Why “these beliefs work for me” is not enough

I get into a lot of arguments with people.  Sometimes, the argument gets ugly, and sometimes it is not.  I’m just one of those people that cares about what is true, and so when someone says something I find to be unjustified or that I  have reasons to disagree with, I often say something.

This often leads to me being called “closed minded,” arrogant, etc.

Just in the last couple of days I have had an email correspondence which started on a polyamory discussion list with someone who seems to consider himself spiritual, and who commented that he has become more serene since he stopped arguing with religious people (it was this and some other things I’ve been annoyed by that led to yesterdays blog about spiritual but not religious people).

I was offended by a comment he made, and tried to explain why I was offended, but it didn’t stick for him.

In any case, I wrote him back late last night, and thought some of the points I made would be relevant to people that might run into this blog.

With no further yapping on my part, here is the entire email:

I am quite aware that your email was not about me.  I was replying to the content that I disagreed with.  My offense at your comment needs some unpacking for you to understand why I was offended.  I’ll get to that at the end of this email.

First I want to say that I notice among many people, in fact this seems to be common wisdom, an unspoken assumption about beliefs.  There seems to be a notion that there is an automatic validity to a belief simply because it works for people, or simply because they have it.  Yes, people rely on things, but I don’t believe it is enough to say that they rely on it and therefore it’s not my place to judge it or even to comment on it.  After all, people have a right to their beliefs, right?

I believe this idea is wrong-headed.  And, more importantly, I don’t think it’s true just because I believe it.  This speaks to the unspoken assumption above.  I have this belief for reasons, not just because it works for me.  This is the crux of the issue for me; I think that people’s beliefs should be justified rationally, or they are not worthy of respect by anyone else.  Of course people have a right to their beliefs, but they don’t have the right to not have their ideas criticized.

An acquaintance and personal favorite leader in the atheist community has become known for asking “What do you believe, and why do you believe it?”  I think this is an important question, and I think that in the attempt to be tolerant, diverse, and respectful this question often gets left behind in the cultural maelstrom (especially in liberal circles).

You said:

Just because you “vehemently view spirituality as meaningless” doesn’t mean that it is. In fact its one of the biggest driving forces in the human experience for many. The fact that you got so offended may suggest that its not quite as meaningless to you as you say.

This, I believe, is a symptom of the problem.  It’s not merely that I believe this, I believe this for reasons.  I am not merely asserting it and saying that it’s true.  It’s not that this idea works for me, it’s that I think it can be defended rationally.  But you didn’t address the content of the claim at all.  I find that to be fascinating, because I would hope that a claim I make would not merely be swept aside with the broom of ad populum, but rather challenged.  Why wasn’t it challenged?

Your comment was not a challenge as to the merit of the proposition or to content therein, but rather to whether it was an idea that worked for people.  The fact that it is a driving force for people has absolutely nothing to do with its validity.  Truth is not determined by what ideas people like, and it is truth that I am interested in.  I am offended by the apparent shrugging off of pursuits of truth in the name of mere pragmatism.  These issues are questionable, investigatable, and conclusions can be drawn with good evidence.  The fact that people use these ideas in their lives does not make them immune to the criticism that can be provided.

I believe that they are physical events in the brain too but who’s to say that our brains weren’t wired like that in order to produce that spiritual experience by a creator? I believe that science and spirituality should be joined at the hip instead of being in opposition and I think fortunately things are headed in that direction.

I cannot [dis]prove that such a creator exists who created our brains such.  But I see no cause to believe it.  What if the world were created by an invisible pink unicorn, a flying spaghetti monster, or blue dwarfs that currently live in my closet?  I can’t disprove those ideas either, but why should I believe any of them?  The issue is not whether I can disprove the idea of such a creator, the question is what evidence is there for belief in such a thing?  What would compel me to believe it? My whims and what works for my life are not relevant here.

