Posted by: Dan | November 16, 2007

Atheist Quotes of the Day

A couple good ones:

“Science should be taught not in order to support religion and not in order to destroy religion. Science should be taught simply ignoring religion.” — Steven Weinberg

“I am an atheist, out and out. It took me a long time to say it. I’ve been an atheist for years and years, but somehow I felt it was intellectually unrespectable to say one was an atheist, because it assumed knowledge that one didn’t have. Somehow, it was better to say one was a humanist or an agnostic. I finally decided that I’m a creature of emotion as well as of reason. Emotionally, I am an atheist. I don’t have the evidence to prove that God doesn’t exist, but I so strongly suspect he doesn’t that I don’t want to waste my time.” — Isaac Asimov


Responses

  1. I’ve always thought agnosticism was a cop-out. I’m not neutral about the proposal that there are 850 lb hot-pink rabbits orbiting Jupiter. I have no direct evidence that there aren’t any, but it seems sufficiently improbable.

  2. Atheists simply believe in one fewer gods than do monotheists.

  3. “I am a theist, out and out. …… I’ve been a theist for years and years, but somehow I felt it was intellectually unrespectable to say one was a theist, because it assumed knowledge that one didn’t have. Somehow, it was better to say one was a humanist or an agnostic. I finally decided that I’m a creature of emotion as well as of reason. Emotionally, I am a theist. I don’t have the evidence to prove that God does exist, but I so strongly suspect he does that I don’t want to waste my time.” : )

  4. unklee,
    That’s great. Can’t say that I care though, other than to say that I’m utterly convinced that it is NOT intellectually respectable to believe in god(s), for the same reason that it’s not intellectually respectable to believe in the literal existence of other mythological or fictional entities.

    Somehow, despite this simple disconnect, I really don’t see how you can say that being a humanist or agnostic (or worse, atheist) is held in high regard in the modern United States, much less the rest of the world. We, as human beings, aren’t by nature intellectually respectable.

  5. Dan

    Thanks for response. My comment was meant to make a point more than be interpreted as 100% literally true for me. (The point of course being that things which sound to some people to be admirable can sound quite the opposite when applied to something they don’t believe in – we are not easily fair-minded.)

    I am not surprised that you say “I’m utterly convinced that it is NOT intellectually respectable to believe in god(s)” – it is a view held by many. But you give the game away a little by saying “other mythological or fictional entities”. While you hold that view (i.e. that all possible gods are fictional) then of course if there is truly a god who is not fictional, you will not be open to that possibility. Before you can make such a statement, you have to establish that all allegedly fictional beings are in fact able to be grouped and considered together, and that the disproof of each one’s existence is of the same nature and same strength. Which of course isn’t true at all – at the very least, some gods offer more evidence for their existence than others do.

    So I guess I can just say: “I’m utterly convinced that it IS intellectually respectable to believe in a god, using similar logic that makes it it intellectually respectable to believe in the literal existence of other aspects of life that are not amenable to scientific analysis.”

    To misquote Bob Dylan: I’ll respect your right and intellectual integrity to hold your view – will you respect my right and intellectual integrity to hold my view?

    Best wishes.

  6. To your last line: absolutely. I merely want to provoke a little thought on all sides. Gods are not self-evident things, even for believers, and each Faith’s believers disbelieve the gods of other Faith’s – who’s right?

    For my own part, I think that Bertrand Russell’s teapot analogy applies. But for humanity in general, there appears to be predisposition to belief, influenced by three things, as I understand it.

    1 – Consciousness: having evolved to become aware that we will, in fact, die one day, we as societies make up stories to comfort ourselves. 2 – Theory of Mind: Our ability to recognize the consciousness of others influences us to even perceive that abstract concepts of nature possess intent (a false positive – the forces of nature don’t themselves have willpower), which gets extended to the notions of gods. 3 – Authoritarianism: the observable fact that large societies function better with a hierarchical authority structure, where we are told what to believe by inscrutable and unquestionable authorities (political and/or religious authorities, doctrines, dogmas, and scriptures).

    All three are psychological and cultural, and there’s no perfect response to any of them, or even one of them.

  7. Dan,

    Provoking “a little thought” is good, but two can play at that game! : )

    No, Gods are not self evident, and “who’s right?” is a good question, and not just a rhetorical one. It is pretty easy to think up some criteria that rule most of them out immediately, so the question isn’t impossible to answer.

    Don’t know about Russell’s teapot analogy, but I would have thought that humans have a predisposition to both belief and scepticism – if only belief as you suggest, then we’d believe anything and everything, and never be consistent. To maintain belief (as either a theist or an atheist) requires belief in some things and scepticism about others. Life consists in part of balancing those two (and other) predispositions.

    But while your 1-2-3 outline is plausible, it doesn’t really address the question of whether a god actually exists. I find atheism quite good at providing all sorts of plausible answers to secondary questions, but poor at addressing the really important questions in a plausible manner. I think if I tried I could construct a corresponding theist 1-2-3, but I don’t think it would prove much.

    Best wishes.

  8. But while your 1-2-3 outline is plausible, it doesn’t really address the question of whether a god actually exists. I find atheism quite good at providing all sorts of plausible answers to secondary questions, but poor at addressing the really important questions in a plausible manner.

    Well, that’s your take. I thought that by saying that gods aren’t self-evident, I had cleared up the question of whether gods exist. By all accounts, the existence of gods is no more than a psychological and/or societal phenomenon, and not really reflected by anything detectable in the physical universe without the a priori assumption that god does exist. Russell’s teapot explains the dilemma with a useful analogy:

    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 an 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.

    As with the teapot, the existence of a god is a non-question – there’s nothing there to ask the question about, just as there really isn’t a celestial teapot out there for us to worship. But we could still worship the dreamed-up teapot if we’d like, just as we could still worship our mythologies. And, for the rational mind, the burden of proof lies with the believers.

  9. Also, to your first bit:

    It is pretty easy to think up some criteria that rule most of them out immediately, so the question isn’t impossible to answer.

    The simplicity of the Teapot analogy kinda makes it sound as though, yes, it’s easy to think up criteria to rule out various gods. The trouble is, it seems that they all get ruled out.

    Are you really willing to subject your own Faith to the scrutiny and skepticism that you suggest applying to other Faiths? I’ve yet to see this done convincingly by a theist.

  10. I recall that I also addressed the question of whether god exists or is merely a false positive inference of agency in #2 of my 1-2-3 list above. To wit:

    If the argument for god(s) amounts to nothing more than arguments from ignorance (see Russell’s Teapot again), then why do so many people make this argument, and infer the existence of something that they call god or gods? <a href=”https://migration.wordpress.com/2007/11/10/agency-and-theory-of-mind/”Theory of Mind is an explanatory model using psychology and neuroscience to argue that the detection of god(s) that aren’t there is a neurological trait that humans possess.

  11. Dan

    Thanks for your forthright but polite opinions. I will be similarly forthright and (I hope) polite.

    It is obvious I should not aim in this discussion to change your basic viewpoint, but I have a more modest aim – to give you a broader perspective of theism than the one you currently have. At least you should know your “enemy”, not have a mythological view of us theists! : )

    “I thought that by saying that gods aren’t self-evident, I had cleared up the question of whether gods exist. By all accounts, the existence of gods is no more than a psychological and/or societal phenomenon”

    What can I say, but “look who knows so much!”? Just because you say it confidently doesn’t make it any more true. You need to offer evidence. But it does prevent you from being open-minded and learning something new. I am sorry about that.

    “Are you really willing to subject your own Faith to the scrutiny and skepticism that you suggest applying to other Faiths?”

    Again, I am amazed at your question – I suggest you really should get out more! : ) Of course I am willing, and in fact have done it all my adult life. Why else would I discuss with you? And there are many other theists who are the same – try Alvin Plantinga for one.

    “not really reflected by anything detectable in the physical universe without the a priori assumption that god does exist”

    Obviously I cannot here attempt a full answer to this, so let me give a brief outline of one of many approaches to this question – the age-old cosmological argument.

    The universe exists, and there can only be a few possible explanations of this, viz:

    1. It has always existed.
    2. Something caused it to exist.
    3. It came into existence without any cause.

    Now the arguments about these 3 options are many and complex, but in summary one can say:

    1. This is not generally believed by scientists (the big bang 14m years ago is almost universally believed), and in fact many scientists and philosophers believe the concept of a physical universe extending back in time infinitely to be impossible, and that it would all be homogeneous pea soup after some finite time.

    2. If the something that caused it to exist was within the physical universe, or another physical universe, we have just set up a regression, and we have to go back to the beginning of that physical cause. We end up with the same question. But, alternatively, perhaps the universe’s cause lies outside the physical space-time dimensions we know.

    3. If we reject the previous two, we end up here. We have no experience of anything not having a cause, and however we dress it up to sound scientific it is quite anti-scientific to hold such a view. But we could nevertheless conclude this.

    So we have three logical possibilities, none of which seems very plausible – yet one of them must be true (unless you have a fourth?). If we are afraid of the second, we can adopt the reductionist view that the only reality is what we can measure in our space-time-matter dimension, even though it involves an apparent impossibility. Or we can conclude that perhaps there is after all something outside our universe.

    The point is not that the outside entity/force can be proven, but that no viewpoint can be proven, and we are each left to draw a conclusion that is less than certain. Yes we can remain agnostic, but those who choose one of the options, whether theists (option 2) or atheists (option 3) have every right to do so.

    So for the purposes of this discussion I conclude, not that God exists, or anything so definite, but that both atheism and theism draw a conclusion based on an assessment of the evidence, but going beyond what can be proven. If you want to be true to the teapot analogy, you should not express such a strong view, but remain agnostic.

    Now this line of argument can be presented much more rigorously and at greater length, but I hope it demonstrates that both of us are in a similar position (as long as you are atheist rather than agnostic), and your scathing comments on theists and faith apply equally to atheists.

    Best wishes

  12. Just because you say it confidently doesn’t make it any more true. You need to offer evidence.

    Clearly you don’t understand the point of Russell’s Teapot on where the burden of proof lies. Although it was our cultural ancestors who first got the notion of gods in their heads, what you’re doing amounts to (i) making something up, and (ii) arguing that I’m illogical for not having proof that what you made up doesn’t exist. That’s ass-backwards and asinine (and yes, I’m refraining saying more on this out of politeness).

    Other items to address in your reply:

    A. If you’re willing to question your own Faith in the way that you would question others’, then please, off up a criticism of, say, the Greek Pantheon for starters.

    B. Please, don’t bother on the arguments for or against infinite regression. Arguments from what you don’t know are foolishness if your aim is some degree of objectivity.

    Yes, technically the teapot analogy (and rational atheism) leads to the conclusion of “Teapot agnosticism.” The same can be true for any mythological entity. For practical purposes though, it’s safe to conclude that what doesn’t appear to be there, isn’t there. At least that’s what I told myself about the monsters under the bed when I was little! ;-)

    Other things that I’m Teapot agnostic about, but laugh at the idea of: Monsters under my bed or in the closet (mentioned), unicorns and fairies, goblins and gremlins, that someone’s death a few thousand years ago absolves me of certain moral responsibilities, that animals can talk in human language, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and, oh, I hope by now that you get the idea. We laugh hysterically about things everyday that we should technically be agnostic about. So why are you asking me to not conclude that the idea of gods is psychological and neurological at best, and delusional at worst? By all indications, that range of conclusions seem reasonable.

  13. Dan

    Thanks again, especially for “refraining saying more on this out of politeness”, but this actually highlights a problem. You clearly believe my views are “psychological and neurological at best, and delusional at worst”. But this means that you haven’t really bothered to present a consistent or valid argument, which is frustrating.

    Rather, you seem to be doing what other atheists of my acquaintance do, and rattle off a lot of ideas but with little rigour. In this sort of context, that is understandable, and I am a little guilty of it myself. So let’s try to add just a little rigour ….

