Of course, the “faithful” will undoubtedly myth the point. SOB
- Thou shall not attack the person’s character, but the argument. (Ad hominem)
- Thou shall not misrepresent or exaggerate a person’s argument in order to make them easier to attack. (Straw man fallacy)
- Thou shall not use small numbers to represent the whole. (Hasty generalization)
- Thou shall not argue thy position by assuming one of its premises is true. (Begging the question)
- Thou shall not claim that because something occurred before, it must be the cause. (Post Hoc/False cause)
- Thou shall not reduce the argument down to two possibilities. (False dichotomy)
- Thou shall not argue that because of our ignorance, claim must be true or false. (Ad ignorantum)
- Thou shall not lay the burden of proof onto him that is questioning the claim. (Burden of proof reversal)
- Thou shall not assume “this” follows “that” when it has no logical connection. (Non sequitur)
- Thou shall not claim that because a premise is popular, therefore it must be true. (Bandwagon fallacy)
What is this New Atheism? New atheism is a type of Atheism — if we can even call it that — that is criticized for being outspoken. Furthermore, it is shunned upon by so called old Atheists for scientifically testing religion and for its anti-theistic undertone. However, new Atheism is a concoction of haughty-minded Atheists who pride themselves in near total silence and read the philosophy of Baron d’Holbach, David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Paine, Mark Twain and Karl Marx; just to name a few.
Didn’t these men write publications? Weren’t they as outspoken as possible when considering that some of them were at risk of persecution, censorship, or even execution? Please, do tell, were they able to rely on science? Definitely not in the manner in which we are able to rely on it. The major scientific findings that undermine what was previously regarded as religious truths came after most of these men. For instance, even after the publication of The Origin of Species, the evidence for Evolution wasn’t nearly as strong as it is today. Therefore, the only real difference between some of today’s Atheists and Atheists in the past is a reliance on science. However, one can argue that there’s no difference there either:
Science is the true theology.
Thomas Paine, quoted in Emerson, The Mind on Fire pg 153
There is scarcely any part of science, or anything in nature, which those imposters and blasphemers of science, called priests, as well Christians as Jews, have not, at some time or other, perverted, or sought to pervert to the purpose of superstition and falsehood.
Thomas Paine, as quoted by Joseph Lewis in Inspiration and Wisdom from the Writings of Thomas Paine
A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.
How about anti-theism as defined by Oxford: opposition to the belief in the existence of a God or as some interpret it, opposition to religion?
The most detestable wickedness, the most horrid cruelties, and the greatest miseries that have afflicted the human race have had their origin in this thing called revelation, or revealed religion.
Thomas Paine, as quoted by Joseph Lewis in Inspiration and Wisdom from the Writings of Thomas Paine
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo. Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.
Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
Religion was invented when the first con man met the first fool.
All religious notions are uniformly founded on authority; all the religions the world forbid examination, and are not disposed that men should reason upon them.
Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous.
David Hume, A Treatise Of Human Nature
Note: none of these quotes specifically mention a particular religion; thus, demonstrating anti-religious views.
A reliance on science existed prior to new Atheism. Anti-theism also existed prior to new Atheism; let us ignore the fact that most old Atheists conveniently disregard the alternative definition of anti-theism: disbelief in gods. Thus, that implies that some old Atheists rely on science to some degree. Moreover, some of them also subscribe to anti-theism.
I ask again, what exactly is the difference? Let us forget the negative connotations of the label. Let us forget the air of condescension implied by individuals who call fellow Atheists ‘new’ Atheists. Thankfully, I live in a country that grants freedom of speech; therefore, I am outspoken. However, let us not forget the many around the world who hide in anonymity. Let us not forget them who are at risk of penalty and death. They harbor many of our sentiments; some are fortunate enough to express their ideas, albeit anonymously. All Atheists share a disbelief in gods. Some choose to reserve their views either because of imagined pride or the risk of penalty and death. The former has no reason to criticize the approach of another Atheist. The latter has no choice but to hide in darkness. Ultimately, there is no new Atheism. Whoever thinks there’s a such term is severely misinformed, especially when considering that the ideas they subscribe to came about via the writings of authors who held similar views to today’s ‘new’ Atheists.
“But just because religion has done some harm — that doesn’t mean it’s mistaken! Sure, people have done terrible things in God’s name. That doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist!”
Yup. If you’re arguing that — you’re absolutely right. And the question of whether religion is true or not is important. It’s not the main point of this book: if you want more thorough arguments for why God doesn’t exist, by me or other writers, check out the Resource Guide at the end of this book. But “Does God exist?” is a valid and relevant question. Here are my Top Ten reasons why the answer is a resounding, “No.”
1: The consistent replacement of supernatural explanations of the world with natural ones.
When you look at the history of what we know about the world, you see a noticeable pattern. Natural explanations of things have been replacing supernatural explanations of them. Like a steamroller. Why the Sun rises and sets. Where thunder and lightning come from. Why people get sick. Why people look like their parents. How the complexity of life came into being. I could go on and on.
All these things were once explained by religion. But as we understood the world better, and learned to observe it more carefully, the explanations based on religion were replaced by ones based on physical cause and effect. Consistently. Thoroughly. Like a steamroller. The number of times that a supernatural explanation of a phenomenon has been replaced by a natural explanation? Thousands upon thousands upon thousands.
Now. The number of times that a natural explanation of a phenomenon has been replaced by a supernatural one? The number of times humankind has said, “We used to think (X) was caused by physical cause and effect, but now we understand that it’s caused by God, or spirits, or demons, or the soul”?
Sure, people come up with new supernatural “explanations” for stuff all the time. But explanations with evidence? Replicable evidence? Carefully gathered, patiently tested, rigorously reviewed evidence? Internally consistent evidence? Large amounts of it, from many different sources? Again — exactly zero.
Given that this is true, what are the chances that any given phenomenon for which we currently don’t have a thorough explanation — human consciousness, for instance, or the origin of the Universe — will be best explained by the supernatural?
Given this pattern, it’s clear that the chances of this are essentially zero. So close to zero that they might as well be zero. And the hypothesis of the supernatural is therefore a hypothesis we can discard. It is a hypothesis we came up with when we didn’t understand the world as well as we do now… but that, on more careful examination, has never once been shown to be correct.
