Friday, March 7, 2008

On teapots, a Cosmic Platypus and other supernatual whatcamariggers

If I were asked to prove that Zeus and Poseidon and Hera and the rest of the Olympians do not exist, I should be at a loss to find conclusive arguments. An Agnostic may think the Christian God as improbable as the Olympians; in that case, he is, for practical purposes, at one with the atheists.

-Bertand Russell

"Show me the evidence that God does not exist!"

This is a question I get often when talking with a theist and the conversation turns to the subject of religion. More often than not, the Christian or Muslim wants to know why I don't believe, not just in a god, but their specific god.

There seems to be a very curious trait among many theists. So completely do their hold to their theological truths, so utterly do they reject any challenge to them, that it appears from my perspective that they simply cannot fathom why anyone would not believe the exact same thing they do.

So when they ask me why I don't believe in god, my answer is always the same - the evidence to support the claim that god exists is lousy. So lousy, in fact, that it seems highly unlikely any cosmic ultimate ruler exists. That's just the deist concept of a god. The evidence gets even worse once you posit the existence of something like the Christian or Muslim god which has specific personality traits, specific commandments and so on.

However, the answer "there is no evidence" doesn't sit will with many a believer. So instead providing evidence for their beliefs, they want evidence their beliefs are incorrect. This happened recently to me on a message board I frequent in a discussion about the demise of atheist group on Myspace this month. One poster who goes by the handle Naveydeepsea made that exact statement: show me the evidence god isn't real.

This is a common reaction by theists but is in fact a very basic logical fallacy. It's called "proving a negative." Essentially they are saying this: "X is true (X in this case being the existence of god) because you cannot disprove X is false." You should already see the massive problem with his argument. What it means is that you can essentially make any claim about the universe you want and then say that because no evidence exists to disprove it, it must be true. The fact that you have no evidence to support your claim is, in this line of unreason, seen as a proof your right.

It' s tad crazy, no?

In my reply my reply to Navydeepsea, I attempted to illustrate the point by using a variation on Bertrand Russell's celestial teapot. In this case, riffing off a joke earlier in the discussion about the universe being run by a cosmic platypus:

The point is simply this. If someone is going to make a claim about the nature of life, the universe and everything, it is completely reasonable to expect those claims to have evidence to back it up. This isn't the bronze age anymore.

For instance, to use a tongue in cheek example, if I said that the entire universe was created and governed by the Cosmic Platypus, and the only way to save our immortal souls was to make making offerings of frog eggs to the Cosmic Platypus. Further, the commandments of the Cosmic Playtpus, as laid down in the Texts of the Oracle of the Venomous Mammals, are prefect in every detail and cannot be questioned. Also the Cosmic Platypus, living in a river outside of time and space, cannot be seen or touched or otherwise detected, but I nevertheless claim the Cosmic Platypus, in his all beaky glory, is as real as the nose on your face.

Now, even though that is a farcical example, the fact is you cannot disprove the existence of the Cosmic Platypus, can you? Really, you cannot. Show me the evidence that the Cosmic Platypus doesn't exist.

So if I was seriously making the above claim about the Cosmic Platypus, his slappy tail be praised, would it not be reasonable for you to demand evidence? And would it not be unreasonable for me to be insulted by your request?

That is all the atheist is saying. The theist is making an extraordinary claim about the universe, and therefore the atheist wants to see evidence to support those claims. That is not an act of faith, it is a demand for fact. And if no evidence is forthcoming, there is little reason to believe said claims are true.

If we worked the other way, we would have no choice but to accept all claims about, well, anything to be true if there is no evidence to demonstrate it is not true. Like the Cosmic Platypus. You cannot disprove it, therefore it can be regarded as true. Clearly, that is a cart before the horse methodology that gets you nowhere.
The reaction to this from some believers was outright indignation. "You are calling a god a platypus!" Some arguments just fly over the heads of people I guess. Still, be it a teapot, or a platypus or even another god people believe in, this argument is going to hurt someone's feelings.
Instead of being a big funny about it and framing the argument using the Cosmic Platypus, or some other Russel teapot imitator like the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I could have simply answered the statement "Show me the evidence god is not real" by saying "Show me the evidence that Shiva is not real." The point being, you cannot "disprove" Shiva anymore than you can "disprove" the Christan Trinity. And what does that demonstrate? It demonstrates that those making claims about the universe bear the burden of proof. QED.