    1. You make a lot of general statements that don’t stand scrutiny, but if you say enough of them, who is going to pick them up? Some samples …

    “it’s safe to conclude that what doesn’t appear to be there, isn’t there”

    What sort of principle is this? Certainly not a “safe” one! Atoms don’t “appear” to be there, neither do super strings, neither do viruses, until you go beyond the superficial appearance. We are talking about something (an alleged god) who needs a slightly more sophisticated analysis than this statement!

    “what you’re doing amounts to (i) making something up, and (ii) arguing that I’m illogical for not having proof that what you made up doesn’t exist.”

    This just isn’t the case. (i) I didn’t make the idea of God up, the idea of God is there and has been for thousands of years. We are both responding to it. (ii) And I don’t argue that you’re illogical for not disproving my belief. But you have said you’re an atheist, i.e. you make the statement that no god exists, and I am entitled to expect a demonstration of the logic of that statement, as I am willing to do for mine.

    2. You seem to put great store in the psychological explanations (e.g. “the idea of gods is psychological and neurological at best, and delusional at worst”), but these attempt to explain why a person comes to a conclusion, not whether the conclusion is true or not. They are a smokescreen. An irrational person can sometimes hold a rational belief, and vice versa. We need to use logical explanations, not psychological ones.

    3. “Clearly you don’t understand the point of Russell’s Teapot on where the burden of proof lies.”

    I think I understand it quite well. But in logic, the burden of proof lies with the person making the statement. Check out the arguments by mathematicians or philosophers, and they attempt to justify rigorously every step. If I make a statement “a god exists”, I need to be able to justify it. If you make a statement that “no god exists”, you need to be able to justify it. If you can’t justify it in a logical manner, then you need to make a different statement, such as “I don’t know” (one of the few statements that doesn’t require justification) or “I don’t care”.

    4. References to the FSM and other mythical entities is a favourite tactic of atheists, but it isn’t valid. Such statements are effectively arguments by analogy, and a philosophy textbook will show that arguments by analogy can only be valid if the analogy can be shown to be valid in the areas where the similarity is important. So your mentions of fairies and goblins, etc, can only be valid argument if you establish that the analogy is valid in important areas. Let me give just one example.

    By any reasonable definition, the alleged entity “god” is a being responsible for the creation of the universe. Most of your alleged analogies totally fail at that point – no-one seriously alleges that the FSM or fairies did that or would be capable of it, and even so-called gods like Thor fail that one.

    This is just one aspect of the alleged god. If you go through the classic arguments for the existence of God, you end up with many other characteristics which also fail the analogy test. You end up defining the characteristics of a being who, even if his/her/its existence is not established, rule out virtually all analogies except entities more or less equivalent to God. Which still leaves us where we started, the evidence for and against.

    BTW, this was what I meant by “it is pretty easy to think up some criteria that rule most of them out”. It is also the answer to the FSM, gremlins, the teapot, etc – they are all so different to an alleged god that the argument from analogy fails totally, or perhaps you’d lie to try to justify the analogy?

    5. When we clear away all the smokescreen, there is a set of serious arguments that attempt to establish the existence of a God. I briefly alluded to one of them. Those arguments are the things you have to deal with if you want to establish the non-existence of a god, not the inappropriate analogies and psychological insinuations you have used, without providing anything that resembles, even in summary form, an argument from premises to conclusion with justification. Until you do that, it is you who are refusing to be rational and I who am trying to be.

    So like I said at the start, can we continue the conversation with you respecting the theistic position enough to offer some credible and properly structured arguments please? (Now it is my turn to say I’m trying to be polite, and don’t wish to cause offense, and to apologise if I have done so.)

    Thanks for your time.

  14. Addendum: I realise there was a typo, and I said “perhaps you’d lie to try to justify the analogy?” Of course I meant to say “perhaps you’d LIKE to try to justify the analogy?” Sorry for any apparent rudeness, which I didn’t intend. (It’s not often that a typo comes out with such an embarrassing meaning.)

  15. You clearly believe my views are “psychological and neurological at best, and delusional at worst”. But this means that you haven’t really bothered to present a consistent or valid argument, which is frustrating.

    Um, no. It means that you haven’t really bothered to present a consistent or valid argument from reason, but instead one from an argument based on ignorance (not that you are ignorant, but that your argument is based upon what you feel, not know). Why is this? Well, clearly your mind/brain is involved somehow, right?

    So if you’re going to accuse me of being without intellectual rigor, I urge you to look in the mirror.

    (At this point I stopped reading your comment, as you’re beginning to waste my time and this IS frustrating.)

    Enjoy worshiping whatever Teapot you wish. What’s that? You don’t worship the Teapot?! You should, or at least you should respect the Teapotists, or you’ll face eternal damnation. And on into absurdity the mocking of your argument goes…

  16. Dan

    I guess one of us was going to end this soon, but I am sorry about the manner in which it has happened. I said earlier that I wasn’t trying to change you from your atheism, but simply trying to show that your assumption that theists were delusional and irrational was not necessarily true.

    You say “It means that you haven’t really bothered to present a consistent or valid argument from reason, but instead one from an argument based on ignorance”. But in fact I have alluded to (not presented because of space) serious and well tested philosophical arguments, such as the cosmological. I have tried to apply the rules of logic, such as argument by analogy. These are well tested philosophical processes, and I have taken them from reading textbooks by competent peer-reviewed philosophers.

    Of course they do not and cannot prove the existence of a god, but they also show that the non-existence of a god also cannot be proved, and show that imperfect analogies such as you offered are invalid.

    In return, you have offered ridicule and a re-statement of your appreciation of the teapot analogy, but have not attempted to either engage with the cosmological argument, nor justify your use of the analogies of the FSM and teapot. I leave it to your readers to judge who has tried to be rational.

    So, I am sorry you are frustrated. You said you liked to provoke thought, and as I feel the same, I had hoped for a more positive outcome, in terms of mutual understanding. But obviously it is best to leave it there.

    I will read with interest any response you may make, but in view of your comments, I will not respond again unless you specifically ask me to.

    My best wishes to you and your wife.

  17. Of course they do not and cannot prove the existence of a Celestial Teapots, but they also show that the non-existence of a teapot also cannot be proved, and show that imperfect analogies such as you offered are invalid.

    All Hail the Teapot!

    (Now, see how silly that sounds?)

    Now, I’m being silly in a satirical way. Unfortunately, you on the other hand, are trying to pretend that it’s not silly. Really. It’s pathetic. Do you really go around saying to yourself “I can’t disprove my god, so I might as well worship it???” What about Teapots? I can’t disprove Celestial Teapots, so we might as well worship them too.

    Thanks for the silly sophistry. You’re a nice person, really. But you’re being silly.

  18. By the way, yes, I will continue repeating the Teapot analogy until you get it. I simply see no practical difference between worshiping Teapots and worshiping gods. The psychological, neurological, and sociological explanations of religion make much more sense than the proposition that there’s an invisible god out there somewhere.

    For further reading on my positions, I’ve also blogged on the following topics:

    Agency and Theory of Mind – On the neurological basis of the god inference.

    Theology and Falsification – There’s no distinguishable difference between the existence of gods and the non-existence of gods; the parsimonious explanation is therefore the latter.

    Religion and Ethnocentrism – On the authoritarian and ethnocentric aspects of religion, and why they’re plausible as partial explanations for there being religion at all.

    And, although I haven’t blogged on it, there is strong evidence for Links between religious thoughts and fear of death. – Anxieties relating to our existence and inevitable demise one day are another plausible partial explanation for there being religion.

    Then there are scholarly works worth reading as well:

    Atran, Scott (2002) In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion.

    Boyer, Pascal (2001) Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought.

    Dennett, Daniel C. (2006) Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.

    James, William (1901) Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature.

  19. The teapot analogy illustrates the fallaciousness of arguing from ignorance for the existence of God. But it does not rule out the possibility of holding a tenable belief in God based on reason and evidence.

    Unklee appears to be suggesting that his belief arises from evidence, although he admits it is inconclusive evidence. His position therefore appears to be, at least intellectually, a provisional belief in God. (Perhaps emotionally his feeling of certainty about God might be greater than might appear to be warranted by his intellectual position.) He indicates that he has drawn “a conclusion based on an assessment of the evidence, but going beyond what can be proven.” By “beyond what can be proven” is apparently meant, “not established objectively with complete certainty”. So “unproven” does not equate to “without evidence”. It is certainly intellectually defensible to hold a belief as a likely hypothesis so long as one does not overstate one’s case. Unklee evidently sees somewhat more weight of evidence in favour of belief in God than against it. Such a position is not arguing from ignorance as such.

    It is relevant to consider how high a standard of proof is appropriate with regard to things like belief in God, political opinions, preference of career, pastimes, etc. Basically any individual only needs to have sufficient basis of belief regarding these types of questions in order to be able to act confidently on them for their own purposes. For example, does one “believe” in the candidate enough to actively campaign for their election? Does one believe in God enough to motivate attendance at church every Sunday (or whatever one’s belief entails)? One of the ironies of life is that these types of questions, which have a major bearing on how one lives day to day, are virtually impossible to explain or pin down with the rigorous objective clarity that is possible in the physical sciences. We have to fly by the seat of our pants, trusting in our own power of judgment, for better or worse.

    Belief in God is about how one “reads” the totality of experience. So far as the individual believer is concerned, their belief in God is formed out of every minute of their experience, every facet of their sensibilities, and everything they know. It is impossible for any other person to adequately comprehend or assess from the outside the full range of experience that goes into a religious believer’s belief. The believer may not be able to cleverly articulate his or her belief, but nevertheless be existentially sure enough of it to happily live by it.

    Every individual has a world view that is particular to themselves and of which no-one has the right to deprive them. This is why freedom of conscience is a fundamental human right. And also why it is good manners in any discussion to assume that maybe the other guy might know something that is not apparent to oneself.

  20. John,
    “But it does not rule out the possibility of holding a tenable belief in God based on reason and evidence.”

    Which is quite the point. I ask for evidence, yet Unklee admitted early on that gods are not self-evident things. Thus, as you note he isn’t quite arguing for a provable god. You call it a provisional belief in his god, and I would agree to that, except maybe saying that it was a subjective belief in his god instead of a provisional, but they amount to the same thing, as I understand it. I think that this is at the core of the argument, and you highlighted comments of Unklee’s that I may have overlooked, that address my items, including:

    He indicates that he has drawn “a conclusion based on an assessment of the evidence, but going beyond what can be proven.” By “beyond what can be proven” is apparently meant, “not established objectively with complete certainty”. So “unproven” does not equate to “without evidence”. It is certainly intellectually defensible to hold a belief as a likely hypothesis so long as one does not overstate one’s case. Unklee evidently sees somewhat more weight of evidence in favour of belief in God than against it. Such a position is not arguing from ignorance as such.

    Point taken. And as always, your rhetorical skills outdo mine, I think. Still, you conclude at the end of your comment:

    Every individual has a world view that is particular to themselves and of which no-one has the right to deprive them. This is why freedom of conscience is a fundamental human right. And also why it is good manners in any discussion to assume that maybe the other guy might know something that is not apparent to oneself.

    Indeed – I hope that I have not deprived Unklee of his subjective viewpoint! Even the atheist viewpoint is emotional and subjective, as described in the Asimov quote that began this thread. As such, technically speaking and as noted, one can only logically be agnostic. Objectively speaking, one must be, technically, a Teapot agnostic as well.

    This is my own position, and that of this blog (feel free to make up your own minds) – that if you are to dismiss Celestial Teapots, you must also dismiss gods, or be rationally inconsistent.

    But that’s just my opinion.

  21. Dan,

    On the whole, I agree with the latest comments you’ve made.

    And regarding your opinion, I will defend “to the death” your right to hold it, regardless of whether I agree with it.

    I feel that God requires this of me! :-)

  22. John

    Thanks for your involvement in this discussion. Your paragraph summarising what you thought I meant was spot on. When I assess the various philosophical arguments regarding God, and the personal experience in history (specifically the history of the great religions), in others’ lives and my own life, I do indeed see evidence for God that outweighs the evidence against, although that evidence falls short of “proof”. And I think atheists are in a similar situation.

