February 10, 2009

The Earth, the Universe and You

Posted in Atheism, The Universe tagged , , , , , at 6:40 pm by Andrew

3. The Heavens Do Not “Declare The Glory of God.”

This post summarizes the third set of answers to potential objections to my Summary Case for Atheism, in which some Christians argue that God is a necessary explanation for the world (and by extension, the universe) around us. The longer, updated page is permalinked to the right and can be found here. The argument to which these pages respond stems from Psalm 19:1, in which we are told that “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands”).

I contend that the exact opposite is the case — the Heavens declare that the God of the Bible probably doesn’t exist and certainly did not create this universe with humans in mind. Indeed, the world and the universe appear to me to be precisely the kind of world and universe that is utterly indifferent to human life, as opposed to specially created for it.

a) This intuition begins with what philosophers call the Problem of Natural Evil: that large amounts of seemingly pointless suffering abounds around us every day. If there is a God, why would he send (or, in the sanitized language of some Christians, “permit”) a tsunami to kill 250,000 people? Why do thousands of little babies drop dead every year in the U.S. alone for no apparent reason — what we call (but cannot explain) SIDS or crib death?

I don’t mean to suggest that there are no Christian efforts to answer these sorts of questions, just that I personally find those answers unpersuasive. When Christians tell us that we have no right to expect God to “create the world for our comfort,” or that we “deserve natural evils as a punishment for sin,” that doesn’t seem to mesh with day-old babies dying for no reason. Nor does the “free will defense” seem to apply to tsunamis and little babies. Simply put: the world looks indifferent, even hostile, to us.

b) This intuition is strengthened when we look to the world and the Universe around us. Douglas Adams amusingly called this the “Total Perspective Vortex; the idea that if you really understood how insignificant you are in comparison to the universe, the shock would “completely annihilate your brain.”

At the risk of brain annihilation, let us press on. The universe, as Wikipedia helpfully tells us, is 93 billion light-years in diameter and constantly expanding, meaning that virtually all of it is permanently inaccessible to (and even unobservable by) humanity. Scientists currently believe that 96% of the universe is either dark matter or dark energy, meaning that a scant 4% of the universe is even conceptually accessible by us. Of that 4%, virtually all of it is comprised of empty space some two degrees above absolute zero, which is (of course) instantly lethal to living beings. So essentially: the universe is almost entirely off-limits to humanity, and of that which is not off-limits, almost all of that is trying to kill us.

Let’s try this another way. We occupy one planet orbiting our star. It would be difficult to precisely measure the boundaries of what constitutes our solar system, but it includes, at minimum, the orbit of the dwarf planet Eris, which spins out to approximately 100 Astronomical Units (AUs) from the Sun. Each AU is 150 million kilometers, so if we consider the Solar System to be a sphere — I know it isn’t, but bear with me here — with a radius of 100 AU, we get a volume of approximately fourteen million, million, million million (1.4 x 10^26) cubic kilometers, or enough space for more than ten trillion (10,000,000,000,000) Earths. We thus occupy, in rough, back-of-the-envelope terms, one ten-trillionth of our Solar System.

Now, consider that our galaxy contains at least two hundred billion stars and accompanying solar systems (200,000,000,000), all of which are inaccessible to us unless we engage in science-fiction make-believe and postulate some way to travel at or above the speed of light. Our galaxy, in turn is one of more than a hundred billion galaxies (100,000,000,000) in the observable universe, none of which are accessible even with science-fiction make-believe — the closest galaxy to us, Andromeda, is 2.5 million light-years away. With a little quick math, we can see that we occupy just one part in 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (1 x  10 ^-38 ) of the conceptual “real estate” of the universe, not counting the vast empty space between each solar system. So 99.99999999999999999999999999999999999% of the universe is basically off-limits to humans.

It gets worse.

