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Introduction: How to reason

Section 5:
Cause, correlation and no connection

Examine your evidence carefully before deciding that one event or phenomenon is the cause of another.

Let us say that men who are depressed work long hours. What is the connection between these two facts?

0.5a Cause? Correlation? Or...?

Here are two possible answers: (a) they work long hours because they are depressed and want to escape their depression; (b) they are depressed because they work long hours?

If one of these analyses is correct - depression leads to working long hours or working long hours leads to depression - they are linked by cause and effect.

But (a) and (b) are not the only possible answers. Consider (c): Neither analysis is correct and other factors are involved: genes, upbringing, an unhappy marriage or a combination of these or other factors may lead men to be both depressed and to work hard. In that case, there is a correlation between long work hours and depression, but one does not cause the other.

(a) and (b) suggest a cause, (c) suggests a correlation. Now consider (d): There is no connection. Further research shows that among all men who are depressed, some work long hours, others work normal hours and a third group does not work at all. Meanwhile, many men who work long hours are very happy because their job gives them fulfilment. (d) concludes that there is neither cause nor correlation between long working hours and depression.

0.5b Making connections - or not

Human beings often make assumptions that connect phenomena that appear to be related. These assumptions are often right. If I hear a window break and see a man in a hood running from a house with a laptop under his harm, it's probably a burglar making a quick getaway.

Other times the assumptions are wrong. When my aunt was dying, I prayed to make her better. I assumed that my prayer brought her back to health, when the truth

How good is your reasoning?

Can you distinguish lies from truth? Or a good argument from a false one? Can you when tell someone is trying to pull the wool over your eyes?

We keep physically fit by exercising regularly and eating healthy
food. The same is true of our minds - we need regular mental exercise and a good diet of solid facts and logic.

This chapter offers basic reasoning skills to help you understand the contradictions that lie at the heart of all religion.

0.1: Basic principles
Start at the beginning

0.2: What do we know?
Separate fact from fiction

0.3: Start with the question ...
... not with the answer

0.4: All the evidence ...
... not just some of it

0.5: Cause, correlation and no connection
What's the difference?

0.6: Don't jump to conclusions ...
... or you could land in the ...

0.7: No way
Proving a negative

0.8: Occam's Razor
The simplest solution

0.9: Facts, knowledge and science
What we know and how we know it

0.10: Know or believe?
The impossibility of God

0.11: Reason and faith
Understanding the difference

0.12: Summary

Finished the introduction? Move on to

Chapter 1
Defining God

Does God exist? Before we try to answer that question we need to have a clear idea of who or what God is. How do we describe God? What versions of God are on offer?

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was she recovered thanks to the drugs she took and the skills of the medical team that attended her.

On the other hand, we often find it difficult to make connections that are not obvious. For thousands of years people were unaware that cholera and other diseases were transmitted by contaminated water. Or we'll stubbornly resist connections that contradict our worldview - as many people refused to accept the link between smoking and cancer when the evidence was clear.

Before we decide if phenomena are connected - by cause or correlation - or if there is no connection at all, we need to examine all the evidence, and be prepared to change our minds each time new evidence comes to light.

0.5c The cause is God?

The question of cause, correlation, or no connection comes up in two ways when we talk about God. On an everyday level, believers assume that God is acting in various ways that cause changes in human lives - either when he appears to react to human prayer or when he apparently causes or allows violence or natural disasters to occur as a sign of his displeasure. In response to such claims, rational people always ask for evidence of that links cause (God) with effect (recovery from illness, Hurricane Katrina, etc), but while evidence of the supposed effect is almost always available, evidence of the cause never appears.

Then there is the Big Question: must everything have a cause? I only exist because my parents mated and they only exist because their parents did the same; the human race only exists because it evolved from other primates, which evolved from single-celled organisms, which were the result of the conditions on a primaeval earth that came into being as a consequence of the Big Bang. What caused that Big Bang? Was it God? Is the First Cause that exists without something to cause him?

Believers come to one conclusion, non-believers come to another. We will return to the subject, or if you want time out, you can ask yourself if God is the First Cause, by following the argument further, here.

Otherwise, continue this basic introduction to reasoning by clicking below. And remember to be careful of cause and correlation and be prepared to accept that in some circumstances there may no connection between phenomena at all.

Next: Introduction: Section 6
Don't jump to conclusions ...

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If God existed, he would...

admire the beauty of a universe that he did not create

recognize that eternity is meaningless

deny both heaven and hell

disown all men and women who speak in his name

denounce the harm caused by religious "morality"

help the human race to thrive without him

If God existed, he would be an atheist.

What is the difference between science and faith?

science is certain of nothing and requires proof of everything

faith is certain of everything and requires proof of nothing

Which do you trust?

"I know there is no God"
"I believe there is no God"

Check the answer

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