    A picture may help. Imagine a landscape where a river flows between two high mountains. One mountain is atheism and one is theism, and the top of each mountain is proof of that position. The river, or course, is agnosticism. I see everyone as living along the river (they don’t know either way) or part way up the mountain (seeing evidence which falls short of proof). Some think they are at the top (they think they have proof), but they are mistaken, they are only at a knoll part way up. But even a person only a short distance up the mountain is on one side of the river, and has thus taken a stand either for or against belief in God. And my point was simply that both theists and atheists were in the same position – seeing evidence but not sufficient to provide certainty – though on opposite sides of the river, and thus each should avoid accusing the other of being illogical.

    Thank you for your other thoughtful comments also.

  23. Dan

    Following our exchange of emails, I will re-join this discussion, but will limit myself for now to answering a question you asked and asking you a couple.

    You asked (#17): “Do you really go around saying to yourself “I can’t disprove my god, so I might as well worship it???” What about Teapots?”

    The answer is no. As outlined to John above, I believe the evidence points towards God existing. Although the evidence falls short of full proof, it outweighs, in my view, the evidence for God not existing. That evidence includes, as I have said previously, the various philosophical arguments, including the cosmological one which I outlined in #11, where I explained that there are few possibilities about the origin of the universe, and I find the God-option most likely because the others seem to be to be unsatisfactorily implausible.

    As for teapots, I cannot find any plausible argument to suggest I should believe in them (in contrast to God), nor to believe that any analogy between teapots and God makes any sense.

    Now to my questions of you:

    1. Since you put great store in the teapot analogy, and since you believe I do not understand it, can I reiterate my request that you explain it in slightly more formal terms please? What I mean is this: a statement of the premise, the argument and the conclusion. Then perhaps we can both see what strength the argument has.

    2. I outlined in brief form in #11 the cosmological argument for the existence of God. In formal terms (as I asked of you above) it might take this form:

    Premise: the universe exists
    Argument:
    1. there are 3 possibilities – it always existed, it had a cause, or it had no cause.
    2. Science has established that it hasn’t always existed. Having no cause is something I find impossible to believe (at any rate we know of no examples of such a thing). So having a cause seems most logical.
    3. The only two possible causes I can think of are (a) another universe, or (b) a god. But (a) sets up an infinite regress which makes no sense.
    Conclusion: a god seems to be the most plausible explanation for the universe.

    My question is, how do you see that argument?

    Thanks and best wishes.

  24. Unklee,

    Thanks for your kind comments. The valley and rivers analogy paints a graphic picture. I’ll be interested to see what Dan makes of it.

    With apologies to Dan for butting in, the teapot analogy is an illustration of the fallacy of “argument from ignorance”. See Wikipedia article of that title for an explanation. The article states at the outset:

    “The argument from ignorance, also known as argumentum ad ignorantiam (‘appeal to ignorance’) or argument by lack of imagination, is a logical fallacy in which it is claimed that a premise is true only because it has not been proven false or that a premise is false only because it has not been proven true.”

    For the believer to believe in God only because the atheist cannot disprove the existence of God, is an argument from ignorance. In this context, believing in God is no better than believing in a Celestial Teapot. One could dream up anything one likes to believe in, such as the lately popular flying spaghetti monster and the invisible pink unicorn, or the celestial teapot, but the absence of disproof for these entities does not amount to proof of their existence. Likewise God, if one cannot advance reasons for believing in Him. There seems to be a widespread misconception that religious faith means “believing without evidence”, and this misconception is the foundation for all the talk of flying teapots.

    Some comments I would offer on the formulation of your cosmological argument are as follows. The possible appearance of our known universe out of another universe does not exactly “make no sense” in itself. If this is what is thought to have happened, an infinite regress is not necessarily implied. There could be 1 or 10 or 100 other universes. Moreover, the idea of an infinite number of universes may not be untenable. I understand that modern mathematics has found examples of infinite regresses in existence. The question has to be pushed back further. Where does being itself come from?

    A favoured answer of atheists to the question of the Cause of phenomenal reality is — there is no need to seek a Cause, “it just is”. Strangely enough, this is not very different from what theists have been saying all along, i.e., that there is a realm of reality which “just is”. This realm of reality has been named by theists, God (Allah, etc.). As God said to Moses on Mt Sinai, “I Am Who I Am”. Now that which “just is” must necessarily exist, whereas phenomenal entities such as ourselves, the planet we live on, the sun it revolves around, and so forth, do not necessarily exist. They emerge out of potentialities. In the language of Aristotle, they are “accidental” formations. The possibility of their existence rests on underlying “laws” or principles. Given this situation, we should ask, which is the greater — the laws and principles which give rise to entities, or the entities themselves? For example, the operation of these principles has resulted in the appearance of intelligent life. Intelligence consists of the ability to apprehend entities and discover the relationships between them. These very entities and relationships existed before intelligent life was around to perceive them. Human intelligence can only exist because the universe contains complex formations that are there to be understood. These formations arise from properties of “that which just is”. Therefore, “that which just is” must be intelligent — in fact it must be the epitome of intelligence: the real thing, of which human intelligence is only a pale imitation. This is a hierarchical model of reality, with pure intelligence, i.e. God, at the top. And as mentioned previously, God, i.e. pure being, cannot be part and parcel of the universe, for pure being must necessarily exist, whereas phenomenal entities come into existence “accidentally” as a result of chains of causation. Where the chains of causation stop, and there is something that “just is”, we call that God. God is the initiator of the chains of causation. This concept of God is not dependent on there being only one universe, nor on the universe necessarily having a beginning or an end.

    I’m not a trained philosopher, so perhaps my argument is full of holes. I hope at least it may be of some interest. It is derived from my reading of Baha’i writings, but there is every likelihood that my understanding of those writings is inadequate. My suggestions might at least be a catalyst for further points to be made by others more capable than myself.

  25. Unklee, to your questions:

    1. I don’t know of a ‘formalized’ argument for the Teapot analogy. The point is that you cannot prove or disprove either Teapots or gods, and that you cannot rationally dismiss one over the other without applying a great deal of bias. For me, I can’t find any plausible reason to actually believe Teapots either – and so too with gods, I cannot find any plausible reason to believe in them.

    2. The cosmological argument is an argument from ignorance, as I’ve responded. Further, science hasn’t demonstrated that the universe hasn’t always existed, so your conclusion is based on an assumption about what happened prior to the Big Bang, and your conclusion becomes wild conjecture.

    Thanks John for assisting with the explanation of the Celestial Teapot analogy.

    John,
    Very well said. Some comments however:

    A favoured answer of atheists to the question of the Cause of phenomenal reality is — there is no need to seek a Cause, “it just is”. Strangely enough, this is not very different from what theists have been saying all along, i.e., that there is a realm of reality which “just is”. This realm of reality has been named by theists, God (Allah, etc.). As God said to Moses on Mt Sinai, “I Am Who I Am”.

    By naming the Cause, and trying to describe it along the lines of the argument from ignorance, I think that theists go beyond “it just is.” Throughout history, faithful believers have sought a first cause, quite clearly, by creating gods to worship and by creating mythologies surrounding those gods. The atheist, on the other hand, also has a tough time with the question of First Cause – by the virtue that I’m human, for instance, makes me want to postulate a First Cause. The unavoidable conclusion however is, that I just don’t know. So yes, “it just is, and I wish I knew why, but I don’t,” fully applies.

    Cheers.

  26. Unklee,
    Also, I hear you referring in multiple comments that you have evidence pointing towards your god existing. Please present it, as I’d love to hear them and attempt to explain to you why I find them to be irrational.

    You’ve already offered the Cosmological Argument, and it was just pointed out that this is based upon the false assumption that we know that there had to be a First Cause. Do you have any others?

  27. Dan,

    Various further thoughts spring to mind but being short of time right now, I mention just these:

    It is no surprise that human beings having identified that there is an aspect behind reality that “just is”, would give a name to it, and try to work out what its properties are. This is what we do as thinking beings: identify things, give names to them, study their properties. Of course in the case of the reality known as God this is a futile exercise for in principle we can’t know what Being-in-Itself actually is. We are locked inside our status as phenomenal entities and therefore can only comprehend other phenomenal entities. The painting can’t understand the painter. So all mythologies etc. about God should not be taken to resemble God in any sort of exact correspondence; God being actually indescribable. Nevertheless, since that which just is gives rise to intelligence, we can see that it must not be unintelligent. Since it gives rise to power, we can see that it must not be lacking in power. Since it gives rise to human qualities such as justice and compassion, it could not be lacking in these either. So it its not unreasonable to postulate an all-knowing, just, merciful, yet ultimately unknowable, “God”. By which is meant, whatever unknown Force produces the phenomena of the universe, produces the outcomes which make up its characteristics, so is the fountainhead of them and must itself possess them. Man is not the pinnacle of everything: we have come into existence through the agency of something greater than ourselves.

  28. John,
    Quite true, but I can’t help but recognizing that the concept of “God” has been getting more and more abstract, and more and more pigeon-holed into a euphemism for anything larger than ourselves that we cannot understand. And, by virtue of the fact that we’re human, and dominated by our psychological predispositions, we need to formulate these mythologies in order to consciously and productively structure our lives.

    We do need our mythologies or cultural narratives. For some that I find very appealing, please check out the writing of another blogging acquaintance of mine: Jacob, who is a graduate student in physics at Penn State, and writes at Reflections, Ideas, and Dreams. Of particular interest to me, are his posts on the mythologies relating to Joseph Campbell’s and Carl Sagan’s books, a post of his on The Power of Our Myth, and others.

    For the pigeon-holed or abstracted version of god, however – that’s still akin to the Teapotist arguing that “So all mythologies etc. about the Teapot should not be taken to resemble the Teapot in any sort of exact correspondence; the Teapot being actually indescribable,” etc., to quote you and insert the “Teapot” for “God.” So too for:

    Since it gives rise to power, we can see that it must not be lacking in power. Since it gives rise to human qualities such as justice and compassion, it could not be lacking in these either. So it its not unreasonable to postulate an all-knowing, just, merciful, yet ultimately unknowable, “Teapot”.

    Is the tendency to do this irrational, or simply part of being human? Richard Dawkins suggests that it’s the former – I think it’s both, which brings into relevance the question “Why is it part of being human to be irrational at times?,” and the psychological/neurological/sociological investigations into religiosity, as mentioned previously.

  29. John

    Thanks again. I think there is little further comment I need make. Just these:

    1. You say: “the teapot analogy is an illustration of the fallacy of “argument from ignorance””. Of course I agree with that. But the cosmic teapot analogy assumes that there is no evidence for God, whereas there is plenty, albeit it is all arguable.

    For example, Richard Norman writing in “New Humanist” says of one of the arguments for the existence of God: “The argument fails [in his opinion]. But it is still an argument. As so often, deciding whether an argument succeeds is a matter of judgement – of faith, if you like, in the second sense. But a mistaken argument is still an argument, still an appeal to reason and evidence.”

    There are no such plausible, though arguable, arguments for the teapot, so it seems to me that it adds nothing of value.

    2. Re your comments on the Cosmological argument. Yes, I agree that there are more subtleties about the possibility of a number of previous universes than I mentioned – I was trying to be brief! But in then end, when we follow such a hypothetical line back, we eventually get to my 3 options. And I still think that the god option is simpler, more believable and explains more than the others. Many competent philosophers agree, though of course many do not.

    That is my judgment, as Norman says above, and while I don’t expect everyone else to make the same judgment, I think it is reasonable to hope that those who disagree will recognise my reasons and not call me delusional, etc, just as I try to respect their judgment.

    3. I think your discussion of the character of the universe and us within it is very interesting, and I agree generally with you. But in my experience, non-theists explain these things by the concept of “emergent properties”, where new things can arise where they once didn’t exist. I agree with you, but that is the other viewpoint.

    Thanks and best wishes.

  30. Dan,

    I will confine myself to accepting your invitation to present the evidence I see as pointing to the existence of a god.

