Laughter in the dark 11

We need a new word for belief in a deity (or a plurality of deities). “Theism”  is not really the right word because it has a specific meaning in the jargon of religion: it means belief in a god who not only made the world but continues forever to concern himself with it, act in it, play a part in human affairs, and generally preside in his inscrutable way over all goings-on, from the most trivial preoccupations of every single individual to the hugest events of history and nature, retaining full control whenever he feels like exercising it over whether (eg) this person will pass his exam, that volcano will erupt, this African tribe will slaughter that African tribe, this baby will be born deformed, that virus will eat the flesh of a few thousand people, and so on. A whimsical power, the theist’s god, who will never, never be shaken off.

“Theism” is opposed to “deism”. The deist believes that a god made the world and set it going, then brushed off his hands and went away forever. He’s had nothing more to do with it nor ever will. “Okay, there’s your world, now tata!”

Both theism and deism literally mean god-ism, the first derived from Greek, the second from Latin.

We prefer to use English and coin the term godism. It lugs no semantic baggage about with it. Its meaning is clear.

But for its opposite we’ll stick to “atheism'” rather than “godlessism” which would be too clumsy.

It’s good to know that godists are becoming seriously concerned about the spread of atheism. As more and more atheists are daring to declare themselves, and more and more books in defense of atheism and attacking godism are appearing, the godists are getting desperate. They still can’t prove the existence of a god, of course, so they resort to abuse and mockery.

For an example of intense irritation disguising itself as scorn and hilarity, see an article by Bill Murchison here at Townhall.

He claims to find Stephen Hawking’s theory of spontaneous creation side-splittingly funny. In the same way churchmen split their sides when Copernicus said that the planets go round the sun, and again when Giordano Bruno said he was right, and again when Galileo said the same thing. They stopped laughing to burn Giordano Bruno to death, did those godly protectors of The Truth. And Galileo was threatened with torture until he “recanted”, and then was kept confined in his house so the world would not hear what he had to say. Fortunately, his words got out.

Murchison’s get around more easily through the Internet. Here are some of his thoughts:

Assuming, no doubt, our anxious world could use a good laugh, Stephen Hawking undertakes to provide one. He says the universe created itself.

The theory itself isn’t the joke. The joke is the dogged persistence of atheists trying in the face of common sense to persuade the world as to the wisdom they see in their every utterance. Another way of putting it would be, atheism is the joke. …

Hawking’s new book, “The Grand Design,” (written with one Leonard Mlodinow) argues that “the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”…

A series of questions follow which are supposed to baffle the atheist:

I suppose the intent of such stuff is to render non-atheists, Christians especially, mute and fearful. Which is more than a little bit odd. Who is likely to grow mute in the face of a bald claim that the universe more or less invented itself? Was Hawking there with his camera? That would be the first question. Soon other questions would follow. The vast variety of life — that was spontaneous, too? The human organism — the brain, the eye, the ear, the digestive tract — just sort of, you know, happened? The sky, the seas, the seasons, not to mention human reproduction — those things, too?

He seems to be urging a Proof of God by Awe and Ignorance.

He goes on:

And the greatest minds of history failed to catch on, century after God-fearing century? That or they practiced denial? Uhhhh … yeah….

Yes, Bill, they did practice denial of anything that threatened their belief. But their Greatness of Mind is proved to Murchison by their believing. Hawking doesn’t believe, so his mind is not great –

There is a poignancy to the atheist fixation on showing up God. What’s wrong with these people? Many of them are technically intelligent (Hawking is routinely labeled “brilliant”), but they swallow with satisfied smiles the intellectual bilge called atheism. …

Apparently having not the least idea of what atheism is, he invents a church for atheists:

It’s really all too funny, as things tend to get when certain people — over and over without pause — do the same stupid things. Such as instruct the whole of human history to get off this God thing and start believing in spontaneous creation. I can see it all now, can’t you? — The Church of Spontaneous Creation; services whenever you’re feeling spontaneous; come feel the creative power surge through your veins; learn to laugh at fools and frauds and idiots stupid enough to disagree with the doctrine of “It All Just Happened.” …

Seems he fears to be laughed at. He needn’t worry, he’s not funny.

