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April 13, 2007

Questions for believers in a god and the afterlife

In recent posts, I have spent considerable time discussing why I thought that belief in an afterlife and god was irrational. In the course of those posts, I described what kind of evidence I would need to convince me that I was wrong in each case. Now let me pose the counter-questions to religious believers: What kind of evidence would it take to convince you that (a) there is no afterlife and (b) there is no god?

To recap, for the afterlife, I said that a convincing evidence for the existence of the afterlife would have to consist of something incontrovertible, that simply could not be denied. Another way of saying it would be that an event must occur where an explanation that denies the existence of an afterlife is far more implausible and harder to believe than an explanation that accepts it.

Similarly, to convince me that god exists, convincing evidence for the existence of god would have to be something along the lines of the convincing evidence concerning the afterlife: god would have to appear in public to a random group of people, provide tangible proof of existence, and re-appear at a designated time and place that would allow for skeptics to be present.

I have since discovered that mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell, who was also an atheist, was asked the same question by Look magazine in 1953 and said something similar, that he might be convinced there was a God "if I heard a voice from the sky predicting all that was going to happen to me during the next 24 hours."

What I am suggesting is that convincing evidence of god or an afterlife would require something along the lines that philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) argued for concerning miracles:

It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation....

The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), 'That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish....' When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion. (my emphasis)

My point has been that proving a negative is impossible. I cannot prove that magical invisible unicorns do not live in my office but the fact that there is no evidence at all for their existence is sufficient for me to conclude that they don't exist. The absence of such evidence for the existence of god or the afterlife is the only kind of evidence that we can have for their non-existence. So in other words, we have all the proof that we are ever going to have that god and the afterlife do not exist. This assertion of mine has been challenged by readers who are religious.

The basic argument I am making is, I hope, clear. To be convinced of the existence of god and/or an afterlife, events should occur for which explanations without god or the afterlife are far more implausible than explanations that call for them.

Clearly there are things that all of us do not believe. Presumably the adult readers of this blog definitely do not believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy, with the same level of certainty with which I do not believe in the existence of god. They may have believed in them as children, just as they believed in god, but outgrew it in adolescence. Presumably, they do not also believe in those gods that are not in their own religious tradition.

I don't believe in any of these things for the same reasons that I do not believe in god or the afterlife – because of the lack of any positive evidence for their reality. But why do religious believers definitely not believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy and the gods of other religions while still believing in their own god? What is the essential difference that enables people to believe one and not the other? What evidence convinced them of one and not the others?

And back to the questions addressed to religious believers: What kind of evidence would it take to convince you that (a) there is no afterlife and (b) there is no god?

I am really curious about this because it seems like this is a central issue. I have posed these questions before in the comments discussions but never got a clear and direct answer. If you can post your responses in the comments, that would really advance the discussion.

POST SCRIPT: Tech support in the middle ages

(Thanks to Progressive Review)

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Comments

I would like to read your thoughts on if you think the ancient Greeks/Romans believed in Zeus/Jupiter and other gods of the time.

Posted by John Crick on April 13, 2007 10:05 AM

John,

I am afraid that I don't know much about the depth of the beliefs of the ancients. I have no reason to think that they were any different in their intensity from the religious beliefs of today.

Posted by Mano Singham on April 13, 2007 11:46 AM

And back to the questions addressed to religious believers: What kind of evidence would it take to convince you that (a) there is no afterlife and (b) there is no god?

If someone already believes that god/afterlife exist, then what kind of evidence could there be that they don't? The question is basically asking what negative proof would be acceptable, but, as you've stated that's not really a fair question.

So, what causes someone to believe in god?


religious instruction
parents' beliefs
a religious experience


Focussing on the first two, religious instruction & parental beliefs basically amount to "someone that I trust has told me that god & the afterlife exist." Now, for some people that's not good enough, and they turn away from the religion they were raised in. For the others, however, they either continue to believe (due to comfort or self-reflection), or they have spiritual experiences that reinforce their beliefs.

Part of a person's beliefs are informed by what their peers believe. And, you're correct in that those beliefs can't be validated empirically. For instance, I can tell you that I have known people that have been healed by prayer. These people (or, relatives of these people) that I trust have told me that one day someone was dying, and the next day they were not. Now, their claim cannot be confirmed. I can't replicate it; but, I trust my peers.