    I will start by making three preliminary points:

    1. I have said all along that my main purpose in entering this discussion was to encourage you to respect rather than ridicule the theist position. So in the following explanation, I am not arguing so much as explaining how I see things, in the hope you can respect that.

    2. Obviously this could take a book, so all I can do is give brief notes. But I’d be happy to explain any point further.

    3. I have never claimed to be able to prove the existence of God, only that my assessment of the evidence points to that conclusion being more likely than any other. This is how we make most decisions in life.

    So here in brief is why I believe …..

    (i) I don’t think the cosmological argument is at all discredited as you say, and a glance at philosophy texts will show this – it is respected but not conclusive. You dismiss it as an “argument from ignorance”, but that is how many decisions are made in life. Sherlock Holmes said: “When you eliminate the impossible, whatever you have left, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” So when I consider the options, I still think the God explanation is at least plausible, and to me the more likely.

    (ii) You are probably also familiar with the argument from design. The laws and constants in the universe are so finely tuned that even very small changes in them would have made the universe impossible – not just different, but impossible. To have happened by chance is impossible odds. How do we explain this? Design by God is one explanation, but there are of course many others. I will only mention a couple. One is the multiverse, the theory that a zillion universes have formed, and we happen to be in the one that “worked”. Another is that we’ll find the scientific answer one day. Again, having considered all the options, I find the rest of them even harder to swallow than believing in God. Perhaps we will find the answer one day, but for me that requires more blind faith than believing in God.

    (iii) Most people have a “high” view of humanity. We believe people have genuine choice and think rationally. We believe some things (e.g. pedophilia) are really wrong. We mostly seem unable to think any less than this about humanity. Yet if the universe arose by chance, it is hard to show how any of these things can be true. As Professor William Provine (an atheist) says:
    “Naturalistic evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly. 1) No gods worth having exist; 2) no life after death exists; 3) no ultimate foundation for ethics exists; 4) no ultimate meaning in life exists; and 5) human free will is nonexistent.”

    Thus without God, it is hard to see how we can believe in human choice, ethics, rationality and the value of human life. I believe in those things, so for me the god-option makes more sense. I don’t believe many people can actually live consistently with those logical consequences – certainly Bertrand Russell found himself to be inconsistent at this point (I have a quote).

    (iv) I have studied the historical analysis of the life of Jesus, not just by strong believers and strong unbelievers, but mostly by neutral, peer-reviewed scholars. The historical evidence for his existence and the broad outlines of his life is good (I can give quotes). So while historians can’t verify a lot of what is recorded about him, they can verify enough to give us a clear picture. Now some historians go that far, but don’t believe he told the truth, whereas others believe his did tell the truth. Again, it can’t be proven, but my honest assessment is that it is more reasonable, on the basis of what the mainstream of impartial historians can establish, to believe him than to disbelieve him.

    (v) Millions of people claim to have experienced God in some way, including miracles of healing. I know many of them are unbelievable and many more lack any corroborating evidence, but some do have evidence – e.g. one miracle recently attested to by a medical specialist in the US is recounted on the web. I cannot believe, much less prove, that all these stories are untrue. I know believing any of them to be true raises many problems, but honesty requires me to provisionally accept some, such as the one I mentioned.

    (vi) Finally, I have now been a theist for more than 40 years. Many times I have examined my conclusions and the belief that flows from them, and I still find them consistent. While I can report no spectacular encounters with God, I can report many “coincidences” that for me are best explained by God’s intervention – including one time when he saved me from serious accident.

    So ….

    Six pieces of evidence, none of them conclusive, but all of them interesting at least and persuasive at best. In each case, logic and evidence leads me to conclude that God’s existence is a more reasonable conclusion than any other. And cumulatively, the argument is much stronger.

    So I submit that while I don’t expect everyone else to agree with me, my belief is NOT based on blind faith or a delusion, but on a reasonable assessment of evidence.

    Thank you for asking, and reading. Sorry it was so long, but how could I shorten it? Best wishes.

  31. Unklee,
    To your first reply of the day (comment 29), of course we assume that you have your reasons, but are they rational or irrational reasons? If one presents an irrational and fallacious argument, and especially if that person is unwilling or unable to recognize the mistake, then doesn’t that fit the description for delusional? (or at least more concerned with ideology than fact)

    Unfortunately my reply to your other comment (#30) will have to wait a few hours, due to work obligations.

  32. Unklee,

    Re your point (1) to me, I fully agree, and in fact what you said there is what I meant to indicate by this earlier sentence of mine: “There seems to be a widespread misconception that religious faith means ‘believing without evidence’, and this misconception is the foundation for all the talk of flying teapots.” In the recent furore over Paul Davies’ article in the NYT about science and faith, many commentators (including Dan), were defining “faith” as belief without evidence. So far in this thread I have the impression that Dan is trying to fill the teapot with a stronger brew than it was designed to contain. It only shows that belief in the total absence of evidence is invalid. On the other hand if evidence is presented but it is faulty evidence, this is not “arguing from ignorance”, as such, and therefore not automatically discreditable. One may consider the other guy “ignorant” on account of having got his facts wrong, in which case one should demonstrate the factual deficiency, rather than suggest the argument is logically invalid. (But your Sherlock Holmes quote sounds perilously close to arguing from ignorance. You may have to qualify it to avoid the trap.) Dan disagrees with you on the assertion that “science has demonstrated the universe did not always exist.” This is a disagreement on the facts, and I don’t see that Dan is entitled to call it arguing from ignorance, even supposing he is right about the facts and you are wrong. (Sorry Dan.)

    Re your point (2) I am in broad agreement but I sense that you are thinking of the First Cause as the initiator of at least a “first universe” which then went on generating other universes. This puts God at the beginning in time. However, it may well be that there is no limit to the past or future. The difficulties arising are avoided if one considers God to be outside of time and the First Cause in the sense of the uncaused sustainer of everything that exists in the temporal realm of causes and effects. Such a view also avoids the “clockwork universe” model of deism. And it is not pantheism either because it regards God as transcendent and independent of creation.

    Re your point (3), the idea of “emergent properties” sounds as if it might not be inconsistent with the view I’m putting forward. However, I’d be interested to know more.

    By the way, in your point (iii) to Dan, are you meaning to suggest that evolution of species according to natural laws per se is inconsistent with theism? Or only what is termed in the quotation you give, “naturalistic evolution”?

  33. Dan,

    Re your comment, No. 28, the first two paragraphs contain many interesting points worth further discussion. Re the third paragraph I have to ask you for further clarification because I’m not sure that I understand your point. Back to that later.

    From one perspective mythologies can be regarded as tools for thinking pictorially and by way of stories. Mythologies offer a way of approaching a subject using language that is different from the “cold” language of precise science. However too much adherence of past mythological ways of thinking can be detrimental to clear thought, since in some ways they are an “immature” form of thought, by contrast with the more “adult” type of thinking that is emerging in present times. Nevertheless, the language of metaphor, allusion, and multiple meanings, is still much needed. Mythology doesn’t need to be thrown out but reinterpreted, as Freudian and Jungian psychology has been busy doing, for example.

    Now, about your third paragraph:

    “For the pigeon-holed or abstracted version of god, however – that’s still akin to the Teapotist arguing that ‘So all mythologies etc. about the Teapot should not be taken to resemble the Teapot in any sort of exact correspondence; the Teapot being actually indescribable,’ etc., to quote you and insert the ‘Teapot’ for ‘God.'”

    I’m not sure what is accomplished in this exchange of the word “Teapot” for the word God, except to give God another name besides Dieu, Allah, Atua, etc., etc., and we already know that there can be many different names for the same thing. I’m confused because it seems that you admit there is a reality or realities greater than ourselves, so that when people talk of God or gods they are referring to something and not nothing — so how is a nonexistent entity like Russell’s Celestial Teapot applicable?

    There are signs of a certain diction being used for rhetorically slanting the playing field. Some translations, for example:

    pigeon-holed = refined
    euphemism = word or term

    This gives us:

    “… the concept of ‘God’ has been getting more and more abstract, and more and more [refined] into a [term] for anything larger than ourselves that we cannot understand.”

    Since when did God not mean “something larger than our selves that we cannot understand”? And what is wrong with developing a more abstract understanding of this Reality? I thought it was the more concrete and mythological understandings that were a problem from a modern scientific and philosophical perspective.

    So long as “that which just is”, is considered to be greater than ourselves, the essence of the concept commonly labelled God is retained. Admittedly the English word God carries some confusing baggage, so by all means use another word, and if one doesn’t feel silly calling Ultimate Reality a Celestial Teapot, well why not? I’m sure God has a sense of humour.

  34. Unklee, to your second comment of the day:

    1. No position deserves unquestioning and inscrutable respect. You have Freedom of Speech here, and are welcome to say whatever you wish. But you don’t get a free pass at respect, you have to earn that.

    2. Take your time, if you like.

    3. i. The Cosmological Argument – “respected” but “not conclusive” you say, “wild conjecture” I say. Tomay-toes, Tomah-toes. Note also who is respecting it: theoreticians of what is possible, not astronomers with even indirect evidence. So it may be respected, but until it moves from possibility to probability, it is still not a strong basis for constructing solid arguments.

    For further arguing against the Cosmological Argument, see the Wikipedia entry (not an authoritative resource, but a halfway decent first approximation of useful counterarguments):

    One very simple objection is that, in the formulation above, the conclusion. There must be a first cause (which itself does not have a cause) leaves open the question of why the First Cause should not require a cause. Though this is not an intrinsic self-contradiction with the assumption that every effect should have a cause, since not everything is necessarily an effect, it may be argued, not without controversy, that an infinite regression of causes is in fact possible.

    And for more, check out the Regress Argument.

    ii. Yes, the argument for design, and the anthropic principle. Post hoc formulations constructed to formulate conclusions that we wish to reach. It creates a nice cultural narrative that the universe was designed for us, with no acknowledgement that the universe is huge, and we are living on an apparently insignificant speck of a planet, as just one of hundreds of millions of species. Did you know that there are at least 250,000 species of beetles? And even more of bacteria. If the universe were designed, it seems more likely to me that it was designed for them, not us.

    Seriously though, no, I don’t think that the egocentric view of the universe holds any sway either. Geocentrism has gone the way of the dodo, but the anthropic principle and argument for design are the philosophical step-children of geocentrism. They, too, should be discarded, IMHO.

    iii. Yes, I agree with Provine. We should add however, that while Ultimate Truth, First Cause, or other related concepts may not exist, we create our own narratives or mythologies or subjective Truths, that we believe in regardless of whether they are true or not. A self-aware individual recognizes that he or she has such subjective beliefs, and does not try to assert that they are literally true. Joseph Campbell said in his book Hero With A Thousand Faces:

    Whenever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed. It is never difficult to demonstrate that as science and history, mythology is absurd. When a civilization begins to interpret its mythology in this way, the life goes out of it. Temples become museums, and the link between the two perspectives is dissolved.

    Also, you say: “Thus without God, it is hard to see how we can believe in human choice, ethics, rationality and the value of human life. ” Well, choices are not completely random, so in a sense we do not have Free Will. We do however have options, and we call these choices. Rationality – as a scientists and defender of empiricism, I think that observability (direct or indirect) in the natural world is a strong measure of what is real. That is the basis for my rationality. What is yours?

    Feel free to mention your Bertrand Russell quote also, and we can discuss it.

    iv. Actually, I do think that there was a person called Jesus. The question of Christianity is whether you believe that his actions 2,000 years ago absolve you of certain moral responsibilities, as I see it. I say no, whether our mistakes are defendable or not, and regardless of whether we are forgiven by others for our mistakes, we still have responsibility to make amends for our mistakes (aka sins).

    v. Placebos work better than prayers at creating miracles, statistically speaking: Long-Awaited Medical Study Questions the Power of Prayer.

    vi. You consider “coincidences” as evidence?! The term for that belief is superstition.

