28 May, 2008

Woozle vs. Pastor Dean: FIGHT!

Rule #1 for a Christian dealing with atheists: do not get into a philosophical pissing match unless you really like wet trouser legs.

Yesterday, I posted the outrageous gauntlet Pastor Dean threw down in an attempt to prove that his special version of Christianity was the only valid worldview. I asked Woozle to be my champion.

He more than rose to the challenge. Grab your beverage of choice, get comfortable, and enjoy the joust if you haven't already.

In response to 2008-05-26 Open the Door to Conversational Evangelism by Paul Dean, by Special Request from Dana

There's a
type of argument I've frequently run into which is really quite pathological, when you get down to it. I call it "mirror arguing".

The technique is basically to accuse your opponent of being guilty of your own sins, regardless of whether you have any reason to believe this is true.

Despite its outrageousness from a rational perspective, it seems to be quite effective -- especially in a situation where you're mainly playing to an audience (the less sophisticated the better) rather than trying to convince the other person of the correctness of your point. Your opponent then looks quite pathetic if he (rightly) points out that it is in fact you who is the wife-beater; it reduces what should have been a totally devastating point to something about as convincing as "well... double dumb-ass on you!"

Seems pretty clear to me that we're looking at that kind of argument here. Let's go on a little magical mystery tour through the lovely distortions of reality which are the result of too much religion on the brain, shall we? Okay!

Pastor Dean says: "One of the basic dynamics that attends any worldview that is contrary to the Christian worldview is a lack of philosophical justification for it." (Jeez, Dana, I was looking for some nice meaty arguments to tear apart, and you're passing along this shit? ;-) But okay, doody calls...)

-- First: What do you mean by "philosophical justification"? If this means something other than "justification based on reason", then you'll need to be clearer. I'm going to assume that's what you mean.

-- Next: Christians believe what they believe based on a circular argument. God exists because the Bible tells me so. The Bible is the word of God, because the Bible says so. I can believe the Bible when it says this because the voice in my head, which is God, because the voice tells me it's God, says that the Bible is true! If that's justification, then there is no logic in the universe, and we might as well give up and go back to the middle ages.

-- And finally: "Atheism" is the refusal to believe without convincing evidence -- or, in other words, without philosophical justification.

So basically no; Christians have no philosophical justification for anything, and "unbelievers" (nice term, that) generally won't do anything without justification. Your claim is backward. (Qualification: I'm speaking about principles here; many Christians manage to get past their doctrine and allow bits of reality in around the edges. Some of them seem almost sane as long as they stay away from stuff where they've been trained give an answer from doctrine. Also, admittedly not all atheists are as nit-picky about consistency as I am, but the principle is that belief requires evidence.)

The fact that you are sophisticated enough to be able to pull this 180-degree switcheroo so smoothly in your writing makes me think that either you must know exactly what you are doing (which means you are knowingly being dishonest) or else you have been carefully schooled in this twisted mode of thought. Which is it?

Pastor Dean says: "the unbeliever has no basis for knowing anything." And you do? Backwards again.

Pastor Dean says: "When an unbeliever makes a statement concerning God, the world, man, morality, ethics, or any other subject, he asserts it as an absolute certainty." No, dude, that's you (again!). Do I need to point out that this is also an unsupported
straw man attack? If you really believe this is representative of atheistic discourse, show me some examples -- but I don't think you will, because I'm not convinced that you care about truth.

(And don't come back by saying "Hey look, you just claimed my argument was backwards as if you were 100% certain of that!" If I were 100% certain, would I be asking you for counterexamples? Would I even be bothering to try and engage with you on a rational level? I may be pretty near certain of the assertions I'm making there, but I leave that small wedge of uncertainty open. Without uncertainty, you may find that you are certain of the wrong thing. This is why religion is so screwed-up; someone decided what truth was, many centuries ago, and now you're not allowed to correct it in the face of new evidence.)

Pastor Dean says: "For example, an atheist who believes in evolution may say that God does not exist." First of all, you can leave out the "evolution" bit; it's redundant, and lots of theists are able to follow a line of reasoning from evidence to conclusion and hence "believe" in it too (remember what I said about some of them seeming almost sane?).

So that boils your statement down to "an atheist may say that God does not exist." This certainly might happen. Yep. Can't argue with that. Nope. You've certainly hit the nail on the head with that particular observation of yours. Yessirree.

Ever tried reading back what you just wrote? Doing that helps me catch all kinds of howlers like this before they go out into public and make me look bad; it might do the same for you. Or were you just trying to casually associate "atheism" and "evolution" in the minds of your gullible audience?

