Monday, February 27, 2012

The God We Would Expect

Our surprising God?
A couple of weeks ago I showed that if we assume the classical Christian God exists, we would expect him to create a very different universe than the one we actually live in. But then it occurred to me: why not try exactly the reverse? If we assume for the sake of argument that God exists, but then remove any prior assumptions we have about him, what would we expect him to be like based solely on what we know about the universe?

Let's find out.

What God Is
The universe as we know it is physical. Therefore, in the absence of any strong reasons to think otherwise, the immediate assumption is that God would be physical as well. It's probably not even meaningful to talk about a spiritual realm: to my knowledge, there's no real definition of what "spiritual" even means. Besides, if God was spiritual, then as I argued in the counterpart to this post, he would have no obvious reason not to make the universe spiritual as well.

If we don't start out by assuming Christianity, we would never in a million years expect God to somehow consist of a "Trinity"—of three "persons" composed of the same divine "substance." This convoluted idea of three entities that are somehow both distinct and unified may not even be coherent, let alone a reasonable prediction based only on our current knowledge. No, without good arguments to the contrary, we would expect God to be a single being—perhaps a very complex one, but certainly not one with some theologically sophisticated split personality.

While we're at it, we might as well dispense with the assumption that God is a "he," or even that "he" has a gender at all. Unless there's more than one of his kind, it would make little sense for him to have an identity as a male or a female. (Regardless, I'll still refer to him as "he" for the sake of clarity and convention.)

What God Wants
What might we expect God's goal to be in creating this universe? Contrary to what most religions of the world believe, we shouldn't necessarily assume that God particularly values humanity—or even life of any kind. If life was the goal, we would expect the universe to be teeming with it in every nook and cranny, yet Earth is the only planet we know of that has any. God seems to love dark matter and black holes more than any living creature, and of the little life that does exist, insects, plants and bacteria seem to be much higher on the divine priority list. Evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane was on the right track when he observed that "the Creator would appear as endowed with a passion for stars, on the one hand, and for beetles on the other."

As I noted in the other post, we arose through a lengthy and inefficient process of cosmology and evolution. Why would God want to use such a roundabout process? Maybe we should think of him as a cosmic tinkerer, testing out various starting conditions for the formation of the universe—or even as a scientist running simulations. Philosopher Nick Bostrom's simulation argument addresses this directly, and it's probably the best argument for the existence of "God" that I've ever heard. Here's his own summary:
At least one of the following propositions is true: (1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a "post-human" stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. It follows that the belief that there is a significant chance that we will one day become posthumans who run ancestor-simulations is false, unless we are currently living in a simulation.
The idea is that if posthuman civilizations run a lot of detailed computer simulations involving sentient beings, it's far more likely than not that we're in one of those simulations. Both David Chalmers and Bostrom himself assign a 20% probability to this idea. While a simulator probably wouldn't meet the classical "omni" definition of God, they would certainly be one in the broad sense of a highly intelligent creator who wields virtually limitless power over their creation. So what would be the motivation of these demigods? Bostrom has some speculation on that as well:
[P]erhaps future historians would create a Matrix that mimicked the history of their own species. They might do this to find out more about their past, or to explore counterfactual historical scenarios. In the world of the Architect(s), Napoleon may have succeeded in conquering Europe, and our world might be a Matrix created to research what would have happened if Napoleon had been defeated. Or perhaps there will be future artists who create Matrices as an art form much like we create movies and operas. Or perhaps the tourist industry will create simulations of interesting historical epochs so that their contemporaries can go on themed holidays to some bygone age by entering into the simulation and interacting with its inhabitants.
As fanciful as this conjecture may seem, I think it's far more reasonable and grounded in real-world experience than any of the major religions.

Is God Good?
Given the massive amount of suffering in the world—both in human society and in nature—there's no reason to expect that God desires to minimize that suffering. In fact, philosopher Stephen Law has observed that given what we know about the world, we could argue the propositions "God is perfectly evil" and "God is perfectly good" with roughly equal effectiveness.

There are several setups that are more consistent with the amount of evil we observe. One possibility is ditheism: two gods who are equal in power, one good and one evil, battling for control. Or maybe there exists a single God who experiences wild mood swings, creating humanity on a good day and sending natural disasters to wreak havoc on a bad one. But these ideas seem needlessly complex, as a single God who's merely indifferent to our suffering explains our situation just as well. Another option is that God is in fact good, but lacks either the power or the knowledge needed to set things straight in our world.