I think, however, it is useful to read the original version of this argument as presented by the late, great, Bertrand Russell who presented it in his 1952 essay "Is there a God?" I present it here in its entirety:

The question whether there is a God is one which is decided on very different grounds by different communities and different individuals. The immense majority of mankind accept the prevailing opinion of their own community. In the earliest times of which we have definite history everybody believed in many gods. It was the Jews who first believed in only one. The first commandment, when it was new, was very difficult to obey because the Jews had believed that Baal and Ashtaroth and Dagon and Moloch and the rest were real gods but were wicked because they helped the enemies of the Jews. The step from a belief that these gods were wicked to the belief that they did not exist was a difficult one. There was a time, namely that of Antiochus IV, when a vigorous attempt was made to Hellenize the Jews. Antiochus decreed that they should eat pork, abandon circumcision, and take baths. Most of the Jews in Jerusalem submitted, but in country places resistance was more stubborn and under the leadership of the Maccabees the Jews at last established their right to their peculiar tenets and customs. Monotheism, which at the beginning of the Antiochan persecution had been the creed of only part of one very small nation, was adopted by Christianity and later by Islam, and so became dominant throughout the whole of the world west of India. From India eastward, it had no success: Hinduism had many gods; Buddhism in its primitive form had none; and Confucianism had none from the eleventh century onward. But, if the truth of a religion is to be judged by its worldly success, the argument in favor of monotheism is a very strong one, since it possessed the largest armies, the largest navies, and the greatest accumulation of wealth. In our own day this argument is growing less decisive. It is true that the un-Christian menace of Japan was defeated. But the Christian is now faced with the menace of atheistic Muscovite hordes, and it is not so certain as one could wish that atomic bombs will provide a conclusive argument on the side of theism.

But let us abandon this political and geographical way of considering religions, which has been increasingly rejected by thinking people ever since the time of the ancient Greeks. Ever since that time there have been men who were not content to accept passively the religious opinions of their neighbors, but endeavoured to consider what reason and philosophy might have to say about the matter. In the commercial cities of Ionia, where philosophy was invented, there were free-thinkers in the sixth century B.C. Compared to modern free-thinkers they had an easy task, because the Olympian gods, however charming to poetic fancy, were hardly such as could be defended by the metaphysical use of the unaided reason. They were met popularly by Orphism (to which Christianity owes much) and, philosophically, by Plato, from whom the Greeks derived a philosophical monotheism very different from the political and nationalistic monotheism of the Jews. When the Greek world became converted to Christianity it combined the new creed with Platonic metaphysics and so gave birth to theology. Catholic theologians, from the time of Saint Augustine to the present day, have believed that the existence of one God could be proved by the unaided reason. Their arguments were put into final form by Saint Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. When modern philosophy began in the seventeenth century, Descartes and Leibniz took over the old arguments somewhat polished up, and, owing largely to their efforts, piety remained intellectually respectable. But Locke, although himself a completely convinced Christian, undermined the theoretical basis of the old arguments, and many of his followers, especially in France, became Atheists. I will not attempt to set forth in all their subtlety the philosophical arguments for the existence of God. There is, I think, only one of them which still has weight with philosophers, that is the argument of the First Cause. This argument maintains that, since everything that happens has a cause, there must be a First Cause from which the whole series starts. The argument suffers, however, from the same defect as that of the elephant and the tortoise. It is said (I do not know with what truth) that a certain Hindu thinker believed the earth to rest upon an elephant. When asked what the elephant rested upon, he replied that it rested upon a tortoise. When asked what the tortoise rested upon, he said, "I am tired of this. Suppose we change the subject." This illustrates the unsatisfactory character of the First-Cause argument. Nevertheless, you will find it in some ultra-modern treatises on physics, which contend that physical processes, traced backward in time, show that there must have been a sudden beginning and infer that this was due to divine Creation. They carefully abstain from attempts to show that this hypothesis makes matters more intelligible.