On our infinitesimal speck of the universe, most of our planet is also inaccessible to us. Over 70% of the Earth is covered in salt-water oceans that we cannot stand on, live in, or breathe or drink from. Of the remaining land, half of that is taken up by uninhabitable mountains, glaciers, deserts, or other unlivable terrain. On the tiny slice of land that is habitable, we are subject to the uncontrollable whims of nature, such as the vicious tsunami I describe above.

Keep in mind, too, that we are newcomers on the scene. The Earth is 4.5 billion years old, and for virtually all of that time period, the Earth’s climate has been inhospitable to human life. Meanwhile, the Sun is slowly expanding and growing hotter, such that will no longer even conceptually support life within the next billion to two billion years.

So the argument that God created this world, and this Universe, for us runs against the mountain of evidence to the contrary. At most, we have a few percent of this globe for a tiny fraction of its history, which is in turn an infinitesimal fraction of the universe. On the Christian view, God created the entire universe, allowed it to expand for 10 billion years, then crafted the Earth, then allowed it to run for 4.5 billion years, before poofing human beings into existence a few thousands of years ago, and yet somehow did all of that “for” our benefit. Worse, God poofed us into existence on a planet that is constantly trying to kill us with natural disasters, deadly viruses and bacteria, poisonous insects, and so on and so on.

I could run through the same exercise with the development of life; in fact, I think this intuitive disconnect explains why so many Christians go to such lengths to reject contemporary evolutionary biology. It just doesn’t seem compatible with Christian theology when you realize that the crocodile and the coelocanth have been around 10,000 times longer than we have.

Finally, I do concede, of course, that there are things about the Earth and about the Universe that we can’t explain. But I don’t think these unexplained phenomena are sufficient to give rise to an inference of supernatural causation. Just 500 years ago, we couldn’t explain lightning, or why maggots seemed to form spontaneously on rotting meat, or why the other planets seemed to zigzag across the sky, or why human beings have a coccyx, or countless other everyday phenomena. And 500 years ago, people ascribed those events to God or to gods.

Since then, however, we’ve developed really good explanations for these things, and, by extension, I’m not ready to go with a “god of the gaps” for the remaining things we don’t understand today. I don’t see anything conceptually that *requires* a god for explanation.

The bottom line is that this simply does not look like the kind of world, in the kind of universe, which was created and is watched over by an all-loving God for the benefit of his special creation. I thus conclude that the third line of objections to my general case for atheism does not warrant belief in God as a necessary explanation for the existence of this universe. See also my ongoing, in-depth treatment of this issue.

The Bible?

Posted in Atheism, The Bible tagged , , at 4:00 pm by Andrew

2. The Bible Is Not A Reliable Source of Secondary Evidence For God.

This post summarizes the second set of answers to potential objections to my Summary Case for Atheism, in which some Christians have contended that the Bible provides sufficient secondary evidence for belief in God. My ongoing, in-depth analysis of this issue is hyperlinked to the right and can be found here.

Many Christians argue that although God does not manifest himself to people today, he did at particular times in the past, and that revelation is, in turn, recorded in the Bible. Christians often say things like “the Bible is consistent in theme and congruency [and] fits together into one cohesive story” and the Bible “bears the ring of truth” to it. My argument is that the reverse is actually far more likely: when we read the Bible and look at it objectively, we unmistakably recognize what we’re reading as fiction, as myth, as the product of exclusively human imagination.

a) First, there is no single, agreed-upon, authoritative Bible,; rather, different sects of Christianity consider a wide variety of books to be Biblical “canon.” Thus, we (and I) err when we speak of “the” Bible, singular. In reality, we are talking about various compilations assembled and debated by ordinary people.

Thanks to the works of people like Bart Ehrman, we also know that the books of whatever Bible we do have are changed — often in substantial ways — from earlier texts.

Consider a relatively famous example, Mark 16. Go ahead and click on the link, and you’ll see a funny little notation there: “The most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20.” In other words, historians now believe that everything after Mark 16:8 is a forgery.

