Tuesday, January 04, 2005

A quick recap on God

I am not a practicing Christian
or Muslim
or Jew
About the only thing I do practice is Onanism. On quite a heroic scale. After 25 years of practising I am now quite good at it.
However, some of the media coverage concerning the tsunami is starting to get under my skin. Many news outlets, in search of 'thoughtful' angles to cover the tsunami story, have started kicking out that tired old war-horse …
'If there is such a thing as God why would he permit such terrible suffering'
The implied conclusion is usually that there is no God.
I have just sat through a discussion on BBC's Newsnight featuring a Catholic Cardinal, someone from the Muslim Council and an academic atheist. On a points basis the atheist won.
He shouldn’t have. The problem is that the Pro God lobby is usually represented by religious people who inevitably start talking about subjective concepts such as faith. The atheists always seem stronger because their arguments usually sound somehow more scientific or rational, even though they are not.
At the risk of repeating myself …
Atheism is no more scientific than a belief in God. Both are belief systems that cannot be proved or disproved by our existing scientific techniques.
If someone can come up with a scientifically testable hypothesis that disproves God I'd love to know.
Anyway, back to the question of the moment, if a benevolent God exists why would he permit such suffering?
Well, he's God. That means he's cleverer than we are and it is pretty arrogant of us to believe that we can second guess the motives of a far superior intellect and petulantly declare that God doesn't exist because he fails to meet the expectations that we set for him. Also, we cannot for a second pretend to know how he goes about his business. For all we know, in the moment before those tsunami victims left this life, God could easily have provided them with a whole lifetime of experience in an instant. If God had created a World without pain or struggle where all of us lived cosy predictable lives, dying in our sleep at 95, we would not develop as individuals. The very reason for us being given life and individual personalities would be negated. The fragility of our existence should inspire each of us to live the best life that we can; for the benefit of those around us and ourselves, right now and for every waking moment. God has already compensated those people killed in the tsunami. Those of us left on this Earth should learn the appropriate lesson and get on with living decent lives.
Now, of course, this could all be bollocks. However, it does answer the question without ducking the issue and cannot be proved or disproved scientifically. It is a self-consistent belief system; like atheism or the belief that elephants and butterflies share a common ancestor. I would suggest, however, that the God-based explanation offers a more satisfying explanation for the reason for our existence, the trials we live through and a guide to how we should live those lives.
And I don't even go to church.


Anonymous said...

Atheism isn't a belief system, it's an absence of belief in gods. Some atheists deny the existence of any gods (strong atheism) and some don't (weak atheism). There are atheist belief systems (Objectivism, Secular Humanism, some forms of Buddhism) just like there are theistic belief systems. But atheism isn't a "belief system" any more than theism is. Theism is the presence of a particular belief (some sort of god exists) and a-theism is the absence of that belief.


Stef said...

Ho! Ho!

We could have some fun here.

Strictly speaking I wouldn't waste time disagreeing with you about the definition of atheism; 'strong' or 'weak'. Yes, semantically you are correct.

I would, however, argue that, given it is not possible to scientifically prove or disprove the existence of a Creator, agnosticism is the way to go if you do not believe in a God(s).

But atheism is one step past agnosticism isn't it? As commonly used, it means the denial of the existence of deities ('strong' atheism). This is non provable, and strictly speaking requires the same leap of faith as it does to believe in a Creator ...

This boils down to pure word play. Saying 'I am without theistic beliefs' is a slippery, lawyer's way of saying 'I do not believe in God' phrased in such a way to make the position seem somehow more logical than theism.

Personally, I'm not fan of this kind of wordplay. In my opinion these games are very often employed to confuse the issue.

Imagine there are four people in a room asked if they believe in a God

Person A says: 'Yes
Person B says: 'No, I do not believe in a God'
Person C says: 'There's no way to be sure either way'
Person D says: 'I am without a belief in God but that's not the same thing as saying I can't be sure either way or that I disbelieve in a God'

Which one is the turnip?

Anonymous said...