If I see any solid evidence to support God, or any supernatural explanation of any phenomenon, I’ll reconsider my disbelief. Until then, I’ll assume that the mind-bogglingly consistent pattern of natural explanations replacing supernatural ones is almost certain to continue.
(Oh — for the sake of brevity, I’m generally going to say “God” in this chapter when I mean “God, or the soul, or metaphysical energy, or any sort of supernatural being or substance.” I don’t feel like getting into discussions about, “Well, I don’t believe in an old man in the clouds with a white beard, but I believe…” It’s not just the man in the white beard that I don’t believe in. I don’t believe in any sort of religion, any sort of soul or spirit or metaphysical guiding force, anything that isn’t the physical world and its vast and astonishing manifestations.
2: The inconsistency of world religions.
If God (or any other metaphysical being or beings) were real, and people were really perceiving him/ her/ it/ them, why do these perceptions differ so wildly?
When different people look at, say, a tree, we more or less agree about what we’re looking at: what size it is, what shape, whether it currently has leaves or not and what color those leaves are, etc. We may have disagreements regarding the tree — what other plants it’s most closely related to, where it stands in the evolutionary scheme, should it be cut down to make way for a new sports stadium, etc. But unless one of us is hallucinating or deranged or literally unable to see, we can all agree on the tree’s basic existence, and the basic facts about it.
This is blatantly not the case for God. Even among people who do believe in God, there is no agreement about what God is, what God does, what God wants from us, how he acts or doesn’t act on the world, whether he’s a he, whether there’s one or more of him, whether he’s a personal being or a diffuse metaphysical substance. And this is among smart, thoughtful people. What’s more, many smart, thoughtful people don’t even think God exists.
And if God existed, he’d be a whole lot bigger, a whole lot more powerful, with a whole lot more effect in the world, than a tree. Why is it that we can all see a tree in more or less the same way, but we don’t see God in even remotely the same way?
The explanation, of course, is that God does not exist. We disagree so radically over what he is because we aren’t perceiving anything that’s real. We’re “perceiving” something we made up; something we were taught to believe; something that the part of our brain that’s wired to see pattern and intention, even when none exists, is inclined to see and believe.
3: The weakness of religious arguments, explanations, and apologetics.
I have seen a lot of arguments for the existence of God. And they all boil down to one or more of the following: The argument from authority. (Example: “God exists because the Bible says God exists.”) The argument from personal experience. (Example: “God exists because I feel in my heart that God exists.”) The argument that religion shouldn’t have to logically defend its claims. (Example: “God is an entity that cannot be proven by reason or evidence.”) Or the redefining of God into an abstract principle… so abstract that it can’t be argued against, but also so abstract that it scarcely deserves the name God. (Example: “God is love.”)
And all these arguments are ridiculously weak.
Sacred books and authorities can be mistaken. I have yet to see a sacred book that doesn’t have any mistakes. (The Bible, to give just one example, is shot full of them.) And the feelings in people’s hearts can definitely be mistaken. They are mistaken, demonstrably so, much of the time. Instinct and intuition play an important part in human understanding and experience… but they should never be treated as the final word on a subject. I mean, if I told you, “The tree in front of my house is 500 feet tall with hot pink leaves,” and I offered as a defense, “I know this is true because my mother/ preacher/ sacred book tells me so”… or “I know this is true because I feel it in my heart”… would you take me seriously?
Some people do try to prove God’s existence by pointing to evidence in the world. But that evidence is inevitably terrible. Pointing to the perfection of the Bible as a historical and prophetic document, for instance… when it so blatantly is nothing of the kind. Or pointing to the fine-tuning of the Universe for life… even though this supposedly perfect fine-tuning is actually pretty crappy, and the conditions that allow for life on Earth have only existed for the tiniest fragment of the Universe’s existence and are going to be boiled away by the Sun in about a billion years. Or pointing to the complexity of life and the world and insisting that it must have been designed… when the sciences of biology and geology and such have provided far, far better explanations for what seems, at first glance, like design.
As to the argument that “We don’t have to show you any reason or evidence, it’s unreasonable and intolerant for you to even expect that”… that’s conceding the game before you’ve even begun. It’s like saying, “I know I can’t make my case — therefore I’m going to concentrate my arguments on why I don’t have to make my case in the first place.” It’s like a defense lawyer who knows their client is guilty, so they try to get the case thrown out on a technicality.
Ditto with the “redefining God out of existence” argument. If what you believe in isn’t a supernatural being or substance that has, or at one time had, some sort of effect on the world… well, your philosophy might be an interesting one, but it is not, by any useful definition of the word, religion.
Again: If I tried to argue, “The tree in front of my house is 500 feet tall with hot pink leaves — and the height and color of trees is a question that is best answered with personal faith and feeling, not with reason or evidence”… or, “I know this is true because I am defining ’500 feet tall and hot pink’ as the essential nature of tree-ness, regardless of its outward appearance”… would you take me seriously?
4: The increasing diminishment of God.
This is closely related to #1 (the consistent replacement of supernatural explanations of the world with natural ones). But it’s different enough to deserve its own section.
When you look at the history of religion, you see that the perceived power of God has been diminishing. As our understanding of the physical world has increased — and as our ability to test theories and claims has improved — the domain of God’s miracles and interventions, or other supposed supernatural phenomena, has consistently shrunk.
Examples: We stopped needing God to explain floods… but we still needed him to explain sickness and health. Then we didn’t need him to explain sickness and health… but we still needed him to explain consciousness. Now we’re beginning to get a grip on consciousness, so we’ll soon need God to explain… what?
Or, as writer and blogger Adam Lee so eloquently put it in his Ebon Musings website, “Where the Bible tells us God once shaped worlds out of the void and parted great seas with the power of his word, today his most impressive acts seem to be shaping sticky buns into the likenesses of saints and conferring vaguely-defined warm feelings on his believers’ hearts when they attend church.”
This is what atheists call the “god of the gaps.” Whatever gap there is in our understanding of the world, that’s what God is supposedly responsible for. Wherever the empty spaces are in our coloring book, that’s what gets filled in with the blue crayon called God.
