Are science and God Irreconcilable? Another perspective

Science can be seen as a method of creating reasoned knowledge through reliance on evidence, incredulous scepticism and human imagination. Each of these has its own function within the knowledge-creating methods of science. Evidence is probably the most easily recognised cornerstone of science, as evidence directs our thinking and grounds our area of scope. Imagination, perhaps the least recognised of these cornerstones, is required to join the dots of evidence together to form a narrative; without imagination each piece of evidence stands alone and would fail progress or give predictions. Imagination is required for making useful sense of the evidence we have. Here, we must be use to reign in our imagination so that we use the minimal number of lines to connect your evidence, to produce the most minimal narrative to explain the evidence; anything else would be overly creative. Imagination is also required in building and designing experiments in all part of science; here we want a little more creativity, but it can never really uncouple from logic. Incredulous scepticism is also highly important. It cannot be too high, for fear of slipping into solipsism; but it cannot be too low as to allow bad ideas slip through the gaps.

Good science, then, can be depicted as a series of sliders, like sliders on a volume control system, that reflect the traits and attributes of a methodology and its acceptance. For example, in the diagram below, the further to the left each slider is, the better the science is. Therefore the better the knowledge we derive from it is.

Good Science (1)

To better express what each of these sliders might look like, we’re going to have a look at where each slider belongs in the “scientific” approach to claiming that a God exists. Starting with imagination, we can unpick elements of the God proposal that rely so heavily on new existence and therefore heavily on imagination.

Religious imagination (1)

God is unlike anything we know or experience. If the God hypothesis were correct it would involve a new type of existence: one not dependent on matter, energy, thought or the interaction of any of them. God would be pure, independent, immaterial thought. Essentially, a new type of existence would have to be intellectually permitted to make room for a God. So unlike material or conscious existences that we know of an experience, God would be a stand alone and new fashion of being.

There is an irony here in that creationists then refuse to offer imagination to join the dots of the phylogenetic tree, fossil records or biogeography, and many other religious people make similarly limited assumptions about other scientific models that aren’t congruent with their religion.

Next, evidence:

Religious evidence (1)

Not only is the level of evidence low, it is getting lower. Coupled with an excessive imagination, all gaps in knowledge could once be twisted to be evidence for a God. After all, how else do you suppose to explain the diversity of life, without some method of evolution? Such a question couldn’t be answered and was once used to twist a God conclusion into the science. However, that opportunity evaporated with the discovery and subsequently relentless evidence in support of Darwinian evolution. Similar things are happening now in cosmology and cosmogony. Although it is true that we do not absolutely know where our universe came from, increasingly plausible answers are being found. From a new definition of “nothing” to eternal inflation, models without a God keep appearing and so the evidence for a God continues to recede.

You’ll notice the dial doesn’t indicate no evidence for God. There is some, but it’s poor: there will alway be a frontier to science with questions we don’t have full answers to, yet. And there is the frontier that religious “evidence” loses a little of every generation, but still insists on standing (like a house on a cliff’s edge).

Lastly, scepticism. And it follows that if the evidence is poor and the conclusion relies on outlandish and extreme imagination then the believers are not showing a proper level of scepticism:

Religious Scepticism (1)

Really, given that we are used to hearing that this is a matter of faith, we shouldn’t be surprised to discover that God is not given any level of scepticism. Believers simply don’t ponder how compatible their God is with the overwhelming majority of evidence from our experiences and science; neither do they wonder the likelihood that today religion has it right when it has a history of losing so much ground.

God Science (1)

Mythos and Religious Practice

A lot of religions, monotheism in particular, ask their followers to submit to God through certain practices, like prayer and abstinence (e.g. Lent or Ramadan). It is also common for religious people to talk to God, asking for forgiveness or guidance at certain milestones in their life. This has always struck me as weird: surely God has already decided who to forgive and your requests won’t change the course of Its plan; your devotion should be evident through the state of your mind, that God could read, and so the practices are redundant. It becomes stranger still when God requests that we implement Its judicial system, by stoning homosexuals or casting out people of other religions; hasn’t God already got a judicial system in place?

I was watching a BBC drama called Orphan Black, and in it there is a strange religious zealot who becomes obsessed with the idea of adopting an unrepentant, murderous woman into his family. As he held her and emphatically asked God to forgive her for her wrongdoing, there was just the hint of desperation in his words. Perhaps I was projecting this, or perhaps he is a good actor, but either way I got the impression that the zealous demands that God forgive her were not actually for God at all. There was just a sense that it was a personal ritual; he needed permission to forgive her, for what she had done was so relentlessly incongruous with his religion (and general moral sensibilities). It was a practice. By asking God to forgive her, he permitted himself to forgive her and take her into his family.

It started to dawn on me that religious practice doesn’t necessarily have to assume a God. What you need is the ritual. The ritual doesn’t convey any truth, but it offers a catharsis. Religion and its practices can be used as a tool for mourning and grief, celebration and joy or even progress and forgiveness. When God forgives what is really happening is a human is forgiving through the lense of a practice or metaphor. God is a metaphor for what is: God is; I am. It is not necessary to posit a conscious, personal, powerful God with real punishments and rewards. God is a spiritual metaphor for an entirely natural phenomenon: our lense of the world.

Exactly what that lense is is only implied. I would argue that the lense is one of labels and categories, something humans are wont to do (even if we try to transcend it). We cannot forgive a person until they have been put into the category of the forgiven, so when we say “God, please forgive them” the speaker is actually asking themself for permission to forgive. It is a rite, but God is only the system of categorisation, which we actually do ourselves, after we will ourselves to do it.

Prayer, similarly, may be the opportunity for us to organise in our minds the things we really do want. The practices look like a delegation to God to take responsibility for our lives. And, in fact, if a religious practice is carried out in the assumption that God is real, then religious practices very much are a surrender of our autonomy to a God. But seen as a personal ritual, in which one is imploring themselves to change their perspective or acquire wisdom, then the poetic ritual begins to make some sense. Religion appears to make more sense without a God than with.

“All religions are true, in that the metaphor is true”?

When responding to Stephen Fry’s prose on a “stupid God”, Russell Brand shared a quote that pops in and out of the public consciousness: all religions are true, in that the metaphor is true. The actual quote is “Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble”, and as Brand rightly attributes, the quote is from Joseph Campbell. I have no intention of deriding Brand for glassing over all the nuance of Campbell’s actual quotes for his own end, you can unpick the dishonesty in that yourself. I, instead, want to look at using this line of reasoning as a defence of religions or God.

Metaphors are not true. They are metaphors. Metaphors can be used aesthetically, or they can be used to emphasis or foster understanding of truth, but they are not intended to be true. My favourite book on this issue (and perhaps of all time) is Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

For example, we’ve all heard this one. Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast and saves his three buddies.

Is it true?

The answer matters.

You’d feel cheated if it never happened. Without the grounding real-ity, it’s just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the way all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen—and maybe it did, any-thing’s possible—even then you know it can’t be true, because a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth. For example: Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it’s a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die, though, one of the dead guys says, “The fuck you do that for?” and the jumper says, “Story of my life, man,” and the other guy starts to smile but he’s dead.

That’s a true story that never happened.

Twenty years later, I can still see the sunlight on Lemon’s face. I can see him turning, looking back at Rat Kiley, then he laughed and took that curious half step from shade into sunlight, his face suddenly brown and shining, and when his foot touched down, in that instant, he must’ve thought it was the sunlight that was killing him. It was not the sunlight. It was a rigged 105 round. But if I could ever get the story right, how the sun seemed to gather around him and pick him up and lift him high into a tree, if I could somehow recreate the fatal whiteness of that light, the quick glare, the obvious cause and effect, then you would believe the last thing Curt Lemon believed, which for him must’ve been the final truth.

Now and then, when I tell this story, someone will come up to me afterward and say she liked it. It’s always a woman. Usually it’s an older woman of kindly temperament and humane politics. She’ll explain that as a rule she hates war stories; she can’t understand why people want to wal-low in all the blood and gore. But this one she liked. The poor baby buffalo, it made her sad. Sometimes, even, there are little tears. What I should do, she’ll say, is put it all behind me. Find new stories to tell.

I won’t say it but I’ll think it.

I’ll picture Rat Kiley’s face, his grief, and I’ll think, You dumb cooze.

Because she wasn’t listening.

It wasn’t a war story. It was a love story.

But you can’t say that. All you can do is tell it one more time, patiently, adding and subtracting, making up a few things to get at the real truth. No Mitchell Sanders, you tell her. No Lemon, no Rat Kiley. No trail junction. No baby buffaloes or moss or white blossoms. Beginning to end, you tell her, it’s all made up. Every goddamn detail—the mountains and the river and especially that poor dumb baby buffalo. None of it happened. None of it. And even if it did happen it didn’t happen in the mountains, it happened in this little village on the Batangan Peninsula, and it was raining like crazy, and one night a guy named Stink Harris woke up screaming with a leech on his tongue. You can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it.

And in end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about sunlight. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow. It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.

O’Brien tells the story of comrades that drown in Vietnamese bogs, of a civilian mistakenly shot in the face and Rat (or was it a buffalo?), who stood on a landmine and died. These are all the same story, trying to say the same thing, and having read the book with the goal of dissecting it for a university essay, I still cannot say exactly what the story is: perhaps it’s about asking whether there is a point or perhaps me still having no idea is exactly the point. I don’t know.

If Campbell is right, and all religions are true in some way, then O’Brien’s The Things they Carried is equally true and can be called a religion. But the point is this: it doesn’t matter whether the stories in The Things they Carried are physically or ontologically true. In all likelihood, most of them are not (and not all of them can be). But O’Brien is simply trying to make the reader see something, to append feeling and images to the idea of war; to equip the reader with tools or exploration and understanding of something other than the physical or historical truth; if O’brien does his job correctly (and he does) the reader leaves with images of beautiful horror. Rat never stepped on a landmine and ascending skyward on a fatally white light. Rat might not even exist, and it doesn’t matter. The truth of Rat and the landmine is irrelevant, so long as you realise the story of grief and delight, ugliness and awe…

And so it is with Campbell’s religions. The truth of God doesn’t matter. What matters is the story the lie allows you to experience. There doesn’t have to be Jesus or Heaven or Hell or Moses or Genesis. “Beginning to end, you tell her, it’s all made up. Every goddamn detail… None of it happened. None of it.” It’s art; it’s metaphor. None of it is physically true because all of it tells a true story, but not about the protagonists. The story is about our humanity. The protagonists have never have been.

Some of our darkest humanity is contained in the Books. Our self-righteousness is contained in God-given permission, and our fears are expressed in the keeping of slaves and the deaths of first born sons. The horror we are capable of is written in clear black and white, with rape, paedohilia and murder littering the pages. But if the Books are a metaphor for our humanity, and not a document for what God really said, then we can actually evaluate these Books and honestly notice the horror of acts described in them. We can honestly tell the difference between Jesus’ turn the other cheek and God’s burning of Sodom, or between Mohammed’s smite at their necks and the reward of goodness is nothing but goodness.

The truth of Allah, Yahweh, Jesus and Mohammed is irrelevant here: if Campbell is right, we are meant to use our humanity to see where religions describe us at our best, us at our worst and the world we really want to live in. They were written thousands of years ago by cultures we have superseded and we are supposed to ask which bits we really want. We are supposed to cherry pick. But we are supposed to do so knowing that “Beginning to end, you tell her, it’s all made up. Every goddamn detail… None of it happened. None of it.

“Everything Happened all by Itself”?

“Atheists believe everything happened by itself” is not an uncommon accusation to be fired at atheists. I recently watched a video on how internet memes spread, so I have a vague concept of how that sort of considerable misinformation spreads so rapidly. But how about getting under what the problem with this accusation is. To an extent it is understandable: the religious person making the accusation sees reality as having two monolithic layers, the natural and the supernatural. The natural is finite and began at some absolute point in time; the supernatural is eternal and created the natural. The religious person then assumes that atheists have the exact same model, but cut out the supernatural side, leaving everything to simply emerge by itself.

This is poor thinking. If you don’t engage in the religious debate, it is permissible; you don’t spread your ideas so I don’t expect your ideas to be moderately researched and you probably acknowledge that you don’t fully understand the oppositions. However, if you do engage in debates about the existence of God or the creation of the universe, perhaps your view should be a little better researched.

Implicitly assumed in the accusation that “atheists believe everything happened by itself” is that “everything” is some sort of a monolith without nuance or hierarchy. Again, if one doesn’t do their research this is an understandable mistake. For linguistic ease we talk of the universe as coming from ‘nothing’. It is therefore assumed (by laypeople) that the state the universe came from is the same as the philosophical concept of nothing. The philosophical concept of nothing is the complete negation of all things and properties; no nouns or adjectives could possibly apply to this philosophical nothing. But to make the state the universe came from and the philosophical nothing synonymous is a mistake.

Michio Kaku, in the BBC’s Horizon documentary What Happened before the Big Bang? explained that “the universe did not come from absolute nothing… It came from a preexisting state–also a state of nothing–that our universe did in fact come from this infinitesimal, tiny, little explosion that took place, giving us the Big Bang”. Kaku’s non-absolute nothing is a nothing in which equations still function. It follows that if equations still function, phenomena like the uncertainty principle apply, as they are solely mathematical phenomena, but the result of that is actual and tangible ephemera. Lawrence Krauss defines “nothing” in a similar way; nothing becomes a state devoid of all stuff, except equations and rules and those rules give way to energy and material. Kaku and Krauss are talking about a sort of hierarchy of things, and once you are low enough down the hierarchy they use the word “nothing” for simplicity, but it will never share a resemblance to the absolute or philosophical nothing non-physicist philosophers want.

For those who are left with a bad taste in their mouth when it comes to a physics-based definition of nothing, there are bigger problems yet. Lee Smolin, in the same documentary as Michio Kaku, believes there was a very real phase before the Big Bang, only ever full of stuff. He believes there is one giant expanse of universe that is going through hyperinflation. Hyperinflation means that the expanse of universe is growing at a rate faster than the speed of light, making it entirely unintelligible and stopping all sorts of physics and causal relationships from happening. This unintelligibility and highly limited causality is due to the fact that the speed of information through the universe is limited to the speed of light, so if the universe itself is moving faster than that, there can be no interaction and there can be no moments or information that travel through it. Our universe is simply a pocket of the greater expanse of universe where inflation has slowed down (and it would follow that there are many more pockets like this. Smolin compares it to Swiss cheese, lots of bubbles that cannot communicate through the actual cheese/intelligence-blocking regions of hyperinflation). Before our universe, there was still a greater expanse of universe, quite plausibly eternal, with all sorts of things in it. If Lee Smolin is correct, it’s more than a linguistic game to call what came before our universe “nothing”, it would be outright wrong.

The thing that began 13.8 billion years ago was not “everything”, it was the intelligibility of our pocket of spacetime. 13.8 billion years ago was not necessarily the start of time and matter and things, it was simply the start of discoverability. Einstein’s theory of Relativity suggests there was no Big Bang singularity from which all things came and such a singularity has only ever been speculative. Markus Pössel, in his essay The Tale of Two Big Bangs, talks of the very early stages of inflation in our universe (the Big Bang phase) as the element of the Big Bang confirmed by observation, and the pinpoint it all supposedly came from (the Big Bang singularity) being speculative, unknowable with current physics (Relativity doesn’t allow it) and superseded by singularity-free hypotheses like the ones mentioned above.

To have been told this and still bandy around the accusation that ‘atheists believe everything happened by itself’ is to have muted your own thinking, a sort of silence of mind.

Why it’s impossible to argue that God is immoral

God’s morality can be evaluated in two ways that I see: either one can assume that God exists and judge God according to the Book one accepts and what they believe It created, else God can be assumed to be nothing more than the work of fiction whose role changes depending on which story one accepts as cannon. This has nothing to do with existence of God, unless one refuses to let go of the “moral” or “loving” dimension of their definition of God.

One may refuse to let go of these dimensions. After all, Anselm’s and Platinga’s Ontological Arguments for the existence of God necessitate that God is maximal; that God is the greatest conceivable being. Apologists often assume that maximal or great morality necessarily gets included in this definition. However if we remove God from the theistic worldview, morality, justice and lovingness are all subjective qualities. The same is not true of knowledge or power. God cannot maximally meet the criteria of morality, justice and lovingness because they are subjective criteria and so maximally meeting them is a meaningless assertion. Apologists want to get around this by asserting that God defines morality, but that is circular (and we all know it).

That’s issue #1: it’s circular but apologists stick unrelentingly to the assertion.

Issue #2 is that we have some concept of what we mean by morality, justice and lovingness. These may be woolly concepts, but these and the nature of a healthy relationship are not ideas completely devoid of direction. We know which way to point even if we cannot absolutely define each of these things. The reason this is an issue is that God is stated to be moral, just and loving and Its actions are also described and the actions completely undermine even the vaguest concept of morality, justice and lovingness.

Faced with this conflict–morality, justice and lovingness being necessary defining part of God, but it’s actions clearly not conforming to such descriptions–the intellectually honest thing to do is cut out one of the horns completely: reject either the moral, just and loving nature of God or the inerrancy of the Book in question. But apologists can’t do this; either step ruins the foundations of their apologetics.

Across the world we are aware of certain places that have disproportionate punishments for crimes. 10 countries have the death penalty for being gay and I could find 8 countries that have the death penalty for apostasy. These facts tend to outrage us, especially as they are actually utilised. These things outrage us even though they are common knowledge and anyone found guilty of these actions knew well in advance what the state would do. It outrages us because the punishment is disproportionate to the “crime” (and in these cases, they shouldn’t even be crimes). There are other examples of flogging and bodily harm for comparatively minor transgressions.

God drowned everyone in Genesis and burned everyone in Sodom and Gomorrah (and presumably then sent them to Hell, but that is just my assumption). Stuart Gray, a blogger I have recently been in dialogue with, believes that because God warned people that their sin was to lead to their death that the punishment is immediately justified. But we do not accept that for laws banning homosexuality or apostasy. We bend and even break the definition of the word “justice” to sustain that description of God.

It can be, and I have heard it argued that God’s justice cannot be compared to our justice. But our justice is the definition of justice. If God is running from some other system we should not be so foolish as to call it justice or morality, because we have some vague idea of what justice and morality look like and God demonstrably fails at that. God runs another system, as regular readers may know that I have tried to put into Earthly words what God does: narcissistic sociopathy.

In the Bible one might refer to the Fall and the crucifixion to circumvent the criticisms here. (I find many people think merely replying counts as a rebuttal and so don’t pay attention to actually being relevant.) Firstly, you must be a creationist to accept the Fall; without Creationism there was no Adam and Eve to fall. But the Fall, like the killing of the first born sons in Exodus, makes the assumption that guilt and punishment can be passed down the bloodline. This is another idea we find unjust in all our dealings, so if God utilises this mechanism we must acknowledge that “justice” is an inapt word to describe it. It looks more that thuggery and petty tribalism. The crucifixion is more morally abhorrent still. Vicarious redemption is the idea that by punishing one person we can assume that the debts of other people have been paid. I have paid another person’s parking fine before, but I have never been allowed to become a defendant on behalf of another person because it is unjust to intentionally sentence the wrong person. I would like to share a comment (that never got a reply) that I shared with Caroline earlier in the week (it originally mirrored her use of language so has been adapted for more general use):

My dog is free to sit or not sit when I give the command. It sits if it respects me, and sincere respect cannot be coerced. I would be remiss if I didn’t take a colt .45 and blow out the brains of a disrespectful dog. But I love dogs, so I killed my dog–who would always show respect and sit on command–yesterday to allow me to forgive other dogs that lick my face (but only those dogs), regardless of whether they show respect. But I can only forgive them if they thank me for killing my dog for them.

I don’t want that salvation. I don’t want the blood of an innocent person to be the price of my salvation. We know it isn’t just.

But we cannot argue that against religious apologists because they use God’s asserted authority to demand the corruption of the meaning of the words morality, justice and love so completely shelter God from criticism. Some apologists scorn critics for even positing we might have the right to judge how well God meets Its own self-image. And that’s issue #3.

People arguing for their religion are steeped in a culture of dismissing critics and dissenters. Critics are told they don’t understand, and no one understands, so they just have to be comfortable with the happy explanation. Even though the happy explanation comes from people who admit they don’t understand. Critics are told they are inferior to God and that their judgements are the feeble and mutable opinions of an ant. Justice should transcend hierarchy, which is why we can impeach politicians and spark investigations into police officers and sergeants.

God’s actions contradict Its own (published) self-image, so the apologists engage in sophistry and smear campaigns to make the obvious falsehood an inherited wisdom. And as they’ve only just stopped killing dissenters (and not entirely) they’ve afforded themselves a considerable head start.

Responding to Bema Sheep’s Open Letter

Dear Bema Sheep,

I read your letter with curiosity and thought it interesting to respond. This is due mainly to the binary opening passages which grabbed my attention for all the wrong reasons. But it may be an opportunity for me to restate some things about atheism and make some interesting comments about science. You touch on a lot of topics and get them wrong.

A few points on language

We need, firstly, to agree to some terms. “Atheism” is the top of the list of things that need clearing up. It is not the “claim that God does not exist”, as you describe. Instead, it is simply not the claim a God does exist. Consider this: if I say to you that I have blond hair, in which category would you define your belief in that sentence? (1) I believe you have blonde hair. (2) I believe you do not have blonde hair. (3) Neither of the above. It may seem that I am describing agnosticism. There is some truth to that, what I am describing is also compatible with agnosticism. The difference is that agnosticism extends towards claims like ‘one cannot know’ or ‘I do not know’, both of which are compatible with ‘I do not believe’. In their softer forms, atheism and agnosticism are the same thing.

This definition should also help to position atheism at the proper step of reasoning. Atheism is not a world view. Atheism is a conclusion. That conclusion can be drawn out of many different world views, although we may as well be honest and admit that the following are the most common: physicalism, methodological naturalism and positivism. It’s not limited to that; it is incidental that these are the world views that we most commonly encounter with atheists, not at all defining. Hopefully, this should help you unpick what you present as a bias towards “scientists” and their answers over theistic ones.

The second word is “proof”. In conversations between religious people and atheists I see the religious person introduce the word “proof” the most. Atheists and agnostics tend to stick around words like “demonstration”, “evidence” or “line of reasoning”. This should be something you appreciate: the words the atheists tend to use are a lower bar to jump that “proof”, which is about the complete and absolute negation of doubt. That is not something anyone gets the chance to work with in reality. I take reasoned positions because, outside of maths, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a proven one.

Some corrections on methods and philosophies of science

Going back to your accusation that atheists “just blindly accept the explanation postulated by many in the scientific community regarding how everything started and works”, this simply isn’t true. People with the world views I stated earlier tend to prefer conclusions that are explanations of evidence conforming to certain rational rules. Rules like Occam’s razor, which means one should create only the bare essentials of what is required to explain the evidence, and consistency, which says that answers from within an existing paradigm are preferable (because they are already evidenced). That is why we can comment on “science” regularly with disagreement. Small sample sizes and unconfirmed data often get the critical eye of atheist bloggers and, more importantly, scientist. This criticism and knowing that other people will hold your work to strict rules is the immune system of science. It is not blind acceptance: science has earned this trust with the humility to change its position with evidence and the integrity to allow society to hold them to strict rational rules.

Anyone sufficiently interested in science is fully aware that science is an incomplete discipline; else it would stop. In fact, one of the underpinning principles is ‘fallibilism’, which can tritely be summarised as ‘everything has at least a grain of falsehood in it’, or the position that everything can still be improved and that no theory is perfect. That is why science rarely speaks of ‘proof’ (and is misguided in the times when it does). Atheists―the ones worth having a discussion with, at least―do not believe scientists necessarily have all the evidence and have interpreted it correctly. However, science is the best method we have to get nature to explain itself to us. By now, computer sciences and the physics of macro objects are understood to phenomenal levels of confidence. Although we cannot be certain, it would be astonishing if any fundamental part of that turned out to be wrong. All of science falls onto a spectrum defined in terms of confidence and probability to being wrong. Nothing is at 0 or 100.

Things we simply don’t know yet don’t fall on this spectrum of confidence at all. They are simply things we don’t know. In the 1800s we didn’t know anything about dark matter and energy or quantum mechanics, and since the turn of the 20th century cosmology has developed immensely. The fact these disciples were unheard of or undeveloped in 1812 doesn’t mean they were outside the remit of science: we know of them now. Equally, things we don’t know yet may be in the remit of science in the future. It would be folly to say “I don’t know, yet” is synonymous with “the answer is not to be found by science, and therefore, has an alternate explanation”. Non-science answers to what stars are were not good answers just because science didn’t have an answer yet.

Scientists lie. I know that, you know that. My favourite science liar is Jacques Benveniste (but you can look him up for the hilarity of his lie). The thing is, I know Jacques Benveniste lied because of science and its immune system. Benveniste’s discovery was clearly incongruous to the rest of science; parts of biology and physics would need a major overhauling if he were right. But his experiments were repeated and found to be false. No one could replicate the result he claimed to get over and over again. Scientists lie, but if all of science was a lie there would be a lot of money in being the person who overturned it and revealed the conspiracy to the public. Take the example of Christians Against Dinosaurs. In this video, the vlogger claims that dinosaur fossils are essentially carefully shaped gypsum and are invented for the sake of profit. If this conspiracy were true, paleontologists―especially the junior paleontologists―would be able to make vast amounts of money from exposing it. But this hasn’t happened. Conspiracies are exposed by the immune system of science (think: Piltdown man, discovered to be a fraud by science) and the motivation of underpaid people necessarily being a part of the conspiracy. Although individuals may be dishonest, the scientific communities squeeze those ideas out

The Innocence Project is a fantastic example of the strength of science, not the weakness. As a new mechanism of collecting data, or even a new dimension of evidence (like DNA tests) the conclusions change.

