Conversation with an Atheist

We've been friends for a while, now. And as your friend, I'm warning you one last time that you probably don't want to do this, even if you think you do.”

I'm not a kid anymore. I should hear the other side of things. And I don't want you holding back.”

I don't think it's as interesting as you're imagining.”

That's ok.”

It's not like a club or something. It's really kind of dumb that we use a special word for it. 'Atheist' – does not believe in god. You hardly ever hear 'theist' – believes in a god or gods.”

Probably because most people are theists.”

Yeah. I just think it's weird that 'atheists' get the label because the theists are usually the first to tell you that their beliefs are based on faith – on things unseen. That's fine. We don't 'see' gravity, either. But gravity, unlike theism, is consistent. And theists are passionate about their differences. How many lives, nations, and families have been torn apart because theists, despite their other fine qualities, couldn't agree on what they believe in? And yet, it's still the 'atheists' who are the odd folks out, as though it were strange that one should not embrace a faith when there are so many to choose from.”

Well yes, there are definitely disagreements. But I would still say that religions are more alike than they are different.”

Would you? You might be giving too much weight to the religions you know best – religions of your particular place and time. If you were placed in a room with all the humans who ever existed, even your most basic belief might put you in the minority. Just -one- god? What a newfangled idea! Nine hundred million Hindus still think it's just a fad. Frankly, the lore surrounding vampires is more consistent than the lore about god.”

All right. I'll grant you that. I do remember learning a little bit about Aztec religion. Yikes.”

So perhaps the best thing to be said about the word 'atheist' is that it's better than 'theist', because 'theist' can mean just about anything.”

Well, I only really know what it means to me, as a member of my church. But as confident as I am about it, I still think I should hear the other side.”

You're still not getting it. Atheism is not a 'side'. It's just what's left over when you subtract all of the theists. There are no tenets of atheism. There are no articles of faithlessness. Atheists can have any number of reasons for not believing, but more typically have none at all, because your most typical atheist is someone who was simply never very exposed to religion. It doesn't make sense to ask them probing questions about why they don't believe in your particular god any more than it makes sense to ask them why they don't believe in purple unicorns.”

But you're not one of these 'typical' atheists. You used to be religious.”

Very true.”

So I want you to tell me why you think my religion is false.”

What good would that do you? You could decide your current religion was false, but you still wouldn't know about any of the others unless you gave them the same treatment. You would have to try them all.”

Yeah, I guess that would be tough.”

So instead of me talking about atheism – which, has nothing to say about itself -- why don't you talk to me about god? Why do you think the idea of god is credible? Why do you think your particular god is more credible than any other? And perhaps most importantly: why does it matter to you?”

And you're just going to listen?”

Oh, I'll do my share of the talking. I just want you to understand that it's impossible to speak 'as an atheist'. I can only speak for myself.”

I understand. But I don't really know where to begin. I'm not even sure I know the answers to those questions you just asked.”

I bet you know more than you give yourself credit for. But I know how hard it is to boil the answers out of a pot when you're still standing in it, so I'm willing to prompt you.”

Better start interrogating me, then. I burn easily.”


***


“You really want to do this?”

For the last time, yes.”

All right, then. Let's start with something really basic.”

Ok.”

How do you know what you know about god?”

Well, how do I know anything? Are we being philosophical?”

No, no. Pretend I'm someone interested in learning about god, and I want to know how your church came to know what it claims to know about god.”

Well, we have scriptures.”

Oh? And where did those come from?”

God. Well, people writing about god. But sometimes people quoting god word for word.”

And how did these people know what to write?”

God sent prophets. Scriptures were written by prophets, or by people who listened to prophets.”

Sent? So these prophets came down from the presence of god himself to deliver messages?”

No, that's more what angels do. Prophets were usually ordinary people until god or his angels came to visit them. They were listening really hard to hear what god had to say, and then god told them, and put them to work telling people about himself.”

Ah, so out of the blue these ordinary people came out and started saying things about god.”

Or for god, yes.”

Didn't people think they were nuts?”

You know this as well as I do.”

Humor me.”

Yeah, people usually thought they were nuts. And sometimes they got really mad at the prophets, because they were usually telling people to repent or be destroyed, stuff like that. So a lot of prophets were killed by the people they were trying to preach to.”

So how do we have scriptures about them?”

Because a few people took them seriously enough to write it down and pass it on.”

I see. Could you become a prophet?”

Well, I believe that god has a true church now and delivers his messages through that channel, so unless I somehow became the head of my church, no, I don't think I could become a prophet.”

Why not? If you started saying that you had a message from god, someone might believe you, right? They might pass on your message and maybe start a church about it. That would make you a prophet.”

But it wouldn't happen like--”

Heck, the message can be from me. I AM YOUR GOD!”

Oh, come on!”

Well, what if I started saying that I had a message from god. Would you believe me?”

No, because like I said, god uses his church to communicate now.”

But there are so many churches! Who said yours was the right one?”

God.”

How?”

Through prophets?”

You're asking me?”

Well, I actually believe that Jesus himself started his modern church before he died, and that Peter was the first head of that church.”

But you're not catholic.”

Oh, now suddenly you know a lot about religion.”

I know that Catholics claim to be the church started by Jesus and then Peter. Peter was the first Pope.”

We could be here all day talking about that mess. Let's just say they lost their way, and god's church had to be restarted again.”

Ah. And who did that.”

Another prophet.”

Another guy who just started saying that he was getting messages from god?”

Pretty much, yeah.”

Do you see the problem with your logic now?”

Well, no. I was just telling you what I know. I wasn't trying to make a legal case for it.”

You said that you didn't think I could be a prophet, because god doesn't use prophets anymore unless they are in your church. Why your particular church? Because another regular guy like me said so.”

I'm a little uncomfortable with the thought of you being in the same league as my church's founding prophet.”

Oh, it's ok. I'm willing to let him in.”

Very funny.”

Isn't that a bit hypocritical? Like you say, prophets have historically come across as crazy troublemakers. If nobody took them seriously, there would be no scriptures and no modern religions.”

Trust me, there's a difference.”

What did this guy have that I don't?”

Humility, for starters.”

He was claiming to have unique information direct from god. How humble could he be?”

He never claimed to be any great person himself, despite his calling in life.”

That's nice, but I don't see how that disqualifies me.”

He also had visions.”

He said he had visions. I can say I have visions. Why would you take his word over mine? I'm your friend. You've never even met this guy.”

Because you're just playing devil's advocate.”

We bringing the dark lord into this already?”

You know what I mean.”

So pretend we haven't had this conversation. Pretend that last week, I, your atheist friend, told you confidentially that I had recanted on my atheism because god himself had told me I was mistaken. And not only that, but you were mistaken, too, because your church's original prophet was a fraud.”

I would have to think about that.”

But you wouldn't believe me, would you?”

It's nothing personal.”

But it is. You're taking the word of a stranger over mine. Why?”

Because.”

I usually accept that answer out of conversational convenience. But I don't think I can today, or we'll never get anywhere.”

I'm starting to wonder if I really want to get anywhere.”

Which is what I was trying to tell you before we started.”

I know. It's just that I have this incredible urge to just punch you in the face right now, even though I asked you to be brutally honest with me.”

So are we done?”

No. I can take it.”

Ok. So let's back up a bit and cool off. I've driven you into a corner by suggesting that you can only compare prophets on the basis of whether or not you can trust them as people, at a personal level. My word against his.”

A dirty trick.”