"Atheism is no more scientific than a belief in God. Both are belief systems that cannot be proved or disproved by our existing scientific techniques.
If someone can come up with a scientifically testable hypothesis that disproves God I'd love to know."

Surely this is an error in logic. If athism is the absence of belief in God (absence of hypothesis) then it is those with the belief in God (a hypotheis) that the burden of prove falls on.

If this is not so I could then state that there are blue apples on Neptue and because I don't have to prove it and no one else can disprove it my statement must be as valid as any one elses.

Stef said...

Yes, if atheism is the absence of belief in God things get sticky for anyone wishing to challenge such a position.

The reason why this statement is not open to challenge is because it makes no claims about the universe outside of personal opinion of the person making the statement.

... and as such is not that interesting to anybody other than the person making the statement.

Saying I believe, disbelieve, or am uncertain about the existence of God is an expression of belief about the nature of the World outside of the individual

... and as such is more interesting; as the implications affect us all and are worth debate and consideration

We're back onto the wordplay of the previous two comments aren't we? That's why some tricky trickster atheists play around with what the term atheism means. Hence, the use of modifying terms like 'strong' or 'weak' atheism.

If atheism is the active disbelief in God, as is commonly understood, I am within my rights to claim that this is not a scientific statement as the existence of God is not open to testing or falsification.

It all boils down to what people mean when they say 'I'm an atheist'. Now if someone wants to pick me up on my semantics used in my blog I could rightly respond by saying that anyone claiming to be an athiest, without explaining what type of atheist, is being sloppy or misleading in their statement.

Maybe I've misunderstood your comment but a statement like 'there are blue apples on Neptune' can be conceivably be scientifically tested at some point in the future and therefore open to falsification if untrue. This places such a statement within the realms of science rather than metaphysical statements like 'I believe in God' or 'I disbelieve in God'

Even though we haven't the tools right now I could formulate an experiment that challenges the blue apples statement and sit back and wait for someone to invent a suitable spacecraft.

With the God related statements I cannot conceive of a viable experiment, now or in the future and that is what I was referring to in the original post. Can you? Can anyone?

Anyway, it's late and time for bo bos. Apologies for any typos or brain burps

David said...

How comes we both keep posting unknowingly on the same things? I'm writing about karma at the moment, and our parallel themes (God, karma, living in London etc) seem to be another aspect of that. If you haven't checked into mine for a while, see the last two and if any gem of an idea comes to you, please leave it in the usual place. Are you also hoping to get any of your blog published I wonder?

Anonymous said...

"But atheism is one step past agnosticism isn't it?"

No. A-gnosticism is about knowledge. A-theism is about beliefs. Related, but separate issues.

Either you have a belief in the existence of some sort of god or you don't. If you do, you're a theist. If you don't, you're an a-theist. Now, maybe you also claim to know one way or another: gnostic theist or gnostic atheist. Or, maybe you don't claim to know for sure: agnostic theist or agnostic athiest.

Agnosticism is not a "third way" between atheism and theism.

"That's why some tricky trickster atheists play around with what the term atheism means. Hence, the use of modifying terms like 'strong' or 'weak' atheism."

It may seem easier to accuse atheist of playing tricks with definitions, but the passive "absence of belief in the existence of gods" is part of the definition of atheism that you will find in most comprehensive, unabridged dictionaries. You just have to look past the "denial" definition and note the presence of "disbelief" that usually comes first.

You will find citations from dozens of dictionaries, encyclopedias, and reference books at this site:


"So, let's stick with the commonly understood meaning of atheism, as in 'I don’t believe in God', which, as discussed previously, is a non scientific belief system and effectively its own kind of religion. A religion where science is the new scripture and scientists the new priesthood."

The statement "I don't believe x" isn't logically the same as "I believe not-x." Even if it were, atheism wouldn't be a belief SYSTEM - it would be just a single belief. Single beliefs aren't systems. Even if it were, though, it wouldn't qualify as a religion - not all belief systems are religions. There are not rituals, no sacred objects/times/etc., nothing that it normally a part of religion.

