Monday, December 29, 2008

A Problem with the Cosmological Argument

One common argument that apologists use to justify belief in God is called the cosmological argument, one form of which runs as follows:

1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe must have a cause.

Apologists argue, naturally, that the cause of the universe can't be a part of the universe itself; therefore, only God can cause a universe to begin. Since we know the universe exists, therefore we know God exists.

However, this argument fails on several levels, but the biggest failure in my view is that it conflates the components of the universe with the universe itself. While it can be argued that every 'thing' in the universe, every component--from human beings to stars to galaxy clusters--were caused to exist, it does not follow that the universe itself must also share the same characteristic--namely, being caused to exist.

The universe is not a 'thing' in the same manner that an apple or a planetary nebula can be called a thing. The universe is the sum of all things in space and time. The difference between the universe and the components of the universe is a difference of kind, not one of degree. Here's an example to highlight the difference:

1. All novels are written by an author.
2. The category of Literature is composed of novels.

According to the apologists' argument, we must therefore conclude that:

3. Literature was written by an author.

But that wouldn't make sense. What's the author of Literature's name? When did the author write Literature? All novels share other characteristics, such as a publishing date, and a first word, and a last word. So what is Literature's publishing date? What is Literature's first word, or last word? Of course, these are meaningless questions that can't be answered, because Literature is not just one giant novel; it is a different class altogether. For the same reason, the Universe is not just one giant thing that must share the characteristics of the components of itself.

What's more, if, as the apologists assert, the universe must have a cause just like everything else does, then the universe should also share other characteristics with everything else. One characteristic that all components of the universe exhibit is that they inhabit a place in space and time. Here's how that would work, according to the apologist:

1. Every thing inhabits a place in space and time.
2. The universe is a thing.
3. Therefore, the universe inhabits a place in space and time.

While at first glance this might seem to be logically sound, in reality it fails. If your definition of 'universe' is 'something that inhabits a place in space and time,' then your definition of 'universe' is not big enough. The universe can't be everything if that everything also inhabits space and time. The universe would have to also include that additional space and time as well in order for us to declare it to be everything.

The classic response to the cosmological argument is that if everything has a creator, then who created God? One objection that apologists raise is that God is exempt from the necessity for a creator because God is outside of space and time. Of course, apologists provide no evidence for this claim--nor could they--except for the fact that it solves a logical problem--but its a problem of their own making. Whenever someone declares that God is exempt from argument because he's outside time, I have two questions for him:

1. What time did God create the universe?
2. Where in the world did he put it?

If the apologist has an answer for these questions, then he's having God create space-time inside space-time, a logical contradiction. It's as though the universe sits inside a 'room' somewhere, but that room is not a part of the universe. If the apologist is not able to answer the two questions, then he is declaring that the universe is also outside of space and time.

So apologists are trapped either way. If they declare that the universe is not outside of space and time, then they aren't talking about the universe, but only a component of it--that portion that is inside of space and time. But if they concede that the universe is also outside of space and time, then the universe is as exempt from the same objections that they want God to be. "Who created the universe?" becomes as meaningless and unanswerable as "Who created God?"

In the end, the universe is what philosophers call a "Brute Fact," something that exists in and of its own right and does not require a beginning or a creator. Apologists can't object to this idea because they also believe in a Brute Fact. Naturalists call their Brute Fact, the Universe; Theists call theirs, God. However, the Naturalist can point to the Universe. Can the Theist point to God?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Freethought Quote for the Day

Like Confucius of old, I am absorbed in the wonder of earth, and the life upon it, and I cannot think of heaven and the angels. I have enough for this life. If there is no other life, than this one has been enough to make it worth being born, myself a human being. With so profound a faith in the human heart and its power to grow toward the light, I find here reason and cause enough for hope and confidence in the future of mankind.

--Pearl Buck, "Roll Away the Stone"

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Book Review - The Origin of Satan

Title: The Origin of Satan
Author: Elaine Pagels
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0679731184

Satan is a familiar character to Christians and non-Christians alike. He's the Prince of Darkness, a fallen angel doomed to walk the earth, the lord of a diabolical army dedicated to the overthrow of God's throne. Unfortunately, such images are largely the product of John Milton's Paradise Lost and have nothing to do with the Satan of the Bible.

In the Old Testament, Satan is a forbidding but ultimately obedient member of Jehovah's pantheon. He's no more evil than a prosecuting attorney. But by the New Testament era, Satan has become a convenient placeholder for Christians to identify their enemies--first Jews, then the pagan Romans, and finally heretics within the Christian faith itself.

