Sunday, April 20, 2014

Thoughts on Easter

Today, Easter Sunday, the social media are full of posts proclaiming the resurrection of christ jesus.  This outpouring of rapturous excitement over a mythical event nearly 2000 years ago provides justification for this blog post of mine.  They're entitled to believe whatever they wish, and are free to proclaim those beliefs however they choose, at least here in the USA.  So am I.  Hence, this is an occasion for me to discuss a particular aspect of this belief system.

I've already posted a web essay that provides an extended position statement, so I won't repeat all that here.  Keep in mind, the goal of my essays and blogs isn't to "de-convert" anyone from their beliefs (everyone has been "converted" to their religion - most often by their parents - no one ever was born with a particular religious belief), but rather to suggest that faith-based religions are irrational.  Every rational person knows there's no way to provide absolute proof of the existence of the abrahamic deity often referred to as "god".  Why is that?  If the putative deity exists, I'm told by believers, it chooses to avoid giving any tangible evidence of its existence (although it was quite willing to do so 2000 years ago, for some reason!), so that nowadays believers must accept it purely on faith (i.e., belief without evidence).  Evidence would apparently make it too easy!  Why is that?  Why should this deity work so hard to make it difficult to believe in it?

Every rational person also knows there's no way to provide absolute proof of the non-existence of said deity.  This is often a response from believers when their belief in a deity is challenged, who usually go on to commit the logical fallacy of claiming that the inability to disprove something constitutes proof of that something.  What we're really talking about is evidence, or more properly, its non-existence.  The evidence I see is basically consistent with the non-existence of a deity.  The burden of proof falls on the person making the claim, not someone who disbelieves the claim, especially in the absence of compelling evidence for the claim.  If someone were to provide convincing evidence, I'd be willing to change my mind.  Would believers do the same?  In many cases, it seems, they assert vigorously they would not!  I have another web essay on this topic, so I'm going to leave it at that, here.

What I really want to comment on this Easter Sunday is my continuing struggle with how otherwise intelligent and rational people are willing to embrace irrationality.  I'm not talking about fundamentalists who interpret scriptures literally and accept those scriptures as literal truth.  Fundamentalists must somehow rationalize that the literal words of scripture are contradictory, full of logical and historical errors, and sanction all sorts of behavior we would consider immoral.  I'm not going to dwell on this here.

Most christians in the US have interpreted many parts of the bible as metaphor, parables, songs, etc., and rationalized biblical words in various ways (e.g, 'Just how long was a "day" in the Genesis story of creation?'), no doubt at least in part because it's pretty clear that science contradicts those literal words, with a lot of evidence to back up the scientific understanding.  Believers have labored hard to find a way to accept 'magical thinking' even though they know magic is not real.  Unlike religion, science makes no claims to complete understanding, but what understanding it has developed since the Renaissance is solidly rooted in evidence - evidence that scientific understanding works in the real world, not just within the confines of a collection of writings from barely-civilized late Bronze Age tribal members of 2000+ years ago.  Is there a conflict between science and religion?  You bet there is!

The challenge that a rational believer must resolve is that clash between rational and irrational - you either develop your opinions and beliefs based on logic and evidence to the maximum extent possible, or you accept belief in the absence of evidence (faith).  Religious belief creates a cognitive dissonance with reason and evidence - a clash that must be resolved.  Many rational christian believers apparently solve this challenge by compartmentalization:  science and rationality hold sway in many (if not most) elements of their life, whereas in the religious compartment, faith and irrationality dominate.

Why would people do this?  I'm not qualified to provide an evidence-based answer, but I can at least speculate, so long as I admit I have no evidence.  Thus, I suspect otherwise rational people cling to their religious beliefs so desperately for many reasons:
  • Fear of death and the promise of eternal life.  
  • Threat of eternal punishment for unbelievers.  
  • Hope for a reunion with those who have died before them.  
  • Solace and comfort provided by a myth being used to control them.  
  • Social support from their religious 'tribe'.
  • Inertia of beliefs developed in childhood.
  • A way to explain tragic events in their lives. 
It's a willing suspension of disbelief in one compartment of their lives.  When I hear from an intelligent believer that nothing could ever cause them to waver in their belief, that's prima facie evidence of a closed mind on that subject.  I'm reminded of when some people are being told something they don't want to hear, they stick their fingers in their ears and go "La-La-La-La ... " to avoid hearing those words.  They're afraid to have their beliefs challenged.  They're afraid to admit their security blanket might have no rational basis, and so might be unable to provide security, save that of the placebo.


