Sunday, November 20, 2011

IDHEF - Introduction

This is part of my breakdown of the book "I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist." Related posts can be found by clicking here.

An update was made to this post on Nov. 23, 2011 around 4:02 PM CST.

   The introduction starts off with Frank writing about his experience in a secular class teaching about the Old Testament. We actually get some good factual information related to Judaism, which I feel is worth repeating. (Also see the suplemental material.)
...[The professor] immediately affirmed the theory that Moses did not write the first five books of the Bible, and that many of the Bible's supposed prophetic passages were written after the fact. He also suggested that the Jews originally believed in many gods (polytheism), but that one God ultimately won the day because the final editors of the Old Testament were "religious-fanatic monotheists."
   However we soon find a naive Frank have a bit of a breakdown when his expectations are not met after his professor tells young Frank that he does not know if a god exists.
I was stunned. I felt like scolding him by saying, "Wait a minute, you're teaching that the Old Testament is false, and you don't know whether there's a God or not? The Old Testament could be true if God actually exists!" But since final grades were not in, I thought better of it. Instead, I simply walked out, frustrated with the entire semester. I could have respected a qualified "yes" or "no" with some reasons given, but not "I don't know"--I could get that from an uninformed man on the street. I expected a lot more from a university religious professor. (p18-19)
   (Emphasis mine.) There is so much wrong with just this one paragraph, it is hard to know where to start. Perhaps the best place to start is to point out that young Frank could have gotten a "yes" or "no" with some reasons given from an uninformed man on the street, too. Would he have used this excuse to dismiss the professor's answer if it had been a "yes" or "no"? Probably not, so he's just making up a poor justification for his rejection of the professor's answer. Second, perhaps young Frank would have gotten a more detailed answer if he had scolded the professor. Instead, he walks away and chooses instead to chastise this professor behind his back. Third, what is wrong with the "I don't know" answer? Ask an astrophysicist what dark matter is or what dark energy is or if a neutrino can travel faster than light, and you should generally get "I don't know" answers because no one does know! (Yes, I realize those first two are not yes/no questions, but play along!) Dark matter and dark energy are place holder names for things observed about the universe, but don't have a full explanation. Neutrinos probably do not travel faster than light, but there is, presently, a lot of uncertainty surrounding this question. Fourth, Frank reveals confusion on the difference between possibility and probability. For example, it is possible for someone to win the Powerball grand prize (or jackpot) twice in a row. But the probability is about 1 in 38 quadrillion. It is so improbable that, if it did happen, it would be more likely that cheating was somehow involved. Young Frank, in determining possibility, apparently failed to address probability and thus failed to realize that the probability that the Old Testament is a myth heavily outweighs the probability it was inspired by a god or gods. Finally, Frank goes on in the following paragraph to blame this on the university system instead of his own shoddy reasoning.

RELIGION AND THE BOX TOP

   The authors then go on to talk about the "box top." There are parts in here with which I agree and others with which I disagree. I have some problems early on in regards to what they consider to be the "five most consequential questions in life" (p20).
...If God exits, then there's ultimate meaning and purpose to your life. If there's a real purpose to your life, then there's a real right and wrong way to live it...On the other hand, if there is no God, then your life ultimately means nothing. Since there is no enduring purpose to life, there's no right or wrong way to live it. And it doesn't matter how you live or what you believe--your destiny is dust. (p20)
   While this is not exactly a false dichotomy, it is deceptive. While it is true that I find my life has no ultimate meaning, this does not mean it is void of any meaning. I am quite sure, for example, that my life has meaning and purpose to my parents who brought me into this world. But, yes, this is not ultimate meaning nor purpose because these will pass away when my parents do. So what? I must say, this is one area that saddens me when it comes to many religious people; they are so determined to believe that their lives have some "ultimate" meaning that they overlook what tangible meaning they can be sure exists. And they miss the fact that they can create their own meaning and purpose in life. Sure, that meaning and purpose isn't going to be the same as the next guy's. Again, so what? It seems these people are looking for a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach to life because they are (or at least think they are) incapable of figuring things out for themselves. It is just sad.

