Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Futility of Debating Religious Believers

With the best of intentions I embarked on the challenge of debating my hyper-religious (Christian fundamentalist-evangelical) brother on his new Blog, but quickly have realized that it amounts to an exercise in futility.

It appears to me, just from the first few days of activity and about eight comments-posts, that believers’ brains are radically different in structure from those of rationalists-naturalists. But I needn’t have been so nonplussed, since biologist Lewis Wolpert in his superb book, ‘Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast’, has eloquently presented how and why believers’ brains are the way the are.

When one delves into that, it becomes more evident why believers are almost impervious (immune?) to any appeals of logic, scientific fact-data or critical thought. Simply put: It is too dangerous for the believer to venture outside his believer cubbyhole.

Consider one of Wolpert’s points, that (p25) "beliefs are mainly help about important factors in one’s life", such as what happens when we die, and what happens after. Add to that the factor or dynamic that many believers already possess a latent existential uncertainty or fear and you have the mix that can portend an obdurate being who fends off all logic.

For example, the issue of death is arguably the one that instills the most fear. The very notion of non-existence is so terrifying that it can wreak havoc even in the most secure minds. What about one less secure? What about one which has been exposed to and conditioned by authoritarian agents? In most cases, beliefs will be shaped that reflect these influences and fears.

If the fear of death is then the foremost one casting a pall over human life, it stands to reason that a belief which dilutes it will be the foremost one to clasp on to. No surprise then that most religionists have some core belief system regarding afterlives. The existence of these afterlives give the believer assurance he will go on and not simply become a mound of dust when his body expires. Oh no, his “soul” (deemed immortal) will continue in some kind of afterlife dimension.

Of course, religious belief does not stop at merely positing an afterlife. Since most religious belief systems are also by definition exclusionary, that means they also need to add beliefs which separate “wheat from chaff” or “goats from sheep”.

The aim of these beliefs is to preserve some essential purity of relation in the afterlife.

Thus, evangelical Christians like my Pastor brother simply cannot allow an additional belief that includes a common afterlife shared with atheists or Buddhists (or even Catholics, if you go by his ‘False Doctrines’ page). What is done instead is to confect an alternative afterlife belief for the “outsiders”. Those who don’t fit into his moral or religious universe.

In this case, “Hell” is invented for that purpose. Thereby, atheists, Mormons, Catholics, Hindis and Buddhists ARE afforded an afterlife, but one in which they are eternally punished rather than rewarded. This satisfies the hyper-Christian’s need to believe that everyone cannot simply unify at the end (unlike the Anglican doctrine of “Universal Salvation” which has every being including Hitler – united at the end)

The atheist, for his part, cannot be understood by the religious believer because he seems not to have the normal human attributes that the believer uses for his assumptions about the world.

How can a person NOT believe an in afterlife? Not be terrified of Hell? Not have some ultimate meaning imposed from on High? How can a person follow ethical principles without the need to posit an ultimate moral lawgiver? It makes no sense!

Because the believer’s meme network cannot accommodate the atheist’s philosophical or rational position, the only recourse is to marginalize it as abnormal. How can it be otherwise? This is embodied in comments such as this, about atheism. by my Pastor brother in one exchange:

“It is contrary to human experience , where some knowledge of God , no matter how suppressed and distorted , has universally existed . "

As I noted in my response to him, this is a common logical error made by the Christian. That is, in mistaking a "universal" practice for a human norm and then assailing those who act otherwise as not part of "human experience". But we now know from neurophysiology that the brain harbors numerous defects, especially in the temporal lobes which are the regions that give rise to human religious experience. (See also 'The Neurophysiology of God Belief' by Michael Persinger)

Thus, the actual manifestation of widespread god belief is really the manifestation of an inherent human brain flaw. THAT is exactly why it is so prevalent! But this counter-argument cannot be accepted, because then it means the believers’ own core concepts are suspect.

Thus, beginning from the believers’ marginalization of the atheist, the well of debate is poisoned and this makes an ongoing, constructive exchange impossible.

But let’s get to exactly why an ongoing and productive debate is futile. I list the reasons below as some of the primary ones:

1)Believers and rationalists do not speak the same language.

A good example is my Pastor brother incessantly asserting that "The atheists problem is they want everything " proven . "

When after umpteen times I have reminded him that no, we don’t require this. Just giving the necessary and sufficient conditions for the existence of his God would do nicely. But it seems he is unable to even do that. I suspect the reason is that these terms do not exist in his believer vocabulary. He only has “proof” or “disproof”. Hence his incessant egregious claim that atheists are unable to “disprove a God exists” when I have told him over and over that this amounts to proving a negative and so is logically impossible.

But it goes into one ear and out the other.

Let’s move on:

2)Believers and rationalists have two different moral foundations.

Again, because the believer only accepts morals from a supreme “lawgiver” he assumes the atheist has none because the atheist doesn’t require a “lawgiver”. As I pointed out endless times to Mike, in order to succeed in their primitive ancient and agrarian communities humans had to develop a basic morality or ethics. You don't rape others, steal or murder because the survival of the whole community is undermined. The atheist employs this same basic morality in his life today without any need to posit a god. Indeed, the atheist can turn the question around on the believers:

From where does God get his (or her) moral values?

Or to put it another way: Is an act good by its intrinsic nature, or is it good because a God did it?

To the atheist, an act must be good intrinsically, not because God X, Y or Z said it or did it.

Saying ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is fine, but not cricket if you yourself allow mass killing such as the Holocaust.

