Sunday, May 14, 2006

A Dumb, Mechanical Universe of Random Fortune and Tragedy, and How I Learned to Live Here
Every once in a while I devote a Sunday morning to visiting Internet precincts I don't get to regularly. This morning, it was The Secular Web, and specifically an article by Richard Carrier called "Why I Am Not a Christian." If any single individual is responsible for the fact that I am not a Christian, it's probably Carrier. His copious work at that site helped me straighten out the religious muddle cluttering my head in the mid 1990s and turned me into the well-adjusted hellbound atheist puke I am today. "Why I'm Not a Christian," posted earlier this spring, pulls together a lot of themes from stuff he's written over the years. The desire to quote the good bits puts me at direct risk of quoting the whole thing, but I'll try to restrain myself to topics that have been addressed at this blog in the past.

Last year, we got into a lovely rumble about free will--the idea that God created people with the right to make mistakes or do wrong, rather than creating us so that we would always do what's good and right. The argument goes that we can choose to accept the good or reject it, which is why not everyone is good, as you would expect in a universe designed by a loving God who wanted his creations to be happy. But that argument is actually a contortion made necessary by the fact that when it comes to having told us clearly how we're supposed to live, God has done no such thing--at least not in ways that aren't open to widely diverging interpretation.
The Christian proposes that a supremely powerful being exists who wants us to set things right, and therefore doesn't want us to get things even more wrong. This is an intelligible hypothesis, which predicts there should be no more confusion about which religion or doctrine is true than there is about the fundamentals of medicine, engineering, physics, chemistry, or even meteorology. It should be indisputably clear what God wants us to do, and what he doesn't want us to do. Any disputes that might still arise about that would be as easily and decisively resolved as any dispute between two doctors, chemists, or engineers as to the right course to follow in curing a patient, identifying a chemical, or designing a bridge. Yet this is not what we observe. Instead, we observe exactly the opposite: unresolvable disagreement and confusion. That is clearly a failed prediction.
Shorter Carrier: If the Christian God existed, there would be no need for free-will theories.

Over at the Secular Outpost, a blog maintained by several major contributors to the Secular Web, somebody commented on an article from Christianity Today about a preteen girl who learned to believe in the power of prayer after it helped her cure her teacher's cold and get permission to have a sleepover. The blogger wondered if the girl would have such a strong belief in prayer if she'd chosen different things to pray for--like an end to suffering in Darfur. One of the things that boggles the non-Christian mind is the way Christians accept the kind of suffering we're seeing in Darfur without blaming God for failing to help. Many rely on more contorted reasoning to explain it--the variation on free will that says humans must choose to help, or that humans must be tested by adversity like Job. Or least satisfying of all, that "God moves in mysterious ways": Despite the definition of him as a God of love, there's a reason he lets starving babies have their eyeballs eaten by flies while their mothers watch helplessly, and it's not his fault that we can't understand why. However:
A Christian can rightly claim he is unable to predict exactly what things his God would choose to do. But the Christian hypothesis still entails that God would do something. Therefore, the fact that God does nothing is a decisive refutation of the Christian hypothesis. Once again, a prediction is made that consistently fails to pan out. Instead, we observe the exact opposite: a dumb, mechanical universe that blindly treats everyone with the same random fortune and tragedy regardless of merit or purpose. . . .

A tsunami approaches and will soon devastate the lives of millions. A loving person warns them, and tells them how best to protect themselves and their children. And a loving person with godlike powers could simply calm the sea, or grant everyone's bodies the power to resist serious injury, so the only tragedy they must come together to overcome is temporary pain and the loss of worldly goods. We would have done these things, if we could--and God can. Therefore, either God would have done them, too--or God is worse than us. Far worse. Either way, Christianity is false.
The most interesting part of this lengthy article is where Carrier takes on intelligent design, specifically the argument that the universe is designed precisely so we can survive in it, and therefore, God exists.
Even the Christian proposal that God designed the universe, indeed "finely tuned" it to be the perfect mechanism for producing life, fails to predict the universe we see. A universe perfectly designed for life would easily, readily, and abundantly produce and sustain it. Most of the contents of that universe would be conducive to life or benefit life. Yet that is not what we see. Instead, almost the entire universe is lethal to life--in fact, if we put all the lethal vacuum of outer space swamped with deadly radiation into an area the size of a house, you would never find the comparably microscopic speck of area that sustains life. Would you conclude that the house was built to serve and benefit that subatomic speck? Hardly. Yet that is the house we live in. The Christian theory completely fails to predict this--while atheism predicts exactly this.
The fact that our existence seems unlikely is the farthest thing from evidence that a god created us. That we exist at all in a cosmos so vast and inhospitable is more persuasive as evidence of an accident. If we'd been created deliberately, the universe would look a lot different than it does. How would it look?
The answer is easy: the very universe early Christians like Paul actually believed they lived in. In other words, a universe with no evidence of such a vast age or of natural evolution, a universe that contained instead abundant evidence that it was created all at once just thousands of years ago. A universe that wasn't so enormous and that had no other star systems or galaxies, but was instead a single cosmos of seven planetary bodies and a sphere full of star lights that all revolve around an Earth at the center of God's creation--because that Earth is the center of God's love and attention. A complete cosmos whose marvelously intricate motions had no other explanation than God's will, rather than a solar system whose intricate motions are entirely the inevitable outcome of fixed and blind forces. A universe comprised of five basic elements, not over ninety elements, each in turn constructed from a dizzying array of subatomic particles. A universe governed by God's law, not a thoroughly amoral physics. A universe inhabited by animals and spirits whose activity could be confirmed everywhere, and who lived in and descended from outer space--which was not a vacuum, but literally the ethereal heavens, the hospitable home of countless of God's most marvelous creatures (both above and below the Moon)--a place Paul believed human beings could live and had actually visited without harm.

That is, indeed, exactly the universe we would expect if Christianity were true--which is why Christianity was contrived as it was, when it was. The first Christians truly believed the universe was exactly as Christian theism predicted it to be, and took that as confirmation of their theory. Lo and behold, they were wrong--about almost every single detail!
I warned you I could quote almost all of it. Rather than going further, I suggest you block out an hour and go read the whole thing. If I had to pick one summary to explain what I can believe and what I can't, this would be it. Thanks, Professor Carrier.

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