Scientific exploration is different in this respect: There is a large body of scientific work that I believe to be true because it is empirically verifiable, even though I myself will never verify it.

The thing is, I don't approach everything in my life with scientific rigor. I may weight the statements of some people more highly than others. I may base a decision on intuition, or a limited/filtered amount of data.

Posted by V on April 13, 2007 12:33 PM

Mano,

Sometimes this argument does seem like we are on a hamster wheel. Round and round we go but never get anywhere and yet we keep on trying to understand each other.

You said, "The basic argument I am making is, I hope, clear. To be convinced of the existence of god and/or an afterlife, events should occur for which explanations without god or the afterlife are far more implausible than explanations that call for them."

So let me go over this from my point of view and show you how using the statement you provide above I have arrived at the conclusion that there is a god. Not all of the things I present are “events” so I would substitute the word phenomenon but I hope that this semantically subtle change is not unacceptable to you in the end. All of these are very old arguments-I do not pretend to bring anything new to the table on this.

First we live in a world of cause and effect-we scientists rely on this simple principle to explore the natural world. Everything that begins to exist has a cause. The universe has a beginning and therefore is in need of a cause lest we violate this simple rule of logic. Something that begins does not come from nothing. Remember Jake's question a few days ago? The universe did not spring into existence on its own. Even Hume wrote, "But allow me to tell you that I never asserted so absurd a Proposition as that anything might arise without a cause". He did not believe in a god but recognized the difficulty with this part of his argument. So what choice am I left with? Either the universe had no beginning or it is the exception to the cause and effect rule above or it has a cause that did not begin to exist (an uncaused first cause). I am open to other possibilities (I have seen people get quite creative with this). But given the possibilities above I think it makes most logical sense that there is a god (who did not begin to exist) who caused the universe and not the others. The explanation without god is more implausible than that with a god thus I believe there is a god.

Second, god makes sense of the complex order of the universe. The universe is a very big and complicated place. There are many variables involved and from our perspective it is obviously fine-tuned perfectly for the existence of life as we know it (and I know you know this argument very well so I won't belabor the point). Again I see 3 possibilities to explain this (but am open to others): natural law, random chance or design. In the case of natural law the argument is that the fine-tuning is physically necessary. It had to be the way it is for us to be here to observe it (along the lines of the Anthropic Principle). It is almost as if by this reasoning that a life-prohibiting universe is implausible which makes no sense to me at all so while it is possible, there is no evidence for it and it makes no sense to me so I reject it. The second possibility is that the universe is a cosmic accident and an unlikely beneficiary of random chance (lucky us). I will not pretend to be able to do a probability calculation on this but we can agree that the odds are astronomical given the infinite number of possibilities. Now I recognize that astronomically unlikely things happen every day so this by itself is nothing. But the life-bearing universe we live in is not only astronomically improbable but is also conforms to an independently discovered pattern. Biology, chemistry and physics tell us independently of any knowledge of the early conditions of the universe what physical conditions are necessary for life. Such conditions are highly improbable. Thus the combination of a specified pattern plus improbability serves to render this approach implausible to me. The only other possibility is that the universe was designed to be the way is is which presupposes a god. Again, the explanation without god is more implausible than that with a god thus I believe there is a god.

Thirdly, a god makes sense of objective moral values in the world. I contend that objective moral values exist. Some things are right and some things are wrong in an objective sense meaning they are right or wrong regardless of whether a person agrees with it or not. Self-sacrifice and justice are objectively right, right? Rape and genocide are objectively wrong, right?. To me, to deny this is silliness and illogical. Just as the physical laws of the universe are undeniable to me so is the fact that there are moral laws. Rape and child abuse are not morally neutral. Note that I am not saying that you must believe in god to live a moral life nor am I saying you must believe in god to recognize objective moral values. Also note that I am not saying there are not borderline cases where the line between right and wrong is blurry. What I am saying is that if objective moral values exist then it logically follows that god exists. Again, the explanation without god is more implausible (there is no objective right and wrong) than that with a god thus I believe there is a god.