We continue:

3)Believers and rationalists have two different scientific world views

For lack of a better term, I’d call the believer world view a “flat Earth” paradigm. It is almost entirely lacking in even the most basic rudiments of scientific understanding or basic principles. For example, in one exchange my brother refers to random chance origins of a physical system as when he asks:

"Most atheists pride themselves on being rational . But why be rational if the universe is the result of irrational chance ? "
The phrase “irrational chance” is a non-starter for one with a true scientific mindset because chance can indeed be a rational process in the proper contexts. For example, the radioactive decay of an isotope is “random” in terms of which specific atom in an aggregate – say of Uranium 238, decays. But overall the decay follows a specific law or regularity:

N = N(o) exp (- At)

In this case, N denotes a residual number of atoms in a sample based on some original number N(o) decaying with some activity A over time t (to the number N).

Thus, the random law embodies a totally rational outcome and basis! However, arguing with believers about this is futile because in their minds anything random is irrational.

No surprise then they would also find any theory of cosmic origin via quantum bootstrap also irrational.

4)Believers do not know how to argue logically

This could also be a manifestation of their education. But in the main I have found that believers are unable to use a basic logical process in an argument. As an example, a basic logical syllogism is constructed so:

If X, then Y

If X, then Z

therefore: Y = Z

What if instead we append an axiomatic statement that reads, in effect: "X=Y is unprovable-in-the-system". (E.g. X= "God", Y = "Moral law") If this statement is provable-in-the-system, we get a contradiction, since if it is provable in-the-system, then it can’t be unprovable-in-the-system. This means the original axiom: "X= Y is unprovable-in-the-system" is false. Similarly, if X= Y is provable-in-the-system, then it’s true, since in any consistent system nothing false can be proven in-the-system, only truths.

So the statement:-axiom: "X = Y is unprovable-in-the-system" is not provable-in-the-system, but unprovable-in-the-system. Further, if the statement-axiom "X = Y is unprovable in- the-system" is unprovable-in-the-system, then it’s true that that formula is unprovable-in-the-system. Thus the statement, "X = Y is unprovable-in-the-system" is true.

With these preliminaries, let’s examine the logical structure ascribed to most religious concepts. According to Pascal Boyer, we get a syllogism like:

If X, then Y

If X, then Z

so, Y = Z

But, Z /\ Y (contradiction)


If a consecration (X) is performed, then a bread communion wafer (Y) becomes body or flesh (Z).

Bread wafer = body-flesh

But, actual chemical tests show the bread wafer is starch, not flesh or protein!

Religious concept:

The identity Y = Z refers to a statement of substance.

The contradiction Z /\ Y refers to the outcome of “accidents”
Thus, the statements embodying substance (S + 1) > S, where S denotes the axiomatic statements embodying the accidents.

We call such statements “meta-statements”.

In a manner of speaking, the religious concept claimant is in a similar position to Epimenides in his “all Cretans are liars” paradox, which itself perpetuates a causal loop with no closure. E.g.

"All Cretans are Liars"

If the speaker is a Cretan, then the statement is ipso facto unresolvable. If Cretan, he exists within the so-called abstract, formal system. Yet, he’s making a statement (meta-) about the system. Hence, is he lying? Or is he telling the truth? This cannot be resolved. An undecidable proposition, as Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem (II) applies.

Is there a way out of the loop? Yes, if one uses realist science to assess statements. The problem is that most believers have no ability to even recognize empirical science in any form.

Going on, they also make basic logical errors including: post hoc ergo propter hoc, or assuming because event Y follows X it must be caused by X.

Even more common, is arguing from authority, which most believers would not even be able to accept as a logical violation, but it is. This sort of thing would see the use of biblical quotations to attempt to make points. The authority here being the Bible.

Unfortunately, the tendency has become so predictable it resembles a kind of Pavlovian reflex. You start a rational argument with a believer, and within five minutes he’s trotting out the old canard:

The fool hath said within his heart there is no God!”

If that citation doesn’t work, look for him to go back to his biblical or scriptural grab bag for some other forlorn, antiquated quote, all in an effort to convince you that you, Mr. or Ms. Heathen, are going against two thousand year old authority and God’s holy writ! The favorite quotes, by the way, seem to be all those dealing with “Hell” in the New Testament, or related to the end times and the “Beast” written about in Revelation.

Begging the question and rigid either-or reasoning are also two favorite violations. In the latter case, as evidenced by my brother, it is a case of “If you don’t believe in God then……you can’t have any appreciation of beauty, you can’t have any meaning in your life, you can’t have any morals or ethics for guidance, you cant’ have……..(fill in the blank). It is beyond his comprehension to understand we can still have meaning, beauty, morals etc. irrespective of belief in a god.

Lastly, my biggest gripe:

5)Believers keep making the same errors again and again.

So, even after you have told them for the 100th time you are not “denying” God, they insist you are. Even after you've explained the basis of the atheist viewpoint on theodicy (the problem of evil) they twist it into something else).

And, since I am fed up with retreading the same ground over and over – almost like a digital version of “Groundhog Day” – I have to say enough.

I suppose one day believers and rationalists will come to some kind of understanding or relative peace- but I suspect this will only be after they stop debating one another.

I am taking the first step here.

Adios, Pastor Mike. May you have many more enjoyable times putting up your comments, articles....especially on the failings and foibles of atheists.

Alas, I will no longer be correcting every one ad infinitum.

No comments: