Friday, June 12, 2009

Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

I recently had a conversation with a man who had lost his son. He answered the phone and was pleased to hear from me after many years. We had a wonderful conversation and I was glad that I called. He told me what had happened. He talked about how he was doing. And he waxed philosophic on the meaning of it all.

“How someone can look at a tree or a human body or even a human eye, and not see that there is some design to all of this,” he thought out loud. He went on to describe the wondrousness of nature and his theistic leanings, and to express bewilderment at how anyone could accept evolution and other things our public schools and universities are teaching now-a-days. “It’s so much easier to believe in god—so much easier to believe a god did all this.” Yes, he actually said that. And yes, he did use the human eye example.

Obviously I don’t share his views. But I do share, to some small degree, his loss and his hope that things can and will get better as we all come to grips with the death of a loved family member and all that the young man had come to represent for each of us—whether as a fond childhood memory or a son.

We often get letters from atheists asking how to handle social situations where theistic ideas are laid bare to them from those they love or respect. Whether other atheists agree or disagree with me, there is no way I was going to address my opposing views to this man in this circumstance. He wasn’t asking me what I thought. He wasn’t requesting my approval. He was communicating feelings and simply wanted to be allowed to do so. And if I could help him feel comforted by merely listening in this moment, without expressing judgment, I felt I could offer him at least that much.

So, I continued to listen. And he finally began to talk about other things. He is an impressive man of many talents. Not complicated or intellectual—but interesting and clever. He owns some land where he raises orchards and honey bees. Not a large farm, but enough to keep him busy in his mid-70s. And being a garden enthusiast myself, I found I was quickly drawn into some of the most interesting conversation about nature I’ve had in awhile.

I need to try grafting—he insists. I have an apple sprout. When it gets to be as big around as my finger, I can cut it just so, and add a fruit apple stem to the stalk, in order to grow the fruit variety of apple on this useless sprout. And, as it turns out, I can keep on grafting different varieties, and they will all grow on the same apple tree. He has in his garden an apple tree upon which he now boasts 21 different varieties of apples growing on a single trunk.

Many people don’t realize that most of the plants that supply us food don’t exist in the wild. If I grow an apple tree sprouted from seed, it may never fruit. And if it does fruit, there are nearly perfect odds the fruit will be bitter, small, and inedible. Growing an apple tree from a Red Delicious apple seed will not yield you a Red Delicious apple tree. Some of you may have known that—but I’m guessing many of you may not have. To grow Red Delicious apples, you have to graft a Red Delicious apple stem to an existing apple tree trunk—of any variety (even a rouge like the one I have sprouted). The graft will produce Red Delicious fruit. You can’t grow modern domestic apple strains from seed. I don’t know if there are exceptions to this—but in general, this is the rule with much of our fruit bearing domestic crops. They don’t exist in the wild. And if all we had was seed, we would have to rebreed it from existing stock—re-engineer it, genetically, using a lab or evolution and artificial selection to recreate “Red Delicious” apples again.

Not only is the man on the phone aware of how this works—he knows more about it than I do. The only way to create something like a Red Delicious apple, in the days before genetic modification in a lab, was to use evolution and artificial selection to make it happen, yourself. You had to direct nature away from natural selection and use artificial selection to get what you wanted. Most people understand this is how we have dogs in our homes that differ drastically from dogs and wolves in the wild. In fact, we have dogs in our homes that differ drastically from other dogs in other people’s homes.

But he understands we breed strains of plants that become unable to reproduce themselves without human intervention. And he knows how it works and takes great pleasure from actually doing it—from diving into nature and taking control and directing nature and making nature do all sorts of weird and “unnatural” things that, ironically, only nature can do for him. He knows nature. He works nature. He sees nature with his own eyes.

But he doesn’t believe nature.

This same man has seen firsthand how nature can change and produce and reform and repurpose, how it can be made to stretch with agility and be tortuously forced to produce extremes of diversity through such minor interventions as a cut in a limb or picking this type of parent stock over that one. He has seen nature.

But he doesn’t believe nature.

“Who could believe evolution?” he sincerely wonders. And for now, I won’t reply to him. Now is not the time to argue with a bereaved parent. But in my own mind I cannot help but ask, “Who can see nature and do what you have done with nature, and still not believe what nature can do?” The diversity, flexibility and novelty of nature is something to behold. To see someone else behold it and then reply, “it’s so much easier to believe a god did it,” is hard to fathom. Perhaps it is a compliment to nature that what it does is so unbelievable to so many that they think something more must be involved?

