Won't anyone stand up for God? [Response]

[Note: The following is a response to a column on a UK website. I intended to post it there, but didn't realize that I was so limited to size. You can read the original column (and other responses) here and my response is as follows:]

Well the author posits many things to refute as she (I couldn’t find the name) treads down the same worn path that many theists have tread. Her arguments range from inaccurate to unsupported to wishful thinking. Unlike the theistic side, though, we non-theists (aka atheists) actually have to have our facts and evidence lined up.

I do appreciate the author’s dismissal of the holy books as ancient, unreliable and generally questionable. I have hypothesized that, were it not for bronze/iron age morals and ethics codified in unchangeable texts, religion would be a benign force which would offer little more than personal comforts. It is the writing down of these ancient ethical standards that gives us the texts that fundamentalists/literalists pervert to support their cause and worldview. It would not make supernatural beliefs real or true, but we would have removed an important source of societal ills.

I do not have time to refute everything that I would like, but let me address a few from my American perspective.

The author brings out the old Hitler/Stalin argument. This has been refuted by many far more scholarly than myself, but Hitler invoked God on a number of occasions. Stalin used the credulity of the religious in order to accomplish the horrors of his regime. Even if you accept the failed argument that they did what they did BECAUSE of atheism, you neglect something in your comparison to religious killing. If the same 20th century technology of war existed during the Inquisition, can anyone argue that it would not have been used to their ends and many more would have died? Indeed, we now have nuclear and biological weapons that could fall into the hands of twisted fundamentalists; and they are trying to get them. Certainly the disappearance of religion would not be the disappearance of bad behavior; but we would have less reason for good people to bad things.

The author ponders the big, fundamental questions of “why is there something, rather than nothing?”. This is a valid, important and ponderous question. The position of science is (barring some hypotheses) that we don’t know. . . and the proper position is that we need to look closer. Let me say that again . . . the proper response is to say “we need to look closer”. Saying that there is a conscious creator does nothing in terms of explaining anything and only extinguishes inquiry. It is our species anthropomorphizing a being to explain the unknown. We (as a species) have done this since time immemorial. It does not mean that there is any truth or even any PROBABILITY of truth to it. More importantly, the position of the creation of the universe says nothing about a personal god much less the specific gods described in the Abrahamic faiths.

Going on, the author seems somewhat tortured by the “why are we here” question. This is rather self-induced. She seems to PRESUME that there MUST BE a ‘why’ even if none exists. I can say from experience, that there is no wonder lost by abandoning the ‘why question’. In fact, I find the universe that much more wondrous now than in my theistic days.

The author then brings up the sheer numbers of believers as something of an argument. I feel rather silly for having to point out the obvious; the ancients believed just as fervently in Zeus and Poseidon and Osiris and the thousands of other dead gods on the scrap heap of mythology. If you are told from birth that you will burn in a lake of fire if you don’t believe; indeed you warrant death by your mother’s hand . . . I think that might influence a few minds.

Another point is on the author’s contention that “Without faith - belief beyond evidence - life would be unlivable.” It would seem that she feels abandoning supernatural beliefs would immediately throw her into a chasm of despair and hopelessness. This is completely and utterly unsupported. Dogmatic teachings tell you clearly that life only has meaning with God, but there is no evidence for this. I, for one, feel invigorated and stand in greater awe of our world and universe. Clearly the author cannot have been on both sides of this argument. It would seem if atheists were all cast into this emotional abyss, they would kill themselves off and we would not be having this conversation.

My final point from the original article is the “believing scientists”. Indeed; some scientists believe in a personal god . . . even the occasional ‘notable’ scientist. But, by way of statistics, the numbers are quite small. Here in the US we have a body called The National Academy of Sciences. This is an assemblage of our country’s preeminent thinkers. In a very recent survey, fully 74% specifically self-identify as atheists. Add to that the scientists identify as agnostic and it brings the total to 93% that have no belief in an active supernatural being. Yes, there are scientists that believe in God, but they are a very small minority. I believe that mathematicians make up a greater portion of the ‘believers”. Those fields that deal with cosmology and biology are almost exclusively atheist. I presume the same holds true across the pond in the UK.

In conclusion, we should all hold this truth to be self-evident . . . As a whole, society is ALWAYS better served if decisions are based on knowledge as opposed to mythology. The obvious implication of that truth is that the church or believer must demonstrate that their position IS something more than mythology. The reason the pope and theologians are not bringing out the big guns is because they do not have big guns. The best arguments HAVE been put forth . . . and they have failed.

Do not fear a loss of faith. Dogma teaches you that loss of faith means loss of meaning in life, but it is just the opposite.

The Milk Miracle

I took place in a debate of sorts recently at an Oregon newspaper’s website. It started, as many of these things do, with someone making some remark about how atheists ignore clear evidence and that the liberal media bias suppresses spectacular evidence of a god. I routinely challenge these claims (Hey . . . you have to do SOMEthing to entertain yourself!) This debate took a little bit of a different turn for me though.

My ‘opponent’ in this debate (I will call him Mark) made frequent accusations of non-theists being bigots (not that unusual) but then he pulled out the Milk Miracle as his trump card (more detail on that in a bit) and claimed, emphatically, that a clear, multi-national, well documented (on video no less) miracle is being suppressed by and dismissed by the liberal media and elite. None of this too uncommon for the well indoctrinated, but he was quite emphatic and gave me a web site with the challenge “explain this!”

The web site he provided was http://www.milkmiracle.com/. This is an assemblage of TV clips of a 1995 incident where statues of Hindu gods were drinking milk by the spoonful.
This was a real incident and I vaguely remember hearing a bit of it when it occurred. Word spread of the miraculous events across the country and around the world. Milk supplies depleted from many stores as people flocked to local temples to see if the Hindu gods were lactose intolerant. The media was all over it and there was much video footage of the faithful putting spoonfuls of white liquid to noses or mouths of their religious statues and the praises of god were heard as the spoon was drained to empty.

Of course skeptical groups came out describing a combination of effects (absorption through capillary action and surface tension and the like). I am an engineer and I had no problem formulating any number of natural explanations for this, so I quickly dismissed it.

Mark, however, was emphatic and restated his challenge. So I began to do some actual research. One of my first steps was to google ‘debunk milk miracle’. This pulled up surprisingly little information. It was clearly a real incident. It was well documented. If true (as described) it would be a pretty stunning event so I would expect that there would be a good deal of rational debunking going on, but I could find virtually none.

At this point in my research I am starting to contemplate why there might be this dearth of information to refute the miracle. Was it so ludicrous that nobody even bothered? I even contemplated whether there might actually be media suppression. I continued my research. I found testimony from a witness in Bombay who ran across the street from his school to the local temple to watch the crowds. What he saw stunned him. He saw believers put spoonful after spoonful of milk up to the statue and watched the spoons drain of their contents. He also saw the milk collect in a trough below the statue were it was collected and he saw priests take the milk away by the bucketful. And yet he still heard the praises of god and the miracle of the milk!!

OK. One internet post does not a position make, so I mentally set the eyewitness account aside and returned to the videos. Going to YouTube, I found a fair amount of Milk Miracle video, but most of it was the footage from MilkMiracle.com. I sat down to take a critical look but, given the universally poor video quality, I didn’t expect to see anything. What I did see astounded me. One of the first scenes clearly showed milk running down the chin of the statue! Keep in mind that this was the video being used as PROOF of the miraculous event . . . AND THE MILK WAS RUNNING DOWN THE CHIN! I saw the same thing happen a couple more times throughout the video. It was rather apparent on the painted (non-white) statues. Many of the religious icons are a shiny, white plaster which, of course, would have made a miniscule stream of milk almost invisible to even an eyewitness. I then went to the kitchen and grabbed a white porcelain coffee cup and was able to ‘feed’ it a spoonful of milk AT LEAST as convincingly as the videos showed.

Sitting here now, I actually feel a little silly that I put this much time into this purported miracle, but the effort got me thinking. I have an ever-increasing awe of the human brain and its manifestation of ‘mind’. We are just at the tip of the iceberg in our understanding of how the whole mess works. It is fascinating to see how we learn; how we think; how we interpret . . . and how we bias. I look at the Milk Miracle and contemplate how the mind can ignore unambiguous visual evidence if it does not reinforce a person’s worldview. We are not talking about abstract debatable theories that are being ignored; we are talking about milk running down the face of a statue. Of course there are other psychosocial factors here like group-think or not wanting to be the one who DOESN’T see the miracle. I am sure that social psychologists have names for all these things.

What it comes down to for me is an angry atheist moment. That’s right, I am angry. I am angry that a supernatural belief system can so impair [what could otherwise be] a sound mind. I am angry that said belief systems are so culturally protected from criticism. I am angry that such belief systems are so heavily represented in our government and our supreme court. I am angry that an individual is LESS trusted if they lack a belief in the supernatural. I know that your pants are in a bunch right now. I know that it is a select, indoctrinated, desperate minority of the faithful that are so impaired. Still; it is the demonstration that these inculcated beliefs have the ability to destroy the mind. It you believers wish to keep these belief systems in general circulation, you had better damned well prove that they are true.