Saturday, June 25, 2011

A fairly typical email

Nothing extraordinary here, no comedy, no ridicule. This is just a typical sort of message that we receive on a regular basis, and today I decided to give it a thorough reply. I thought I'd blog my answer today because it is a long form version of a conversation that lots of you probably have often, if you're an out atheist who knows some theists.

The original message is in block quotes; my replies follow each section.

I've been watching clips of your show on Youtube, and I have to say you've done a pretty good job in debating with theists thus far. It's a shame many of the ones I've heard on there don't slow down enough to think for a moment. Many of the points you guys have made appear to make sense to me as well.

Glad to hear it. We'd always rather be reaching out to a receptive audience with some disagreement than exclusively "preaching to the choir."

To start off, I'm going to say that I consider myself an agnostic theist; I believe in God or the possibility thereof, but in no position to make the assumption that there is one with no doubt. So I'm relying on the whole faith thing, which can only do so much for you.

Personally, I'd go farther than that. Not only can faith "only do so much for you," but deciding to maintain faith in something that can't be demonstrated is very likely to mislead you. I think there should, at a minimum, be a basic standard to decide whether something is likely to be really true or not. This isn't the same as "absolute proof," just some sort of reasonable evidence.

You might've answered this question in one of your episodes, I don't know, but you've repeatedly asked for evidence in proving the existence of God, which I perfectly understand and agree with. My question to you is what evidence would you need that would convince you to believe in "God", or better yet, just know without doubt? I don't expect you guys to know, as I wouldn't even know for sure.

Carl Sagan used to say that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." If someone came to you claiming "It rained every day in Seattle last week," you'd probably be comfortable believing them just on their word. If someone said "It rained every day in the Sahara Desert last week," you probably would not believe them until you looked up more information (corroborated news reports from multiple sources, pictures, etc). The more unusual the claim, the more information you need to confirm it.

With "God," at least in a traditional sense, we have an infinitely powerful being living outside of time and space who creates entire universes by saying a few words, tracks the lives of every human being on the planet, answers their prayers, and bends the rules of time and space to suit his will. I think you'll probably agree that if people didn't grow up assuming that being existed, they'd find that quite an extraordinary claim to process. It would need some pretty impressive evidence to back it up.

I confess I do not know exactly what sort of evidence that might be, although I would point out that God, being omnipotent, would probably know what to do if he existed. In the Bible, God does all sorts of impressive tricks: appears in front of people, performs miracles, parts seas, turns folks to salt. Unfortunately, the only source we have for the claims that those things happened is a very old book of questionable origin, so that doesn't help us much today.

If those sorts of things happened on a regular basis, it would help. Some atheists would say that even that's not enough to demonstrate INFINITE power, but I say it would be a good start. An example I always use is that if the stars one night spontaneously rearranged themselves in the sky, spelling out "I am the lord thy God, you fools, everything in the Bible is true" that would be a good effort. Arthur C. Clarke wrote that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, so we couldn't really rule out the possibility that superintelligent (though not actually omnipotent) aliens were messing with us. But I still say I would be much more willing to consider the possibility that it's a god.

This is all academic speculation, however, because the evidence that people give for believing in God is nowhere near that interesting. As you said, people generally rely on "faith," which obviously wouldn't be necessary if there was anything approaching a good reason to believe in God. When they do try to present convincing evidence, it tends to be of a very mundane sort: They couldn't find their car keys and then they turned up; an earthquake happened in a place full of people they don't like; somebody was very sick and then got better; and so on. It's not enough. Not even close.

I think you'd have to start off with figuring out what exactly God is and work from there, which is difficult since there are so many interpretations that assume to be true. If I had to toss a theory for the sake of debate, I would guess "God" is just energy, which would explain the whole "eternal" or "always existing" part since it cannot be created or destroyed, according to the Law of Conservation of Energy. I won't add on the idea that this energy or "God" has to have a self-thinking conscious, which seems to be what many of us like to attribute when discussing the concept of a "creator."