Lastly, and we have batted this one about all week, I believe there is a god based on my personal experience of him (which as I have previously stated is the best proof of all). This week it seems we can agree that we all have some internal dialogue as you call it that asks the question “is this all there is”, or “what is the purpose of this” or “how did this all happen”. As we previously mentioned I see this as god calling on me and as a direct and personal experience of god and you see it as a feeling, emotion or natural thought process only. There are only 3 possibilities on this, you are right, I am right or neither of us is right. I cannot add anything to this argument. It is what it is. But the point is that my personal experience of god makes my belief in god a properly basic belief and thus it is fundamental and does not need further explanation (even though I have provided it). Just like I have a properly basic belief that you exist or that I actually exist. I cannot prove you exist or that I exist and that we are not just a figment of the imagination of the magical flying unicorns you are so concerned with in your office. This belief is not based on other beliefs but is fundamental and is based on my experience in reality. In the same way, my belief in god is not based upon a house of cards as you put it. It is fundamental and a properly basic belief based upon my experience in reality. I experience him in nature, in conscience and in other means-it is not arbitrary and it is not without evidence and it is not without logic.

And now the real fun begins because if you managed to remain conscience and are still reading at this point you:
a. Deserve a medal-this was long.
b. Are salivating because you see so many holes in my arguments.
So go ahead and take aim. There is a lot to shoot at I am sure.

By the way, if you really are interested in the way people (specifically Christians) who believe in god think there is an excellent apologetics book edited by Geisler and Hoffman called Why I am a Christian (IBSN 0-8010-1210-4).

Have a great weekend.

Jim

Posted by Jim Dudones on April 13, 2007 01:08 PM

Jim,
You covered a lot of territory, but I am most curious about point three. Like you, I think there are objective values, but I think these could be tied to evolution.

It is to society's (and the species) benefit to treat one another well. Just as a Bower Bird who builds a feeble bower is less likely to attract mates, a morally bankrupt human is less likely to fit into his society. I would think that moral behaviors evolved (presumably on a per species basis) just as did rituals and behaviors related to mating, hunting, etc. To me this seems more plausible than having to turn to God to develop the rules.
Thanks for your insights, and have a great weekend.

Posted by Heidi Cool on April 13, 2007 02:10 PM

V,

What you are saying is precisely my point and which is why I posed the questions. I said that because of the impossibility of proving a negative, the current state of absence of evidence for god and the afterlife was all the proof we were ever going to get. If people think that a more convincing proof is required for disbelief, then I am curious to know what form it would take.

If the people who believe in god and the afterlife are so impervious to evidence that there is nothing they can even conceive of that would change their minds, then can it be considered a rational belief?

Posted by Mano Singham on April 13, 2007 02:55 PM

Jim,

The points you raise are familiar ones to people who have thought about these things and we clearly have different ideas about what is plausible to believe for each of the three points. The existence of the universe, its complexity, and morality does not logically compel belief in god. In fact, the more science advances and uncovers knowledge of how things came to be, those arguments get even less plausible. Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion specifically deals with them.

But I am really interested in your answer to my two questions: what evidence would it take for you to abandon your belief in god and the afterlife?

Posted by Mano Singham on April 13, 2007 02:59 PM

Jim - very thoughtful post.
- I think the question of cause and effect is a good but difficult one, it makes for a great koan!
- I don't agree that the physical conditions for life are improbable -I think the chemical building blocks are relatively simple.
- I don't think morality has anything to do with religion (or the belief in god), but I do think a majority of people derive their morality from it.
- I think all of us believe in ideas that help us make sense of the life we find ourselves in.

The main difficulty I have with people that say "there is a god" or "there is not a god" with some certainty is that this usually creates a sense of satisfaction that discourages further reflection. The answer found - therefore the investigation ends.

I think we humans, so molded by religious doctrine (which gives you "the truth") and an educational system (which gives you "the answer"), are very uncomfortable in not knowing. Yet that's where most original and creative ideas are sourced from.

Posted by Mary on April 13, 2007 04:23 PM

"So in other words, we have all the proof that we are ever going to have that god and the afterlife do not exist."

I would argue that we have all the proof we are every going to have that God and the afterlife exists.

The fact that we are here - that matter was created from some form (prime mover) seems to be good evidence for the existence of God.

So, perhaps the question could be, since science cannot explain where the universe came from, what else would it take to prove to you that God exists?

Or as a statment, until science demonstrates how and from where the universe was created, God is the best possible answer.