Until there is some reason to believe so, it is rational to not believe.  It’s called the null hypothesis.  Do you believe in the dwarfs in my closet?  if not, why not?  Who is to say they don’t exist? I’m betting you don’t believe in them, and I don’t consider it respectful to say “hey, whatever works for you.”  I find this condescending and disrespectful of my ability to think critically and take criticism.   If I believe something you find unjustified, why would you pretend otherwise and merely shrug it off? That’s how we treat children, not adults.  Our beliefs affect the decisions we make, and unjustified beliefs often lead to decisions that affect the world around us.

As for science and spirituality, they are not necessarily at odds.  The simple fact is that they are at odds through investigation, that is by accident of the beliefs of spiritual people not standing up to scrutiny.  And when they are not at odds with science, the thing stops being called spiritual but is then called part of the confirmations of science.  It is like the difference between medical science and alternative medicine; when it works, it’s simply called science and no longer is alternative.  The claims of spiritualism have been tested and have failed repeatedly.  There is no counter-example I have ever seen to this claim.  Look into James Randi’s million dollar challenge.  The fact that nobody has won it is telling.

And no, things are not headed in the direction of science and spirituality being reconcilable.  Despite what morons like Deepak Chopra and the other goons at HuffPo say, there is most definitely a distance between them.  Some, like the Templeton foundation, will seem to say otherwise, but the arguments are spurious.  If you are curious about ths issue, I suggest the JREF (linked above), the Paryngula blog, or the general skeptics community (say the skepchicks blog).

I’m not a religious scholar by a long shot. All I know is my own personal experience. And I know that I became a much more serene person when I stopped vehemently opposing religious people (still struggle with Fox news types). They aren’t all the same.

I am a student of the philosophy of religion.  In fact, that is what I have my MA in.  This does not make me right, but it implies I have spent considerable time thinking about these things. But that does not matter….  I have experiences too.  I used to wonder if they were spiritual in nature, but then I seriously investigated this question, and found that such an explanation is not rationally warranted.  It is not enough to say that you have a different conclusion, you need to demonstrate why or I have no reason to respect your ideas.

The fact that you became more serene person when you stopped opposing religious people says nothing for the validity of whatever spiritual ideas you took on since then.  When a person changes through experience with a new religion, spiritual tradition, etc it does not imply that the ideas they adopted did the changing or that those ideas are true.  That’s simply a tremendously bad argument.  And of course they are not all the same, although there are often common characteristics among them.

There are plenty of good, strong, intelligent people who believe in a higher power on this planet. To paint them all with the same broad stroke is as close minded as a fundamentalist is about non-fundamentalists.

I have never done this.  I am very aware that people who believe such things vary greatly, and I try as much as possible to try and address what they specifically claim and address those claims.  What I am saying is that insofar as a person accepts faith as a strength, I think that it points to a problem.  People use faith in many ways, for many beliefs, and with different temperaments.  But we have to step back and ask what faith is.  It is belief in something despite a lack of evidence or in the face of contradictory evidence.  If there were evidence, there would be no need for faith, because there would be reasons to believe.  personal, internal experiences are not enough for other people, and they do not provide evidence that you have not misinterpreted your experience and attributed it to something imaginary rather than a more mundane and material explanation.  Until someone gives reasons to believe in spiritual ideas, people have to rely on faith and problematic personal experiences.

This is incontrovertibly a weak position to be in intellectually and rationally.  If it isn’t, please explain why it isn’t.

My view is not closed minded, it is considered and measured.  I think that believing in things for which their is no, or at least poor, evidence is not an intellectual, personal, or social strength.  How is that closed minded?

Finally, why was I offended.  I was offended because we atheists are tired of hearing that things like morality, personal strength, and wisdom come from divine or spiritual sources.  It implies that those who don’t believe in such things cannot be moral, strong, or wise.  By associating spirituality with good attributes, you imply that people like me are not capable of it.  If I were to say that all the people I know who are strong, wise, and good were atheists and that atheism is the key to being like those people, would you not take offense at the implication inherent to this?

This is simple discrimination of people who don’t believe in the kinds of things you believe.  It is based on faulty assumptions and poor logical thinking, and it leads to real discrimination, demonization, and distrust of atheists.  Recent studies have shown atheists to be the least trusted group in America (even below Muslims).  I’m offended because you essentially claimed that an atheist cannot be a good person.  I doubt this was your intent, but it is the result nonetheless.  I’m just trying to give you a touch of consciousness-raising about discrimination against atheists and its unseen sources in common wisdom, as evidenced by your comment.  You are doing actual harm to real people, probably unintentionally, by promoting a meme that is simply false.

