Monday, December 3, 2007

Classic Special Pleading for Religion

On another thread of mine Little David left a lengthy comment that I thought was such a perfect example of the special pleading religion gets, and is demanded on its behalf, in our society, that it deserved its own post and fisking. It is also a perfect example of the kind of intellectually dishonest shilling we've come to expect from right-wing pundits, which guarantees to bely attempts at rational discourse. Ever the optimist, I will try anyway.

"Sorry, I think I am starting to see evidence of an almost unreasonable hysteria against anything that hints of religious beliefs. Evidence of this is the statement: 'They may occasionally reach the same conclusions, but they are, at their core, opposed, and they always will be.'"

Here right away we see the standard Coulterish tactic of using baseless inflammatory rhetoric in lieu of sound reasoning. A simple factual claim that science, being driven by evidence, and religion, being driven by faith, are at their core opposed, is "hysterical"? By what standards? None, it is just a good example of the fallacy of poisoning the well: after all, why should the arguments of "hysterical" people be dealt with logically?

To be clear, this atheist has no trouble whatsoever with other people holding religious beliefs, or basing their personal life decisions on them. What I, and many in the reality-based community object to is the use of these faith-based beliefs to make decisions in the public sphere, or the facade that these beliefs are compatible or comparable to science.

"Some atheists are starting to sound as unreasonable in insisting of the 'facts' being something they can NOT prove (God does not exist) as those who insist that every syllable uttered in the Bible is infallible."

Ah, right off the Fox News script: "some people say". What atheists sound this way? Name them. What exactly did they say? Quote them, IN CONTEXT. There is a good reason the right-wing apologists, be they Little David or Dinesh D'Souza, rarely do so: their claims can't stand up to the facts, so all they have to rely on is baseless generalizations. Any why the scare quotes around the word "facts"? It's just another rhetorical trick this crowd loves. Instead of attacking a claim with which they differ head on with logic and evidence, they simply put scare quotes around it. This allows them to treat it as refuted without having to do the hard work of actually doing so.

Once one examines this claim logically one can easily see why all those distractions would be in there. That the Bible is not infallible can be verified, in multiple independent instances, by any person with a sound mind and a dictionary. Anyone claiming otherwise is acting in defiance of the facts. Little David wishes to compare this to the claim that the evidence supports the notion that there are no gods? As Dawkins has illustrated so deftly, all one need do to see the absurdity of such claims is to restate them in terms of other gods, or other, unproven entities:

Some athorists are starting to sound as unreasonable in insisting of the 'facts' being something they can NOT prove (Thor does not exist) as those who insist that every syllable uttered in the Hárbarðsljóð is infallible.

Some aunicornists are starting to sound as unreasonable in insisting of the 'facts' being something they can NOT prove (unicorns do not exist) as those who insist that every syllable uttered in the Holy Book of Unicornism is infallible.

Are these statements any more absurd than the original? The evidence for Thor and unicorns is identical to that for the Christian gods - zero, nada. So why would anyone insist that somehow his gods deserve what others are denied? Simple: it is what he was raised with, as most of us were, and it seems more comfortable and familiar. But to a Hindu, the story that a man was nailed to a tree to save everyone from the crimes of his great-great-great...great-grandfather sounds just as absurd as the story of 1,000 gods and the wheel of life sounds to those of us raised in a Christian society. Thus, when someone says something like this:

"While the infallible Bible crowd might be described as being at one end of the spectrum, atheists who attempt to prove that the evidence already proves God does not exist are at the other end of the spectrum and just as unreasonable to many of us who sit somewhere in the center."

We can see that he is not in the center at all. He is decidedly biased towards the notion that there is some credibility to the claims of Christianity. Thus, anyone who simply recognizes the complete lack of evidence for his gods (be they atheist, Hindu, or Buddhist) will look biased to him, and he will claim they need to give special consideration to his gods that he does not claim for equally evidence-free notions such as Thor and unicorns:

"I think that someone who describes himself as an agnostic (rather then an atheist) is being more then reasonable as long as they will 'reasonably' continue to appraise reality if God seeks to prove that He does exist to them."