  35. John,
    Re: the “Stronger brew than the Teapot can contain,” I’m not trying to substitute an analogy as proof – I’m just trying to explain that belief in gods looks just as silly as belief in teapots, to me. You’re here commenting, and I take that as evidence that you’re interested in the nature of my disbelief. There it is.

    Also, whether you call it something other than Argument from Ignorance or not, you still concede that it is based on faulty evidence at the very least. Why should we not discard arguments based upon faulty evidence?

    Thanks for the comment on #28 – unfortunately, with the move, an essay on my take on such things will have to wait. I would probably discuss the work of others who’ve written more extensively than I, so a citation of them for the moment might be useful, including: Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth (on the value of myth); Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot (as counter-argument to the Anthropic Principle), The Demon-Haunted World (as a defense of methodological naturalism, if not philosophical naturalism), and The Varieties of Scientific Experience (on the modern scientists’ views of God, to be read with William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience); and Atran and Boyer (on evolutionary psychology and anthropology of religions). But that’s just for starters.

    Perhaps in the future though, my time would be well spent to discuss such topics more extensively.

    I’m not sure what is accomplished in this exchange of the word “Teapot” for the word God, except to give God another name besides Dieu, Allah, Atua, etc., etc., and we already know that there can be many different names for the same thing.

    True, and as stated, it’s also another way to explain my viewpoint of the Abrahamic religions being just as much a matter of biased faith as the Dharmic religions, and so on.

    Yes, euphemism= word or term, but I disagree that pigeon-holed = refined. “God” is more or less a term for “anything larger than ourselves that we cannot understand,” aka the unknown. I didn’t mean to suggest that this was not a valid definition of “God” at some point, but that as we know a lot more (thanks to science) than we did a few hundred years ago, the space for gods is shrinking, IMHO.

    “What is wrong with developing a more abstract view of reality?” Nothing, if you don’t take it too literally. Abstract views of reality are value-laden, subjective, and aesthetic. In other words, what is true in the abstract may be true for you, but not necessarily for me.

  36. Dan,

    Thanks for that latest response which throws quite a bit more light on several aspects of the subject. This is just an acknowledgement, as there will most likely be a delay before I have time for anything substantive, although I have noticed some areas that seem to bear further examination.

    Greetings to Unklee as well, for very usefully extending the range of ideas in play, through dogged persistence!

  37. Dan, just two more points:

    1 You have mentioned the words “irrational” and “delusional” again. Before I comment, can you please explain how you define those terms? Both words can be used to mean simply mistaken, or using false logic, but can also mean suffering from some pathological condition.

    2. I will not engage further on the reasons why I believe, unless you have any particular matters to discuss. I know from reading several philosophy textbooks, many websites, and my own experience in discussion, that each of these arguments can be critiqued with attempted rebuttals, as you have done. These response can in turn be counter-critiqued with attempted counter rebuttals, etc, etc. Philosophers line up on both sides of the debate – i.e. while I don’t think any believe the arguments prove God’s existence 100%, many believe the weight of reason falls on God’s side as I do, while many others feel otherwise, as you do. The discussion could be endless.

    I have answered your question, and I hope demonstrated that I have applied reason to the answer.

    But in the end, I don’t think these matters can be solved by reason alone because I think God has deliberately left things that way. Scientists want to be able to decide these things by science (understandably, even though many other important matters cannot be decide that way either), but if God had made that a possibility, the intelligent would have a distinct advantage in knowing God. But I think God wants to reward not the intelligent (after all, intelligence is a gift we receive at birth), but rather those who seek him with humble hearts. It thus can become more difficult for the intelligent and educated, if they insist on using their reason alone.

    So while I believe, on the basis of evidence and reason, that God’s existence is more probable than his non-existence, I don’t think trying to argue someone into belief is generally of great value.

    Best wishes.

  38. John

    I think I am again in agreement with the main substance of your last post, and your “corrections”. I was trying to be brief, and some of my inexactness stems from that.

    Re emergent properties, I’m not sure what else to say. I think it is not a well defined and scientifically demonstrated fact, but more a general concept, a way of saying that the outcome can be “greater” than the causes. An example would be the origin of life, which (it is believed, though not yet fully established as I understand it – Dan would know more) to have arisen from chemicals. In the chemical sense, the first living cell is not much different to the preceding amino acids, etc, but “life” would be a new emergent property that happens to have arisen. Likewise consciousness is seen as emerging from the evolution of complex brains, to produce something “greater” than what was there before. But that doesn’t help much, so I’ll try to find a few references.

    No, I do not believe that evolution is necessarily inconsistent with theism, and yes, I was stressing the “naturalistic”. I don’t see how evolution changes theism all that much – it just means we understand better the process by which God set up the universe (assuming the science of evolution is all correct).

    Best wishes.

  39. Unklee,
    I’m using Irrational as a position not based upon reason or logic. Instead, emotion often takes over. For myself, as much as I hate to admit it, that bit of self-reflection suggests that my positions are irrational also – as you say, I cannot rule out there being a god, logically. I just so emotionally and psychologically am convinced that a belief in a god is a waste of time. Also, and more significantly when I use the term irrational, I think you are at greater fault for believing in one supernatural entity but not all supernatural entities, by the same logic that I cannot logically rule out there being a god.

    Who’s more right, the one who applies the “I don’t believe in supernatural entities” logic to all such things, or the one who makes one exception to fit his ideology? I think the latter, which is your position, and I think that this is both more irrational than my position, and delusional because you “continue to live and labor under a greater sense of irrationality.”

    Incidentally, if you notice, pressing me to define these terms and arguments more rigorously has softened my position, I think. Upon a bit of self-reflection during the last couple of comments, Karl Popper’s concept of verisimilitude came to mind – that the best that our intellects can accommodate is an approximation of truth. Thus, there is no rationality, from that perspective, only more and less irrationality. We cannot let go of our biases – not even an atheist.

    Still, as mentioned, yes, I think that my previous conclusions that there is no god is at least slightly more rational than your alternative. (no hard feelings)

  40. […] 18, 2007 by Dan Lately, I’ve been hosting a spirited discussion over the nature of my disbeliefs. I’d enjoy to discuss some issues much more extensively, but life has me preoccupied. So, a […]

  41. Unklee (and John),
    Thinking some more, I’m curious – given the non-evident status of the deity that you worship, do you think that this God is an underachiever? (the Woody Allen quote came to mind).

    I ask because the personal God which theists usually seem to invoke is some combination of omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent (or malevolent, in some religions). These appear logically inconsistent – that is, if a God were all-knowing and all-powerful, then God appears to be a cosmological prankster. I’m sure other internal contradictions could be found for other definitions of God; the concept of God in general appears to be contradictory, and even magical. Alternative definitions of a personal God in the Abrahamic sense usually end up as more deistic than theistic, and with a God that is either impotent or indifferent, which I suppose is better than a prankster, but not by much.

    So perhaps a way to rephrase my question is, even if a god does exist, why would it be the sort that we would want to worship?

  42. Dan

    I think we may both be running a little out of steam, so perhaps soon will be a time for a holiday for both of us!

    I am pleased to see two of your responses:

    1. I am pleased to see you using “irrational” in the sense of “not logical” rather than “mentally ill”. This is more in accordance with the evidence, which includes a large number of theists who are also top rank thinkers (scientists, philosophers, etc). But may I suggest you move away from words like “delusional”, which can easily suggest a meaning you apparently don’t intend?

    2. I am also pleased to see your comment: “pressing me to define these terms and arguments more rigorously has softened my position, I think”. I think disagreement is inevitable on these questions, but a degree of circumspection and humility on both sides is helpful.

    Finally, to your question: “even if a god does exist, why would it be the sort that we would want to worship?” and the discussion that came before it.

    You will have noted in my brief outline of why I am a theist that I used four different types of “argument” – based on science (the universe), culture (humanity), experience and revelation/history. The arguments reinforce and add to each other, to make (for me) a powerful reason to believe.

    Granted that, unanswered, and possibly unanswerable, questions, such as you raise can never be powerful enough to shake that belief – at the most all they can do is cause me to wonder. But here are a couple of my ideas.

    1. I think we need to understand God’s purpose in creating a universe and life (a big aim, obviously, but I’m trying!). I think he is all-powerful, etc, as you say, and he wanted to create autonomous spiritual/reasoning/emotional beings. This isn’t as simple as it sounds, because God is so powerful that it would normally be impossible for any other beings to stand against his will. So God created a universe that veils his power, thus making our free choice and autonomy possible. It also allowed great beauty, but also great evil. He apparently thought it worth it.

    As I said before, it is not the obvious characteristics of beauty, intelligence, personality, etc, that he values (unlike our modern western culture!), but virtues like humility and an open heart & mind. So it is not necessarily the smart who find him, but those who seek him with an open heart.

    In doing all this, the all-powerful God in a sense gives up some of his power to allow beings who oppose his will to continue to exist, for a while at least. So he appears less than all-powerful, but only for a time.

    So why did God do this? Because his nature is to love, and he wants to give us good gifts – life, love, freedom, wonder, beauty, etc, and in the end, himself.

    All this is speculation, but it is based on the arguments I outlined previously. Once I believe those argument point to a god existing (and not just any god but the God revealed by Jesus), then that is where the logic leads me.

    2. So why would God be of a nature that merits worship? Because Jesus said so. That’s also logical, granted my belief in those arguments.

    Thanks for the question, it was a good one. Best wishes.

  43. “He is the first and the last; the Seen and the Hidden; and He knoweth all things!” (Qur’an)

    “Praise be to God, the Eternal that perisheth not, the Everlasting that declineth not, the Self-Subsisting that altereth not. He it is Who is transcendent in His sovereignty, Who is manifest through His signs, and is hidden through His mysteries.” (Baha’u’llah)

    “Through the power of Thy transcendent might lift me up unto the heaven of Thy holiness, O Source of my being, and by the breezes of Thine eternity gladden me, O Thou Who art my God! … let the tidings of the revelation of Thine incorruptible Essence bring me joy, O Thou Who art the most manifest of the manifest and the most hidden of the hidden!” (Baha’u’llah)

    Dan,

    The above quotations refer to God as both “hidden” and “manifest”.

    God is “manifest through His signs” because the Divine attributes are present and on display in every atom and organism throughout creation. But the very universality of the appearance of these signs also makes God “invisible”. God cannot be found anywhere because His evidences are present everywhere and thus are taken for granted as “just the way things are”.

    Contemplation on the structure of the way things are discloses that reality is arranged in an order and from the particular pattern of this order it can be deduced that it has come into existence through the will of something greater than ourselves.

    The universe is characterised by various attributes or processes in positive and negative pairs: light and darkness; growth and decay; attraction and repulsion; survival and extinction; ad infinitum. On the human level we also see such pairs as reward and punishment, hope and despair, love and hate, etc. In all these pairs the positive attribute is the actual existing thing and the negative attribute consists of the absence of the positive. Darkness is the absence of light. Hate exists where the power of love has failed. Punishment essentially consists of the deprivation of the rewards available to free persons. (Imprisonment is the deprivation of freedom; torture is the extreme deprivation of the comforts that are necessary to the normal functioning of the human organism.)

    Such an arrangement indicates that an underlying reality generates various positive forces that come into operation against the background of negative “non-existence”. That is to say, from a human perspective, God makes available to us various resources that we may draw upon for our welfare and happiness. Failing to draw upon these forces, we deprive ourselves of God’s mercies.

    Only a rather powerful being would be capable of setting up such an arrangement, so the idea of God as an under-achiever appears to be less than an astute observation.

    There is a further factor in the equation which relates to another pair, this time consisting of two positive principles, namely mercy and justice. These two principles are both “good” but are in a complementary tension with each other. To show excessive indulgence and mercy to the criminal results in an injustice against the victims of crime. Growth and development are “mercifully” gifted upon beings but growth is also only possible because of the severe rule of “justice” which imposes death and decay on organisms that have completed their life cycle, so that new life can emerge.

    Those who complain that God is not completely benevolent apparently would like for God to be merciful only and not just.

