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

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reader comments: atheism & gods

9 Dec 1997

I must say that I found your opinion on Christianity and God disturbing. You write, "Why would God make such a complex body such as the eye?" You write, "Why wouldn't he make it simpler?"

On the contrary, only an omniscient God would be able to make a complex body function so uniquely and perfectly. Take your heart for example. Have you ever studied it? I can't believe you can say God is not real when you look at the universe. You said it doesn't look so organized. Where have you been looking?? If we where only a few thousand miles closer or farther to the Sun, we would all die. Only God could position us in such perfect alignment with all the other planets. Well, I got quite a load off. I would be interested to hear your response.

Dave Falk

reply: I have received a number of similar comments and have recently read newspaper and magazine articles which indicate that this line of reasoning is quite popular among theistic intellectuals. I am particularly perplexed by the attractiveness of the "complexity argument". Some people look at the complexity of the human visual system and are convinced that only God could design something so intricate and complicated. That is, they are convinced that something so complex could not occur by chance and must therefore have been designed. For example, William F. Buckley recently reiterated the old argument about a monkey at the typewriter given an infinite amount of time not being able to re-create Shakespeare. I believe he is right. In fact, I believe that even William F. Buckley himself would not be able to create say, Hamlet, by randomly typing letters, even if given an infinite amount of time. A human or a monkey would be more likely to repeat a narrow range of miscellaneous letters an infinite number of times. But a computer, programmed to randomly select letters in sequence, would produce each of Shakespeare's works not only once but an infinite number of times if given an infinite amount of time. No matter what the odds of randomly selecting the letters in sequence which make up any of Shakespeare's works, if there is no limit on the amount of time for doing the selecting, the computer will repeatedly create not only Shakespeare but every other work of prose and poetry again and again.

If you had ten pennies in your pocket and numbered them 1 to 10, you would pick them out in numerical sequence again and again if you had an infinite amount of time. The "complexity" argument is often attached to one of the "odds" arguments, e.g., the universe as it is "could not exist unless an enormous set of contingent circumstances were not, in exquisite detail, 'just so'".[Anthropic Evolution by David Bryson, M.D.] How these odd are calculated is often very odd, indeed. The universe is here. The odds are 1:1 that it exists as it is. No matter what or how one calculates the "improbability" of the universe as it is coming about by chance, the "probability" of its being here is as strong as it gets. One can monkey around for eternity with images of monkeys at typewriters or with elaborate statistical formulae trying to calculate the odds of, say, DNA evolving naturally, but nothing will change the fact that the universe is here and no matter what the odds it could have developed just as it is without any external guidance from God.

The fact that something is complicated is seen by some as ruling out the likelihood that it occurred by chance. I must be missing something here. If this were as obvious as some theists think it is, I don't see how anyone could look at the stars and not believe in God. But obviously there are many of us who contemplate the immense complexity of the universe, or the human visual system, and are not inclined at all to be overwhelmed with a sense of design. The more complex a system is, the more things there are that can go wrong. A simpler design of the eye, for example, might eliminate the need for corrective lenses. A simpler design might eliminate the blind spot, retinal decay, glaucoma, blindness, cataracts, color blindness, etc. I am not immune to the beauty of the visual system, but it seems obvious to me that such a system would be what you would expect from the trials and errors of evolutionary processes over millions of years. What right-minded Christian fundamentalist could look at our Welfare or Tax Systems and see design because they are so complex? On the contrary, their very complexity implies that they were the result of trial and error, responses to particular situations without regard for the whole system or for the future development of the system. What right-minded theist would look at those Byzantine networks of human creation and not see that they could not possibly have been the result of intelligent design? Other things being equal, the more complex a system in nature, the more likely it not designed. This may not always be true for human machines, but it would be a fallacy to claim that the more complex a machine the more likely it is the result of intelligent design. Since humans design machines to fulfill specific purposes, a machine which is unnecessarily complex would not be preferred to one which is simpler but accomplishes the same purpose just as well or better.