Pastor Dean says: "However, on his worldview, he has no basis to make such a statement. On his worldview, knowledge is obtained through observation (or the scientific method). His problem is that he has limited knowledge and ability to obtain that knowledge. He does not have the ability to search every square inch of the cosmos to determine whether or not there is a God. On his worldview, he cannot know that there is no God. His statement of certainty is rendered completely uncertain."

Funny you should bring this up; I was just addressing this issue
the other day.

I'll summarize.

The argument over whether or not God exists is a red herring, a bait-and-switch tactic. The God-nobody-can-disprove is totally harmless, a God of no consequences. Saying that this god exists is logically equivalent to saying "This sentence is true!".

Any consequences you claim from God's existence, however, are testable.

It looks like you claim some consequences near the end of your article, so I'll discuss them there. The God you believe in apparently does have consequences, and evidence for or against its existence can therefore meaningfully be collected.

Pastor Dean then goes pacing in circles some more about how you can't prove the non-existence of God. Since I've already brought up the red herring / bait-and-switch aspect of this -- i.e. it's not the existence of "God" per se that anyone really gives a flying spaghetti monster about, it's whether or not this same being hates gays, has a particular opinions about our laws, etc. -- I'll just add a mention of the well-known objection often referred to as
Russell's Teapot. The argument is basically that if you claim something exists and I say it doesn't, the burden is on you to show me why you think it exists -- not on me. In the absence of evidence, the default position is to not believe that any particular thing exists. Otherwise why stop with God? Boiled eggs floating in the atmosphere of Jupiter! A giant stone octopus living in the earth's core! You get the idea (I hope).

People who are religious seem to think that God gets some kind of special exemption because they say so. Nope, sorry, I don't at all see why I (or anyone!) should buy into that.

But really, I think the "red herring" point is far more powerful. I could go around saying "Yes! YES! I utterly and completely believe in God and accept that he is the blessed creator of all things! However, he told me personally that the Bible was written by a bunch of power-mad priests back in the early Middle Ages and is mostly screwed-up shit which nobody should listen to, except for a few good bits here and there. He also says Jesus never existed as an individual, although the ideas attributed to him are generally pretty nifty and it would be nice if more so-called Christians would pay attention to them. Except the stuff written by that jerk apostle Paul, of course."

If I said that, though, I don't think it would make you very happy, because just the pure idea of "God" isn't what you really want me to believe in; the key elements of "belief in God" would seem to be a particular set of THOU SHALTs and THOU SHALT NOTs, apparently derived from a somewhat arbitrarily-assembled set of writings whose true meaning is open to a wide variety of interpretations -- of which you choose one as being "the truth", excluding all others.

Ok, enough about God. I hope I don't have to come back to that again; I'm getting tired of it. Can we agree now that it's IRRELEVANT? That the real issue is what you claim God wants us to do? Good.

Pastor Dean says: "We have an explanation as to why we don't know everything." The phrase "willful ignorance" springs to mind. If your answer to every question is "because God did it", you're not going to get very far in your investigations. ("Because God did it" is what's known as a "curiosity stopper" or
fake explanation; it is clearly designed and intended to stop inquisitive folk from asking too many questions and thereby spotting the glaring inconsistencies and errors in Biblical doctrine.)

Pastor Dean continues: "In addition to the fact that God's general revelation takes time to investigate, God has not revealed everything to us..." Look, it's fine not to know everything. Science doesn't know everything. Mathematics has proven that it's literally impossible to know everything (for some reason, God neglected to mention
Gödel's incompleteness theorems in the Bible, even though it would have been considerable evidence for non-human origins of the Bible and could have shut up a lot of uppity scientists). But your religion puts up deliberate roadblocks to acquiring new information, especially if that information contradicts the Absolute Truth which you believe you have. Give me a break.

And anyway. I'm not really sure what point you're trying to make here, so I'll move on.

Pastor Dean says: "We must pray for courage to ask a simple question of those with whom we dialogue: why?" Don't be afraid, we don't bite. ...Well... okay, not physically... we probably are a deadly threat to the underpinnings of your current worldview, yes, and intend to continue being one, but we do not threaten you or your families (despite
anti-gay rhetoric), nor do we seek to dissolve the social organizations represented by your families and churches. We seek only to clean out the ideological bullshit you've allowed to accumulate, since you don't seem to be doing it yourself -- and it has now grown into such a fetid pile that it threatens civilization.

