Monday, August 22, 2011

All theisms are created equal

I recently read the article Why I am not an Atheist by Pierre Whalon, Bishop of Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, published in the Huffington Post on August 9. He starts by asserting that "by definition" there is no evidence for god, approvingly citing German Jesuit and theologian Karl Rahner for saying "God is not a datum in the universe." He also approvingly cites Thomas Aguinas for arguing that nothing can be proven from nature or scripture to those who do not have faith already.

Karl Rahner may have been right, but not because there is no evidence by definition according to the Christian bible, where God speaks and performs witnessed physical miracles onymously. Bishop Whalon, however, defines god as subsisting "completely outside of the universe". I will simply accept Bishop Whalon's definition of god since he is entitled to argue for his god on his own terms. I will then leave it to the reader to decide whether Bishop Whalon is being inconsistent here insofar as he also claims to be Christian according to the authority of the Christian bible.

I am not impressed with Bishop Whalon's citing some recent Scientific American articles for asserting that the existence of the multiverse "cannot be proven" and that the reason why math works "cannot be understood scientifically". "Cannot" is a strong word here, and my understanding is that supporting evidence for both is not outside the realm of the possible. In particular, we already have evidence for a multiverse in the sense that existing theories of how our universe functions which are favored by cosmologists appear to imply a multiverse. A multiverse is currently a highly speculative possibility and yet it is also better evidenced than any gods. This is important because we don't require "proof" to justify our theism/atheism beliefs, what is required is overall weight of the available evidence, and the evidence we have for a multiverse is unfavorable to gods being non-fictional.

Nevertheless, putting aside that his two examples may be flawed, Bishop Whalon is no doubt correct on his main point, that "there are limits to the 'evidence' science can produce." He also says "the questions these limits raise are clearly not the confines writ large of human inquiry." But surely it is not merely inquiry that Bishop Whalon is advocating for when he advocates for Episcopalianism in particular, or even monotheism more generally. So its not clear what Bishop Whalon's point is here.

Since Bishop Whalon put the word evidence inside scare quotes, it is worth noting that evidence is not produced by science, at least not in an active sense. Evidence is that which was observed to happen. Scientists seek out, verify, and consume the evidence, they don't produce the evidence.

Bishop Whalon has conceded most of his argument from the start: There is no evidence for god. For some inexplicable reason, Bishop Whalon appears to think that theism is justified without providing any explanation for how it is justified. He mentions faith and intuition, but faith and intuition alone cannot justify belief. No belief about how the world works is justified without evidence.

Having first conceded that there is no evidence for god, he then concedes that the evils manifest in our universe are evidences against an all-knowing, all-powerful, all good, god. When we combine concession one with this second concession its even less clear why Bishop Whalon is a Christian theist. Bishop Whalon puts in a pitch for theism when he says "... a theist can be called to account because her religion has an ethical standard that stands completely over her. An atheist can have no such check." However, this isn't an argument that theisms are true. Its an assertion that only theistic religions provide ethical standards transcending the individual. Yet the individual is not transcended by any religions. Individuals have the option to believe or not in any particular religion. Furthermore, the ethical standards that religions provide may be unethical, or poorly defined, or undefined in any given context, thus taking us back to square one, or maybe worse.

Bishop Whalon, citing Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus as examples, points out that evil in the world is also a problem for atheists. Of course, evil is a problem for all people, but its not evidence against atheism. It is evidence against the set of theisms that posit a omnibenevolent deity.

Bishop Whalon then characterizes awe, intuition of a hidden order, curiosity, beauty of order, and the like as the domain of the "queen of of sciences" - theology. It is "that intuition -- that life has a meaning that transcends my momentary flicking in and out of it -- is for me confirmed by the revelation of God on the cross of Jesus...". Mesopotamians also had intuitions. The forces of Taimat and Abzu, who had emerged from a primordial chaos of water, created the 4 creator gods. The highest of the 4 gods was the sky-god An, the over-arching bowl of heaven. Next came Enlil who could either produce raging storms or act to help man. Nin-khursag was the earth goddess. The 4th god was Enki, the water god and patron of wisdom. These 4 gods did not act alone, but consulted with an assembly of 50, which is called the Annunaki. Innumerable spirits and demons shared the world with the Annunaki.

So, Bishop Whalon, why are your intuitions more accurate descriptions of how the world works than the Mesopotamians intuitions? You asserted "not all theologies are created equal", but I fail to see how we can logically adopt any particular religion when all religions are non-evidenced, counter-evidenced, intuitions. Intuitions about how the universe ultimately works are diverse, inconsistent, and, as human history amply demonstrates, inevitably false. Human intuition here is synonymous with human ignorance. You may think that relying on intuition to answer questions such as who created the universe, the ultimate purpose of people, the ultimate meaning of human lives, and the like is rational. I am convinced that the evidence demonstrates otherwise and you are mistaken. Those questions have simple, non-intuitive, negative answers. No intelligent agent intentionally created our universe, there is no ultimate purpose of people, there is no ultimate meaning to human lives.

Contrary to what Bishop Whalon argues, a story is not true because its implications "are trustworthy in the abstract" or because it is "personally relevant". Fictions can be trustworthy in the abstract and personally relevant. Bishop Whalon asserts that "what you believe ... makes up what you are ..." But we shouldn't be utilizing belief as a method of defining ourselves. Our beliefs reflect our best efforts at deciding what is true and false. Accordingly, we believe because the overall weight of the evidence directs us to what we must believe.

Bishop Whalon then confuses evidence justified belief with faith by concluding thusly: "Faith, atheist or otherwise, is never just a personal option. At least, not for long." On the contrary, faiths, no matter what their implications for the holders of those faiths and for others, are always a personal option. It is evidence alone that enables us to transcend personal options. In my judgment, the available evidence is that all gods are human created fictions, these fictions accurately reflect ignorant human intuitions, gods almost certainly do not exist, and in any case, by definition, we cannot be justified in believing in anything that resides completely outside of the universe.

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