Category Archives: Truth

Conversations with Friends: JN #1

Being new at being an atheist, I studied and studied every idea I could find on the matter of apologetics and counter apologetics.  I feel sufficiently caught up in order to talk to most believers and confront some of the popular sayings and mantras.  One thing I was not prepared for was the invincibility of faith.  It’s not, of course.  After all, there have been many converts, myself included.  But faith is a powerful foe.

I’ve been speaking on and off with two friends specifically about God.  One of them is a former youth pastor of my wife.  I will call him JN for anonymity.  He reached out to me in a very pastor-ly way.  Very nice, very friendly.

The stated purpose for him reaching out was just to ask some questions and see where my head was at.  I’m not sure what the end game actually is, but I figured this would be a good time to show that I was educated on the matters of God and stretch some of my brain muscles.  This should also go without saying, but a great bi-product of this type of discussion is that if there is a flaw pointed out in my thinking, I can correct it.  It’s a win-win for me.

At this point, this conversation has reached a few crucial nodes of discourse.

-JN thinks that faith in and of itself is beneficial.  I’ve pointed out it’s flaws, but the benefits haven’t been stated.

-JN believes that there’s no evidence that he could present to convince me.  While I agree with him in this particular moment, the evidence could be discovered one day that would convince me, or any other skeptic.

One important piece of agreement is the ways in which we can answer the argument from nonbelief:

Either

1.  God does not exist and believers are mistaken.

2.  Nonbelievers aren’t looking for evidence.

3.  Nonbelievers haven’t found the evidence for God’s existence, but believers have.

4.  God has not revealed himself to nonbelievers.

We can immediately rule out #2.  I would say that a lot of nonbelievers are looking for evidence of God, myself included.  If a theists questions this, we can merely ask for the evidence, and that should put that theory to rest.

#4 isn’t consistent with most God concepts.  Most theists would reject this one, while I am still open to the possibility that this could be the case.

#3 is where JN has landed.  Nonbelievers are looking, but looking in the wrong places, or in the wrong ways.  In this case, a simple matter of instruction should clear this up.  Ask the theists, show me God, or show me how to find the evidence for God.  They will say, “just open your heart” or “just believe”, but this isn’t evidence for God’s existence.  If it is, then this can be evidence for just about anything you wanted to believe.  Unicorns exist.  All you have to do to know that is to open your heart and believe that they exist.

I’ll use an analogy that my friend, JN, in this discussion actually gave me.  He said atheists are scanning the FM stations for God, and believers have found him on the AM band.

This is a great analogy.  Let’s expand.  The FM band in this analogy is the natural world, while God resides in the supernatural realm, the AM band.  Never mind, for the moment that God apparently manifests himself into the FM band from time to time which would be detectable by those of us scanning it.

So if the theist is claiming to see God on the AM band, wouldn’t the easiest way to reconcile this be for him to show me how to scan the AM frequencies.  Show me where the button on my radio is to change bands.

Instead, in this analogy, JN is basically saying “you just have to believe that the AM band is there, I can’t prove it to you.  You just have to have faith.”  This wouldn’t make sense at all if the AM band actually existed and if the theists actually had access to it.  He would just show me.  Or demonstrate that he could access it somehow.

In addition, there are millions of other people convincing me of other bands that exist.  There are muslims telling me to tune into the CM band.  Alien abductees telling me that their aliens speak to them on the ZM band.  And none of them can tell me how to tune my radio other than to just “believe”.

How can I reconcile this?

My only course of action is to deny that any of these other bands exist until someone has the ability to demonstrate to me how I can change my bandwidth.  Or at the very least that it is obvious that they are listening to another bandwidth.

But none can.

This defeats option #3 from above.  I am left with the fact that either #1, God doesn’t exist, or #4, he has not revealed himself.  In the case of #4, my life would be exactly the same as if he didn’t exist.

How to Apologetics: Godisimaginary.com

(Before you read this or decide not to, I would like to point out that at the end of writing this blog, I came to a very different conclusion that the one that I hoped to point out.  I will address it at the end of the post, and if you’re not interested in the subject matter, you may find my conclusion interesting.)

http://www.godisimaginary.com is one of my favorite sites.  It’s written for the layman, and while some of it’s arguments are admittedly bad, they are laid out in a clear concise and plain way.  The few fallacies and errors are easy to spot.