Okay, if that's what you want to call "God" then you're welcome to do so. I think it's unnecessary, though. We already have a perfectly good word for energy. It's "energy." Why call it God? What new information does that label convey? If the god you're envisioning isn't intelligent or purposeful, then in what sense is it useful to apply such a loaded term? How is a universe where all energy is God different from a universe where energy is just energy?

I might've just gave the answer you would give (or a variant thereof), but if you have a different response, I'm curious to know, via email or on-air. Like you guys, I seek to know the truth, whatever it may be.

I don't see any reason to try to define God myself. If even the billions of people who believe in the concept can't agree on what it means, then why would I spend time trying to define something I don't believe? For any individual God claim, I'll be happy to discuss whether it seems to have any merit or not. What I've found so far is that the most impressive and specific definitions of God have no evidence for them; and for dull and uninteresting meanings of God (such as energy) I would say they may exist, but so what?


  1. I bought this outdoor solar powered light thing.

    It collects God during the day, and releases him during at night. It's either that, or I'd have to plug it into an outlet that's connected to a God generating plant many miles away, that's connected to my house with God transmission lines.

    You have to step down the Godness with a transformer first, else it'd fry my house.

  2. I sympathize with this guy, I really do. There is in most people a basic need to arrange the universe neatly and that includes finding a place to put "god" in. Usually a place where it retains the importance culture bestows on it while keeping world perception simple. I think that's why people used to say god is in the skies and now theist talk about "out of time and space" as a replacement.

    So calling it "energy" allows it to posses some of the qualities believers claim it has without sacrificing a natural view of the universe. It allows one to pretend the possibility of a god is somehow plausible- despite the fact he changed the definition of the concept completely. It eases dialog with believers when you can pretend to accept certain assertions about god. And with believers being a majority almost everywhere, it's natural to desire the illusion there is no conflict between you and them - just different names for the same things.

    And I sympathies with these motivations, but they end up as another sort of self-delusion.

  3. Is it just me or is there a hidden agenda in the "evidence that will convince" question?

    The suggestion seems to be that there is evidence, it's just that we're not convinced by it.

    The simple fact is there is not even unconvincing evidence - something that we look at and say "That's odd - and I find it hard to see how it fits with my atheistic world view." Not just things that we don't know that answer to - but things where the God hypothesis provides a genuine revealing explanation, where science can't even see the possibility of an explanation.

  4. I like to define God as "unlikely" that will do.
    A good test of God would be to look at it's feet.If they are made of clay that would be a sign it might really be God.
    We all know and love some people who do believe in God so i don't like to call all of them stupid.I prefer to think of them as being mistaken.

  5. I am sympathetic to this guy. This was almost me in my early 20s, after a teenage proto-agnostic phase, where I had to find a space for God, and that the idea that it could just actually be myth hadn't even occurred to me. It is one of the biggest tools the religious have: they promote that the existence of god is a fact, add whatever points of dogma they espouse, and then redefine the hell out of god until it makes half-sense in their minds, and call that 'glimpsing God', chalking up any inconsistencies to mysteryor ineffability.

    JT, be careful, or your next God bill will be a doozy!

  6. I don't want to say he's an atheist, but I am wondering if the definition of god being nothing more than energy and believing in that god really qualifies for a theist label. Tracie when telling her deconversion story talks about the week long musing with pantheism and I see the writer at this stage. He/she is probably both the hardest and easiest to argue about his/her theism: realizing that the grounds of his/her theism are only founded in belief leaves no reasoning on the writers behalf open to attacks, on the other hand the only thing that is left is to convince him/her that the default position should be disbelief.

    Nice to see such a measured exchange instead of more kooky emails. I hope the theist writes back and isn't offended by Kazim calling said god concept uninteresting and dull.

  7. "I don't want to say he's an atheist, but I am wondering if the definition of god being nothing more than energy and believing in that god really qualifies for a theist label."

