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A scientist argues Creationists might be right

I thought in light of the ongoing discussion going on here, it might be interesting to mention an article came out today in The Scientist: What Neo-Creationists Get Right.

I disagree with the first two points of the author, but I think he’s on to something here:

“The third noteworthy point IDers make has its roots, paradoxically, in a kind of psychological empiricism. Millions of people believe they directly experience the reality of a Creator every day, and to them it seems like nonsense to insist that He does not exist. Unless they are lying, God’s existence is to them an observable fact. Denying it would be like insisting that my love for my children was an illusion created by neurotransmitters. I can’t imagine a scientific argument in the world that could convince me that I didn’t really love my children. And if there were such an argument, I have to admit I’d be reluctant to accept it, however compelling it appeared on paper.”

One of the points I tried to make in the discussion on DD’s post is that we have to meet religious folks where they live.  When you deal with a group of people who are told they will go to hell if they talk to you, you have to first address their cognitive barriers before you can even have a conversation.

Telling religious people–and I have had students from all sorts of religions, not just Christianity-–that they don’t have to give up a core tenet of their life to learn about evolution is sometimes the only way to make progress.

You can shout at people all day and they’ll never change their minds. Or you can try to meet them halfway and say that when we do science, we assume there is no higher power of any sort, and that miracles don’t happen. And you can let that go when you *aren’t* doing science.

This has worked very well for me in my 15+ years of teaching evolution.  I still have a few students that think I’m the Whore of Babylon; most of my religious students are OK with the class, and really enjoy it. Some have gone on to grad school in evolutionary biology, in fact.

The author of the article I cited also made this additional point:

When {creationists} say that some proponents of evolution are blind followers, they’re right. A few years ago I covered a conference of the American Atheists in Las Vegas. I met dozens of people there who were dead sure that evolutionary theory was correct though they didn’t know a thing about adaptive radiation, genetic drift, or even plain old natural selection. They came to their Darwinism via a commitment to naturalism and atheism not through the study of science. They’re still correct when they say evolution happens. But I’m afraid they’re wrong to call themselves skeptics unencumbered by ideology. Many of them are best described as zealots. Ideological zeal isn’t incompatible with good science; its coincidence with a theory proves nothing about that theory’s explanatory power.”

This ought to be fun. Discuss :D

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Bug_girl has a PhD in Entomology, and is a pointy-headed former academic living in Ohio. She is obsessed with insects, but otherwise perfectly normal. Really! If you want a daily stream of cool info about bugs, follow her Facebook page or find her on Twitter.

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56 Comments

  1. I agree, I have a similar point of view. Science is a belief system, where you believe that the people did the experiments that they are describing. No single person can understand all the science knowledge and even if they have a broad knowledge it is impossible to know all the details involved.

    And being a follower of several skeptical blogs, I have noticed that people like Dawkings and myers are unquestionable, even if they themselves don’t impose that on anyone. It simply happen, it is probably a natural condition, to follow leaders. Even I must confess that have a seed of those feelings before and felled personally attacked when reading some disagreement to someone that I follow.

  2. It isn’t important to me that evolution is taught in school. What is important to me is that we teach the scientific method. I don’t know all the mechanisms of evolution, but I “believe” in it because I understand how science works, and I can see some of the evidence for myself – every time I eat chicken, I see 3 major wing bones.
    When you take the scare out of evolution by admitting that god could be a component, you aren’t just meeting fundamentalists half way, you are compromising the scientific method – admitting a hypothesis for which there is no evidence, and can be no evidence. And teaching kids that that is part of the scientific method is *wrong*.

  3. This isn’t the authors main point but it fundamental wrong headed way to look at things.

    Denying it would be like insisting that my love for my children was an illusion created by neurotransmitters.

    That is a really poor way to describe neurobiology. The explanation of neurotransmitters doesn’t make love an illusion any more than General Relativity makes obits an illusion.

    The scientist also doesn’t seem to grasp how non-scientist or scientist from other fields understand science.

    I met dozens of people there who were dead sure that evolutionary theory was correct though they didn’t know a thing about adaptive radiation, genetic drift, or even plain old natural selection.

    A scientist in a field can try to reproduce experiments or read through journal articles to truly understand all the evidence underpinning a theory. A layperson rarely can do either of these. If it is a subject they are interested in they may grasp a few key concepts, but they aren’t going to know details.

    The layperson “believes” things for a variety of heuristic reasons. One of those more useful rules of thumb is confidence that the scientific method works. As for a zealous commitment to naturalism…

    During these past nearly 400 years we have found time and time again that natural phenomenon have natural causes. The result has been repeated again and again on subjects as diverse as lightning, earthquakes, disease, and the orbits of the planets. It is this result that gives us confidence if not certainty to state that “all natural phenomenon have natural causes.”

