My Alternative Hypothesis On Religion

I think it’s a reasonable statement that the general position of atheists is that they reject claims made by theists; atheists make no claim in their rejection of the theist’s claim, and therefore, they own no burden of proof to demonstrate their claims.  To put it another way, the burden of proof is on a person making a claim that something exists…not on the person rejecting the claim that something exists.

That seems reasonable to me, even though I think it’s a bit of a cop-out.  I think it’s easy to get lost in logical misdirection when talking about asserting whether a claim is true or false.  Atheists indeed do make claims, but there’s a bigger point and a bigger underlying philosophy that doesn’t lend itself well to easy dialog.  Below is a list of the claims that I feel are easily demonstrable and make it clear why an atheist might be skeptical of the God claim.

1.  We belong to a species that evolved from more primitive species over the course of many millions of years.  Over the course of that evolution, we developed behavioral and social patterns that gave rise to a ubiquitous inclination to provide supernatural explanations for complicated physical and natural phenomena.  These behavioral and social patterns include superstition, hyperbole, social hierarchy, self-reflection, emotional turbulence, and pattern seeking.

2.  Religious institutions, regardless of how formalized they are, are ubiquitous across cultures because they cater to inherent desires of humanity, including socialization, a sense of belonging, and simple explanations of natural phenomena, regardless of whether they are true or not.  They also tend to provide psychological support for a number of psychologically distressful phenomena, including death and disease.

3.  The inclination to invoke supernatural explanations is reinforced by a variety of social and religious institutions, and human beings have historically gotten very little pushback when they have appealed to the supernatural, particularly when these explanations agreed with preconceived notions of God or gods.

4.  Many of the existential questions to which human beings lacked explanations during the rise of modern theisms have now been answered.  These questions include:  How did we get here?  Why are we here?  Why does the sun rise?  Why does the weather change?  Why do people I care about die?  Why do babies die?  Why is there suffering?

These questions are answered in our understanding of various fields including medicine, biology, evolutionary biology, germ theory of disease, chemistry, physics, quantum mechanics, cosmology, meteorology, and sound deductive logic.

5.  Answers and explanations provided in various religions, specifically Christianity, tend to be very simplistic, and are appealing to people who are poor and uneducated.  This would have been particularly true for people who could not read, which would have represented the overwhelming majority of Christians up until the late-1800s.  Subsequent discoveries that reveal religion’s profound failures to accurately explain natural phenomena have given rise to the rejection of its claims.  The writing was on the proverbial wall beginning in the 1400s, after western Europe was reintroduced to Aristotle and other Greek philosophers.   In 1633, Galileo Galilei was put on house arrest for the rest of his life for heresy because of his assertion that the Earth rotates and revolves around the sun.  Other Renaissance and Enlightenment figures who, sometimes inadvertently, introduced skepticism towards supernatural explanations include Leonardo da Vinci, Giordano Bruno, Nicolaus Copernicus, and Baruch Spinoza.  Interestingly, the amount of Catholic Church pushback increased around the same time as natural understanding of the world began to increase.  This is demonstrated by examples such as the Spanish inquisition, which began in 1478, and witch burnings, which killed tens-of-thousands of people across multiple contents over the course of several hundred years, from 1450-1750.

6.  There are natural phenomenon that are not well-explained by science, including events that gave rise to the big bang, and abiogenesis.  Our lack of clarity about these specific phenomena, along with a fiercely anti-intellectual population who reject well-supported scientific claims, are the engine of perpetuity for modern religions.

These supporting facts and claims support my hypothesis that religion is man-made, and is therefore an instrument people use to explain the world.  There are a lot of reasons why religion fits well into human models of the world, and this explains why people are slow to let go of those ideas, even in the presence of better explanations for the phenomena that gave rise to religion in the first place.

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19 Kids and Counting

Evidently, there is a movement to get TLC’s show “19 Kids and Counting” cancelled because of statements the Duggar family made about the LGBT community.

