It is simply not true that atheism is just as much a matter of faith as religion. Most atheists can tell you what evidence they’d accept to convince them that God exists. Atheism is the conclusion that the God hypothesis is not supported by the evidence. If we see better evidence, we’ll change our minds. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.
This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
And when they’re asked what evidence they have, how do believers respond?
In my conversations with religious believers, I’ll often ask, “Why do you think God or the supernatural exists? What makes you think this is true? What evidence do you have for this belief?” Partly I’m just curious; I want to know why people believe what they do. Plus I think it’s a valid question: it’s certainly one I’d ask about any other claim or opinion. And if I’m wrong about my atheism — if there’s good evidence for religion that I haven’t seen yet — I want to know. I’m game. Show me the money.
But when I ask these questions, I almost never get a straight answer.
What I typically get is a startling assortment of conversational gambits deflecting the question.
I get excuses for why believers shouldn’t have to provide evidence. Vague references to other people who supposedly have evidence, without actually pointing to said evidence. Irrelevant tirades about mean atheists. Venomous anger at how disrespectful and intolerant I am to even ask the question.
Today, I want to chronicle some of these conversational gambits. I want to point out their logical flaws. I want to point out the fiendishly clever ways that they armor religion against the expectation — a completely reasonable expectation, an expectation we have about every other kind of claim — that it back itself up with evidence.
And I want to talk about why believers resort to them.
Whatever You Do, Don’t Show Me The Money
We begin the parade of deflective gambits with this:
Yeah. See, here’s the problem with that.
The problem is that religion makes claims about this world. The physical one, the one we live in. It claims that God sets events into motion; that guardian angels protect us; that our consciousness is animated by an immaterial soul; etc.
So if there really were a non-physical world affecting this physical one, we should be able to observe those effects. Even if we can’t observe the causes directly.
But even though he had no idea what gravity was, he was able to observe its effects. He was able to describe the laws of motion that govern those effects: laws that to this day make startlingly accurate predictions about the behavior of objects. He wasn’t able to see or even understand the cause — but he was able to observe and describe the effects.
I could give a zillion other examples. We can’t see subatomic particles directly, either. Magnetic fields. Black holes. But we can observe their effects. We can make accurate predictions about them. We know they’re there.
If there really is a non-physical, spiritual world affecting the physical one… why can’t we come to an understanding about the nature of that world, and how it affects this one? Why, after thousands of years of religious belief, are we still no closer to an understanding of the spiritual realm than we ever were? Why do religious beliefs still all boil down to a difference of opinion?
The obvious answer: Because the spiritual realm doesn’t exist. Because the spiritual realm is a human construct: invented by human minds that are strongly biased to see intention and pattern even where none exist, and to believe what they already believe or want to believe.
And believers only fall back on this “The spiritual is beyond the physical, so we shouldn’t expect evidence of it” trope because there isn’t good evidence. This argument isn’t really an argument. It doesn’t support the claims of religion. It merely serves to armor religion against the expectation that it support its claims.
Why should that be?
I’ve heard this argument a thousand times. And nobody making it has ever been able to explain to me: Why should that be?
Religion is a hypothesis about the world. It’s not a subjective personal experience, like, “I passionately love this woman and want to marry her.” It’s not a personal instinct or judgment call, like, “I think my life will be better if I quit my job and move to San Francisco.” It’s not a personal aesthetic opinion, like, “Radiohead is the greatest band of this decade.” It’s a hypothesis about the world — the real, external, non-subjective world. It’s an attempt to explain how the world works, and why it is the way it is.
So why should it be beyond reason or evidence?
Unreason and emotion, personal instinct and flashes of insight… all are important. Our lives would be flat without them. And they can tell us important truths. But they tell us important truths about ourselves. When it comes to finding out what is and is not true about the real, external, non-subjective world, these methods are far too flawed, far too biased, to blindly trust as the sole foundation of our understanding. Instinct and intuition can give us ideas about the world — but we have to then rigorously test those ideas and make sure they’re consistent with the evidence. History is full of scientists getting brilliant ideas in flashes of intuition — but it’s also full of scientists getting flashes of intuition that turned out to be balderdash.
And every time religious claims have been carefully evaluated by a rigorous scientific method, they’ve collapsed like a house of cards.
The only reason believers fall back on this “religious experience is inherently irrational, beyond reason or evidence” trope is that reason and evidence don’t back up their beliefs. This trope isn’t an argument. It doesn’t support the claims of religion. It merely serves to armor religion against the expectation that it support its claims.
Here we have a classic case of special pleading.