And I apologize, because what we're really trying to do today is judge the words of these prophets, and I think that looking at the credentials of people is an absolutely terrible way of deciding whether their ideas are correct. Yes, I'm more likely to take someone seriously if they're an expert in what they're talking about. But if it's something really important, I'm going to want to know how they got their answer. I mean, if Gandhi had said that the earth was flat, this wouldn't make it so, no matter how much you trusted Gandhi.”

Yes.”

And when Einstein said that light is pulled by gravity, this didn't make it so either, right?”

No, but I thought it was?”

The evidence on that checks out, yes. I'm just trying to make sure you agree that while an expert is perhaps more likely to be correct than a random passerby when making a claim about something in their field, nothing they say changes the nature of reality itself. Light will get bent or it won't, no matter what Einstein says about it.”

So, no matter what a prophet says, either god exists or he doesn't.”

Unless we're playing the worst sort of philosophical games, yes.”

I don't want to play those.”

Me neither.”

Good. Einstein's most important theory, relativity, gained public acceptance because he and others used it to make bold, specific predictions that experimental evidence could then confirm.”

Like what?”

The relativity hypothesis predicted that during the upcoming solar eclipse of 1919, the light from the Hyades star cluster would be measurably bent as it grazed the sun from it's relative position nearly behind it. It was. Relativity also explained a small 'flaw' in Mercury's close orbit around the sun. By calculating the distortion of spacetime expected by the theory, an orbit for Mercury was predicted. Unlike Newton's numbers, these actually matched observations.”

Neat.”

The important points to note are that, first, these were specific predictions not expected by other theories. That's what I mean by 'bold'. Second, it was possible to observe the content of the predictions – in this case, with telescopes. So these predictions made relativity a bold, testable hypothesis. With each prediction that was verified, the hypothesis became stronger.”

Has relativity ever goofed?”

Yes. Quite a bit actually.”

So why do we still think relativity is such a neat idea?”

Because it's still a very useful theory for explaining and predicting just about everything in the observable universe. It's only at the scale of the super-small that relativity starts screwing up. Admittedly, that's pretty important, which is why quantum electrodynamics was developed. QED as we know it today has its own shortcomings, but is extremely strong even in some areas where relativity falters.”

Too much info... but let me get this straight: We're still using theories we know to be flawed?”

In places where we're confident that they still work. But when you think about it, the most fundamental rule of science is that we can never be 100 percent sure of anything. Even once we have a Theory of Everything that seems to explain it all, we can never be sure that we won't one day stumble upon a piece of irrefutable evidence that proves it wrong.”

I think I've heard that before. If every sheep I've ever seen is white, I can be safe in saying that all sheep are white. But if a black sheep ever shows up, it's back to square one.”

Yes. That's the flipside. Even if we can never be absolutely sure that a theory is true, a theory can be pretty obviously wrong.”

Which is why evolution has been discredited.”

Where did you hear that?”

Around. It's true that there are gaps in the evidence, right? That there are things evolution doesn't fully explain?”

Yeah, but that's a far cry from being 'discredited'. Evolution explains a lot more than most people think. It has been the boldest and most successful theory ever to exist in biology, and a true 'black sheep' has yet to appear. Every now and then there might be a disagreement about what a particular piece of evidence says about evolution, but we're still talking about a theory that's 99% useful here.”

It's that other one percent that kills you.”

Only if there's a competing theory that can make predictions of equal or greater boldness while accounting for it.”

Intelligent design doesn't do that?”

Intelligent design doesn't do anything, which is why people like me get mad even talking about it. It just claims that because evolution is less than 100% verified, an intelligent creator must have done everything instead. Intelligent design can't make any predictions. It not only fails to hit that one percent, it refuses to try the other 99. It's like saying that if you're walking in the cold with a coat that might be missing one percent of its fibers, you might as well just go naked. Yeah, that's intelligent.”

Looking at the state of your clothes, I can see why you would feel the need to make this argument.”

Leave the tattered rags out of this.”

Now who's uncomfortable!”

Not me, obviously.”

Hey, it's ok. Your, um, fashion sense is none of my business. But if you ever want to have a frank discussion about it, I could return the favor...”

We're off topic.”

I should say so.”

But not all that far. The moral of the story is that while evolution as we know it my not be absolutely correct, it is absolutely better than anything else we have. It's a good rule to remember: There are no absolute laws in science, only hypotheses that are absolutely better than others.”

But what if I think there are other ways of knowing besides science?”

There aren't.”

Excuse me?”

Not in the sense I'm talking. I'm arguing that we never really understand anything unless our understanding of it allows us to make successful predictions. In other words, anytime we use our brains to anticipate anything at all, we're using hypotheses. Sometimes we're aware of it, sometimes we're not. Sometimes it's hard-coded into our biology and can't really be put into words.”

I think divine inspiration might be like that.”

I think so too.”

Huh?”

Religion didn't come about by accident. The accident, evolution, had already occurred. Religious ideas, like all ideas, exist within our minds. Some of our ideas reflect reality better than others. But, in the end, we have these oversized idea machines of ours on top of our necks only because they are better than mucus-dripping antlers at perpetuating our genes.”

And here I thought I was the only one who wanted those.”

Our brains contain and develop hypotheses for coping with reality by predicting it in advance. It's not perfect. Far from it. But this prediction feature is the only reason we are 'intelligent' at all.”

So are trees intelligent if they predict the coming of winter and shed their leaves?”

Yes, in the sense that their hibernation mechanism is an intelligent response to winter. But this is all in the context of genetic propagation being the ends to which hibernation is supposed to be the means. If providing shade is the ends you are discussing, shedding leaves is really dumb.”

Is reproduction my only end?”

Continuity... perpetuation... reproduction... as far as evolution is concerned, yes.”

I've been kidding myself, then.”

Only if you only care about evolution.”

That's good. Because I really don't.”

Indeed! You're brain has gotten too big for its britches. Not only can you apply your intelligence in many directions, you can actually choose those directions. They may even be opposed to reproduction. It's an empowering thought: If your ancestors ignored mother nature, you wouldn't be here, but that can't keep you personally from striving towards whatever it is you want.”

Right now, what I want is to use the bathroom.”

We'll work on this empowerment thing...”


***


“Now where were we?”

We were talking about our brains as users and makers of hypotheses.”

Ah, yes.”

And I said that our brains work better than antlers at predicting reality, thanks to this characteristic.”

I believe 'mucus-dripping antlers' was your actual phrase.”

Sometimes we're using hard-wired hypotheses unawares, and sometimes we're coming up with new hypotheses ourselves. We are constantly attempting to refine our models of the world in order to make more accurate and useful predictions.”

Ok.”

But we inevitably come up with some bad hypotheses along the way. And we're usually not aware of it because we're not thinking scientifically.”

The way you talk about it I would think we are.”

Well, now I'm shifting my definition of 'scientific' to a slightly more modern one. The breakthrough in 'modern' science is that we now test our hypotheses against each other.”

But what if your theory is brand new? What if nobody else is talking about the same thing?”

There's always another theory, even in those cases. It's called the 'null hypothesis'.”

The idea that a gnoll did it?”

No, the gnoll hypothesis has been discredited for centuries, except in D&D circles. I'm talking about the null hypothesis -- better known as 'dumb luck'.”

Dumb luck is a hypothesis?”

Yes. It's the hypothesis that a turnip would come up with.”

Huh?”

Suppose you are a primitive hunter. You might--”

A turnip hunter?”

No, a human hunter.”

So I'm a turnip who hunts humans?”

No, you are a human who hunts turnips. No, wait. I mean, you are a human who hunts animals. A typical hunter-gatherer human. And you're looking for meat.”

Ok, got it.”

