Word of the Day: Atheist’s Wager

Pascal’s Wager imagines belief in God as a wager.  Suppose you bet that the Christian god exists and act accordingly.  If you win, you hit the jackpot by going to heaven, and if you lose, you won’t have lost much.  But if you bet that God doesn’t exist, if you win, you get nothing and if you lose, you go to hell.  Conclusion: you should bet that God exists.

A thorough critique of the many failings of this argument will have to wait for another post.  But this argument is easily turned around to make the Atheist’s Wager.  If God exists and is a decent and fair being, he would respect those who used their God-given brains for critical thinking.  He would applaud those who followed the evidence where it led.  Since God’s existence is hardly obvious, he would reward thoughtful atheists with heaven after death.

But God would be annoyed at those who adopted a belief because it felt good rather than because it was well-grounded with evidence, and he would send to hell those who misused his gift of intelligence.

Here it is formulated as a syllogism:

  • God treats people fairly and will send honest, truth-seeking people to heaven and everyone else to hell.
  • God set up the world without substantial evidence of his existence.
  • Therefore, God will send only atheists to heaven.

The Atheist’s Wager can be different than Pascal’s Wager in that Pascal is assuming the Christian god, while the Atheist’s Wager can imagine a benevolent god.  The difference is that the actions of the benevolent god can be evaluated with ordinary human ideas of right and wrong, while Christians often must play the “God’s ways are not our ways” card to explain away God’s occasional insanity as recorded in the Bible.  For example, no benevolent god would send one of his creations to rot in hell forever.  Or support slavery.  Or demand genocide.

Of course, if a non-benevolent god exists, and the Christians stumbled upon the correct way to placate him, then the atheist is indeed screwed.  But then we’re back to the fundamental question: why believe this?

Photo credit: maorix

Related posts:

Related articles:

  • Austin Cline, “Atheism & Hell: What if You Atheists Are Wrong? Aren’t You Afraid of Hell?,” About.com.
  • “Atheist’s Wager,” Wikipedia.

“God Did It” Explains Everything … or Maybe Not

"Creation of Adam" painting raises the question: does God even exist?It’s time once again to check in with apologist Greg Koukl. In a recent podcast (“Is Consciousness an Illusion?“ 12/4/11), he talked about Daniel Dennett’s 2006 book Breaking the Spell.

Let me first seize the opportunity to agree with something. Koukl says, “Reality is the kind of thing … that will injure you if you don’t take it seriously.” It’s good to see us with the same goal of seeing reality clearly.

But we don’t agree on everything. Koukl said:

[Dennett has] made a claim in this book about something that is very, very difficult for a materialist to deal with that makes sense completely within a Christian worldview. (3:05)

The “something” is consciousness. So Koukl says that the scientist has a tough time explaining consciousness, but it’s easy for the Christian.

While it’s true that science has much to discover about consciousness and how it works, I don’t see anything in particular that ought to keep the naturalist up at night. Science has an unanswered question—big deal. Science has lots of unanswered questions. It also has a marvelous track record for answering them.

But what trips me up here is the idea that the Christian worldview adds to the discussion. How does God explain anything?

Let me make clear that I can never prove that God didn’t do something. For example, let’s consider a few claims about God by Pat Robertson. He said that God is “lifting His protection from this nation” to allow terrorist attacks (2001). And that Hurricane Katrina might be God’s doing (2005). And that the people of Haiti made a pact with the devil, in response to which God allowed the earthquake that killed 300,000 (2010). These are assertions without evidence (and, in the case of Haiti in particular, of much contrary evidence), but I can’t prove that “God did it” is false.

The fact is, “God did it” can explain everything. As a result, it explains nothing.

“God did it” is simply a repackaging of “I don’t know.” It tells us nothing new. I’m no smarter after hearing “God did it” than before. It tamps down one set of questions, but others pop up: Who is God and how does he act in the world? Is he one of the thousands of gods that humans have already formed religions around or someone new? Why did God do what he did? What natural laws did God use to do it, and what laws did he suspend? How can we communicate with him?

And think about the size of various claims. The claim “1 + 1 = 2” is not controversial. The claim “I had a sandwich for lunch” is unsurprising, and thorough evidence could be provided to back it up. But the claim “There is a being that created the universe” is without scientific precedent—that is, science knows of no supernatural anything, let alone a being that could create the universe. I can think of no bolder claim than “God did it.” It’s baffling to me how apologists can toss out that immense claim and simply let it hang there, supported by nothing more than wishful thinking and tradition.

