My Photo

The Out Campaign

Atheist Blogroll

Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 05/2005

« Greta's Largely Unsolicited Advice on Blogging | Main | Blog Carnivals! »



Another question I might ask to people who make this argument is: How do you decide between hypotheses which aren't contradicted by any evidence, but which do contradict each other? For instance, a belief in a single god (ala Christianity) and a belief in many gods (ala Hinduism). If you believe things just because there's no evidence against them, then you're going to have to either have contradictory beliefs, or you'll need some way to decide between these beliefs. And since it can't be evidence, what is it you use?

Mr. Propaganda

Religious person who tripped over your blog, figured I may as well offer a view that isn't based on "You can't disprove it."

The universe is, really, when you get right down to it, less random than a wristwatch. It's hard to find something that truly happens randomly, if you know enough variables you can trace everything that ever happened or will happen. It can seem, in this way, as though it were planned out. Then we have occam's razor; the simplest solution is the most likely. It looks planned. According to occam's razor, someone planned it.

Merely playing devil's advocate.

Geoff Arnold

"The universe is, really, when you get right down to it, less random than a wristwatch."

What on earth does this mean? Thermodynamically? In an information-theoretic sense? In any case, under any of the more obvious interpretations, the statement is simply false. Mr. Propaganda needs to read up on entropy, and perhaps chaos theory.

(It's amusing to see the opposite of Paley's watchmaker argument being used to support a teleological argument. How do apologists keep their contradictory arguments from colliding with each other?)

Greta Christina

Sorry, Mr. Propaganda, but the argument from design doesn't hold water. The theory of evolution provides a perfectly good explanation for why there's order and complexity in biological life... and the laws of physics and chemistry provide a perfectly good explanation for why there's order and complexity in the physical universe. Occam's razor actually suggests that we reject the assorted God hypotheses, since it's an unnecessary complication.

I've written at greater length about the argument from design, and I don't want to do it again here. It's a two part post: here are those links.


I hope this isn't just a driveby troll.

MrPropaganda said:
The universe is, really, when you get right down to it, less random than a wristwatch.

What the heck does this complete nonsequitur mean?
In what sense?

On its face it makes about as much sense as saying "This potato is, when you get right down to it, less musical than an encyclopedia."

It's hard to find something that truly happens randomly,

False. Indeed, this has long been known to be false. Either you're completely ignorant, in which case you have no place making the grand cosmological claims you do, or you're not ignorant, in which case you're lying. Neither is a good place from which to start arguing here.

if you know enough variables you can trace everything that ever happened or will happen.

This is false for two completely different reasons.

Quoting wikipedia on quantum mechanics:
Albert Einstein, himself one of the founders of quantum theory, disliked this loss of determinism in measurement. (Hence his famous quote "God does not play dice with the universe.") He held that there should be a local hidden variable theory underlying quantum mechanics and consequently the present theory was incomplete. He produced a series of objections to the theory, the most famous of which has become known as the EPR paradox. John Bell showed that the EPR paradox led to experimentally testable differences between quantum mechanics and local theories. Experiments have been taken as confirming that quantum mechanics is correct and the real world must be described in terms of nonlocal theories.

(That is, no, it seems that the universe really is random, the way that quantum mechanics describes it.)

The second reason is chaos theory. Even if quantum mechanics were non-random, a chaotic deterministic system is not predictable beyond the very short term, because of extreme sensitivity to initial conditions, and we can't measure to infinite accuracy (which still applies whether or not QM is truly random).

It can seem, in this way, as though it were planned out.

Deterministic implies planned?
How on earth do you make such a leap?

And even if it did seem so (it sure doesn't to me), why would you conclude that it was thereby indeed planned?

The sun seems to be the same size as the moon (both subtend the same visual angle). Does that imply that it is?

When I hang a white sheet on the washing line and the tree nearby shades it, the sheet seems blue. Should I thereby conclude that it is, in fact, blue?

Then we have occam's razor; the simplest solution is the most likely. It looks planned. According to occam's razor, someone planned it.

