22 November 2015

Freedom of religion

I had not thought it possible, but it seems that we are once again entering a period of religious warfare. Religion is toxic, a virus of the human mind. While I will always continue to defend freedom of religion on a personal level, I will not relent in my battle against it on a societal level.

I have always advocated teaching the scientific method at the youngest possible age. While science may often be difficult to understand, the scientific method is not difficult at all. It all boils down to a single question when presented with a claim: how do you know that? If there is no valid answer, it is safe to assume that the claim is not true.

We have all the means at our disposal to deal with religion. All we have to do is stop tiptoeing around it. Freedom of religion does not imply freedom to lie, deceive and indoctrinate.

If the Pope chooses to believe in talking snakes, sky beings that are able to command the heavens and defeat death, that is his choice and his freedom. He is an adult, and if he refuses medical treatment for this condition, it is his right to do so, at least until he becomes a danger to society.

However, he is not to make claims for which he has no evidence. If he claims that praying to God will heal you, he'd better provide evidence for this claim. If he cannot, he is to stop making those claims or go to jail as any other charlatan.

If he claims that embracing Jesus will bring you eternal bliss after death, he'd better provide evidence for this claim. If he cannot, he is not to make those claims or go to jail as any other con-artist.

If he claims that rejecting Jesus will make you burn in the lake of fire and brimstone for all eternity, he'd better provide evidence for this claim. If he cannot, he is to refrain from making such claims and go to jail as any other swindler.

The same should be true for any religious figure. It does not matter whether the religion in question is Buddhism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Hinduism, Scientology, Shintoism or any other religion of the past, the present or the future. No evidence, no rights.

John Lennox: Ten quick responses to atheist claims

An article by Heather Tomlinson about John Lennox was recently brought to my attention: Ten quick responses to atheist claims. In the article, she reports Lennox' replies to ten claims he claims atheists make. This my attempt at replying to what he says. 

Please do not hesitate to point out where I am wrong, and why. If your argument is sound, I will change my view.

1) You don't believe in Zeus, Thor and all the other gods. I just go one god more than you, and reject the Christian God.

I think this is correct. It is an old claim that has been made by many atheists, including myself. 

Lennox says that the problem with this claim is that 'gods' such as Zeus and Thor are not comparable with the biblical understanding of God and that they are products of the primeval mass and energy of the universe, whereas the God of the Bible created the heavens and the earth.

Lennox is wrong. Zoroastrianism, for example, has the deity Ahura Mazda who created everything. However, I would argue that this is entirely besides the point. He is just looking for a distinction between the deity he worships and the numberless deities he does not worship, thus blurring the issue.

The issue is not whether or not there are differences between deities, there are. There can be no dispute about this.

However, the difference is akin to claiming that Star Trek is different from Star Wars, because Star Trek uses star dates or that Star Wars differs from Star Trek, because it is about 'The Force'. So what? They are both science fiction, with the emphasis on fiction.

What is at issue here, is whether Lennox' God exists or not. Lennox does not give any arguments, nor any evidence for the existence of his God. His comment, therefore, is a reply, but not an answer.

2) Science has explained everything, and it doesn't include God.

I think this is utterly incorrect. While there may well be people who claim that science has explained everything, no scientist would do that because if science had explained everything, science would simply stop. Science is all about finding out how the world or the universe work. If we already know it all, what's the point in continuing? 

It reminds me of the Jesuits of the school I went to as a child. They scolded and punished me for not doing my best to learn what I already knew. This has remained a conundrum for me to this day, for I am obviously not intelligent enough to figure out how to work hard to learn something that I already know.

So, as far as I'm concerned, this is a non-claim. Unless Lennox can show that there are indeed atheists who make this claim, he is in error.

3) Science is opposed to God.

I think this is also utterly incorrect. Science is about finding out how the universe ticks. That includes God. If God is necessary to make the universe tick, God becomes a very important subject for science. The claim itself is therefore incorrect.

Here again, unless Lennox can show that there are indeed atheists who make this claim, he is in error.

4) You can't prove that there is a God.

I am not sure whether or not there are atheists who make this claim. But there are most definitely atheists who ask religionists to prove the existence of their God. I am an atheist and I ask exactly that.

I would submit that we can never prove anything with absolute certainty, but that we can gather evidence for a claim to such a degree that questioning the claim no longer makes sense in our present state of knowledge, or as Lennox says: beyond reasonable doubt.

Well then, it may not be so hard to prove that it is a God. All God has to do, is repeat one or two of the tricks the Bible says he did:

Joshua 10:12-13 Then spake Joshua to the LORD in the day when the LORD delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon. And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.

Let's say that the Pope would stand in the centre of St. Peter's Square and do what Joshua did. All God has to do, is to repeat this neat trick. No, it's not absolute proof, but it would certainly be considered a meaningful gesture and strong evidence. 

My personal favourite would be that God make a meaningful gesture of benevolence, by regrowing the limbs of all amputees.