I’ve long since stopped watching TLC, mostly because they air trashy shows like “19 kids and counting” (I think it’s horribly unethical to have that many kids, but I’ll skip the diatriabe on that).

There’s a point to be made in terms of how fundamentalists view LGBT people, and I think the point is that religion, and in this case Christianity, facilitates irrational hatred and bigotry.  In fact, this hatred is celebrated within some denominations.  And this theme of intolerance is not reserved for the LGBT community – it’s directed at anyone who holds different beliefs.

I think it’s interesting that religion facilitates this sort of distrust of “the other”, because it’s such a common them across humanity and with animals.  If evolution is real (which it is), irrational fear of people that are different is exactly what you’d expect – it’s how evolution would manifest, because fear is a survival tool, and fear helps animals protect themselves and their community.

Animals exhibit fear-based behavior towards other animals, especially if the other animal is as big or bigger than them.  It is only after the other animal has exhibited benignity that fear decreases.  Consider your neighborhood squirrel.  Squirrels can be trained to take food from your hand.  Similarly, this is how dogs were domesticated from wolves.  Clearly, humans must have experienced this at some point as well, considering that 2-4% of the human genome comes from Neanderthals.

Most people who have irrational fear towards LBGT people have never even met an openly gay person, although it’s quite likely they’ve met closeted gay people.  So they don’t really know what they’re talking about, except to say that their bible told them that gay people are immoral.

I don’t really have a conclusion here – I think TLC, and most of the original shows on it are awful, and I think people like the Duggars are close-minded bigots who’ve really found the perfect symbiosis with a TV network as trashy as they are.

Life Without Heaven

Imagine I live in a place that’s never been exposed to Christianity.  Then I go somewhere, learn about it, and convert to it.  Then I try to go back to the place I live, to share Christianity with my wife, kids, and other family and friends.  But on the way home, I die.  In this event, I might get to heaven, but all my loved ones are going to hell, because they never got converted and baptized.  Now I’m stuck in this heaven place, worshipping a God who rejects everyone who meant anything to me during my life, even if they were decent and moral people.

Most Christians I’ve met have little doubt that their post-death destination will be heaven.  It is only fair, after all, that they should get eternal reward for going to church, following the commandments, and treating other’s well.  When I was a Christian, I saw heaven as a primary reinforcement for my faith.

One of the side effects of shedding your faith is that you have to let go of the parts of faith that weren’t all that bad, at least on the surface.  The celestial theme park described to me as a child didn’t seem too shabby.  How could eternal life and freedom from pain and suffering be bad?  How could an alternative to the finality of death be unpleasant?  After all, arrested existence seems quite scary.

One of the things that makes me feel better about the finality of death is that, on second thought, heaven doesn’t seem so great.  It seems like a place you go to drone on and on about the same thing for eternity.  There’s no challenge and no stimulation.  Heaven means worshiping and revering a single being for all of eternity, regardless of your thoughts on the matter, and regardless of the moral failings of God as described in the Christian bible.

Why would I want to permanently worship a being who sent my loved ones to hell for not believing strongly enough or for committing minor infractions?  What makes such a rigid and mean-spirited being, who created evil in the first place, worthy of such reverence?  If the Christian bible is true, then I think I’d rather burn in hell than worship a God who would torture someone so permanently after they committed a minor, temporary offense.

Heaven seems worse than a prison – at least in prison, I can receive visits from the people who mean anything to me, and at least I’m free of prison after I’ve died.  The heaven described by Christianity is a place where one sheds their humanity, forgets about the people they loved that fell short, and surrenders to their inner robot.  Aside from hell, I can’t imagine a worse place.

Don Lemon

Don Lemon apparently asked Bill Cosby’s alleged victim why she didn’t bite his penis as a defense measure during their sexual encounter.

I don’t really have much to say about this specific interview, because I think Lemon’s question speaks for itself, and you can read into it how you want.  But, several years ago, it occurred to me how bad CNN was getting.  Poor journalism and a weird point of view.

