Skepticism, Religion Archive

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Possibility of Evidence for Gods

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismThere was a recent post on Pharyngula, prompted by a post on RichardDawkins.net written by Steve Zara. And in the time it's taken me to get this post written, there have been multiple follow ups on this subject:

Let's look at what Zara wrote originally. In that article, he said:

I propose a new strident atheism. No playing the games of theists. No concessions. No talk of evidence that can change minds, when their beliefs are deliberately placed beyond logic, beyond evidence. Let's not get taken in by the fraud of religion. Let's not play their shell-game.

In agreement, Myers wrote this in his first post on the subject:

There is no possibility of evidence to convince us of the existence of a god.

I understand where they're coming from. They're frustrated with the theologian's god, the god that's so vague and nebulous that it might as well not exist, or, as I quoted Zara above, that's beyond logic and evidence.

But I think their position goes too far. To make the blanket statement that Myers did is close minded. While I don't believe that any gods exist, I can imagine a universe where they did, and imagine the types of things that the gods might do. To use an example from the comment thread on Pharyngula, if multiple astronomers somehow received a revelation of exactly when and where a supernova was going to occur (the comment used e-mail as the method of revelation), that would be a good piece of evidence for a god. If people were raised from the dead, or really could walk on water, or any of the points from Ebon Musing's Theist's Guide to Converting Atheists were demonstrated to be true, these would all be good evidence for the divine.

Zara brought up an interesting point, quoting Arthur C. Clarke's famous line, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Even if we had the forms of evidence I listed above, how could we be sure that they were from a god, and not some advanced aliens messing around with us? Or how could we be sure that the responsible entity really was the creator of the universe, and not just some powerful force that came into being after the big bang (a la His Dark Materials or Star Trek V). Even without invoking such god like beings, fulfilled prophecies could just be interpreted as psychic abilities of humans, and some other miracles could be telekinesis, or some other as yet unknown force. This was the direction Myers went in his defense in his follow up posts.

While they're interesting possibities to think about, they're still hypothetical, since nobody has yet seen any real miracles that couldn't be explained with what we already know about the universe. Until someone actually produces an accurate prophecy, there's no need to speculate whether it's a psychic ability of humans, an inspiration from the divine, or aliens beaming signals into our heads. Until we actually hear a voice boom down from the heavens, we don't need to try to figure out if it's Zeus or and Interstellar construction crew. It's a bit pointless trying to come up with explanations for things that haven't happened.

This leads into another point where I have the most sympathy with Myers' and Zara's position. If the types of evidence I listed above had been happening throughout recorded history, that would be one thing. However, considering that there's been no credible evidence for the divine for basically the entire history of human civilization, it would certainly make one question the source if this evidence suddenly began appearing all over the place. Given the choice between 'God thought it was finally time to interact with his creation after 14 billion years of hands off observation', vs. 'a space faring civilization has just now encountered our solar system', the latter seems more likely.

So, in sympathy with Zara and Myers, I can say that no single piece of evidence would instantly convince me that gods exist. There's just too long a history of lack of evidence, and too many alternate explanations for any single phenomenon. However, I won't go so far as to say that I couldn't ever be convinced. Given enough evidence from multiple lines, I would seriously consider the possibility that they were divine in origin. I'm just waiting for somebody to actually show me that evidence.


In anticipation of those people who would simply ask me to read the Gospels for examples of miracles, I'll direct them to a previous blog entry of mine, Liar, Lunatic, or Lord... Or Something Else, for a short description of why I don't think the Gospels are reliable. For a bit of a humorous take on other arguments people use for a god's existence that aren't very convincing, take a look at the Hundreds of Proofs of God's Existence on GodlessGeeks.com.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Columbus Day

Portrait of Columbus from the painting,  Virgen de los Navegantes, by Alejo FernándezToday is Columbus Day. I wrote an entry on this a few years ago, that I figured I'd link back to today:
Debunking a Columbus Myth

I discussed the widely held belief that Columbus proved the world was round. I'm sure the Greek geographer Eratosthenes would have something to say about that.

I don't mind so much the claim that Columbus discovered America. Sure, the Vikings beat him to it, and he himself might not have known he'd found a new continent, but it was his voyages that sparked the European exploration of the New World.

For anyone like myself, who's interested in the Pre-Columbian history of the Americas, and wonders why the Europeans were able to conquer the native American empires, Jared Diamond's Gun, Germs, and Steel is a very interesting book to read on the subject.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Weak Arguments for a God

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismWell, I've been too busy this week to come up with much on my own for a blog entry. But, I've been following an interesting comment thread over at Larry Moran's Sandwalk, A Challenge to Theists and their Accommodationist Supporters. Here's the meat of Moran's post:

I challenge all theists and all their accommodationist friends to post their very best 21st century, sophisticated (or not), arguments for the existence of God. They can put them in the comments section of this posting, or on any of the other atheist blogs, or on their own blogs and websites. Just send me the link. ...

Let's stop the whining about how "know-nothing" atheists are ignoring the very best arguments for the existence of God. Come on, all you theists and accommodationists, put your money where your mouth is. Give us something of substance instead of hiding behind The Courtier's Reply. Let's see the angels.

