Thursday, November 5, 2009

Never Quite Grasping God - Part V: Written in stone

Read parts 1 - 4 below to gain some context for this entry.

The Geological Record undermines the Bible

Most religions have some sort of origin myth. As usual my focus is on the Judeo-Christian story but many of my points could be applied to other myths as well.
The age of the Earth, and by extension, the age of the solar system and even the universe, has been a topic of controversy even between different religious sects. The extreme fundamentalists, also known as Young Earth Creationists (YEC), take a literal view of the Bible and espouse a belief that the world is about 6,000 years old (based on the generations listed in the Bible) and that God created everything in the 6 days mentioned in Genesis. There are less strict interpretations but they pretty much fall to the same arguments that invalidated the Young Earth for me. As a child in Sunday school I was given the standard Let-there-be-light, Adam & Eve story. It was never presented as allegorical so I took it that we were supposed to believe it literally. As I got older and learned about fossilized dinosaurs and the Grand Canyon I realized that these items didn’t fit the 6 day scenario. My church was rather liberal about this and allowed us to rationalize these incongruities in any manner we could. Maybe the story was allegorical. Maybe “1 day” was really 300 million years in God time. Whatever it was, it got me started on thinking: “If this part of the Bible wasn’t literally true, what else might be questioned?” I understand now why the fundamentalists cling to the 6 day, Adam & Eve story. Once you start questioning, where do you stop? In my junior high school days I just stuck with the maybes. I wasn’t yet sophisticated enough to see the real problems. Gradually though I learned enough geology, geography, chemistry and other sciences to see that we had valid reasons for thinking that the Earth was billions of years old and that dinosaurs pre-dated man by hundreds of millions of years. If the Earth were only 6,000 years old then God was playing a stupendous trick on us by putting fossils in layers of sediment that appeared to be much, much older than a few thousand years. The God of the Bible has several rather unappealing human characteristics (jealousy, anger, vengefulness) but would he be a trickster too? This world didn’t seem to have been made by the God of the Bible. There were two other choices. The first was one that I grasped at when I was younger and that was that God created the universe and set the laws of ‘Mother Nature’ to work and let things happen from there. That’s all well and good. It’s what I now know is called Deism. But… it’s not the personally involved, knows-every-sparrow, God of the Bible. So such a being, one that set things in motion and then sat back to watch (or went away), might exist but we have no reason to worship, perform rituals, or count on any kind of intervention. A sort of useless god. The other option was that there was no God, or gods, and that everything resulted from natural processes. So three basic choices; interventionist God-of-the-Bible type, deistic non-interventionist god, or no god. Realizing the vacuity of the first two, I opted for the latter.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Never Quite Grasping God - Part IV

Intelligent Design and the God-of-the-Gaps

Intelligent Design (ID) is supposedly a strong argument for the existence of a creator/designer/god. On the surface it doesn’t imply a specific god but each religion will use it to imply their own god. In America, which is predominately Judeo-Christian, the unwritten implication is the God of the Bible. The basic premise is that some things around us are so complex and work together so well that they must have been designed that way. This approach was popularized in the late 18th century by William Paley who used the example of finding a watch in the field. One would immediately recognize that the watch was designed and built by a maker. Paley looked at the world around him and determined that it was complex, like the watch, and therefore had a maker. Since Paley lived in the late 1700s, dying in 1804, he did not have the benefit of the scientific knowledge we have today. Yes, the universe, the solar system and life on this planet are complex but we have now identified natural mechanisms to account for the gradual build up of that complexity. Many Christian fundamentalists who want to believe that God created the world, man and all of the animals in 6 days, still cling to the notion that it took magic to make the world but this is an argument from ignorance. They don’t know physics, chemistry, biology, geology… the sciences that explain how we got here without the magic of supernatural intervention. The intelligent design argument is no longer convincing to (most of) those who are grounded in the sciences. There are a few scientists who still push the ID agenda, as one might expect in a population distributed across a bell curve distribution. These scientists rely on the God-of-the-Gaps argument. They will admit that science can explain A, B, C and D but since science hasn’t yet discovered the answer to X, Y and Z then X, Y and Z are what God did. At first they argued for things at the macro (visible) level. “God made the world with mountains, valleys, oceans. Natural disasters like storms, floods, earthquakes are acts of God.”. But science shows us that mountains and valleys are formed by tectonic plate movement, that canyons are caused by millions of years of erosion, that weather is caused by the heating and cooling of the Earth on both its daily and yearly cycle. No God necessary. So they went to smaller, harder to explain items. A popular one was the eye. Science couldn’t explain how the eye evolved so God must have designed it. Well science eventually explained how the eye and other body parts could evolve so the ID proponents went even smaller. Down to the molecular level. Science couldn’t explain how this or that biochemical molecule came about so God must have designed it. Science is currently in the process of answering that challenge and there aren’t many gaps left for God to fit in. Gods as creators and designers are unnecessary. That doesn’t prove that they don’t exist, but the design of the world and the life in it are no longer evidence for their existence. Without some evidence, why would I, or anyone, accept someone’s proposal that there was a supernatural being in charge of everything? In fact, in looking around at the world it appears that many things were not intelligently designed. The example that comes to mind first for me is the human reproductive system. If it were intelligently designed would we have miscarriages, still births, birth defects, and even on occasion the death of the mother? A God with infinite knowledge and infinite power couldn’t do any better than that? For his supposedly chosen species? There may be some religions whose gods are only semi-competent which would explain the haphazard world in which we find ourselves but I haven’t studied every religion to that extent so I can’t name them. Certainly the Christian concept of a masterful creator does not fit well with the results. The concept of Intelligent Design fails to convince me that things are intelligently designed much less convince me that there is a God. In the final analysis, the domain of the God-of-the-Gaps is so small as to be trivial or the god is so incompetent as to be unworthy of worship.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Never Quite Grasping God - Part III : You Want to Bet?