To see nature do it, and then say "nature can’t do it—it must be a god," is interesting to say the least. I’ve never seen a god, let alone seen a god do anything amazing (or anything mundane for that matter). So, how could it possibly be easier for me to identify a god as the cause of what I observe that nature does, than to identify nature as the cause of what I observe nature does? How did “god” come into this equation? At what point do we employ a touch of god to get the grafting to work or to breed the new spaniel? Which step was “add a bit of god” in that?

The fact is, there is no “add a bit of god” step. And everyone who works with nature knows that it does what it does how it does it. If we didn’t understand that much, we would be unable to guide it and use it as we have and as we do. We know, to some useful degree what nature is, what it does, and how it accomplishes those things. That’s how we put it to work for us. And still, it manages to come up with new and interesting things nearly every day to continue to amaze us with its revelations.

If we understand a process, why should we employ god—an unnecessary, extraneous step—to explain it?

And if we don’t understand a process, I must still wonder why should we employ god to explain it?

If I have never seen a god and don’t know what a god is or how it functions and operates and what actual impact it has on anything—how do I employ it and use it to produce explanatory function for anything in nature? How is what cannot be observed, examined or understood, useful or helpful in understanding anything? If I don’t understand natural process Y, and I say it’s the result of undefined function X—what have I learned? What have I explained or added to our knowledge? How does that help at all? And why would I put such a baseless thing forward as useful or real?

How can a person so involved in nature and natural processes accept that a divine cause is required for what he can plainly observe nature doing—apparently, by all observation, unaided?

Ironically, most creationists would respond that I’m stripping god of his rightful credit by endowing nature as its own source. But really, if I go by what is supported via the evidence and reason, it’s clearly the other way around. Nature, a wonder to observe (and, importantly, it can be observed) is not served by handing credit for all it does and all it can do, to god-X (and note that, importantly, god-X cannot be observed). Fortunately for nature, it does not appear to have an ego to bruise. But if it did, it might wonder, “on what grounds can any reasonable person assert that I can’t do what I clearly do? How does anyone know what I can do, but by observing what I do before their very eyes?” And if there were some world behind the world, how could we reasonably credit it, while it works in shadows, hides its hand, and pretends to not exist—putting forward a façade that nature can do all this hidden world is supposedly “really” doing? If there were such a hidden world, there would be nothing to observe or examine to make anyone think it exists.

How would that be easier to believe than what can actually be seen, examined, and understood? For me, it’s not hard to believe what I can observe and examine and come to understand. But it’s very hard to believe that which is supported by nothing I can see and examine—and which, due to that, could never be understood, and therefore never believed, because there is no way to reasonably assert belief in things we cannot or do not understand.


  1. Absolutely wonderful story, impressive writing and commanding reasoning. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I've been reading this blog for quite a while, and this is the first time I've been compelled to comment.

    Brilliant entry.

  3. Wow
    This was very well written. Probably the best I've ever read on this blog.

    I find it funny that after only reading 1/5 of the story i already thought Tracy wrote it. I don't know, it just felt as if a woman wrote it.

  4. Saw this on Google reader. I lost my Son, in 93, and was a "Good Mormon", at the time. He was only 21, and in the Military. That Day, I got that call, about my Sons Death, my World fell apart. My Family, was destroyed. My Marriage fell apart. And we all went our separate ways. It took some time to get my Head clear. But when it did clear, I found common since, and threw the crutch(GOD)away. Now I feel better about myself, and my life. I found, that inside, I was a free thinker, all the time, but just never knew it. Science, really has most of the answers we seek.Now I look back at my life, and say, GOD cheated me out of a real life.I found it such a waste, to believe in something that is not there.Life has a new meaning, and a new purpose. A very "Good" Blog!! Thank you!

  5. Great post. Something that often gets ignored is the way that people often romanticise nature. This is done by non-creationists too but for creationists this is used heavily in terms of them relating how "perfectly designed" nature is for human existence.

    This post highlights the truth (as does a serious examination of Ray Comfort's banana argument -- once you stop laughing), that the reason we think nature is so peachy is because we have used artificial selection on it so much. In the "natural"/wild state, plant food is tough/unnutritious/unfilling and even outside of food, bacteria, danger and death abound. The "design" we see is largely the result of farming, cultural evolution, technology, sanitation etc.

  6. Tracy,

    As is always the case with your posts, this one was greatness...

    Thanks for your musings!

  7. Great post. I hope at a suitable point in the future, he will be able to read it.

    You know it really puzzles me why a theist would not see this type of behaviour as "meddling with God"! What gives them the damn right to meddle with God's plan for nature?! :-)

  8. In my experience, religion and belief are their own best advocates for abandoning them. I've never had the experience where the invisible/undetectable/inexplicable actually _worked_ better as a plan for living than the visible/detectable/explainable.

    I've also never met anyone else for whom this worked better either, even among believers.