Matt Bunkers said...

You said "What I really want to comment on this Easter Sunday is my continuing struggle with how otherwise intelligent and rational people are willing to embrace irrationality." Assuming I am somewhat intelligent, all I can say to your question is "faith"; I offer you no proof, but I have my life of searching, questioning, and experience that has led me to this point.

Chuck Doswell said...

I assumed this applies ...

Proverbs 3:5: "Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding."

Matt Haugland said...

Can't speak for anyone else, but for me it was because (maybe from learning more about science in high school) I realized that "absolute proof" is an unreasonable standard for belief, and that my reasons for being an atheist were irrational. That's not exactly why I believe in God, but it's why I started seriously questioning my atheistic beliefs and examining the Bible with a more open mind.

Chuck Doswell said...

Matt ... what were your "atheist beliefs"? I thought the defining concept behind atheism is the absence of belief. What specifically did you find to be irrational about them?

Matt Haugland said...

A few of my "atheistic beliefs" were: 1) God was an invention by humans because they were afraid of death, 2) The Bible is absurd, historically inaccurate, and advocated immoral things like oppression of women, 3) It's irrational to believe in God without absolute proof.

Those are beliefs, not lack of belief. Atheism technically is a lack of belief, but every atheist I've encountered (including myself back then) has actual beliefs that follow from their lack of belief in God.

Why I found them to be irrational:
1) I read the Bible and found that it didn't really say anything about an afterlife, except in the New Testament, written 1000+ years after the Torah. That doesn't make any sense if fear of death was the original motive.
2) I learned that those beliefs were based on my misunderstanding of it. They also were largely based on emotion. I knew Christians who used the Bible to justify treating their wives badly and it made me resent Christianity and try to disprove the Bible.
3) I realized that absolute proof was an unreasonable requirement, because I believed so many other things for which I had no absolute proof (e.g., that all people should be treated equally/fairly, that it snowed in San Jose back in the 70s, that I would get married some day, etc.)

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Chuck Doswell said...


Of your "atheistic beliefs", none of them flow logically from the assumption of a deity's non-existence. #1 is a plausible speculation applicable in the christian era for some believers to cling to their beliefs, #2 is a way to refute the bible as a source of evidence for the existence of a deity and for its use as a moral guide, and #3 is your own invention, insofar as I can tell.

If deep scholarly investigation of scriptures had ever (to date) somehow turned up any truly compelling evidence for the existence of a deity, doesn't it seem virtually certain that it already would ballyhooed to the far corners of the world? Wouldn't you have already brought it up yourself?

Matt Haugland said...

I agree that they aren't directly deduced from atheism, but it's hard to be an atheist without having some beliefs regarding why religion exists and why so many people believe in God. You've expressed beliefs about such things yourself -- even this blog post contains some.

Your second point depends on what you mean by "truly compelling". It needs to be put into context and compared with evidence for other things one believes. Obviously the evidence for God is not as 'compelling' as the evidence for the existence of elephants, for example. But when compared to things like life on other planets, other explanations for the origin of the universe, etc., it's quite compelling. It certainly is more compelling than the evidence for the "atheistic beliefs" I mentioned.

It's easy and convenient to say "I don't believe anything" and never be wrong about a belief, but if you want to actually explain and predict things, it usually requires belief based on evidence that falls short of "absolute proof".

Chuck Doswell said...

Matt H.,

What I've presented here about why people might choose belief are clearly identified as speculation, without any evidence to back them up. They're not my "beliefs" at all!

Regarding what evidence is "compelling" - if the evidence for the existence of a deity were compelling, then virtually every rational personwould believe in that particular deity. That's what I expect from compelling evidence.

You seem to be going on about "absolute proof" - I don't require absolute proof for everything I believe in and recognize that science doesn't ever provide absolute proof, but I do ask that there be something vastly more substantial than how ancient Semites interpreted the word "day" or an ancient prophecy.


Matt Haugland said...

Do you believe it's irrational to believe in God or do you not believe that?

"Absolute proof" is your term, not mine.

