Media Check – God is a poor answer to the ultimate question

I don’t usually like to get involved in religious or philosophical discussions these days. I started a s Philosophy degree and decided that it wasn’t for me. As Marx said; ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.’

As such, my view has been the usual one of believe what you like, so long as you don’t force your views onto myself or others it makes no odds. Religious belief has, in my experience, been the last of all factors in determining how ‘good’ a person is, with Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist (the proper ones, not the hippie spiritualist kind), Atheist and Agnostic friends, some of whom are exemplars of decency and selflessness, others who are something of the selfish bastard variety. Their belief/non belief seemingly having no input into this.

So it was with an open mind I approached Mehdi Hasan’s article in the New Statesman entitled ‘God is the best answer to: “Why is there something rather than nothing?’

The article begins:

‘‘You believe that Muhammad went to heaven on a winged horse?” That was the question posed to me by none other than Richard Dawkins a few weeks ago, in front of a 400-strong audience at the Oxford Union. I was supposed to be interviewing him for al-Jazeera but the world’s best-known atheist decided to turn the tables on me.

So what did I do? I confessed. Yes, I believe in prophets and miracles. Oh, and I believe in God, too. Shame on me, eh?

Now, having seen the interview myself, the manner the question was asked of him did not seem to warrant such a forcefully unabashed response. Still, with so many differing beliefs in the world, it’s good to know where we stand and that the guy conducting the debate believes in miracles and winged horses…

He continues; ‘Faith, in the disdainful eyes of the atheist…’ handily lumping all atheists together as disrespectful contemptuous figures… I wonder what his reaction to such a generalisation of a religious group would be?

‘…is irredeemably irrational; to have faith, as Dawkins put it to me, is to have “belief in something without evidence”. This, however, is sheer nonsense.’

This is misrepresnting Dawkins somewhat. In the interview Dawkins say’s ‘faith where faith means belief in something without evidence’. He does not lump all faith into this definition, or say that ‘to have faith’ is to believe in something without evidence. Rather he attacks ‘the type of faith’ which carries with it dogmatic beliefs which cannot be swayed by reason, evidence or logic.

Although, if we want to ignore what Dawkins said we can always just read a dictionary…

Faith: Strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.

Still, let’s see how this is justified as sheer nonsense… (this better be good…)

‘Are we seriously expected to believe that the likes of Descartes, Kierkegaard, Hegel, Rousseau, Leibniz and Locke were all unthinking or irrational idiots?’

Oh… I was expecting… more…

These were all excellent philosophers, but they were also men of their time. Descartes is well know for bending over backwards to try and fit God into his system of knowledge, whilst Deists like Rousseau and Locke were around at a time of flux in which Deism became something of a stepping stone between organised religious belief and other philosophies – including atheistic ones. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that had they been born after Darwin, Kant and Hume’s contributions on the subject then they may well have been atheists themselves. Indeed Dawkins says something very similar in their interview.

Also, I object to going from ‘an irrational belief in God’ to include ‘unthinking’ and ‘idiot’ as additional descriptions. Very, very few atheists would say faith in a God (which is irrational) makes you unthinking or an idiot. Many of us hold irrational beliefs. Ideas like ‘if I wear my lucky shirt my local team will win this weekend’ are irrational. The person thinking that could still be a highly intelligent person though.

‘In trying to disparage “faith”, Dawkins and his allies constantly confuse “evidence” with “proof”’

He continues… making an argument which can be refuted by simply reading a thesaurus.

‘…those of us who believe in God do so without proof but not without evidence. As the Oxford theologian (and biophysicist) Alister McGrath has observed: “Our beliefs may be shown to be justifiable, without thereby dem – onstrating that they are proven.”’

Right, well I think the issue here then is atheists and believers are using different meanings for ‘evidence’. To quote wikipedia:

‘Evidence is and includes everything that is used to reveal and determine the truth, and therefore is presumed to be true and related to a case. Giving or procuring evidence is the process of using those things that are either (a) presumed to be true, or (b) were in fact proven to be true by earlier evidence (truths) and demonstrates the broadening of the truth of a case. And the collection of evidence is in fact the act of determining; what is evidence. Whereas, the word evidence carries with it the presumption of it (the evidence) being seen as true, the where and how it fits; its relationship in and to the other evidence. In short, it goes from determining what is evidence, to evidence is determined; determining truth, to truth determined. Evidence is the currency by which one fulfills the burden of proof.’

The key bit for us being in bold. The types of evidence arguments for God tend to utilise involve evidence which is presumed to be true, whilst atheists tend to use the word evidence in terms of where something has been proven to be true.