We guess he won’t even try to read Hawking’s book. And if he read it, he wouldn’t understand it. And even if he understood it, he still wouldn’t believe it. He knows The Truth.

  • Al Graham

    Jillian Becker:

    “Don’t you believers claim that your god made the universe “ex nihilo”?”

    Some theists do, and some, like myself, do not. The concept of ‘non-being’ causing ‘being’ is irrational, whether it involves the presence of an agent or not. I am aware that someone like William Lane Craig (of whom I am not a fan) makes this claim, on the grounds that if God did not create the universe ‘ex nihilo’, then matter would have to coexist eternally with God, thus undermining his status as the First Cause. Unfortunately for Craig, he is making a claim about the fundamental nature of matter, which is beyond our current knowledge. Is it the case that science has plumbed the depths of matter to the point where we can go no further?

    It is perfectly possible that there is an informational basis to matter – something proposed by the physicist Anton Zeilinger. This is far more in keeping with what I regard as the biblical understanding of creation (in the broadest sense). Information can certainly coexist eternally with a Creator without undermining his status as First Cause, as this information, of course, has existed eternally in his mind.

    “I know of no scientist who makes that claim. See liz’s comment.”

    And therefore the alternative is the eternal existence of matter. Liz states in her post that this is no more absurd than positing an eternal God. Well, I am happy to see that we are apparently trading in alleged absurdities, given that the only defence of the eternal universe view is that it is no more absurd than the theistic view. That is hardly an argument, and curiously it offers no plausible reason why the theistic explanation should be rejected. One ‘absurd’ view can hardly trump another, unless we have some third factor which confers plausibility on one at the expense of the other.

    Do you have an independent third factor which demonstrates that your view is less absurd than the “intelligent first cause” view? An appeal to science doesn’t count, because we are well outside the range of the empirical method here, and speculating about something at best on the edges of human comprehension, and, at worst, well beyond it. However, I have a concept, which I believe makes my explanation less absurd than yours. We know that an infinite causal regress is logically impossible. No event can occur within this chain if it is preceded by an infinite – and therefore unending – series of events, for obvious reasons.

    We are all, atheists and theists (or ‘godists’, if you really must), in the same boat as far as this problem is concerned. None of us can understand how a reality can exist, which is above the change and causation associated with the idea of time. I acknowledge that it is extremely difficult to comprehend how a being can act above time, given that action involves change, and change implies causation. But it is even more difficult to understand how totally inert matter or energy can suddenly spontaneously activate itself. What is clear is that something has to exist above time, and be dynamic enough to activate a chain of cause and effect. A supreme intelligent first cause seems a far more coherent explanation than the alternative.

    In a debate here in the UK, the atheist philosopher Peter Millican remarked that he found William Lane Craig’s “Kalam Cosmological Argument” unconvincing, although he admitted that the alternative was counterintuitive. I can respect Peter Millican, because unlike people like Richard Dawkins, he is respectful of the views of his intellectual opponents, and is willing to say “we don’t know”. “We don’t know” is not equivalent to “the God explanation is a load of rubbish”. “We don’t know” means that we are all in the same boat, and therefore it makes sense to try to understand the other person’s point of view, instead of rubbishing it with generalisations and straw man arguments. I fail to see why ‘intelligence’ is to be considered less coherent than, for example, the multiverse explanation or an eternally existing universe. It seems remarkable to me that those who claim to be most rational insist that we can only be rational if we denounce the idea of ultimate intelligence, as if to suggest that reason can only be rational if it originates from non-intelligence! This is the “square circle” that atheists are expecting us all to accept.

    “Can’t you see the illogicality, the inconsistency, in saying that “everything must have a cause therefore there was a First Cause that had no cause”?”

    But I am not aware that I said that “everything must have a cause”! You are attacking a straw man here. Causation is something that we observe within nature, and we infer that it is universal – in fact, we have to infer its universality, otherwise no scientific predictions could be made. But to argue that what is true of nature must be true of the whole of reality, is to assume that the philosophy of naturalism is true (namely, that “nature is all that exists”). In other words, you are asking someone who does not accept the legitimacy of this philosophy to defend his view by assuming its truth. Now that is illogical!

