Monday, December 26, 2011

Why Brian Raiter is an atheist

Brian Raiter has a guest post on Pharyngula on why he's an atheist. Here's his post, with my commentary:

Why I am an atheist – Brian Raiter
December 2, 2011 at 8:53 am PZ Myers

As best as I can remember, I was eight or nine years old, and I was looking through one of my parents’ books that I liked. It was almost an accidental find, or at least I don’t remember anyone showing it to me. I had discovered it on my own. I occasionally went through the large bookshelf my parents had, looking for something that didn’t look terminally boring. On one such occasion I had discovered a Time-Life science book, titled simply “The Stars”. The first time I ever looked at it, it was of course largely over my head, but every now and then I returned to it, and found more and more of it comprehensible, and more and more of it interesting. This early-sixties era Time-Life book introduced me to such marvels as galaxies, globular clusters and supernovae. (In later years it taught me about the Main Sequence, the carbon fusion chain, and the predicted fate of our own sun.)
Beautiful fascinating stuff. Virtually all of the great enlightenment astronomers who pioneered this wonderful science were passionate Christians.
One day, after admiring the artist’s conception of colliding galaxies near the back, I was paging through it looking for more to read about, and I hit upon a two-page spread that described the early formation of the solar system. It showed a cloud of interstellar dust slowly collapsing from its own gravity, spinning faster as it became denser, until there was enough matter crammed into the center to be a sun, at which point it started to heat up. When pretty much everything had collapsed into a single ball, it was spinning fast enough that it threw off a bunch of extra matter at the equator, where the speeds were fastest (and gravitational attraction was weakest). The ejected matter began repeating the original process in miniature, with several different areas forming their own local balls of matter that eventually drew in everything nearby. Many of them even repeated the part where at the point of maximum rotational speed they threw off a bit of matter from the equator before stabilizing, which in turn eventually collapsed into other balls. Voila: sun, planets, and moons, with the last straggling bits of matter winding up as asteroids or comets.
The modern science of astronomy flourished only in Western civilization, which is grounded in Christian theology and philosophy.
Pretty typical as explanations go at that age, in that it seemed to raise a bunch of really obvious followup questions, like for example if it just formed out of a bunch of preexisting matter then where the heck did THAT come from? Still, it was very likely easier to explain where a formless cloud of dust came from than a fully formed solar system, so even at that age I could see where this explanation was helpful. It wasn’t trying to do everything, but was just one piece of the puzzle.
Good sorting out of primary and secondary causes. Smart nine year-old.
I had read these pages before, of course, but on this one day something struck me about it. A light bulb went on within my head. I reread the text to make sure, even though I already knew full well there was no mistake. Here was a description of the formation of the solar system (complete, for the part that it described) that made no reference to God.
There's no reason to refer to primary cause (God) in a discussion of secondary cause (natural science).
None. Not even to suggest that God had nudged the cloud into position, or had given some chunk of matter a bit of a backspin in order to get things started, or even that he had carefully watched over it without interfering.
Many of the Enlightenment scientists did refer to God in their work-- e.g. Copernicus, Newton, Kepler.... Most modern ones don't. The reason is professional and cultural. There has not been any "scientific discovery" that has rendered God extraneous to nature.
Not even to apologize for not mentioning God. It was that irrelevant.
One need not refer to primary cause in a discussion of secondary causes.
There were people, I realized, who didn’t believe in God.
Nine-year old Brian never heard of Stalin or Mao or the Marquis de Sade? Outrageous. Children should be taught about atheists at a young age. (Well, we can leave de Sade until later...)
There were holes in my logic, I saw (if not immediately, then not long after).
Yep.
Just because these people contradicted the first chapter of Genesis didn’t mean they didn’t believe in God.
They didn't contradict the first chapter of Genesis. The first chapter of Genesis is not a science textbook. It's an allegorical description of Creation. It's like saying that Hamlet doesn't tell important things about life because Shakespeare didn't mention physiology.

