Eating Cakes That Can’t Be Kept

April 25, 2007 | By | 18 Replies More

I sometimes shake my head at the futility of debating the dedicated faithful.  By that I do not mean those who are serious about their religion and think it through, but those who attached themselves, limpet-like, to a movement and then abandon all introspection and attack all dissent aimed at it.  Creationism vs Evolution is a good example.

Now, there are some Creationists who know perfectly well that their arguments won’t sustain a scientific examination, but it doesn’t matter.  They see their mission as one of “saving” those who can’t (or won’t) parse such distinctions from the murkiness of science, and in that cause they have adopted what amounts to a tactic–formulate their arguments in the language of science so as to reassure those who already dislike Evolution that there is no monopoly on reasoned analysis, and that god can be found in the epistemology of creation science just as in evolutionary science god is eliminated. 

Why bother with this?  Well, for aesthetic reasons.  We live in an age wherein the jargon of science, wherein the fruits of a scientific approach, wherein the Scientist has enormous cachet.  Even while rejecting the conclusions of much science, people sort of know that there’s something to it, even while they don’t understand it.  And that if you can couple your old wive’s tales, folkore, New Age poppycock, or religious viewpoint with a scientific explanation you can pretty well cover all bases and stop worrying about Anything Changing.

That last bit is important.

What the faithful follower really wants is a cake that never disappears, even after you eat on it for a whole lifetime.

Science is just a downer.

Example.  My father is an engineer.  My whole childhood, we had conversations that went something like this.

“I want to go to the moon.”

“Okay.  You need X amount of fuel per pound.”

“But that means the ship will be too big.”

“Too big for what?”

“For everyone I want to take along.”

“You need several ships then.  You’ll need x amount of fuel for each one.  And when you get there, you have to have oxygen to breathe.”

“How come?”

“There’s no air on the moon.”

“Where will I get it?”

“You’ll have to bring it with you.”

“But that means the ships will be even BIGGER!”

Frustrating.  I just wanted to jump in the family car and launch it moonward and NOT WORRY ABOUT ALL THE DAMN DETAILS THAT SEEMED INTENT ON TELLING ME IT COULDN’T BE DONE!

Better to just fantasize about going to the moon.

Or, when a bit older, and the subject was pollution.

“I think we should go back to using horses instead of cars.”

“Why?”

“Less air pollution.”

“Okay, but everyone would have to have a barn to store the hay for them to eat.  A horse needs x amount a day.”

“The garage isn’t big enough.”

“No, it isn’t.  And then there’s another thing.”

“What?”

“What do you do with all the feces?”

“What feces?”

“The horse feces.”

When you’re young, these kind of “How do you pay for it?” arguments are intensely frustrating.  Some on your most cherished ambitions get shot down by bookkeeping, it seems.

To the followers of creationist arguments, I think something like this is in play.  What they adamantly do not want is to think about how all this stuff–the universe, you know?–works.  They want to repeal the three laws of thermodynamics and continue on as if nothing they or their parents or their children do to live “good lives” has any impact on anything.

For their part, though, Evolutionists and the like seem to misunderstand this psychology and get frustrated by the appeal of the religious approach.  The psychology is different, the aesthetics are different, and for the most part the two sides are speaking different languages.

What the faithful do not want is to feel (a) powerless and (b) responsible.  They avoid both by allying themselves with an omnipotent god who does good things for them when petitioned by prayer (evidence notwithstanding) and by believing that this same god has a plan and wouldn’t let all the dire consequence those scientists keep harping on about happen. 

Unless we deserve them to happen, which means we’re sinners and deserve it anyway, so trying to do something about it is human arrogance and in defiance of god.

But ultimately it’s the ducking of responsibility that’s so wired into the antiscience religious approach that’s attractive.  That cake will never vanish even as we eat our fill day in and day out.