I don't think you understand what is meant by "simplest", since an all-powerful creator is the opposite of simple... and in any case, that's not actually what Occam said. What Occam essentially said is that you shouldn't multiply entities unnecessarily, which in this case means "you shouldn't add an extra entity (God) where it isn't required".

Now even if *ALL* of this were wrong (which it isn't), why would this vague cosmological handwaving imply your particular sky fairy is true, more so than some other (incompatible) one?

Someone tell the devil he needs an advocate with a clue.


Come to think of it, I did hear something that sounded suspiciously like Sanskrit coming from behind my roommate's door when I got home from work today. ;)


This is a very well timed post, Greta. My wife had dinner with a friend last night, in which it was revealed that said friend and her sister were believers in "chi," which I'll define for the sake of the thread as a Force-like field of mystical energy, produced by and necessary for life to function and, if tapped by the awesome power of belief by a True Believer, can enable the accomplishment of feats our petty science can only be baffled by.

I'm editorializing a bit, but that's the gist of the dinner conversation.

Anyhoo, when Wifey asked said friend why she believed in chi, the response was, "Well, science doesn't know anything, and there's no evidence against it."

I sort of rolled my eyes at the absurdity, but today I see GC's very nice, witty rebuttal to that sort of nonsense.

Of course, odds that she'll read it and take anything from it are about as great as the odds of the cat speaking Sanskrit to my telepathic dog when we're not at home.


Okay, my 2 cents:

"The universe is, really, when you get right down to it, less random than a wristwatch."

According to Quantum Mechanics, which is up there with Special Relativity as the theory with the best evidentiary support, the universe DOES have a random basis. There are theoretical frameworks being crafted which would render this randomness merely apparent rather than real, but those do not have evidentiary support as yet. So, as others have said, that statement is false.


wow. my first comment on your blog as your topic. ty

I have thought over the last few years about exactly the points you've brought up. (in essence, why believe in Jesus but not the FSM or the teapot)
For me, it comes down to probability (and philosophy). If you look at causality, everything must have a cause, including those causes, leading to an infinite series. Therefore, a First Cause must be posited outside of causality/time. That doesn't prove God, however.
In addition, looking at the historical record, and looking at the cultural risks that the Disciples took (eg having a woman be the first witness to the empty tomb - the book "The Case for Christ" goes into it, and more. I won't), it seems highly probable that Jesus did everything attributed to him in the Bible, meaning it's probable that there is a God. That God would fit the definition of First Cause.

As for the teapot, for that to be there, somebody would have had to make it, and place it there, and given human history, that is extremely unlikely. (though I believe that given the nature of randomness, it is likely there is an asteroid that is reminiscent of a teapot)


Oh, Edward. You've mentioned Strobel on an atheist board. May whatever God you believe in have mercy upon you ... because we won't.

I'll simply content myself to pointing out that you're using a book with an uncertain provenance to provide evidence for itself. The "historical record" of the first century is bare, at least in regards to the existence and actions of one Jesus of Nazarath. Therefore, those actions that you find so probable come to us only through the writings of people already convinced of at least some of the tenants of early Christianity. Further, what has come down to us has passed through a screen of rewritings, scribal errors and "corrections", and careful selection for canonization. This does not pass some very basic criteria for evidence.


I think the comments offered by Mr. Propaganda and Edward offer us a window into the central issue of religious "standards of evidence."

The liberals you talk about in this post seem to realize that there really isn't evidence for their religious beliefs, so if they still want to believe their religion is factually true, they have nothing to fall back on but "you can't disprove it."

But it's really, really hard to believe something when you know you have absolutely no backing for it. It seems to me that the vast majority of religious believers (I don't actually have survey data or anything; this is just a guess) believe they DO have evidence. It's just evidence that we would consider to be, well, spurious.

Mystical experiences. Positive changes in one's life after turning to religion. The supposed power of prayer. Tales of miracles. Feeling that your life has profound cosmic significance. Stories handed down from the past and told with great authority (to someone who is not inclined to think critically, believing what the Bible says isn't fundamentally different from believing what a history book says. Both are handed down from authority).