“God did it” doesn’t do it. It satisfies only those who want their preconceptions affirmed.

But let me take a step back for a moment. I’m treating this claim with the dignity due those that make testable pronouncements about reality. Perhaps that’s my mistake—if it’s simply a theological claim divorced from reality, fine. In that case, it’s a claim to be taken simply on faith, with no pretense of evidence or verifiability, and I have no use for it.

Let me end with a song, “Tell Me Why” by Pat Benatar*, which nicely makes the “God did it” claim.

Tell me why the stars do shine,
Tell me why the ivy twines,
Tell me what makes skies so blue,
And I’ll tell you why I love you.

Because God made the ivy twine.
Because God made the stars to shine.
Because God made the sky so blue.
Because God made you, that’s why I love you.

This Christian explanation is poetic, but for those of us who prefer to actually understand the world, Isaac Asimov has a new and improved refrain:

Nuclear fusion makes stars to shine,
Tropisms make the ivy twine,
Rayleigh scattering make skies so blue,
Testicular hormones are why I love you.

I’ll stick with the discipline with the track record for explaining reality.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

*Lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, EMI Music Publishing.

Related posts:

  • Don’t Move the Goalposts. Apologists often say about the puzzling questions at the limits of science, “If you can’t answer them, we can!” For the old questions (such as “What causes disease?” or “What causes drought?”) this claim is now laughable. Why is Christianity’s claim to answer the new questions any less so?
  • Philosophical Grounding: A Parable. We’re told, “The atheist borrows from the Christian worldview!” But dig into this claim, and you’ll see there’s nothing there.

500 Eyewitnesses to the Risen Christ? Not likely.

How does Christianity stand up to atheist critique?Christians often point to 1 Corinthians 15 as important evidence for the resurrection.  This book, Paul’s first epistle to the church in Corinth, was written roughly a decade before the earliest gospel of Mark (written in 65–70CE).  This makes it the earliest claim for the resurrection of Jesus.

Here’s the interesting section:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to [Peter], and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have [died]. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Cor. 15:3–8)

Claims about this important passage are all over the map.  Some argue that it actually precedes Paul’s writing.  They say that it appears to be in a different style, as if it were a creedal statement (like the modern Apostle’s Creed) that would have been recited by believers.  That is, though Paul wrote this passage 25 years after the crucifixion, it had been an oral creed since as early as a few years after Jesus’ death.  They cite this as evidence that belief in the resurrection was even earlier than Paul’s writing.

Others propose a very different interpretation: that the different style suggests that it was added to copies decades after Paul’s writing.

To understand this interpretation, consider how we know what the epistle says.  Our earliest copy is from papyrus P46, part of the Chester Beatty collection.  This manuscript was written in roughly 200 CE, which means that our best copy of 1 Corinthians is 150 years older than the original letter.  150 years gives a lot of opportunity for hanky-panky as scribes copy and recopy the letter, especially during the early turbulent years of the new religion of Christianity.

But I give this simply as background.  We can’t resolve this scholarly debate about the authenticity of this passage.  What I find more interesting is one verse:

[Jesus] appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have [died].  (1 Cor. 15:6).

This is a popular passage among apologists, and they see it as powerful evidence in favor of the resurrection story.  Granting for now that Paul actually wrote this in the mid-50s CE, that’s a lot of eyewitnesses, and Paul in effect dares his readers to go check out his claim if they want.  Who would make a claim like this, making himself vulnerable to readers catching him in a lie (or at least an error), if he didn’t know it were true?

But this bold and confident defense of the resurrection wilts under scrutiny.  Let’s imagine that we’re in that church in Corinth and we have just received Paul’s letter.

1. Who are these 500 people?  Names and addresses, please?  To find out, someone would need to send a letter back to Paul (200 miles across the Aegean Sea in Ephesus) to ask.  Paul’s challenge is vague, not inviting.

2. How many will still be around?  Paul is writing in about 55CE about a supposed event that occurred over 20 years earlier.  Of the 500 eyewitnesses, how many are still alive and still in Jerusalem, ready to be questioned?

3. Who would make this trip?  Jerusalem is 800 miles away, and getting there would involve a long, dangerous, and expensive trip.

4. How many candidates for this trip?  If the church in Corinth had thousands of members, the risk of someone with the means and motivation to make the big trip to Jerusalem might be high.  But Paul had only started the church a couple of years earlier.  How many members would there have been … maybe 100?

5. Who would challenge Paul?  If the founder of the church says something, who’s likely to question it?  There might well have been people who were unimpressed by Paul’s message, but these would never have joined the church.  Others within the church might have become disappointed and left.  Even if these people might have wanted to topple Paul, they wouldn’t have been in the church community to learn of the claim.