Corrections on the body of scientific knowledge

And… from science you your interpretation of modern science on the three disciples religious people love to not understand. I know that sounds condescending, and it is. I am far from an expert on this matters, I have a personal interest and cannot be said to know much more than can be gleaned from the University of Google. However, one must be willing to be agnostic about things. Remember the question of my blonde hair (or not)? There are some serious misunderstandings in the content of scientific knowledge in your blog, and much of it may well be worth discussing.

There are two Big Bangs. There is the Big Bang singularity, and that is still speculative. There are many theories within cosmogony that actually do away with the singularity as physicists attempt to quantise Einstein’s equation. Those theories are things like Loop Quantum Gravity. There are also still very plausible eternal-universe models, like eternal inflation which speculates that the beginning of our universe was the slowing of inflation of the whole universe to below the speed of light (allowing physical relationships to form). We are simply a slowly-inflating neighbourhood is a much vaster universe.

There are also multiverse theories and explanations that have to do with the exact nature of “nothing”, all of which, as you correctly state, may do away with the question of why these conditions exist in the universe (although it is not inflationary theory that predicts many singularities). It was always a numbers game.

From there you get to abiogenesis: where did life come from? Again, science teaches that a little humility is a good thing. We may never know. However, Martin Hanczyc is one of the scientists forming a very good explanation of one of the possibilities. Jack Szostak is another. Both of those videos are well worth a look. More importantly, their data is available for you to review for yourself. Science is not some mystery where people in white coats say the things they think and their reasons are never discussed.

Abiogenesis is also not thought to be random. There are people working on the mathematical principles of abiogenesis and why chemicals might behave in such a way as to retain energy and thus develop in ways that promote the retention of energy. It is related to how entropy acts in an open system. Open systems are profoundly different from closed ones, and entropy only has to increase in a closed system. If you want to know what might be outside our system and providing input, one only has to look in the sky on a sunny day (science, conveniently, does have an answer). It’s not chance, it’s physics.

We were never guaranteed, and chance plays a role in the exact life that did emerge. But the basic fact of life emerging seems inevitable. As do advantageous mutations. See, the disadvantageous mutations become dead lines. If I wanted to tear apart this principle, I could do it based on mutations occuring (how unlikely are advantageous mutations? 1 in quadzillion! That’s how unlikely!) and without mutations (if life doesn’t show variation there had to be a binary step between chemistry and biology. Such binary behaviour violates evolution!). Given that I can it, doing so must be disingenuous.

Calling you out on rhetoric over reason

Now to God and rhetoric. I hope you can appreciate the definition of “God” is being stretched in your claim that “you [atheists] do have a god… random chance”. Most definitions of a deity necessarily involve some level of personal behaviour, intent or will; random chance doesn’t have that. God is also considered something is deserving of admiration or worship; random chance doesn’t have that characteristic, either. Ignoring that you arrived at the significance of random chance through either suspect or wrong presentations of science, you still haven’t elevated it above ‘natural process’. But you’re calling it God. It’s a suspicious rhetoric. I am willing to stand corrected: if you can provide a meaningful checklist of what would make a thing “God” and show that “random chance” meets that checklist, I shall take this back. Until then, I assume you think it is mocking of atheists, especially as you then compare ‘random chance’ to Satan, making atheists ‘Devil Worshippers’. It’s thick with rhetoric.

You also equivocate scientism (not science, but the trite philosophy of scientism) with atheism. You do this with high-order science (you demonstrate how high-order the science is by getting nearly all of it wrong): cosmogony, abiogenesis, entropy, mathematics. There is no suggestion that an atheist needs to accept or understand any of this. Atheists don’t need to agree with the claims you have made about science or the (much more correct) claims I have made about science. One can have no understanding of any of this and still not believe in a God. The equivocation between atheism and science is yet more sophistry and dishonest rhetoric.

Occam’s razor asks us not to multiply our entities in our explanations. To rely only on explanations involving demonstrable things is what Occam’s razor really says. Talking about Occams razor demanding simplicity is a common parlance for ease of communication. But, even if we take the simple-definition of Occam’s razor, God is not a simple answer. Gods exist in a way that is completely alien to our understanding and experience, therefore the claim of a God necessitates a new branch of existence to be considered. God is meant to be an interactive transcendence, which is not a new concept so much as contrary to understanding we have developed. God is meant to be supremely intelligence, and intelligence is complex. The claim of a God massively multiplies entities in an explanation. There is nothing about the claim of a God that conforms to the rules of Occam’s razor nor of consistency. Not that it would matter: science should teach one to have the humility to admit they don’t know somethings. In that environment, where there simply isn’t enough evidence to make a claim, Occam’s razor doesn’t apply. Your assumption that Occam’s razor should apply here is probably indicative of your bias to prefer Divine answers. But it simply doesn’t work.