The scholastic arguments for the existence of a Supreme Being are now rejected by most Protestant theologians in favor of new arguments which to my mind are by no means an improvement. The scholastic arguments were genuine efforts of thought and, if their reasoning had been sound, they would have demonstrated the truth of their conclusion. The new arguments, which Modernists prefer, are vague, and the Modernists reject with contempt every effort to make them precise. There is an appeal to the heart as opposed to the intellect. It is not maintained that those who reject the new arguments are illogical, but that they are destitute of deep feeling or of moral sense. Let us nevertheless examine the modern arguments and see whether there is anything that they really prove.

One of the favourite arguments is from evolution. The world was once lifeless, and when life began it was a poor sort of life consisting of green slime and other uninteresting things. Gradually by the course of evolution, it developed into animals and plants and at last into MAN. Man, so the theologians assure us, is so splendid a Being that he may well be regarded as the culmination to which the long ages of nebula and slime were a prelude. I think the theologians must have been fortunate in their human contacts. They do not seem to me to have given due weight to Hitler or the Beast of Belsen. If Omnipotence, with all time at its disposal, thought it worth while to lead up to these men through the many millions of years of evolution, I can only say that the moral and aesthetic taste involved is peculiar. However, the theologians no doubt hope that the future course of evolution will produce more men like themselves and fewer men like Hitler. Let us hope so. But, in cherishing this hope, we are abandoning the ground of experience and taking refuge in an optimism which history so far does not support.

There are other objections to this evolutionary optimism. There is every reason to believe that life on our planet will not continue forever so that any optimism based upon the course of terrestrial history must be temporary and limited in its purview. There may, of course, be life elsewhere but, if there is, we know nothing about it and have no reason to suppose that it bears more resemblance to the virtuous theologians than to Hitler. The earth is a very tiny corner of the universe. It is a little fragment of the solar system. The solar system is a little fragment of the Milky Way. And the Milky Way is a little fragment of the many millions of galaxies revealed by modern telescopes. In this little insignificant corner of the cosmos there is a brief interlude between two long lifeless epochs. In this brief interlude, there is a much briefer one containing man. If really man is the purpose of the universe the preface seems a little long. One is reminded of some prosy old gentleman who tells an interminable anecdote all quite uninteresting until the rather small point in which it ends. I do not think theologians show a suitable piety in making such a comparison possible.

It has been one of the defects of theologians at all times to over-esti-mate the importance of our planet. No doubt this was natural enough in the days before Copernicus when it was thought that the heavens revolve about the earth. But since Copernicus and still more since the modern exploration of distant regions, this pre-occupation with the earth has become rather parochial. If the universe had a Creator, it is hardly reasonable to suppose that He was specially interested in our little corner. And, if He was not, His values must have been different from ours, since in the immense majority of regions life is impossible.

There is a moralistic argument for belief in God, which was popularized by William James. According to this argument, we ought to believe in God because, if we do not, we shall not behave well. The first and greatest objection to this argument is that, at its best, it cannot prove that there is a God but only that politicians and educators ought to try to make people think there is one. Whether this ought to be done or not is not a theological question but a political one. The arguments are of the same sort as those which urge that children should be taught respect for the flag. A man with any genuine religious feeling will not be content with the view that the belief in God is useful, because he will wish to know whether, in fact, there is a God. It is absurd to contend that the two questions are the same. In the nursery, belief in Father Christmas is useful, but grown-up people do not think that this proves Father Christmas to be real.

Since we are not concerned with politics we might consider this sufficient refutation of the moralistic argument, but it is perhaps worthwhile to pursue this a little further. It is, in the first place, very doubtful whether belief in God has all the beneficial moral effects that are attributed to it. Many of the best men known to history have been unbelievers. John Stuart Mill may serve as an instance. And many of the worst men known to history have been believers. Of this there are innumerable instances. Perhaps Henry VIII may serve as typical.

