Re: Atheism

Ron Resnick (
Mon, 15 Sep 1997 01:31:38 +0300

At 11:27 PM 9/13/97 -0700, Dan Kohn wrote:
>OK, I'm going to try something kind of dumb.

I disagree. Dumb would be keeping your mouth shut.

>I'm going to try to lay
>out, clearly and succinctly, why I have become an atheist. I am doing
>this because I value the opinions of people on this list,

aw gee shucks :-)

>and I am
>curious what your reactions will be. I am also an optimist, and believe
>that as a community, FoRK may actually be able to discuss these subjects
>without descending into a flame war.

I didn't see anything in your post that should serve to incite a flamewar;
we seem to do pretty well at accomodating our mix of Hindus, Christians,
Jews, atheists, agnostics, web types, object types, Americans, Canadians, etc.

> I am not doing this to proselytize
>anyone; in fact, I will take to the streets to defend all of our rights
>to believe anything we want to. This will also publicly archive my
>current thinking, so that I can potentially deeply regret this post

Oh oh.

> Man is a small thing,
> and the night is very large
> and full of wonders
> - Lord Dunsany, The Laughter of the Gods
>Like many fairly well-educated people, I've been an agnostic most of
>life. I was Bar Mitzvahed, but was never fully sold on the correctness
>of Judaism or its applicability to my life.

Oh no, not another one. I figured that 'Kohn' appendage hinted at some
Yiddish blood. Did you know that Adam is apparently also a Cohen (one
of the ancient priestly class, descended from Aaron)?
Rules: Don't enter any cemetaries. Don't marry a divorcee.
And, you're supposed to be able to do the Vulcan finger-spread thing,
so you can bless the congregation at morning prayers. Can you?

> Today, I consider Judaism
>as my ethnicity rather than my religion. Similarly, I have had vaguely
>spiritual occurrences in my life, and have prayed on occasion.

To whom? Did you pray with 'kavanah' (meaning)? Or just mouth the words?

I don't think I've ever in my life been able to recite a prayer from a
that I really felt was directed at anyone/anything in particular; it's always
felt like reciting meaningless phrases. And I don't think I've ever 'prayed'
from my own heart. Sure, sometimes I *wish* for things, like "Geezus,
I hope I can brake hard enough to avoid hitting that guy in front of me!"
but I don't think that counts as prayer.

> But, I
>basically have never had strong feelings toward religion and had never
>spent a lot of intellectual energy confirming (or refuting) them.

Never a time like the present to start.

Before going into a blow-by-blow of Dan's thesis, let me state some
biases first.

I consider myself an atheist as well, after a process during
adolescence of trying to really have Faith (I made it as far as
an Orthodox Jewish Yeshiva in Rochester NY for one single day,
at age 15 - black hat and all - before turning tail and heading back to
my Ottawa public high school). Like Dan, my scientific education is
ultimately the main ingredient in my 'atheism', but the rationale is
considerably different than Dan's.

> As a person of faith, I am bound by a different covenant than she.
> But our goal is one and the same: the pursuit of truth.
> -- Contact
>One of the things that comes to mind in reading a book like The History
>of Knowledge
>is the question of what is the most important thing that humankind has
>learned over the last 15,000 or so years? Market capitalism,
>electricity, Darwinism, democracy?

Sexual Positions. The Kama Sutra. Definitely.

>My answer is not a specific piece of knowledge, but instead knowledge
>about how to generate new knowledge: the scientific method.
><> contains the
>following definition:
>>Newton invented a scientific method which was truly universal in its
>>scope. Newton presented his methodology as a set of four rules for
>>scientific reasoning. These rules were stated in the Principia and
>>proposed that (1) we are to admit no more causes of natural things
>>such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances,
>>(2) the same natural effects must be assigned to the same causes,
>>(3) qualities of bodies are to be esteemed as universal, and
>>(4) propositions deduced from observation of phenomena should be
>>viewed as accurate until other phenomena contradict them.

As a person who believes in the Western scientific tradition, and has
tremendous respect for the accomplishments of Newton, I don't buy
for an instant that 'science' actually is conducted according to maxims
like the ones above. You really might want to order & read the Chalmers
book I referenced recently:

The methodology you present above is often known as 'Inductionism' or
'Naive Inductionism', largely from the 4th element - you assume true those
things you haven't refuted. By emphasizing the 'true' part, the notion is
that science somehow conducts experiments in an effort to validate assumed
laws. E.g. - toss many objects into the air, in order to probabilistically
increase the evidence that gravity really works as an attractive force.

