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When the Flea Disproves the Elephant, Post 1

Mark at Minute Particulars comments on the seeming frequency of arguments against simplistic versions of religious faith being taken as valid arguments against the existence of God. I was going to comment briefly on a terrible argument that he points out, but in looking at the link from which the argument came, I discovered that it deserves a little more attention because:

1) The quotation that he offers is only the conclusion drawn from a whole way of thinking that is, at heart, flawed by illogic and disingenuousness.
2) The woman who wrote the passage that Mark cites, Diana Mertz Hsieh, apparently actually lectures on the topic!

For expediency's sake, I'll just intersperse my comments with Hsieh's original text:

... belief on faith alone is hardly unproblematic.

We need proof of the existence of God for the exact same reasons we would need proof of mermaids, atoms, bacteria, evil spirits, and any other being. Belief in these beings, like belief in God, have consequences upon our thoughts and our actions.

OK. Beliefs have consequences. And our actions related to everything in all of reality are based on beliefs about those things. Fair enough. Of course, that doesn't tell us which beliefs are detrimental and which are beneficial. Our ability to prove that atoms exist gives us no guidance as to how we ought to behave because of them. Furthermore, not knowing how or why something works does not mean that we don't use what knowledge we have until we can thoroughly describe the processes (which is impossible anyway... there's always something smaller than the atom and bigger than the solar system).

A person who believes on faith that mermaids exist might waste time and money, not to mention risk death, searching for them.

Yes, and a person who knows from proof that atoms exist might use that knowledge to create a really big bomb, and a person who believes in mermaids might waste time writing beautiful stories about them. Furthermore, somebody who believes on faith that mermaids do not exist might "waste time" and "risk death" (not to mention engage in all forms of dangerous philosophical tramplings) attempting to prove that position.

False beliefs about the four humors led centuries of doctors to bloodlet , a practice which killed countless numbers of people. The germ theory of disease, on the other hand, has had the delightfully beneficial effect of saving millions of lives through improved sanitation.

Hmm. Reading this paragraph, one might think that the "four humors" are sort of a funny version of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Actually, they constitute a scientific theory that four types of fluids within the human body ought to be kept in balance for better health. More to the point, doctors didn't theorize the four humors and then begin a well-intentioned slaughter. It being a scientific theory, itself, they observed benefits of certain treatments — leeches, for example, can be helpful not only by thinning blood, but also because their secretions can, among other things, dissolve clots — and put their observations to use. This is how science works. Doctors didn't postulate the existence of germs, prove it, and begin treating patients on that basis. They observed reality and found a way to explain it well enough to act, filling in the blanks as they went. Of course, germ theory has done wonders, but again, its existence doesn't give us any indication of how to use that knowledge. I'd say a belief in germs could — theoretically, mind you — lead a maniac dictator to use them as weapons... unless, of course, he believed that mermaids (or Seals or Rangers) would kill him for it (or perhaps even then).

Hsieh apparently realizes that nothing in her argument thus far indicates which beliefs, provable or not, are beneficial, so she must shift gears and discuss why belief in God is dangerous. Unfortunately, she doesn't attempt to explain why proof of God's existence wouldn't exacerbate all of the following horrible possibilities:

In short, beliefs have effects upon a person's life. Belief in God is no exception. It can result in undervaluing the living, as theists often expect to see loved ones after death.

You almost have to laugh. What she's saying is, in essence, that belief in God can lead people to say, "Forget my loved ones, now, because I'm going to spend all of eternity with them anyway." By this logic, it would be dangerous to believe that the rotation of the Earth ensures a tomorrow! I'd also suggest that my fellow Catholic pro-lifers would have something to say about God and the value of life, and I'd love to see the research from which Hsieh drew the conclusion that non-believers are more family-oriented.

It can result in an indifference towards evil, as God will judge everyone in the end according to His Plan.

What contortions of logic allow Hsieh to postulate the existence of "evil" without God? And again, I'd like to see the research that shows that people who believe in God are less concerned about evil. Personally, the possibility of being judged by a Being who knows all inspires me to avoid and battle evil. After all, if I let it slide, I might not get to see my loved ones in the next life. On the other hand, if there's no God, no Heaven, no judgment, why bother risking my neck to stop evil? And isn't the evil idea behind eugenics (which Merriam-Webster defines as a science) — with all of its controlled breeding and euthanasia — to logically manipulate humanity according to a social plan?

It can encourage superficial and magical thinking where contradictions, inconsistencies, paradoxes, puzzles, and other mysteries are too-quickly attributed to God rather than investigated rationally.

Well, I'll resist the temptation to comment on "superficial thinking," in this case. More importantly, there's no rational basis to suggest that belief in God leads to too-quick cessation of inquiry into any of these. First, if we believe in God and want to know God, then we'll investigate His creation. Second, more important, belief in God gives us a reason to believe that there is a rational explanation for contradictions, et al. If there's no creator, there's no reason a particular puzzle ought to be solvable. Consider the statisticians who claim that everything is just chance.

It can result in the use of faith or feeling as a claim to knowledge in other areas of life.

That's a nice sleight of tongue there: "faith or feeling." I suppose Atheists are immune to feeling (which would explain why they object so strongly to "evil"). Beyond that, if everything is based on belief of some kind (see above), I'd say there's no such thing as "other areas of life" apart from belief... that would be irrational. If she's trying to suggest that feeling and faith ought have no bearing on matters of logic, she's even more obliged to explain how logic alone can tell us what is right and wrong. And if there are "areas of life" in which faith and feeling oughtn't be applied, wouldn't there be "areas of life" in which they should? Perhaps regarding God?

It can result in attempting to find life's meaning through God rather than in one's own choices and values. Such are just a few of the risks of belief in God on faith alone.

I'm going to need somebody to explain to me how we find meaning through our "own choices and values." Does that mean that I would do something and then search for the meaning behind why I did it? Would I need proof of why I made the choices and have the values? And how do I prove a "value," if not through belief and feeling? Whatever it means, I fail to see why finding meaning through God is worse than the solipsism that Hsieh seems to be promoting.

I guess one could put forth the proposition that not believing in God can result in people believing that whatever they do or want to believe must be right because that's how we ought to determine the meaning of life. Rational contradictions and inconsistencies be damned.

Posted by Justin Katz @ 04:44 PM EST