A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

reader comments: atheism & gods

14 Aug 1996
I read your piece about God which is very impressive in style, structure and language but I really didn't see any part of it that disproves the idea of God.

reply: That's because I don't attempt to disprove either the idea or the existence of God.

See, here's how I see it: The concept of God is a very strong theory, yes, a theory, which perfectly explains ALL the holes in the human understanding of nature. Even if considering all the "fresh" scientific theories (Quantum Mechanics, Einstein Theory of Relativity, Etc...) there are still many unanswered questions, and the concept of a God solves them perfectly. Now, using God to solve questions like "How was the universe created? how were humans created?" may seem like the easy way out, but it's still a valid theory because it explains everything!

reply: I agree that everything that can be explained without God, can be explained with God. I do not agree, however, the theistic explanation is "perfect" nor is it "better." But it can explain everything, though it is not necessary to bring in God to explain everything. Also, how does the concept of God help explain everything, since we must still ask "Who created God?"

Now, the standard for scientific theories is that they are adopted as correct as long as you cannot disprove them (i.e, uncover an experimental counterexample). I know that God isn't a 'Scientific Theory' but since we use it to explain Scientific Questions I think the same rules should apply.

reply: Actually, there is more to it than that. Metaphysical theories cannot be disproven as long as they are free of self-contradictions. That doesn't mean they are useful or true. A scientific theory which hasn't been disproven, but could be in theory, is not necessary useful. Utility of scientific theories is measured in terms of explanatory power, connectedness with other useful scientific theories, predictive power, technological application, among other things. Scientific theories should not be compared to metaphysical theories, even if they attempt to explain the same phenomena.

Before I go to your piece about God I have to say that I'm personally a Non-Believer, but non-belief is my natural state because I grew up in a house of non-believers (despite what people outside think, there are a lot of such houses in Israel), however, I have no solid logical grounds for my non-belief, and, actually, when I heard about the publishing of your Skeptic's Dictionary hope sprang to my heart that finally I'll find some kind of an argument the contradicts the God theory. But I'm afraid I havn't found it. In order to show this I'm using the next three paragraphs to dissect your entry. I divided your entry into three parts, and the fact that they are labeled FIRST, SECOND, THIRD doesn't mean that your entry is chronologically ordered that way. It just means that all the paragraphs in your entry can be divided into the three groups I'm defining below:

The FIRST big part of it is dedicated to explaining why if God didn't exist, most of humanity would think God exists (I'm talking about all that stuff about fitting into the mainstream of society, making life meaningful, etc.). That's very nice, but that doesn't mean that God doesn't exist. It's as if your basic assumption is that God doesn't exist and you're explaining why all the stupid humans think that God exists.

reply: I agree that psychological explanations as to why most people and cultures have some sort of belief in "God" is irrelevant to a proof of God's non-existence. And you are right that such explanations assume that God does not exist. There would be no point for an atheist to try to explain why people believe in God, if it were not assumed God doesn't exist.

A SECOND part of your entry shows how the concepts of western religion don't really make sense and aren't neccesary (i.e, "the whole idea of creation, commands, rewards and punishments clears up nothing", and human kind doesn't need divine orders to behave morally).

Well, first you have to realize that not all religions see God as a Good Natured Being, there are religions that perform human sacrifices. Their concept of "good" is different than the western concept of "good". Maybe the God of one of those religions is the REAL god, the being that's actually up-there? Besides, even if we define God to be the western God (like you did, which I think is a wrong thing to do), the fact that humans don't need his rules to be happy or to be "Good", doesn't mean that God doesn't exists, it just means that God created them that way.

reply: Again, you are right: there are other concepts of God which could be considered and the fact that we don't need any of these concepts to explain anything does not prove any of these "gods" do not exist. We could consider God as an impersonal power, as finite, as part or wholly evil, etc. Picking off each in turn as unnecessary to explain anything would not prove the non-existence of any of these beings. By the way, one of those religions which practiced human sacrifice originated in your part of the world. Remember the story of Abraham and Isaac?

The THIRD part of your entry, the way I see it, is the part where you try to logically disprove God, in a sense, to give counterexamples. Frankly, there wasn't much of it; in fact, there was only one paragraph dealing with that. I'm talking about the paragraph that says that the Universe lacks any efficient design and therefore it has to be a result of the randomness of nature. But that's not neccesarily correct, because if you look at your own definition of God, it says that God is "omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, . . ." This means that God has an infinitely larger view-point of the universe than a human and HE, not a tiny human, would know what the best design of the systems at hand is, in the larger context of the entire universe. And there is NO WAY that a human could understand the best design given his very zoomed viewpoint.
Nitzan Herzog.

reply: Again, I don't try to disprove the existence of God by pointing out inefficiencies and imperfections of design. Your response is an interesting one and is one that many theologians are fond of. It has some merit, of course, but it basically allows one to abandon reason at will by appealing to the "fact" that God may use different standards, principles, etc. than we do whenever it appears that God is evil, incompetent, etc. when measured by human standards.