But the blue crayon is worn down to a nub. And it’s never turned out to be the right color. And over and over again, throughout history, we’ve had to go to great trouble to scrape the blue crayon out of people’s minds and replace it with the right color. Given this pattern, doesn’t it seem that we should stop reaching for the blue crayon every time we see an empty space in the coloring book?
5: The fact that religion runs in families.
The single strongest factor in determining what religion a person is? It’s what religion they were brought up with. By far. Very few people carefully examine all the available religious beliefs — or even some of those beliefs — and select the one they think most accurately describes the world. Overwhelmingly, people believe whatever religion they were taught as children.
Now, we don’t do this with, for instance, science. We don’t hold on to the Steady State theory of the Universe, or geocentrism, or the four bodily humours theory of illness, simply because it’s what we were taught as children. We believe whatever scientific understanding is best supported by the best available evidence at the time. And if the evidence changes, our understanding changes. (Unless, of course, it’s a scientific understanding that our religion teaches is wrong…)
Even political opinions don’t run in families as stubbornly as religion. Witness the opinion polls that show support of same-sex marriage increasing with each new generation. Political beliefs learned from youth can, and do, break down in the face of the reality that people see every day. And scientific theories do this, all the time, on a regular basis.
This is emphatically not the case with religion.
Which leads me to the conclusion that religion is not a perception of a real entity. If it were, people wouldn’t just believe whatever religion they were taught as children, simply because it was what they were taught as children. The fact that religion runs so firmly in families strongly suggests that it is not a perception of a real phenomenon. It is a dogma, supported and perpetuated by tradition and social pressure — and in many cases, by fear and intimidation. Not by reality.
6: The physical causes of everything we think of as the soul.
The sciences of neurology and neuropsychology are in their infancy. But they are advancing by astonishing leaps and bounds, even as we speak. And what they are finding — consistently, thoroughly, across the board — is that, whatever consciousness is, it is inextricably linked to the brain.
Everything we think of as the soul — consciousness, identity, character, free will — all of that is powerfully affected by physical changes to the brain and body. Changes in the brain result in changes in consciousness… sometimes so drastically, they make a personality unrecognizable. Changes in consciousness can be seen, with magnetic resonance imagery, as changes in the brain. Illness, injury, drugs and medicines, sleep deprivation, etc…. all of these can make changes to the supposed “soul,” both subtle and dramatic. And death, of course, is a physical change that renders a person’s personality and character, not only unrecognizable, but non-existent.
So the obvious conclusion is that consciousness and identity, character and free will, are products of the brain and the body. They’re biological processes, governed by laws of physical cause and effect. With any other phenomenon, if we can show that physical forces and actions produce observable effects, we think of that as a physical phenomenon. Why should the “soul” be any different?
What’s more, the evidence supporting this conclusion comes from rigorously-gathered, carefully-tested, thoroughly cross-checked, double-blinded, placebo- controlled, replicated, peer-reviewed research. The evidence has been gathered, and continues to be gathered, using the gold standard of scientific evidence: methods specifically designed to filter out biases and cognitive errors as much as humanly possible. And it’s not just a little research. It’s an enormous mountain of research… a mountain that’s growing more mountainous every day.
The hypothesis of the soul, on the other hand, has not once in all of human history been supported by good, solid scientific evidence. That’s pretty surprising when you think about it. For decades, and indeed centuries, most scientists had some sort of religious beliefs, and most of them believed in the soul. So a great deal of early science was dedicated to proving the soul’s existence, and discovering and exploring its nature. It wasn’t until after decades upon decades of fruitless research in this area that scientists finally gave it up as a bad job, and concluded, almost unanimously, that the reason they hadn’t found a soul was that there was no such thing.
Are there unanswered questions about consciousness? Absolutely. Tons of them. No reputable neurologist or neuropsychologist would say otherwise. But think again about how the history of human knowledge is the history of supernatural explanations being replaced by natural ones… with relentless consistency, again, and again, and again. There hasn’t been a single exception to this pattern. Why would we assume that the soul is going to be that exception? Why would we assume that this gap in our knowledge, alone among all the others, is eventually going to be filled with a supernatural explanation? The historical pattern doesn’t support it. And the evidence doesn’t support it. The increasingly clear conclusion of the science is that consciousness is a product of the brain. Period.
7: The complete failure of any sort of supernatural phenomenon to stand up to rigorous testing.
Not all religious and spiritual beliefs make testable claims. But some of them do. And in the face of actual testing, every one of those claims falls apart like Kleenex in a hurricane.
Whether it’s the power of prayer, or faith healing, or astrology, or life after death: the same pattern is seen. Whenever religious and supernatural beliefs have made testable claims, and those claims have been tested — not half-assedly tested, but really tested, using careful, rigorous, double-blind, placebo-controlled, replicated, etc. etc. etc. testing methods — the claims have consistently fallen apart. Occasionally a scientific study has appeared that claimed to support something supernatural… but more thorough studies have always refuted them. Every time.
I’m not going to cite each one of these tests, or even most of them. This chapter is already long as it is. Instead, I’ll encourage you to spend a little time on the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer websites. You’ll see a pattern so consistent it boggles the mind: Claimants insist that Supernatural Claim X is real. Supernatural Claim X is subjected to careful testing, applying the standard scientific methods used in research to screen out bias and fraud. Supernatural Claim X is found to hold about as much water as a sieve. (And claimants, having agreed beforehand that the testing method is valid, afterwards insist that it wasn’t fair.)
And don’t say, “Oh, the testers were biased.” That’s the great thing about the scientific method. It’s designed to screen out bias, as much as is humanly possible. When done right, it will give you the right answer, regardless of the bias of the people doing the testing.
And I want to repeat an important point about the supposed anti-religion bias in science. In the early days of science and the scientific method, most scientists did believe in God, and the soul, and the metaphysical. In fact, many early science experiments were attempts to prove the existence of these things, and discover their true natures, and resolve the squabbles about them once and for all. It was only after decades of these experiments failing to turn up anything at all that the scientific community began — gradually, and very reluctantly — to give up on the idea.