    Similarly, the scientific method has shown us time and again that proposed supernatural explanations for natural phenomenon are wrong. Poseidon is not causing earthquakes. Jesus is not sending lightning bolts to the unworthy. The Black Death was not caused by the alignment of the planets. This result gives us extreme confidence if not certainty to state that “there is no supernatural.”

  4. This argument


    illusion created by neurotransmitters. I can’t imagine a scientific argument in the world that could convince me that I didn’t really love my children.

    always drives me nuts. I never understand why love being a physical effect the the brain is supposed to somehow devalue it. It is what it is no matter what 1)anyone wants it to be or 2)what it actually turns out to be. Either it has value for you or it doesn’t.

    As to the naturalistic process and atheists I agree with the assessment, but not the conclusion. I personally believe evolution is correct and literal interpretations of the bible are not. This is not based on any expertise in either.

    I come to this conclusion because I understand that evolution is the result of the scientific theory and by extension is based on the evaluation of multiple lines of evidence. Creationism is based on “because this book says so.” (god says so being an extension of the same argument since presumably you know this because the bible says so).

    Anyway, if you must be an expert in all opinions on any topic in order to decide if it is valid then noone can have an understanding of anything. After all, who among the throngs of creationism supporters is an expert in their own religion let alone all the others in existence?

    So why go with facts as opposed to your religion of choice? As Carl Sagan said, science delivers the goods. Every facet of daily life in America is a reminder of that fact. You may not like the results but they are undeniable.

  5. It does rather seem that the core issue is:
    Who/what are the causes making [some] believers think that evolution and religion are incompatible?

    Is it other people pushing creationism and saying evolution is evil?
    Is it some atheists saying evolution disproves the existence of deities?
    Is it people misinterpreting what evolution is, and if so, is that down to a poor presentation of evolution by scientists, or a distorted presentation of evolution by people who don’t like/believe in it, or by the believer themselves somehow conflating “Evolution doesn’t seem to need a deity” with “Evolution removes proof I would like to support my faith”.

    When it comes to:
    Millions of people believe they directly experience the reality of a Creator every day, and to them it seems like nonsense to insist that He does not exist. Unless they are lying, God’s existence is to them an observable fact. Denying it would be like insisting that my love for my children was an illusion created by neurotransmitters.
    I think the final comparison is actually a rather bogus one.
    If someone loves their children, that’s an emotion they experience. They and their children are both demonstrably real.

    When it comes to the claimed evidence for the existence of a deity, along the lines of a regular person seeing the touch of a loving deity in all the nice things around it’s not a case of someone lying, to themselves or others. It’s a case of them interpreting reality in a way that supports what they believe, and that’s the case whether or not their belief is actually correct.
    If they’re not actually asking “Is there some other explanation for that nice thing apart from my deity”, they may well be being extraordinarily selective, but possibly quite unconsciously, or with the very best of intentions.

    You can ask “What are the neurochemical underpinnings of emotion” without having any effect on the experience (reality?) of the emotion itself in just the same way you can ask “How does colour vision work” without fear of somehow losing your experience of ‘red’.

    It may be that some people have been brought up to think that understanding something might take the magic away, though that’s rather getting towards an art-vs-science “two cultures” issue (which, as we all know, is really down to some of the less-good arts types just having a chip on their shoulder due to being bad at maths).

  6. Victor,
    I wouldn’t call science a belief system, though to an extent it’s a trust system.

    However, what makes the trusting hugely less risky is the expectation that the more important a claim is, the more likely there will be follow-up and false claims will be detected.

  7. Science is a belief system, where you believe that the people did the experiments that they are describing

    I could not disagree more. I can do the experiments myself, and in many cases I have. I can go to my local museum and see the evidence that other people used for their research. And if I trust that experiments have been performed, that trust has been earned by reporting previous results that I can check myself.
    I have seen, with my own eyeballs, fossils of feathered dinosaurs. No trust or belief required.

  8. *Sigh*

    Skepchick is sliding downhill.

    Sorry, but all of this strikes me as some serious nonsense. If someone has the core belief that the world was created by in a puff of purple smoke by an invisible sky-creature that they believe exists because they feel like it does, then the role of science is precisely to ask for evidence of it or else disregard it in terms of explaining anything — and that’s what science is for, after all. The question isn’t whether they can hold onto this belief or that belief but whether it will influence their scientific work. If so, they’re doing bad science or not science at all — and entering the realm of Creationism/Intelligent Design, both of which posit unevidenced teleology as a driving force of the universe and particularly of biology.

    It’s in this that I have a particular problem with “alternative theories” for the origin of life and diversity being taught in schools. It’s for these reasons that I don’t support them. They make not just for bad science but for a view of the world in which individuals have meaning assigned to them a priori rather than having to create it for themselves.

