Stephen Law’s "Sleight of Hand With Faith" blog

See Sleight of Hand With Faith

Another good blog from Stephen Law. One of the pleasures of his blog is the level of interaction he permits. Some good stuff and good responses. I don’t entirely agree with his points of view on some aspects – particularly the use of the ‘problem of evil’. It’s quite a long post, so my comments here are a bit lengthy too. I’ve stuck pretty much to Stephen’s headings.

Reasonable belief
The tree, Japan, 1066 examples are particularly useful, in that they show there are varying degrees of reasonableness to believe something. The whole of Christian, Jewish and Islamic religious faith is based on ancient scriptures, but these old documents should be considered less reliable than more recent beliefs, such as the existence of a visible tree, the existence of Japan, and the historic records of 1066. And even if we accept that some original ancient document is genuine, there’s no reason to give the same weight to its content as to the authenticity of the document itself.

Getting back to the ‘faith’ position, it’s possible that some atheists believe god doesn’t exist from a ‘faith’ position – they have the same degree and quality of faith that the ‘stong faith’ theist has, the atheist just believes the opposite.

But this isn’t the ‘science based atheism’, or ’empirical atheism’, or ‘rational atheism’ that most proponents of atheism argue for. It may be a position that is strongly believed, but it is borne out of reason and evidence, not pure blind faith. See Problem With Faith for more detail on my point of view on this.

And while we’re on the subject of blind faith, I haven’t yet been convinced by those theists who say their faith isn’t blind faith. The argument goes like this:
A: You have no evidence and reason to suppose God exists.
T: No, we don’t need it, we have faith.
A: Ah! Blind faith!
T: No, it’s not blind faith. We believe based on scripture, etc.
A: So, you do need evidence. Let’s examine that evidence…(atheist examines this evidence and concludes it’s very flimsy and lacks any reason)…and so the scriptures aren’t very good evidence and so don’t provide good reason to believe in god.
T: No, we don’t need it, we have faith….

A similar point is made by Stephen, where theists switch meanings of ‘faith’.

Arguments for the existence of God
I think Stephen is here far too generous on the reasons for believing God might exist. The arguments are fatally flawed, but then he says…

“By saying that the arguments are fatally flawed, I mean not that, while the arguments do provide good grounds for believing in God, these grounds fall short of being conclusive. Rather, I mean that these arguments actually provide us with very little, if any, reason to suppose that God exists”

The first five points provide no good reason at all, they are so poor: (i) childishly poor; (ii)delusion – no there aren’t any miracles – show me some; (iv)Jesus – he is qualified and reliable why?; (v)it only appears to be designed, but that doesn’t mean it is.

Only the sixth is reasonable, to the extent that we have no knowledge of why the universe exists at all, and the proposition that there might be a god that created it is one possibility. But then it’s a far cry from that basic proposition to conclude that this god has all the religious baggage attached to him, particularly that he has any interest in us, that he occasionally allows or causes miracles, that he allows or has any interest in what we call evil.

This ‘source of the universe’ proposition could suggest nothing more than some entity, which we might call god, created the universe. One might as well suppose that this god consist of some phenomenon of super-physics, outside our understanding of physics as it applies in our universe. But, again, there is no reason to suppose any of the religious trappings.

The reasonableness of the belief in god is often compared to the reasonableness of the belief in fairies. Pretty convincing to atheists, but apparently not to thesists.

Perhaps another comparison might be more realistic. An entity ‘god’ as a source of the universe is a reasonable proposition. But then so are many other cosmological theories, such as the cyclical universe, the multiverse, and so on. But how do these other theories impact on our daily lives? I don’t worship a multiverse, or expect it to judge me on my death. And all these theories still suffer from the same ‘first cause’ problem. And, we have no reason to suppose any one of them is a more likely candidate than another. This is the level of reasonableness upon which the existence of god should be assessed. It doesn’t provide much ground for religion does it?

The problem of evil
If the theist can conjure up god based on the flimsy reasons already given, then it’s not too difficult to rationalise away evil.

