Friday, January 27, 2006

In Response to a Curious Reader (Part One)...

Part one (see back story and original post and comment):

I received a comment on my last post which I have decided to answer in post form:

"this blog was very interesting to me, especially with what is going on in my life right now."

I hope you, and all closest to you, are well. Whatever your situation, if you are in need of a silver lining, at least it is prompting critical thought and facilitation of reason, which can never be a negative thing.

"it was well written but i do not understand some things. it seems like a round about to me."

Thank you. This post is not meant to be even a very, very basic intro to atheism. Its purpose is -- in the most simplistic way possible -- mainly addressing the essential misconceptions related to the philosophical position of atheism. I am glad that it sparked some deeper curiosity. I will attempt to provide answers for your (very broad) questions, but unfortunately, the constraints imposed by both time and space do not allow for me to delve into the specifics (for more serious, in depth discussions, may I refer you to my regular blog).

"you say atheists say that there isn't enough evidence to support the fact that god exists, then doesn't that mean you don't believe he exists and there is no god? "

This may seem semantic, but the problem here lies in the distinction between "don't believe he exists" and "there is no god". Many theists attack atheism from exactly this angle, and in doing so build strawmen to beat up in the name of logical discourse, claim victory based on refutation of false assumptions, and ultimately get absolutely nowhere in the process. If I was to claim the (absolute) non-existence of god/s I would be committing the logical fallacy argumentum ad ignorantiam.

"is it that atheists just focus on what they believe but do not touch on the fact as to whether they know for sure what is there and whether they can prove it?"

First and foremost, atheism is only relevant when dealing with religion/faith. Its etymology is a- "without" + theos "a god". As clearly stated in my original post, religiosity is merely one of potentially innumerable sets of beliefs a person can have. In relation to god/s, atheists cannot "focus on what they believe" because THEY DON'T BELIEVE. Atheists focus on the reasons they don't believe, which pertains to the second half of your question...

Now, (generally speaking) one cannot "prove" a negative. In order to "prove" something doesn't exist -- beyond a shadow of a doubt (we're speaking in absolutes here) -- you'd have to test everything, universally. One would have to witness everything, everywhere, throughout time, all simultaneously, to conclusively observe NO occurrence of the phenomena in question. This, of course, is impossible, and is why we rely on the scientific method to aid us in accumulating testable evidence, and then based on that evidence we try to draw some probabilities (damn good ones, at that). Some people (theists) like to hang onto this aspect when dealing with science -- that nothing is certain -- but refuse to acknowledge that absolutely NO repeatable, testable, empirical, objective evidence has ever been brought forth supporting the existence of a god. Ever. This is something people have to -- absolutely MUST -- accept, and is why FAITH plays such a HUGE role in religion. Remember: faith is defined as belief in that for which there is no evidence or in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. By definition, faith is irrational and thus can play no role in logical discussion. This, of course, falls on deaf ears to apologists.

Luckily (for atheists) "god" isn't exactly an intangible concept. Every religion has assigned definite attributes to its god/s (omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, and omnibenevolence are quite common) and made very specific claims of actions (revealed infallible scripture, creation stories, cosmological design, great floods, stopping the Earth's rotation, etc.) taken by its deity/ies. Atheists attempt to disprove these -- and have been doing quite an impressive job to great success over the millennia (this isn't anything new: Averro√ęs presented the omnipotence paradox in the 12th century). THIS IS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER.

Now, another thing to note is that the burden of proof lies with those asserting something. See, we start with a blank slate, and anything which is added is new to the picture and must be proven by those claiming its existence. (I'll provide an example -- albeit a weak one: we awake in a single room -- just four walls, a floor, and a ceiling. I announce that I know what is outside of the room: that the room is merely one of many in a research facility, or on a spaceship hurtling through wormholes toward other dimensions, for instance. Is it up to you to prove or disprove my assumption? No, it is up to me.)

None of us are born believing in god; a fact that is demonstrated by the existence of multiple strains of theists (i.e. different religions) as well as agnostics, apatheists, atheists, etc. Somewhere along the line we are introduced to the god concept. This usually happens through someone in a position of authority, in whom we place a great amount of trust, at a very young age -- all ingredients for instant acceptance. The problem here is that not much evidence is ever needed, and thus little, if any, is ever provided. Add to this the condition of "sacredness" -- and a long history of exterminating those who do -- and not much (open) questioning is about to happen.