Posted by henry on April 13, 2007 08:24 PM

Henry,

Let's say I accept your premise that the existence of matter is good evidence for the existence of a god of some sort. This premise alone tells me virtually nothing about that god. I certainly am not justified in inferring anything about an afterlife (beyond the idea that matter will continue to exist tomorrow and the day after).

Posted by Jim Van Orman on April 14, 2007 06:53 AM

Henry,

I have already given in this post and in the links to the previous post what kind of evidence would be needed to convince me of the existence of god and the afterlife. What kind of evidence would convince you of the opposite?

Posted by Mano Singham on April 14, 2007 10:20 AM

Mary,

Great short post. I wish I could be that concise.

I am not saying that life is impossible without a god although the next experiment that creates life from non-living matter will be the first and only one (and I would even spot the experimentor DNA, lipids, proteins, carbohydrates and organelles). I was just saying that to explain the fine tuning of the universe as a whole for the presence of life requires some explanation and the best one we have (in my opinion) is god.

I love the part you wrote about how once we rule god out as a possibility it stops the searching! I don't know if that is true for an atheist but I love the way you phrased it.

Also the part you said about not knowing as being the springboard for original thought and creativity is great as well.

Jim

Posted by Jim Dudones on April 14, 2007 09:52 PM

Heidi,

In the scenario you paint where morals and values are a product of evolution how can they be objective or absolute? What is the source of objectivity? Man? Evolution? If there is no god then I don't see how there can be such a thing as absolute right or wrong? Darwinian evolution makes no value judgements of any kind except that those populations that are best suited for reproduction and survival are the ones who get to survive. There is no such thing as right and wrong in an objective sense. Thus, Hitler was not right or wrong in an objective sense-everything is morally neutral. Morals could have evolved as you say a way for man to better survive (as you know there is a whole branch of biology dedicated to this) but it is a relativistic type of morals. The Holocaust was wrong because you think it was wrong personally (and I agree) but many of the Nazi's thought it was right and some still do (and what gives you the moral upper hand to say it was wrong objectively?). In the end it is niether right nor wrong. Everything is relative to the individual.

To me though it is undeniable that absolute right and wrong exist in an objective sense and therefore there must be a god (who is the objective source or absolute on such issues).

Jim

Posted by Jim Dudones on April 14, 2007 10:09 PM

Mano,

You're right I did not answer your question because I thought it was rhetorical. You know full well that I cannot answer that question. What proof would I accept to convince me that the magical flying unicorns in your office do not exist?

All I can say is this, in order for me to become an athiest I would have to become convinced that the articles I laid out in my treatise were false. I don't know what that would take to be honest. The biggest one to overcome would be the last one. I would have to become convinced that what I see as a personal encounter with god on a day in and day out basis was not that but something else along the lines of what you make of it. Science could play a role in it but in the end it is a highly personal issue. By the way, here is my provacative statement for the day. For all the advances in science that we make daily I think we sometimes get arrogant about things. My opinion is that we know much less about the simplest bacteria than we know. I think science is sometimes the newest religion on the block and we all bow down and worship her like a god. I am not saying you do this but it is a trend I see more and more with my scientist friends.

Jim

P.S. So your arguments against mine are from Dawkins huh? Interesting.

Posted by Jim Dudones on April 14, 2007 10:26 PM

To my mind, Mano, you set up straw dogs. You presume the supremacy of rationality and knock down religion on a rational basis. None of your strictly rational arguments challenge my belief, because my belief is not rationally based. (Some other kinds of arguments, however, do challenge my belief and make me question my faith.)

Kurt Vonnegut said, "The only proof we need for the existence of God is music."

This statement comes pretty close to explaining my faith. In order to convince me that God does not exist, you would have to convince me that beauty and love do not exist.

Though I can accept "scientific," i.e., evolutionary, explanations of love, science for me does not explain the mystery and experience of love. Why is the universe beautiful? Why are we able to perceive that and describe it? Why are humans able to write beautiful novels and compose beautiful songs? Why do I love my dog?

These experiences convince me, at the very least, that there is something
beyond ordinary, rational, material existence. Reason cannot (to me) explain the love and self-sacrifice of Jesus, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Desmond Tutu ... and many others -- not all of them Christians or believers.