Whenever a Christian or Atheist puts together a popular well-thought out argument, there are always people on the opposing side who decide to undertake the challenge of debunking the entire argument, usually due to confirmation bias.  I want what I believe to be true so the things you state that contradict that CAN’T be true!

For today, I am going to be examining The Rational Choice’s attempt to debunk the “proofs” from http://www.godisimaginary.com.  So yeah, this is going to get really complicated.  Before reading this I would go read two things:

The first ten proofs presented by www.godisimaginary.com 

The Rational Choice’s first 10 rebuttals on this page.  It’s pretty short and I will be quoting from it quite a bit.

Proof 1

The Rational Choice accuses God Is Imaginary of a non sequitur.  The Rational Choice straw mans the argument into “Prayers aren’t answered therefore God doesn’t exist.”

The actual argument here is:  The Christian says he answers prayers God.  The Christian Biblical God cannot lie because he is perfectly moral.  Prayers are not answered therefore The Christian Biblical God does not exist.

God Is Imaginary is specifically arguing against the Biblical God and even says this in the first paragraph, “One way would be to find a contradiction between the definition of God and the God we experience in the real world.”

He’s showing a logical contradiction.  God cannot fail to answer prayers, tell us he’s going to answer prayers, AND be incapable of telling a lie.  Therefore if we show that God is not answering prayers either God is a liar (in which case he’s not the Biblical God), he hasn’t told us he’s going to answer prayers (in which case the Bible is untrue and the Biblical idea of God is false.

The Rational Choice then states that “He did not promise that He would give us whatever we desire.”

I was going to link to all the verses that explicitly say this, but I realize the God Is Imaginary already listed all the ones I was thinking of.  The Rational Choice dismisses all of these by stating that these verses are “taken out of context”, and don’t actually mean what they say they mean.  Jesus was just making a point about how God can use a tiny amount of faith to do impossible things.

Okay, sure.

It’s just a coincidence that in EVERY one of those verse, Jesus is illustrating this point by telling people that WHATEVER THEY ASK FOR THEY WILL GET.  He wasn’t telling people that what they ask for is what they get, only that if they have faith then God can do great things……such as getting them whatever they ask for.  Sorry, the context card is not going to work.

Proof 2

This was dismissed by The Rational Choice except to clarify “Also worthy to note here is that the writer seems to think that God must answer yes to every prayer…but where in the Bible does it ever say that? No where.”

But wait, a prayer is a request for God to do or give something, and Jesus in Matthew 21:21 “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”

This is about as clear as saying a “God will answer yes to all your requests” so The Rational Choice is demonstrably wrong here once again.

Proof 3

The Rational Choice makes the point here about a non sequitur and this time he’s actually right.  God is Imaginary’s point that other God stories and similar mythic tales to the Bible’s invalidate it does not follow, but it does point out a possible explanation for the Bible being a myth.

Proof 4

Okay maybe The Rational Choice’s charge of non sequiturs was more on the money that I originally was willing to admit.  This proof from God is Imaginary did not show that God doesn’t exist because “science”, but like the previous one, it makes a point. Science has never been debunked or negated by anything remotely resembling a supernatural phenomenon, whereas the inverse is almost always true.  Supernatural explanations get replaced with natural ones all the time.

Proof 5

The Rational Choice gives up here and screams “CONTEXT!” then moves on.  Here’s the problem with this context argument, or any argument regarding the Bible.  The Bible is not a coherent monolithic document.  It is easily taken out of context and can be used in almost any fashion to justify any action or belief.  So when someone gets it “wrong” it’s difficult not to see both sides of it, but to me that shows that this book is not divinely inspired also.  The fact that it’s such a confusing collaboration of documents containing justifications for all sorts of actions.  I think God Is Imaginary’s point that such a book doesn’t have the qualities of a divine document is accurate.

Proof 6

The Rational Choice is really good at dismissing or completely ignoring the point, and shoving it aside with a…rationalization.  Here he quarrels with God is Imaginary’s use of Rick Warren’s particular theology.  And again, he’s right that not every Christian agree with Rick Warren, but he missed the point.

