Tuesday, July 19, 2011


Anyone who knows me or has read much of my writing knows that I try to put value on evidence. I always have in my daily life, and have always tried to approach life in a rational way. My logical, evidence-based approach to life is probably just part of my personality, and one that does occasionally drive people around me a bit crazy. Humans are emotional beings. We often make snap illogical decisions in life that have profound consequences. I’m no exception, I’m still an emotional person too, but I do think I have a more evidence-based approach to life than most. This is probably the biggest factor in eventually leading me to leave the Christian faith. Sometimes I think people think this means I think I am always right. It doesn’t, of course, though I can understand why I sometimes come across that way. When you try to align your beliefs and opinions with evidence, and then back them up with evidence when challenged, it can appear that you are close minded because you’ve already examined your positions quite carefully. Often, though, I’ll realize that my position on something is not evidence-based and then I must alter my position.

One of the very difficult things to do in life, however, is to really objectively examine evidence without bias. We all have biases, and we are all tempted all the time to try to make our observations of evidence fit our conclusion or opinion about something. On a simple everyday level this happens all the time in the world of sports. Any fan of a sports team will typically make observations fit their held belief that their team is best. This might manifest itself as bias in observations of officiating during a match, or ignoring evidence that doesn’t support a held opinion that a particular favoured athlete is the best at what they do. In the world of sports this probably doesn’t matter so much and does lead to the exciting, passionate, and endless debates about who really is the better team or player. However, in the world of science or religion, this is not a good approach. Making evidence fit a preconceived opinion or belief is disastrous in science as it can easily lead to false interpretation of results or findings. This happens all the time in science, but fortunately the process of modern science is relatively good at catching mistakes. An example is the “finding” some years ago that child vaccinations lead to an increased risk of autism. In 1998 The Lancet, a highly regarded medical journal, published a study that found an increased risk of autism among children exposed to routine vaccinations. It is generally accepted now that this is not the case, and that the lead scientist had allowed his biases to cause a misinterpretation and some bad science. The Lancet has since retracted the publication, but unfortunately this mistake has had major implications in the health of many young children as their parents have foolishly avoided vaccinating their kids against some diseases that are easily preventable. This is an example of some major consequences of a relatively minor bit of evidence-chasing.

In religion too, this sort of thing happens. Sometimes the consequences are even more profound. Sometimes the result of evidence-chasing is that thousands of children are raised to believe something that is not true, and perhaps even worse, to turn into evidence-chasers themselves (think of the common rejection of evolutionary biology in high schools in the U.S., for example). To someone with an education in science, spotting evidence-chasing among things like creationist opinions is relatively easy, but it can crop up as a much more subtle way that might initially appear like authentic rationalism even when it is not. I recently encountered an example of this in an exchange I had with someone on the internet with respect to their writing. In fairness to this person, they will remain anonymous as I have not gained their permission to use their opinions in this example. My example requires a bit of background.

There are a number of websites that act as forums for people who have left Christianity and embraced agnosticism, atheism, or who have simply stopped believing in the god of their upbringing. On one such website recently, a Christian started to make comments. He then reported on his experience on this forum on his own blog in an article that talked about his experiences in an atheist community. I felt that his post on the blog was deliberately intended to be a bit inflammatory and deliberately designed to not give people (“the atheists”) on the webpage the benefit of the doubt. A photograph was attached to the blog, one which showed a large crowd of people (the majority of whom were incidentally non-white; Time magazine’s O.J. Simpson legacy of skin darkening sadly lives on) shouting and holding their hands in the air with thumbs pointed down. I can’t imagine for a moment that the photo is either a group of atheists or a group of former Christians. It is clearly just a group of people protesting something loudly. I think the photograph was attached with the intention of supporting the overall impression that “atheists” (it was not a group of atheists per se that the blog author had engaged with, but a mix of former Christians) are unreasonable, loud people who like can't be reasoned with, much like any large group of protesters. To be fair, there were a number of impolite and unreasonable comments made towards this person on the web page forum, but I felt they were done out of frustration at a persistently dogmatic point of view. Again, the web page is not an atheist website and a number of the people he engaged with were not atheists. This was pointed out to him a number of times by various people making comments on his blog but, as far as I know, he never acknowledged the error or misrepresentation.

