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]

In Defence of Nihilism

I often spat between thinking myself a nihilist and not. It often depends how I have been primed and how I am looking at the issue. I think I have found a way of properly describing my position on the issue. I am a nihilist who values things.

I think the problem comes from maintaining this blog. The conversations get wrapped up in rhetoric and the best of the debaters have been able to use rhetoric to prime my thinking. But over time I have noticed that their rhetoric gives me the benchmark against which to fully illuminate my position as a non-nihilistic nihilist. That benchmark is religious nihilism.

Religious nihilism is the stance that all things are meaningless, except with God. It is simultaneously the pronunciation of a nihilistic universe and an external God who can imbue all things with value. It is top-down value.

I reject that philosophy. Although many religious people seem very comfortable having that philosophy themselves, and announcing to atheists that they must be nihilistic because their view of the world lacks this external value-giver, I don’t accept it. I think things can be their own shining beacon of value and worth. I believe in grassroots value.

You’ll notice this isn’t absolute nihilism; it is the enunciation of value. It is only nihilism insofar as it rejects extrinsic value. I believe in grassroots, dependent value. It’s easy to dismiss “dependent value” as not existing at all, making ‘extrinsic nihilism’ identical to ‘absolute nihilism’. But I think that misses the point. Imagine a CD in a universe devoid of technology to read it, or a book written in a dead language. In what sense of the word do these things convey ‘meaning’? They don’t. There is only any meaning contained in the CD or conveyed by language when something is there to understand it. (If you want to really blow your mind, try to imagine writing Microsoft Office in a universe without material; you can’t! Meaning also depends on a physical medium.) And so it is with value. An object must be valued to have value. It emerges from the relationship between the person and the object. A vase, for example, would have no value after the extinction of all creatures that might relate to its creation.

It is from here, as an extrinsic nihilist, I started to see how an absolute nihilist might talk about objective morality. Consider any situation where you have an assortment of choices as to how you might proceed. (I tend to imagine medical scenarios within a content of health insurance and I am the doctor.) All the choices you have can be labelled. There’s the one that benefits you, the one that best profits the hospital, doing best by the patient and trying to maximise wellbeing even if it means making hard decisions. The ‘absolute nihilist’ can recognise the ‘moral’ choice as a linguistic notion. They won’t see any value in it, necessarily. But maximising wellbeing is synonymous with what most people mean when they say morality. And from there, I can talk about an extrinsic nihilistic morality. It’s the exact same thing, except with a recognition of value in wellbeing.

So, the religious narrative accusing all views of the world devoid of a God as nihilistic doesn’t carry the pejorative tone they hope it does. Being a nihilist is about recognising you are a part of the process of creating meaning and value. It also doesn’t silence your ability to discuss morality, because if you can get to objective morality from absolute nihilism, you can certainly get there from extrinsic nihilism, and if you only want relativism, you can achieve that too.

Life, Non-Life and Nature (Science has made a lot of progress)

Is Science Theologically Neutral?

No.

The methods of science may well be theologically neutral. An experiment runs and is either destined to accept or reject the null hypothesis. As these experiments build up and explanations build up along side them, we start to build a body of knowledge. That body of knowledge is not theologically neutral. It has theological implications.

If we take the one of the most basic theological ideas–that nature is managed by a personal being–we can justify certain expectations. One of those expectations is that the running of nature would alter or waver to fulfil the preference or judgement of the managing God: we might expect to see the sun stand still in the sky to extend a deadline, or gravity be reversed to physically lift a person from an uncomfortable situation. And, in pre-scientific times that is exactly the narrative people built. The Old Testament is filled with such miracles. Science has discovered that nature does not show exception in its running.

Tsunamis are not held back by an invisible wall and crops do not grow regardless of the physical environment. This “pitiless indifferent” nature has important theological consequences. Religions have adapted and folded and felled cornerstone beliefs to accommodate science simply because science has such a profound theological input.

As your theology gets more specific–say, Literal Christianity–science is yet more profound with its theological input. The evidence does not support the Genesis account of the origins of the universe (Young or Old Earth). Many people claim that religion has adapted and those literal interpretations are a childish place for an atheist to direct its criticisms. But the fact that religions have adapted to yielded to science only goes to show the theological input that science has had.

Is it More Rational to Believe in God?

The BBC’s The Big Questions continues to captivates, today with the question of whether it is more rational to believe in God. There has been some allusion to what it means to be rational; the philosopher Julian Baggini refers to science and naturalism. But a strong definition is never given. I’d like to do that (and offer the definition I give to be criticised and torn apart) and then I would like to evaluate the question.

