Recently a lot of people have been talking about the Ham/Nye Evolution vs. Creationism debate . I haven’t actually seen it yet so obviously I don’t have any comment on the debate itself.
There is another issue that should be addressed that is somewhat related however.Both before and after the debate there were a great many comments about whether it should happen at all.
There seem to be a lot of people saying that Nye shouldn’t have agreed to do it. The rationale seems to be that a real scientist agreeing to debate people like Ham validates or legitimizes them in some way. This seems to me a fundamentally flawed outlook.
Perhaps the disagreement with taking creationists like Ham seriously stems from a wrongheaded notion that they represent a small group of harmless kooks. Yet aside from the fact that you could characterize much of what they believe as kooky this assessment is sadly incorrect.
Some estimates have said that 1 in 10 people in the U.S are Young Earth Creationists. That’s 31 million people. With another one third of the population leaning toward literal creation if not wholly committed. These are staggering numbers. Huge swaths of the population of North America dismiss, deny or are ignorant of the scientific realities of our existence. These people are robbed of the truth of reality by a creation myth which even a basic understanding of physics, biology, geology, palaeontology or a host of other disciplines completely blows out of the water.
If the percentages given are accurate this is clearly not a small group. Nor are it’s effects harmless. Right now there are grown people walking around convinced of the fact that the earth is 6000 years old. This in spite of the fact that there are documented trees older than that growing at this very minute.
There are, as the map below (compiled by Slate Magazine) points out, thousands of schools in the United States that teach Creationism as part of their science curriculum regardless of the fact that they receive federal money. There are proud creationists serving in high ranking positions in government all over North America , including a U.S congressional panel on science and technology(!) There are text books which spread lies about the reality of the Loch Ness Monster in bids to discredit Evolution and that’s before we even get to the purposeful misunderstanding of what evolution is or how it works. Teaching children mythology in place of science is wrong, and it does them harm. Not only does it teach them that truth has no value but it also keeps them from learning the tools of discovering genuine truth, and denies them the knowledge and understanding necessary to compete and thrive in a world ever more dependant on science and technology.
Regardless of the popular movement to deny it the fact remains that our beliefs inform our actions, and our core beliefs all the more so. That being the case shouldn’t the things these people believe be discussed and dissected by as many actual experts as we can find? Shouldn’t we be delighted when people with the talent of making complex knowledge and facts approachable to lay people decide to explain why wrong ideas ARE wrong?
Personally I think if one kid is inspired to go find an out how something works it’s a win. Beyond that though as long as we hold any pretensions toward wisdom or respect for truth and what that battered and broken word is meant to mean we should raise our voices in support of those people who are out there battering at the wall of self imposed ignorance so many of our fellow primates have built around themselves. Without champions of reason from Nye and Dawkins to the science teacher who refuses to teach the bible as fact we will lose the struggle and truth, knowledge, exploration, and actual understanding will die in favour of the easy comforting lie.
Whenever a non-theist points out the less than stellar history of religion, whenever its past (or present) crimes and prejudices are mentioned it’s defenders and followers tend to respond with objections like “Well I’ve never tortured anyone!” or “I don’t know anyone who’s for killing homosexuals!” These apologists act as though their personal enlightenment of attitude somehow cleanses their faith of its responsibility for and history of atrocity, bigotry, prejudice, purposeful spreading of misinformation, and the fostering of ignorance.
The fact of the matter is that most religions, and certainly all of the Abrahamic faiths, contain in their holiest and most central texts specific injunctions to do violence, spread hatred, foster division. The core teachings of these religions justify and even demand the judgement, segregation and often persecution of those who do not believe and practice in exactly the same way as everyone else. Any objective reading of the three main texts of the Abrahamic faiths bares this fact out.
The enlightened attitude of the modern moderate theist cannot cleanse their faiths of the evils done at their insistence and in their names because regardless of the intellectual gymnastics used to reinterpret the teachings over the centuries the teachings haven’t changed. The modern moderations in attitude that make the continual reinterpretation and apologetics necessary are not a result of the graces and glories of faith but rather they are the result of the advancement of secular morality, the evolution of societal ethics. As we grow as people our morality and attitudes evolve our laws advance and society grows, and while all of this happens religion remains unapologetically unchanged.
