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Three words that inhibit communication

Here are three words, used often in reference to religion, that are so ambiguous that they inhibit meaningful conversations. When one of these words comes up in conversation and the meaning is not clear, we should press for more precise language.

“Good” — does it mean “beneficial” or “approved”? When someone says “Everything God does is good,” they probably don’t mean that everything their god does is beneficial to everyone; they probably mean that their god approves all of his own actions. But when someone is pleased with something that has happened and they say “God is good!” they mean that their god did something that was beneficial to someone. Press for a specific meaning.

“Believe” — does it mean “consider likely,” “consider true,” or “know to be true”?  When someone says “I believe life begins at conception, so it’s my duty to stop people from getting morning-after pills,” they are taking a claim that they can only consider likely or true and treating it as if they know it to be true — to the point that they feel justified in interfering with other people’s pregnancies. Press for a specific meaning.

“Faith” — does it mean “religious affiliation” or “set of assertions considered true, independent of evidence”? When someone says “My faith tells me that marriage is between one man and one woman,” they could mean “My religious affiliation tells me … ” or “My assumptions in spite of the evidence tell me … .” Neither of these is a defensible reason to believe something, but it would still be helpful to know which reason is being invoked. Press for a specific meaning.

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Epistemology first

There is no point in our arguing over what is moral If we disagree about what is true regarding gods, souls, or an afterlife. And there is no point in our arguing over what is true if we disagree on how we can know if something is true. Epistemology is the first thing to get straight.

I embrace a humanist definition of morality. To be moral is to promote the well-being of conscious creatures in this (temporal, natural) world. I can use this definition because to me:

  • There is no god whose sensibilities have to be appeased. 
  • There is no soul — no ‘person’ or ‘will’ independent of the organism. 
  • There is no afterlife in which a soul could be happy or miserable.

To someone who believes in a god, or in a soul, or in an afterlife, morality can be much more complicated. Such a person’s moral code can contain rules and principles that have nothing to do with the well-being of conscious creatures in this world, or that even detract from it. Appeasing the god, nurturing the soul, and helping oneself and others attain a pleasant afterlife might all be seen as more important or urgent than practicing the more tangible morality of humanism.

That is why i consider it futile to argue about what is moral with someone who disagrees with me fundamentally about what is true. 

And if their epistemological approach is different from mine — e.g., if “scripture” and spiritual experiences are treated as automatically trumping other forms of evidence — it’s futile even to argue with them about what is true. 

Stop saying “Faith”!

Theists generally use the word “faith” to refer to their beliefs about God, without regard to how well those beliefs are supported by evidence and reason.

The American Heritage Dictionary actually treats this as the predominant meaning. Fair enough. Over centuries of use, “faith” has come to be used as shorthand for “god-belief” in some contexts. But that is not what the word “faith” really means.

“Faith” speaks to the basis and the reliability of a belief, not the topic of it.

To paraphrase Hebrews 11:1, “Faith is treating something as definitely true because one hopes it is true, even though one has not seen any material evidence for it.”

Any given knowledge claim is based on some combination of evidence, logic, and assumptions. The more it relies on assumptions, the more it is a statement of faith.

That is why, when pressed for evidence for a truth claim, a believer will often say “I just have to have faith that it is true.”

And that is why it is nonsensical to say, “The evidence supports my faith.” Once a belief has adequate evidence to support it, it is no longer a matter of faith.

I know this is a lot to ask, but I’d like to see the word “faith” abandoned and replaced, in each context, with more precise terms. If you mean “beliefs about God,” say that. If you mean “belief despite a lack of evidence,” say that.

God’s benevolence: like no other

If you’re a classical theist, you believe in a god who is maximally powerful, knowledgeable, and “good.”

The meanings of “powerful” and “knowledgeable” are pretty straightforward. The more things a being is able to do, the more powerful it is. And the more information a being possesses in its mind, the more knowledgeable it is.

The meaning of “good” should also be straightforward. As Sam Harris puts it, to be morally good is to seek and promote “the well-being of conscious creatures.” Theists and non-theists should agree on this; their only disagreement should be on what constitutes well-being.

  • To a theist (one kind of supernaturalist), a person’s well-being comprises the well-being of the organism and of the soul. Most theists believe humans have souls that can be damned to eternal torture (and maybe also suffer other harms in this life), and that the well-being of the soul is more important than the well-being of the organism.
  • To a naturalist (one kind of non-theist), a person’s well-being equates to the well-being of the organism. There are no supernatural considerations — notably, no soul to protect from damnation.

Even given the disparity between these two perspectives, it should be possible to objectively assess the goodness of a being by observing to what extent it promotes the well-being of people’s bodies and/or souls. One instance of gratuitous suffering is all it takes to invalidate the god of classical theism. A maximally powerful, knowledgeable, and “good” god cannot exist in a world where there is any gratuitous suffering at all.

So to make it appear possible that this kind of god exists, theists must waffle on the meaning of “good.” They must define “good” as “whatever God does or allows” — though they do this only when necessary to excuse God for causing or allowing gratuitous suffering.

So let’s start again at the beginning:

If you’re a classical theist, you believe in a god who:

  • Is maximally powerful.
  • Is maximally knowledgeable.

and

  • Does whatever he opts to do. 

Call him good. Call him evil. Call him fickle or capricious. Doesn’t matter, because ‘whatever he does, he does.’

Too easy

Why can’t we have free will and also be free from suffering? 

That would be too easy.