    As far as science being a belief system, if it is then it’s the only one that demands that others be able to replicate the results of those beliefs. It allows for nothing miraculous and not reproducible, and these things alone would place it in an entirely different category than any religious belief system. If you ask me whether I believe in science, I’ll reply that the question makes as much sense as believing in power tools. I don’t believe in evolutionary biology and neither should anyone else. It’s something to be tested constantly, not an article of faith.

    I see a lot of conflation of different issues here. This whole train of thought that started with writerdd’s statement of support for ID and her statement that she’d have no problem with it being taught in schools jumped the tracks at the outset. It’s momentum seems to be carrying it toward a cliff at the moment.

  9. There is one key point where I agree with the scientist and bug_girl on this. You don’t need to teach atheism with evolution. But I don’t think this point was every in contention.

    What is in contention is how non-teachers ought to talk about evolution outside of the classroom or research lab. The problem with addressing this question is it often presupposes that there is one right way to do it. If we are concerned about “blind followers” we shouldn’t be advocating a single party line.

    The best thing to do is for people to make the argument the way they are most comfortable with. We can and should borrow ideas and rhetorical devices from each others. But we shouldn’t waste too much of our energy arguing over whose rhetorical devices are better.

  10. I have a kid and fully accept that my love for him is just chemistry.

    As far as the expience of the existence of god goes, according to an article on cnn(?) I read a while back, it is indistinguishable from experiences some people have after taking hallucinogens.

    I will meet them half way as soon as they meet me halfway. When they acknowledge that there is absolutely no evidence that their mythology is true, and that their diety is any more ‘real’ than any other mythological being.

    They don’t have to change what they believe, but they need to admit that they do it despite evidence, and not because of it.

    And bug_girl, if they don’t have to give up their beliefs to be scientists, what happens if they find proof that some aspect of their beliefs is wrong?

    Do you expect them to give up the belief, or to twist the evidence to support that belief?

  11. On a note related to this, I attended a talk by Michael Dowd (author of Thank God for Evolution) last night. He’s an evangelist for something he calls evolutionary theology. I think he’s wrong on a number of particulars, but I still think his message is a positive one… and he is someone who talks to both the religious and the skeptical in their own languages.

    My critique of his talk and his reaction to that critique are over at Hyphoid Logic. Even though I do disagree with some of his stuff, I think he’s probably got a better handle on things than what I’ve been seeing floated here over the last couple of days.

  12. TM asked:

    And bug_girl, if they don’t have to give up their beliefs to be scientists, what happens if they find proof that some aspect of their beliefs is wrong?

    Actually, more often than not, they tend to give up the belief.
    Which is another reason I think saying that evolution and religion don’t *have* to be mutually exclusive is useful. You give them the space to come to that decision themselves.

    Many, many psychological studies show it’s extremely difficult to change someone’s mind after high school age.

    Also, did everyone miss the part where I said:

    when we do science, we assume there is no higher power of any sort, and that miracles don’t happen. .

  13. I think the important thing to remember here is that screaming “there is no god in evolution” at people is only going drive them into fundamentalism. if that’s your goal, just come right out and say it. If your goal is to show people that there is more to the world what one mistranslated book has to say, you’d best be prepared to do so one step at a time. I don’t know what the Hell is so wrong with this particular step, but I’d venture to guess any other steps would meet the same reaction around here. I know you’re all lashing out because you see it as a step towards religion becoming policy, and for you, it would be, but there are a Hell of a lot of people who already live that way, and just how to you propose to bring them over here if you kick over every bridge between the two?

  14. I disagree with the third point (your first quotation). It’s quite a useless argument. No (sane) atheist denies that religious people love God, we deny the existence of God, even though personally I am not comfortable with that either. I don’t think we can deny the existence of anything, at most we can make a rational judgment based on the lack of evidence.

    To elaborate on my first point, someone may be hallucinating and think that he has children and experience real love for these “fictitious” kids. You cannot tell this person that his love is not real. But you can tell him that his children, which he loves, aren’t!

    Saying a Creator does not exist, does not imply that we also think what these people experience does not exist. The experiences are real, they’re simply mistaken about the source!

  15. Leart–

    You can TELL people stuff all day, and you won’t change their belief. (Exhibit A: all my Baptist friends who try to convert me.)

    You have to SHOW people why they are wrong.
    And you have to have them be WILLING to look at the evidence.

    By allowing my students to hold two conflicting world views simultaneously, I give them permission to listen. Until you can open that door for them, they won’t listen, and they won’t look at any evidence.

    The quote refers to the emotional investment people have in their religion.
    –People are not rational.–
    You have to deal with that if you want to create change.

