Archives for July 2015

Why Atheism?

41DHqlC4qXL

I’ve discovered that some of my non virtual friends in the real world believe I’m being sarcastic when I refer to my “atheist friends”, but that isn’t always true.

I am being quite sincere when I say that there are people who call themselves atheists that I honestly consider to be my friends, even though we may have never met in person.

My friend David is a humanist. He and I have respectfully disagreed about many topics of mutual interest, but if I ever visit New Zealand or he ever comes to the U.S. I fully expect to shake his hand, buy him a beer, and for us to finally have a face-to-face conversation after several years of pleasant long-distance correspondence.

Philosophy professor and atheist author George H. Smith likewise has graciously accepted my friendship on Facebook. I’m also sure that he and I could have a friendly conversation over a beer, a single malt scotch, or even a glass of water, should we ever met in person.

Although Professor Smith and I do not appear to agree very often when the topic of conversation is religion, we agree most enthusiastically about the philosophy of Libertarianism.

My favorite book written by an atheist remains An Atheist Defends Religion by Bruce Sherman. It would be difficult to claim another book has supplanted it as my all-time favorite book written by an atheist, because so much of Sheiman’s philosophy echoed my own.

Basically, Sheiman made the same overall point about probability that was hammered home so well that I quoted him in my own book, Counterargument for God, after he wrote:

The propensity for matter and energy to self-organize in novel and unpredictable ways is a conspicuous feature of nature; it goes against the laws of thermodynamics (entropy) and cannot be explained by the known laws of physics. But according to conventional science, it’s all explained by a highly improbable confluence of accidents. And if you take “accidents” out of the life-creation equation, we would be left with nothing.

Of course, the problem with believing in “nothing” is that something, specifically this universe, allegedly came from nothing, which would mean nothing created something out of nothing, literally an incoherent proposition. 

Even more remarkable, that “something” created from absolutely nothing must then have somehow spawned a living organism from inanimate matter — the hypothesis known as abiogenesis.

southernprose_cover_CAFG

When some of my atheist friends say they don’t believe in miracles, I have to wonder if they really know what the word means. The dictionary defines a miracle as an event not explicable by natural or scientific laws, for which a supernatural God or humans may receive credit.

After reading Sheiman’s book, it seemed that about the only point on which he and I disagreed was a supernatural Creator as being the only sensible alternative to unbelievable good luck or nothing. He made the perfect argument in defense of having religious beliefs then strangely proclaimed his preference for atheism, in spite of the brilliant logic he’d just used to support his argument defending theism, and without getting very specific about what that third alternative might be.

The problem of having “accidents” in the life-creation equation is that accidents are random by definition, and seldom are the results of an accident beneficial. Given the grotesque improbabilities associated with the Big Bang, inflation, and abiogenesis, we simply can’t assume any possibility of bad luck occurring between the creation of the universe and the origin of life. Every accident must be serendipitous in nature, because the opposite of “by accident” is “on purpose.”

So I like Sheiman’s book very much. However, it doesn’t really offer much as a defense (or advocacy) of atheism. It’s a book written by an atheist, but it isn’t really about atheism. Bruce Sheiman really does defend religion.

51pwJKNefCL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Now by far the best book written by an atheist that’s actually about atheism that I’ve read to date has been Why Atheism? by George H. Smith.

In my opinion, his book is far superior to comparable books I’ve read that were written by Bertrand Russell, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and their ilk.

What differentiates Smith’s book and makes it special?

For one thing, it was quite informative, packed with actual information about the philosophical development of the atheist movement.  Nor was it written with a smug and condescending tone typical of books written by atheists with an over-inflated estimation of their own personal intellect.

Smith provides clear and concise analysis of views ranging from the origins of atheism in ancient Greece to Kant and Spinoza, Locke, Bacon, Aquinas, Schopenhauer, and virtually every other famous philosopher in between who made important contributions to both atheist and theist schools of thought.

The book is refreshingly free of the tiresome vitriol and thinly-veiled hostility toward Christianity usually found in books of this genre. As a Christian, I didn’t feel like my faith was constantly under assault as Smith presented his information with clear and concise prose.

Smith wrote,

Logical possibility pertains to the internal coherence (emphasis original)  of a proposition. A proposition is logically possible if it is not self-contradictory. Consider, for example, the proposition: “There exists at least one married bachelor.” It is logically impossible for this proposition to be true, because the predicate (“a married man”)  contradicts the subject (“a bachelor”). Moreover. to call this proposition logically impossible is to say that it is incoherent, that it has no meaning. (page 41)

I liked that. By some strange coincidence, that explanation reminded me of the recent article I wrote about so-called Christian atheists.

