Read The Eloquent Atheist Webzine
The Reply That Mike Sent to Annie,
Who Wrote Him At His Web Site

I was quite proud of my response to Annie (quoted in my previous blog entry), but I never received a reply. Perhaps I was too direct -- I notice now that I never complimented her on her earnest thoughtfulness. Instead, I chided her for having a stereotypical view of atheists.

"I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason and intellect, has intended us to forgo their use." -- Galileo

"You, sir, are obsessed with reality." -- said to James Randi.


First off, I offer my apologies for taking so long to respond! My day job has required a lot of travel, so my free time has been severely limited. Plus, you spent a long time on your response, and I wanted to respond in kind.

"I am NOT Spock" -- Leonard Nimoy

After reading your response, I want to re-read my own website to see why you've obtained such a one-dimensional view of me and my philosophy. Could it be something I said or implied on my page, or are you painting me as a straw-man based on what is, frankly, a cultural stereotype? It's a sad and unfortunate preconception of my rationalist brethren that we are cold, calculating logicians completely unwilling to listen to the music of life. (Substitute "rationalist" for whatever term you prefer: secular humanist, naturalist, non-theist, bright, heathen, skeptic, infidel, atheist, deist, reality-based communitarian...) Spock is the embodiment of this point of view, someone who may be valuable in his ability to think through a situation while desperately eliminating all emotional aspects of life. I try not to be offended when I'm pigeonholed like this, since 1) too many rationalists get an immature kick out of being coldly contrary, and 2) the few examples of them in the media reinforce this stereotype. (Look at the Bill Pullman character in the latest made-for-TV movie.) You might be surprised to hear that I'm not a cold demagogue in a lab coat.

"The only difference between you and me, is that I believe in one less god than you do." -- Dan Barker

I'll have you know that I, too have appreciated Leonard Cohen, and at one point toyed with becoming a professional musician. My life is enriched by art, literature, film, and above all, music. I even do yoga. To me, these aren't mere diversionary entertainments, they are ways of enriching my life and broadening my perspective. They, like science, logic, and reason, are tools used to discover truth.

But I don't buy the notion of rational and non-rational tools for discovering truth as being separate-but-equal. Winston Churchill once said about democracy (paraphrasing): "It's the worst political system in the world, except for all the others." Similarly, Science/logic/reason are the worst tools for finding truth -- except for all the others. The other tools may feel better to use, but they are flawed in fundamental ways.

Science is particularly good at determining whether things exist, and whether things have truly happened. Here's an example. Because I'm on travel today, my wife and I are in different states. Let's say that the weather's bad and I know she's out driving to visit her mother. How do I know that she's alive and well? I could use non-rational tools and search my intuitions: is there a hitch in my sense of well-being? Or can call her cell phone and obtain a solid, scientific data point? Is this method foolproof? No. She could be crushed by a boulder in the moment after she hangs up on me. Are non-rational methods entirely useless? No -- I could have a strong hunch that there might be boulder-laden landslides in the area in which she's driving. But if I was given the choice of using one method over the other in this case, I'd pick science hands-down. So if this is the best method for determining my wife's existence from afar, why not God?

"By all means let's be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out." -- Richard Dawkins

Intuitions and other non-rational approaches may feel compelling, but they are full of pitfalls. People are adept at bamboozling themselves, often adopting the philosophy, "If it feels good, think it." Humans seek patterns even in pattern-free situations (hence the Man in the Moon, the Mother Theresa sticky bun and the Elvis Presley taco chip), and as a result are naturally compelled to believe things which are compelling but untrue . As a result, it's better to be aware of these pitfalls than to succumb to them without reflection. Being human, I know I am prone to these truth-seeking mistakes. So when an issue is important, such as the existence of God, I do my best to see where I may be allowing wishful thinking to cloud my judgment. This is partially the reason for my insistence in evidence for the existence of God. (The primary reason is rhetorical: I had too many fundamentalists responding with absolute certainty there was a God, so I decided to call them on it.) This isn't to say that I probe all important issues with scientific / rational / logical methods. Rather, when I don't use those methods, I try to be sure to remind myself that my conclusions aren't airtight.

This isn't as cold and calculating as it sounds. If anything, it requires a very deep level of self-awareness. Not only do I know what I think, I have a good sense of why I think it.

Thus, I aim to achieve good sense of the degree of certainty I have in my beliefs. I seek out what I know for certain to be true, what I am reasonably sure to be true, what I think is true, what I believe is true, and what I'd like to believe to be true, in declining order of certainty.

I know for certain the chair I'm sitting in exists

am reasonably sure my lunch won't poison me

believe that I'll make it home without accident, and

would like to believe in a benevolent God and that I have an eternal soul.

The biggest mistake, in my mind, is to elevate any of those conclusions up a level of certainty.

This is why I have a hard time with conclusions about God. Given that God doesn't interact with us directly (in that he doesn't hang out in my cubicle or call me on the phone), nobody can know for certain He exists. At best, given the level of evidence, one can be believe, so anyone who takes a stronger tone has made a serious error. (If I'm charitable, I would say that at best someone could be reasonably sure.)

Apologists for the existence of God try to set up a rigged game, one no one would play if it wasn't God they were talking about. If a girlfriend said she wanted a relationship with me, but that by her own choice I would never see her directly, never hear from her directly, and the best evidence of her love for me would come indirectly, say from transcendent feelings coming through art or the appreciation of a sunrise, I would say, "thanks, but no thanks." Why should a leap of faith be necessary when our very souls are supposedly in the balance?

"Mr. Narrator, this is Bob Dylan to me." -- The Minutemen (the band, not the movement)

You say that "I perceive your world as being much smaller and narrower than mine...again, I marvel at that extraordinarily limited notion of 'truth' as being facts and evidence alone." I suggest that the opposite is true. After all, sure, a single fact or data point in a scientific description of something may seem prosaic and uninteresting at its face. However, it bespeaks a lack of imagination to see the richness that these data present. Without such supposedly arcane, uninteresting data, we wouldn't have any sense of, say, the vastness of space, or an appreciation of the long struggles our ancient ancestors suffered to have offspring and pass on their genes. We wouldn't understand that within our DNA resides information about where we came from, how our ancestors migrated. We wouldn't know that we are made of the very elements that existed in stars billions of years ago, and that their exploding deaths led to our existence. Through science, humans have been capable of leaving our own planet, and looking back at it to ponder. How is this limiting? How is this prosaic? Indeed, science has shown that the universe is much broader, more fascinating, expansive and complicated than any religion could have possibly imagined. God didn't merely say "abracadabara" over the course of seven days and rested. That is much more limiting and prosaic a point of view than the truth: the universe as we know it took many, many, patient years to reach its current state. And it will continue for many long years after we are dead and gone. This truth is as awesome as it is humbling.

While scientists often seem antisocial and overly focused on minutiae, I submit that they are much more interested and appreciative of the universe than any artist, any shaman, any Pope. Read Richard Dawkins' "The Ancestor's Tale," "Cosmos" by Carl Sagan, or just about anything by Stephen Jay Gould and you see the richness of their views of life. I have hung out with artists and with scientists, and I would say that on balance the scientists possess more of a love for the world and a greater sense of awe, reverence, and wonder. You may not see the poetry, the literature in their views, see nothing but alphabets instead of Dostoyevsky. But I suggest that this is a limitation in your view of the universe, not mine.

Thanks for your time,

"Anything you don't understand, Mr. Rankin, you attribute to God. God for you is where you sweep away all the mysteries of the world, all the challenges to our intelligence. You simply turn your mind off and say God did it." -- Sagan

"I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides." -- Sagan

The Talk of Lawrence