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May 2, 1999: the breath of god smells of sweet sedition


I'm an atheist.

Actually, I feel like that's a biased word. A theist (deist?) believes there's a god. An agnostic isn't sure. An atheist believes there isn't a god. And I believe that such belief is so outrageous as to be unworthy of a name.

I mean, I guess if somebody told me that a cornist believed in unicorns, an agnornist wasn't sure, and an acornist believed there's no such thing as unicorns, I'd say I was an acornist. But I'd feel a little weird at the idea that you even needed a label for it for rational discourse. Having the word cornist around to talk about those nuts upon occasion is fine, but having the opposite word around seems to give some credence to the idea that maybe there is some chance there are such things, and we are just mistaken in our beliefs.

Which is not to say that I mock anyone for believing in god. But I find the belief in god pretty far out there in the scheme of rationality.

Mind you, ten years ago I would have told you I was an agnostic.

It takes time to overcome the programming.

Not that I'm upset about being programmed growing up. There are lot of aspects to my personality--my moral code and such--that seem likely to be attributable to programming, but which I am perfectly comfortable with. Living within these constraints tends to make me happy, and it makes others happy, so why complain?

Let me just give you a picture into my head here. (I don't expect to change anybody's mind, ok?) Let's say, for the sake of simplicity, that there are about twenty different organized religions out there whose theology is incompatible with each other. That means they can't all be right. As the traditional argument would put it, nineteen of them must be wrong.

This is on the surface a little unnerving if you take an unprogrammed individual and say: "It's very important for you to save your immortal soul by joining one of the religions. Oh... but pick the right one." (This can be formalized into what I consider an undeniable argument against "Pascal's Bet".)

It's unnerving enough that some religions have retreated from theological primacy: some argue that even if you don't belong to their religion you may get the "benefits" if you live your life well enough.

But it's all a little suspicious, isn't it? A lot of these religions developed entirely independent from each other. On the surface, it sounds like each religion has about a 5% chance of "getting it right". But, since they developed independently, the chances would actually be independent, and the odds would be good that two of them would get it right--or that none would.

Indeed, guessing 5% is based on assuming that one of them is right. If nineteen out of twenty must be wrong, doesn't it seem a lot more likely that twenty are wrong? (There has been some attempt to say "these N religions with different theologies all worship the same god", which would undermine some of the above discussion, but it's clearly just them back-fitting the problem to the situation; there's no evidence, no reason to think that the apparently different gods they worship are one and the same. I'll touch on something related at the end.)

That just seems like a much more probable universe to live in: one where all twenty are wrong, not one where exactly nineteen out twenty are wrong.

I was raised Catholic, and Catholicism is particularly problematic this way, although I don't know how rigid other religions are in this dimension.

Catholics believe that their sacred writings--the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, are "divinely inspired"--that is, they are the direct word of their god, written down by human hand. To put it differently, their god intended these words to be written down and presented to them.

This requires an impressive array of cosmic influences on human activities. Perhaps the translators of the Bible need not have been divinely inspired to correctly preserve this god's desires, but all of the scores of authors must have been. Moreover, there are other "apocryphal" books which are judged to not have been divinely inspired. Somebody had to go through all the candidate books, and decide which ones were divine texts and which were not. That person needed divine inspiration to guide his hand as well.

Ok, it's goofy, but: if this god really wanted this religion, really wanted these people to believe the right thing, he'd certainly be willing to go to all that effort. "God wouldn't lead us astray." Assuming, of course, that not only does some god exist, but the right god exists.

The problem, at its heart, is that organized religions create a self-consistent theory that is unprovable--and also unfalsifiable.

A rule of thumb for recognizing a conspiracy theory or a conspiracy theorist is that the argument is unfalsifiable. Any evidence offered that disproves the conspiracy is assumed to have been subverted by the conspiracy. Indeed, as new evidence is provided to disprove the theory, the theory often deepens the conspiracy to new levels. (Technically, the conspiracy theorist retreats from his original theory to an even less plausible one, but the theorist views it as "the same" conspiracy with added elements.)