    I’ve been teaching evolution for over 15 years. I am an Atheist. I have no interest in teaching creationism, or allowing it in my classroom.

    However, I know that if I attend to the *emotional* reaction religious students have towards evolution, I will make a lot more progress in getting them to learn the material, and to understand the process.
    That then opens additional doors that let them begin to ask questions about their beliefs.

    If you have a way for me to walk up to a fundamentalist and say some magic word that makes them see the light, by all means, bring it on. We could use it.
    So far I haven’t seen it.

  16. I’ve always thought the critical difference was not any specific content to their respective beliefs. The degree of scrupulousness exercised in deciding to which beliefs to give one’s assent.

    It is in the nature of religious belief (at least for many Protestants that “having faith” means drawing a line beyond which they will not think nor imagine. “Here be dragons” they seem to say.

    Considered in this way, bigoted and relatively ignorant evolutionists are just as intellectually lazy as the most ardent thick-skinned fire-and-brimstone biblical young earth creationist.

    The essential difference is in the end ethical in nature.

  17. I met dozens of people there who were dead sure that evolutionary theory was correct though they didn’t know a thing about adaptive radiation, genetic drift, or even plain old natural selection.

    Most people believe that relativity is correct, even though they don’t know a thing about Lorentzian transformations or the equivalence principle. So?

    As they say, appeal to false authority is a fallacy, but scientists are not false authorities. Even if we don’t understand the details, we can understand why it’s reliable.

  18. If one doesn’t believe it is reasonable to believe in a god, then being asked to say it is reasonable to believe in a god and evolution at the same time is being asked to lie. Perhaps you are not necessarily asking anyone to do that, maybe telling them not to say anything if they don’t believe it. But then, they are being asked to lie or keep quiet. It’s not hard to see why this would upset someone.

    I don’t think insisting people jump straight to atheism is going to win converts, nor do I make much of an effort to changes people’s religious beliefs unless I consider them harmful. Nevertheless, when subject arises, I say the supernatural claims are all nonsense, because to say anything else would be dishonest. I think that this dynamic causes the problem for a lot people; they are ok with people reconciling god and science, but they are not ok with encouraging that themselves since they think it is a flawed conclusion.

  19. If in your universe, the only way to lead someone through stages is to manipulate them into it, I suppose so. Prefer to think of it as weaning them off of creationism, but hey, who am I to tell you how to look at it, right?

  20. It’s called communication. Learning to speak to people in language that they understand. Is it manipulation trying to learn Chinese if you want to talk to someone from China? Is it manipulation trying to learn Japanese customs if you want to do business in Japan without offending people?

  21. Leading them is manipulating them. You are taking them and guiding them in the direction you want them to go by using their existing preconceptions, needs, and beliefs.

    Getting a child to voluntarily do what you want, involved manipulating them into the belief that it is the ‘right’ thing to do.

    And I really can’t believe that you, of all people, after the last rant, are objecting to a word choice.

  22. Who said I object? Where do you get that?

    As I recall, I said, “hey, who am I to tell you how to look at it, right?” *looks up* Yeah, that’s what I said. How the fuck does that get misunderstood? I know I come off as an angry contrarian a lot of the time, but I meant everything I said in that comment 100% literally.

  23. Mind you, following all of these threads, and not feeling confident enough to contribute–

    Where does the Theory of Evolution actively deny a creator? At best, it explains why a creator in utterly unnecessary, and it describes the current state of biology (as in “the way living things are,” not the field of research) better than special creation.

    As much as I dislike the idea of giving any credence to irrational philosophies being taught in the classroom, how else can we even get the “other side” to listen and understand?

  24. I personally know only the basics of evolutionary theory, as the last quote suggests. This is mostly due to the fact that I have never had much of an interest in biology, and getting in to the details puts me to sleep. Sorry! I would assume many biologists would feel the same about the things that interest me.

    The difference is that skeptics learn to determine where the truth is, even if they don’t necessarily know the truth. I trust that as a whole, scientists are doing good science and promoting the truth. Is this ideological, and am I no better than a creationist who simply believes his bible?

    I don’t think so, and it’s because I am always open to having my mind changed, and to following the science – if the theory changes, so does my support. Religion doesn’t offer that option. If the author truly believes that to be a “true supporter” one must be an expert, then evolution is doomed and creationism (whose “details” are the rather simple “godidit”) will be highly supported.

  25. (Sorry for the double post but I guess a little more explanation is in order.)

    For example, let’s assume that the universe was created by some Creator. Okay?

    The very first question which comes to my mind is, “How exactly does that work? HOW did the Creator create stuff?”

    At that point, creationists start talking about “mystery”… which is just “spooky magic”.

  26. I realized what makes me so upset about people appeasing Creationists and others with faith based beliefs. Reality doesn’t work that way. Agreeing with someone to not “offend” them opens the door for them to have any wacky belief and to then expect your acquiescence to them having and acting on it.