As an example, was it the teachings of Christ or Muhammad that taught us the evils of slavery? No, in fact neither holy personage seems to have had any problem with the practice at all. Did the bible or the quran declare women the equal of men in society and grant them equal protections under the law? No of course not, in fact both texts demand precisely the opposite treatment for women. Yet today slavery is almost universally viewed as an abomination and all modern moral systems recognize the female as the equal of her male counterpart. It was secular lawmakers and society as a whole who banded together to demand equality for all people, and in the cases of both slavery and sexual equality they were (and in some cases still are) adamantly, and sometimes violently, opposed by the followers of the world’s three largest and most powerful religions.
The primary problem with the outlook of the modern moderate theist is this: it is not possible to be a moderate theist without dismissing or ignoring certain passages and ideas of their faith. One cannot honestly profess to believe in the teachings of the bible and simultaneously approve of gay rights. Just as it is not possible to honestly believe that the Quran is the perfect word and will of god while deploring the killing of the infidel and championing the equality of women. In each case the propositions are mutually exclusive. If you honestly believe the bible is the manual for human morality then homosexuality is actually demonstrably a purposeful evil that is worthy of a grizzly death. If that aspect of the teachings is unworthy of devotion what makes the rest of it better, and if the moral standard comes from the book itself how are you determining which parts of that book to follow?
The attitude of the modern moderate theist seems to require either an atmosphere of purposeful ignorance as to what their faith entails or an environment of institutionalized lack of conviction which allows them to dismiss those teachings they find unpleasant while clinging to the remainder as absolute Truth.
To defend religion by saying “Well I’ve never stoned a homosexual!” or “I’ve never tortured anyone is roughly the same as a Clansman who says “I only belong for the sense of community, I’m not into all that cross burning stuff.” Or “You can’t judge us all! I’ve never lynched anyone!” A moderate theist acts as a collaborator in the crimes and prejudices of their fundamentalist cousins. By using their labels, displaying their emblems or defending their beliefs they give tacit approval to their chosen group’s stated beliefs, all of them. As well they give power and cover to the fundamentalists they profess to deplore. It is the droves of moderate theists who give the fundamentalists their power, it’s the unthinking devotion to these outdated traditions by otherwise modern intelligent people that makes it impossible to deal with the root of the problem of fundamentalism.
We can only profit from the discarding of the outdated taboos, prejudices and rituals of long dead ancient cultures that enslave so many of us even today. We have surpassed the teachings of the ancient prophets in every area from our knowledge of the world and the wider universe to the morals and ethics which guide our society. The fact is that the strictures and biases of these ancient mythologies only survive through ignorance, prejudice and most often apathy.
So Mr. Moderate Believer it’s true you probably haven’t stoned a rape victim or bombed an abortion clinic. You’ve probably never dragged a family from their home and killed them because of how or whom they worship but you DO support and defend a system of thinking that not only allows but demands these things. To pretend that the violence, hatred, and division that riddle the history of theism are a perversion of religion is to betray a fundamental lack of understanding of the specific demands of faith. To cling to the form and ritual of faith and dismiss the substance is worse than hypocrisy, it is to smile delightedly at the pretty colours of the flames while a fire consumes your house.
Rejoice benighted savages
Raise your voices loud in song.
We’ve come to tell you of our god
and how your lives are wrong.
Give thanks and pay us homage
Do us service ,raise us high
We are the voices of creation
Only we know what happens when you die.
You say you’ve got your own gods?
A history and tradition all your own?
You’ve been bewitched by demons!
And without us you’d never have known!
We’ll save your souls and make you right
If you’ll do exactly as we say
Dress and speak and act as we
And pray always as we pray.
Repent of your many blasphemies
Know your worth is less than none
Beg my god for mercy evermore
Or your torment is never done.
My god is a god of mercy
He’ll save you from your sinful mire
But if you do not submit to him
He will punish you with fire.
We will bring you peace and salvation
And the love of our living lord.
We’re going to give you Jesus
Either with the book or with the sword!
