An unhappy atheist’s tale

Some time ago, I had an appointment with an optometrist at the city centre. I got there a little too early, so I decided to just wait in the street for a few minutes. While I was doing that (ie. nothing), two women I didn’t know approached me. It was a bit too long ago for me to remember the ensuing conversation in detail, but I can give the general idea.

One of the things they asked me was whether I had heard about Jesus Christ. This was in Finland, but it was about the same as asking that from someone in America. Maybe even more absurd, I don’t know. How would you not know about Christianity? Around 80% of people in Finland belong to the same Protestant church. It’s a secular society, to be sure, not at all like the US. People belong to the religion but are not actively religious, and religion has very little place in politics. Nevertheless, how could you not have heard about the basics? We even teach it in schools (just not in biology class like people in the US want to do), though admittedly based on what church people belong to (or don’t). Yet this isn’t even the first time I’ve heard religion peddlers ask that question. I don’t know what’s behind it. Maybe it’s just a conversation starter.

Whatever the case, the two women were clearly bent on selling some brand of Christianity to me. I was uncomfortable. I didn’t want to be rude or argumentative. Continue reading

The imperfect universe and the idea of a perfect being

All things sick and cancerous
All evil great and small
All things foul and dangerous
The Lord God made them all

Monty Python’s version of “All Things Bright and Beautiful”

Introduction

I’m far from the first to question the idea that god as the perfect being fits together with our world as it is. The problem of evil has been used as an argument against the existence of god: how could there be a perfectly good and all-powerful being and there still be evil in the world? Wouldn’t the perfectly good want to fix it and the all-powerful be able to? (Personally, I don’t need an argument against when we haven’t got an argument for.) There have been attempts to argue against this, but they’re all dodging the issue: the argument proves that there can’t be a god that’s perfectly good and all-powerful in the sense assumed in the argument, and it’s not easy to come up with a sense for both that’s satisfactory but doesn’t run afoul of this argument. Honestly, I think theists should just see reason on this point and admit that god doesn’t have both attributes, but it seems as if surprisingly few do.

But that’s an old thing. I want to go a step further. Not only is god’s “perfection” incompatible with the imperfect world without selectiveness and doublethink — the whole idea of a perfect being barely makes sense at all, and especially not in conjunction with the imperfect supposedly created world. Existence in this world is based on happening and striving towards something, and both imply imperfection. Continue reading

A synthesis of religious belief and naturalism?

A vague sketch of an idea, but might be significant.

I’ve been reading and thinking about the nature of religion and its relation to belief and to the supernatural. What ideas I get depends on what I focus on or what I read. If I read Daniel Dennett, it seems religion really is built around the supernatural. If I read Karen Armstrong, it seems that it’s not. This idea comes from the latter way of looking at it.

So, this idea is that religion was not originally supposed to be about beliefs, that this is only something we think because we’re confusing it with science. On the other hand, I’ve also read that science has been made too much about knowledge only. And that religion — and myth — used to have an important function that we’re partly missing now.

This makes me think: Do a naturalistic world view — belief in only verifiable things, nothing supernatural — and religion need to contradict in any way? From this perspective, it seems that not. Here’s a sketch of different ways they could be closer and closer to each other as they come to involve a better understanding of the world and people. Continue reading

Can free will solve the problem of evil?

I recently read a good post on the problem of evil by another blogger. There was one thing I disagreed about, however, and I thought it deserved a reply long enough to be its own article.

As for what the problem of evil (or theodicy) is, I’ll just quote the mentioned article:

One of the many variations of the problem goes as follows: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” This is often contributed to the philosopher Epicurus, summarized by the theologian Lactantius. However the actual authorship remains debated.

The point remains, if God is an omnipotent being, then how does evil exist without God himself being at least in some form evil?

