My Father, His Son, and the Holy Ghost

It should be no secret that I am one of that ever-growing flock of empiricists who’ve been touched by His Noodly Appendage*. And while I generally have little patience for religious beliefs of any stripe — I just can’t see any explanatory utility in them at all — my feelings about religious believers are somewhat more nuanced. Maybe some of it has to do with the fact that I was raised not only by devout Baptists, but by an actual Baptist minister/scholar/high-falutin’ bureaucrat in the Baptist church. (I’m not sure exactly how highly placed, but I have this vague sense that “general secretary” was something like a cardinal/union-boss, except without the sodomising of alter-boys or the beating-up of strike-breakers.) Maybe it’s because, having gone through occasional dark hours of my own, I know how absolutely wonderful it would be to know, deep down in my heart, that death is not the end, that there is a place where all my beloved dead cats still chew on liquorice (and cannot climb the trees), that there is more to existence than a few decades of ranting vainly against the imbeciles who keep treating the planet like a toilet bowl. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve encountered a fair number of believers over the past decades, and I can’t honestly dismiss all of them as complete idiots.

Not that there aren’t an awful lot of idiots in those ranks, you understand. Almost half the human population on this continent thinks that Humanity was created pretty much in its present form six thousand years ago, that evolution is a fraud, and that the sky is swarming with angels. Those people are fucking morons; there is so much overwhelming evidence to the contrary, so readily available to anyone with even rudimentary reading skills, that the only plausible alternatives to fucking-moronhood would be brainwashing or mental disease. But I can’t put people like my dad into that basket: Baptist leader and teacher in the heart of the Alberta bible-belt of the sixties, who — catching me at age twelve reading a James Bond novel — sat me down and told me that Ian Fleming didn’t really have the most respectful attitude towards women, and there were other books I might want to try out if I wanted insight into how to treat my fellow human beings. Who, as I lay spinning on my bed in the dark at seventeen, vomit dribbling down my chin and exhaling enough ethanol to ignite the whole bloody house if my chain-smoking older brother happened to light up, sat on my bed and asked me about my day, and told me about his, and didn’t even mention my inebriated state until I brought it up myself (and then just rolled his eyes and quoted Shakespeare — something about the devil than men put into their mouths to steal away their brains. But I could feel him smiling in the dark when he said it.) My dad, who never had any problems at all with science in general, or with evolution in particular.

When I asked him — years later still — if he would at least stop believing in this Easter Bunny of his if presented with indisputable, convincing evidence of God’s nonexistence, he thought for a moment and admitted that no, he most likely would not. He lost some serious points with me then. But still; this man, and thousands more like him, are not idiots. I cannot lump them in with the Falwells and the Bushies and the — well, with the 47% of the N’Amian population who are fucking morons. I just can’t.

I prefer to think of most of them not as stupid, but lazy.

Most people acquire their beliefs through osmosis and observation, not investigation. We’d rather observe than derive. Raised in a society awash in certain ubiquitous beliefs, you tend to accept those beliefs without thinking. I think most people come to their faith in the same way they come to believe that not wearing a tie is “unprofessional office behaviour”, even though ties are a prerequisite for very few office duties. (There are good evolutionary reasons for this. Who’s going to get ahead fastest; the guy who reinvents every wheel from scratch, or the guy who looks around and copies those wheel-thingies all the grown-ups are using? I mean, of course you should just do what the grown-ups do; they did it, and they were obviously fit enough to spawn…)

But what if I’m wrong? One of the reasons science kicks religion’s ass is that we always have to allow for the possibility that we could be wrong. About anything. Who was it remarked that science offers proof without certainty; religion offers certainty without proof?

So I’m always on the lookout for bright people, scientifically-inclined people, non-fucking-moron people, who have religious beliefs. Because maybe they’ve thought of something I haven’t. Maybe they’re right and I’m wrong; and man, wouldn’t it be great to be wrong about this? Wouldn’t it absolutely kick ass if there actually was an afterlife, and a stigmatized Easter Bunny?