Actually, the majority of rational people in the world do believe in a God -- the same God. That alone should count as evidence. Though there are notable exceptions, things believed by the majority of people in the world are true more often than not.

Chuck Doswell said...

Matt H.,

So you disavow any responsibility for the use of the term "absolute proof"? You're simply saying its a useless, fictional concept that you've never accepted?

"Though there are notable exceptions, things believed by the majority of people in the world are true more often than not." - some notable exceptions indeed. I'm rather surprised you would think of using such a weak argument. If, as you assert, they all worship "the same god", then why are so many of them hateful and disrespectful of each other? Is that the work of the same god among them? Can that possibly be evidence for the existence of that same god? In my book, you have a long way to go with such reasoning to validate the existence of this god.

Matt Haugland said...

Chuck, your post seemed to imply that if God exists, there should be "absolute proof", so I repeated your term. Sorry if I misinterpreted it.

That they believe in the same God doesn't mean they all treat each other perfectly. All I said was that it's evidence (not the best evidence, just evidence). Are you saying it isn't evidence?

Shouldn't it require pretty strong evidence to believe that a belief held by the majority of people in the world is irrational? What evidence do you have for your belief about that?

Chuck Doswell said...

Matt H.,

If absolute proof existed either way, we wouldn't be having this discussion.

It's evidence, but it can also be interpreted to show that no such deity exists, so it's hardly convincing evidence.

Why insist that it's rational to believe in something for which no compelling evidence exists? The number of people who believe something doesn't do anything to make that belief true.

Matt Haugland said...

That no compelling evidence exists is a conclusion that depends entirely on your a priori assumption about what constitutes compelling evidence.

That the vast majority of rational people have a different standard than you certainly doesn't mean you're wrong. I go against the vast majority all the time, but it forces me to constantly question my unique beliefs and make sure I have very good reasons for them. What are your compelling reasons for having such a (relatively) high standard for what constitutes compelling evidence?

Chuck Doswell said...

Matt H.,

'Vast majority' might be a bit hyperbolic, but ... no matter.

"What are your compelling reasons for having such a (relatively) high standard for what constitutes compelling evidence?"

That's an easy one ... the existence of a deity is a topic of extraordinary significance. To depart from my skepticism about the existence of a deity would require extraordinary evidence.

Matt Haugland said...

In meteorology, does the amount of evidence required for your belief in a hypothesis depend on the significance of the phenomenon being studied? Where is this "significance" term in Bayes' Theorem or in any other evidence-based equation in probability theory?

I agree that we should apply more scrutiny to beliefs of greater significance, but it seems your model leads to less scrutiny rather than more. It's basically "My beliefs (i.e., everything that directly follows from atheism) are true unless I see extraordinary evidence to the contrary". That sounds to me like the opposite of skepticism.

Chuck Doswell said...

Matt H.,

It's a pretty much universally accepted principle of science that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Surely you accept that principle, don't you? Examples abound in the history of science: the "Big Bang", relativity, continental drift, quantum theory, evolution ...

My "beliefs" that follow from my atheism are irrelevant to this issue. And your description of them is a bizarre mischaracterization.

It's my atheism that reflects my skepticism, not those putative "beliefs" that follow from atheism. The existence of your deity is an extraordinary claim that requires extraordinary evidence - that has yet to be produced by anyone, anywhere in the modern era. The only "evidence" we have is from scriptures, which are not a credible source. Using the bible as a source is like using "Dianetics" to validate the principles of Scientology.

Chuck Doswell said...

Since I can't edit these, let me re-phrase my response. I have never, ever said my "beliefs" (that follow from my atheism) are true beyond question.

You continue to try to shift the burden of proof to me - to DISprove the existence of the abrahamic deity. It's the extraordinary claim of the existence of such an entity that demands extraordinary evidence, not my "beliefs". And since you seem compelled to argue there's a rational basis for theism, it's up to you to back up your claim with compelling evidence.

Matt Haugland said...

You should know I've never asked you to disprove the existence of God and never would. That would be ridiculous. All I'm asking is that you apply a consistent (and scientific) standard, and to tell me where your "extraordinary evidence" claim fits into probability theory.

What makes a claim extraordinary and how can we measure its level of "extraordinaryness"? Without special pleading or presupposing your own position, why is "God exists" a more extraordinary claim than "God doesn't exist"? By at least one measure, your claim is the more unusual one. What other tests can we apply?

