This is point of inquiry for Friday, October 19th, 2007.
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I’m pleased to be joined back on point of inquiry by Edward Tobias. He’s a constitutional and civil rights lawyer in Beverly Hills, California. He’s chaired the National Legal Committee of Americans United for Separation of Church and State since 1995. And he’s been the most publicly active man in the abortion rights movement in California since 1981. He’s argued in one before the California Supreme Court and sits as a part time judge for the Los Angeles County Superior Court system. Since 1990, he’s been a member of the First Amendment Committee of the ACLU of Southern California. He’s successfully represented the scientific outlook in secular humanism, in public debates against the leading Christian philosophers around the world. In addition to serving on the board of the Center for Inquiry and advising the Council for Secular Humanism, a First Amendment task force, he chairs the Center for Inquiry in Los Angeles, our West Coast branch. Eddie Tomasz, welcome back to a point of inquiry, my friend.
Thank you for having me, T.J.. Thanks a lot.
Most people, Eddie, in the workaday world, they’re not wringing their hands about these big questions that, you know, you spend a lot of your waking hours on. But as we say at the Center for Inquiry, if you have answers, we have questions. And probably the biggest question of them all is, does God exist? The answer a person has to that question has implications for nearly every area of his or her life. And that’s what I want to talk about today. Why you say why Edyta Bosh says there really is no God. Now, before we get to your arguments, I just want to ask you, given your position, you’ve done all these debates all around the country, around the world, can’t you see how threatening it is to the psychological comfort of people to have you be telling them in your lawyerly ways that they’re completely wrong about the most important belief that they hold so dear, the belief that God is looking out for them, he’s in charge? Can’t you kind of empathize with why they’d be so up in arms about your atheist?
I can empathize more than people realize because I was a new age spiritual seeker for 25 years. I determined at the age of 18 that because religion was incapable of yielding up direct experience, that I was going to attempt to directly experience the transcendentalist that existed. So I went on a 25 year spiritual search, which took me from every guru who visited Los Angeles to meditating in the blazing unsub Ragle Desert, his to San Diego with scorpions crawling everywhere, doing everything under the sun, trying to suck my life force into my head, kind of project my consciousness out of my body. And I eventually realized that every experience I was having was only because I had a physical body and brain. And so my naturalism, my eighth year of my rejection of the supernatural was as a result of what I didn’t find after 25 years of search. But I certainly appreciate what our founder, Dr. Paul Kurtz, calls the transcendental temptation. I’m very sympathetic with the yearning for some kind of immortality. I think that the motive for religion is not even God persay. I think the motive is life after death. If you take a majority of the American people and give them the opportunity to live in a universe where there is a God but no life after death, they would choose a universe where there is life after death, irrespective of God. So I think that the motive for religion is people don’t want annihilation at the end of a brief few decades. But I’m highly sympathetic with the yearning for God. However, that doesn’t mean it’s true. And also, God beliefs are not really harmless. There is so much prejudice and so much in the way of human upon human atrocity. Over the millennia of our history, all motivated by a different view of God. I think that it can be said that more people have cut each other’s throats over a dispute as to what will become of them after their throats have been cut than for any other reason.
Maybe we’ll have time to talk about some of the harm that comes from believing in God. But I still want to concentrate on, you know, why you’re doing all this debating. A lot of people don’t believe in God and they just go on their merry way. Do you actually think debating people about God’s existence is going to change people’s minds, make them skeptical about God or life after death? Like you’re a skeptic?
Absolutely. Because what happens is most college students and even most working adults have never really contemplated the powerful arguments against the existence of the supernatural. When they hear a formal debate in which these arguments are brought to bear. Seeds of doubt are planted. And I believe that it will take decades, but over the next few decades, the more that people everywhere hear the scientific and philosophical arguments against the existence of a supernatural being, the less over a long period of time people will believe in that supernatural Jim Underdown.
You just mentioned the supernatural. I take it that’s really what you’re a skeptic of. It’s not just God. You’re kind of an equal opportunity skeptic. There are a lot of religious people who are skeptical of ghosts and, you know, other other things when it comes to the paranormal. Why aren’t they equal opportunity skeptics as well?