Supernatural claims only hold up under careless, casual examination. They are supported by wishful thinking, and confirmation bias (i.e., our tendency to overemphasize evidence that supports what we believe and to discard evidence that contradicts it), and our poor understanding and instincts when it comes to probability, and our tendency to see pattern and intention even when none exists, and a dozen other forms of cognitive bias and weird human brain wiring. When studied carefully, under conditions specifically designed to screen these things out, the claims vanish like the insubstantial imaginings they are.
8: The slipperiness of religious and spiritual beliefs.
Not all religious and spiritual beliefs make testable claims. Many of them have a more “saved if we do, saved if we don’t” quality. If things go the believer’s way, it’s a sign of God’s grace and intervention; if they don’t, then God moves in mysterious ways, and maybe he has a lesson to teach that we don’t understand, and it’s not up to us to question his will. No matter what happens, it can be twisted to prove that the belief is right.
That is a sure sign of a bad argument.
Here’s the thing. It is a well-established principle in the philosophy of science that, if a theory can be supported no matter what possible evidence comes down the pike, it is useless. It has no power to explain what’s already happened, or to predict what will happen in the future. The theory of gravity, for instance, could be disproven by things suddenly falling up; the theory of evolution could be disproven by finding rabbits in the pre-Cambrian fossil layer. These theories predict that those things won’t happen; if they do, the theories go poof. But if your theory of God’s existence holds up no matter what happens — whether your friend with cancer gets better or dies, whether natural disasters strike big sinful cities or small God-fearing towns — then it’s a useless theory, with no power to predict or explain anything.
What’s more, when atheists challenge theists on their beliefs, the theists’ arguments shift and slip around in an annoying “moving the goalposts” way. Hard-line fundamentalists, for instance, will insist on the unchangeable perfect truth of the Bible; but when challenged on its specific historical or scientific errors, they insist that you’re not interpreting those passages correctly. (If the book needs interpreting, then how perfect can it be?)
And progressive ecumenical believers can be unbelievably slippery about what they do and don’t believe. Is God real, or a metaphor? Does God intervene in the world, or doesn’t he? Do they even believe in God, or do they just choose to act as if they believe because they find it useful? Debating with a progressive believer is like wrestling with a fish: the arguments aren’t very powerful, but they’re slippery, and they don’t give you anything firm to grab onto.
Once again, that’s a sure sign of a bad argument. If you can’t make your case and then stick by it, or modify it, or let it go… then you don’t have a good case. (And if you’re making any version of the “Shut up, that’s why” argument — arguing that it’s intolerant to question religious beliefs, or that letting go of doubts about faith makes you a better person, or that doubting faith will get you tortured in Hell, or any of the other classic arguments intended to quash debate rather than address it — that’s a sure sign that your argument is in the toilet.)
9: The failure of religion to improve or clarify over time.
Over the years and decades and centuries, our understanding of the physical world has grown and clarified by a ridiculous amount. We understand things about the Universe that we couldn’t have imagined a thousand years ago, or a hundred, or even ten. Things that make your mouth gape with astonishment just to think about.
And the reason for this is that we came up with an incredibly good method for sorting out good ideas from bad ones. We came up with the scientific method, a self-correcting method for understanding the physical world: a method which — over time, and with the many fits and starts that accompany any human endeavor — has done an astonishingly good job of helping us perceive and understand the world, predict it and shape it, in ways we couldn’t have imagined in decades and centuries past. And the scientific method itself is self-correcting. Not only has our understanding of the natural world improved dramatically: our method for understanding it is improving as well.
Our understanding of the supernatural world? Not so much.
Our understanding of the supernatural world is in the same place it’s always been: hundreds and indeed thousands of sects, squabbling over which sacred texts and spiritual intuitions are the right ones. We haven’t come to any consensus about which religion best understands the supernatural world. We haven’t even come up with a method for making that decision. All anyone can do is point to their own sacred text and their own spiritual intuition. And around in the squabbling circle we go.
All of which points to religion, not as a perception of a real being or substance, but as an idea we made up and are clinging to. If religion were a perception of a real being or substance, our understanding of it would be sharpening, clarifying, being refined. We’d have better prayer techniques, more accurate prophecies, something. Anything but people squabbling with greater or lesser degrees of rancor, and nothing to back up their belief.
10: The complete lack of solid evidence for God’s existence.
This is probably the best argument I have against God’s existence: There’s no evidence for it. No good evidence, anyway. No evidence that doesn’t just amount to opinion and tradition and confirmation bias and all the other stuff I’ve been talking about. No evidence that doesn’t fall apart upon close examination.
And in a perfect world, that should have been the only argument I needed. In a perfect world, I shouldn’t have had to spend a month and a half collating and summarizing the reasons I don’t believe in God, any more than I would have for Zeus or Quetzalcoatl or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. As thousands of atheists before me have pointed out: It is not up to us to prove that God does not exist. It is up to theists to prove that he does.
In a comment on my blog, arensb made a point on this topic that was so insightful, I’m still smacking myself on the head for not having thought of it myself. I was writing about how believers get upset at atheists when we reject religion after hearing 876,363 bad arguments for it, and how believers react to this by saying, “But you haven’t considered Argument #876,364! How can you be so close-minded?” And arensb said:
“If, in fact, it turns out that argument #876,364 is the one that will convince you, WTF didn’t the apologists put it in the top 10?”
If there’s an argument for religion that’s convincing — actually convincing, convincing by means of something other than authority, tradition, personal intuition, confirmation bias, fear and intimidation, wishful thinking, or some combination of the above — wouldn’t we all know about it?
Wouldn’t it have spread like wildfire? Wouldn’t it be the Meme of All Memes? I mean, we all saw that Simon’s Cat video within about two weeks of it hitting the Internet. Don’t you think that the Truly Excellent Argument for God’s Existence would have spread even faster, and wider, than some silly cartoon cat video?
If the arguments for religion are so wonderful, why are they so unconvincing to anyone who doesn’t already believe?
And why does God need arguments, anyway? Why does God need people to make his arguments for him? Why can’t he just reveal his true self, clearly and unequivocally, and settle the question once and for all? If God existed, why wouldn’t it just be obvious?