Among those are verses 15 through 18, which read:

He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”

That highlighted bit there (verses 17 and 18 ) is where Jesus supposedly promises Christians that they can do all sorts of magic things, including handling snakes and drinking poison. Now, perhaps it’s no big deal for you that this promise from Jesus turned out to be a forgery — but there are literally hundreds of thousands of Pentecostal Holiness Christians who have believed that all of Mark (including the forged, poison-drinking, snake-handling bit) is the divinely-inspired, inerrant word of God for about a century. And, of course, all Christians thought Mark 16:17-18 was genuine until 20th Century textual critics came along.

What do we really know about the New Testament? The Gospels are pseudonymous (that is, Mark did not write Mark, and so forth), and even conservative Biblical literalists believe that Matthew and Luke were partially copied from the lost Q document. And thanks to some contemporary works of fiction, many Christians now realize that the New Testament canon was not assembled until more than three centuries after Jesus’s supposed death.

Think about that for a minute. When Athanasius was declaring various NT books to be “canonical,” he bore the same relationship to the events described therein as you and I do to, say, the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679. If there were 200 books about that Act, would you feel qualified to decide which ones were fact and which ones were fiction? I sure wouldn’t.

What you have on your bookshelf labeled “the Bible” is the product of debate and vote over three and a half centuries — some of which continues to this very day.

b) Second, when we turn to the text of whatever Bible we’re using, we find the unmistakable hallmarks of legend and myth. Consider Genesis 3, the well-known story of the Fall of Man, in which Adam and Eve are tempted by the serpent in the Garden of Eden into eating the forbidden fruit, with predictable results.

This passage, on face, appears to be a series of “just so” stories: it is the tale of how snakes came to crawl on the ground without legs (what the Bible colorfully calls ‘eating dust’); why childbirth is painful; and how come men have to do all the hard work. Don’t these passages seem exactly the same as “How The Zebra Got Its Stripes?” and the like?

And the Bible is literally full of “just so” stories like this. Genesis 9:13 purports to explain how the rainbow came to be — are we really to believe that light did not refract prior to Noah’s flood? Similarly, Genesis 11 (the well-known Tower of Babel story) purports to tell us how come so many people speak different languages. How is any of this any different than, for example, the story of Prometheus bringing fire to mankind?

In general, when you see talking snakes and donkeys (Num. 22:21-30), people living for hundreds of years (Gen. 5), stars somehow falling to the earth (Matt. 24:29) (or, alternatively, fighting in battles alongside humans! (Judges 5:20)), you know you’re reading fiction. When Matthew 27:51-54 tells us that a horde of zombies went on a rampage throughout downtown Jerusalem after Jesus’s death, we should probably recognize that as a legend. We know that people don’t generally take up residence inside fish (even “great” ones!), and we’re a little bit suspicious that eight people could gather together and cram all those animals on a big wooden boat. And so on.

To be clear: my argument is not that it is impossible for there to have been zombies, big boats full of animals, people living inside fish, talking snakes, virgin mommies, or any of that stuff. Anything’s possible, I guess. My argument is only that those sorts of things, coupled with the “just so” morality tales we see in the Bible, give off the unmistakable whiff of myth.

c) Third, whatever Bible you’re using garbles what we know of actual history, placing it squarely in the realm of what we call today “historical fiction.” Here, I think a comparison to Homer’s Illiad is helpful. The archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann actually found the remains of Homer’s Troy, validating many of the names, places, and events in the Iliad. Although this discovery changed the way we viewed the Iliad as literature, it did not stop us from viewing it as literature. In other words, the fact that the Iliad correctly records that there was a city called Troy that was attacked by Greeks, it does not follow therefrom that the Greeks actually smuggled in a big wooden horse, or that the various gods fought alongside the Greeks and Trojans, or even that the Greeks dragged Hector’s body through the streets heaping abuse upon it.