Admittedly, not everything Smith said about religion made sense to me. For example, he wrote this about doubt:

It is the moralization of doubt–the prohibition of doubt as sinful–that makes the Christian scheme of faith fundamentally dishonest at its core. I say “dishonest” because a Christian, having committed himself, through faith, to the tenets of his religion, is thereafter prohibited from doubting his fundamental beliefs. (page 51)

Now in my total experience, which spans 55 years, during which I have visited multiple Protestant churches and a couple of Catholic ones, I don’t ever recall a pastor claiming that doubt was prohibited. In fact, I’ve always had the distinct impression that some element of doubt was quite natural to have. Thomas doubted. In fact, Jesus himself said that we only needed a kernel of faith as small as a mustard seed.

Considering Jesus died for far worse sins than doubt, I’m not sure that’s a big deal, anyway.

But a simple mistake doesn’t make an excellent book unworthy of reading. Atheists should read Why Atheism? to learn how to argue in defense of their worldview without their rancor for religion becoming so obvious. Theists should also read the book, to learn the best arguments against their beliefs if they hope to compete against the intelligent atheist (in a battle of wits, during a war of words.)

Why Atheism? was extremely informative for any person wanting to understand the philosophical arguments commonly used throughout the history of civilization as justification for atheism.

Interestingly, during his analysis of the philosophy of David Hume, Smith wrote:

Suppose someone tells me he saw a dead person brought back to life. Here I should consider “whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened.” There is no real contest in this case, because the possibility of resurrecting the dead conflicts with all of my personal experience, whereas I know of innumerable instances where people have related falsehoods. I therefore conclude that “no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish…” (page 208)

The obvious problem with Hume’s argument is that many things fall outside the realm of our personal experience — which is anecdotal. Almost all of our “knowledge” has also come from people who have related falsehoods…including our sources of scientific knowledge.

Hume’s mistake is fixating on the resurrection of Jesus as the impossible claim — the resurrection of the dead. The irony is that abiogenesis (which in fairness, Hume probably knew nothing about) is the animation of matter that was never alive — which would you say is harder to believe? Keep in mind we have numerous documented cases of spontaneous resuscitation and revival after a patient has been declared dead using modern medical technology (never mind what didn’t exist two thousand years ago), which Hume also knew nothing about.

Smith implies that he is still open to persuasion when he wrote:

I will therefore demand that the Christian justify his belief in the existence of God with objective reasons, i.e., evidence and arguments that can be evaluated by rational methods. And should the Christian be unable or unwilling to defend his belief, I will urge him to embrace the more reasonable alternative of atheism. And should he remain steadfastly indifferent to the issue of justification–should he say that he believes what he believes and that’s all there is to it–then I will question either his judgment or his sincerity. For I would have never taken the Christian seriously in the first place, I would have never engaged in this dialogue, had he not deceived me into thinking that his belief in God was the belief of a reasonable person. (page 49)

I would like to take Professor Smith at his word and offer him a free electronic copy of my book Counterargument for God in the format of his preference, if he will agree to accept my gift to him.

In that book I endeavored to give the reader objective reasons that I give in the hope they will be evaluated using rational methods in defense of my belief, in my counterargument for God.

I will take Professor Smith at his word, and look forward to hearing from him.

Dishonest skepticism

Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer

How would you describe outer space?

Do you think you could draw a picture of deep space that someone else would recognize for what it represented? What would you draw?

I have a confession to make: I usually enjoy the writing of famous skeptic Michael Shermer, and personally think he is an excellent author. In fact, I even bought the hardcover copy of his book Why People Believe Weird Things from the Roswell Public Library.

Literally, I had some difficulty putting that book down when I was actively reading it a few years ago.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I confess that I felt compelled to replace the original library copy because I accidentally got ketchup stains on a page and didn’t want to give them back a book that I’d damaged. Otherwise, I probably would have settled for buying the more economically priced paperback copy to add to my book collection.

I’ve admired the work of Mr. Shermer for some time. I even thought his guest appearance on Mr. Deity was hilarious, albeit in a somewhat sacrilegious sort of way.

Probably the most famous skeptic in the world today, Mr. Shermer was the founding publisher of both Skeptic magazine and founder of the Skeptics Society. Interestingly, the word “skeptic” has been defined two different ways in the dictionary:

  1. a person inclined to question or doubt all accepted opinions.
    synonyms: cynicdoubterMore

  2. PHILOSOPHY
    an ancient or modern philosopher who denies the possibility of knowledge, or even rational belief, in some sphere.