“Do you have anything positive to add? You don’t like god or religion or theism, we get it. Where is your proposal for fostering peace and unity? How does your belief encourage acceptance and connection with our fellow humans? Where are the inclusive ideas that make Atheism better for everyone?”
The above is me paraphrasing something I read recently, though it wasn’t new or unique and I’ve read or heard many versions over the years. It is something Anti-theists, outspoken atheists and non-theists hear a lot of. The implication that we’re cold angry people mad at the world and content to kick sand out of spite is not an uncommon viewpoint. Unfortunately there are those Atheists out there that actually do fit this view. I’d say however that by and large this depiction of atheists and especially activist atheists is an overly simplistic falsehood maintained to marginalize and dismiss an uncomfortable point of view.
It’s true, I don’t like the ideas of god, religion or theism, but as for “we get it” it doesn’t seem as though you do. I don’t take this stance to rebel or offend. It’s not because I’m an anarchist or due to my corrupted or absent morals, and it certainly isn’t because I imagine myself smarter or in any way superior to the believer. The considerations that make me an atheist are numerous and varied but the primary drive of my anti-theism is the very fact that religion, and indeed all faith, divides, deludes excludes and insulates. I am an atheist because I seek those virtues listed above, and because history demonstrates that faith and religion are the single greatest barriers to acceptance, unity and education that our species has ever faced.
I reject any idea that requires the suspension (or compartmentalization) of critical thought. I distrust any system that can look down on reason as a lesser thing than assertion or faith. I oppose any view which has the inherent ability to allow it’s adherents to pretend that there is some inferiority between the genders, or asserts that a person’s sexual preference marks them out as evil or damaged. Perhaps most importantly I recognize that to decry these acts and attitudes while supporting belief systems that promote and profess them is hypocrisy.
How does atheism promote unity and acceptance you ask? It doesn’t, not on its own anyway. Atheism is a gateway, it’s the path to the acceptance of the fact that there’s no magic secret, no ghost in the machine. At its finest, in my opinion, Atheism should lead to the twin truths of Humanism and Rationalism. It should lead a person to understand that only through the acceptance of evidence, the cultivation of knowledge and the taking of considered and rational action can anything of worth actually be accomplished.
Quite simply acceptance and inclusion are encouraged by accepting responsibility for ourselves and our world and by levelling the playing field, making the criteria for “truth” and “right” the same for everyone. Humanism shows us that we are the architects of our reality; that change, reform, and salvation must come not from some outside source but from ourselves. Rationalism requires that we open ourselves to accepting reason and science as our guides. By these methods we are more likely to take proactive steps, and come to more uniform and consistent conclusions. Thus we are more in control of our circumstances and more united ideologically. By holding to testable, verifiable truth rather than declared (and utterly subjective) divine revelation, we declare ourselves open to having our views challenged and our conclusions falsified. These ideals can only lead to a more elevated group consciousness and a more cooperative, peaceful coexistence with our fellow humans. When we base our views on reason rather than faith it helps us to see the world for what it is, it allows us to better match our solutions to the actual world.
There are those who advocate pretending beliefs don’t matter or that all opinions and ideas are equally valid and plausible. This is their answer for and guiding our species into the future, to just let anyone think whatever they like and to pretend that beliefs don’t have consequences. It seems to me however that the best way to unite, uplift and heal our species, and our world is to judge our ideas, our beliefs and our actions by the light of fact and the criteria of reason and commonsense.
There is a large and multi-pronged effort out there to define certain words in such varied and nebulous terms as to rob them of any concrete meaning whatsoever. The word in particular I want to address is “God” but it is not alone, “Truth” is another excellent example of the sort of selective redefinition I’m talking about. Both of these words are used so often, and in so many differing, contradictory, and utterly subjective ways that one could be forgiven for thinking that they don’t actually have objective definitions at all.
I say one could be forgiven, but never excused; misinformation no matter how well meant or innocent of intention should never be excused, it must be unapologetically corrected. “God” with a capital “G” can safely be defined (at least by the dictionaries I checked) as “The one supreme being, creator and ruler of the universe.” The concept of “God” is a creation of the Old Testament, which is the defining and original source of the idea of monotheism. It is responsible for the very idea of a single all-knowing all-powerful deity. Before its advent the capitalized “God” did not exist. Before its spread the only concept of deity was that of “god” (note the lowercase) or rather of “gods”. These were lesser, limited creatures with finite abilities and knowledge. This word “god” is a word you don’t really see much in the world anymore, having been largely stamped out by the proponents of its capitalized cousin.