   Shortly after this, the authors talk about the parable of the six blind men and the elephant. It seems the authors are not impressed by this parable. Well, neither am I. I would add, though, that, as pointed out by Mike Gillis of Ask an Atheist, a problem with the parable is that all the six blind men are ultimately wrong! Each blind man has reached the wrong conclusion about the part of the elephant they are feeling and thus none of them have a piece of the truth.

   I don't have a lot more to add to this "box top" section other than I found it interesting that they brought up the problem of evil, though I don't think they ever go about thoroughly addressing this except in the appendices. I also find their remarks on science interesting...and puzzling.
That is, only science deals in matters of fact, while religion stays merely in the realm of faith. So there's no sense trying to muster evidence or facts to support religion...
Now, in the context of the statement, the authors disagree with such statements. But who suggests things like this? Now, if religion has facts to support it, then those automatically put it in the realm of science. (The authors seem to recognize this later on page 24.) The only thing I have to say is that science generally starts with facts to draw a conclusion, whereas religion starts with a conclusion and then looks for supporting facts, as I have discussed before. Finally, they get back to the "I don't know" issue. I have no issue with not being content with such answers, but then go out and try to find the answer; don't criticize people for giving you their honest answer. And, more importantly, don't go making up answers, either! (In other words, don't assume "God did it" because you have no other answer; that's an argument from ignorance and is dishonest.)

FAITH AND RELIGION

   If you're going to write a book that includes the word "atheist" in the title, I'd hope the author(s) would at least learn what an atheist is. Apparently, that would be too much for these authors to do.
...[A]ll religious worldviews--including atheism--make truth claims... (p23)
No, no, no, NO! Atheism is not a religion; it makes no truth claims. It is simply a rejection of all god claims (especially those known to the atheist in question). Any claims that a person who happens to be an atheist make are independent of their atheism. Sure, many atheists accept scientific theories like evolution, but this is not a requirement of atheism. I suspect the authors won't like this, but, I will stress this again, having an "I don't know" answer is perfectly acceptable in replace of theistic answers. No positive claims are necessary. (There are going to be other places here and there where the authors make this same error--after all, the book title itself is built on this false premise--but I am not going to be calling it out every time, and when I do, I'll likely keep it short.)

   Next, we get a whopper of a false dichotomy:
...Christians claim that Jesus rose from the dead, while Muslims say that Jesus never even died. Again, one of these views is right and the other is wrong... (p24)
WRONG! We have a problem here in that each of these claims address separate issues. The Christian claim mentioned is not addressing the death of Jesus as the Muslim claim does; it is addressing the resurrection. So, there are actually four possibilities here. One is that Jesus didn't die and was resurrected, which can immediately be dismissed as death is a prerequisite of resurrection. The other possibility is that Jesus died and stayed dead. Not to mention that the Muslims make other claims about Jesus, particularly that he was an actual person. This is important because it could be that "Jesus never even died" because he never lived!

THE PROBLEMS WITH CHRISTIANITY

   I find some of the problems they list with Christianity to be intriguing. For starters, listing "hell" as an emotional problem is interesting. Where hell becomes a problem for Christians seems to be more a combination of intellectual and emotional objections. For one example, those who are not convinced a hell exists for intellectual reasons then object to the emotional trauma that comes with it. As another example, there is the theological problem, which is intellectual, of sending those to hell who have never heard of Jesus to accept him. (The problem is escalated for emotional reasons, though.) However, from a purely emotional perspective, hell is a major selling point for Christians as it intimidates people into disregarding their intellect and accepting the doctrine. My wife has personally witnessed someone convert to Christianity over their emotional struggle with a cancerous brain tumor. I highly suspect this individual converted out of fear of going to hell if they died from said cancer. In short, hell is not the emotional problem for Christianity that the authors claim.

