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August 05, 2008

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Atheist Bloggers Dialogue, post #2
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I am a colleague of Russell Glasser's over at The Atheist Experience blog, and I was also sent a copy of "The Faith," though I have yet to find time to read and review it. However, I would like to respond to some points in Mr. Colson's response above. I don't have time to go through all of it, but I will start with the first of many points that struck me as exceedingly flawed.

Mr. Colson writes: "The idea that evidence is superior to faith as a root to knowledge is one of those presuppositions: it is unproven and non-provable. So it must be taken as a priori; that is, prior to experience, or in other words, on faith."

It may be accurate to say that knowledge is a subset of belief, in that most human knowledge did have its roots in a particular belief a person may have had. For example, the explorers in the Age of Discovery were motivated to find new lands, which they did, based on a belief that there must be new lands over the horizon.

However, Mr. Colson adopts a extreme variant of this position that is simply over the top and borders on outright solipsism. Starting from the notion that belief inspires and directs knowledge, he fails to recognize — indeed, he dismisses as irrelevant — the important factor that distinguishes valid truth claims from invalid ones: evidence. Instead, Mr. Colson attempts to redefine the very act of reason in such a way so as to allow claims completely unsupported by evidence to enjoy equal weight as those supported by a body of evidence.

This is tantamount to a rejection of the very process of science itself. If he truly takes the view that evidence is not better than faith (which I take to mean "believe what you want") in determining truth claims, then I fail to see how Mr. Colson proposes to tell fact from fantasy in any way, shape or form. If one rejects evidence that thoroughly, then, as a commenter on the AE blog has pointed out, Mr. Colson is in no position to reject the statement "God is a ham sandwich wrapped in tinfoil," or to discourage a person who has decided he has faith that he can flap his arms and fly from jumping off a tall building in order to give it a try.

I will offer more rebuttals to other arguments of Mr. Colson's when I have more time, either here or at the Atheist Experience blog. (And while I hope this comment is allowed to remain here, I'll post it to the AE blog as well, in the event it is not.) But for now, I will make one more correction. Mr. Colson writes, "...innumerable transitionary fossils showing gradual change would be discovered; none of which has come to pass." This is false. Transitional fossils are everywhere in the fossil record. I would invite Mr. Colson to fill the gaps in his education by reading this page, http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/faq-transitional.html , as well as any number of current biology texts, which will also explain how speciation has been amply observed by scientists. I would also charitably advise Mr. Colson that one is usually better served criticizing science from a position of knowledge, not ignorance, and that he would not come across so poorly in future debates, online or otherwise, if he made sure first to get his facts about science from legitimate scientific sources, rather than reasserting long-refuted canards. Of course, he would have to adjust his thinking to take the concept of evidence more seriously than he currently does. But that'd be a good idea, too.

Are you honestly going to attempt to reject evolutionary biology? Do you understand what that actually entails? It's not just a matter of how we view the tree of life; it means a rejection of genetics, phylogenetics, palaeontology, chemistry, pharmacology, taxonomy, even history with domestication and selective breeding.

You also mischaracterize the scientific method on several occasions, including a misunderstanding of the scientific use of of the word 'theory.'

The scientific method is as follows:
-Observation
-Hypothesis
-Testing
-Falsification
-Peer review

Evolution was never a matter of "faith," the closest thing is hypothesis, which scientists assume is incorrect from the outset and is pretty much the starting point and not the end. If it fails at any point, it is rejected.

A fact is an observed, verifiable occurrence.
A theory describes a set of facts.

A theory, by definition, can NEVER become a fact; it can only be further and further supported by evidence. Something is only referred to as a theory afer it passes the scientific method and is accepted throughout the community as a well-supported model with shown results.

Oh, and one last thing, the definition for biological evolution is different now than when it was proposed 150 years ago. The modern definition is the change in the frequency of alleles over time.

So my question again is, are you seriously suggesting the rejection of the theory of evolution?

A further response. Mr. Colson writes: "The more important question is why would God create us? Christians believe He created us so that He would have people in a love relationship with Him. But if we could prove the existence of God, we wouldn’t have to have faith; and without faith we couldn’t love God. This is an argument that C. S. Lewis made very powerfully."

As I haven't been through all of Lewis's apologetics, my mind reels at how he could present a powerful argument for such a silly idea. Essentially the claim is: if you know something exists, instead of simply having faith in its existence, you cannot love it. Logically then it would follow that no married person in the world loves their spouses, because the existence of those people is easily proved by their physical presence in each other's lives. QED: since you can prove the existence of your spouse, you need not have faith, and without faith, you cannot love your spouse.

