Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Leasons Learned from the IFC: Why Christians strawman atheists

Before I go over any deeper thoughts on the "Intelligent Faith Conference," I want to go over a lesson I learned about conservative Christians and apologists that I should have realized quite some time ago. I have been bothered by the way Christian apologists will make claims about what atheists believe. It was quite common throughout the book, "I Don't Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist," (IDHEF for short from now on) which I have blogged about. I had thought the reason was largely to make atheists seem silly in order to make their beliefs seem more reasonable in comparison. I now have slightly different thoughts.

First, let's go back to March 2010 when I attended a conference in Des Moines with my now-wife, Amy. I had attended a session with a doctor who was giving a presentation on the brain. I no longer remember the full details of the presentation (I do remember they had brought an actual brain in a vat) nor do I remember why they brought this up, but they said that everyone, including atheists, have faith. (Their example of atheists having faith, for reference, is that we have faith that our car brakes will work.) At the time, I wasn't all that familiar with Christian apologetics nor logical fallacies, so I was not able to recognize they were committing an equivocation error, but, later on, the question I had was why was it so important for them to believe that atheists have faith?

Sometime in between then and now, I would learn about cognitive dissonance theory. For the purpose of this blog post, I'll share a few paragraphs on the topic from Simply Psychology:

According to Festinger, we hold many cognitions about the world and ourselves; when they clash, a discrepancy is evoked, resulting in a state of tension known as cognitive dissonance. As the experience of dissonance is unpleasant, we are motivated to reduce or eliminate it, and achieve consonance (i.e. agreement).

Cognitive dissonance was first investigated by Leon Festinger, arising out of a participant observation study of a cult which believed that the earth was going to be destroyed by a flood, and what happened to its members — particularly the really committed ones who had given up their homes and jobs to work for the cult — when the flood did not happen.

While fringe members were more inclined to recognize that they had made fools of themselves and to "put it down to experience", committed members were more likely to re-interpret the evidence to show that they were right all along (the earth was not destroyed because of the faithfulness of the cult members).

The one big takeaway from cognitive dissonance theory is that those with strongly held beliefs have a very difficult time letting go of those beliefs when they come in conflict with observed reality and that it tends to be easier to seek out information or reasons, regardless of their truth value, to reduce dissonance. Or, as the Simply Psychology article states, "One of the points that dissonance theorists are fond of making is that people will go to all sorts of lengths to reduce dissonance."

I have also read that Festinger had observed that the cult members also began "an enthusiastic effort at proselytizing to seek social support and lessen the pain of disconfirmation." The idea here would seem to be that people feel more comfortable in their beliefs if they think others share in that belief. (This is also backed up by other psychological studies, like the Asch conformity studies.)

This brings us back to the doctor I met six years ago. I have since come to the realization that the doctor was out to convince themself that everybody believes things off of faith to gain social support for some belief that they have that they are uncomfortable with. I will also note that I recall them asking the audience if they (we) agreed. I see this as serving as further evidence that they were indeed out for social support. I have since seen claims about atheists having faith to serve essentially the same purpose.

Yeah? Well, you know, that's
just like, your OPINION, man.

Fast-forward to the present day, I was seeing my coworker make rather similar claims. When talking about the supposed resurrection of Jesus, they made some remark that everything that's written down is essentially just opinion. It was rather clear where this was going. I'll just go ahead and be blunt that there isn't any really good evidence that a resurrection happened. (As I said in my post on initial thoughts, the person, Gary Habermas, who was presented as a supposed expert on this subject, made an argument from ignorance at the end of the presentation. If they had good evidence, there should be no need for them to engage in fallacious reasoning.) My suspicion is that my coworker realizes this as well. But, as they are a believer, this would cause cognitive dissonance. So what would be a way to reduce that conflict? Proclaim that everybody believes for bad reasons, just like that doctor and others do when they proclaim that everyone believes things on faith!

