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Religious apologists like to say, “Some very smart people believe in God.” This is misleading. Here’s why.

Imagine we’re talking about quarks. Someone says, “Some very smart people believe in quarks.” If we don’t fret over the exact meaning of the word ‘believe’, this statement is uncontroversial. Professional physicists, who spend all their time studying the microscopic constituents of matter, believe (speaking loosely) that some of those tiny things really are quarks (as specified by complex mathematical formulas).

Now, when we call the people who believe in quarks “smart people” we mean that they know a lot about the world that quarks belong to: the world of subatomic particles. But when we say there are “smart people” who believe in God, we can’t possibly mean that they know a lot about the world that God belongs to. No one knows about that world. There is universal agreement on this point, even in theology. So when we say that “there are smart people who believe in God,” the phrase “smart people” must mean people who are smart about other things—particle physics, for example, or genetics, or whatever. But being an expert on particle physics or genetics does not qualify you to talk about God. By definition, no one knows anything about God. You might be smart about other things, but you’re not smart about God.

This is why “some very smart people believe in God” is a misleading statement.

Mark Twain called faith “believing what you know ain’t so.” But of course this cannot be done. If you know a thing is not true, then you do not believe it. This is a fact about the usage of the word ‘belief’.

On the other hand, it is possible to say what you know ain’t so. This is called lying.

The religious behavior everyone calls “believing” is more like lying than it is like believing.

In almost any social situation, if anyone dares to question the existence of God someone else will speak up with “first-hand evidence” that God is not only real but has all the qualities described in the local scripture. The witnesser will speak of the “direct perceptions” that they have had of God, for example that he is caring, or eternal, or aware, or (in the minimal case) present (or “manifest”). It is usually thought (or at least claimed) that such reports constitute weighty evidence for the believer’s position, and that if the non-believer wants to be taken seriously, he or she must provide an alternative and more compelling explanation of these experiences. That is, the non-believer has the responsibility of showing how a person can have an experience of God without there being any God for the experience to be about.

The explanation is simple. An object does not have to exist for me to have thoughts or feelings about it. I can have thoughts and feelings about an imaginary object. Such thoughts and feelings do not prove that the object exists. As a refinement, we should mention that it is not always correct to describe these thoughts and feelings as of or about the object, if it does not exist.

It is uncontroversial that people’s reports of thoughts and feelings about God do not necessarily bring us any information about God. If I suspect that no gods exist, someone telling me that they have perceived God’s qualities through their feelings or their imagination is no evidence to the contrary. If God does not exist, then these reports of divine attributes are just wrong. Actually, they are not even wrong. Rather than inaccurate statements about God, they are not about God at all.

Now someone might say, “Why make a special point of saying that my feelings about God are ‘not about’ God? Of course they are ‘about’ God—even if there is no God! If I say I’ve had a thought about the mighty wings of Pegasus, would you say, ‘No, that thought is not about Pegasus, because Pegasus is imaginary’? Surely you can take my word for it, so to speak, that Pegasus is precisely what I was thinking about. Maybe it seems ontologically extravagant, but this is how the word is used.”

Well, let’s acknowledge that there is a huge and intimidating literature on what philosophers call reference (and related terms like ostention, intension, and designation)—and that I am not an expert in this field. I have read a little Quine but it is very hard. So I agree with your proposal that we avoid the intricacies of philosophy and stick to (relatively) practical matters.

Unfortunately, we started with a topic which was already a bit subtle. We are talking about the difference between what people take themselves to be saying, and what they are actually saying, when they talk about God.

Contrary to your Pegasus example, people routinely claim that the thoughts and feelings they have about God show that God is there.

Let’s put the argument more formally.

PREMISS 1. I have thoughts and feelings about God.

PREMISS 2. People can’t have thoughts and feelings about a thing that does not exist.

CONCLUSION. God exists.

Your mention of Pegasus casts doubt on Premiss 2. Of course I can think about things that are not there. We can put even more pressure on this premiss if we think about dreams. Say that on waking up one morning I remember having a dream in which I was trying to solve an intricate geometrical puzzle. I’m still having thoughts about that puzzle—or that’s what my thoughts seem to be about—yet the puzzle does not exist in any useful sense. What is more interesting, my memories of it as being “intricate” (for example) do not even have a truth-value. It is neither true nor false that the puzzle I was trying to solve was intricate. In the dream, I described the puzzle as intricate—to myself. But that description was a feature of the dream. It was imaginary. The intricacy of the puzzle had no more reality than the puzzle itself.