You might have the idea that following tracks will lead you to an animal more often than not following tracks. We'll call this the track-following hypothesis.”

So the null hypothesis is to not follow any tracks?”

No, the null hypothesis is to not take the tracks into consideration at all. Just walk around and see if you run into an animal. That's what the turnip would do. If turnips could hunt.”

Following the tracks probably works better.”

Right, but if you and your fellow hunter-gatherers were being scientific, you wouldn't just assume this. You would do 'controlled studies'. You would have some people using the track-following hypothesis, and others using the null hypothesis in the same area. You would try to do this in ways that keep the groups from getting in each others' way and tainting the results.”

But hunter-gatherers couldn't do controlled studies.”

Not really, no. Even if they had the time, it's hard to do this kind of science without written language and mathematics. So like all uncontrolled experiments in nature, natural selection did the analysis instead. Genes that led to instinctively better hunters -- or hunters better at discovering and teaching effective hypotheses to their children -- got perpetuated more than genes that did not.”

So now we're all super-hunters.”

I don't know about that. But we're all super pattern-detecters. We instinctively identify cause-and-effect relationships in everything around us, even when our conclusions don't really make any sense. This is usually how we end up with those bad hypotheses I mentioned before.”

Like what?”

Suppose hunter A uses the track-following hypothesis, and finds an animal. On the same day, hunter B wears his loincloth unusually tight, and also happens to find an animal. There's a very real chance that hunter A will come to believe that tracks lead to animals, and that hunter B will think that tight loincloths lead to animals. Neither is entirely crazy for doing so.”

Hunter A will do better than hunter B in the long run.”

Definitely, but in the absence of a controlled study, B may cling to his hypothesis for a long time.”

It certainly clings to him.”

His life is precarious. He can't afford to not find game regularly, so he wears his loincloth tight, just in case. And if he goes a few days without finding food, he may still find it on the day after, renewing his confidence in wedgie-wear. He may tell his trusted friends about the theory, and some might even buy into it.”

It's just a superstition, though.”

Exactly. Perhaps the same hunter saw a black cat one day, and failed to kill any animals – including the cat. Black cats must be bad luck.”

Right.”

Wearing a tight loincloth doesn't keep a hunter from using the track-following hypothesis, so it may seem pretty harmless. But in some cases it probably reduces sperm count, and in the laboratory of natural selection it gets eliminated. The black cat hypothesis lingers, though. Along with the broken mirror hypothesis, the knock-on-wood hypothesis, and the umbrella-in-the-house hypothesis.”

And the god hypothesis?”

I wasn't going there just yet, but ok.”

Well, we hadn't mentioned him in a while. I figured it was coming.”

Some religions are more obviously superstitious than others. Voodoo comes to mind. But whether a superstition is a part of a religion or not is irrelevant. We can identify all superstitions the same way.”

Science.”

Yes. Testing against the null hypothesis.”

I had a friend who was part of a drug study once, and the papers he had to sign said he might be given a do-nothing pill instead of the drug. Was the dummy pill supposed to be the null hypothesis?”

Yes. You would think the null hypothesis would be no pill at all, but humans have a strong tendency to feel better about their health if they think they're getting treatment. It's a psychological quirk called the placebo effect.”

That's the word I was looking for. But how do you test the placebo hypothesis?”

Easy. Take one group and give them a dummy pill. Give the other group nothing. The group with the dummy pill will, on average, feel better than the group with nothing. It's been done many times.”

Is prayer a placebo? Is religion a placebo?”

I guess that all depends on the person and the situation. But sure, I think for a lot of people it is. And the funny thing to remember is that the placebo is often better than nothing. ”

So religion can be good for you even if its false?”

Sure.”

But there's a 'but', right?”

The 'but' is that placebos often take the form of things that are actually quite harmful. For a long time doctors thought that certain ailments should be treated by slicing a vein and draining a bunch of blood. I don't doubt that patients permitted this in large part due to placebo effects. But when you add in the effects of blood loss and unsterilized tools, the net result was almost certainly harmful.”

My church isn't really into blood-letting.”

And if I'm not mistaken, it actually promotes a number of good health habits.”

Yup.”

That's fortunate. A counterexample that comes to mind is the way Jehova's Witnesses consider accepting a blood transfusion a serious sin.”

Yeah, they must be pretty sure of themselves.”

I would hope so. That's kind of the point. If their religion is, in fact, true, then it doesn't matter how dangerous it is because they're expecting rewards that are worth whatever misery they go through in this life.”

And if it's not?”

Then some of them may still die happy, even if it's from blood loss.”

So does it matter if their religion is true?”

You tell me.”

I think maybe it only matters to someone who thinks it should.”

Are you one of those someones?”

It would be easier if I wasn't.”



***


Why don't we go back to prophets now and see if we can take it from another angle.”

I didn't much care for the last one.”

The most basic definition of a prophet or seer is not one who speaks the word of some deity, but rather one who makes successful predictions of what is to come. They might credit a crystal ball, an inner sense, controlled experiments, or a god. It doesn't really matter. What matters is whether they are consistently right. Such people are very much worth listening to.”

Right. Got any lucky numbers for me today?”

Suppose I did.”

I'll play the lottery, and win.”

Would you come back to me for more?”

Definitely.”

And what would happen?”

You want me to say you would be wrong.”

Yes, I do.”

Because you're boring.”

Because I'm right.”

But it could happen. We could win the lottery. And you could guess the right numbers a second time.”

But it's so improbable as to not even be worth talking about.”

But stuff like this happens.”

Yes. In a population of billions, probability dictates that there will be the occasional fellow who makes wild guesses that are wildly successful several times in a row. But that person will not be me.”

How can you be so sure?”

I can only be 99.999999-- how many nines do I need before I'm allowed to say I'm sure?”

I suppose that's enough.”

So rather than talking about any one person becoming that lucky, let's look backwards at those people who, thanks to our large population, just turned out to be really lucky guessers. We can't know who they'll be in advance, but we know they will exist. And frequently, they will be religious, because so many people are.”

They'll probably believe that god was responsible for it, and tell people as much.”

At least some of them will, yes.”

And people will want them to make more guesses. More prophecies.”

Keep going.”

But most of these new prophecies will be vague or wrong, because that's how probability works.”

You're catching on.”

But if god really was responsible for the earlier prophecies, they might be right again.”

Sure, and might make a thousand more successful prophecies.”

Yeah. I don't see why not.”

So why hasn't it happened?”

I think it has.”

Do you? Think hard about the most impressive prophet you know of. How many predictions did he really make? How many of these predictions were not being made by others of his time? How many of these were verifiable? How many of his prophecies were clear enough that you couldn't just interpret them however you wanted to make them true?”

Oh, I don't know what Jesus's score would be, but it would be pretty impressive. And don't get me started on the miracles.”

I consider miracles to be bold, verifiable predictions. If I put my hands on a deaf person's ears with intent to cure the deafness, and it works, that is bold in the extreme. But --”

But you don't believe in Jesus.”

I'm confident that the New Testament is a semi-historical text. Jesus probably existed, and was probably very charismatic -- enough that some people experienced big-time placebo effects around him. But more importantly, people wanted to believe whatever amazing rumors they heard about him, and as a result the Jesus we know of today is more myth than man.”

I find Jesus more remarkable for his teachings than for his miracles -- his bold predictions -- whatever you want to call them.”

Well, apart from his purely religious teachings, most of what he said boiled down to 'follow the golden rule.' That was admirable, and maybe even foreign to many in his time, but I doubt he was the first to say it, and if he hadn't been charismatic, lucky, or both, I doubt we would even know who he was today.”

