Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Faith no more

For good, and relatively brief summations of some popular scientists' and authors' takes on God, I highly recommend you read Faith no more by Andrew Zak Williams, in the current New Statesman. They are very entertaining, save for a rather puzzling (and disappointing) answer by Hawking. I've highlighted just a few of them. There are many more at the above link.

Philip Pullman -- Author
The main reason I don't believe in God is the missing evidence. There could logically be no evidence that he doesn't exist, so I can only go by the fact that, so far, I've discovered no evidence that he does: I have had no personal experience of being spoken to by God and I see nothing in the world around me, wherever I look in history or science or art or anywhere else, to persuade me that it was the work of God rather than of nature. ...

Kenan Malik -- Neurobiologist, writer and broadcaster
I am an atheist because I see no need for God. Without God, it is said, we cannot explain the creation of the cosmos, anchor our moral values or infuse our lives with meaning and purpose. I disagree.

Invoking God at best highlights what we cannot yet explain about the physical universe, and at worst exploits that ignorance to mystify. Moral values do not come prepackaged from God, but have to be worked out by human beings through a combination of empathy, reasoning and dialogue. This is true of believers, too: they, after all, have to decide for themselves which values in their holy books they accept and which ones they reject. And it is not God that gives meaning to our lives, but our relationships with fellow human beings and the goals and obligations that derive from them. God is at best redundant, at worst an obstruction. Why do I need him?

Susan Blackmore -- Psychologist and author
What reason for belief could I possibly have? To explain suffering? He doesn't. Unless, that is, you buy in to his giving us free will, which conflicts with all we know about human decision-making.

To give me hope of an afterlife? My 30 years of parapsychological research threw that hope out. To explain the mystical, spiritual and out-of-body experiences I have had? No: our rapidly improving knowledge of the brain is providing much better explanations than religious reasoning. To explain the existence and complexity of the wonderful world I see around me? No - and this is really the main one.

God is supposed (at least in some versions of the story) to have created us all. Yet the Creator (any creator) is simply redundant. Every living thing on this planet evolved by processes that require no designer, no plans, no guidance and no foresight. We need no God to do this work. Where would he fit in? What would he do? And why? If he did have any role in our creation, he would have to be immensely devious, finickity, deceitful and mind-bogglingly cruel, which would be a very odd kind of God to believe in. So I don't.

Richard Dawkins -- Evolutionary biologist
I don't believe in leprechauns, pixies, werewolves, jujus, Thor, Poseidon, Yahweh, Allah or the Trinity. For the same reason in every case: there is not the tiniest shred of evidence for any of them, and the burden of proof rests with those who wish to believe.

Even given no evidence for specific gods, could we make a case for some unspecified "intelligent designer" or "prime mover" or begetter of "something rather than nothing"? By far the most appealing version of this argument is the biological one - living things do present a powerful illusion of design. But that is the very version that Darwin destroyed. Any theist who appeals to "design" of living creatures simply betrays his ignorance of biology. Go away and read a book. And any theist who appeals to biblical evidence betrays his ignorance of modern scholarship. Go away and read another book.

As for the cosmological argument, whose God goes under names such as Prime Mover or First Cause, the physicists are closing in, with spellbinding results. Even if there remain unanswered questions - where do the fundamental laws and constants of physics come from? - obviously it cannot help to postulate a designer whose existence poses bigger questions than he purports to solve. If science fails, our best hope is to build a better science. The answer will lie neither in theology nor - its exact equivalent - reading tea leaves.

In any case, it is a fatuously illogical jump from deistic Unmoved Mover to Christian Trinity, with the Son being tortured and murdered because the Father, for all his omniscience and omnipotence, couldn't think of a better way to forgive "sin".

... Why is religion immune from the critical standards that we apply not just in courts of law, but in every other sphere of life?

Paula Kirby -- Writer
I stopped being a believer when it became clear to me that the various versions of Christianity were mutually contradictory and that none had empirical evidence to support it. From the recognition that "knowing in my heart" was an unreliable guide to reality, I began to explore other types of explanation for life, the universe and everything, and discovered in science - biology, chemistry, physics, cosmology, geology, psychology - answers that genuinely explain, as opposed to those of religion, whose aim is to shroud their lack of substance in a cloak of mystery and metaphor.

All-importantly, these scientific answers, even when tentative, are supported by evidence. That they are also far more thrilling, far more awe-inspiring, than anything religion can offer, and that I find life fuller, richer and more satisfying when it's looked firmly in the eye and wholeheartedly embraced for the transient and finite wonder that it is, is a happy bonus.

Sam Harris -- Neuroscientist
The most common impediment to clear thinking that a non-believer must confront is the idea that the burden of proof can be fairly placed on his shoulders: "How do you know there is no God? Can you prove it? You atheists are just as dogmatic as the fundamentalists you criticise." This is nonsense: even the devout tacitly reject thousands of gods, along with the cherished doctrines of every religion but their own. Every Christian can confidently judge the God of Zoroaster to be a creature of fiction, without first scouring the universe for evidence of his absence. Absence of evidence is all one ever needs to banish false knowledge. And bad evidence, proffered in a swoon of wishful thinking, is just as damning.

But honest reasoning can lead us further into the fields of unbelief, for we can prove that books such as the Bible and the Quran bear no trace of divine authorship. We know far too much about the history of these texts to accept what they say about their own origins. And just imagine how good a book would be if it had been written by an omniscient Being.

The moment one views the contents of scripture in this light, one can reject the doctrines of Judaism, Christianity and Islam definitively. The true authors of God's eternal Word knew nothing about the origins of life, the relationship between mind and brain, the causes of illness, or how best to create a viable, global civilisation in the 21st century. That alone should resolve every conflict between religion and science in the latter's favour, until the end of the world.