But look. Now Premiss 1 begins to crumble. Because, now that I have awakened, if I say to myself, “That puzzle was intricate,” I am not making a statement about the puzzle in the dream. I don’t know anything about the puzzle in the dream. I don’t know that it was intricate. I only know that it seemed so, in the dream. There is no fact of the matter about whether the puzzle was really intricate. It seemed so in the dream, and that’s the end of the ontology. All I have is the seeming. So my thoughts on waking up are not about how the puzzle was. There is no such thing as how the puzzle was. I am not thinking about how the puzzle was, but about how it seemed. My thoughts are about the seeming, not about the puzzle.

And this is how we can legitimately treat claims about people’s thoughts and feelings “about God.” We can say: That’s an awfully big assumption you’re starting off with—that you can have thoughts and feelings about God. How do you justify such a claim? Here we are trying to have a discussion about whether God exists, and then you say, “Well, I have these feelings about him, so that proves he exists.” It doesn’t, for two reasons.

First, it’s possible to have thoughts and feelings that are about a seeming rather than about something real. So you need to convince us that your thoughts and feelings are about an existent God rather than a seeming God. And second, as my friend here pointed out, it’s perfectly possible to have thoughts and feelings about objects that just plain don’t exist, like Pegasus—or Santa Claus.

In the syllogism above, many people would suspect Premiss 2 of being false. But we have come to a perhaps more interesting result. The seemingly uncontroversial Premiss 1 is false as well. When people say, “I have thoughts and feelings about God,” it is possible for this “about” to be mistaken. Their thoughts and feelings and beliefs could easily be about something other than God. They could be merely about how things seem to the believer.

There is an enormous confusion around what atheists are claiming. It is my belief that theists do not understand the proposition coming from the atheist side, “I don’t believe in any gods.” They literally don’t know what this means. Furthermore, most atheists do not understand the claim of the theist: “I believe in God.” So there is an almost perfect confusion between the two parties.

The root of the problem, in my opinion, lies in the peculiarities of usage of the word ‘belief’ (and of course its cognates ‘believe’, ‘believer’, and so on).

When the theist says to his atheist friend, “I believe in God; you believe that there is no God,” he sounds as if he is saying that there is a certain thing he does, that his friend the atheist does not do; and that this is the practical difference between their philosophies. But this is a misconstrual. What he has in fact done is to use the word ‘believe’ in two different ways in the same sentence.

Let me repeat the example from the atheist point of view, to show that the problem is exactly the same.

When the atheist says to his theist friend, “You believe in God; I don’t,” he has (implicitly) used the word ‘believe’ in two different ways in the same sentence. He seems to be saying that there is a certain thing his friend the theist does, that he does not do; and that this is the practical difference between their philosophies. But this is a mistake.

It is not true that there is a thing that people can do, called “believing in God,” with the difference between theists and atheists being that the first do it and the second do not. The “believing in God” that characterizes theism is a different activity from the “believing in God” that atheists do not do. If this sounds ridiculous, please bear with me a moment.

The problem is that the word ‘believe’ can be used with two, completely different senses.

When I, as an atheist, say I “do not believe” that any gods exist, I am talking about a (possibly tentative) conclusion I have come to about the world based on my experience. I’ve studied the issue, thought about it carefully, consulted with friends; most importantly, I have looked for evidence of these gods, and found none. When I say “I don’t believe,” I mean that as far as I can tell, I don’t see any good evidence.

The theist’s use of this word has a different sense—in fact, the opposite sense. When the theist says that he “believes in God,” he is referring to an opinion that depends not a whit on observational evidence. In religious parlance, my “belief” is something I hold onto no matter what. Nothing I observe in the world, ever, can obligate me to alter my “belief in God.”

So, you see, a theist and an atheist can be standing side by side, and the first can say, “I believe in God,” and the second, “I don’t believe in God,” and they are talking about completely different things. The theist means, “There’s a warm feeling in my heart that I will never give up.” The atheist means, “I’ve looked into it and the case is not strong.” These are not opposite opinions, they are opinions on distinct topics. The two witnesses are not on opposite sides. They don’t even really disagree.

Last Thursday, MSNBC “news” posted a really terrible piece. There is no byline.

“What was the star of Bethlehem?” says the interactive graphic (credited to Clay Frost). “Scholars argue whether the Star of Bethlehem was a legend created after the fact or a miracle created by God especially for the occasion of Christ’s birth.”

The article leans heavily on a book from 1987 in which a certain John Mosley of Griffith Observatory finds that on 17 June in 2 B.C., Jupiter and Venus were in almost exactly the same place in the sky. That would have been a remarkable thing to see. However, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the question of whether the “star” mentioned in the Bible was a miracle created by God.

You can only care about this question if you assume first, that Matthew’s account of the “wise men from the East” is factual; and second, that God does create miracles on certain occasions. But there is literally no reason to take either of these propositions seriously.