6. What did the eyewitnesses actually see?  Let’s imagine that we have the money and daring to make the trip, we’ve found at least a handful of names that we can search for to find many of the eyewitnesses, and we’re rebellious enough to spit in the face of our church’s founder and see if he’s a liar.

After many adventures, we reach Jerusalem.  What will the eyewitnesses say?  At best they’ll say that, over 20 years ago, they saw a man.  Big deal.  Did they see him dead before?  Were they close enough to the movement to be certain that they recognized Jesus?  Human memory is notoriously inaccurate.  There’s a big difference between the certainty one has in a memory and its accuracy—these don’t always go together.

7. So what?  Suppose all these unlikely things happen—we make the long trip and we track down eyewitnesses—and we conclude that Paul’s story is nonsense.  If we successfully make the long trip back, what difference will this make?  Even if we had the guts to tell everyone that Paul’s story was wrong, so what?  Who would believe us over the church’s founder?  We’d be labeled as bad apples, we’d be expelled from the church, and the church would proceed as before.  And Paul’s letter would still be copied through the centuries for us to read today!

As with the Naysayer Hypothesis, apologists imagine that this argument is far stronger than it is.  And if Paul’s claim is such compelling evidence, why didn’t the gospels include it?  None do, and they were all written after 1 Corinthians.

Who would imagine that a supernatural claim written two thousand years ago would be compelling when we wouldn’t find it compelling if written two minutes ago?

Let’s consider two possible conclusions about this verse.

  1. The resurrection happened as the gospels describe it.  (Let’s grant for now that the gospels all tell the same story.)
  2. Tales circulated orally in the years after the crucifixion among Jesus’s followers, with the number of eyewitnesses to the risen Christ growing with time.

Why imagine a supernatural story when a natural story explains the facts?  Even supposing that Paul invented the story to boost his credibility or strengthen his church, this is a plausible natural explanation that trumps the supernatural one.

Photo credit: University of Michigan

Articles in support of the Christian position:

  • “1 Corinthians 15:3–8,” Agent Intellect blog, 2/24/09.
  • Keith Krell, “The Facts of Faith (1 Corinthians 15:1-11),” bible.org.

And God isn’t Good, Either

This post is an homage to Christopher Hitchens (1949–2011), the powerful speaker and eloquent author of God is not Great and much more.  Hitchens fought nonsense till the end, and he has been an inspiration to me and countless other atheists.  In my own small way, I hope I’m continuing the fight against nonsense. 

Thanks, Christopher.

The child’s blessing goes, “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food.”  Hitchens’ God is not Great is an eloquent rebuttal to the first claim of this prayer.  Let’s consider here the second claim: God is good.  Indeed, the Bible makes this clear: “Praise the Lord, for the Lord is good” (Ps. 135:3).

But does the dictionary agree?  We must use words according to their meaning.

Here is what God commands about cities that refuse to submit to the Israelites: “Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you” (Deut. 20:17).

You and I know what “good” means.  If you were a king or general and you ordered the genocide of those tribes—over ten million people, according to the Bible1—would you be considered good?

But you might say that this was wartime, and the rules were different.  Yes it was wartime, but the Israelites were the invaders, displacing Canaanites from land they had occupied for centuries.  God tells the Israelites to destroy the Amalekites: “Attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them.  Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants” (1 Sam. 15:3).

What could the infants have possibly done to deserve to die?

Moses tells the Israelites that they must kill all of the Midianites, with one exception: “Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man” (Num. 31:17–18).

Who’s ever heard any of these verses made the subject of a sermon?

The immoral commands don’t stop with genocide.  Slavery wasn’t prohibited in the Bible; in fact, it was so much a part of everyday life that it was regulated.  In the same way that God told the merchants to sell using fair weights and measures (Deut. 25:15), he told the Israelites how to handle slaves—how to treat a fellow Israelite as a slave (Ex. 21:4–6 and Lev. 25:39), how to sell your daughter into slavery (Ex. 21:7), how to decide when a beating was too harsh (Ex. 21:20–21), and so on.

And this doesn’t even consider the Flood.  God may exist and he may be powerful, but can the word “good” be applied to a being who acts like this?

