"You know, one of the best things about believing in a big fat God up there, is that nobody can disprove He exists."
This remark came from a woman of science, who is also a woman of faith. We weren't arguing about atheism—well, not exactly—but we brushed up against the wall such conversations face. Proof.
Science never proves anything. It disproves. That's the scientific method.
When you've disproved every other alternative, then you have a proper scientific argument. If someone comes along with another explanation, you need to disprove it to defend your theory.
This debating point catches many skeptics and atheists without a reply, or with an unconvincing one.
In December, CNN muscled in on Oprah territory when it broadcast a Very Special Larry King Live. The subject was Life after Death.
Curiously, King himself didn't lead the discussion. One imagines he'd take great interest in the subject. By the looks of him, he seems perilously close to speaking from experience.
The entire piece is embarrassing—so embarrassing, CNN seems to have ditched it from the LKL website.
The three panelists took the life-after-death position—CNN's medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and authors Dr. Deepak Chopra and Dinesh D'Sousa. Professor Michael Shermer served as the lone spokeperson for skeptics.
And you know what? Shermer lost, big-time.
He deserved to. It's one thing to split hairs in philosophical discourse, but quite another to win minds and hearts in popular debate.
Sometimes, the best strategy is to abandon your case.
Malostranské náměstí, Prague
Am I talking to your neurons?
The Afterlifers raised patronising snark to high art. They petulantly asked Shermer: "Am I talking with you, or your neurons?"
Shermer pretty much just pfaffed around in reply. What might he have said? As a direct answer, the best I could come up with was something like this:
"Dr. Gupta. You're a neurosurgeon. You've seen a body without functioning neurons? So you would say that I could talk to you without neurons? Wouldn't you say that consciousness, then, is a product of neurons, in some way?"
Well, that doesn't exactly slam the case closed.
The real truth (which both believers and skeptics need to acknowledge) is that we don't know.
But by the rules which govern debate on American television in 2010, the first person to admit he doesn't know, loses. Shermer caved.
One of the commenters on Shermer's facebook page pointed out a response that could have been more effective. "You should have asked: are there cookies?"
Indeed. Now, they're on the back foot. Doctors Gupta and Chopra, and Mr. D'Sousa must confirm that there are cookies in the afterlife. Or, alternately, that there are no cookies in the afterlife. Or that they don't know.
"How do you know we'll find cookies? We might find tea cakes. Maybe the tea cakes are only for the ladies, and men find 72 virgins? How about bacon? Bacon is better than cookies. How about nothing? Maybe we'll find nothing in the afterlife. Isn't that just as likely? Why do you refuse to acknowledge that possibility, Dr. Gupta?"
The churchyard at St Georg's, Bogenhausen, March 2010.
Even the usually unflappable Richard Dawkins stumbled over the proof/disproof issue when he spoke at Liberty University. (LU is enemy territory; an Evangelical Baptist institution founded by Jerry Falwell himself)
A student asked Dawkins a simple question: What if you're wrong? The real answer, which he eventually reached, runs something like this:
"If I should believe in an Abrahamic God because he might exist, then I should also believe in every other god whom humans have seen fit to worship, because they might exist.
In fact, I'd better disembowel you at the temple because Zeus could be angry. I might need to toss you into a volcano, too. I might just impale you because you're an infidel and the Crusaders could have a point. I might need to beat you because I'm a Catholic schoolteacher who believes children are naturally evil and must be punished. And I might just need to be an atheist, too, because that's equally possible.
No, I won't take Pascal's Wager. The stakes are too high."
Perhaps Shermer should have replied to the question thus:
"Well, Dr. Gupta, I confess. You're not talking to my neurons. You're talking to Master Alien Zoog, who orbits Alpha Centauri in an advanced spacecraft. He speaks through me as his prophet.
Now, when we die, it is his white light that shines at the end of the tunnel, when he takes all our thoughts and turns them into anti-matter. Many people with near-death experiences report images of relatives who stand at the other end of a brightly-lit white tunnel to welcome you. They are anti-matter projections of your thoughts.
You're right. All this stuff about neurons doesn't explain anything."
Many atheists, skeptics, or agnostics argue against religious belief by seeking to disprove it. That's not just a losing strategy, but it's intellectually disingenuous.
One cannot not prove a believer wrong—it's pointless, in any case. God has been put to the test many times, and He has failed. It doesn't shake the conviction of the faithful.
One must, however, show that belief is arbitrary. This fact sows the seeds of doubt more effectively than a head-on attempt at disproof.
It's more honest. And it's more fun.
Hell, according to Reubens. From the Alte Pinakotek
god hates #tags
The merry gang from Westboro Baptist Church protests in many places, on many occasions. Led by Pastor Fred Phelps and his family, you may recall their colourful signs which proclaim that God hates fags, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Obama, America, Italy, Ireland, Lady GaGa and much else of His creation.
Yes, the Westboro Baptisits hold some mighty firm beliefs. And they love it when you try to disprove them.
"Read your Bible!", Meagan Phelps often shouts in reply. Many of the least effective counter-protests involve those who have read the Bible, too, and argue that she and her family get it wrong.
Twitter got it right. When the Phelps clan protested outside their offices on Folsom Street in San Francisco this January, staff quickly desk-top-published a few signs of their own.
(Iconic American writer Harmon Leon wrote a great post on
Asylum.com about the incident. Check it out. He also deserves credit for the photo on your left.)
None of the signs actually attacked the Westboro Baptist Church, and their beliefs. They simply provided alternative beliefs.
God, according to Twitter, hates ponies. And broccoli. He thinks we should build prisons on the moon. And we should wear silly hats only. One sign proclaimed, in a gesture pure and poetic, that I have a sign.
Read the Bible? No, Meagan, read April Tips Number Two: What to Do if You Don't Have Time to Get Your Pants Hemmed, published in Esquire on March 31st 2008! The prophets of style command us through Esquire. If we obey them, we will be richly rewarded. And our cuffs will be clean.
WBC was left speechless, and turned tail.
A Reasonable Objective.
When it comes to God, I call myself an atheist. When it comes to the persistence of the soul, I'm mildly skeptical.
Frankly, I have no interest in converting a believer. I do, however, have a very serious interest in preserving my right to dissent.
Just as important, preserving my right to dissent also protects the rights of believers to disagree amongst themselves. The faithful need to acknowledge this.
If mockery preserves these rights better than logic, then mock we must.
Happy Sunday, everyone.
EDIT: You ain't got no pancake mix!