Pagels began her research for this book assuming that the purpose of the doctrine of Satan was to spiritualize the natural universe and explain the persecution of a breakaway Jewish sect called Christianity. To her surprise, she learned that Satan evolved into an evil force reserved for one's most intimate enemies. Pagels carefully compares the four gospel accounts, identifying obvious trends to demonize Jews and exonerate the Romans for the death of Jesus--even to the point of absurdity.

For example, the gentle Pontius Pilate of the gospels has nothing to do with the brutal Pilate of history. Even sympathetic Roman historians portrayed Pilate from negative to bitterly hostile. Yet the gospel writers portray him as weak and compassionate in order to exonerate him and the Romans of the death of Jesus. Pagels quotes historian Paul Winters who writes: "...the stern Pilate grows more mellow from gospel to gospel . . . the more removed from history, the more sympathetic a character he becomes."

The opposite effect occurred with regard to the Jews, as each gospel (read chronologically) portrays the Jews acting more and more culpable for Jesus' death. This is exactly what we would expect as the growing Christian movement tried to distinguish itself from the Jewish religion from which it sprung.

Over time, Christians used a growing vocabulary to identify their list of enemies as "sons of hell" or "forces of darkness." But this was not confined to first-century Christians; Martin Luther in the sixteenth century denounced as "agents of Satan" all Christians who remained loyal Roman Catholics, all Jews who refused to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, all who challenged wealthy landowners in the Peasant's War, and even all Protestant Christians who were not specifically Lutheran.

Pagels has written a marvelous book here, stripping Satan of his unearthly power, and presenting "The Evil One" as the nameless, faceless force that lies behind one's own paranoia and persecutors.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Book Review - The Trouble With Christmas

Title: The Trouble With Christmas
Author: Tom Flynn
Publisher: Prometheus Books
ISBN: 9780879758486

What could possibly be the trouble with Christmas? It's everyone's favorite holiday and practically every American celebrates it, right? Anyone who would complain against it must be a Scrooge!

As Tom Flynn explains, that attitude demonstrates the very problem--everyone in America--Christian, non-religious, or otherwise--is expected to participate in what's supposed to be a religious holiday, and anyone who criticizes it is considered a Scrooge.

Christian Americans are puzzled when non-Christians complain about Christmas. 'Why whine? We throw this great party, and they get to crash.' 'Crash isn't the word,' non-Christians retort. 'You don't even get invited to Christmas. You get drafted.'

In The Trouble With Christmas, Tom Flynn explores American society's most popular holiday. He looks at the overwhelming influence that Christmas has on our society and wonders out loud why it's forced on everyone, Christians and non-Christians alike.

For instance, how many of the familiar Christmas traditions like Christmas trees, caroling, and exchanging presents are of specific Christian origin? Next to none. All the elements we associate with Christmas are of pagan or entirely secular origin. Only one--midnight mass on Christmas Eve--appears to be strictly Christian, and primarily only Catholic at that.

Lots of people grudgingly accept the pagan influences of Christmas, but they continue the game because the traditions are so old and familiar--haven't we been celebrating Christmas for nearly two thousand years, all the way back to the birth of Jesus? Not so, explains Flynn. Christmas has had a tiny place in most of Christian history, nearly dwindling to nothingness during the Middle Ages. The holiday that so consumes almost a third of the commercial year was nearly killed off by Protestant fundamentalists--early American Puritans objected to Christmas so much that they banned it outright wherever they held the power.

But Christmas was revived during the nineteenth century by a mere six eminent Victorians--Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, Clement C. Moore, Thomas Nast, and Francis Church. All six played a role in reviving Christmas into its familiar form, building in a false nostalgia to suggest long-held traditions.

Even more concerning to non-Christians like myself was the role that Charles Dickens played in turning culture against those who opted out of the holiday. The word "Scrooge" became an insult to anyone who didn't participate in Christmas, which kept the ball rolling into the commercial behemoth that the holiday is today.

Flynn's book, written in 1993, anticipated the War on Christmas by over a decade. He noted that as the United States becomes a more pluralistic society, more and more businesses are going to be reluctant to offend their non-Christian customers by, say, wishing them 'Merry Christmas.' Outspoken commentators like Bill O'Reilly get furious at that--the assumption seems to be that while he grudgingly admits that non-Christians are allowed to live in America, they should at least act like Christians as long as they are here. But the bluster will have less effect as more and more people ask themselves, 'Why should I be forced to acknowledge a religious holiday when I don't subscribe to that religion?'

Even secular humanists feel obligated to somehow participate in Christmas without accepting the religion it's loosely based on. Many freethinkers celebrate the Winter Solstice, for example, or, apparently unaware of the irony, co-opt pagan traditions such as Saturnalia as a way of avoiding celebrating a holiday that itself co-opted the same pagan traditions. Why, asks Flynn, do atheists buy and decorate a 'holiday tree' during December, when they don't lift a finger to co-celebrate Ramadan?