The other part of this, of course, is the way people take things so personally.  I recall back in the Seventies when a prominent scientist announced that the sun will burn out in eight billion years and following day the stock market took a serious dip.  People are reactive and, at least in aggragate, seem incapable of a sense of proportion.

Not that we should stop trying to debunk Creationism.  But I think we need to realize that as we argue with these folks, we’re facing desires and needs we may not be acknowledging.  All they see is an argument that’s bent on telling us the cake isn’t there.  Or that we’re diabetics and can’t have any.  They’re not seeing the positive side.

Anybody have a spare fork?

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Category: American Culture, Communication, Culture, Current Events, Education, Environment, Evolution, global warming, Good and Evil, Language, Media, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science, Whimsy

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (18)

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  1. David Mize says:

    The missing element is faith. That and the fact that I honestly don't care whether I evolved from something or not. All I know is that if I evolved, God evolved me.

    Faith is believing something I cannot see or prove. You do it every day. Look at a dollar bill. Whose picture is that? Can you prove George Washington ever existed? You've never met him. You don't know anyone who's ever met him. Anyone who might have actually met him is dead. We have lots of books that say he was alive, and tell you the things he did. But you can't prove any of those things happened either. So, did George exist or not? Yeah, he did. But I only believe that through faith.

    Now, multiply that faith time infinity and that's the strength of my belief in God and all the things He (and His Son) have done. If you don't believe it I can't make you. I can pray for you, but ultimately at the end it time it won't make one whit of difference in my eternal destiny whether you believed it or not.

    I do have an extra fork. I'll email it to you!

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    I think that David Mize is saying this: We aren't absolutley positive that George Washington existed. We need to make a "leap of faith" that the thousands of corroborating letters, newspaper articles and paintings regarding George Washington are accurate. See the similarity to God (and Jesus)? The historical archives are sketchy, but it's the same issue: we believe despite gaps in the record.

    But in the case of God (and Jesus), the record filled with huge gaps. Despite this, David's faith tells him that he's ever more certain that his beliefs in God and Jesus are correct.

    Why? Apparently because David says so. He's the kind of fellow who is more certain of events that are supported with less evidence.

    Sorry, David. I don't buy it. You are Exhibit A to Jason's article (I suppose, also, that I am Exhibit B). I'll bet that in every area of your life other than religion, less evidence for X means you are less likely to believe X. Your one exception to this rule is a very telling exception, indeed.

    I disagree with you that we need to make any meaningful leap of faith in the case of George Washington. The path of historical evidence leading to Washington's real-life existence is detailed and reliable, at least for anyone who cares to study it.  For more on the enormous gaps in the Biblical record, please do check out the works of Bart Ehrman. Do it unless, of course, you don't care "one whit" about evidence.

  3. Jason Rayl says:

    It may be a semantic difference to some, but I make a distinction between those whom I call The Faithful and someone who has faith. They aren't the same, as you (in a small way) point out in your reply–it doesn't matter to you if you evolved, you believe god evolved you. The Faithful care very much, though, because they don't have that kind of faith–what they have in an insurance policy backed by the "good word" of someone they follow.

    BTW, we have Washington's bones, his letters, and the bones and letters of those who knew him. In the case of god we have no bones–not his nor of those who wrote the letters purporting to give evidence of his existence. This, too, may be a fine point that means nothing to some–we don't have the bones of Socrates, either, and only Plato's word that he existed (and we don't have Plato's bones, either). But there are no extraordinary claims made for these people, no miracles we're asked to believe. They were smart, maybe even brilliant, and left some fascinating ideas behind for us to ponder. The ideas are certainly worthwhile and are worthwhile whether there was a Washington or a Socrates or some guy named Joe writing all this stuff. Some of Jesus' ideas are pretty interesting and worthwhile, too, but it strikes me odd that few of his alleged followers accept that the ideas are valid whether or not Jesus "really" existed–they need both. Mainly, they need Jesus to even be bothered to pay attention to the ideas attributed to the man, and a great many I have encountered don't seem to think they have to really pay attention to what he said as long as the BELIEVE.