[sigh] Once again we see the intellectually dishonest use of scare quotes to poison the well. Never mind demonstrating logically that atheistic views are unreasonable. Just put scare quotes around "reasonably" and run.

On no other subject are people told that reasonableness demands they remain undecided concerning the existence of that with no evidence supporting it. No one says we must be agnostics with regard to unicorns or Thor. Yet with the Christian gods we are supposed to make a special case. Why? Social familiarity, and nothing else.

No, sorry, I am an atheist, as are many others, because we have examined the evidence and it implies quite strongly that the Christian gods do not exist, the same as unicorns and Thor. Show us some evidence, and we'll examine it. Until then, we will follow the evidence where it leads, and conclude there are no gods. In some cases, absence of evidence is indeed evidence of absence, and whether it is a supposed elephant in my living room, or a supposed infinite god that supposedly created the universe, the complete lack of evidence is solid evidence they do not exist.

"Would you accept this 'statement of scientific truth'? If God does not exist, it is impossible to scientifically prove this lack of existence."

Here we see another tactic of semantic games, equivocation with the term "prove". Strictly speaking, nothing in science is ever proven. It is always conceivable that we might one day find evidence for a mermaid, or a god. Nonetheless, as the evidence piles up and the probability of error approaches zero, in the layman's sense, they are proven to not exist. When someone claims, as apologists for gods often do, that they have logical reasons A, B, C, D, and E for their views, and those arguments are all subsequently shown to be either logically or factually flawed as knowledge progresses, it becomes formidable evidence for the nonexistence of those entities.

So my answer to the question is this: the gods are, in principle, no more, and no less, scientifically provable, than any other concept (depending of course on how they are defined). Further, the level of proof for the nonexistence of gods is comparable to that of the proof for the nonexistence of mermaids.

"If God does exist He should be able to prove His existence so that it would be unreasonable for a person who is not delusional to continue to insist there is no God?"

Everyone put on your irony SCUBA gear for this one, for this is precisely the point we atheists make. Yes, exactly, a god as the one depicted by the old testament should be able to prove himself to me easily. Oh yes, I could be swayed. Bring my great grandmother back from the grave. Make the stars in the sky line up and say "I am the Lord thy god". Tell me exactly where the Dow will close on 12/2/2008. Have one of my gifts under the tree turn out to be Jessica Alba wearing nothing but a bow on her head. Have the world spontaneously ban soccer. I'm not unreasonable, and god could accomplish these and even more wondrous things.

But that isn't what we experience is it? God has done NOTHING whatever to reveal himself, not to anyone with a modicum of intelligence and knowledge. No clear-cut prophecies, no futuristic knowledge, no verifiable miracles, nothing. Just a bunch of vague, question-begging nonsense in the Bible, and lots of creative after-the-fact rationalizing, just like every other fraud. Uri Geller could lay claim to being a god with comparable evidence.

That is nothing at all like what we should expect. The old testament god makes himself known to a level that only the delusional could deny. Why can't the one you claim exists do so? Simple: he doesn't exist.

"If you would accept such an above 'statement of scientific truth' I guess that would make you an agnostic and not an unreasonable atheist."

Ah, how appropriate to end with more well-poisoning. Atheists are unreasonable are they? Why? Are aunicornists unreasonable? Are athorists unreasonable? This is such a Bill O'Reillyism: agree with me or you're unreasonable. Sorry, it doesn't work that way. Atheists aren't unreasonable or hysterical. We simply don't extend the special pleading to the gods of Christianity the way some people do. We treat all concepts, all gods, the same way: Unicorns do not exist. Yahweh does not exist. Thor does not exist. Yoda does not exist. There are no evidenciary differences that make any difference. The only difference is that one claim offends many Americans far more than the others, and thus is resisted by them arbitrarily.