We are (as you seem to believe you are) seekers of truth; in that regard, opening dialogue with us certainly will not harm your cause -- but the truth may sometimes hurt. We welcome challenges to our worldviews, but apparently yours sets you up to be helplessly dependent on its essential inerrancy, or at least to believe that you are dependent. People have actually survived "losing faith", however, and they tend to be much happier afterwards. The pattern seems to have a lot in common with any other addiction.

We completely welcome that question, "Why?", and we wish you would ask it more often. A lot of the time when we try to ask it, we are rebuffed with claims that we shouldn't question faith, or that reason and faith are separate magesteria, or some such rot.

But you're not saying that, so let's start with this one: Why do you believe in God? Why do you believe that anyone who doesn't believe in God is going to be in trouble somehow? What is this God that you believe in, anyway? (Oops, that was a "what" question; is that off-bounds?)

Pastor Dean says: "When it comes to questions concerning God, morality, ethics, religion, origins, and the like, the answer will have no basis on a non-Christian worldview." I think I've already creamed that one. If you define God, we might have something to discuss. If you can't define God, then why are you bothering to discuss it? What do you hope to gain? (On the other subjects, though, I think the evidence is plain that we have
quite a lot to say, thanks very much.

Pastor Dean says: "Here are some sample questions: why do you believe spanking is wrong? Why do you believe homosexuality is not sin? Why do you think there are many paths to salvation? Why do you believe embryonic stem-cell research is a good thing? Why do you say there is no absolute truth? Why do you think pre-marital sex is okay in certain circumstances? Why do you believe in evolution? How do you know the sun will come up in the morning?"
Taking these one at a time -- in order to demonstrate how this "reasoning" thing works, since you seem to be unfamiliar with it:

  • Spanking: Well, I don't believe it is exactly wrong, at least in moderation; I've just never known it to be terribly helpful or effective. I'll suggest that for some kids, it may be necessary under some circumstances, but if it becomes the default way of coping with disobedience, it may lead to moral stagnation as children fail to learn that there are better reasons to be good than fear of pain.
  • Paths to salvation: This question is meaningless to me; I don't know what you mean by "salvation", or why it is necessary/important. Whatever it is you think I believe about it is probably not what I believe.
  • Embryonic stem-cell research: Is this a trick question? Okay, there's apparently a widespread belief in anti-abortion circles that this research encourages abortions. This is TOTAL B.S. The fetuses from which stem cells are drawn for research have already been aborted. Stem cell research does not cause a demand for aborted fetuses. (If you believe any of these claims to be false, please provide your evidence and I will go find mine.)
    • Also, as far as I'm concerned, those who act against stem cell research may have prevented the discovery of nerve-regeneration techniques which might have saved Christopher Reeve, among countless others. In other words, to phrase this as an emotional argument (which anti-abortionists seem to like): YOU KILLED SUPERMAN.
  • Absolute truth: I sure as hell never said that. Without getting into quantum physics, I'll just say that there is an absolute reality which exists regardless of what you believe, and discovery of the nature of that reality requires experimentation to test your hypotheses. Religion has made countless absolute statements about the nature of reality (and continues to do so), and generally gotten it demonstrably very wrong over and over again. Cast out the beam in your own eye, dude.
  • Pre-marital sex: Why should I think it is wrong? Give me something to work with here.
  • Evolution: Only because of the vast mountains of mutually-reinforcing evidence from a wide variety of disciplines, and the fact that nothing in biology makes much sense without it, and the fact that creationism (including the repackaged version called Intelligent Design) ultimately make no sense at all. In fact, creationists keep bringing up the same "evidence against evolution" over and over, even though all of it has been shown to be fallacious and much of it is simply downright false (that's LIES, to put it in
    nonscientific terms; isn't there a commandment against that or something?), showing that they're not interested in understanding the truth – or even in being moral – but merely in swaying the gullible.
  • If you really want to understand the details, I highly recommend Daniel Dennett's book Darwin's Dangerous Idea. I can probably find you some good evolution books by Believers like Ken Miller, if you don't want to be seen reading a book written by a godless atheist.
    • The sun: Well, first of all, there's this thing called "inductive reasoning" which is basically "if something has always happened, it will probably continue happening". Being a member of a scientific civilization, however, I have a bit of understanding of why the sun comes up each morning -- i.e. it's actually the earth's rotation which causes the sun to appear to move across the sky; this in turn is due to inertia, which will slowly bleed off over the ages because of tidal effects, but this won't cause any noticeable changes during my lifetime; the sun itself has a finite lifetime but is not expected to go out or pose a threat to Earthly life anytime in the next few billion years -- and so can say with some degree of certainty (more than, say, the Romans or the early Christians could do) that this pattern will continue for quite some time and (more to the point) is not subject to the whims of any deities or other supernatural entities.