The existence of countless conflicting religions can actually be construed as evidence that God is something of a sadist. If he's capable of revealing himself to us, he could easily resolve our disputes and unite the world's belief systems. Since we instead find the opposite, perhaps we can predict that God enjoys creating religions and setting them against each other to cause needless confusion and conflict. Granted, it's not the most parsimonious explanation for the inconsistent faiths of the world, but I think it's certainly more consistent with the data than what theists have come up with.

A Suprising God
So what have we learned about our hypothetical God from our observations of the world? Based only on the known facts, we might predict that God (if he existed) would be...
  • Physical, not spiritual
  • Unitary, not triune
  • Genderless, not male
  • Fond of dark matter and lower life forms
  • A cosmic experimenter
  • Indifferent to our suffering
The predictions are somewhat broader than last time around, perhaps because the very concept of God can be interpreted so broadly: from a vindictive monster to a loving father to a clinical tinkerer, or even a pantheon featuring all of the above. With enough tweaking we can get any number of deities to be consistent with our universe. Even so, some gods are clearly more likely than others, and the idea of God we get from viewing the world with an impartial eye is very different from the one we get when we're biased by Christian dogma.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Look at Rick Santorum's Madness

Rick Santorum probably isn't going to win the Republican nomination, and he definitely isn't going to win the presidency. But at the moment this poster child for the Religious Right enjoying co-front runner status along with Romney, and that's incredibly scary in itself. It means that hundreds of thousands of people either haven't heard the appalling statements he's made on everything from evolution to gay marriage, or they don't mind. You may have seen some of these before, but I wanted to round up some of his worst quotes for a closer look.

On Sexuality
Santorum has had an obsession with sexuality throughout his political career, and the words that come out of his mouth are often laced with bigotry that might have been better-suited to cultural attitudes a century ago. For example, on gay marriage:
"In every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge include homosexuality. That's not to pick on homosexuality. It's not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be. It is one thing." —Santorum
"When you marginalize faith in America, when you remove the pillar of God-given rights, then what's left is the French Revolution. What's left is a government that gives you rights. What's left are no unalienable rights. What's left is a government that will tell you who you are, what you'll do and when you'll do it. What's left, in France, became the guillotine." —Santorum
The comparison of gay marriage to pedophilia and bestiality is what earned Santorum the Google campaign to associate his name with a certain unpleasant substance. The comparison of repealing California's gay marriage ban to the violence of the French Revolution just earned him blank stares of disbelief. On sodomy laws, he's said:
"We have laws in states, like the one at the Supreme Court right now, that has sodomy laws and they were there for a purpose. Because, again, I would argue, they undermine the basic tenets of our society and the family. And if the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything. Does that undermine the fabric of our society? I would argue yes, it does." —Santorum
"The right to privacy is a right that was created in a law that set forth a (ban on) rights to limit individual passions. And I don't agree with that." —Santorum
This man wants to be the leader of the free world, and he doesn't believe you have the right to consensual sex within your own home. Unless you're a 16th-century Puritan, I don't think anything else needs to be said. Finally, on contraception and Don't Ask Don't Tell:
"One of the things I will talk about that no President has talked about before is I think the dangers of contraception in this country, the whole sexual libertine idea. Many in the Christian faith have said, 'Well, that's okay. Contraception's okay.' It's not okay because it's a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be." —Santorum
"I would say any type of sexual activity has absolutely no place in the military. And the fact that they're making a point to include it as a provision within the military that we are going to recognize a group of people and give them a special privilege to—to—and removing "don't ask/don't tell" I think tries to inject social policy into the military. ... I would just say that, going forward, we would—we would reinstitute that policy, if Rick Santorum was president, period." —Santorum
Notice the stammer after he says removing DADT gives gay people a special privilege. It's as though he's sure they must get something he doesn't want them to get, but he's not quite sure what. The word he's looking for is "equality."