However that may be, it is always disastrous when governments set to work to uphold opinions for their utility rather than for their truth. As soon as this is done it becomes necessary to have a censorship to suppress adverse arguments, and it is thought wise to discourage thinking among the young for fear of encouraging "dangerous thoughts." When such mal-practices are employed against religion as they are in Soviet Russia, the theologians can see that they are bad, but they are still bad when employed in defence of what the theologians think good. Freedom of thought and the habit of giving weight to evidence are matters of far greater moral import than the belief in this or that theological dogma. On all these grounds it cannot be maintained that theological beliefs should be upheld for their usefulness without regard to their truth.

There is a simpler and more naive form of the same argument, which appeals to many individuals. People will tell us that without the consolations of religion they would be intolerably unhappy. So far as this is true, it is a coward's argument. Nobody but a coward would consciously choose to live in a fool's paradise. When a man suspects his wife of infidelity, he is not thought the better of for shutting his eyes to the evidence. And I cannot see why ignoring evidence should be contemptible in one case and admirable in the other. Apart from this argument the importance of religion in contributing to individual happiness is very much exaggerated. Whether you are happy or unhappy depends upon a number of factors. Most people need good health and enough to eat. They need the good opinion of their social milieu and the affection of their intimates. They need not only physical health but mental health. Given all these things, most people will be happy whatever their theology. Without them, most people will be unhappy, whatever their theology. In thinking over the people I have known, I do not find that on the average those who had religious beliefs were happier than those who had not.

When I come to my own beliefs, I find myself quite unable to discern any purpose in the universe, and still more unable to wish to discern one. Those who imagine that the course of cosmic evolution is slowly leading up to some consummation pleasing to the Creator, are logically committed (though they usually fail to realize this) to the view that the Creator is not omnipotent or, if He were omnipotent, He could decree the end without troubling about means. I do not myself perceive any consummation toward which the universe is tending. According to the physicists, energy will be gradually more evenly distributed and as it becomes more evenly distributed it will become more useless. Gradually everything that we find interesting or pleasant, such as life and light, will disappear -- so, at least, they assure us. The cosmos is like a theatre in which just once a play is performed, but, after the curtain falls, the theatre is left cold and empty until it sinks in ruins. I do not mean to assert with any positiveness that this is the case. That would be to assume more knowledge than we possess. I say only that it is what is probable on present evidence. I will not assert dogmatically that there is no cosmic purpose, but I will say that there is no shred of evidence in favor of there being one.

I will say further that, if there be a purpose and if this purpose is that of an Omnipotent Creator, then that Creator, so far from being loving and kind, as we are told, must be of a degree of wickedness scarcely conceivable. A man who commits a murder is considered to be a bad man. An Omnipotent Deity, if there be one, murders everybody. A man who willingly afflicted another with cancer would be considered a fiend. But the Creator, if He exists, afflicts many thousands every year with this dreadful disease. A man who, having the knowledge and power required to make his children good, chose instead to make them bad, would be viewed with execration. But God, if He exists, makes this choice in the case of very many of His children. The whole conception of an omnipotent God whom it is impious to criticize, could only have arisen under oriental despotisms where sovereigns, in spite of capricious cruelties, continued to enjoy the adulation of their slaves. It is the psychology appropriate to this outmoded political system which belatedly survives in orthodox theology.

There is, it is true, a Modernist form of theism, according to which God is not omnipotent, but is doing His best, in spite of great difficulties. This view, although it is new among Christians, is not new in the history of thought. It is, in fact, to be found in Plato. I do not think this view can be proved to be false. I think all that can be said is that there is no positive reason in its favour.

Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time. It is customary to suppose that, if a belief is widespread, there must be something reasonable about it. I do not think this view can be held by anyone who has studied history. Practically all the beliefs of savages are absurd. In early civilizations there may be as much as one percent for which there is something to be said. In our own day.... But at this point I must be careful. We all know that there are absurd beliefs in Soviet Russia. If we are Protestants, we know that there are absurd beliefs among Catholics. If we are Catholics, we know that there are absurd beliefs among Protestants. If we are Conservatives, we are amazed by the superstitions to be found in the Labour Party. If we are Socialists, we are aghast at the credulity of Conservatives. I do not know, dear reader, what your beliefs may be, but whatever they may be, you must concede that nine-tenths of the beliefs of nine-tenths of mankind are totally irrational. The beliefs in question are, of course, those which you do not hold. I cannot, therefore, think it presumptuous to doubt something which has long been held to be true, especially when this opinion has only prevailed in certain geographical regions, as is the case with all theological opinions.