The point is this.  God has free will in choosing what type of universe to create, what type of people to create.  He also has perfect knowledge.  Knowing exactly what consequences his actions will cause.  This illustrates that God knowingly created evil.  Not just “the capacity for evil”.  God directly, knowingly created evil.  This is far from a perfect plan.

Proof 7

Here, God is Imaginary compares the extraordinary nature of the biblical claims to similar extraordinary claims to equate how we should approach these types of claims.  The Rational Choice disregards this with “Just because the preceding stories are true/false, however, they have no bearing on the truth value of the succeeding story. He ends with another little rant against prayer.”

And while he’s right, he’s missed the point.  One being false doesn’t make the other false, but the manor in which we dismiss one as false is the same manner in which we can safely dismiss Christianity as false.

We have equal amounts of evidence (none) to support the equally extraordinary claims, so we should dismiss them all equally.

Proof 8

To be honest here, I side with The Rational Choice on this one.  God is Imaginary didn’t put forth a proof so much as he tried to debunk NDE as proof of God.  I don’t really have much to say about this except that I don’t know much about NDE’s except what comes from hearsay evidence.  I don’t think there is a scientific consensus about whether or not these actually occur.

Proofs 8 and 9

Nothing specifically addressed with these points because they are a reiteration of prayer.

Conclusion

I admit, I have come to a very different conclusion that I had hoped to on the onset of this quest.  My hope was to show how erroneous apologetics can be, but I came to a different conclusion.  Apologetics AND counter apologetics can both be erroneous.  I knew this of course, but the theist pointed out some very good problems with the atheist’s arguments.

To me, this is important.  We should seek to find flaws in arguments that we accept as valid.  This is the heart of skepticism and why I will be focusing my efforts less on being anti-God, and more on being a rational skeptic.  The two go together quite well because being skeptical naturally leads one to reject the claims of God that lack evidence, but my focus will be slightly more on promoting how to think better, rather than “how not to believe in that stupid God of yours.”

Standards of Evidence Part 2: Risk and Stake

In my first post on the Standards of Evidence, I pointed out how it is rational to adjust our standards of evidence depending on how outlandish or unlikely to occur the claim is.  I concluded that with “believable” claims that our brain works quickly to take into account the small amount of evidence we are given to make a somewhat rational stand on the merits of the claim, and with extraordinary claims, we require more evidence to accept them.

This post will examine another aspect of a claim that we can rationally use to help us determine the level of evidence we should require before accepting a claim:

risk1

Risk is one of my favorite board games even though I have never played it in real life with anyone.  I’ve played it online a lot.  The idea behind the game is that you have to constantly decide what actions to take based on what your opponents are likely to do and what you will lose if you make a misstep.  If you over extend or make a bad map move, you could be easily over run.  A popular strategy (especially early on) is called “turtling”, where you basically conserve your army, and build up numbers until the very end when you overpower the remaining players.  This is a minimal risk strategy.

In the arena of truth claims, minimal risk strategies should be considered.  Consider the following scenarios:

The first scenario is that your close friend tells you that he bought a big dog.  This friend wouldn’t have to try hard convince you of this fact because it’s a common thing for people to buy dogs, but ALSO because if he’s lying to you, it makes no difference to you.  Finding out that you’re wrong about your friend owning a dog will be virtually harmless to you.  It may damage your trust in your friend, but the risk involved with not believing him may be even greater.  If you tell your friend you don’t believe him and ask him to prove it, and are continually incredulous of every claim he makes, he might think it’s not worth his time to be around you.  Constantly having to prove every minor claim he makes would get old, and you would likely lose friends like that.

In another scenario, you’re told by a close friend that your wife and daughter are being held hostage in a nearby building.  He hands you a shotgun, gives you the location, and tells you that you have 5 minutes to bust into the building and take all the guys out before they kill your family.  Well, not only is this an unlikely scenario, but it’s also extremely risky to accept your friend’s claims here.  If he’s wrong, and you believe him you could endanger many innocent lives, go to prison, etc.

On the other hand, if he’s right and you do nothing, you could lose your wife and daughter.  So the claim is at least worth examining.  Merely by alerting you that something valuable to you is at risk, your friend has forced you to examine his claim at least somewhat seriously.  This is why it’s illegal to scream “fire” in a crowded theater.

