Theistic arguments for beginners: #3: Pascal’s Wager

 

NEAFtACDlZr2EB_1_1On the “Basics” page, we briefly addressed Pascal’s Wager as an argument for belief: today, we want to go a little further into this often-used apologetic.

To recap: Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was a seventeenth-century French scientist, mathematician, and philosopher. Educated by his father, Pascal was intellectually versatile from a young age: he invented a mechanical calculating machine, performed experiments that clarified our understanding of pressures and vacuums, and in mathematics, made theoretical discoveries that led to the development of calculus and of probability theory. It was possibly the latter that led to his development of this argument, in which Pascal tries to explain, in terms of probability, why we should believe that God exists. As expressed in his posthumously published philosophical work, the Pensées (III, §233), it goes something like this:

  1. We cannot determine by reason whether a God exists or does not exist.

  2. God either is, or is not: there is no third option, like a game in which the outcome is either heads (God exists) or tails (God does not exist).

  3. You must play this game. It is not optional. By existing, every person bets their life on the possibility of God’s existence or non-existence.

  4. What are the possible outcomes of this game?

    1. You choose to believe in God.

      1. If God exists, you win, and the gain is infinite (eternal reward).

      2. If God does not exist, you lose nothing (no reward).

    2. You choose not to believe in God.

      1. If God exists, you lose, and the loss is infinite (eternal punishment).

      2. If God does not exist, you lose nothing (no eternal punishment).

  5. Therefore, believing in God is the better choice, since the possible gain is infinite (eternal life, eternal happiness), and the possible loss is negligible. Not believing in God is the worse choice, since the possible gain is negligible, and the possible loss is infinite (eternal punishment).

Objections

Pascal’s Wager is not a proof of God’s existence. This is the weakest objection to the wager, since Pascal says from the get-go that one cannot determine the existence of God by using reason, and instead argues for belief in God’s existence. Pascal’s Wager is not a metaphysical argument, but a pragmatic argument.

Which god is the correct one to believe in? Or, as Homer Simpson once put it: “What if we picked the wrong religion? Every week we’re just making God madder and madder!”

Pascal’s Wager offers no help in determining which of the thousands of gods believed in and worshiped by humanity is the correct god to believe in (which we will refer to as OTG or “one true God”), although as a Catholic, Pascal believed in the three-in-one god (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) of Catholic Christianity, and appears to be urging us to believe likewise.

Elsewhere in the Pensées, Pascal attempts to compare and contrast the concepts of God held by various peoples, such as the polytheist gods of pagan antiquity and the Allah revered in Islam, and deals with most of them pretty briskly, judging them inferior to the concept of God as elaborated by Catholic Christianity, as not in accordance with reason or as superstition. However, he does not appear to consider the rituals of Catholicism to be superstition, such as for instance the doctrine of transubstantiation, in which bread and wine are considered to be the literal body and blood of Christ during the ritual of communion. Nor does he consider it irrational to consider that a perfect, all-powerful, all-knowing god creates humanity with sin (or alternately, creates humanity knowing it will become sinful) and appeases their collective guilt by creating a human incarnation of himself who dies, offering a blood sacrifice which washes away the sin.

Ultimately, it is confirmation bias (that is, the tendency to see things that confirm an already established point of view) that leads Pascal to champion Catholic Christianity as the religion most free of superstition and most in accord with reason, and to regard its god as OTG, and as he does not consider the possibility of OTG having a nature and attributes which are not described by established theological doctrine, leads to a false dichotomy: either there is an OTG that rewards belief and punishes non-belief, or there is no OTG at all.

Even if OTG may exist, the possible outcomes of Pascal’s Wager depend on the existence of a soul and an afterlife, which may not exist. Pascal assumes here that if you accept the existence of OTG, you accept the whole enchilada, including the existence of a soul which passes from physical existence in this world to an eternal existence in heaven or hell. But the co-existence of OTG, souls, and an afterlife are not necessarily dependent on each other. There may be an OTG, but no souls or afterlife, or conversely, there may exist souls and an afterlife, but no OTG. Souls may not pass from the physical plane to an afterlife, but instead reincarnate after death. Other permutations are possible.  The existence of OTG, of eternal souls, and of an afterlife, are in fact three different inquiries.

Even if I find Pascal’s Wager a compelling argument for belief, I cannot simply “choose” to believe, or as Pascal himself puts it, speaking for a hypothetical non-believer, “I am so made that I cannot believe. What would you have me do?” Pascal, again, anticipates this objection, and offers the following: if the Wager is valid, then non-belief is irrational, and your inability to believe comes from your emotions, or “passions” as he puts it. If this is the case, then his advice is, essentially, to “fake it till you make it”: go through the motions, until you find yourself believing. And he seems to think that if you truly try this, you will end up believing, sooner or later.

The idea that non-belief is irrational and that “pretending” to believe by going through the motions will eventually result in genuine and sincere belief is related to modern apologists who assert that atheists “just want to sin” or do not wish to believe that they will be judged by God, and who prescribe prayer to atheists, promising that if they pray hard enough, they will eventually have a subjective experience that will be adequate to validate a belief in God. But this does not explain the experience of former believers (and most atheists are former believers) who, in the past, sincerely believed in their god and prayed desperately for the resolution of their doubts, only to find that the promised resolution never happened.

It is also interesting that Pascal phrases this objection the way he does: “I am so made that I cannot believe,” since it raises the possibility that non-believers are made on purpose, presumably by OTG, not to believe, which opens up a new line of questions as to what that purpose might be, and eventually, questions as to the nature of OTG himself. If OTG made me a non-believer, there must be a purpose that he made me so, and who am I to question that purpose?

Would an all-powerful, infinite, perfect OTG really care whether his creation believes in his existence? Pascal’s Wager assumes that OTG demands belief from his creation, and will reward or punish his creation as they believe or disbelieve. But when God is defined, as most theologians did who laid down the principles of the faith to which Pascal subscribed, as perfect in every way, to also say that God demands belief and worship is a contradiction: a perfect being would have no deficiencies, that is to say, no “needs” that must be satisfied by an outside entity; therefore a perfect being would not need belief or worship. And other sorts of god are also conceivable. God might be a divine creator or first-cause, creating the universe, and therefore, the conditions that lead to sentient life, but remain indifferent to, or even unaware of, the affairs of human beings. This was, of course, the position of Deists, who, rather than look to revelation and to religious authority for answers to questions of morality, ethics, meaning and purpose, looked instead to reason. This would change the possible outcomes of Pascal’s Wager profoundly. Not only would there be no infinite loss to the non-believer if such a god existed, there could also conceivably be no infinite gain to the believer.