    If Creationism is ok because some people believe the bible says God did it, why aren’t 50 year old men marrying 13 year old women ok? Some people believe the bible says that is ok too; that would be the 50 year old men who say that God told them to do it.

    Any belief can come out of “God said so”, or out of belief unencumbered by facts or logic. That is what the quacks and charlatans use to prey on people.

  27. Telling people in a classroom that it is possible to both believe in God and also to accept and study evolution is not”appeasing Creationists.” It is a simple statement of fact.

    My evidence? I happen to know a bunch of people who do exactly that! You may well argue that they are not rational, but guess what? Lots of people aren’t! Lots of people go through their daily lives in a haze of irrational and rational thoughts all mixed together. Are all these people somehow not worthy of your attention? If you go around insisting that everyone engage in only rational thought before they interact with you, pretty soon you’re going to be sitting by yourself in an empty room.

    How can you possibly argue that bug_girl is appeasing ANYONE? She is opening a door to a wonderful world beyond their imagining, and inviting them to step through! Bravo to her!

  28. Lots of people go through their daily lives in a haze of irrational and rational thoughts all mixed together.

    Uh, change that to “all people.” Anyone who thinks they are purely rational is actually delusional.

  29. I agree with writerdd on this 100%. Perhaps, a couple of hundred years ago, it might have been possible for you to have a good understanding of the greater part of “knowledge”. But today? Forget it!

    If you had three lives to live you still would be unable to get a handle on even the smallest field of human understanding.

    We are all irrational creatures, who do irrational things all the time. If we weren’t capable of doing irrational things we wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning, because you’d spend your whole life trying to rationally figure out whether or not the floor would be there when you stood up.

    Zeno’s paradox of crossing the road (to cross it you have to get halfway first, to get to that point you have to get to halfway of that, ad.inf) logically proves you can’t move from A to B, but that doesn’t stop anyone going for a stroll!

  30. writerdd, there is a difference. Not every decision requires a rational process to answer. Whether I have 3 eggs for breakfast or 4 requires a decision. The rational content of that decision is pretty much irrelevant. I can obsess about nutrition, cholesterol, protein, saturated fat, my blood lipid profile and how it fits with what else I have eaten and am going to eat or I can just go with my feelings.

    Important decisions (in my opinion) require a more rational approach to increase the likelihood of a satisfactory outcome. If you can’t analyze the decision process, you can’t tell if that decision process is good (likely to produce a satisfactory outcome) or not.

    All religions depend upon promulgation of their beliefs by self-proclaimed religious authorities. A satisfactory outcome to those self-proclaimed religious authorities may not be satisfactory to those expected to comply with their authority. A religious authority that receives 10% of the income of the congregation may feel that is a satisfactory outcome, even if individuals cannot then afford health care. He may say “don’t worry, God will provide”.

    People may delude themselves into giving money to their self-proclaimed religious authority and not retaining any backup other than prayer because “God will provide”.

    Zeno’s paradox doesn’t show a flaw in rational thinking, what it shows is the problem in using flawed rational thinking. Another name for flawed rational thinking is irrational thinking. Unless you can analyze your thinking process you can’t tell if it is flawed or not. Some can’t tell even then.

  31. We are all irrational creatures, who do irrational things all the time. If we weren’t capable of doing irrational things we wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning, because you’d spend your whole life trying to rationally figure out whether or not the floor would be there when you stood up.

    There’s some truth to this, but sensible people also know when they are over-analyzing simple decisions and know it isn’t rational wasting their time wondering if the floor will be there.
    If it turned out the floor wasn’t there, we’d look out the window for a bulldozer before we looked for angels or the Incredible Hulk.
    No one can be rational all the time, but you are in a community of people who value rationality and (on the whole) we do the best we can to live by those principles.

  32. I got as far as comment 11, nodding my head in agreement with most comments, when I saw this and had to log in : “As far as the expience of the existence of god goes, according to an article on cnn(?) I read a while back, it is indistinguishable from experiences some people have after taking hallucinogens.”

    …yeah. The last time I did LSD about 15 years ago, I was at a grateful dead concert, having a hellride of a bad trip. At some point during the so-called “drums in space” segment of the show, everyone started applauding, for reasons unknown to me. I looked down at the floor of the coliseum and there it was! An army tank made out of legos with flashing lights on it! Wow,the dead were known for weird props, but they had really outdone themselves that time. I joined in the applause.

    About 20 minutes and a million hallucinations later, when it was intermission, the lights went on. Turns out my lego tank was the taping section (a little cordoned off section near the stage where people are allowed to record the show – you know, the little lights were the “on” buttons). It was then that I truly understood the mighty capacity for deception in the brain if the chemicals are just so.

