Everything I Really Needed to know about Chrstianity I saw on a Billboard

Dnesh D’Souza is back up to his old tricks: misrepresenting Atheism rather than doing a Christian Apologist’s duty, which is recommending faith. This time, the springboard is an article in Discover (which, for reasons mysterious, D’Souza doesn’t link in his column). The gist of the article is that there are just “too many coincidences” in how the laws of the universe are set up. Basically, even slight changes in the laws of physics would make it impossible for the universe as we know it to exist, meaning that life would not exist (for example, if electrons weighed twice as much as they actually weigh, stars would burn out in a million years rather than billions, and life wouldn’t have time to evolve). D’Souza, predictably, takes this as evidence that there is a Creator – because how else can we explain all these “coincidences?”

Click on the link and take a look at the article and you’ll see that D’Souza is engaging in what we might call the Argumentum ab Advertismum – “Argument from Advertising.” The article isn’t really about the search for God, but is rather about the Multiverse Theory – you know, that theory that gave Spock a beard on Star Trek. The only reason there are references to God in the article at all is because the reporter inserts them there – presumably to sensationalize a dry subject to sell magazines (and no doubt it made a subscriber out of D’Souza, so hey!). The original reason for the Multiverse Theory – as the article itself makes clear if you bother to read it, actually – was to explain why the universe has a uniform temperature throughout. This is a problem for the Big Bang Theory, though not for other theories of cosmology. So the real motivation was to plug up some holes in the Big Bang Theory – not, as D’Souza wants his audience to think, to explain these “embarassing coincidences.”

The “embarassing coincidences” are generally “explained” by an appeal to the Anthropic Principle – which really just says that the question itself is misleading: if these “embarassing coincidences” hadn’t happened, then we wouldn’t be here to ask these questions. Some supporters of the Anthropic explanation have jokingly styled it cogito, ergo mundus talis est (“I think, therefore the world is as it is”). The point being that this is a truism; it is invoked to answer a pointless question.

The logical error being made here is obvious. For one to be troubled by why the laws of the universe are the way they are, then one first has to assume that they could have been otherwise. The problem is that it’s not clear what this means. At what point was the universe in a position to operate according to different laws than the ones according to which it does in fact operate? And according to what principle did the principles of the universe decide to be what they are? Of course, these questions are not nonsensical to religious people who have long postulated a framework for the formation of laws of reality. For them, the laws of the universe could’ve been otherwise if God had decided otherwise. Fair enough. But I don’t think you can reason that the other way. That is, it’s fair enough to say “because I believe in God, these questions are not nonsense.” But I’m not sure it’s fair to say “because I take these questions seriously, I must believe in God.” Starting without any prior prejudice on the question of whether or not there is a creator, it’s just as valid to say that the questions are nonsense. I don’t need to speculate on why the laws of the universe are what they are because my job is simply to document the laws of the universe and make predictions about its future on that basis. Once you start asking about why a framework of physical laws is one way and not another, you’re already outside the realm of science and in the realm of pulling things out of your ass (the politically correct term for this is “metaphysics”). So sure, one answer we might pull out of our ass is that God decided that the laws would be this way – but there’s no reason I can see why this explanation has any claim to prominence over any other product of one’s ass – say, the idea that there are infinite numbers of universes representing all possible arrangements of laws and we just happen to be in this one, one of the few we can plausibly inhabit. Or maybe that everything in the world is the product of minor perturbations on cosmic strings, whose composition we’re not allowed to ask about. In any case, the point is that once you start asking metaphysical questions like “great, we have these laws, but why not other laws?” you’re overreaching as far as “science” is concerned. It isn’t that they’re illegitimate questions, it’s just that they’re not scientific questions.

Now, if D’Souza wants to leap from here to “God created the world and made us all sinful until Jesus died on the Cross,” that’s his business, of course. He might even be right, for all I know. My point is just that he didn’t get there by reading a bunch of science books and then in a flash of insight saying “Of COURSE! It couldn’t have been otherwise! Every poorly-translated word of the Bible is true, by God!” Hardly. If you’re going to believe in Christianity, it’s going to be for reasons that are completely oblivious to what you did or didn’t learn in Physics class.

Well, my point is that I think people like Dawkins and Hitchens know that. The brand of religion that they’re arguing against in their books isn’t the idea that there might maybe be a Creator. They doubt it, of course, but they don’t rule it out. Nor do they have any problem with people saying “there might be a Creator, for all I know.” What they insist on is that bit I put in itallics – the “for all I know.” It isn’t idle religious speculation they mind, it’s religious certainty. It’s the kind of organized religion that claims to have answers about the nature of the universe so specific as to require that people go to Mass and eat bread together at least once a year on a highly specific day. The kind of arrogance that, for example, leads people to vote on political marriage questions based on what they think God wants – as if they even know there is a God, let alone His opinion on marriage.