Please understand that I’m trying to communicate in good…faith.  I’m not attacking you, I’m trying to get you to understand where I’m coming from.

His reply was to say “You’re right” and then to sign off.  I can’t help but feel patronized with an intent to discontinue conversation.


Burden of proof and the null hypothesis

Randal Rauser
Randal Rauser

Today I ran into the following article on cristianpost.com, written by Randal Rauser.  Here are a few excerpts:

One of my skeptical readers, EnoNomi, takes issue with my claim that atheists and agnostics shoulder an evidential burden to defend their belief just as much as the theist does. This is what EnoNomi writes:

“It’s not up to the Atheist or the Agnostic to prove anything because you can’t prove a negative. I can no more prove that your god doesn’t exist than you can prove Odin or Zeus doesn’t exist.”

This is an important comment because it reflects a commonly held, but also incorrect view.

Interesting.  It looks like, at this point, Randal is quite aware of the concept of burden of proof.  It looks like he will address this issue, and if he does it may be something I’ve not heard before.  I eagerly keep reading.

Rauser then discusses that there are different kinds of proof.  Logical and mathematical proof being the highest, and other kinds of proof being lesser, but still valid. While I may think that in situations like court proceedings, the word ‘proof’ may not be the best, I’ll accept the general premise that in other areas besides logic and mathematics, lesser degrees of certainty exist necessarily.

So now to God. What kind of standard of evidence is the atheist required to provide in order to justify disbelief in God? Logical certainty? Beyond a reasonable doubt? A preponderance of the evidence? Who decides?

It seems to me that there is no clear answer here. Rather, it seems most likely that the more evidence the atheist can provide, the stronger the justification for his/her belief.

This, I believe, is where the discussion goes all wrong.  This is where I saw that Rauser didn’t really understand the most important aspect of the burden of proof.  Atheists don’t have to disprove god, and he knows this as he quoted above.  This article of his is an attempt to address this issue, but so far he has not done so.

What he has done, so far, is state that atheists can provide evidence, and the strength of that evidence will either lend support for their belief or not.  But that is precisely the problem.  The atheist does not have to provide any evidence at all.  The atheist is not the one with any burden of proof.  The reason is simple: The null hypothesis.

The null hypothesis, in this context, is to assume that something does not exist until there is sufficient evidence to accept that it does.  That is the position that the word ‘atheist’ describes; a rejection of the claims about existing gods due to lack of evidence (or the lack of belief in any gods).  It is not the position or belief that a god does not exist.  This is the fundamental misunderstanding of Rauser and many other theists (and some atheists who call themselves agnostics) who try and analyze this issue; a misunderstanding of the atheist position.  Sure, some atheists will say that they believe that god does not exist, but this is saying something more than atheism per se.

Rauser confirms this misunderstanding of atheism/agnosticism in the parenthetical sentence that follows my last quotation of him;

(Conversely, the more doubt the agnostic — or weak atheist as some of my interlocutors prefer to say — can cast, the stronger the justification for his/her withholding of belief.)

Agnosticism is not withholding belief. One either believes or one does not.  If one is considering the question or withholding judgment, this is technically a position of being without belief.  Agnosticism is simply admitting one does not know with certainty.  Name me anyone that this does not apply to and I’ll show you a liar; everyone is, therefore, agnostic.  The question is what one believes.

This is a distinction I wish more people would be aware of.  And Rauser seems to be somewhat aware of the issues.  He addresses the question of certainty about other gods besides his own:

So back to EnoNomi’s claim. Can I prove that Odin or Zeus do not exist? It all depends. I cannot provide a logical proof. But could I provide a lesser proof? Beyond a reasonable doubt? Or a preponderance of the evidence? I suspect I could. Certainly EnoNomi cannot simply declare by fiat that I cannot.