Why doesn’t God simply reveal himself to everyone in an obvious way?

That would be too easy.

Why doesn’t God consistently reward good behavior and punish bad behavior?

That would be too easy.

What would a loving god have against making things easy?

We are tiny – in space and time

By this guy‘s calculation, if the known universe were the size of Earth, then Earth would be 1/180 the size of an atom.

Imagine creating an environment the size and complexity of earth and then concentrating all your ‘love energy’ on a little fragment of a single atom on (or in) that planet.

Humanity is also dwarfed by the universe in terms of duration.

The oldest Old Testament scriptures are approximately 2,700 years old, but if we conservatively say 3,000 years, that still means God’s relationship (of whatever nature) with humans occupies:

  • Less than one-seventh of human history (so far).
  • Less than one part in 700,000 of the age of the earth.
  • Less than one part in 2.1 million of the age of the known universe.

Suppose you were to compress the history of the universe into a movie 80 hours and 6 minutes long, and screen it nonstop from 8 a.m. Monday through 4:06 p.m. Thursday. In that movie, the earth would form around 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, the human species would appear in the last minute of the film, and God’s first alleged interaction with man would occur in the last second of the film.

What’s worse than blind faith?

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. — Hebrews 1:1 (KJV)

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Imagine that you’ve just bought a used car from a stranger. You paid the full asking price, in part because you were confident that the car had never been in an accident.

  • If, before making the deal, you checked the car’s CarFax report and found no reports of accidents, your faith in the seller was a ‘seeing faith.’ (Most accidents are reported, but not all are.)
  • If you didn’t even bother examining the CarFax report, your faith in the seller was a blind faith.
  • If you checked the CarFax report, found reports of accidents, and concluded that the reports must have been erroneous, your faith in the seller was worse than blind faith; it was a ‘seeing denial.’

The Christian Bible is full of extraordinary claims that are inconsistent with what is known through secular history, archaeology, biology, physics and other sciences. I’m not saying the claims of the Bible are not logically possible. I am saying that believing those claims amounts to a ‘seeing denial.’

My evangelism style

When I was a young Christian, I took the Great Commission very seriously. I considered it my moral duty to tell everyone — verbally, overtly — what I believed, and try to convert them, even if it made me or my ‘target’ uncomfortable.

Later, I adopted ‘lifestyle evangelism,’ which to me meant making it clear what I believed without necessarily forcing conversations about it. I wore and displayed Christian stuff; I casually mentioned “my church.” Nevertheless, I was always ready for a good debate if someone else started it by making a declaration of some other belief or of non-belief.

Now, as an atheist, I’m as passionate about matters of faith as I was before. And in the age of online social media, someone else is always ‘starting it.’

One recent morning, I took the bait, although I didn’t engage anyone I know personally and my response was kind of cryptic.

This was in my Facebook feed, posted by someone I don’t know but ‘liked’ by someone I do know: Beth Moore hair-brushing story posted on Facebook

I went to the source video on YouTube and wrote this comment: “A professional storyteller saw something unusual. She responded in an unusual way. This yielded a touching, dramatic and humorous story that she gets to tell repeatedly. God would have had to intervene to *stop* this from happening.”

I still hesitate to throw water on expressions of religious belief by my Facebook friends. It feels kind of mean, even though I have an equal right to express my views.

The stone in the soup

One of the best talks I’ve heard on the Reasonable Doubts podcast, which is saying a lot.  Luke Galen critiques findings (and the resulting press and marketing) about apparent relationships between religious belief and prosocial behavior. It made me think of the Stone Soup story: Religion makes a great basis for morality — just add morality. 

Berkeley’s parking racket

This is a parable in real life about the often-misplaced burden of proof concerning the existence of gods.

A few years ago, I got a parking citation notice from the City of Berkeley. It said my car had been parked on a residential street in Berkeley on a Tuesday morning during street sweeping hours. I had never parked my car on any street in Berkeley, ever. Clearly, there had been some kind of mistake.

I contested the citation in writing, saying that my car had never been parked in Berkeley, and further volunteering where it had been at the time the citation was written. My “request” was “denied” on the basis of insufficient evidence. This felt wrong to me, but I couldn’t articulate exactly why.

A short while later, I had an in-person hearing at the city’s offices. I asked my hearing officer, “How do I produce evidence that my car wasn’t in a given place at a given time?”

Missing the rhetorical nature of my question, she said, sympathetically, “Just do the best you can.” She then started suggesting ways that I might be able to show that my car had been somewhere else at the time the citation was written. I explained that I would not be able to recall, let alone prove, where my car had been at the time in question. Sometimes I drove to work; sometimes I parked at my son’s preschool, rode my kick scooter to the BART station, and took the train to work.

Eventually, I got a few preschool parents and staff members to provide written statements to the effect that they were accustomed to seeing my car in the preschool parking lot during work hours. That, apparently, was good enough for the hearing officer, and my citation was dismissed.

Happy ending, right? Wrong. To this day, I regret not insisting on a court hearing. Why? Because the city never met its burden of proof in the first place, and I missed my chance to call attention to that publicly. As I discovered after the dismissal of my citation, the notice had lacked two items of identifying information that the state vehicle code requires to confirm that the citing officer actually saw the vehicle in question.

I allowed a random city to make a random accusation against me with inadequate proof and then shift the burden of proof to me. I jumped through hoops to produce evidence to refute the accusation when I really should have forced the city to show its evidence first.