Monday, August 24, 2020

The Tipping Doubt

Mary Baker Eddy
The last god I believed in was the version of Jesus seen through the eyes of Mary Baker Eddy, an American women who attributed overcoming health issues to faith healing after homeopathic “medicine” failed her. The religion she founded, called Christian Science, framed sin and sickness as errors of thought and framed thought as an expression of Mind, Soul, or Spirit--all of which she considered synonyms for God. Jesus was considered the first and ultimate Christian Science practitioner, a skill and awareness he passed on to his disciples, who also healed the sick in the Bible. The healings eventually became less common as the teachings of Christ were muddled over time. Luckily, Ms. Eddy got us all back on track...or so the CS narrative goes.

I bring all this up because I’ve been thinking about the catalyst of my journey to atheism. Was there one event that made me turn the corner from believer to nonbeliever? The answer for me is the same as most of us, no. A series of many events progressively inspired me drop my faith. That said, I remember one place, in particular, where my doubt reached a tipping point.

I was 16 years old at the then biggest (only?) Christian Science summer camp. The camp had a CS practitioner on staff. If you think of God as faith healing medicine, a CS practitioner is basically a faith healing doctor--prescribing God. Ideally, a Christian Scientist can learn to be their own faith healing doctor or a practitioner for others, but if one isn’t comfortable in receiving the spirit or working out their own problems, guys like the one at camp are there to help. Interestingly, the camp also had a nurse. Not a faith healing nurse, a nurse nurse. Apparently CS magic is great for healing invisible ailments of subjective pain, but isn’t trusted to reset a broken arm when there is a possibility of a less-than-faithful parent suing the camp.

This is problematic because Christian Science Sunday School taught me that this faith is unique among all others in that they are evidence-based. One can prove the efficacy of the Christian Science process by it’s ability to heal, but if prayer works consistently, why the safety net? The presence of the nurse weighed on me. When, during the various physical activities common to most summer camps, I injured myself. I tested my ability to faith heal in earnest. I fucking hurt so I fucking prayed. This wasn’t the first time I attempted to heal myself. At home, I got rid of a few headaches, or so I thought, and failed to get rid of a few others. My immune system and confirmation bias convinced me the system worked. There, at camp, when the pain didn’t subside, I doubted. I thought back to all those other “healings” and wondered if my success rate was any higher than chance. If the length my headaches naturally lasted was, well, just how long they lasted--regardless of me asking JC for an assist.

I stayed at camp and continued making friends and eating granola, but I took in the remainder of the Christian Science material through a new found skeptical filter. When I got home, I kept going to Sunday School more for the cute girl in my class than for any spiritual insight. The questions compounded until I learned to value the evidence-based belief my church professed, and decided that they weren’t the ones able to provide it.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

The Lottery And The Fine Tuning Argument

To be clear, we are not certain the physical constants of the universe can vary and if they can, by how much. It is the assumption of those who use the fine tuning argument for God that they can vary by a great degree. Let’s assume they're right and, for the sake of argument, nail it down to five constants. The following compares winning the universal lottery to winning the actual lottery.

To win a State lottery, one needs to match five specific numbers.
For humans to live in this universe, it needs five physical constants to have specific values.

If I alone play the only draw of the lottery ever allowed and I guess the five numbers at random, the odds of me winning the lottery are 1 in 100,000.
If the only universe to ever exist forms randomly , the odds of that universe having the variables that support human life are 1 in 100,000.
Can either scenario happen by chance? Yes, but I’ll grant that it’s enough of a long-shot to be suspicious that the lotto was fixed or the universe was designed.

Now, imagine 100,000 people play the lottery. There’s about a 64% chance someone will win.
Imagine 100,000 universes form either concurrently or sequentially. There’s about a 64% chance that one of these universes have constants that support human life.
This illustrates how a sufficiently large multiverse should remove any suspicion of a cheater nor a designer.

Now, imagine a lottery in which each player plays different numbers so every combination is covered when 100,000 play. When the number is drawn, someone is ensured a win while everyone else loses.
Imagine a universe in which every combination of constants can support some manner of intelligent life. Human’s might not exist, but whatever is here in our place could likewise make a fine tuning argument for their God.
It would not be a valid argument because, whatever the constants, someone is here to claim that no one could be here otherwise. This illustrates the anthropic principle at work.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

God Both Is And Can't Be Unchanging

Christians believe Jesus has a set of attributes on the authority of scripture. Classic Christian Apologists took these attributes and formed arguments around them that lead to their God. The cosmological argument, which argues that a First Cause is needed for our universe’s origin, emphasizes God’s atemporal and aspacial attributes to signify that only God is outside time and space. God is then uniquely qualified to create time and space under the reasonable assumption that the cause of time and space cannot come from within time and space.