As I said in the opening the effort to change the definition of God is multi-pronged. Pantheists like to claim things like “God is the universe!” while moderate Christians or fundamentalist moderates like to say “God is love” or “God is the best parts of ourselves” and spiritualists and mysticists add to the clamour with “God is energy!” and “God is the laughter of little children” or whatever you like in substitution. They all have different definitions, or redefinitions, but their motivations for changing the definition are all basically the same.
I do not think that the perpetrators of this definition sleight of hand choose their words at random. I think that the words “God” and “Truth” were chosen for very specific reasons. The word “God” morphed from its true definition referring to the all-powerful monotheist god Yahweh to become the anthropomorphized spirit of every good thing once people began to recognize the unquestionable monstrousness of the original character. As we advanced as a species we learned more, we grew more moral and more sociable and unsurprisingly the personality of God laid out in the Old Testament lost its luster for some. Rather than move on from the mythology entirely however some simply kept the parts of god they liked, and discarded the rest. The evolution of the definition of God is exactly the same sort of selective interpretation that fundamentalist moderates use when deciding which parts of their various holy books to advocate and which to dismiss.
Now we come to the second word I mentioned, another victim of constant redefinition and rebranding, the word “Truth”. This word we hear all the time, and most of us would probably say we have a good idea of what it means. I think it’s fair to say that at its simplest and most direct truth means “that which is in accordance with reality or fact.” This definition of truth is the basis of all knowledge, scholarship, science, and critical inquiry. It’s what makes mathematics work, it’s what makes planes fly…and there are large groups of people in the world who want you to believe that it doesn’t exist. They’ll tell you the all truth is subjective. They’ll say that we each have our own truths and that they are all equally true and all equally valid. “It is overly simplistic,” they’ll chorus, “to assume that something is false just because there is contradictory evidence.” If there is no objective standard for truth, if everything is true then there is no basis for criticism and no mechanism for challenge or reform. This is exactly the type of atmosphere religion and theism in general require to not just survive but thrive.
So with “God” safely sanitized to fit their particular attitudes or proclivities and “Truth” relegated to the realm of opinion it becomes impossible say that ANY definition is incorrect because it is true to them. So the pantheist who declares that the universe is God is just as right as the fundamentalist moderate who says that god is love. It is faith without conviction, it is Old Testament fan fiction.
A lot of atheists will be quick to say “the bible isn’t evidence.” I do it myself all the time. Yet I will concede that the bible is better evidence than your unsubstantiated personal relationship with infinity. Subjective truths are very real and very valid, we all have them. A rational reasonable person learns to differentiate between the subjective truths of their individual reality and reach deeper to the fundamental real objective truths of reality.
I’ve noticed a growing trend of Christians complaining about being “attacked” for their beliefs about the “sanctity” of what they call “traditional marriage”. My first impulse is to point out the fact that Christianity is not the oppressed minority under siege from a massive and powerful conspiracy to destroy and deny it its rights. It is not the victim in this situation, but the victimizer. I’ve tried that tack however and had very little success with it so I’m going to try something a little different.
Since I’m trying to build an argument to make Christians understand, it seems only right to start with the bible. It is, after all, the Christian instruction manual for life; it must contain their concept of “Traditional Marriage” and lay it out plainly, right?
Shockingly however, in the Bible, marriage is not limited to a consensual union between one man and one woman. There are, in fact, any number of acceptable forms of marriage laid out in the pages of the Bible and most forms of marriage it mentions don’t even require both parties to consent! Not only is consent not required but there are SEVERAL variations of non-consensual marriage.
