Posted on July 28th, 2011
Recently a friend pointed me toward this piece by a certain PZ Myers, “Why I don’t believe in gods.” The truly intellectual atheist I can respect, while still disagreeing. I find it hard to respect what masquerades here as reasoning:
The New Statesman has an article that asked a lot of atheist luminaries and some lesser glowworms like yours truly to explain why they don’t believe in gods. I don’t think it’s available online (I have a copy, though, and posted it outside my office door, so stop on by if you want to read it), but there is a discussion on the New Statesman blog. There are a whole bunch of entertaining short entries in the full article, but I’ll just post mine — I gave them two reasons that I don’t believe in gods.
1. The process. I am accustomed to the idea that truth claims ought to be justified with some reasonable evidence: if one is going to claim that, for instance, a Jewish carpenter was the son of a god, or that there is a place called heaven where some ineffable magical part of you goes when you die, then there ought to be some credible reason to believe that. And that reason ought to be more substantial than that it says so in a big book…after all, there are seven books claiming that Harry Potter is a wizard, and there aren’t very many people who see that as anything but fiction. Religious claims all seem to short-circuit the rational process of evidence-gathering and testing, and the sad thing is that many people don’t see a problem with that, and even consider it a virtue. It’s why I don’t just reject religion, but actively oppose it in all of its forms — because it is fundamentally a poison for the mind that undermines our critical faculties.
2. The absurdity. Religious beliefs are lazy jokes with bad punchlines. Why do you have to chop off the skin at the end of your penis? Because god says so. Why should you abstain from pork, or shrimp, or mixing meat and dairy, or your science classes? Because they might taint your relationship with your god. Why do you have to revere a bit of dry biscuit? Because it magically turns into a god when a priest mutters over it. Why do I have to be good? Because if you aren’t, a god will set you on fire for all eternity. These are ridiculous propositions. The whole business of religious is clownshoes freakin’ moonshine, hallowed by nothing but unthinking tradition, fear and superstitious behavior, and an establishment of con artists who have dedicated their lives to propping up a sense of self-importance by claiming to talk to an invisible big kahuna. It’s not just fact-free, it’s all nonsense.
Let’s examine Myers’s arguments:
1. The reason for believing, for example, that a Jewish carpenter was the son of a god “ought to be more substantial than that it says so in a big book…after all, there are seven books claiming that Harry Potter is a wizard, and there aren’t very many people who see that as anything but fiction.” I would hope that a grammar-school student could see the fallacy in this argument. The Harry Potter stories are published as fiction. Ms. Rowling has never claimed that there is a real Harry Potter. The four canonical Gospels, however, are presented as true, and they make claims to be (or contain) eyewitness accounts. The only way to know about anything prior to the age of audio and video recording is through writings. People write accounts of what they saw, heard, and did, and it is the job of the reader, and particularly the historian, to assess the veracity of these claims. To disregard something because it was written in a book would mean that one would have to also doubt the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the revolutionary war, the existence of the composer Thomas Tallis, the Danish raids on the territories now known as England, the gathering together of church music under Gregory the Great, the figures of Hannibal, Nero, Caesar Augustus, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and on and on and on. Nothing could possibly be believed, because it is written in a book. Since there are also books about Harry Potter, who is fictional, therefore all books are fictional? Or is it just a certain 66 books that Mr. Myers wishes to disregard?
“Religious claims all seem to short-circuit the rational process of evidence-gathering and testing”? That might be true of some religions or religious adherents, but it has never been true of classical, orthodox Christianity. Everything depends on the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth, that he truly was born of Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, rose again on the first day of the week after the Passover Sabbath, and was seen alive by many eyewitnesses, who initially thought they were seeing a ghost or phantom, but after talking with him, eating with him, touching him, and this taking place repeatedly over a period of forty days, were convinced that in fact this was the same Jesus who was crucified, died, and was buried. A great many of these witnesses gave testimony by forfeiting their lives.
One can disbelieve the veracity of these eyewitnesses, certainly; or one can come to the conclusion that these claims were a later invention by a group of people concocting a hoax on an astoundingly large scale; but one simply cannot claim that these writings are in the same category as Harry Potter and retain any credibility. The author of the Fourth Gospel, for example, concludes his book, “This is the disciple who testifies of these things, and wrote these things; and we know that his testimony is true” (John 21.24). Peter writes in his second letter, “We did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (1 Peter 1.16). The real question is, “Is the writer of the Fourth Gospel telling the truth when he claims to be an eyewitness of these things?” Similarly, “Is Peter telling the truth when he claims to be an eyewitness of Jesus’ miracles (power) and resurrection (transfiguration and resurrection)?”
2. Some of the things demanded by religion are absurd. “Why do you have to chop off the skin at the end of your penis? Because god says so.” Myers is on to something: an uneducated person will have a hard time grasping the meaning of certain religious customs, sacraments, rites, and practices. They may seem absurd or incomprehensible to the uninitiated. A few years ago I went to a baseball game with a friend, newly arrived in the States, who had never seen a single inning of baseball in his life, much less growing up playing the game as I did. I spent almost the entire game fielding question after question about what was happening. Some of the things I had a hard time explaining, not because I didn’t understand them, but because it required a base of knowledge that simply had not been acquired. Concepts like a sacrifice bunt, tagging up, the infield fly rule were mystifying to this neophyte, never mind the strategy involved in the batting order, bringing in a left-handed reliever in certain situations, the intentional walk – it’s a lot to learn.
But there is an astonishing amount of ignorance at work to say, “I don’t understand the purpose for X, Y, and Z, therefore, they are absurd.” Circumcision, for example, is directly related to the idea of generation, that life is formed through the seed of the man. The Hebrew Scriptures center around that theme, from the third chapter of Genesis on. If he’s read the Hebrew or Greek Scriptures, even in translation, he gives no evidence of understanding even the basic outline.
What is truly absurd here is that someone, in the name of reason, could be so very unreasonable in his argumentation. According to his website, PZ Myers is an associate professor of biology at a small state school in Minnesota. We can assume that he’s knowledgeable in the area of biology. He’s clearly ignorant in the areas of history, philosophy, and logic. I enjoy the challenge of reading atheistic arguments that are well-constructed by strong intellects. But this kind of atheism contributes nothing to the debate, because “it’s not just fact-free, it’s all nonsense.”