In reality, such Inductionism isn't very fruitful, and isn't really what most
scientific discovery is about. Karl Popper, a great fan of the classic
Scientific Method, attempted to correct this oversight with a model
known as Falsificationism. Namely, that most of sciencific work is
really the business of trying to refute, or falsify a hypothesis or theory.
The idea being that theories get proposed, and then everyone gets busy
trying to take potshots at it to show where it's too weak to match reality,
and so a subsequent theory can get proposed that's more powerful and
supercedes the old.

After Popper, the main contributors were Thomas Kuhn, he of Scientific
Revolutions and Paradigms, Imre Lakatos, he the bridgebuilder between
Popper & Kuhn, and Paul Feyerabend, he the?? I forget what Feyerabend's
angle was.

The point being, of course, that 'science', and 'scientific progress' are
the simple things you'd naively think they might be.

>Contrast this approach to Aristotle
><>, who though a
>smart guy, made errors in the large majority of his theories (e.g., 4
>elements, celestial spheres, slaves are necessarily inferior since they
>are slaves, etc.). The problem was not that Aristotle was lacking in
>any original or good ideas; in fact, he had too many. The problem was
>that rather than testing their truth, he would assume it. The bio
>concludes with, "In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries A. D.,
>Aristotle's works came to be accepted as absolute truths, a fact which
>served to effectively stifle original and experiment-based scientific
>progress for centuries."
>I am not saying that the scientific method provides any insights into
>the origination of good ideas. The discovery of the smallpox vaccine
>after all, is based on the old wives' tale about being "as fair as a
>tml> My point is just that there are a lot of ideas out there, and it
>is really useful to be able to distinguish the good ones.
>Another book that was influential on my thinking was the History of Pi
>by Peter Beckmann
>which traces humankind's understanding of Pi from Egyptian times to
>today. The book meanders into some scathing attacks on religion, the
>Romans, and communism, mainly for the reason that all of them had such
>horrendous effects on humankind's learning, as symbolized by our
>understanding of Pi. When someone is burned at the stake for not
>agreeing that Pi=3 (as the bible is interpreted as saying), you begin to
>see the advantages of using the scientific method to settle disputes.

So, yes - (Western) science offers a way to understand the physical universe
with an economy of assumptions and an emphasis on predictive outcomes.
This is indeed very powerful stuff, and is the reason Science is held in
the general
esteem we hold it, in our modern world. As I said, I'm as big a fan of Science
as you are, but that doesn't mean that the 'Scientific Method' has to be
the concise set of statements you might hold it to be. We may know that
Science is capable of wonderful results, without necessarily knowing all the
intricacies of how it, in itself, comes to be as a social phenomenon amongst
scientists. 'How does Science actually work?' is apparently much more
complex than the relatively obvious 'it *does* work!'.

> Do we, holding that gods exist,
> deceive ourselves with insubstantial dreams
> and lies, while random careless chance and
> change alone control the world?
> - Euripides in Hecuba
>I have never had a moment of revelation when it suddenly became clear to
>me that God doesn't exist. But, over the last 2 years, I have been
>reading a lot of things, including the New Yorker, the Economist, and
>Scientific American. And as I started to connect together the ideas
>from many different articles, I realized how extraordinarily unlikely it

>is that God exists.

Boom. That's where the two of us are miles apart. 'Unlikely' is a
statement. It implies that the search for Deity in the Universe is one that
can be approached by counting the evidence for, and the evidence against,
putting them on a scale, and choosing the heavier side.

I don't think that's true at all. I think there are 3 possibilities:
1. A God exists, and chooses to make Himself explicitly known to all of His
Creation. Then questions of 'Does God exist?' are silly - obviously He does-
He chose to reveal Himself.
2. A God exists, and for his own devious (or other) reasons, chooses
not to make Himself explicity known. He may drop some hints, but purposefully
doesn't solve the debate for us in an obvious manner.
3. No God exists.

I argue that 1. is clearly not the case. The fact that we are having this
email discussion proves that clearly not all of His Creation knows Him.
Now, the choice between 2 and 3 come down to a matter of faith ultimately.
Suppose no God exists (3.). How can you conclusively prove it? How do you
know you're not just dealing with a particularly tricky version of 2., where
he's hidden himself so well you can't find the evidence?
Conversely, suppose it's 2. At best, you have some hints lying around.
If you find enough, you might start to guess that there really is a God behind
them. But how can you *know*? If you really knew, it wouldn't be 2, it would
be 1.