But I think his purely religious stuff was important, too.”

Ah. But why?”

Because I think he was the son of god.”

And why do you think that? Why does anyone think that?”

Because he said that's who he was, and the power of his words and miracles convinced people that it was true.”

Which brings me to my next point: Lucky, religious people can get away with saying all kinds of things about god, so long as they're not verifiable. Many people don't understand that luck is not a genetic endowment or an acquired skill; it's just a subjective score, assigned in retrospect. So maybe you say that your city will be destroyed. An hour of rape and pillage by your friendly neighborhood barbarians might just make a prophet out of you. So people will think you might be right about other stuff. You'll say a few things, or other people will say them for you to suit their needs. If you have an interesting take or a way with words, your untestable speculations might get passed around for a long time. Many will continue to believe them or at least respect them. But the bold, verifiable predictions are no longer a part of your story, if they ever were, because if you were dumb enough to keep making them, you were probably wrong.”

Maybe prophets today don't need to be bold. Maybe god has given us enough to go on already, and just expects us to run with it.”

Being a prophet today doesn't seem to mean much, then. You say you have a modern prophet. Does your prophet make unique, specific, successful predictions that non-prophets do not? Or does he instead give after-the-fact explanations as to why the events that occurred were a part of god’s plan? Are they explanations that you could make up just as well yourself? Is your prophet even allowed to say anything that might contradict the things previous prophets have said?”


***


“All right, I can play hardball, too. You’ve made some good points, but would you believe I knew they were coming? I wasn’t even surprised to hear them coming from you, because I have been taught that people who become book-smart tend to lose their religion. And here you are saying the kinds of things you just did, implying that I was born into a hollow tradition.”

I’m flattered that you think I’m smart, but –”

“I have scriptures right here that say, ‘when they are learned they think they are wise, and hearken not unto the council of God’. And I had Sunday School teachers warn me that when I went to college people who thought they had all the answers would try to talk me out of my religion -- that they think they have learned so much that they don’t need god’s answers anymore.”

So?”

So you believe this?”

That’s not something you need to believe or disbelieve. That’s a documented fact. Statistically, at least in this country, the more educated you are the less likely you are to be religious. But those surveys can't really probe the motivations of the participants, and I think you've got the explanation mixed up.”

How so?”

Well, apart from my own experience, I’ve met a number of smart, educated people who have left the religions of their upbringing. And it seems to me that the relationship between knowledge and humility is the opposite of what your Sunday School teachers implied. Don't get me wrong – there are plenty of big heads in this group. But as these people acquired more awareness of the world, and its cultures, and its accumulated knowledge, they became more humble, in the sense that they weren't so ready to believe that they just happened to be born into the one true faith. It seemed far too convenient that they and a very select few were alone in being Right among the billions upon billions who were Wrong.”

So they gave up their faith based solely on numerical probability?”

Oh, no. They gave their existing beliefs the benefit of the doubt. Much more than was justified, from a statistical standpoint. Though very improbable, it was, after all, possible that they were just very lucky. But they were skeptical. And putting their religions under the light of fair, genuine scrutiny told them all they needed to know.”

So they abandoned religion as though it was... ah, here it is. 'the foolish traditions of their fathers’. At least one prophet saw this coming.”

Heh! Any prophet who said that must be pretty powerful. No normal person could possibly predict that people might say you're crazy if you claim to talk to god. And because this prophet knew that people would call him crazy, anyone who calls him crazy must be wrong! It's perfect!”

So even when a prophet is correct, you’re going to poo poo it? Is that how this works?”

Stating the obvious just doesn’t impress me. I'm going to let you in on a little secret: I'm planning to spend the next five years strutting around naked and clucking like a chicken. People will think I am crazy.”

Well, duh.”

Does predicting this reaction – and telling you about it in advance – mean that anyone who thinks I am behaving oddly a few years from now is mistaken? 'Yea, and there will be many who will say he is mad, and thinketh he is a chicken.”

Bah!”

No, Bok! Bok, bok, bok!”

Just... keep your clothes on – such as they are.”

At any rate, as I’ve said before, it’s not enough for anyone to be right about something unless they can keep making successful, specific, non-obvious predictions. And the only people who seem to be able to do this are people who are using strong hypotheses.”

Scientists.”

Not exclusively. The work of science is actually less about using existing hypotheses than it is about testing, refining, and creating them – although building on existing laws and theories is usually a big part of this.”

Wait. What’s the difference between a law and a hypothesis?”

The track record. A hypothesis that proves to be very strong at making correct predictions often becomes called a law or a rule. Some of these work so well that hardly anyone bothers questioning them anymore. But once again: don't let the language fool you. There’s no such thing as absolute truth in science – only theories that are absolutely stronger than others.”

Or better than random guessing.”

Yes. Better than the null hypothesis.”

So a prophet isn’t allowed to predict anything that an ordinary, reliable hypothesis would?”

He can predict anything he wants. I just don’t understand why anyone should be impressed when a prophet predicts something that half the audience already expects.”

But science has come so far today that practically everything can be explained with a scientific formula.”

Yup. It’s got to be tough to be a modern prophet. If you successfully predict a hurricane hitting somewhere in the next 24 hours, people will just think you checked the Weather Channel. If you successfully predict that a particular person will die of disease in a few months, they will think you saw or heard what was in her medical chart. And why shouldn’t they?”

Some would argue that those are all ways god tells people things. That god’s hand is manifest in all people and all things, if we know where to look.”

That’s a view that either reduces god to irrelevance or requires total predestination.”

What's wrong with predestination?”

Nothing, unless you're attached to a romantic understanding of ‘free will.’ Because there’s nothing provably wrong with the idea of a god who works by absolute predestination. Because no matter how well we come to understand the behavior of our universe through science, there will never be any way to prove that it’s not all someone’s plan -- that from the Big Bang to the evolution of man to my recent chicken impersonation, there is not some god who arranged everything to happen just the way our science says it does.”

So why are you sneering?”

What kind of a god would cause every thing to happen in such a way that it would look like he had nothing to do with it at all?”

A god who tests the faith of people like you. My god.”

Or a toaster oven.”

Huh?”

Seriously. If your god was replaced in the heavens tomorrow by a 600 Watt ToastMaster, could you tell the difference?”

That question isn't really worth answering.”

I agree, and that's my point. If I accept the possibility of a god who works by absolute predestination, I have to accept an infinite number of other possibilities that are also completely untestable. Maybe our perceived reality is a parlor game played by hyperintelligent rodents at tea time. Maybe it's all balanced on the back of a tower of turtles. Maybe we’re living in the Matrix. With no way to test any of these theories against each other, why should I focus on any particular one? An untestable hypothesis is a useless hypothesis.”

There is the test of prayer. If I ask god, he will tell me if he exists. A toaster oven couldn't do that. That’s the theory I've been taught, at least.”

Don't underestimate toaster ovens.”

Don't underestimate god.”

I’m glad your religion includes that prayer test, because it spares us from having to plow through thousands of volumes of lofty philosophical debate.”

That many?”

Oh, definitely. For a very long time, the best, most-educated minds in the western world were put to work on just the kind of discussion we’re having now. But since you believe in a god that will actually manifest himself to a would-be believer, we can skip it all and focus on just your prayer test.”

I thought it was a pretty standard concept.”

Nope. It might be gaining ground, but traditionally faith is purely a matter of choice, never subject to feedback by the almighty. By most definitions, that's what faith is; if you got a definite answer to a prayer, you couldn’t have faith anymore.”

So I would have to choose my belief philosophically…”

After much debate, of course.”