Pascal’s Wager

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Pascal's Wager (or Pascal's Gambit) is a suggestion posed by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal that even though the existence of God cannot be determined through reason, a person should "wager" as though God exists, because so living has potentially everything to gain, and certainly nothing to lose. It was set out in note 233 of his Pensées, a posthumously published collection of notes made by Pascal in his last years as he worked on a treatise on Christian apologetics.

I don’t believe I had run across Pascal’s wager until I took a course in comparative religion in college. By then I had dropped any pretense of belief in God so the “wager” intrigued me. Maybe I should reconsider my position. Almost immediately I saw 3 or more interrelated problems. The first was that I couldn’t just make myself believe on the basis of “it’s the safe thing to do”. I couldn’t just willfully change my mind without some sort of convincing evidence. How about if I just said I believed and went through all of the ritualistic motions? Something seems wrong with that. What kind of god would accept that? Certainly not the omniscient Christian God who supposedly knows our every thought and emotion. And if he (she, it, they) would accept that, what other variations or limitations in belief would be accepted? Semi-belief? Conditional belief? Hedge your bet belief? So the second problem was that it didn’t seem that any god worth his salt would accept the “wager”. The third problem was that Pascal seemed to specifically be referring to the God of the Bible. But, if his wager were correct, I would need to believe in every proposed god on the chance that one and not the other was the real god that really cared if I got it right. Many of the religions are exclusionary and/or contradict each other so that route was out. As I noted elsewhere, my chance of picking the right one was slim-to-none. I don’t know how Pascal managed to overlook those points but they really throw a monkey wrench into the “do it because it’s a good bet” approach. So Pascal’s argument that I should believe, pretty much convinced me that it was useless to try even if there were some unknown god running the show.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Never Quite Grasping God - Part II

The next several segments in this series will take a brief look at a variety of factors that play, or played, a role in my non-belief. This is not an in-depth examination. I draw on a tremendous amount of reading that I have done but I don't cite particular books or authors. If you want further information on a topic or if you don't believe a particular assertion, you can search the internet as easily as I can. In fact, I hope you will be intrigued enough to go look for more information. For a little background read Part I first.

