Monday, January 30, 2012

Tackling the Big Objections

I'll be posting the second draft of my questions list within the next couple of days, but right now I'm working on an appendix responding to the most common objections I expect. Here are the two major responses I'm anticipating from Christians, along with my answers:

"My God can't be proved or disproved with evidence, but I have faith that he exists and I have faith in my religion."
Imagine that thousands of people are standing in a row several miles long, each belonging to a different religion. Each one has been given a list of questions that point strongly to the conclusion that their religion is false. They shout the sentence above in unison, each of them with a deep inner feeling that they must be right. They are using exactly the same reasoning you are—and yet, not only are they wrong, but according to your beliefs they are all destined for eternal punishment.

Perhaps you feel you can apply faith to faith itself. You cry, "I have faith that my faith alone is justified!"—and the entire row of people cries out along with you. Could it be any more apparent that "I have faith" is useless as a response to evidence?
"We mustn't question the morality of God. His ways are beyond our understanding."
We have no choice but to make judgments about God's morality: If we don't, then we're forced to accept a line of reasoning that can justify literally any moral state of affairs, no matter how despicable. If God was depicted in the Bible raping and torturing infants for his own enjoyment, one could still answer with "his ways are beyond our understanding." Even if Satan, posing as God, commanded the most evil acts imaginable, obedience could still be justified in exactly the same way.

Even if God's ways are beyond our understanding, all that can be reasonably expected of us is that we do the best we can with the limited knowledge and reasoning abilities we have—and based on what we have, the only acceptable response to the biblical God's sanctioning of slavery, misogyny and genocide is unabashed condemnation. It would be patently ridiculous for God to blame us for questioning his morality, if he was the one who gave us the capacity to reason while at the same time offering no explanation of his atrocities.
Do these responses seem reasonably effective? Is there some way I could improve upon them? Are there other common answers you would expect Christians to give? Let me know. I'm also thinking about adding answers to "Evidence against God is a test of faith" and "God giving us proof would remove our ability to freely choose him", so if you have any suggestions regarding those, I'm all ears.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

40 Questions for Fundamentalist Christians

Whew! The first draft in my 40 Questions Project is finally finished, and I must say I'm quite happy with it. Since it's fairly long, I've made it a publicly accessible Google doc rather than posting it here directly, but below is a "table of contents" of sorts:
1. Demand for evidence
2. Comparison to other religions
3. Cultural and parental religious dependence
4. Investigation into other religions
5. Unreliability of faith
6. Unreliability of religious experiences
7. Falsifiability of Christianity
8. Falsifiability of God's intervention in the world
9. Lack of modern miracles
10. Falsifiability of God's positive perception
11. Falsifiability of prayer
12. Injustice of the atonement
13. Illogic of the atonement
14. Inefficiency of the atonement
15. Fate of the unborn
17. Incoherence of the trinity
18. God as tribal invention
19. Signs of Christianity
19. Pointlessness of prayer
20. Incoherence of the soul
21. Argument from scale
22. Argument from divine hiddenness
23. Evolution
24. Age of the earth
25. Israel's exodus and conquest
26. Census of Quirinius
27. Destruction of Tyre
28. Jesus' delayed return
29. Euthyphro dilemma
30. Problem of human evil
31. Problem of natural evil
32. Problem of animal suffering
33. Problem of hell
34. Problem of divine miscommunication
35. God's sanctioning of slavery
36. God's sanctioning of misogyny
37. God's homophobia
38. God's killings
39. God forces the killing of unbelieving loved ones
40. Comparison to other religious morality
I certainly didn't have a problem coming up with forty—on the contrary, the most difficult task was deciding what to leave out. I also spent a lot of time carefully wording the questions so that they were fairly short and understandable while still posing a serious challenge. Some of these questions have very common responses, so I'll also be working on an appendix responding to "Frequent Answers."

Please leave feedback in the comments! Did any questions seem weak or redundant? Is there some great question I missed? Could anything have been worded better? Any other concerns? Let me know so I can revise.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Hitch and Fry Are Wizards

This very well-known debate took place a couple of years ago, but I only got around to watching it today. If you've got 50 minutes to spare, it's well worth checking out. [Update: Apparently I watched the broadcast version of the debate which was edited for brevity. The full version is substantially longer.] Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry completely overwhelm their two opponents on the question of whether the Catholic Church is a force for good.