    What we observe is that nature poses certain problems, which cannot be resolved by appealing to nature’s own resources. I gave the example of the origin and development of reason itself. Daniel Dennett ‘explains’ – in “Breaking the Spell” – that theistic beliefs are a natural phenomenon developed to enable people through the ages to survive, through “tricking the mind” with ideas of hope and purpose etc. The only trouble with this theory is that it can be applied to any set of ideas, including the ideas of the philosophy of naturalism itself. I could just as well argue that Daniel Dennett espouses naturalism, because it is a method that enables him to make sense of his world, thus helping him to cope and survive. Within this paradigm, truth is completely irrelevant. This naturalistic explanation for the emergence of reason is completely self-refuting, because whatever claims it makes about other ideas, it must also apply to itself, thus rendering its own truth claim invalid by its own methodology. This is really so easy to understand, that I am puzzled why you – and Liz – find it so difficult. If there is no ultimate intelligence behind the universe, then obviously what we call ‘intelligence’ is a natural phenomenon produced by an inherently non-intelligent universe. It therefore developed for the same purpose that biological systems apparently developed – for reasons of utility and survival. This has serious implications, and I am well aware that atheists are not comfortable with this being pointed out. Even Darwin himself was rather worried about this point, hence: “…with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?” (Letter to William Graham, 3rd July 1881).

    “You are arguing with yourself, not with us.”

    And you accuse me of making unintelligible comments!

    “We are not on a crusade to discredit religion; we think religion discredits itself.”

    Now that is sophistry, plain and simple.

    “Though it is true we would like mankind to grow out of its murderous superstitions!”

    ‘Murderous’? You are referring to morality, are you? Now I wonder where you get that from within the philosophy of naturalism? Deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’?

    Whatever evils may be pinned on what you call ‘religion’ (and I am not a great fan of ‘religion’, as it happens, which is a very different thing from ‘God’), there is nothing within the atheistic view of reality which tells us that we should not commit murder. I must stress that I am NOT saying that atheists are not moral people – or cannot be – but I am saying that an objective moral sense is not logical within a purely naturalistic paradigm. And if perhaps you argue that morality is subjective, then we are back to square one. Who decides what is morally right?

    We could get into a tiresome tit-for-tat about which view of reality is more bloodthirsty. You will mention the evils committed in the name of ‘religion’, and I can refer to Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao etc. It gets us nowhere. It’s an insane merry-go-round. I am no defender of all that occurs in the name of God. I am interested in something called truth.

    Liz seems to think that truth is limited to the data of sense perception, but, as I pointed out in an earlier comment, strong empiricism (which is what she is advocating) is self-refuting, in that the very idea she proposes is itself NOT a piece of empirical data. Therefore, in her mind, it cannot count as a ‘fact’ and therefore cannot be regarded as ‘truth’. So on what basis is she attacking my view?

    If facts are just trees, dolphins, clouds, atoms and stars etc, then no claim can be made about the fundamental nature of reality. A philosophy is an interpretation of empirical facts, and this interpretation draws on ideas, which are not derived from sense perception. The philosophy of naturalism (on which atheism depends) is therefore as metaphysical as any theological claim. In fact, dare I suggest that it is a quasi-religion, demanding ‘faith’!

    For the reasons I have given – and more others – I find atheism utterly unconvincing.

    • You are still arguing – for the most part – with yourself. But let’s leave that aside for the moment.

      Reason, or “mind”, is at this end of evolution. It is a verb, not a noun. An activity, not a thing. It is what the human brain does. As a “walk” is what the legs do. Useful to make a noun out of it, but it is still an activity and not a thing. Even though we cannot say much about consciousness, we can see the evolution of the brain, especially from the higher primates to homo sapiens. One can see the gradual increase of the brain’s capabilities. Finally, (so far), self-consciousness and ratiocination. No, I am not a scientist, but I have read Darwin and Dawkins, with much pleasure and amazement, and have been well persuaded that they have got it right. I see how we are organic creatures, changing continuously. I have learnt how matter changes, or rather the forms of energy. I trust science when it tells me that matter does not perish. As it will not go, it is very likely that it never came. It is more than plausible that matter is eternal. If your god did not make the universe ex nihilo, what did he make it out of?

