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Not Helping

Entry 1769, on 2016-02-04 at 20:57:23 (Rating 3, Religion)

Recently I read and debated an article titled "Atheist Arguments Which Aren't Helping Anyone." The author was an atheist but objected to many of the arguments other atheists use in support of their worldview. Since many of these arguments are something I use myself I thought I should consider them and see if he was right about them "not helping".

The quotes I put around the words above indicate the first problem with any argument of this type: what do we actually mean by "not helping"? Many people might assume that if an atheist is debating religion with a believer then the eventual goal might be to "convert" the believer to atheism. I will admit that if my arguments achieved this aim it would be great - not because I object to religion as such but more because I object to ignorance and delusion in any form. But, as is often said regarding this topic, people who believe a religion generally do so for illogical, irrational, emotional reasons - whether they are prepared to accept that or not - so rational arguments are unlikely to change anything.

There will be occasions when this approach does work. I do remember debating one believer who was genuinely ignorant of the facts (about evolution in this case) and at the end of our discussion admitted he had been wrong. I have no idea whether he still feels that way or went on to entirely rid himself of his religious delusions, but that isn't really the point.

The real point is that I gave him the information he didn't have already and what he did with that was up to him. Conversely he revealed his thoughts to me and theoretically I might have been persuaded that I was wrong. Of course, so far I have never heard a pro-religious argument based on real logic or facts so, at this stage, I still reject religion. Still, in theory I might be missing something so I am happy to hear any arguments which might change my mind.

So I would argue any points used in a discussion of this sort are useful in a philosophical way. Debate is good in itself and to say that "it is not helping" is irrelevant. But I now want to look at the individual points and say why I disagree about their "helpfulness".

Argument 1, there's no scientific proof.

Not only is there no scientific proof for the existence of a god but there isn't even any credible scientific supporting evidence. As I said above, believers tend to accept their religion based on emotion, habit, or ignorance rather than facts but there are many who genuinely think there is scientific proof of a god existing.

Some people think there is archaeological evidence of the Exodus for example. But there isn't. Even archaeologists who really want the story to be true have given up. The Exodus simply didn't happen. The same applies to many other stories, such as the Flood. They just didn't happen, or if anything even vaguely resembling the stories did happen the real facts are so different from the stories that they would be unrecognisable and irrelevant as a source of evidence.

So any delusion that scientific proof of a god exists can be eliminated. If the person wants to continue believing anyway that's fine. Believing something which is obviously untrue is what faith is all about.

I also have to say that I am intrigued about what "facts" my opponents can present. On a couple of occasions I have been impressed with some "proof" which superficially seemed quite persuasive, but after a bit of research it has all - so far - turned out to be delusion. But one day I might hear some genuine proof and that might cause me to adjust my beliefs.

Argument 2, logical paradoxes.

Again, I recognise that most believers haven't arrived at the conclusions they have through logic so they are unlikely to be dissuaded by logic either. But the same argument which I made for proof above also applies to logic: some people genuinely believe their beliefs make sense and that belief in the supernatural is the only logical conclusion possible.

A common example of this is the idea that everything must have a cause and the first cause for the physical universe must be something else, and the most logical candidate for that first cause is god.

But there are two problems with this argument. First, this is an argument from ignorance because these people don't really understand that the concept of cause has become quite different ever since we have had quantum physics. There are some things which have no cause, and causality itself is far more complex than they imagine. And second, this is special pleading because requiring the first cause for the universe being god naturally leads to us asking what is the cause of god?

Apparently he doesn't need one. This is not logic.

Argument 3, the Bible, Torah, Quran, etc is full of screwed-up stuff.

Blindly following the words of an old book is potentially disastrous. Why? Because a lot of what is in these books is not relevant to the modern age we live in, and they are also so open to varying interpretations that they can be (and are) used to justify anything.

Showing that these holy books are full of contradictions, bad advice, and outright falsities may not persuade a believer to give up their religion but it might cause them to be a little bit more careful in mindlessly following what the books say.

I think its our (atheists and rationalists of all types) duty to try to make people think a bit more sensibly. And the chances of success might not be high but they are better than if we don't try at all.

Argument 4, religions start wars.

I don't know why even non-believers have trouble with accepting that religions actually do start wars. I agree that there is always more than one factor involved in any conflict but religion has been a primary cause of so many wars that it is impossible to reasonably refute the idea.

The argument that all wars are political and religion is just used as an excuse doesn't stand up to scrutiny because in most cases (for example in Islam today and Christianity in the past) religion and politics cannot be separated. It would be just as easy to say that politics is just used as an excuse. Everything could be looked at that way and nothing can be excluded as a cause.

The second argument invokes the "no true Scotsman" fallacy. I often hear that anyone who starts a war in the name of a religion isn't really a follower of that religion. Well they think they are, and in many cases they are following the religion's dictates more closely than the more liberal members, so I think that argument is entirely fatuous.

Argument 5, aiming at the individual.

I partly agree with this. Religion is a group phenomenon, a "mind virus", a distortion of reality, but one based on tradition and conventions. People generally inherit the religion they grow up in and it is hard to blame them for the consequences of their belief.

On the other hand I do think that religion can be used for good or bad and that how it is used is very much up to the individual. So getting personal and pointing out that one particular interpretation of a religion by a person is problematic might be useful, especially if that person can be steered into a more a more positive interpretation of the mythology.

The article concludes with this: "Atheism doesn't need to beat anyone. All atheism needs to do is exist, and not be such a total dick about it."