And there are aspects of Genesis that are eerily accurate- that the universe had a beginning, that the beginning was a burst of light, that it evolved in stages, etc.
They might still believe other parts of the Bible were right. Or they might believe that God created the interstellar dust, knowing that it would lead to the solar system and human beings. They might believe in a God I wasn’t familiar with.
But none of those objections really mattered, I realized. This explanation for the formation of the solar system was printed in a regular book, after all, and meant for kids to read. Clearly it wasn’t the work of a handful of lunatics trying to push their wild-eyed beliefs onto children before they were old enough to know better. No, this theory of the solar system’s formation had to be pretty widely accepted. Or even if it wasn’t, they at least were comfortable with the idea that it wasn’t God just stepping in and doing it by hand.
The idea that God works in nature through rational laws that can be discovered by man is a distinctly Christian idea. Christianity is the foundation of modern science. Modern science only emerged in Christian culture.

The distinctly atheist contribution to science is that things in nature just happen, like, ya know, stuff comes from nothing, shit happens, no reason for it all....
And I knew that, even if all those people actually still believed that God existed, they couldn’t speak for everybody.
Actually, forcing everybody to accept official doctrine is a characteristic of state atheism.
I mean, taking this idea to its logical conclusion was simply too obvious, too compelling. If you could come up with a plausible notion of how the solar system formed just by leaving a bunch of interstellar dust alone for millions of years, then surely the formation of everything else could be explained similarly.
Yea. Shit happened, then some more shit happened. Atheism is a trove of wisdom.
So even if everyone who worked on this book believed in God, there were definitely other people out there who didn’t.
Duh.
And if it truly turned out that there weren’t any other such people, well, there was one now.
Brian's Desiderata. "Even if there aren't other people dumb enough to think that everything just happened, I will persevere..."
If it had turned out that every adult I ever met believed in the Bible, then I wasn’t about to rebel against that.
Brian was going to wait until he grew up, became an adult atheist, and then sue Christians in federal court.
Those are long odds, stupid odds. But something within me, even at that age, didn’t find the Bible stories particularly compelling.
Therefore God doesn't exist. But if Moses had written better stories...
They were just too strangely skewed while at the same time trying to be too pat. (Pat in a way that real explanations never seemed to succeed in being.)
Brian's odd example of "not too pat":
"If you could come up with a plausible notion of how the solar system formed just by leaving a bunch of interstellar dust alone for millions of years, then surely the formation of everything else could be explained similarly..." 
Brian:
All I had needed was reassurance that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.
You aren't.
The moment I deduced the existence of atheists, I knew that I was one too.
You didn't deduce anything, Brian. You just made some prepubescent inferences from a science book that you liked. They don't make much sense. They're a pitiful excuse for philosophy.

Time to move on.

14 comments:

  1. It's funny. I read the same book in the sixties and I was struck in awe by a photograph of the Andromeda Galaxy and came to the opposite conclusion: the grandeur of the Creator for displaying such beauty.

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  2. Oh look, once again Egnor smears on the clown makeup and pretends that his magical sky fairy is real. Sad, desperate, pathetic doesn't even begin to describe how small Egnor makes himself seem by attempting to make himself relevant by glomming onto more a popular and better written blog.

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  3. @anon
    ...magical sky fairy is real.

    Nope! There is no magical sky fairy. No little green men either...

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  4. Love this blog. Came to it from a search on Hugo Black.

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  5. @anon, clearly you're not an atheist. No truly believing atheist would waste their time trying to argue anyone into anything. You're just a bag of atoms vibrating at other bags of atoms.

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  6. Anonymous, let me show you how raving bigots sound:

    "Oh good, Egnor the kike puts on his yarmulke and pretends that his magical sky fairy is real. Sad, desperate, pathetic doesn't even begin to describe how small Egnor makes himself by attempting to make himself relevant by glomming onto a popular and better written non-Jew blog."

    Just how, precisely, does your quaint sentiment differ from this?

    I'd also add that Egnor shows his blog to be quite relevant to you, who apparently needs some sort of outlet for your quite-evident hatred.

    But perhaps if "Jews" like Egnor knew their place, and would quite back-sassing the "Aryans" and quit "stealing" their writings, you'd have no problem with them.

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  7. @Alt Numlock: If you comment was any dumber, you'd be brain dead.

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  8. Just how, precisely, does your quaint sentiment differ from this?