Can you imagine any logic that would have convinced Martin Luther King that there is no God? I can't.

Posted by Kathy on April 14, 2007 11:40 PM

Kathy,

I believe that love and beauty and all the other wonderful things you mention do exist. I just think that their existence does not require me to postulate that god exists.

Posted by Mano Singham on April 15, 2007 02:56 PM

I stumbled across the following post about Pascal's Wager that ties in nicely with the theme of the week:

http://atheistwager.blogspot.com/2007/04/first-post.html

Posted by Gregory Szorc on April 15, 2007 03:36 PM

(Sound of Lurking Cloak of Invisibility being removed....)

Let me just chime in to support of this general notion that
Kathy alludes to, Mano. I also agree that some of your
characterizations of religious experience and thought come across as
"straw dogs". You have asserted several qualities of religious
experience and thought that are not really universal maybe not even
typical.

For example, it's no more fair to claim that the viewpoint of
conservative anti-evolution fundamentalists (e.g. Peanut Butter man)
are representative of the most enlightened religious perspectives than
it would be to claim that the current leaders of the US government
represent the best ideals of democracy. This is not to say that there
is not a valid criticism here, nor that such viewpoints ought not to
be challenged. It is simply to say that the range of human experience
and viewpoints on religious issues is extremely varied.

One of your assertions is that the religious people start with some
core "beliefs" that are arrived at about how the existence and nature
of god, and that there is typically a set of "associated beliefs" that
must go along with this, none of which are supported by observational
evidence, and all of which must be held up and defended lest the whole
thing fall apart. If this were the way every religious person
experiences their faith -- as a set of rigid connected assertions
about what is and isn't true -- then I would agree. But there are
other perspectives.

For example, suppose a person affiliates with a religious perspective
not because they feel that any particular aspect of religious belief
is literally or even meta-physically true. Rather they are engaged
with the underlying narrative that is personally, emotionally, and
intellectually rewarding, instructive, or otherwise helpful. You
might even suppose such a propensity for engagement in a narrative to
be one that has proved to be evolutionarily advantageous within human
society. Such an engagement with the narrative is not "rational" but
does this automatically make it "irrational"? Does this automatically
mean that this is an objectively undesirable outcome?

Consider this analogy: A book of fiction is written but the book makes
a connection to what is happening in a reader's life. As a result,
the reader feels moved and changed. The reader finds "truth and
meaning" in the book even though the book is (in this case)
demonstrably based on completely fabricated information. A person's
life is changed. But the story is not "literally true".

A similar analogy could be drawn with any kind of art work or music.
People are moved to tears by a painting or a piece of music. There's
an emotional connection there. This response can be "explained" by
the fact that the brain is a machine and that emotions, even deep
ones, are essentially the product of firing neurons, chemical
messages, etc. But does this mean that the experience is not "true"
or "meaningful"? Does such a response represent "irrationality"? Is
it "irrational" to attend a performance of Beethoven's Ninth for the
30th time? I know a grad student who listens to the same Metallica
song every single day because of what it means to him. Is it a bad
thing to do?

From this kind of viewpoint, the experience of the religious person is
not related to making specific claims about what is and is not
physically or metaphysically true. Assertions about the existence and
properties of god are not points to argue for or against. Rather the
issue is what value the narratives, traditions, and social structures
have to create meaning in ones life.

In other words, if one views the religious discussion to be more like
poetry reading then debate club, the whole issue of competing
"beliefs" is sort of sidestepped. Your question "What evidence would
lead you to no longer believe in a god" becomes the equivalent of
"what evidence would compel you to stop reading a poem that you
really got something out of?" The answer it seems to me is: when the
poem no longer provides something helpful and rewarding, or
instructive, and when it loses it's meaning, it should be abandoned.

For now, anyway, as wonderful and powerful as science is, it seems
that it does not do a particularly good job of telling me (personally)
what poems I should like or what music I will find rewarding or which
books I will enjoy reading. Maybe this will change in the future as
brain science improves. Maybe someday there will be the psychological
equivalent of the "standard model" and we will all find a new way to
live happier healthier lives without all kinds of problems we
encounter today. Maybe.

