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Materialism and Naturalism are Myths.

At least according to Anthony DeStefano, that is. A self-proclaimed authority in Christian spirituality and writer of a book called The Invisible World: Understanding Angels, Demons and the Spiritual Realities that Surround Us.

If there is one thing that must be credited to the New Atheists, it is that they have managed to inspire a lot of religious folk to take a new approach to writing or speaking in defense of their faith. It has forced them to think a bit deeper before they write or say anything, but since their logical reasoning has already been distorted by faith this often results in hilarious mental gymnastics. As amusing as these logical pirouettes often are, few of them have raised the bar to stratospheric new heights as a recent piece by DeStefano in USA Today, called How Easter and Christianity undermine atheism. In relatively few lines, DeStefano manages to pinpoint in vivid detail just what is it that prevents a good portion of the faithful to think clearly about reality: they are ignorant and they are proud of it.

First, DeStefano expresses his concerns that “those who believe in nothing”, a common euphemism for atheism, are gaining new adherents every year. While atheism is often depicted by religious apologists and the public at large as the “belief in nothing”, that is a far cry from what atheism really is. It is not true that we atheists “believe in nothing”, we believe in a lot of things, actually. We just happen to appreciate one simple concept that the faithful appear to either disdain or define in a strange way: evidence. And in the case of gods, angels, demons, and every other supernatural phenomena, there simply is no evidence to warrant belief in them. On the other hand, there have been extensive studies performed on these phenomena that demonstrate that there are rational, natural explanations for them. But in an ironic twist of events, DeStefano thinks that to hold this approach towards discovering reality amounts to deluding ourselves with myths and superstitions. He writes:

Of course, it’s not quite fair to say that atheists believe in nothing. They do believe in something — the philosophical theory known as Materialism, which states that the only thing that exists is matter; that all substances and all phenomena in the universe are purely physical.

The problem is that this really isn’t a theory at all. It’s a superstition; a myth that basically says that everything in life — our thoughts, our emotions, our hopes, our ambitions, our passions, our memories, our philosophies, our politics, our beliefs in God and salvation and damnation — that all of this is merely the result of biochemical reactions and the movement of molecules in our brain.

What nonsense.

My grandfather used to have a saying: “The problem is not that he is ignorant, but that he flaunts his ignorance in public”. I think it would be hard to come up with a more accurate description of DeStefano. According to him, myths and superstitions are all those things that do not agree with his magical conception of the Universe. I wonder what term he uses when he speaks of Prometheus or the inconveniences of spotting black cats. My money is on “spiritual realities”.

Our brains, as powerful as they are, did not evolve to figure out the innermost workings of the Universe. They evolved over millions of years as a powerful and effective tool in the survival of the individuals that possessed them. They were not designed by natural selection to discover quantum mechanics, to figure out our origins, to philosophize about the true nature of reality, to write poetry, to invent computers or to build rockets to fly us to the moon. They were built by evolution to aid us in performing the tasks that were essential to our survival like hunting, gathering, nurturing and social living. This, however, does not undermine the fact that we do engage in science, engineering and the arts and that all of these things are quite remarkable feats worthy of awe and admiration. It does not mean, however, that we should just stop there and let the sense of awe and admiration overcome us. That is exactly what our ancestors did for thousands of years, and it led to completely wrong explanations, not only of natural phenomena like rain, thunder and the seasons, but of humanity. It was thought that diseases were caused by evil spirits and mental illness was a product of demonic possession, for example. These beliefs, based on the same embracement of “spiritual realities” that DeStefano proudly promotes, led to huge amounts of suffering and misery for millions of human beings. Many completely innocent but mentally ill men and women were burned alive at the stake for being suspects of witchcraft. These were not Neanderthals, these were pious believers in the “spiritual realities” of Christ’s church that were igniting the flames. It was only when we moved further and further away from this mentality that the real causes of things began to be uncovered. It is worth mentioning that theists like DeStefano, turn blind to the fact that while this was taking place over the span of several hundred thousands of years, their god was sitting in his throne watching the misery and the suffering ensue. The omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent god of Christianity found it important to “reveal” to us that a woman who is menstruating is unclean but said nothing about germs, medical procedures or how to prevent fatal diseases by simply washing one’s hands after wiping.