Genesis tells us of Judah, who forced the wife of his dead son to marry and sleep with his other son. (Genesis 38:6-10) In Deuteronomy 21 we learn that soldiers who are attracted to enemy women are allowed to take them as their wives so long as the soldier in question waits a month between taking her and raping her. (Deuteronomy 21:10-13) In the next chapter we learn that rape is considered an acceptable form of marriage proposal so long as the man is willing to pay his victim/fiance’s father the required fifty shekels. (Deuteronomy 22:28-29) and in Exodus we learn that a master can force his slaves to marry regardless of their will. (Exodus 21:4)
However the Bible isn’t all non-consensual rape marriages, as I said it is open to many interpretations of nuptials. For instance, according to the Bible, Yahweh has no problem with polyamorous or polygamous relationships. According to (1 Kings 11:1-3), King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Christians today make the claim that God punished Solomon for his polygamy, yet the fact is the Bible says quite plainly that Solomon was punished for marrying foreign women who lead him to worship other gods (1 Kings 11:1-2, 9-10). According to (1Chronicles 3) King David had seven wives. Regardless of modern spin on the situation both men are generally regarded as paragons of scripture and high in god’s favour, and nowhere in the text is there any question about whether their version of marriage was a correct one.
Christian apologists will tell you that Jesus defined marriage in (Matthew 19:4-6) “Haven’t you read, he replied, that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh So they are no longer two, but one flesh.’ Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” yet this is not a definition. Christ never condemned the previously mentioned forms of marriage or said that this was the only acceptable form of union. At most what you’ve got here is yet another form of marriage in the text further demonstrating the elasticity of the term in the scriptures. And a careful reading of the passage and his concluding statement “let no one separate” reveals that Jesus’ primary intent in those verses was to forbid divorce—something which modern Christians readily ignore.
There is, I assure you, much more than can be said on the subject of biblical marriage but suffice it to say that the modern conception of consensual one-man-one-woman marriage is, by the lights of the Bible, a new and radical departure from what the fathers of the faith would call a traditional marriage.
As for why conservative Christian views come under scrutiny from secular society the answer to that is simple. When one looks back through history the positions of conservative Christianity are, almost without exception, horrendously backward and bigoted positions based largely on personal bias, ignorance, and of course selective interpretation of the scriptures. Let’s look at some examples.
Perhaps the most striking example of conservative Christianity’s failure to evolve with the times is the conservative defence and fostering of the practice of slavery. The abolition movement met constant and often violent opposition from the faithful when it came to the question of freedom for slaves in America and England. The Reverend Alexander Campbell one of the founders of the Restoration Movement famously said: “There is not one verse in the Bible inhibiting slavery, but many regulating it. It is not then, we conclude, immoral.”
That is an opinion that was shared by Jefferson Davis, the first and only President of the Confederate States of America as evidenced by the following quote:
“Slavery was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation…it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency of the arts.”
How did they justify this position you ask? They turned to the ultimate authority on law and morality of course. They delved into their bibles and came up with examples like the following to show that God wanted slaves right where they were.
“Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” Genesis 16:9
“There were still people left of the Amorites, Hittites, Perrizzites, Hevites, and Jebusites. Solomon conscripted the descendants of all these people remaining in the land whom the Israelites could not exterminate to serve as slave labor. As it is to this day” 1 Kings 9: 20-21
“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.” Ephesians 6:5-8
Female equality in our society was a long fought battle that met with strong opposition from both men and women. One of the groups strongest in their opposition to this equality was, inevitably , Conservative Christianity. The idea being that it was unnatural and sinful for women to reach above the subservient, weaker position they’d been given by god. This position, they assured us, was upheld by holy scripture and they used bible verses like those that follow to anchor their prejudice.
“For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.” 1 Corinthians 11:8-9
“Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands.” 2 Timothy 3:1-7
Now I hear the Christians screaming “There were Christians fighting for suffrage and abolition too!!” and they’re right. There absolutely were Christians working for abolition and suffrage, and their work would have gone a whole lot easier if it hadn’t been for the Parties of God pretending they have some unique understanding of morality or private warrant to decide “right” for all mankind.