Above all, the things that lead us to religion are the fundamental cognitive biases that all humans are prone to. We like our truths simple, coherent, and, if possible, anthropomorphic. Life's a lot easier to deal with when "reality" has already been chewed for you. It's a lot easier to think an invisible father-figure is running it all, and not a mess of particles. It all seems to make more (intuitive) sense that way. It also makes the universe seem a whole lot more human-friendly.

And I could go on and on about how every argument for the existence of God is fallacious. But the thing is, people fall for fallacies. They look an awful lot like real logic. You can draw conclusions from them that feel entirely reasonable. I think we're prone to fallacies because they can be good "rules of thumb" for reasoning. Of course, they should never be confused for proof, but people do so all the time. (Design and Cosmological arguments are classic appeals to ignorance, and they beg the question to boot, Mr. Propaganda).

Of course, as you've said, the real world is far more amazing than anything we could make up. It's very frustrating that so many people cannot or will not see this.


Discussions on the existance of god bore me, simply because I don't see the point. What is the difference between a god who has no ability to influence our lives directly or change nature, and no god at all? As the answer is "none", it looses my interest quickly.

The only reason the arguement continues is that people in our world still insist on believing in one. It's not simply a matter of saying "what if a god triggered the big bang?" Yes one may have; but it's outside of our universe, so who cares?

I am so tired of people telling me the god debate matters! Come back with some evidence, or stop wasting my time.

Greta Christina

I'm sorry, Edward, but the "first cause" argument for God isn't a good one. If there has to have been a first cause for everything, then what was the cause of God?

And if God doesn't need a first cause, if God could be the first thing, why couldn't the universe be the first thing instead?

I agree that the questions, "Why is there something instead of nothing?" and, "How did something come out of nothing -- or, if something has been here forever, how is that possible?" are baffling and currently mysterious (although astronomers and physicists are looking into it). But the God hypothesis does not provide an answer to those questions. The God hypothesis merely begs them. It just moves the questions one step back, to being questions about God instead of the universe. It just adds an unnecessary complication.

As to your assertions about the Bible, I'll let other commenters who are better versed in Biblical studies handle it for the most part. What I will say is this: My understanding of the current scholarship is that there is serious question as to whether the historical Jesus even *existed,* much less whether the events described in the New Testament took place. Your question about the risks the disciples took *assumes* that the New Testament is an accurate description of real events... which is exactly the point you're trying to prove.

For more on this, I point you to Ebonmuse's "Choking on the Camel," which points out serious problems with the idea that the New Testament is an accurate historical document:

And your point about the teapot proves my point exactly. The whole point about the teapot is that it's implausible to the point of absurdity... but you can't prove it isn't there.


Edward, this is just "one" page that causes some serious problems with the *entire* Bible. I mean, which god are we talking about, El, his three sons, one of them named Yahweh, Yahweh himself? And what of the fact that much of the mythology of the OT comes not out of Sanai, but neighboring Zoroastrians:

See, the bits with El and Yahweh, which are heavily edited in the OT, don't contain any bits about great evil opponents, a mighty conflict between good and evil, etc., but this version does. It even, conveniently, includes "Mithra", which later makes his way into Hindu as Mitra, and Rome as Mithras, and later into Christianity as "Jesus", or so some claim. So, just who the heck **are** you worshiping when talking about god? You have three different deities here already, not including all the ones conveniently displaced from the various mythologies they came from, and that's without starting in on the even later addition of the whole "holy trinity" BS.