DeStefano’s explanation of why atheists are deluded by myth and superstition goes on:

We can’t reduce the whole of reality to what our senses tell us for the simple reason that our senses are notorious for lying to us. Our senses tell us that the world is flat, and yet it’s not. Our senses tell us that the world is chaotic, and yet we know that on both a micro and a macro level, it’s incredibly organized. Our senses tell us that we’re stationary, and yet we’re really moving at incredible speeds. We just can’t see it.

While this is true, it is only true in a narrow and incomplete sense. Our senses are indeed unreliable when it comes to interpret the Universe in a deeper sense than the one we need to survive. As I said earlier, our senses evolved -just like those of every other animal- as useful artifacts for surviving, not as a toolkit to figure out the shape of the Earth, the organization of the Universe, or celestial mechanics. But even if that is the case, our senses and our reason capabilities have proved to be very useful in those tasks as well. Oh yes, because that is a fact that DeStefano leaves out: our senses, by themselves, give us nothing really useful for our science or our philosophy; what gives them their value is the brain that interprets them.

Take Eratosthenes of Cyrene, for example. Using only his senses and his knowledge of Euclidean geometry he managed to figure out that the Earth was not flat, but spherical; and calculated the length of its circumference with a margin of error of less than 2%. This was almost 2300 years ago. Carl Sagan gives a clear and brilliant explanation of Eratosthenes’ logic and methods in the first episode of his wonderful Cosmos series. Another great example is that of Aristarchus of Samos, who interpreted the same observations that everyone else before him had access to and came to a different conclusion about the mechanics of the solar system. Pretty much everyone thought that all celestial objects revolved around the Earth, as it sat still in the center of the Universe. Aristarchus, on the other hand, had trouble reconciling the mathematics with the observations. Exactly how he reached his heliocentric model is unknown. On the only book of his that is still preserved, On the Sizes and Distances of the Sun and Moon, he accurately calculates the size of the Moon and its distance from Earth. He also attempts to estimate the size of the Sun and how far from Earth it is, although incorrectly. He thought that the Sun was about 20 times further from Earth than the Moon, and about 300 times bigger. The reality is that it is 400 times further and 1.3 million times bigger. These gross inaccuracies were due to poor observation and faulty measurements, but his logic and his mathematics were incredibly sound. Judging from this, it is believed that when Aristarchus realized that the Sun was so much larger than the Earth, he had difficulties reconciling it with a geocentric model. After looking at other options, he realized that a heliocentric model provided a simpler mathematical explanation of the observations and was therefore, more likely to be correct. Aristarchus was right. And the rest of humanity would have caught up with him sooner had his work not been lost in the burning of the Library of Alexandria by pious Christians, presumably aware of the “spiritual realities” that DeStefano talks about.

Aristarchus' notebook

As these two examples show, sometimes our senses are receiving the right information but we are unable to do the required logical reasoning to interpret it correctly. In fact, history is filled with similar accounts like those of Democritus, Kepler and Darwin, for example. The problem is not that our senses are lying to us, but rather that we are too lazy or too ignorant to figure out that the truth is often more complex than it seems and requires intellectual work on our behalf to arrive at it. There are other instances, though, in which our senses do deceive us. Look at the below picture, for example:

Which square is darker? A or B? Upon a first glance, it seems obvious that A is much darker. However, they are exactly the same color. If you do not believe this, then open the image with Photoshop or any similar image editing software and see for yourself. Both squares should have the same RGB: 120-120-120. Or simply cover the areas surrounding both squares and watch the illusion vanish before your eyes. By performing these simple tests on the picture, the truth is revealed and with more sophisticated research, we learn that the illusion works because of the way the brain uses the information it receives from our visual system to construct images. The specific details are not important for my purposes, but if you are curious you can find the explanation here.

