Monday, September 6, 2010

Evidence First, Then Conclusions

Image courtesy of Google Images.

There is a fundamental difference between the religious and scientists, atheists, and rationalists in how they approach examination of the natural world, of the question of the existence of god(s), of virtually every philosophical question. The religious (and the superstitious) tend to have a conclusion (or at least a strong pet theory) about some phenomenon for which they then attempt to find evidence to support that conclusion. Scientists, on the other hand, observe the evidence as objectively as possible with the removal of bias as much as possible, and then slowly draw their conclusions from the observed evidence.

Once when I was traveling some back roads in a remote forested area and trying to find a particular location on the map, I realized I was sort of lost. I couldn’t quite figure out how to match the various markings on the map to my observations around me, but I was sure I was generally in the right location. I kept approaching the map from a slightly different point of view, trying to make it match what I saw around me. Eventually, most of it did fit and started to make sense. I realized that what I saw around me could potentially fit the map. A bend in the road on the map seemed a bit out of place, but maybe the map wasn’t drawn perfectly. Another bend did fit well, and the general shape of the area I was standing in did fit the map, if I ignored small parts of it. I must be in the right spot, I concluded. After driving back down the road, I started to question myself as I looked more carefully at the surroundings. Eventually, I realized that the area I had been looking for was actually 2 or 3 km away from the place I had thought it was. When I found the right location, it fit the map perfectly, there was no need to try to make it fit. I had made a classic mistake: drawing my conclusion (I was in the right spot) and then making the evidence fit (if I overlook a few inaccuracies on the map then it seems to fit).

This mistake is made over and over by the religious and the superstitious. The underlying assumption is that god exists. That overarching conclusion can never be thrown away if you are religious, no matter how much the observed evidence contradicts or fails to support it, or even seems to support it except for a few major issues that you overlook. Just like my experience in the woods with the map, when you draw your conclusion first, you can often find some evidence that seems to support your conclusion. Imagine for a moment that all religion was removed from the world and we were all starting from scratch with the question of whether a god exists or not. Imagine there is no Bible, there are no stories about Jesus, Moses, or Mohammed. Imagine no one has ever heard of Christianity or Islam. Then we all set out to examine the world and gather evidence about the natural world. Do you really think it would lead us to a the god described in the Bible, to Jesus dying to save everyone from their sins, and to a personal relationship with this god? Surely not. When you actually stop and observe the natural world for evidence, as scientists have done and continue to do on a regular basis, what we get is all the explanations we do have: that the earth is billions of years old, that it revolves around the sun, the theory of relativity, gravitational and germ theory, evolution, and so on. All of these things were developed and discovered as the result of observation followed by conclusion. But the concept of god is exactly the opposite. The religious begin with the conclusion that god exists, and go from there to try to support that position.

This is a fundamental difference between most atheists and most religious people. My wish is not to convert others to atheism, but that they start to examine the world rationally and logically and then draw their own conclusions about the truth. Do most religious people share that point of view? How many Christians or Muslims do you know that don’t teach their children to follow their religion, but rather teach their children to think rationally and logically about everything, confident in the knowledge that one day they will find the truth? Think about it. A Christian parent doesn’t say a single word to their child about Christianity, but instead teaches their child to examine the evidence in the world around them because the parent is so confident that their religion is the truth that the child will come to it on their own if they look for the evidence. Have you ever known this to happen? I haven’t. What makes me confident that I am not indoctrinating my own children is that I will never tell them what they should and shouldn’t believe when it comes to religion. Rather, I will simply teach them to examine all things in our world rationally, confident in the knowledge that if they do so they will discover truth.

I submit that all religious beliefs fall into this category of trying to make the observed evidence fit a preconceived conclusion, or a prior belief. This issue is, in my opinion, at the very heart of the reason that religious people so often are negative or even hostile to science and scientists. I have met many Christians who actually claim to believe that scientists are motivated to try to prove that god doesn’t exist and that scientists’ bias of not wanting god to exist causes them to interpret their findings to support that bias. I’ve even met a handful of people who have claimed that all scientists are part of a conspiracy to cover up the evidence and truth of creation. This attitude perfectly reflects this bias I am writing about. The assumption is that scientists must, since they all (or very nearly all) seem to reject the notion of a god, have interpreted the evidence to fit their preconceived notion that there is no god. This is exactly the kind of modus operandi that many religions people take and therefore don’t even notice when they apply it to others. They fail to notice the enormous error in their position. The reality is that the vast majority of scientists do not believe in god because when one examines the world through a scientific point of view, there is simply no evidence to support that belief. (There is a small percentage of scientists who believe in god, but these are typically people who grew up with religion and have simply had a hard time walking away from deep-founded beliefs. The number of bona fide scientists who truly believe in a personal and interfering god is staggeringly small – probably much less than 1%).

Some more open-minded religious people try to meld together their belief in god with their observations of the world around them. Some accept that the Bible cannot be literally true, that much of it must be allegory or should be interpreted figuratively. Perhaps, some claim, we need to simply focus on the message of love and forgiveness that is the dominant theme in the Bible, and that when we do so we find god. I’ve have conversations with well-meaning Christians who are genuinely nice and caring people who are trying their best to make the world a better place, and to treat their fellow humans with respect and love. A common theme amongst these more tolerable brand of Christians is the notion that we must all respect each others’ points of view and not assume that we have all the answers. Setting aside for a moment the fact that most of the Bible has nothing to do with love and forgiveness, this attitude still ignores the issue of evidence. Why should we take this attitude seriously for even a moment? Would you take seriously someone whose position was that we simply don’t know (we can’t know in fact) whether fairies exist, and we shouldn’t claim to know everything. Certainly we should not claim to know everything (most scientists that I know make no such claim), but let’s also be realistic about what we do know. We know, without almost any doubt, that fairies do not exist. We can carry on with our lives secure in that knowledge. We also know, without almost any doubt, that gods do not exist. We should therefore carry on with our lives secure in that knowledge. I try to treat every human with respect and allow them their beliefs. But understand that I respect someone who claims we simply don’t know whether god exists or not in exactly the same way as I respect someone who claims we simply don’t know whether fairies exist or not. That is to say, I respect them as fellow humans, I respect their right to believe whatever they want, but I don’t take them seriously for a moment.

Evidence. For every truth there will be evidence. It may sometimes be hard to find, but the evidence will be there. If god were a truth, then there would be some evidence for him considering men and women have been looking for it for thousands of years. There is none. Claims of personal experience and Bible stories are not evidence any more than the Brothers Grimm writings are evidence that Cinderella is true.

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