Friday, February 15, 2008

You can not deny Jesus

At least, you can try to use all the rational arguments in the world and still not be able to make a decisive case. The name “Jesus” in the post title could be Jehovah, Allah, Brahma, Zeus, Odin, Ra or any other supernatural deity that people have chosen to worship and to believe represent the ultimate explanation of the Universe.

So why try? Let them believe that Jesus loves them and will greet them in heaven and don’t even make the logical case against it. Again, it’s not that you can’t make a pretty good case – in at least outlining why such a belief is extremely unlikely to be representative of any sort of reality. You can make the case, but you can’t – as we in the atheistic, rational, skeptical, scientific community well know – demonstrate it with empirical evidence. We don’t have evidence that there is no god (and we never will. By the very nature of the question, we can’t prove a negative). We can prove that a proposition is so, but not that which is not so.

So is it being advocated that we just shrug and accept the boatloads of non-sense that float into our lives every day, everywhere in the world? It would be defeatist to make such an argument and things are not hopeless. Things are bad, but they aren’t hopeless. What we need to do is adjust tactics. By changing tactics, I’m not talking about using a different weapon. I’m not saying we should use humor instead of reason (although, as an occasional weaponry adjustment, that can be good). But “tactics”, in this case, means looking at the larger battle field of rationality and seeing where it is that we can make the biggest impact. It’s not the corner of the arena where sits the throne of god.

While there is no real need to worry about the supernatural beliefs of others, there is a lot to be concerned about any time and any where that those supernatural beliefs stray into the parts of the field that contain reality and nature. That’s where it gets interesting – because it is indeed possible to clearly demonstrate that people are wrong in those areas. They will not accept the evidence immediately. In some cases, for some of them, they may never accept it. But when the vast majority of people accept a given proposition as being a truthful and accurate representation of reality, then those on the extremities of the argument become so marginalized as to be a non-factor in the discussion.

It is a historical fact that a mere 550 years ago, no one on this planet had heard of Copernicus and if anyone thought the planets (including ours) moved in orbit around the Sun, they weren’t saying it out loud. Indeed, they would have known that doing so would mean a certain death warrant from the Christians (The Catholic Church, specifically, which was the Christian Church at that time). It would have meant their execution, because the Christians (along with believing that Jesus was up in heaven waiting for them) thought that the Earth was the center of the Universe. So a factual claim from faith came in to direct collision with science when Copernicus and then Galileo demonstrated otherwise.

We might like to believe that once the scientific knowledge was out there, the Church quietly accepted it and within a short time the entire world had a new view of the cosmos. Oh, that reason could work so quickly! True believers disputed the facts of science for hundreds of years until today it seems almost quaint that many folks once denied the fact. But deny it they did, and for a very, very long time. Can we draw any modern day corollaries? It seems like there are quite a few that continually frustrate us. It appears that, no matter how strong the evidence is, we can never get it into some peoples’ heads. But we can! That’s the nature of evidence. It’s on our side today and it will be on our side in a thousand years. The Earth, 550 years later, has not slipped back into its geocentric position. Over enough time, and with ever increasing, never decreasing evidence, virtually every person on the planet today accepts the truth.

Most of the repugnant factual claims associated with major religions (specifically, but not exclusively Christianity, Islam and Judaism) have already been firmly shown by science to be “other than believed”. Our job is to keep battering away at the gates of ignorance. We may have to say some things 10’s of thousands of times and acquire more and more evidence. But we have the facts on our side. Theists can still run to refuge in their little castles in the sky, which can not be disproved, but those will become lonelier places for those who continue to seek comfort there.

Resist the obvious temptation to debate the generality of god, redemption, salvation, heaven and hell. This is where most arguments with theists will begin, and, while undeniably silly, are not subject to your knowledge, rationality, reason, logic or science. Instead, immediately turn the discussion to the factual claims made by whatever religion is being debated. Some of these claims (certainly not all) will include:

Evil acts are exclusively the result sin (separation from the holy spirit) in a context of free-will as given to us by god.

The power of prayer has an effect on natural events.

The world was created pretty much as is, in 6 days, between six and ten thousand years ago.

Evolution can not be a fact because god created all of the life on earth, exactly like you see it.

An abortion in the first months of pregnancy is the same as killing an adult human being.

Homosexuality is a sin, a perversion and an abomination in the eyes of god.

Homosexuality is unnatural and is a choice made in a context of free-will as allowed by god.

Update 2/15 - For an explanation of the change, please see the Exterminator's comment.


The Exterminator said...

Good post, Evo, but this one isn't phrased well: Homosexuality is a sin, a perversion and an abomination in the eyes of god.

As written, that can't be disproven by anyone.
I think four claims about homosexuality that can be disproven, though, are:

1. Homosexuality is a choice;
2. Homosexuality is unnatural;
3. Homosexual marriages threaten the "institution" of marriage.
4. Homosexuals, specifically because of their homosexuality, make unfit parents.