It was not this interaction that led to my light-bulb moment, but this interaction did help bring to the front of my mind the thought of such experiences with believers where they try to present some sort of "everybody does this" argument to justify their behavior. It was a couple other interactions that led to my new realization.
  • On the Friday night of the event, my coworker introduced me to their friend, James, and we talked a bit about the second presentation by J. Warner Wallace, the crime-scene investigator. Their presentation roughly mirrored chapters 3 through 6 of IDHEF, so I was familiar with the arguments. I talked with James about the science behind the origins of the universe and how I find it irrational to jump to the conclusion of god because one does not find any naturalistic explanations satisfactory. Why can't one just say, "I don't know"? They did find that to be interesting, but then they went on to assist that one does need to come to a conclusion, to which I responded with a pointed "Why?!?" They seemed to think one would need to come to a conclusion in order to make decisions and, unfortunately, that is where that part of the conversation ended. (I will agree somewhat that there are indeed many moments in life where we do need to make decisions on a limited amount of information. As an engineer, I have to do so as a regular part of my job. But what decisions would I need to make based on the origins of the universe?1) James looked as if he'd never actually had this suggested before. It was a telling moment.
  • During Saturday discussions with my coworker, they made some claims along the lines that I "have a perspective" and that they "have a perspective" as well as I "have a worldview" just like everyone else does. I was also accused of borrowing from their worldview, a claim which could use further discussion in a separate post.

It was upon reflection of these events that I realized this is actually more of the "everyone does it" rationalizing, like it is with the "even atheists have faith" claims. I'm thinking that part of the reason I had missed this before is because I had not been the intended audience. It is one thing to read in a book, like IDHEF, passages that make bogus claims about what atheists believe and that we have "worldviews" just like Christians, etc. In such cases, I am not the intended audience. But in these interactions with James and my coworker, I was now the main audience. It is perhaps the reason why I remember what that doctor said those six years ago; they weren't necessarily speaking to an audience of believers. When they called out atheists, there very well could have been (and was at least one) atheists in the room with them. It is more obvious in such a context that social reinforcement is part of the goal. Another reason may be that, because the beliefs are different, I was missing the point of atheists supposedly believing things in the same way that Christians do.

One other thing my coworker said to help drive this home was that their Christian worldview comes first and foremost for them. I cannot say the same. From my personal notes on IDHEF, I have the following written down:
Another issue in this framework of presenting ideas as needing more "faith" than others is that they completely ignore conviction and importance of the belief. I’m an atheist, but I don’t have any particular attachment to the big bang theory. I largely go along with the idea of the big bang because that is what the scientific consensus is. But my world isn’t going to be shaken one bit if scientists come out tomorrow and say that this was a completely incorrect idea. [Adding: I likely wouldn't even be shaken if scientists came out and said, "Yep, there is an intelligent designer behind the universe." I'd be surprised, and a bit skeptical, but not necessarily shaken.] The theory of evolution, for example, isn’t dependent on the big bang theory (and, in fact, the theory of evolution was formed first). Nor do my views on morality depend on evolution. Can the same be said about theists who believe a god brought about the universe?

That final question was a bit rhetorical as I have already suspected the answer is often "No." But I am no longer sure those authors are actually ignoring this. Based on these interactions I had with James and my coworker, they may very well believe atheists hold the same level of conviction. I've taken issue with the way IDHEF portrays there needing to be a lot of faith to believe in, for example, the multiverse theory because I don't know any atheists who actually believe in the multiverse theory in the same way theists believe in a god that created the universe. Instead, the multiverse is little more than an interesting concept that would need more investigation, which, with current technology, is impossible and so it should remain as no more than an interesting concept until it is actually possible to investigate. Another way to phrase this is I found their comparisons of belief between atheists and Christians2 to be apples to oranges, but they were treating them as apples to apples. It now appears that they make the apples to apples comparisons out of that need to believe that "everyone does it" so that they can battle their cognitive dissonance. That is what I have learned is likely the primary purpose of straw-manning atheists. That said, the idea of trying to make atheists look silly still seems to be secondary. I saw this with J. Warner Wallace's presentation as well as in IDHEF. Part of their shtick is to proclaim that atheists have virtually no evidence for such beliefs (which is true) while they at least have some evidence.3

With that, my response to these theists and Christians could simply be, "No, I don't do what you think I do. I don't believe the way you think I believe. I don't think the way you think I think." I realize, though, it would take a lot of work to get them to accept this. Again, it appears they believe these things about atheist beliefs out of necessity for battling their own cognitive dissonance. It won't be easy for them to let go.

1 One possibility that I could see being argued is Pascal's Wager. For those unfamiliar with the wager, the gist of it is that it is supposedly better to believe in God than not because, if God exists, then you could be punished for not believing. If God doesn't exist, then it doesn't matter anyway. The problem with the wager is that it assumes that if a god exists, it will be the Christian god, which is why I capitalized the "g" earlier. The wager fails to consider the possibility of a god that might punish people for wrongly believing in the Christian god. The wager also fails to consider the possibility of a god that would punish people for believing on a wager, and so forth. In short, it is an argument that essentially assumes the conclusion, making it circular and fallacious.

2 I'm talking about only the Christians who, like my coworker, take their beliefs really seriously. There are many Christians who clearly do not take their beliefs anywhere near as seriously (and thus don't have near the cognitive dissonance to tackle).

3 On more of a side note, their so-called "evidence" tends to be little more than philosophical arguments for which they haven't or can't verify as being true. For example, "Design only comes from an intelligence." Part of the response here would be, "As far as you know," as well as "Can you prove that?" or "Where is your verification for that claim?" Likewise, it could be asked, "Where is your verification that this is actually design?" The reality is their "evidence" relies heavily on assumptions. But, here too, one can expect the theist or Christian to proclaim that atheists also have assumptions (a common one is that there is no such thing as the supernatural), so we go right back to the bogus "everyone does it" claims.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

First thoughts on the first day of the "Intelligent Faith Conference"

This weekend there is an "Intelligent Faith Conference" here in Cedar Rapids. A Christian coworker invited me to go, so I have thus far attended the Friday night session. Here, I am posting my first thoughts. I plan to go into further detail later on, which will likely involve repeating some of the thoughts here.

My first thought as far as Friday night goes is that I noticed a bit of a theme of each presentation containing some sort of "argument from ignorance." The latter two presentation really relied on the fallacious argument, while the first presentation really only implied such an argument as part of a side argument.

The argument from ignorance can be summed up as "I can't think of any other possible explanation, so this explanation I can think of must be true." This reasoning is fallacious as the truth could be with an explanation that just hasn't been thought of.

In the first presentation, the argument from ignorance appears in a story of a skeptic who refuses to watch a video of a woman being miraculously cured because the skeptic will just come up with a natural explanation. This was used as evidence that skeptics are really predisposed to not believing in god. Well, the problem here is that the skeptic doesn't even need to come up with a natural explanation. Even if the skeptic cannot come up with any explanation does not mean they have to accept the supernatural explanation. (If there is any reason to not bother watching the video, it would be because it would unlikely be any sort of "proof" for that supernatural explanation.) Yet, I got the impression from the presenter that the skeptic should accept the supernatural explanation. That would, however, be fallacious.

On that note, much of that first presentation was just a collection of stories where it was claimed that a supernatural event happened and these claims were accepted uncritically when it should be well known that humans have a tendency to exaggerate. It was not a good way to start a conference that is supposed to be about discussing why Christianity is a rational worldview.

The second presentation was essentially centered around the argument from ignorance. That presenter was offering a process-of-elimination approach to concluding that there is a god, using the fact that such an approach is useful in his line of work as a cold-case detective. The problem here is that such an approach works when the list of possibilities is contained, as it seems to be with detective work, but not so well when that list is not. By a contained list, I mean that we know, or can be reasonably sure we know, that we have the full list of possibilities. In such a case, if all but one possibility have been eliminated, we can be reasonably sure the remaining possibility is correct. When we don't have a contained list and don't know all the possibilities, then using such reasoning becomes the fallacious argument from ignorance. The presenter tries to make his position seem reasonable by making a point that he's using the same skill set with his religious beliefs as he does with his job. The failure here is in failing to ask the question as to whether or not it is reasonable to actually do this and I would say the answer to that question is "No, it is not reasonable."

The third presentation didn't really hit the argument from ignorance until we got near the end. This presentation was about the resurrection and it was largely about how scholars largely agree to a set of 12 facts. I'll have to go over the facts later (I only captured 8 of them at the event, but I suspect I can find the other 4 on the presenter's website), but it ended up boiling down to a "I'm going to believe that there was a resurrection until someone can present me with a reasonable alternate explanation." Skimming over the 8 facts that I had captured, none of them come close to conclusively demonstrating a resurrection happened. What had started out as a somewhat interesting presentation came crashing down at the end with rather obvious (well, at least to me) fallacious reasoning.

In summary, if these are their best examples of "intelligent faith," it's going to be the poor reasoning skills of humans that keeps Christianity alive.