Why would OTG prefer a human scared of eternal punishment over one who values and seeks after truth? We have considered the possibility that OTG demands belief from his creation, and also the possibility that OTG is indifferent to whether his creation believes in him or not. There is yet another possibility, that OTG cares about intellectual honesty and integrity over unquestioning acceptance of received wisdom, even if such honesty and integrity leads to the created being being skeptical of the existence of its own creator. Such a god may welcome independence of thought and action and consider this a measure of success in his creation, like a teacher who mentors a student into developing his intellectual capacities, or a parent who sees his or her offspring take on an independent role in their own lives.

Are the costs of belief in OTG as trivial as Pascal says they are? Pascal asserts that one has nothing to lose by opting for belief. But there may be much to lose, depending on which version of OTG one chooses to believe in. Belief in a god, particularly the god that Pascal believes in, does not usually entail saying, “Okay, I believe,” and then going on with your life: it also involves a lifelong commitment in thought, word, and deed. It may involve forgoing certain pleasant experiences, such as sex, food, and intoxicants, all of which can be considered harmful if indulged in excessively, but may enhance one’s happiness if enjoyed moderately and with good sense. It may involve regular religious duties such as prayer and worship, confession of and penance for one’s sins. Ir may involve tithing, that is, giving a certain percentage of one’s income to the church. It may involve surrendering one’s independence of thought to the accepted doctrines of one’s religion.

Pascal says that the long-term gains of belief outweigh the short-term losses:

Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognise that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing.”

Pascal is arguing that, at the very least, belief will make you a better person. But the virtues he lists here—honesty, humility, generosity, truthfulness, sincerity, etc.—can be shown by atheists as much as by believers, and the fact that the atheist is virtuous without expectation of a reward may even be considered more honorable than a believer who is virtuous in order to be rewarded. But as we have considered the personal losses of pleasure and intellectual independence, we must also consider the possible negative social consequences of religious belief. As we noted elsewhere on the Basics page, misogyny, homophobia, slavery, racial and ethnic hatreds, social inequality, extremist violence, suppression of scientific and intellectual inquiry, brutal and cruel methods of justice, sectarian violence, have been and can be justified using religious dogma and religious thinking. Pascal himself says elsewhere in the Pensées that “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction” (XIV, §894).

But this supporting passage in the wager not only assumes that belief in any case makes anyone a better person, but beginning at “I will tell you…,” Pascal appeals to personal testimony and implicit trust in the apologist, much as proselytizers today will say, “Since I gave my heart to the Lord, I have never been happier, and if you do as I did, you will be happier too.” Appeals to personal testimony do not confirm or deny anything; they only refer to a subjective experience that cannot be examined or evaluated by others. Many believers have subjective experiences that are sufficiently convincing to them to justify their beliefs to themselves, but these are of less value in overcoming the skepticism of other persons.

Differing views of hell and the afterlife. In the Old Testament, the words that were later translated by Christians as “hell” had no connotation of either being a spiritual afterlife or a place of eternal punishment. The Hebrew sheol can be translated variously as “pit”, “grave”, “abyss”, or “hiding place”, and its use in the Old Testament cannot be construed as meaning anything like “hell” as it is understood today. Alternately, the word Gehenna referred to the valley (or ravine) of Hinnom, which was a place where the corpses of executed criminals, apostates, and other miscreants were burnt: certainly a place considered unholy, but an actual place on earth nevertheless. It is to this place that Jesus refers in his sermons. Having been written in Greek, the New Testament also refers to places and concepts borrowed from Greek culture and mythology such as Hades (where all mortals went after death, named after the god of the dead) and Tartarus (where particularly evil mortals were punished). It is not until long after the writing of the New Testament, in the early years of the formation of the Christian church, that the concept of hell, borrowing from pagan and classical mythology, begins to be formed into doctrine.

And concepts of hell and the afterlife continue to differ in the modern age, with some theologians defending the view that hell is spiritual annihilation, in which the sinner’s soul simply ceases to exist and the saved are the ones who enjoy an eternal afterlife, and others supporting the idea of hell as simply being eternal separation from God, rather than a domain where people are literally tortured for eternity.

Pascal’s Wager relies on the certainty that the statement “Hell is a place of eternal punishment, and persons who do not believe in OTG will certainly find themselves there after death” is true, but with the continuing differences of opinion as mentioned above, it is far from certain that this is indeed the case.

Reward and punishment schedule is fixed, and OTG will not renege on the wager or change its terms. Pascal’s Wager depends on the certainty that OTG will, in all cases, honor the terms of the wager and reward believers and punish non-believers, but this is far from certain. The twentieth-century French philosopher Étienne Souriau points this out with a parable of a fool watching a leaf on the surface of a river that is momentarily halted by a rock in the water. The fool announces that he bets a million with Rothschild (that is, a rich man) that the leaf will pass on the left side of the rock rather than on the right. Eventually the leaf does pass on the left side and the fool says “I win the bet”, but unfortunately for him, Rothschild never said “I will take the bet.”

In other words, we can never know whether OTG will actually accept the terms of the wager and honor them. If we cannot resolve the question of OTG’s existence from reason, we certainly cannot propose the wager to OTG and have him audibly and unmistakably accept the bet, for if this were the case, we have proof of OTG’s existence and there is no need to bet at all.

Pascal’s Wager casts a long shadow in the history of Western religious and philosophical thought, justifying a more lengthy and less summary treatment than most apologetics. It came out of Pascal’s interest in probability theory, and was the first formal use in philosophy of decision theory. In the discipline of Christian apologetics it was particularly new, with its focus on “what should we do?” rather than “can God be proven to exist?”, linking it to the existentialist tradition in nineteenth and twentieth century philosophy, which encompassed both religious thinkers and writers like Kierkegaard and atheist ones like Sartre. Though it fails to convince most non-believers, it is still a component in most proselytizing offered by popular apologists. In Pascal’s text, it is also vigorously and dramatically expressed, and deserves more than a cursory glance.