    I was thinking the same thing. I don't want to force people into labels they aren't comfortable with, but its hard when something like this comes up. Believing the existence of a god is possible and believing a god exists are two different things. I get the sense the emailer doesn't want to take on the label of atheist only because they feel that closes the door on agnosticism.

  8. I know exactly what will convince me.

    I want to see "I am God, and I am sorry for being such a prick" in 17 different languages, written across the sky in the blood of Courtney Love, while a wolf tap dances to Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up".

    God would have the license to play that song around the world, surely. Is that so much to ask?

  9. Give this writer a few more years, s/he will be in our camp sooner or later.

    Though it's not precisely correct, I sometimes say "Agnostic? Oh, you mean the polite way of saying 'atheist'..."

    People cling tenuously to faith like the writer above because they're still afraid of the A-label, don't want to embrace that word. Part and parcel of being an active religious believer is believing utter nonsense ABOUT atheists. Which is why being open and out about one's own atheism in a casual way (so long as one does not put oneself in immediate danger by doing so) is such an important thing, because it creates cognitive dissonance in the minds of believers...their preacher stands up and says one thing about atheists on Sunday that doesn't line up with Joe or Bob or Jane the mild-mannered atheist they know at work, or the next door neighbor, etc...

  10. @Zachary

    I think that mass guided hallucination would be a better explanation for that. (assuming everyone saw it) Maybe an attack by aliens who flood the atmosphere with psychotropic drugs and use suggestion to guide the hallucinations. Yeah, that is a way more likely explanation for your evidence than an all powerful god.

  11. Ahhhh the old "god is energy/love/trees/nice feelings/whatever I decide it to be/etc." argument. An oldie but not a goodie.

  12. Excellent reply. Kudos to Kazim.

  13. Wow. God is energy. It makes so much sense now that people say that they need god in their life! You need god to move your arms, recharge your phone. You can even make your own god-bits by eating!

    On the other hand, It makes a lot less sense, given the 'old' definition, by saying that you used a lot of god with masturbating ;-)

  14. This was a step I also went through before I fully embraced (and reveled in) the title of "atheist." I look back at my being totally convinced by "The Celestine Prophecy" and the like with guilty embarrassment. But as a person's idea of a god becomes less and less interactive, they come closer to rejecting the idea altogether.

    As to what evidence it would take to make me believe in deities... I have no idea what it would take. I just assume a deity would know better than me, would be able to provide whatever it is, and I'm not going to sweat it.

  15. At least you didn't resort to faulty analogy fallacy.

  16. People go to such absurd lengths to avoid the label "atheist." Einstein probably went as far out his way to avoid it as anyone, in such statements as:

    "A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms - it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man."

    Which was merely a long-winded way of saying, "I'm an atheist."

  17. "I think you'd have to start off with figuring out what exactly God is and work from there"

    Really? Why do you start off assuming there is a god at all? Shouldn't you start with an observation of some real effect and then try and define it?

  18. The big problems is that no matter how large, how incredible the evidence is, it could be something other than a god.

    In an episode of Star Trek the Next Generation a planet was visited by someone claiming to be a creature akin to the biblical devil, that had made a pact with the planet centuries earlier and now came to collect dues. She provided all manner of fantastical evidence to prove her divine origin (earthquakes, teleportation, shape-shifting), yet Captain Picard and company were able to prove that she was merely a con-woman with some technology, trying to con the leaders of the planet.

    Even if a being came to earth and performed all manner of miracles and "claimed" to be the biblical god, they could simply be someone from an advanced civilization using powerful technology to create "miracles".

    I seriously don't know what sort of evidence I could accept to prove the existence of a specific god. I think it was Matt Dillahunty that said that the biblical god, if he existed, would know what it would take to convince him and then present that evidence to him.

  19. I haven't actually gotten the question of what it would take to get me to believe, since my theist friends are astonished that the slim bit of "evidence" they believe isn't convincing to everyone else.