Oh, and, last I checked, you can't presume that something that, "didn't need a creator", *was* a creator of the universe, without making it *less* probable. Lets do a bit of math shall we? Lets say that the universe "had" to have one is hypothesis one, and you say that has a 99.9% chance. The other is, "It just happened.", so we make that, lets be conservative (not sure in "which" direction) and say 50%. It then follows that the odds of an uncreated creator creating the universe is actually: 49.95% (we already established that "anything" like a universe that happened by itself had a 50/50 chance). But, our self making universe doesn't get any modifier, it *still* 50/50, or 50%. Someone check me on this, but I *think* 50% is a *higher* chance than 49.95%... lol

Seriously, the farther back you extend this, like aliens that where created first, by the universe, which was created by something else, which always existed, the **less** likely it gets, unless you make completely absurd assertions, like "a god creating things who was always there is 100%", then you get 50/50 for god, and 50/50 for universes doing it themselves, since you have only asserted that the "creation" is 100% certain to have happened that way, by your estimation, not that the **odds** of an uncreated watzit having appeared "prior" to what ever made it. That still has some "other" probability.

Put simply, it doesn't matter what odds you place on some "thing" creating the universe, if its 100%, 90%, or 99.999999%. You still have to come up with a number for how likely it is for *that* thing to happen without any intervention at all, and any number you come up with that is honest, instead of pure BS, places your odds "lower" than 100%. Being non-conservative one could argue that the universe happening on its own, at this point, especially if some theories pan out, is like 99.8%, in which case, you have to find some reason why "god" popping into existence is "more", likely than 99.8% itself, and that, in my prior example, isn't even good enough, if someone where to argue that, "But god *choosing* to create the universe is like a 50/50 odds right?". Woops, your 99.8% just fell *below* our 50/50 again... Hate when that happens. lol

Point being, you can make up what ever numbers you want, but giving us half the numbers, claiming we don't need the rest, then asserting that its 100% means you *have* given us the numbers anyway. You claim that, in essence, you are 100% sure that god just happened, and 100% you need one to make a universe... But, why the frack is that any more sane than saying that you are 100% sure the universe "could have" happened without that? Because you say that is what the numbers are? Who are you, god? And based on what, unlike the odds scientist might place on it happening by itself, which are based on facts and evidence, not assertions that things "need" creators? An assertion that is dead fracking meaningless itself, since it implies that complexity automatically equals impossibility, and that nothing can happen that is complex without interference, both **proven** completely BS.


Hi Greta, I'm an atheist as well and enjoy reading your blog.

But I think I should point out about this post that most religious people don't believe in a god because there is no evidence against him, because a lot of people believe in one, or to explain natural phenomena(although that was probably an important factor in the beginning).

So why do they believe in a god? I think (and have asked every religious person I've met about this) because they FEEL the presence of a god, or something 'bigger' than what we know. The definition/name they give this feeling is then influenced by what the most common religion in their environment is, or simply which god they hear of first.

You're looking at this question from a very rational, scientific point of view, but religious feelings are simply not rational. I know that's frustrating because it means you can never have a rational debate about religion with a believer if their answer is "whatever you say, I feel the presence of a god, even though there is a lot of evidence against it and none for it, I don't care, I FEEL him." Like love, you can't convince someone who is madly in love that their love doesn't exist or is just a chemical process in their brain.

The problem with belief is when people confuse it with KNOWING something is so, instead of just BELIEVING it. Because if you think you know that your path/religion/rules are the (only) truth, that's when you start enforcing them onto others and trouble ensues. If everyone could just keep their religous feelings to themselves, to comfort them in times of trouble and rejoice when they feel happy, I'd be perfectly okay with it all. Even though I've never felt the presence of something almighty, I can see why people less rational than me could draw comfort from the idea that there is a guiding energy, love, light, god, whatever, that stands by them always.
It's a shame that this is most often not the case.

Greta Christina

Actually, I agree with your point, Carmen. I don't think "It's okay to believe anything you want, as long as it's not flatly contradicted by evidence" is the reason people believe in the first place. It's more of a rationalization of a belief that already exists. (Pretty much like all apologetics.) The reasons people believe in religion seem to be (a) it's what they were taught as children, and (b) a strong feeling or conversion experience. (Or a combination of both.) And religious beliefs tend to have an impressive array of psychological armor defending them against questions, logic, and evidence.