The first guy, Archbishop John Onaiyekan, says virtually nothing except that the church is big, well-organized and owns some AIDS-related charities. Hitchens rips into the church more in his first two minutes—rattling off the Crusades, child abuse, forced evangelism in South America, anti-Semitism and other horrors—than the opposition manages to defend in the entire debate.

The second church defender, Ann Widdecombe, does a little better than the first, but still whines about the focus on child rape scandals and discouragement of condoms without really addressing them. Fry attacks this attitude straight on when he says, "It's a bit like a burglar in court saying, 'You would bring up that burglary and that manslaughter. You never mention the fact I give my father a birthday present.'" He also makes an impassioned speech condemning the Church's own condemnation of homosexuality.

Another great moment from Fry is when he challenges Widdecombe on the Church's changing position on issues like slavery, saying: "And what is the point of the Catholic Church if it says, 'Oh, well we couldn't know better because nobody else did.' Then what are you for?"

The real highlight of the debate, though, was the result:

As a consequence of this debate, 774 minds were changed for the better. Naturally, it won't always be this easy—the two apologists were hopelessly inept, and it's often harder to convince people of religion's falsity than its negative impact—but even so, this should serve as an encouraging testament to the fact that debate really can make a difference.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The 40 Questions Project

Over the past few weeks I've had a couple of friendly debates with my dad about the existence of God. My responses have been purely in terms of objections to arguments in favor of God's existence—not once have I gone on the offensive. My intention is not to beat them over the head with my unbelief, but since they're challenging my views, it only makes sense to challenge theirs as well. I'd like to make them think, to inform them of some of the more unsavory parts of their religion. It may seem strange to believers that atheists might want to change their views, but when beliefs have negative consequences, it's only natural to challenge them.

A while back I came up with a list of 10 questions for Christians. I've been thinking about expanding on them, so I've embarked on the 40 Questions Project to come up the best thought-provoking challenges to fundamentalist Christianity. The questions that I'm using will:
  • Address the beliefs of fundamentalist evangelical Christians
  • Be succinct, with no more than a couple of sentences of setup
  • Avoid provoking a flippant response (e.g. "But evolution is wrong.")
  • Give specific examples when necessary (e.g. for Bible contradictions)
  • Mix subtle self-reflection with direct challenges to belief
  • Be comprehensive, ranging from general problems with theism to issues with specific fundamentalist doctrines
I don't think I'll be breaking any new ground with this list of questions. My goal is just to combine the most difficult issues within Christianity into one concise, accessible package. It will bring together everything from the problem of evil to historical errors in the Bible. Here's one example of a question I'll be including in some form:
"If God asked you to kill your child in the same way he did with Abraham, would you?"
I realize that what I find challenging and thought-provoking, others may find trivial, so I plan to go through a couple of drafts after getting feedback from those around me. Depending on how the project turns out and how discussions are going with my parents, I may or may not present it to them directly. Either way, I hope this can serve as a resource both for myself and for my fellow nonbelievers.

If any of my readers have suggestions for questions that might be suitable for this project—ones that will really challenge Christians and make them think—I'd love to hear from you in the comments.

Monday, January 9, 2012

5 Things I Don't Believe About Believers

My intention with this blog is not to attack religious people, but rather to criticize religion itself. As such, I think it would be a good idea to repudiate certain negative notions about believers. Many of these views are held only by a small minority of atheists, but even so, it's good to clear up such misconceptions. As a former Christian, I sympathize with the religious in some ways and know firsthand that the following blanket statements are untrue.

"Believers Are Stupid"
Let's get one thing out of the way first: it's true that IQ does correlate somewhat with religiosity. A 2008 study examined data from 137 countries to come up with the following graph comparing countries' average IQ to percentage of atheists:

There are a few points to note here, however. Despite the clear positive trend, a few countries on the far left rank higher in IQ than those on the far right, and a "best fit" line would appear to flatten out at around 20% unbelief. And see all those countries pressed up against the left margin? Those are mostly third world countries with low rates of education. As for the extremely high rates of belief in God, many sociologists see it as a coping mechanism to deal with their low quality of life.

