thank Roger who prepared and conducted the interview, and for Thorsten for providing the opportunity. And also I want to thank everyone in the audience who asked questions, and who spoke to me afterwards.

If you are reading this, and you attended the interview, please comment below and let me know your thoughts. What was the most interesting part of the interview for you, and was there anything that I wasn’t too clear about? And if we did something similar again, what could be improved, in terms of the way it was conducted?

The interview, as well as the resulting discussion, was recorded, so a podcast of it might appear on-line soon.