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    That’s what they told me before/Who knows what they’ll say today?

    This blogger is, like me, an atheist who was brought up in a fundamentalist Christian sect, and she makes several very good points in this post about arguments between believers and principled non-believers (via the Unreligious Right):

    When I believed I did so because I’d been indoctrinated as a child, and then later on as a young adult, because I desperately wanted it to be true. There was no evidence, no proof, no real good logical defense for my belief. I just felt it; I felt such certainty I thought I knew it was true, although if you’d asked me why I’d have been pressed to defend my belief. I probably would’ve have said it was a matter of faith, if forced to have such a conversation at all. I certainly would not have presumed to understand atheism.

    Seriously though, saying “I don’t know, but there’s no real evidence” doesn’t require faith. Saying, “I know there’s a God, and I know what he wants, and he wants me to worship him”? That requires faith. Undoubtedly. Can you see how those are not truly equivalent though? Stating a positive claim (“There is a god”) asserts that something is true. And, as Tracy often says on The Atheist Experience, “Things which exist manifest in reality.” Since there are NO manifestations of a supernatural all-powerful deity in our reality (zip, zero, zilch, nada, nein, none), disbelief seems only rational. It is not the same as asserting the positive claim “There is NO god”. Lack of evidence is not necessarily evidence of lack. But I have to say it seems more likely to me.

    That said, although I blog about it regularly here and on Atheist Nexus, I’m not so invested in my atheism I’d be unwilling to chance my stance. If I was presented with sufficient evidence, I would discontinue my disbelief, and have to accept the existence of whatever deity was proven. (Whether or not I’d worship a god would be entirely dependent on the character, attributes, and actions of said deity.)

    Those aren’t original points on Angie Jackson’s part, of course, but they’re the sorts of things that keep needing to be addressed. I’ve known some Christians who are very consistent about where they draw the line (or at least the grey zone) between the sphere that human beings can know empirically and the realm beyond posited by their faith. But far more frequently, believers push through faith into non-falsifiability. If good things happen to good people, God is blessing them. It’s obviously evidence that God rules the universe. If bad things happen to good people, God is testing them. His plan is beyond our understanding, after all. If good things happen to bad people, well, the wicked spread themselves like green bay trees, but that doesn’t mean they won’t get theirs. His plan is beyond our understanding, after all. If bad things happen to bad people, God is punishing them. It’s obviously evidence that God rules the universe.

    Just to make things even more arbitrary, in my congregation growing up, our pastor would pull up every few months and deliver a sermon reminding us that God doesn’t micromanage everything. Sometimes while He’s letting the world run along, stuff just happens. It’s still part of His plan, but you’re not supposed to draw blockbuster inferences from it.

    So not everything indicates something important about what God’s cooking up. Except when it does. Maybe you got that flat tire because God was trying to keep you from getting to the post office. Or maybe it was Satan afflicting you. Or maybe you just happened to run over a spike and it didn’t “mean” anything. I grew up around people who spent their entire lives mulling things over this way, and most of them did so because they genuinely believed it would help them serve God better. I remember what that was like, and it really was a source of solace in many ways. There was an answer for everything. You did your best, and if things still came out badly, you trusted God to make it right eventually in His own way.

    As Jackson says, the existence of God was such a part of the reality principle that whether there was really, really, really enough evidence to support it tended not to come into the equation. You believed it, you liked believing it, and you wanted to keep believing it. Of course, you studied the Bible, but the approach was less like “Does this square with reality?” than like “Is there an interpretation of reality that makes it possible to keep believing this is a holy book?” Verses that contained good folk wisdom were evidence that the Bible was the word of God; the rest could be explained away as necessary—it’s a metaphor…God’s sense of the passage of time doesn’t match ours…when it was written this was actually socially progressive…when it was written this was the best available interpretation of the natural phenomenon in question…God’s plan is beyond beyond beyond our understanding.