What follows is, at this point, nearly 450 comments worth of debate, and likely to keep on increasing. If you're already familiar with debating religion, the comments are about what you'd expect - one guy quoting scripture, a couple creationists, and a lot of sophistry. Actually, one comment does a good job of summarizing the majority of the arguments presented.

Martin said...

Um, why ask people on the internet for something like this? Turn to real peer-reviewed theology if you're genuinely interested in hearing the best theistic arguments.

A few off the top of my head:

1. Kalam cosmological argument
2. Argument from contingency
3. Plantinga's modal ontological argument
4. Maydole's modal perfection ontological argument
5. Fine-tuning arguments
6. Argument from reason
7. Evolutionary argument against naturalism
8. Moral arguments
9. prosblogion.ektopos.com is loaded with arguments

Not all theists are idiotic creationists from Nebraska.

Of course, the other commenters dealt with those arguments, since they're old arguments or variants of old arguments that we've heard time and again. Really, the thread hasn't presented anything new.

There was one comment that I found particularly amusing for its cluelessness:

"Let's make this easy. Define 'evidence' any way you want to. Any way at all. Give one piece of evidence that the Christian God exists. I'm not asking for proof, just for one piece of evidence. Pick the piece of evidence that you think is the *most* compelling."

Uh-uh. I know how this goes. First, I don't find the evidence compelling, but it would take masses of epistemology that you don't have the patience for to get you to understand why that doesn't impact, to me, belief. Second, I could list the standard things that we do consider at least weak evidence for things -- ancient stories like the Bible, personal experiences -- and you'd just retreat to "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" and ignore it.

So, in a comment thread that specifically asked for the best arguments for a god, one of the commenters is flat out refusing to provide evidence.

Anyway, if you're one of the people who knows me personally, and you read this blog because you're interested in what I usually write about, consider the above link a portal into the raucous world of Internet religious discussions. A browse through the comments is very interesting.

To everyone else, I'll try to post something better next week.


Let me just add that I don't think all the arguments from the atheist side are necessarily sound, either. While a lot of them are pretty good, some are less than stellar. In particular, I think many people are missing the point when they say quantum mechanics predicts something coming from nothing. Quantum mechanics still operates within our universe. Still, even if there were an external first cause to our universe, there's no reason to jump from that to assuming that the first cause had consciousness, intent, or any of the other properties typically associated with gods.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Liar, Lunatic, or Lord... Or Something Else

ChuyThere's a nice little saying that Christians sometimes use to defend the divinity of Jesus, 'liar, lunatic, or lord'. It's often attributed to C.S. Lewis, though the argument goes back further than him. The reasoning goes that anyone who spoke the way Jesus did has to fit one of those three choices. However, I think they leave off a fourth choice, (in keeping with the alliteration) 'legend'.*

The triple L argument (more commonly known as Lewis's Trilemma), implicitly assumes that the gospel accounts are accurate. This is its biggest weakness. Obviously, if you accept the gospels as true, you'll also accept the miracles, such as raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus's resurrection and ascension to heaven, and the voice of Yahweh declaring Jesus to be his son. If you already accept all those claims, then the triple L trillemma is superfluous. But, if you question those miraculous aspects of the gospels, chances are you'll question the quotes from Jesus, as well.

So, what reason would someone have to question the gospels?

One question I've heard is, if the gospels aren't true, why would people have invented such fantastic stories, and why would others have believed them? First, I think this falls into a common mistake people make, assuming conscious intent where there is none (I discussed something similar in an entry on the origin of Arabic numerals). Just because the gospels may not be accurate, doesn't mean that the gospel writers were intentionally inventing the story. They were merely writing the story that had been passed down to them. Remember that the 4 canonical gospels weren't written until decades after Jesus's death, so there was plenty of time for his legend to grow.

I think there are three good classes of examples to illustrate that it's entirely possible that a story such as the life of Jesus could be fictional. First, just look at modern day urban legends. A browse through Snopes, UrbanLegends.about.com, or Straight Dope, shows just how many untrue things people believe. Most of the urban legends on those sites originated within the past few decades (and many within the past few years), so they show just how quickly an untruth can come to be widely believed.

You could also look to known legendary figures, such as Robin Hood, King Arthur, or Paul Bunyan. There may be people that these stories were originally based on, but they have certainly moved into the realm of legend, and at this point, it would be nearly impossible to discern whatever kernels of truth still remain.

The final good class of examples is to look around at the world's other religions. Now, one possibility is that they're all mostly right - that there are many, many gods, and they all intervene here on Earth (think of the story of the blind men and the elephant). I don't think most people actually believe that, though (I certainly don't). I think most people look around at the religions other than their own, and assume them to be false. Still, the religions had to come from somewhere. They can mostly be explained by perhaps a few grains of truth, with a lot of exaggeration and embellishment as the stories got passed down - a divine telephone game.