A Few Reasons for Non-belief in God

The Bell Curve changed my life.
One of my college courses at the University of West Florida was a class in statistics. That course altered the way I look at the world. I was aware of the Bell Curve and standard distribution from other classes in high school and Junior College but those courses had not focused on the “why”s and “how”s. Suddenly I had a new understanding and I saw that I could apply it to many aspects of daily life. Whereas before I might have mentally questioned the effectiveness of prayer, now I had a new way of examining it. If we prayed each year for 10 years to have good weather for Easter Sunrise Service and got good weather 8 of the 10 years, should we thank God? Or should we examine the weather patterns for that time of year and see, on average, how other dates fared? If it turns out that the average for other days of the week is similar, do we still have reason to thank God for the sunny mornings or do we just chalk it up to the law of averages? Well, you can see where I’m going. For about anything you look at, the results of prayer fall into what we would expect based on averages, means, and standard distributions. Pray for sick people at church… some get better, some get worse, some die, some linger for years with a chronic condition. Where, in there, is the effectiveness of prayer? I can see it more clearly now that I’ve studied statistics but I may have subconsciously recognized it in my earlier years.
When I was growing up “other religions” were things like Baptists, Methodists and Lutherans. Way out on the fringes were Catholics who were probably going to Hell for worshipping idols and Jews who were going to Hell because they didn’t accept Jesus. Mormons were just a brand of heathens like all those foreigners who worshipped mythological gods. They didn’t count and we didn’t examine their beliefs. Of course as I got older I learned a bit more about other religions, at least learned that they existed and that they were followed by millions if not billions of people. And what I began discovering was that all those people believed their religion for exactly the same reasons we believed ours. Their prayers were answered, their god(s) performed miracles, they got the same ‘warm fuzzy feeling’ from their religion, and of course the big one… they were brought up in it. But if their gods were performing the same kind of miracles that our God was performing, what did that say? If their prayers were answered at the same rate, in the same manner that ours were answered, which god was real and which a myth? Statistics combined with a bit of knowledge of human psychology gave me an answer. Miracles, when examined critically, turn out to be not so miraculous. A little boy lost in the woods is found alive. It’s a miracle! No. Of all the children who get lost, some will be found, some won’t. It’s a case of noting the hits and ignoring the misses. Since Christianity doesn’t do any better at miracles and answered prayers than other religions, it implies to me that none of the religions are true. They all misjudge natural occurrences equally.
Closely related to the miracle/answered prayer issue is something else I began noticing and again is related to statistics. Pick any human condition; health, wealth, happiness, longevity, etc. Let’s pick health for our example. There are healthy Christians and sick Christians. There are healthy Muslims and sick Muslims. Healthy and sick Hindus. Buddhists, Rastafarians, Scientologists, Mormons, Santerians, B’hais, you name it. Some healthy, some sick. Some wealthy, some poor. Some happy, some sad. If there were any god with any power, especially supreme power, you would expect his people to have a hugely better result than average. We don’t see that, so I’m inclined to believe that there are no gods. At the very least, if there is a god, it doesn’t appear as if any of the existing religions has hit on the right formula for gaining special consideration from said god. So if there is a god out there who desires to be worshipped, I have pretty much zero chance of getting the right name, the right rituals, the right rules of behavior.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Never Quite Grasping God - Part 1

I've been putting some thoughts down over the last couple of years. It is now a 5 page document and a bit too long to post here all at once so I'm going to break it up into segments. Part 1 is basically a personal history of how I reached the current point in my (anti-) religious philosophy.