If god is so all knowing and we understand him so little, who are we to dispute his reasons for including evil in his plans. This is where faith comes to the rescue again. If as a theist I believe evil exists, then my faith would tell me to accept that and deal with it. As an atheist, if I can’t successfully refute or give good reason against the existence of god in his religious form, then I won’t be able to refute the existence of evil. Stephen’s final paragraph on evil beginning “It seems that, if the universe does have a creator …” isn’t then so powerful an argument.

Direct religious experience of God
Consider Stephen’s comment, “…an orange on the table in front of me…” and then “I don’t infer that there orange is there on the basis of evidence”.

Of course that’s evidence. What does evidence consist of if not human responses via the senses – isn’t that empiricism in a nutshell? And so one does infer it exists from that evidence. If I told you there was an orange there but you couldn’t see it, you’d certainly ask for evidence that it is there, because the evidence you are receiving through your eyes says it isn’t.

“We also have powerful evidence – in the form of the problem of evil …” No we don’t. This is a circular argument: that god does not exist because of the problem of evil, so revelatory evidence doesn’t exist, therefore god does not exist.

In fact my preferred argument is as follows.
a) – God doesn’t exist because there is no good reason to suppose he does (with the possible exception of some indeterminate god as a consequence of the source of the universe problem).
b) – Without god this leaves evil as a purely human interpretation of events: natural disasters, illnesses, human actions.
c) – Even if you allow for a ‘source of the universe’ god, that’s not sufficient to then propose evil exists.

When a rotting tree in a forest falls and lands on some plants and animals, is that evil? When a rotting tree in a street falls in a storm and kills a driver in a car, is that evil, is the devil at work there, or is god at work? If that driver had recently knocked down and killed a child while drunk driving, is that evil, and is his later death divine retribution? Or is it all coincidence? How may drunk driving killers don’t suffer subsequently? Shit happens, and sometimes we cause it ourselves. Dressing it up, as some theists do, in a separation of [disasters = acts of god], and [human inflicted suffering = evil], doesn’t work for me. There is no good reason to conclude evil, as portrayed by thesists, exists as a phenomenon.

Direct religious experience of God
My response here is the same as to the problem of evil. If the argument for a religious god is strong enough, then revelation can follow. The significant points are that, first, there is no good reason to suppose god exists, since in our universe natural laws of physics apply; and, second, that any other phenomenon such as ‘revelationary experiences’, can also be explained by natural physical laws.

A better approach is to simply say there is no evidence that these revelatory experiences are real. In all human experience, and certainly in scientific matters, there have to be multiple repeatable and falsifiable evidence for an phenomenon to be taken seriously. We cannot prove these experiences didn’t happen. We can only tar them with the same brush as we do the whole religious god hypothesis.

When an atheist asks for evidence and a theist responds that god doesn’t work that way, the correct response is that without evidence it simply isn’t worth pursuing; and with the contrary and substantial evidence that we know that some people suffer psychotic delusions and some people lie, there are far more good reasons not to accept the revelatory experiences as being real.

“How, then, can it be reasonable for someone in possession of both…” A theist could argue god and evil do exist, and if he occasionally reveals himself, who are we to argue with that. They are perfectly consistent once you accept a ‘religous’ god exists.

The theist/atheist belief/disbelief in evil and revelation are consequences of the belief/disbelief in god. An atheist using any one point to support any other is performing the same circular argument as a theist, but for the opposite position.

Attempts to solve the problem of evil
Stephen’s points here don’t improve the argument either way. Basically, as explained above, if you can accept that god exists with very little evidence, then you can use that alone to propose evil, revelation, or any other flimsy reason to support your original supported god hypothesis.

Some of these attributes of a religious god have strong historical and cultural backing. Suppose historically other poorly evidenced phenomena had been supported. Atheists often use the ‘fairies’ comparison to illustrate how ridiculous is a belief in god. But things could have been very different.