So Dad hands me this book: The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence For Belief by one Francis S. Collins. Director of the bureaucratic half of the Human Genome Project, for Chrissakes. And here’s the kicker: the dude started his university career as an atheist, and then converted to Christianity. Is that ass-backwards or what?

So here, say I, is a guy both smarter and better educated than me, who obviously knows all the arguments that led me to my own apostasy, because he started out there himself — and he’s found something better! He has found evidence for belief!

I bet you’re just dying to see what it was, hmmm?

*And if you don’t know what that means, friend, you are in the wrong place. Come back when you’ve done your homework.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Tuesday December 18 2007at 07:12 pm , filed under ass-hamsters, rant . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

17 Responses to “My Father, His Son, and the Holy Ghost”

  1. Oh real nice. Way to cliffhang me, you torturer.

  2. Tell us! Tell us now! (And spare me the probable agony of reading this guy’s book.)

  3. Smart people, being more skilled than average at playing devil’s advocate, are generally very good at making good arguments for things they came to believe for non-smart reasons, and when this happens I then experience an obviously non-smart desire to do this. This is especially true when the exposed occurrence of rationalization is from myself.

    Examples such as this re-enforce my agreement with Dawkins that the nature of faith makes it, for most practical considerations, a disease, with the mind as it’s transmission vector, instead of just a bad idea. It being a contagious illness, of course, provides ample moral justification for running around doing this, since deliberately spreading a disease is obviously something that can’t be tolerated.

    I am somewhat curious as to how Dawkins would react to his idea being used as justification for that sort of thing if anything actually came of it. For all we know he would be all in favor, but just won’t say so until the opinions of religious moderates is no longer a consideration.

    In any case, the existence of the sort of god that most books like this argue for is entirely besides the point, because it has nothing to do with the religion of ancient sheep-herders that believed every sort of animal lived within hiking distance of Noah’s house that is actually practiced. Without those ideas of god as a starting point, I’m confident that the more recent, philosophical, deist beings would never even have been thought up. Science never goes so far as to assert it’s own correctness in an absolute sense, but that those forms of belief are irredeemably wrong, in both truth and moral value, is something that a person can have conviction in, which is useful, because no weapon is a substitute for zeal.

  4. For those fellow readers who don’t want to read the book yourself, I found this review/overview (scroll down a bit) of the book’s contents and the arguments presented therein.

    tl;dr: Imagine what C.S. Lewis would write if he was a scientist. That’s this book.

  5. His evidence?

    He lacks any

    But there is a much more interesting book on the subject that delves into the vast similarities between Eastern philosophy/mysticism and modern science.

    God & Spirituality – The Undeniable Evidence for God’s Existence written by Sanjay Patel

    I find it fascinating that people thousands of years ago were able to come to the same conclusions people such as yourself are coming to with the aid of modern science.

    Consciousness as an illusion among others…

    It really is fascinating to think that people thousands of years ago somehow discovered what we are only just beginning to discover ourselves and as someone who tends to find traditional belief in religion to be ludicrous I do think there is something to ancient philosophies/religions such as Taoism, Buddhism etc..

    -As an avid fan both of your writing and your opinion on science I’d love to hear your thoughts on similarities between modern scientific discoveries and Eastern philosophy

  6. I don’t think anyone here has ever argued that consciousness is an illusion, just that it might be useless or counter-adaptive. Indeed, a rigorous analysis of what a person can possibly know with absolute certainty quickly cuts out all knowledge except that one is concious. That is the origin of the phrase, “I think, therefore I am.”

  7. I notice the universe is amazingly well-suited for the evolution of interesting life, which can make me a deist on even-numbered months… but the god of Abraham? Why that one?

    Sam Harris review

    Caveat. I have not read the book in question, nor even Mere Christianity (my bad!) but according to Collins’ Salon interview:


    …one of my patients, after telling me about her faith and how it supported her through her terrible heart pain, turned to me and said, “What about you? What do you believe?” And I stuttered and stammered and felt the color rise in my face, and said, “Well, I don’t think I believe in anything.” But it suddenly seemed like a very thin answer. And that was unsettling. I was a scientist who was supposed to draw conclusions from the evidence and I realized at that moment that I’d never really looked at the evidence for and against the possibility of God.

