Tuesday, November 13, 2007

On God: Preface & Introduction

Preface & Introduction

Bad Premises and the Importance of Critical Thinking:

"...otherwise logical arguments do not create true conclusions from false premises, regardless of how frequently or confidently they are repeated."

- Gary Galles (Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and Ludwig Von Mises Institute of Economics contributor)

Galles quote is nothing new, philosophers from Aristotle to Ayn Rand have said the same thing – and anyone with basic reasoning abilities could figure this out on their own anyway… but I thought it bore repeating before I start the arduous journey of discussing religion at length.

One of the biggest obstacles to debating, not only religion but in fact nearly every topic, is that people typically wind up focusing their attention on specific points rather than taking a few moments to examine their root premises. This is disastrous in a number of ways because without examining the foundation on which our arguments are based, we can go through innumerable perfectly reasonable steps in a chain of logic and wind up being completely wrong.

Children do this all the time simply due to a lack of experience or information about the world around them – to a child without a more complete understanding of the world, a lot seems like magic.

Adults do it too though, and it’s usually not quite as cute…

For example (to take a page from James Burke), let’s briefly look at the width of suburban streets and make some connections:

Though few make the connection, the codes which govern the width of our streets are largely dependent on emergency service needs such as the width of fire trucks. Fire departments have consistently increased the size of their trucks over the years and thus they struggle to get down the smaller streets of older neighborhoods and subsequently push city governors to update codes so that new streets are wider. They do this via the usual “burning baby” argument; that is to say, they claim that without wider streets, their larger trucks can’t get through to your burning house resulting in the destruction of personal property and the loss of life – most grievously of course, the horrific fiery death of babies.

Now – we don’t want that do we!? Of course not! No one wants babies to die horrific fiery deaths!

And because firemen can keep the argument focused on burning babies and the fearful imagery that goes along with that idea, no one bothers to go all the way back to the beginning and asks the really important question: Why do they need bigger trucks?

There isn’t a logistical or safety related reason that bigger trucks are needed. Suburban fire departments don’t need tankers – there are fire hydrants everywhere! They don’t need 100’ ladders – they are servicing neighborhoods of 1-3 story homes at most! So the truth is, we don’t need giant fire trucks to put out residential fires and thus we don’t need wider streets and yet we spend millions on both unnecessarily because no one checked their premises and no one wants burning babies.

This may seem like a digression, but it’s actually analogous to the way most people deal with religion. If we base our morality and guiding philosophies on the premise that there is an all-powerful, all-loving and all-knowing God who has a specific plan for our lives, we can come to all sorts of conclusions about the world around us. Sometimes that leads us to innocuous enough ideas – perhaps it makes people feel better when their mother or father dies of cancer, after all, even though our parents die at least there is a valuable (albeit unknown) reason. In fact, we have no choice but to assume there is a good reason for these deaths since we have already accepted the idea that there is a God and he (or she) has the power to stop death and that God is all-loving - inherently meaning that God could have prevented this tragedy but chose not to for some "all-good" reason. There is simply no other way to reconcile the pain we feel over the death of loved ones and the belief in an all-powerful, all-good deity than to assume that the death serves an all-good purpose.

Certainly nearly anything a person does to better cope with the incomprehensible grief over the loss of a loved one is beyond judgment. It goes without saying that many beliefs are extremely comforting, especially in times of great need.

So if belief in a false premise is just making people feel better, why worry about it? Why write this at all? And what’s the big deal anyway?

Because sometimes the conclusions people come to aren’t quite so benign.

Sometimes the exact same gap in logic at the root level leads people to fly airplanes into office buildings. Their conclusions (based on the same premises that console grieving widows) are that anyone who doesn’t believe the way they do should be killed.

And some other people conclude that the death of 3000 innocent people is God’s punishment for living in a society which tolerates “sinners”.

Both Jerry Falwell & Al Q’aeda operate under the following idea: God exists, God is all-powerful & all-good, God gave man a way to understand his intentions through holy literature and most importantly; failure to comply with God’s stated intentions will and should result in severe punishment. Again – BOTH the Islamic terrorists responsible for the murdering thousands of American civilians at the World Trade Center AND American Christian minister Jerry Falwell are operating under the exact same set of basic principles.

These ideas and actions aren’t just the result of another culture or one or two bad eggs, they are the absolutely plausible logical outcomes of the same basic concepts – in this case the premise is that an all-powerful God exists, we are capable of knowing what God wants us to do and of course since God created man, all of God's commands supersede the rights of any human. How many times have we heard even the most loving and kind of ministers say "The laws of God are more powerful than the laws of man"? In secularist America, that statement is interpreted much differently than in a theocracy like Iran or Pakistan, but the underlying premise here is exactly the same one that brings Jihadism and other holy wars.

Yet religion refuses to examine that premise. Religion can only exist if people who believe in a Supreme Being can also be convinced that it is possible to know what that Supreme Being’s thoughts and desires are

So the big deal here is that religion has motivated many people throughout the course of history to aggressively seek the death of others for no other reason than they have different thoughts and different beliefs. Often in fact, the bloodiest battles in history have been fought not by believers against non-believers (with whom the religious have significantly deeper differences), but by believers against other believers whose interpretation of the Supreme Being’s desires are different! The big deal is that the underlying philosophy of God and religion in general subjugates individuals to an inconceivable deity and in doing so promotes anti-intellectualism and sacrificial servitude. In short, it requires religious followers to abandon their own minds as their guide and replaces their reasoning abilities with unquestioned faith.

The big deal is that in the 21st Century, with accurate information about the natural world and other cultures as readily available as it is, fighting over which ridiculous belief is better than which other ridiculous belief is simply unacceptable.

(Note: The operative word is “ridiculous”. Many belief systems are demonstrably better than others, which is what this whole thing is about ultimately – I am in no way saying that every belief system is as good as any other. I am saying that any idea based on a false premise cannot possibly result in anything but bad conclusions.)

Now, in most discussions related to religion, as an atheist I am constantly called on to “prove that God doesn’t exist”. This is silly, because:

Proving a Negative…

…is impossible.

I cannot prove that God does not exist anymore than I can prove that a Leprechaun or the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist. I don’t intend to prove God doesn’t exist and I never have. However, I can prove that the anthropomorphized, sentient, omnipotent, all-loving, omniscient and omnipresent God commonly conceptualized by most major religions is impossible.

But ultimately, and this is a crucial point: The burden of proof isn’t on me!

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If a supernatural, all powerful, Supreme Creator of all things exists and has an active impact on the world as we live and breathe, there must be supernatural, all powerful, supreme evidence to support that claim.

Ultimately the real trouble with religion in particular is that it asks us to abdicate our reasoning powers and requires us to avoid questioning our premises. From that point on, it fails to answer any questions about reality, the universe, morality or life adequately simply because it is based on a premise that cannot be correct.

So with all this in mind, as I embark on the most lengthy written discussion of religion, God and rational thinking I’ve ever created, I hope everyone who reads this will check his or her premises and try to evaluate them systematically. Fortunately, in the United States we still have enough freedom to live in a marketplace of ideas – if you don’t like what I have to say, you don’t have to read it. If you do read it and hate it, feel free to respond directly. I have no power to coerce you to agree with me, I use no force, no threats. I won’t be shouting or blowing up things. And this, I think, is the crucial difference.

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