Responding to Christian Reason

337678_357962984231725_811981445_o-1I came across this blog post by a Christian and thought it warranted a detailed answer, so I have written one.

Quote: “But to look out at creation and proclaim: “I know there is no Creator!” is beyond me. How do you know?

I actually fall in the agnostic category mentioned earlier in the article. It is irrational to make the absolute claim that there are no supernatural things, or to make any claim about how the universe started. There is not enough data to confirm anything about those ideas. That’s why I generally avoid the atheist label even though it technically applies.

However, there are ways to rule out specific hypotheses. If someone proposes a deity who interacts with the reality we are able to observe and test, and offers specific claims about the nature of said deity, all we must do is observe reality and compare the results to what we would expect if such a deity existed. Suppose I claim there’s a deity that will heal people’s sickness if I pray for them to be healed. We could run a simple experiment in which I pray for one group of sick people and not for a different group, and see if there’s any difference in their recovery. This sort of experiment has actually been done with Christians multiple times, and has shown prayer to be useless.

So while I can’t say “there is no creator”, I can rule out specific types of creators. For example, due to the extensive and fundamental flaws in the “design” of living things, I can rule out any god who is remotely competent at creating. The numerous tiny bones in our feet are a terrible idea for bipedal locomotion and cause a lot of injuries and painful structural failures. Ostriches inherited a much better setup for bipedal movement from their dinosaur ancestors, whereas we diverged from tree-dwelling species relatively recently that had more hand-like feet. Our eyes are poorly put together compared to what’s possible, or even octopus eyes, and are prone to devastating failure because of their basic “design”. I could go on for a long, long time about just how inefficient, incompetent, lazy, and maliciously deceptive a god would have to be in order for this to be his creation, but I’ve already done so in several previous articles and I have future plans for a more detailed discussion of biology.

Quote: “How can one ever be 100% convinced that God does not exist?

I’m with you on this one, as are almost all the atheists I know. I think Christians too often confuse the rejection of specific gods with a rejection of the possibility of any god. We are convinced that specific gods do not exist because the claims made about them contradict reality. But I can’t say much about the possible existence of deities in general.

Quote: “…much of science already points to the existence of God. The most persuasive of these arguments is the sheer improbability of life in the universe.

It could point to any god you want to propose, or it can just as easily point to any number of non-god hypotheses. Also, improbability means nothing on its own. Enough time can effectively raise the overall chance of even a very “unlikely” event to near certainty. The sheer number of chemical reactions happening on every planet and the sheer number of planets in the universe mean our best estimate for the chance of life forming is much, much higher than the supposed chances creationists like to quote, most of which are highly exaggerated or contain egregious mathematical errors, and are based on no real understanding of the subject. In addition, they simply ignore numerous possibilities that we can’t calculate (like how many different configurations of universal conditions would be capable of resulting in life), and our sample size of planets with life is too small at the moment for anything more than logical speculation. If that’s the “most persuasive”, then you’ve really got nothing.

Also, pure chance isn’t the only factor. Adding energy to a system often increases the chance and speed of certain chemical reactions, which is one reason we suspect life may have first arose around hydrothermal vents. Another factor is the type of chemicals present, since you need a specific combination of stuff to end up with self-replicating molecules. So in one place you could have a 0% chance of the molecule forming, while another place just a short distance away could have a 100% chance.

All it takes is one little environment that has all the ingredients and energy needed to churn out self-replicating molecules, and life becomes almost inevitable rather than a remote possibility. Given the ubiquity of energy sources and the basic ingredients for life, the variety of environments on just our planet, the mind-blowing number of planets in the galaxy, and the even more mind-blowing number of galaxies in the visible universe, an honest look at all the factors actually indicates life should, in a sense, be quite common. Even if the chance of life forming on any given earth-like planet is an incredibly small 1 in 100 billion, you’d still expect to find life on around 2 trillion planets in the visible universe (according to the latest estimates of the number of planets and galaxies). And we don’t even know if this is the only universe…or what lies beyond the part of it we can see.