On Science
Virtually all the GOP candidates reject established science in some respects, but Santorum goes a bit further than most.
"One of the issues that I always got hammered for was the issue of evolution. I was the guy who actually put words in the No Child Left Behind Act ... I had an amendment, it’s a great story, I had this language, because what’s taught in our school system as a result of liberal academia, is evolution is an incontrovertible fact. ... I obviously don’t feel that way. I think there are a lot of problems with the theory of evolution, and do believe that it is used to promote to a worldview that is anti-theist, that is atheist." —Santorum
The added language he's referring to here is the Santorum Amendment, which advocated "teaching the controversy" and promoted intelligent design in public schools. On environmentalism:
"Speaker Gingrich has supported cap and trade for more than a dozen years. ... Who is he or who's Governor Romney to be able to go after President Obama? I've never supported even the hoax of global warming." —Santorum
"We were put on this Earth as creatures of God to have dominion over the Earth, to use it wisely and steward it wisely, but for our benefit not for the Earth's benefit." —Santorum
The second quote shows that Santorum's opposition to environmentalism stems directly from his religious beliefs. Specifically, he seems to be referring to God's command in Genesis 1 to "fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth." There can hardly be a better demonstration of the harm religion can cause in the realm of politics.

On Christianity
Wait, I spoke too soon. Santorum has also made some terrifying statements about Christianity itself.
"The idea that the Crusades and the fight of Christendom against Islam is somehow an aggression on our part is absolutely anti-historical. And that is what the perception is by the American left who hates Christendom." —Santorum
"This is not a political war at all. This is not a cultural war at all. This is a spiritual war. And the Father of Lies has his sights on what you would think the Father of Lies, Satan, would have his sights on: a good, decent, powerful, influential country, the United States of America." —Santorum
"[America] is given rights under the god, under god, not any god, the God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob, and that God that gave us rights also gave us a responsibility, and laws, by which our civil laws have to comport with. A higher law. God's law." —Santorum
A higher law. God's law.

If there was any sanity left in American politics, those words would be echoing in the heads of every single GOP primary voter. But apparently they aren't. Rick Santorum wants to establish a theocracy, and a frightening proportion of the nation either doesn't know or doesn't care. Some may even welcome it. And while Santorum will never be president of the United States, the public's attitude toward him illustrates just how far we still must progress as a country.

Monday, February 13, 2012

One Nation, Indivisible

Today a Boston news site reported that a family in Acton, Massachusetts, has filed suit against the local school district to get them to remove the phrase "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance. Naturally, the reaction from most believers is extremely negative. The comments section of the article has been overwhelmed by the denizens of r/atheism, but here are a few of the comments from theists:

It's a bit like watching one of those terrible reality TV shows: it's utter drivel, yet its very foulness is what makes it so fascinating. Having read far too much of the comments section, I concluded that the arguments boil down to...
  • "If you don't like it, don't say it." – A totally backwards understanding of how religion is treated in this country. How about we add "hail Satan" to the pledge and see how you like that logic?
  • "The majority wants it." – The majority wants a lot of things. For much of our history the majority wanted slavery legalized. Fortunately, we have a Constitution that defends the rights of the minority.
  • "We've had it for a long time."Appeal to tradition, and a false one at that: "Under God" was added in 1954 in a sensationalized, fearmongering response to the godless Soviets.
  • "This country was founded on Christian principles."Genetic fallacy, and again, a false one at that.
  • "It's a waste of time/money." – Defeating a blatant and widespread violation of church-state separation, removing a phrase that marginalizes a huge segment of the population, and raising awareness that not everyone believes we're "under God" is an extremely worthwhile effort.
  • "You're infringing on our freedom of religion." – Seriously? Wow.
What most of the believers don't seem to realize is that it's not just non-religious atheists who aren't included in the pledge's current incarnation. "Under God" specifies a single sovereign deity. It marginalizes not only nonbelievers, but also many atheistic, pantheistic and polytheistic religions. Buddhists, for example, often don't believe in any sort of supreme being, and many Hindus believe in hundreds of deities without claiming one as supreme.

I did see one comment retorting that he'd never heard any of these religious people speak up to voice their discontent. This argument reveals an startling naiveness: did he ever consider that they might be afraid to speak up precisely because of the responses this issue gets from many monotheists?

Even if we completely ignore the fact that the pledge violates the Constitution and alienates both religious and nonreligious groups, there's another completely separate reason that "under God" should be removed: it's factually inaccurate. America is clearly and objectively not united by a belief in God, no matter how much some theists want it to be. I wonder how believers would feel about issue if they realized that we're essentially lying about being "one nation under God." If God exists, surely he'd rather that we own up to the fact that some of us don't believe. Instead of deceiving ourselves about our collective beliefs out of wishful thinking, we should focus on the values that truly make this country great: liberty and justice for all.

