Sunday, February 27, 2011

Flimsy Anecdotes on Big Questions

Dan Chiasson, "Father and Son"

Only much later did they see, the two of them,
that, never knowing one another, there was nothing

not to know; that not being to begin with meant
those later, more drastic negations negated nothing;

this was to be the poignant part of it. The nothing
nevertheless would someday end; and the wish --

he wished it in a priory, he wished it in a mall --
was that the ending to this nothing might be,

if not an event, at least a non-event.
Which, in the end, when it happened, it wasn't.

I present this poem because it is a lovely and poignant distillation of a believable interaction -- believable, I suggest, because it's a fair approximation of the nullity that exists where a relationship with my father might be. I mention that fraught relationship, in turn, because it explains my atheism, or so say the armchair-psychological proclamations of Jim Spiegel:

External factors may also hamper the natural awareness of God and contribute to a descent into atheism. In [some book Jim Spiegel found convincing, the author], a onetime atheist, examines the lives of the major atheists of the modern period, including Hobbes, Hume, Voltaire, Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, Russell, and Freud. He found they had something in common: a broken relationship with their father. Whether by death, departure, abuse, or some other factor, the father relationships of all these well-known atheists were defective.
My paltry effort at extending Spiegel's name-dropping campaign is to paraphrase Christopher Hitchens's maxim: that which can be flimsily established with weak anecdotal evidence can be flimsily refuted with anecdotal evidence. So here goes a little of that.

My most religious sister is actually a half-sister, and she can boast a "broken relationship" with not one but two fathers. So maybe the even-numbered troubled paternal relationships drive a person to god-belief? I confess I am not familiar enough with the mechanisms of Jim Spiegel's favorite author's half-assed armchair musings to give a judgment on it, but Jim Spiegel and I agree (for purposes of this tedious digression): scattered anecdotes are the rightful foundation of all truth claims.

And yet, beyond that digression and back to reality, we do not agree. Anecdotes, even when joined with confident assertions, prove nothing. In particular, chatter about the psychology of individual believers and nonbelievers does nothing to settle the question of god's existence. The proof of god's existence stands or falls on the presentation of evidence -- the same kinds of evidence that establish the existence or non-existence of anything else -- and to date, that evidence suggests god is imaginary.

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