Skepticism, Religion Archive

Friday, November 19, 2010

Book Review - The God Delusion

While reviewing unfinished blog entries, I came across this one. I'd originally intended to write a very in depth review of this book, but never quite got around to doing it, and it's now been years since I read the book. Still, what I'd already written wasn't bad, so I figured it was worth cleaning up a bit and posting on the blog.

After putting it off for over a year and a half, I finally read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. There were a couple reasons I put it off so long. First, when the book first came out, I was just coming to grips with non-belief, and I was still too embarassed to take the book to the cashier. Second, even as I did become more comfortable with atheism, I thought that the book would just be a lot of preaching to the choir. However, thanks to the urging of a few people, I decided to go pick up the book, and I'm glad I did.

To be honest, for me, a good portion of the book was preaching to the choir, but not quite as much as I'd feared. I anticipated 420 pages of dissecting arguments for the existence of gods, pointing out inconsistencies in religious doctrines, and reasons why non-belief is the more rational choice. And while a good part of the book does address those points, that's only about half of it. The rest of the book deals with different but related issues, such as the roots of religion, the basis for morality, and reasons for speaking out against religion.

I have read several unfounded complaints of the book. Just consider the first editorial review on the book's Amazon page by Publisher's Weekly.

For a scientist who criticizes religion for its intolerance, Dawkins has written a surprisingly intolerant book, full of scorn for religion and those who believe...

While Dawkins can be witty, even confirmed atheists who agree with his advocacy of science and vigorous rationalism may have trouble stomaching some of the rhetoric: the biblical Yahweh is "psychotic," Aquinas's proofs of God's existence are "fatuous" and religion generally is "nonsense..."

He insists that religion is a divisive and oppressive force, but he is less convincing in arguing that the world would be better and more peaceful without it.

Admittedly, some sections use strong language, particularly introductions to chapters, but I never read anything as scornful, nor particularly intolerant. Yes, Dawkins described Yahweh as "psychotic," but that was in the context of the atrocities of the Old Testament (such as Jephthah and his daughter from Judges 11). And after re-reading the section on Aquinas, I think Dawkins was justified in calling it like he saw it - Aquinas's arguments weren't all that good.

The last part of this review is something I've seen used as the sole argument of some reviews. It has nothing to do with the proposition of whether or not a god exists, only the consequences of belief in a god. And personally, I think Dawkins did address that aspect fairly well, though I guess that's a matter of personal opinion.

I don't entirely agree with all of Dawkins' arguments, but I still recommend this book.


Added 2010-11-23 Thinking about The God Delusion again, I recall a certain passage that I found really funny (just about the only humorous passage from the book). As luck would have it, it was one of the parts available from Google Books. I'll included the lead in for context. So, here's the passge, from page 86:

More recently, the physicist Russell Stannard (one of Britain's three well-known religious scientists, as we shall see) has thrown his weight behind an inititiative, funded by - of course - the Templeton Foundation, to test experimentally the proposition that praying for sick patients improves their health.

Such experiments, if done properly, have to be double blind, and this standard was strictly observed. The patients were assigned, strictly at random, to an experimental group (received prayers) or a control group (received no prayers). Neither the patients, nor their doctors or caregivers, nor the experimenters were allowed to know which patients were being prayed for and which patients were controls. Those who did the experimental praying had to know the names of the individuals for whom they were praying - otherwise, in what sense would they be praying for them rather than for somebody else? But care was taken to tell them only the first name and initial letter of the surname. Apparently thta would be enough to enable God to pinpoint the right hospital bed.

The very idea of doing such experiments is open to a generous amount of ridicule, and the project duly received it. As far as I know, Bob Newhart didn't do a sketch about it, but I can distinctly hear his voice:

What's that you say, Lord? You can't cure me because I'm a member of the control group?... Oh I see, my aunt's prayers aren't enough. But Lord, Mr Evans in the next-door bed... What as that, Lord?... Mr Evans received a thousand prayers per day? But Lord, Mr Evans doesn't know a thousand people... Oh, they just referred to him as John E. But Lord, how did you know they didn't mean John Ellsworthy?... Oh, right, you used your omniscience to work out with John E they meant. But Lord...

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.

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