I’ve written it before and I’ll likely write it again. Religion provides no unique benefits to the world, it does how ever have unique pitfalls which make it an unnecessary and dangerous extravagance. The Christian viewpoint has been on the wrong side of every major social change in history. The “gay marriage debate” shouldn’t be a debate. Once again the bible has provided, as it always does, a justification to cling to outdated stigmas and stereotypes. The rest of us, secular society, will once again drag you kicking and screaming toward modern morality and basic humanistic consideration for your fellow humans. We’ll do it because you don’t get to choose how we live, and when we’re done and we’ve finished all the work you can all sit around and declare that, just like the Church freed the slaves and gave women the vote, the Church brought equality to “the gays”.
A person walking along a beach stumbles upon a watch lying in the sand. Without even knowing what it is this person recognizes that this object is complex and has a purpose and so this person will determine that the watch didn’t spring up by itself it must have a creator. Similarly the universe (or life on this planet) is complex and demonstrates purpose so must have a designer.
That’s a variation of the Watchmaker Analogy, or the Watchmaker Fallacy depending on which side of the divide you’re on. In 1802 a Christian apologist named William Paley published a book called “Natural Theology” where he laid out his case for the existence of God as the only rational explanation for the existence of life on this planet. The Watchmaker Analogy is Paley’s most famous contribution to apologetics and has survived more than two hundred and ten years despite the fact that it is quite simply riddled with flaws and assumptions.
The idea that someone can determine whether something was designed by a designer simply by observing it is an outright assumption with no factual basis. In reality we recognize a watch as being designed because we are intimately familiar with watches. We know that they don’t occur naturally, we’re familiar with machinery and with the concept of metalwork. Also we know for certain that watchmakers exist. They are an actual verifiable group of people who can be definitively shown to produce watches. The same cannot be said of any universe creator.
We recognize design by its superficial complexity. By that I mean the obvious “unnatural” order that stamps our creations. For instance when you compare an office building to a mountain the artifice, the engineering, in short the design of the building is immediately apparent. This brings up another flaw of Paley’s argument. We recognize design by comparing it to naturally occurring phenomena. According to Paley’s own argument the very complexity of the watch points to its having been designed but one has to ask: complexity when compared to what? The rocks? The trees? The sky? The watchmaker analogy is attempting to show that all things are designed by comparing the apparent complexity of human creation to the apparent simplicity of natural phenomena. It undercuts its own central thesis.
The Watchmaker Analogy states that complexity requires design and by expansion it declares the obvious truth that design requires a designer. Yet it ignores the simple fact that any designer with the power and ability to design all life on earth (let alone the entire cosmos) must be a being of surpassing complexity in and of itself. By the logic of the analogy the creator itself would require a creator of its own, as would that creator and so on infinitely.
The analogy is often used to attempt to hold up a specific theology (Christianity, Islam, etc) yet it doesn’t actually make any attempt to define who or what the designer may be. Even if you accept the Watchmaker in its entirety it doesn’t get you any closer to proving any particular theology. It can, at best, get you to deism. On it’s own Paley’s analogy is insufficient to draw any conclusions whatsoever about the designer. Within the bounds of the analogy there is actually no reason to assume it’s a single designer rather than a series of cooperating entities (for example). The Watchmaker supports equally the idea that reality was formed by an army of magical pixies as it does the idea of any all-powerful monotheistic god.
This analogy has survived as long as it has because it is a clear and concise phrasing of what seems, on its face, like a reasonable supposition. It survived unmolested for almost sixty years until it was completely destroyed by, ironically, a student of Paley’s works named Charles Darwin. Darwin’s evolution by natural selection showed us (well most of us) that complexity does not in fact require design. It showed us that complexity can and in fact does result from gradual adaptation and mutation over long periods of time. It demonstrated that deity is not necessary and provided an actual answer without the endless regression that the god hypothesis always results in. Despite the efforts of generations of apologists, theists and religious “scientists” natural selection remains the best answer we have ever developed for the “how” of existence while The Watchmaker analogy has become a sound bite for those too invested in their preconceptions to take an honest look at the realities around them
“Why not believe in god? If you’re wrong and he’s real you go to hell whereas if you believe and he’s not you lose nothing.” Does this sound familiar? How about “I’d rather believe and go to heaven then chance eternity in hell.”? Ever heard that one before? I bet you have. These are modern variations on a principal of theological philosophy called “Pascal’s Wager” and variations on the wager have been kicking around since Blaise Pascal’s “Pensées” was published in 1669.