Well I disagree. I think we should talk about what we really think. If people see that as being a "dick" then that's just an unfortunate side effect. In the end it's the truth that really matters and calling someone presenting the truth a "dick" just makes rejecting it too easy.

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Comment 1 (4472) by richard on 2016-02-05 at 13:06:33:

Another great read Owen, and I must agree that generally, any debate is useful, we should all be very happy to hear any and all rational and logical arguments for both athiesm and theism. Also the arguments should be fairly represented, without all the presuppositional and/or generalist language that you love to insert into what are supposed to be 'rational arguments'. A few points of clarification:

1 - Scientific evidence for God. Firstly, I do not see why even producing evidence for the Exodus or a flood could constitute 'evidence for God'. Such things could have occurred without a God, could they not? This is clearly not the sort of scientific evidence that theists are referring to when they consider scientifically verifiable phenomena that suggests intelligence rather than purely material cause for the universe. Secondly (btw), one cannot logically assert that the Exodus 'simply didn't occur' on the basis that little obvious archeological evidence has been found, which after all isn't necessarily surprising. How many things have you really done, for which we'd be hard pressed to find archeological evidence after a few thousand years. Of course - it's not an argument for the Exodus either, but let's keep to rational arguments not mere unjustified assertions.

2 - Logical paradoxes. I love the mere assertion that quantum physics has somehow become the subtitute 'magician' that can pull the entire universe with all it's scientifically proven fine-tuning and (as Dawkins admits 'appearance of design' out of the (non existent) hat.

Actually you misquoted the principle about cause. The scientifically verifiable (to date) principle is actually stated as 'Everything THAT HAS A BEGINNING, must have a cause'. While I do agree the athiest will claim that this is mere word trickery in order to allow for a God (with no beginning) out of the 'causal problem' you describe (what caused God), the problem is simply that IF a god (with no beginning) does actually exist, then 'it' can't help but be the real resolution to that problem either - and there is nothing AT ALL illogical about that - as a possibility! It's after all the very question under debate.

In a purely physical system however, there is no such 'out' - though you are hoping to use quantum physics to justify the entire universe?! Well sorry - that's a far greater leap of 'faith' which goes against all the other types of evidence. It's after all science that proves the universe had a beginning and as such must have a cause. Whatever that cause is, it logically and demonstratably must have been timeless, spaceless, immaterial, immensely powerful, personal (because if there was NOTHING material to initiate a 'creation event' (as science says), then nothing but a agent decision can be involved). IF that's how you prefer to describe QP, then up to you. Why for example have we not seen 'evidence' of a single other occurence of anything popping into existence out of nothing - shouldn't QP allow this to happen all the time? If not - why not - surely there's much more 'material' for QP to work on now than when there was NOTHING physical for QP to work on - and it made the universe. Wow.

Argument 3 - Absolutely - the more debate the better, to avoid the sweeping and false generalisation you offered. How should ancient texts be 'relevant to the modern age we live in'. You have just dismissed all historical writing over say 100 years because it won't be relevant?! In fact, the modern age and society we live in is significantly based on very relevant principles that are found in all those books. So this is just a red herring.

Argument 4 - I suspect the writer of that article was probably pointing out what you failed to grasp, (and in fact are keen to divert from) that whether or not religions start wars or not is completely irrelevant to the question of whether one or other of the religions is in fact true. So what if religions DO in fact start wars - what is the point again, when considering athiesm vs theism?!

Argument 5 - I am not sure I follw this one - I thought perhaps the writer was pointing out that if athiesm is true, then the athiest should recognise that there is no higher purpose in trying to convince others about it, so why all the effort? While I agree with that argument - I also am perfectly willing to see your point too that IF athiesm is true, then all religious are thus delusional, and you see it as an act of kindess to free them from that delusion. Just as I'd expect you to understand that theists (especially christians) want to debate, because IF their world view IS true, then there ARE serious consequences involved for everyone, and it's an act of love and concern that motivates.

Of then the problem for athiests is, that under that world view, love and kindess, and the impulse to debate, and in fact all rationality is all merely a clever illusion caused by prior events - atoms clashing in our brains. Thus any debate at all becomes completely illogical - under the athiest world view. Not so for the theist of course - sorry about that.

Cheers, Rich.

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Comment 2 (4473) by OJB on 2016-02-06 at 13:03:46:

Well I have to admit your comments are comprehensive, I will try to make my response a bit shorter...

We both agree debate is useful even if it might seem a bit "diskish". I have blogged on several occasion how offence is often more about the "offendee" rather than the offender.

1. If we wanted to establish whether the god described in the Bible is true we could look at physical evidence for his activities described in that same book. When we do that the evidence doesn't exist. This is evidence against that specific god, not about any god, but about the most "popular" one.

In fact many religious people use the events described in holy books as evidence for their belief system. They're wrong. And you are also wrong when you say there would be no evidence for the Exodus. Biblical archaeologist know exactly what to look for. It's simply not there because it didn't happen.

2. It just happens that quantum physics leads to events with no cause. That's why I used that theory rather than relativity, or something else, which has no relevance. No magic, just facts.

If god has always existed and has no cause then the multiverse can equally easily fill that requirement. There is increasing (though still very preliminary) evidence for a multiverse. The evidence for god though, is going in the other direction!

3. I'm not saying that old books are useless, just that they are decreasingly relevant. The problems we have today aren't those that people 2000 or more years ago had and pretending that an ancient text can be used as guidance in these areas is dangerous.

4. I agree that whether religions start wars only has passing relevance when regarding whether they are true or not. This is more about another question: whether they are good or not.

5. Yeah, I wasn't entirely sure what he was getting at either. I just had to include this one for completeness.

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