Yeah, that sounds like a dead end to me. But come to think of it, I once had a religion professor tell me that even if I never believed in god it made sense to serve him anyway, because if god existed and I served him, I would be eternally rewarded; if he didn’t exist, then all I’ll have I’ve lost is the time spent serving him. Both beat going to hell.”

Pascal’s Wager.”

Huh?”

That is the best known argument in a set of arguments called Pascal’s Wager.”

Well, anyway, I thought it was out of place coming from this guy, because in our religion we believe in a god that answers prayers, like I said. There’s no reason to serve blindly.”

I agree with you. But based on what we've been talking about, do you see the most obvious problem with the Wager now?”

Hmm. Maybe you should tell me.”

Pascal’s Wager assumes too much. It assumes that if there is a god, he rewards those who serve him and punishes those who don’t. But unless you already have confirmation of god’s existence and character, you can’t know this about god. Maybe god punishes people who pray and rewards people who fornicate while wearing argyle socks. How can you know, unless you already know god?”

And if I knew god, I wouldn’t be basing the decision to serve him on Pascal’s guesses regarding reward and punishment. Ok. I follow you.”

Good. We just had a taste of those mountains of esoteric debate I told you we could avoid with your prayer test. Was it good for you?”

I’m feeling snooty and self-important!”

That’s the spirit! You’re on your way to becoming an academic theologist!”

***

“So about my prayer test...”

It should work nicely, if--”

Does there always have to be an 'if'?”

Or two. Your prayer test should work if, one, your god is unambiguous in his response, and, two, if he communicates in a way that no other possible higher being does.”

Why are you complicating this?”

Because that ‘test’ depends on background assumptions that are completely unwarranted if you don’t already believe your particular god. Why start praying to the christian god, or the muslim god, or a hindu god? There have probably been millions of different gods, demigods, and animistic spirits throughout human history. And let's not forget the toaster oven.”

Life is too short. I’ll start with the one I know about. The god I have learned about is all-knowing. So he would know about this problem of there being millions of god concepts.”

Great! So he knows he would have to take certain steps to convince a rational person that he and he alone is the only god that will ever answer. Because you're right: there aren't enough seconds in the human lifespan to pray to all the gods. His answer must not look like just any old random thought or everyday coincidence. And his answer must not resemble the answer you would get praying to some other god.”

Sounds reasonable enough.”

And how has this been working for you?”

What do you mean?”

I assume you have already been trying this. I also assume that you haven't been convinced by any answer yet, because I doubt you would have wanted this conversation if you had.”

That's kind of personal, but let's just assume you're right.”

So where has god been falling short? In giving answers that stand out from the noise, or in being more convincing than other gods?”

Both, I guess. I think maybe I’ve felt some ‘warm fuzzies’ when I prayed sometimes, but I’m not sure if they are different than the feelings I get when I watch a good chick flick.”

If you’re in doubt, then I would say it’s ambiguous, and not good enough… an all-powerful god could do better, I would think. But that’s a decision only you are in a position to make.”

Up until recently, I had been satisfied with fuzzies, because people at church were always telling me that this is exactly what it is supposed to feel like. But lately I've been thinking about people in other religions. Do they feel the same things I do when they pray?”

Why do you care?”

Because I don't think we can all be right, and if we all feel the same things, then I really don’t have any way to tell who is. I mean, there are people who spend their lives in monasteries, or blow themselves to bits with explosives. Their religion is not the same as mine, but they obviously feel pretty strongly about it.”

And you’ve ruled out social pressures? You don’t think that maybe other people push them into these things, even though they don’t actually feel what you do?”

Isn't that supposed to be my argument?”

Sorry. You’re just making all of my points for me, so I thought I’d try making yours. Or the ones I suspect your church has taught you. You yourself seem much less convinced.”

Yeah, I’m getting pretty uncomfortable with some it. I’ve been under a lot of pressure lately to make certain church commitments that would take up a lot of time and money. And as much as they all try to make it sound like I’m free to do whatever I want, I know I’m really not, because if I don’t go along with it I’ll always be second-class to them and everyone else in my church--pretty much everyone who knows me.”

Enough that you would strap yourself to a bomb, if that’s what they wanted instead of time and money?”

I don’t think so. But I know people who would, and the thought scares me. In fact, let me take that back. The person I remember being just a couple years ago probably would’ve strapped one on, too.”

Ok, then. I guess we agree that god has failed to be unambiguous to you in response to your asking him if he is a real and unique being. His best answers don’t stand apart from your normal range of experiences. And he doesn’t seem to be answering you any more convincingly than the gods who answer other peoples’ prayers.”

Yes. And like I started to say before, no, I don’t buy the line that we’re really all praying to the same god. I think modern religions have a lot of similarities, but you're right. There are serious differences. And I don't see any way that the god I pray to could be the same one who demanded human sacrifices of the Aztecs.”

Right. There have been so many different forces, spirits, and gods throughout history that any one god that could apply to all of them would be impossible to describe meaningfully--a gray blob made up of every possible idea.”

Yes. But... people in my church also say that Satan could be blinding me. That I’m not worthy enough. That this might be why I don’t get answers to my prayers.”

Wow. I’ve always called you a prude behind your back. How worthy do you have to be before your god will answer you?”

Nobody seems to know. But I’m an upstanding member by any measure, and though I always feel guilty for falling short of what I think I might be capable of, I don’t think I have anything to be so ashamed of that Satan is running my life.”

I have my own response to that, but I’m not sure you’ll want to hear it.”

Go ahead. I’m already planning to cry myself to sleep tonight.”

If you have spent years of your life serving god and praying for confirmation of his existence, and still have found no certain response – and if you actually believe that Satan could be responsible for this lack of response, then I would argue that, for you, Satan is more real than god, and you’re praying to the wrong guy. You at least believe in Satan.”

You were right. That’s just sick.”

Well, those were some big ‘ifs’. But seriously, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that a god be unambiguous to someone who has already gone ahead and taken him seriously for years with no hard evidence at all. There’s a breach of faith there, all right, and it’s not on your end. If you’re praying to an actual god, and this is how he runs his business, then you're too good for him. You deserve better.”

That's the nicest blasphemy anyone's ever said to me.”

You're welcome.”

But I honestly can’t say I’m praying as much as I used to. I’m finding it harder and harder. Of course... they tell me Satan causes that, too...”

You’ve been beating your head against a wall and you’re finding it harder to keep doing it. I don’t think you need any supernatural explanation for that.”

***

“There’s still some things I don't get. Ok, a lot of things. Like argyle socks. But right now I'm still thinking about religion in general. We agree that there have probably been millions of gods throughout history. If none of them actually exist, then where do all these religions keep coming from?”

I thought we agreed on that. Superstitions, prophets, myths, and so on.”

Yeah, but prophets don't usually leave instructions for all the stuff that ends up in a religion. And it's bigger than superstition. Complex religions are everywhere, but still have a lot of things in common. What's up with that? Maybe it means something. Maybe god is behind it.”

I think we agreed that superstitions are the perfectly understandable creations of minds who depend on discovering relationships for survival. Sometimes the mind connects the dots for some strong hypotheses, such as tracking animals by their tracks, feces, eating habits, whatever. They're strong because they're definitely better than dumb luck. But other theories come about quite accidentally, such as the idea that a rainstorm happened as a result of tribal dance held the day before.”

Or that a tight loin-cloth helps you hunt.”

Yeah, but I'm not sure how far I can take that one, so let's look at the dance for now. It's a weak hypotheses, about as successful as the null hypothesis. But the human mind is constantly trying to discover how causal relationships work in order to refine hypotheses and create new ones. In the case of rain coming after a dance, what explanations do you think people could come up with?”