Using those definitions as my standard, I would think that I should qualify for membership in Mr. Shermer’s club of skeptics, but I doubt that I’ll be welcomed in with open arms.

Personally, I think a certain degree of skepticism is healthy. Imagine my surprise to learn that I’m perhaps even more consistent in my skepticism than Mr. Shermer.

For example, I still have my doubts about “politically incorrect” things like global warming, and that the theory of evolution presents a rational belief explaining how monkeys can shape-shift into men, simply if given enough Deep Time for this amazing metamorphosis to occur. However, Mr. Shermer believes in both global warming and the theory of evolution, with a remarkable lack of curiosity in regard to the evidence allegedly supporting those theories.

It seems Mr. Shermer’s criteria requires that the skeptical person must also be an atheist in order to legitimately be called a skeptic. I’ve discovered over time that atheists seem to be quite eager to challenge my beliefs no matter what evidence is offered, but none of them are willing to equally apply skepticism to his or her own beliefs.

There is no balance. That’s not honest. That’s horribly biased skepticism.

The alternative to true skepticism is gullibility. The more preposterous a claim appears on the surface, the more critical it becomes to remain as skeptical as possible, until the evidence that substantiates the claim simply overwhelms you.

That’s much easier to do when applied to possibilities that you already doubt, and becomes infinitely more difficult to accomplish when applied to things you actually believe to be true.southernprose_cover_CAFG

It isn’t particularly easy for me to admit that my quest for truth has led me to believe some rather incredible scientific evidence exists that suggests reincarnation is actually possible, because that evidence conflicts with my Christian worldview, to at least some extent.

I would be dishonest if I denied that I’ve seen solid scientific evidence for reincarnation, because in fact, I have seen that evidence. Christianity doesn’t even address the issue, so I don’t know what to make of this evidence to which I refer.

I also know that my pastor isn’t exactly comfortable with the idea of reincarnation, but what can I say? It certainly isn’t required for me to like the concept of reincarnation in order to believe the evidence is credible, and it would be intellectually dishonest to ignore the evidence and pretend it doesn’t exist.

My point here is this: once someone makes a claim of possessing evidence, as skeptics we have an epistemic duty to investigate those claims, rather than summarily dismissing them.

In my book Counterargument for God I suggested that everyone consider themselves agnostic because there is tremendous difference between claiming to know something is true and being able to prove it.

I offered that we may characterize ourselves as atheist-agnostic, theist-agnostic, or apathetic-agnostic,depending on our current worldview

Once upon a time, I was an apathetic agnostic, on the brink of becoming an atheist. I considered the concept of supernatural intelligence to be about as preposterous as any other professed atheist would. Because I lacked paranormal experience, I assumed that ghosts were no more real than Casper, the cartoon character. 84620

Then a friend of mine claimed his house was haunted after I witnessed a supernatural phenomena. At first I didn’t believe him, of course.

But then over time, I experienced multiple examples of inexplicable phenomena that were irrational by any stretch of the imagination — phenomena caused by some sort of an invisible force, and not once or twice, but dozens, if not hundreds of times. Light switches would toggle themselves as I watched. Keys would disappear and reappear in the exact place last seen. The motion sensors in the burglar alarms would get triggered by nothing.

It got to the point where further denial would be dishonest, silliness born of cowardice in the fear of what others might say about that admission.

My skepticism was only slightly diminished by the first occurrence, because I was fairly sure what I had seen had to have been a trick, because I believed ghosts was irrational. Also my friend laughed about the incident, making me even more suspicious.

After a while, so many inexplicable occurrences had happened that I got to the point I accepted that ghosts were real. Over time it got to the point where I no longer bothered to investigate strange phenomena, because they had become routine.

Finally one day I was literally touched, in a well lit room, by something I couldn’t see. There wasn’t another human anywhere within arm’s reach. The only other person present never left my sight.

Even forty years later, I vividly remember that particular experience, because that raised the bar to a completely new level. Seeing had become believing, but touching kind of freaked me out, because it hadn’t occurred to me it would be possible to feel what I couldn’t see.

Of course, I naturally expect you to remain skeptical about my personal experiences.

But by the same token, I also expect people to understand why I say without fear of embarrassment that I believe ghosts exist — my own repeated personal experiences (which amounts to empirical evidence to me, when collected in the first person) have left me no choice.

It is prudent to remain skeptical of extraordinary claims such as that ghosts exist, and to demand extraordinary evidence to validate them. In fact, there have been a number of sensationalist, bogus ghost stories told by people apparently looking for free publicity, or for whatever reason.