In fact, the notion that any ancient book could be an infallible guide to living in the present gets my vote for being the most dangerously stupid idea on earth.

What remains for us to discover, now and always, are those truths about our world that will allow us to survive and fully flourish. For this, we need only well-intentioned and honest inquiry - love and reason. Faith, if it is ever right about anything, is right by accident.

Daniel Dennett -- Philosopher
The concept of God has gradually retreated from the concept of an anthropomorphic creator figure, judge and overseer to a mystery-shrouded Wonderful Something-or-Other utterly beyond human ken. It is impossible for me to believe in any of the anthropomorphic gods, because they are simply ridiculous, and so obviously the fantasy-projections of scientifically ignorant minds trying to understand the world. It is impossible for me to believe in the laundered versions, because they are systematically incomprehensible. It would be like trying to believe in the existence of wodgifoop - what's that? Don't ask; it's beyond saying.

But why try anyway? There is no obligation to try to believe in God; that's a particularly pernicious myth left over from the days when organised religions created the belief in belief. One can be good without God, obviously.

Many people feel very strongly that one should try to believe in God, so as not to upset Granny, or so as to encourage others to do likewise, or because it makes you nicer or nobler. So they go through the motions. Usually it doesn't work.

I am in awe of the universe itself, and very grateful to be a part of it. That is enough.

A C Grayling -- Philosopher
I do not believe that there are any such things as gods and goddesses, for exactly the same reasons as I do not believe there are fairies, goblins or sprites, and these reasons should be obvious to anyone over the age of ten.

Stephen Hawking -- Physicist
I am not claiming there is no God. The scientific account is complete, but it does not predict human behaviour, because there are too many equations to solve. One therefore uses a different model, which can include free will and God.

Michael Shermer -- Publisher of Skeptic magazine
I do not believe in God for four reasons. First, there is not enough evidence for the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent being who created the universe and ourselves and hands down moral laws and offers us eternal life. Second, any such being that was supernatural would by definition be outside the purview of our knowledge of the natural world and would necessarily have to be part of the natural world if we did discover such an entity. This brings me to the third reason, Shermer's Last Law, which is that any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God. (Because of Moore's law [of increasing computer power] and Kurzweil's law of accelerating returns, we ourselves will be able to engineer life, solar systems and even universes, given enough time.) Fourth, there is overwhelming evidence from history, anthropology, sociology and psychology that human beings created God, not vice versa. In the past 10,000 years there have been roughly 10,000 religions and 1,000 different gods. What are the chances that one group of people discovered the One True God while everyone else believed in 9,999 false gods? A likelier explanation is that all gods and religion are socially and psychologically constructed. We created gods.

Richard Wiseman -- Psychologist
I do not believe in God because it seems both illogical and unnecessary. According to the believers, their God is an all-powerful and almighty force. However, despite this, their God allows for huge amounts of suffering and disease. Also, if I were to believe in God, logically speaking I would have to believe in a wide range of other entities for which there is no evidence, including pixies, goblins and gnomes, etc. It's a long list and I don't have room in my head for all of them. So, I am happy to believe that there is no God. We are just insignificant lumps of carbon flying through a tiny section of the universe. Our destiny is totally in our own hands, and it is up to each of us to make the best of our life. Let's stop worrying about mythical entities and start living.

... and, PZ Myers, not surprisingly, has the harshest (and funniest) criticisms of religion:

P Z Myers -- Biologist
I am accustomed to the idea that truth claims ought to be justified with some reasonable evidence: if one is going to claim, for instance, that a Jewish carpenter was the son of a God, or that there is a place called heaven where some ineffable, magical part of you goes when you die, then there ought to be some credible reason to believe that. And that reason ought to be more substantial than that it says so in a big book.

Religious claims all seem to short-circuit the rational process of evidence-gathering and testing and the sad thing is that many people don't see a problem with that, and even consider it a virtue. It is why I don't just reject religion, but actively oppose it in all its forms - because it is fundamentally a poison for the mind that undermines our critical faculties.

Religious beliefs are lazy jokes with bad punchlines. Why do you have to chop off the skin at the end of your penis? Because God says so. Why should you abstain from pork, or shrimp, or mixing meat and dairy, or your science classes? Because they might taint your relationship with God. Why do you have to revere a bit of dry biscuit? Because it magically turns into a God when a priest mutters over it. Why do I have to be good? Because if you aren't, a God will set you on fire for all eternity.

These are ridiculous propositions. The whole business of religion is clownshoes freakin' moonshine, hallowed by nothing but unthinking tradition, fear and superstitious behaviour, and an establishment of con artists who have dedicated their lives to propping up a sense of self-importance by claiming to talk to an in­visible big kahuna.

It's not just fact-free, it's all nonsense.



CyberKitten said...

I am *so* with Philip Pullman on this one.

Also *love* this from Michael Shermer "there is overwhelming evidence from history, anthropology, sociology and psychology that human beings created God, not vice versa".

SO true!

wunelle said...

Yeah, aren't they magnificent? It does my outlook worlds of good to hear someone just speak simple truth and logic. I also found Hawking's bit incomprehensible; a silly bit of accommodationism, I think.

dbackdad said...

CK - Yeah, I loved both of their takes as well. Not just in this article, but life in general.

Wunelle - I agree about Hawking. I'm disappointed when incredibly brilliant people that you know do not believe in God in the slightest feel the need to hedge their bets ... at least publicly.

But, as you say, the rest were magnificent and give me a glimmer of hope that there are perhaps more intelligent people in the world than I once thought and that there might yet be hope for us.