Humans design extremely complicated machinery because we have to. We are neither omniscient nor omnipotent. If we were, why would we make things unnecessarily complex, knowing that the more complex we make something the more things can go wrong? Only Nature can afford to be extremely wasteful, since Nature has no interest in individuals, no plan, no design. God is supposed to be Providential, Loving even, but a cursory glance at the universe with all its destructiveness and indifference not only towards individuals but towards species (something like 99% of all species that have ever evolved are extinct) makes it difficult to see design and purpose in it.

A cursory look at cell life in humans, at the way cells are determined by an enormously complex system of genes and chromosomes, should reveal to even the dimmest scientist that if the system were not so complex, the chances for error would be smaller. Granted, many genetic errors are harmless, but many are deadly or debilitating. Cancer and all the genetically determined diseases which plague humanity are the result of this complex system. An omnipotent and omniscient being ought to be able to do better. I am not saying that the complexity of the universe or of such systems as the human cellular system proves the universe was not designed, but I am saying that if these systems were designed their designer was incompetent. I am not saying that the complexity of the universe or any system in it looks disorganized the closer our scrutiny. But I am saying that those who keep finding signs of perfection and a Perfect Designer when looking at such systems are conveniently ignoring a vast amount of data which indicates either that the system is not as orderly as first thought or that the designer is not as competent as first thought.

Now, some philosophers have carried out this line of reasoning to conclude that God is neither omnipotent, omniscient, nor all-good. To me, such reasoning is grasping at straws. If God isn't needed to explain the system as it is, why fall back on the hypothesis of an imperfect God? The only explanation I can come up with is that such a belief satisfies some human longing for a God, any God, even an imperfect God. I have no such longing and therefore find it unreasonable to posit such a being, perfect or imperfect.

Most of these arguments now finding favor with theistic intellectuals were published years ago in Reader's Digest (I believe it was) in an article called something like "Seven Reasons a Scientist Believes in God." They were all bad reasons. For example, the one about Earth's distance from the Sun is truly remarkable. If the planet were not where it is, the planet would not have developed the way it did. If it were closer to the Sun, we would fry. True, and some day Earth will be closer to the Sun and if there is anything left on Earth when that occurs, it will be fried. The other planets in our solar system probably do not have life like ours, but that is because of their location. Should our theologians lament the evil of a universe designed to have such great planets so situated as to be incapable of life? Should we mourn the likelihood that there are billions of planets incapable of life? No more than we should rejoice at the likelihood that there are billions of planets capable of life.  

27 Dec 1997
My parents raised me without any religion, yet, I am considered a highly moral person. I liked your article about God; I was even spiritually inspired. When my husband and I went to Northern Arizona, we were in awe of the land formations and sunsets. It was spiritual. Is that God?

I do not belong to any religious organization. Because of this, the Jehovah Witnesses say that I will suffer in Hell. I am happy to continue to be amazed at natural wonders, seek more knowledge, and be free of the constraint of people's views upon each other. So what am I? an atheist?

reply: Sounds like you are a person who has got her priorities straight. 

24 Dec 1997
I wanted to respond to your "Atheism" article in the Skeptic's Dictionary.

I believe in a supreme "something." I know this because I have had direct experience of it, in moments of rapture during a period of extreme creativity. The closest thing I can liken it to is the "Force" from Star Wars. It is not difficult to see how the "logical" leap could be made from this to the religious doctrines of Christianity, Buddhism, etc. etc. We do indeed make god in our own image. I do not, however, sense this "energy" as a person. I sense it as "everything."

I read an article once that there is a group of people who believe in a concept called "directed evolution." They find that their statistical calculations cannot account for the vast variety of life that exists, exquisitely attuned to the environment, based on chance alone. It would simply take too long. They believe that there must be some underlying force "guiding" the process.

The eye is "too complex" for reasons which we probably don't yet understand. Every time science discovers something new, it always reaffirms that there is a reason why. Hawking called this the "strong anthropomorphic principle," that we and the universe fit together like lock and key, because it has to be that way for us to exist.

I am willing to admit that my "mystical" experiences can be attributed to the way I am constructed, to the way my brain works. That does not take away from the fact that I can use things like "faith," "intuition," and "creativity" in my daily life with profound results, not actually knowing why. The proof that they work is in the application.