This last class of examples leads into another important point. You have to consider the mindset of the early Christians, and the early converts to Christianity. The early church was not trying to win over atheists. It's not as if there were a bunch of skeptics who doubted the existence of gods. The very first Christians were Jews, so they already accepted Yahweh as their god, and it was only a small step to accept that Jesus was his son, the messiah. The gentiles were mostly Romans, who accepted the Roman pantheon. They already believed in many gods, so the hard part of Christianity was limiting their belief to just one. But both of those groups, Jews and gentiles, would have been ready to accept claims of miracles. It fit with their existing worldview. To someone who grew up believing in the labors of Hercules, it wouldn't have been hard to believe that a man turned water into wine or walked on water.

The final point I'm going to discuss, is that outside of the gospels, there is very little independent evidence for Jesus's actual existence, let alone his miraculous acts. In fact, some people doubt whether a Yeshua of Nazareth who became a preacher even existed at all, and think he's entirely mythical. In addition to the lack of evidence, they point to the many commonalities Jesus shared with figures from other religions, particularly Mithraism. Others have conjectured that Jesus may be an amalgamation of several historical figures, with a bit of embellishment, and a bit of borrowing from other religions. (more info).

Even if there was a historical Yeshua of Nazareth who served as the original basis for Christianity, I think it's clear that it would have been very easy for his story to be embellished to become the gospels that we're familiar with. So, in addition to the triple L trilemma options of liar, lunatic, or lord, I think we must add at least a fourth option of legend or myth.


* I came up with the 'Liar, Lunatic, or Lord... or Legend' alliteration on my own, but clearly, it's a fairly obvious play on words. A little googling found that many others, such as Bart Ehrman, have used this one before me. Oh well. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Kid's Books and Aliens

UFOThere was a certain book I vaguely recalled from my childhood, that I've been trying to find off and on for the past few months. My memory of the book was that it was these blob-like aliens, who built a rocket ship to save all the animals from Earth. So, I did a Google search for 'kid's book aliens take animals on rocket ship'. On the second page of results, I found a real winner.

The link was to this page from AliensAndChildren.org, an interview with some guy named David M. Jacobs, who happens to be a Ph.D. at Temple. Not only does this guy buy into alien abduction stories hook, line, and sinker, but, well, just read for yourself.

Well, you know, the ultimate question I think to ask for the UFO phenomenon is "Just what the hell do you think they're here for?" That's the question that I've tried to address in this book--what is this all about? What is happening here? Why is this happening? Why are people saying that these events are happening? So what I've done then is try to answer those questions as best I can by using as much information as I can from eleven years of fairly intensive research into abductions.

And what I've been able to find is that this is a program. They're not here just because they're examining people, or studying people, or experimenting on people. I don't know, Sean, if you remember I gave a talk about that in Los Angeles when I saw you. So they're not here to sort of "examine" us in some way. They're here on a mission. They're here with a goal in mind. They've got a program, and it's a program with a beginning, a middle and an end. It's a program that is goal-directed and I think we're entering into sort of the end-phase of this program. I think that we're moving towards the end of this.

And the program ultimately is not abducting people. Abductions, you have to remember, are a means to an end. They're abducting people for a purpose, for a reason. The physical act of abducting people, which is the abduction phenomenon, really is only part of the program. So what I've done is kind of divided it into component parts and fleshed it out a lot more. So what we have here is an abduction program, a breeding program, which accounts for all the reproductive activity that we see, and a hybridization program, which is why people see hybrids all the time--as babies, as toddlers, as adolescents, and then as adults.

And then, finally, I think all this is leading to an integration program in which ultimately these hybrids, who look very human, will be integrating into this society. And who will eventually, I assume, be in control here because they do have superior technology and superior physiological abilities that we do not have. We would therefore be sort of second-class citizens, I think.

It goes on for quite a bit more, but that was enough for me.


BTW, I did manage to find that book. It was called Barbapapa's Ark. It's every bit as strange as I remember it, but still not quite as strange as that interview.


Added 2010-09-09 I suppose that instead of just pointing and laughing, I ought to provide a little explanation. I very much doubt that Earth has ever been visited by aliens in flying saucers. There's just no good evidence to back it up. Sure, there are plenty of eye-witness accounts and even videos of strange lights in the skies, but nearly every story I've seen so far has a much more mundane explanation. I'll give two examples.

The first is a story of an amateur astronomer who witnessed a UFO, but took the time to figure out what it was he was really seeing. Later, when he saw the UFO with someone else there with him, and explained to the other person what was really going on, the other person flat out rejected his explanation. This is an example of how biased we can be in our perceptions, and why eye witness accounts are not always credible.

Amateur Astronomer Reporting a UFO Sighting


The second is a story that involved many more people. A few skeptics, in an effort to show just how irrational people are when it comes to UFO sightings, staged a hoax. They attached flares to 3-foot helium balloons, and then released them near a populated area. People were convinced they were UFOs (in the common sense, not the technical sense). The story was covered by the local news, and even made it onto an episode of the History Channel's UFO Hunters. To quote the concluding lines of the story linked to below:

In fact, we delivered what every perfect UFO case has: great video and pictures, “credible” eyewitnesses (doctors and pilots), and professional investigators convinced that something amazing was witnessed. Does this bring into question the validity of every other UFO case? We believe it does.

How We Staged the Morristown UFO Hoax

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