My conclusion is that there is no reason to believe any of the dogmas of traditional theology and, further, that there is no reason to wish that they were true. Man, in so far as he is not subject to natural forces, is free to work out his own destiny. The responsibility is his, and so is the opportunity.

POSTSCRIPT: I also encountered the "disprove god" questions on Youtube, and tried to answer them in the video below. Rather than using Russel, I turned to Carl Sagan's similar illustration of an invisible dragon in a garage:


Anonymous said...

As a believer, I am perfectly happy to admit there isn't a single piece of hard evidence of any kind currently in our hands to prove the existence of the God of Abraham. That's why it's called faith. Certainly, it's pretty clear that Jesus, Mohammed and many of the Old Testament figures, such as David and Samuel, maybe even Moses and Abraham, were real people, but as for the existence of God, nothing is there. If the miracles recorded in the Bible (or even later in history) happened, there's no convincing evidence of them today, such as accounts of them by non-believers.

The closest thing I can think of to current evidence are some of the cures or healings claimed as miracles in the cause of canonization. In recent times, to count them as miracles, there has to be considerable medical evidence that there is no known medical explanation. These miracles, however, could just as well be evidence of the current limits of medical scientific knowledge.

The same could be said, however, of the concept of human rights. There is no evidence they exist. If they are not divinely bestowed, and if in a given society nobody believes in them, they vanish just as much as any god you name.

And this, it seems to me, is one of the problems with Western civilization moving away from the Judeo-Christian tradition, or at least doing so too quickly. Without those ties, there is no solid basis for anything that approaches a consensus on morality beyond the Golden Rule. At least right now we have a sense of where the majority's moral sense lies. Or should we do away with any effort to make moral judgments and have a world where if it's legal or you aren't caught, it's OK?

Grant LaFleche said...

Anonymous believer:

Thank your for a thoughtful reply!

On the question of the existence of an historical Jesus on the like - in actuality we do not know for sure if they existed at all. I am inclined to believe where was someone upon whom the biblical Jesus is based, but I of course, cannot back that up. Jesus, Moses and the gang are rather like Socrates - we assume they exist, although we have no direct evidence they did.

You are correct that human rights don't "exist" on their own. They are a human invention. They were handed down by any god, and indeed the bible, old and new testaments, contain so many violations of basic human rights that it is pretty clear our conceptions of them do not come from the bible.

Nevertheless, you are correct to say that if a given society does not believe in them and will not enforce them, human rights would (and have in some places) slipped into the dust bin of history just like Zeus and Apollo. The existence of human rights is 100 per cent dependent on human beings keeping them alive.

Regarding morality - the problem with your reasoning is that is assumes that the "golden rule" is a Christian invention and without a tie to the scriptures, it will vanish. Well of course we know this is not the case at all. Every culture on earth has its own version of "do unto others" and we even see this behavior in our primate relatives like chimps. It seems that our desire to co-operate and not harm others is a product of our evolution and something that got codified and expanded by human civilizations.

The point being that Christianity, or any religion, isn't required for moral or ethical behavior. I am not advocating lawlessness or abandoning making moral judgments. However, morality and ethics does not require religion.

Anonymous said...

You've missed two of my points. And that may well be my fault for not being clear.

(As an aside, I believe there are historical references to Jesus in Roman writings of the era. In any event, my impression is that the secular historians' consensus is that Jesus existed. His name is his native Aramaic was something like Yeshua bar Yehosef, which we'd write today Joshua, son of Joseph but for the centuries of other ways of spelling his name.)

As for the two points, first, my point was exactly that, in the absence of the Judeo-Christian religion, all that we're left with as anything approaching a universal rule is the Golden Rule, precisely because anthropological evidence shows it is essentially universal to human societies. So you've disagreed with me when I actually was trying to make the same point.

Second, I don't disagree that you don't need religion to have morality. All I'm saying is that, when you unhinge a society's morality from what has been its main basis for about 1500 years without first having some other basis in place, there is little hope of any effective replacement anytime soon. And there is certainly nothing of any great force with most members of the society that's anywhere near to being in place.

