Who cares about atheism?

Some of my Christian readers like me because, they say, I am an atheist but not a New Atheist. I appreciate their support, but I think I might actually be one of those nasty Gnu Atheists. I think I should clarify my position.

I’m thinking about all this because I’ve been asked to review a book called Godbuster: Banishes all known gods. I haven’t read it yet, and I’ll reserve judgement until I have, but at first glance, I’m not sure how a book like this is going to be useful.

When I stopped being a Christian, I was not happy about it. There are a great many Christian tropes about atheists: they’re just too proud to submit to God; they’re just angry at God; they’re just too selfish to stop sinning; they hate God. None of those were true of me at the time. My heart was not “hardened against God”. I really wanted to believe. I just couldn’t.

Photo by David Shankbone. Source: Wikimedia Commons

That’s not the case anymore. I like the universe without God in it a lot more than I liked it when I thought there was an Almighty watching over it. I don’t think there is a God (or gods, or godesses), and I’m glad about that. The idea of worship now seems servile and unpleasant to me. But I’m happy for those who want to engage in it to do so.

Overall, I think religion is a net source of harm in the world. If religion were wiped from the planet, it would be no loss. If there are good reasons to be moral (and I think there are) then we don’t need religion to tell us what to do. There are thousands of people who find meaning in life without religion, and I do not think that’s because we are better or more intelligent than religious people. I’m confident anyone can find meaning without religion. I think the truth claims of religion are false, and that the benefits of religion can also be achieved without a religious framework. Religion is unnecessary.

I freely concede, however, that for many individual adherents faith is a net positive. Here I disagree with those atheists who think that religion is bad for everybody, and those who consider their private faith a positive thing are simply delusional. I think there are many people of faith who gain a great deal from their religion without it doing them or those around them much harm. The atheist counter-argument is that belief in God is necessarily irrational, and behaving irrationally is always harmful. I’m not so sure about this.  One of the lessons of psychology is that we pretty much all hold some irrational beliefs, and some of them do us some good. For another, I’m not sure all religious belief is irrational. The kind of religion criticised on this blog is irrational, and to the extent that religion is irrational, it must be opposed. But there are religious believers who accept the findings of science, who behave logically and rationally, and who simply think that religion and science are non-overlapping magisteria. I don’t accept their arguments, but that’s fine. They’re not forcing me to share their faith. Fundamentalism, of course, makes empirical, scientifically testable truth claims all the time: miracles happen; prayers are answered; the universe is <10,000 years old; a catastrophic flood ca. 4,000 years ago destroyed almost all life. These empirical falsehoods are used to bolster a belief system which does harm to its adherents and those around them. But that’s not true of all Christianity, much less all religion.

Indeed, Dawkins and Sam Harris, et al, don’t really take on these more intellectually defensible forms of Christianity in their books, partly because their arguments are much less easy to dismiss than the ludicrous claims of fundamentalists. Sam Harris comes closest, by arguing that liberal Christians don’t do enough to oppose fundamentalists, and that by sharing some beliefs with the fundamentalists, they lend some legitimacy to the harmful beliefs of the extremists. This is a pretty lousy argument. It’s true that far too many Christians and Muslims are too quiet about the extremists in their midst, but it’s not true of all of them. In an epic post called “Why young-Earth creationism needs to be killed with fire“, the Christian Fred Clark absolutely storms into the problems of fundamentalism. The best feminist blogs I read are written by Christians too.

As for the latter part of the argument (that liberal religion shares beliefs with fundamentalism), well, I too share many beliefs with fundamentalists. I think that the world is round, that drinking water is a good idea, that North America is a continent, and that murder is bad. Sure, these aren’t religious beliefs, but I have significant overlap with the crazies on matters of reality, of philosophy, and even morality, and this does not make it difficult for me to part ways with them where they head off into the land of the unbelievable. The fact that the mainstream believers share some beliefs with the dangerous ones is not necessarily a problem.

So while at the moment I think religion does more harm than good, I don’t think that’s a necessary truth. And, obviously, a world with no religion in it could easily be a terrible place. I think religion can be reformed so the harmful parts are removed. This is where I part ways with many New Atheists. I also think this is much more likely to succeed (especially in the short term) than getting rid of religion altogether. Asking people to reject religion wholesale is asking them to make a radical transformation in their worldview and identity. Not many people are willing to do this. On the other hand, convincing them that it’s perfectly possible to be a believer who accepts science, embraces LGBT people, and actively pursues social justice is comparatively realistic (lots of people already do it).

So why Godbuster? I suspect I’ll agree with it, because I don’t find the gods of any religion plausible. But so what? I don’t care what people think about Allah, Yahweh, Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, or any other deity. I care that all humans have equal rights, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age, or geographical location. I care that we pursue policies that reduce social inequality. I care that we do everything we can to halt climate change. I care that children have the access to education that will empower them to make good, informed choices about how to live their lives. If people feel inspired to pursue these things because of their faith, that’s fine by me.

Do you disagree with this post? Good, I’m still working out my thoughts on this subject. I composed it last week, and re-reading it before posting, I find that I’m already mentally writing a counter-argument. I think I’ll add to these thoughts next time.

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About jonnyscaramanga

I grew up as a Christian fundamentalist in the UK. Now I am writing a book and blog about what that's like, and what fundamentalists believe.

Posted on May 12, 2014, in Atheism, Christianity, Creationism, Fundamentalism and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 77 Comments.

  1. >>So while at the moment I think religion does more harm than good, I don’t think that’s a necessary truth. And, obviously, a world with no religion in it could easily be a terrible place. I think religion can be reformed so the harmful parts are removed.

    I agree with you on this, and hence I believe that the important battle is for secularism: the separation of politics and religion. The case for secularism should unite both atheists as well religious people, rather than to divide them.

    >>I don’t care what people think about Allah, Yahweh, Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, or any other deity.

    Though there are people who venerate Buddha as a deity, he’s not considered as one in Buddhism, i.e. the movement build upon his teachings.

    • Thanks! I knew someone would pull me up on listing Buddha as a deity, but I decided to include him since, as you say, some people do venerate him that way.

    • @Mordanicus | May 12, 2014 at 9:30 am
      “I think religion can be reformed ”

      “I believe that the important battle is for secularism: the separation of politics and religion. The case for secularism should unite both atheists as well religious people, rather than to divide them.”

      I agree with you on the above two points.

  2. For many people, religious belief is an important core part of how they define themselves. Argument will not budge this. Better to argue, citing believers who take the more enlightened view, that creationism (or homophobia or sexism or, historically now on the whole, racism) are not really part of that religious core. See my own Anti-Creationists need to think about tactics; http://wp.me/p21T1L-2O

    • I’m sorry Paul, I think you’re wrong about this. It isn’t my place, as an atheist, to persuade a Christian fundamentalist that creationism is crap Christianity. I can point them at someone like Fred Clark who argues that vehemently, but ultimately my argument for evolution will be weakened if I try to squeeze it into being compatible with Christianity.
      Besides which, Christianity is (in my opinion, obviously) wrong too. Just because Christianity + creationism is more wrong and more harmful, doesn’t mean I should be bolstering one wrong thing in order to knock down another.

      • Yes, but as a general rule people don’t make it a rule to go around ensuring that everyone else in the world believes the right things (even if we can be certain what the right things are). There are false beliefs, and there are harmful beliefs, and the two sets, while overlapping, are not identical. I don’t think anyone has yet set out a really good argument for why all the false beliefs of religion are necessarily harmful. You might say (and I’d agree) that you’d rather have no comfort than a false comfort, but that doesn’t answer the question.