So, I think it's pointless trying to 'prove' the existence/lack of God. And
counting evidence may help those who want to believe in 2., but it surely
can't help those who want to end up 'proving' 3. Even if you think you
have overwhelming evidence, it might just be a sneaky God that wants
you to think that.

Atheism/Theism comes down to faith. It's a matter of each individual
looking inside him/herself, and the world around, and coming to grips
with what they *believe*. That's why I think one can say 'I believe I'm
an atheist' but I don't see how one can say 'I am an atheist'. And, the
former, is probably more of an agnostic stance, if you think about it.
More on this later on.

>(One idea that sticks in my mind is from
>neo-Darwinist Charles Dawkins: Explaining complexity [the world] with
>complexity [God] is not intellectually satisfying compared to explaining
>complexity with simplicity [natural selection]. Or phrased differently,
>if the watchmaker made the watch, who made the watchmaker?)
>How likely is it that if God did not exist, the world would appear very
>much like it does today? If there were no God, and the world is a
>confusing and often unhappy place, would you not expect to have hundreds
>of competing and mutually exclusive religions around the world, each
>arguing that they represent the absolute truth?

No, this is a very different argument. Be very careful to distinguish between
'Does God exist?' and 'Are any of the world religions practiced on planet
accurate depictions of that God and His creation?'.

A God can exist, and yet all of the world religions can be false. There's
no contradiction there. Conversely, it is true that if No God exists, then
all world religions *must* be false.

>I think everyone should read Contact by Carl Sagan
>it is simply one of the best books I know. It is infinitely superior to
>the movie in its imagination and intellect, and has a different ending
>that is hugely more satisfying. Chapter 10, Precession of the
>Equinoxes, is a wonderful debate about the existence of God, where all
>three debaters (oddly enough) make their points as brilliantly as Carl
>Sagan would. I find it kind of strange that the entire book appears to
>be on the Web <>, but that allows
>me to quote my favorite part of that chapter (which is one of my
>favorite quotes from anywhere). I strongly encourage you to read the
>whole chapter for yourself; it is the first chapter of part 2
><>. In the scene,
>Ellie Arroway is talking to Palmer Joss and another character about
>whether or not the bible is true:
>"Your trouble," she replied, "is a failure of the imagination. These
>prophecies are-almost ever one of them-vague, ambiguous, imprecise, open
>to fraud. They admit lots of possible interpretations. Even the
>straightforward prophecies direct from the top you try to weasel out
>of-like Jesus' promise that the Kingdom of God would come in the
>lifetime of some people in his audience. And don't tell me the Kingdom
>of God is within me. His audience understood him quite literally. You
>only quote the passages that seem to you fulfilled, and ignore the rest.
>And don't forget there was a hunger to see prophecy fulfilled.
> "But imagine that your kind of god-omnipotent, omniscient,
>compassionate-really wanted to leave a record for future generations, to
>make his existence unmistakable to, say, the remote descendants of
>Moses. It's easy, trivial. Just a few enigmatic phrases, and some fierce
>commandment that they be passed on unchanged..."
> "Joss leaned forward almost imperceptibly. "Such as...?"
> "Such as 'The Sun is a star.' Or 'Mars is a rusty place with
>deserts and volcanoes, like Sinai.' Or 'A body in motion tends to remain
>in motion.' Or-let's see now"-she quickly scribbled some numbers on a
>pad-"'The Earth weighs a million million million million times as much
>as a child.' Or-I recognize that both of you seem to have some trouble
>with special relativity, but it's confirmed every day routinely in
>particle accelerators and cosmic rays-how about 'There are no privileged
>frames of reference'? Or even 'Thou shalt not travel faster than light.'
>anything they couldn't possible have known three thousand years ago."

Again, I don't think this proves much in the overall theism question.
It is good evidence that the Judaeo/Christian scriptures, for example,
have some serious doubt to any claim of Divine Scripture. Modern
analysis is clearly showing that the Pentateuch (the 5 Torah scrolls
of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) were authored
in very different writing styles, characteristic of distinct chronological
eras, when compared to other non-biblical writings. The Dead Sea
Scrolls, and other archeaological finds, also point to human authorship
of the Bible. Hence, it should be no surprise that people of that era
wrote passages that only reflected their known understanding of the
physical world, and didn't embed references to Mars or relativity.

