Originally Posted: April 22, 2016

At this meeting we shared the most compelling theistic arguments we’ve ever encountered. Theistic arguments are arguments which attempt to prove that there must be such a thing as a deity. There are many theistic arguments that have been developed over the course of human civilization, and any individual will find some of them to be more compelling or well-articulated than others. Here, we weren’t looking for arguments that are correct (atheists generally don’t find any of them to be correct), just arguments that are creative and interesting. In fact, we didn’t even really focus on theistic arguments precisely – we looked at any argument which says, “it’s reasonable to be a believer, and to live a religious life.”

It’s Too Hard To Change
People choose to be religious for a variety of reasons. One of the most prevalent reasons (we think) is that religion is taught to us by our families, and represents a continuity with the past. There’s a sort of religious inertia: once a religion gets going in a family for a few generations, it’s very difficult for anyone in that family to break out of it. This inertia metaphor works for individual lifetimes as well: a young person may break out of religion, usually when they go to college, but it’s much less likely that an older religious person would ever change their views. The argument is, why should they? Doubting one’s religious convictions is not only mentally taxing, it’s emotionally painful. Plus, many religious people feel ashamed for doubting, and choosing to leave one’s religion can result in alienation from family and community. We could say that being religious is harmful, but breaking out of religiosity in middle or old age could cause even more pain.

Thinking About Spirits Is Enjoyable
Grief is tough. Most of us don’t really know how to deal with it. Magical ideas about “better places” and “spirits looking down on us” are a balm for grief. To grieve is to be emotionally wounded; why should we ditch the comfort that spirituality provides if we don’t have any other mechanism for healing? Even an atheist could, in a moment of grief, take comfort in these sorts of magical ideas.

For more information, please visit Grief Beyond Belief. Here is a short video of Sam Harris discussing death and grief, in which he argues that magical thinking is a bad way to grieve.

The Origin Of Life
We often hear about the Theory of Evolution, which explains how the great variety of complexity of life we observe on Earth today evolved naturally from simple, single-celled organisms which were the common ancestors of all life. Now we could talk about that all day, but even if the Theory’s true, the question remains: where did the common ancestors come from? If it wasn’t a miracle, it must have been “abiogenesis”: the spontaneous generation of living organisms from non-living materials. The idea of abiogenesis is that, long ago on Earth, there were pools of water which contained high concentrations of organic chemicals. Within these pools of “primordial soup,” molecules came together to form amino acids through random diffusion, and those amino acids formed proteins and membranes, and eventually a self-replicating organism. There is presently no evidence that this happened, or that it is possible. How did life originate? Nobody knows.

That face that we don’t have an answer to this question doesn’t mean that we must accept creationism. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” Interesting to think about: what if some experiment demonstrated that abiogenesis is possible, and that the conditions for abiogenesis were met on Earth at the time the evolutionary biology predicts that it happened? There would be some serious theological consequences. European Christians faced a problem sort of like this when humans were discovered in the Americas. It was thought that humanity began in one single location: the Garden of Eden. How did humans get all the way to the Americas? The Book of Mormon offers an answer: Native Americans are in fact Jews who colonized the Americas around the time of the prophet Jeremiah. That may seem a bit silly to us (and it is definitely untrue), but at the time it was attempting to provide an answer to a serious and distressing theological problem.

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences
Mathematics is a language of logic, made up of axioms that are not themselves based on evidence. Yet, we can use relatively simple rules to very accurately describe a whole lot of physical phenomena. How can this be? Mathematics is “made up” by human brains. There doesn’t seem to be any essential reason that the math that we invent should actually describe what’s going on outside our heads… but it does! Is the comprehensibility of the universe evidence of an universe-designer? Is our apparently innate ability to understand the cosmos evidence that we ourselves must have been granted this divine power of mathematical reasoning? Ultimately, nobody knows.