Little David said...

Hello Science Avenger,

I would have loved to take you on in a cross blog debate but I have to get back out on the road. I am a truck driver and while on the road I seldom have access to the internet. I guess I am going to have to make do with this reply.

You spent a lot of time on your post and I am sorry to admit I did not wade through it all. I guess you never learned the power of brevity.

As for "name one" I name you. I point to your above article in its entirety to prove my point. You take one brief post defending the belief in God and nitpick it to death. PERFECT example of an unreasonable atheist.

Go back and look at my own post on my own blog (I know you know how to find it) and look at my own post on the Fourth of July of this year. Then take a look at the link I provided on the 30th of July that provides what the "experts" (dare we call them scientists) predicted.

I also wish to point out how I lamented on my July 4th entry that while God had provided me with "private" signs that He existed, I could never expect Him to provide me one in public.

Now I can understand your dismissal of my (our) very public sign. Give enough monkeys a typewriter and give them enough time one of them will eventually type out Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. But give one monkey a typewriter and expect him to come up with something decipherable?

I got my sign.

Please understand that this one very public sign was followed after NUMEROUS private signs that are as inexplicable as my one, thus far, private one.

Can you not admit my public sign might at least crack your veneer of resistance to even the possibility that God exists?

I have no problem with you being an agnostic. But how can you continue to insist God can NOT exist within your science?

I have no problems with your science. God conforms to the laws of science. But just how willing are we to "bet it all" that we have a better understanding of it then He does?

Ooops, I am going to correct myself. I might have a problem with science. If "science" tries to prove that homosexuality (for example) is a step forward for the human species I am going to have a problem with that.

That latter was perhaps a cheap shot. It was just provided to prove just how far "scientists" will go to prove their "science".

I apologize for being so windy. I would have been more brief if I had more time, over time, to make my point.

Troublesome Frog said...

Just delurking long enough to mention that I'm a regular reader and really enjoy your stuff. Keep up the good work.

ScienceAvenger said...

Thanks Troublesome Frog. I've enjoyed your comments on other blogs as well.

As for Little David, my friend, rebut me as time allows. My comments aren't going anywhere. As it stands, I could not have written a retort that better illustrates many of the points I'm making if I tried. You truly lead with your chin, to wit:

Yes, I spent a lot of time on my response. I think it is important to treat ideas seriously, especially when they misrepresent serious issues as badly as your did. I know many of those you respect politically act as though any answer longer than 2 sentences is a vague dodge, but some topics require many words to address adequately.

Claiming my detailed critique of your claims is an example of the unreasonable atheist in action, after admitting to not reading it all, perfectly illustrates my point that you guys don't care much about examining reality. Dismissing it with a wave of your hand and labelling it "nitpicking" borders on hysterical. What not just say you aren't interested in such a "pathetic level of detail" and leave it at that? If you think pointing out the logical and factual flaws in someone's argument is unreasonable, I can see why you think all atheists are unreasonable. I'll wear that label with pride.

And yet now you presume to ask me to go wading through your blog to find some proof of God you think you have? Running for Hypocrite of the Year? How typical of religious special pleading. I should read your books, but you can't be bothered to read mine.

If you think you have a proof of God, submit your findings to the nearest philosophical or scientific magazine (depending on the nature of your evidence), and see what they say. Just prepare to be heartedly laughed at if your proof is something like "I asked God to give us a hurricane-free Gulf and He did". Experts being wrong isn't much of a miracle. Now Jessica Alba in my Xmas stocking...

And AGAIN, I, and most atheists, have no resistence to the possibility of the existence of gods (again, depending on how they are defined), any more than we resist the possibility of mermaids. We simply see no evidence for either, so we draw the always-contingent opinion that there are no such things. Bring forth some evidence and our minds would change. The refusal of many of defenders of the faith to acknowledge this fact is part of what leads many of us to conclude that you are intellectually dishonest. Ditto with your refusal to accept the reality that I, and many millions of others, are atheists, not agnostics. Read some Aquinas for a refresher on the importance of honestly and accurately portraying one's opponent's positions.