So here we have two scenarios where, in the first, there’s not much at stake if you’re wrong either way, and, in the second, there’s much at stake if you’re wrong either way.

The risk of losing something valuable is a highly motivating factor when examining claims, and forces us to put at least some standard of evidence on those claims where is much to lose if we’re wrong.

In a later post, I will examine how these two criteria for raising our standards of evidence can help us sort through various God claims.  This will definitely include a discussion about Pascal’s Wager.  For now, thanks for reading! 

Why We Lie

I was talking to a friend earlier today, and I asked him if he was watching the show “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” tonight.  He replied, “No, I’ve only seen one or two episodes.”  I didn’t mean to call him on his bs, but I quickly correct him and told him that the first episode of the show was coming on tonight for the first time.  He backtracked and said, “Oh I must have been thinking of something else.”

He could’ve been telling the truth there except for one thing.  I know that I do this sort of thing all the time.  When someone asks me if I’ve heard of something, or seen a show or classic movie, or heard some popular band.  My impulse is to be hip, and in the loop by pretending that I know exactly what they are talking about, regardless if I actually do.  What is this impulse?

It’s harmless, of course.  Telling someone that you’ve seen Scarface when you haven’t hardly matters.  It might hurt your credibility when discovered, but not much.  We all understand this impulse.

I am reminded of another friend once who was chiding his friend for having never seen The Godfather movies.  When asked what they were about, my friend said he also had never seen them.  It was peculiar.

Another funny scenario I am reminded of is the numerous times I’ve been watching a movie and some punchline will get played.  Everyone in the theater laughs and I didn’t get the joke or didn’t hear it, but I laugh anyways.  My friend leans over quietly to me and says, “I didn’t get it, what was so funny.”  I’m caught off guard. “I don’t know,” I say.  It’s so silly.

Again, these are harmless lies.  But why?  I think we have a need to be “in the know” and “on top of things”.  Whether we know it or not, we value the opinions of others highly.  We don’t want to be the one guy in the room who didn’t get the joke, or can’t see the magic eye illusion.  Being the 1/10 dentists that didn’t recommend a brand of toothpaste kind of scares us.

We live in a society where the majority rules, and the majority is often right on things.  If we’re confused, we’re prone to just play along and go with the flow rather than risk being the odd man out.

I think this contributes to a lot of religious pressure.  For sure there is a lot of pressure directly from others to think, feel, or believe a certain way, but there’s also a lot of internal pressure to not be different.  This is why Christian comedian, Tim Hawkins get laughs making fun of “Christian hand signals”.

This is also why we hear an abundance of the same stereotypical phrases.

I hope you enjoyed this blogpost.  I don’t really have a solution to this problem except that it’s okay to be honest.  It’s okay to have never seen scarface or to have to think about what you’re going to say before you say it.  You can tell people you read this blogpost and didn’t lie about it!

Skepticism: “I don’t believe in 2870 gods, and they don’t believe in 2869 gods.”

The quote is from Ricky Gervais.  He’s referring to his reply to theists who question his atheism.

“…they are nearly as atheistic as me.”

I have been having more and more conversations with believers now.  I am in the business of trying to challenge ideas.  My ideas, their ideas, all ideas.  Put them on the table and let’s talk about them.  Recently, a pastor friend of mine asked me this question.

“I would ask you the why is disbelief a virtue? What do we benefit from it?”

My response was probably not very convincing, and I am very critical of myself.  I always second guess the way I convey ideas because my goal is to convey them concisely, directly, and clearly.  I don’t think I did a very good job of that.

“Oh we benefit so much from skepticism. Even you, the faithful Christian! Haha. How much trouble have you saved yourself from being skeptical of all God claims. You benefit from being skeptical about Zeus, Buddha, Allah. You benefit by not believing in Santa and fairies and all sorts of things.

The way in which you benefit is that beliefs inform how we behave, so by you not behaving as if these things all exist, you behave more sanely. You act in a way that is more consistent with reality. You behave more rationally. You buy your kids presents because of your skepticism of Santa. Without that, your kids would be pretty upset.”