The wager as written by Pascal is a little over five hundred words so I won’t share the whole thing but at it’s core Pascal’s principal is this: God is unknowable, reason can tell us nothing of the existence of god and so one is forced to make a wager, a coin flip one way or another. If you pick belief and you’re right you get the ultimate reward: Heaven. If you pick belief and you’re wrong you lose nothing. Conversely if you choose disbelief and you’re right nothing happens but if you’re wrong you get eternal damnation and torment. So according to Pascal’s treatment the best thing to do is to choose to believe. (Or even to feign belief in order to prevent the possibility of eternal damnation, but I’ll come back to that.)
There are a great many flaws with the position of Mr. Pascal and his latter-day adherents. I would like to hope that is obvious from the outset, yet I know for some that is not at all the case. I will attempt to lay out some of the more glaring problems with the kind of thinking advocated by Monsieur Pascal here in the hopes of clarifying the issues. The first problem I see, by no means the most glaring problem, just the first that occurs to me, is that this kind of thinking seems to imply that we are free to choose what we believe and don’t.
Our belief is not entirely subject to our will. Belief is “Something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion or conviction.” You do not choose what to believe, what you believe is a combination of your mental capabilities, education, social environment and psychological needs. Either a given precept is plausible to you or it’s not. If this were not the case you wouldn’t hear “de-conversion” stories where the subject says they were no longer capable of believing despite their wish that that was not the case. Nor would you hear testimony from Atheists and Agnostics who say they wish they could believe but just cannot.
Mr. Pascal’s advice to these people is, in effect, “fake it til you make it”. That one should feign belief in order to avoid hell:
“You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it…. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness.” Pensées Section III note 233, Translation by W. F. Trotter
Here it would seem that Pascal is either a) trying to dupe his own All-powerful all knowing deity or b) simply trying to devise a way of making the disbeliever quiet and docile. Regardless of which option you choose this line of thought is inherently dishonest. It also completely dismisses the idea of a creator who rewards intellectual integrity and honesty. I think this demonstrates the character (or lack thereof) of Pascal’s god. That such an entity would prefer feigned devotion to honest doubt is very telling about this supposed entity.
Also this presents an oversimplified version of the choice in question. It pretends that the choices are limited to belief or disbelief, as if there is only a single conception of “god”. There have been thousands of religions and tens of thousands of gods. A great many of them are jealous and demanding gods who require complete and exactly proper shows of devotion and who punish failure with grisly (and often eternal) punishments. How is one to choose which god, goddess etc to worship? The simple truth of the matter is that if the god hypothesis is true there is still not enough reliable information out there to make your “coin flip” a sure thing. As Homer Simpson famously put it:
“What if we picked the wrong religion? Every week we’re just making God madder and madder.”
Taken into account these simple facts make it no safer to be a professed believer in ANY one faith than to be a disbeliever in all of them. Yes you may believe in Yahweh with all your heart but what if Olympus is watching? You’re already signed over your afterlife to eternity in Tartarus. Also when you note that even Jesus himself did not preach of an eternally torturing hell, only a permanent death for the unrighteous, and that the idea of an eternal “Hell” is a later addition to one specific mythology, the whole absurdity of Pascal’s Wager truly reveals itself.
Perhaps the largest problem with this “wager” and its modern offshoots is the idea that belief is free, a zero cost proposition; this is quite simply not true. We have only one life that we can be certain of, spending any of its finite amount of time in contemplation or discussion of this being is a cost, giving of your money to this being’s organizations is a cost. Most importantly though the disagreements between the various sects of believers and between believers and disbelievers, the conflicts, struggles wars, and social problems these disagreements lead to are most assuredly a cost. Belief costs lives; it costs quality of life, freedom and unity. The price of belief is the suspension of self determination, the abdication of personal responsibility, and the subornation of intellect. The cost put simply is that we must prostrate ourselves before an entity that there is no reason to believe exists in order to stave off a punishment there is no good reason to expect.