Let’s turn from God’s unsavory side to his attempts at encouraging good behavior.  It’s odd that the Ten Commandments has room for “don’t covet” but no prohibitions against slavery, rape, genocide, or infanticide.  Christopher Hitchens cuts through the problem:

It’s interesting to note that the tenth Commandment, do not covet, is given at a time when the Israelites wandering in the desert are kept alive with covetous dreams—of taking the land, livestock, and women from the people living in Palestine.  In fact, the reason why injunctions against rape, genocide, and slavery aren’t in the Ten Commandments is because they’ll be mandatory pretty soon when the conquest of Palestine takes place.2

So they’re not crimes—they’re tools!

Christians respond in several ways.

1. But things were different back then.  We can’t judge Jews in Palestine 2500 years ago with today’s standards.

Can we assent to these crimes at any time in history?  I agree that standards of morality have changed, but I thought Christians were supposed to reject moral relativism.  They’re the ones who imagine an unchanging, objective morality.  If slavery is wrong now, they must insist that it was wrong then.

2. But God’s actions are good—they just are.  His actions are the very definition of good.  That’s as fundamental a truth as we have.

Shouldn’t God follow his own rules?  If God is the standard for goodness (Matt. 5:48), what else can this mean but that we should look to God’s actions as examples for us to follow?

Abraham made clear that God was held to the same moral standards as Man.  He said, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” as he argued against God’s plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.  And God agreed (see Gen. 18:20–33).

If Christians modify the dictionary so that no action of God’s could ever be bad, assigning the word “good” to God’s actions says nothing.  They hope to make an important statement with “God is good,” but debasing the dictionary has made the word meaningless.

Playing games with the dictionary causes other problems.  If there are two supernatural agents, God and Satan, how do you tell which is which?  If the one that controls our realm is “good” by definition, maybe we’re stuck with Satan and have simply convinced ourselves to call him good.  That’s not a crazy idea, given the world’s natural disasters, disease, war, and other horrors.  Imagine Satan ruling this world and convincing us that the death of an innocent child is part of a greater plan, if you can believe such a thing.  And yet that’s the world we live in!  People look at all the bad in the world and dismiss it, giving Satan a pass.  (… or are we giving God a pass?  I can’t tell which.)

If this thinking is getting a bit bizarre, that’s the point.  That’s what happens if you declare God’s actions good by definition.

3. But the Canaanites were terrible, immoral people!  They sacrificed babies! 

How reliable are these summaries of the Canaanites’ morals?  If these tales come from their enemies, how objective are these accounts?  And even if the Canaanites did sacrifice babies, isn’t solving this with genocide like using a sledgehammer to swat a fly?  Couldn’t an omniscient guy like God figure out a better way than genocide to encourage a tribe to improve their behavior?

4. C’mon—can’t you recognize hyperbole when you see it?  This is just soldiers bragging around the campfire that grew until it was incorporated into Israelite lore.  You don’t really believe the genocide stories, do you?  Indeed, archeologists show no evidence of this mass slaughter.

Take your pick—is the Bible reliable history or not?  I disagree with the Bible literalists, but at least they wouldn’t be so hypocritical as to abandon the Bible when it embarrasses them.

Christians who label some Bible passages exaggerations and others as history are using their own judgment to figure this out.  I’m not complaining—that’s what I do myself—but they can’t then turn around and say that they get their guidance from the Bible.  No, my friend—the interpretation comes from you, not the Bible!

5. A bad thing today sets us up for a greater good in the future.

This is no more plausible than the reverse: “a good thing today sets us up for a greater bad in the future.”  Why imagine one over the other?  Only because we presuppose God’s existence, the thing we’re trying to prove.  And it’s ridiculous to imagine an omniscient God deliberately causing the Haiti earthquake (in which 300,000 people died) because he can act no more precisely than this.

6. But God is unjudgeable.  God said, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is. 55:9).  It’s presumptuous of us to judge God.  If God says that the Amalekites deserved to die, that’s good enough for me.

Okay, let’s not judge God then.  Let’s avoid labeling him.  But then not only can we not label his shocking actions “bad,” we can’t label his pleasing actions “good.”  The good God is no more.

And there’s more fallout from the “we imperfect humans can’t judge God” argument.  Consider this from Bob Price:

[The ultimate certainty in your mind, the believer’s mind, is] the guarantee that [God] will honor that ticket to heaven he supposedly issued you.  Here’s a troublesome thought.  Suppose you get to the Day of Judgment and God cancels the ticket.  No explanation.  No appeal.  You’re just screwed.  Won’t you have to allow that God must have reasons for it that you, a mere mortal, are not privy to?  Who are you, like Job, to call God to account?

