God is as Believable as Unicorns

atheist christian discussionA chapter in Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World (1995) is titled “The Dragon in My Garage.”  In the spirit of Sagan’s story, here is an imagined exchange between you and me about my unicorn.

Me: I have a unicorn in my garage!

You: Wow—let’s see!

Me: You don’t want to just take my word for it?

You: Of course not—I want to see.

(I open the garage door.)

Me: Okay, here you go.

You: Uh … this garage is empty.

Me: No … uh, he’s invisible.

You: Okay … can you make him make a sound?

Me: No—he’s silent, too.

You: Can we see food vanish as he eats it?

Me: Of course not—he’s magic.  He doesn’t need food.

(You wander through the garage with your hands out in front.)

Me: What are you doing?

You: Trying to feel for it.

Me: Uh … no—he’s really small and he scampers away.

You: Can you hear him running?  Like the sound of hooves on concrete?

Me: No—I told you he’s silent.

You: Well, how about spreading flour on the floor so we can see the footprints.

Me: Nope.  He can float.  And I’m sure he would, because he doesn’t like to be detected.

You: Can we can catch him with a net and weigh him?  Can we put a sheet over him so I can see him moving underneath?  Could we spray paint and see it on his body?

Me: No—he’s … he’s noncorporeal.  Yeah, that’s it.  Noncorporeal.

Of course, by now you’ve lost interest in this “unicorn.”  Still, you haven’t been able to falsify my claim.  I win!

But no one would accept this conclusion.  By slithering away from every possible test, this supernatural claim has no evidence in support of it.  Any unicorn that has this little impact in the world is pretty much the same as no unicorn at all.  We can’t prove it’s nonexistent, but it’s functionally nonexistent.

“You haven’t been able to falsify my claim” is true, but this is backwards reasoning.  The proper conclusion is: There is no evidence to support this claim, so there’s no reason to accept this claim.

Isn’t this how Christians evaluate the miracle claims of other religions?  Why not handle those of Christianity the same way?

Jesus is Santa Claus for adults
(seen on a bumper sticker)

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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Christianity Infantilizes Adults

Cross Examined is a novel about Christian apologetics and atheismYeah, I know the Christmas season is over, but have you heard the song “Christmas Shoes,” which came out about ten years ago?  Patton Oswalt tore it up in a clever comedy bit (video, rated R), and he makes an excellent point about the illogic of what Christians tell themselves.

The song tells the story of a guy who’s in yet another long line before Christmas, not really in the Christmas spirit.  Ahead of him in line is a grubby kid holding a pair of shoes.  When it’s the kid’s turn, he tells the clerk his story, that he’s buying his mom shoes to make her feel better.  She’s sick, and he wants her to look her best if she meets Jesus that night.

The kid counts out the price in pennies, and it turns out that he doesn’t have enough.  So he turns to our hero who feels sorry for the kid and pays for the shoes.  The story concludes:

I knew I’d caught a glimpse of heaven’s love
As he thanked me and ran out
I knew that God had sent that little boy
To remind me just what Christmas is all about.

It’s a sweet story, and lots of people filter life’s events through a Christian lens in this way to see God’s benevolent purpose behind things.  But let’s analyze this to see how “heaven’s love” worked in this situation.

God sees the cranky guy in line.  He gives the kid’s mom some hideous disease, puts the kid in line in front of Mr. Cranky, and makes the kid a little short on cash so that this Christmas miracle could happen.  In other words, God needs to make someone die and leave a kid motherless to spread a little Christmas spirit.

Is that the best explanation for the evidence?  Is that an explanation that a Christian would want?  What kind of insane deity would do that?  Perhaps good and bad things just happen, without divine cause, and we can use events in our lives to prod us to consider what’s important.  We don’t need God and we don’t need to be a Christian to be delighted by life, find silver linings, and use everyday events to remind us of things to be thankful for.

It’s easy to reinterpret events through a Christian lens.  It can be comforting, and it patches leaks in the Good Ship Christianity where reason leaks in.  But this is simply a rationalization to support a presupposition, not an honest following of the evidence, and when you stop to think of what you’re actually saying, you’ll see that the reality you’ve invented makes no sense.

When Christians wonder why atheists get agitated, this kind of empty childish thinking is often the cause.

Consider another story.  Suppose a girl sick with cancer throws a coin into a wishing well and wishes to get better.  The net effect is that the girl is a little happier, like she took a happiness pill.

But this wishing well belief is just an ancient custom.  We all know that wishing wells don’t really do anything.  Should you break the news to her?

Few of us would.  What’s the point?  She actually does feel better, and she’ll have plenty of time as an adult to deal with reality.  She has adults in her life who will protect her as necessary, shielding her so that she can hold this belief.

But as she becomes an adult, she must grow up.  We leave behind wishing wells, Santa Claus, and other false beliefs as we become independent.  No longer are the necessities of life given to us; as adults, we must fend for ourselves—indeed, we want to fend for ourselves.  The parent who sugarcoats reality or keeps the child dependent for too long is doing that child no favors.

Reality is better than delusion, happy though that delusion may be.  The doctor saying, “You’ll be just fine” feels a lot better than “You have cancer,” but if I really have cancer, which one allows me to take steps to improve my future?

Religion infantilizes adults and keeps them dependent.  That’s a good thing for the 100-billion-dollar-a-year U.S. religion industry, but what is best for the individual—a pat on the head or reality?

Photo credit: seq

Jesus and Santa Claus

What is Christianity?  And how does Santa Claus help?Harriett Hall (the SkepDoc) wrote a clever story about two kids trying to figure out whether the tooth fairy really exists or not.  Inspired by that, and in keeping with the season, I’d like to imagine two kids arguing about Santa.