    God is chemicals, y’all. So is love, but so what? It still feels good.

  33. “I still have a few students that think I’m the Whore of Babylon”

    Bug_girl,
    I continued reading the comments,when I started wondering what your specific experiences have been with religious students. This is college, right? It’s a biology course? Is it at a non-religious school? I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around college-age people attending a secular university, signing up (unless it’s a requirement, which would make more sense) for a course on biology, then getting bent out of shape that they are being taught science in a science classroom. Is that what’s happening?

    It seems crazy to me that there needs to be any religion OR atheism discussed in a college-level science course. I understand your POV regarding trying to not just snap “take it up with your pastor, bub, this is a classroom”, and I agree that you can catch more flies with honey,but it’s really sad that this even comes up.

  34. Yes, that is exactly what is happening.
    And it is depressing.

    When I taught a course on environmental ethics, at least 20% of the class had the attitude that Jebus is coming soon, so it doesn’t matter what we do to the environment.

  35. daedulus2u,
    All religions depend upon promulgation of their beliefs by self-proclaimed religious authorities. A satisfactory outcome to those self-proclaimed religious authorities may not be satisfactory to those expected to comply with their authority. A religious authority that receives 10% of the income of the congregation may feel that is a satisfactory outcome, even if individuals cannot then afford health care. – ???

    Surely, if you are going to promote the value of rationale thought, you must appreciate the weakness of all encompassing claims. Though I have been approached any number of times by Buddhists monks on the street asking for a little something since they don’t own much more than their clothes and their begging bowl, they never once asked for a full 10% or tried to sign me up. The Pope isn’t self-appointed, he is elected by the College of Cardinals. Etc., etc., etc.

    I don’t know whether to be saddened or disgusted when skeptics buy into the Fundamentalist Christian worldview that the only true religion is bible thumping, literal, and aggressive. I would cite Saint Augustine and indicate that he said that when the bible conflicted with observable material reality, then the bible must be read metaphorically at that point.

    Or would you toss out St. Augustine as a Christian authority in favor of the much more considered religious beliefs of Warren Jeffs or Jimmy Swaggart?

    Now, I won’t be an apologist for the many transgressions of religions of the millenia, but if you cannot distinguish between a Quaker pacifist and a dagger wielding Aztec high priest … then I just don’t know what to say to you.

    Besides, if someone is willing to base their belief system on science for all that can be observed in the universe, why get offended if one believes the underlying cause is a divinity vs. a mathematical model that offers no testable hypotheses at this time like superstring? Once you get outside the realm of the test tube and the provable, why bust someone’s chops overs prefering hymns to mind boggling equations?

    Finally, this notion that either someone is capable of rationality or not is deeply flawed and at odds with what we know from psychology. Do we toss out calculus and the laws of motion, because Newton also practiced alchemy? Must one assume that because a person holds certain religious beliefs, that then their entire rationale capacity must be discounted?

  36. Bug Girl,

    if you’re the Whore of Babylon, you need to be packaging and selling whatever face cream you use, because time has been incredibly kind to you, what, 4000 years and you’re still alive?

    There were a couple statements in this discussion which concerned me. Mainly because people twisted the original statements away from their original meaning (words changed, not simply out-of-context):
    Morisal’s “and her statement that she’d have no problem with it being taught in schools” in regards to WriterDD’s previous blog entry. She never said that. She said that “Even if ID were taught in public schools, the world would not end and America would not turn into a third-world country.” She’s saying the result would not be as bad as it’s often portrayed. in no way did she say she supported it.

    and Josh Spinks’ misrepresentation of bug_girl’s reply to writerdd “then being asked to say it is reasonable to believe in a god and evolution at the same time is being asked to lie.” the original statement there was that belief in God and evolution don’t have to be mutually exclusive. There was no mention of whether it is reasonable or not. Evolution does not categorically disprove God’s existence, nor does God’s existence categorically disprove evolution. This fact is what was mentioned. It doesn’t require belief or suspension of disbelief. It depends on how God features in an individual’s world-view, and so because it’s not a definitive statement “you can” or “you can’t” you don’t have to subscribe to the notion that he exists or not.

    when you’re going to reply… read the post you’re replying to twice. it helps avoid overlaying your interpretation over the top of what was actually said. copy and paste when you’re essentially quoting to ensure you’re actually answering their points.

    I personally don’t think skepchick is slipping. I actually like the idea that skeptics aren’t all the hardnose “atheism or nothing” creatures that I often see in these circles.

    Railing against people doesn’t change minds. (or at least, not for the benefit of your cause, whatever it may be) meet them somewhere, and figure out how to move from there. Bug_girl and writerdd have both hit this nail on the head, and both seem to have been flamed for it.