    Perhaps you may consider these small differences.

  4. Ben says:

    The religious faithful often incorporate scientific improvements into their lives as if God has okayed it or even planned it. But, when science reveal drawbacks like "cigarettes cause cancer" and "global warming is caused by humans", the religious are stubborn to the change. Maybe it's because they hate to think that their supposedly all-knowing God was wrong about cigarettes (and climate change) all these years. As stated previously at DI (could not find the article, sorry), this same sort of hypocrisy fuels many religious folks' interpretation of judicial decisions and judges. Either they like the decision, thus God has spoken, or they dislike the decision, thus the judge MUST have been corrupt or acting on (D)evil.

  5. grumpypilgrim says:

    On the subject of evidence, I've been watching the BBC documentary , "The Power of Nightmares" — which refers to the tremendous gain in political power that neo-con politicians have made by fabricating and embellishing the terrorism threat. One of the astonishing aspects of this phenomenon is that — in the paranoid minds of neo-cons — a lack of evidence of a threat actually makes them more, rather than less, convinced that a threat exists. For example, back in the early 1980s, neo-cons (guys like Paul Wolfowitz & Don Rumsfeld) desperately wanted to find evidence that the Soviet Union was building a stockpile of sophisticated weapons with which to invade America. When the CIA could find no evidence of such a build-up — none at all — the neo-cons' paranoia went into overdrive: they concluded that since the Soviets *must* be building a stockpile of such weapons, and since the CIA couldn't find any evidence of them, then the Soviet weapons must be even more sophisticated than the neo-cons suspected: the weapons must be *undetectable*. Fortunately, their arguments fell on deaf ears at the White House.

    Fast forward a couple of decades and these same paranoid lunatics are running the U.S. Defense Dept. When they find no evidence that Saddam has WMDs, what do they do? Their paranoia again goes into overdrive and they conclude that Saddam must be hiding his weapons, because they "know" Saddam has them. Unfortunately, the White House is now occupied by a delusional alcoholic with an inferiority complex, who listens to and believes their paranoid rants.

    This is what went through my mind when I read David's comment about faith in the existence of an imaginary god being similar to faith in the existence of George Washington. Clearly, they are not similar. The latter can be substantiated with a whole lot of corroborating, objective evidence; the former cannot. Indeed, an argument I have often heard from believers is that the lack of evidence for their imaginary god should be *more* convincing of their god's existence: exactly the same inverted reasoning that led delusional neo-cons into invading Iraq.

    I just hope there will soon come a time in America when evidence-based reasoning replaces such faith-based fantasy as the foundation for American domestic and foreign policy — both among believers and neo-cons — because faith in fictional gods and imaginary terrorist threats has caused far too much pain and destruction.

  6. Dan Klarmann says:

    A beautiful point. I regularly remark that there is a difference in basic (usually unexamined) assumptions between the Faithful and Enlightenment reasoners. This post is a good argument for willful ignorance of the underlying assumptions of the rationalists. If you don't consider it, it can't be true.

  7. Dan Klarmann says:

    Here is a Penn and Teller video showing how joiners support unlikely causes:



  8. Tim Hogan says:

    I think the post overlooks the free will versus determinism dichotomy among some believers. I believe God gave all of us free will. If I have a free will, I make choices which affirm or deny God. God didn't give us acid rain, climate change or terrorism as a fear construct for the neocons to assert power. People did those things.

    People makes choices and there are consequences outside of those to oneself. God tells me to love him with all my heart and soul and, God admonishes me to treat others as I would be treated. I am free to choose faith, have chosen faith and do my human best to live accordingly.

    I don't see inside of my faith that I am required to be an advocate for so- called "intelligent design" or against evolution. I don't know exactly how the univertse came into being but, the "Big Bang" sounds about right. I look out at the beauty and majesty of the universe, realize my small place inside, and am humbled. I see the blessings which I have and give thanks to God daily.