You speak as though you having a problem with reality changes reality: it doesn't. I don't care if you have a problem with my atheism or not, it doesn't change the fact that I am an atheist. Ditto for whether or not homosexuality (a topic over which methinks you doth protest too much) is natural or a sinful abomination. Reality is what it is.

But you are clearly not interested in reality, as your last comment makes clear. You are with science (ie the evidence), as long as it doesn't offend your religious sensibilities, and then when it does, well then the evidence be damned. Reasonable discourse is impossible with someone with such an intellectually dishonest point of view.

Little David said...

First, I did not get back on the road as planned. I had a problem getting motivated enough to do so. I am intending to leave this morning.

Actually, after I sent my above reply, I did later wade through your entire article. I had no problem reading your above entire reply to my comment. For some reason I found this less difficult. Perhaps it has something to do with the style of presentation rather then the substance of what is presented.

I know, my own evidence of a public sign could be readily dismissed as just a lucky coincidence, but you have to understand it comes on the tails of other signs provided after private requests. I can understand your skepticism because I too was skeptical after receipt of private signs. I normally convinced myself, after a period of time, that I was being delusional. That each of the signs was only an amazing coincidence. Pretty amazing, but still just a coincidence.

So, I would then ask God for an additional sign... and each time I ratchetted up the difficulty making it harder and harder for God (or alternatively harder for me to dismiss) to provide what I would accept as being "proof".

How many times must an individual win the lottery, almost in a row, before he realizes something like
simply defying the odds is not the explanation?

By the way, I appreciate your mention of St Thomas Aquinas. By pointing to such a man, perhaps you have indeed proven something to me (although I will wait to see additional evidence that what "might be" true of you "is" true).

Perhaps when it comes to the issue of homosexuality maybe I am just "homophobic" - grin? The label does not bother me a bit. But it does bother me when a "scientist" tries to argue that homosexuality is natural or something. Forgive me for being crude, but evidence is that the round peg never finds the round hole. That's the evidence, that the equipment provided (through evolution or whatever) is NEVER used in the way it was intended. It is unnatural.

I also take some issue with the concluding sentence of the concluding paragraph of your reply. The one that goes "Reasonable discourse is impossible with someone with such an intellectually dishonest point of view." I'll think about whether such a comment is true of me. However as for you? In your case I think it is a case of the pot calling the kettle black!

ScienceAvenger said...

As an actuary, I am well versed in calculating probabilities, and what I can tell you with 100% consistency is that people who claim something happened that is too improbable isn't nearly as improbable as they think it is. Fairly mundane results are touted as miracles when they are anything but. Look at your hurricane example: your result was basically a repeat of the previous year. If that's a miracle, the standards sure have dropped since I studied them as a Catholic.

When scientists tell you homosexality is natural, they are simply abiding by the evidence. Homosexuality is prevalent in the natural world, ask any biologist, zookeeper, or farm hand (ever hear of a free martin?). Again, whether or not you find this offensive is irrelevant to its truth. Whether the behavior conforms to your notion of "normal" is irrelevant. Facts trump ideology.

I call you intellectually dishonest because you ignore facts, dismissively wave away detailed arguments, and most importantly, misrepresent the views of others. Tossing the labal back at me is just another example of it, since the evidence for your accusation is a big fat goose egg.

LittleDavid said...

At the time I asked for the sign all the experts were calling for a well above average hurricane season. The reason given for last year's mild hurricane season was due to it being an El Nino year. Previous history has for increasing numbers and ferocity of hurricanes with occasional downturns explained by El Nino years. Through much of the month of August the experts were continuing to predict an unusually high level of hurricane activity.