    I agree with Unklee that discernment of the heart as well as the mind is involved in acknowledging the sovereignty of God. But I’m uncomfortable with the narrowing of the definition of God by exclusive reference to the God of Jesus.

    ***

    God should be worshiped simply because God is greater than ourselves. A loyal American citizen, if invited to a reception at the White House, will show due deference to the President in his capacity of head of state, even if personally opposed to the policies of the incumbent. If it is fitting that respect be shown towards the leaders of legitimate governments, a fortiori, the Lord of the Universe should be worshipped.

  44. Thanks for the explanations, both of you.

    To me, however, they sound like post hoc rationalizations, or a process of constructing a logical justification for a flawed premise.

    Some relevant items however:

    A. If God veils his power so that we may have “Free Will”, as you say, how is that different from there not being a god at all in the first place?

    B. Do you truly believe in Free Will, that you could change your personality or habits with just enough willpower? Isn’t the existence of addiction and understanding of the neurological basis for addiction powerful counterarguments to there being Free Will?

    C. “So it is not necessarily the smart who find him, but those who seek him with an open heart.” Well yes, that’s one of the things I’ve long held the opinion of – belief in a god is not a rational choice, but an emotional one.

    D. Also, you said that you worship God because “Jesus said so.” I’m not sure that I can relate to such an unquestioning disposition. For instance, why do you trust in the claims of this prophet, but don’t believe in the numerous self-proclaimed reincarnations of Jesus since his time? They “said so” as well.

    E. John –

    God cannot be found anywhere because His evidences are present everywhere and thus are taken for granted as “just the way things are”.

    So God is sortof like the Force? Are prophets and miracle workers like Jedi? Or are you just saying that god = nature, in which case, you wouldn’t need to call it God, you could just call it nature. That sounds much more like what you’re describing – because a Prime Mover or Omnipotent/Omnipresent deity is not required for any of the things which you describe.

  45. Dan

    I think each of your questions makes a binary, either-or, assumption, where I would see things more as “both-and”. Let me explain:

    A. If God exists then he exists whether we know him or not. And his “veiling” is only for a time, a phrase which I used but you may not have picked up on. There will come a time when all is clear, and that will be a whole new ballgame.

    B. No, of course there are limits to free will. Gravity is an obvious limit, but so are physiological and neurological factors. It is harder to choose when asleep, or mentally ill, etc. But the question is, do we have any real choice at all?

    I have said before that I think naturalism/atheism implies no real choice, because I cannot see where such choice could originate. This seems to me to imply that (1) argument is pretty useless because our beliefs are determined by brain states, not necessarily by truth, and (2) legal punishment is unfair because people do not choose to do wrong, it is just the way they are. I don’t think many atheists think this through very well.

    C. This is not actually what I said. (1) I have consistently said that my beliefs are based on reason, but reason can only give probabilities, not certainties (either way). We then each make our judgments, and an open-hearted person may make a different judgment than someone else. (2) An open heart does not necessarily exclude a reasoning mind. One relates to logic, the other to attitude. I hope I have both.

    D. My wording was slightly different – I said, in answer to your question, that God merits worship because Jesus said so – i.e. on his authority I believe God to be of a certain character, which merits worship. My response to that merit is my own choice, and I don’t actually “worship” god in many conventional ways. (“Worship” in the New Testament generally means giving allegiance to, not going through a ritual.)

    I trust the claims of this “prophet” because I believe him to be more than a prophet. Once I believe him to be a historical figure, I then make a judgment on matters such as who he said he was (implicitly and explicitly), what he did, whether I trust him, etc. I cannot think of another historic figure who stands with him on those matters. So I accept his claims which give him that authority.

    You will have noticed in all this that John and I think alike on many things, but not on all.

  46. Unklee,
    Mostly, I’ll leave your rationales alone other than to repeat my view of them as post hoc rationalizations. A couple items that I will address however:

    C – That is what you said – I copy and pasted that directly from a comment of yours. You may take it back, and/or assert that you base your faith also on logical reasons, but I’m simply not buying it. Believe it or not, I have attended church before – both as a kid growing up and as an adult and an atheist (invited to experience a worship service). There is nothing rational or evidence-based in a church service – but religious rituals do invoke powerful emotional responses. Even outside of such emotional ritual worship services, in contemplation and meditation directed at transcending the self and experiencing things outside of ourselves, that too is an emotional act.

    Spiritualism is most definitely not built on facts, but on feelings.

    D. “I trust the claims of this “prophet” because I believe him to be more than a prophet.” Sure, but the question was, why do you believe in this person and not others who have claimed to be a prophet or more than a prophet?

  47. Dan

    Re C, yes your quote was accurate, but your conclusion from it was not what I said. As I’ve said before, it is possible to have logical mind and open heart.

    You say with finality “Spiritualism is most definitely not built on facts, but on feelings.”. I say (1) I have given rational reasons for my conclusions – you don’t agree with them, but they have been presented rationally – and (2) I know myself and I rarely feel the sort of emotions you describe.

    I may have worked out my reasons erroneously (though I don’t believe so), but your assumptions are not true for me. But if you want to extrapolate from what you think and experience to what I think and experience, and be very definite, there is nothing more I can say.

    Re Jesus and why I trust him more than other claimants, please see my following note to John.

    Best wishes.

  48. Unklee,
    What part of your rationalizations was based upon something greater than “because Jesus said so,” or something equally vacuous? You say “I have given rational reasons for my conclusions,” and I really don’t have a response other than to laugh. You really think that they’re logical in any objective sense whatsoever? This is the very reason why I use the word “delusion” – a delusional man doesn’t recognize the irrationality of his own views.

    I would love to hear the rationales as to why you choose to put one prophet on a pedestal. I assume that it’s equally as arbitrary.

  49. It just occurred to me that maybe one of the reasons why theists attempt to apply the “You’re just being a positivist” argument on me occasionally is because they don’t understand falsification. Or so it seems to me.

    Positivism is a defunct philosophy because it relied solely on inductive reasoning, and lacked in skeptical comparison of competing explanatory models. This intuitive logic strikes me as very similar to the “reasoning” which you are portraying to me, and is reportedly the basis for revelatory experiences of prophetic experiences in general. Some call it credulity as well – an intuitive or ad hoc view of things, that lends itself to quick judgments. It is comparable, although not exactly the same, as superstition – which you described in the earlier reference to considering coincidences as rational evidence.

    This intuitive logic is the basis for religion being a feeling process, and not a thinking or deductive or rational process. It also makes the situation completely subjective. Theists don’t test their views against competing views for validity. When John says that he looks for the common aspects of religion, and not for the areas where one religion may be correct and another incorrect, he’s already implicitly accepting the notion that none of them are correct about the natural world, but that they all inform him of what it means to be human. I.e., they all validate something about our psyches.

    But whatever the case, about this “veiled” God of yours – there is no practical difference between a veiled god and no god at all, is there? It doesn’t even really effect how we act towards each other – theists and atheists alike still have the same strengths, weaknesses, etc….
    (sorry, I edited my comment after initially adding it)

  50. John

    Re your statement “But I’m uncomfortable with the narrowing of the definition of God by exclusive reference to the God of Jesus.”: I did not actually claim exclusivity for Jesus. Rather, in answering Dan’s question I outlined my reasons for believing in God, and Jesus is one of them.

    But yes, if we pursue the reasoning further we come to that issue. My thinking is this.

    I am quite happy to take all religious or philosophical teachers on their merits. I do not think Jesus has a monopoly on the truth, but recognise that truth can come in all sorts of ways from all sorts of people.

    But in assessing each one’s merits, certain questions arise, such as:

    * Is the message true? Does it depend on the teacher or is it true independently of the teacher?
    * What is the historical evidence for that teacher?
    * What did the teacher say about themselves? Did they claim to speak and act on God’s behalf, or be a messenger for God? Did they offer evidence for those claims? Can I believe them?

    Now to make a broad generalisation (no time for anything more!), I find most religious/moral teachers seem to fall into one of two camps:

    1. They are historical figures (e.g. the Buddha, Mohammed, Baha’u’llah) and claimed to bring a message from God, but they did not claim to be divine and so speak with the authority of God (that would have been blasphemous for some of them).

    2. They are believed to be divine (e.g. Osiris, Balder, etc) but there is no historical evidence for their reality.

    The one exception I am aware of, of course, is Jesus, who can plausibly be believed to be in both categories. (Of course, many don’t accept this, as Dan doesn’t, and you may or may not, but that is my conclusion.)

    So even while not repudiating the others, I conclude Jesus is in a different category and so I give greater weight to him (the others reinforce his teaching at some points, but where they diverge, I give Jesus higher authority). His teaching seems more “right” to me, but, more importantly, he offers more opportunities to test and assess, and he withstands the scrutiny. And so I follow him, and so it is him I include in my reasons for believing in God.

    So I hope that outlines where I’m coming from. Best wishes.

  51. Maybe I wasn’t clear enough – I had asked why you believed what Jesus (in the specific example, although you mention willingness to accept the views of others) said. You responded just now that he said some wise things. And so he did. But any person can be a teacher; any person can say something wise. But not any person can come and say “I am the son of God.” I would send any such person that I met that said that to a psychiatrist, and I’m sure you would too. But you want to make one exception, for a man named Jesus. Is there any logical basis for making that exception, or do you make that exception just because it feels right to you? (the intuitive and irrational leap of faith thing)

    Sorry for the rapid-fire response, by the way. I just happened to be checking into the blog after a busy night at the right time, I’m not trying to be extra aggressive. ;-)

  52. Dan & Unklee,

    Looks like the discussion has gotten up steam again! Have followed it with interest via rss feed while at work. Now at home and mulling over making a further contribution.

  53. Dan & Unklee,

    With many further comments having been made and limited time available for responding, I have to choose some aspects to focus on. This paragraph of Dan’s raises issues that I think are central to the thread of discussion from my perspective:

    “So God is sort of like the Force? Are prophets and miracle workers like Jedi? Or are you just saying that god = nature, in which case, you wouldn’t need to call it God, you could just call it nature. That sounds much more like what you’re describing – because a Prime Mover or Omnipotent/Omnipresent deity is not required for any of the things which you describe.”

    I wasn’t able to get a clear idea on what was meant by question about the Force and Jedi even with the help of Wikipedia’s article on the subject. So I’ll pass over that. The suggestion that God = nature is more useful to deal with. I don’t hold that God = nature but I do consider that “Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.” The scheme of understanding here is that there is “the contingent world”, and there is something else that is not the contingent world, which is called God. The contingent world is the realm where causes and effects take place. It seems that very few people deny that there is a point when it makes no sense to talk of causes and effects, as pointed out in the earlier discussion on “that which just is”. Everything that we can observe and therefore analyze scientifically is in the realm of causes and effects, i.e. nature. Now nature is not sufficient in itself for its own existence. This can be seen because nothing in nature has the property of necessarily existing. The whole of nature is a vast system of causes and effects where things come into existence and go out of existence, or more strictly speaking form and disintegrate, through their interactions with one another. But when we ask as to the Cause of all these interacting causes as a whole, we are forced to recognize that ultimately there is something that exists without a Cause, and this something is the foundation of all reality. That which is uncaused is a “necessary being”, whereas all other beings from an atom to a person are “accidental beings”. (Any individual entity may or may not come into existence depending on particular circumstances arising that produce the existence of this particular individual entity.) The point is that it is reasonable to make a distinction between the contingent world consisting of phenomena and the non-contingent realm that gives phenomena the power to form. We know it is there, but we don’t know what it is.

    There is a multitude of interacting forces in the universe but Being contains them all within itself, encompasses them all, resolves the tensions between all opposing forces, and is therefore One and not multiple. If the mysterious forces of the universe are described as gods, then above and beyond all gods there is only one God who is supreme over all. The little gods are not being-in-itself but phenomena within the contingent world.

    Atheism to me is a baffling conception because it amounts to a declaration that the ground of everything is nothing much. My take on the subject in the form of a poem stanza is this:

    And then I wonder why and how
    The law of life arose at first
    And what great Force produced the birth
    Of all that is, which I see now
    Needs be much greater than the great
    And wise above the wisest mind
    And by no limits be confined
    Nor caught within the claws of fate

    May the Force be with you!