Personally, I’m not really looking for a bias or slant on the news I receive.  I want facts, and I don’t want journalists to tell me how to feel about something; apparently, I’m in the minority, because loud-mouthed asshole preaching is all you really get in prime time cable news.  But I think mainstream news is much worse than it’s ever been, in terms of its failure to expose the truth, and its reporting on matters that ought to mean something to people.

I get it that Fox news occupies the mainstream conservative wing, and MSNBC supposedly occupies the left; but neither of these realities gives any justification for CNN to be as bad as it is.

Pascal’s Wager

Pascal’s Wager goes something like this:  The cost of not-believing in God and being wrong is much greater than the cost of believing in God and being wrong.  Therefore, you might as well believe.  This dichotomy suggests you’ve got a 50% chance of getting into heaven.

I think there are a lot of problems with this wager.  For instance, what does [not believing] in God entail?  If the cost of not believing is eternal hell-fire, then you must believe in one of the religions that defines a hell.  But what about the religions that don’t have hell?  And what about the religions that have different prerequisites for entering heaven, or different violations that lead to hell?

It seems to me that there are pretty stark contrasts between religious implementations, because standards for behavior differ quite a bit between them.  Further, it seems that there are a lot of different God concepts, including polytheisms, where there are multiple Gods.  On top of that, there are religions that once existed, but no longer do.

Most of the religions that define heaven and hell are pretty adamant that they have identified the correct God, and the standards for behavior by which one enters heaven or hell.

If there is a God, and he commands particular behavior as a prerequisite for entry into heaven, how do you know which religion’s behaviors are correct?  How do you know that a religion that no longer exists wasn’t the right religion to practice.  Why do you think the answer to this question is in one of the world’s most popular religions?

If you’re a Christian, what about the hundreds of denominations that define diametrically opposed standards of behavior as a prerequisite for entry into heaven?  Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims have a similar dilemma.

In this case, one might even pick the correct God, and still fail to enter heaven, because they didn’t interpret that God correctly.

There are billions of people who practice religions that most people on Earth have never heard of, and each of the major religions has denominations that disqualify other denominations.  That doesn’t even include practitioners of thousands of now-defunct religions over the course of human history who were either right or wrong.

How did Pascal’s Wager work out for them?  It seems to me that Pascal’s Wager doesn’t carry very good odds.

The Origins Of The Universe

I don’t blame people for concluding that “the universe is so complex/big/amazing that there must have been a supernatural cause for it.”  Personally, I think that only gets you to Deism (or Pan-theism), but I don’t see how that could get you to theism in any rational, reasonable, logically honest way.

The problem with that claim that the universe must have supernatural origins is this:  how do you know?  What reliable, natural evidence can you put forward to support that claim?  It creates an infinite regression problem if you say “God caused the universe,” because it raises the question “who caused God?”

I’ve always thought it was a cop-out to respond “God is supernatural, and therefore doesn’t need a cause.”  The name of that logical fallacy is a special pleading. – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_pleading

But I think there’s something worse than logic errors with this position, and this is highlighted in the case of Deism.  The problem with Deism is that it relies on wishful thinking, and is very inconsistent with other Deistic positions.  Deists know they can’t prove God.  They’ve taken this to be true, because they’re right – there’s no way to prove God.  So, why make the leap to the supernatural, when there’s no evidence for that, either?

The claim for supernatural intervention comes from ignorance.  People, as far as I can tell, have never witnessed supernatural behavior, and there doesn’t seem to be any reasonable scientists who have put forward evidence that supernatural behavior is a real thing, or is observable in any way.  So why on Earth would we imagine it exists, especially if we’re trying to demonstrate it within a logically consistent framework?

But even if we could demonstrate that supernatural phenomena occurs, why must it have caused the Universe?  Even if you take for granted that supernatural stuff happens, what logic can you put forward that supernatural phenomena caused the universe?  Maybe what caused the universe is something that happens very rarely, but is completely natural…and maybe it’s something we’ve never even considered or observed.