She may, but I don’t know.  I think that it’s possible to do what Rauser claims; to prove to a great degree of certainty that gods such as Zeus do not exist.  But what about his god? Well, let’s see what he says:

And this is what many atheists in fact attempt when it comes to the Judeo-Christian God: they seek to provide a lesser proof to support the conclusion that God does not exist. For instance, Vic Stenger attempts this in his book God: The Failed Hypothesis where he argues that current science warrants the conclusion that God does not exist. I may disagree, but Stenger is right that belief in God is up for critical review.

Atheist Austin Dacey has referred to this lesser proof approach as the “look and see” method. Essentially we engage in an a posteriori (or empircal) enquiry, looking to see whether the universe evinces signs of God’s presence. If it does not then we can reasonably infer that God is absent or, to put it another way, that God does not exist.

But one can go further: it is also possible to develop a logical disproof for the existence of God. The way one would do so is by showing that there is a logical contradiction between certain attributes God possesses (e.g. a conflict between omnipotence and omnibenevolence) or between God’s attributes and certain indisputable characteristics of the world (e.g. omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence and the existence of evil).

This is certainly a fair summary of some of the positions and points that atheists often make.  I commend Rauser for being aware of them and treating them fairly, as many apologists are not and do not.  I find it honestly refreshing to see analysis by a Christian theist that is aware of what atheists actually say.  So, when he states the following, I at least am not too frustrated…just a little frustrated.

As a committed Christian theist, I do not believe that the atheist has provided any of these proofs, though I do agree that there are certain lines of evidence which prima facie count against the existence of God as defined by the Christian theist.

Again, here is the problem.  Proof that any god does not exist is strictly epistemologically impossible.  He did gloss over the logical contradiction approach to attempting this “(e.g. a conflict between omnipotence and omnibenevolence),” and he is right to point out that the definition of god is slippery.

There is a remaining grumble that one hears: as soon as a purported disproof for God’s existence is provided, the definition of God is changed. Thus, theism is a target forever moving. For the moment I’ll concede that this is occurring (that is, that the concept of God has evolved because of the proffering of disproofs for earlier concepts).

Yes, indeed.  The definition of god changes every time we improve our understanding of the universe (I’ve written about this recently) and thus make another attribute of some god absurd.  Because of this process, the definition of god retreats once again to something more mysterious, ephemeral, and nonsensical.

But Rauser is not finished with the slippery god yet:

But even if true, is that a ground for complaint? From the atheist’s perspective it would just mean that he or she is guaranteed a job, forever knocking down new concepts of God like a centuries’ old game of metaphysical Wac-a-mole.

Yes.  And what you seem to be missing is that you are continuing the game of re-defining god every time we show more and more about why our lack of belief in your (or others’) god is justified.  That is, our skepticism, our lack of belief due to lack of sufficient reason to believe, is warranted.

Atheists like myself will continue to write and argue because you keep changing the rules.  We are reactionary, admittedly.  We see what you propose as a being that exists and that you call ‘god’ and we will continue to say “I don’t believe you” to which you will continue to insist that we can’t disprove god and we’ll continue to reply that this is not the point; we simply have no good reason to think your claim is correct.

It is your job to provide good reason to accept the claim, not ours to disprove it.  You say God exists, I say I don’t believe you.  I don’t believe you because it’s silly to accept such spurious claims with no good rational support.  You reject all the other gods, such as Zeus, Rama, or even Allah and I just reject yours for similar reasons.

But the main point here is that the atheist can in principle provide a weak or strong proof for God’s non-existence. And thus the atheist cannot protest that such a thing cannot be expected of him or her because it is impossible.

What is impossible? It’s impossible to present a weak or strong argument (not proof) for god’s non-existence? That can be done, but again that’s not the point.  I would like to see an alternate phrasing of this last quoted section, because I’m not quite sure what he is saying.

It’s a problem I have with many theists; I don’t know what they are saying, and so I leave thinking they are saying nonsense most of the time.  Tell me what you believe and why.  If I don’t understand what you mean then I can’t believe it, can I? And if I can understand it I can surely not believe it if I don’t see good reason to accept it, right?  That’s what I mean when I say I’m an atheist.