I do not know Alvin Plantinga well enough to have any comments on him. However, we know with absolute certainty that William Lane Craig is required by his university to lie about the Bible. That does not mean by definition that everything he says is wrong, but it certainly casts sufficient doubt to treat everything he says with utter skepticism. Fortunately, most of what he says is so nonsensical that one can dismiss it out of hand.

5) Faith is believing without any evidence.

This is indeed a claim atheists make. Lennox replies to this that Christian belief has never been about having no evidence, and he uses the New Testament to support his claim. However, in that same New Testament Jesus suggests something different:

John 20:24-29 But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the LORD. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe. And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you. Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing. And Thomas answered and said unto him, My LORD and my God. Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

6) Faith is a delusion. I'd no more believe in God than I would in the Easter Bunny, Father Christmas or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

The statement is correct. Atheists do indeed say this, I am one of them. However, Lennox omits to say why atheists say this. The reason, of course, is that atheists think there is no more evidence for God then there is the for the Easter Bunny, Father Christmas or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Photo by Wilfried Wittkowsky
I personally do not believe that unicorns exist. Yet, there is more evidence for the existence of unicorns than there is for the existence of Lennox' God. The evidence turns out to be a fake construction from 1678 by Otto von Guericke, but it does contain a very convincing unicorn horn. 

The horn is absolutely genuine, there is nothing fake about it. It is, however, not the horn of a unicorn, but the horn of a narwhal. So, while this horn is undeniably superficial evidence for the existence of unicorns, it stops being that on closer examination, but even if it did not, it would by no means be proof of the existence of unicorns, only evidence.

I also personally do not believe that thylacines exist. However, the evidence that they have once existed is overwhelming.

Thylacine family at Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, 1910
There are records of thylacines, pictures and even videos. Are these proof that thylacines exist? Of course not, but they are certainly evidence, and the entire body of evidence is so overwhelming that while it is still not impossible to not believe that thylacines have ever existed, this doesn't seem a reasonable position.

It is, however, perfectly reasonable to assume that thylacines no longer exist. The reason for this is simple: no one has ever been able to provide credible evidence of a living thylacine since 1936.

As many people like to point out, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. I submit that this is wrong. Absence of evidence is most definitely evidence of absence, as the two examples I mentioned show. However, it is not proof of absence. In our current state of technological development, it is impossible to prove that thylacines, or unicorns, or Santa Claus, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and a gazillion other things, including the God Lennox worships, do not exist.

On the other hand, proving that they do exist is a fairly simple matter: show it. Where is the evidence/proof, Mr. Lennox?

7) Christianity claims to be true, but there [are] loads of denominations and they all disagree with each other, so it must be false.

I think that many atheists have at least thought about this claim. I most certainly have, but I think that this claim is incorrect or at least imprecise. Just because there are lots of denominations that disagree with each other does not mean by definition that they are all wrong, but it certainly does mean that the probability that a randomly selected denomination is wrong is higher than the probability that it is correct.

Lennox gives the example of different kinds of teams that play football and then says that they all play football anyway. Perhaps. But what if they all play according to mutually exclusive rules? That would mean that they can never play together unless some or all surrender at least part of the rules that they normally use.

Furthermore, this is not merely a game but supposedly about what God wants us to do. If all these mutually exclusive denominations are acceptable to God, why bother with his rules in the first place?

8) The Bible is immoral.

There can be no doubt. Many, if not all atheists claimed that the Bible is immoral. Lennox criticizes Richard Dawkins for claiming that it is no morality in the universe and then claiming that faith is evil. This is, of course, laughable. 

Just because the universe has no morality, does not mean by any stretch of the imagination that anyone in that universe cannot be moral or cannot have a sense of morality. Just because the universe has no centre does not mean that our solar system cannot have a centre.

9) Surely you don't take the Bible literally?

I think that this is a question that most atheists would at least consider asking. I know I do. However, Lennox seems to skirt the issue even though he is the one who brought it up while at the same time accusing atheists of having a very black-and-white idea of how to interpret the Bible. He finishes by claiming that the word literal is meaningless.That is, of course, itself a senseless claim.

10) What is the evidence for God?

Lennox claims that atheists are asking this question and then goes on to claim that atheists might be missing the point or avoiding the real issue. Or is it that he is avoiding the real issue? After all, it can't be so hard to for an all-powerful God to provide evidence of his existence. As I have said before, regrowing the limbs of all amputees on this planet would certainly be a meaningful gesture.

Lennox finishes by advising to ask the atheists the most important question:

"Suppose I could give [evidence for God], would you be prepared right now, to repent and trust Christ?"

My reply to this question is unambiguous: of course not. I will not surrender my life to a celestial dictator on the basis of mere evidence. I want proof. If God wants me to become a believer, he better provide me with a reason to believe. Otherwise, as far as I'm concerned, he can go join Bernie Madoff and Samuel Hahnemann, and I want no part of him.