Well, people usually dance for ceremonial reasons, or because it’s fun. So maybe they would think that the clouds were caused to make rain in the way that a wedding ceremony causes people to become married. Or maybe they would just think the cloud enjoyed the dance, and rewarded them with rain.”

Sounds about right. All they’ve done at this point is some harmless personification of clouds -- an untestable explanation for a weak hypothesis. But because it is a weak hypothesis, dancing will often fail to cause rain the next day. How will people explain this?”

Well, they may just toss out the theory entirely, but they may also think that the cloud was angry, or that the dance wasn’t done right.”

Or maybe the sun attacked the cloud, and prevented the rain. The sun might have had any number of petty reasons for doing this…shiny bastard.”

So now we’re personifying the sun, too. And making up stories about why they act the way they do. I can definitely see where this is going. We’ve just reinvented a sun god and a rain god. That was pretty easy.”

Yup. Historians and anthropologists generally agree that animism – giving souls and personalities to nature and natural processes – is the most primitive and historically prevalent form of religious belief. It is only in relatively recent times, perhaps thanks to written language, that animistic traditions have been able to evolve into complex religions – ones where the natural spirits have merged into a single supergod who actually looks like the humans those stories always implied with their personification.”

I didn’t realize the experts had worked all this out.”

Oh, I’m grossly oversimplifying, and scholars love to argue about this kind of thing. But the basic idea seems reasonable.”

All right, then. That covers god creation, kind of. But where does all the church stuff come from? You know, all of the buildings, jobs, and little side-teachings that churches like mine have?”

Are you familiar with the meme concept?”

I don’t think so.”

Memetics studies ideas the way genetics studies genes. Memes, genes… the rhyme is intentional.”

And my church is a meme?”

Is a meme, or has memes, depending on how you want to look at it. Since your church is a large, complex establishment, it’s probably more useful to view it as an organism containing many memes, just as you are an organism containing many genes. In memetics, as with genetics, we are very concerned with natural selection. So you probably already know the rule that determines which memes tend to endure and reproduce themselves.”

Survival of the fittest?”

Right. In the sense we’re talking about, the fittest memes confer reproductive advantages on the beings that carry them – such as a church.”

My church reproduces?”

The idea of your church reproduces, in the form of new followers.”

So, over time, a church is only as successful as its memes.”

Yes. A church, like a political party or a fashion trend, is a package of memes carried by one or more followers. In any long-lived church, you can always find changes in dogma over time, because times change. Not all of the rituals and doctrines—memes—that suited the 19th Century are equally suited to life in the 21st. Churches that fail to adapt are memetic dinosaurs. Their membership falls in proportion to other religions.”

Like white months versus black moths in a forest after pollution turns the trees black. The white moths stand out and get eaten by the birds. I remember that one from biology class.”

Funny you should pick that particular example, since the intelligent design people love to point out that the original study on that one was probably fudged. But there’s nothing wrong with the concept.”

Wouldn’t a church that was true have a major memetic advantage against other churches?”

That depends.”

On what?”

On what the god or gods of that church are like.”

In what way?”

If the true church belongs to a god who performs ‘miracles’—successful, specific, non-obvious predictions—on a regular basis, then yeah, people would probably take notice. That would be a huge advantage.”

Hold on. That sounds like my church, and it is a church on the rise, so maybe it’s no coincidence.”

Really? I was under the impression that your god only performed miracles in books.”

Ouch.”

Am I wrong?”

Nobody has parted the Red Sea lately, or raised anyone dead that I know, but there are still everyday miracles.”

Isn’t ‘everyday miracle’ an oxymoron?”

I don’t see how.”

Why don’t you give me an example of an everyday miracle, and I’ll show you what I mean.”

Let me think. Ok. Once, I decided to give a friend of mine a call, and she told me that she had really felt like she needed to talk to someone right then about a problem she was having.”

So where’s the miracle there?”

Of all the times I could’ve called her, I felt the urge to call her just when she needed me most.”

So?”

So isn’t that a non-obvious prediction?”

Did you predict it? Could you do it again?”

No.”

Then it's coincidence.”

What’s wrong with that?”

There’s no trend to your data. You just assigned a causal relationship to two events, like a baseball player who hits a homerun the day he wears his left sock inside out and gives the sock the credit. You did not predict the outcome of your call in advance, and I doubt you could do it again on a given day chosen at random. Dance was followed by rain and you’re calling it the hand of god.”

That same week I found ten dollars in my laundry right after I had decided to pay my tithes. And the lesson in church that Sunday was on something that I had recently been thinking a lot about. I say that's a trend.”

That's apples and oranges, with a pear thrown in. Your threshold for miracles is so low that you’re elevating entirely expected coincidences to the level of divine intervention.”

Nobody could’ve expected any of those coincidences!”

Those particular coincidences, no. But from the examples you gave, it’s clear that there are millions of coincidences that didn’t happen that week that you would’ve considered miraculous if they had. You didn’t hit every green light on the way to visit your sick aunt. You weren't forwarded an inspirational email from someone you were just about to send the very same message to. You didn’t spot your neighbor's cat in time to avoid hitting it with your—“

Stop.”

Was it really that same week?”

Shut up.”

Sorry.”

So my miracles have been lame. But people I know have had more interesting things happen: A parent whose cancer suddenly went into remission. A daughter who died shortly after saying odd things about her dead grandfather. That kind of thing.”

Same problem. It’s a big world, and it would actually be far more surprising if you never ran into these kinds of things. If you play five card stud and haven’t been dealt three-of-a-kind after five hundred hands or so, cry foul for sure.”

99.999 percent sure?”

Um, let's see... No, only 99.998. But if that's not sure enough for you, I'd like to invite you to join my weekly poker game, starting tomorrow.”

You have a weekly poker game?”

Starting tomorrow.”

Nah. I'm crying foul.”

Chicken!”

Not that kind of fowl.”

BOK bok bok bok bok!”

That is SO annoying. I hope you'll reconsider the chicken plan.”

I'll think about it. Anyway, if you know someone who can consistently predict specific 'everyday miracles', let me know. That would be just as remarkable as never having any.”

There are some who say that miracles are exactly those things we choose to believe come from god. That seeing god’s hand in an everyday coincidence is the real miracle.”

You’re not one of them, I hope.”

It sounds nice on television. But the more I've thought about it the more it doesn't make sense.”

Why?”

Because if the miracle is me deciding to consider something a miracle, then it's all subjective. One person's miracle is another person's disaster. I recall some American preacher saying that the Asian tsunami was god's way of punishing Muslims for 9/11. For some reason, I don't think Muslims saw it that way. I know I didn't.”

But you still believe in miracles.”

Well, you were just telling me that my god only does miracles in books. I now see what you mean, but I still think it’s possible that those ancient miracles happened. And I think that having miracles on record, even if they’re only ancient ones, has got to be a good meme for a church to have. And I think that this would help that church, if it were true, to rise to the top.”

And if that church 'rises to the top' by outcompeting its rivals, it's not so unexpected that you would happen to be born into it. That would help our improbability problem.”

That's kind of what I'm hoping.”

Great. Ok. Does a church have anything else going for it if it is true?”

If my church is true, then people know it because of the feelings they get when they pray and do other churchy things.”

Feelings that you already admit are probably experienced by people in the false churches as well.”

Well, yes. So I guess I can’t use those.”

Not as a unique advantage for your church. But those churchy things that bring warm feelings are significant for other reasons. They are successful memes. They tap into deep human emotions, regardless of context. Take singing or chanting in unison, for example. Does your church do that?”