The thing that’s offensive about every single column that Dnesh D’Souza has ever written is this presumption that a tie goes to the believers. Wrong. It’s just the opposite, in fact. Ties on religious questions – at least religious questions as a domain of communal knowledge – go to the non-believers. Tricking someone into thinking it’s strange that the universe is the way it is isn’t an acceptable basis for a worldview. Really, this technique is no different than convincing yourself that a perfectly familiar word like ivy sounds strange by repeating it 20 times slowly. I don’t know why we use that particular combination of syllables to refer to that particular species of plant, but I do know that it doesn’t matter. All that is required is that members of the same linguistic community agree on an appropriate combination and use it consistently. It doesn’t matter that it “could have been otherwise,” that indeed it is otherwise (in, say, Japanese). And so sure, if we sit around and repeat all the known laws of the universe to ourselves slowly over periods of years (say, as a Physics instructor), I guess they’re bound to seem strange at some point too. But just feeling it doesn’t make it so. The laws of the universe, like the combinations of syllables that make up words, are arbitrary. It doesn’t matter why they are one way and not another, the point is that they function consistently. If they were different, then the universe would be a different place, just like if English operated according to a different Phonology and different Syntax it would be not English but Some Other Language. Indeed, trying to trick someone into believing in God by saying that the universe, if even slightly different by nature, couldn’t have supported life at all, is putting the cart in front of the horse in exactly the same way that it would be to argue that Evoltuion has as its purpose the creation of Language by noting that even slight changes in human physiology would’ve made spoken communication impossible. It’s absurd. It’s true enough that the evolution of Language depends on a staggering number of what D’Souza would no doubt like to call physiological “coincidences,” but nothing about this leads anyone to the goofy supposition that Evolution has a “purpose.” Evolution is just a dumb global process. That it produced language-capable creatures is interesting, to be sure, but it’s hardly cause for wonder or amazement. That’s just how things turned out is all.

D’Souza is, of course, free to use whatever facts about the universe he likes to prop up his favorite superstitions on his own time. What I object to is this insistence on mischaracterizing the beliefs of others for the purpose of manipulating people to see things his way.

But of late atheism seems to be losing its scientific confidence. One sign of this is the public advertisements that are appearing in billboards from London to Washington DC. Dawkins helped pay for a London campaign to put signs on city buses saying, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” What is striking about these slogans is the philosophy behind them. There is no claim here that God fails to satisfy some criterion of scientific validation.

Gee, might that be because they are bus slogans? Because now that you mention it, I’ve never seen a religious billboard that makes the claim that God satisfies some criterion of scientific validation either. Or a religious billboard that makes the claim that God satisfies any criterion of philosophical validation, for that matter. But I’ve certainly seen a lot of religious billboards. Does this mean that religion has given up apologetics? That the Discovery Institute packed up and went home and stopped advancing the argument that God needs a place in the science books? Hardly. No one would be so absurd as to claim that all religious arguments needed to fit on the space of a billboard. And yet D’Souza wants to people to believe that Dawkins gave up the goat on all the arguments in his book – which isn’t even out of its first print edition yet, unlike, say, the Summa Theologica – on the basis of a billboard. Obviously not.

The surest sign I have, in fact, that Christians don’t really, in their heart of hearts, believe all the crap they say is that so many of them spend this much time gaming the referee rather than playing the game. If you ask a Christian questions about the presence of evil in the world, he will be happy to tell you that he doesn’t fully understand God’s Plan, but that this isn’t a threat to his worldview. Why, then, should the fact that scientists are unable to fully explain the universe be a threat to the scientific worldview? Christians never say. No Christian takes a billboard slogan put up by some other Christian as his entire profession of faith, and indeed most would be offended if I suggested that they did. Why, then, should we Atheists be presumed to stand and fall on the basis of what Dawkins puts on buses in London? To call it a “mischaracterization” of the debate would itself be a mischaracterization on the basis of understatment.

There used to be a time as recently as 50 years ago when Christian apologists were not this silly. There used to be a time when they read philosophy and science and put a lot of time and thought into coming up with intelligent, if flawed, arguments in favor of their worldview. What happened? Now what we get are these cheap jabs. God must exist because Physics can’t tell me why the universe is this way and not another. Really? Atheism is giving up its pretentions of rationality because I saw a pro-atheist billboard the last time I was in London that didn’t mention science. Honestly?

Come on.

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