    I like your response but I would nitpick with the writer a little bit more, for instance:

    I think you'd have to start off with figuring out what exactly God is and work from there, which is difficult since there are so many interpretations that assume to be true. If I had to toss a theory for the sake of debate, I would guess "God" is just energy, which would explain the whole "eternal" or "always existing" part since it cannot be created or destroyed, according to the Law of Conservation of Energy. I won't add on the idea that this energy or "God" has to have a self-thinking conscious, which seems to be what many of us like to attribute when discussing the concept of a "creator."

    I wouldn't begin with a definition and then look for "evidence." That's deductive reasoning and it's what drives creationists. If we're talking about evidence, I would start with a supernatural event that is truly impossible - not just unknonwn by current methods - and that would be evidence of the supernatural. For evidence that an intelligent being did the deed I'd need something intelligent in the evidence, which I can't picture except in ways that Science Fiction has already come up with. If the sky turned blood red all over the earth for a half hour at the same time everywhere, and then all TV channels all over the world broadcast the same person or voice claiming responsibility in the appropriate language, the blood-red sky would make me scratch my head, and the TVs would make me wonder if Anonymous or LulzSec was pulling a prank. So it would have to be bigger than that.

    The God-as-Energy theory is a lot like my final stage in deconversion. I read the Tao Te Ching every day for about a month and came to that idea from the perspective of philosophical daoism. I don't really believe in Daoism per se but the "book" is about as true for everyday people today as any other ancient holy book.

    If lurkers here want to deconvert but can't let go of the urge to believe *something,* I recommend philosophical taoism.

  20. Maybe the writer should reevaluate his goal, at least at the beginning. Instead of figuring out what god is, figure out why you need there to be a god at all.

    Seriously...ask yourself, "what am I looking for when I look for god?"

  21. I am always confused by the idea that to be an atheist you have to "know" with 100% certainty that there is no god.

    Philosophically speaking, it is impossible to know ANYTHING with 100% certainty. The best we can do is come up with models and rigorously check how well their predictions match up with reality. Since when does not believing in something require 100% certainty?

    Even Carl Sagan got caught up in this unreachable definition of atheist and did not want to label himself as such. I think a lot of progress has been made in recent years as to what being an atheist means in realistic terms.

  22. @Anna Bucci

    This whole thread is nothing more than an


  23. If you seek to know the truth, then you shouldn't accept something without evidence.

    There are ways to measure energy and we don't have doubts about the existence of energy. This doesn't apply to god. If you believe in god you should be more specific about his (or her) nature.

    My definition of god: a human invention (people create god) to explain various phenomenons and for other psychological reasons. Usually gods look like human beings but they have supernatural powers. In monotheistic religions god is the creator of the universe.

    What we get from theists when we ask them about god is a set of myths. When you don't accept these myths then you seek for the truth without faith in god (or gods).

  24. His god is energy? But this conflicts with the caller from a while back who told us that his god was "ultimate strategy" (then did a horrible job of explaining what the hell that meant). And didn't we have another who claimed that his god was "the sum of human creativity"? Then we have all of those who claim that their god is "love", despite the fact that it keeps killing people who don't want to be killed.

    Can you blame us for being confused?

  25. ah, the old "God Is Energy" fallacy eh?

    where the fock are my keys?? where. the. fock!?!?!? are. my. focking keys???!! they must be in this room. they musssssst beeeee! where where where... they just have to be in the room. they. are. here. sooooooomewhereeeeee! keeeeeeyssSSssS! aaaahhhh!

    i suppose you could replace keys with god and room with universe.

  26. Ugh! Another delusional twit mangling the word "energy" to serve their superstition. Energy is only a measurement of a physical system's ability to do work. The word has a very specific linguistic and mathematical definition. Energy IS NOT conscious, intelligent, or some glowing, amorphous mote of light that harasses the crew of the USS Enterprise.

  27. "Since when does not believing in something require 100% certainty?"

    Since theists defined the word 'atheist' to such an impossibly high standard that they knew full well that few would dare make such a leap. Advantage: theism.

    Aron Ra commented in Ireland a few weeks back that he didn't even know he was an 'atheist' for years because he had been indoctrinated to think that the term meant absolute certainty in no gods.

  28. I've copied and pasted the comment (below) I appreciate. As a Protestant Christian, I do believe in God, but "coincidences" are not necessarily evidence for the existence of God since they can be explained in other ways. And the bottom line is this: as a Christian, I simply can't prove to you that God exists. I can only give evidence of/for His existence, and rationale for the likelihood or probability of God's existence, but I can't irrefragably prove His existence, as though I could take you to Him and say, "Look, here He is!" Even if I did, you could doubt.

    "...the evidence that people give for believing in God is nowhere near that interesting. As you said, people generally rely on "faith," which obviously wouldn't be necessary if there was anything approaching a good reason to believe in God. When they do try to present convincing evidence, it tends to be of a very mundane sort: They couldn't find their car keys and then they turned up; an earthquake happened in a place full of people they don't like; somebody was very sick and then got better; and so on. It's not enough. Not even close."

  29. I simply can't prove to you that God exists. I can only give evidence of/for His existence

    The thing is, outside of math, "prove" just means "demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt, with sufficient evidence". The problem doesn't tend to be that no evidence is provided, but rather that the evidence provided does not even remotely meet the standards of science.

    If someone came to you sand said, "The evidence for Zeus is that lightning happens, and lightning comes from Zeus, therefore Zeus exists.", would you find that compelling evidence? That's about the level of "evidence" that we're given, typically. It's been our observation that all theistic claims to evidence include at least one logical fallacy. They can't seem to escape it.

    The first step is to realize that some evidence is better at helping to converge on the correct answer than others.

    1) Objective evidence. We need data drawn from reality, not from someone's mind. Objective evidence is demonstrably much more reliable that subjective.

    2) Exclusitivity. If a piece of evidence implicates 10,000,000 possibilities equallty... it's not that useful. If it implicates 2 possibilities equally, it's much better quality. Additional evidence that demonstrates that it was cause A over cause B, that helps narrow down the exclusion.

    3) Logical connection. A Snickers bar resting in middle of a desert doesn't logically implicate a tornado. A path of destruction through a field/forest, with trees knocked over and a twirling pattern on the ground, does.

    4) Repeatibility. If we only get one example of the evidence, it may just be a fluke. Bigger sample sets are better.

    5) Presentability. One can simply claim to have irrefutable evidence, but if no one can access or review it, it's useless.

    6) Falsifiability. It's possible to construct an argument that appears to be true, but can never be disproven, even if it really is false. Prayer for instance, follows this model. No matter the outcome, a theist will simply claim that it was supposed to come out that way, and thus, proves prayer works. Thus, unfalsifiable claims tend to be useless.

    If you managed to uphold all those standards, you've then generated one pieces of evidence. Like a jigsaw puzzle, you need to assemble lots of individual pieces before you can reasonably accurately discern what the picture is. Pointing at one pieces that appears grey and furry, and declaring that the image is that of a cat is premature.

    So it'd take mounds of non-conflicting, validated, confirmed, peer reviewed evidence that consistently builds a model before you remotely have anything resembling a demonstrated claim.

  30. @ JT
    That is a nice epistemology overview. Did you get it from somewhere? I'd like to see it if you did.

    If you made it yourself, all I can say is good job.

  31. @John

    Let's just say it's my translated version. If you try to google the standards of evidence, you tend to get a lot of high level math stuff, or standards that apply to particular fields, like psychology.

    So I've been working on a basic generalized version.

  32. I'm sort of waiting for someone to say, "Oh, you want hardcore evidence!".

    I've been getting that a lot lately. It's almost like a burden of proof shift, where the implication is that I'm being unreasonable in having standards.

    ... like demanding that they find a way to distinguish their "evidence" from schizophrenia is somehow "unreasonable".