      • True enough; there are false beliefs separate from harmful beliefs.

        There are also false beliefs that are risk factors for harmful beliefs; in the way that evangelical Christianity is a risk factor for Creationism; so there is a value in trying to persuade an evangelical of more than just the fact that Creationism is wrong.
        If I were a liberal Christian, I would be trying to persuade them that Fred Clark is right. As I am not, I feel it is good practice to mention that people like Fred Clark exist and that I find them intellectually respectable but unconvincing; but what I am really trying to persuade them is that their religion as a whole is doubtful.

        Others may disagree, but I feel that by honestly arguing my actual beliefs I am much more convincing than if I try to persuade someone of a proposition I don’t believe myself (not to get too bogged down, but briefly: I believe that the level of suffering required for evolution to progress is an addition to the Problem of Evil and hugely problematic for theistic religions that accept evolution). Persuade a creationist that evolution-accepting Christians exist? Sure. Persuade a creationist that evolution-accepting Christians count as Christians? Harder. Persuade them that evolution-accepting Christians are actually right? I have a better chance of persuading them that Christianity is false.

      • I think this is a slippery slope argument (“false beliefs that are risk factores for harmful beliefs”), and I think it’s weak. Just as gay marriage won’t necessarily lead to sibling marriage, and legalised euthanasia won’t necessarily lead to death panels, Christianity need not lead to creationism.

        Also, I don’t have to believe in God to observe that it’s not inconsistent with Christianity to support women’s rights (or whatever). That’s all I’m saying: You can consistently be a Christian and accept science; you can consistently be a Christian and support social justice. Since I genuinely do believe that (even though I am not a Christian), I can argue it in good conscience.

      • If the hardest thing you had to do was trade goat cheese at the market for some fish, religion is fine. If you’re going to need calculus you need to know that 7×7=49, not 50. Any religion that advocates psuedo-science, bad science, or anti-science etc. is and necessarily will always be harmful to society and the individual believer.

        So, you say, they are not scientists. I say they vote for people who control funds for science. This keeps them firmly in the harmful to society range. There is no room in science for creationism nor the other way around.

        Let’s face it, the big three monotheistic holy texts do not teach multiculturalism or tolerance. Liberal monotheism is invented despite the holy texts. The religion itself remains poisonous while it exists – in any form. While it is seen as valid, any interpretation of the texts can be seen as valid and we know what that means. Thinking that a moderate version is not harmful is like saying a can of old antifreeze is not harmful because nobody is drinking it.

      • When you make a comment like this, myatheistlife, you’re letting the fundamentalists win. The fundamentalists say “Our form of this religion is the true one, and all the others are watered down and false”. Only fundamentalist Christianity claims to be based entirely on the Bible (and only fundamentalists claim the Bible is the absolute, inerrant, historically-and-scientifically-true WORD OF GOD).

        So when you say “you may believe x, but the Holy texts say y” to tell a believer they’re wrong, you’re assuming that fundamentalism is the true version of that belief. It isn’t necessarily. It might be that the people who wrote the book are just like all the believers today: people doing their best to understand God, and forming their ideas about God based partly on the culture of their day. In fact, fundamentalism is a very recent and minor form of Christianity.

      • Slow Learner

        Jonny, with respect I don’t think it’s a slippery slope argument.
        I’m saying that faith is like not handwashing – it puts you at risk of infection. I’m not saying that not washing your hands is going to lead to not bathing, not brushing your teeth and eventually living in squalor; that’s a slippery slope argument.
        If Creationism does ever disappear as an ideology, being a Christian will no longer be a risk factor for becoming a creationist. As it is though, being a young Evangelical means you’re going to meet plenty of Creationists, some of whom you like and respect, and there’s a much higher chance of your coming to share their views than of a young humanist doing the same.

  3. ‘I care that all humans have equal rights, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age, or geographical location. I care that we pursue policies that reduce social inequality. I care that we do everything we can to halt climate change. I care that children have the access to education that will empower them to make good, informed choices about how to live their lives.’

    I’m coming at this from within the church, hope that’s ok (I used to comment on here a bit a couple of years ago but various upheavals happened!) – all the above, that’s pretty much my understanding of what it takes to be a Christian – if we’re not caring about that stuff and acting on it, then our faith is in question.

    I can’t separate my faith from any other aspect of life, be it science, politics, culture…my understanding of faith is that it has to interact with all of life or it is no longer alive. I don’t mean that politics can be a platform for preaching – that’s a dangerous mix and David Cameron’s recent remarks were pretty stupid, if fairly innocuous. When it comes to science, the 7 day creation, young Earth stuff is from a small minority who are quite vocal – probably because there’s a lot of money behind it in the States. Certainly most people I know in the UK have a more measured, questioning approach.

    This is a bit of a bitty response but your thoughts really intrigued me, Jonny – my last thought was that I completely agree with your comment on the difficulty of ‘giving up’ religion. Belief seems to be a pretty instinctive thing at its simplest level. When religion shuts down thought then it’s damaging and even dangerous, but when it is capable of examining itself then there is hope that it can get beyond what makes it irrelevant and harmful. Something to strive for, at any rate.

    • Great to hear from you again Sarah! It’s been a while. And of course it’s OK that you’re coming at this from within the church. I would hope that this is a welcoming blog that can tolerate a range of perspectives.

  4. “If religion were wiped from the planet, it would be no loss.”

    At its evolutionary core, religion’s about creating a coherent social group with common values in order to conserve resources for members of Us (as opposed to Other). This needn’t be deity- or spirituality-based; secular religions (Maoism, Marxist-Leninism) also have this effect.

    Unfortunately, in societies where villages are subsumed into massive urban sprawls, religion can be as much about excluding people from access to capital (economic, social, political) as it can be to ensure that we’re not feeding the next village over. It’s no coincidence that religion gains power even as the amount of available capital reduces, whether that is at a geographic level (poorer areas tend to be more religious than rich areas), at a temporal level (economic depression is correlated with higher levels of religiosity than periods of economic boom) or at a freedom level (the less freeom people have, the more religious they tend to be).

    And different types of belief tend to result in different outcomes: right wing religions – fundamentalist evangelical Christianity and Islam – reserve resources for the In-group whilst systematically oppressing all of the many many Out-groups. Some belief systems genuinely improve conditions for people though: the Society of Friends (Quakers) I believe have an incredibly positive (although unpublicised) impact which is self-less and inclusive. And of course, some religious groups improve lives actively in different communities; let’s not forget that the Trusell trust – the food bank people – are currently one of the leading voices against poverty in UK, and are explicitly a Christian organisation.

    So I’m not sure that statement holds up. I’d be very happy with “If intolerant, tyrannical, right-wing, fundamentalist evangelical religions were wiped from the planet, it would be no loss.”

    • I don’t think we disagree on anything major, but I’d stand by that statement with the caveat that it’s essentially an estimate based on very incomplete information.

      • Is it a justified estimate? You’re welcome to say it’s a gut feeling and your gut is right enough for you to trust it on this one, but that’s pretty close to religious experiences being valid for only the person who went through them. I routinely encounter atheists and skeptics who make assertions like you have; when I ask them for properly sampled empirical evidence to back up their counterfactual claim, silence usually reigns.