Almost nothing can be proven or disproven with 100% certainty. And proving with 100% certainty that something doesn’t exist is virtually impossible.
Which is why we don’t apply that standard to any other kind of claim.
With every other kind of claim, we accept a standard of reasonable plausibility. With every other kind of hypothesis, we accept that if there’s no good evidence supporting it, and there’s a fair amount of evidence contradicting it, and it’s shot through with logical flaws and internal inconsistencies, and similar claims have never turned out to be right…. then unless that situation changes, those are good enough reasons to reject it.
Only religion gets the “If you can’t disprove it with 100% certainty, it’s reasonable to believe it” standard.
When asked, “What evidence do you have that this is true?”, how is it reasonable for believers to reply, “You can’t absolutely prove that it isn’t”? How is that even an argument? How does it support the claims of religion? How does it do anything but armor religion against the expectation that it support its claims?
And we have more special pleading.
In a reasonably free, reasonably democratic society, we don’t call it intolerant to criticize ideas. We criticize ideas all the time. Political ideas. Artistic ideas. Scientific ideas. Ideas about relationships, money, music, food, philosophy, sports, cute cats. If we think other people have a mistaken idea about the world, we think it’s reasonable and fair, admirable even, to try to persuade them out it. We might think it’s bad manners at the dinner table — but in public forums, in the marketplace of ideas, we think it’s just ducky.
Only religion gets a free ride.
In the marketplace of ideas, only religion gets a free ride in an armored tank. Only religion gets to sell its wares behind a curtain. Only religion gets to make promises about its wares that it never, ever has to keep. And when people hand out flyers in the marketplace saying “These guys are selling hot air, the Emperor has no clothes, here’s all the reasons why our wares are better,” only with religion do people scowl disapprovingly at the disrespectful, bigoted intolerance.
Religion is a hypothesis about the world. It is entirely reasonable to treat it like any other hypothesis… and to point out the ways that it’s logically flawed, inconsistent with itself, and entirely unsupported by any good evidence.
“You have no right to make your case” is an argument people make when they don’t have a case themselves. It’s not even an argument. It’s the deflection of an argument. It doesn’t support the claims of religion. It merely armors religion against the expectation that it support its claims.
Many believers accuse atheists of arguing against the most simplistic, most outdated forms of belief; of ignoring the wonderful world of modern theology and its advanced understanding of God.
And yet, they do this without ever actually explaining what that advanced understanding is, or what the arguments and apologetics and evidence for it are. The promise of a truly good modern argument for God is dangled in front of us like a carrot in front of a donkey’s nose.
I’ve actually read a fair amount of modern theology. I’m not a theology scholar, but I got a B.A. in religion, and I’ve read a fair amount since then.
And I am repeatedly struck by how weak and sloppy modern theology is. It either redefines God out of existence, defining him so abstractly he might as well not exist… or it amounts to one of the many excuses listed here, excuses for why this powerful being with a pervasive effect on the world somehow has no solid evidence of his existence. (Or else it’s the same old bad arguments we’ve seen for hundreds of years — First Cause, the Argument from Design, Pascal’s Freaking Wager — dressed up in po-mo academia-speak.)
But more to the point:
You can’t just point to the existence of modern theology and say, “Look! Modern theology! It’s new and improved! With 30% more reason than medieval theology! It says so right on the box!” You have to actually, you know, tell us what that theology says. And then you have to tell us why you think it’s right.
If you can’t… then that’s not an argument. It doesn’t support the claims of religion. It merely armors religion against the expectation that it support its claims.
This one kind of ticks me off.
As a rule, atheists are the ones saying, “I don’t see any good evidence for God… but show me some good evidence, and I’ll change my mind.” And believers are the ones saying, “Nothing you say could possibly convince me God is not real — that’s what it means to have faith.” Believers are the ones with all these defense mechanisms I’m writing about; all these elaborate excuses for hanging onto a worldview that’s not supported by one piece of good, solid evidence.
So how is it, exactly, that atheists are the close-minded ones?
Having an open mind doesn’t mean thinking all possibilities are equally likely. It means being willing to consider new ideas if the evidence supports them. And it means being willing to give up old ideas if the evidence is against them.
So to any believer who thinks atheists are close-minded, I want to ask you this:
What would convince you that you were mistaken?
What about you?
Are you open to the possibility that you might be mistaken? Are you open to the possibility that there is no God, and that the physical world is all there is? Is your God hypothesis falsifiable? Is there any possible evidence that would change your mind?
And if not — then on what basis are you accusing atheists of being close-minded?