The Pensées by Blaise Pascal is available at Project Gutenberg, available in HTML and plaintext format as well as in EPUB and Kindle formats.

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Phil Robertson paints macabre picture to make point about atheism

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Phil Robertson (photo by Gage Skidmore: Wikimedia Commons)

Right Wing Watch reports on a bizarre outburst, delivered last Friday at a prayer breakfast by entrepreneur and reality-tv celebrity Phil Robertson in Vero Beach, Florida, and broadcast on Rick Wiles’ right-wing radio program Trunews, in which the patriarch of the Duck Dynasty clan indulged aloud in a morbid fantasy, designed apparently to demonstrate that atheists have no morals and cannot be depended on to do good things without a belief in gods or divine justice.

(Warning: graphic verbal description of violence)

Phil Robertson endeared himself to the Christian right in 2014 when he made remarks in GQ magazine about gays, which resulted in his suspension from the show by its network, A&E. An outcry from fans and right-wing politicians followed, resulting in the lifting of his suspension after nine days, even as the entire debacle became a central talking point in the developing narrative of “Christian persecution”. He has since become a frequent speaker at conservative events, decrying abortion, gay rights and secularism.

Asking an atheist, “If you don’t believe in a god that will hold you to account for your deeds, what is preventing you from raping and killing right now?” is an old chestnut that any non-believer worth his or her salt can dispose of, mainly through the argument that anyone who counts on the wrath of a god to keep him from raping and killing is not a moral person to begin with, and deserves to be given a wide berth. It can even be argued that since Christianity teaches the forgiveness of sins in exchange for acceptance of Christ, moral excellence is not necessary for salvation at all. Just accept Christ after a long life of raping and killing, and you’re good.

But what made this particular version of the argument memorable was Robertson’s ghoulish elaboration of a scene that seems lifted from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Here’s RWW’s account of his remarks:

I’ll make a bet with you.Two guys break into an atheist’s home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him. And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And then they can look at him and say, “Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged? Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this? There’s no right or wrong, now is it dude?”

Then you take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say, “Wouldn’t it be something if this [sic] was something wrong with this? But you’re the one who says there is no God, there’s no right, there’s no wrong, so we’re just having fun. We’re sick in the head, have a nice day.”

Atheists all over the internet are puzzling over what could have motivated the mind-boggling words that came out of Robertson’s mouth. Does he think he can scare non-believers into believing with blood-and-thunder stories? Is he rallying the troops with lurid cautionary tales of the dangers of non-belief? Is he taking sadistic pleasure in imagining atheists coming to a horrible end? What the hell is wrong with this guy?

Everyone has a dark side to their imaginations: we all have a little corner in our brains where we explore our fears, our aversions, our aggressions. This is normal, and usually cathartic. But we also overcome our baser natures by developing empathy for others, by considering others’ needs and desires as being as important as our own, and by feeling good about doing the right thing and feeling bad about doing the wrong thing. That’s what being good without gods is all about, and it’s not hard.

Robertson’s words amount to little more than words. The argument is, again, absurd, and the most one could accuse of him would be of being tactless and off-putting, were it not for the extreme image he paints, the skewed picture he has of people he doesn’t agree with or understand, the arrogant confidence he has in his own ignorance, the complete lack of self-consciousness he has when he flaps his lips and words come out.

As of this writing, I haven’t seen any counterblast from Robertson or his supporters to the understandable outrage and offense his words have provoked, though I’m certain that’s coming. And it will only add to Robertson’s undeserved image as a free-speech martyr whose only crime is showing us poor sinners the way, the truth and the light.

Update: 03-27-15: Courtesy of Digital Cuttlefish at Freethoughtblogs, word of right-wingers coming to the defense of Phil Robertson’s comments, specifically from Breitbart.com.

I noted the reaction from atheist social media and the atheist blogosphere, but John Nolte at Breitbart has also noted that Liberal Mainstream Media outlets like the Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, the Huffington Post and the Hollywood Reporter have also noticed Robertson’s remarks. Not surprisingly, he refers to the coverage as bigoted attacks on Robertson for being a Southern Christian rather than a pointy-headed coastal liberal, and attempts to salvage explain Robertson’s comments as follows:

It is so obvious what Robertson is doing here it feels silly to have to explain.

Robertson is not “fantasizing” about an atheist family suffering a home invasion. It’s glaringly obvious he is portraying this scenario, not only as terrible, but as the most terrible thing imaginable. He is using an extreme scenario to drive home an important point about right and wrong, and where the notion of moral relativism can ultimately lead.

Robertson is in no way saying atheists deserve this. Quite the opposite. It is horrifying and tragic situation and presented within that context. Robertson is telling a parable, a graphic parable, but still a parable using shock value as a way to bring home a perfectly valid point about a Godless world in which there is no Ten Commandments and by extension no basis to judge right from wrong.

In other words, following a specious argument (Atheists have no basis for morality) with another, completely different and equally specious one (Since atheists can tell right from wrong, and the sense of right and wrong comes from God, atheists aren’t really atheists).

We can’t really let the Ten Commandments remark slide here either, although we note the Abrahamic inclusiveness of referring to a set of laws revered even by Muslims. But the idea that human morality begins with the revelation of the Decalogue, or can’t exist without it, is just horseshit.

Nolte’s comments are not directed primarily against the secular community but the major media and their supposed hatred of Christians like Robertson:

There is no question that many in the media simply hate Christians, especially Southern Christians. Some, though, just don’t seem to understand Christianity and the Southern notion of firebrand preaching. It’s called scaring the Devil out of you, and it’s a tradition as old as John the Baptist.

What the media is doing here is pointing, judging, and laughing at a culture they don’t understand, and don’t want to understand.

I was born in the Midwest but have lived 15  of my adult years in the South, 9 in Los Angeles, 2 in an inner city, and 1 in Florida. Because I’m not a media provincial, because the only American culture I haven’t experienced is the New York/DC provincial bubble, I don’t see Phil Robertson as a freak.  He doesn’t scare me. He’s not unique. He’s just folks.