In other words ‘my mate Dave says he saw a flying hippo’. Is that evidence for flying hippos? Well, can we corroborate it? Did he film it? Were there any other witnesses? Can he take us to the same spot and show us the flying hippo? Or does Dave have a history of making things up? Attention seeking? Or getting very, very drunk? Those factors will help to determine whether the evidence is true. If it can’t be established as such, then it can only be presumed to be.

Therefore a believer in the existence of flying hippos could, rightly, say that there is evidence of flying hippos in this instance, if they presume Dave is correct. Non-believers of the flying hippo would equally say, just as rightly, that there is no evidence for flying hipposas Dave’s evidence has not been shown to be true or corroborated by other evidence.

Additional Edit: (Further, one could point out that the whole point of evidence is to determine what the truth of the matter is. The standard scientific atheist like Dawkins is out to discover what the truth is, making such determinations based off the evidence present (that judgement usually being that there is insufficient evidence to conclude a God exists). This in contrast to the religious view which can often claim to already ‘know’ the truth despite huge reliance on faith over proof/evidence. Therefore one could claim religions belief/faith and evidence are incompatible (hence the famous Hitchhiker’s Guide joke) as one claims to already know the truth whilst the other is required in determining what the truth is. As such, a religious argument will regularly make the evidence suit their pre-made conclusion rather than draw a conclusion from the evidence.)

Hopefully that clears up why atheists and believers will both make differing claims on whether there is evidence for the existence of a God. Or Gods.

Anyway, back to the article:

‘Those atheists who harangue us theists for our supposed lack of evidence should consider three things. First, it may be a tired cliché but it is nonetheless correct: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. I can’t prove God but you can’t disprove him. The only non-faith-based position is that of the agnostic.’

Agnostics tell me the same thing all the time. You can’t ‘know’ God doesn’t exist. So why are you an atheist and not an agnostic? This just comes back to the burden of proof and scientific method. I can’t ‘know’ that many things exist or not. Flying hippos, the spaghetti monster, leprechauns and unicorns. I don’t say I’m agnostic about them though, I say they don’t exist. In this way, stating even the definitive sounding statement ‘There is no God’ is simply shorthand for ‘at this moment in time I see no evidence to support the theory of any deity’s existence, however I am quite happy to change my position should the evidence present itself’. But going around saying that about everything we don’t believe in is time consuming, so we stick to saying ‘I don’t believe in God’, ‘there is no God’, ‘I’m an atheist.’ Going around saying ‘I haven’t made my mind up yet,’ ‘That thing may or may not exist’, ‘I refuse to commit one way or another on saying whether I believe that thing exists or not’ just seems to be intellectual cowardice.

Agnostics and theists often mistake this for a level of certainty which is not present. I am happy to change my mind once evidence (the true kind) comes to light. My current working theory that there is no God is based on absence of evidence; I don’t believe in things that there is no evidence for, therefore I am not ‘agnostic’ towards those things.

Richard Dawkins has summed this up himself, and did so in the interview quite sufficiently to wonder why Mehdi need bother even raising this in his article… Anyhoo, to quote wikipedia’s entry on Atheistic criticism of Agnosticism:

‘According to Richard Dawkins, a distinction between agnosticism and atheism is unwieldy and depends on how close to zero we are willing to rate the probability of existence for any given god-like entity. Since in practice it is not worth contrasting a zero probability with one that is nearly indistinguishable from zero, he prefers to categorize himself as a “de facto atheist”. He specifies his position by means of a scale of 1 to 7. On this scale, 1 indicates “100 per cent probability of God.” A person ranking at 7 on the scale would be a person who says “I know there is no God…” Dawkins places himself at 6 on the scale, which he characterizes as “I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there”, but leaning toward 7. About himself, Dawkins continues that “I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.”‘

The important thing to take away from that is that atheists are quite happy to move around that scale based on the evidence. If new evidence came to light suggesting the real possibility of a God I, and many other atheists, would no doubt say we were closer to the God end of the spectrum than we previously were. Equally as importantly is that whilst so little evidence exists for the existence of God, so many people are very happy to put themselves right at the far end of the spectrum, a decision usually based on faith alone – faith in God, and in what little evidence they have being true.

‘Second, there are plenty of things that cannot be scientifically tested or proven but that we believe to be true, reasonable, obvious even. Which of these four pretty uncontroversial statements is scientifically testable? 1) Your spouse loves you. 2) The Taj Mahal is beautiful. 3) There are conscious minds other than your own. 4) The Nazis were evil.’