Bizarre, to say the least.

I'd now like to respond to this passage in which Mr. Colson makes a series of assertions about the nature of God that, I'm afraid, don't do his God many favors. Mr. Colson writes, "You’re making the assumption that for God to be God, or for you to believe in Him, He must reveal Himself by giving us evidence which by reason would establish His existence. But why should the God who created everything that is explain Himself? What would compel such a God to do that?"

Gosh, what about that crazy little thing called LOVE? Over and over Christians try to tell us that God is love, that he loves us and wants a personal relationship with us, etc. etc. And yet when asked, entirely reasonably, to reveal his existence to us unambiguously, suddenly we're the ones being unreasonable! This is kind of hard to swallow in light of the fact this God purportedly sentences anyone who doesn't believe in or worship him to his satisfaction to eternal torture in Hell!

Ironically, just a few paragraphs above, Mr. Colson asks rhetorically, "Is not the capacity for love, though you cannot see it, something which can be objectively (though not scientifically) measured?" Yes, it is (though he's confused on his terms — the ways in which the emotions of love manifest in observable behavior IS something science can study). And I would suggest that one measure of the capacity for love is that one does not deceive the object of one's love, that one does not hide that which should not and does not need to be hidden, that one treats the object of one's love with generosity, kindness and above all, RESPECT.

It is not an act of respect — let alone love —  to condemn someone to a horrible punishment simply for doubting your existence when you have categorically refused to reveal your existence. That you are a universe-creating deity is irrelevant to the issue. If your argument is that God, being God, doesn't owe anybody anything, because HE'S GOD, SO SHUT UP, then why should human beings with reasoning capacity respond to THAT kind of arrogance with love and respect ourselves? To do so would only be a dishonest love borne out of fear. Mr. Colson is arguing for God as nothing more than a tyrant, an authoritarian thug and despot. Is this really the message he hopes will persuade atheists?

So in reply to Mr. Colson's question, "But why should the God who created everything that is explain Himself?" my response is simple: If God really loved us, he would.

Yet Mr. Colson goes on with more arguments in favor of God's authoritarianism and privilege, as if these were praiseworthy qualities.

"A God great enough to create the heavens and earth, and all of life in it, is a God who has no obligation to explain why He created us. In fact, He has a good reason not to. I believe it was Aquinas who argued that if God could be known to us by reason, we would take Him for granted; He would be no different than the tree that one could see from one’s office."

Well, I would argue that God DOES have such an obligation, especially if the penalty for not being a member of his fan club is eternity in the lake of fire. But I cannot imagine who would consider this silly point of Aquinas's to be a "good reason" for not revealing himself. It is hardly the case that any person alive holds all of the things they know to exist on some sort of even plateau of worth. Any parent knows that their own children exist; unless they are really horrible parents, that fact certainly does not mean they are as indifferent to their children as they are to a tree.

And doesn't it seem curiously insecure of God to worry about being "taken for granted," when, just a moment ago, Mr. Colson was arguing for God's being SO magnificent and SO glorious and SO divinely important and powerful and magisterial in his universe-creating awesomeness that the very idea of revealing himself to us puny humans was simply too far beneath his notice to be anything but absurd? Haven't I seen this before? Oz the Great and Terrible, was it? Bluster, bluster, bluster...but pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

I'd suggest in future, Mr. Colson should consider amending his apologetics so that he doesn't make the rather devastating mistake of following up a bout of "God's too big and awesome and important to reveal himself to mere mortals" with "But really...he's scared you'll ignore him"!

Micro evolution is well documented and supported. Macro evolution is a different story. It takes more faith to believe in macro evolution than does to believe in a God who created the universe.

God has revealed himself in creation and through his Word. His love and respect for humanity are clearly seen in the story of the prodigal son. Free will to believe or not believe; free will to take what has been given as a gift and use it as we see fit; free will to be a follower or not.

We are all tainted by Adam's rebellion, and therefore stand condemned. Yet even then God has paid the price in Jesus and offered us an opportunity to be restored. That's the essence of biblical Christianity. Perhaps not intellectually palatable or scientifically provable, but certainly reasonable and supportable.

Mr. Wagner has done a fairly good job of giving a reply. However I feel the need to add a few myself.