   Secondly, I have objections to the idea that there are even volitional reasons to reject Christianity. They claim "most of us don't want to answer to anyone" (p24). But is this really true? As I've already discussed in regards to purpose and meaning, I've had the feeling that many religious people want the tough answers given to them instead of figuring them out on their own. But one can look at the history of mankind. Where and when has there ever been a society that didn't have some sort of leadership hierarchy? Now, undoubtedly, there are people who do not want to answer to anyone, as well as people who only want to answer to other people as equals, and this may be a problem for such people. For the most part, though, I do not see this as that big of an issue.

THE FAITH OF AN ATHEIST

   Briefly, I'll point out that they are committing the error that atheism makes claims. As atheism does not, there is nothing that needs "information to support" (p25). Otherwise, I agree with them on the following statement:
"...So there has to come a point where you realize you have enough information to come to a conclusion, even if unanswered questions remain." (p25)
Where I object, however, is when they imply that the rest has to somehow be filled in with faith. So this brings me to finally address the muddled meaning of this word. There are two common definitions of the word:
  1. Confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.
  2. Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.
First, I feel it important to point out that the first definition is a confidence based on material evidence. For example, if you have a friend who often shows up late to parties, you are not going to have faith that they will show up on time for the next party. You will, however, have faith that they will show up late. Now, it is the second example that is typically applied to religious belief. This sort of seems to be the definition the authors are actually using, except they have changed it to be a seemingly quantitative thing as opposed to the typical true/false value, meaning you either have faith or you do not. Their quantitative definition seems to be based on the concept that the more evidence you have, the less faith you need. (In fact, they confirm this on page 26.) It is disappointing that they are using this word in a way that does not correctly fit dictionary definitions, but as long as we all understand what it means and as long as the authors are consistent in their meaning, we can move forward in the discussion. (But note, if there is any place in the book where the authors compare their definition of faith to the colloquial definition of faith, they will most likely be performing an equivocation fallacy.)

   Interestingly enough, the authors go on to criticize Carl Sagan for making an assertive claim about the cosmos. What happened to the guys, particularly Frank, who didn't like the "I don't know" answers? Furthermore, a few paragraphs before this, Frank defends his friend Steve for not having answers to the objections Barry posed because "it's virtually impossible to know everything about a particular topic" (p25). I agree with their points about Sagan, but can they please stay consistent?!? Additionally, they now bring in the concept of probability. Where was this when they were discussing the university professor? It seems like they have set up a lose-lose situation. Saying "I don't know" is unacceptable (unless you are a Christian, it seems), but saying you do know is making a "statement of faith" (p26).

   Next, they go over three examples of things that will be covered later in the book. For this reason, I will only briefly cover some of the misconceptions.
  1. "Nothing" does not mean what people typically think it means. While I don't completely understand all the physics behind it, my understanding is it essentially is a reference to "empty" space, which really is never empty as virtual particles pop in and out of existence in empty space."
  2. No atheist I know believes that "nonintelligent natural forces" can create the life forms they cite! They are basing this on present day lifeforms. Based on the concepts of evolution, the earliest life forms would not be nearly as complex as today's.
  3. The problem here is that a number of these claims are not based on evidence themselves, such as the idea that the "eyewitnesses endured persecution and death" (p27). Nevermind that early Christians didn't have the evidence for point 1, yet still went about believing.
   After this, things get really bizarre. It has been bad enough that they have claimed that atheism makes truth claims, but now they are saying the same thing about skepticism! Skepticism is primarily a methodology. Are they saying that people have faith in the methodology? If so, this is a strange and inadequate way to make such a point. Skipping ahead to the next section and to page 29 reveals the confusion. There they imply that complete skepticism is not believing in truth. This seems to refer to philosophical skepticism. It would have been good if they would have been more clear on this for the sake of their readers.