  9. Ben says:

    Mr. Mize: "All I know is that if I evolved, God evolved me."

    Well, it's hard to argue with a definition, so I will agree with you to some extent, if that's how you want to define "evolution".

    Just know that, I know for a fact that L. Ron Hubbard is the creator of the Universe. Any and all experiences you are feeling even those about your own god, are actually just L. Ron Hubbard's dianetics at work.

    Did I mention the flying spaghetti monster? He is the one in charge of keeping creationism out of schools, with his squiriming appendages, he works hard every day to deceive atheists like me into thinking that the God of Jesus is NOT the real god. That's all I know.

  10. grumpypilgrim says:

    David writes: "Faith is believing something I cannot see or prove."

    Another word for believing something you cannot see or prove is "delusional." How do we distinguish faith from delusion? With evidence. We use evidence to determine if something is 'real enough' to justify our faith; otherwise, it is mere delusion. Did George Washington exist? What is the evidence? Bones, letters, Mount Vernon…we have a lot of evidence George Washington existed, so we have faith that he did.

    Does (or did) the god Zeus exist? What is the evidence? Ancient temples, statues, friezes…we have a lot of evidence that people once *believed* in Zeus enough to devote a lot of scarce resources toward creating monuments to Zeus, but we have no evidence that Zeus actually exists (or existed).

    Does (or did) the god of the Bible exist? What is the evidence? Ancient churches, statues, friezes…we have a lot of evidence that people once believed, and continue to believe, in the god of the Bible, enough to devote a lot of scarce resources toward creating monuments to that god, but we have no evidence that the god of the Bible actually exists (or existed).

    "But wait." the believer will say, "the god of the Bible answers my prayers."

    No, he doesn't. The god of the Bible hasn't answer prayers any more than has Zeus, Thor, Vishna or any of the other thousands of gods to whom humans have prayed; believers simply credit their god when good things happen, and blame some other god (Satan, Apollo, Jormungand, Shiva, etc.) otherwise. It's called "selection bias," and you can read more about it here (http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=449) and here (http://slate.msn.com/id/2086617/) and, for an amusing example, here (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_sharpshooter_fallacy).

  11. Mindy Carney says:

    Ah, Jason. I love this blog entry, and I agree wholeheartedly with your answer to David. I count myself among those who have faith, but avoid "The Faithful" like an ugly plague. I simply don't have any trouble believing that God (in all incarnations), the Big Bang and evolution can peacefully coexist.

    I don't believe for one iota of a second that God is a micro-manager – gave us our brains, imbued each of us with a soul and sent us on our way. Our souls, in my version of faith, are our network of connectedness, both to each other and to God. S/he/it does not win games for the Faithful nor does s/he/it grant grace to some but not to others (I HATE that expression, 'there but for the grace of God go I," which essentially says *I* am deserving of grace but the other is not).

    You are spot on, and I loved reading it.

  12. Ben says:

    "I simply don’t have any trouble believing that God (in all incarnations), the Big Bang and evolution can peacefully coexist."

    Well, you know that I have trouble with this. As far as I know, "The Big Bang" included EVERYTHING, that would also included any "God". Nothing would not have existed outside of or before this universe (by definition). Unfortunately I need a magic spaceship and plenty of rocket fuel to prove it.

    About the evolution part, I'm sure you are familiar with the argument by now that natural selection and evolution work INDEPENDENTLY of any forces outside of those we currently know.

    In fairness, here is an excerpt from a discussion with some cosmologists who seems to agree with Mindy…

    http://www.science-spirit.org/printerfriendly.php

    “The elegant order and beauty of the universe, to me, seems to point to an intelligent creator of it,” says University of Alberta cosmologist Don Page, an evangelical Christian who studied with physicist Stephen Hawking at Cambridge University and lived with him for a time. “It seems simpler to believe that this ordered universe was created by an intelligent being than to believe that it exists just by itself.” Page, whose work in quantum cosmology investigates what happened when the universe was so small that quantum mechanics would have applied, reads the Bible and believes God listens to his prayers."