I need not bother addressing the question of the New Testament’s historical accuracy here. As for the idea of miracles, I explained in an earlier post that the idea of miracles is incoherent. If you say “It was a miracle,” the only thing that you can possibly mean that makes any sense is, “I don’t know how it happened.” And this of course is not a positive claim about how it happened. It is not even a positive claim about your opinion about how it happened. All it says is that you don’t have an opinion about how it happened. So it’s almost perfectly meaningless.

To claim, in a mainstream news source, that scholars wonder whether Matthew’s star was “a miracle created by God” is grotesque, misleading, and offensive.

I just went through the Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans and started counting, and guess what? A full 80 of the 400 live in California. That’s one out of every five billionaires in America, living right here in a state that can’t afford to educate its kids.

Then I took out my calculator and added up a long row of numbers and got a big one: The total net worth of the billionaires in California is $231.8 billion. Ten percent of that wipes out the budget deficit. And that doesn’t even count the folks worth $900 million or less; they didn’t make the list.

Folks: This is a very, very rich state. A very modest tax increase on a very tiny number of people could solve our budget problems not just today but into the foreseeable future.

via 80 billionaires — and California’s broke? | San Francisco Bay Guardian.

I do not always agree with Russell Blackford but his new opinion piece on the site of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is spot-on. It begins like this:

Religious teachings promise us a deeper understanding of reality, more meaningful lives, morally superior conduct, and such benefits as rightness with a Supreme Being or liberation from earthly attachments. One way or another, the world’s religions offer spiritual salvation, or something very like it. If any of their teachings are rationally warranted, it would be good to know which ones.

At the same time, however, religious teachings can be onerous in their demands; if they can’t deliver on what they promise, it would be just as well to know that. I take it, then, that there’s a strong case for rational scrutiny of religious teachings. Even if reason can take us only so far, it would be good to explore just how far.

And it ends like this:

When religion claims authority in the political sphere, it is unsurprising and totally justifiable that atheists and sceptics question the source of this authority. If religious organisations or their leaders claim to speak on behalf of a god, it is fair to ask whether the god concerned really makes the claims that are communicated on its behalf. Does this god even exist? Where is the evidence? And even if this being does exist, why, exactly, should its wishes be heeded, let alone translated into laws enforced by the state’s coercive power?

These questions are being asked more often, and so they should be. When they’re asked publicly, even with a touch of aggression, that’s an entirely healthy thing.

Read the whole thing.

We don’t need freedom of religion. If we properly respect more basic rights there is no need to grant special status to spiritual practices.

Mark Mercer is so right on.

Is atheism a religion? Austin Cline puts it simply:

The truth is that atheism lacks every one of the basic characteristics of religion. … It can be part of a religion, but it can’t be a religion by itself. They are completely different categories: atheism is the absence of one particular belief while religion is a complex web of traditions and beliefs. They aren’t even remotely comparable.

And he has another, sharper point that I have never heard before:

Not even theism alone can qualify as a “religion” under even the broadest definitions.

Think about that the next time someone tells you that atheism is a religion. Theism is not a religion. Not all by itself. It has to be mixed up with a “complex web” of other stuff before it becomes a religion. Cline calls this stuff “traditions and beliefs”, which is not quite right — but the larger point is very good. Atheism is a philosophical position, as is theism. Neither one is anything like a religion.

New Scientist is mostly a great magazine. But every few issues they run another really stupid article about religion and I have to write another letter to the editor. Here’s the latest.

“I do not call myself an atheist,” David Eagleman assures us (25 September 2010, p. 34). “I don’t feel that I have enough data to firmly rule out other interesting possibilities. On the other hand, I do not subscribe to any religion.”

Mr. Eagleman, if you do not subscribe to any religion, you are an atheist. Like it or not, that’s what the word means.

“What if we were planted here by aliens?” you ask. “What if there are civilisations in spatial dimensions seven through nine? What if we are nodes in a vast, cosmic, computational device?” These might be interesting possibilities (I guess), but they have nothing to do with atheism.

You say, “in the debates between the strict atheists and the fundamentally religious, I choose a third side.” But in this context, there is no third side. Do any of the gods described by planet Earth’s many religions really exist? You clearly believe that the answer to this question is No. That makes you an atheist. Sorry, but that’s what the word means.

This is not the only logical fallacy in your article.

I feel I should warn you that in condemning the “the amount of certainty” in books by “the new atheists”, you are making an awkward leap onto a crowded and flimsy bandwagon.

“Their books,” you say of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens, “sometimes feed a widespread misconception… that scientists think they have the big picture solved.” But none of these four men has ever claimed, in any book or speech, to have solved the big picture (whatever that means). Your target here is a straw man. The “certainty” you decry does not exist.

Your article is nothing like science, and nothing like news. I am dismayed to find it in New Scientist, where in general the standards are very high.

Roy Sablosky
Sacramento, California, USA