I guess it is sort of obvious, but clearly this kind of religious
viewpoint I am talking about here -- the one that puts religion on the
same level as poetry -- would probably be classified as a "liberal"
view -- one that does not by much into the absolute authority of any
one book, leader, or church. Scriptures, writing and lessons are not
taken to be literally true, creeds are subject to poetic
interpretation, traditions and rites are to be re-examined and
updated, and even theological arguments about the nature of god are
allowed to evolve (e.g., the "process theology" movement).

Furthermore this kind of "liberal" religious perspective is one that
tends to respects alternate points of view (shall we argue that
Beethoven is "more true" than Metallica?). This point of view tends
to be inclusive and -- at least historically -- one that is concerned
with social issues such as the treatment of the poor, voiceless, and
oppressed, concern for human rights, peace and justice issues in the
world. I am not saying that this "trend" is always the case, and of
course many atheists espouse these kinds of liberal values quite
eloquently as well -- I am not arguing that one needs god to be moral.
I am simply saying that some pretty good and impressive things are
being done by some people who call themselves religious and for at
least some of these people, their religious viewpoints come into play
in these actions. (e.g., blessed are the peacemakers.)

Side-point #1: By the way, I think this emphasis on a belief in the
"afterlife" is really not as central to the religious experience of so
many people as you might think. I know many religious people
(including several clergy types) who are very ambivalent about the
existence of an afterlife and what it might be like. I know many
religious people who feel that what we do and what happens to us in
this life is much more important than speculating about what may or
may not be there after we are dead.

Side-point #2: Regarding your speculation that perhaps some apparently
religious people are not true believers because "by night" they act in
ways that are inconsistent with their beliefs: I have no idea if this
is true or not but it is easy to come up with a personal counter
example. There is a bag of potato chips in my cupboard and for the
past two nights I have taken a large handful of these to eat just
before bedtime. I certainly believe that eating this junk food is bad
for me. I suspect that god disapproves of this behavior and I know my
wife certainly does. I also know that over time this kind of behavior
will have a negative impact on both the quality and length of my life.
I even know that the reason I am tempted to eat the chips is because
my brain is evolutionarily pre-disposed to consume high-calorie foods
-- a predisposition that is worse than useless in our society. So the
behavior is certainly "irrational", even clearly harmful, but this
fact is not related to any "unbelief" or doubt I might have that
eating a handful of chips before bedtime is an intrinsically
unhealthy thing to do.

Okay, way, way, WAY too long, and way too late too. This is one reason
why I do not post here. It's like eating chips....you can't stop!

(Sound of Lurking Cloak of Invisibility being put back on....)

Posted by Corbin on April 16, 2007 03:12 AM

Gregory,

Thanks for the link to Pascal's wager. The false dichotomy posed by the wager has been exposed before but the article in this link does a particularly good job of laying things out.

Posted by Mano Singham on April 16, 2007 09:26 AM

Corbin,

You should remove your Lurking Cloak of Invisibility more often! Great response and there is almost nothing that you say that I take exception to. I agree that we all experience a whole range of emotions to experiences that are wonderful and uplifting. You can, if you like, ascribe those to god or you can ascribe them to the brain.

The fact that something is "irrational" in the sense that we cannot come up immediately with evidence and reasons as to why it exists does not mean that it is automatically undesirable. I love my dog and would rush to its defense if it were attacked. Why? I have no idea. It is an emotionally triggered response. Someday, someone might be able to explain it in some detail using neurobiology but at present we only have somewhat vague theories of kinship altruism.

But by the same token, the people who fly planes into buildings seemed to have done so out of some emotional sense that it was a wonderful thing to do. And yet, despite the claims that it must have been emotionally satisfying to them, we condemn the act.

What is emotional and irrational needs to be decoupled from the desirable and undesirable.

As you rightly point out, science does not tell us what poems will give us pleasure, what music appeals to us, and what books give us a sense of meaning, but why does any of that imply anything about god's existence? Why cannot we accept a sense beauty and truth as givens? Why is god a necessary part of the explanantory structure?

The idea that god is the default explanation for whatever we cannot otherwise explain seems a little too pat for me.

Posted by Mano Singham on April 16, 2007 09:46 AM

Hi, Mano -- But I'm not "postulating" that God exists. I'm responding to your arguments about requiring some tangible and very logical proof. I'm saying that there are lots of things we experience and believe in -- such as love -- that seem illogical, but they're real.