There are many differences here. My partner, the Taj Mahal, other people, the Nazis… they exist(ed). Ascribing traits to them follows from that basic fact. We know these things exist thanks to a wealth of evidence. God’s existence has no such evidence.

Some stuff about multiverses is mentioned (some scientists are working on some hypothetical theories therefore science relies just as much on faith as religion… except no scientist to date has formed a religion around these hypothetical musings…)

Then we get to the good stuff… arguments for the existence of God!

‘Take the Kalam cosmological argument – first outlined by the medieval Muslim theologian al-Ghazali, and nowadays formulated by the Christian philosopher William Lane Craig as follows:

1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
2) The universe began to exist.
3) Therefore, the universe has a cause.

Whether you agree with it or not, it is a valid deductive argument, a genuine appeal to reason and logic.’

A ‘logical argument’ need not be rooted in logic, and certainly isn’t right simply because it is logical. This has been established as far back as the ancient Greek philosophers (who first posited the cosmological argument). No one is denying religious people can be logical, reasonable people… or that an argument from logic can be used to argue for the existence of God. But just because an argument is logical does not make it right. And clinging to an argument which has been challenged time and again certainly does not lend an air of logic to your belief.

‘Or how about the argument that says the universe, in Davies’s words, “is in several respects ‘fine-tuned’ for life”? Remember, the late Antony Flew, the atheist philosopher who embraced God in 2004, did so after coming to the conclusion that “there had to be an in – telligence behind the integrated complexity of the physical universe”. To pretend that Flew, of all people, arrived at such a belief blindly, without thinking it through, “without evidence”, is plain silly.’

Again that word ‘evidence’… In this instance the evidence is the fine-tuned nature of the world we live in. This is a view which requires us to look at time the wrong way round. ‘We exist, our existence under any other circumstances wouldn’t have happened, therefore the circumstances must have been engineered to fit us,’ is the basic premise of the argument. However, if we look at time the way it actually runs, we see we grew out of our circumstances. The earth isn’t fine tuned to us – we are adapted to the earth. If the earth were different, so we would be (if we existed at all). The results of a million dice rolls are only an incredible piece of luck when viewed at the end of all those dice rolls. Before they’re rolled all of the possibilities are just as likely as the rest. (Except all 6s, that’s just daft…)

Apparently those are the only arguments for God’s existence that can be provided at this point. So far as evidence goes though we’ve only really encountered logical arguments with no substance behind them. If I ascribed the ability of universe creation to flying hippos we’d have just as much evidence for their existence as God’s at this point, and I don’t see a church for them springing up… yet…

He segways through Islam’s history with evolution. Which is reasonably interesting I guess… and onto his conclusion:

Yet the theory of evolution, whether Muslims accept it or not, doesn’t explain the origins of the universe, the laws of science or our objective moral values.’

The theory of evolution was never meant to explain the origins of the universe or laws of science… Though it does provide some insight into how morality evolved.

‘In short, most of us who believe in God do so not because we are irrational, incurious or immature’

He continues, expressing the view that because you expound an irrational, unreasonable and untrue belief you yourself must be an irrational, unreasonable, stupid person, when we know that is not the case, and only in callousness would such a suggestion be made.

‘but because He is the best answer to the question posed by Leibniz more than 300 years ago: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”’

He finishes. To this I have the following to say: God is not the ‘best’ answer at all to the question posed. God is ‘an’ answer… a poor one at that… Through most of human history God has been put forward as the explanation for whatever we couldn’t understand at the time… lighting, rain, storms, luck, death, wealth… But, just as we chased our Gods from mountain tops I don’t believe it beyond human endeavor to chase those Gods from the spaces left in the universe which we have yet to explore and from the ‘time’ preceding the universe’s beginnings. The God of the Gaps is a poor one, feeding off the scraps our lack of knowledge leave for him, and is certainly not the best explanation man kind can give for our existence and the existence of the wonder that surrounds us.

As to any other given God – the Christian one (whichever that is…), Muslim, Jewish etc their own existence requires further proof still. Dawkins’ question ‘‘You believe that Muhammad went to heaven on a winged horse?” was not one set to determine the great cosmological question of whether the universe had a beginning, and if so what caused it, but was one to narrow down Mehdi Hasan’s own specific beliefs. Because believing in a Christian/Islamic/Jewish God entails additional beliefs beyond ‘what made something spring from nothing’?. It asks whether you believe God killed 24,000 Israelites and only spared the rest because one person diverted his rage, whether he killed 70,000 over a census, or whether Jesus cursed a fig tree because it had no figs on it… These can sound like trivial matters, but as Carl Sagan said ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’… The ‘issue’ of God however seems to elicit the most extraordinary claim in the history of mankind and carries with it such little evidence that it beggars belief how such a powerful being could give such little testimony to his own existence.