    Eventually, it occurred to me to wonder why, if we were supposed to be so tolerant of ambiguity and paradox, we didn’t go the whole way and just become Buddhists. The Bible started seeming to me like any other book. If, to the best of our human comprehension of the text, it had some wise parts, some dumb parts, some beautiful parts, some execrable parts, some lucid parts, and some obscure parts, then styling it God’s handbook for living and trying to gain understanding of it through close and closed readings might be comforting, but it probably wasn’t very useful. Human society still progressed by experimenting with new ways of doing things and continuing with what proved to work (capitalism, representative democracy, the scientific method). That Christians then circled back to look for ways the Bible could be seen as the underpinnings of what proved to work didn’t change the process of discovery. Our knowledge keeps growing because we keep pushing for more of it, but it remains flawed and provisional.

    I don’t begrudge Christians their faith. We all get at most several decades on Earth to figure out how we believe we should live and then act on it, and that involves figuring out what meaning we think the spiritual part of experience has. No one is entirely rational, and few of us would really want to be. I also have no problem when it’s pointed out that people on all sides of the God question believe things for which they have no proof. What bothers me is when believers want to toggle back and forth between “God’s love and mercy are obvious” and “God’s plan is unknowable” depending on which line happens to help them argue for theism at a given point in the discussion. That simply isn’t the same as an atheist’s arguing that there’s not enough reason to think God exists.

    13 Responses to “That’s what they told me before/Who knows what they’ll say today?”

    1. Susanna says:

      Hey, Sean! You knew this would draw me out, didn’t you? 😀

      As you know, I believe in the God of the Bible, and I’m what you would call a literalist. I am also an at least marginally intelligent person trained in the scientific method. I do not presume to identify what specifically is God working in the world, and what is a matter of the randomness introduced into the world by the freedom of choice God granted humans. As Ecclesiastes says, “Time and chance happens to us all.” However, I do think there is plenty of evidence that an intelligent entity has worked in the world, and by further extrapolation that the entity is the God of the Judeo Christian Bible. But that’s more than I can outline in a blog comment.

      The thing that gets me is this: Atheists say there is no God, yet they cannot explain the most fundamental of questions – how did the universe come into being? – with any kind of scientific certainty. Spare the big bang, etc. One of two things is eternal: (next!)

    2. Sean says:

      Actually, Susanna, I thought about sending you a message on FB asking whether you’d have a response to this post, but somehow I couldn’t get it not to sound as if I were baiting you, which wasn’t my intention. :) You were, of course, one of the people in the “I’ve known some Christians” category. My parents are, too.

      Re. your second paragraph…well, I don’t think Christianity has more evidence. It just has more certitudes. “God did it” is more comforting than “We don’t know that,” I acknowledge. I don’t think that makes it more likely to be an accurate understanding of reality, though.

    3. Janis Gore says:

      I had a good Episcopalian friend who said that the book of Ecclesiastes is atheist, Susanna.

      The problem I see in modern Christianity is The Revelations, where everyone gets to see their enemies go down in blood and fire.

      That dates to King James, and other assorted sects.

    4. Janis Gore says:

      Sorry Mr. Kinsell, The Revelation.

    5. Marzo says:

      >Since there are NO manifestations of a supernatural all-powerful deity in our reality…

      Well, if there is an all-powerful God Who created the Universe, then reality itself is such a manifestation. But if there is not, then it isn’t. And we can’t tell the difference!

      >“God did it” is more comforting than “We don’t know that,” I acknowledge.

      It likely is. But is it really an explanation? I know I can’t explain everything. I don’t know that the Universe (in the sense of “everything that exists”) came into existence. Even if it did, I don’t know that it need more explanation that the existence of God does. I don’t have any experience in creating universes; I don’t know how it works.

      And I don’t know that I have explained myself here…

    6. Mark says:

      Agree with most of this, but re: “No one is entirely rational, and few of us would really want to be.” I’m not sure what you mean by the second part of this. Can you give an example of a case where most people want to dispense with being rational? And do you think this desire is legitimate?

    7. Mark says:

      “Atheists say there is no God, yet they cannot explain the most fundamental of questions.”

