Saturday, 2 July 2011

Leonidas and religion (Pt. II)

Atheist is a pleasant word to me. When I first read it, I assumed it was pronounced ah-fee-ihst until I started to get into the realms of religion and philosophy and heard the "ay" sound there. Most likely I wouldn't like the word if I wasn't an atheist. The above was all superfluous, I just felt like opening my second post on religion with a little reflection on pronunciation :).

But contrary to popular belief (in certain parts of the USA anyway, I'm told,) I'm not an atheist because I don't want to submit to authority or because I refuse to accept God or anything like that. This post sets out to outline just some of the reasons why I don't believe.

I mentioned two posts ago that I come from a family of Christians. I'm only distinctly aware of one uncle who isn't very religious and one grandfather who doesn't go to church (but used to be a vicar.) Sometimes that can be a little weird, but I'm fairly used to it, and it's not bad. I can have calm, easy discussions with my family about religion because they all accept me as an atheist and I accept all of them as Christians.

But not everyone is so easy-going about it. Religion is a contentious area, and plenty of people on both sides of the argument just hate being challenged. Me? I always enjoy debate, as my poor exasperated friends well know!

My experience with religion lead to finding out a lot about it, and a lot about the reasons given for God's existence. I can't deal with all of them or any of them in significant detail, for the sake of brevity, but in this post, I'll focus on three big and famous ones.

As I've said, I love discussions, so feel free to talk about it in the comments, for anybody who's actually reading this :).

The design argument

This argument points at all the order and structure in the universe and asks "Just look at the design in the universe, how could that have happened by accident?" A popular example (by William Paley, who was one of the first to publish the argument,) is a watch. If you found a watch, you'd be pretty certain, from the evidence of design, that it wasn't assembled by freak winds, but by human hands.
The argument was made before the theory of evolution was developed. And as it happens, this explains the design argument a lot better. The world wasn't made for us, we were made for the world; we adapted and changed over time to survive in our conditions. People point out the way that there are the right levels of oxygen and nitrogen that we can breathe, that there is food that is just right for us to eat... but no, they've got it backwards. Any species will adapt to their surroundings, we just make the mistake of assuming that it was all tailored for us.

The fine-tuning argument
This is related to the design argument, and relates to what I said in the last argument about "just the right amount". People point to all the variables that allowed the universe to come into existence, that if even one of them, like the initial temperature at the beginning of the universe, had been out by fractions of a decimal, human life couldn't have come into being. They then say that it's just so damn unlikely that this could've happened accidentally... that, well, it didn't.
There are actually a few problems here, so I'll bullet-point them.

  • Just because something is unlikely, that doesn't make it impossible. If you tossed a thousand pennies in succession and recorded the sequence of Heads and Tails, the chances of getting that particular sequence are 1 in 2^1000, or 1 in 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2.... and so on, 1000 times. That number has more than 300 digits. But that doesn't mean that it can't happen.
  • If the variables HAD been slightly different, then different life probably would've evolved, who then would've wondered at the chances that they had evolved. We really aren't that special.
  • This also makes the mistake of assuming that the universe was built for us, and not we being built for the universe.
  • Neither the design argument or the fine-tuning argument say anything about who "God" is, nor do they even prove that the Christian God exists, just, at a stretch, the possibility of a creator.
The first-cause argument
"How did you come about?" "Well, I came from my mother and father." "Yes, but how did they come about? And how about their parents' parents? And their parents' parents' parents? And so on" If you trace back good ol' cause-and-effect far enough, it figures that everything eventually leads back to a single cause which set everything in motion. But what is that cause? The religious answer: God!
Well, no, actually, the first cause could be anything. It's just a common assumption that because the universe MUST have been started by something, that that something is God. And here's another problem: there's a big assumption going on here, that the universe must have been started by something. People interpret this to be some kind of unbeatable, exception-less law, that every effect has a cause... well, of course, the one exception to the "everything must have a cause" rule is God. And that in itself is yet another problem.

The first-cause argument, like many of the other arguments I've come across, is riddled with assumptions. That's not to say that they're necessarily false. But I'm not convinced by any of them, and they should be taken with a grain of salt... or a glass of wine, if you're so inclined.


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