        It seems like it would be much more effective to single out the very specific type of religion (which may show up in only some sects or even only some people in some sects) which most definitely causes damage. An example: the desire to have an authority to trust and blame, instead of learning to think for oneself. Another: using power to control people instead of enhance them. Note that these aren’t actually religion-specific.

      • I agree with labreuer

  5. Reblogged this on Confessions Of A YEC and commented:
    Jonny has accurately summed up my position on the subject as well so on that basis I’m reblogging his post because I consider it intelligent and well thought out.

  6. An excellent post Jonny, it also sums up well my thoughts on the subject. So I have reblogged it.

  7. I think that as an atheist and feminist, among other things, it behooves me to:
    Support feminism within atheism
    Work with religious feminists in the secular world
    Support atheism within society
    These priorities can conflict – it’s a tricky balance to discuss religion bluntly then immediately turn around and ally with the religious in a service project; and its okay for different people to prioritise differently and focus on one point, as long as they recognise the others as valid and useful.
    I would like to see religion die out, because I don’t think it gives us anything good that can’t be replaced, and it does a lot of harm; however I’m more than happy to work with some religious people to, say, feed the homeless; we agree on the aim there, why not collaborate?

  8. Thanks for this post, Jonny. You’ve summed up very well here, and I think I agree with you on all your major points.
    What you’ve said reminds me of something that Walt Whitman wrote:

    “This is what you should do: Love the earth and sun and animals,
    despise riches, give alms to everyone who asks,
    stand up for the stupid and crazy,
    devote your income and labour to others, hate tyrants,
    argue not concerning God,
    have patience and indulgence toward the people,
    re-examine all you have been told in school or church
    or any book,
    dismiss what insults your very soul,
    and your flesh shall become a great poem.”

    That statement is just as compatible with any of the major religions of today as it is with atheism, and I can’t help thinking that if everyone lived by it, we wouldn’t be able to tell if someone was a Christian or atheist or Muslim, and, more importantly, it wouldn’t matter.

  9. Hello Jonny. This is a very interesting post and I’ll write a response as soon as I find the time. Right now I am too busy with my work.

    Friendly greetings.

  10. “I freely concede, however, that for many individual adherents faith is a net positive. Here I disagree with those atheists who think that religion is bad for everybody, and those who consider their private faith a positive thing are simply delusional.”

    Maybe it’s not about each individual believer. The question for me is whether a less religious world would altogether be a better one; we are agreed, I think, that the answer to that is yes. Certainly we can pick our fights, but when we say less supernaturalism means a better world, that must sooner or later include nicer believers.

    “I think there are many people of faith who gain a great deal from their religion without it doing them or those around them much harm.”

    Who? I’d want to start by eliminating all those who foist their beliefs on their children, which is most. Then I’d add all those who hack parts of their children’s bodies off, which is central in Judaism and Islam, so we’re counting in billions. Then I’d add all those who preach harmful ideas about sex, gender and sexuality. Then I’d add those who just have silly ideas about the world, because silly ideas do harm. It strikes me those whose religious beliefs do the least harm are often those who act on them the least, which makes me question their sincerity.

    “The atheist counter-argument is that belief in God is necessarily irrational, and behaving irrationally is always harmful. I’m not so sure about this.”

    Not always, but often – and the more irrational motivations persist, the more they’re likely to produce harmful results. I don’t think it should be controversial to suggest the world would function better if people believed less bullshit.

    “One of the lessons of psychology is that we pretty much all hold some irrational beliefs, and some of them do us some good.”

    On the latter point, I’m not sure I care. I don’t want false beliefs that do me good. (And how do you measure that, anyway?) I want reality. On the former point, I’m sure I don’t care. All of us having irrational beliefs doesn’t make them less undesirable.

    “For another, I’m not sure all religious belief is irrational.”

    Then why are you an atheist?

    “The kind of religion criticised on this blog is irrational, and to the extent that religion is irrational, it must be opposed.”

    You concede that, then? So the question is to what extent it is. My answer is “by definition”.

    “But there are religious believers who accept the findings of science, who behave logically and rationally, and who simply think that religion and science are non-overlapping magisteria.”

    Thinking evolution is real does not make it rational to seek reliable analysis, rules to live by and moral guidance in voices only you can hear and millennia-old guesswork about what an implausible god may or may not want.

    “I don’t accept their arguments, but that’s fine. They’re not forcing me to share their faith.”

    But they are living their lives by it, if it’s worth anything at all, which affects other people – and usually, if they have children, forcing them to share it.

    “Fundamentalism, of course, makes empirical, scientifically testable truth claims all the time: miracles happen; prayers are answered; the universe is <10,000 years old; a catastrophic flood ca. 4,000 years ago destroyed almost all life. These empirical falsehoods are used to bolster a belief system which does harm to its adherents and those around them. But that’s not true of all Christianity, much less all religion."

    Falsifiable claims aren't the only kind of irrational ones. I'm sure we can all think of plenty of kinds of harm woo that are distinguished by untestability.

  11. Jonny,

    You say I don’t think anyone has yet set out a really good argument for why all the false beliefs of religion are necessarily harmful.

    That’s because I don’t think you’ve followed the New Atheists position very deeply yet and so the lack of clarity is based on where you are in your own evolution away from faith.

    There are, in fact, many atheists who eventually come to realize that a fundamental impediment to understanding how reality works (and therefore responding to it responsibly) is faith-based rather than evidence-adduced beliefs. The mothership of faith-based belief is religion but the identical methodology is used to justify all kinds of claims about how reality works that avoids allowing reality to arbitrate these claims made about it (stuff like alternative medicine, belief in the existence of the supernatural, mystical energies, conspiracies, misogyny, bigotry, sexism, denialism used to justify anti-vaccination, anti-climate change, anti-science beliefs, and so on).

    It is the demonstrable evidence that faith-based methodology reliably and consistently produces negative consequences that makes its use (as a justification for acting on it) a harm-making machine because it always produces ignorance masquerading as some ‘other kind’ of knowledge. The fuel for this perpetual harm-making machine is some level of acceptance and respect for its use. Many New Atheists have written extensively about why this is such a problem – that legitimizing its use with a faux-respect and pseudo-acceptance for tangential reasons (most commonly presented as some need to pretend one is more tolerant, and therefore a much nicer person, than those nasty New Atheists) is just as much an active and ongoing problem to be overcome first before real solutions and real improvements can be sought – as those who are willing to act on their faith-based beliefs and think this is sufficient justification. This kind of tolerance for a failed methodology is always and ever accepting a certain level of real harm to real people in real life for really poor reasons. Yes, New Atheists think the solution is to provide constant criticism for any and all who accept and respect faith-based belief itself as a method of justification because reality arbitrates its many products to be empty of knowledge value and a source of ongoing harm not just to people but to the respect reality deserves.

    We can’t address real problems and find lasting solutions to them if we can’t even agree that there is a problem to begin with… in spite of reality offering us incontrovertible evidence the problem exists independent of our beliefs about it. As long as people continue to empower faith-based belief to act as reality’s substitute, we shall continue to tolerate a level of delusion who effects – both active and passive – harms us all.

    • I hesitate to speak for Jonny here, but maybe he hasn’t decided to “follow the New Athiests position very deeply yet” because this is still a blog called Leaving Fundamentalism and not a blog called Exchanging One Form of Fundamentalism for Another.

      Or maybe, as I expect is probably true given what we know of Jonny, his methods and his style, he has looked at it but hasn’t quite made up his mind yet. And why should he?