      Non sequitur. In primitive societies, were people who didn’t think thunder and lightning were signs of the gods’ wrath arrogant or wrong because they didn’t have an alternate explanation?

    8. Mark says:

      “Atheists say there is no God, yet they cannot explain the most fundamental of questions — how did the universe come into being?”

      This is not a legitimate question, let alone a fundamental one. The universe is the totality of what exists. Any external cause would have to be non-existent.

      Plus, merely going back a step to God gets you nowhere unless you want to be inconsistent and say God requires no cause.

    9. Sean says:

      (Sorry, Mark–I tried to answer your question the other day, Firefox was acting up on me, and then I didn’t remember it hadn’t gone through.)

      Mark:
      “Agree with most of this, but re: ‘No one is entirely rational, and few of us would really want to be.’ I’m not sure what you mean by the second part of this. Can you give an example of a case where most people want to dispense with being rational? And do you think this desire is legitimate?”

      Well, I think the specifics are different for different people, but it’s fair to say that we all indulge in things that reason would tell us not to (smoking, a little too much drinking, falling in love with the wrong man) but get enough non-rational satisfaction out of them that we don’t mind taking the consequences, even though we suffer for them. I’m not talking about serious problems (being a full-blown alkie or having an abusive partner, say); I’m just talking about not being prudent and wise all the time in full knowledge that we’re going to have to take the consequences. And I really think, though I haven’t conducted a study, that most people would balk at the idea of always doing the reasonable thing. We intuit that it would be boring.

      As for how “legitimate” it is…well, it’s part of human nature, in my view. That doesn’t necessarily make it good—a main project of civilization is improving on human nature from its raw, messy natural state. But it does mean that it has to be dealt with. As with so many other parts of life, I think the important thing is how an individual strikes a balance. If you’re the sort of person who’s constantly doing the wrong thing and expecting other people to fix things for you, that’s bad. If every once in a while you decide to do something wild and take the consequences for yourself, I think that’s your business.

    10. Mark says:

      Thanks, Sean. I understand you, but I don’t think the behavior you describe is necessarily irrational. If someone actually weighs the benefits and costs of an action (and is not evading when identifying these), and decides to do a thing because it has a net benefit that he is willing to pay the price for, that’s rational. (And I certainly agree that whatever you do, for whatever reasons, is “your business” — as long as you leave me alone.)

      To bring this back to the real topic of your post: No one says, “I know having faith in God is bad for me, but I choose to indulge in it because it makes me feel better.” That would be too blatant a rationalization, too clearly wrong. Religionists need to maintain the pretense that what they’re doing is good for them. That can only be done by turning off your mind in at least some areas of your life and refusing to admit that that’s what you’re doing.

      To quote a lecture I heard not long ago, “There’s no such thing as ‘faith’. It’s a euphemism for ‘I’m going to blank out and pretend.’”

    11. Sean says:

      Hmmm. But if it makes them happy and gives them reasons to live responsible lives, maybe it is good for them. The idea that the problems we can’t fix will be fixed eventually by a higher power is a major source of solace and inspiration to a lot of people; to them, the benefits of that may outweigh the cost of not ruthlessly testing every belief they hold for empirical verifiability.

      Don’t misunderstand—I’m with you, from what I can gather from your comments: I mean, I’d rather deal with the truth to the extent that I’m capable of wrapping my limited human understanding around it, and if that means there’s no afterlife, well, tough. Deal with reality. If we can’t depend on the fullness of time to punish the evil and reward the good, that gives us more incentive to make society more just so that the best outcomes happen in the here and now. I don’t consider the trade-offs people make for their religious beliefs my business until, as I say, they start playing fast and loose with modes of argumentation.

    12. Janis Gore says:

      My Episcopalian friend also said that the threat of hell and reward of heaven has probably improved society in the long term, by moderating behaviors.

    13. Sean says:

      Janis, I’ve heard that argument advanced, to, and I think there’s something to it; sometimes, though, people try to use it as an argument for believing in God for utilitarian reasons (as opposed to having the actual conviction that God exists in reality), and I find that line of reasoning specious.

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