Even if we’re wrong and life actually is extremely rare, all that would prove is that we happen to be the rare case where it did happen. Using that to assume we were somehow specially designed and installed on this planet by a supernatural intelligence is a complete non-sequitur.

Quote: “Scientists used to believe that the only necessary conditions for a planet to support life were size and distance from a star of sufficient warmth. But they have since discovered a multitude of other conditions, the absence of any one of which would render life on Earth impossible. It’s almost as if Earth was designed for life.

Douglas Adams critiqued the fine-tuning argument with the analogy of a puddle who becomes sentient and says, “Look at this hole I’m in, it fits me perfectly! It must have been made to have me in it!” The earth seems perfect for the form of life we are familiar with because the only life we are familiar with evolved on earth. The argument is invalid because it assumes that life as we know it is the only possible sort of life. It’s irrational to say that life could not have arisen if conditions were different because you haven’t ruled out the possibility of different conditions resulting in different life (which they actually do–ever seen a whale in the Sahara?). This holds true for universal conditions as well. See this article for more on how the fine-tuning argument is backward reasoning.

Quote: “Atheists cannot explain the origin of the universe. The Big Bang theory supports the idea of a Creator by positing that all matter originated from a single point. In fact, if one little thing had gone differently at the moment of the Big Bang, none of the elements would have been able to form.

Nobody can explain the origin of the universe, all we have are educated guesses (hypotheses) based on limited information. According to the multiverse hypothesis, every little thing did go differently, and we just happen to be in one of the universes where it went this way.

The Big Bang theory could support a wide variety of hypotheses–for instance, it could’ve been the result of the gravitational collapse of a previous universe. Or since events inside black holes do not happen in the same realm of spacetime as the star that formed them, and the beginning of the universe was the same sort of physics-breaking phenomenon as the center of a black hole, people have proposed that universes are formed inside black holes, each expanding infinitely into its own bubble of spacetime. We simply don’t know the answer, and claiming the Big Bang supports a creator is not a credible argument when it could also support numerous other conclusions.

Quote: “Atheists cannot explain the origin of life. They would rather believe that life originated from an improbably lucky accident or outer space (which, if so, how did it get there?) than entertain the possibility of a creator God.

The cause of life’s origin is another question about which I have no beliefs, just educated guesses about what might have done it. But I can talk about likelihood based on my understanding of the world. As I said in a recent article, I think it’s more likely that the origin of the universe had a natural cause, because every mysterious thing we’ve ever explained has turned out to have a natural cause. The same would go for the origin of life. I’ll happily entertain the possibility of a creator, but it’s not just one hypothesis…it’s an infinite set of possibilities that, according to current data, are less likely than natural explanations.

The “outer space” hypothesis is called panspermia, and I don’t think many people actually believe it; that would be as irrational as believing in a specific god. It’s just a fun idea based on the existence of microbes that can survive in the vacuum of space for extended periods of time, and the fact that meteors are always ejecting bits of planets into space that end up eventually crashing into another planet. It would have to be a really tough microbe spore that lasts an extremely long time, which is possible but not very likely. In this hypothesis the life still has to arise somewhere, but it could do so just once and then seed a bunch of different planets.

Quote: “Never mind that atheists cannot explain how the universe or life originated; they claim to know that human life evolved from the most basic single-celled organism over millions of years by pure chance.

It was billions of years, and it’s not just pure chance. Natural selection is a powerful force. More on that in a moment.

Quote: “What we have never observed is a species becoming another species. Currently the best theory as to the mechanism of evolution on a macro scale is random genetic mutation. But this explanation cannot account for the fact that most genetic mutations are harmful and/or can’t be passed on to offspring.

Almost everything in this quote is false. We have observed speciation many times, and caused it intentionally. We have observed single-celled yeast evolving to live in simple multicellular colonies over just two months, merely because they were subjected to an environment in which larger clumps were more likely to survive. Disease-causing microbes are constantly and quickly developing resistance to the substances we use to kill them thanks to mutations in their DNA and their very fast rate of reproduction. Populations of the same species that are separated geographically end up evolving differently, as we can easily see by studying them, and in some cases they have evolved enough that the two populations are now unable to reproduce together (which is one way of defining a species).