The crux of his blog post was five points about atheists that he summarizes from his experience on the (non-atheist) web page. As you can see, some Christians have a real problem distinguishing an atheist from anyone who isn’t a Christian. Briefly then, his five summary points of the views of atheists, where:

1. Christians are idiots.
2. Atheists are morally superior to Christians.
3. God is evil.
4. The Bible is a bunch of bunk.
5. Anyone who would question non-belief is not wanted.

I don’t need to go into the details of his explanations of these five points because they are not really what I want to discuss, though he does attempt to justify them reasonably and back them up through his experiences in the exchanges he had. My point is not to refute or critique his blog posting in general, but rather to establish the background of some serious evidence-chasing at the end.

I wrote a comment expressing my point of view on these five points as follows:

I would agree with points 2 - 4. Points 1 and 5 I would disagree with.

1. Christians are not idiots. An idiot is typically considered to be someone who is mentally deficient. It is further normally intended as a derogatory term, though technically it need not be. To claim that a large group of people are idiots (presumably of lower I.Q.) based on their religious beliefs is inaccurate and likely easy to disprove. I have met many highly intelligent Christians and many atheists of lower than average intelligence. What I would say about Christians, though sweeping generalizations are often inherently unfair, is that they are typically irrational, ignorant (often deliberately so), illogical, and very dogmatic, specifically when it comes to thinking about and discussing their religious beliefs. Unlike idiocy, none of those descriptions are derogatory. They are simply descriptions. But, in my pretty extensive experiences in relating to Christians and in having been one myself, I would state that the most accurate description of Christians is that they are typically not actually interested in discovery and truth, but rather in making any piece of information gathered to fit a preconceived conclusion and world view that they have decided from the outset will never fundamentally change.

2. Yes, with a qualifier. I would say more accurately that atheism is morally superior to Christianity rather than comparing individuals. One need not delve into the darker parts of Yahweh's character and instructions to decipher how horrendously evil his morality is. One need only think of the notion of teaching children about hell without a shred of evidence to support it.

3. Yes, assuming that you are talking about the Biblical god Yahweh. God, of course, doesn't exist as an entity, but the concept of him is horrifically evil, and his entire raison d'etre (within the Bible, not in reality) is to allow people to control other people. That in itself is an evil notion. I can't imagine anyone reading the Bible with an open mind and coming to any other reasonable conclusion. If humans behaved in the way God condoned in the Bible, they would make Hitler look like a normal political leader.

4. Without doubt. The Biblical contradictions with established science are astounding, sometimes amusingly so. The book was clearly written by men who had the knowledge you would expect of the times that it was written. Many events in the book are so physically impossible that they have to be taken as allegory by any rational human. Once you start taking the book as figuratively then you realize that they whole thing can be discarded as fiction. Further, the contradictions within the book itself make it completely unbelievable.

5. Certainly not. Questioning anything and everything is always a good idea. Though, in practice I'm not sure how you question non-belief in a phenomenon. A more logical approach is to question belief. I don't believe in the tooth fairy, but I also don't feel any need to question why I don't believe in her. The question never has reason to enter my consciousness. If someone presented themselves to me as an honest believer in the tooth-fairy and presented some evidence in support, then I would examine the evidence and my position. Same with Christianity and God. But I have yet to see any evidence ever presented in support of the existence of the Biblical God.

Now we finally leave the background and get to the real point of evidence-chasing. In response, the individual in question stated:

Thanks for the comment; it seemed very well-thought-out.  One question for you... in my short amount of time studying these things (I'm trying to start with fundamental scientific questions about God and atheism and the existence of god before I delve into questions about Christianity more deeply), I've run into several strong points of evidence about the existence of a god (not necessarily about the Christian God).  How do you deal with these issues:

1. The laws of nature: that nature obeys laws (and has regularities) is evidence that there is a God.
2. The existence of the cosmos: that there exists any universe at all, and that it is fine-tuned for the existence of life, is evidence that there is a God.
3. The presence of life: that there is life at all is evidence that there is a God.  Scientists Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe calculated in the early 1980s the probability of life forming, and placed the odds at one in 1040,000.
4. Human consciousness: The existence of consciousness in humans is something that science cannot explain.