I nowhere claim that it is possible to prove the non-existence of God. To do so would require two things: one, a clear concept of the god to be disproved; and two, proof that such a concept is self-contradictory. The best attempt at such an argument for the God of Christians, Jews and Muslims is that given by James Rachels, where he argues that the concept of worship implies this God does not exist. In my view, the argument fails because the concept of worship is not necessarily entailed in the concept of this God. The argument succeeds much as Epicurus's argument against fear of punishment by the gods succeeds: perfect beings can't be affected, negatively or positively, by imperfect beings. Of course, the old saw will be brought in by the theologians to remind us that the ways of the Lord are mysterious indeed and how do we know that our concept of perfection is isomorphic with that of the gods?

19 Oct 1996

Although you do a good job in ridiculing most of the subjects dealt with in your dictionary, your explanation in your entry for "God" is no where as convincing as for other entries.

reply: Well, I won't try to ridicule you but I am glad to see you think some of my work is convincing.

The main problem is, the belief in God relies entirely on faith, so you cannot disprove His existence, just as much as you cannot prove it. Your entry therefore does not bring anything new to the argument, and in my opinion, should be withdrawn from your dictionary.
Luc Gentet
Division of Neuroscience
Australian National University

reply: I guess some things bear repeating: anyway, you might want to read the previous response. Of course, one cannot disprove the existence of God. It does not follow from that, however, either that the belief in God relies entirely on faith or that arguments should not be made for or against believing in God. Arguing and reasoning about the concept of God and whether it is reasonable to belief in God is a very respectable practice which has been going on for thousands of years. I realize that you are not alone in maintaining the "separation thesis" regarding "science" and "theology", but since I reject the thesis that matters of faith should not be discussed, I must reject your suggestion.

7 Jan 1997

....What keeps me from Atheism and still looking at God (I talk about the Christian God, it appears the most rational and best defended of any other religion involving a "God") is the point of creation / beginning of the universe. After looking at it for a while, it seems a more rational explanation for the beginning of the universe to have an omnipotent creator God to create everything from scratch than to have any other explanation - including all the other creation stories and, yes, the Big Bang Theory....

As I understand it, the Big Bang Theory begins with a point of light, no matter, and thus no time. According to the famous E=mc^2 equation, light and matter are not seperate, but can be transformed from one to the other. (I've never heard of it, but my Physics teacher told me this has actually been done under laboratory conditions.) From light comes matter etc. etc. on down to the beginning of life, evolution etc. I can see that part.

The problem is at the very beginning. The Big Bang Theory begins with a point of light. Light cannot just exist, it is something very real, subject to the laws of physics, etc. That light could not just always be there - time or not time, that light could not just always exist - it has constraints. The whole process cannot start with something, for that something had to come from something before it, and something cannot be made from nothing (which has to be the ultimate beginning). It seems that something possible in terms of science's laws of nature and physics could not have started the chain. However, you and I are here, very real, so something must have started everything.

After much deliberation about the options possible, the most rational explanation (as I stated earlier) seems to be an omnipotent creator God. Omnipotent meaning all-powerful and thus having no constraints. The constraints of physics and time that prevent light or anything else from starting the sequence would not apply to an omnipotent God. In that way it appears the most rational.
Ryan Evans

reply: As I see it there are only four possibilities: 1. nothing exists; 2. the world has existed forever; 3. the universe created itself; 4. the universe was created by something else -- the God hypothesis. Let's ignore choice one and agree that it is false to say that nothing exists. Of the three other options, I have to say that option number two is the least offensive to my intellect. Option three seems absurd: to have nothing create the universe and be thought of as its own father is incestuously nutty. But if I opt for the God hypothesis, I must believe either God has existed forever or God was created by another God, ad infinitum. As inconceivable as the notion of an eternal universe may seem, it is the least repulsive of the alternative theories. That I may not understand why the universe is as it is or how it got to be the way it is, does not seem to me to be a problem which goes away when I add the hypothesis of God and says, "well, God did it, that's why it is the way it is."

20 April 97
Your entry reveals two hypotheses:

1. A spiritual (non-physical) world exists with which humans interact, held by the believer, and

2. The concept of such a spiritual world is the creation of humankind, held by the atheist.

reply: Your characterization reveals that you like to play with words and "worlds." I don't accept the first "hypothesis" but I agree that the concept of the spiritual is the creation of human beings and that its only reality is in our minds.

In order for the first hypothesis to be true, only one single instance of
human experience of the spiritual need be true; but for the atheists'
hypothesis, every single alleged spiritual experience must be a human fabrication.

reply: If you say so.