This “atheists are closed off to the spiritual world” trope is clearly not an argument. It merely reiterates the very claim being discussed — the claim that there’s a supernatural world to be open to — without offering any evidence for it. It doesn’t support the claims of religion. It merely armors religion against the expectation that it support its claims.
If They Had The Money, They’d Show It
I would like to point out this:
If religious believers had good evidence for their beliefs, they’d be giving it.
More commonly, believers frequently trot out the old standby forms of religious “evidence”: personal intuition (translated: our biased and flawed tendency to believe what we already believe or what we want to believe), and religious authorities and texts (translated: someone else’s biased and flawed intuition, passed off as fact). Even in the era of evolution, even when we know in great detail how the complexity of life came into being, many believers — including moderate, non-creationist believers — often point to the apparent “design” of life as evidence of God. And any number of coincidences, twists of fate, supposedly miraculous medical cures, and other happy and unhappy accidents — the kind we’d have every reason to expect in a physical- cause- and- effect world — will be readily chalked up to spiritual forces or the hand of God.
Believers — many believers, anyway — are hungry for solid, non-subjective, real-world evidence for their beliefs. But in the absence of that evidence, and in the presence of positive evidence and arguments countering their beliefs, they’ll resort to slippery, contorted, elaborately constructed excuses for why the expectation of evidence for religion isn’t fair.
And as I look at these excuses, I think I see why.
The armor has to be first-rate.
Because the structure itself can’t stand on its own.
Atheism does have comfort to offer in the face of death. Among other things, it offers the idea that death is not to be feared: being dead will be just like it was before we were born, and that wasn’t frightening or painful. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.
He had a craggy face, prematurely lined, no doubt from hard living. He was wiry but muscular, like he could jump a fence, chase a rabbit and skin it for dinner, no charge. I wondered what heâd look like naked. Then I wondered why I was so sex-obsessed.
To read more, read the rest of the story. (Not for anyone under 18.) Enjoy!
“Believing in God is a safer bet” is a terrible reason to believe in God. If you believe because you fear being punished for not believing, it’s like dating someone because they threaten to beat you up if you don’t. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.
It’s called Why Did Gayness Evolve?, and here’s the teaser:
But when you accept the idea that homosexuality is genetically wired, you get faced with a very puzzling question:
Why would that be?
Why, from an evolutionary perspective, would a not-insignificant number of us have been born wanting to boff people we have zero chance of reproducing with?
Why wouldn’t that trait have been selected out long ago?
There are lots of hypotheses as to why this might be. I’m not going to argue for or against any of them here (if for no other reason, it would make this piece way too long). Instead, I want to point a very important and often overlooked fact about evolution:
To ask “What is the evolutionary reason for (X)? Why did (X) evolve?” is often the entirely wrong question.
To find out why this might be the wrong question, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy! (Oh, and for the record: Someone has already corrected the error I made about spandrels being less likely to evolve out of existence. Please just ignore that. Thanks.)
“You can’t disprove it with 100% certainty, therefore it’s reasonable to think it’s true” is not a good argument. Almost nothing can be disproven with 100% certainty — that doesn’t mean it’s plausible. And that’s just as true of God and the supernatural as anything else. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.
Please note: This piece discusses my personal sex life in a certain amount of detail. Family members and others who don’t want to read that, please don’t. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
It was advice on staying “young at heart.” Whatever that means, I hate that phraseâŠ but the advice was interesting and valid anyway. It said, “To stay young at heart, you have to be willing to try anything twice.”
Not once. Twice.
I want to talk about how that applies to sex.
And for years, I was convinced that I didn’t like anal sex. Anytime anyone suggested it, I’d turn them down flat. And if they asked, “But have you tried it?” I could always shut them down with my reply, “Yes. I’ve tried it. I didn’t like it.”
To this day, I’m not sure what made me decide to try again. It may have been that I’d talked with more people who passionately enjoyed it. It may have been that I’d read more about it, had learned what I’d done wrong the first time and how to do it right. It may even have been that my lover let me do him first. (If “let” is the right word. “Enthusiastically proposed” was more like it.) But whatever the reason, I decided to give anal sex a second try.
And the second time, I loved it. Passionately. It quickly became my Number One favorite kind of sex, and it stayed that way for years.
I have similar stories about all kinds of sex. The first time I tried bondage was an embarrassing disaster: we were using tube socks, they were ridiculously easy to escape from, and the whole thing felt awkward and stupid. The first time I got spanked, she spanked way too hard and fast; I gritted my teeth through it for as long as I could before I called my safeword, which was about a minute. You don’t want to know what happened the first time I gave a blowjob. The first time someone went down on me; the first time I had sex with another woman; hell, the first time I had sex with a man. Failed experiments, all.
