The Deism to Theism Jump

For me, I didn’t have a hard time chucking Christianity, or for that matter, the notion of a loving intervening theistic God…at least one who is fair.  The idea that there is an intervening god who cares about us and influences outcomes of things is, I think, obviously false…at least from the perspective that this god cares about everyone.  If he exists, he clearly doesn’t care about everyone.

The proof for this is simple:  imagine the place where a god, if he existed, really needs to be.  Imagine the worst places on earth that are most desperate for help – where babies starve to death, toddlers die from infections, adolescent children are kidnapped and sold into sex slavery, villages are slaughtered by the bad guys du jour.

Yet those places are exactly where this god IS NOWHERE TO BE FOUND!  And more than that, these are the places where he will continue not to be found, if history is any indication.

When I was still a Christian, I remember thinking: Please god!  Help these people!  I can find my own car keys.  Professional football players can score their own touchdowns.  Jesus doesn’t need to appear in toast.  We’ll be alright if you want to take time to focus on real problems.  Lack of faith is not the problem here…your indifference is.

As time went on, I found it more and more obscene when I saw people praising god for their accomplishments or good luck, because the flip side of this paradigm, where there is a god who cares and intervenes, is that this god ignored people who were in desperate need of help, and gave preference to people who aren’t.

I suppose thoughts like that were what led me down the road of atheism, although I wouldn’t dream of pointing to a single issue.  It was more like:  from every perspective I approached it, it simply made more sense that this intervening god was a fiction.

These days, I have very little interest in arguing against the idea of some sort of non-intervening deity – a deistic or pantheistic god.

But I have noticed something over the past couple years since I’ve started paying attention to what arguments people use for the existence of a god that the double speak becomes most dishonest in these muddy waters between deism and theism.

For example, the notion that some sort of being (or whatever) flipped the lightswitch or clapped his hands and got this whole universe rolling is not entirely inconceivable to me.  I think it’s an unnecessary claim that lacks evidence and creates more problems than it solves, but abstractly, it’s not the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.

I’m sure a lot of people feel this way.  They might have been brought up in a household that put some value in religion, and where they were forced to attend Sunday school and religion classes, yet they personally have a hard time swallowing the idea that Iron Age illiterates had a direct line of communication to god.

For the younger generation — the generation brought up in an era where our magic tricks are much cooler than those depicted in the bible, religion is even harder to swallow, as evidenced by a huge increase in the “none” category.

Yet, this deistic framework, the one where clever salesmen get to take advantage of people’s incredulity and ignorance about the incredible physics that go on at the quantum level, is the framework that apologists exploit when providing their “proofs” for god.

The logical jump goes something like this:

The universe is really big and complicated, and the amount we know is very small compared to all the information in the universe.  Therefore God loved you so much that he sent his only son to die for your sins.

But I think those apologists commit an error:  by the time most reasonable people are grappling with the logical and empirical inconsistency inherent in the idea of an intervening deity, they’re probably likely to spot the non-sequitur the apologist is trying to smuggle.

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DNA Is Not Information

The cell is an amazing thing.  It makes copies of itself. It reads DNA within itself, and builds protein.

Trillions of cells within an organism function in harmony to contribute to the overall system.  It’s amazing really.  It was actually a deeper understanding of the cell that led me to become an atheist.

However, with this amazing complexity comes trouble.  The cell is too complex.  The orchestra of DNA, RNA, enzymes, and hormones makes it hard for a species a half-chromosome away from chimpanzees to understand.  So, we make due with what we have, and our compensation mechanism relies on language.

But there’s a problem with how we use language.

We can say “DNA contains information…”.  It certainly is helpful to frame it like this, because it makes it easier for us to understand it.  Humans have a tough time with complicated things that aren’t happening within our macroscopic level.  We just aren’t “wired” to think that way very well.  So, we use metaphors and analogies.  These are helpful tools to help us gain a better understanding of a complex universe.

It’s easy to get carried away, though.

What we’re prone to do is to follow metaphors and analogies past their point of usefulness.

For instance, information, as we understand it, is a byproduct of human thought, either directly or indirectly.

Therefore, since DNA is information, it must be a byproduct of some other intelligent being’s thought, right?

And boom, we’ve got the fallacy of equivocation.

Worse than that, though, we’ve begged the question, because we’ve assumed that DNA could not have come from natural mechanisms.  Of course, the only evidence we have is that it did come through natural mechanisms.

Where does it leave us when we torture our metaphors like this?  It essentially allows us to live in an abstract fantasy land where we can invent any logical deduction that suits us.  But here’s the thing:  when evidence doesn’t line up with our deductions, what does that say about our deductions?  To me, it says our deductions are wrong.

But the really insidious thing about this abstract fantasy land is that it allows us to deduce things that are unfalsifiable.  There’s simply no way to test them.  It’s the height of intellectual laziness and dishonesty.