But even more important is the coming War on Christmas in public schools. Everywhere in America schools give Christmas off to all students, hold Christmas parties and plays, all under the assumption that every child is tacitly Christian. But of course, not every child comes from a Christian family, and the numbers of children of non-Christian parents will only continue to grow. Public schools are undergoing the same dilemma that state and local governments are facing when it comes to holiday displays on public property--either everyone should get their share, or no one should.

Today, Christianity is obviously favored in public schools, but what about children of Muslims? Should schools be closed for the entire month of Ramadan? What about the religious holidays of Buddhism, or Judaism, or Hindus? What holidays should children of non-theists receive? By the time all religions are afforded equality, school would be closed most of the year--an obvious impossible solution. The only alternative is for public schools to be exactly that--public, meaning secular, meaning no religious holidays are acknowledged. Religion can be taught in school, naturally, but making all kids in a fourth-grade class sing Christmas carols is nothing less than an endorsement of Christianity. If children of Christians are forced to perform make-up work from having missed a day of school so they could celebrate Christmas with their families, well, doesn't every religious leader argue that devotion to one's religion is supposed to be difficult?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Dogs sniff out injustice

Both the New York Times and National Geographic reported that dogs have a primitive sense of envy. They describe an experiment on well-trained dogs to offer a paw on command. But when one dog was not given a reward for the obedience, the dog became less and less inclined to obey the command.

I have to agree with the blogger slacktivist, though, that this experiment doesn't seem to point to dogs feeling envy of other dogs receiving rewards. It sounds more like the dogs know a crooked deal when they see one. They've been trained to get a treat as a reward for the unnatural act of offering a paw on command. When the dog stops getting the promised treat, it decides that it doesn't need to obey anymore. If you don't hold up your end of the bargain, why should I bother?

The lead scientist, as reported in Science News, never used the word 'envy' in her description. She calls it what it is, an "aversion to inequity."

Slacktivist wonders why two media outlets would both report the findings as an example of envy, rather than the natural desire to avoid getting a raw deal--something only primates, humans included, have shown before. My interest in the issue is the idea that once again, we see a primitive sense of morality in non-human species. A dog will look at his neighbor getting a reward for the same work and conclude that it doesn't want to cooperate anymore, anymore than a man would work for a company if his coworkers were receiving twice the pay for the same work.

This notion undercuts the idea that there is a huge divide between humans and animals because we are specially created by God. We have souls, say the theologians, and animals do not. Because of those souls, they say, we can commmunicate with God, and we know the difference between right and wrong. And yet dogs, who presumably don't have souls, also have a primitive idea of right and wrong. If I've been trained to get a treat for shaking hands, then it's wrong for me not to get one when I obey the command, particularly if another dog does get the offered treat.

Of course, this does not mean that we evolved our sense of justice from dogs, since we evolved long before dogs ever did. What it shows is that social animals employ certain behaviors to better survive--a sense of fair play one of them. And since we evolved our physical characteristics like opposable thumbs from our primate ancestors, there's evidence that we evolved our sense of morality and proper behavior from them as well.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Baby Beat to Death to Drive Out Demons

In a heartbreaking and deeply disturbing report, a young couple was arrested Wednesday in East Texas of beating (and biting!) the woman's thirteen-month-old daughter to get rid of her demons.

Amora Bain Carson was found beaten to death, believed to be with a hammer, and bitten more than 20 times. The child's parents, Blaine Milam and Jessica Carson, first gave conflicting reports about the child's death to authorities, then finally confessed that they believed the child was possessed by demons, forcing them to violently abuse their daughter to get rid of them.

What can possibly be said in defense of these two people? Superstitious thinking drove them to commit infanticide, and an innocent child's life was brutally snuffed because two people took their religious teaching seriously. This is even worse than cases like Andrea Yates and Deanna Laney, two strongly religious women who also murdered their own children, because both of them acted alone. In both cases, the women were found by juries to be not guilty by reason of insanity. But will a jury rule the same for Milam and Carson, that they both just happened to be insane and simultaneously cooperated in murdering their child?

Let the record show that superstitious thinking can drive people to kill an innocent baby.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Celestial Being smiling down on humanity

Often in the news, people are proud to show off images of Jesus, Mary, and other religious figures magically appearing in mundane articles. These manifestations are always described as miracles and are accompanied by dire warnings against humanities' ills and sinful behaviors.

