Sunday, August 8, 2010

Everybody else believes, why not you?

I recently came across an argument on the net that went something like this:

"If atheism is correct, don't you think more people would agree with it?"

As you can easily guess, I have a few problems with this argument, not even including the horrible way in which it is worded.

1.  It's a logical fallacy, equating the likely truth of an argument with the number of people who believe it.  It's called Argumentum ad populum, and does nothing to show the correctness of an argument.  In the same way, the number of people who do not believe a certain position is true is no measure of the incorrectness of that position.  History and science are full of countless examples of things that were popularly believed to be true but were not, so I really don't think I need to go into that any further.

2.  The person who posed this question is considering only 2 sides of the argument, those sides being that gods exist or that they don't exist.  He claims all theists as members of his side, making one big team.  But I don't think this is a good way to look at it.  He should not be allowed to claim a person for his side if they have radically different views of basic characteristics of these gods, or even how many there are.  Pretty much the only thing Hindus and Muslims agree on is that there is such a thing as a supernatural being.  Everything else is in conflict.  Doesn't this person think that if supernatural beings were actually real and communicated with us, that people should be able to agree on its characteristics?  The largest religion on Earth is Roman Catholicism, which the vast majority of humans disagree with.  Even if you expand it to all of Christianity, still a large majority of humans disagree with it.  Would the person who asked the question accept this as evidence that their religion is incorrect?  Don't you think if Christianity were correct, that nearly all people would believe it?  Looked at in this way, atheism would be a major religious worldview, if it were a religion in the first place.  There are hundreds of millions of atheists on the planet, making us a pretty large group.  But this proves nothing, as explained in point #1.

3.  This is going to be the most sensitive point.  The argument, as posed by the person who asked the question, assumes that all people are intelligent enough to figure these things out, especially through a wall of culture and parental upbringing.  How many people on Earth do not understand even high-school level math?  Does the fact that so many people don't understand it negate it?   How many got above C in science in school?  How many tens of millions of people in the USA alone cannot even handle their basic household finances well enough to stay out of crushing debt caused by their own stupidity?   How many people stick cigarettes in their mouths, despite all we know about their addictive and destructive properties?  How many tens (hundreds?) of millions of people have mental illnesses?  How many people in India run and hide from a solar eclipse?  How many people terminate their own lives every year, because their brains cannot even handle being alive?  I could ask a lot of questions like this.  Not all people are smart.  And of the ones you might call smart, some are smarter than others.  The fact that the people who understand science best are least likely to believe in gods is interesting.  People with advanced university degrees are some of the smartest people on the planet.  The fact that more of them are atheists than in the general population, is also interesting.

     We also should note that people will generally follow whichever religion they are born into.  If their parents are a certain religion and the culture around them also follows that religion, they'll rarely change*.  Most people cannot bring themselves to consider other possibilities, or to question what they are told, which demonstrates a lack of critical thinking ability.  Perhaps they are just ignorant of what other possibilities are out there, but then we get into arguments from ignorance, which is another logical fallacy.  Even in the absence of an alternate explanation, a truly intelligent being would not accept an explanation with no evidence and dogmatically assert that it is true.  (*I realise that studies show that people often change denominations within a faith, but the vast, vast majority of people on Earth will never switch from Islam to Christianity, Buddhism to Native American beliefs, etc.)

     Evolution has given us an intelligence level above other animals, but we are not as intelligent as many people believe we are.  The human brain is not some grand masterpiece, perfect in its ability to reason and answer questions (at least not the brains inside the general population).  The culture doesn't help much when it encourages things like faith, which is defined as believing in something despite not having any reason to, and discouraging lack of faith through the use of fear, intimidation and even death for those who don't have it.  I hope our intelligence level is a work in progress, but the evidence suggests that it may not be.  The fact that most people can't figure something out, or believe in a certain way, is not anything we should be using as a guide to truth.

4.  Considering how many billions of people currently believe in gods, and how many billions of people have believed throughout human history, it's amazing that they have still been unable to prove their case.

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