Colson said: “I also cannot justify the words of the Old Testament….” Good start! Because you can’t justify all the stuff supporting the institution of slavery in the Bible (along with a lot of other things also, but that can wait for another post). Many things can be said about this, but the most important one, in my opinion, it that such things provide evidence that this particular God is not the all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, etc… entity that is claimed. Additionally, it can not be claimed that the Bible and the God of the Bible are the giver of clear and unambiguous rules of Good vs. Bad morality for us creatures to hear and obey. If parts of the Bible indicate to many that slavery is good and ordained by God (as many ministers in the South did prior to the Civil War --- and probably after the Civil War too!) and other people find that the Bible indicates to them the opposite is the case, then the Bible doesn’t seem to have been of much use really in deciding Good vs Bad morality here. In fact, this shows that it was men, we mere mortals, that had to use our own judgment. So when Colson said: “…I have made the argument in the book that the Christian church has opposed slavery from the beginning….”, well Mr. Colson can make this claim, but that does not make this claim, or any other claim Mr. Colson feels to advance, true. I say the evidence in this case is fairly clear that Mr. Colson’s claim is false. By the way, doesn’t Jesus say somewhere something like “Slaves obey your Masters?” --- Could a reasonable mind conclude that the concepts of “Slaves” and “Masters” remain valid accordingly? Could Jesus have made a more clear cut statement along the lines of something like: “Slavery is wrong. Don’t do it.” There seems to be a number of places in the Bible were matters of less importance get such a statement --- like not wearing garments of two different types of material, or eating shellfish, or not working on Sunday, etc..., etc…, etc….

Question: In the Book of Job, the bottom line is indeed the basic “I’m God and I can do any thing I want with you Job” --- this is a piece of evidence that Mr. Colson’s claims that God can do as he pleases. Does this make it moral? Does God’s betting on Job with Satan make provide evidence of any other moral insights into this God? Does the collateral damage to Job’s family have any moral implications? Have you thought about it long and hard all you believers? In your “Bible Study” did you consider several different lines of thought on this story? (My impression of “Bible Study” for the story of Job or any other parts of the Bible lead me to believe that very little critical analysis is really done in “Bible Study” classes).

Question: According to the Bible, has God ever revealed Himself to any of his Creations? Did those God revealed Himself to become robots incapable of rejecting Him? Hummm? According to the plot, did not Satan and a significant portion of the Angels in Heaven (in the presence of God Himself) rebel with Satan? How can this be? Are there other examples? What convoluted explanations do believers make up to cover these cases that seem to be a defect in their “He can’t provide evidence because to do so would remove free will etc…” argument?

A few quick other observations (in no particular order):

A previous poster said: “God has revealed himself in creation and through his Word…”
Nope. That is not established fact. Just about any of the current (or past) followers of the many religions {Jehovah, Allah, Oden, Zeus, etc…} can make (many have made) this empty, subjective assertion.

A previous poster said: "We are all tainted by Adam's rebellion..."
Nope. Sorry, believe in inherited guilt is wrong, it is immoral to hold anyone for the wrong someone else did. We do not imprison the family members of someone that breaks the law --- that is wrong. A God that lays claim to being all powerful, all loving, etc… that lays claim to dispensing justice that also invokes the concept of inherited sin is barbaric and is no dispenser of justice or is just too morally weak to do better (and thus not all powerful or all loving etc.). Moreover, if Adam’s biological structure (e.g. DNA) or circumstance Adam was subjected to by the Creator is the motivator of behavior that the same Creator finds objectionable (e.g. survival instinct, reproduction, curiosity, doubt due to lack of observable reason and evidence, etc…), then this is the Creator finding fault with Himself, not Adam!


Well, that's enough. Except one last thing, Mr. Colson never really addressed if the method to analyze his program was fair or not (independent of what was agreed to, was it a valid exercise to determine the effectiveness of his program --- I conclude that the method was flawed as Mr. Glasser suggested in his comments).

Keith: There is fundamentally no difference between microevolution and macroevolution, and the claim that one has evidence while the other does not is simply another creationist canard. I encourage you, as I did Mr. Colson, to read the actual scientific literature, so that you can make sure your statements about evolution are coming from a position of knowledge and not ignorance. On the subject of macroevolution you can start here.

http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/

Another less long-winded response to Mr. Colson's "God cannot reveal himself" statement I could have made is that, according to Scripture, this is what God is supposed to have done quite explicitly in the case of Paul's revelation on the road to Damascus in Acts. Saul of Tarsus was not merely a nonbeliever but an active persecutor of Christians, and God revealed his existence to him to only unambiguously but rather forcefully. And yet it's supposedly unreasonable for modern atheists to request the same degree of revelation. Keith's assertion that God reveals himself through creation can be shown for the weak idea that it is by the fact that any believer in any deity could make exactly the same claim. The Flying Spaghetti Monster created us all, and he is revealed through creation.

