(Im)Proving God(arguments)

 

I got screencapped on a blog by Jennifer Fulwiler raising some questions and objections to her – alleged – conversion from atheism to Christianity. I have my suspicions about anyone who claims that, and Mrs Fulwiler’s claim seems to be based on an argument that amounts to: “Look how cute my baby is. Therefore, god.”

The blog post goes into a bit more detail, but ultimately it kills itself off before it even gets going.

But since religion cannot be proven in any kind of verifiable way, a person cannot both subscribe to an evidence-based way of evaluating the world and be a believer. One or the other has to go. Right?

Right. End of blog post then yeah?

No?

It started with a conversation with my grandfather, an engineer who worked his way through college by shoveling coal during the Great Depression, and went on to build complicated refineries all over Mexico and South America. He’s not overtly religious, and I always assumed that with his keen intelligence and careful, analytical way of thinking, he must be an atheist. So when it came out that he believes in God, it piqued my interest.

It figures that he would be an engineer. Engineers are notably more conservative and religious. Quite why this is isn’t particularly known but when it comes to creationism I suspect it is to do with being predisposed to ‘making things’ and thinking that this is the only way that things can come about.

I began to consider that many of the pioneers of science believed in God — Newton, Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus, Boyle, and Mendel, to name just a few. Almost all the great Greek and Roman thinkers of antiquity believed that supernatural forces were at work in the world. In fact, among people considered to be the greatest minds of history, only a small percentage were atheists.

This is an argument from authority and, therefore fallacious. Further, while these men may have been believers their work was not on god and did not prove gods existence. In the case of many of them their work has done quite the opposite (perhaps most notably Galileo and Copernicus) and this put them in opposition to the Christian religion.

To pick out a favourite example, Newton, as well as being a theist Newton was a ritual magician and an alchemist. Are we, then, to also believe that demons and spirits can be controlled with magic words and circles scribed on the ground? Should we abandon science and take up pursuit of the philosopher’s stone? Hopefully Mrs Fulwiler wouldn’t want anyone to take up those pursuits. So why make the exception for this singular, particular line of unproven nonsense?

Was I really ready to say that I was a more analytical thinker than my engineer grandfather? Was I seriously going to claim that the monk Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics, did not require evidence before believing a theory to be true? Did I honestly think that it never occurred to Galileo to question assumptions?

Mrs Fulwiler has misidentified the problem. It isn’t so much the degree of genius or analytical thinking but whether that analytical thinking is applied to the question of god or not. People are fully capable of holding contradictory ideas or cordoning off certain sets of ideas from critical analysis. Skepticism and critical thinkings are ways of addressing and overcoming this tendency and the result is atheism. Not that atheists aren’t also capable of abandoning skepticism and critical thinking when it comes to their own pet causes.

One must also consider the historical context. For a great many years not being a believer (or being the wrong kind of believer) was a death sentence and if it wasn’t a death sentence it was a social death sentence. An obscenely wealthy church also held a lot of purse strings. Still, despite this science did advance – usually when religion retreated. The two biggest leaps in scientific knowledge before the present day came with The Renaissance and The Enlightenment, both associated with a weakening of religion.

I set out on a search for truth about the spiritual realm, which pretty quickly led me to the only lasting world religion whose founder claimed to be God. I came to see that there was a strong case that a person named Jesus of Nazareth did exist. I thought it was interesting that Christianity spread like wildfire through the ancient world, despite the fact that becoming a Christian often meant persecution or even death.

The term ‘spiritual’ might as well be a noise. It is so loosely defined as to be useless.

The grandiosity of a claim doesn’t make it more likely to be true. It does increase the amount of evidence required. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

There is no historical evidence for Jesus, whatsoever. This is an unpopular opinion to be sure, but one easily refuted by the producing of even a single piece of evidence. To call the case ‘strong’ is so wrong as to be laughable.

Many religions have spread fast. This is an argument from popularity. Put it this way, in current times Islam is growing faster and, in the west, atheism and neopaganism are growing faster than both (or were a couple of a years ago). Put another way, more people in the world don’t believe in any particular religion than do. People are also willing to die for a great many causes, religions and ideologies. It doesn’t lend them any credibility that people will die for them.