In other occasions, our senses give us a completely accurate depiction of the phenomenon we are observing but reason tells us that it must be wrong and therefore we refuse to accept it. Pretty much everything that happens at the atomic and subatomic level falls under this category. Even though Democritus arrived at the conclusion that matter consists of indivisible particles nearly 2400 years ago using nothing but his reasoning abilities, he never could have devised the actual atomic model as we know it today nor the behavior of matter at this scale. That took great efforts, both in developing sophisticated instruments to allow us to study things at this scale, and intellectually, to correctly interpret measurements and observations which defied all logic. The field of quantum mechanics was born this way. As we dug deep into the atom, new particles were discovered and their behavior was absolutely baffling. In the realm of quantum mechanics the simple act of observing influences the behavior of particles; waves behave like particles and particles behave like waves; matter can move from one place to another without having to travel the required space. DeStefano affirms that “[…]our senses tell us that the world is chaotic, and yet we know that on both a micro and a macro level, it’s incredibly organized.”, but in fact it is the other way around. We perceive things as organized because we are only looking at a narrow scope of reality, but when we study things deeper we see that chaos is what rules. Quantum mechanics has showed us that the Universe is a collection of infinite probabilities, that fortunately for us, breaks down at our scale. This is the value of science, it helps us when our senses lie to us, when we need to look further than it is possible to look with our unaided eyes, or when our observations defy logic. As Richard Feynman once said: “Science is what we do to keep us from lying to ourselves”. Sadly, people like DeStefano are not interested in doing that, as is shown by this next comment:

But the most important things in life can’t be seen with the eyes. Ideas can’t be seen. Love can’t be seen. Honor can’t be seen. This isn’t a new concept. Judaism and Christianity and Islam and Buddhism have all taught for thousands of years that the highest forms of reality are invisible and mysterious. And these realities will never be reducible to clear-cut scientific formulae for the simple reason that they will never be fully comprehensible to the human mind. God didn’t mean them to be.

Of course they cannot be seen directly in the “spiritual realities” sense that DeStefano understands them. Things like “ideas”, “love” and “honor” are just the names that we give to human phenomena that we observe or that we directly experience. They have not been reduced to “clear-cut scientific formulae”, not because they cannot be reduced, but because the principles that underly them are probably very complex and discovering them will take time. The fact that something is unknown today does not mean that it will remain unknown forever, it is a fallacy to think that way. Charles Darwin said it before: “It has often and confidently been asserted that man’s origin can never be known. Ignorance most frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science”. Again, instances of the sort of thing that Darwin was talking about are abundant throughout history, but people like DeStefano have not been paying attention. In the specific cases of mental concepts and emotions, science has already begun to explain them in strictly naturalistic, materialistic terms. It has been shown, for example, that if certain parts of the brain are damaged, the ability to “love” is lost. The deficiencies of certain chemicals in the brain, for example render one incapable of feeling empathy towards others. Whether DeStefano likes it or not, emotions and thoughts that for centuries have been considered as abstract or immaterial by philosophers, are turning out to be completely material in nature. A lot of people, philosophers and academics included, have been very slow to understand this.

DeStefano goes on to say that it is absurd to think that humans would invent a god that makes such harsh demands like “[sacrificing] our own desires for the sake of others” or “[loving] our enemies”, or that requires people to “believe [they’re] going to be judged and held accountable for every sin [they’ve} ever committed” simply because they’re afraid of death. On the surface, this looks like a reasonable objection to make, but once again, DeStefano is either not looking at the whole picture or willfully building straw men to help him sell his nonsense. The origins of religion are much more complicated than that, they do involve a fear of death and an overall ignorance of how the Universe works, but that is not the whole story. For one thing, religion has been a very powerful instrument in controlling people. As the first-century Roman philosopher Seneca once said: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful”. In any case, who ever said religion has to make sense?