Grant LaFleche said...

As for an "historical Jesus" it is an utter assumption. There are, in fact, no Roman or other sources written during the time Jesus is to assumed to have lived. Even the Gospels are not written during his lifetime. The extra biblical references refer to Christians and some to their beliefs about Jesus, but nothing that can be used to support a claim the man was real. However, it is a rather moot point until you get people trying to claim Jesus is "proved" historically. Like Socrates we know of him only through others. So we assume the person was real and not a myth.

It is true, as you say, that we there are big changes in a society that brings with it all kind of upheaval. However, I think it is disputable that the bible has been the "source" of morality for 1500 years. (For one thing, it took Christianity more than 500 years from its origins to Christianize Europe.) Moreover, what morality is used from the bible is used on a pick and choose basis. So some biblical "rules" are accepted, others rejected by society. And then you are forced to ask why that is so.

That said, it certainly is a cultural belief among many that the bible has been THE source of morality, no matter how debatable that point is in actuality. And as that belief changes, and indeed ethics and morals change with the times (as they have always done in history,and more than once over the last 1,500 years) that creates, I think, a sense of discomfort.

However, morals and ethics have always been fluid. They always change. It's what Dawkins calls the moral "zeitgeist." Consider that Christians once thought, on the basis of the bible, that it was ok to burn women alive if they were thought to be witches. That is now a morally repugnant thing to do in the eyes of most believers. Racial discrimination, slavery and other things were all condoned using the bible and the faith. Today they are not.

So I don't know if it is really a case of society being "unhinged" from its past foundation of moral or ethical thinking...rather it is a case of the zeitgeist changing again.

Anonymous said...

There are references by historians to Jesus himself, including a couple by Flavius Josephus, a Jew who was a court historian for Vespasian, and a reference to the crucifixion by Thallus. There are also references by later historians to a report by Pilate of the crucifixion; they are hearsay and the original report is lost, but in our legal system they would probably constitute admissible hearsay (yes, I'm a lawyer). I completely agree that the gospels' writing well post-date Jesus's life, and I wouldn't rely on them as a historical record. They are the recording of what was obviously a powerful oral tradition, but their relationship to the facts of Jesus's life is complex and highly debatable.

LOL My 1500 years and your 500 years match up exactly. Your point about the 500 years is exactly why I picked the number of 1500 years! And if most of Western morality didn't come from the Bible, then I'll be danged if my reading of history can identify where it came from. There are bits and pieces from Greek, Roman and Germanic pagan traditions, but much in those traditions is at odds with Western morality as it developed. Now, the success with which Christianity managed to get its followers to follow its moral principles is another matter. As
Chesterton said: "Christianity hasn't been tried and found wanting. It just hasn't been tried yet." He was, sadly, for the most part correct and remains so. Of course, he could have said the same thing about a lot of stuff in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. In other words,we are talking about human nature.

Finally, be careful how you characterize Hinduism. A friend of mine who is a practicing Hindu told me that they really only recognize God as a single concept with many manifestations (in my words, sort of like a hyper-Holy Trinity). I don't know to what extent he's correct, or to what extent that idea is most heavily used by Hindu minorities in predominantly monotheistic cultures, but the little bit I've read on the subject suggests that at least some strains of Hinduism do take that view, so some Hindus would find your characterization of their religion objectionable.

Grant LaFleche said...

Unfortunately, both Flavius Josephus and Thallus are not writing of events they witness - or even based on eye witness accounts - for one thing, and are writing long after the fact. And in the case of Josephus, he refers only to the BELIEFS of Christians. Moreoever, the references to Christians in Josephus have long been considered a forgery, added to the text by a Catholic Bishop.

Again, I point to the comparison with Socrates. We tend to speak of Socrates as a real person. And yet nearly everything we know about his life comes from Plato. (Hence why scholars still ask the question, where do Plato's ideas being and Socrates' ideas end?) Likewise, everything we know about Jesus comes from the bible. We do not have an independent source for either, which is not a particularly controversial point save for fundamentalist circles.