That said, yes, I personally -- and all atheists, by definition -- do not believe in god (I clearly said so in the second line of my post). Of course we don't, but remember: "Believing" and "knowing" are two completely different things. Atheists simply haven't seen enough evidence supporting the existence of a god and, until we do, we choose not to believe. May I point out that no one KNOWS the existence of god either way. They can claim to; they can "feel" it all they want, but no one can provide evidence in the same manner as, say, we can provide evidence that you or I or the moons of Jupiter exist (let's not enter the realm of metaphysics and question perception and existence).

What other things do we know of that there is absolutely NO proof for? Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny, elves, fairies, unicorns, giants, dragons, talking animals (the last four are all mentioned in the bible, btw). Notice a trend? So you see, nobody -- not just atheists – can "touch on the fact as to whether they know for sure what there is and whether they can prove it" in the realm of the supernatural -- as is inherent in the definition of the word super (i.e. "outside of") NATURAL (i.e. "nature").

"is it that most atheists take god to be just a theory?"

No, most atheists take god to be a mythical, superstitious belief created by ancient humans to accommodate for their extremely narrow understanding of the world around them. I think you may be inappropriately using the word "theory":
"theory - A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena."

as opposed to the more popular, but nevertheless incorrect (in this context) connotation:
"An assumption based on limited information or knowledge; a conjecture."

See, for a theory you have to start with some observable facts/occurrences, and explain why they are occurring, using testable, repeatable experiments. In other words, you start with something tangible and attempt to determine WHY it is so. A religion tends to do the exact opposite and assert "Here is the reason, now let's find something that fits with it."

"if so, seems to me they take a less scientific approach."

No offense, but LOL. ROTFLMAO. As opposed to what? Theists? Are you implying religiosity is equitable to -- or even friendly with -- science? Throughout history, and indeed still today, science and religion have been looked at as near polar opposites. Nearly the entire body of scientific knowledge has been vehemently opposed by organized religion at one point or another. Look up Edward Jenner, Copernicus, Galileo, even Socrates. Why did Christians burn the library at Alexandria? Ever hear of the "Dark Ages"? They were called that because there was essentially no "illumination" of knowledge (this is why smart people are called "bright"). The overwhelming majority of the population was "in the dark", and this is a direct result of the prominence of religion during those times. This is NOT debatable. The church recognizes that inquiry leads to discoveries that aren't exactly compatible with church doctrine, and, naturally, opposes critical thought and reason. I briefly touched on this in one of my previous posts.

Many people consider atheism and science near synonyms! For god’s sake (yes, that’s intentional) theists are quick to criticize atheists by claiming that we actually worship science as a religion!

Only 7.0% of polled members of the National Academy of Sciences expressed a "Belief in a Personal God".

"As karl popper said, falsification, and i think atheists have yet to do that."

I apologize, but this statement makes absolutely no sense. Your mention of Popper would seem to imply that you have at least a precursory understanding of the philosophy of science, and if so, most of what I've stated to this point should be self-evident.

(For those unfamiliar, Popper stated that in order to declare a statement scientific -- mind you, this has NO bearing on validity -- it must be able to be falsified. This does not mean "be proven false"; just have the potential to be so.)

Allow me to direct you to the Wikipedia entry on the Popperian criterion of demarcation aka falsificationism, which says something quite interesting and especially pertinent to our conversation:
"theism is not falsifiable, since the existence of God is typically asserted without sufficient conditions to allow a falsifying observation...It is quite consistent for a theist to agree that the existence of God is unfalsifiable, and that the proposition is not scientific...However, arguments relating to alleged actions, rather than the existence, of God may be falsifiable" [emphasis mine]

Does that last line sound familiar?

The article also points out:
"Falsifiability was one of the criteria used by Judge William Overton to determine that 'creation science' was not scientific and should not be taught in Arkansas public schools."

Also interesting is Popper’s inclusion on the Big List of Atheist Quotes, but perhaps I digress.

"i'm not trying to cause an argument, cause i myself am trying to find some answers when it comes to god and religion"

This is a wonderful thing. Always challenge popular opinion. Always question everything you are told. Think for yourself. Remember that tradition makes absolutely nothing valid or right: slavery and women’s oppression were traditional. Remember that popularity means nothing: the majority thought the world was flat (says so in the bible too) at one time. So what there are two billion Christians; there are four billion non-Christians.

"but it seems to me that atheists have taken a halfway stand while torturing the believers of god, just my opinion"

I have a huge problem with this statement – so much so that it warrants an entire post of its own. In the least, I hope that you see that atheists take anything but a "half-way stand" (something more commonly ascribed to agnostics).

I encourage you to investigate atheism further. For a logical approach, may I suggest familiarizing yourself with both arguments for and against the existence of god (see, this is an age old, very well established position). I also highly recommend "Why Does God Hate Amputees" for beginners to religious skepticism (it’s an amazingly simple read).

*See here for part two.

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