It's a shame that religions cloud the issue, because to me it's not that complicated. We as a people waste more time on vapid rituals and gratuitous beliefs, and miss the real point.

reply: Your letter reminds me of Peter O'Toole's character in "The Ruling Class". When asked why he believes he is God, he replies, "because I found that when I was praying I was talking to myself".

25 Dec 1997
I looked at your dictionary (and found it pretty nice), but I disagree with you. On the 'God' page, you write that a person constructing a human eye would probably make it simpler, etc. Well, I have found that things are not that way. I work with computer systems (which are always designed by people) and they definitely are not simple. If you want maximum performance (like God might want when he created man?) things are not nice and simple. Instead, really fast computers are pretty ugly inside. And yes, 'ugly' and 'unnecessary' parts often increase performance 10 times or so.

If you want some argument against God based on the "design" of the human eye, then one might note that the human eye has a blind spot. There is a design flaw in human eye: its light-detectors are on the back side! If they were in the front, there would be no blind spot. Octopuses have eyes set up that way.
Pavel Machek

reply: I wonder how the omnipotent, omniscient one would design a computer. For that matter, I wonder how such a being would have designed the paper clip, the button or the zipper. 

3 Dec 1997

I finally got around to reading your entry on God in your Skeptic's Dictionary. I've literally spent hours cruising from place to place reading about all the baloney, and have even included a link to your page on my home page, which I hope won't cause you too much dismay when I tell you that I have to disagree with your stance on God and Atheism.

First, I must agree with a previous correspondent. You seem to have established "skepticism" as its own religion or something. In other words, like believers in God who have grabbed hold of a definition of God that defies the ability to prove it, you have defined skepticism similarly. I posit that there is nothing that WOULD serve as proof to you. It all boils down to definitions, and that brings me to my main point.

reply: I don't see how skepticism and religion can be compared. One is a method of inquiry; the other is a set of beliefs and rituals. I don't think this difference is a matter of definition at all. As to the claim that nothing would serve as proof of God's existence for this skeptic, you are wrong. I would be persuaded by some of the same kinds of "proofs" which others are persuaded by: miracles and mystical experiences which could not be reasonably explained by fraud, deceit, mistake or delusion. I also would be persuaded to believe in God if it could be shown that the universe as it is cannot be. Since I know the universe is as it is, if it were impossible for it to exist as it is, I would infer an outside agency which maintains it.

I've gone through all kind of religious junk in my life, and have finally (?) settled into a kind of understanding that I can accept and which precariously fits in with my family, my social group, and my personal need to be right about everything. (grin).

So let me get to it. Like I said before, I think it all boils down to the way things are defined. We've fallen into this trap of thinking that there is only one way of understanding things.

So when someone says "God exists!" most people have this immediate image of a guy on a cloud somewhere or some other thing, "thing" being the operative word . . . The converse of this is when someone says "God is a figment of our imagination". My point is that there are all kinds of "things" that fit both categories. The concept of a purple horse currently exists in your mind because you just read those words in this sentence. But of course, except for artificially created horses designed to amuse us at circuses (and equally artificial Gods designed to do whatever for us in church) we all know that purple horses don't exist.

reply: I always assume that by 'God' one means, at the very least, the source and ground of all that is, distinct from the universe. I have no image of God.

So what I'm saying is that if you're willing to say that ideas can exist separately from any concrete representation of them in the real world, it's not that big a stretch then to say that God also exists. Of course, I'm not claiming to be the first guy to think of this - it can easily be argued that this is what Plato is saying, and I'm sure that this argument gets carried into the whole nominalism vs. idealism debate in the 1100's. (I did my undergraduate in Philosophy, so I remember bits and pieces - usually just enough to get me in all kinds of trouble . . . )

reply: You are right; there is no big stretch to say that God exists, but there is no necessary connection between (a) saying it, (b) having a concrete representation of God, and (c) God really existing.