DISCOVERING THE BOX TOP

   The first part of this section mostly discusses what is to come in the book. There is not much for me to say here. Where I start to have the largest objections is when these authors suggest that many non-Christians just don't want to believe. While I understand their point that "[t]here's a difference between proving a proposition and accepting a proposition" (p30), I don't think these "volitional" issues are, as I have already discussed, as big of an issue as these authors claim. I also find their statement that "Christianity is free, but it can cost you your life" (p30) to be contradictory. I know we haven't gotten to Chapter 2 yet, but there the authors discuss the idea that something is either true or it is not true and it can't be both. (Actually, this is the second point in the progression listed on page 28.) So, Christianity is either free or it is not free; it can't be both.

   Assuming that Christianity is not free, this is still a poor argument. I'm typically not one to do this, but I must invoke Pascal's Wager. The wager essentially goes like this:
  1. God either exists or God does not exist.
  2. If God does not exist, it does not matter whether or not you believe in Him; the end result is the same.
  3. If God does exist, it does matter whether or not you believe in Him. If you believe, you will be rewarded with eternity in heaven; if not, an eternity in hell awaits.
  4. A rational person will conclude that it is better/safer to believe in God than it is to not.
Pascal's Wager is flawed in that it automatically assumes that "God" will be the god of Christianity, but regardless of this flaw, Pascal makes an important point in that if Christianity is true, one had better believe it! It makes a rational person realize that this life is negligible on a scale of eternity! Whatever "cost" being a Christian might have would be well worth it!

   Otherwise, the major reasons atheists cite for not wanting the Christian god to be real is because that god is portrayed as an evil god. It is not a loving god like many Christians convince themselves it is. However, this would not necessarily prevent an atheist from believing in this god if they had adequate evidence.

   On that, the authors ask the following:
If someone could provide reasonable answers to the most significant questions and objections you have about Christianity--reasonable to the point that Christianity seems true beyond a reasonable doubt--would you then become a Christian? (p30-31)
Well, I highly doubt one person could answer my most significant questions, etc, beyond a reasonable doubt, but, for the sake of argument, let's assume they could. Then, the answer is "Yes!"

   Then things get bizarre...again.
This freedom to make choices--even the freedom to reject truth--is what makes us moral creatures... (p31)
What??? How so? It's a bit unclear to me what they are trying to say. I wonder if they aren't playing off this idea I often hear from apologists that if we didn't have freedom to make choices, we'd be like mindless robots and, therefore, couldn't be considered moral nor amoral because we would be incapable of making our own decisions. If so, this seems an odd place to inject such an argument.

   Then we get the conman speak:
...God has provided enough evidence in this life to convince anyone willing to believe, yet he has also left some ambiguity so as not to compel the unwilling... (p31)
How convenient? I say this is conman speak because this would be much like how a conman would operate: Give the victim just enough evidence to believe you, but not too much that you reveal your hand/con. More importantly, what about the humans who just live their lives by a high standard of evidence? Or has this god supposedly left enough behind even for those people? It doesn't seem so, based on the percentage of top scientists who don't believe, which was about 93% as of 13 years ago. Are these authors going to try to tell me that all those scientists just don't want to believe??? These are people who dedicate their lives to following the evidence, and they're going to tell me these people just don't want to believe??? I'm starting to beat a dead horse here, but keep this in mind as this will be important when we go through Chapters 3-6.

   That's the end of the introduction. Next up will be Chapter 1, where we will find out if we can handle the truth.



UPDATE: I have remembered a few points near the end of the Introduction that I missed. First, on page 31, the authors talk about how their god concept "puts us in an environment that is filled with evidence of his existence, but without his direct presence--a presence so powerful that it could overwhelm our freedom and thus negate our ability to reject him" (p31). There are two problems here: 1. Jesus Christ! I thought they held Jesus to be divine, and part of the Godhead. Wouldn't his presence on earth be...I don't know...direct??? And wouldn't this have then overwhelmed the freedom of those living during that time? Then why was it OK for this god to overwhelm freedom then, but not now? Or does the whole Godhead have to be present? Even if this is the case, there appears to be a problem in Matthew 3:16-17.
16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
So, it seems we have the Father lending his voice, the Holy Spirit as the dove, and Jesus...all in the same location. Speaking of which... 2. The Holy Spirit. If we don't need the whole Godhead, then supposedly the Holy Spirit is always present. Moreover, I often hear this god described as omnipresent, meaning it's everywhere! It just seems like the majority supported Christian theology and the authors' are in conflict. So whatever god concept the authors are talking about here is not the typical Christian god concept.