There is no doubt that the stories of the Gospels were first oral traditions and indeed, were not even all that original. Most "pagans" already knew the story from the stories of Horus, Mithras and Dionysius, among others, and you we find critics of the early Christian period basically saying the new religion was really just a plagiarism.

I'll give you your bit about 1500 years. LOL. Although what is fascinating is even after the Vatican is built and the religion has become the dominate faith of Europe, the Pope still has to issue edicts telling Christians to stop worshiping the Sun. The pagan beliefs didn't die easily.

Of course we are talking about human nature. And with respect to Chesterson, Christianity has been tired and tired and tired - with mixed results I would say. I certainly do not argue that many good deeds have been done in its name, or motivated because of it. I never go as far as Hithens to say religions poisons "everything."

However, there is nothing in Christianity "morality" that you don't find in other ethical and moral systems. As we already agree, things like the "golden rule" are independent of religion and certainly existed before the dawn of the Christian era. It is a very legitimate historical question to ask not "did the Christians do good things?" (they did) but "what did they do that non-Christians wouldn't?" And the answer to that is simply "nothing."

And it should be pointed out that much of western morals and ethics is built upon notions of political freedom rooted in democracy. It is interesting that modern democracy, rooted in the Enlightenment, does not turn to the bible for, well, anything. Democracy, being a non-Christian and pre-Christian idea, does not rest upon that particular faith. Enlightenment thinkers, including the founders of the United States, looked back to Athens, not to Bethlehem. After all, Christianity functions quiet well in utterly repressive dictatorships (and indeed has done so for most of its history.) Moreover, the bible contains nary a word about democratic ideals such as freedom of speech, thought or association. Our notions of political, individual and moral freedoms came from the Enlightenment thinkers, which informs our modern morality to a much greater degree than the 10 Commandments. (especially since the first 4 of those commandments are all about worshiping and have nothing to do with moral or ethical behavior.)

There is no doubt that Christianity, as the dominate religion of the west, has enormously influenced our cultural view points, including approaches to ethics and morality. Both horrible and good acts have been justified as moral through it. But ultimately, the cultural itself evolves, deciding what it considers moral or not rather independent of the faith.

Regarding, Hinduism - your friend is indeed correct. Hinduism has a supreme god-head and the many gods of the religion, such as Shiva, are manifestations of that god-head. However, the Hindu gods, like their Greek and Norse counterparts, each have their own histories, personalities and attributes. I have many relatives who are Hindus from Dehli, and i am more than familiar with the religion, which is somewhat more complex than the Christianity concept of the Trinity. So Shiva is real, as his own person, from the Hindu point of view, even though Shiva is ultimately an expression of a greater reality.

And really, I am rather used to religious people finding my point of view offensive. I'm used to it. :-)

Anonymous said...

Nice Freudian slip on writing, over and over, "tired" instead of "tried".

One of the references in Josephus is a lot less disputed than the other, in which he refers not to beliefs but to the person of James brother of Jesus. And it was not that long after the fact -- Josephus was born in 37, so he could well have spoken with eye witnesses.

Let me just use one example of where things could head, and maybe this is a price you're willing to pay. While African Christians are often horrendously hostile to homosexuality, my limited understanding is that the hostility pre-dates Christianity in many African societies. Indeed, the current hostility at least stands a chance of amelioration by the Christian "hate the sin but love the sinner doctrine", although the lessons from Rwanda and Nigeria are that Christianity is probably something between incompetent and impotent when it comes to stopping traditional enmities. In any event, eliminate Christianity from Africa, and things for homosexuals are likely to get worse. Maybe you're convinced that the net worldwide will be beneficial. I suspect, however, that you'll simply trade one set of victims in one place for another elsewhere. As Stalin proved, a governing philosophy in a non-religious society can be as evil or more evil than any religion.

Has there ever been an example of a benevolent and just society without religion? I suppose some of the European societies are headed in that direction, but their demographics are not encouraging.

Grant LaFleche said...

LOL. It was just a typo.

Well think about what you are saying. The references to Jesus are suspected to be forgeries on the weight of evidence - one is, as you say, more obvious than the other. But follow that by saying Josephus MIGHT have, maybe, talked to someone who might have talked to or seen Jesus. That is not exactly powerful evidence, particularly given the dubious nature of the text in question. As a lawyer, you'd have to problem punching massive holes in that in a court room.