On the other hand, sometimes God appears to be smiling down on us, as demonstrated by Mike Salway, Australian amateur astronomer and photographer. Salway recently snapped a photo that at first glance appears to be two planets and the Earth's moon in a rare celestial alignment, but when viewed with the right perspective, shows a smiley face in the sky:

Salway said the pictures made him "very happy" although I believe his language isn't strong enough. A case could be made that this happy face in the sky is God's way of letting us know that he is pleased with humanity. As time goes by, we are slowly but steadily eliminating superstition and faith-based reasoning, instead choosing to live our lives based on reality. God wants us to continue our progress, using our God-given brains to cure the ills of our world.

Either that, or it's just another case of pareidolia.

Societies with "God on their side" are worse off

Most religious believers argue not only does belief in God makes themselves into better persons, but that a widespread belief in God also improves society as a whole. They argue that a community favorable toward religious belief has an inoculating effect on the non-religious community in general.

More and more this appears to be an unsupported assertion, and in fact, the opposite appears to be true. According to Ruth Gledhill, Religion Correspondent of the Times Online, "Societies are worse off 'when they have God on their side.'" From the article:
"RELIGIOUS belief can cause damage to a society, contributing towards high murder rates, abortion, sexual promiscuity and suicide, according to research published today.

According to the study, belief in and worship of God are not only unnecessary for a healthy society but may actually contribute to social problems.

The study counters the view of believers that religion is necessary to provide the moral and ethical foundations of a healthy society..."

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Freethought Quote of the Day

"When human beings understand little about the workings of their world, myth-making comes naturally. It is easy, and somehow reassuring, to imagine that the vast forces of thunder, rain, snow, and life itself are under someone's control. So much the better if the "someone" or "something" are powerful cosmic personages. Better still if they have personalities and emotional responses not unlike our own. Primitive peoples could make such imaginative leaps at the drop of a hat. We moderns are scarcely superior."

Tom Flynn, The Trouble With Christmas, Prometheus Books, 1993, p. 45.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Freethought Quote for the Day

"The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall."

--Thomas Paine, Age of Reason

The Case for an Incompetent Architect

Some theists tell me that part of the reason we suffer here on earth is because God granted us free will. However, they also claim that in Heaven there will be no suffering. From this we can logically conclude that believers in Heaven will have no free will.

Some theists find themselves in a no-win situation. If they argue that free will is a necessary condition of our world--even if that leads to pointless suffering--then they must choose one of two situations. First, citizens of Heaven do not have free will. If free will leads to sin, and sin leads to suffering, and there is no suffering in Heaven, then working backwards we must conclude that there is no sin in Heaven, therefore there is no free will. In other words, if free will and sin and suffering are inextricably linked here on Earth, then they must be inextricably linked in Heaven as well. The three are a package deal; you can't have one (free will) without the other two (sin and suffering).

However, if the citizens of Heaven do not have free will, then this turns them into robots. Isn't this the very condition on Earth that theists argue that God does not want, making the granting of our free will absolutely necessary?

The second situation of which theists must choose if free will is a necessary condition of our world is that citizens in Heaven will have free will--and that sin and suffering will shortly follow, making Heaven into just another Earth with all its attending evils and sorrow. After all, that's the situation described in the Genesis story of the Garden of Eden. God created a world for sinless beings who had free will--and they shortly exercised their free will to sin, thus ushering in suffering. This was two people in less than one generation. How likely is it that millions of people in heaven will always freely choose to do good and never choose evil?

But of course, if Heaven will be just another Earth, then there is no reason to worship God as an omnibenevolent being. If God cannot create a world without suffering, then God is not omnipotent.

Suppose an architect built a house for you, and he stated that he can't build the house without using, say, asbestos in the walls and ceilings. Now suppose the asbestos causes severe respiratory problems, inducing a lifetime of pain and suffering. What would be your response if the architect then tried to sell you a timeshare of a luxury resort he's constructing, soon to be open? Your first question would probably be, "Will it have asbestos in the walls and ceilings?" If the architect answers yes, then the timeshare resort will cause just as much pain and illness as the house he just built for you--perhaps more. If the architect answers no to the asbestos question, then the natural follow-up would be, "If you can build a resort without asbestos, then why didn't you build my house without it?" Either way, you are dealing with an incompetent architect, and he should be rejected at once.

Some theists try to rescue the concept by placing the blame of human suffering on Satan. After all, if the serpent hadn't convinced Adam and Eve to sin, then perhaps we would have been spared this earthly misery. However, this only changes the problem--it doesn't answer it. The believer still has the same two dead-end choices. If Satan will be a necessary part of Heaven, then he will tempt believers to sin against God, and Heaven will turn into another sinful, suffering-filled Earth. On the other hand, if we can live in Heaven without the negative influence of Satan, then why didn't God prevent Satan from inhabiting Earth? Either way, God apparently doesn't know what he's doing.