Well, I would put it as “god must not be perfectly good” rather than “god must be evil” if evil exists, but never mind that now. What I’m actually taking issue with is the discussion of one alternative solution to the problem:

The second issue is that many people claim free will, or more simply any human action at all, creates this evil. This is a sort of pessimistic view, but still a valid one. It claims that as humans have the ability to choose their actions, the result of those actions create the very evil itself, not god. I always found this argument to be curious just based on the fact that it uses free will to justify both evil and God. The discussion of God and free will has had an odd history, and for many people the Doctrine of Predestination pops up in their heads, but nevertheless it is a valid argument. To me it seems in many ways the existence of free will negates the omnipotence of God, and therefore changes the entire essence of God for so many defending it.

The question that sorely needs answering now is: What is free will? What are the options for what it could logically be — and do those allow god to avoid the responsibility for human evil? Continue reading

Review: Reinventing the Sacred by Stuart Kauffman

Consider the woven integrated complexity of a living cell after 3.8 billion years of evolution. Is it more awesome to suppose that a transcendent God fashioned the cell at a stroke, or to realize the truth: the living cell evolved with no Creator, no Almighty Hand, but arose on its own, created by the evolving biosphere? The truth is much more magnificent, much more worthy of awe and wonder, than our ancient creation myths.

Reinventing the Sacred proposes a new understanding of a natural divinity based on an emerging, scientifically based world view. Complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman does not propose somehow to insert “god” into a cold, lifeless universe. Instead he argues that the qualities of divinity that we hold sacred — creativity, meaning, purposeful action — are in fact properties of the universe that can be investigated scientifically. (…)

-From the cover blurb

Reinventing the Sacred coverLast week, I reviewed Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos and criticised it for answering the human world/physical universe problem in a way that effectively rejected current science. Fittingly enough, this review features one of the books I think successfully integrates science with humanity, even spirituality.

Stuart Kauffman’s Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason and Religion actually has much more scientific content than one would expect from its descriptions. Certainly, it offers a view of how we could see sacredness as a property of the evolving universe rather than a god outside of it. Continue reading

Anti-explanations

By S. Harris

What does it mean to explain something? To do it, you have to give some new information about it — how it works, how it came about, what it’s for, etc. To explain how a computer works, you might talk about, say, microchips or information processing — both explanations though different ones. To explain what a computer is, to someone who’d never seen one, you’d probably tell them what it does and what one looks like. These would also overlap with explaining where it came from (humans made them) and what it’s for.

Computers were made by people who more or less knew how they would work, and of course what they were for. If we’re explaining a natural phenomenon, or something done by a foreign people, we’ll have to find an explanation before we can give it. It will still have the same requirements: if we see something (say, that the sun radiates lots of energy), then we have to tell something new to explain what we see (that the sun is full of nuclear reactions).

What has been called the virtus dormitiva fallacy involves explaining something without really explaining anything. Continue reading

Which ones are really the “cafeteria Christians”?

I happened to read a long Facebook post by David Gerrold (someone I almost recognise by name) a while ago. It had a good point, but my attention was caught by something in this part:

Back in the days of CompuServe, a couple of bible thumpers were going on at length about homosexuality — and after I walked them down the path of bacon-cheeseburgers, shellfish, mixed fibers, and tattoos, I called them out as being “cafeteria Christians” picking and choosing what they wanted from the bible. They changed the subject.

Three weeks later, one of them came back at me, calling me a “cafeteria Christian” — he’d grabbed my argument and turned it back on me the first chance he got.

And that demonstrated something that has stuck with me ever since. There are people who can recognize the words that claim the moral high ground in an argument — tolerance, inclusiveness, helping minorities, etc. But rather than recognize their own responsibility in the matter, they simply grab the language as a useful weapon — a weapon to defend the very bigotry and oppression they’ve been accused of.

That last paragraph was about the overall point of the text, how the intolerant appropriate the language of tolerance. I agree with it, and the text also had even better examples — particularly intolerant people accusing others who disagree of being intolerant. The point is correct, then. This example made me think of something else, though — in just that one example, aren’t both right in a sense? Isn’t it true that both conservative and liberal Christians are picking and choosing from the Bible — so is it a sensible accusation against the conservatives from the liberals?

I think the answer is more or less: yes, both are, yet yes, it is. Continue reading