I'd also change: The power of prayer has an effect on natural events.

I'm uncomfortable with that one as you phrased it because it would be possible for studies to show -- even though none ever have, as far as I know -- that "the power of prayer" acts in such a way as to make believers more likely to recover from illnesses or bear up under the stresses of natural disasters. (the placebo effect)

No, the clearly erroneous comment would be: Prayer is a proven way of getting a supernatural being to intercede in, and affect, natural events.

That's false.

Ute said...

Aaah, it is so good to be back. I've missed those posts... :)

The Exterminator said...

Nice to have you back, Ute.

John Evo said...

Points well taken Ex. Especially in my phrasing on the factual claim about homosexuality. My point, of course, is that it can be shown that it is very natural, at least partially biological and therefore not a sin. But you phrased it much better.

I wouldn't worry too much about the power of prayer being confirmed. As you said, what can (and probably has been) confirmed is a placebo effect. Since science is well aware of this, it is always being accounted for in any study. In some cases the placebo effect has been positive. Interestingly, there have been studies which revealed a "reverse placebo effect" in which patients who knew they were being prayed for did worse than others! But there has never been statistical significance to the power of prayer within the "blind" groups. And you know there is nothing to worry about in the future!

Welcome back, Ute!

Anonymous said...

Nice post. Scientific inquiry has consistently overturned numerous religious claims. If a divine being interacts in any way with the natural world, it should have some identifiable, measurable effect. If it doesn't interact with the natural world, then natural beings, like us, have no need to give it any thought.

You are correct in saying that one cannot disprove some sort of undefined deity via logic. Particular deities to which humans ascribe specific attributes, such as Yahweh, can be logically demonstrated to be internally inconsistent.

Some people may be swayed more by the scientific stuff and others may be drawn more to the philosophical, rational stuff. Judging from what I read around the atheosphere, I think most people probably find both a combination of both sorts of evidence persuasive.

Lynet said...

Hang on, hang on -- does your post title mean "You cannot deny Jesus" or does it mean "You can choose not to deny Jesus"? I rather like the latter possibility. Sometimes, when it's tactically sensible, we can 'not deny Jesus' and focus on the factually demonstrable things instead.

I have to thank you for writing this post -- the opinion that we shouldn't necessarily be attacking religion directly seems somehow less common in the atheist blogosphere, and it certainly deserves to be voiced. (I'm not sure precisely how I would phrase my opinion on the question of which battles we should fight. I suspect it's complicated.)

PhillyChief said...

I think, as always, you have to demand evidence. Nothing can be asserted without asking for validation. Premises must always be questioned, especially when they're not openly stated, because if you keep probing, you'll more than likely expose a "holy" book. Before it becomes too late, we must expose that ugly motivator because soon, especially if we don't challenge, it won't be considered ugly anymore.

Despite all their jawing about faith and this being a christian nation, the evangelicals still veil their motivations and premises to make them palatable. They still know that if you give the bible as a reason for your call to action, public opinion will turn away. So when there are moves to deny gay rights, overturn Roe v. Wade, question the patriotism of those of us against the edited Pledge of Allegiance, wasting money on abstinence programs, denying HPV, and pushing ID into schools, we have to show how that's all religiously motivated. I think this as important and may often be more important than merely challenging the facts of their claims and demanding what evidence they have. I think it does more to expose ID as creationism and trying to get the bible into science class for example than to try and explain how ID isn't science and what a "theory" means in science.

The Ridger, FCD said...

If the end result of this new tactic is to drive religion into the little area fenced in for it by NOMA, that would be great.

I like the idea of saying "I'm not saying there's no God, what I'm saying is that the rocks tell us Earth is older than 6,000 years. Are you sure that's what God says? Cause I'd rather think you were mistaken than that God was lying."

Kelly said...

I couldn't agree with you more. The moment faith enters into fact-based disciplines and public discourse, it is longer immune from criticism. It has gone from private belief to people demanding their faith be the foundation for law, morality, and accepted in other disciplines.

I'd like to spring board off of Exterminator's point regarding prayer and its affect on natural phenomena. I think the placebo effect is obviously an important element to all this, but I'd also like to point out that I've often heard people claim prayer caused "Person X" to "answer the prayer" (like, "I needed $50, and Aunt Clara sent me a check"-type crap) or "Phenomenon A" to happen ("I needed nice weather for the church picnic, so I prayed, and it was sunny all day!"). Notice, of course, that when the prayer is “not answered,” natural phenomena can be explained away. I guess it depends on how an experiment is designed to “prove” prayer works, how certain variables will be controlled, and what the intended outcomes are in advance. Otherwise, people could attribute anything to prayer, rendering prayer pretty vacuous. (Of course, if one defines one’s deity as omnipotent and omniscient, then the concept of prayer can have no effect on the deity anyway—even if it did exist.)