But I think that this point is a valid one.  We are all skeptical.  We all live in the realm of skepticism to a degree.  It’s because skepticism works, whether we have admitted it or not.  It worms it’s way into our decision making by the very virtue of it’s use.

The default position of non-belief is virtuous because it keeps us from believing every claim that is presented.  There are more ways to be wrong, and therefore more wrong claims that can be made, than there are more ways to be right.  So we should measure claims with a very accurate ruler.

And we see this in reality.  We see that there are many many many contradictory claims, specifically between the different religions, but even within them.  The different sects, and different theologies.  This doesn’t mean that none of them are right, but it does show that a whole lot of them are wrong just on the nature of the claims and the amount of them that contradict.

Theists would have to agree too.  Maybe even more strongly than I feel about it.  They believe so strongly that their God is the one true God that they disbelieve all other God claims on the basis of contradiction alone.

Skepticism makes two basic assumptions that I think are valid:

1.  We exist in a reality with properties.

2.  Our perceptions about this reality are sometimes right, and sometimes wrong.

But there are those that would claim absolute certainty of an idea.  Ideas that don’t have good enough reason to believe in, let alone claim certainty over.  Those that claim certainty of an idea are incorrect.  Not in the idea they believe in, but in the way in which they believe it.  Absolute certainty doesn’t exist, and even the Pope can be wrong about things.

It’s this acceptance that allows us to examine ALL ideas for truth, and consistency within the reality we inhabit.  In my 2nd blogpost I spoke about the nature of truth.

The second point I brought up in my response was that beliefs inform our actions.  What we believe has huge impact on how we behave.  For example, if I believed that Link for the Legend of Zelda was a true story, I might be inclined to take up my sword, go into the woods and try to help him out!  But this is nonsense, and my actions won’t do anything good or useful.

In the same way, religious beliefs that are false have consequences.  Religious beliefs are also extremely influential.  It’s important that we are skeptical of religious claims until they’re proven themselves correct.

This is why I encourage anyone that believes in a God to seriously question your beliefs.  When I was a Christian I believed in doing this to bolster my faith.  It turned me into a stronger skeptic, and someone with a firmer grip on reality, in my opinion.

Be skeptical.

Standards of Evidence Part 1: Extraordinary Claims

When examining claims and deciding whether to believe one, there are many things to consider.  Evidence is a must.  You can’t simply assert something without basis and expect it to be believed.  But we do this every day.  When we talk about mundane day to day happening with people, we’re making a lot of claims and we usually take them at face value without scrutinizing them.  Isn’t this believing in stuff without evidence?

No.  We are taking into account the evidence.  We’re just doing it so quickly that we don’t even realize it.  The biggest piece of evidence, and maybe even the only one in a lot of cases is the person’s eyewitness credibility.  Generally, people are pretty truthful.  We are using our previous experience with people as evidence for this.  We’re also using our direct previous experious with the individual we are talking to further build a case for their credibility.

Let me list a few claims you might accept with an extremely small amount of evidence:

  • I ate a ham sandwich today.
  • The dog crapped in my living room yesterday.
  • I am an okay driver.
  • My wife tells me she loves me everyday.

We accept these things with a very small amount of evidence.  These are mundane claims, and are extremely plausible unless I am a habitual liar. Now what about these claims:

  • I ate 4 ham sandwiches today.
  • The dog crapped in the refrigerator yesterday.
  • I hit something in my car every single day.
  • My wife speaks to me in latin every day.

Notice the level of doubt that starts to rise as you read these statements.  Why?  These are all just as plausible as the claims made in the first list, but the fact that these events are uncommon that makes them require a bit more credibility to believe.  It’s not often someone eats 4 ham sandwiches in a day, or that someone is such a bad driver that they literally run into something every day.  When met with claims like this you may even voice your disbelief:

  • “No way!”
  • “How did your dog get in the refrigerator?”
  • “No one is that bad of a driver.”
  • “How did she learn to speak latin?”

This is asking for further evidence to substantiate the wildness of the claims.  While the standard of evidence has gone up with these slightly more extraordinary claims, they haven’t gone beyond reasonable doubt necessarily.  You COULD take some of these claims on the word of the person making the claim alone.