I think that they compartmentalize. What I try to do is to be honest. One of the powerful arguments against God’s existence is the absence of any verifiable supernatural event. There has never been in human history a single, verifiable, supernatural event. All the supposed biblical miracles took place then they don’t take place. Now, when I was five years old, I was sitting at the Passover dinner. My father’s an ordained rabbi and he began telling me about the supposed miracles that God did to get Jews away from Pharaoh in ancient Egypt. But then my mother, who was an Auschwitz survivor and kept filling me with Auschwitz stories never talked about, nor did anyone talk about the same type of miracles rescuing Jews from Hitler. So I asked my dad why a God would perform such astounding miracles to rescue our people from a lesser tyrant, but would not do any of these miracles to rescue us from the most murderous tyrant ever to come along. That, to me, even as a little boy, made me suspect that the miracle claims of the exodus in the Bible were fabricated because the same God who could perform all of those magnificent violations of nature would at least do some miracles to stop the killings at Auschwitz. But it never happened.
Yeah, and I always find it a paradox that you hear stories of people becoming more religious in things like death camps, then more skeptical. Eddie, you’ve debated world famous Christian philosophers about this question. I’ve had my share debates out there, too. To be clear, you’re not talking about a God who’s kind of the laws of the universe or some new age conception of God. You’re talking about the God of the Bible, old New Testaments of the Koran. So let’s talk about some of the arguments you have against that God. First, the fact that science shows that the mind is what the brain does. That’s a key argument for you.
Yes. What I call it is along with philosopher Paul Draper. I call it the argument from physical minds. And in addition to the supernatural and the absence of evidence for the supernatural. The argument that consciousness is dependent upon the physical brain is an extremely important argument because it does two things. Not only does it make life after death unlikely. It makes God’s existence unlikely, because if we have no evidence whatsoever of conscious intelligence manifesting without a physical brain, then how does God even think if cortical neurons and synapses are an intrinsic component of thought and conscious awareness? How does that being without a physical brain even think? For instance, if we look at our conscious awareness, the language we speak, everything that we think is a consequence of sensory input into the physical brain. That means if there is no longer. A physical brain. How does consciousness persist? Even the blow on the head or Alzheimer’s disease or an anesthetic eclipses consciousness. How does consciousness then persist after the brain is destroyed?
Well, they say that God is a nonphysical, God is spiritual and we’re natural. He’s supernet.
Point is, is that there’s no evidence for this. And the dependance of consciousness on the physical brain yields up the powerful likelihood that no disembodied intelligence can think. Because the act of thinking involves cortical neurons and synapses. And that doesn’t occur in the context of an incorporeal being. What this yields are for us is a powerful argument against the ability of something incorporeal to jumpstart or in any way touch upon the physical universe. Because how does any God without any physical attributes affect something in space and time? How does that God even cause a physical universe to come into being? We have absolutely no evidence of how something purely mental can touch upon anything physical based upon the three arguments that derive from the dependance of consciousness on the physical brain. One is, it makes life after death unlikely. It makes the existence of a disembodied intelligence, namely God, unlikely. And even if there were a God, it gives us no mechanism by which a purely mental being could affect something in the physical universe. The dependance of consciousness on a physical brain. The fact that consciousness is a byproduct of the physical brain makes it far more likely than not that God does not exist as one of the most powerful arguments.
Another line of argument you attack God belief with is the sheer amount of suffering of evil in the world. Soon nami earthquakes, death and dying human suffering. Couldn’t all of that suffering, though, just be part of God’s hidden plan? The Bible says God’s ways are mysterious. Couldn’t it all be some test or some part of God’s way of teaching us a lesson or to help us?