    That concerns me, for he was then a different kind of atheist than I am now. He came by atheism without examining? Surely not! If that’s true then his conversion was not so dramatic after all. Nor was it relevant to me, because my atheism (on the odd-numbered months) is earned by a 5-year process of reading everything I could grab that all sides wrote.

    So… tell us more? Continue with details, please!

  8. Nuts. Left out a link.
    Salon article “The Believer” By Steve Paulson about Francis Collins

  9. Ahhh, FSM, the greatest inside joke this side of I, Libertine.

  10. I didn’t read the book, but from what I have read of it, the author’s “proof” of god is just as flagrantly specious as Descartes’ in his famed work (which ar was quoting).

    Morality does NOT denote a divine, universal law. His first flaw as far as I can see it is that the idea of morality is not universal across all cultures, as he appears to say it is (by asserting that morality is universal, he suggests that it could not have arisen by evolution but rather by some divine law).

    Second, I’m fairly certain that a human kept in isolation will not spontaneously develop a sense of right and wrong beyond what causes pain and what causes pleasure. Further, they are not so endowed with this from birth.

    In fact, I can’t imagine a simpler explanation of why right/wrong exists than it is merely a mechanism that allows society to function more adequately, which was evolutionarily selected for because societies are advantageous. Along with language and all the other crap he uses as justification.

    AS for consciousness not existing, I don’t know if I believe that. The same is true for rigorous analysis of truth coming to the conclusion that the only thing able to be proved is that you are aware. There are many differing opinions on this, and I think it’s best to take the middle ground.

    For instance, nihilism is seemingly perpetually in vogue among certain groups and is one extreme of the knowledge question. The only issue with it is that it is not self consistent (the only truth is that there is no truth), a problem thats run into a lot with so-called “rigorous” proofs of truth.

    And even beyond that, there are many conceptions of truth itself. For instance, there’s the concept of aletheia, which denotes truth simply as that which is no longer obscured or unknown. Which is perfectly valid–truth exists just fine and it’s a matter of uncovering it.

    Anyway, the moral of this story is always take broad, sweeping claims with a grain of salt.

  11. I’m at a loss when confronted with people like your father. My mother’s boyfriend who I get along quite well with, and who is otherwise very intelligent holding Bachelor degrees in Anthropology, Sociology and Philosophy… still believes the earth and humans were created from nothingness 6000 or so years ago.

    The problem is, that when he starts talking about it, he’s far better informed than I am. He starts referencing all sorts of studies claiming there is actual evidence for this.

    I’ve stopped bringing the topic up. I get along fine with him as long as we’re not talking evolution.

  12. Let me guess – is it the one about the frozen stream? I don’t care how intelligent Collins is or how much more he knows of biology than I do, if that argument/revelation is the best he can do then I have no worries about losing my atheist card anytime soon.

  13. For practical concerns, it’s not necessary to disprove a refined metaphysically unknowable definition of god, just the definition of god that people actually believe in.

    And that is trivial.

  14. That’s the finest example of properly tagging a blog post I’ve seen in a while.

  15. AR said…

    Examples such as this re-enforce my agreement with Dawkins that the nature of faith makes it, for most practical considerations, a disease, with the mind as it’s transmission vector, instead of just a bad idea. It being a contagious illness, of course, provides ample moral justification for running around doing this, since deliberately spreading a disease is obviously something that can’t be tolerated.

    While we’re on the subject of Doc Dawk, I know a few actual evolutionary biologists who regard him as a fundamentalist in his own right, whose Neodarwinian caricatures almost help the creationists more than the forces of reason. I think this POV hails at least partly from his writings in The God Delusion, which I’ve yet to read and thus can’t comment on. Suffice to say that at this point, I’m not sold on that perspective.


    For those fellow readers who don’t want to read the book yourself, I found this review/overview (scroll down a bit) of the book’s contents and the arguments presented therein.