  54. John,
    My impressions are that you were and are describing something very similar to, although not identical to, pantheism. Would you say that this is the case?

  55. John,
    Also, Re:

    Atheism to me is a baffling conception because it amounts to a declaration that the ground of everything is nothing much.

    No, it is not nihilistic, it is naturalistic. For more, please see my link to the “Tenets of Naturalism” contained in the subsequent post “Brief Philosophical Links.”

  56. Dan,

    Re 54: Pantheism, as I understand it, identifies God and nature as one and the same. Some philosophical pantheist conceptions are very sophisticated and might come close to the idea I’m attempting to present. But I have tried to show that the contingent world and the realm of pure being should be regarded as separate and distinct. The realm of pure being, i.e. God, is transcendent of nature. This transcendence is similar to the transcendence that Platonist mathematicians see in mathematical principles, which they regard as transcendent of actual instances of objects. A transcendent God is a conception firmly in the orthodox Jewish/Christian/Islamic tradition of thinking. But I also consider that the Buddhist Nirvana represents essentially the same truth.

    Re 55, I will have to read Tenets of Naturalism before I understand your point. It may be another day before I can do this.

  57. Dan, it will take me a couple of days to prepare a response, so I hope you can be patient. : )

  58. Take your time guys. Things are quite busy here for me as well!

  59. Dan,

    Re your comment #55, I’ve read up on the article, “The Tenets of Naturalism” etc. I can now clarify that it was not my intention to characterise this kind of atheism as nihilistic. I had written: “Atheism to me is a baffling conception because it amounts to a declaration that the ground of everything is nothing much.” This statement was an extension of the foregoing discussion aimed at showing, “ultimately there is something that exists without a Cause, and this something is the foundation [ground] of all reality.” The relevant dictionary definition of nihilism is: “an extreme form of skepticism: the denial of all real existence or the possibility of an objective basis for truth.” Clearly your “naturalism” is not in this category. But I find it to be an unsatisfactory philosophy of reality, being incomplete inasmuch as it just takes the fact of existence, or Being, entirely for granted. As I said, it treats this aspect of reality as “nothing much” and refuses to consider the implications of it. It turns its gaze entirely on the phenomena of the contingent world and assumes that this is all there is, whereas I can’t shake the perception that there is another aspect of reality, the “presence” of which is staring everyone right in the face, albeit we don’t understand it. And the contingent world is dependent on that other aspect of reality, not the other way round. So whatever is seen in the contingent world is a manifestation of the world of pure existence.

    Unklee,

    My brief reference to your views on Jesus stirred up a fair bit of discussion which was probably useful in itself. However, what I had in mind (and failed to explain), was tangential to whether or not Jesus reveals God more fully than other Prophets. I wrote: “… I’m uncomfortable with the narrowing of the definition of God by exclusive reference to the God of Jesus.” I used the word “uncomfortable” as the mildest word I could think of at the time because I didn’t exactly mean “disagree”. My discomfort relates to the ambiguity of stating one’s belief in “not just any god but the God revealed by Jesus”. Taken one way, this suggests the possibility of there being various Gods, one being “the God revealed by Jesus” and perhaps another “the God revealed by Muhammad”. Perhaps none of us in the present discussion interprets it that way, but a hint of such an idea remains, and it could be a distraction in the present thread of discussion. Another way of seeing it that I would be comfortable with is that “the God revealed by Jesus” is like saying “the world of nature revealed by Attenborough in his television programmes”. This is not a different world of nature from the one revealed by some other producer of nature programmes and which is accessible to observation by everyone. Nature is nature, whether Attenborough’s nature or somebody else’s version. In principle, God is God, whether the God of Jesus or the God of Muhammad. I’m not sure I’m making myself clear here. I would be happy to discuss the points you have made about Jesus in relation to other religious figures, but here doesn’t seem like the right place for it. It adds a further layer of complexity to a complex discussion. Sorry not to be give a better explanation for my “discomfort”. Perhaps reactions from others will help me to know what I’m getting at! Anyway, I’m not joining in that part of the discussion relating to the relative merits of different religions, at this point.

    Dan,

    Some brief responses on a few points:

    “Abstract views of reality are value-laden, subjective, and aesthetic.”

    I thought the whole of science consisted of abstractions from reality. What else is a scientific model?

    “Theists don’t test their views against competing views for validity. When John says that he looks for the common aspects of religion, and not for the areas where one religion may be correct and another incorrect, he’s already implicitly accepting the notion that none of them are correct about the natural world…”

    Not sure what statement of mine you’re referring to here. Perhaps it was something I said in some previous discussion. Admittedly I use the method so described for the purpose of finding common ground with others, but not on the assumption that no comparisons can be made between different beliefs. I do not indiscriminately accept beliefs as valid just because somebody else believes them.

    “Do you truly believe in Free Will, that you could change your personality or habits with just enough willpower?”

    Changing habits through willpower is extremely difficult but not impossible over time. The constant effort to direct one’s own behaviour in accordance with thought and reason rather than impulses such as anger, greed, etc., can bring about changes in character over time. Even addictions can be managed, if not completely overcome. A lot of religious practices, such as prayer, meditation, and fasting are aimed at developing serenity (freedom from impulses), and self-control.

    “… there is no practical difference between a veiled god and no god at all, is there? It doesn’t even really effect how we act towards each other – theists and atheists alike still have the same strengths, weaknesses, etc…”

    There would be no difference if God were only “hidden” and not also “manifest”. From a theistic standpoint moral standards themselves arise from the will of God so that for example an atheist who is attracted towards justice and promotes justice is responding to one of the attributes of God whether said atheist describes his activities in religious terms or not. Furthermore, belief in God has historically demonstrated itself to be a stronger force of inspiration for ethical behaviour than I think you give it credit for.

    Finally, a general comment not relating to any particular point:

    The differences (and similarities) between “objective” and “subjective” knowledge have not yet been really examined or defined in this thread, although they are central to the quotation that kicked off the whole discussion. I’m out of steam. Dan or Unklee, any pointers for unravelling this subject?

  60. Dan

    I have tried to be brief, but your additional questions about the historical basis for belief in Jesus indicate you would like more detail. Thank you for those further questions, here is a slightly more detailed answer.

    1. Each field of study must use appropriate methods.

    For science, the method is hypothesis, data collection, hypothesis testing, etc. In history, a similar method is used, but the results cannot be so definite (for one, the observations cannot be repeated). Prof E P Sanders: “Historical reconstruction is never absolutely certain”.

    One of the concerns of historians is to understand “what was going on” – i.e. not just what happened, but also the explanation of it. Again, this cannot produce certain conclusions.

    So historians have developed “the historical method” to give objective results (I could give more detail on the methods they use if you wanted) and their conclusions are given probability according to the evidence.

    In case you may feel this is too uncertain, some science is in a very similar position. Evolution happened in the past, so its study has a lot of the same limitations – e.g. the data cannot be repeated. Scientists can sometimes construct feasibility tests to demonstrate that something was possible (just as historians can compare with other historical events in their analysis), but these can only approximate conditions at the time. Abiogenesis in particular can’t be observed and verified.

    So both evolutionary science and history deal in probabilities, not certainties, and we have to be content with that in both disciplines (i.e. in both areas we seek the “most reasonable” but can’t reach the “certain”). The following (from “The Origin and Early Evolution of Life” by W. Ford Doolittle, Biochemistry Professor, Dalhousie University, Canada) makes this clear:

    “Questions about the past — whether in cosmology, geology, paleontology, archaeology, or human cultural and political history — are different. We cannot do experiments in the past, so any attempt to reconstruct it must be based on indirect and inferential methods.

    Evolutionary biologists who seek to reconstruct life’s history have three such inferential methods: (1) comparisons of the properties of living species; (2) study of relics, such as biological and chemical fossils, or apparently primitive features retained by modern cells; and (3) feasibility experiments. The comparative approach can in principle take us back to the last common ancestor of all currently living things, and the fossil record (biological and chemical) may go a bit further, to something close to the first cells. For the origin of earthly life itself, and perhaps even up through the appearance of the earliest true cells, we must rely on feasibility experiments. In these experiments, hypotheses about what might have happened in the past are shown to be plausible by demonstration that similar events can be made to happen today, in the lab.

    Certainty and completeness in reconstructing life’s ancient history will never be possible, nor indeed are they possible even in reconstructing the very recent history of a nation or society. But it would be foolish to deny that we already know a tremendous amount, or that what we do know provides a compelling story of how past became present.”

    2. The experts know best.

    There will always be extreme views, untested hypotheses and wild statements in any field of study. It is therefore important that we consider the peer-reviewed consensus of scholars, especially if we are not experts ourselves. Thus, when I want to understand about science, I try to find the most recognised scientists in the field, or at least ones who draw on their knowledge. Same with history – in the quotes below, I have drawn on some of the top names (based on the opinions of their peers) and always competent, peer-reviewed scholars.

    3. How good are the historical sources?

    Historians are more confident of their conclusions when they have multiple sources, when the sources were written close in time to the events, and when we have many early copies of those documents. On all criteria, the stories of Jesus are historically very well attested.

    * The Bible contains multiple sources (4 gospels, generally considered to be made up of about 6 different oral sources, plus Paul’s letters, other letters, and Acts – many people erroneously consider the Bible to be one source, but of course it is separate sources compiled into one book at a later date) plus there are a number of Roman and Jewish sources. This is better than most comparable history.

    * The main documents were written within 30-70 years of Jesus’ life and death, with some important documents dated even closer. This contrasts with other comparable writings: e.g. biographies of Alexander the Great were not written until more than 400 years afterwards, yet they are considered to be trustworthy and generally free of legendary material.

    * There is an enormous number of copies to check for transmission errors, many, many times more than for documents of comparable age.

    Here is what the experts say about the New Testament:

    John A.T. Robinson: “The wealth of manuscripts, and above all the narrow interval of time between the writing and the earliest extant copies, make it by far the best attested text of any ancient writing in the world.”

    Helmut Koester: “Classical authors are often represented by but one surviving manuscript; if there are half a dozen or more, one can speak of a rather advantageous situation for reconstructing the text. But there are nearly five thousand manuscripts of the NT in Greek… The only surviving manuscripts of classical authors often come from the Middle Ages, but the manuscript tradition of the NT begins as early as the end of II CE; it is therefore separated by only a century or so from the time at which the autographs were written. Thus it seems that NT textual criticism possesses a base which is far more advantageous than that for the textual criticism of classical authors.”

    So the evidence about Jesus is amazingly good by historical standards. It is true that historians have difficulty determining if large chunks of the gospels contain the actual words of Jesus or a summary of them in the words of his early followers, but this doesn’t alter the fact that “though we cannot ever be certain that we have direct and exact quotation from Jesus, we can be relatively sure of the kinds of things he said and the main themes and thrusts of his teaching.” (Prof M Borg)

    It is also the case that historians don’t endorse every word of the New Testament. They treat it as they would any other source (if anything, they treat it more severely), accepting as genuine those sections which pass their tests (multiple attestation, coherence, etc), disallowing those sections which are found unhistoric, and remaining agnostic on those sections where there is insufficient evidence either way. And of course there is always discussion about what should be in which category, just as there is discussion about the mechanism for abiogenesis, but I have tried to outline the mainstream consensus.

    4. What do historians “know” about Jesus?

    Here are some more quotes from the experts:

    M Borg: “some judgments are so probable as to be certain; for example, Jesus really existed, and he really was crucified, just as Julius Caesar really existed and was assassinated.” and “We can in fact know as much about Jesus as we can about any figure in the ancient world.”

    M A Powell: “Jesus did more than just exist. He said and did a great many things that most historians are reasonably certain we can know about today.”

    J Charlesworth: “Jesus did exist; and we know more about him than about almost any Palestinian Jew before 70 C.E.”