    Mark: I prefer mind-boggling equations set to hymns. “2 multiplied by the radius of the circle raised to-the third…” (To Haydn’s Ode to Joy)

  37. Mark, the different religions you mention provide no methods by which they can be distinguished other than “mine is right and yours is wrong, nhah nhah, nhah”.

    The Pope’s belief in his religion is self-determined and self-proclaimed. His actions and his assertion that he is religious convinced the other Cardinals that his religious mojo is the strongest and they should choose him as Pope. There is nothing that any religion has beyond the assertions of self-proclaimed religious people that their religion is correct. The Cardinals are self-proclaimed religious experts too. If one of them decided they no longer believed in religion, would they remain a Cardinal? Of course not.

    Not every religion calls for a 10% tithe. Some do. Not every religion calls for 50 year old men to marry multiple 13 year old women. Some do. Virtually no religion has methods for finding errors in their doctrines and changing them.

    If you want to believe in St Augustine’s “God of the gaps”, go right ahead. It adds nothing to any description of the universe, nothing to the predictive power of anything. I don’t see that it adds anything at all except a handle to grab to trick people with. A handle that many grab to trick themselves with.

    But you are not a skeptic if you fill the gaps in your knowledge with something made-up. If you fill the gaps with something made up, on some level you don’t appreciate that there is a gap there. If you don’t appreciate there is a gap, there is no incentive to look for something real to fill it with.

  38. Geez Daedulus2u,

    I’m used to people claiming that I am not really a Christian, because I don’t read the bible literally (or other religious texts) and I don’t believe that Christianity is sole guide to a meaningful moral life, but this is the first time in over 20 years of skepticism that anyone has told me that I’m not a skeptic. Well done. I always thought that I strove to fill in the gaps in my knowledge with knowledge, but if you say I don’t, then I must not.

    Skepticism and the scientific method do a whiz bang job on the material world and I base my decisions about life on those, but string theory for all its beauty (at the moment) has no more predictive value than God got the ball rolling. If you wish to put non-predictive mathematical models into the gap instead of the notion of a god, I don’t care. I do think you misinterpret St. Augustine though – the fairer reading would be “focus on the moral teachings and don’t go counting up people’s lifespans to get an age for the planet”. I am entirely willing to admit that the Bible and any other religion may be no more than metaphor, but they can be useful metaphors.

    No way to distinguish between religions – seriously, we have no way to distinguish? Never once have I had a Hindu come up to me and say “You don’t worship Vishnu, nah, nah, nah.” yet the number of white-shirted Mormons that have chased me down the street … Naturally, most religions will offer an internal yardstick by which to measure their own piety and their gods’ responsiveness, but that varies from religion to religion. But I am willing to presume until otherwise proven wrong that intelligent adults can come up with their own set of criteria by which to judge religions. If your only criteria is that if it is religion, it is crap then there is no data I could offer for useful discussion.

    As for the error checking of doctrine, no religion has got it down as well as science. However, some do. A key feature of some branches of Judaism has been the constant debate over Talmud and doctrine. Catholicism no longer practices Mass in Latin after extended theological debate. The Episcopal Church in the US is split and out of sync with the worldwide Anglican Church over the ordination of an openly gay bishop. None of these processes have the same Occam’s Razor strength as science, but failing to recognize how religions differ and how they evolve is a failure vision and logic. Religions do grow and adapt, but I’d hate to inconvenience you with facts. Go ahead, tell me they are still all the same.

  39. Mark, science and skepticism don’t pretend to provide moral rules to live by. If you are looking at science and skepticism for a moral compass, you are not going to find it. I don’t need myth and superstition to generate a set of moral rules to live by either.

    The string theorists are trying to figure out hypotheses that are testable, that is if their ideas can be proven wrong. That makes them fundamentally different than religions. No religion tries to figure out ways to show that its fundamental precepts are wrong.

    There is a difference between skepticism and faith. If you take stuff on faith, even if it is stuff that is otherwise unknowable, you are not a skeptic. If you believe in Russell’s teapot, you are not a skeptic.

    Skeptics believe stuff because they think it corresponds to reality as they know it, not because believing in it provides good do-bee points. Skeptics need more than some person’s say-so to believe something. It has to correspond to other aspects of reality.

    If people need a religion to be a good person, I have no problem with that. Such people are using religion as a tool to help them conform their behavior to something that is acceptable to the rest of us. That is an ok use of religion. It is just about the only ok use of religion that I know of. Such people are not skeptics. If a scientist applies faith-based beliefs to areas other than where they are applying scientific principles, they can continue to function as a scientist. It is tricky, because if they start taking stuff on faith, they stop being scientists.