    Well, for starters, I didn't reference the fact that PZ's blog is an atheist blog at all. I referenced that fact that it was much more popular and much better written than the drivel that spills out of Egnor's keyboard.

    And better written that the drivel that spills out of yours too. You should see someone about the drooling. Perhaps you should step away from your parents' computer and ask them for help.

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  9. Dr. Egnor you’re getting real good at cutting and pasting from Myers’ website and adding the same mocking, insults, and talking points that we see over and over and over again. Stalin was an atheist, Stalin was an atheist, Stalin was an atheist, and in case you forgot, Stalin was an atheist. My God I think the 10 people who regularly read your blog have got the point already. You must be a busy man Dr., I suggest that if you can’t put any effort into this blog you give it up. Perhaps you need an outlet for your hate and fear, but at this point you’re just wasting everybody’s time.

    -KW

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  10. I had read these pages before, of course, but on this one day something struck me about it. A light bulb went on within my head. I reread the text to make sure, even though I already knew full well there was no mistake. Here was a description of the formation of the solar system (complete, for the part that it described) that made no reference to God.

    The scientific method, used by folks like Kepler and Mendel, makes no reference to God. And yet they didn't see the contradiction. Perhaps because one isn't there.

    I can certainly understand how a literal interpretation of Genesis would lead to unanswerable questions, but certainly these issues had been raised before by brilliant and educated scientists, ones that did not conclude there is no God.

    Every time I read one of these science-based atheism conversion stories, I feel like the author thinks they've stumbled onto something new and different when in fact, it's many, many centuries old.

    Oh well. Everyone comes to salvation in their own time.

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  11. If you comment was any dumber, you'd be brain dead.

    If me comment was dumber?

    Proofread much? Also people of your exalted intelligence ought to know when to use "was" and when to use "were".

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  12. @Mike,
    These technical conversions to atheism say it all to me. These poor souls see 'magic' in machinery and promises of future 'progress' and less so in man, life, and natural creation. They are blind, and move towards the hum of machines. Not only that they are thematically and interpretively illiterate. This convert seems incapable of discerning metaphor or analogy, and this is typical in my experience with young, angry, spoiled / over indulged, academics.

    @Pépé
    Surely that reaction is the most common. I can recall a conversation with my Dad (RIP) along the same lines in the 70's with regards to Sagan and his book 'Cosmos'. My father had said at some point 'His (Sagan's) observations are brilliant, it is such a shame he is so imprisoned by materialism and hos work so 'poisoned' by it that many people will take that 'poison' in with his work.'
    I had felt most people would disregard his ideology and just 'get into' the 'science'. I was in young - Dad was right.

    @Anon
    "smears on the clown makeup"
    You have a thing for clowns, don't you. Do they make you 'clutch pearls'? Do they make your make up run?

    @KW
    "Perhaps you need an outlet for your hate and fear, but at this point you’re just wasting everybody’s time."
    No. You're wasting your own time preaching AT the folks on here. Many of us are actually sharing ideas, debating, and conversing. Try it. You may actually LIKE it, KW.

    @alt
    "But perhaps if "Jews" like Egnor knew their place, and would quite back-sassing the "Aryans" and quit "stealing" their writings, you'd have no problem with them."
    Too true. The bigotry in such comments is easily unmasked with a comparison like yours. Very simple, very true. I applaud your realistic and reciprocal approach. Do I detect a military mind? No matter... Well done!

    @KT,
    "Every time I read one of these science-based atheism conversion stories, I feel like the author thinks they've stumbled onto something new and different when in fact, it's many, many centuries old."
    Excellent point. It speaks of the personalization of their conversion. To these lost souls, it seems their purposeless, random, futile universe has picked THEM for the great GNOSIS that has eluded ALL others for ALL time: Science is ALL.
    Except it is not.
    These converts of which you speak are like children trying to become the head of the family by disproving father's existence, and by ridiculing anyone with a memory of Him.

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  13. sorry typos (on reread) was posted PRE coffee.

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  14. To these lost souls, it seems their purposeless, random, futile universe has picked THEM for the great GNOSIS that has eluded ALL others for ALL time

    That's a great formulation of the process. I'm really glad I came across your blog.

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