...a blog by Richard Flowers

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Day 2162: Losing My Religion


Mr Mark Vernon used to be a vicar and used to be an atheist (probably not at the same time!) and he has written this article calling for a renewal of agnosticism.

As a militant atheist baby elephant, I feel I have to stamp my fluffy foot firmly on this sort of thing!

He says that too much CERTAINTY in the world is a BAD THING and I completely agree.

Unfortunately, he also talks a whole load of dribble as well.

Too much certainty IS bad, but keeping too open a mind means your brain falls out!

People often accuse my top chum Mr Professor Richard Dawkins of being TOO CERTAIN about being an atheist.

That is because when he says: "Almost certainly there is no god," the gamma radiation makes them glow bright green and swell to enormous size and also to ignore the FIRST TWO WORDS.

Mr Professor Richard is a SCIENTIST. He looks for the evidence and if there WAS any evidence for god then he would look at that too.

Atheism is not an UNTHINKING BELIEF. It is not based on an assumption. It is based on rational examination of the world and drawing logical conclusions. And being willing to overturn those conclusions if new evidence arises.

Mr Vernon talks about God as being "unprovable". This is total flapjack.

There are several things that god could do to prove that he existed: existing would be one of them.

Failing that, an incontrovertible miracle – a genuine suspension of the laws of physics – would help. Or a statement from his PR man, the archangel Gabriel. Preferably on television. (It is not like Gabriel has no reputation for putting in personal appearances.)

Oh, there would be some people would still go out of their way to DISBELIEVE – there are some people who spend their days disbelieving in the moon landings, you can always find someone! – but for most rational atheists, if there was some observable, repeatable phenomenon then they would certainly consider it, weigh it up and agree or disagree depending on how convincing it was.

It is not the lack of evidence for god so much as the COMPLETE lack of ANY evidence WHATSOEVER for god.

If a god – any god – exists and is able to affect the world, then there ought to be some evidence of him, her or it doing so.

e.g Cuddly Cthulhu smites him; Daddy falls over. Evidence.

"Alright," say believers, "look around you: all the world exists is that not evidence enough that god made it?"

Hmmm, well it is evidence that the world ITSELF exists, but it's a bit of a leap to then ascribe that to some mystery designer. Unless you have found Slartibartfast's signature in a Norwegian fjord.

It's all very well saying "god is the creator of the world; the world exists; therefore god exists to create it!" but that is a CIRCULAR SYLLOGISM.

("Proofs" of god are often like that: the very famous ONTOLOGICAL ARGUMENT says: "god is by definition the most perfect being; if he did not exist that would be less perfect than if he did exist; therefore by definition he exists."

I say "god is by definition the most perfect STICKY BUN; if it did not exist that would be less perfect than if it did exist; therefore it exists!"

Poof! I have created the perfect sticky bun out of PURE THOUGHT! And if you believe that, then I have an INFINITE IMPROBABILITY DRIVE I should like to sell you!)

Is there some other explanation for the world that we see around us? Why, yes! The natural processes of physics that cause the world to form, or the natural processes of evolution that mean that life flourishes into all its vast diversity.

"Ahh, but who started life on earth? Or who started the universe itself?"

Well science does not know. Or rather does not know YET.

But squishying your god down to doing just the bits that science cannot explain yet is a bit, well, demeaning for him isn't it? "The god of the gaps": it's not very impressive to be whittled away piece by piece as we learn more and explore further.

"Ah ah!" Cry the believers, "but a god could make it so that his actions were INDISTINGUISHABLE from what would happen without him!"

Well, er, why? And also in that case if the existence of god is EXACTLY THE SAME as non-existence then…

You see, the debate is often presented as: "Is there a god? Yes or No?" as though "Yes" and "No" are equally likely.

Let us try another question: is there a china teapot in orbit around the sun between Mars and Jupiter? (© Bertrand Russell.)

Well, there MIGHT be. Our telescopes can sweep the heavens but a teapot is really a tiny little thing far too small to be spotted. Remember, at the moment there are enormous numbers of huge great asteroids tumbling around out there that we usually don't spot until just before they go whooshing (yes, I KNOW there are no sound effects in space!) past the Earth scaring the bejezus out of the End-of-Days cultists all over the world.

But would you say the existence of the transjovian china teapot as likely as the non existence of same?

Do we spend out days in an AGONY of INDECISION? I cannot disprove the teapot so I will be AG-TEAPOT-IC? No. Most of us would say: "there ain't no teapot and if there is I don't care!"

"You cannot compare a teapot to a god!" say the believers (and if it's said by knife-wielding cultists then I heartily agree with them!)

But this in fact is ALSO part of the problem: people keep making SPECIAL EXEMPTIONS for their god. Rational rules do not apply because their idea of their god is SPECIAL.

(e.g. the COSMOLOGICAL ARGUMENT: "everything that exists has a cause; something must have been the first cause; that must be god". Spot the SPECIAL EXEMPTION there – "god the first cause" does not need to have a cause. Because if he did, then you get an infinite recursion: god a caused by god b caused by god c…)

A god CAN be compared to a teapot because if not then a god is NOT SOMETHING THAT EXISTS.

Oh, you can put the knives down now, I am backing slowly away!

(Note on the Ontological Argument and the Cosmological Argument: these and hundreds of others can be found at "Hundreds of Proofs of God’s Existence (formerly: Over Three Hundred Proofs of God’s Existence)".)

Mr Vernon is also very Christian-centric in his agnosticism. Is he also agnostic about the existence of Zeus? What about Ganesh (the elephant god in Hinduism – I like him!)? Is he agnostic about Ra? Or Thor? Or the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Or Cuddly Cthulhu?

The universe is chock full of gods over which to be in doubt of their existence.

Most people probably do not spend their days troubled over this problem. Most people are in fact completely ATHEIST about either ALL or VERY NEARLY ALL of the gods that people have ever thought of.

He is also very quick to recruit CELEBRITY NAMES to his cause, for example claiming Einstein as an agnostic, together with a quote from the man to "prove" it.

Professor Einstein was ALWAYS name-dropping "god", but he didn't mean some bloke with a robe and beard and a penchant for creating time and space: he meant the universe, or the physical laws that describe its existence.

Here is another quote from the great man: "It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly."

Mr Vernon also asserts that the best sort of science "…is that which answers questions by opening up more questions, and in particular links to questions that are beyond science alone to answer."

More flapdoodle of the first order!

"…beyond science alone to answer," he says. Hmmm, he's not talking about art-history is he? No, he means: "let's call for a theologian!"

Now he's saying that gods only exist in the areas where science cannot answer the questions. This is just the "god of the gaps" again!

The best science answers questions. Full stop.

The best scientists realise that there will always be more questions, that their answers might open up new questions, or might be wrong and need rethinking.

But the best scientists do not believe that there are no unanswerable questions, only ones that haven't been answered yet.

Meanwhile, news about REAL life in the heavens…

1 comment:

HE Elsom said...

Well said. I think Russell's teapot is cisjovian rather than transjovian, though. Unless you're on Saturn of course.