    Pastor Dean says: "The unbeliever will have no philosophical justification to believe or know anything." Um, excuse me, what did I just say up there [points]?

    Pastor Dean continues: "He will attempt to justify his answer or knowledge apart from God, something he cannot do logically." What other method is there of justifying anything? How can you justify something logically based solely on a circular argument? You've got it mirrored again.

    The rest of Pastor Dean's paragraph assumes the rightness of his previous two sentences, which are factually backwards, so I'll leave them alone. (They're either false or meaningless taken by themselves.)

    Pastor Dean asserts: "It is at that point that we can point out that the Christian worldview is the only worldview that makes sense of our experience or knowledge in any one of these areas." Backwards again. You can only make sense of experience or knowledge if you have experience (observations) or knowledge (tested hypotheses) to make sense of.

    Pastor Dean continues: "God is the one who tells us what to believe about spanking, homosexuality, how to be saved, embryonic stem-cell research, truth, pre-marital sex, our origin, and the laws of nature in effect until Christ comes." This statement is so full of crap that it's difficult to know where to begin. But I shall try:

    • "God is the one who tells us what to believe..." If I'm a Christian. If I'm a Buddhist or a Confucian or a Wiccan or a Godforsaken Devil-Worshipping Baby-Eating Atheist (hi!), then you're already wrong without even finishing the sentence.

    • "...about spanking, homosexuality,..." you know, I thought Jesus said the Levitican laws didn't apply to Christians. Did I somehow misinterpret the Bible? How could this possibly happen?? "...how to be saved,..." assuming one needs rescuing (from what?)... "...embryonic stem-cell research,..." O RLY? There's mention of embryonic stem-cell research in the Bible? Which verse would that be in? And why didn't God just give us all the knowledge of the stuff we're trying to learn via such research, if he didn't want us doing it? Or is it true that he hates amputees? "... truth, pre-marital sex, our origin, and the laws of nature in effect until Christ comes." The Bible probably does say all kinds of things about those items, but the evidence is that it's wrong about our origin, that it says things are morally wrong which shouldn't be, and there's also no evidence to support the idea that it was written by God. There is, however, lots of evidence that it was written by a lot of different people, none of them divinely guided (if that term even has meaning), and many of them with personal agendas. “In Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3).” So... when Christ comes back, we do an autopsy? Why is he keeping this stuff hidden?

    Also, this is the point where you have made some assertions about the nature of God. You haven't actually come out and said these things, but reading between the lines it sounds like you're saying (for instance) that:

    • God approves of or requires corporal punishment of children. What's your evidence for this? If you want to use the Bible as evidence, you'll have to explain how the Bible was written by the same entity or force which created the universe about 13 billion years ago, and why you believe this to be true. The burden of proof is on you, dude, because it is simply an absurd assertion on the face of it. I wouldn't believe that humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor either, or that light has a measurable speed, if there weren't mountains of evidence -- but neither of those is as absurd or arbitrary as your claim, which you expect me to swallow on your say-so.

    • God sees homosexuality as an abomination. Again, the burden is on you to explain why you are convinced that the force which created the universe as a lifeless ball of superhot fundamental particles, presumably watched (or not) as those particles condensed into atoms, molecules, gas clouds, planets (billions of years later), pre-biotic organic molecules, and single-celled life-forms which eventually discovered sex, and suddenly (within a time-span of mere millions of years) became more and more complicated until eventually we have the vast array of species we have today (minus the ones which have become extinct, of course) -- including humans, marmosets, octopuses, asexual slime molds, creatures living in oceanic volcanic vents, creatures who reproduce using all kinds of different methods sexual and nonsexual -- would just have this Thing against humans who are more attracted to others of their own reproductive configuration. WTF??

    Look, even if I was tempted to believe that the ruler of the universe had written this lame book containing very little of use to us today and much that is counterproductive, and even if I believed that Jesus Christ was a real person who was somehow the "son" (are we talking genetic offspring? Does that mean God was human? Did he have DNA? Why or why not? Don't start spouting mystical doctrine at me or I'll have to slap you; give me a straight, rational answer, please) of the creator of the universe those 13 billion years ago, I'd be feeling rather manipulated by them, and hence rather bloody peeved.