The first three of those questions were things that Antony Flew cited as reasons he stopped being an atheist, after years of being a prominent atheist, and started believing in a god (deistic).  The last question is just one that I have tacked on, because it's something that troubles me.

These are things that I cannot yet reconcile with an atheistic viewpoint, and I wonder how you've answered them?

As you can see, this is no run-of-the-mill Christian evidence denier that we’re dealing with. This is not someone whose first attempt at debunking atheism is to run to the tired old arguments in support of creationism. Learning to examine the evidence and then form your conclusions is relatively simple when dealing with things like Noah’s flood or talking donkeys, and at first glance you might be tempted to think this individual has genuinely examined the evidence and finds a few major pieces of evidence in support of a god. But, this is nothing more than basic evidence-chasing yet again. My response to these four points:

Perhaps I can assume from your response that you accept that lack of evidence is a valid reason to reject the notion of deities, and your position is that there is evidence and therefore you accept the notion of a god. In response to your four points:

1. I don’t see how the laws of nature are evidence that there is a god. Regularities occur in nature. There is gravity where there is mass. So what? Why does that mean there is a god?

2. We know a lot about the origins of the universe, but we still know precious little about it compared to what remains to be known. Lack of understanding of the origins does not logically provide evidence that the origins were magic (see my comparisons below to phenomena that used to seem like magic to less knowledgeable humans).

3. Hoyle’s numbers are widely rejected by mainstream science. Hoyle also believed that life did not originate on earth but came about by panspermia which is not scientifically supported. But even if you accept that the probability of life forming is slim, life did form. Therefore it must be both physically possible and statistically possible because we do know that it happened. Looking around us and saying that we’re so unlikely to exist that there must be a god who put us here is to go about it backwards. We are here, we know how life evolves given the right conditions, and therefore the probability is, by definition, within the realm of possibility.

4. As with your first point, I fail to see how human consciousness is evidence for a god. I would disagree that science cannot explain it. Neuroscience has a lot to say about the nature of human consciousness, as does evolution. That we have self awareness, prior knowledge of our own death, language, etc., are all within the process of human

Even if you don’t accept my explanations point by point, they can all also be dismissed outright since none of these issues is specific evidence for a god, they are simply problems some people have with the, as yet, partly unexplained. Two analogies to help explain what I mean. Firstly, if we were having this conversation several thousand years ago, similar points you might raise as evidence of a god could be: occasionally the earth moves uncontrollably and randomly; sometimes healthy people suddenly and randomly get sick and die; on some nights huge flashes of light shoot from the sky and destroy things on earth, therefore there must be a god. In other words, I perceive all four points as essentially the same argument: we can’t fully explain certain things yet, therefore there must be a god responsible for these things. Secondly, suppose I was having this conversation with someone who believed we are all living within a computer programme much like the movie The Matrix. They might logically try to use all the same four points in support of their belief. In other words, there is no specificity towards deities in your points. Not to mention narrowing it down to a specific god such as the Christian god.

As you can see from my response, I point out that these four points are nothing more than a modern day exasperation at gaps in our scientific understanding. They are nothing more than a modern day version of the Ancient Greeks' formation of a Poseidon hypothesis resulting from observations of ocean storms. The point about Hoyle in particular is classic evidence-chasing. This individual effectively goes about his search for evidence to support his conclusion (that life could not have happened without the intervention of a deity) by wondering: “There must be a scientist out there somewhere who supports this notion. Ah yes, Hoyle, he’ll do.” Rather than examining all the evidence about the beginnings of life, examining how Hoyle’s theories were received in the scientific community, and realizing that he is clinging to one piece of false evidence in support of a pet theory rather than vice versa. So far the conversation has ended at this point and I’ve had no further response.

So, evidence-chasing comes at all levels of sophistication. It can crop up in conversation between two NBA fans in support of their pet favourite team, it can crop up in the study of vaccinations and health published at the highest levels of science, and it can crop up in a personal discussion involving the same old tired process of trying to find a reason to support your conclusion that god exists.

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