If in fact this were God’s way of instructing us, then God would have an obligation to tell us about it so that God would not be so hidden. It’s the hidden ness of God that makes God’s existence unlikely. This is the argument from divine headiness because a loving God that wants relationship with us at all powerful, all knowing all good God who wants relationship with us, would at least give us enough direct evidence of the existence of that God so that doubts would not be reasonable. But withholding evidence, withholding explanation from the horrendous evils that occur in this world, cuts against the existence of such a God, because it shows that that God is not communicative. So if you have a child and you’re a parent and that child is going through painful medical treatment at a hospital for a grave disease, you would explain to the child during the treatment, during the pain why this is necessary. So if even an earthly parent would explain to a child, well, suffering is necessary and not let the child suffer without an attempt at answers, how then does the cosmic parent let us undergo even more profound suffering, but is completely silent in terms of explanation to us?
Well, one just of Katori scheme that kind of explains all this evil is, you know, to use your metaphor of a parent telling a child in the hospital why the sufferings necessary. Well, the suffering we go through is part of the trials of life to help us a teen salvation or, you know, maybe it’s not that God is doing all the evil in the world, but some of it results from our bad decisions or their, you know, this other force called Satan, yet he’s to blame. In other words, Christians have all kinds of just they all fall apart because first of all, let’s take the Satan argument.
Why would an all powerful, all good, all knowing God unleash Satan on the world? Why wouldn’t he stop them? If God is unwilling to stop Satan, God is not all good. If God is incapable of stopping Satan, God is not all powerful. And if there is a reason for the extreme degree of suffering, God should explain that. Let’s take my mother in as an example. Auschwitz didn’t. To improve her character, it broke her and it made her a very, very deeply troubled person. If God wants us to undergo rigorous or deals in order for there to be character building or soul building, then God could put us through a boot camp as opposed to a concentration camp. And God could make us undergo experiences that are the equivalent of rigorous athletic training that would improve our characters and strengthen our minds and bodies that put us through debilitating tortures. So this is unexplained. Also, the hidden purpose defense doesn’t work because that hits right up against the divine hipness argument that a God wants us to relate to him, would not play hide the ball like that. Therefore, the suffering of pointless evil, the suffering of apparently gratuitous evil that has no knowable, salutary purpose of improving our character or making us better people would actually just causing pain for the sake of pain. All of that is something which would not occur if there existed a loving God that wants to relationship with us and that one of us to believe in him.
Do you use Darwin’s theory of evolution? This is another argument I’m trying to get. Get to all of your arguments that you’ve used across the country debating these famous Christian philosophers. Well, you say evolution is a reason to be skeptical about belief in God, but couldn’t God have used evolution? There are a lot of religious people who believe in an all loving, all powerful God in his heaven, who used evolution to unfold life as it as it is now on the planet.
It’s certainly possible that. Evolution could occur in a four year stic universe, but it’s more likely that evolution occurs in an atheistic environment because it’s so sloppy. And the trial and error component of it and the wastefulness of it. And so the wastefulness of evolution. Is such that more than 99 percent of all species that have existed on the planet are now extinct.
So of gods. The intelligent designer, he should be fired for bad design work.
Not only that, but he shouldn’t keep running into dead ends and have to try all over again. Evolution is such a trial and error process and it’s so sloppy that it’s much more likely than not that it occurs without there being a divine being behind it. Then that and all powerful and all knowing being is directing it. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have all these dead ends. You wouldn’t have the wastefulness of all these species. And that also leads me into a new argument known as the argument from scale. If God intended this universe to be a life affirming universe, then the majority, the universe wouldn’t be so lethal in our solar system. And I think Pluto has been demoted from Planet Hood. So there are only eight planets. Only one planet that we know is life permitting, which is ours. However, many billions and billions of stars and galaxies there are, most of them are not, life permitting. So once again, it is wasteful of God to have such unbelievably vast universe where so much of it is lethal, where there is so much wasted space and planets and stars. If God’s purpose was to affirm and allow for life, and if this Earth contains on it God’s favorite creatures, why is the universe so vast? Why did this Earth, which is the epicenter of God’s focus, have to be situated in a universe with such a vast and almost endless array of stars and planets that are dead?