Umm, no. Firebrand preaching is one thing, but putting emotionally manipulative images in one’s head just to make a point about atheism is another, particularly when that point is a straw-man characterization that convinces no one who is not already convinced. I won’t go so far as to say Robertson’s remarks were abusive or psychological violence, just so we don’t have to deal with charges of politically-correct squeamishness, but most people are capable of making the same point without vicariously waving someone’s severed dick in their face.

Secondly, don’t play that cultural élitist card with me (look! I actually used an accent on the “e”! I must be one too!). You can keep your cooking, your music, your accents, your American-flag bandanas, hell, keep your old-time religion, if you can manage to refrain from forcing it on those who don’t want it. But if your “culture” tells you it’s okay to tell women what to do with their bodies, to force children to pray in schools, to keep science out of classrooms, or to discriminate against people, your “culture” has a problem, and the rest of us, including many who were born, bred and live among you, will keep pointing it out until you get the message.

Additionally, I wouldn’t characterize the media reaction to Robertson’s remarks as pointing, judging and laughing at a culture. It goes beyond that. And it’s not the culture, it’s him. Robertson said something genuinely disturbing here, in the middle of a nice little prayer breakfast, something ripe for armchair psychoanalysis, and Nolte seems to be saying that that’s something normal.

Finally: Phil’s “just folks”? Really?? Most “just folks” are not independently wealthy TV stars who do speaking engagements at CPAC. I think he’s quite capable of being called on the stupidity of his own statements when he says something stupid.

Theistic arguments for beginners: #2 — The argument from faith

NEAFtACDlZr2EB_1_1This argument asserts that the existence of God can be proven through faith. As expressed on the Iron Chariots Wiki, it goes something like this:

1. Faith is a unique method of knowing.

a. Nothing can be known for certain or proven from scratch.

b. Instead we must rely on certain assumptions that we take on faith.

c. Through faith we can know truths that would otherwise be unverified.

2. The existence of God cannot be determined except through faith.

3. I have faith in God.

4. Therefore God exists.

The word faith is thrown around a lot, but it suffers from being imprecisely defined. Depending on the context, faith can mean

  • an implicit trust or confidence in someone or something (“I have faith in the American people”),
  • loyalty (“This soldier has served his country faithfully”),
  • accepting a claim without evidence (“I have faith that God exists”), or as the King James version of the bible puts it, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

Theists may often juggle different meanings of the word within a single conversation.

This version of the argument begins with an assertion that faith is a method of knowing something. Most atheists generally define faith, as it applies to religion, in the third sense above, and so 1 is unlikely to convince them that faith is a method of “knowing” anything.

1-a assumes that nothing can be known for certain, but there are in fact things we can know with at least relative certainty. For instance, one can prove to oneself that one has a mind, or that 2 + 2 = 4, with at least relative certainty of its truth. It is common in theist arguments to make claims for the absolute truth about things, unlike atheists (or, for that matter, scientists), who will generally admit that they do not claim to have absolute certainty about anything. In fact, absolute certainty, by definition, would require omniscience, so the concept is generally meaningless.

But in excluding the concept that we can know things with relative certainty, 1-b divides knowledge into things we can know with absolute certainty and things which we have to take on faith. This ignores the scientific method, which uses empirical evidence gained through observation, experiment, and measurement. We don’t have to have faith in evidence-based medicine in order to be cured of a treatable illness. We don’t have to have faith in the principles of heavier-than-air flight in order for the plane we board to fly. We don’t have to personally know the science behind medicine or airplanes in order to be cured or to fly; we simply need to be aware that the evidence exists and that the treatment, or the design of the plane, is based on that evidence, in order to enjoy the benefits of medicine or flight.

In examining 1-c, the question arises, what truths can be verified through faith that cannot be verified through evidence?, and the only answer seems to be “God”. But because the definition of faith is acceptance of a claim without evidence, faith isn’t a means of verifying anything.

Other problems with this argument include:

  • It doesn’t necessarily prove the existence of the god the apologist has in mind. It can be equally used for any god or gods that humans believe in.
  • A god with the attributes commonly given to him by theists, including omnipotence, ought to be able to manifest to humanity in a clear, distinct, and unambiguous way, instead of relying on the faith of his believers. This would eliminate any questions concerning the existence of a god and resolve any issues regarding his instructions to humanity.
  • If we grant the same level of faith to theists of all stripes, we still see that most of their beliefs contradict each other. We also see that religious people frequently have strong convictions that lead to acts, either of commission or omission, that in turn lead to harmful consequences. Having faith in something, however strongly, does not automatically make that assertion true, or even more credible.

The argument from faith is a circular, self-justifying argument that even the most devout believer ought to be able to see is one of the weakest arguments that could be used to make his case, because it essentially says, if you want to have faith in God, you need to have faith in God. It’s a discussion-stopper, essentially signaling the apologist’s unwillingness to concede an opposing point of view.

Theistic arguments for beginners: #1 – The argument from design

NEAFtACDlZr2EB_1_1A familiarity with common arguments for the existence of gods is part of any atheist’s intellectual toolkit, and lately I’ve been trying to brush up on these arguments. In what I hope will be a series of posts, the arguments we’ll be looking at have been repeatedly examined, and refuted, by any number of professional philosophers, and what I present here are basic summaries of the arguments and their flaws (We’ll soon be moving these pieces onto a page of their own on this site for future reference).  But first, a few words, by way of introduction:

Atheism is defined, not as a knowledge position (“there are no gods”), but as a belief position (“I do not believe in gods”), which is to say that atheists reject claims for the existence of gods as irresolvable or unknowable (“there is no way available to us to confirm the claims you as a theist are making”), or as self-refuting (“it is logically impossible that a being such as you are proposing can exist”). An example of the first case would be a general claim for the existence of a single supernatural entity who created our universe, and an example of the second would be a claim for the existence of a supernatural entity such as the one defined in Biblical texts and the dogma based on those texts (a perfect being, which by definition would have no deficiencies and need nothing, but which nevertheless needs to be worshiped; an omniscient being capable of choice; or an all-powerful and all-loving entity that nevertheless consigns some of its creation to mass extinction or to eternal agony because of finite offenses).

In other words, atheists reject theistic claims, and they do so for three reasons:

Faulty definitions (such as those I’ve just mentioned): The difficulty of defining what a divine being is is where the problems start, because if you propose divine entity X that has attributes a, b, c, and d, you must provide valid justification for each of those attributes, and the more attributes you add, the more you have to justify, and the more likely your arguments will be refuted. On the other hand, if you avoid defining your god as much as possible and say that your god defies definition, is non-physical or “science can’t touch it”, you give others even less reason to accept your claim and also decrease any practical relevance your beliefs may have.

Flawed reasoning (such as we will be examining in arguments such as the argument from design, the ontological argument, the argument from degree, and so on): In addition to the faulty definitions and internal fallacies in the arguments themselves, logical arguments for the existence of divine beings are inherently flawed because they attempt to use logic alone to prove an existence claim, which leads to the third reason atheists reject theistic claims:

Lack of evidence: Only evidence can prove an existence claim. This is true in science, and it’s true for claims for the existence of gods. Many theists don’t bother with making logical arguments in order to justify them to themselves; they are content to regard their beliefs as personal and to tolerate other views. But when attempting to pressure others who may not believe as they do to conform to their beliefs, they take on a burden to justify such beliefs in a consistent and rational way, and one of the burdens they take up is the burden of proof that their god exists, which requires evidence.

So one doesn’t necessarily make the case for atheism simply by refuting arguments such as the ones we’ll be looking at, but people still make these arguments, and it’s helpful to know the arguments and why they don’t justify what they are trying to justify.  And now:

The argument from design

One of the most used arguments for the existence of a god, it is also one of the weakest. It runs basically as follows:

1. We appear to observe features in nature too complex to have occurred by chance.

2. These features show the hallmark appearance of design.

3. Design implies that there must be a designer.

4. Therefore nature must have had an intelligent designer.

5. This intelligent designer is God.

The first and most obvious flaws are found in the first premise: the idea that nature has features that are too complex to have occurred by chance. There are actually two errors here: first, that complexity of features cannot be explained by natural processes, which is an argument from ignorance (that is, we are excluding a possible correct explanation because we cannot yet furnish conclusive evidence for that explanation, and reach for the other explanation instead), and second, that natural processes are based on chance (which is a misunderstanding of how natural processes work: a “straw man” argument).

The second premise introduces the concept of design into the mix. But what is design, and if it is applicable to the argument, then how? To answer this question, we need to determine the definition of design and how humans recognize it.

Our real-world knowledge and experience of design is of people making things out of pre-existing materials, and our means of recognizing design comes from comparison to both human-made and naturally occurring objects. Both human artifacts and features of nature can, as the case may be, be simple or complex, beautiful or not, suited to a specific purpose or not. But a stone tool can be proven, through evidence, to have been made by humans, from pre-existing matter, with a specific intention in mind.

Humans have the ability to infer the possible intentions of others: we can run away from an angry lion because he might want to eat us, or we can refrain from running away from a friendly stranger because he may wish to help us. This is a cognitive bias hard-wired into our brains that serves as an important survival tool. But this skill is not always reliable in all situations and we can be apt to overgeneralize, as, for instance, when attempting to infer intention from the appearance of naturally-occurring objects: we cannot logically infer divine intention through examining features of nature.

Consider a species of tropical bird, the male of which has more colorful plumage than the female. As is the case with many species of birds, we observe that male birds with the most colorful plumage attract the most females and are therefore more likely to reproduce than males with duller plumage. The argument from design would have it that these birds’ plumage was designed for the purpose of attracting females. We can agree from observation that the female birds certainly do prefer the more colorful males, but we can’t logically conclude that the coloring was specifically designed to fulfill that, or really, any particular function.

There is also an unstated premise in the argument: the two explicit choices in the argument—features that are designed versus features that are not—exclude the possibility of self-design in organisms and systems. This premise is false, as self-design is possible and real and is the subject of evolutionary biology, which can be summarized as an algorithmic description of self-design by species and systems through adaptation and natural selection.

Finally, the conclusion of the argument is self-refuting. Beginning by arguing that there are features of nature too complex to have come about by chance (ignoring the straw man comparison here for the sake of the argument), the argument ends by invoking an intelligent designer. In other words, the argument asserts that complex features coming about through natural processes is so improbable that an infinitely complex (and by the terms of the argument, an infinitely improbable) deity is needed.

banana-71718The banana argument: A recent use of the argument from design comes from Christian evangelist/apologist Ray Comfort in an episode of his video series The Way of The Master. In the episode entitled “The Beauty of a Broken Spirit—Atheism”, Comfort shows a banana, calling it “the atheist’s nightmare.” Noting various features of the banana (curved and ridged to fit the hand, easy to peel, fits easily in the mouth, chewy, easy to digest), he argues that the banana “testifies to the genius of God’s creation.” What undermines the banana argument is not only the problems discussed above but also the fact that the banana we eat is the product of centuries of human domestication and cultivation: wild bananas have a different shape, have large seeds, and are on the whole not as easy or as pleasant to eat as the domesticated bananas we buy at the grocery store.

Finally, even if all the premises were accepted as true, as with so many of these arguments, the argument from design does not demonstrate that the god is the one the apologist has in mind, or whether the creator is actually a god or god-like. In fact, the intelligent design movement bases its mission on the syllogism above, only omitting the final conclusion calling the intelligent designer “God”, in a blatantly dishonest attempt to appear less like a religious argument.

Fred Phelps (1929-2014)

Fred_Phelps_10-29-2002The Reverend Fred Phelps, Sr., founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, died shortly after midnight this morning, said daughter Margie Phelps.  No cause was given for his death.

With his church’s website www.godhatesfags.com, and their protests of funerals of celebrities and military personnel, Phelps and his congregation, which consisted mainly of his extended family, provoked virtually everyone with his message that America was doomed because of its acceptance of LGBT people, and the often cruel, mocking tone of the protests.  When Matthew Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming student was beaten to death because of his sexual orientation, WBC members, showed up to protest, an act of audacity that put them on the map.  But when evangelist Jerry Falwell died in 2007, members of the WBC also protested his funeral.