God is “I don’t know”

“The wondrous disposition of the Sun, the planets and the comets, can only be the work of an all-powerful and intelligent Being” -Isaac Newton

“Sir, I have no need for that hypothesis” – Pierre Simone Laplace

These two men, Newton and Laplace, two of the most brilliant men who have ever lived, were working on the same question.  Laplace solved a problem that Isaac Newton was not able to; Newton’s belief was that the intricate arrangements and orbits of the planets and their satellites would have required God.  Nearly 100 years later, Laplace demonstrated that the orbit and arrangement of the solar system is well explained by the laws of motion.  No god was necessary in Laplace’s model, and the quote above was his response to Napoleon’s pointed question about it.

Herein lies the reason for God.  Most people can’t imagine a universe that wasn’t stuffed like a pinata by god.

My understanding is the universe could have come from nothing, given the sum of its total energy (0), and that nothing about the big bang violates any known natural laws.  I’m not qualified to assess the quality of the theories, but the thing I find appealing about the big bang is that it doesn’t appeal to supernaturalism, and the model demonstrates the universe’s creation in a plausible way.

Do these models really answer the question of who (or what) put the stuff there to give rise to a universe, or how it happened?  As far as I know, they don’t, but I could be wrong.  As far as we know, nothing put the universe’s stuff there, nor would anyone have needed to.  But this is a knowledge gap.

It is easy to say, that because we don’t know how that stuff got there, that it must have been God.  For many people, the assertion provides comfort, because it means we don’t have to ponder the literal infinity of possibilities, or acknowledge a reality in which we are not particularly important.

At some point in my life, and I suppose it was fairly recently, the God hypothesis (Deism, in particular), became a dishonest proposition.  I considered myself a Deist for a number of years because I didn’t want to give up on the idea of God.

Being raised in a fairly moderate Lutheran, midwestern household, religion never had a negative impact on my life, and it caused me no trauma at all.  But as a reasonable person, I couldn’t get past some pretty serious problems that existed in religion, namely that the bible is fairly ludicrous and demonstrably wrong in a meaningful number of places.

The evolution of this recognition eventually lead me to Deism, which was a good incubator for my evolving worldview.  I was about 25, at the time that I decided Deism was the way to go.  Deism was appealing to me, because you can believe in God without having to believe in all the ridiculous propositions in the bible or Christianity, in general.

Sometime in the past year, I managed to ask myself why it was that I didn’t want to give up on God.  The answer I came up with was some combination of fear and incredulity.

I just couldn’t imagine a universe that wasn’t at least partly attributable to supernatural intervention, and I didn’t like the risk it posed to not believe in any God at all…after all, even though midwestern Lutherans are moderate, in terms of their religiosity, they still imagine a hell.

But what is that, if not God of the gaps?  People used to believe the Earth was flat and the sun revolved around the earth.  No one 500 years ago could have ever imagined that we have trillions of cells that make up our body, let alone the fantastic orchestra happening inside our cells.  They didn’t know about germs or how to cure diseases.  They would have never imagined cell phones or spaceships.

The existential challenges humans confronted, particularly their very short lifespans, required supernatural explanations, because there was no logical bridge that would have allowed anyone to arrive at the conclusion that there are microscopic pathogens that can kill us, or that interaction of mixed pressures in the atmosphere causes rain.  Our original responses to life’s realities gave us inventions like human and animal sacrifices, along with the demanding deities that commanded those sacrifices, and whose methods of enforcement included flipping the switches of natural phenomena, such as rain, thunder, disease, and insect infestation.

Luckily, humans can be pragmatic enough to recognize that rain dances, animal sacrifices, meteors, and astrology do not provide insight or exceed chance in predicting our futures.

This human pragmatism is the device that allows us to stop appealing to supernatural explanations for complicated phenomena.  Even if we knew nothing at all, that still would not be a logical justification for supernatural causes, and that was the fundamental realization that led me to toss out Deism as my worldview.  Celestial beings are not an honest way to explain things that are beyond our current capacity to measure.

The Moderate Pathway to Deconversion (Part 2)

I was reading comments on a Youtube video yesterday, and I saw a mini-squabble between two people – one talking about about immorality espoused by the bible, and the other who didn’t care, because their primary concern was to follow Jesus Christ’s teachings.

There’s a real challenge for people who choose to debate against Christians, because Christianity has, built into it, a persecution complex; after all, Christians’ lord-and-savior was persecuted his whole life, and then killed by crucifixion.  The bible also teaches that Christians are sure to be persecuted (Second Timothy 3:12), and this is reinforced in sermons and on Sunday School posters.  And of course, no persecution paradigm is complete without leveraging the movie “God’s Not Dead”, which stews in this persecution complex by claiming that it is so institutionalized, college students are forced by asshole philosophy professors to renounce their faith, lest they want to fail the course.  This is a dubious projection indeed, since the only examples we can actually cite of forced religious pledges are in Christian colleges.  But I guess that asshole professor got what he deserved in the end, eh comrades?  Pandering still works.