Of course many Christians want it both ways.  They want to judge God’s noble actions as “good” but withhold judgment for actions that any thoughtful person would find hideous.  But if you can’t understand God’s actions when they look bad, why flatter yourself that you understand them when they look good?

I think of this as the Word Hygiene argument.  You can either call a spade a spade and acknowledge God’s cruelty or say that he’s unjudgeable.  Take your pick—either way, you can’t call him “good.”

Photo credit: Church Sign Maker

Here’s the math behind that figure: Israel had 600,000 men before entering Canaan (Ex. 12:37), or about two million people total.  These six tribes are all larger than Israel (Deut. 7:1).  That makes well over ten million people in the tribes God orders exterminated.

Hitchens makes this point in videos here and here.

Related links:

  • About the Ten Commandments, Hitchens concludes: “Don’t swallow your moral code in tablet form” (video).

Plantinga’s Nutty Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

Where is Jesus?What better way to respond to atheists but to turn one of their own tools against them?  That’s the approach philosopher Alvin Plantinga tries to use with his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN).  It’s not a new idea, and both C.S. Lewis and Charles Darwin anticipated it.  In brief, the question is: how can a human mind that’s the result of the clumsy process of evolution be trusted?

About “Darwin’s doubt,” Plantinga argues that only Christians can have confidence that their interpretation of the world is correct.  Naturalists can’t prove that minds are reliable until they’ve proven that the source of this claim (the mind!) is worth listening to.

Here’s where Plantinga claims to have turned the tables:

The high priests of evolutionary naturalism loudly proclaim that Christian and even theistic belief is bankrupt and foolish.  The fact, however, is that the shoe is on the other foot.  It is evolutionary naturalism, not Christian belief, that can’t rationally be accepted.

He says that if evolution is true, human beliefs have been selected for survival value, not truth, so why trust them?  And yet our beliefs are reliable, suggesting to Plantinga that something besides evolution created them.

Before we get into the specifics of Plantinga’s argument, let’s first establish a baseline.  Plantinga and naturalists agree that humans’ needs and desires are pretty logically matched:

Plantinga normal world

This is straightforward.  You go toward cuddly things, you run from scary things, you get to clean air if you can’t breathe, and so on.  This is the world we all know and understand.  But Plantinga imagines the naturalist’s world in which these links are jumbled.  He imagines a hominid Paul who has some problematic beliefs about predators:

Perhaps [Paul] thinks the tiger is a large, friendly, cuddly pussycat and wants to pet it; but he also believes that the best way to pet it is to run away from it.

So Paul’s instincts toward tigers keep him alive, but only by luck.  But unreasonable beliefs don’t stop with tigers.  Plantinga imagines the naturalist’s view of the world with beliefs having no connection with reality.  That is, he imagines something like this:

Paul’s response to the tiger was just a roll of the dice, and he got lucky.  But Plantinga supposes that all of Paul’s beliefs are arbitrary, not just those about tigers.  Some actions in this chart are benign, but some are dangerous.  When Paul sees something scary, his reaction is to walk toward it.  When he’s drowning, he’ll try to sleep.  When he’s hungry, he’ll satisfy that need with fresh air, and so on.  With his basic desires paired with ineffective methods, this guy is clearly too dumb to live.

This is where natural selection comes in.  Natural selection is unforgiving, and actions that don’t lead to survival are discarded.  Evolution easily explains why Plantinga’s Paul could not exist.

An article at Skeptic.com neatly skewers Plantinga’s argument with a familiar example.

If a professional baseball player [incorrectly perceived reality,] that is, if his perception of the movement and location of a baseball was something other than what it actually is, then he would not be able to consistently hit ninety-five mile per hour fastballs.

As an aside, let me admit that I have a hard time maintaining respect for those at the leading edge of philosophy.  Do they do work that’s relevant and pushes the frontier of human knowledge?  I’d like to think so, but when this is the kind of argument they give, it’s hard to keep the faith.

My advice to philosophers: when you get the urge to play scientist, better lie down until the feeling goes away.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Related links:

  • “EAAN—a sad footnote to an illustrious career,” Shamelessly Atheist blog, 8/22/09.
  • “Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism,” Iron Chariots Wiki.
  • PZ Myers, “Alvin Plantinga Gives Philosophy a Bad Name,” Pharyngula blog, 5/29/09.
  • Michael Dahlen, “What’s So Great About Kant?  A Critique of Dinesh D’Souza’s Attack on Reason,” eSkeptic, 8/17/11.
  • Greg Kokul, “The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism,” Stand to Reason (video, 3:59), 8/15/11.
  • “Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism,” Wikipedia.