It's not accurate to make the generalization that "religious people are stupid": the data shows that as a whole the religious are only slightly less intelligent (often for unrelated reasons), and the brightest believers (e.g. Francis Collins) are certainly just as smart as the brightest non-believers. In fact, I don't think religiosity relates directly to intelligence at all. Intelligent people can be religious because they compartmentalize—they don't apply their intelligence to their religion. Religion is in a psychological category all its own, one that's perceived as incompatible with skeptical inquiry. Many were raised to hold certain comforting beliefs, grew up in a culture that supports those beliefs, made friends with others who believe as they do. Often they've never been taught to question those core values—and if they do, greater intelligence can help them invent more elaborate explanations that allow them to continue believing.

"Believers Are Hateful"
The word "hateful" is tossed around a lot. Sometimes it's used accurately (toward the Westboro Baptist Church, for example), but the term is so powerful and intense that it can be tempting to apply it to one's opponents even when it's undeserved. Religious people in general certainly don't deserve to be described as "hateful"—nor even do many fundamentalists.

Growing up as a evangelical Christian, I didn't "hate" gay people. It was strange to me that people could think and behave in that way, and I considered their actions sinful. That's as far as it went, and I think the same can be said for most fundamentalists. To disapprove of one aspect of a person's identity and to be weirded out by their sexuality is not the same as hatred of that person. The old saying "love the sinner, hate the sin" may seem trite to nonbelievers, but it's a genuine sentiment that's just as valid as saying "love the believer, hate the belief." I think we should avoid devaluing the word "hateful" and reserve it for those who actually detest another human being.

"Believers Are Crazy"
It can also be tempting to say that religious people have a mental disorder. After all, they believe strange and outlandish things, often fervently and without any logical basis. The idea that one can communicate with an invisible person wherever one goes does bear a resemblance to schizophrenia.

But ultimately, they've merely had a particularly enticing set of false beliefs ingrained into their psyches from an early age. That's not enough to call religiosity a mental illness in any sense except as a provocative rhetorical device. That being said, there's certainly some gray area here. What about those who roll around on the ground speaking in tongues, or actually claim to see angels and hear God's voice audibly? At what point do enculturation, social pressure and self-deception become pathology? I'll leave that for the mental health professionals to decide.

"Believers Know They're Wrong"
This one pops up more rarely, but some people really do think that believers realize deep down that their beliefs are false. Even David Silverman, president of American Atheists, said on The O'Reilly Factor that "everybody knows religion's a scam."

It should really go without saying that this is absolutely not the case. Certainly, there are many people who harbor serious doubts but convince themselves to continue believing due to wishful thinking. But the majority of believers accept their respective doctrines without reservation. For many years, I was one of them. To suggest that religious people are atheists in denial is just as insulting as suggesting that the reverse is true of atheists (an idea that rears its head with frustrating regularity).

"Believers Can't Be Reasoned With"
This sentiment is often expressed in terms of a quote: "You can't reason someone out of a position they didn't reason themselves into." As Matt Dillahunty of The Atheist Experience puts it, this is absolute "bull."

Is it difficult? Sure. Rare? Relatively speaking, yes. But it happens. Millions of atheists were raised as believers, but reached their own conclusions after either investigating on their own or being convinced by others. Once again, I'm one of them. According to this quote, I don't exist.

Maybe I'm being pedantic. Maybe most people interpret this as a general pattern rather than a hard-and-fast rule. But on more than one occasion I've heard it suggested that arguing with religious people is pointless, because none of them ever change their position. The idea that the faithful are immune to reason can be a serious obstacle to helping humanity move away from religion. Believers deserve more than dismissal from the non-believing community. Many of them are intellectually honest people who are willing to change their minds when they find that they can't defend their views. And even those who continue to believe may gain a deeper and more nuanced understanding of their own doctrines. Putting our most deeply cherished convictions under a microscope is hard for everyone. We owe it to believers to be there to help.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Tree of Religion

One interesting paradox that occurred to me recently is that religions like Christianity are highly dogmatic, and yet they are constantly changing and adapting to their environment. People generally accept the faith they were born into without seriously questioning it, but in Christianity alone there are over 30,000 distinct sects.