      You absurdly postulate (by implication) mind without brain, sight without eye, energy outside of Energy (aka Universe).

      I am quite happy to say “I don’t know” about all sorts of things. Science says “I don’t know” all the time, and tries all the time to prove itself wrong. If it cannot do that, it accepts an idea as (provisionally) right. The province of science is nature. It can only investigate nature. If anything outside of nature exists – let’s call it for the sake of being conventional, the “supernatural” – IT will not, cannot, be discovered by science. So IT cannot be proved. Sure IT can be said to “exist” in your imagination. So does the Starship Enterprise. The word “truth” – and you say you want to know the truth – applies only to statements. I can say that it is true that I am sitting at my desk and typing these words. I make that statement, and I can say meaningfully that it is true. There is no statement you or anyone will ever be able to make about the existence of “God” that can in the same way be said to be true. (Though you can, of course, say that it is true that you are stating there is a god.)

      Nature shows many signs that it was not “intelligently designed”. We posted a fascinating video a few days ago of a giraffe’s neck being dissected, which beautifully illustrates evolution as against design. If there was a designer of our universe, an omnipotent, omniscient designer, he plainly made a botch of it. Look at all the deformations, the failures, the awkwardnesses, the redundancies. So he is not omniscient or omnipotent. If we add that the designer is also supposed to be benevolent, and the measure of benevolence is, say, what is popularly conceived to be Christian morality, then why does “he” make much animal life dependent on devouring other animal life? Why did “he” create viruses? I think it was David Hume (among others) who pointed out that if “he” is omnipotent, then he cannot be benevolent, and if he is benevolent, he cannot be omnipotent. I’m not going to look up the exact words because this is New Year’s eve and I’m going soon to wassail. In sum, logic – internal logic, or consistency – cannot sustain a belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing, AND all-good god.

      But apart from all that, why would a god, or an intelligence, create the universe? You don’t attempt to answer that question of mine. If a designer designs, he designs for a purpose. What is the “intelligent designer’s” purpose? An intelligence is that which reasons, so what reason is there, could there be, for the existence of the universe? We know that Something exists. Why does Something exist? If there is no designer, no architect, no creator, then the question does not need to be asked. If there is, and you believe there is, then the question needs not only to be asked but to be answered. Please answer it.

      Finally, on the question of what is moral behavior. The pre-Christian Greeks and Romans had codes of moral behavior that were not sanctioned by their gods or their religion. Of all the ancient religions that I know of, only two could be described as “moral religions”: Zoroastrianism and the monotheism (partly concerned with morality) that developed into Judaism (very much concerned with morality). (My – highly unfavorable – views on Christian morality can be found in the series of essays, under Pages at the top of our margin, titled “The Birth and Early History of Christianity”.) It certainly is not necessary for a society to have a morality sanctioned by divine reward and punishment for it to forbid and punish murder and theft and lying etcetera.

      I regard Communism as a religion. In fact, I have quite often written about how it is secular Christianity. With the same faults as Christianity, by and large. Many others have called Marxism “a Christian heresy”. Ideology and religion can be seen to be the same. If you want “religion” to be identified as different in that it has a belief in divinity, then okay, I’ll settle for calling all religions “ideologies”. Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot did not do what they did in the name of atheism, but in the name of Communism. Marx did not want global Communism in order to have global atheism. The atheism was incidental. Hitler did not go to war to spread vegetarianism but Nazism. His vegetarianism was incidental.

      What you call “the philosophy of naturalism” I call science. It is not a philosophy or an ideology. It is a method. Your insistence that those of us who do not believe in the supernatural have a “philosophy of naturalism” is one of the points in your argument that prompts me to tell you that you are arguing with yourself.

      There are also those old schoolboy questions that remain forever unanswered, such as: Can God create a rock so heavy that he cannot lift it himself? If yes, then he is not God. If no, then he is not God. In sum, God is a logical impossibility.

      For the reasons I have given – and many others – I find the hypothesis of a creator god utterly unconvincing. More positively, I consider it ludicrous. Even insane.