Let’s ramp up the extraordinary nature of the claims one last time:

  • I ate 1000 ham sandwiches today.
  • I own 3 unicorns.
  • My house is made of ice.
  • Aliens are actually blue, not green or grey like.

So obviously these are extremely extraordinary claims.  Someone would have to bring you a lot of evidence before you believed it.  The claims demand it.  Some of these are claims we couldn’t even say they are even plausible.  Some of them we can demonstrate that they aren’t true.

To me, this shows that extraordinary (unlikely, strange, or uncommon) claims require extraordinary  (a large amount) evidence.

Truth and Good – Part 1: Truth

Whenever I am trying to decide anything (Which happens a lot on a daily basis. Why sometimes I’ll even make up to, and including THREE decisions a day.), I usually try to boil it down to these two basic thoughts:

Which way of thinking is more consistent with reality?

and

Which way of thinking does the least amount of harm to others?

Truth and good.

To me, those two things are what we as humans should be striving for.  I will first explain what it means to seek truth, and what it means to be good, then I will try to convince you why these are not only important goals, but the most important goals.  Today’s lesson:

1.  Truth

To me, truth means “consistent with reality.”  This, of course, assumes that reality exists in an objective fashion.  If you believe that truth is relative, then this blog probably isn’t for you, and there is plenty of material out there that could prove you incorrect.  Although, believing that truth is relative, you could just choose to ignore that proof in favor of your own personal truth, like that the Mighty Ducks movie was an action flick starring a real life duck.

Let’s use an example.  Let’s pretend that my friend and I both go to a football game.  This is funny because I hate football.  Calm down, meat heads.  My friend and I come back from the game and I report that the score was 35-40.  My friend reports that the score was 448394-9.

If you were to believe in relative truth, then there’s nothing really more to do.  I have my truth.  My friend has his truth.  All is well.  But it isn’t.  It irks you.  Why do we have two different perspectives?  Why so vastly different?  Which one is “correct”?

We have a natural curiosity.  When things are inconsistent and we get two conflicting pieces of information, our brain naturally wants to know why.  This is what fascinates me about humanity.  We not only crave information, we crave correct information.  We crave truth.

So let’s go back to our example.  Obviously, either I am wrong, or my friend is wrong.  Or we both are.  But at least one of us is inconsistent with reality.  We can account for this with the fallible nature of humanity.  Our perceptions are imperfect.  We are flawed.  Sometimes toilet cleaner gets in our eyes and the score board seems to display a few extra numbers.

So how do we correct this?  How do we get to the bottom of things?  Science.  Over a long period of time we’ve developed methods of determining what is actually truth and what can be attributed to human error of perception.  We’re still developing these methods, but in today’s age, we’ve gotten pretty good at it.  We test ideas, we test theories, we use trial and error, we build tools to observe things for us, we document, we discuss things, we use logic, we use reason, and ultimately we get really good at overcoming human fallibility.   So why is this important?  Well I put that below under the fancy new paragraph heading.

Why this is important

Truth is important because without it, there would be nothing, absolutely nothing, to strive for.  Remember that natural curiosity for correct information I mentioned earlier?  Well if we don’t have it then we have no reason for becoming better.  As we learn more about the world we live in, ourselves, and others we become better, smarter, and we can do more things.  We have MEANING.  We have PURPOSE.

Also, truth is important because untruths can lead to harm.  Physically and mentally.  (First link is not for the squeamish.)  These experiences are usually called “reality checks” in that, even when you deny reality, it will keep tabs on you and keep you consistent with it.

Notable examples from my childhood:

-I once got my head stuck in a steering wheel.

-I once got stuck between a sink and a wall.

-I once tied myself to a fence and couldn’t get free.

I was inconsistent with reality when I mistakenly thought “I can get my head back out of this steering wheel by myself” and reality checked me.  That was definitely a learning experience, and while those examples are silly, I want to continue to learn to be more consistent with reality and be truthful in my thinking and my doing.  Hopefully, I’ve convinced you to do the same.

In later blogs I will tackle how truth applies to religion, politics, and a variety of topics.  This was just a precursor as to why I feel it is so important to any decision or discussion that all people involved have a strong love for the truth.