You have made huge leaps from an absence of a belief, to a belief, to a belief system, to a religion - but none of those leaps are logically or empirically justified.

"Which is why supposedly rationalist atheists can be just as good sport as supposedly irrational fundamentalist Christian. A sense of humour by-pass came fitted as standard with both of their belief systems."

Indeed. Anyone who calmly corrects your mistakes must not have a sense of humor.

Stef said...

I've read your comments and reflected on them.

I'm glad to see that we're agreed that agnosticism is the more scientific term of those on offer.

Then we come back to the definition of atheism again. We're back onto this absence of belief thing again aren't we?

Given all that you've said what would you say is the correct term for 'I believe that God does not exist'?

If I am made aware of a more appropriate term than 'atheism', that is commonly understood by people, I will gladly embrace that as an alternative. Sticking the word 'strong' in front of atheism doesn't cut it as 95% of people wouldn't be sure about what I was talking about.

Personally, I find this line of discussion ultimately sterile because it focuses on semantics rather than questions or ideas about the nature of the world around us.

Semantics has an important role as it enables people to communicate thoughts accurately but sometimes common usage and strict literal derivation do not always coincide. For some reason the term 'infamous' comes to mind as an example. It doesn't mean not famous does it? Even if I put a hyphen in the middle ... in-famous. Nope, still doesn't mean not famous.

Of course 'popular' atheism is a belief system. Again you could argue semantically that it is not but, in common practice it embraces acceptance of a lack of design in the universe or the life that exists within it. It's a package. Yes, you could pull out a dictionary and claim that literally that this is not so but I stand by the assertion that atheistic belief, in common practice, includes a lot of other, related, beliefs in the package.

I look at the World around me and it seems supremely self-evident that such a belief system has been developed in the past two centuries or so. Sure, there are different strains, as there are with Christianity or Judaism or Islam but it's a system nevertheless. I grew up with that system and accepted it for much of my life. As I get older, and ask the same critical questions of atheism and science, as we are all encouraged to do of organised religion, I find that the answers to those questions indicate that, yes, this new system is a much of a religion as the old ones. It requires blind belief in a series of untestable assertions, there are articles of faith, rituals, sacred places, sacred objects, revered saintly figures and a scientific priesthood.

For example, I hold a BSc in Geology and MSc in Geophysics. I passed through both as a true believer. Only now, looking back with the experience of more life, do I see the sacred Evolutionary Theory of that Great Saint Charles Darwin as being no different to the guff that was forced down my throat in Catholic school. I mention the Theory of Evolution because this is often described as the killer idea that made atheistic belief intellectually possible. I am a postgraduate geologist agnostic with no particular axe to grind and there came a day when, in all honesty, I had to admit to myself that the Theory of Evolution, as taught today, is an unsubstantiated belief with no more hard evidence supporting it than the Divinity of Christ.

Science as practiced in the main today is based on an implicit assumption that there is no controlling hand behind the natural world. An active denial of the existence of a Creator. No scientific theory could conceivably contain the line 'God did that bit'. I am not saying that this is 'wrong' but it is belief and no more testable than the existence of God.

I also stand by my statement that I believe that this semantic argument about whether atheism means a lack of belief or an active disbelief is a device to maintain the pretence that denial of the existence of a Creating Deity is scientific.

If this sounds overly opinionated that's a shame. It's just that I do have a big problem with the existence of two definitions of the term. It's one of the oldest debating tricks in the book to have two definitions of a term in place and subtly switch between one or the other to suit. It IS a trick.

As I've said before if someone chooses to stand by the term atheism as meaning an absence of theist beliefs I cannot argue that this is incorrect. However, that person is making no statement about the World outside of their own opinion. If someone made such a statement to me in a debate we might as well call it a day and end the debate there. Also, where could someone proceed from such a position? You haven't made a statement about the world so how can it be used as the basis for a moral or scientific framework? The words 'So what?' come to mind.

And, anyway, are you seriously suggesting that this is the meaning of the term as understood by the vast majority of people?