Update: Hemant Mehta over at Friendly Atheist has more details on the lawsuit. The family is using the Massachusetts Constitution's "equal protection" guarantee rather than church-state separation as their legal. According to a lawyer he talked to, this is a good route to take. Incredibly, a Christian group called The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is counter-suing, because apparently the first suit discriminates against theists. Their sense of entitlement is staggering.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Success Story Already?!

I've only had my 30 Questions Project website up since Monday, but just three days later I got an email from the site's contact form. I was half-expecting someone to have written in berating me for criticizing their religion. Here's what I got instead, from a woman I'll call K.W.:
Hello Tim,
While I don't know if you'll even read this, I feel the need to tell you that your 30 questions really helped me. I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian home and though I've been questioning religion since I was 10, I never had the courage to really call myself an atheist. After reading your list of questions, I can't justify trying to cling to the remnants of the faith I was indoctrinated to have since childhood.
I just wanted to say thank you.
Here's my response back to her:
I'm so glad I could help! I've only had the site up for a few days now, and I wasn't expecting to get such positive feedback so quickly. It's really gratifying to know that this project has made a real difference to at least one person.
By the way, if you want to find people to talk with about this, chances are there's an atheist/skeptic organization in your area (Meetup is a good place to look). Either way, thanks so much for taking the time to write.
And her response:
Thank you so much for that. You have no idea how much I appreciate it.
My intention with this project wasn't necessarily for it to have an effect on people right on the spot. Often times the tough questions will percolate in believers' minds for quite a while before they're willing to deal with them. To have gotten someone to question their faith, and made such an impact that they felt the need to tell me about it—all within just a few days of the project's launch—is more than I ever could have hoped for. Even if I don't help a single other person from here on out, I feel my efforts have been worth it just for this.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Introducing: The 30 Questions Project Website

A few weeks ago I announced a project I've been working on: a concise, diverse, potent, accessible list of questions meant to challenge the beliefs of fundamentalist Christians. It started out with 40 questions, but after some feedback suggesting that this would be too daunting a trial for many Christians to undertake, I shortened it to 30 by taking out some questions and merging others together. It was a difficult, sometimes painful task, but I think the end result is stronger for it. So without further ado, here's the official 30 Questions Project website:
I used a neat little website-creator called Weebly to make it, and while the result is a little generic-looking, it's hopefully polished-looking enough to give it an air of professionalism. I would've liked to get a unique URL, but I didn't want to pony up $30–40 a year for a resource that may or may not get long-term usage.

The layout is pretty simple: homepage, questions list, general objections answered, online and book resources, FAQ and an about/contact page. But while the framework is done and a fairly solid draft of the questions are in place, I'm still hungry for feedback of any and all kinds. Specifically:
  • Any typos, unclear wording, etc.?
  • Any place where the tone is wrong—too aggressive, etc.?
  • Any design/aesthetic criticism of the site?
  • Any questions that seem weak or redundant?
  • Any important topics or powerful questions I've missed?
  • Any important atheism/Christianity resources I should add?
  • Any other major objections that should be answered?
  • Any other questions that should be in the FAQ?
I'm pretty satisfied with how things have gone thus far, but one of the best ways to improve is by gaining outside perspectives. If you have anything to say on the above subjects—or any sort of feedback at all, positive or negative—I want your input!

Monday, February 6, 2012

The World We Would Expect

Our surprising universe.
Christians tend to take it for granted that our universe is itself strong evidence for classical theism. But this belief is deeply misguided, as we can demonstrate with a simple thought experiment. If we start from scratch without any partiality toward the world we actually live in, what sort of world would we expect God to create? If we assume that God is a triune, omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipresent, timeless, eternal, unchanging, loving, just, personal, perfect creator, what can we predict about his creation?

No World At All?
Given God's perfection, we wouldn't really expect him to create a world at all. One wouldn't expect a perfect being to be lacking in any respect, so there would simply be no need to create anything. Theologians actually tend to agree on this point: they're quite insistent that God is completely self-sufficient and has no actual need of his creation.

So their ingenious solution is to point to another of God's attributes: love. Love requires an object, and although the three persons of the Trinity supposedly serve this purpose for one another, apologist Ralph Wagener asserts that God wanted his "abundant love" to "extend...beyond the trinity to others." In response, Horia Plugaru contends that "God was indeed motivated by need in creating the universe" because without fallible beings, God would be unable to maximize his love through the greatest form of loving act: self-sacrifice. This would mean that contra the claims of apologists, God would be in some sense imperfect.