I didn’t know where to turn, so I decided to do an experiment: something rang true about Augustine’s famous statement that you must believe so that you might understand, and so I began to live my life as if God did exist. I prayed, even though I felt like I was talking to myself; I followed the Christian moral code; I read the Bible and honestly tried to understand what it might be trying to teach me.

This is an open invitation to confirmation bias. This ‘experiment’ is, in essence, brainwashing. Except you’re doing it to yourself. An analytical approach is one where you try to prove an idea wrong at least as much as you try to show it to be right. Further, I rather doubt that Ms Fulwiler has stoned any adulterers to death lately. She’s probably eaten shellfish and I’m fairly sure she’s wearing mixed fabrics in some of those photos on her blog. She’s been applying an independent moral filter to Christian morality which only goes to show that morality doesn’t derive from or conform to the Bible.

The more I went through the motions of believing in God, the more the world made sense to me; the more human history made sense to me; the more I started to make sense to me. The picture of human life that I’d formed based on science alone now seemed incomplete. I still believed everything I’d learned through the lens of science, but I now saw a whole other dimension to the world around me.

And people feel the same way about the teachings of any and every guru, self-help book and bagload of nonsense you care to mention. It doesn’t make a single one of them any more credible.

When I considered this experience in light of the evidence for Jesus of Nazareth, the improbable spread of early Christianity, and the seamless and perfectly internally consistent traditional Christian moral code that has stood strong for two thousand years…

What can you say to that but ‘lol’. I mean… really.

I can show you lots of evidence, and, if you’re willing to consider it with an open mind, I think I can make the case that this belief system is at least worth a second look. But I cannot prove its truth to you in the way I can prove that the earth revolves around the sun. The human soul is a necessary component of the God experiment, and the laboratory in which it takes place is the individual human heart. Yes, there is compelling, verifiable evidence for the truths of this belief system, but an analysis of evidence will not — cannot — get you all the way there.

So no. You can’t show anyone any evidence. An open mind is not an uncritical mind. I don’t think you can make this case and if you can’t show it in that way, then you’ve nothing to show. There’s no reason to think there’s a soul either so making that a requirement is like saying you can’t find Nessie without the help of Bigfoot. As with any believer, you’re invited to present this supposed evidence and see if it stands up to scrutiny, but I doubt that it will.

I still doubt Mrs Fulwiler was ever an atheist beyond simply apathetically not believing. She called evolution ‘random’ and doesn’t seem to be knowledgeable of many of the contradictions and issues of Christianity. It just doesn’t sit right.

I began to consider that many of the pioneers of science believed in God — Newton, Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus, Boyle, and Mendel, to name just a few. Almost all the great Greek and Roman thinkers of antiquity believed that supernatural forces were at work in the world. In fact, among people considered to be the greatest minds of history, only a small percentage were atheists. – See more at: http://www.conversiondiary.com/2013/09/on-proving-god.html#sthash.d05RpBM6.dpuf

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27 responses to “(Im)Proving God(arguments)

  1. Nice post. Excellent commentary. Of course, belief in a higher power is by definition based on faith, regardless of what anyone says. Nevertheless, a lot of the great minds, including Einstein, did believe in God, as you said, simply through their observation of Nature (or a baby).

    • Well, Einstein’s position is open to some discussion but it’s my reading that he had a ‘religious’ sense of awe and wonder of the natural universe. He referred to believing in ‘Spinoza’s god’ and Spinoza was considered an atheist. He simply wasn’t a ‘crusading atheist’ as he put it. Spinoza equated god with the material universe, so really the term god was redundant there.

      • With respect to Einstein I was referring to this quote which has been attributed to him: “Every one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe – a spirit vastly superior to that of man….”

      • From the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist.

        I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.

        Etc

      • I wholly concur with your notion that our intellectual understanding of Nature and our own being is limited. As Dorion Sagan said, “The difference between science and philosophy is that the scientist learns more and more about less and less until she knows everything about nothing, whereas a philosopher learns less and less about more and more until he knows nothing about everything.”