      However important and noble you believe your cause to be Tildeb, I suspect Jonny doesn’t want to sign up wholeheartedly just now because it feels a bit like joining, well, a religion. I suspect he may just have had enough of that for one lifetime.

      Anyway, apologies Jonny if that totally misrepresents your view. Apologies Tildeb if that totally misrepresents your view.

      • I hear you, Ruth. And your criticism is not without some merit.

        What becomes apparent in the New Atheist movement is twofold: the first is the tremendous difficulty overcoming the urge to be tolerant of the intolerable in the name of tolerance. I know that sound jumbled but stick with me here.

        There is this social meme that judgement itself is the greater crime, so to speak, than that what is being judged. When New Atheists judge faith-based belief as an unjustified method of enquiry that does not produce knowledge but harm, the offense is often seen to be the undertaking rather than its product. Very often this meme comes under the name of ‘political correctness’ or ‘liberal bias’. One shalt not criticize the beliefs of others because all have a place at the table of Truth, goes the assumption… as if there is world of different ‘truths’ defined not by reality’s arbitration but by belief. If someone believes something is true, then the meme is that the belief is true for that person and thou shalt not demean the person who holds it. Judging the belief as an ideaand finding it unjustified by reality’s arbitration of it is considered exercising intolerance of the person.

        This approach has the benefit of making us feel good about ourselves as tolerant people willing to tolerate differences of ideas. But it has the cost of allowing intolerance masquerading as belief to act as tolerance to those who would act to abuse other people in some way.

        We see this in action all the time, where the denial of rights and freedoms on the basis of belief is paid by those subject to it. This is the heart of misogyny, for example, where the difference in rights and freedoms (implemented by some equivalent loss of opportunity and respect and dignity) of women is curtailed in some way… often by men’s rules, men’s law, men’s social order, men’s government, men’s benefit, and so on. The belief that empowers this form of discrimination is not adduced from reality, where we know gender does not determine either character or ability; character and ability of the individual does. What empowers misogyny is the belief that gender determines these attributes. And it is not sufficient to claim the belief is true for many people because many people believe it and this is their ‘truth’. Reality independently arbitrates the belief to be factually and demonstrably wrong.

        The question now becomes, is tolerance of abuse of real people an acceptable cost for allowing those of us who like to feel good about tolerating the intolerant beliefs that empower it? Should any of us tolerate the abuse of real people – in this case women – and be condemned for it? Think about that for a moment. For those who do judge the belief of an idea by its effects when implemented on real people and use reality as compelling evidence in support of the judgement we make, why should we be overly concerned by those who are more concerned with how they feel about tolerating the intolerable than the real harm caused to real people in real life by allowing belief to be more respected than the human cost they empower?

        This is the same battle being fought with children’s education: should the parents’ beliefs be respected more than the real harm caused to real children by indoctrination?

        When people come to realize that they have their priorities screwed up, that respecting beliefs is not a higher virtue than considering the real cost those beliefs when acted upon have on real real people, only then we can begin to respect reality enough to empower the criticisms of ideas to have merit independent of beliefs, empowered by evidence adduced from the arbitrator we share for the very real effects these beliefs introduce into the world we share, namely reality, and have people listen to it’s adjudication of these ideas rather than assume condemnation for those daring to criticize the assumption that beliefs deserve respect because they are beliefs.

        New Atheists uphold respect for people over and above respect for beliefs. This second point is the heart of the New Atheist movement and, sad as it is to say, an approach meeting very stiff resistance by those who wish to continue privilege and respect for faith-based belief because they are beliefs… not on merit adduced from reality but imported ideology untethered to reality.

        This why New Atheists are caricatured as ‘militant’ and ‘strident’ and ‘fundamentalist’ and so on, because they dare to go against the tide of unjustified and pernicious popular support for respecting and privileging faith-based belief.

    • “It is the demonstrable evidence that faith-based methodology reliably and consistently produces negative consequences that makes its use (as a justification for acting on it) a harm-making machine because it always produces ignorance masquerading as some ‘other kind’ of knowledge.”

      I don’t deny that this happens. Nor do I deny religion’s role in wars, bigotry, sexism, and other Really Bad Stuff. But I’ve also seen religion’s role in charity, support, and love–just as I’ve seen science’s role in war, racism, and so on. No, I’m not saying atheists cannot be charitable! I am saying that religion can be a good thing.

      It sounds like your position is that religion always equals bad, science always equals good. If I misread you, please excuse me and correct me. Also, I’m a bit confused as how you can lump faith in with being anti-climate change, anti-vaccination, and similar conspiracies, as my faith (Catholicism) doesn’t adhere to any of that—as far as I know. Anti-vaxxers are anti-science to be sure, but anti-science is not the same as pro-faith. One can be a scientist and a religious person–just as the Jesuits like Teilhard de Chardin.

      • WJMacGuffin,

        You assert that you’re …a bit confused as how you can lump faith in with being anti-climate change, anti-vaccination, and similar conspiracies, as my faith (Catholicism) doesn’t adhere to any of that—as far as I know.

        Well, specifically Catholicism doesn’t adhere to a methodological naturalism, which is why the institution continues to support highly anti-scientific beliefs, such as theistic evolution and human exceptionalism (23% admittedly Young Earth Creationists), belief in a literal and historical Adam and Eve, which we know is false if population genetics is true, belief in a literal Hell and a literal Satan, and accepts demonic possession reversible by exorcism. These beliefs, and how they are obtained and justified, stand in direct conflict with science. They are not compatible. And so good scientists who are also Catholic (as well a believers in any other religion that demands belief in a supernatural interventionist divine causal agency and effects attributed to this agency) must compartmentalize and keep their religious beliefs (and how they arrive at them) away from their science altogether.

        Your problem with your point can be revealed if we consider pedophiles who are also priests; just because they are the former does not mean their activities are due to the latter.

        My point is that faith-based belief is a failed method for gaining knowledge while a supplier of sanctifying assertions and assumptions devoid of knowledge in its place as ‘another kind of knowing’. There is no area of human endeavor that can be called ‘good’ (for whatever compelling reasons are used) that religion doesn’t claim ownership. The ‘good’ you refer to was challenged by Hitchens, who asked for a single example of this that could only be attributed to religious belief. Until the end of his life, the challenge was never met. In other words, the ‘good’ you attribute to religion upon closer examination will reveal actions that can be done for <better reasons that faith-based. But what is deeply troubling is the vast array of actions that can be directly attributed to religious belief alone, and these are all negative.

      • A couple of points:

        1) Catholicism is, ironically, somewhat progressive these days in terms of science. For example, the Church does NOT believe Adam and Eve were literal people. (Despite what you claim.) We believe in evolution, quantum theory, and that modern science has proven. YEC is against modern Church teaching. While there are Catholics who believe differently, there are scientists who disagree with climate change–and that doesn’t make science wrong. It just means those individuals are wrong.

        2) Just because some parts of faith are not supported by science does not mean they have no purpose or they are harmful. If you think so, then you must dump philosophy in with it. Can you scientifically prove objectivism? “But philosophy uses logic!” No, academic philosophy uses logic. Most people’s daily philosophy has no such logic. The same is true with religious matters. Early Church fathers like St. Augustine, and later people like Godel, use logic. Most people’s daily religion has no such logic. (Which is a problem IMHO.)