Never Quite Grasping God

Julia Sweeney has a one-woman show called Letting Go of God in which she describes an anguishing journey from devout Catholic to complete atheist. My own personal journey was not like that. I didn’t have to “let go” as I never quite had a solid grip to begin with. Or maybe I should say that God, in the form of Christian religion, never quite had a good grip on me. There never was a letting go nor any sort of sudden epiphany, just a gradual realization that I didn’t believe and never really had.
My introduction to religion came at about age 4 or 5 when a neighbor invited me to go to Sunday School with their child. Until that time I had not been indoctrinated with any religion. The time frame was the early 1950s so I may have had some cultural awareness of God, Jesus and churches but it was nothing imparted by my parents who never showed any religiosity at home. I began going with the neighbors (whom I’ve completely forgotten) and learning all of the standard children’s biblical stories: Adam & Eve, Jonah & the Whale, Moses in the Bullrushes, Moses & the Ten Commandments, Noah, etc. Like any child, I believed these stories just as I believed the Santa Claus and Easter Bunny stories. But in hindsight I can’t really call that belief. Not reasoned belief anyway, just childish acceptance of what I was taught by adults.
Soon my parents began going to church also and eventually became very active in church affairs. I’m not sure which brand of church those early neighbors took me to but our family began attending Presbyterian churches. My father was in the military and we moved several times, picking a new Presbyterian church at each location. Despite my parents’ involvement in church activities, there were still no religious observances at home. We didn’t read the Bible, didn’t say grace or any other prayers, didn’t have crosses or pictures of Jesus, none of the things that might have made me think my parents were serious about God. We did however attend Sunday services religiously. When I was younger, it was strictly Sunday School for me but as I got older I started attending the regular worship services. When I became a teenager, there were weekly youth group meetings and in the summer there was church camp. Much of my life revolved around the youth group activities and the other teens in my church.
That’s a bit of the background. I was steeped in religious attendance, church activities, and biblical knowledge. I mention the latter with a bit of irony and sarcasm. As I have discovered, the church does not really teach you much about the Bible. They pick and choose specific passages and quietly ignore the less savory ones. That, I think, may have been one of the triggers in my awakening.
Somewhere along the way as I got older I began to realize that I didn’t really believe that there was an invisible being who watched and guided everything. At the time, I kind of wondered if there was something wrong with me for not believing but I couldn’t convince myself to believe. I still went to church services on Sunday because my parents and society more or less insisted on it and I still attended youth fellowship meetings because my friends did. More importantly, my girlfriend went to the meetings and it was an extra chance to be with her and maybe make out a little bit when I gave her a ride home. Church was good for one thing, but the God part had become meaningless to me. I can’t put a date to it but it was probably around age 16 when I came to that realization about my not really believing. That was a long time ago (44 years ago as I write this) and I can only make some conjectures about my real thinking processes at the time but I remember a few things. One that comes to mind is sitting in church during a prayer and looking around at all of the adults with their heads bowed and wondering if they really believed or if they were just going through the motions like me. I never did figure that out. In looking back I can only remember a general unease about believing in God. I now have some specific reasons and arguments but if any of those played a part in my original decision, it was pretty much subconscious.
By age 18 I had broken up with the girlfriend from church and I was in junior college. My parents no longer insisted that I go to church with them and since I didn’t see any reason to go, I drifted away. Nowhere was there any anguish, anger, or any other emotion except maybe a sense of relief. I didn’t have to pretend anymore. Still, I didn’t exactly advertise myself as an atheist. By now the year was 1967 and I was living in Northwest Florida. We were still in the middle of the Cold War and to say that you were an atheist was tantamount to claiming to be a Rooski-loving, pinko commie. The McCarthy era was over but many of the sentiments still prevailed. The only atheist I had ever heard of was Madalyn Murray O’Hair and she didn’t have a very good reputation. I was unaware of people like Bertrand Russell and Ambrose Bierce or even the anti-religion side of Samuel Clemens. At the time it didn’t mean anything to me to find other non-believers or find supportive literature. I was quite happy with my own decision and with keeping it to myself.
I’m still happy with the decision and over the years I have discovered rational reasons that support the decision.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A religious country

Bing, bing, bing... whooooosh... Wow! I've just returned from a black hole. A place whose gravity sucked me in. A place called Pharyngula. I know I haven't escaped completely. I will probably yo-yo back and forth until I'm either sucked in completely or reach some point of equilibrium. PZ Myers finds some of the best stuff to post about and I really enjoy his writing style but some of the items can generate hundreds, and even thousands, of responses from the Pharyngulite Horde. Reading it all can take hours out of your day. The only sour note is from some of the regulars there who are so liberal that they've forgotten about liberty. It's a hot-bed of libertarian bashing which of course puts me off a bit. What I have noticed is that those individuals who are the most strident of the libertarian bashers fall victim to one of the logical fallacies that they usually accuse religious fundamentalists and creationists of. That being the "strawman". They conjure up really awful ideas out of thin air and then claim that's what libertarianism is about and easily go about bashing it. Well sure, if the things they claimed were true about libertarianism then it would deserve bashing. But they seem to have gotten it all wrong. So I'm not sure if they are really anti-liberty or if they just have this mistaken notion about libertarian ideals. Ah well, I'm not into proselytizing. I hate it when people do it to me so I try to avoid doing it to others (my own version of the Golden Rule). Since I read Pharyngula for the science and the anti-religion I just sort of ignore the politics.

Well, that wasn't what I started to talk about anyway. Here in the U.S.A. the Christian majority generally like to claim that this is a Christian country. Even those of us who are non-religious have to admit, like it or not, that there is a huge Christian influence in our government and that a majority of our neighbors are Christian affiliated. But, I am pleased to note that we are not as bad as some other places. What brought this on was an e-mail I received from my brother-in-law. He works in Israel and sent some photographs of the streets and shopping areas on yesterday's Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. The streets and highways were empty and only one or two pedestrians could be seen down long avenues of closed shops. He said that "if anyone drives a car people throw rocks at it" and that the only vehicles he saw were ambulances. Now that's a country that takes its religious holidays seriously. As much as I am concerned about the overt religiosity in our country, at least it's not THAT bad. My neighbors may avoid me, knowing that I'm one of those awful atheists, but at least they don't pelt my car with rocks if I drive on Ash Wednesday or Good Friday or something.

Enough for today. Let's see if I can get in a few more posts before getting sucked back into Pharyngulaaaaaaaaa...........