Apologists then recognize a necessary consequence of God’s independence from a dimension of duration: God is unchanging. Which leads to an inconsistency that can be laid out in a syllogism, much like the cosmological argument itself.

  • Premise 1: Everyone that acts, changes from a state of inaction to action.
  • Premise 2: If there is a creator of the universe, that creator acted when creating the universe.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, if a creator of the universe exists, that creator changed.

The apologist is left arguing for a God with attributes in conflict with the implications of their argument.

Friday, May 17, 2019

What Motivates A Pro-life Stance?

What motivates a pro-life stance? I ask myself this as the abortion issue once again takes center stage. Let’s consider the possibilities.

A ruling against abortion affects women more than men for obvious reasons. We might expect that difference to point to a disagreement on the issue between genders. That’s not significantly so. Women are not pro-choice, on average, much more than men. However, the characteristic that is predictive of a person’s stance on abortion is religiosity. Believers tend to be pro-life more often than nonbelievers. Surprising no one, this probably fits with your anecdotal evidence.

So what it is about religion that makes people pro-life? To limit confounding factors, let’s focus on the faith most relevant to America–Christianity. Christians believe abortion is a sin and unforgiven sins lead to hell. This should be enough for them to want to make abortion illegal, right? Not so fast. There are a lot of sins and, for most Christian denominations, they are all equivalent in their weight on the soul. Murder is as bad as stealing or even lying. Catholics have a category called “mortal sins” in which abortion is included…but so are many other actions that are legal. Why do Christians put so much time into ending abortions compared to ending divorce or premarital sex (both “mortal sins”)?

I think the answer has to lie in the quality Christians believe abortion share with other illegal activities–its affect a non-consenting second party. Stealing, rape, and murder are all sins made illegal because they hurt someone else who did not necessarily want to engage in said sin. The same is true for abortion under the assumption that the unborn is “someone else.” So is this the hang up for believers? I’m not so sure. If it is, why do believers assign personhood to embryos and fetuses when nonbelievers often do not? The best distinction is perhaps the assumption that a soul is created or is otherwise linked to cells at conception. I say assumption because the soul, of course, cannot be detected. The soul as a real thing is a belief taught consistently in Christianity and has biblical foundations. What isn’t biblical, to the best of my knowledge, is that the soul is tied to conception. There is no reason a Christian could not believe the soul starts at birth as easily as one could believe it starts after parental sex. When tissue goes from being soulless to soulful seems to be an arbitrary distinction.

I suppose without it being outlined in scripture, Christians are left to guess when the soul is in play and conception is as good a place as any. We are left with legislation that will severely alter the course of the country over a guess…about a soul for which there is no evidence. Welcome to America.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

According To The Bible: God Either Changes Or Lies

The following is a real exchange with a Christian Apologist who's written a book and everything.

Christian: If Christianity were true, would you become a Christian?

Me: I would become Christian, but I would try to persuade God to make some changes.

Christian: Because you're so much wiser than omniscient God.

Me: Hey, he occasionally takes the advice of humans in the Bible, and if I was Christian, I would believe that.

Christian: He takes advice from humans? Give me an example.

Me: Exodus 32 shows he changed his plans based on Moses' advice.

(Commentary) In Exodus 32 9 & 10, God says he is angry at the people misbehaving down below and is about to destroy them. Moses advises God to not destroy the people and God listens. Don't take my word of it, read for yourself. There are other biblical examples of God saying is it about to do something and a human talking him out of it, but Exodus is the first that I know.

Christian: I'd hardly call answering a prayer taking advice.

Me: God literally spoke to Moses telling him what he was about to do. Moses persuaded him not to and God did not. What else specifically would you like to see from this exchange to qualify?

Christian: (No comment, links to a GotQuestions which claims God does not change his mind.)

This exchange reminded me that Christian apologetic arguments occasionally conflict with the bible. Apologists depend on maxims like "God does not change" because they support other claims. For example, change denotes time and God is "outside time" and therefore can not change. The author of Exodus wasn't aware of that maxim and therein lies the problem.

Apologists must then make their maxims work within scripture. In this case, if we accept that God does not change, that means he always knew he would say he would destroy those people, listen to Moses, and then not destroy those people. This reasoning, while convoluted, feels comfortable to the apologist in that it fits both God's omniscience and God's unchanging nature within the context of Exodus. But the implications! This means that God knowingly lied to Moses when he said that he was going to destroy those people. God knew that he was not going to destroy those people when he said he was: a textbook lie. An earlier me might argue that God sinned, but I now know how unfruitful that argument is with an apologist. God doesn't sin, full stop, and I can't argue the rules of a made-up concept like sin. God simply lies, which is actually more damning to the Christian worldview. It throws the Word into question. How can we trust what God says given proof that he lies to us?