I would even say that the very irrationality of Christianity is one of its most appealing aspects to me. For example, the idea that we can make the most change in the world by becoming weaker, in a way (i.e. allowing ourselves to 'die on the cross' ) is not logical! On Holy Thursday, we re-enact Christ's washing the feet of the Apostles. What a concept! What if our CEO's or President had to wash regular people's feet every now and then? What changes in the world there might be.

There's so much paradox in the New Testament --- giving up your life in order to save it, etc. As Corbin says so well, these ideas in Scripture move and disturb me in the same way that poetry and music move me...in ways that make me want to know more and try out these ways of living.

And, by the way, the depth of these ideas, the sacrifices that people have made trying to live like Christ, the depth of belief, the intelligence, and willingness to sacrifice of people such as, say, Dietrich Bonhoefer or Thomas Merton, make the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus analogies somewhat offensive.

Of course, none of this requires you to postulate that there's a God. I'm not trying to convince you you're wrong. You're fine the way you are.

Posted by Kathy on April 16, 2007 10:26 AM

Kathy,

Thanks again for your usual thoughtful response.

I agree that Dietrich Bonhoeffer and many other people like that, who were driven to acts of great courage because of their religious beliefs, are admirable people.

But depth of belief, intelligence, and willingness to sacrifice cuts many ways. The people who flew planes into buildings fit that category too, and yet many of us would not class them in the same league as Bonhoeffer, although some might. We need to judge people by the actions they take and not the nature or the depth of the beliefs that made them do what they did.

The analogies to the Easter Bunny etc. are not meant to be offensive but to point out that what we choose to believe has little to do with the quality of evidence or reasoning.

We all believe and experience things that we cannot justify. That does not make them less 'real', though that is a word that has many shades of meaning. In this context, I take 'real' to mean that the emotional responses triggered by those beliefs are fairly consistent over time and give us confidence to act on them.

I am not denying the existence (or 'reality') of emotion. It is a very powerful driver of human behavior in all its aspects. As long as we say that religion is a belief system that is tied to, appeals to, and responds to, people's emotional needs, there is really no disagreement between us.

Posted by Mano Singham on April 16, 2007 11:01 AM

"We need to judge people by the actions they take and not the nature or the depth of the beliefs that made them do what they did."

But, Mano, it was the nature of their beliefs that determined their particular actions! If I look to Bonhoeffer as a role model, it makes sense to look at the beliefs that led him to act as he did. Because of his particular beliefs, he was determined to put Jesus' teachings into practice. Because of the nature of his beliefs, Bonhoeffer would not have flown a plane into a building.

Posted by Kathy on April 16, 2007 01:19 PM

I love finding engaging arguments like this! Thank "God" for the blog ;) If you're not laughing at this point, let me interject some arguments.

For starters the idea of a beginning and an end is simply the personification and projection of the human experience (awareness) on intangible, abstract concepts such as time and space. The concept of infinity is the only human idea that approaches this rationally. That is to say, the concept of infinity itself dictates that there is no beginning or end. I would extrapolate that idea into the universe as well.

I assume we all believe that matter is not infinite, but rather finite and that all matter (both organic and non-organic) is made up of the elemental molecules of life (carbon, hydrogen, etc...). Once we die (and coincidentally even as we are "living") we take and pass along these molecules when we eat, shit, breathe, etc.. The idea here is that no matter was ever "created" as theologians would like us to believe, but it was always there (and always will be). Once the sun explodes, and our universe is destroyed, that matter will take on other forms, or merely exist in space. We don't know for sure

There are rules and order to life. We don't understand them all, and most likely never will. However, our lack of understanding does not prove there is a creator. If you tell me that there is a lion in my closet, but the door is locked, does that prove there is? How would you know? Where did that idea come from?

When these questions are asked, I tend to look at who has the most to gain from the argument, similar to how I view political ads. if the idea of God loses influence, who stands to loose most? The Church who has built a viable business model on people's desire for salvation? or the scientific community who stands to gain....a moral victory? Um, yeah. Similar to Chevron telling me that I should vote no on certain restrictive legislation. I tend to vote against the most prominent commercial as those with the most money tend to represent false interests.

Whew, enough already.

Charles
Lonely in Paris

Posted by Charles on April 17, 2007 02:20 PM