Obviously, the ideal way to determine the truth or otherwise would be to investigate every single alleged spiritual experience objectively, using the familiar methods of empirical science. As the matter is inherently subjective, this is impossible, leaving atheists claiming that the experiences are delusions, and believers claiming they are true.

reply: You are finally making sense to me.

With the impossibility of objective evidence, we should consider our next best alternative. As the spiritual experiences are subjective in nature, we should analyze the weight of subjective evidence. Obviously, the lack of a scientific method reduces the strength of the evidence, but subjective evidence is evidence nonetheless.

reply: All experience is subjective in nature. That's not the issue. Atheists maintain that spiritual experience is purely subjective, with no basis in a reality outside of the subject.

I am speaking of the individual spiritual experiences of people past,
present and future. I am not limiting this to experiences of a Western God, but include all experiences of a non-physical nature, thus including Buddhist experiences, and other phenomena which cannot be explained using the scientific method.

reply: Or any other method, if you ask me.

The atheist must argue that all these experiences are human fabrications.

reply: Not so. A fabrication is an intentional act of deception. Neither I nor any atheist I know of has maintained that all religious experiences are fabrications.

That is, every experience of every believer in any non-physical world. You say that when you hear of people performing miraculous feats etc., you ask yourself, "which is more likely?", and come to the conclusion that the physical explanation is to be accepted.

reply: "Physical"? explanation. What are you talking about. I come to the conclusion that it is more likely that an error or fraud has occurred than that the miracle happened (as Hume argued). Anyway, this has nothing to do with atheism. You do not have to be an atheist to disbelieve in miracles.

No problem, let's say that it is 99.9% likely that the spiritual claims of a believer are false. So, of the billions and billions of people with non-physical experiences in all time, by far the majority may be false. But with such a monumentous number of experiences, only one true occurrence, which falls into the 0.1%, is necessary to prove that a spiritual world exists. As the number of experiences approaches infinity (including future experiences), the probability of one true occurrence approaches 100%.

reply: Wow! Is that what happens? You have expressed a truly monumental mathematical formula here. I hope you can use it to count the loot you are bound to make when you when the Nobel Prize in statistics!

You state that "believers in God ...often delude themselves into thinking that inept, fraudulent...reasons are substantial." Unfortunately this is not good enough, the atheist must assume that believers in God ALWAYS delude themselves... . Any non-delusion indicates that a spiritual world exists.

reply: Yes. But don't confuse your delusions. The first claim is meant to leave room for believers who know that their reasons are insubstantial and are not deluded about that. It is not meant to imply that some believers are not deluded.

The atheist must argue that the spiritual world is a universal delusion. You referred to Sigmund Feud who regarded religion as wish fulfillment for a protective father. But Freud's conclusions were made on the basis of his personal experience in dealing with patients who had serious psychological problems. There is no basis to extend this conclusion to include all people from all cultures, especially those who are psychologically well-adjusted.

reply: I do maintain the spiritual world is a universal delusion. You got that right. But you are mistaken about Freud's evaluation of cultural phenomena: they were not based on his clinical experience except in a tangential way. In any case, I don't agree with him that all religion is wish fulfillment. I think a lot of it is just fear and superstition. And most of it is just habit.

While I accept that an individual's perception of God is greatly influenced by the environment in which they grew up and live, many, if not most believers, believe they have had personal experiences of a spiritual world. Their own interpretation of the experience may be colored, but this has no bearing on whether or not the experience was genuine.

reply: True; I mean, I agree.

We do not hesitate to believe in the existence of love and beauty
without anything more that our own personal experiences; why should spiritual experiences be so different that we are all completely deluded into believing them?

reply: Yes, but most of us don't reify or objectify Love and Beauty into beings of a higher order....unless were neo-platonists or Jungians.

We place reliance on subjective evidence in our justice systems; where a video recording of a murder is not available, we accept evidence from the memories of witnesses, and subjective opinions of experts; we then place a person's life in the hands of a group of humans who, based on this subjective evidence and their own subjective feelings, have to come to a verdict.

reply: I think you're getting off the subject here.

Is it really so hard to accept that one subjective spiritual experience out of millions is based on some truth?

reply: Apparently not, but to me it is unbelievable.

Any rational person should see that it more reasonable to accept that there is some truth in the multitude of personal experiences, than to degrade all personal experiences of the spiritual to grand delusion.

reply: I can't agree with you that all delusions are degrading. I think some may be elevating, including some spiritual delusions. And I do not maintain that the world would be a better place (morally or aesthetically speaking) if it were free of all delusions.

As far as what a rational person should believe....well, I am becoming more and more convinced that rationality plays a very convoluted role in the area of belief or disbelief in the supernatural, the occult or the paranormal.