The Aliens Argument
So, this argument isn’t precisely a theistic argument because it doesn’t set out to prove the existence of a deity; instead, it aims to show that belief in something that has no evidence can be reasonable. This argument takes a look at SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, which is a scientific effort to detect or communicate with intelligent life beyond Earth. SETI scientists believe it’s very likely that extraterrestrial intelligence exists, and that belief drives them to dedicate their lives to the endeavor of finding them. But, is their belief supported by evidence? Well, there are many, many Earth-like planets in our galaxy, so even if life develops on only a tiny fraction of Earth-like planets, there should still be hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of intelligent alien species. However, we don’t really have any actual evidence of any alien life at all. The tension between how many aliens there ought to be that the total lack of evidence for them is called the Fermi Paradox. So, is the work of SETI “reasonable”? They are enthusiastically pursuing something for which there is exactly zero evidence – does that constitute a leap of faith? How is the belief in and and pursuit of aliens much different from the belief in and pursuit of gods? Here is a well-made articulation of this argument. At the bottom of this post are some links to more information about this subject.

Here is a response to the alien argument. Consider the two following claims:

  1. There is a baseball on Mars.
  2. There is a unicorn on Mars.

These two claims are fundamentally different from one another. In Claim #1, Mars exists and baseballs exist; the claim is asking about the conjunction of two things that are already known to exist. In Claim #2, Mars exists but unicorns unfortunately don’t; Claim #2 contains within itself the claim that unicorns exist in the first place. Both claims have no supporting evidence, but Claim #2 is especially unreasonable.

Now consider the claim that “life exists in the universe beyond Earth.” We already know that the universe beyond Earth exists, and we already know that life exists in the universe (we ourselves are life in the universe), so the claim that life exists in the universe is like Claim #1. The claim may not have any supporting evidence, but it isn’t presupposing the existence of anything that isn’t already known to exist. In contrast, the claims that “there is such a thing as a deity” or “there is a unicorn on Mars” are completely without foundation.

What are the philosophical and theological ramifications of alien life? If many alien species were found in the universe, it could be argued that the universe is hospitable by design, which indicates a creator force intent on producing life. If Earth-life were the only life in the entire universe (a concept known as the “Rare Earth Hypothesis“), it could be – and is – argued that the universe is inhospitable, so the occurrence of life on Earth could only possibly be the result of a miraculous divine intervention. However, if there are only a few alien species, it shows that the universe is generally inhospitable, but life still sometimes happens on its own.

We spoke briefly about the distinction between “believing” and “searching.” Maybe it’s not reasonable to believe that aliens exist, but it is reasonable to search for them – and maybe the same goes for the gods. A religious person could say, “through my faith practice and religious lifestyle, I am searching for God,” rather than, “I am certain that God exists; I am a believer.” Or, maybe the rhetoric of “searching” is a way to avoid the connotations of irrationality that come with “believing,” and to search is simply a mechanism of confirmation bias. It’s not really a search unless you actually take on the possiblility of not finding anything.

Some interesting Young-Earth Creationist Arguments
These aren’t theistic arguments at all, but they’re still interesting…

  1. The Earth’s core is still hot. If the Earth were 4.5 billion years old, it would have cooled off by now. Therefore, the Earth can only be several thousand years old. In reality, the Earth’s core is hot because of gravitational pressure, friction, chemical reactions, and a lot of insulation.
  2. Human and dinosaur footprints have been found together – humans must have co-existed with dinosaurs. Nope.
  3. Here is a refutation of the “distant starlight” argument for a very old cosmos. We can calculate the distance of stars, and we know the speed of light. We can detect, on Earth, light from stars that are billions of light years away. That means the light from those stars traveled toward us for billions of years – so the universe must be billions of years old. Here is a young-earth creationist’s surprising response: it’s a mystery. Perhaps the stars are not as far as we think; perhaps the starlight traveled faster in the past; perhaps the universe came into existence in such a way that it only appears to be old. In any case, the bible says the universe is 6000 years old, so that has to be true. If scientific inquiry suggests otherwise, well, that’s a mystery then.

Here are some links regarding aliens:

  • The Drake Equation, which aims to calculate the number of intelligent, communicating aliens in the Milky Way Galaxy.
  • Here’s a longer explanation of the Fermi Paradox, along with some possible solutions.
  • Here is Bill Nye’s answer to the Fermi Paradox: we haven’t looked long or hard enough. As Neil Degrasse Tyson put it: “Aliens don’t exist anywhere but Earth? It’s like taking a scoop out of the ocean with a cup and saying there are no such things as whales because there are none in my cup.” We need a bigger sample set! I’m unable to find the source of the quote, but I think it’s from his talk show Star Talk.