This may prove that the Bible was written by man, not God and handed
down at Sinai. Even that though doesn't mean Judaism and/or Christianity are
frauds (although it sure doesn't help their cases). You could still
be Jewish or Christian, and accept the Bible as allegorical and not literal,
and the handing of the Torah at Sinai from God to Moses as allegorical, not

But it does nothing to prove that a God may exist, who created the Universe,
but who had nothing to do with a bunch of desert nomads 3500 years
ago who wrote some interesting but ultimately theologically irrelevant

> "Any others?" Joss asked.
> "Well, there's an indefinite number of them-or at least one for
>every principal of physics. Let's see... 'Heat and light hide in the
>smallest pebble.' Or even 'The way of the Earth is as two, but the way
>of the lodestone is as three.' I'm trying to suggest that the
>gravitational force follows an inverse square law, while the magnetic
>dipole force follows an inverse cube law.
>Now, this is partly Sagan showing off how smart he is, but there is a
>kind of basic point here. I find trying to accept the word of the
>bible, or any religion, as the absolute word of God, as stretching
>credulity to the breaking point. I do not have anything against
>religion. Fundamentally, I just see it as a hypothesis of how (and why)
>the world works the way it does. And I think science has provided a
>much better hypothesis.

Sure, for the questions science has answered, it's done remarkably well.
But as scientists, we should be the first to jump and exclaim how little,
we understand through science, and how much, overall, remains unknown.
Just how did life evolve out of primordeal soups of amino acids? Just how
does neuron firing lead to consciousness and intelligence in the human
brain? Just how to account for the missing dark matter in the Universe?
And many, many more troubling questions science really doesn't have
a clue about.

If anything, I would imagine that a conscientous scientist would be humbled
before the Universe and our puny attempts to understand it. Rather than
attempting to extrapolate from our insignificance with grand statements
of "God does/doesn't exist because science says this/the other!", I
should think we'd be very cautious *because* of science! That we
should hedge our bets, and say, 'gee, it's a big universe out there -
anything's possible once you get to Deities living beyond our senses
& dimensions and measurements'.

As it turns out, there's plenty of both religious and arreligious scientists.
As you note, Newton was God fearing. So too, in his own way, was Einstein.
I'm not sure that science, in and of itself, is something that either the
pro- or anti- thesists can successfully use in their argumentation.

> In the fifteenth century, the science vs.
>religion question was still up in the air. But since then, science has
>provided much better experimental results.

Depends what the goals are. Ability to predict future natural phenomena?
Sure- science wins hands down. Ability to provide spiritual solace for
an anxious humanity with a major insecurity problem? Organized religion
wins. Of couse - that has nothing to do with Theism. Catholic confession
can be good for the 'soul', even if their is no God listening to the

Note that in our arreligious modern world, these basic spiritual needs
that traditional religions catered to have simply been replaced by
psychiatrist couches, drugs, or mailing lists like FoRK. The needs remain

>As I have come to better understand the scientific method, I realized
>that the existence of God had just begun seeming less and less likely to
>me. Another fantastic book is The Night is Large by Martin Gardner,
>which is a collection of his essays over his lifetime
>I quote Gardner in saying that it would be "a dishonest use of the
>language" to call myself an agnostic instead of an atheist.
>(BTW, I am enough of a connoisseur of irony to find it fascinating that
>Newton always believed in God.)
> Should the wide world roll away,
> Leaving black terror,
> Limitless night,
> Nor God, nor man, nor place to stand
> Would be to me essential,
> If thou and thy white arms were there,
> And the fall to doom a long way.
> - Stephen Crane

OK, so here I'll insert my 'why do I label myself atheist rather than

Strictly speaking, of course, I suppose I'm agnostic, in the
sense that with no ultimate proof possible, it's not possible to state
that I unequivocably 'know' anything one way or the other. Although,
coming back to options 1,2,3 above, logic leads me away from 2.
If God does exist, why would he purposefully be such a sneak? What's
the game here? If the game is that we have to learn to have Faith in God
in order to really love Him (the traditional Orthodox Jewish answer I
always got)
then I just don't want to play. I'll take my chances that if God created me
as a smart enough person to weigh the odds, decide the game was fixed,
and so I figure not to waste my time playing and just get on with life, then
he's got to give me some credit for that. But really, when I look into my
internal 'Faith', I just don't have any. I look at the heavens, and just
see endless
black. I look to the grave, and just see 6 feet of dirt and maggots;
no souls, no great reckoning.