It is not up to atheists to prove that God does not exist. It is up to believers to prove that he does. And in the absence of any good, solid evidence or arguments in favor of God’s existence — and in the presence of a whole lot of solid arguments against it — I will continue to be an atheist. God almost certainly does not exist, and it’s completely reasonable to act as if he doesn’t.
- Placebo effects are “proof” that God exists? (scienceblogs.com)
Join critically-acclaimed author and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and world-renowned theoretical physicist and author Lawrence Krauss as they discuss biology, cosmology, religion, and a host of other topics.
The authors will also discuss their new books. Dawkins recently published The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True, an exploration of the magic of discovery embodied in the practice of science. Written for all age groups, the book moves forward from historical examples of supernatural explanations of natural phenomena to focus on the actual science behind how the world works.
Krauss’s latest book, A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing, explains the scientific advances that provide insight into how the universe formed. Krauss tackles the age-old assumption that something cannot arise from nothing by arguing that not only can something arise from nothing, but something will always arise from nothing.
Founded in 2008, the ASU Origins Project is a university-wide transdisciplinary initiative aimed at facilitating cutting edge research and inquiry about origins questions, enhancing public science literacy, and improving science education. Since its inception, the Origins Project has brought the world’s leading scientists, including Nobel Prize winners, to Tempe to explore origins questions. The Origins Project has hosted workshops and public events that have focused on questions as fundamental as the origin of the universe, how life began, the origins of human uniqueness, and the origins of morality.
Over two hours but absolutely fascinating and enlightening. SOB
Supporting one delusion requires supporting many others. If any delusion is out of place, the whole delusional house of cards comes tumbling down. SOB
The God of Personal Necessity
This is probably the second most popular religious fallacy and, like the God of the Gaps fallacy is accepted by very many otherwise intelligent people. Like the God of the Gaps fallacy it too is so ludicrous when spelled out that it’s astonishing that it’s even attempted, yet it crops up time and again in discussion with believers of all creeds.
- There must be a god otherwise there would be no morality;
- There must be a god otherwise there would be no purpose to my life;
- There must be a god otherwise I would have nowhere to go when I die;
- There must be a god otherwise I would not be so special that the universe was created for me;
- There must be a god otherwise the explanation for everything would be too hard for me to understand;
- There must be a god otherwise I would be just another animal and I’m too important for that;
- There must be a god otherwise my invisible friend would not be real;
- There must be a god otherwise I would just be talking to myself when I pray;
- There must be a god otherwise my belief in it would be wrong. (This is often referred to as ‘faith’ – I believe it, therefore it must be true.)
- Neil deGrasse Tyson goes all militant (whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com)
- The Taxonomy of Logical Fallacies (ilookchina.net)
America, the Beautiful (And Nutty): A Skeptic’s Lament
Almost one-third of Americans believe the ancient Mayan prediction of global calamity this December is “somewhat true,” according to a recent National Geographic poll. The prediction is based on a huge stone calendar wheel but exact nature of the disaster — already the subject of major motion pictures and fodder for a Super Bowl ad of remarkably black humor — is an open question. Perhaps an apocalypse will be sparked by expensive gasoline or another Charlie Sheen tantrum. Or maybe those early Mexicans just ran out of stone.
I’m a magician by profession, now retired and dedicated to communicating the facts about the so-called paranormal and the occult, and the supernatural people, claims, and stories that abound. My organization — The James Randi Educational Foundation — serves as a source of information about what I call “woo woo.” We work with a large number scientists, statisticians, and experts to evaluate and debunk for the benefit of the media, scientists, writers, students, and the merely curious.
Our efforts have brought JREF to the forefront of the world skeptical movement, following in the footsteps of Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Martin Gardner, Richard Feynman, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, and so many others — and I’m proud to say that I knew them all well.
We do this day in and day out. And humans aren’t born crazy. But somehow nonsense science has what seems like a permanent foothold in our culture.
Not all dissonance is perilous. The general public accepts some obviously false beliefs: whales are fish, we only use about 10 percent of our brains, “free energy” is just around the corner for us all.
Wrong, but not nuts.
Now consider this: Some 70 percent of Americans believe in some aspect of the paranormal — ESP, devils, ghosts, homeopathy, and spiritual healing. More than 25 percent believe there are humans who can “psychically” predict the future. About 20 percent believe it’s possible to talk to dead people (and that the dead talk back).
In other words, a sizable portion of the U.S. population accepts as a given that an unseen world of magical paranormal power exists, and all that remains is to discover how to take advantage of it. Some pay handsomely in that vain — I mean this in both senses of the word — pursuit.
Personality traits, psychological motivation, flawed cognition, emotional instability, local demographics, social influences — all these could contribute to what might be called Lack of Reason Syndrome. Let’s add as well: basic ignorance. But experimental psychology has yet to fully explain why essentially rational beings seem to need to be at least a little irrational.
But we humans are gullible and not terribly perceptive. In my world these handicaps, and an audience’s innate desire to believe, combine to, well, make magic. The trick is really over before it begins because the magician has, without your knowledge, manipulated your behavior to suit his needs.
That’s just good fun. The stakes in the real world are much higher.
While the science establishment hasn’t always been vociferous enough about paranormal silliness and schemes, make no mistake: My respect for real science knows no bounds. Yes, my work inescapably points out where science has, for one reason or another, sometimes failed to police its own. But I believe — I know — that science is a glorious, righteous pursuit.
And so I begin my work here at Wired Opinion with a direct, firm, personal statement of my own convictions, derived from 60+ years of close association with dedicated scientists and the responsible media:
- Those very popular mythical beasties — ESP, psychokinesis, prophecy, etc. — don’t exist.
- Homeopathy is a dangerous farce.
- Faith-healing is a deadly joke.
- Perpetual motion is a juvenile dream.
- Uri Geller is a four-trick magician.
- The dead don’t talk to anyone.
- Religion is an ancient notion we need to get over.
Having identified the illness, the question is, how able is the patient to participate in a cure? Figuring that out is part science, and part art.
The advertising industry knows this. They know that consumers will often respond to pricing tricks that do not bear up under the barest scrutiny. A 2009 Cornell University study found that we tend to interpret precise numbers that are bigger than rounded numbers as being lower: Participants, for example, incorrectly judged $395,425 to be smaller than $395,000.
The skeptical mind boggles …
Let me make something else clear: It’s easy to confuse “skepticism” and “cynicism.” A skeptic doubts, and requires evidence rather than the silver tongue of a charming presenter. A cynic believes that no one says or does anything that yields neither profit nor advantage.
I ask that our readers remain skeptics about what we present to you, so that we play ball on a level field.
That said, stand back. We at JREF have some interesting things to share …
- Give the gift of skepticism…digitally! (randi.org)
- JREF Media Roundup, March 2, 2012 (randi.org)
- Support the JREF’s “Season of Reason” (skepticalteacher.wordpress.com)
- James Randi To Get A Documentary: VIDEO (towleroad.com)
- Skeptic History: Astronomy vs Astrology (uglicoyote.wordpress.com)
- Documentary On ‘The Amazing Randi’ To Film Him As He Busts Charlatans (techie-buzz.com)
If any of you religionistas out there can provide me with any independently verifiable physical proof of the existence gods, fairies, demons, Santa. the Easter bunny, or any other such supernatural and magical beings or claims of deeds done by these “powerful” creatures I will beg forgiveness from such deities as are prove and become a disciple. This evidence must be able to withstand vigorous scientific inspection by a selection of scientists of my choosing.
In addition I would challenge anyone out there to provide verifiable evidence that anything like a soul, exists to be saved or that any life exists beyond and after death.This evidence must also be physical and subject to scientific examination. Your faith, delusions, and holy texts aren’t enough.
Breathlessly I await. SOB
From eSkeptic, the newsletter of Skeptic Magazine
Science Education is
No Guarantee of Skepticism
by Richard Walker, Steven J. Hoekstra,
and Rodnet J. Vogl
Many skeptics take a measured amount of pleasure in the kinds of tasks often set before them: evaluating blurry photographs, conducting laboratory experiments that reduce or eliminate trickery, critiquing flawed science and pseudoscience, and countering the claims of obvious charlatans. Of course, skeptics hope that their efforts aid in advancing science education.1 In spite of these efforts, survey data from several sources suggests that paranormal belief and pseudoscientific thinking continue to be commonplace.2
Skeptics often use these findings to reinforce arguments for more science education. Their argument is based upon the largely untested assumption that increased science knowledge reduces the number of paranormal beliefs an individual holds. However, this assumption may not be valid. Andrew Ede recently argued that science education may do little to raise the level of rational thinking and may, in fact, actually deter it!3 Recent debates about including creation science and/or eliminating evolution from high school biology curricula4 are a case in point indicating that many policy makers, members of the public, and a few educators are confused about how to critique and compare theories in order to separate facts from beliefs. Ede identified three reasons why this may be true:5
- Science classes, broadly defined, primarily teach technical skills rather than emphasizing critical thinking. Labs are conducted in which there is a “right answer” that the instructor knows, and it is up to the student to manipulate the project until the “right answer” is realized.
- Science classes typically review research findings without placing the research in the proper context. This can lead to incorrect assumptions or overgeneralizations.
- Science implicitly emphasizes its elite status over other points of view. Therefore, data and graphs are accepted uncritically because they are based on “scientific,” “clinical,” or “laboratory” studies. A lab coat guarantees an aura of expertise.
The overall result is that teaching scientific “facts” is emphasized, while individuals are not given the skills with which to critically evaluate the claims that are presented to them. People are placed in the position of accepting or rejecting claims based on what they are told to believe, rather than being able to critically evaluate the evidence.6
It is possible for a student to accumulate a fairly sizable science knowledge base without learning how to properly distinguish between reputable science and pseudoscience.
A quick inspection of introductory college textbooks supports Ede’s basic arguments. As an example, most introductory psychology texts are now in excess of 500 pages, yet fewer than 15 pages are typically spent on research issues. Little or no discussion is given to the importance of evidence or how scientific methods can be used to weigh evidence. Instead, the primary emphasis of many texts is to enumerate as many scientific findings as possible. Since it is reasonable to suspect that many instructors follow the basic format of the text that has been selected for class, it is likely that class lectures spend more time on specific research findings than on the more abstract topics of empiricism and skepticism. Hence, it is possible for a student to accumulate a fairly sizable science knowledge base without learning how to properly distinguish between reputable science and pseudoscience. Fortunately, there is recently a stronger push in introductory psychology texts to correct this oversight, most strikingly by Carole Wade and Carol Tavris,7 but it still remains the exception to the rule.
Assessing Science Knowledge and Pseudoscientific Beliefs
The primary goal of this paper is to examine the relationship between science knowledge and paranormal beliefs. We reasoned that if Ede’s argument is true, then a person’s scientific knowledge base should be unrelated to pseudoscientific beliefs. If, on the other hand, science leads to skepticism about pseudoscience, science knowledge and paranormal beliefs should be inversely related.
We tested this relationship using survey methodology at three small undergraduate universities (Christian Brothers University, Kansas Wesleyan University, and Winston-Salem State University). Across our samples, a total of 207 students were surveyed (66 at CBU, 70 at KWU, and 71 at WSSU). While the precise wording of the questions varied somewhat across institutions, each survey contained two essential units, administered in counterbalanced order.
In one unit, students were given one or more measures of science knowledge. Efforts were made to select scales from nationally recognized tests and to include questions from many areas of science, including biology, chemistry, geology, and astronomy. At CBU and WSSU, we used randomly sampled science questions from practice test banks for the Praxis Series National Teacher’s Exam. At KWU, we used items selected from the General Social Survey and a self-constructed measure of science values.8 At least two test versions were used at each university (WSSU used four separate test versions). Sample questions from the Praxis Series National Teacher’s Exam9 included:
- Which of the following is the dominant source of all or nearly all of the Earth’s energy? (A) Plants, (B) Animals, (C) Coal, (D) Oil, (E) The Sun
- Which of the following is true? (A) Energy may be converted from one form to another, (B) Energy may not be converted from one form to another, (C) The energy that a moving object possesses because of its motion is correctly known as potential energy, (D) Objects which possess energy because of their position are said to have kinetic energy, (E) Most scientists readily agree that energy from nuclear fission will be the chief source of energy by the year 2005.