   The second thing is in the summary, which I completely skipped over initially writing this, thinking there would be nothing of importance. First thing here is the idea that humans tend to try to adjust the truth to fit our desires instead of adjusting our desires to fit the truth. For the most part, I agree. This will be important in Chapter 1, so there is no need to go into detail now. As for what I found most interesting, however, is this idea of being "empty-minded". Frankly, I Googled this term, and there really wasn't much available for any sort of definition. (Note that the authors failed to provide a definition of their own.) I think the Urban Dictionary definition should work pretty well, though.
The opposite of closed minded. Taking in any new information as the truth, without any objective analysis whatsoever.

Contrary to popular belief, this is not open mindedness. Open mindedness is finding a balance between closed mindedness and empty mindedness, allowing information in, but having a filter. Many people blame others for closed mindedness, claiming that they are open minded, when they are really only empty minded.

Here's a graphical representation for those of you that are verbally challenged:
Closed Minded----Open Minded----Empty Minded

Open minded, the balance of closed minded and empty minded, is the optimal thing to get. But, like I said, it is not achieved by just being empty minded; one must find a balance, not an extreme.
Seems reasonable to me, as I have certainly heard open-mindedness described as having a filter. I bring this all up because the authors don't seem to know what they are talking about.
...For example, what should we do when we see evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that George Washington was the first president of the United States? Should we remain "open-minded" as to who the president was? No, that would be empty-minded. Some questions are closed... (p32)
But if the question is closed, wouldn't that make you closed-minded? Of course it would, and, on that, one should always stay open-minded on every issue. I'm not suggesting that people go out looking for evidence to show that Washington wasn't the first president; some questions have more certain answers than others and they should be treated appropriately based on that certainty.



UPDATE 2 (Added Dec 21, 2011): I just remembered another point that is often brought up when people make claims like the authors of this book did when they said that their god concept "puts us in an environment that is filled with evidence of his existence, but without his direct presence--a presence so powerful that it could overwhelm our freedom and thus negate our ability to reject him" (p31). The argument I often here is that the Christian character of Satan was able to reject his god. Now, a counter-argument could be that we are merely humans, whereas Satan is more powerful than us. More importantly, though, is that the authors are just asserting that their god's direct presence would overwhelm us without any real evidence to back it up. And as I pointed out in the first update is that the stories in the Bible actually show the opposite. I didn't even mention then about how the apostles, most notably Peter, deny Jesus in the stories. Nor did I mention Paul; what about how his freedom was disrupted? Nor did I get into the Old Testament and the stories there in which the god of the Bible quite often has a direct presence with various characters.



UPDATE 3 (Added Dec 28, 2011): Continuing along the theme of a world without God's direct presence, a blog I read recently had a post on what the author calls "The Undeniable Fact." The topic is about how God does not show up in the real world and the consequences of that. In a follow-up post, the author even mentions the argument used in IDHEF (only he references C.S. Lewis instead, but that's probably where the authors of IDHEF got their idea from anyway). The blog author also points out the problems that the Gospel tells a different story, just like I did in my first update! (Yes, I'm tooting my own horn about how I figured this out on my own!) Comments on that post led to another follow-up showing a believer failing to deny the undeniable. As I have already made some similar points above, I won't go into any more detail on these posts. I will just suggest reading these as supplementary material.



Supplemental Material:

Video on the history of the God of Israel (my understanding is this video is inspired by Karen Armstrong's A History of God, which should also be considered as supplemental material):

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