The argument you just used is used by the loyal opposition to talk about how finely tuned the planet is for life. It’s so rare that it suggests that there’s some force that, you know, got us all here. If the planet Earth went any faster, there’d be whirlwinds and hurricanes and the weather would just be inhospitable to life if it were rotating any slower. It’d be desolate and and desert like seems true for the exact distance we are from the sun. So couldn’t what you just said actually be a proof for God’s existence?
So it couldn’t because that argument is a flight to the universe itself. The fine tuning argument that if any of the constants of the universe were different, the universe itself would have collapsed in on itself. But that argument is defective because you don’t have other universes to compare it to. We don’t have a million life denying universes where we can say, you see, ours is unique. Also, the design argument comes up in collision course with the fine tuning argument, because if the universe is so perfectly designed, it wouldn’t be hanging so precariously on the balance. If the Earth were singled out, there would be no need for such a vast universe. And the other thing is that we don’t know what life forms exist on other billions and billions of planets. Even if only one out of every thousand planets would have life on it, the universe would still have many planets with life, but still would have many more planets that are wasteful. But that also brings up another question.
If, as the odds are, there is life on other planets, even if it’s just a few. If Christianity is true, does that mean that Jesus would have to incarnate on each planet and be crucified on each planet throughout eternity, wherever life appears to save its inhabitants? And what is God’s plan for salvation on those other planet? Jim Underdown.
Those are great questions kind of outside the purview of our discussion. But I know some Christian sci fi writers who deal with those questions to my enjoyment. I want to begin finishing up Eddie and talk to you about some of the implications of your Athie ism, of your arguments against believing in God. First, won’t society just completely fall apart if people stop believing in some God in heaven who holds them accountable for their actions? There’s a 2000 year old argument that says all morality comes from belief in God. And if you don’t believe in God, you’re necessarily going to turn into a rotten person.
Well, that is the exact equivalent of saying if you don’t believe in Santa Claus. That the children will not behave on the playground. So you have to persuade the children that there really is a Santa Clause. And my response is that you don’t perpetuate a fantasy because the adult world is in a perpetual infancy and that you can only get them to behave by threatening them, that a fantasy creature will punish them if they don’t. Even with that, most of religion has been used not to promote greater harmony among humans, but to be divisive because of throughout human history. The greatest motive for person on person violence has still been religious beliefs. If you look at Christianity and you take Christianity literally good works and good behavior are not necessary for salvation. If you believe in Jesus. That is sufficient according to strict Christian doctrine. If Hitler had opted for Jesus a few minutes before dying, he would be in heaven now and all of his non Christian victims in his concentration camps would be in hell. So Christianity, which is the dominant religion in the West, posits the most immoral kind of God and actually encourages people to only. Seek salvation through belief. They all say goodness alone won’t save you. Now the Bible is contradictory on this. Part of it says that good works is the only way to be saved. And the other says works are irrelevant. Goodness’s irrelevant and only faith in Jesus will be the ticket to salvation. Well, I think it’s very dangerous to tell people that regardless of what they do to others, all they have to do is believe in Jesus and they’re saved. Billy Graham. I remember even as a little boy hearing him used to always tell his audiences, goodness alone won’t save you. Well, goodness alone won’t save you. And if all you have to do is to believe in an incoherent process whereby God was his own son and his own father, I question the kind of morality. Also, if you look at the atrocities in the Bible, the biblical God is guilty of some of the most horrible atrocities. In one, Samuel ordering armies to kill innocent children or ordering captive women to be raped throughout the Old Testament. Everything that the God of the Old Testament does is so horrendous. And then in the New Testament, all he does is turn around and say, regardless of anything else about you, just leave and my son and you’re saved or you burn in hell forever. So the Old Testament. We have this vicious, kinky, vindictive God with a morbid preoccupation with foreskins. And in the New Testament, he turns around and burns people at a lake of fire forever. That, to me, is not much of a font of morality. The more important question is that if biblical morality is true, it means that we are human beings and our reflective ability are irrelevant. And all of our evolution, all of our development in ethics is irrelevant. And some ancient book with simplistic atrocities is what we have to go by. We can’t even use our human intelligence Jim Underdown.