- Which of the following situations might cause harm to an embryo? (A) The father is RH-positive; the mother, RH-negative, (B) The mother had German measles during the first trimester of pregnancy, (C) The father is RH-negative; the mother, RH-positive, (D) A and B only, (E) B and C only.
- Heavy infections of Trichinella in people may cause a disease called trichinosis; such a situation may best be described as which of the following? (A) Parasitism, (B) Mutualism, (C) Commercialism, (D) Benevolent, (E) Benign.
- Which of the following is the main difference between an organic and an inorganic compound? (A) The former is a living compound, while the latter is a nonliving compound, (B) There are many more of the latter than of the former, (C) The latter can be synthesized only by living organisms, (D) The latter can be synthesized only by nonliving organisms, (E) The former are those that contain carbon.
- On the periodic table the symbol Pb represents which of the following? (A) Iron, (B) Phosphorus, (C) Lead, (D) Plutonium, (E) Potassium.
- Which of the metric terms is closest to the measurement of a new piece of chalk? (A) Meter, (B) Liter, (C) Gram, (D) Decimeter, (E) Kilometer.
- Which of the following is a genetic disorder? (A) Down’s Syndrome, (B) Syphilis, (C) Malaria, (D) Leukemia, (E) Emphysema.
- A litmus test conducted on HCl would have which of the following results? (A) There is no effect on the color of the litmus paper, (B) The litmus paper disintegrates, (C) The litmus paper turns blue, (D) The litmus paper turns red, (E) The carbonation causes oxygen.
- When is the Earth closest to the Sun? (A) During the summer, (B) During the fall, (C) During the winter, (D) During the spring, (E) During the spring and summer.
For each sample, we correlated the participant’s test score with their average [paranormal] belief score. Across all three samples, there was no relationship between the level of science knowledge and skepticism regarding paranormal claims.
In a second unit, students were asked to rate how much they believed in various paranormal and pseudoscientific claims. Again, efforts were made to select a cross-section of pseudoscientific claims. As skeptics, we found writing unbiased items to be a fairly difficult task, but the scale presented below, used in various forms at KWU, CBU, and WSSU, had acceptable reliability.10 Questions included:
Please rate how much you believe the following statements. Use the 7-point scale provided.
1=I do not believe in this at all; 2=I doubt very much that this is real; 3=I doubt that this is real; 4=I am unsure if this is real or not; 5=I believe this may be real; 6=I believe this is real; 7=I strongly believe this is real
- A person’s personality can be easily predicted by their handwriting.
- A person can use their mind to see the future or read other people’s thoughts.
- A person’s astrological sign can predict a person’s personality and their future.
- An ape-like mammal, sometimes called Bigfoot, roams the forests of America.
- The body can be healed by placing magnets on to the skin near injured areas.
- Healing can be promoted by placing a wax candle in your ear and lighting it.
- A dinosaur, sometimes called the Loch Ness Monster, lives in a Scottish lake.
- Sending chain letters can bring you good luck.
- The government is hiding evidence of alien visitors at places such as Area 51.
- Voodoo curses are real and have been known to kill people.
- A broken mirror can bring you bad luck for many years.
- Houses can be haunted by the spirits of people who have died in tragic ways.
- Water can be accurately detected by people using “Y”-shaped tree branches.
- Animals, such as cats and dogs, are sensitive to the presence of ghosts.
Science Test Scores
After scoring this portion of the survey, we used the total number of correct responses as data for each participant. While the scores did show a fair degree of variability, the averages were generally near the midpoint (CBU M=7.42, SD=2.27, out of a possible 15; KWU M=3.52, SD=.33, on a 1 to 5 scale; WSSU M=5.8, SD = 1.96, out of a possible 10).11
Paranormal / Pseudoscientific Beliefs
Unlike previous studies that have examined specific beliefs (e.g., UFOs, ESP), we were interested in these beliefs as a whole. We wanted a single representative score for each participant. We calculated the average belief score for each participant, with higher ratings indicating greater overall belief. When looking at these scores, remember that the rating ranged from “No belief” to “Total belief.” Looking across the three samples, the average belief rating was at or below the midpoint of the scale (CBU M=1.96, SD=.76, on a 7- point scale; KWU M=2.52, SD=.58, on a 5-point scale; WSSU M=2.9, SD=.91, on a 7-point scale), although there were individuals ranging from complete skeptics to complete believers.
Science Test Scores and Paranormal / Pseudoscientific Beliefs
We were interested in whether science test scores were correlated with paranormal beliefs. For each sample, we correlated the participant’s test score with their average belief score. Across all three samples, the correlation between test scores and beliefs was non-significant (CBU r(65)=-.136, p>.05; KWU r(69)=.107, p>.05; WSSU r(70)=.031, p>.05). In other words, there was no relationship between the level of science knowledge and skepticism regarding paranormal claims.
Wanted: A Good Baloney Detector!
These results are consistent with the notion that having a strong scientific knowledge base is not enough to insulate a person against irrational beliefs. Students who scored well on these tests were no more or less skeptical of pseudoscientific claims than students who scored very poorly. Apparently, the students were not able to apply their scientific knowledge to evaluate these pseudoscientific claims. We suggest that this inability stems in part from the way that science is traditionally presented to students: Students are taught what to think but not how to think.
These results need to be replicated using different materials and participants, although the diversity of measures and samples presented here suggests that there is some validity to our conclusions. While some might contend that our tests did not fully measure science knowledge, we counter this concern by emphasizing that our test questions were drawn from national tests designed to assess scientific reasoning. Thus, if there is a bias in our procedure, this bias is entrenched in science education. In our view, addressing the following questions can serve to clarify the relation between science education and pseudoscientific thinking.
First, do pseudoscientific beliefs vary by academic major? If science does discourage such beliefs, then one might suspect that science majors should view these beliefs more skeptically than perhaps religion or art majors. While there is evidence that scientists are more skeptical of claims than other individuals, it is unclear whether this skepticism is readily transferred to undergraduate science majors. After all, strange beliefs seem to be found among students of many disciplines. Unfortunately, our access to samples was too small to adequately test differences between majors.