Martin: Hey, I'll plead ignorance on the gross details of evolution. I have yet to see any substantial species-to-species transformation evidence, but perhaps the site will tell me somethng new.

I would appreciate it if you took my argument about the existance of God in its entirety. God revealed himself through creation AND his Word.

Keith, you can also try here:
http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/faq-speciation.html

As to the other, more concrete examples would be helpful than just that "God revealed himself through creation AND his Word," which again could be seen as a fairly vague, blanket statement that any religion could offer. "Wotan revealed himself through creation AND his Word." "Ahura Mazda revealed himself through creation AND his Word." See what I'm getting at?

Christians,
If human free will is so important to God, why would he attempt to manipulate it through the carrot of Heaven and the stick of Hell? Why would he deny the will of myself and others for him to remove ambiguity of his existence, so we can make a better-informed decision about whether or not he is worthy of human regard?

According to the story of Adam and Eve in the garden described in the Bible, God did not want them to exercise their free will to acquire a moral conscience by eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The very act of exercising free will in order to gain the knowledge necessary to make good decisions was, as Keith put it, "Adam's rebellion," the original sin, for which God supposedly condemns us all, independent of our will or the exercise thereof.

Imagine a man living in a log cabin in the woods, who tells his children, "Don't go outside, or wolves will eat you!" One day while he's off collecting firewood, they decide step outside into the sunshine, to feel the breeze and sniff the flowers for the first time in their young lives. When the father returns, he smells fresh air on his kids and interrogates them, ultimately declaring, "You'll have to mop the floor and wash the dishes for the rest of your lives! Forget the wolves; the next time you step outside, I'll kill you myself!"

Ah, you say, but God has graciously provided a way for us to exercise our free will, and get out of this awful predicament. All we have to do is believe that Jesus, who is also God and the Holy Spirit, copulated with his mother in order to become incarnate, so he could sacrifice himself to himself as a work-around for the predicament he created himself - and all you have to do is believe it!

Going back to the former analogy, suppose the father came home with a baby one day. Then, right in front of his kids, he tossed the baby into the fire, telling them, "Okay, now you can go outside whenever you like. Just believe that my sacrifice of this baby will keep the wolves satisfied!"

Yay, God! He's so rational, and he loves us so much! Why would anyone rebel against such a wonderful guy?

In the end, though, what sacrifice did Jesus really make? He supposedly resurrected and went back to being God. One of the defining characteristics of death is, it's permanent. If it's not permanent, it isn't death. So, either Jesus really died, in which case he's not God, or he resurrected, in which case he didn't sacrifice himself through death. At most, he suffered a weekend of inconvenience.

I submit that Christianity cannot possibly be the, "one, true faith." Never mind the utter lack of real-world evidence of God's existence; Christianity is not even self-consistent.

I submit also that, even if a God worthy of human regard existed, he would not use the scrawlings of ancient goat herders as his medium of choice for conveying the most important message in the Universe. Rather, it seems more likely that he would etch it in the stones of the Earth, and weave it into the very fabric of the Universe. The closer we look at nature, though, the less evidence we see of God, and the more evidence we see that the Universe doesn't care about us one way or another. I can only conclude, then, that if God exists, he doesn't want us to believe in him.

That's God's Truth.

Martin: Taking a couple of steps back, if God is, and if he has revealed himself, how has he revealed himself? In answer to these questions, I believe (yes, faith), based on the evidence I see in the Bible itself, archeological evidence, the evidence of changed lives, the evidence of the human condition, etc. that God as revealed himself in the Hebrew Old Testament and the Christian New Testament. No other religion or belief system that I've studied (and I've studied all the major ones and then some as I'm sure you have) has captured observable reality in a way that approaches what I see in the Scriptures.

I don't expect to win any arguments here, I'm just stating what I believe and why. Whether or not evolution is factual really has no bearing on this; that's a secondary issue.

Thanks for the comments.

Stephen: If there is no God, then life is a meaningless, amoral existance. I don't buy that. You've probably already seen this, but http://www.reasons.org/ provides some interesting counters to your statements about the advancement of science and evidence of God's existance.

