Thursday, November 4, 2010

being willing to be wrong

Greta Christina's new piece, "Can Atheism be Proven Wrong?"

Yes, atheists pretty much agree that no existing religion has a shred of decent evidence to support it. That's why we're atheists. If we thought any religion had supported itself with decent evidence, we'd accept that religion. That's not the game. The game isn't, "What religion that currently exists could convince you that it was right?" The game is, "What hypothetical made-up religion could convince you that it was right?"

Or, to put it another way: We're talking counter-factuals. We understand that the universe, as it is now, is overwhelming in its evidence for atheism and materialism, and against any kind of deity or supernatural realm. We get that. We're talking about alternative universes. We're asking, "What would the world look like if there were a god or gods?"

There is good stuff to be had in here about what would actually convince most atheists that a religion was presenting a reasonable and worthy picture of the world. There's also a link to this page, which gives a pretty good rundown. Where this really gets interesting is after Greta gets done stating for the millionth time that actually atheists are not dogmatic zealots who take their conclusion as an article of faith (that we do, in fact, have standards of evidence--that no religion has met despite ample opportunity). She takes the, "no religion has actually managed to present a hypothesis supportible by evidence," point one step further by cutting off those last three words.

Religions haven't just failed to support their assorted hypotheses with good, solid, carefully gathered, rigorously tested evidence. They've failed to come up with hypotheses that are even worth subjecting to testing. They've failed to come up with hypotheses that are worth the paper they're printed on.

Religions are notorious for vague definitions, unfalsifiable hypotheses, slippery arguments, shoddy excuses for why their supporting evidence is so crummy, and the incessant moving of goalposts. Many theologies are logically contradictory on the face of it -- the Trinity, for instance, or an all-powerful/all-knowing/all-good God who nevertheless permits and even creates evil and suffering -- and while entire books are filled with attempts to explain these contradictions, the conclusions always boil down to, "It's a mystery."

And the so-called "sophisticated modern theologies" define God so vaguely you can't reach any conclusions about what he's like, or what he would and wouldn't do, or how a world with him in it would be any different than a world without him. They define God so abstractly that he might as well not exist. (Either that, or they actually do define God as having specific effects on the world, such as interventions in the process of evolution -- effects that we have no reason whatsoever to think are real, and every reason to think are bunk.)

And when I ask religious believers who aren't theologians to define what exactly they believe, they almost evade the question. They point to the existence of "sophisticated modern theology," without actually explaining what any of this theology says, much less why they believe it. They resort to vagueness, equivocation, excuses for why they shouldn't have to answer the question. In some cases, they get outright hostile at my unmitigated temerity to ask.

It's too bad that lots of the so-called "moderate" religious people that I know personally are all so invested in seeming and feeling rational that they can't just admit that they're not religious because they actually believe its claims are true. It would save us all a lot of effort if they did. I'm tired of having religious people try to throw reasoned arguments and evidence at me and then eventually concede--only after we've both wasted a lot of time and effort--that they don't really find those things persuasive either.

I mean, ffs. If it was never about evidence to begin with, if it's all metaphor and "personal revelation," then why do religious people get so upset when somebody points out that their sermons and holy books are full of fairy tales? And why do they let me give them the benefit of the doubt and hope that THIS TIME, THIS ONE TIME maybe they'll present a reasonable case, if they're just going to switch gears later and admit that they lied about their worldview in the hopes of getting me to sit still and stfu while they practice the flimsy reassurances that allow them to sleep at night?

I think that's one major reason why lots of religious people don't like talking to atheists, or even about religion to each other. It's not that we're all hurtful and mean, or that we're all joyless zealots, or even that we're all oversexed radical liberal feminazi pinko commies. It's this: If Pascal's Wager (or insert your fav apologism here) is the only reason you can face your day, you need everybody around you to be reassuring you that it's sound. Every person who shrugs and finds it unconvincing is a reminder that you've built your life on terror of your life, and an unwillingness to live in the real world. That'd suck, and I guess it does make us sort of mean.

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