So, I'm a
'theoretical agnostic'. But I'm a practicing atheist. Because that's where
the religions do come in. As soon as you look at the day-to-day
practice aspects, you're as-good-as-atheist as soon as you treat
all religions as equally empty for you, and can't find faith in any of them.
And that's about where I am. As you noted earlier, what are the odds
that any one of the competing World Faiths can be 'True'? At best, assuming
an even distribution over N faiths (where N is in the thousands at least),
each one has a 1/N chance. The notion that I should devote myself
to a lifetime of ritual in one of those N on those kinds of odds makes
me shudder. Imagine the poor Jewish Hasid who was pious all his life and still
goes to Catholic Hell because he just chose wrong and never got baptised?
Maybe we're all sunk, because some Pacific Polynesian tribe had
the right Faith on Easter Island a thousand years ago, and went
extinct before they could tell any of us.

Probablilistically, I prefer to take my chances that *none* of the world
are right, and just get on with the rest of my life, rather than invest
my energies in the
trappings of any one. Any spiritual fullfillment I need I find better
by more secular exploits, like music or incessant FoRKposting.
Of couse, I'm still young
enough for this to change. As we near our graves, there's a tendency
to get more desperate to find Faith, I suppose.

>So, all of this leads me to the belief that there is no *intrinsic*
>meaning to anything. I think physics and Darwinism explain everything
>we need to know about how we got here and why (i.e., there is no why).
>Although I think Darwinism is fundamentally true, I also find it a
>morally reprehensible way to organize the world, and I see no
>contradiction in this belief. I am not especially bothered by what came
>before the big bang; I suspect that our language does not have the tools
>we need to even discuss the subject meaningfully.
>Does the lack of God mean that life is meaningless? Perhaps. I am
>optimistic enough to think that life has all the meaning we imbue it
>with, no more and no less.

Yes, I'd largely agree with these 2 paragraphs above (though I'm not
sure about the 'morally reprehensible Darwinism part' - why is it
Such an attitude is how I got to a 'moral relativist' stance,
as we discussed a few weeks ago.

I also note at this opportunity the very interesting web page of
our latest FoRKer, John Chang, at:

Some very interesting stuff, ranging from religion to Macintosh (there's
a difference ;-)? ) to ethics to music... very eclectic, FoRKworthy material.

Another relativist/agnostic/atheist type, apparently, John says some
things that ring true to me, and other things that quite shocked me.
For instance, John believes, as I do, that from a relativist stance, there
is no absolute good & evil, right or wrong, by which to judge the actions
of others. They may simply be operating under a different reference
frame of 'good' & 'evil'. Of course, this leads to very troubling issues
(for me,
at any rate) with things like Nazism or other extremisms. But I try to
deal with these without having to invoke absolutes that I just can't find
in the Universe I know.

Later on though, John goes on to define his position on capital punishment,
in which he is apparently in favour of the death penalty for offenses which
'merit' it. Huh? Come again John? How can a relativist get to such a stance?
I'm rather lost there.

>For me, a lot of what gives life meaning is communication. The only
>word that adequately describes my feelings toward the interaction of
>individuals, our coming together, is holy. Communication separates us
>from the apes,

? Well.... Chimpanzees (& dolphins) are demonstrating capacity
for language and communications with great sophistication of expression.

What is it that separates man from the other animals? Bipedalism? Our
thumbs? Our ability to engage in abstract reasoning? Our larynxes&tounges?

Personally, I *still* say it's the unbelievable variety of sexual positions we
can dream up ;-). (I wrote that as a joke way up above, and even here, but
maybe there's something to this? All the other animals just do it one way,
doggie style, or fish-style, or rooster fertilizing a laid-egg style, or

>and it makes the vast loneliness of our universe livable.
>It is one of the reasons that I work in telecommunications and is also
>why I participate on FoRK.

Indeed. We are entering a historic time in which the ability to communicate
with others like ourselves, and express rich ideas we never before had
comrades to share them with, is now possible. And we're only just getting
started..... this Net stuff is just unbelievable, isn't it? I presume that
if there's
one thing that really binds all FoRKers, it's a sheer awe at the potential
of the Great Global Network. To paraphrase Gordon Irlam, 'the Internet has
changed my life'.

>Sometimes, I find it kind of lonely or depressing that there is no
>greater plan; we do not have any parents looking out for us. But, every
>time humankind has ever had parents (metaphorically, with the Garden of
>Eden; as polities, with monarchs; and of course, as individuals), we
>have always grown up and assumed our independence. It has not always
>been easy, but I am trying to spiritually set out on my own.

Don't forget to pack a lunch. And a sweater so you don't catch cold.

> - dan