Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The logic of 'agnostic atheism'

A number of atheists have told me that I either don't understand, or have slyly manipulated, what they mean by atheism.  These atheists have all been what they call 'weak atheists' - in their own words
we don't claim to know there is no god, but we also don't believe

If this is their definition, then they are right: at the moment, I don't understand it.  And that's mainly because I don't think it (a) makes sense or (b) somehow represents a kind of epistemic neutrality.  But I'm looking for an explanation - so feel free to point out errors (real and perceived) below!

The difference between the first clause ("we don't claim to know there is no god") and the second ("we also don't believe") has to do with the difference between belief and knowledge. Classically, knowledge entails that something be true, be justified, and be believed. If you believe that there is no God, but do not claim to know that there is no god, then it means one of two things. On the one hand, you could believe that your belief in the non-existence of god is not knowledge because it is not true. But this would be a logical contradiction (because you would be believing in the non-existence of god and disbelieving in it at the same time).

On the other hand, you could believe that your belief in the non-existence of god was not knowledge because you do not believe you can justify this belief.  But this second case is obviously false, too, as atheists evidently try very hard to justify their non-belief in god. From this I can only conclude that the statement "we don't claim to know there is no god, but we also don't believe" is illogical - it is nonsense.

BTW: this isn't just the case because we're using the g-word. Let's exchange 'magic sky faeries' for 'god', using the contraction MSF. I could say I do not believe in MSF, but do not claim to know that MSF do not exist. Here is the problem. Knowledge entails belief, truth and justification. If I do not claim to know that MSF exist, then I am saying either:

(a) I do not believe they do not exist; or
(b) While I believe they do not exist, this is not knowledge, because I do not believe that their non-existence is true; or
(c) I cannot justify my belief in MSF' non-existence.

(a) is contradicted by the second clause: I do not believe MSF exists. (b) is internally contradictory. (c) depends on behaviour, and if the behaviour of aMSFists is like that of atheists, then aMSFists actually work quite hard to justify their position.

In other words, whatever you replace 'god' with, you end up with a nonsense statement. It is inherently self-contradictory.

Furthermore, to say "we don't belief in a god" entails a whole set of other beliefs. That's because "we don't belief in a god" is not logically equivalent to "we don't belief anything about god."  In addition, it generates other, secondary beliefs. For example, that religion is a natural phenomenon. That morality is non-absolute. And so on.

In other words, without having to move beyond atheism into humanism or naturalism, one belief becomes a whole set of beliefs - in other words, a belief system.

Now, I like atheists.  Some of my best friends are atheists.  :-)

But I imagine that atheists, of all people, would not want to seek refuge in the irrational and illogical.

BTW: The image above is a section of Sanskrit text taken from the Nasadiya Sukta of the Rigveda (RV10.129) which is one of the earliest examples of logic, and of ontological discussion of formal non-existence.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Name one

I recently asked an atheist to name one contemporary historian at a reputable university who believed that Jesus was an amalgam of Mithraism and other Greek mystery religions.  To be fair, it was in a debate - both of us were petrified and wished we had prepared much harder.

Fortunately, the hecklers in the crowd answered for him: 'Price! Price!'

They were, of course, referring to Robert M. Price.  And what an illustrious figure - Professor of Theology and Scripture Studies at Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary in Miami Gardens, Florida!

I'm not joking.


So much wasted space

One of the scientific observations which strikes me most is the sheer improbability of human existence.

This is generally referred to as the 'anthropic principle'.  The anthropic principle is the recognition that a universe which can sustain observers - like us - is a very special universe indeed.  The range of physical variables - strong and weak nuclear forces, gravity and so on - which need to be constrained between very fine intervals indeed, is startling.  A nudge one way, and the universe would collapse back in on itself.  A nudge another, and it would all have flamed out an instant after the Big Bang.

What's particularly interesting is the argument from populariser of science, Richard Dawkins, in Climbing Mount Improbable, that this extremely unlikely collection of physical constants functions to make the evolution of life as we know it much more probable.  In making this argument, he steps into a debate framed by luminaries like Stephen Jay Gould and Simon Conway Morris, and sides with the latter.  Run the tape of evolution again, and we would get very similar results.

This can (and has) led atheists to assume that when Christians use the anthropic principle, we do so thinking that the centre of the universe is us.  It was all created for us; it is all about us. 'Look at all that wasted space,' they say.  'Most inefficient of God.'

Actually, I'd go further.  What about all that wasted time?  13.7-14.5 billion years of unobserved history.  Or what about those inaccessible spaces?  Because we require EM radiation to 'see', we can't explore the tiniest corners - the heart of a neutrino, for example.  The sun, in all its glory, remains substantial forbidden to us.  What an inefficient God!

Which is, of course, one of the things I love about Him.  He creates for the joy of creating.  As the LORD says in Job 38:
'Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth...  On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?'
 Who has seen all that the LORD has made? - well, God has. All those species we will never discover, vanished forever - all for Him.  All those sunsets, never again to be enjoyed - all for Him.