  33. @JT
    I liked your comment about evaluating evidence.I was selected for Jury service last December.Obviously the Jury tries to be as honest and fair as possible.
    When it was time to reach a verdict.I think everyone tried there best to look at the evidence and testimony in a logical manner.
    I think in our discussions of the evidence presented we probably employed all your 6 steps.
    With the addition that,"Presentation," of the evidence by witnesses also played a part.

  34. @JT
    OH yer. i rambled on and forgot to say my point. Apart from me the rest of the jury all swore on the Bible or the Koran.
    So it go's to show that believers can be logically objective when it suits them.
    They just put the blinkers on when they think about religion.

  35. @JT
    That is a complaint I have had about epistemology in general for a long time. I am glad I am not the only one who thinks it does not have to be quite so complicated all the time.

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  44. (It seems as though I'm experiencing technical difficulties...)

    If someone wants to define god as, "energy," then I would request them to more clearly explain what they mean by energy. There are 3 common (and perhaps more uncommon) meanings to the word, "energy."

    As a nuclear scientist, the first definition for energy is quite clear. It is a physical quantity that can be measured, and converted to/from work, and has units of J (joules) or eV (electronvolt). A joule is how much energy one requires to move an object 1 meter against a force of 1 newton. An electronvolt is how much energy one requries (or gains, depending on signs) to move an electron (or proton) against an eletric potential field with a difference of 1 volt. This quantity can be measured, converted, and many other things. When people talk about the, "conservation of energy," this is what they're talking about. I have no problem whatsoever believing in this energy. I can quite easily test it in different method. I can roll a ball down a hill and up another ramp, and see that it goes almost up to the same height as it did before. If there were no friction or air resistance, it would likely go up to exactly the same height. I can measure the amount of friction by measuring the temperature increase of the system. I could also measure the speed of the ball at the bottom of the hill. There is plenty and overwhelming evidence for this, "energy," and for its conservation. (Except in extenuating circumstances relating to relativity and its conversion to and from matter. However, this it is a more advanced topic in physics, and is not particularly relevant to this discussion.) I do not feel that this is what someone means when they say that god is energy. If they did, then god is nothing more than a measurable quantity in nature.

    The second definition of energy is a generaly feeling of vigor or liveliness. For example, when I wake up in the morning, I do not really feel like doing much of anything. I do not have much liveliness at this point in time. If after a few minutes, I drink my coffee, and rike my bike for a bit, I have a bit more vigor and feel as though I can do more things. This energy is also quite real, at least in an abstract sense. I can see myself act slowly when I don't have much energy. I can see others act slwly when they don't have much energy.
    The evidence for this kind of energy is not as strong. For example, it could just be a result of human psychology, and that in actuality, we are capable of putting our body to great tasks even in our sleep. This energy is not conserved. Sometimes I feel tired for no reason at all, and then feel full of vigor the next moment. I would say that there is enough evidence for the existence of this type of energy to say that it exists, at least in an abstract way. Every single person, and animal, and living thing, behaves in a way similar to me. It is not *just* myself, and there are not large groups of people or animals which are not affected by the existence or lack of this energy.

    The third definition of energy is a new-age belief in some sort of consciousness of the energy. Some "binding life-force" which makes things happen for a reason. It is a spiritual force which exists concurrently with nature.
    If this is your definition of god, then I would say that there exists no reasonable evidence for its existence. This energy gives "meaning" to meaningless events, and "signs" for people to do things.
    I have seen no evidence whatsoever for the existence of this, "energy." If you would like to present some, I'm all ears, but I have never once seen any evidence for this.

    These 3 meanings to the word "energy" are *distinct*. Just because the first one is neither created or destroyed does not mean the other two are neither created nor destroyed, and there is no benefit to mixing their usage, except to make communication and logic more difficult.

  45. Μάλαμας said...
    "My definition of god: a human invention (people create god) to explain various phenomenons and for other psychological reasons."

    you forgot:
    And to con credulous and/or frightened people out of their hard earned possessions.

  46. Your response to the notion that God is "energy" was brilliant.


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