An Eagle Scout who graduated school at 16 and was accepted by the US military academy at West Point, Phelps instead turned to preaching after a Methodist revival.  He did nevertheless obtain a degree in law at Washburn University in Topeka, after a checkered education that led him to stints at Bob Jones University and John Muir College.  Ironically, according to Wikipedia, his Phelps Chartered law firm was known for taking on civil rights cases, leading to awards in the eighties from the Greater Kansas City Chapter of Blacks In Government and the Bonner Springs chapter of the NAACP.  In fact, although there are no black members of WBC, the church explicitly disavows racist views, reportedly saying on its FAQ page, “The only true Nazis in this world are fags.”

Phelps was disbarred from practicing law in the state of Kansas in 1979, and agreed to stop practicing in Federal courts in 1985.  A number of members of his children practice law, the proceeds from lawsuits contributing to the WBC’s funding.

At least 20 members of the WBC have publicly broken with the church, many of them, including atheist Nate Phelps, alleging brainwashing, physical and emotional abuse within the Phelps family.

Fred’s position in the church in recent years has been none too clear; he was reportedly excommunicated from the church in 2013, the year in which he preached his last weekly sermon at the church, with other members of the Phelps extended family stepping in over the past decade in the group’s activities.

The WBC and the Phelps family has alienated just about everyone, from gays and non-Christians to other figures and forces on the Religious Right.  We heard about Fred’s death on our private Facebook account, from the feed of American Atheists, who, to their credit, did not for one second gloat or delight in the death of Phelps, nor should anyone.  Their own tendency to throw tragedy in the face of almost anyone who was not in their inner circle is condemnation enough.

 

Answers to Nye-Ham debate attendees’ questions

Bill Nye in debate with Ken Ham at the Creation MuseumYou probably heard about the debate between science educator Bill Nye and creationist Ken Ham that took place at the Creation Museum in Kentucky earlier this month.  I didn’t watch the debate, but did follow some of the commentary about it in the atheist blogosphere and on my atheist podcasts; it seems as though not too many atheists thought it was a good move on Nye’s part, though the consensus seems to be that Nye quite adequately held his own.  What actually interested me was the internet meme that came about after the debate.  A number of attendees were given pads of paper and markers and had their pictures taken with questions for those who accept evolution.

Most of these questions turned out to be standard creationist talking points, and it’s a matter of opinion whether they were offered honestly or were just little attempts at zinging “evolutionists”.  But all of these questions (at least the ones that are coherently put or actually have something to do with science) are answerable, and the beauty is that you don’t have to be a scientist to answer them.  And people on the interwebs everywhere are answering them.  Some of them are snarky, others not (atheists on the internet are not immune from that sort of anonymous flaming behavior, I’m finding out).  It’s clear that since this happened after the debate was over and not before it began that none of these people had their minds changed by the debate (least of all Ken Ham himself), but these people are nevertheless putting their questions out and deserve an answer.  And it’s an interesting exercise to put in one’s own two cents and try to answer some of these oneself.

Buzzfeed showed twenty-two people with questions: I’m not going to deal with every last one, but the ones I will answer are going to get honest and non-condescending responses.  So let’s get going.

enhanced-15285-1391576908-9If we came from monkeys then why are there still monkeys?  Humans don’t come from monkeys.  Rather, modern humans and modern monkeys, are two branches of the primate family, and share a common ancestor, now extinct.  Evolution isn’t a ladder, but a tree.  When the environment changes, or when a group of animals of a certain species moves to a different environment, different pressures lead to different changes in what genetic mutations are selected through reproductive success.  For example, our closest relatives are the chimpanzees and the bonobos.  We share a common ancestor, which branched off into three different paths that led to humans, bonobos and chimps.  By this reasoning, can ask “If many Americans are descended from Europeans, why are there still Europeans around?”

enhanced-14977-1391576919-1Because science by definition is a “theory”–not testable, observable, nor repeatable, why do you object to creationism or intelligent design being taught in school?  First off, science is not a “theory”, but, in the words of my favorite YouTube atheist, QualiaSoup, the “systematic acquisition and application of knowledge about the structure and behavior of the physical universe gained via empirical evidence through observation, measurement and experimentation.”  Theory is part of the scientific method and is defined as a set of statements or principles devised to explain and predict observable phenomena.  Far from being “not testable, observable or repeatable”, that is precisely what scientific theory is for.  Scientists begin by developing testable conjectures called hypotheses, which are then tested, and tested again, and if the hypothesis survives the tests, then we call it a theory.  If new data comes to light that falsifies the theory, that is, proves the theory wrong, then it’s back to the drawing board and a new theory that fits all the data is devised.  Creationism/intelligent design doesn’t meet the rigorous standards of the scientific method; it can’t be used as an explanation for observable phenomena, can’t predict observable phenomena, and as a result, is inappropriate to be taught in school as science.  And on a related note…

enhanced-30391-1391576914-1If evolution is a theory (like creationism or the Bible), then why is evolution taught as fact?  For the bulk of the answer, see above.  But again, creationism is not a theory, because it can’t account for observed phenomena, can’t predict new observed phenomena, and can’t be falsified.  And the Bible is not theory either: it’s an anthology of writings by various authors, mostly unknown, concerning various peoples and events taking place two to four thousand years ago.

enhanced-19479-1391576850-9Is it completely illogical that the earth was created mature (i.e. trees created with rings, Adam created as an adult)?  Well, yes.  But mostly, we can’t credit the idea since there is no evidence that the earth was created mature and plenty of evidence that it wasn’t.  Since humans begin as babies and grow into adults, and trees add rings as they grow, is it logical to assume that the first human was created adult, or that the first tree already had rings to begin with?

enhanced-27763-1391576934-13

Relating to the Big Bang theory… where did the exploding star come from?  There was no “exploding star”: the Big Bang began as a “singularity”: a period of infinite density and temperature that suddenly began to expand and cool.  The first stars began to appear some time after the expansion and cooling of the universe: about 100 million years after the expansion and cooling began.  That had to wait for the formation of hydrogen nuclei (between 1 microsecond and one millisecond into the Big Bang) and helium nuclei (between 3 and 20 minutes into the BB), and for those nuclei to capture electrons in order to form stable atoms (379,000 years into the BB).