But I think arguing against rationalizations/ apologetics is still worth doing. It probably won't convince the person I'm debating with, but if anyone else is reading it who's having questions or doubts about their belief, it might put a chink in their armor. And if my ideas can help other atheists and skeptics make their arguments and put chinks in other people's armor, the way other atheists and skeptics have helped me, then that's even better.


"It probably won't convince the person I'm debating with ..."

The only reason I would disagree with this is the number of people I've seen who started off as apologists and became agnostics. People like Bart Ehrman and Robert M. Price. Price goes so far as to suggest that any truly honest apologist will eventually end up leaving the church, since he will come to realize that his arguments are full of holes.

Sometimes it seems that most apologists are sheltered. Popular ones like Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell or even NT Wright, never really grapple with much of the biblical criticism out there, or try to tangle with philosophy of religion. I can't shake the feeling that if we dig in our heels and insist that they *think* about their arguments, rather than use them as a way to avoid thinking, we'd see a lot more deconversions. It wouldn't be immediate, but if we state our positions logically and forcefully, we could create a lot of cognitive dissonance for those people who would rather dismiss us than deal with us.


"You can't disprove it". Actually, yes, I can, but the argument is slightly more subtle than a punch in the mouth, so the proof might not convince YOU.

That's what goes through my head when I hear that. A number of people say "I dare you to change my mind", while squeezing their eyes shut, putting their fingers in their ears, and signing.

It's not worth bothering.

Greta Christina

"The only reason I would disagree with this is the number of people I've seen who started off as apologists and became agnostics."

That's a fair point, VorJack. I guess it's just been my experience (which admittedly is limited) that I have yet to change the mind of a theist I've debated. But I've had more than one person tell me that my blog was a factor in their deconversion. It just was never the people I debated.

That's why I often will keep up a debate, long after it's become clear that the person I'm debating is never going to change their mind no matter what. I think of myself as debating, not just for that person, but for anyone else who might be reading.


Edward wrote:

absence of proof is not proof of absence

But it can be evidence of absence, despite what Sagan said.

Edward’s argument is really just the fallacious appeal to “science doesn’t know everything”. Of course, science doesn’t know everything, but Edward thinks the corollary is that any idea he likes the sound of, that cannot be proven false, is worthy of consideration. But something is only worthy of consideration if there is a reason to suppose it is true – ie some evidence.


Mr Propaganda wrote:

It's hard to find something that truly happens randomly, if you know enough variables you can trace everything that ever happened or will happen.

Totally false, as quantum mechanics has proven. Thinking that if you know enough variables you can predict everything that will happen, is taking reductionism to an absurd level.

Then we have occam's razor; the simplest solution is the most likely.

Occam’s Razor doesn’t say “the simplest solution is the most likely”. If it meant choose the simplest explanation then Occam would always choose “Goddidit”. Because, what is simpler that “Goddidit”? Occam’s Razor says don’t add unnecessary explanations. Or as I prefer to put it - don’t make stuff up. Or if you have to, make up as little as possible.


William of Ockham was a Franciscan friar, so he did his academic writing in Latin. The original formulation of Occam's razor is "entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem", literally "entities should not be multiplied more than necessary".

What it means is that, in choosing between multiple explanations, choose the one with the fewest preconditions that is not forbidden by the evidence.

The good Friar might not be pleased by the uses to which atheists put his maxim, but it's being used in this case to choose between two choices: 1) A universe to see and a god to create it, and 2) a universe to see with no god to create it. The argument is, choose the latter until evidence shows that it is untenable.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Subscribe/ Donate to This Blog!

Books of mine

Greta on SSA Speakers Bureau

  • Greta Christina is on the Speakers Bureau of the Secular Students Alliance. Invite her to speak to your group!

Your email address:

Powered by FeedBlitz

Powered by Rollyo

Some Favorite Posts and Conversations: Atheism

Some Favorite Posts and Conversations: Sex

Some Favorite Posts: Art, Politics, Other Stuff