Because I already believe in ghosts and because I know the history of the prison, I wouldn’t dream of sitting in the gas chamber in the New Mexico State Penitentiary at midnight like actor Scott Patterson did — that’s the very prison where the most brutal riot in American history took place in February 1980. Unspeakable horrors took place there.

However, before skeptics like Michael Shermer completely rule out the possibility ghosts exist, they should be willing to honestly investigate claims, not to summarily dismiss them with little or no investigatory effort.

Unfortunately, there is reason to suspect Mr. Shermer might be somewhat selective in the application of his skepticism. He curiously accepts the politically correct arguments for global warming and the theory of evolution with little or no skepticism, yet offers absurd challenges to phenomena that doesn’t fit into his current worldview.

JABiSVN

Deep Space photo from the Hubble telescope

In regard to alleged supernatural phenomena, it seems Mr. Shermer employs an impossibly high standard when evaluating alleged scientific evidence he deems questionable.

For example in one televised experiment, Mr. Shermer had been invited to observe experiments involving people who claimed to have psychic abilities.

One alleged psychic in particular appeared to be uncannily accurate in his results, so Mr. Shermer asked to personally test the subject.

In the first test, the psychic had drawn a picture that Mr. Shermer conceded had closely resembled the image in the photograph kept in a sealed envelope.

In the second test, however, rather than using a photograph of an object, or a person, animal, airplane, skyscraper — instead of using any image with a definable shape, Mr. Shermer chose the absurd.

He literally could have used a photograph of anything. Think about it.

Shermer could have used a photograph of a palm tree, a sports car, an airplane, an alligator, or the Statue of Liberty. He could have used Piss Christ. Shermer could have chosen an artist’s rendering of a Tyrannosaurus, Archaeopteryx, an ant, an Apple or an apple.

He even could have tried to trick the alleged psychic by reusing the same photograph from the first test, thinking he’d never suspect it.

But instead Shermer used a photograph of…nothing. He chose the photo of Deep Space taken from the Hubble telescope, shown above.

Naturally, with nothing to visualize, the “alleged” psychic simply drew dots on the page. And to no great surprise, Shermer determined that the psychic’s dots on the  paper failed to satisfy his demand for irrefutable proof.

Tough to dispute.

How exactly does one draw a reasonable and accurate picture of outer space? It would appear that Mr. Shermer never had any intention of allowing an alleged psychic to provide evidence which could possibly be construed as legitimate, concocting a ridiculous standard of proof in order to declare the experiment a failure, no matter the result.

Yet when presented with apparently quite credible evidence, rather than seeking to honestly attempt to validate the results, Mr. Sheerer moved the goalposts. Sadly, that makes him worse than just a dishonest skeptic.

Mr. Shermer apparently denies the existence of incredible evidence, no matter how credible it is.

The problem of suffering and death

11049461_10207429301717129_8529110916714375734_n

Derek Denhard

Perhaps the most difficult question my atheist friends like to ask to challenge my belief in God involves the problem of evil, pain and suffering, and our mortality.

Simply stated, the problem is this: how can a benevolent God allow evil to exist and torment us? Why does God allow us to suffer illness, pain, and eventually, death?

When I debated Ed Buckner, former president of American Atheists, I felt like that was the most difficult challenge he posed in his argument advocating atheism.

It’s a very good question, I must admit. I think part of the answer involves free will.

We are given the ability to choose or reject God by the fact the evidence for His existence is not direct, but mostly circumstantial in nature. However, there’s a little bit more to the answer than simply “free will”, in my opinion.

Derek Denhard was my friend. We graduated from the same high school, Savannah Christian, in 1978.

We weren’t exactly what you’d describe as close friends, but every time I ran into Derek after graduation, we always smiled, shook hands, and promised we’d get together soon for dinner. I can’t recall ever exchanging harsh words with the guy. Nobody disliked Derek.

Sadly, we both took “soon” for granted, I’m afraid.

The reason I am writing about Derek in past tense is because recently and quite unexpectedly, he died from a heart attack, at only 54 years old. Younger than me.

Derek seemed far too young. He was far too healthy and happy with his life, blessed with a beautiful family and great joy for life.

This is typically when my own morbid existential questions are posed to God: Why did Derek die? Why wasn’t it me instead? It is a fact that we’re all going to die, sooner or later.

But why did Derek have to die before me? From what I could ascertain from friends and family at the Atlanta visitation, Derek’s worst vice was an ice-cold can of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.

Without incriminating myself unnecessarily by giving out all the gory details, I believe that I’ve done considerably worse than that to my own body on my best day.

For many years, I drank a Coke for breakfast.