Frankly, I'm not sure whether I buy either Wagener's defense or Plugaru's counter. But for the sake of argument, let's assume that God would create fallible beings and move on from there.

A World Made for Us
So then, what would a world made for us look like? First of all, since Christians believe that both God and humans are essentially spiritual, one would expect the world God creates to be spiritual as well. There's no particular reason to think that God would create a world composed of a fundamentally different kind of "stuff," a collection of physical particles that interact according to some seemingly arbitrary set of laws. A purely spiritual realm would be not only simpler, but also far superior in some aspects: for example, there would be no physical brains to cause irrational decisions and mental illness.

Furthermore, if God values humanity, there's no clear reason for him to create us using a long and inefficient process of galaxy formation and natural selection—in that sense, at least, the young earth creationists have it exactly right. And insofar as a spiritual realm would still have use for concepts like "space," one would also expect a world appropriate for our size—as opposed to the almost inconceivable vastness of the physical realm, most of which is completely beyond our reach or even our observation. It should also be a deeply livable place—as opposed to the one we subsist in, as land animals on a planet covered 70% by water, in a universe filled with dark matter, black holes and the vacuum of space.

Pictured at center right: us.
A World of Love
Since God is assumed to be perfectly good, the world should be completely free of unnecessary evil. We also shouldn't expect any flaws in God's personality, such as vanity, bloodlust or an out-of-control temper. If we're ever deserving of punishment, that punishment should fit the crime: no indiscriminate mass slaughters. And since God is meant to be perfectly just, humans should be treated equally: there's no excuse for divine endorsement of slavery, misogyny, homophobia or one particular favored group of people.

We should expect not only equal treatment, but equal and open access to the divine. There's a common but erroneous idea that if God revealed himself to us, it would somehow rob us of the ability to freely follow him. The obvious counterexample comes from none other than Satan himself, who, despite being quite intimately acquainted with God, supposedly led a third of the angels in rebellion against him. So in the world we would expect, God is easily detectable by all of his creation—and we would know exactly what (if anything) he wants from us.

What would we expect the nature of our relationship with God to be like? Apparently we're the objects of his perfect love, although what that entails isn't totally clear. One thing I would never predict from a perfect, transcendent and loving being, though, is a demand for burnt offerings and worship. Those practices lie squarely in the domain of the weak, petty, self-absorbed tribal gods created by ancient, barbaric societies. Would God expect us to reciprocate his love? Perhaps, but to punish us if we don't seems to miss the point of "perfect love" entirely.

God's sense of justice might well lead him to reward and punish us, but these judgments would have nothing to do with belief or requited love. There's also no reason to expect that God would use perfection as the standard by which he judges us. It would be much more reasonable for him to judge us based on whether our actions tend to help or harm others—within the scope of our limited abilities. Again, the punishment should fit the crime, and we wouldn't expect even the most evil crimes to be worthy of endless suffering. Nor is there a particular need for a system of discrete lives and afterlives: one continuous, ongoing phase of life should suffice. And even if we assume that our lives are eternal by default, we shouldn't assume that eternal life is mandatory. If after a few quadrillion years we grow weary of our existence, we'd be well within our rights to self-terminate.

Our Surprising World
Here, then, is what we can say about the world we might predict given only the traits of the classical Christian God to work off of. If we even expect such a God to create a world of fallible people at all, we would expect that world to be...
  • Spiritual and not physical
  • Young, with life formed via special creation
  • Of appropriate size and content
  • Free from all unnecessary evil
And we would expect God himself to...
  • Treat everyone equally
  • Make his existence and his expectations of us evident
  • Be free of character flaws
  • Not demand sacrifices, worship or love
  • Give us a single, optional life
  • Reward or punish us based on actions, not belief
  • Reward or punish in proportion with those actions
What a strange and surprising result! As it turns out, our predictions about the world don't correspond to reality, and our predictions about God don't correspond to what we find in the Bible.

How do we explain this massive disconnect between hypothesis and results? Well, it's possible that God has good reasons for not doing all the things we expect him to, reasons that are just too complicated for us to comprehend. But possible is not the same as probable, and the idea that this would be true for every single one of the above points is improbable in the extreme.

Another possibility, one that seems much more likely, is that our predictions were based on false premises. Either God just isn't there, or he isn't the loving, personal omnibeing that Christians claim him to be. When we take a step back and figure out what kind of world we would expect of God, it turns out to be so radically different from the one we live in that it strongly implies he—or at least this version of him—does not exist.