    Jeffery Jay Lowder: “I think that the New Testament does provide prima facie evidence for the historicity of Jesus. It is clear, then, that if we are going to apply to the New Testament the same sort of criteria as we should apply to other ancient writings containing historical material, we should not require independent confirmation of the New Testament’s claim that Jesus existed.”

    E P Sanders: “Historical reconstruction is never absolutely certain, and in the case of Jesus it is sometimes highly uncertain. Despite this, we have a good idea of the main lines of his ministry and his message. We know who he was, what he did, what he taught, and why he died.” and “the dominant view [among scholars] today seems to be that we can know pretty well what Jesus was out to accomplish, that we can know a lot about what he said, and that those two things make sense within the world of first-century Judaism.”

    Thus the mainstream of historians believe the gospels present a broad picture of what happened, or what people believed. Michael Grant concluded about the gospels: “the picture they present is largely authentic …. information about Jesus can be derived from the gospels.” The following summary of what we can be confident of historically is drawn mainly from E P Sanders, N T Wright and Michael Grant:

    * time of birth, location of childhood, baptism;

    * he called disciples (probably 12 of them) and associated with outcasts (uncommon for a Rabbi in his day);

    * he effected cures and exorcisms (G Stanton: “Few doubt that Jesus possessed unusual gifts as a healer, though of course varied explanations are offered.”; E P Sanders: “I think we can be fairly certain that initially Jesus’ fame came as a result of healing, especially exorcism.”); contrary to popular opinion, this was not a common belief in 1st century Palestine. A Harvey: “The miraculous activity of Jesus conforms to no known pattern.”

    * he preached “the kingdom of God” in Galilee and called people to repent – he believed he was the “Messiah, inaugurating the Kingdom of God and that repentent sinners were eligible for the kingdom (P J Tomson: “Although he apparently considered himself the heavenly ‘Son of Man’ and ‘the beloved son’ of God and cherished far-reaching Messianic ambitions, Jesus was equally reticent about these convictions. Even so, the fact that, after his death and resurrection, his disciples proclaimed him as the Messiah can be understood as a direct development from his own teachings.”. Prof F Watson: “it is possible to argue that Jesus claimed to be the Christ [Messiah] …. and …. to attempt to explain the rise of the early christian faith in Jesus as the Christ.”);

    * welcoming “sinners” was part of his teaching and he claimed to be able to forgive people’s sins (M Grant: “Jesus introduced a very singular innovation. For he also claimed that he himself could forgive sins.”);

    * he believed his death would be redemptive (M Grant: “Jesus lived his last days, and died, in the belief that his death was destined to save the human race.”);

    * he created a disturbance in the temple in Jerusalem, had a final meal with his friends, was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities and was executed by the Roman Governor, Pilate

    * his tomb was really empty and his disciples “saw” him (in what sense is uncertain) after his death (E P Sanders: “That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know….. Without the resurrection, would [Jesus’] disciples have endured longer than did John the Baptist’s? We can only guess, but I would guess not.”).

    So we can conclude that the weight of expert historical evidence allows us to know enough about Jesus (the facts) to make a judgment about him (what was going on). Of course there are doubts and arguments about certain aspects, but the above is a broad consensus. You can find scholars who would say we can know far less than this, just as you can find other scholars (more in number) who would claim more, but the above is the mainstream.

    5. So what can we understand about Jesus?

    Historians try to understand the social conditions that led up to the events being studied, and how those events impacted on people subsequently. And when they use the historical information, scholars find that Jesus can be well understood in his 1st century Jewish context, and that the subsequent history of the christian church, the Jewish nation and indeed the Roman Empire all make sense in the light of Jesus.

    Understood in that first century Jewish context, so much of what Jesus did and said are implicit claims to be divine, e.g. he forgave sins, which his hearers knew was God’s prerogative, he claimed greater authority than the law which all Jews believed came from God, etc. Historical analysis has to account for this. If he was just mad or confused, why (1) were his teachings so lucid that they are still remembered today, and (2) how did he convince so many people of his goodness?

    The historical facts of subsequent history are that:

    * Jesus died a despised death, and his followers were scattered, and yet the number of his followers grew rapidly, despite severe persecution which killed many of them.

    * His followers believed that his death was a victory, a belief virtually without parallel in the ancient world.

    * They believed he was God incarnate, again, something virtually without precedent: Prof J Dunn: “we have found nothing in pre-christian Judaism or the wider religions of the Hellenistic world which provide sufficient explanation of the origin of the doctrine of the incarnation, no way of speaking about God or the gods or intermediate beings which so far as we can tell would have given birth to this doctrine apart from christianity.”

    * They had no prospect of personal gain, yet they persisted until they outlasted the persecution.

    All this is part of what historians have to consider.

    It is generally accepted that it was belief in his resurrection that was the main impetus for this missionary activity. Such belief is part of the earliest christian writings and witness (see Sanders quote above), and even non believing historians like Michael Grant and Robin Lane Fox, and sceptical historians like the “Jesus Seminar” and Geza Vermes all conclude that his tomb was indeed empty. So historians have to try to explain all this. M Bockmuehl (Cambridge): “Quite what happened on that third day after the crucifixion is …. in part beyond the remit of the secular historian. Nevertheless it is a matter of historical record that something happened – and that changed the course of world history.”

    6. So, where does all this leave me?

    As I said at the start, none of this is proof, it is just the probable findings of history. It is possible to believe that Jesus was mistaken in his teachings (as Michael Grant did). But I believe this evidence points to Jesus speaking the truth, for the reasons outlined in 5 above.

    There are many things in life where we are forced, or find ourselves preferring, to make a decision on the basis of probability. We choose jobs, spouses and presidents based on judgment and probabilities. Faced with an emergency such as a building on fire, our decisions are required instantly. If Jesus was speaking the truth, we face a similar emergency. Waiting for more evidence is effectively the same as not believing, and where are we going to get new evidence from? So in the end we all decide, one way or another.

    Philosopher C S Layman writes: “A proof is something that will convince anyone intelligent enough to understand it. If so, very little of interest regarding major philosophical issues can be proved. This goes for issues in metaphysics, morality, political philosophy and aesthetics. All or nearly all of the major positions under these headings are highly controversial. There are brilliant people on either side of the interesting fences.”

    I have decided that, in the light of the historical evidence, believing Jesus told the truth makes more sense than believing him to have been mistaken. It is easier to believe him to be divine than to believe him to have been mad or deluded (he showed great shrewdness and creativity). The facts of the resurrection story are best explained by the truth of the resurrection, bizarre as that event is. The change in his followers is better explained by the whole thing being true than it being false – no-one has offered any convincing historical explanation to support the view that they all knowingly lied, and psychologists can tell you that mass hallucination are the stuff of fiction. His teachings seem to be “right” and have stood the test of time right up to the present day.

    Many historians draw the same conclusions, many others do not. But these scholars are very rational, and many of my fellow believers are demonstrably rational – scientists, engineers (as I was), philosophers. Those facts don’t make it true, necessarily, but they suggest belief is not irrational.

    7. How does Jesus compare to other teachers?

    Let’s face it, there are not so many teachers who can be considered in any way to compare to Jesus. In terms of the number of followers, only Mohammed and the Buddha. In terms of teachings, add Baha’u’llah, Guru Nanak and a few others.

    I have read a small amount about all of them, and quite a bit about a few, but I am not aware of any of them making claims to divinity nor to resurrection nor to being the saviour of the world. They may be good teachers, but on their own statements, they cannot compare to Jesus, once I believe Jesus was telling the truth. So that is why I believe in Jesus and not so much (if at all) in them.

    And because I believe Jesus was telling the truth, I believe what he taught about God, hence my comment that I believe God to be worthy because of what Jesus taught. There is nothing wrong with accepting teaching on authority, provided the authority knows what they are talking about.

    I hope that gives a little more background on why I can say that I approach these questions rationally, and I believe in Jesus because of the evidence. I have read widely and have considered deeply. I am satisfied with that basis.

    What response am I hoping for? I would not expect anyone to accept the facts that I have outlined, but I hope you would be interested in checking them out for yourself. At the very least, I hope that you are able to respect my conclusions and the manner in which I have reached them, even if you are unable to agree with them. Best wishes.

  61. John,

    I too was circumspect in raising that point about Jesus, and I agree in not pursuing it further. I too tried to express my views in a mild manner.

    My wording “the God revealed by Jesus” does not imfer that there are many Gods, but rather gives content to the word “god” by defining him – the word can be used in any ways and I was trying to be more specific.

    It is an interesting question. If I refer to William Shakespeare, the author of Hamlet who was a Spanish dramatist in the 20th century, am I talking about the true Shakespeare or not? I’m not sure. Likewise, if two people talks about a supreme God but give him very different characteristics, are they talking about the same God, albeit somewhat erroneously, or are they talking about different entities? Again, I don’t know.

    So it was to guard against such uncertainties that I used the term.

    Thanks.

  62. Wow – due to constraints on my time, and the length of the latest responses, I feel that I’m going to have to limit myself to replying to just a few select points:

    John’s:

    “Abstract views of reality are value-laden, subjective, and aesthetic.”

    I thought the whole of science consisted of abstractions from reality. What else is a scientific model?

    Scientific models are approximations of reality, and we view competing theoretical models as superceding each other, with new models being better at representing reality than old ones. These represent objective differences, not differences that are merely a matter of taste or preference.

    Free Will: By your definition of having choices, etc., even the simplest bacterium has free will, in a sense that can be reduced to biochemical processes. I.e., our (natural) biochemistry determines the limits of what we can change about ourselves, not some mystical or magical concept.

    Manifest God: As with Unklee’s statement (quoted in just a second), I think that the perception of something being ‘manifest’ in this sense is predicated on your assumption that God is there in the first place. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Unklee,

    I have read a small amount about all of them, and quite a bit about a few, but I am not aware of any of them making claims to divinity nor to resurrection nor to being the saviour of the world. They may be good teachers, but on their own statements, they cannot compare to Jesus, once I believe Jesus was telling the truth.

    Exactly. You’ve decided that he’s the Son of God a priori, and are not willing to question this assumption.

    Happy Holidays!!!

  63. Dan,

    Happy holidays to you as well!

    I’ve had a great time in this discussion. Thanks for making it possible. Bye for now.

  64. Dan

    Thanks for your response, but I am surprised at your comment. I spent 3000 words (pretty long on a blog!) explaining why I believe in Jesus, based on copious quotes from genuine historians, and you can still say “You’ve decided that he’s the Son of God a priori”! A priori means at the beginning, and certainly doesn’t mean after a reasoned argument.

    I can’t know why you arrived at this conclusion, but it seems like you searched for a way to justify a preconceived opinion, and ignore the obvious evidence to the contrary. I hope I’m mistaken, and I’m really sorry.

    Oh well, it’s Christmas, and holidays, and not a time for argument, and a good time to conclude. Thank you for allowing me time and space on your blog.

    John

    I too enjoyed discussing with you.

    Farewell, and best wishes to both of you.

  65. Unklee,
    Unless I missed something, your long post was a waste of time, completely avoiding the question I had placed before you: How do you know that he was the Son of God? Last I checked, the historians said that he was the son of Joseph.

    Honestly, I’m surprised that you don’t recognize it as a trick question… afterall, how can one be a son of something that exists only in a figurative or metaphorical sense? Just as God only exists in our minds, so to can someone not literally be the child of God except in a metaphorical sense.

    Best,
    -Dan

  66. Eh, Dan? Still incorrigibly stirring the pot! I thought you’d signed off for the holidays?

    Maybe Unklee’s 3000 words didn’t completely miss the mark. On the principle of “like father, like son”, he had a go at showing how Jesus is like God. Metaphorically speaking, of course!

  67. Well, I’ll still be checking in! :-)

    Unklee was arguing that God/Jesus-as-Son-of-God are metaphorical and not literal? I’m sorry if I missed that.

  68. Hmmm. Obviously I can’t answer for Unklee’s thoughts on that issue. And anyway, its not particularly “my fight”. Or at least, not one that I want to get into here and now. So no further comment… Hope the holiday break is going well.

  69. :)


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