As there is so little evidence to support the atheists' grand delusion
theory, a theory supposing that all atheists are deluded (perhaps through their education or negative experiences of religious people) should also hold just as much weight.

reply: I don't know what you mean by "the atheists' grand delusion theory." I don't maintain that atheists are free from delusions...only that we're free from religious delusions.

2. Note that this does not advocate a belief in a God of any type, or any particular description of the spiritual world. I believe that the many different religious traditions are merely attempts to comprehend the spiritual experiences, and to formulate a consistent view of the world. Religion is dynamic. It changes with time and with cultures. You mention that in the Western religions, God is to be thought of in masculine terms, and is portrayed as a father figure. There are trends in all theistic religions to contextualise their traditions, and apply what society knows in the late twentieth century, to their doctrine, with the result that many believers do not consider God to be masculine or feminine. The spiritual world is not confined by doctrine, and as religion is constantly changing and adapting, so aspects of the various beliefs will change.

As we accept that there is a non-physical world, we accept the possibility of their being non-physical beings, and therefore a non-physical God, which may turn out to correspond with certain elements of religious traditions. On the other hand, there may not be a God, and the Buddhist interpretation of the spiritual world with emphasis on spiritual enlightenment may be closer to the truth.

reply: No comment.

3. Your paragraph on the motives on believers, that is, referring to power, authority, ego trips etc., is equally applicable to atheists.

reply: I don't see how this follows. We don't have an ally with infinite power to back us up, to turn to, to identify with. We have to stand alone, on our own two feet, with only our wits to defend us. Granted we may seem powerful to unarmed men, but there is little ego gratification in trying to get people to see that it is unlikely that the government is implanting receivers in their butts or heads or that angels are following them around.

In addition, your contention that many believers only believe because of the influence of their environment can also be applied to atheists. As I have mentioned above, bad experiences with believers can turn a person away from religion and God, without any evidence on the non-existence of God.

reply: Yes.

You also state that for a child growing up with religion the lack of logic wasn't even noticed. I agree. But atheism is in a similar state.

reply: I don't think so. I can't speak for all atheists but I used reason with my children and never expected them base their disbelief on faith.

Atheism has its roots in the scientific method, which has increasingly dispelled many of humankind's assumptions about the world.

reply: What? Atheists existed long before any scientific methods were developed. Atheists such as Democritus and Epicurus rejected religion because of logical inconsistencies and absurdities in religious myths and because of Occam's razor...gods weren't needed to explain anything which could not be explained better without them.

However, the limitations of the scientific method are not even noticed. Only phenomena which can be tested and verified empirically are admitted to science, thus leaving out a host of phenomena and experiences, which are often discarded as being
untrue simply because they cannot be tested empirically.

reply: Nothing is untrue simply because it can't be tested empirically.

4. You expect an omniscient being to use a much simpler design for the universe. Why do you associate simplicity with perfection and complexity with imperfection? There is no basis for this. A complex mathematical theorem is no less perfect than a simple one. Could this trend to exemplify simplicity be the product of a society which is continually trying to simplify ways of doing things?
Andrew West

reply: This is pure anthropomorphism on my part, completely unjustified. An omniscient being can do anything he wants: simple, complex? it's up to him. He doesn't have to answer to anybody. He doesn't have to be anything like us and what he thinks is perfect doesn't have to resemble anything we consider perfect. In fact, such a being is so far out that we can't say anything intelligible about him or it or her.

02 Sep 1997
I found your Skeptic's Dictionary fascinating--and just wanted to point out a "hiccup" in your otherwise tenable reasoning. This, from your entry on God:

According to the atheist, God was invented not once, of course, but many times in many cultures. The similarities of invention are due to the similarities of human nature and experience. Birth, sex, suffering and death are universal. The images of God and God-experiences, as well as the utility of the invention, are reflected in such universally shared experiences.

Obviously you beg the question when you invoke "human nature"--which, for some of us, deserves its own entry under "H" in your dictionary. In addition, while " Birth, sex, suffering and death" are "universal" (another entry?) the *experience* of such events cannot be construed as anything but culturally determined--beyond a rudimentary biological response common to H. sapiens, i.e., sex feels good, pain hurts, and so on.

reply:I may have been wrong, but I don't think I have begged the question. I was trying to offer an explanation for the similarity of descriptions of mystical experiences found around the world. I would add to my earlier explanation that some of the similarities may be due to similar brain structures and neurochemical processes. See

Persinger, Michael. Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs (Praeger Pub Text., 1987).

Finally, as you know, the issue of "proof" or factual sources as the final arbiter of validity is itself an assumption which a skeptic must view with at least some suspicion. As Ken Kesey pointed out "Some things are true even if they didn't happen." The truth of a persistent fiction is of no small interest to those yearning for the innocence of certainties.
Paul Craner

reply: I'd like to say that you beg the question but I'm not sure I understand your extremely fine metaphysical point.

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