    • liz

      To clarify my remark that “eternal existence is no more absurd than an eternal God” – actually it’s not only “no more absurd”, but “much less” – in fact, it’s not absurd at all, and is a more efficient hypothesis.
      According to the principle of “Occams razor”, one should never multiply explanations or increase their complexity beyond necessity. An explanation should be as simple and direct as possible.
      The hypothesis that the universe exists eternally by itself is much simpler and more direct than that it could only exist after having been created by a God who exists eternally. The former explanation is more efficient than the latter, by reducing its complexity.
      And as Jillian noted, science has proven that matter cannot be created or destroyed – in other words, exists eternally.

  • Al Graham

    Jillian Becker: “Most of your comment is unintelligible.”

    Nothing of what I have written will be unintelligible to someone who has studied basic epistemology; you know, the subject that deals with questions of evidence, knowledge, rationality etc.

    Perhaps you could explain to me what is ‘unintelligible’ about the question of how the philosophy of naturalism (aka materialism or physicalism) explains the origin, emergence and function of reason within its own view of reality? This is an extremely basic question, which atheists seem to ignore or sidestep. If grandiose claims are going to be made about the origin of the idea of ‘God’, then those claims need to be thoroughly investigated, in order to ascertain whether those making them are being logically consistent. I argue that they are grossly inconsistent.

    One more point: if my arguments are ‘unintelligible’, then where does that leave the idea of “everything from nothing” – a totally bizarre – and, at best, counterintuitive – idea we are being expected to accept purely by taking a leap of faith into the arms of the likes of Hawking et al? Theists are frequently accused of relying on a certain (erroneous) definition of ‘faith’ (believing something without reason and evidence, or even in spite of it), and yet, if that is really the case, it seems we are not the only ones…

    As for the idea of ‘first cause’: all you can offer is the value judgment ‘stale’. No attempt to refute it, I see. In the world of reasoned debate, ‘stale’ has no meaning. It is an emotional judgment, and anyone who relies on it is therefore not acting rationally. If the idea of a ‘first cause’ is not acceptable, then those who value logic should offer an alternative. The two alternatives can easily be shown to be irrational. If the only attempted rebuttal of the argument for a ‘first cause’ is “we simply don’t know”, then fine. Don’t then accuse theists of resorting to an “argument from ignorance”, if atheists comfort themselves with the same device!

    • Don’t you believers claim that the universe was made “ex nihilo” (by your god)?

      I know of no scientist who makes such a claim. See liz’s comment.

      Can’t you see the illogicality, the inconsistency, in saying that “everything must have a cause therefore there was a First Cause that had no cause”?

      I did study epistemology at university, so I think I have an inkling of what it is all about. I still find much of what you wrote in your first (and second) comment unintelligible.

      You are arguing with yourself, not with us.

      We are not on a crusade to discredit religion; we think religion discredits itself.

      Though it is true we would like mankind to grow out of its murderous superstitions!

      You still haven’t told us why your god made the universe.

      If you are thinking that you can come up with an argument we haven’t heard before, one (or more) that will make us suddenly “see the light” and become believers, you should give up trying now. You will not succeed.

      Why do you want to convince us that there is a creator god? Are you unsure of your own belief? Do you need to convince us in order to convince yourself?

      Or are you on a campaign to discredit atheism?

  • Al Graham: Most of your comment is unintelligible. But what is plain is that you are bringing up the stale old argument, the absurd and illogical argument, that everything must have a cause therefore there was a First Cause that had no cause.

    You postulate a maker of the universe. So WHY did he make it?

  • Al Graham

    An article rather light on evidence from both sides. Mutual mockery doesn’t get us anywhere. I must say that it is rather cheap for atheists to claim that theists (I won’t use the awkward word ‘godists’) resort to mockery, when in fact theists have had to run the gauntlet of decades of abuse from those who seem to be either unable or unwilling to understand the concept of inference, not to mention misapplying the idea of ‘burden of proof’. As for the false definition of ‘faith’, well, I won’t go there…