Oh, definitely.”

A sense of unity has been important to human survival since before we were a distinct species. We evolved as bands of hunter-gatherers who were probably almost always no more than a season away from starvation. Being cast out of the tribe would’ve meant almost certain death. Even being merely unpopular, or seen as an outsider, would’ve been dangerous when the pickings were slim and divvied up by hungry people under no obligation to share equally. At the very least, being unpopular makes it hard to gain reproductive access.”

So?”

So when the tribe chants, you chant. If they’re doing a dance, you dance. You demonstrate your unity, your alikeness, any chance you get. The evolutionary biologist will explain this by saying that people who seem like you are more likely to share some of your genes, making it useful to shun outsiders and act like an insider. But as a hunter-gatherer, you just have to feel that to not belong is to die. And we still do. Even up through relatively modern times, banishment has often been considered worse than death.”

I remember grade school students feeling the same way about cliques.”

When in Rome…”

Wear your baseball cap the same way everyone else does.”

Death, or more preciesly, failure to reproduce, is the end of the road for a gene. So when a particular behavior is central to a species, there will be genes that result in instincts that take care of it. If not, there would be no species. The result? It feels good to join the crowd. Ask anyone who has marched in a band. Read the accounts of people who participated in Hitler’s rallies. And after you've done that, try walking out of your church for the last time when almost everyone you know is a member.”

Like you did.”

I got the better end of the deal. But don’t think for a second that I didn’t pay the emotional price for ceasing to belong. There were times when the stress threatened to hijack my judgment and send me running back on my knees. ”

You can run on your knees?”

In my traumatized state I probably thought I could. We humans aren’t as free-thinking as we think we are. If the emotional cost of doing something is too high, we usually can't do it, no matter how much we may think we want to. We will even invent reasons for inaction that seem perfectly rational to us but are obviously ludicrous to others.”

So you can't leave a church if you're too wrapped up in it?”

You probably won’t feel the desire to leave at all. Some abandoned corner of your mind may have grave doubts about staying, but you won't even be tempted to listen to it. Doubting is itself too terible to contemplate, so you just won't. You won’t bother to question anything, and if anyone else raises a question you will defend your faith with whatever arguments come to mind, no matter how dumb they are. Because in your mind, there will be no debate. Just the impulse to go through the motions and belong.”

I think a lot of people in my own church are like this.”

I’m sure of it.”

I mean, I don't think they're hypnotized or caught in the matrix or anything like that. They're actually pretty good people, most of them. But they just don't really think about church even if they are doing church stuff all the time.”

Is that wrong?”

Maybe not wrong, but it doesn't seem entirely right, either.”

I guess that depends on what their god has to say about it – and if he's real, of course.”

You think so? Because it sounds to me like you were saying that the truthfulness of a church doesn't even matter, because churches with powerful memes are so good at pulling people in anyway.”

That also depends on the god.”

And you think a god who only performs miracles in books doesn’t stand a chance.”

Probably not on his own. Here’s a thought experiment for you.”

Oh boy. Here we go.”

Imagine a world with only two religions – A and B.”

You come up with those names yourself?”

They both start out with equal membership. Church A is false, but has an impressive package of hardy memes to ensure survival and reproduction: It bases itself on a gripping semi-historical tale. It holds lengthy meetings at least weekly that include group singing or chanting. It tithes its members to fund impressive monumental buildings and overseas missions. It has its own schools, seminaries, and universities. It encourages resistance-weakening fasts accompanied by pro-church meditation. It proselytizes to non-members. It holds monthly testimonial sessions. It provides for periodic faith checkups and confessionals with peers and leaders. It performs solemn ceremonies in which members swear absolute fealty under penalty of eternal damnation. It fosters a culture of elitism towards non-members and shunning of ex-members. It teaches that only marriages between members are binding. It indoctrinates children from the earliest ages. And, in the most obvious Darwinian ploy of all, it encourages its members to have large families.”

Are you done?”

No, that was just Church A.”

Which was false.”

Correct. Church B, on the other hand, has none of Church A’s mighty memes, but it happens to be the true church… of a god who only does miracles in books.”

Hmm.”

How long do you suppose it would take for Church A, the meme-rich false church, to dominate the world?”

Not too many generations.”

So, if you were born several generations down the road, what is the probability that you would be born into Church B, the meme-poor but true church?”

Since the true church would be very small or nonexistent by that point, the odds would be extremely tiny.”

Precisely.”

But what if my church has the best of Church A and Church B?”

You mean a real but timid god hiding behind all those magnificent memes?”

Yes.”

You tell me. But first we have to pull back out of the thought experiment, because there are many churches in the world that are like Church A, but we agree that only one of them can be like both A & B because only one of them, if any, can be true.”

Ok.”

Is truth enough to tell the true church apart from the other Church A’s, then? The memes are similar wherever you go, but the god of church A+B, despite being real, only performs miracles in books. Would the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz have been more impressive than any other charlatan if he could perform actual miracles, but only when nobody alive was watching?”

I guess not.”

So how can you tell them apart? Are you willing to bet your soul that the church you were born into just happens to be the one Church A that is also Church B?”

I would expect god to clear the confusion for me.”

So would I, but here we are. You might just have to draw your own conclusions.”

***

“I think we're about done. I’ve got no rational reason to believe my church or any other is true; no good reason to believe in god at all, really. And I have you to thank. Proud of yourself?”

Whoah, hold on. What you choose to believe, or not believe, is up to you. We already agree that many people go through the motions of their religions just fine without ever bothering to think about it deeply. You certainly don’t have to leave your church and proclaim yourself an atheist unless being outwardly, publicly rational about religion is more important to you than belonging to your tribe. If belonging is more important to you, then the rational thing, for you, is to continue belonging.”

What if I just think that honesty is the best policy?”

Then I commend the toughness of your fiber. I'm just not prepared to say that honesty is the best policy if it's going to emotionally maim you and everyone you are close to.”

But now that you’ve stomped on whatever scrap of belief I had when I woke up this morning, I know I won’t be able to belong. Because I’ll know there’s almost no chance that it’s true. It’s going to be awfully hard to bring myself to sit through meetings and pay tithes and teach it to my children and do all those other things my church expects me to do. And people will notice when I don’t do them. Either way, I’m out of the group.”

So you have to decide whether all those things you had been doing are a price of admission you’re still willing to pay. The price hasn’t changed. You just know what it is now.”

It was easier when I thought there was something to it. When it hadn't seriously occurred to me that there might be an alternative. When I didn’t think that continuing to belong to my church might actually be wrong.”

I never said it was.”

But wouldn’t it have to be? Doesn’t giving money to a false church that will spend it converting others amount to supporting the spreading of lies?”

Well, I can think of better ways to spend a buck, but anyone who would be talked into your religion would probably be talked into another religion almost as easily. At least yours actually does some good in the world instead of encouraging kids to strap themselves to explosives.”

Yes, what about my kids? I’m going to be expected to lie to them. I’ll be considered a terrible parent by all of my friends and family if I don’t teach my kids to be good church members.”

That’s a tougher question, all right. Children are inherently susceptible to what a parent teaches them, and I can’t argue that your kids would just grow up in some other church if they don’t grow up in yours. Consider the pros and cons carefully, I guess. Some consider church a way to keep kids out of trouble, but it seems like overkill to me, and statistically speaking, I don’t even know that it works. I don’t see why you can’t teach a child to make good decisions without bringing god into it. You ought to have your own reasons for having the morals you do. Share them. Most of the things you could only explain by saying 'because god says so' are just trappings of church membership anyway.”