The worst thing about Mehdi Hasan’s piece though is that many, if not all of the points raised in his article were addressed by Richard Dawkins in their discussion. Equally, Dawkins makes the point very early on that he believes the vast majority of religious people are perfectly good individuals. His ‘attacks’ are on the type of dogmatic faith where evidence is not required for a belief to be held and outlines quite reasonably why such faith can be dangerous in the world. And it is this type of faith that need not be held by the religious alone. As the video shows, ideologies such as Communism and Nazism have been used to defend terrible actions just as much as religions have.

So the question must be raised; why the need for such an article? The central premise; that God is the best explanation for the universe’s existence is so daft, and poorly argued it barely requires discussion. More importantly for me seems to be the issues Mehdi raises regarding how he believes atheists view believers – as irrational, unreasonable, stupid etc…

Atheists don’t look down at believers as lesser people; stupid, irrational and unreasonable. No doubt there are stupid, irrational, unreasonable people of faith (>cough< Tea Party >cough<), just as there are such people without faith… Equally, just because many atheists would consider the belief in God to be irrational, that does not mean the person is considered to be. Whilst it may surprise me that so many intelligent people seem unable to get their heads around some of the concepts I’ve discussed; (being an atheist doesn’t mean you ‘know’ there’s not a God’) I’m equally surprised that so many intelligent people believe in free-market capitalism, so who knows, maybe I’m the crazy one?

Equally, what surprises me about the article – after having watched the video – is that where Dawkins is wrong, in my view, is his belief that religion causes many of the horrific acts which are done in the name of religion (terrorist bombings etc). During the interview Mehdi really seemed to have Dawkins on the back foot on the topic, and I’m surprised his article wasn’t more to do this – pointing out that religion rarely inspires evil deeds in a vacuum, and that geopolitical causes are more to blame. Much evidence could have been brought to bare and Dawkins’ argument’s main flaw could have been exposed. But rather than that he focuses his article on defending the ‘rationality’ of religious belief.

So for me the article comes across as a defense of himself as a believer and a man of faith. Not just of the specific beliefs he holds (we never really got to address that bit about the winged horse did we?) but that ‘belief in a God’ can be a rational, reasonable position. ‘We’re not idiot’s…’ he seems to proclaim, time and time again. ‘Look at all these clever philosophers who believed in God… Look at all this logical ‘evidence’ we have… Look at these daft things some scientists believe in… in conclusion; God is a rational belief and the best explanation or the universes’ existence…’

I’ve addressed these points already, so won’t extend my writing any further than I already have (do I hear a distant cheer at this point?). All I can say is that I’m disappointed with this article’s missed opportunity to show up Dawkins for where his argument is genuinely weak and needs challenging for his his own belief over evidence weakness. Instead Mehdi focuses his ire on the most reasonable, well argued points Dawkins has to offer, and on points which we atheists are tired of having to explain to believers and agnostics alike (when the person asking the question usually has some much more bizzare beliefs waiting in the wings…).

Dawkins has done great work popularising atheism and making some of the best arguments on the most oft repeated points atheists will find themselves challenged on. His failure is not for being a ‘militant’ atheist, or someone who holds dogmatic belief in the non-existence of God. His failure is in ascribing failings and evils of human beings to the religions they are part of. This is something I don’t think any amount of evidence will sway Dawkins on, and is his irrational position. Mehdi, meanwhile, asks whether agnosticism isn’t the logical position? Philosophical agnosticism is, but for the purpose of the day to day we call ourselves atheists. Mehdi knows this I feel and still believes God is the best answer to the ultimate question, this is his irrational position.

Speaking of ultimate questions; I’ll leave you with a quote from Douglas Adams:

‘If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have on your hands is a nonworking cat. Life is a level of complexity that almost lies outside our vision; it is so far beyond anything we have any means of understanding that we just think of it as a different class of object, a different class of matter; ‘life’, something that had a mysterious essence about it, was God given, and that’s the only explanation we had. The bombshell comes in 1859 when Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species. It takes a long time before we really get to grips with this and begin to understand it, because not only does it seem incredible and thoroughly demeaning to us, but it’s yet another shock to our system to discover that not only are we not the centre of the Universe and we’re not made by anything, but we started out as some kind of slime and got to where we are via being a monkey.’



About iwastoldtheredbegin

Politics of the Left Wing and Liberal variety, plus gin!
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