Conclusions and Spock

It was actually Sherlock Holmes that said “If you’ve eliminated all other possibilities whatever remains must be the truth”. But that is fallacious thinking, easily summed up by Thomas Edison: “When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this – you haven’t”. The fallacy Holmes commits is thinking he has imagined all possible outcomes, thus putting himself in a multifaceted dichotomy which is false. There could always be an option that eludes him (which, ironically, there often was. I don’t know if that was an intentional literary point or not). Any level of reading on the history of science will unveil to the reader the immense failure of Holmes’ fallacy.

However, your misattributed faulty-thinking is the perfect close to your open letter as it reflects the rest of the letter so well. (I have no issue with being condescending, you set the tone in your own letter.) You don’t demonstrate any understanding of the science you denigrate, you don’t understand the logical tools you’re attempting to use and you don’t realise when you talk yourself directly into false dichotomy.

Atheism, Militancy and Tribalism

Religion and dogma can motivate violence in many ways. It can create a focus for a tribal identity that creates in-sympathies and out-aggressions; the Us/Them divide that can famously lead to dehumanising characterisations and violence. The other is the direct command from that dogma or religion to seek out violence against other people. The differences here are profound: whereas anything may precipitate tribalism, commands are identifying of that dogma.

Dogma can be anthing: nationalism and political ideologies to religions and beliefs. The political ideology of the Third Reich, for example, was more than just a case of tribalism; Nazism specifically commanded killing. No one seems to doubt it was more than just tribalism that lead to the Holocaust. Somehow, a specific and violent idea was sold to the masses. Patriotism and tribalism, no doubt, played a role, but it is clearly more than just that.

The Burmese Buddhist monks who are attacking and killing Muslims are not motivated by the dogma of there spiritual belief. That violence is tribally lead (although the conflict is fuelled by economic worries as well). And that doesn’t seem too complicated to cogitate on.

However, this distinction has been forgotten by people trying to score cheap political points after the triple homicide in Chapel Hill. The gunman, Craig Hicks, was an atheist. He shot three young Muslims. In the first moments it appeared to be over a parking dispute, and I’m not convinced that had nothing to do with it. Perhaps Hicks had precipitated a tribalism around his identity as an atheist that afforded him the ability to dehumanise Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. That meant that something as minor as a parking dispute could escalate in his head to this level. Or perhaps he was just mentally ill. I have found no evidence of a psychiatric report yet. Or perhaps all of these are factors.

However, many commentators have taken to their blogs to intentionally forget the distinction between direct dogmatic commands and tribalism or mental illness. The argument is that this murder is somehow a symptom of modern atheism and the perception of Islamophobia. This seems to be a misunderstanding.

Modern atheism has no dogma, although atheists do often argue that religions are detrimental to progress. In recent times, Islam as been a specific target for that argument, no least because of the presence of Islam in terror attacks, the attempts to circumvent free speech and violence. Atheists, as well as Christians and other Muslims, have been critical of these actions. These actions are directly commanded in the Koran. Therefore, to address the issue of the action, people have been critical of the ideas in the Koran (and thus in Islam). This has been perceived as Islamophobia. Despite the presence of Christians and Muslims in the voice against the aggressive actions in the name of Islam, atheists seem to receive this label of Islamophobia disproportionately. But the point is that this voice is against a particular type of motivator to violence: directly from a teaching from dogma.

No such thing exists in atheism. Atheism doesn’t have a core, like dogmas do. We don’t have texts of Immams. We’re not ‘bad atheists‘ if we haven’t read The Selfish Gene or fail to adopt Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape. There is no sentence or paragraph that is defining of atheism that can lead to what Craig Hicks did. The same cannot be said for Christianity or Islam.

When people who identify as atheists claim that Hicks’ actions have nothing to do with atheism, they are correct. When a Muslim says that ISIS do not represent the actual texts of Islam, they are not. I have no doubt the only things that can lead the members of ISIS to actually obey their Koran are tribalism and mental illness, but they are still obeying the Koran, which provokes and fosters such tribalism.

[Edited 22/02/2015 to acknowledge that atheists are not the sole recipients of the slanderous “Islamophobia” label]