    Even the most ardent, frothy theists still fall back to reality when push comes to shove in their lives; only in extreme cases does belief trump the instinct for self-preservation (i.e. the Christian Scientists' refusal to get medical treatment, etc). In the end, even morons like Ray Comfort, etc., after praying uselessly for, say, an illness to be cured, will eventually say "fuck this" and head off to the doctor for the usual this-wordly treatments.

    In fact, personally, I've yet to meet a theist who _really_ believes any of the bullshit they profess (or parrot). In the end their _actions_ betray that. They too tend their gardens just like the rest of us do and abandon the useless praying and beseeching.

    God never passes the acid test (does it really work?) for anyone ultimately. The question is do you really recognize the failure of the fantasy? Or do you continue to cling to it, blaming the victim until all your options have run out?

    I'm not much of an evangelist for the atheist position these days, only a defender. I generally only inject my viewpoint when asked or challenged. I might bring up troubling points to someone who's sincerely asking questions about their own beliefs, but otherwise I generally like to let people decide for themselves.

    I also recognize the (temporary) comfort belief can provide particularly to someone experiencing grief. So I generally keep quiet in those cases too and only offer my viewpoint if asked....


  9. The (atheist nightmare) banana is an even better example for 'modern' food: It doesn't even have seeds that one could mistake for being able to grow a banana plant from!

  10. He works nature. He sees nature with his own eyes.

    But he doesn’t believe nature.

    In fact, personally, I've yet to meet a theist who _really_ believes any of the bullshit they profess (or parrot). In the end their _actions_ betray that.

    It isn't that cut-and-dried. People have a seemingly limitless capacity for cognitive dissonance. They can hold diametrically opposing ideas in their heads and not bat an eye. Frankly, I think it delegitmizes the whole concept of "belief". I don't even know what "belief" is. I never have. Christians tell us all the time that we need to "believe", but, when we press them as to why they believe, nine times out of ten, they'll tell us, "I just know."

  11. "It isn't that cut-and-dried. People have a seemingly limitless capacity for cognitive dissonance. They can hold diametrically opposing ideas in their heads and not bat an eye.

    That's quite right - That's why it's so important to to be clear about what you mean when you call something a "belief". This doesn't make the term illegitimate, instead it merely forces us to refine the meaning of the term so we're all on the same page when we're using it in a particular context.

    Namely, not all ideas held in the mind are equal. Some are based on reasoning, evidence and investigation and some others are the product of something else (our imagination, our emotional disposition, etc).

    In my view, if you "believe" there exists an omnipotent god that can heal your illnesses but yet you still go to the doctor when you get sick that's a different kind of "belief" than the belief that the earth is round and revolves around the sun such that you reset your watch when you travel to some other part of the globe.

    We act on the basis of the latter all the time with a level of trust that we _never_ apply to the former. Except for those Christian Scientists I cited earlier, of course, even theists don't "believe" these two ideas the same way.

    The latter is a wholly different kind of belief than the former - one is the product of investigation and the other one of revelation. Can you guess which is which?


  12. Something that often gets ignored is the way that people often romanticise nature.

    Good point, Frikle. I think that was what happened with Christopher McCandless, who was portrayed in the book and film "Into The Wild". He seemed to have this romantic notion of going into the woods of Alaska and living off the land, and it ended up costing him his life.

    For me, intelligent design is a design that serves a clear purpose. Look at the Roman arch, which was instrumental in building the aqueducts that supplied drinking water to Rome. That was intelligent design with a purpose. Then look at uninhabitable planets and moons in our solar system that are scarred from massive impacts. If you are going to credit an intelligent designer with creating trees and snowflakes, then that same creator created large asteroid bodies drifting through the solar system crashing into Mercury, Ganymede, our own moon, and so forth. Plus we know from our own geological history that Earth has been on the receiving end of impact events in its past as well.

  13. @ LS: I was one of those Christian Scientists you talk about. The reason, among others, that I am no longer one of them is that over my sixty-six years of life I have never seen one Christian Scientist who did not ultimately, though with great difficulty and heartache, resort to medicine. They are eventually forced to think rationally of the real consequences of not using medical help and choose that path – or it is chosen for them by their families.

    I have spent my entire life feeling guilty that I wasn’t able to live up to my devout CS family’s, as well as God’s, expectations - that I just wasn’t “doing it” right, that God didn’t answer my prayers because I wasn’t good enough - even when I was being as good a CS as I could be. I finally left the church when my son was killed in a hit-and-run accident the day before he was to be five. I knew that my son couldn’t possibly deserve to be killed for his sins. If he had been killed to teach me a lesson it meant that God really was an evil prick that I didn’t want anything more to do with - or more likely, God didn’t exist and CS, and religion in general, was hogwash.