It was early December, and little Jerry had begun to doubt the existence of Santa Claus.  He made his case to his younger brother Kyle.

“I don’t think Santa is real.  I think it’s just Mom and Dad buying us presents,” Jerry said.

“Prove it,” Kyle said.

“Okay, why are there all those Santas on the street corners ringing for money?  How can Santa be at all those stores at once?”

“They’re not the real Santa, just his helpers,” Kyle said.  “And maybe they’re just testing us to see if we’ll still believe.  I’m going to believe, because if you don’t, you don’t get presents.”

“But I recognized one of them—it was the father of one of my friends.”

“Then those are just ordinary people imitating Santa, raising money for a good cause.  Anyway, I’ve seen Santa on TV at Thanksgiving—everyone has.”

Jerry sees that he’s not making any progress, so he gives up.  On Christmas afternoon, he’s alone with Kyle and tries again.  “Remember that video game that you told Mom about and then you forgot to tell Santa?” Jerry said.  “But you got it anyway.  Mom must’ve bought it and written on the package that it came from Santa.” 

“Mom just told Santa,” Kyle said. 

“But how can Santa get around the world in one night?”

“My friends all say that Santa is real.  Anyway, Santa has magic.  And the cookie plate we leave out for Santa always has just crumbs on Christmas morning.”

“With the Junior Detective kit that I got this morning, I dusted the cookie plate for fingerprints, and they were Mom’s.”

“Mom set out the plate, and Santa wears gloves.”

Jerry gives up for the year.  On Christmas afternoon the next year, he tries again.  “Lots of the older kids don’t believe in Santa.  They say that their presents only come from their parents.”

“Sure,” Kyle said.  “Santa only gives presents to those who still believe in him.”

“A few months ago, I was snooping in Dad’s sock drawer, and I found every letter we ever wrote to Santa.”

“Why not?  Santa didn’t need them anymore and each year just gives them to Mom and Dad for keepsakes.”

“The only fingerprints on our presents are Mom’s or Dad’s.” 

“Mom and Dad always get up early on Christmas.  They could’ve rearranged them.”

“Last week, I found all our presents hidden in a corner in the attic.”  Jerry pawed through some of the torn wrapping paper.  “I wrote my initials on the bottom of each package.  And look—here they are.  That proves that Santa didn’t bring them here last night.”

“I asked Mom, and she said that Santa is real.  Anyway, how do I know you didn’t write your initials on the wrapping paper this morning?”

Like little Kyle, if you’re determined to believe something, you can rationalize away any unwelcome evidence.  (By rationalize, I mean taking an idea as fact and then selecting or interpreting all relevant evidence to make it support that idea.)

It’s tempting to list the many ways Christians rationalize.  They rationalize away contradictions in the Bible, the oddity of a hidden God, or why so much bad happens to the people God loves.  They can find a dozen reasons why a particular prayer wasn’t answered, even though the Bible promises, “Ask and ye shall receive.”  But the Christian says that he’s simply defending the truth: “I’m not rationalizing; I’m right.”

In five minutes we can see flaws in others that we don’t see in ourselves in a lifetime.  Perhaps this episode with Jerry and Kyle will encourage us to see our own rationalizations.

I recently came across the Galileo Was Wrong; The Church Was Right blog.  That’s right, it argues for geocentrism, an earth-centered universe.  With a little work, even the nuttiest theory can be given a scholarly sheen, so imagine what a few thousand years of scholarly work can do to a religion.  Any Christian can point to centuries of scholarship to give a patina of credibility to their position (but, of course, so can Muslims, Hindus, and those in many other religions).

I can’t prove Santa doesn’t exist.  Nor can I disprove the existence of leprechauns, Russell’s Flying Teapot, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or God.  The thoughtful person goes where the evidence points rather than accepting only the evidence that supports his preconception.

And Jesus is Santa Claus for adults.

Photo credit: Robot Nine

Why Worry About a God That Isn’t There?

You don’t call yourself an a-unicornist.  Or an a-Santaist.  Why call yourself an a-theist?

I get this a lot.  “Why do you worry about something you don’t even think exists?  Why call yourself an atheist?”

That’s a reasonable question.  People with no God belief may not call themselves atheists for lots of reasons.  Maybe they prefer another name like freethinker or agnostic.  Maybe they want to focus on what they do believe in and so think of themselves as humanists or naturalists.  Maybe, as the cartoon suggests, not believing in God is as irrelevant to their lives as not believing in unicorns or Santa Claus.

But I do call myself an atheist.  God belief impacts society in ways that unicorn belief or Santa belief could never do.  In the list of Christian excesses below, see if you agree that only religion—and not mere belief in mythical creatures—could provoke these actions.

  • The Pope says that condoms shouldn’t be used in Africa to stop the spread of HIV
  • U.S. preachers provoke anti-gay legislation in Uganda
  • Some churches forbid birth control
  • Stem cell research is held up
  • Young women are urged not to get the HPV vaccine that protects against cervical cancer
  • In-vitro fertilization, which has brought four million children to parents unable to conceive, is attacked by the Catholic church
  • Some Christians push for Creationism to be taught in science class, for Christian prayers to be said in public schools, and for the Ten Commandments to be displayed in courthouses
  • Christian belief seems to increasingly be a requirement for public office, despite the fact that the Constitution makes clear that no religious test shall ever be required
  • … and other excesses that come to mind for you.

If Christianity could work and play well with others, that would be great, and I’d find other activities to occupy my time.  But it doesn’t.

If you’re a Christian reading this, you may respond that your church doesn’t do this.  In that case, agree with me!  Agree that Christianity—in some versions, anyway—crosses the line and must be kept in check.

Artwork credit: Mike Stanfill