How can both of these facts be true at the same time? I think there are a couple of things to consider here. The first is that in a hugely popular religion such as Christianity, it works perfectly well for most people to believe everything they were taught without any real critical evaluation. There are 2.3 billion Christians in the world, so if only 5% of them significantly alter their beliefs, and only 0.01% of that 5% gain enough of a following to form a new sect, that would still be 11,500 new versions of Christianity in the current living population alone. All it takes is a few people who are willing to change their religious views, and we get endless variations on the same basic framework.

So what is it that drives this huge and ever-increasing level of religious diversity? One major factor is that societies and cultures change over time. A few hundred years ago, almost all Christians believed that God created the universe in the manner described in Genesis, and that homosexuality was an undeniable evil. Today these views are being steadily eroded as people realize that there is abundant evidence for evolution and that there's no reason to condemn gay people. This is not a new phenomenon, either: a while back I summarized Bart Ehrman's description of how early Christianity evolved. Jesus went from preacher to Messiah to God incarnate, Jews went from comrades to Jesus-killers, and the concepts of heaven, hell, souls and the Trinity arose.

Not only do cultures change, but Christianity is introduced to entirely new cultures as well. Missionaries purposely frame their doctrines in terms that the natives can identify with, and the natives often combine Christian beliefs with their existing ones rather than just replacing them. There's even a name for this process: syncretism. Vodun in west Africa, Rastafarianism in Jamaica, and the Unification Church in South Korea are just three examples of this.

The other crucial factor to consider is the remarkable vagueness of holy scriptures. Texts such as the Bible appear to offer great insights into the nature of the universe, yet they are so open to interpretation that readers can come away with any lesson they want. Contradictions and internal conflicts in doctrine, far from being fatal to religion, are in fact engines of religious diversity. Is God a vengeful being who is pouring out his wrath upon humanity, or a kind and nurturing one who is constantly blessing his beloved creations? It depends on which biblical stories you emphasize. Homosexuality is condemned? Not if you interpret every single passage that mentions it in just the right way. The Genesis account of creation is demonstrably wrong? No big deal. Just call it a metaphor and the problem instantly vanishes. The Bible and other religious books can be made to support any virtually any view with enough creative interpretation.

The question of what religious sects manage to survive is a simple matter of natural selection. Those ideas that can appeal to the contemporary culture are the ones that survive, while outdated ones are left in the dust. The Puritans were a significant faction in the early 1600s, but nowadays their name has become synonymous with self-righteous moralizing. In modern times, televangelists like Joel Osteen have become popular by preaching prosperity theology, which essentially says that God wants you to be rich. Early Christians would have been horrified at their line of thinking, but it fits America's consumerist culture like a glove. It's not truth that determines what religions become popular: it's suitability to the current environment.

This dovetails with another, related observation: truth converges, but religion diverges. When arriving at truth in areas like science, people independently reach the same conclusion. But religion is the opposite: it continually branches off of itself like an ever-expanding tree. There's no chance that religions will ever converge upon a single specific conclusion, because they thrive on faith, personal revelation and creative interpretation of scripture rather than evidence and logical argument. Religion is a flat-out terrible method of determining what's true.

These characteristics of religion—subjective, shaped by natural selection, endlessly diverging in every direction—do not in themselves show that religion is false. However, they're precisely the opposite of what we would expect to find if one or more divine beings were guiding everyone toward enlightenment. If the gods really want to lead humanity to a single transcendent truth, they're doing a remarkably bad job.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

2011 in Review

What a year it's been! In January I had left Christianity but was still wavering on the question of God, and just 12 months later I've been accepted by my immediate family and a group of school friends as an atheist. Along the way I read a few very enlightening books and made a few popular posts that I'm quite happy with. I've been slacking a little recently, but overall I accomplished much more with this blog than I ever expected to.

Here are my posts from November:
And from December:
I probably won't be posting quite as much in 2012 as I did last year. One of my major objectives has now been accomplished: to help me prepare for revealing my unbelief to my family. That said, I'll certainly remain active, because there are plenty of topics I still want to explore.