Point is:  we don’t know.  But saying “God did it” is worse than saying “we don’t know”, because the claim that it was supernatural allows us to stop investigating.  There was a time when we hardly knew anything.  The method we used to end that condition was rigorous, honest investigation.  “God did it” is the opposite of that, and it doesn’t get you anywhere, or lead you to anything other than satisfaction in your own ignorance.

Human Pattern Seeking

One of the most important human attributes is our ability to identify patterns.  For instance, we’re able to identify cyclical weather patterns, and know that the weather will become colder during a particular time of year.  We can also identify that animals engage in particular behaviors during particular times of the year or under particular circumstances, such as a full moon or heavy rain.  Our success as a species is largely due to our pattern recognition skills, and also in our ability to share and teach those patterns to others.  A particularly important aspect of this is our ability to persist information across generations, which is something other animals don’t do.

There are ways that our pattern-seeking can get us into trouble.  One such instance is when we recognize patterns that aren’t really there.  For instance, we might notice that it always snows after a successful hunt.  We ought to recognize this as a coincidence, or maybe because the most successful hunts occur during the winter.  But that’s the extent of the relationship between those 2 events.  Drawing any further conclusions from these things is a logical error; nevertheless, humans tend to commit errors like these all the time.  The specific error to which I refer is the failure to recognize that causation is not the same as correllation.  For instance, one might make the claim that, as ice cream sales increase, so do shark attacks; therefore, ice cream sales cause shark attacks.  The error this claim commits is that it ignores a common cause.  Ice cream sales did not cause shark attacks, nor did shark attacks cause ice cream sales.  There is a missing event in our claim that brought on both of these outcomes.

Pattern-seeking can allow us to draw faulty conclusions based on an identified pattern.  For instance, during the dark ages in England, people spotted a comet in the sky that we later came to call Halley’s comet.  Halley’s comet was blamed for bringing the Black Death.  Similarly, Chinese astronomers concocted an elaborate system of identifying physical characteristics of comets, and assigning those characteristics some meaning, including the level of pain and suffering the comet would bring.

Of course, we now recognize these associations as ridiculous.  Why is this?

The answer lies in our standard for what we accept as valid evidence, and our strategy for rejecting claims.  As Richard Feynman said, “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are.   If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.”

It’s important to put the burden of proof on a claim when that claim suggests that something is present or meaningful.  Can we test the proposition that comets always bring doom and dread?  Yes, we can.  Therefore, the moment a comet fails to bring doom and dread, then the claim fails.  If we were really grasping at straws, statistical measures might allow us to reframe the claim to state that a comet USUALLY brings doom and dread.  But if we find that no more doom and dread occurs after a comet sighting than before a comet sighting, then that claim fails, too.  Therefore, the claim is wrong.  There’s no use in continuing to perpetuate the claim, regardless of how that claim makes us feel, or how strongly we believe the claim.  The evidence demonstates the claim is no good; therefore, throw it out.

Rigorous investigation allows us to separate fact from fantasy.  Humans have not had tools to conduct rigorous investigation for very long, and these tools certainly didn’t exist 2000 years ago.  The concept of probability was not even formalized until the mid 1600s (the first printed work on probability was done in 1494 – “Summa de arithmetica, geometria, proprotioni e proportionalata” by Fra Luca Paccioli).  It was not until the Renaissance period and the Age of Enlightenment, once Europeans rediscovered Plato and Aristotle after returning from the Crusades, that our understanding of the natural world greatly increased.

Once philosophers and scientists were able to investigate religion in terms of the claims that it makes, both from a scientific and logical perspective, it didn’t take long for them to reject religion’s claims.  It is not surprising that there is such a fierce anti-intellectual sentiment in so many religious circles; vigorous investigative academia leads to scientific and philosophical conclusions that clearly reject religion’s claims.

One of my favorite quotes is from Neitzche:  “A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything”.  The proof of a claim is in how it stands up to investigation.  If the claim fails to meet it’s burden of proof, then there’s no reason to believe it’s true.  Our recognition of this single concept is what separates us from a more primitive version of ourselves.