    Ralph in the comment section has made a few interesting comments. “I began to realize that the only thing created was god by the human mind.” I notice that that statement has no supporting evidence. But this is a major problem for the philosophy that undergirds atheism, namely, the philosophy of naturalism. In fact, I would say that it is THE major problem. How does naturalism account for ‘reason’ itself. The entire functioning of the human mind (or, should I say, brain) is nothing more than a survival mechanism, if the naturalistic explanation of origins is true (whatever ‘true’ is supposed to mean within this paradigm). Reason and ideas therefore only exist for reasons of utility. Utility does not confer truth on any idea, and especially a metaphysical idea such as naturalism. If the idea of ‘God’ is judged to be merely a human construct, evolved or emerged to fulfil some purpose, then the same could be said of all ideas – including the idea of naturalism. If the retort is that “naturalism is the inevitable result of the common sense use of our senses, and, by extension, the scientific method”, then that is a conclusion resulting from special pleading. An appeal to the kind of strong empiricism on which the metaphysics of philosophical naturalism relies, is disqualified by logic, on the grounds that such an epistemological theory is self-refuting. We cannot derive theories of reality from the mere observation of snails, stars, atoms or whatever.

    If an appeal to morality is made (we ‘ought’ to assume that the philosophy is true on the basis that we can only obtain facts through our sense), well, that is absurd. The naturalistic fallacy deals with that one.

    Therefore the philosophy to which most atheists appeal (and all atheists who are on a crusade against what they call ‘religion’) is logically impossible. It is self-refuting in a number of areas. Therefore there is an alternative, which no truly intelligent person can afford to mock.

    As for ultimate origins and the question of “Who created God?”, well, this is a problem for all worldviews. Either nothing existed “in the beginning” and we have to convince ourselves that non-being can cause being. Anyone who accuses those who oppose such a notion as relying on an “argument from ignorance” are enemies of reason. If such an idea were incorporated into the scientific method, then science would grind to a halt. I am well aware that there are claims that particles can “pop in and out of existence”, but this is merely an assumption. We have no idea whether they pop in and out of existence, or whether they are interacting with a dimension of reality undetectable by the empirical method (and remember science is happy to infer the existence of such realities, such as the multiverse and dark matter). No scientific experiment would have any explanatory power if the principle of “something from nothing” were considered valid, because the inference we make in order to extract explanation from an experiment relies on the uniformity of nature and conservation of mass. The alternative to ‘ex nihilo’ is infinite regress, which is also illogical. An infinite regress renders any event impossible, being preceded by an infinite – and therefore unending – series of events.

    The alternative explanation is the existence of a first cause above time. Is this explanation any more absurd than the ideas of “everything from nothing” or “infinite regress”? Of course not, and it is incumbent on those who mock such an idea to provide an alternative. If they say that “I don’t know”, but “science will work it out one day”, then they are guilty of some of the very methods of which they accuse the theists, namely, resorting to an argument from ignorance and a “gaps explanation” – in this case “naturalism of the gaps”.

    For these reasons – and others – I am not at all convinced by the claims of atheism.

    • liz

      An alternative explanation to “ex Nihilo” either by God, or by itself, is simply eternal existence, which is no more absurd than positing an eternal God.
      Your explanation of naturalism is a bit too convoluted to follow, so I’m not sure if it addressed the simple premise of objectivism – that there is an objective reality, and we understand it through the use of reason.
      We ascertain facts through the use of reason and the scientific method. Facts are true. “Truth”, as something on a higher plane than facts, is an imaginary construct, as is the Idea of the supernatural.
      As for theists “running the gauntlet of decades of abuse” from atheists, how about the centuries of abuse that atheists, or even theists, who challenged religious doctrine, suffered under the iron fist of theists?
      As mentioned in this article, Copernicus, Bruno, and Galileo are but a few of many examples.

  • Ralph

    I became an atheist because I began asking myself “Who created God?”. My theist friends all said god had always existed. My reply was “What if the universe has always existed then the concept of god would be unnecessary?” I began to realize that the only thing created was god by the human mind. I will leave the question of how the universe was created up to better minds than mine, but I will never leave up to god.

    • Jillian Becker

      I've always wondered why many people find it easier to believe that there was nothing and then there was something (created ex nihilo by a super-being), than to believe that there always was something: that matter has always existed, as we know it always will.

    • philabor

      Someone once told me that saying humans evolved from nothing was like saying a watch just created itself out of dirt. I wish I had thought to ask them if there was a watch factory that had existed from the beginning of time…