Similarly, although some of the events in both the Old and New Testaments are recorded in history, the Biblical writers make a hash of it. Historians generally believe that there was no exodus of Jewish slaves out of Egypt as described in the Bible, or in fact, any of the subsequent conquest events described in Exodus. We know that Asa could not possibly have mustered an army of 580,000 Israelites and then used that army to slaughter a million Cushites (as described in 2 Chronicles 14); Bronze Age goatherders and desert warriors could not plausibly have maintained lines of supply for armies that big. (By contrast, for example, the Athenian invasion of Sicily — occurring nearly a thousand years later — was less than 1% of the size of the fantastic numbers frequently claimed in the Bible!) For this and other reasons, it is not surprising that none of these hundred-thousand-person battles attested to in the Bible are corroborated by any other source.

Similarly, although the historian Josephus chronicles the life and reign of Herod the Great in agonizing detail, he somehow never sees fit to mention the supposed slaughter of the innocents ordered by Herod described in Matthew 2:16-18. Is it more reasonable to believe that Josephus simply forgot to describe what would have been one of the worst atrocities in history — or that the passage in Matthew is a reworking of (and allegory to) Pharoah’s slaughter of the Jewish innocents described in Exodus 1:22-2:1?

In other words: when we review a Bible, we see that the historical events described therein are best categorized today as “historical fiction” — that is, real events embellished for literary and other reasons, and fictional events that are told in a historical setting but with garbled details, persons, and so forth. This is also true of the Gospels — they mangle contemporary historical events (as partially described above), are uncorroborated by contemporary historians, and bear the marks of legendary development and creative fiction.

d) Finally, the works assembled into various Bibles are unmistakably of human, rather than divine origin. The world described in the various books of various Bibles reflects the world as understood by the people who wrote it. The cosmology is all wrong; the writers repeatedly depict a fixed firmament to which stars — alternatively described as either small bits of fire or living beings (see above) — are affixed. The geology is all wrong; the Earth is described as a flat disc (Is. 40:22) that God lives “above”, and from which it is possible to see “all the kingdoms of the world” if you just climb a mountain tall enough. (Matt. 4:8 and Luke 4:5, respectively.) The reason why today we use phrases like, “I feel sorrow in my heart” as figures of speech stems from the fact that the people who wrote the Bible believed it to be literally true; they did not understand that the brain was the source of thought.

Ask yourself: how could God have conversed and inspired the authorship of the Bible, and not corrected basic misconceptions about the world — obvious things like the moon not being a “lesser light” in the sky, or the shape of the earth, or the fact that the sun does not revolve around the earth, and so on?

Worse — and most damningly — the morality of the Bible reflects the morality of the people who wrote it. Go read Exodus 21 and Leviticus 25:39-46, in which the God of the Universe sets forth precise rules for how the Jews can buy, sell, and keep slaves. (In a similar vein, in Joshua 9, God supposedly gives the Gibeonites to the Israelites in perpetual slavery!) And lest you think this is confined only to the Jews (as if that matters?!??), Colossians 4:1 explicitly permits a master to own slaves (but encourages him to “treat them well”), while Titus 2:9-10 instructs preachers to preach compliance to slaves.

In fact, in the New Testament, God even has his own version of the Fugitive Slave Act — which, you may recall, is considered one of the greatest moral atrocities in U.S. history. (See 1 Cor. 7:17-24 and Eph. 6:5-9.) And Paul dutifully returns a runaway slave to his owner in Philemon 1:1-13.

Imagine if you were a time-traveller accidentally sent back to the 1st century AD, and you happened to interact with the characters in the New Testament. Would you be able to bite your tongue as Paul ships Onesimus back to his master for punishment? Would you be able to sit through the sermon in Titus 2, in which the church is supposed to preach servility to slaves? Wouldn’t you cry out at the injustice?

And yet we are supposed to believe that Jesus — the divine, omnipotent creator of the Universe made flesh, the most perfect man ever to exist — that he walked amongst these people and never once clearly and unambiguously said something like “owning another person is always wrong, now and forever?” I don’t buy it.