    You say ” But I am willing to presume until otherwise proven wrong that intelligent adults can come up with their own set of criteria by which to judge religions. If your only criteria is that if it is religion, it is crap then there is no data I could offer for useful discussion.” But then you dismiss my ability to judge religions by the criteria that I have established. You are in effect saying my criteria are crap if my criteria say that religions are crap. Do you understand the logical inconsistency in what you believe?

    I am not saying that religions are crap, but what they are is not science and they are not arrived at via skepticism. To me, that makes them useless for understanding reality. Maybe they are good for something else, perhaps understanding why humans can believe foolish and irrational things.

    Bug-girl gave a reason for believing in souls, that her husband wanted to think of her as his “soul-mate” and she could not reciprocate if she didn’t believe in souls. I don’t want to tell Bug-Girl what she should or should not believe, but believing in souls because someone else wants you to doesn’t seem like a very good reason to me. No person who is a skeptic wants someone else to believe in something simply because the person wants them to. Believing in something on faith is the essence of non-skepticism.

  40. Daedulus2u,

    I fault your skepticism for not being inherently agnostic and you fault mine for not assuming atheism. The unkowable is the unknowable. There could be a teapot, could be a god, could be string, but if it can’t be tested … and yes, I hope string theory does provide a testable hypothesis, but my understanding from what I’ve read is that given the malleable nature of the models, you can tweak the equations to account for just about any data. Retrodiction is not science. It’s cold reading.

    I’m sorry that my approach that skepticism is about methodology and not content doesn’t live up to your standards. I guess I will just have to live with that.

    And I didn’t say your criteria is crap. I just find it not terribly useful. If you don’t appreciate that there is a difference between the Jimmy Swaggarts of the US South and the Buddhist monks of Burma, then I think you limit your understanding of human nature and your ability to guide people to healthy skepticism.

    Personally, I’d rather talk to them and introduce the questions rather than shout at them with what I believe to be the answers. I guess that doesn’t live up to your skeptical bona fides.

  41. Mark, I appreciate that there are many differences between Jimmy Swaggart and the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama happens to be an atheist. The Dalai Lama has also said that if science finds something that contradicts Buddhism, that Buddhism will change.

    Depending on how you define the term, Buddhism can be considered to be a “religion”. It is a very different sort of “religion” than what Jimmy Swaggart practices. I think that they are more different than they are similar. The foundations that religion is built on, that of divine revelation is very different than the foundation that skepticism is built on, that of facts and logic.

    What ever the differences between Christians, Jews, Aztecs and Muslims, those differences have nothing to do with skepticism. At one time Aztecs thought human sacrifice was a good thing, at one time so did Christians, Jews and Muslims. They don’t think it is a good thing now. I think that change is a change for the better. How did that change happen? It did not happen from a skeptical analysis of their religious beliefs and discarding that which didn’t make sense. It occurred because of divine revelation. Divine revelation could change, with people thinking that human sacrifice was a good idea again.

    This actually does happen. Women with postpartum psychosis who become infanticidal often use religious imagery to justify their actions. They appeal to divine revelation to explain why they killed their infant. I have never heard of a woman with postpartum psychosis using skepticism to justify infanticide. The problem with adopting divine revelation as a foundation for one’s life is that there is no way to test it.

    Skepticism can’t be used to test divine revelation. That is the point I was trying to make. As far as skepticism is concerned, each instance of divine revelation is as valid or as invalid as any other. The metaphor that is often used is that it is “like trying to nail jello to the wall, and the lack of success is not the fault of the nail.”

    There is a difference between “skepticism”, and “advocacy for skepticism”. Adopting and legitimizing a theistic viewpoint to “bring along” someone who isn’t a skeptic into being more skeptical isn’t “skepticism”. Skeptics do need to get along with non-skeptics. Non-skeptics need to get along with skeptics too.

    I appreciate that there are differences in religions. My ex was a Quaker who didn’t have an appreciation of religion as other than metaphor. She was shocked when she found out that some people believed in it literally. Completely shocked and even frightened. Frightened that there are people to whom the truth of events as described in the bible are as real as any event that person personally witnessed that morning.

  42. Bug girl, I didn’t mean to imply that you had given up your belief that you didn’t have a soul. I was trying to point out that someone less strong in their skepticism might have given in under such pressure and compromised their belief to preserve a relationship with a loved one.

  43. @bug_girl

    Great post!

    This bit, for me, has particular teeth:

    “Ideological zeal isn’t incompatible with good science; its coincidence with a theory proves nothing about that theory’s explanatory power.”

    I ‘believe’ in evolution not because it’s Science (cap ‘S’), but because it both fits the data *and* is useful…it’s science (small ‘s’).

    Perhaps someday we’ll find something else that both fits the data *better* and is *more* useful…rather unlikely, but if I don’t allow for that to happen, then evolution isn’t science. It’s an ideology.

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