If I hadn’t tried these experiments again, I would have had a seriously limited, probably non-existent sex life.
And that would have been a sad, sad thing.
When it comes to sex, first times are, to put it mildly, often not the best indicator of how things are going to turn out. For one thing, first times are often done when we’re young, when most of us don’t have much information about sex, and aren’t that comfortable talking about it, and are kind of just fumbling around in the dark.
Now, of course, this is true for a lot of things. Not just sex. The first time I threw a dinner party, the first time I read into a microphone, the first time I got drunk… none of those went well, either. And for many of the same reasons.
But I think the high failure rate of first- time experiences — and the tendency to treat those failures as a permanent cutting off of options — may be even higher for sex. We have such great expectations of sex, and the disappointments can feel disproportionately crushing. And because we’re brought up to treat sex with fear and contempt, we’re more likely to see a unsuccessful first try as proof that it was a bad idea. If you already have a reflex to say “No” to sex, then “I tried that already” can easily become just another reason to revert to that reflex.
And I think that’s too bad. I think that when we give up on a sexual variation just because it didn’t work the first time, we’re cutting ourselves off from a entire erotic world that we might get great pleasure from if we just gave it a second chance.
Now, if you don’t care that much about a particular kind of sex — if you were just trying it from idle curiosity, say, or because it was the favorite thing of someone you were with and now you’re not with them anymore — then I don’t think giving up after the first try is a big deal. Life is short, the time we have to spend boffing is even shorter. Too short to try everything in the 500 Things To Do On A Rainy Day playbook — twice. (I tried getting fisted three or four times, and finally decided that it just wasn’t going to work for meâŠ and I was only trying it because it was the ’90s and everyone was trying it… and I just didn’t care enough to bother.)
Then I’d like to encourage you to give it another try.
I’d like to encourage all of us — myself included, I’m writing this to cheerlead myself as much as anybody — to remember that first times are often less about getting into the groove, and more about finding your feet. I’d like to encourage all of us to remember that people change, and that just because we didn’t like something five or ten years ago doesn’t mean we won’t like it now. I’d like to encourage all of us to remember all the first times that didn’t work out — not just with sex, but with cooking or dancing or surfing or anything else — and to remember the second or third or fourth times when everything suddenly fell into place. And I’d like to encourage all of us to think of some sexual experiment from our past that was awkward or messy or embarrassing… and to give it at least one more try.
“That can’t possibly be a coincidence!” is not a good argument for God or the supernatural. True, the chances of any given improbable thing happening are, well, improbable — but the chances of some improbable things happening in your lifetime are actually very high. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.
That’s what professor Stephen Prothero is saying over at USA Today, anyway.
There are so many directions I could go with this. I hardly know where to begin.
I don’t disagree that — as a very broad generalization, a “different peaks on two overlapping bell curves” sort of thing — women tend on average to be less competitive and more co-operative than men. But that’s a very broad generalization indeed, with almost as many exceptions to the rule as there are cases of it. Trust me on this — plenty of female atheists are angry. If you think getting more women atheists into positions of visibility will make this a kinder and gentler movement, you are sorely mistaken. You underestimate us at your peril.
And stepping away from gender for a moment — since there was so much more wrong with this piece other than just patronizing sexism — I could point out that the distinction between diplomacy and confrontation, between asking for civil rights and trying to de-convert believers, is a completely false dichotomy. Contrary to Prothero’s assertion that “these competing approaches could not be further apart,” it is entirely possible to see the value in both approaches, and to use different approaches in different situations, and to respect other people’s approaches even when they aren’t right for you.
I could also talk about how very, very tired the “atheist schism between diplomats and firebrands” story is getting. So many commenters on the atheist movement have been harping on this — and it’s just not that interesting. As if every other movement for social change in history hasn’t struggled with this tension. As if this tension weren’t itself a source of strength and power. And as if these were two clearly distinct and warring camps — as opposed to a continuum, where different people come down differently at different times on different issues.
But ultimately, here is what I want to say to Prothero, and his assertion that female atheists will make the movement friendlier and less confrontational:
Suck my dick.
Or, to be more precise:
Suck my dick, you pompous windbag. You think getting more women into the atheist movement means you won’t have to face a fight? Bring it on. You smug, patronizing, cowardly, sexist prick.
Is that friendly enough for you?