So you’re saying you’re more moral than the God of the Bible?
I think that virtually every atheist has a more moral than the God of the Bible. I think that human evolution yields for us an insight into how morality develops. I think that’s what Paul Kurtz calls the common moral decencies, where as we evolve and the further we get away from biblical morality, if you look at society’s moral compass, our ethical achievements are advances in human morality that are linked to how far distant we are from the biblical code. The more society bases its laws away from the strictures of the Bible, the more moral, the more tolerant we become. If we observe the strict biblical code and the book of Leviticus, two gay men who make love with each other would have to be executed and incorrigible child would have to be stoned at the gates of the city and in the book of Deuteronomy of somebody even witness to you of a different religion, you’re supposed to kill them. So the only way that society has achieved a modicum of moral and ethical development is because we have abandoned strict biblical principles. Mm hmm.
Evy, I want to get personal a moment. If a godless universe is purposeless and void of meaning and if you’re right and man is a product of causes which had no idea of the end that they were achieving, then all of the efforts of humanity are ultimately destined for the cold death that the universe itself is destined for. Is your life, Ed Marsh’s life, less meaningful than the person’s life? Who has a deep and abiding belief in the God of the Bible? What I’m asking, Eddie, is do you ever get down in the existential dregs when you realize the implications of what you’re actually arguing?
I used to, and that’s what forced me into all the new age, seeking in a desperate effort to try to find the transcendental. So I’m sympathetic with the spiritual search, but it’s not real. And because it’s not real to comfort myself with a fantasy as opposed to the reality of the universe would actually be to go through life with blinders on. So even if there’s no ultimate purpose, there’s a relative purpose. I think that each of us can fill our lives with a tremendous amount of good, with a tremendous amount of positive activity that will make the world better for future generations, and that the fact that each individual life is ultimately extinguished does not in any way deter from the value of that life during its time of existence. For instance, in the Center for Inquiry. We try to improve the scientific reality based understanding of our brother and sister human beings. The fact that everybody involved in a center for inquiry and every human being on this planet that we reach out to to bring a more rational perspective on the nature of reality, will die within a few decades. That does not diminish the importance of the work that we’re doing. If someone can lead a life filled with realism and lose all supernatural based prejudices and silly ideas for 80 years of life, we’ve made a difference in that person’s life. And that difference is not extinguished just because the life is extinguished. Because future generations will go on and on. And if the universe ultimately collapses in on itself and it’s destroyed in some billions of years, at least, it can be definitely known that for a few centuries or a few millennia, people who have exercised extra ordinary willpower and goodwill tried to make one little speck of dust better. And that may not be of ultimate everlasting meaning, but it sure gives meaning to each of our individual lives.
Last question, Atieno. You have to go. Let’s see people start getting into your arguments. Let’s say they’re persuaded you’re all over the Internet. People could Google your name and see lectures you’ve given on college campuses across North America. Well, what should they do about it? Are you advocating that people come out of the closet as atheists, like gay people came out as gays?
Yes. I’m absolutely advocating that you come out of the closet if you don’t believe in God and that if you don’t believe in God, that just like the gay movement has taught us the need for social and political organizing, that people become involved with the Council for Secular Humanism and the Center for Inquiry, because the Center for Inquiry gives nonbelievers not only a platform for learning more about the scientific and philosophical underpinnings of nonbelief, but the Center for Inquiry provides us with the opportunity to then begin to build a new civilization based upon a non superstitious grounding in ethics. And ultimately, the purpose of rejecting belief in the supernatural and the purpose of rejecting God is to open the door to a grand new horizon of the good life of an abundant form of living during our finite existence, where we are no longer haunted by ghosts and we no longer have artificial restrictions on our freedoms based upon supernatural beliefs. In fact, Athie ism is a necessary first step to get rid of the debilitating superstitions that have haunted humanity and then begin the building of a new civilization.
Thank you very much for joining me again on point of inquiry. Edward Tomasz, thank you for having me.
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