Science can look back to about 1 Planck time (the shortest theoretically observable interval of time: about 10-43 seconds) after the Big Bang; before that the picture grows dim.  The Big Bang Theory is not a theory about the creation of the universe but an explanation of observed evidence that the universe is expanding and cooling.  Read more about it here.

enhanced-28374-1391576852-17Does not the Second Law of Thermodynamics disprove evolution?  No, it doesn’t.  I quote from the Talk.origins archive:

The second law of thermodynamics says, “No process is possible in which the sole result is the transfer of energy from a cooler to a hotter body.” [Atkins, 1984, The Second Law, pg. 25] Now you may be scratching your head wondering what this has to do with evolution. The confusion arises when the 2nd law is phrased in another equivalent way, “The entropy of a closed system cannot decrease.” Entropy is an indication of unusable energy and often (but not always!) corresponds to intuitive notions of disorder or randomness. Creationists thus misinterpret the 2nd law to say that things invariably progress from order to disorder.

The first problem with this assertion is that the earth is not a closed system: it receives more than enough energy from the sun and also radiates heat.  The second problem is that while entropy and disorder can correspond with each other, they are not the same thing.  Sometimes order can increase as entropy increases.  And a third is that low entropy in one part of a closed system can be offset by pockets of increased entropy elsewhere in the system.  But the main takeaway here is that the earth is not a closed system, so the second law of thermodynamics is irrelevant.  All that is needed for evolution to happen is reproduction, variations that can be inherited, and selection.  All of these things happen all the time, so clearly no physical laws are being broken.

enhanced-14517-1391576929-9Can you believe in “the big bang” without “faith”?  The Big Bang Theory is a scientific explanation of the empirical observation that the universe is expanding and cooling and is based on evidence, just as evolutionary theory is based on evidence.  Faith is the acceptance of a truth claim without evidence, or, as Dr. Peter Boghossian puts it, “pretending to know things you don’t know.”

There would be no reason to accept the Big Bang or any other theory as true, if there weren’t any evidence to back it up.  That’s why they’re called theories.

enhanced-27109-1391576856-1

How do you explain a sunset if there is no God?  Easy.  As the earth turns on its axis, the position of the sun in the sky appears to change, moving from the east in the morning towards the west in the evening.  Early hypotheses that the earth remains stationary in the universe while the sun, the planets and the stars move around it have been thoroughly discredited, as has the hypothesis that the sun is a glowing chariot drawn by flying horses through the sky every day.

The light of the sun is composed of a spectrum of colors running from red and orange at one end to blue and violet at the other.  As the light enters the earth’s atmosphere, it is scattered by the atmosphere and the particles floating in it.  At midday, when the sun’s rays have a direct shot to the observer, the sky appears blue because the molecules of the air are close to the size of the wavelength of blue and violet (and also because human eyes are more sensitive to blue than to violet–otherwise we would perceive the sky as violet), but at the same time, the sun is also beaming its rays at a more oblique angle which takes it through more atmosphere, causing more scattering of the various colors, leaving yellows, oranges, and reds.  So if the sky in the afternoon appears blue to an observer in the Rockies, the sky appears more orange and red to an observer in the Appalachians.

sunsetdiagramNEWSo, science can explain a sunset, but it can also explain our perception of it as beautiful, which I suppose was what this questioner had in mind: what is often called “the argument from beauty”.  The fact is that our aesthetic responses have evolved along with us, just as our ability to reason, to invent, to love and to laugh have evolved with us.  Christopher Hitchens tells the story in his book God Is Not Great of a teacher who tells her pupils that God made the grass and trees green, since that is the most restful to our eyes, and how awful it would be if the grass and trees were purple or yellow.  No, there is no reason that God made the sunset beautiful just to please us, and every reason to believe that our perceiving things as beautiful has to do with evolutionary psychology and neurological processing.  And understanding those completely not-Godly processes doesn’t take away the pleasure of a sunset one bit (though I’ve always preferred sunrises myself).

enhanced-17067-1391576868-1What about noetics?  What about noetics?

In philosophy, noetic philosophy is philosophy concerning mind, intellect, or consciousness (Gr. noetikos, mental from nous, mind), and is usually referred to as theory of or philosophy of mind.  There is also a bogus discipline called “noetic sciences” defined as an exploration of how the inner mind affects the physical world.

Neither of these have anything to do with creationism or evolution.

enhanced-19270-1391576914-1There is no in-between… the only one found has been Lucy and there are only a few pieces of the hundreds necessary for an “official proof”.  Another questioner asks a similar question:  Why have we found only 1 “Lucy”, when we have found more than 1 of everything else?  Both these folks are talking about the fossil remains of a 25-year-old female of the extinct species Australopithecus afarensis, found in Hadar, Ethiopia in 1974.  Since then other specimens of afarensis have been found, enough for us to know that they lived about 3-4 million years ago, that they were at least partly, if not entirely bipedal and walked on the ground, that they had skulls similar to modern chimpanzees but with human-like teeth, and that they used stone implements at least part of the time.  It’s simply false that there is only one specimen of afarensis and that it was simply an ape.

enhanced-16553-1391576896-6If God did not create everything, how did the first single-celled organism originate?  By chance?  This question refers to a body of scientific theory called abiogenesis, which is the study of how life first formed.  Abiogenesis is only tangentially connected with evolutionary science, which does not study the origins of biological life, but with the origins of biodiversity.

It’s a common chestnut among creationists that the odds that the first living organism could have come into being by chance is so astronomically improbable as to be an argument for creation.  What they are usually arguing for is the spontaneous formation of a single-celled organism that we can recognize easily as a living thing, while not realizing that evolution applies in this scenario as well, in dividing the progress from non-living molecules into a living cell in manageable steps, and according to natural laws.  First simple chemicals, then more complex molecules, then self-replicating molecules, and so on and so forth until you get proteins, enzymes, and RNA and DNA.  I am not a biochemist, but you’ll find some simple breakdowns of abiogenesis here and here.

Well, that seems like a representative sampling of the questions posed by the people here, and although I got a little snarky there for a bit, for the most part I did what I set out to do, to take these questioners at their word and not condescend or poke fun, so let’s end here with this question:

enhanced-30002-1391576851-1Are you scared of a Divine Creator?  Well, no.  And this comes pretty close to being offensive, not only to non-believers who support science, but also believers who support science as well.