To be rational is to use methods of knowledge that have a good record of aiming at and moving towards truth, or being true. That means being rational either includes a type of process that can refine or a method that creates a demonstrable immutable truth first time. Rationality must tick at least one of these two boxes.

I think rationality is broader than this definition. However, for this conversation to go on we need some key performance indicators and to benchmark the word rational. Although my attempt as benchmarking the word has two key deficits–it doesn’t reflect a fully comprehensive definition of “rational” and it doesn’t fully outline the metrics we are using–it is important to note this is a step in the right direction. If no one offers substantive criticism of my definition of “rational”, or if no one offers another benchmark-able definition, then I would go on to borrow David Deutsch’s benchmarks from The Beginning of Inifinity: measuring progress and utility. That is an indicator of how we know something tracks reality/truth (as imperfect as it is).

(I should take a moment to acknowledge another definition of rationality that I am building up on an ad hoc basis based on the sociologist speaker Dr Lois Lee. She alludes to this idea of what is considered irrational in one place is a cultural norm in another. The reason I am dismissing this concept of rationality is because it becomes circular. Religion is a cultural norm, and so to ask if belief in a God is more rational is a moot question.)

I’ll evaluate religion first. If we assume that religion either generates demonstrable immutable truth first time, or has a process of becoming more true, we end up with a queer predicament about truth. If religion is a good tracker of truth, we must concede that truth is different in Asia (where people are predominantly Buddhist) to the Middle East (with a Muslim majority) both of which have a different truth to Europe and the Americas (with a Christian majority). We must also accept that truth is fundamentally different in certain neighbourhoods because that particular neighbourhood has a Jewish or Sikh majority. And then, even on the level of a house, certain houses have a different truth because they have a Jainist majority. Truth, in the religious context, is geography-dependent on both the continental and local scale.

We find this same variation in the truth–meaning the truth is not an immutable quality–over time, not just geography. Religions have evolved from polytheisms of imperfect beings to monotheisms with a perfect creator. And over the last four hundred years, since the Enlightenment, we must be willing to entertain the idea that there has been less truth. As Enlightenment values have convinced even the religious to abandon certain tenets of their religion, we must be willing to consider that, if one thinks religion meets the criteria for rationality, there is simply less truth.

Let us take science as a comparison against religion. Although the question includes the comparative “more rational” is doesn’t actually state what the comparison point should be. But I’m not too shy to suggest science should be the comparison point. Science is a powerhouse of amalgamated epistemologies: empiricism, fallibilism, inductivism, criticism, creativity and reason. Science generates claims that are not time- or geography-dependent (unless you’re a geographer, which I am). Science has been wrong before, so it cannot be said to create immutable claims of truth at the first attempt. However, every time science has been “wrong”, we have only discovered that through further scientific investigation and refinement. Science has its own immune system that does direct it at truth (an immutable quality of reality). Science actually ticks a box of the definition of rational.

During The Big Questions Vince Vitale argued, as many people do, that there are only three ways the universe could be: God, something from nothing or it’s eternal. He then equates all three as equally miraculous. And on that there are three big errors. Firstly, science leaves us with the choice that many of us are uncomfortable with: I don’t know. Bottom of the barrel science asks that we don’t move forward with a claim as if it were true until we are at least 95% sure that it is a good claim. We know that over time that are good odds (1 in 20, in fact) that 5% doubt will expand as new evidence comes in, and then the science needs another thorough review. But until we reach that 95% benchmark (at least, and in physics it’s much higher) we should err on the side of “I don’t know”. So Vince’s trichotomy is mistaken and arrogant. Firstly it assumes his imagination of the only three options represents a real limit to the options, secondly it excludes the “I don’t know” answer that is sometimes the only rational one.

Vince’s second error is to assume that all three options are equally miraculous. They are not. Recent calculations suggest that the universe is eternal. However, this hasn’t had enough time to be fully scrutinised yet. But there are also good reasons to believe that the ‘something from nothing’ option is a good one: when we look in places we expect to find ‘nothing’ we find ‘something’ popping in and out of existence. That simply appears to be what ‘nothing’ does. It might not gel with your definition of ‘nothing’, but it might be a case of tough luck; have the humility to accept your philosophical definition might not be holding up against the evidence. On top of that, there are loop quantum gravity and Horava gravity that exclude the Big Bang singularity, but have the Big Bang phase.

Thirdly, Vince also assumes that positing a God somehow gets rid of the need for an explanation. We still have no method by which God could have created the universe and, given that Vince admits that an eternal universe is as miraculous as a God, in the God option he has doubled his miracles: it’s the God option and an eternal God. But this bias we have where we are comforted by the idea of intent and personal agency runs strongly through his argument.

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