        3) Do Catholic scientists need to compartmentalize their faith to avoid problems with their science? Probably. So what? See, I think that leads to your biggest error: you compare religion and science as if they are in the same thing. They are not. You cannot compare apples and oranges, then complain that oranges aren’t red. (Well, you can and you do. But that doesn’t mean you’re correct.) You fail non-science for not inculcating a scientific mind. Shocking! Next you’ll be saying literature doesn’t add to our scientific knowledge. Literature is bad because it doesn’t support the scientific method! Neither does art, or music, or history, or other languages, or most of what people learn in school and college.

        4) Faith-based belief fails as a method of gaining knowledge if you restrict “knowledge” to predictions of the physical world. But if you expand that definition to include concerns about the human condition (such as what is our purpose, what is moral, etc.), then faith delivers in spades–and science does not.

        5) Admittedly, faith has been the cause of a lot of human suffering. But did faith invent better ways of killing? Can you blame belief in Jesus Christ for either the existence or use of nuclear weapons? More importantly, can you prove that the people who used religion to justify their hatred would not have found a different justification if religion had not been around? Do you really think that, were it not for religion, that world history would be lacking in warfare, torture, or bias?

        Your view is very dogmatic, closed, and sad. Ironic, since the science you defend is supposed to be the opposite. In my opinion, it is unfair to blame science for how people use it. Likewise, it is unfair to blame religion for how people use it. Instead, blame the people doing the vile acts.

        PS: While I haven’t read everything by Hitchens, I’m not familiar with the question you talk about. Can you point me towards it? I’m curious to see the logic behind it. (Not that I anticipate proving a good act only based on a religious belief, but why that proof is necessary to show faith can be good.)

      • Without writing another chapter, let me assure you that my description of Catholic doctrine is correct. Please check this out for yourself. Don’t stop your enquiries when you come across assurances that everything’s fine. Go into the Catechism and follow the links on arguments about the doctrine. There you will find how and why theistic evolution is not evolution as it is understood by scientists but assumes a direct intervention incompatible with unguided natural selection. The same is true for Adam and Eve, that there really was a founding couple NECESSARY for the claim of inherited original sin required for redemption through a blood sacrifice. Please read Pope Francis’ latest claims about Hell and Satan and demons as real active agents in the world. I’m not making any of this up and all of it is incompatible with knowledge about how reality operates produced from the method of science.

        Again, please note that I speaking about a method to inform how much or how little confidence we should place in claims made about reality; causal claims that are best served by allowing reality – and not our beliefs – to arbitrate them for reliability and consistency. The method of science relies on just this, whereas faith-based beliefs utilize a method that allows authority about faith-based beliefs to arbitrate… leading us to religions that make central claims about reality that are themselves incompatible with each other and no means available to arbitrate between them..

        This lack of consistency and reliability is the product of faith-based beliefs: claims about reality unsupported by reality which is not allowed to arbitrate them. This is why faith-based belief as a method of enquiry produces no knowledge… not knowledge of ‘another kind’ as so often advertized but zero knowledge. That’s why faith-based beliefs have not, do not, and never shall produce applications, therapies, and technologies that work for everyone everywhere all the time. They produce closed systems of faith-based beliefs impervious to reality’s arbitration of them, a closed system one either accepts on the merit of faith or rejects. By no stretch of the imagination is this product – faith-based belief – ‘another kind of knowledge’; faith-based belief is a metaphysical model of reality that doesn’t work to describe it in a way that produces explanations that increases our knowledge about how it works but the opposite… as demonstrated by the Catholic model that attempts to utilize what it can from science by perverting it to serve its doctrine.

        This is what religions do: they produce pseudo-answers and faux-explanations that serve only the enhancement of religious authority. And with respect for religious authority comes an equal loss of respect for personal autonomy, an abdication of individual moral responsibility, and a capitulation to unjustified beliefs that utilizes a method of enquiry for its claims about reality (and the agencies it contains) that elevates credulity and gullibility to intellectual respectability as a pious virtue rather than the intellectual vice it is in all other areas of human endeavor.

    • There are, in fact, many atheists who eventually come to realize that a fundamental impediment to understanding how reality works (and therefore responding to it responsibly) is faith-based rather than evidence-adduced beliefs.

      I suggest checking out A Manual For Creating Atheists, with WLC. He roundly criticizes the idea that faith is an epistemology:

      [Boghossian] says that faith is an unreliable epistemology. He wants to make faith an epistemological category instead of a moral virtue. It is right there that we need to dig in our heels and say this is a misunderstanding of faith. Faith is not an epistemological category. It is not a way of knowing something. Faith is a way of trusting something. Faith is trusting in that which you have reason to believe is true. So it is once you have come to believe that something is true using reliable epistemological means that you can then place your faith or trust in that thing. To do so is a virtue. It is a virtue to have faith in God. For example, to trust in him. So Boghossian is wrong right out of the blocks here and what will happen now is the trajectories will increasingly diverge as we go on. So you’ve got to stop it right out of the blocks, at the beginning, and say, “No, you are incorrect. You are construing faith as an epistemological category.” It is not that. Faith is one of the many different virtues.

      Now, this doesn’t stop some Christians from making faith into an epistemology. How many do this, I do not know. Anyone who says ‘many’ has a burden of proof to supply.

      • Labreuer, you quote WLC stating that ” Faith is trusting in that which you have reason to believe is true.”

        This is exactly backwards. Yes, faith is a measure of trusting, but if one has compelling reasons independent of one’s self to believe something is true, something that has been adjudicated by reality to be explanatory (preferably for everyone everywhere all the time) then one doesn’t need this supposed virtue, namely, ‘faith.’

        I like Boghossian’s definition here:

        Fact 1: “In religious contexts, the term faith is used when one assigns a higher confidence value than is warranted by the evidence.”
        Fact 2: “Some people live their lives (make decisions, inform action, etc.) based upon their faith-based beliefs.”

        “The defenses of faith-based thinking attempts to obfuscate Fact 1 and rationalize Fact 2.”

        And this is exactly what WLC is attempting to do. By claiming that faith-based beliefs are really equivalent to evidence-adduced beliefs, he glosses over the dependent/independent methodological differences entirely (their epistemological basis). And it this methodological difference that clearly divides religious claims (and how they are justified) from scientific claims (and hos they are justified). This is an obvious avoidance tactic for having to test, validate, and demonstrate the ontological conclusions.

        By insisting that we respect this refusal, WLC can feel justified to use only metaphysical philosophy and deductive reasoning to make premised claims that are untethered to reality by this special exemption in order to arrive at conclusions he assumes are. This faulty approach – this methodology, this epistemology – has been pointed out time and again to no avail, yet the conclusions he reaches has no knowledge value applicable to reality at all. He simply assumes it does.

        This epistemological failure is why faith-based beliefs never have, do not, and never shall produce knowledge that can be utilized in reality to empower therapies, applications, and technologies that reliably and consistently work for everyone everywhere all the time. The product of religious belief is to empower religious authority and gain the submission of the believer. It has nothing whatsoever to do with gaining knowledge about reality nor demonstrating the beliefs to be true by reality’s arbitration of them. Faith-based beliefs are the opposite: a means to impose unjustified beliefs on reality by disallowing reality to have any say in the matter. And this is why religious belief is so often accurately described as equivalent to a kind of compartmentalized delusion, meaning that in certain cases we pretend that our beliefs define reality. This is exemplified by WL Craig’s arguments.