While DeStefano is very fond of calling Materialism a “superstition”, it is quite obvious that the one who is so engaged in superstitious nonsense and self-deception is himself. Materialism is based on what our science has revealed. It could be wrong, of course, as all good science and philosophy should be, but quite honestly, I do not see any threat on the horizon. If any evidence that shows that Materialism is in fact wrong and that a supernatural world exists, I will change my mind. DeStefano’s Supernaturalism is based on the assumption that not only a Universe outside of our physical reality exists, but that the basic principles were revealed by a creating entity to a group of ignorant peasants in the middle of the desert in an ancient book that is riddled with factual errors and self-contradictions. Talk about “wishful thinking”.

Engaging in the usual tactics of manipulators, DeStefano even cites Albert Einstein in a spurious attempt to use his name to give his worldview any credibility:

No less a genius than Albert Einstein once said: “The most beautiful thing we can experience in life is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: for his eyes are closed.”

This is taken out of context, of course, and used to support a worldview completely opposite of Einstein’s own. He was a pantheist, which is really just “a sexed-up atheist”, as Richard Dawkins described it. He did not believe in deities of any kind, the name of his “god” was spelled “N-A-T-U-R-E”. He was often the victim of quote-mining due to his extraordinary intellect, and thus the desire of theists to recruit him as one of their own. Here’s one of the many things he said regarding gods and religion:

“It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”

Furthermore, what was actually meant by Einstein in regards to the mysterious can be cleared up by citing the quote in the actual context of his book The World as I See It:

The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. It was the experience of mystery—even if mixed with fear—that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms—it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man. I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves. An individual who should survive his physical death is also beyond my comprehension, nor do I wish it otherwise; such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls. Enough for me the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvellous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavour to comprehend a portion, be it never so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature.

Ah, very different from what DeStefano is trying to sell, is it not?

 So far, DeStefano has emphatically demonstrated a deep ignorance of the advances that are now a part of our knowledge of the Universe and a remarkable intellectual dishonesty. As amusing as that is, it is not as harmful as this toxic bit:

Too many people go through life today with their eyes closed. They miss out on the mysterious because they’re so fixated on what they can see and smell and touch and taste and hear. They’re so steeped in the “superstition of materialism” that they’re totally blind to the existence of another world — a radically different world than the one they’re familiar with, but a world nonetheless: a world of miracles, a world of grace, a world of angels, a world of diabolical warfare, a world where the highest values are completely opposite from those of our secular societywhere weakness equals strength, sacrifice equals salvation, and suffering equals unlimited power.

The emphasis is mine, but the overwhelming stupidity is all DeStefano’s. Whenever I am told that I should be polite with religious people and leave them alone to believe whatever they want to believe, this is exactly the kind of thing that I point out. If religion was only about believing nonsense in the privacy of your own home, and providing us atheists with endless comedy, I would not be as hostile. But that is not what religion is about. It is about being certain that one’s book has all the answers, no matter how absurd or harmful they might be, no matter how much suffering they might inflict because, in fact, suffering is a good thing and should be cherished and desired, for it is just a test from God. The values of a secular society are rooted in Humanism, the belief that ethical principles should be based on a deep understanding of human nature to seek the well-being of humanity, not in supernatural beliefs. Religious ethics, however, are not concerned with the well-being of humans: they are concerned, as DeStefano readily admits, in gaining the favor a deity through sacrifice and suffering to be allowed entrance into paradise after death. This was what the Inquisition was all about. I am aware that not all religious people think this way, but that is not a triumph of religion. It is a triumph of secularism. A fact that many religious people ignore, is that secularism is winning so much, that the most prosperous nations on Earth are now those in which religious belief is lowest. Countries with large percentages of atheists and agnostics, like Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Japan, New Zealand, Czech Republic and Finland, consistently rank at the top of all measures of human flourishing.

If you are religious and you managed to read all the way through, and think of yourself as a responsible citizen of the world, then please for the love of everything that is good and worthy, examine your beliefs. By not doing so, you are enabling ignorant demagogues to spew their filth under the banner of “respect for religion”.

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