    Imagine what C.S. Lewis would write if he was a scientist. That’s this book.

    You don’t have to imagine. Half the bloody book is lifted directly from Lewis.

    Jason said…

    …As an avid fan both of your writing and your opinion on science I’d love to hear your thoughts on similarities between modern scientific discoveries and Eastern philosophy

    I’d love to tell you, if I had any worth reporting. The fact is I’m abysmally ignorant of Eastern philosophy (hell, I’m pretty damn ignorant of Western philsophy too — not to mention Northern and Southern Philosophy). I’ve tried to take a stab at one or two of those popsci books that take an Eastern view of quantum physics, but all I took home from them was the confidence that now I’d actually read up on the subject, I was justified in making ignorant and judgmental generalisations. (I tried to read The Dancing Wu Li Masters, for example, but I refuse to take seriously any author who evidently can’t count to two).

    Keith said…

    I notice the universe is amazingly well-suited for the evolution of interesting life, which can make me a deist on even-numbered months… but the god of Abraham? Why that one?

    Because (according to Collins) the existence of The Moral Law implies a personal, Golden-Rule kinda god, rather than one who just winds up the Rube Goldberg machine at t=0 and spends the next 30 billion years watching it unwind. (Except that elsewhere in the book he insists that that’s pretty much what god did do, because otherwise there would be no suffering and/or free will. Or something equally incoherent. I had a hard time keeping track of all the inconsistencies…)

    Nicholas said…

    (…a bunch of stuff I’m snipping because I have nothing to add, but which is remarkably spot-on for someone who didn’t read the book. If only I could have saved myself that trouble…)

    Brian said…

    I’m at a loss when confronted with people like your father. My mother’s boyfriend who I get along quite well with, and who is otherwise very intelligent holding Bachelor degrees in Anthropology, Sociology and Philosophy… still believes the earth and humans were created from nothingness 6000 or so years ago.

    The problem is, that when he starts talking about it, he’s far better informed than I am. He starts referencing all sorts of studies claiming there is actual evidence for this.

    Pretty sure he’s wrong on that score. But I feel your pain: what do you do when someone cites chapter and verse of an authority you’ve never heard of before, that contradicts everything you’ve learned to that point? Dismiss their sources out-of-hand and you’re being closed-minded. Accept them and you’ve most likely been suckered by some piece of pseudoscientific crap. Withhold judgment pending further input and you’re a mealy-mouthed fence-sitter. My own approach is to raise a skeptical eyebrow and say “That’s pretty inconsistent with the studies I’ve seen. I’d be really interested in seeing those figures first-hand.”

    Julie K said…

    Let me guess – is it the one about the frozen stream?

    Yes! Exactly! Except it was a frozen waterfall, in three parts (which was God’s way of reminding him of the Holy Trinity, you see…)

  16. I don’t think anyone here has ever argued that consciousness is an illusion, just that it might be useless or counter-adaptive. Indeed, a rigorous analysis of what a person can possibly know with absolute certainty quickly cuts out all knowledge except that one is concious. That is the origin of the phrase, “I think, therefore I am.”

    I think this is just a semantical problem, by “illusion” I mean a construct created by our own mind that serves as a sort of “user interface”

    Is it not interesting that thousands of years ago a couple philosophers/monks came upon the idea that there is no real “I” as what we define as “I” is in a state of constant flux?

    Check our a few links

    http://www.amazon.com/User-Illusion-Cutting-Consciousness-Penguin/dp/0140230122

    http://www.thymos.com/tat/consciou.html

    http://millerideas.com/?p=16

    I hope those urls don’t fuck the page up


  17. I think this is just a semantical problem, by “illusion” I mean a construct created by our own mind that serves as a sort of “user interface”

    Is it not interesting that thousands of years ago a couple philosophers/monks came upon the idea that there is no real “I” as what we define as “I” is in a state of constant flux?

    Then I think you should have said that the self (in the sense of there is an actual “thing” that has experience rather than simply a stream of experiences) is an illusion rather than that consciousness is an illusion.