Suppose that all the historical and cultural religious junk had backed fairies instead of angels: fairies do exist; they are small tokens of godliness put on earth to help children believe in god. It’s not too difficult to imagine a whole history of fairy belief as part of a god belief system – all supported by scripture. Then atheists would be arguing the ‘problem of fairies’.

To some extent this type of thing has happened. The big three religions differ significantly. A Muslim could argue with a Christian about the ‘problem of Jesus’ – that he wasn’t god but a mere prophet.

As another example, suppose it was discovered in some obscure scripture that the requirement to worship was a test put down by god, and only those who follow his guidance out of free will and without fear and worship were the truly blessed. We would still be left with the real question – does god exist in the first place?

So, it’s one thing to point out how ridiculous are phenomena like evil and revelation, but you can’t use them as arguments for the non-existence of god. If the weird religious god of scripture exists, then so could these phenomena.

Used as independent points of view they can all provide supportive reasons as to why it’s not reasonable to belive any or all of them. But you can’t use them in a deductive chain to conclude god does not exist.

Where the onus lies
I agree that “..the onus is on you to provide some decent arguments …” and that “It’s down there near belief in fairies.”

And that’s all that is required – to show this through reason.

An extreme form of ‘faith’ and A more common sort of ‘faith’

If faith is absolute and doesn’t require reason, that’s fine, but then an atheist doesn’t require reason to not accept belief in god (though it is generally preferred). But that leads simply to a stand-off: “Is!”, “Isn’t!”, “Is!”, “Isn’t!”,…

Now you might say this is nonsense, and of course that’s right. It is a ‘none’-‘sense’ position. It isn’t an argument, because an argument requires reason.

It’s funny that theists of this kind can glorify god’s creation – man, his consciousness, his free-will, his superior intellect above all other beasts, his power of reason; and yet on this one point we are expected to throw all that reasoning capability away. The position is childish, and worthy of derision – as are the church signs posted elsewhere on Stephen’s blog which also promote the abandonment of reason:

Sliding between these two senses of ‘faith’

I agree with this section. Theists use reason, until their arguments are destroyed, when they then revert to ‘faith’. And they don’t always wait until you leave the room. The Dawkins-McGrath debate follows this line:

The arguments behind ‘faith’

“Arguments (v) and (vi) in particular are extremely seductive.” I disagree, as stated earlier, but more specifically:

(iv) – “Jesus tells us that God exists, and we know Jesus to be a reliable source of information. Therefore it’s likely that God exists.”

No. If Jesus existed (I’m not disputing that), and if he said the things he is reported to have said, there is still absolutely no reason to suppose he is a reliable source. In fact, based on current knowledge there’s every reason to suppose he was one or more of the following: deluded, a megalomaniac, a very savvy political motivator.

(v) – “The universe shows signs of having been designed. So God must exist as its designer.”

No. It only appears to be designed. That doesn’t mean it is, and so it is useless as a reason for belief in god. Degrees of reasonableness again.

Having faith in other people

The type of faith discussed here is a mere intuitive assessment of probabilities based on experience. The human mind can perform some amazing feats – that’s why artificial intelligence is such a difficult problem. One thing it can do is assess, apparently instantly, from experience, the likelihood of a particular outcome, which is expressed in this type of ‘faith’.

This type of faith can work quite well. If you have been able to rely on a friend in the past, you could infer it would be reasonable to have ‘faith’ in him/her the next time you need their help. Comrades in arms rely on this type of faith, and it is this faith that makes this type of bond so strong.

However, it can go wrong. As a counter to Stephen’s Beckham example, Beckham has missed a significant penalty when everyone thought he would score. Admittedly there were extenuating circumstances – the turf beneath his standing foot gave way. More incredulously, for those of us who are lucky or careful enough to avoid them, there are plenty of more serious examples: a repeatedly cheated-on spouse thinks that ‘this time’ the offender will change, or a gambler thinks ‘this time’ the long-shot will come in.

In this way I think theists are the inveterate gamblers in belief systems. Despite the complete lack of evidence for the case, and in spite of the very strong evidence against, they still have faith in this long shot – that when they die they will be shown to have backed the winner.

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