Pascal’s Wager is a not so cleverly veiled threat. It demands belief (or at least conformity and the miming of belief) in order to stave off eternal torment. It is an effort to silence dissenting opinions, theological bullying. More than that it is a blatant oversimplification of a much more complex issue, propaganda for a being that Pascal himself admits is unknowable, before going on to say quite certainly who and how that being is.
We’ve all heard variations on “No TRUE Christian judges or condemns others.” Or “No TRUE Muslim supports violence.” It’s one of those arguments one hears from both the secularized moderate believers who pick and choose what to believe, and the hard line fundamentalists who take their holy text literally. These two groups use the argument very differently ( and often against each other) yet they DO share a point of similarity.
Both groups make absolute claims about the nature of their faith and those who share it then when they’re shown evidence that demonstrates that those claims are false they respond with “well then they’re not true Christians!” ( or Muslims, or Hindus etc) This argument has a name; it’s called the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. It is, at it’s simplest, a rescue of a false generalization by re-characterizing the generalization. Basically the person making the statement simply redefines the term in question to make their argument unassailable.
The “No True Scotsman” fallacy was advanced by the British philosopher Anthony Flew. His example went as follows:
Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the “Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again”. Hamish is shocked and declares that “No Scotsman would do such a thing”. The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Heraldagain; and, this time, finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, “No true Scotsman would do such a thing”
Obviously this fallacy is not limited to just religious people. It does, however, crop up regularly and predictably in religion. It demonstrates perfectly, I think, not just the irrationality of their thinking but the desperation with which they cling to these ideas even in the face of evidence to the contrary. For example: when confronted with the violence and atrocity fostered and promoted by the Catholic Church throughout it’s history they’ll say “well that’s not true Christianity” all the while glossing over the fact that their beliefs are the result of a text designed by that church and spread through the very means they deplore.
The NTS fallacy provides an ever present “get out of jail free card” to the moderate theist who is confronted with the violence and intolerance of their religion. They’ll tell you that suicide bombers aren’t TRUE Muslims, and anti-abortion terrorists aren’t TRUE Christians; they’re just violent people who misuse their faith to sate their violent impulses. Of course in order to make this line of thinking work you have to gloss over the specific injunctions to violence and intolerance at the core of most religious faiths, but the moderate theist or “open-minded” apologist is generally expert at such intellectual acrobatics.
On the other side of the coin the fundamentalist can use the NTS fallacy to justify spreading their hatred and even violence against not just disbelievers, practitioners of other faiths, and people with “objectionable” lifestyles, but against followers of their own faith as well. If the moderate Muslim or secularized Christian isn’t a true Christian then any protection offered by the faith can be safely withdrawn or overlooked.
The danger of this kind of thinking is that the definition of “true” in the NTS fallacy is dependant upon the person making the statement. A “true Scotsman” is a Scotsman like me. A True Christian is a Christian who interprets Christianity like I do. This kind of thinking further insolates the believer from evidence of reality and the actual impact of religious belief. It creates even more division and elitism in a system already rife with both.
The kind of thinking demonstrated by the NTS fallacy is just plain dishonesty, an unwillingness to accept an obvious truth. In Flew’s example the truth is that Scotsmen are obviously as capable of sex crime as Brits. When it comes to religion the truth is that an objective look at its doctrine will show you that religion often demands intolerance, hatred, ignorance and division. To come to any other conclusion you have to cherry pick or use false reason like that in Flew’s fallacy.
The following is a word doodle that happened my my head while feeding my baby lunch. My first stab at “Anti-devotional” poetry. Thoughts welcome:
Wake up and dispell the darkness
Arise and dismiss the dreams
Throw off the obstructing haze
Truth isn’t as scary as it seems.
Look out upon the brilliant day
see the wonder beyond illusion
I know you think the dream protects
but the dream becomes delusion.
Break your chains and stand up tall
reach for truth and understanding.
There are no answers in the dream
just smoke and ghosts commanding.
You only get this one brief life
and it’s loaded down with glories
You don’t have to live on your knees
or be a slave to stories.
There’ so much to life you’re missing.
There’s much more than you see.
Life is so much greater
than your dream will let it be.
I hope you wake to wonder
and see the truth like shining dawn
I know that in it’s cleansing light
you can find all your phantoms gone.