Is it any wonder with all this certainty about their own persecution, the largest religion in America constantly claims that we secular heathens are removing Christ from Christmas, and all the other nonsense that is so appealing to people who genuinely feel persecuted, despite all evidence is to the contrary?

I don’t know what the key argument is to force people to reexamine their own beliefs more skeptically, nor do I feel particularly inclined to proactively deconvert people (but if people try to re-convert me, I’ll damn sure push back).  For me, it was a collection of things, including biblical inconsistency and immorality, dubious logical claims, a valid and reasonable concern that Jesus Christ didn’t even exist, the persecution complex coupled with all evidence to the contrary, and the undeniable correlation I observed between level of religious indoctrination and overall worldview incorrectness.

I stumbled upon Deism one day, and it was appealing to me.  My skepticism led me to conclude that Christianity was ridiculous, but the God idea was less so.  I didn’t feel that I needed a formalized collection of rules as described in the bible.  Evolution, social conventions, the human brain, and hormones seemed like a good enough explanation for why humans can manage to not murder each other en masse, or at least why we would have been able to abstain from murder frequently enough to reproduce and maintain a diverse population.  In other words, to quote Christopher Hitchens, “Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it”.  So, I considered myself a Deist for several years.

I think it’s hard to simultaneously argue against theism and the underlying deism.  The two are logically separate; not mutually exclusive, but logically speaking, God can exist without one particular religion being correct.  So, to me, it gets messy to try to make one claim that there is not enough evidence for God AND that there is not enough evidence that Jesus Christ was God’s son; in fact, there are logical pitfalls in trying to hold these two positions in the same argument.

I think that decoupling deism and theism is a pathway to deconversion.  The God concept, without all of Christianity’s baggage, makes for a clearer investigation.  Similarly, Christianity isolated from the technical argument for God allows for a more honest assessment of what Christianity is truly advocating, without reducing it to cherry-picked warm and fuzzies.

Deism

Deism is the belief that the natural world and universe is so vast and so amazingly complex that it could not have been formed without supernatural intervention.  Deism is contrasted with various types of theism in that deism does not claim that this supernatural entity who created the universe presently intervenes in its workings.

Deism was an offshoot of Baruch Spinoza’s Pantheism, which claims that God and the universe are intertwined.

Deism was a common-held belief during the Enlightenment and up until the early 1800s by leading politicians and intellectuals, and it was about as close as a public official could be to atheistic.  Several early presidents were deists, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and maybe even Abraham Lincoln.

Deism was attractive to thinkers of the time because it allowed them to reject the immorality described in the bible without rejecting the notion of god altogether.  I considered myself a Deist for a couple years, because it sort of allows the best of both worlds – you get to reject the lunacy coming from the fundamental fringes, yet you don’t have to necessarily reject the warm-and-fuzzy aspects of religion, such as the idea that we’re not alone, and that supernatural beings ensure continued order.

Deism, as a philosophy, didn’t last very long in any meaningful sense.  The reason it didn’t last is because of its target market.  Intellectuals and scientists originally found deism appealing because it safely allowed them to reject logical inconsistencies about God described in the Christian bible.  But once you reject Christianity, and the claims made in the Christian (or any other) bible, that forces you to investigate Deism through a more skeptical lens, which is what intellectuals and scientists are often inclined to do.

What natural problem does Deism solve?  What questions exist(ed) that could not be better answered by more natural investigation and explanation?  Doesn’t the injection of a God hypothesis just make our understanding cloudier?

The point is that Deism makes us feel better about rejecting Theism.  It’s “God did it” without Jesus (or Muhammed or [insert religious revelation character here]).  And we know that “God did it” is just an excuse to stop investigating the questions we haven’t answered yet.

How did life begin (abiogenesis)?  What happened before the big bang?  Did time exist before 13 billion years ago, or do we simply exist in a “Universe From Nothing” as Lawrence Krauss puts it?  If black holes are the ingredients it takes to make a universe, and our universe exists, did our universe come from a black hole?  If we have black holes in our universe, what makes us so sure we did not come out of a pre-existing universe?

These are important questions, and questions that are admittedly difficult to solve with the tools we currently have.  But the answer that “God did it” only serves to stifle our investigation.  And it doesn’t really help us to gain any clarity or arrive at any truth.  I think we’ll be able to answer some of these questions sometime soon, in particular, the question of how life originated.  But we wouldn’t get anywhere close to an answer if we simply concluded “God did it…move it along.”

When Charles Darwin proposed that existing species have come to be via a process of natural selection and change, he had no corroboration other than his observations.  He didn’t understand what DNA was, nor did he have any means to compare the genetics between species.  So, all he had was physical evidence that led to a very strong hypothesis.  That hypothesis was corroborated via a number of scientific breakthroughs that came well after his death, such as fossil discovery, radiometric dating, and the discovery of DNA.

Deism is “God did it.”  And “God did it” stifles progress without answering anything.