      • Yes, faith is a measure of trusting, but if one has compelling reasons independent of one’s self to believe something is true, something that has been adjudicated by reality to be explanatory (preferably for everyone everywhere all the time) then one doesn’t need this supposed virtue, namely, ‘faith.’

        That’s like looking at the middle of a child’s bone, seeing bone, and thus denying that one needed a growth plate to build it. When it comes to physical and moral knowledge, I think history has shown us that when the growth plate stops doing its job, the results aren’t pretty. Knowledge doesn’t grow in the land of “compelling reasons”.

        Fact 1: “In religious contexts, the term faith is used when one assigns a higher confidence value than is warranted by the evidence.”

        There is no single value for “warranted” in many domains of life. Different people are ok with different levels of risk. Some decide that the current world is not worth living in, and thus do what e.g. MLK Jr. and Gandhi did. Both of those men had faith.

        By claiming that faith-based beliefs are really equivalent to evidence-adduced beliefs

        You’ve conflated epistemology with morality, which was WLC’s specific critique. If the is–ought gap exists, then more evidence about what is will not provide more moral knowledge. You see, the process of ‘sanctification’ has as a component refining desires themselves, not just gathering more evidence in order to more effectively sate extant desires. Faith in Jesus includes having faith that his plan for my life is better than my own, when the two differ.

        Faith-based beliefs are the opposite: a means to impose unjustified beliefs on reality by disallowing reality to have any say in the matter.

        If you want to talk about the servant-model of leadership Jesus taught in Mt 20:20-28 and Jn 13:1-20, then yes, faith involves “impos[ing] unjustified beliefs on reality”. Jesus’ behavior and beliefs were antithetical to that of a political messiah. While there were scattered hints, there was no sufficient reason to believe that Jesus way of living (and dying) was a good one. But wait a second, what would constitute “sufficient reason” to believe in some conception of ‘the good’? The is–ought gap prohibits “sufficient evidence” from qualifying.

        Your sole focus on ‘evidence’ is a red herring. It is tantamount to denying any reasonable conflict in what is moral, in what constitutes ‘the good’. It is an implicit denial of the is–ought gap, which unless you can explain away, illustrates tremendous irrationality on your part.

      • Labreuer

        The PACEs of ACE clearly make all kinds of knowledge claims about reality that are factually wrong, grossly misleading, and often founded on a vast ignorance of current knowledge. You are trying to excuse this kind of religious indoctrination by privileging it under the heading of teaching ‘moral knowledge’.

        To be clear, I haven’t a clue about what you mean by ‘moral knowledge’. But I do know that when you look for missing house keys, you allow reality to determine their actual location regardless of what beliefs of other locations you may wish to impose on this fact. You are not searching for ‘moral knowledge’ when you look for your keys any more than you are undermining some foundation for a moral precept by allowing reality this necessary arbitrating role.

        The same is true for religious causal claims about the reality we share, about how it operates and the agencies it contains. To justify these claims – like any other claims about the reality we share – requires respect for reality to arbitrate them. This is where compelling evidence that supports the supernatural interactive model is so important, and why its absence is indicative about the poor quality of the supernatural model. This religious model doesn’t work to produce knowledge about reality… or it would have done so by now!

        This is a clue about its knowledge value…

        You privilege some faith-based religious belief the authority to do this arbitrating job by fiat and then, when presented with incompatible evidence that doesn’t fit the religious model, mentally scurry behind the opaque curtain of ‘morality’ believing it protects this faith-based method of enquiry from an evidence-adduced arbitration of these claims about reality.

        The bottom line is if you are going to make a claim about the reality we share, then you are obligated to allow reality – and not your imported beliefs – to arbitrate it. That’s how you can actually find your keys.

      • To be clear, I haven’t a clue about what you mean by ‘moral knowledge’.

        Perhaps it would have better to have said “knowledge of ‘the good'”. In a recent comment, you define ‘knowledge’ as “justified true belief”; are you aware of the Gettier problems? Suffice it to say that all the scientific research in the world is worthless to the vast majority of people if it is not used to promote human thriving. Knowledge of ‘the good’ is critical to such promotion.

        But I do know that when you look for missing house keys, you allow reality to determine their actual location regardless of what beliefs of other locations you may wish to impose on this fact.

        And when there is a school shooter, do we allow “reality to determine” that he/she is 100% guilty, and everyone else 100% innocent? Of course not, and yet we know that there are better and worse ways to assign culpability.

        faith-based religious belief

        Here you are, turning faith back into an epistemology. Take a look at the beginning of 1 John 1; I see full engagement of at least three of the five senses.

        The bottom line is if you are going to make a claim about the reality we share, then you are obligated to allow reality – and not your imported beliefs – to arbitrate it. That’s how you can actually find your keys.

        In this verbiage, much morality and much knowledge of ‘the good’ comes in the form of “imported beliefs”. When an embryo/fetus/baby becomes a ‘person’ is an “imported belief”. What to do or not do in Syria is based both on empirical evidence and many “imported beliefs”. You are using sleight of hand to distract, @tildeb. Maybe you didn’t intend this, but it well-models your comment.

  12. Firstly: Good post. Speaking as a Christian, but not a fundamentalist, I think it was well written. Whether Jonny is a New Athiest or an Athiest or Neo-Classical Enlightenment Athiest with Sweedenborganist Tendencies, or just a non-believer makes no difference to me. He’s not a jerk about it, and that’s really what’s important. That’s one of the things that keeps me coming back to this site.

    I disagree with this comment, though: >>Overall, I think religion is a net source of harm in the world. If religion were wiped from the planet, it would be no loss. If there are good reasons to be moral (and I think there are) then we don’t need religion to tell us what to do. There are thousands of people who find meaning in life without religion, and I do not think that’s because we are better or more intelligent than religious people. I’m confident anyone can find meaning without religion. I think the truth claims of religion are false, and that the benefits of religion can also be achieved without a religious framework. Religion is unnecessary.<<

    I totally agree that one can get through life without a traditional religion, and one can be a good person doing it. I know many people that can and do. However the value of religion (And atheism) has nothing to do with whether or not its objectively true, but rather its psychological value. We're people: we're neither rational nor irrational, but an uncomfortable mix of the two. We're going to end up believing stuff, whether we've thought it out or not, whether it's good or ill.

    Thus you've got crazy religious fundamentalist groups doing horrible things, but you've also got crazy atheist fundamentalist groups that have done horrible things, too. There was the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China for a long time, Pol Pot's cambodia, and a number of others, where religion of any sort was violently suppressed with every bit as much vigor as religious folks suppressed religion elsewhere.

    The problem is not, and has never been, whether or not we believe in God or Atheism, or that Star Trek is better than Babylon 5. The problem is what people DO with their beliefs. We can't just point at Christians or Muslims or Communists or whomever and say "It was their beliefs that made them bad." It wasn't. It was they, themselves, that made them bad. Their beliefs were just what they used to justify what they already wanted to do.

  13. The idea that science can be cited as supporting atheism is incorrect.

    “Science doesn’t draw conclusions about supernatural explanations
    Do gods exist? Do supernatural entities intervene in human affairs? These questions may be important, but science won’t help you answer them. Questions that deal with supernatural explanations are, by definition, beyond the realm of nature — and hence, also beyond the realm of what can be studied by science.” http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/0_0_0/whatisscience_12

    • How is a supernatural entity’s intervention in human affairs beyond the realm of what can be studied by science? If it acts on the natural world, of which humans are a part, then by definition it is not supernatural. The signature of said entity’s intervention will be revealed in its effects on the individual and the natural world around it, at the very least, and thus be measurable by us, would it not?