I think you are to a degree, perhaps, ignoring the fact that in the west discrimination against homosexuals is driven, largely, by Christians who use the bible to justify their bigotry as moral. "Love the sinner, hate the sin" is used to try and deny homosexual civil rights. I am sure you are aware of this. There certainly is no evidence that doctrine is helping things in Africa at all - you are indeed correct that prejudices there are rooted deep in some of the native cultures. If Christianity was actually having some kind of impact in this regard, I would applaud it. To date, that hasn't happened and given the level of Christian hostility toward homosexuals in North American - fueled by the evangelicals who are very active in Africa (and in fact retarding efforts to combat AIDS for example) - I have my doubts it will help things improve on this point at all. It's not about trading victims, its about what the texts say and what believers do. I would hope your prediction on this point comes true, because it would reduce suffering, but currently the evidence is against it.

Has there been a benevolent society with no religion? Of course not. There has yet to be anything that can be accurately called an "atheist" state based on the ideas of reason and human solidarity. Religion has been with us since we first could scratch on cave walls. There hasn't been a human society without a religion of some kind. And you are indeed right. You can have a horrible society without a traditional religion - although one must acknowledge that Stalinist Russia wasn't a mess because it was too reasonable, too scientific or too demanding of evidence. Stalin rejected science (including evolution), had a lunatic as his "science advisor" in Trofim Lysenko and was not, it can be easily said, driven by reason or logic. He did away, or tried to, with the Christian church and replaced it with his own state "faith" - a cult of personality with him as the god figure.

I am not a utopian. While I think that a society would be much better off leaning on Epicurus, Lucretius, Spinoza, Mill and Paine than Jesus, Mohammad or Moses, religion appears to be one of those curious human institutions. it will never disappear completely. Rather, we are much better off defending our secular governing institutions and legal system - which provides the only means to provide meaningful freedom of religion in the first place - from those who wish to turn society into a "Christian nation," or a Muslim caliphate.

Perhaps someday we will outgrow our need to believe in invisible things without evidence, and the need to combat those who believe in equally improbable invisible things. Perhaps. Europe is headed in that direction, as you say. But I doubt very much that will happen in our life times.

Anonymous said...

To quote you, think about what you're saying: "Perhaps someday we will outgrow our need to believe in invisible things without evidence." I thought we had already agreed that human rights fall into this category!

Grant LaFleche said...

Not exactly. I agreed that human rights do not exist outside of human activity. That is we invented them and keep them "alive." You know, democracy does not "exist" either, but that we will it so.

However, human rights and the question of the existence of a god or gods are, frankly, totally different animals. Everyone acknowledges that human rights are a product our political life. If we radically change that political life, human rights will change too. Anyone who claims that human rights somehow exist without human thought are screaming into the wind.

By the belief is that a god exists outside the human mind - indeed outside of nature itself. The claim further is that god created humans and all of existence, possesses particular personality traits and so on. These are all testable hypothesis at least in so much as we can examine evidence to support things sorts of claims.

These type of claims that has no evidence behind it, as you already acknowledge, yet they are believed anyway. And that is a key difference.

We all acknowledge that human rights is an invention of human beings, rooted in our political philosophy. Believers claim that a god is not a human invention, but something that is extra-human in nature. This is not a trivial distinction.

Therefore, when I speak of belief in invisible things without evidence, I am not referring to political constructs. I am referring to the claims of the existence of supernatural creatures that govern the universe.

The only way one can say that human rights "do not exist" in the same fashion that god does not exist would be if you admitted that god is, like human rights, a construct of the human mind, rather than something independent of it.

Anonymous said...

After reading this blog, I feel really sad for you. You spend so much energy and time to battle God. You must not be very happy... or you probably pretend to be on the outside to all your peers. You refute all personal testimonies of people's experiences with God. Therefore your own testimony has no value either because who will believe you. Based on your guidance, who should believe you either in 100 years let alone 2000 years. One day God will make it clear to us what all of this world and pain and suffering was all about, because He is good ... but unfortunately, you may be on the wrong side of the fence to get the real answers you are looking for.