    • Einstein specifically said:
      “The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.”
      and
      “It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”

      – Albert Einstein, letter to an atheist (1954), quoted in Albert Einstein: The Human Side, edited by Helen Dukas & Banesh Hoffman

      • Do you agree or disagree as to the Einstein quote that I sent you? He’s another, “My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind.” There’s a lot more quotes of a similar nature. Maybe Alfred was bi-poplar.

      • I disagree because your quote is misleading. Einstein’s position is quite clear. A superior spirit doesn’t have to mean a god of any variety. In context he just means ‘something special’ or ‘extraordinary’. Unfortunately people with a religious mindset like to hijack opinions and frame them according to their own world view rather than that of the speaker.

      • So what exactly is this “illimitable spirit” that Einstein talks about? Could it not refer to this Einstein quote: “God is a mystery. But a comprehensible mystery. I have nothing but awe when I observe the laws of nature. There are not laws without a lawgiver….”?

      • You’re still thinking with a religious mind. Which part of I DO NOT BELIEVE IN A PERSONAL GOD, do you not understand?
        Let me give you an example which perhaps you can grasp. If I use the word cow in a sentence it has no religious connotations to you or I because we weren’t raised in a culture where cows are sacred. I regularly use words like god, spirit et al without them having any religious dimension whatsoever.

      • A personal god is what the Bible portrays in the Old Testament (i.e. Jehovah, the personal god of the Israelites). Of course, Einstein did not believe in that fairy tale – nor do I. In developing his theory of relativity, Einstein realized that his equations led to the conclusion that the universe had a beginning. He didn’t like the idea of a beginning, because he thought one would have to conclude that the universe was created by God. So, he added a cosmological constant to his equation in an attempt to get rid of any beginning. He later admitted that this was one of the worst mistakes of his life. When the work of Edwin Hubble confirmed that the universe was expanding and had a beginning, Einstein became a believer in an impersonal creator God. Einstein would later say that “ I am not an atheist” and “I am able to recognize, there are yet people who say there is no God. But what really makes me angry is that they quote me for the support of such views.” I guess he must have been referring to people like you.

      • It is much more annoying when believers attempt to use him to justify their belief. Einstein was in no way a believer in god in the way the religious like to claim. It is irrelevant, of course, being an argument from authority but it is much like the Lady Hope lies around Darwin, an attempt to co-opt a great thinker.

        “My position concerning God is that of an agnostic. I am convinced that a vivid consciousness of the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a law-giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment.”

        In other words. This is, of course, the classic definition of agnostic: That it can’t be known, rather than the current definition of a fence-sitter. Any honest agnostic is also an atheist – and vice versa. If it can’t be known, or isn’t know, you can’t be said to believe. The above quote was from 1950 and while he rejected the label atheist it was more the rejection of the ‘crusading atheist’ and he admitted that:

        “From the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist. … It is always misleading to use anthropomorphical concepts in dealing with things outside the human sphere—childish analogies. We have to admire in humility and beautiful harmony of the structure of this world—as far as we can grasp it. And that is all.”

        Like many scientists, Hawking would be a modern one, despite not being believers there is a lamentable tendency to use religious language and terminology as metaphor when talking about science. The best read, then, seems to be that his cosmic religion was a sense of awe and wonder (spiritual if you like) toward the universe.

      • That’s the first logical thing that you’ve said that I can agree with, although I can’t agree with the agnostics are atheists thing. Of course, a Jesuit priest would consider anyone who does not accept his god to be an atheist. I’ll leave you with this final thought , yet another Einstein quote: “God is a mystery. But a comprehensible mystery. I have nothing but awe when I observe the laws of nature. There are not laws without a lawgiver….” Bizarre thing to have been said by an agnostic and impossible to have been said by an atheist. Too bad Einstein isn’t here to defend himself (either way).

      • You’re playing with semantics. Not believing in a personal god is atheism. Einstein didn’t like the label but let’s call things what they are. He softened the way he put it, probably because of social attitudes of the period. You’re taking his acknowledgement that we cannot know something and extrapolating it to mean a positive statement.