      As for a beyond space and time “god”, so loosely defined that it is impossible for us to describe coherently let alone investigate, I will concede that this is beyond the realm of scientific scrutiny, or scrutiny of any kind by anyone, and I have as much of worth to say about such a being as anyone (hint: that includes theologians and religious apologists).

      This, along with many religious claims, are penetrable by the methods of science; the origins of the universe and everything within it being the most obvious example.

      • Ashley wrote: “The signature of said entity’s intervention will be revealed”

        Really?

        What scientifically verifiable evidence do you have that indicates your ability to detect the supernatural?

        What exactly is this ‘signature’ and how did you detect it using natural means?

        Cite some scientific studies where such a signature has been successfully detected.

      • Slow Learner

        *face palm*
        There are no studies, because there’s no such thing as the supernatural.
        However, if there were a God, and she occasionally healed amputees say, despite being 100% supernatural, she has left natural evidence behind, in the form of once-amputated limbs that had regrown. That evidence would be amenable to scientific investigation, and scientists would eventually be able to say “Yes, amputees occasionally recover, without any plausible natural explanation”. And that would be evidence for the supernatural.

      • Tim,

        Yes, really!, the signature of a “supernatural” entity’s intervention would be revealed, like I then went on to say, “in its effects on the individual and the natural world around it, at the very least”. I would further add that those effects, if they truly had a “supernatural” (whatever that means) origin, would not be explainable by any natural means presently available. As tends to be the case out there in that pesky realm of real world investigation however, the means to do so would probably become available soon enough.

        I have no scientifically verifiable evidence that indicates my supposed ability to detect the supernatural because I never said nor implied that I did, nor can I cite any scientific studies where a supernatural signature has been detected because I never said nor implied that I could. I was saying that IF a “supernatural” entity intervened tangibly in the natural world then the effects it leaves behind would be observable and investigable, if not solvable, by natural means.

        Really, my first post is quite clear.

    • Tim, I have to agree with Ashley here in the sense that if a religious belief makes a causal claim about how reality works and by what mechanisms and agencies it contains (as most religions do), then it is a scientifically valid hypothesis subject to reality’s (and not theology’s) arbitration of it. That such enquiries seem to consistently and reliably yield support for non-theistic explanations inevitably lead most of those doing these inquiries towards increased skepticism about religious claims, which may explain why the majority of scientists are atheists and almost all scientists at elite universities. To quote La Place’s answer to Napoleon about where God was in his model, “I had no need for that hypothesis.”

      What you’ve quoted is a very typical example of accommodationism (prevalent among many notable scientific institutions), one that tries unsuccessfully to assure believers that there is no inherent conflict between the method of enquiry that empowers the square peg of religious belief (subjective faith) and the round hole of scientific explanation (objective evidence).

      There really is a fundamental incompatibility between them that becomes apparent when the two are in conflict… and you’ll find any informed ‘conversation’ between them entirely in one direction, from science to religion. Religious belief does not – indeed, cannot – inform science because the method used doesn’t work to produce demonstrable models that work to explain the data; it works to justify faith using philosophical metaphysics and supernaturalism. These tools are not just inappropriate in science but demonstrably useless if one wishes to find stuff out that works reliably and consistently for everyone everywhere all the time. Religion cannot even get its own house in order because of this failed methodology but is splintered into thousands and thousands of incompatible ‘explanations’ – models that don’t work to produce a coherent explanation – subject to arbitration by individual preference of privileged beliefs.

      In stark contrast, science is unified because it is subject to single arbiter: reality. Questions about how the reality we share operates and causes effect really is subject to reality’s arbitration of them – unless we exempt certain claims about reality by privilege, and this is what your quotation is suggesting we do. Religion does not deserve such privilege because many of its claims – incompatible with each other – can be shown to be factually incorrect, and so the basis of any privilege is not to serve our desire to find out what’s true about reality that works for everyone but to enhance and promote religious authority of the few. This goal is also incompatible with the goal of science: to create knowledge.

      • tildeb wrote: “inevitably lead most of those doing these inquiries towards increased skepticism about religious claims, which may explain why the majority of scientists are atheists ”

        If science and belief in God were totally incompatible, and skepticism were ‘inevitable’, then we would expect to see not just a majority but nearly unanimous support for unbelief among scientists, wouldn’t we? But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

        Here’s a survey of medical science professionals, indicating a solid majority believe in God http://www.nbcnews.com/id/8318894/ns/health-health_care/t/survey-most-doctors-believe-god-afterlife/#.UZHKJaKG2Sq

        Another survey asked the question in a different way, adding the issue of answered prayer:

        “In a 1997 survey in the science journal Nature, 40 percent of U.S. scientists said they believe in God—not just a creator, but a God to whom one can pray in expectation of an answer. That is the same percentage of scientists who were believers when the survey was taken 80 years earlier. But the number may have been higher if the question had simply asked about God’s existence.” http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/10/1018_041018_science_religion_2.html

        Even when the subject of evolution is tied to the question, a nominal majority of scientists have a hypernaturalistic view, while a fairly large percentage are theistic evolutionists:

        “scientists’ responses to Gallup’s “theistic evolution” question—”Man evolved over millions of years from less developed forms of life, but God guided the process, including the creation of Man”—directly mirrors that of the general public. The “middle ground” is apparently equally attractive to scientists as it is to the general public.” http://ncse.com/rncse/18/2/do-scientists-really-reject-god

        And with atheism having a slight edge numerically, it still doesn’t lend any support to the idea that science can investigate the supernatural. I cited the Berkeley science dept to that effect. Here are a couple more mainstream science sources:

        “science is precluded from making statements about supernatural forces because these are outside its provenance” National Science Teachers Association

        “Supernatural entities, by definition, operate outside of natural laws and so cannot be
        investigated using scientific methods” American Association for the Advancement of
        Science (AAAS)

        So, why is that the case? Why can’t science test the supernatural?

        The answer is in the definition of science itself. Science is the study of natural phenomena and processes.

        Your confusion, I think, stems from the failure to distinguish between cause and effect. If something has a supernatural cause and a result or effect in the natural (physical) world then of course the effect can be seen, but the cause cannot be seen, tested, probed or otherwise investigated.

        By definition the supernatural cannot be natural. I’m not sure why that is so hard to grasp, but I have talked with numerous dogmatic atheists who cannot seem to emotionally accept it, even while failing to produce a logical basis for their argument.

        Its most obvious indication is the rejection of mainstream scientific consensus in statements like this:

        tildeb wrote: “What you’ve quoted is a very typical example of accommodationism (prevalent among many notable scientific institutions)”

        How odd that while pretending to champion science, you reject mainstream science and identify yourself with a tiny fringe of hardcore atheists that are convinced that only they REALLY understand the scope of the scientific method.

        The scientific method is a fantastic tool. But misusing it by ignoring its limits is a serious mistake.

      • Tim, you wrote If science and belief in God were totally incompatible…

        *sigh*

        I never said this.

        i said that “if a religious belief makes a causal claim about how reality works and by what mechanisms and agencies it contains (as most religions do), then it is a scientifically valid hypothesis subject to reality’s (and not theology’s) arbitration of it.”