Chuck Doswell said...

Matt H.,

This debate is increasingly astonishing to me. The significance of a claim is "measured" by the magnitude of the paradigm shift if the claim is true. Did my examples from science not make that evident to you?

If the existence of a particular deity's existence would NOT be a huge paradigm shift, I can't imagine what else might qualify!

The magnitude of a paradigm shift would have to be estimated subjectively, like the PoPs issued by human forecasters. I assume you're willing to accept such things, no?

I will leave it in your capable hands to incorporate the significance of a result into Bayes Theorem, if you feel it's needed. I'm occupied with other things right now.

By what measure is my claim the unusual one? How are YOU defining unusual?

Chuck Doswell said...

Change: the existence of a particular deity's existence to: the truth of a particular deity's existence

Matt Haugland said...

If it's based on "magnitude of the paradigm shift if the claim is true", wouldn't your claim be the more extraordinary one? Most people are theists and live under the paradigm that God exists, so "God exists" wouldn't be much of a paradigm shift. I must be misunderstanding you. What exactly do you mean by "paradigm shift"? Are you saying it's subjective and untestable?

Regarding PoPs by human forecasters, there's a reason I developed an objective PoP model instead of grabbing them from NDFD :-)

Chuck Doswell said...

Matt H.,

The fact that a majority believes in something has nothing to do with the magnitude of the paradigm shift. That belief at present is based on faith (i.e., in the absence of compelling evidence). If compelling evidence some day becomes available, either way, it would be an enormous paradigm shift. Are you just being argumentative or do you really not understand that?

Matt Haugland said...

Okay, so if not that, what does determine the magnitude of the paradigm shift? Only your subjective opinion, or is there something else?

It's the key question because you said the magnitude is what determines whether the available evidence is compelling or not (because extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence). Your atheist position is built on top of that foundation, but so far your only answer has been "it would have to be estimated subjectively". Okay, how do you estimate it subjectively?

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Chuck Doswell said...

Matt H.,

You've not answered my question. Do you or do you not accept that finding compelling evidence to support either side of the existence question would be an enormous paradigm change? Yes or no? Do you not accept the principle that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence? Yes or no?

Surely it isn't necessary to justify my assertion that compelling evidence for (or against) the existence of the abrahamic deity would have an extraordinary impact on the human species! Either way, the lives of billions of human beings would be altered dramatically and irrevocably. If the compelling evidence is against the existence of the abrahamic deity, then your putative majority of believers must recognize their faith has been unjustified. If the compelling evidence is for the existence of the abrahamic deity, then the billions of nonbelievers must accept a radical change in their world view. And, presumably, the various faiths must somehow reconcile their differences and accept a single version of faith in a deity. They can't all be right, after all.

It seems to me that you've consistently tried to divert attention in your arguments from the fact that such compelling evidence simply does not exist. No matter what you might think about the subjectivity of paradigm change magnitude, it's pretty hard for me to imagine any human being who would not be profoundly affected by such evidence, were it to become available.

If such evidence already existed, we wouldn't even be having this discussion. Since you are making the claim for the existence of said deity, the burden of proof is on you. I have no logical requirement to justify my unbelief.

Matt Haugland said...

It wasn't a question, but I'll answer it. No. To billions of people, there already is compelling evidence. I'll post a blog to answer your second question in a couple days. It's complicated because "extraordinary" can mean different things, but I'll address each one using probability theory.

Your last paragraph is special pleading. You've made several positive assertions here. You said extraordinary claims, defined by the magnitude of paradigm shift they entail, require extraordinary evidence. Thus, your threshold for "compelling" depends on the magnitude of this paradigm shift.

I've asked three times how you determine this magnitude and thus the level of evidence required for you to consider it "compelling". Your replies so far have been non-responsive. Are you unable to answer that question?

If you don't have an objective answer, your argument is circular and/or arbitrary. It's essentially "There's no compelling evidence, because the evidence that exists doesn't rise to the level of "compelling", a level determined by my own subjective opinion."

Chuck Doswell said...

Matt H.,

Amazing! ... you actually DON'T believe the discovery of compelling evidence for or against the existence of the abrahamic deity would be a huge paradigm change!! Based on this alone, we seem destined to disagree and further debate is likley to be futile.