One assumption here is that evolution has as its goal the disproving of a supernatural creator.  Evolution is simply a line of inquiry into the origins of biodiversity that follows the evidence wherever it leads.  If it bumps into the beliefs of certain people that a supernatural creator created life in such-and-such a way, that’s not evolution’s problem.  That’s the problem of the people holding the beliefs.

The other assumption is that evolution supporters are afraid of a god or are in denial about it.  That’s a false assumption as well.  I can’t be scared of something that has no evidence for its existence.  If you think a god exists, and you have evidence to support it, I will change my mind.  There is evidence to support evolution, there is no evidence to support a creator god.  That’s pretty much it.  And when asked what would change the debater’s minds concerning evolution, Bill Nye said evidence, one piece of evidence would change his mind.  Ken Ham, nothing.  That’s how science works, and that’s how creationism doesn’t.

SCOTUS to hear cases on “religious freedom” of businesses to refuse contraception coverage

Plaquettes_de_piluleThe US Supreme Court agreed on November 26 to hear arguments involving the “religious freedom” of businesses concerning coverage of certain forms of contraception under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), according to Robert Barnes at the Washington Post.

Hobby Lobby, a retail arts-and-crafts chain based in Oklahoma City that has 500 stores and employs over 13,000 people, is run according to Biblical principles, according to founder-owner David Green.  Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Pennsylvania cabinetry company that employs some 950 people, is owned by a Mennonite family.  Both businesses refused to cover certain forms of contraceptive care, which is one of the benefits mandated by the ACA.  Fines are to be levied from businesses that refuse to comply with the act.

In the two cases, federal circuit courts went different ways, in divided opinions.  “The full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver said forcing the company to comply with the contraceptive mandate would violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 law providing special protections for religious expression,” said Barnes in the WaPo.  It also relied on (and this is what is giving me the willies) the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which said that corporations have the same right to political expression as individuals.  WaPo again: “‘We see no reason the Supreme Court would recognize constitutional protection for a corporation’s political expression but not its religious expression,” Judge Timothy Tymkovich wrote for the majority.”

Meanwhile, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia went the other way and said that Conestoga must comply with the mandate.  It noted the decision of the 10th Circuit but also noted the absence of case law regarding the issue. “Even if we were to disregard the lack of historical recognition of the right, we simply cannot understand how a for-profit, secular corporation — apart from its owners — can exercise religion,” wrote Circuit Court Judge Robert E. Cowen.  Funny, I was thinking that too.

At issue for both businesses are forms of contraception that prevent fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus, which includes the emergency contraceptives Plan B and Ella, while Hobby Lobby also objects to the intrauterine device (IUD).  The business have raised no objections to other forms of contraception, but consider the above devices to be “abortifacients”.  A brief filed by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists disputed this assertion, citing that “abortifacient” has a precise meaning and does not mean something that prevents fertilization or prevents implantation of a fertilized egg.  A counterbrief filed by a group of anti-abortion OB-GYNs and the Catholic Medical Association called this a “non-response”, saying that “Such drugs might not end a ‘pregnancy’ . . . but it does end the life of a unique human being.”

I detect the hint of a bait-and-switch in that last comment, but let’s go back to the idea that Hobby Lobby and Conestoga’s management are in some way morally culpable for what their employees do with their compensation packages, particularly when what they are doing is accessing services that are legal, peer-reviewed by the profession, and approved by a government regulatory body whose job is to review the safety and effectiveness of a drug or medical procedure.  Unless I’m mistaken, people get health-care services, which are paid for by the insurance provider, using funds supplied from premiums that are deducted from the patient’s wage or salary.  The same premiums that might pay for contraception might also go to setting a broken arm, stitching a cut, or chemotherapy.  If a business-owner is justified in withholding his employees’ premiums on the off-chance that it may go to contraception, he is also justified in withholding part of their cash compensation if he suspects that it may go to the purchase of a twelve-pack of beer and a sexy magazine every week.  More to the point, as many have already mentioned, it also opens the door to employers’ possible conscientious objections to vaccinations or blood transfusions, to name just two.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, two-thirds of sexually-active women who use contraception correctly and consistently account for five percent of unintended pregnancies, while the remaining third who use contraception inconsistently or not at all account for the remaining ninety-five percent of unintended pregnancies.  Also the rate of unintended pregnancies is five times higher among low income women compared to higher income women.  The IUD, which Hobby Lobby object to as an “abortifacient”, is one of the most effective and, in the long run, cost-effective, methods of contraception available, but it does have substantial initial costs which often put it out of the reach of low-income women.  The birth-control pill is another highly effective method, but it can cost upwards of sixty dollars a month: that’s just for the pills, not the doctor visits and other associated costs.

The whole point of health-care reform was not only to make health-care affordable and accessible but also to remove arbitrary obstacles from patient choice and the relationship between physician and patient.  And the whole point of the contraceptive-care mandate is that it’s preventative care, designed to avoid worse problems down the road; not just unintended pregnancy and its effects on education, employment, relationships and families, but also all the physical complications that can arise from pregnancy, complications that have the potential to affect a woman’s life-long heath or even to end her life.  These aren’t, or shouldn’t be, partisan issues.  What the practical effect of Hobby Lobby being supported by the Supremes would be is that while we’ve been trying to eliminate the insurance industry as a middle-man in decisions regarding such things as pre-existing conditions, we seem poised to insert the employer in the insurance industry’s place with regard to sexual and reproductive health.  It doesn’t matter that the owners of Hobby Lobby do allow coverage for such methods as sterilization and condoms, since the point is patient choice.  Make no mistake, if the court finds for the employer, there will be unintended pregnancies, and therefore abortions, that could have been avoided if certain employers didn’t make the arrogant claim that they are equal partners in their employees’ family-planning decisions.  And it preserves the unequal playing field that health-care reform was intended to remedy.  Access to comprehensive contraceptive care would depend on who you work for, based on their religious opinions.

An opinion that is misinformed or uninformed to begin with gains no validity if it’s called a “religious conviction”, nor should it expect any more respect than any other opinion.

The court is expected to deliver its rulings in March.