      • So what does it make those of us who do not believe in a personal god but do believe in God? According to you, it makes us atheists!! By the way, you were the one who inserted your own meaning of “illimitable superior spirit” as something “extraordinary”. First, you ignored the word illimitable which obviously doesn’t apply to any finite entity (which makes it far beyond extraordinary). But even on your terms, what type of intelligence are we talking about. Einstein called it “…a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe – a spirit vastly superior to that of man….” So where is it? What is it? Does it have a name? The only name that Einstein ever gave it was ‘God”. Certainly, not the personal god of religion or believers but an impersonal creator God. The entity he referred to as “God is a mystery. But a comprehensible mystery.” Incidentally, the quote re. “illimitable superior spirit” ends by Einstein saying that the “illimitable superior spirit” is his idea of God. There’s the God word again. You can try and convince yourself that it doesn’t exist and that Einstein never said it, but don’t try convincing me.

      • I guess we have to go back. What’s your definition of god? I think Einstein’s is vague enough to not mean anything resembling god as seen by the majority of believers in god. Einstein said a lot of things, none of them alone represent his full vision of the world. My position is still that he was not a religionist. He left the door open to a possibility- nothing more.

        People take a vague assertion and transform it into a positive statement.

      • I agree. Based on the mountain of writings about Einstein, I would say that Einstein believed that a Creator was responsible for the beginning of the universe. Not the god of the Bible or of religion, but a First Cause which gave rise the Natural Laws of the universe, the laws which he had to deal with in the formulae on his blackboard. It’s been interesting chatting with you.

    • It really doesn’t matter if a “great mind” believes in gods or unicorns or leprechauns. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle adamantly believed in fairies. It means nothing. It is an appeal to authority to say that because someone well known or otherwise intellectually impressive believes something absurd, that makes the absurd thing any more likely. Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project and currently head of the CDC believes in God because he went out in the woods and saw a waterfall frozen in three parts. That’s not a rational belief, yet he’s still a brilliant man in other aspects.

  2. I challenge you to read Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis. Maybe you already have. I do think it’s one of his best.

  3. When I came back to the church, my protestant friend scared me. Why? Because I was afraid that everything I had known or come to know would be wrong. I hated that idea. You will believe at the end of your life. I pray sincerely that you change your mind before then.

  4. Great article. It’s always left me shaking my head when people claim to have converted from atheism to some religion, that they never seem to have been rational atheists, just default atheists who never came to their disbelief via critical thinking or reason. To reverse Christopher Hitchens, “That which was never accepted through reason and evidence will often be rejected without reason and evidence.”

    If that’s supposed to impress me, it certainly doesn’t.

  5. Wow, this comment really opened my eyes. I mean, this is powerful stuff. I mean, we are all atheists towards Thor, right? Some people are just enlightened enough to take it one step further. And we all know Darwin has already explained how the entire universe can function without any need for a creator. Except, well … the Kalaam Cosmological Argument, teleological argument, First Cause / Unmoved Mover, the impossibility of infinite causal regress, the necessity of at least one unconditioned reality, the Argument from Reason, Fine Tuning of Universal Constants, irreducible biological complexity, the argument from morality, Plantina’s modal ontological argument, the free will defense to the problem of evil. … Your entire world view lies shattered at your feet. If you truly honor the gods of reason and critical thinking half as much as you claim, you would plant your face firmly into your hand, step away from the device, find a quiet place, and rethink your life. Otherwise, thanks for this steaming nugget of regurgitated, pseudo-intellectual blather, you Hitchens-Dawkins parroting, basement dwelling, faux-analytical, GNU-Reditt obsessed asshat.

    • There’s no real distinction between Thor and any other god, so that only indicates hypocrisy and special pleading.

      Darwinism explains the development and diversification of life, it refutes special creation. You want physics for all that other stuff.

      Kalaam etc all contradict themselves and don’t hold logical water – but then you probably know this.

      There’s no fine tuning (ref: Puddle Argument).

      There’s no instances of irreducible complexity.

      Free will doesn’t deal with the problem of evil as it applies to god.

      You’ve got nothing but semantic games, as per usual, topped off with an ad hom.

      If god existed, he’d send people with better arguments.

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