Derek will never get to see his beautiful grandchildren that will surely come one day. I already have three. Quite frankly, that just doesn’t seem fair.

But as Jesus himself said that life isn’t supposed to be fair, in Matthew 5:45 :

…that you will become the children of your Father who is in Heaven, for his sun rises on the good and upon the evil and his rain descends on the just and on the unjust.

I don’t think anybody in their right mind would claim that Derek deserved to die anymore than any of us can claim that we deserve to live.

As testament to the life Derek lived, more than a thousand people came to the funeral home in Atlanta to pay their respects to his family. A two hour visitation lasted four hours — the employees at the mortuary said they couldn’t remember a larger turnout for a funeral.

Clearly, Derek was well-loved, and he will be sorely missed by family and friends alike.

In spite of their sorrow and mourning, Derek’s family take solace from the joy of his memory, and they find comfort in their firm belief, stated more than once and by more than one family member, that they will see Derek again, when they die.

I believe that, too. Derek was a man with faith. I’ll look forward to seeing him on the other side.

The problem of pain, suffering, and death doesn’t seem to make sense, until we realize that without experiencing pain, we don’t understand the meaning of pleasure — it would have no meaning, in fact.

Everything would be pleasant. Without knowing sorrow, we can’t truly appreciate joy.

Nothing helps us recognize the need to cherish the life we have more than the untimely death of a well-loved friend. Take nothing for granted. Be thankful for every day you have.

And make sure the people you love realize it.

Derek obviously did.

 

The Spiritual Brain and the God helmet

images-4In a very good book written by Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary, titled The Spiritual Brain, (I would give it five stars, if I rated books with stars at my website) there is a chapter called “The Strange Case of the God Helmet” which describes a physical device that “scientists” place on their head so that low-powered magnets can stimulate the temporal lobes of the test subject.

Seriously. The tin-foil hat crowd now has legitimate competition.

Only a person who doesn’t believe God exists and has apparently become desperate to prove it would deliberately try to artificially simulate the effect that belief in God has on people of faith.

About neuroscientist Michael Persinger (co-inventor of the God helmet) Beauregard wrote:

Echoing Dawkins, Persinger has called religion “an artifact of the brain” and a “cognitive virus.” (page 81)

Speaking of Richard Dawkins, he had to try the helmet dawkinsingodhelmethimself, of course, but he didn’t experience any of the hallucinations the helmet can allegedly sometimes cause.

Persinger attributed the failure of Dawkins to “experience God” using the helmet was due to his “well below average” score in temporal lobe sensitivity to magnetic fields, whatever that means.

Of course, Persinger had to publish the results of his 2002 “study” in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disorders. Beauregard (and O’Leary) wrote:

Persinger concluded two things: that the experience of a sensed presence can be manipulated by experiment, and that such an experience “may be the fundamental source for phenomena attributed to visitations by gods, spirits, and other ephemeral phenomena. The first conclusion is a research result that should be able to be replicated if it is valid. The second is, of course, an opinion. (page 84)

Persinger is far from the only atheist looking for the scientific explanation for religious experience.  Though he claims his work is agnostic, Dean Hamer has been looking for God in our genes. Hamer was quoted by Beauregard and O’Leary as saying:

I think we follow our basic law of nature, which is that we’re a bunch of chemical reactions running around in a bag. (page 48)

This is why atheism can be such a hard sell — that’s not exactly a cheery outlook on life, is it?

Probably he best two chapters (my favorites) in The Spiritual Brain were called “Are the Mind and Brain Identical?” and “Toward a Nonmaterialist Science of Mind.”

Beauregard gets to the heart of why the famous account of corroborated veridical information learned during the neurosurgery of Pam Reynolds, known as “Operation Standstill.” He writes,

Pam’s case is unique for two reasons. First, she had the experience at a time when she was fully instrumented under medical conditions and known to be clinically dead. Clinical death is the state in which vital signs have ceased: the heart is in ventricular fibrillation, there is a total lack of electrical activity on the cortex of the brain (flat EEG), and brain-stem is abolished (loss of the corneal reflex, fixed and dilated pupils, and loss of the gag reflex.) Second, she was able to recall verifiable facts about her surgery that she could not have known if she were not in some way conscious when these events were taking place. [emphasis added] (page 155)

How can a person be conscious and clinically dead at the same time?

There seems to be only two alternatives: either liars have conspired to perpetrate a fraud for no discernible benefit, or Pam’s experience defied natural law.

Why on earth would anyone strap a helmet on their head designed to alter their brain waves with magnetic forces to force a fake hallucinogenic effect as a false religious experience?

Sincere prayer is a much more effective means of making a real connection with God.