That’s another thing. How am I supposed to decide what’s right or wrong without my religion? Can there even be such thing as right or wrong without religion?”

Right or wrong didn’t have much to do with religion until modern times, when monotheistic religions’ one-gods started scribbling on tablets and giving moralistic sermons. Polytheistic religions had a harder time; what if different gods disagree on questions of right and wrong? The gods of ancient Greece certainly had their differences. And animism offers even less moralistic advice. What does the spirit of the moon have to say about sleeping with your neighbor's spouse? What does the fertility goddess have to say about embryonic stem cell research?”

I’m not even sure the god of my church has ever talked about that last one.”

But plenty of people make that kind of decision as though god had.”

And I find it obnoxious. People can use god to justify anything. And they do.”

So what criteria would you like them to use when making decisions where god can be of no help? What criteria would you like someone like me to use when deciding how to treat, say, you?”

I’d like you and everyone else to give me money and call me ‘your majesty.’”

Your majesty?”

I’m just kidding. I don’t think I should be boss of the universe.”

Why not?”

Because we can’t all be in charge. It’s not really fair that I should be the only one.”

So you value fairness?”

Yes, I guess so.”

And a minute ago you told me you thought spreading lies would be wrong, so you believe in honesty, too. With or without god.”

Yes. I just don’t know why I should.”

Evolutionary psychology can give you literal answers to that question, if that’s what you want. If it’s practical answers you want, ‘How should a man live?’ is probably the oldest question in western philosophy, so you would have plenty of ideas to choose from there. Building a complete moral system from the ground up isn’t really something we would want to try to do in this conversation, but I will say that it's also probably a bad idea to run out and replace your religion with a published system of, say, utilitarianism or objectivism.”

Huh?”

And I should warn you that some people make a religion out of anti-religion. It scratches their old religious itches to declare themselves Right and go around telling everyone else why they are Wrong. It's a terrible way to change anyone, but it's a great way to lose friends and annoy people.”

The record shows I asked for this conversation, if that's what you're worried about. You warned me.”

At the end of the day, will that matter?”

I hope so. We'll see.”

So anyway, I just suggest asking yourself how you wish everyone would act, and act that way yourself. Gandhi instructed his followers to ‘be the change you want to see in the world.’ That’s a pretty safe place to start, and it's just another spin on the golden rule Jesus was so fond of. So it should be easy for you.”

Is that what you do?”

More or less. I screw up, like everyone else trying to be a decent human; but I try to take others into account before I make any decisions that might effect them. I don’t think my wants should be any more important than the wants of anyone else. Most ethical questions take care of themselves after that.”

But you still just decided to live that way. There’s no way to know if that’s really the way you ought to live.”

No, and I doubt there’s any one moral code written into the fabric of the universe that all forms of intelligent life can some day point to and say, ‘there it is.’. But I’m not about to throw in the towel and say that, because it’s all relative, people should just do whatever feels good at the time. I think the kinds of ethics that help humans to be prosperous and happy together are excellent ethics for me, as a human, to follow. If humanity evolves into something different, as I believe it eventually will, perhaps those ethics will change. But I think the ethics I choose should always be appropriate to who I am and who I interact with.”

Oh, that’s right, you don't think you'll die like everyone else.”

I think there’s a good chance that none of us will have to die in the ways we do now, if we can take our technology a little further without getting ourselves killed. But that’s a conversation for another day.”

Well, if or when we die, what do you think will happen to us?”

We’ll be dead.”

Nothing after that? That’s very depressing.”

Is it? I can't know for sure that there’s no immortal soul and no afterlife, but I don’t have any rational reason to think that there is, so I assume there isn't. And yeah, that's depressing. Not because I'm afraid of being dead; If I'm dead there won't be a subjective me to mourn the loss. But I want to continue living, and others want me to as well. So death is a bad thing, and worth fighting.”

It’s easier to cope with death when you think there’s a better place after all of this. You can almost look forward to it, I think.”

Maybe. But religious funerals I’ve been to still seem to be full of very sad people who won’t be seeing their loved ones anytime soon. If you’ll excuse my language, I think most people at funerals would like to see Death hogtied and tossed out of town on his bony white ass.”

Well, when you put it that way…”

Death sucks, whether you believe in an immortal soul or not.”

And I guess believing or not believing won’t change things one way or another. Either we have souls or we don’t.”

Exactly.”

But it’s still depressing.”

It’s not all bad, you know. I wasn’t kidding when I said I was better off for leaving my church, as hard it was. And I’m not just talking about reclaiming my Sundays and keeping my would-have-been tithes.”

Oh?”

For starters, I’m no longer shackled with useless guilt.”

Aha! So those nasty rumors about your departure were true!”

Hardly! Guilt was always a monkey on my back, no matter how good a church member I was. Because I always had doubts. Because I was always falling short of perfection. And because I was so often bored and, frankly, unimpressed by what were supposed to be the most amazing truths in the universe.”

But wasn’t it nice to have all the answers?”

Not really, because the only questions I could answer were about religion itself. It was all a big castle in the sky. But it was sometimes pretty, for all that, and I’ll admit that even now it’s a real seduction: just letting myself think that I’m right because god said so. It’s so much easier than being wrong.”

You do hate being wrong.”

You bet I do. But since I’ve given up religion it's been easier to replace my weak, ungrounded hypothesis with ones that work. I’m not just more informed. I’m actually smarter than I used to be.”

That’s because you’re a nerd. And a big-headed one at that.”

I’m not comparing myself to others. I’m just saying that embracing rational, probabilistic thinking means I’m right more often now than I used to be.”

If you’re not completely off your rocker.”

Yeah, well, doctors, unlike prophets, can tell me if I have cancer, and do something about it. Chemists, unlike nuns, can make useful materials out of useless ones. Engineers, unlike scriptures, have the know-how to keep me safe, confortable, and entertained through technology. The prophets, nuns, and scriptures could turn out to be totally right about the existence of god, but it would still be the doctors, chemists, and engineers that have the power in my universe. I’ll take what they’re having.”

Still. It would be nice to think there was someone out there.”

Perhaps. But I find that accepting there’s no god in charge can actually improve your outlook on things. For one thing, it's nice to never be in the awkward position of having to defend a god too indifferent to defend himself.”

How does that improve your outlook?”

Once you stop accepting that our brutish existence is god's plan, you can be open to the idea of making fundamental improvements to it. And you no longer feel obligated to give god credit for everything good that happens in your life. You can give yourself the credit for exceeding your own expectations; for getting by in a cold and hostile universe; for being the kind of person who has friends. For making good decisions, in other words. And you can give others this kind of credit too, even when they want to give it all away to some god.”

But they probably want you to credit their good fortune to god, too.”

Which is why I keep my higher opinion of them to myself.”

Your inner monologue must be pretty interesting.”

Oh, I don't know. ‘Interesting’ implies conflict, and my thoughts just aren’t as conflicted as they used to be. I'm not interrupted by guilt every moment I’m not directly serving god. I’m not going through the grind of trying to let god in on every decision I make. I’m not suffering the frustration of trying to hear a mute god’s voice in a noisy train of thought. And so on.”

So I was wrong. Your thoughts are more boring.”

Not if you prefer non-fiction.”

***

“Well, this has been fun. And I mean that in the most insincere way.”

I'm sorry. I really do wish you could have your cake and eat it too. But not all that much.”

Why not?”

Because wishing never makes anything so.”

You really are boring.”

So... I'll see you around?”

Um... Maybe.”

I was afraid you'd say that.”

Yeah. Me too.”




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