The arguments between the nominalists and the realists was over the issue of universals having referents. Plato thought they did. He thought that general terms (universals) such as 'horse' or 'chair' refer to eidos (Forms) such as horsehood or chairness which have real being. No one that I know of has claimed that the term 'God' is a universal (i.e., a general term such as 'chair' or 'horse'). Whether a name or description (e.g., 'God' or 'The Supreme Being') refers to a real being or not is a very different question from whether there are universals such as chairness or horsehood. You might find succor from St. Anselm and his ontological argument, however.

Anyway, I'm not going to claim that God does much of anything independently, but the very fact that he exists in the minds of people who believe in him means (at least to me) that he does indeed, exist. People do stuff in the name of God. People do stuff in the name of nationalism, people do stuff in the name of liberty. Nationalism and liberty exist, don't they? Then why is it such a stretch to say that God exists as well? Please don't say that "well, if you're going to posit that "concepts" have an existence, then anything you can think of can be said to have an existence." That would be true, however people don't act on concepts that are without meaning.

reply: It sounds like you are confusing the sense and reference of words. The word 'God' has a sense, but it has no reference, according to atheists. To deny that the word 'God' refers to anything is not the same as saying that the word is meaningless. Many words are meaningful even if they have no referent; 'liberty' and 'nationalism' are two such words.

In other words, people don't rally behind a leader crying "Purple Horse!!". But people will act on "huge" concepts like "France" (which if you are any student of history, you will realize is as made-up a concept as purple horses), or "Freedom" or "God". So it's not some tyrannical top down BS that's enslaving everyone. It's a bottom up tyranny that's a major force in the way people think. A God that nobody believes in is in a world of hurt. (Have you heard much about Baal lately?) Thus, in my view, since lots of people believe and act on those beliefs, God exists.

reply: Now you are making what Gilbert Ryle called a "category mistake." Words like 'France', 'university' and 'mind' do not refer to specific entities. They do not function like proper or common names which might be used to refer to specific persons or things. Furthermore, many words are used primarily for their emotive meaning. Words such as 'liberty' and 'rights' are often used in situations where they have almost no cognitive content. To say that God exists if the word 'God' has meaning is saying no more than that Hamlet must exist since the word 'Hamlet' has meaning. In fact, I would agree: God has as much existence as Hamlet.

Of course, what is very dismaying about this proposition is that using this same definition, Elvis is alive, The Loch Ness monster is real, and the same with 90% of the junk that you lampoon on your page. However, I think that it's a safe bet that by sheer weight of numbers, God's got them all beat. And I can live with that.

Jim Mason

reply: I'll bet you can.

2 Mar 1998 (Mr. Mason replies)

You state in your response to me:

    "I don't see how skepticism and religion can be compared.  One is a method of inquiry; the other is a set of beliefs  and rituals. I don't think this difference is a matter of  definition at all."

Religion is as much a method of inquiry as is skepticism.  The premise religious people must answer is "How does (X) square with my understanding of God?" vs. the skeptical premise of "How does (X) square with my understanding of the physical universe".  Both require a certain amount of belief.

reply: my main point was that the difference between religion and skepticism is not a matter of definition. I agree that religion can involve inquiry, but I would not say that religion as such is a method of inquiry. Skepticism is a method of inquiry...period. It is not a set of beliefs. Skeptics have beliefs, of course, but there is no particular set of beliefs which one must have to be considered a skeptic. A skeptic can be an atheist, an agnostic or a theist.

You go on to say:

     I also would be persuaded to believe in God if it could be shown that the universe as it is cannot be. Since I know  the universe is as it is, if it were impossible for it to exist as it is, I would infer an outside agency which maintains it.