There is little value to debating unfalsifiable theories. You can't disprove them. In the case of conspiracy theories, evidence could come to light to prove them true, unless the other side turns to conspiracy theories to disprove the proof. But religious debate is even further gone--impossible to prove in either direction. (Ignoring things like assertions that the world is flat.)

Since you can't debate them, what can you do? You can judge them on the basis of their implausibility. Conspiracy theorists miss out on the difficulty of suppressing information, on the difficulty of cooperation on a large scale. Religions are mutually incompatible, and that right there is evidence that religions are likely to be wrong.

Another thing to consider with religions is the naturalness with which they can arise without their theology being valid--without there being any such god. Any theory which is naturally comforting to the human psyche, and yet also unfalsifiable, is a theory which is likely to spread. (Some argue that this is the mechanism by which urban legends spread, in fact.)

Little doubt that many religions--especially those that have something to say about what comes after this life--are comforting. (The cynical among us would say designed to be comforting. But perhaps Scientology is the only religion deserving that sort of mockery.)

But what about god?

I've really only argued why I am, let us say, atheistic about organized religions. That doesn't prove anything one way or the other about god. God, some might suggest, can exist totally independent of twenty organized religions failing to be correct.

As an undergraduate, I took an introductory philosophy course, in which we ran through a number of classic philosophy problems and the arguments for and against them.

(The answers in parentheses are my personal beliefs.)

One revealing thing was that these arguments are often interrelated. If we have souls, that impacts the plausible nature of free will.

The other revealing thing is that, despite attempts to offer arguments for these things, philosophy is, in the end, the realm of the unproveable. In the end, indeed, most philosophical arguments seem to end up appealing to some other unproveable thing. If you assume that there is a god, you may be able to "prove" some of these things to a certain degree. If you assume there is an objective reality, you can prove other things.

I personally have a set of consistent answers to all of these, but unlike many people, I think it's safe to say that my answers have been formed by my consideration of probability, not programming. Well, that's not quite true. The foundation of my viewpoint is that there is an objective reality out there that looks a heck of a lot like the one I perceive. This is just a matter of practicality. I could well be wrong, but then my typing this web journal isn't anything like what I think it is... and then what does it really matter what I believe? (Shall we name this "Barrett's Bet"?) Operating from beliefs about the nature of an object reality leads to beliefs about the nature of how humans perceive things, how humans fit into the world... and most of the rest is just the application of Occam's razor. (Rene Descartes, in trying to deal with the above problem of skepticism about the real world, appealed to the existence of God--indeed, a caring God who would never be so cruel as to allow him to misperceive reality. Earlier in the same essay he famously convinced himself he existed without needing to make that appeal.)

I would be remiss in not addressing a few issues that come up in philosophy. One form of belief in god argues for a "watchmaker god"--someone who creates the universe and then sits back and "lets it run", but never tinkers with it again. Another, somewhat strong argument for the existence of god argues that there must have been some initial cause-and-effect, a "prime mover"--and that must have been god.

The latter argument is clearly troubling, though, since it's really "and let us call that thing god." Perhaps there was some incredibly subatomic particle that triggered the big bang. Is that "god"? The problem is that when people talk about belief in god, they're not talking about a prime mover. They're talking about a rational thinking entity--they're ascribing intentions. They're often imaging an anthropomorphized being who cares. And it's those descriptions that I disbelieve in.

I can name my cat "the Lord" and say I believe in him, but that isn't really relevant.

You might notice that an awful lot of paragraphs above end with parenthetical comments. On re-reading, I suspect they're really footnotes. If you have an opinion on suggestions for maximizing the clarity of the discussion--whether it be to switch to hyperlinked footnotes, in-place but <small> text to look more like a footnote, or just leave it as it is, follow that "mail" link.

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attribution dammit: Great Deceiver King Crimson