Second, do pseudoscientific beliefs vary by education level? As students advance through college and gain experience and critical thinking skills, one might expect pseudoscientific beliefs to decrease. Although our data did not address this issue, other studies on skepticism suggest that an individual’s education level may not ward off such beliefs.12
Finally, can academic courses or programs that systematically raise or lower belief in pseudoscience be identified? It is possible that particular courses may encourage or discourage pseudoscientific beliefs. These courses need to be identified, and in the case of the latter, the key elements of these courses need to be disseminated to other science instructors. This is especially important when classroom information can support or contradict information from other sources, such as mass media. Our results suggest that we should not be overly optimistic, but more systematic investigations are needed.
by Michael Shermer and Pat LinseThis 16-page booklet is designed to hone your critical thinking skills. It includes suggestions on what questions to ask, what traps to avoid, specific examples of how the scientific method is used to test pseudoscience and paranormal claims, and a how-to guide for developing a class in critical thinking.
ORDER the 16-page booklet
We hope that our findings force fellow skeptics to rethink some of their assumptions. Science education, in its current form, seems to do little to offset pseudoscientific beliefs, and may in fact give students reason to accept science fiction as science fact. As skeptics and teachers, we need to do more than merely debunk extraordinary claims. While these demonstrations are informative and entertaining, they need to be coupled with thoughtful discussions of scientific reasoning. Carl Sagan suggested that good scientific reasoning demands the same type of skepticism that is needed to buy a good used car. In short, he said that students of science need a good baloney detector.13 We agree. The Skeptics Society’s recent publication of the Baloney Detection Kit that instructs teachers on how to teach just such a course is a step in the right direction.14 Provisional scientific truth must be separated clearly from myth. We urge skeptics to help students gain the necessary skills to make such distinctions both inside and outside the classroom.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: We would like to thank the undergraduate research assistants who helped collect and tabulate the data on this research project: Reggie Andrews, Paul Delph, Stefanie McGee, and Lakisha Pinson. Correspondence concerning this article should be directed to W. Richard Walker, Department of Social Sciences, Winston-Salem State University, Winston-Salem, NC 27110
- Sagan, C. 1996. The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Ballantine; Shermer, M. 1997. Why People Believe Weird Things. New York: W. H. Freeman.
- Gallup, G. H., Jr., and F. Newport. 1991. “Belief in Paranormal Phenomena Among Adult Americans.” Skeptical Inquirer, 15, 137–147; Jaroff, L. 1995. “Weird Science.” Time, 145 May 15, 20, 75–76; McCarthy, P. 1987. “Pseudoteachers.” Omni, July, 74; Sparks, G. G., C. L. Nelson, and R. G. Campbell. 1997. “The Relationship Between Exposure to Televised Messages About Paranormal Phenomena and Paranormal Beliefs.” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 41, 345–358; Zane, J. P. 1994. “Soothsayers as Business Advisors.” The New York Times, Section 4, September 11, 2.
- Ede, A. 2000. “Has Science Education Become an Enemy of Scientific Rationality?” Skeptical Inquirer, 24, 48–51.
- Milburn, J. 2001. “Board Approves New Science Standards With Renewed Emphasis on Evolution. The Salina Journal, February 15, A1.
- Ede, 2000.
- Sparks, G. G., M. Pellechia, and C. Irvine. 1998. “Does Television News About UFOs Affect Viewers’ UFO Beliefs?: An Experimental Investigation.” Communication Quarterly, 46, 284–294.
- Wade, C., and C. Tavris. 2000. Psychology (6th Ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Ankney, R. N. 2000. “Media Reliance and Science Knowledge: Do People Learn Science Information From the Media the Same Way They Learn Political Information?” Poster presented at the annual convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Phoenix, AZ, August.
- Answers to the Praxis Seies National Teacher’s Exam: 1-E; 2-A; 3-D; 4-A; 5-E; 6-C; 7-D; 8-A; 9-D; 10-C.
- Reliability scores were as follows: CBU Cronbach’s alpha = 0.82; KWU Cronbach’s alpha = 0.83; WSSU Cronbach’s alpha = 0.82.
- M = Mean, or average score; SD = Standard Deviation, or the average amount of variation around the mean.
- Levitt, N. 1998. “Why Professors Believe Weird Things.” Skeptic, 6:3 28–35; Siano, B. 1999. “Public Relations: Blue Smoke, Mirrors, and Designer Science.Skeptic, 7:1, 45–55.
- Sagan, 1996.
- Shermer, M. and P. Linse. 2001. The Baloney Detection Kit. Altadena, CA: Millennium Press.
Skeptical perspectives on pseudoscientific beliefs…
- Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time
by Michael Shermer
- In this age of supposed scientific enlightenment, many people still believe in mind reading, past-life regression theory, New Age hokum, and alien abduction. In a no-holds-barred assault on popular superstitions and prejudices, Shermer debunks these nonsensical claims and explores the very human reasons people find otherworldly phenomena, conspiracy theories, and cults so appealing…
ORDER THE PAPERBACK
ORDER THE KINDLE EDITION
ORDER THE APPLE iBOOK
- The Demon-Haunted World:
Science as a Candle in the Dark
by Carl Sagan
- The great astronomer and science writer, Carl Sagan, challenges New Agers and explains social phenomena like UFOs, alien abductions, recovered memories, satanic cults, witch crazes, hallucinations, and how to detect baloney. This is Sagan’s most popular book among skeptics, filled with quotable maxims, popular among college professors as a supplemental text for students, but a classic for everyone who cares about living in a sane and safe world without superstition. ORDER THE BOOK.
Watch The Baloney Detection Kit Video on YouTube
- Do You Believe in Dragons? (irshadonline.org)
- America, the Beautiful (And Nutty): A Skeptic’s Lament (wired.com)
- Unverified Results: The History of Scientific Research into ESP [Pseudoscience] (io9.com)
- Pseudoscience harming unis – journal (news.com.au)
- Growth of Pseudoscience Harming Australian Universities (science.slashdot.org)
- Bad science is normal (pseudoscience is neither) (heterodoxology.com)
- Blood Typing Facts (rhesusnegativebloodgroup.com)