Inefficient?  That's making a virtue into a curse.  God is lavish, in everything he does.  1 Jn 3.1: 'Look at how great a love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called God's children!'

Friday, October 17, 2008

Is Jesus just an amalgam of mythical figures?

One of the claims I heard made by an atheist recently was that Jesus was just an amalgam of earlier mythical figures and that many of his attributes can be derived from earlier heroes of Greek and Persian antiquity.  I remembered wrestling with this material when I first began to be convinced that atheism was insupportable.  Not recalling my conclusions, and not wanting to speak from a lack of knowledge, I didn't say much at the time.

I've since gone and done some re-reading and what has struck me is the difference between academic historians and internet historians.  Internet historians grab at disconnected facts and wield them out of context.  For example, take Mithras.  Internet historians point out that he predates Jesus by around 1400 years; that he was born on Dec 25, to a virgin, in a cave; that he offered eternal life by spilling his blood; that he was buried in a tomb and rose again 3 days later; and that he said, 'He who shall not eat of my body nor drink of my blood so that he may be one with me and I with him, shall not be saved.'

Pretty devastating for a Christian, huh?

Well, no.  You see, there were two Mithras in antiquity.  The Persians first mention Mithra in around 1400BC, though more recent scholarship suggests that the date is more like 700BC.  And the Romans had a Mithra(s), too.  But scholars have been unable to find any connection between the two.  All of the parallels between Jesus and Mithras mentioned above are parallels with the Roman Mithras.  And here's the clanger: he came after Jesus.

In other words, the claims about Jesus were not derived from stories about Mithras.  It's the other way around.  The earliest record of a narrative about the Roman Mithras is dated at least 100 years after the manuscripts of the New Testament.  The only specific mention of a Mithraic offer of eternal life exists in a piece of writing dated to 200A.D.

But it gets worse.  Mithras was not born from a virgin, in a cave.  According to the Mithraic tradition, he was born fully formed, from rock, and when he moved he left a cave behind.  There is no mention of a virgin.  The blood by which he saves is not the blood of Mithras, but of a bull he slaughtered.  Christians have never suggested that the birthday of Jesus was Dec 25 - it was just a day we borrowed from existing pagan celebrations (along with Easter).  The only reference to a Mithraic resurrection is from the writings of Tertullian, an early Church father.  And scholars have attributed the eating/drinking saying to Zarathustra, not Mithras.

So where does all this misinformation come from?  Well, the stuff about Mithras comes largely from a 1903 work by a Belgian scholar called Franz Cumont.  However, the idea that Jesus is an amalgam of various figures derives from the discredited and largely abandoned Religionsgeschichte (History of Religions) movement which was much in vogue in the 19th century.  It depended largely on lacking or overlooking accurate dating of manuscripts, which is why it has now largely absent in peer-reviewed scholarship.  Like all memes, though, it has found a home among the hyper-skeptics of the web, who lovingly tend the trash of earlier eras.

Tragically, I had none of this to hand on Thursday night.  But then again, I also don't retain a structured critique (with academic testimony) of the notion that black holes are very large gerbils with an eating disorder.

Which makes more sense?

I had a fascinating debate last night with Atheist Foundation of Australia and Sydney Atheists spokesperson Alan Conradi.  He did a great job of setting forth the beliefs of his 'kind' of atheists.

What really struck me was the shift that some atheists have made away from the traditional definition of atheism.  It used to be that atheism was defined as the belief that there was no God, and agnosticism expressed a softer view.  Some people have suggested that this definition has been abandoned because atheists kept getting pounded in debates where they had the (somewhat intolerable) burden of defending the indefensible.

Alan (and his team) define atheism not as the belief that there are no gods, but 'having no belief in god.'  This, they insist, is a null hypothesis, and therefore must be assumed as the default position for all humankind.  In other words, whereas once atheists had to bear the burden of proof, it has now been dumped right back into the lap of Christians (and theists in general).  This may just be a bit of cosmic karma for Christians.

Of course, there are problems with this approach.  Null hypotheses are generally something you choose to work with for statistical reasons, rather than have forced upon you.  And, of course, theists can do the same thing.  Atheists, for example, believe that religion is a natural phenomenon.  Theists could pose the null hypothesis, 'religion has nothing to do with natural phenomenon' and demand that this be disproven.  None of this rhetorical sleight of hand makes for engaging discussion, of course.

Most of all, it means that some atheists wander around claiming that the statement 'I have no belief in God' is logically equivalent to 'I have no beliefs about God'.  This is, of course, simply not true.  Let's take the example of fairies.  I can say: there is no evidence for fairies.  Therefore, I have no belief in fairies.  However, this isn't the same as saying: 'I have no beliefs about fairies.'  I do, in fact, have a belief about fairies.  I have a psychological commitment to the idea that they do not exist.

Now, I don't doubt that atheists have more to say on this topic.  I've asked Alan to consider forming a joint blog with me to allow discussion of this and other issues to see where it takes us.  Stay tuned.