But what were the results? This past year's hurricane season's level of activity has been described as the mildest in the last 30 years.

Homosexuality is not as prevalent in other species as it is in the human species. There are occasional examples of homosexuality even amongst birds for example. However these examples are fairly rare. Many of the instances I have read about only describe a platonic relationship (best friends?) without any sexual activity.

Homosexuality goes against evolution because those who practice it faithfully can not reproduce and this is the purpose of sexuality in our species. Heterosexuals engage in recreational sex as well, however occasionally the round peg finds the round hole and a baby pops out.

Homosexuality is a threat to society through the homosexual community suffering from Sexually Transmitted Diseases (and I am not just talking about Aids) at higher rates then heterosexuals do. While the figures I found did not break down the data, I would imagine this is due to male homosexuals suffering at a much higher rate while it would not surprise me that lesbians suffered at even lower then average rate. My explanation for the difference if such a study proved my hunch would be the differences between the genders' sexual behavior as the cause. My thinking on the differences between between the sexes within homosexuality may or may not be true however the "fact" is that homosexuals as a whole suffer from STDs at a higher rate then do heterosexuals. I feel that increased spread of STDs to the population as a whole happens when a bisexual has a "fling" with a homosexual and then returns to heterosexual behavior.

From National Public Radio (now there is a biggoted source if you ever heard one - please note sarcasm) that homosexual men are returning at alarming rates to promiscuous unsafe sexual practices. The reason given was due to the availability of drug treatment for AIDs. I have also heard reports that some homosexual men engage in group unprotected sex encounters where it is KNOWN that one of the participants is HIV positive and who remains unidentified - luck of the draw. It is my opinion those who engage do so for the extra thrill they receive. Another taboo to be broken.

Now, while not all of the above is proven "fact" much of it is (some of it is unproven opinion). I do not have to be a fortune teller to foretell who is going to "dismissively wave away detailed arguments".

ScienceAvenger said...

Let me illustrate, at the most fundamental level, what is wrong with your hurricane argument. Tell me, what was the probability that the results would be what they were? Show me your calculations.

See, you can't, because you don't know. You haven't the foggiest notion how to do so. I would wager heavily that you couldn't tell me the answer even if I gave you the mathematical distribution of hurricane occurrences. See, I'm an insurance actuary, and this is the sort of thing I deal with on a regular basis, so you picked a really bad battlefield for us to tangle on.

The bottom line is you can't claim something is so improbable that it warrants believing in gods (or anything else) if you don't even know what the probability is in the first place. You can't dodge the issue by claiming to have some general feel for what the probabilities are. The floors of statistics classes the world over are littered with the failing tests of people with similar views. As Mark Chu-Carrol is so fond of saying, the worst math is no math, and you've got no math.

All you've got is that the experts were wrong. So? In some areas, the experts are wrong a lot (as you are no doubt fond of pointing out whenever it serves your purposes), and hurricane prediction is one of them. One of the few things we do know for certain about hurricanes is that they are unpredictable. We know that from experience because the experts were way off LAST YEAR! That they have, after the fact, explained their error, doesn't mean it didn't occur.

So to summarize, you are trying to claim a miracle in a case where something unpredictable and difficult to predict stymied the experts and behaved in a ... wait for it ... unpredictable way! I'm sorry, that's laughable, and will be the last word on this debate here. You might as well claim it as a sign of God that George Bush was elected twice. Take the issue up again on your blog if you like, I'll happily continue the discussion there.

As for your arguments against homosexuality, I think they are a good summary of the typically poor arguments I see on that subject, so much so that I think they deserve their own post, which I shall make in the next few days. You may leave additional comments there, and as teaser, I'll leave you with this: where is the "therefore" part of your logic? "Homosexuality has trait X, therefore..." Therefore what? And are you willing to apply the same consequence to everything else that has trait X? I don't think you are. We shall soon see.