I haven’t even gotten to the genocide of the Amalekites, in which Saul is first ordered to kill every man, woman and child in Amalek, and is killed by God for the sin of showing mercy. (1 Sam. 15) Is it even remotely conceivable that an all-just, all-loving God could behave in this way?

In conclusion: we get nothing out of the Bible that Bronze Age goatherders did not put into it. Some of what they put into it is good; much of it is evil. Some of their conceptions about the universe were correct; many more were staggeringly wrong. But none of it is divine. Moreover, what we even call the Bible today reflects human debate and cherry-picking over the next 300 years after the events supposedly described, and even those cherry-picked books are subject to alteration and forgery.

For these – and for the other reasons discussed on the in-depth “Bible” page, I conclude that the Bible is not reliable secondary evidence for God and thus this second set of arguments is insufficient to refute the general case for atheism.

Subjective Personal Experiences

Posted in Atheism, Personal Experiences tagged , , , , , at 1:51 pm by Andrew

1. Subjective Personal Experiences Do Not Justify An Objective Belief in God.

This post summarizes the first set of answers to potential objections to my Summary Case for Atheism, in which some Christians have contended that personal revelatory experiences provide sufficient direct evidence for belief in God. My ongoing, in-depth treatment of this issue is hyperlinked to the right and can be found here.

As a threshold matter, when one person claims to have had a direct, revelatory experience of God, that claim is direct evidence only for that person. From my perspective, it is hearsay. I can’t evaluate your experience; all I can do is evaluate the fact that you’ve claimed to have such an experience.

Now, I have no doubt that religious believers who claim to have experienced God in some subjective or visionary way are, on the whole, generally sincere about those claims. But those claims are, of course, not restricted to Christians. Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus – people of every religion claim such subjective experiences, and they can’t all be true.

One particularly compelling counterexample comes from Mormons, who believe that seekers should pray about the Book of Mormon to see if they receive a “burning in the bosom” – a subjective verification – that it is true. Here’s how an evangelical Christian apologist evaluates that argument:

What we must understand is that Latter-day Saints (LDS) believe these things for the same reason that people everywhere believe the things they do: they want to believe them. … This should come as no surprise to evangelicals who have read the Apostle Paul’s revelation of the roots of human idolatry in the first chapter of Romans. Fallen humans have affections and inclinations that they then prop up with beliefs, convincing themselves that their systems are true.

Another evangelical is a bit more direct:

Remember also that Paul never asked any potential converts to pray about his message. What he taught was found in the Scriptures and they could verify it and join the group of wise people, if they would repent and submissively place their faith in Jesus Christ to follow him. See Acts 17:11,12 cf. Acts 20:21; etc. … Yes, the devil can duplicate peace. That is what he does in transcendental meditation (TM) and also in Catholicism after one receives the Eucharist. The devil uses these and other experiences to deceive.

Thus, Christians themselves concede that personal, subjective experiences – particularly of the kind promoted by Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the like – are insufficient to warrant a belief in God! When someone claims to have been visited by God, it is more reasonable to believe that that person is sincerely mistaken, engaged in wish-fulfillment, and so on.

In the most extreme cases, we think people who hear divine voices are suffering from paranoid delusions. Consider the sad case of Andrea Yates, who (apparently) sincerely believed that she heard the voice of God commanding her to drown her five children. On face, her case isn’t any different from what Abraham claimed to have heard directly from God in Genesis 22:1-10. Why, then, does virtually every Christian have no difficulty concluding that Ms. Yates was insane?

I submit that whatever our “worldview” — in day to day life, we are called upon to evaluate claims like this from a variety of religious, spiritual, and other sources. Uniformly, we reject these sorts of experiences, standing alone, as being sufficient justification for the truths of the beliefs asserted in those experiences. For these – and for the other reasons discussed on the in-depth “Subjective Experiences” page, I conclude that this first set of arguments is insufficient to warrant belief in God.

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