This is carrying a tautology to the extreme and merely proves my point that there is nothing that would serve as proof to you.  You rely on scientific observation of the universe as the only data to be allowed in your consideration of the God problem.  If something appears to be impossible, the scientific response is to analyze the original premise that led you to believe the impossibility and revise your premise.  Thus Newton's laws were necessarily changed when Einstein came along.  Newton wasn't really wrong, it was just that his laws only worked on 99.9% of the stuff in the observable universe.  Once we started looking at the atom, his laws went out the window.  To paraphrase Descartes, "It exists, therefore it is possible".  That being the case it is impossible to use the scientific method to show that ANYTHING, let alone the universe, as it is cannot be.

reply: I have to admit that even with my philosophical training, I have difficulty following your argument here. First, it is not a tautology to claim that I would be persuaded to believe in God if it could be shown that the universe as it is [emphasis added to help you understand my position better] cannot be. A tautology is a claim which cannot be false. Contingent claims cannot be tautologies, since contingent claims can be either true or false. Whether the universe AS IT IS is possible or impossible is a contingent matter if one considers that we may have enough knowledge of the laws of nature to one day be able to say, given the laws of nature, the universe should be imploding but it isn't, or given the laws of nature, the universe should be dead but it isn't. In other words, it is conceivable that it may one day be shown that only a miracle could keep the universe in the state it is in, given its inherent nature. If that is shown, I would believe that the miracle could only be the work of an outside agency, namely, God. The easiest example of such a state would be to discover contradictory laws of nature. On the other hand, if the universe is in no need of God to create or maintain it, then why assume there is a God?

Later you say:

    It sounds like you are confusing the sense and reference of words. The word 'God' has a sense, but it has no reference, according to atheists. To deny that the word 'God' refers to anything is not the same as saying that the word is meaningless. Many words are meaningful even if they have no referent; 'liberty' and 'nationalism' are two such words.

Again, this is a tautology.  If you begin all your logical arguments with the supposition that there is no God, then it should come as no surprise that you are able to prove that there is no God.  You commit this error when you say "The word God has a sense, but no reference". I say it does have a reference.  Thus I commit the same error by proving there is a God through a logical argument that contains the supposition "God does have a reference".  Perhaps this illustrates the difficulty of appealing to logic to solve this problem.

reply: My point was simply to note that you are wrong when you claim that just because you have an idea of God, God exists. The only thing that follows from having the idea of God is that the idea of God exists, that is, the word 'God' has a meaning. My point is that having a meaning, i.e. a sense, does not imply having a reference. Furthermore, I never try to prove God does not exist. I do not believe it is possible to prove God does not exist. I do not believe there is much evidence for the belief. There is a big difference. I don't try to prove Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster do not exist. I try to show that the evidence for their existence is not sufficient to warrant a belief in their existence. Likewise with belief in God.

Later you say in a similar vein:

    Now you are making what Gilbert Ryle called a  "category mistake." Words like 'France', 'university' and  'mind' do not refer to specific entities. They do not function  like proper or common names which might be used to refer  to specific persons or things.

This seems rather illogical.  France is a specific thing.  It's a country in Europe.  Same with university - it's a place where you learn among other things, to argue about stuff.  Mind is a toughie, I'll grant, but are you willing to say that your mind doesn't exist? I say that God exists precisely in the way that you say your mind exists.  Prove to me through your skeptical process that you have a mind. . .

reply: Here I might agree with you that my response in terms of Ryle's "category mistake" was probably a mistake. What I wanted to insist on is that the existence of the God most people believe in does not depend upon whether people believe in His existence. A being whose reality is determined by whether there are believers is an illusory being.

And more . . .

     Furthermore, many words are used primarily for their emotive meaning. Words such as 'liberty' and 'rights' are often used in  situations where they have almost no cognitive content. To say  that God exists if the word 'God' has meaning is saying no more than that Hamlet must exist since the word 'Hamlet' has meaning.  In fact, I would agree: God has as much existence as Hamlet.

Good, now we're getting somewhere.  I think I agree with you. Hamlet does exist.  People put on his clothes and say his lines and interpret what he does every day.  People watch Hamlet or Macbeth or Othello or Magnum P.I. and learn about what is proper and what is not, what generally happens to creeps, and how life in essence isn't always fair.  People decide what to do in various situations because of what they know about how life works through their observance of these characters.  These characters influence human behavior, and for this influence to occur, there must be an existence of some sort.  But the writers of Hamlet and his pals have taken most of their cues from God.

Jim Mason, Director of Development
Graduate School of Education, Univ. of Utah

reply: I'm afraid that I find your concluding remark to be a non sequitur.

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