At this point, the apologist can only argue that God lies to us for some good reason because God is good...he said so...and we can believe him.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Without God, does morality mean whatever we want?

A favorite claim among Christian apologists is that, without God, morality can mean whatever we want. That’s what happens when good and evil is not grounded by a divine standard. All we have are individuals with personal preferences judging others with preferences that may well be very different. As best, an individual or group can only impose their rules and judgements on others with a show of force, often referred to as “might makes right.” Those human rules and judgements can not be said to have inherent validity. While I’d love to rebut this claim entirely I can not do that any more than I can grant them that they are fully correct. Language and ethics are very complicated and both are at play here.

At the most literal level, yes, moral terms like good, evil, right, and wrong can mean whatever we want. Why? Because moral terms aren’t special. Any word can mean whatever we want. This should go without saying, but languages are invented and maintained by the population of speakers. If enough speakers evolve English so that evil means good, that is how it shall be moving forward. A single speaker redefining words will find himself unable to effectively communicate with everyone who hasn't adopted his fringe definition. That's why the meanings of good and evil tend to remain roughly the same within cultures, secular or religious. It’s hard to get everyone on board for an arbitrary remapping of terms.

The secular definition of moral good is essentially to behave in a way that is beneficial to others. Regardless of the letters written or sounds made to communicate this concept, it would not change it’s value. In other words, if “good” is renamed “evil” tomorrow, that would just mean that we would start to value “evil” over “good.” Now the question is: do we value the concept we call good because a divine third party made us? There’s no way to know, but we do know that there are reasons for social beings to value the concept we call good independent of supernatural mandates.

  1. Being good to others earns more opportunity for earn friends and make families. (Here I could argue that the odds of finding mates and living longer are increased with this behavior, making the instinct to be good a selected trait, but I think this argument is only additive and not required for my points. Since people who do not accept evolution will likely read this, I will not argue this further.)
  2. Being good allows for the creation of culture and societies that provide benefits ranging from the division of labor to shared resources.
  3. Being good, rather than evil, keeps animosity from others low and makes for a more safe and stress free life.

There are many more reasons to be good rather than evil, but evildoers still exist. Apologists argue that people who do wrong do so because they separate themselves from God or ignore that divine moral compass within them. Some even say that it’s an acceptance of moral relativism that swings open the door to sin. While it is always wrong for the slave to strike an owner, it may be right (in the owner’s mind) for the owner to strike a slave. The rapist isn’t wrong to rape because (in the rapist’s mind) what’s right and wrong are up to whatever we want and, the rapist wants to rape. While there are individual defectors who periodically discard their value of good to serve base desires, they are rarer exceptions. More common are those who maintain their value of good with a more narrow view of equality. The slave owner treats other whites as peers with the same understanding of good as you or I, but define blacks as a class in which the definition does not apply. The same could go for the rapist and how he sees women. It may not be the definition of good that’s a moving target, it could be the definition of human.

There is more to the secular meanings of good and evil after we take into account context, motives, consent, ect. What’s most important to the point is that every culture has a name for this concept and places a high value on it. Apologists who admit this attribute it to the aforementioned God-given moral compass within us. I’ll stick with the alternative that all humans share something else, a desire to not be alone. Don’t underestimate how lonely, and short, one’s life would be if they placed no value on being good.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Rights, Responsibilities, & Justice

So an apologist on Twitter put out a challenge and I thought, that seems easy enough. Not easy to convince her, per se, just easy to fulfill the task. Here it is:

I can take on the first three at once. I'll address the other two if we reach some agreement on the first three. Off we go:

Premise 1. People exist.
Premise 2. Most people don’t want to be hurt.
Premise 3. Most people don’t want to be alone.
Premise 4. Hurting others tends to cause either retaliation or isolation.
Premise 5. Most people meet the minimum intellectual requirements to notice the validity of the above premises from social experience.
Conclusion 1. (From premises) Hurting others is avoided by most people.

The concepts of rights, responsibilities, and justice all serve this conclusion. We collectively declare and acknowledge rights to each other, the most basic of which, the right to live, most obviously spawns from the syllogism. Responsibilities are then a drive to act acknowledging those rights. For example, I have the responsibility to acknowledge your right to live. Finally, justice is the method of enforcing adherence to responsibilities. If I cease to acknowledge your right to live and take your life, I face consequences. This tends to be physical punishment of imprisonment, an institutionalization of premise four.

I can’t hope to explain the entirety of ethics in a single post, but you can probably see how this same framework can be applied past a secular reason to not kill to a secular reason to not steal, rape, ect. It is indeed a deity-free basis for rights, responsibilities, and justice.