    If the god of the Bible, who damns people to eternal torment for going against his (poorly-expressed and often ambiguous) wishes even when they have the best of intentions, really exists -- then I deny his authority over me. I answer to a more moral power than that being (i.e. my own conscience -- which isn't especially conceited; it doesn't take much to be more moral than the Biblical god). I would choose that eternal torment rather than go against my own conscience -- just as I would stand up to any bully or terrorist who tried to get me to commit a crime or hurt someone.

    All I can say in conclusion is this: I appreciate your attempt to reach out, but you don't seem to understand the idea of rationality. Stop pedaling drivel as sense, and get your house in order if you want religion and non-religion to get along peacefully. Those of us outside religion have been watching with great anxiety and alarm as religious ideas, which are generally not subject to rational debate or negotiation, have spread across America and other parts of the world. It would be different if these ideas were the good ones, like "love your neighbor" and "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" and "turn the other cheek" and "let ye among you who is without sin cast the first stone", but unfortunately it seems to be all the worst ones which are gaining popularity.

    If your idea of religion says that certain things are wrong, end of discussion, and won't even admit to an alternate interpretation of the scripture which you bizarrely claim as ultimate truth let alone admitting reality as evidence, then we simply can't let it stand. If your ideology won't negotiate, then we have to work against it by other means.

    It'll have to go. I'm sorry.

    Game over.


    Tomorrow, we'll have the melee - all of you who wanted to pile on, get your comments or links in by midnight Pacific time today.


    Lirone said...

    The argument about philosophical underpinning is rather reminiscent of the supposedly atheist-destroying argument - whenever an atheist makes a claim about history (whether recorded or evolutionary), to say "Were you there?"... I think the atheist is then meant to wither and say no I wasn't therefore I can't possibly know anything.

    Not, of course, that they might retort "No, were you?... ah yes, the Bible tells you... were you there when that was written?... ah yes, your moment of divine revelation... erm, are you sure you were actually all there at the time?"

    Dana Hunter said...

    I love that comeback. "How do you know if you weren't there" is such a ridiculous argument: idiots who don't understand evidence make it, and they're taking a shotgun to both feet when they do. So easy to turn it right back on them!

    Reminds me of the old t-shirt: "If you're a Goth, where were you when we sacked Rome?"

    Woozle said...

    ...and yet these same anti-evidence types are often in those same conservative circles which support the death penalty, itself often carried out on far flimsier evidence than that which we have for evolution. (In fact, I might go so far as to say "always carried out...": what murderer's conviction was ever backed by mountains of data compiled over many decades and cross-examined by some of humanity's best minds over a period of decades, et cetera?)

    And of course, these are also the same people who are typically "pro-life"...

    Illogical... Illogical... Norman, coordinate...

    Anonymous said...

    Biblical flaws are numerous because a bunch of "flawed humans" wrote it. The hellfire and brimstone God of the Old Testament is their interpretation. But do we discount even the good and the positive things that were written. I think that is throwing the baby out with the bath water. Just because some really stupid and bigoted things were said does that render even the helpful and life affirming things useless to us. Think about it. It is like saying that a scientific paper has no merit because a flawed human wrote it and the data was his or her interpretation.

    Woozle said...

    I would agree that we should not discard the Bible as a book -- any more than we should discard the fascinating lore of the Norse and ancient Greeks -- or do away with the I Ching, whose seemingly random advice often helps people get out of mental ruts -- or, for that matter, willfully destroy any book.

    (Aside: for many years I had a D'Aulaire's book of Norse mythology which my parents gave me in kindergarten, a companion volume to the D'Aulaire's Greek mythology book I still come across in new bookstores. One day Anna had it in the back of the car, where Tigger was reading it to her; the next day -- mysteriously vanished. Only then do I find that it's out of print and next-to-impossible to find. I don't suppose the Gideon Society could be persuaded to add this to their list of inspiring mythological publications...)

    It's when people say that the events described in the Bible actually happened, even where contradicted by other knowledge or evidence, that I start to have objections.

    I think we're agreeing here, though, yes? At any rate, I don't see any points of disagreement. Nobody (The Four Horsemen included, as I understand it) is suggesting that the Bible should be removed from any bookshelves; it just needs to be understood as an inspiring work of fantasy -- like Watership Down, the Narnia books, or Lord of the Rings. None of those stories depict actual events, but they each convey important truths.

    (Hmm, perhaps the Interfaith Treaty needs to make it clear that religious ideas are (and should be) just as protected under the freedoms of thought, speech, and expression as any other ideas, and (specifically) that nobody -- least of all atheists -- is advocating the ban or censorship any works of religious literature.)