The concept of “evolution on a macro scale” is an established truth at this point; it’s nothing more than the combined effect of many small changes. There is no distinction between “macro” and “micro” evolution. It’s just like the process of aging, which is invisible from day to day but ultimately results in huge changes after all the tiny ones add up. Accepting natural selection while rejecting evolution is like accepting the fact that we age a tiny bit every day while rejecting the fact that our bodies will eventually get old and wrinkled.

It should also be noted that a “species” is a completely artificial category invented by humans and imposed on ever-changing populations of organisms based on their attributes at one point in time. When you factor in time there is no clear boundary between species; defining such a boundary is essentially impossible due to the great variety of life and its tendency to change constantly. Every definition of the word has exceptions.

Random genetic mutations, like the ones that allow bacteria to develop resistance to antibiotics, are extremely common and plenty of them turn out to be beneficial. So even if most are harmful, the beneficial ones are what will ultimately stick around and be passed down to offspring because those with beneficial mutations are more likely to survive and reproduce. My ability to digest milk as an adult is due to a single mutation that happened somewhere in Europe thousands of years ago. It gave people a very useful new food source, which made them better at surviving northern climates, and that’s why most of their descendants now are able to digest dairy products. You can thank evolution for ice cream.

There are also cases where genetic material is incorporated from viruses and other organisms, duplicated, or altered in a variety of other ways–random mutation is only one piece of the puzzle. I’m sure there are plenty of other factors that could be discussed as well, but I’ll save those for another article dedicated to the subject of evolution. The important thing to understand is that it doesn’t matter if most mutations are harmful, because those just die out. It’s the beneficial ones that stick around.

Quote: “So what explains atheism’s appeal, especially among the young, urban, and educated? My guess is that some people are just confused. They would like to believe in God, but falsely believe God has been disproved by science. Others are apathetic; they just don’t care. But for others, atheism fits nicely into their secular worldview. If there is no God, then I get to be my own god. If I was made not by a Creator, but by a series of lucky mutations, then there is nothing to keep me from remaking myself in the image of my choosing.

Everyone does that. Everyone makes themselves and their gods in the image of their choosing. It is physically impossible for you to not be the ultimate authority over yourself and your morality. Even if you get your moral guidance from someone else, your brain is taking that information, understanding it, and formulating a belief that is entirely your invention. You cannot believe anything about morality without being the ultimate authority over which moral systems you accept and which you reject. By merely believing something about good or evil, such as “god is good”, you are making a moral judgment against everything that contradicts it. Your innate morality, therefore, is what defines your religion and your god, not the other way around.

This argument stands whether there is a god or not, as anyone who happened to believe in the right one would still have chosen him in the same way everyone else chose their incorrect gods or philosophies. The things you end up believing reflect your values and experiences. Most often it’s simply the religion you grew up with, or a slightly modified version that better fits your personal morality and social environment. In my case, I value truth and my experiences have shown me a world that is incompatible with the Christian god, so I was unable to remain a Christian regardless of how I felt about it.

Image: Hubble Telescope

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3 responses to “Responding to Christian Reason

  1. I found the original blog post by Front Porch rather frustrating to read. It seemed like one straw man argument after another. When one reader took issue with her characterization of atheists being certain that god did not exist, part of her response was, “Faith still requires faith.” What does that even mean? How is it relevant? What is her point? I don’t know how to respond to meaningless statements like this.

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  2. I admire your humility. Too often I find myself forgetting that atheism is simply extreme agnsticism, and I need to accept that we don’t have answers to all of these questions…yet. Of course we can’t disprove the existence of a deity, but I personally find it unlikely enough that I can say I am an atheist.

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    • I like having a variety of hypotheses to think about and play with when I write fiction. When I stopped limiting myself to believing one and rejecting all others, I found the world to be a much more interesting place, and now I’m quite happy refraining from belief when I don’t have the data necessary to narrow down the possibilities.

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