  13. Jason Rayl says:

    Ben,

    I think you missed Mindy's point. She says: "Our souls, in my version of faith, are our network of connectedness…"

    There is a metaphysical point at which the descriptions of the first few millionths of a second of the universe and god moil into a kind of sublime handwaving. Once "we" showed up (self-aware, cognating creatures) god was almost an automatic concept in which all this handwaving gets subsumed.

    But the concept Evolves.

    As for god listening to our prayers…if I read Mindy right, she believes somewhat as I do, that when we talk to each other (seriously, deeply, real communication) then we are talking to god, and in that formulation sometimes our prayers are answered.

    Or maybe this is all just semantics. But I'm always open to some antics.

  14. Ben says:

    Jason, do you (or Mindy) believe that science and religion are compatible?

    "On the one hand, he says, he has his religion, and on the other hand, he has his science, and the two don’t seem to overlap. “Cosmology,” Primack says, “is producing the true history of the universe.”"

    I tend to agree with Primack (and his wife).

  15. Jason Rayl says:

    Ben,

    They are different things, for different purposes. Religion is a formalized explication of the numinous, and has to do with perception and meaning encoded in ritual and fable. It comes into conflict with science when it starts making what Richard Dawkins terms "Existence claims."

    The problem with your question is the underlying assumption that somehow they should compete. What I'm talking about is what may loosely be termed Spirituality, which is a very human thing, a product of our intellect and imagination and our, as Mindy puts, connectedness. There is no reason this should come into conflict with science, as it is an emotional response to acknowledging our sense of being.

    As for what actually happens, I'll go with science over myth, analysis over fable. What it means…well, that's something else.

  16. grumpypilgrim says:

    Further to Ben's comment about judges, I can provide a supporting example. I have often heard evangelical Christians complain about so-called "activist" judges who "do not understand the Constitution," simply because a decision by that judge is contrary to the beliefs of that particular group of Christians. Now, setting aside the obvious question of whether or not a group of people who have probably never read the Constitution, much less studied it, nevertheless believe their understanding is superior to that of a Supreme Court judge, we must wonder why such people never apply the "activist" label to, say, a judge who insists on displaying the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. The way these groups use the label has nothing do with reality, it is merely a brand that radical Christians apply to judges who do not share their radical beliefs.

  17. Tim Hogan says:

    Jason, well reasoned, compassionate and humane response to Ben. I congratulate you, sir! I've had an ongoing discussion with Erich as to the ties between religion and the numinous.

  18. Ben says:

    If I can't convince you that the Bible isn't true, how in Zeus's name do I have a chance at convincing the real whacko's? I take a vocal approach, and DO indeed offend some (most) people, I am guilty of that injustice. However, I don't mind being seen as a bit of a firebrand, at least as a blogger. Less so in real life (unless you scuff my Nike's in which case I may "bust caps" if I am packing that day).

    PZ Myers once compared the religious *spectrum* as a linear function. He said something like that the Fundamentalist Christians pull the spectrum to the RIGHT (for the sake of argument), while the rabid foaming atheists like Sam Harris and Dawkins (and even some folks here…) are stoutly anchoring the LEFT.

    In this tug of war, I don't think the scientists/atheists are gonna get their labcoats dirty, because we control the REAL magical cure: KNOWLEDGE. The only thing getting muddy will be the frocks of the faithful bible thumpers.

    So when good moderate Christians say that I am just as "bad" as a Fundamentalist, in some sense you could be right, in that I pull the entire spectrum toward the abyss of atheism. I sure could use some fat moderate Sheep on MY side though, any takers?

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