The large numbers of non-believers are, imho, mute testimony to the absence of evidence commensurate with the claim of existence for the abrahamic deity. You're satisfied that such an issue has already been decided by majority vote, apparently. I'm asking for a lot more!

I disagree that most believers have based their belief on compelling evidence. It's based primarily on faith, NOT logic or evidence. Believers might be convinced, but it's not based on the evidence!! I understand that YOUR evidence is clearly sufficient to convince YOU, but it's far too thin to convince most unbelievers, including me. I have provided statements of the sort of evidence it would take to change my mind. Many believers have made it clear that NO evidence would convince them NOT to believe ... that is simply irrational.

This whole discussion you've pursued evidently hinges on my ability to define an objective measure of paradigm change. Otherwise, "If you don't have an objective answer, your argument is circular and/or arbitrary." Hogwash! My ability to develop an objective measure is not at all pertinent to the issue - and I don't have any obligation to live up to criteria you've imposed on me. I suggested several posts ago that subjective assessments are not inevitably invalid, although you apparently disagree. Many scientists have an obsessive attitude toward "objectivity" - subjective, non-quantitative knowledge is not necessarily invalid. This could be a whole debate in its own right.

I've provided examples of what I consider to be large paradigm shifts in science. Many more could be offered. Is relativity a greater paradigm shift than evolution or continental drift? I know of no way to quantify that, but within each discipline, it would be obvious that these new concepts changed their respective fields enormously. The lives and careers in those fields were permanently altered by those concepts, once compelling evidence of their validity was provided.

So far, I know of no one but you has decided we need to define objective measures of paradigm shift magnitude in order to assert that those shifts were enormous. It's your criterion, so perhaps you should put your considerable intellect to that task of measuring the magnitude of paradigm shifts. But I need no convincing to accept that relativity and the other examples were of huge impact on their fields.

In fact, I DO deserve the right to impose my own personal criteria on what is compelling evidence. I think it's damned important to have compelling evidence if I'm going to be asked to believe in an all-everything being. Or even a being with huge, but finite capabilities in comparison to us. I admit it remains a logical possibility, but I've not seen anything to convince me. Although I have that right, I DON'T have the right to impose those criteria on anyone else - and neither do you.

Matt Haugland said...

If it compels most people to believe, I'd call that "compelling", at least to them. "It's based primarily on faith (not evidence)" -- only because of how you define 'compelling evidence'. Totally circular.

Ob/subjectivity isn't black or white. Most subjective assessments (e.g., human PoPs) are based on some objective information or criteria and some subjective opinion. It's rarely if ever 100% one or the other. Nothing wrong with that. I never said being subjective makes your criterion invalid. I asked how you determine it. "It's subjective" is not a method for determining it. What is your method? If it's 100% subjective opinion, why is that any more valid than someone who believes in God because it's their opinion that he exists?

No, I don't believe we need to define objective measures of paradigm shift, because that's not how I determine whether evidence is compelling to me. Magnitude of paradigm shift is what you said your criterion is. Mine is very different, and paradigm shift has nothing to do with it.

Forget about paradigm shift if that's problematic. How do you determine that one claim is more extraordinary than another? e.g., How did you determine that "God exists" is a more extraordinary claim than "God doesn't exist"?

Chuck Doswell said...

Matt H.,

We've reached the point where I see no value in pursuing this any further. If you wish to declare yourself the victor, that's fine with me. I'm not conceding anything but I'm saying that continuation of this discussion is futile. Sorry ...

Matt Haugland said...

No problem. Hopefully it was useful to whoever might've been reading. Maybe some day we should reserve the NWC auditorium for a debate.

Lisa MacArthur said...

I'd like to throw in a comment based on another angle.

I am certain that if their was a deity that deity would not want you to worship it. That deity would likely want the same things for and from you and you would want for and from your children.

Thus, in my opinion, the doctrines of organized religions are simply man-made doctrines that have no basis in anything. Why anyone pays any attention to them is beyond me.

A lot of religious organizations do a good amount of charity work but they also teach doctrines that have no basis in fact. That is a disservice to everyone who comes in contact with them.

I know of one person who killed herself because things were really tough and she was expecting things to be better in the next life. What next life? Bad decision based on bad information.

Chuck Doswell said...


We can only speculate on what a deity might want or not want. Given that I don't believe in such a deity, such speculation is essentially useless.