Keith: I appreciate your views, and your willingness to admit your subjective input into how you developed them. Coming from outside the faith, it can be difficult for the unconverted to judge whether the believer is simply filtering his observations of the world through those views, or if in fact the religious views are being confirmed by observations in such a way that anyone can reach the same conclusions independently (a la the scientific method). Personal experience in the end doesn't really help me out from an evidentiary standpoint, as I've had people who were into LSD talk about how their lives had been changed for the better by the experience and that I was really missing something special by not trying it out myself. And from my own perspective, the human condition is not so admirable, given all the pain and suffering in the world, that any sort of omnibenevolent god is a credible idea to me. Whatever the case, you were nice enough to share your ideas and so I'm just explaining some of mine in reply.

Stephen of Austin, TX said: "In the end, though, what sacrifice did Jesus really make?..."

I have always liked this question. When someone says "Jesus died for our sins", it should always comes to mind to ask in reply "Is Jesus dead?" and then ask "Who made a bigger sacrifice, Jesus or the soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his platoon buddies?"

Stephen of Austin, Tx. said: "The closer we look at nature, though, the less evidence we see of God, and the more evidence we see that the Universe doesn't care about us one way or another."

Very strange, here is another scientist named Steve from Austin, Tx. that has also made such observations:

http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/archive/design/weinberg_designer.html

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

Keith,
On what basis do you claim that if there is no God, then life is a meaningless, amoral existence? I don't buy that, either. Despite no longer believing in any God or gods, I find plenty of meaning in my life, and my behavior is more morally correct than when I believed, as Chuck and his band of convicts profess to believe, that we're all helpless victims of sin. Without God or "sin" to hide behind, I must assume full responsibility for my own actions.

Conversely, if God exists and created us for his own inscrutable purposes, what meaning is there to life? To (yawn) assuage God's insecurities through expressions of blind faith and obsequious worship?

What about interacting with real people, building real relationships and sharing real experiences? What about procreating? What about being a productive member of society? Life has plenty of meaning without God. I pity those who honestly believe their lives are sad, sorry little vestiges in the absence of an imaginary friend to justify their existence.

I feel equally sorry for those who distrust their empathy and reasoning ability to such a degree that they are certain they would be immoral, or amoral, without someone telling them exactly what to do. That's not living, it's psychological self-abuse.

We've known since the days of Epicurus, ca. 300 BCE, that all logically possible deities are necessarily either unwilling or unable to prevent bad things from happening sometimes. If unable, they are impotent. If unwilling, whether due to apathy or malevolence, they are not benevolent. Similarly, as all possible deities appear unable to prevent good things from happening sometimes, we can rule out malevolent deities. Whether unwilling or unable, we can readily see, all around us every day, that all possible deities are irrelevant. What is the functional difference between an irrelevant deity, and one which does not exist?

I'm not necessarily saying there are no gods, I'm just saying we can prove that all possible gods are necessarily irrelevant with respect to the Universe we inhabit. Whether any gods exist or not, it behooves us to assume they don't, and thereby accept full responsibility for ourselves and our predicament.

(Hint: there's a whole branch of theology, known as "theodicy", that is supposed to address this problem, which is known as the Problem of Evil. The product of over two millennia of theodicy is not a refutation, but a handful of ways to restate the problem so its conclusiveness is less obvious; in other words, euphemisms.)

In keeping with Russell's questioning of the honesty of reporting of the study's outcome, and Martin's observations about the apparent shortcomings of the God of Mr. Colson, it occurs to me that even the apparently inflated claims of a reduction from 20% to 8% recidivism is still unflattering of an alleged Almighty, in that it suggests God's Divine Plan for Solving the Problem of Inherent Sinfulness Once and for All, only works about 60% of the times it's applied. That's awful, from an engineering perspective. If only 60% of bridges remained standing after a year, who would use them?

Martin: Thank you. I can appreciate and respect your perspective as well. I would like to note that my views are only partially subjective. There are several categories of evidence that lead me to my conclusions.

Our dire human condition strongly supports the Christian worldview. Without God's involvement, we would have analiated one another centuries ago, like Cain took out Able. I attribute all good found in this world to God.

Thanks again for the comments. I need to bow out of the discussion and get some work done (once I address a couple other comments, that is).

Stephen: How have you objectively identified what is moral? How have you objectively identified what is meaningful?

Stephen: In regard to your comment about the study, human nature being what it is (as identified in Paul's writings), living a life of faith is not an easy prospect. It's no surprise that some don't follow through (the New Testament record has several examples). The bridge analogy just doesn't hold up (sorry--had to throw that in). Life in Christ is a divine cooperative (i.e., we have responsibility to do our part, and God does his part). You have to admit, the relatively low recitivism rate does point to the fact that Prison Fellowship must be doing something well when compared to other programs. What is that something?

Okay, I'm done. I need to get some work done. Thanks for the comments.

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