    I have since (that was in 1972) spent my life searching for something else to fill the place CS used to fill. I checked out all kinds of woo, but in the end I discovered that none of it lined up with what I observed of reality. All of it required that I believe something that could not be demonstrated (example: positive thinking would “draw” good things to me). In spite of claims to the contrary, reality seemed to match the rules of nature – as if no supernatural force were operating to mitigate it.

    Then I discovered some of the new atheist books, blogs and videos and was blown away. What I had secretly and guiltily thought about the physical world, as opposed to the metaphysical world that I had been taught was the only reality, was in fact, actually true. What a concept! It wasn’t even a struggle to give up all that old thinking. Once the trick is exposed, it’s impossible to go back to believing in magic.

    Now I have lots to catch up on in the way of understanding the world, but I’m working on it. I am blown away by the majesty of the universe and its natural wonders. I don’t miss the so-called “transcendent feelings” of faith even a little. For me they were always false anyway. And false comfort is no comfort at all. I now cannot understand how I was able to deal with the cognitive dissonance that was my belief system for so many years.

    So to the point of Tracie’s excellent post, many otherwise intelligent people have been conditioned to hold two opposing views of reality in their minds without much problem at all. As long as their world goes along reasonably well, they see no reason to worry about the niggling little thoughts they might entertain to the contrary. They are also well-conditioned to accept the authority of religion. No wonder obedience, as well as our own fallibility, is stressed so in most religions. Faith in the face of adversity is valued above all, so straying from the approved dogma is failure. None of us wants to be considered failures, so we soldier on no matter what.

    Seen from the other side of the reality divide, I can’t help but wonder how religions maintain the dichotomy, but they seem to have an answer for every doubt. What conditioning doesn’t cure, isolation and “protection” from the world does. At least, that’s what religionists devoutly hope.

    Obviously, they are often wrong.

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  15. "Seen from the other side of the reality divide, I can’t help but wonder how religions maintain the dichotomy, but they seem to have an answer for every doubt."

    One last quick comment on this. The most common resort I see is "blaming the victim", exactly what you described about your experience.

    The ineffectiveness of the fantasy of religion/spirituality is simply pushed off onto the defendant - "it was the quality of our faith, not the quantity" was the language in which this was couched in the tradition I came from.

    The failure of the practice to produce results is simply shifted onto you rather than onto the plaintiff where it should be. The perfect diversion when the defendant is unaware.......

    What I learnt tho, was that the ones making the claim of the existence of god/effectiveness of spiritual practice (whatever that is) as a plan for living bear the burden of proof as to the veracity of the claim, not me or anyone else.

    That's how I came out from under, personally. I simply recognized the existence of an alternative analysis that the plaintiffs never offered (for obvious reasons) - that there really was no god, that prayer has no effect on ones life either good or bad, spirituality is a waste of good time and effort and the usual mundane methods of living life on planet earth among other human beings was the correct approach to take.

    That alternative explanation sure enough seems to be the best fit with the data. I've been there ever since......


  16. The most common resort I see is "blaming the victim"

    I've become convinced that all theology ultimately boils down to this - "If you're suffering, it's your own damn fault". Buddhism and Hinduism pretty much state it explicitly; everything that happens to you is a consequence of actions committed by you in previous lifetimes, mediated through the mechanism of karma.

    We fear the pain and suffering of others, so we create arbitrary sets of rules and convince ourselves that the other person has broken them. As long as I don't break the rules, I won't suffer.

  17. Buddhism isn't. Buddhism is that desire==suffering. Pain is inevitable and everyone has it, the only thing you can do is train yourself not to suffer from it.

  18. Ing, that's the way it's presented to Westerners. Yes, of course Buddhism says that desire (more precisely, attachment) causes suffering, but they've still inherited the baggage of karma from Indian religion ("Hinduism", although I try to avoid the term; it's a Western generalization).

    Ultimately, it's the same deal - it you're suffering, it's your own damn fault.

  19. I have just discovered this blog through google. This entry is exceptional, and very quotable. It's heartening to discover the depth of thought on this side of the issue!

  20. cipher said...
    It isn't that cut-and-dried. People have a seemingly limitless capacity for cognitive dissonance. They can hold diametrically opposing ideas in their heads and not bat an eye.

    Damn, I wish that you were wrong. Sadly, you clearly aren't.

  21. I just want to add a belated "wow" to the comments on this entry of the blog. I was falling behind on my e-mail replies on the TV list, and was not looking forward to checking blog comments (having to engage arguments about what I had written), and although I felt negligent about it, I finally got around to it, only to find the praise listed in these responses. Thank you all so very much for the replies of support. I haven't read all the responses yet (have to get ready for work), but I was just "wowed" by seeing all the praise.

    Thanks so much to you all for supporting not just my recent post, but the blog in general. You all make it worth it.


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