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Susan Blackmore and God

July 30th, 2013

Susan Blackmore and God

Last post I looked at how UK psychologist, Susan Blackmore, has changed her previous view that religion is like a virus of the mind, in contrast to some other high profile atheists, but in accordance with the evidence.

She also had some interesting (to me, at any rate) thoughts about God.

Susan Blackmore and God

Susan is an atheist, so you’d expect her to make negative statements about God’s existence. But some of her statements seem a little hard to defend.

A scientific statement?

Sometimes, in the middle of a scientific discussion of factual matters, she throws in a statement about God that seems to be presented as equally a matter of fact:

  • “Belief in God is certainly a delusion” (November 2007)
  • “I wish that some Christians or Mus­lims or whatever would be a bit more honest and say: ‘Giv­en that the idea of God doesn’t make sense'” (October 2010)
  • “All kinds of infectious memes thrive in religions, in spite of being false, such as the idea of a creator god” (2002)
  • “Free Will Is An Illusion (like God)” (June 2009)
  • “Why would anybody believe this stuff? Isn’t it ridiculous? When we look around us at the way the world works, think clearly and rationally, this idea is senseless.” (February 2006)

Perhaps this is just her way of saying she doesn’t believe in God, but it sounds as if she is making God’s non-existence a factual, even scientific statement. But where is the scientific study to demonstrate that? How could you ever go about designing such a study?

Common misunderstandings

In common with many sceptics, Susan rejects what she indicates are aspects of christian belief, which seem to me to be more figments of atheist imaginations:

  • “This is how science (unlike religion) works: in the end it’s the data that counts.” (September 2010)
  • “…. the faith you get in religion, which says al­most ‘It’s good to believe something without evidence.'” (2010)
  • “Doesn’t being a Christian mean actually believing that [the Bible] was written by God” (2010)

This is a lot trickier question. Certainly christians value faith, but christianity is very much a historical religion. The Buddha’s teachings stand even if he didn’t exist, but if Jesus didn’t exist in history, die and be resurrected, christians since Paul have always believed that their faith would be worthless.

So christians value historical and experiential evidence of God’s work in the world, in Jesus and in the present day. So christianity is not just about faith, but about facts too. The difference between ‘good’ atheists and ‘good’ christians is not the importance of evidence, but whether the evidence we have is sufficient to believe.

Reasons to disbelieve?

Susan often refers to the suffering in the world as a reason to disbelieve. This is certainly a strong argument against God (see How can God allow evil?). But other arguments seem naive – for example, that somehow evolution makes it silly to believe in God (see Evolution and God).

It is interesting that, in common with most sceptics I have come across, she thinks it reasonable to use the argument from suffering to condemn God-belief, yet happy to put aside the difficulty of explaining the origin of the universe without God. It seems to me that both arguments are similar – they cannot be proven logically, but they both make persuasive arguments, in opposite directions.

I believe it is more logical to allow both arguments, and others like them, to be persuasive without explaining them away – and then assess the balance of the various arguments. When that is done, I believe belief in God has more in its favour than against it.

Susan Blackmore and logic

I find Susan to be a very interesting person, who would be fun to spend time with on a long plane trip. But I feel there is a lack of logic in her approach to God-belief.

If demonstrable factual evidence is required for us to know things, how can she be so sure that God doesn’t exist? And if christians are to be criticised for believing on less that verifiable evidence, her statements should be similarly criticised.

But I suggest her statements show that even she knows that scientific evidence is only useful to establish some types of knowledge. Most things we “know” are based on evidence of a different kind, as discussed in Truth, proof and certainty and also in Is there no evidence for God?

Faith is not the opposite of reason

Picture: Wikipedia and Wikipedia – digital mischief by unkleE.

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