        Nothing you have written addresses this criticism of privilege you want to assign (along with faitheists and accommodationsists everywhere) to religious claims. You presume that the ‘supernatural’ cannot be investigated. I agree. But what you’re failing to grasp is that the criticism is about what justifies claims made not by atheists that you’re trying to malign but by those who pretend to know something about the supernatural by attributing effects to it. Humans, in case you haven’t noticed, are quite capable of compartmentalizing their lives and maintaining incompatible rationalizations used for each… leading us to note that If pedophilia and belief in God were totally incompatible…

        Do you grasp the scope of the error you’re making by associating people of religious belief doing science with the methodology used to justify religious belief and calling them compatible? Think ‘priests and pedophilia’ next time you want to assume the link demonstrates compatibility. It doesn’t. It reveals compartmentalization. That’s why all these organizations continue to receive criticism for this stance, assuming as they do that accommodationism leads to a wider positive effect than standing firm on principle of respecting what’s true rather than privileging incompatible beliefs to be if not equivalent then at least synonymous. Of course, and again, the problem is revealed when contrary claims meet head to head. The cognitive dissonance is not dispelled by soothing assurances that there really is no conflict when there is.

        As for your stats, I think you’ll find Eckland has been roundly criticized and legitimately so her lack of academic rigor for her conclusions . And there is no denying the fact that among Nobel Prize laureates in the sciences, as well as those in literature, there is a remarkable degree of irreligiosity, as compared to the populations they came from. My point is that a more thorough appreciation of the scientific method makes it more difficult to accept faith and revelation as reliable routes to knowledge. This is borne out even by Eckland’s Templeton funded study of scientists and their religious beliefs (where 72% of scientists are explicitly non-theistic in their religious views compared to 16% of the public). That lack of belief sky-rockets to over 95% of biologists at elite universities. There’s a reason for that, Tim. And it’s not because I am “misusing it (science) by ignoring its limits;” it is the believer who makes causal claims about the supernatural’s effect in reality with no means available to show us the mechanism that supposedly carries out this linking exchange between supposed cause and real effect exchange who is making a serious methodological error. The error is confusing ‘making stuff up’ with presenting this as if it were some kind of equivalent but ‘other’ knowledge… knowledge that science isn’t allowed by religious fiat to address. Well, if science isn’t allowed because it’s the ‘supernatural’ we’re talking about, then you as part of this natural world can’t possibly ‘know’ anything about it either. Assuming we can is a guaranteed way to fool ourselves, and we have a very long and rich history of doing just that when we privilege faith-based beliefs about the supernatural from legitimate enquiries into its claims about the natural.

  14. Hello Jonny, I just wrote my response. While we won’t obviously agree about everything, I do hope we’ll have a nice conversation 🙂

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2014/05/12/becoming-a-new-atheist/

  15. I think it’s lovely that people are inspired to do great things for their faith, but it’s also pitiful (to me) that they seem to require some cosmic power’s threat of disapproval in order to be ‘moral’. Plus, religion is definitely a high ranking cause of persecution and pain throughout history. No, I wouldn’t be sad at all if religion up and vanished.

  16. I absolutely love this post, especially what you said about how you felt when first becoming an atheist. I felt exactly the same things you describe. I really WANTED to believe. But I just couldn’t. Nothing horrible had happened to me in life; I just couldn’t believe in the irrationality of religion anymore. But it is really hard for religious folks to understand that. As always thanks for your bravery in sharing your thoughts.

  17. Jonny, I have discovered a surprising ally for you. Christopher Hitchens, describing the implications of evolution and the absence of the need for (and powerful evidence against) ad designer, says this (God is not great, p 96): What believers will do,now that their faith is optional and private and irrelevant, is a matter for them. We should not care, as long as they make no further attempts to inculcate religion by any form of coercion.”

    Hitchens was not always consistent, and this would seem to contradict his much quoted “Religion poisons everything”, but bear in mind that all his examples of that poisoning involved coercion at its most cruel.

  18. Slow Learner wrote: ” there’s no such thing as the supernatural”

    Does it not occur to you that you are attempting to draw a scientific conclusion without any scientific evidence?

    If science supports your conclusion, you should have evidence. But you don’t.

    Now, if you want to say ‘its my opinion that there is no supernatural’, all well and good.

    But don’t don a lab coat to do it.

    Don’t claim or imply in any way that you’ve reached that conclusion due to anything science tells us.

    • Slow Learner

      Tim, I have reached the conclusion that there is no supernatural on purely philosophical grounds, and I didn’t say it was based on science.
      However, let’s just offer for a second the idea that there is something supernatural, and it interacts with the natural world.
      If so, science would be able to discover and discern evidence of those interactions. In order to affect something real, the supernatural must needs leave evidence behind.
      You can only have a supernatural undetectable by science if it doesn’t interact with the natural world, but that isn’t very interesting, is it? That’s a deist god who does nothing.
      There is no evidence of any supernatural intervention in the universe, and that is weak evidence that the supernatural doesn’t exist at all. It is strong evidence against anything supernatural that actively intervenes in the real world.

      • Slow Learner wrote: ” I have reached the conclusion that there is no supernatural on purely philosophical grounds”

        You might want to add a little logic to your philosophy then.

        Did the natural universe cause itself to come into being, or was the cause separate from the effect, (i.e. it was supernatural)?

      • Slow Learner

        It might have existed eternally, it might be self-caused. Cause-and-effect assumes a temporal axis – effect must come after cause. If there is no time, because that is one of the dimension of space-time that unfurls post Big Bang, what separates cause from effect?

        I would ask you a question in return. If there is something “supernatural”, how does it interact with the natural? Presumably not by the standard forces – without mass, something cannot have an effect via gravity; without charge it cannot have an effect electrically, and so on. So without being comprised of energy/matter as exists in the natural world – in which case it isn’t supernatural at all, is it – how could it ever be possible for the supernatural to affect the natural?

  19. tildeb wrote: ” if science isn’t allowed because it’s the ‘supernatural’ we’re talking about, then you as part of this natural world can’t possibly ‘know’ anything about it either”

    nonsense.

    You know and accept lots of things that havent a bit of scientific evidence to back them.

    Science isnt the only tool available to assist humans in knowing something.

    If it were, then children who havent learned the scientific method could learn nothing whatsoever, and people that were alive previous to the modern scientific era would have accumulated zero knowledge as well.

    Its funny that most of mainstream science seems to be hopelessly tainted and compromised by ‘accomodationism’ in your view, and only you and a relatively few hardcore atheists really ‘know the truth’ about science.

    wow

    • Can you tell us another tool we have that assists humans in finding knowledge? Also, can you explain the method by which this tool helps us attain knowledge as well as some questions it has answered?

      Perhaps you could also tell us what you think science is.

      Also, I am interested in hearing your definition of “supernatural” and well as an explanation of what it means for something to be “beyond the realm of nature”.

      The better the definitions the more coherent a conversation we can have.

      • “Can you tell us another tool we have that assists humans in finding knowledge? ”

        You’re kidding, right?

        Do you seriously think that nothing can be known outside of science, or use of the scientific method?

        Really?

      • My comment and my questions are clear. Enlighten us.

    • No, Tim, you are quote mining me here. What I said was “it is the believer who makes causal claims about the supernatural’s effect in reality with no means available to show us the mechanism that supposedly carries out this linking exchange between supposed cause and real effect exchange who is making a serious methodological error.” And it is the believer who decides by fiat that science has nothing to say about this because it is the supernatural we’re talking about. My return comment was that if you’re going to reject science’s right to examine causal claims about reality, then you – as a believer – have nothing to work with for justifying your causal claims. The difference about justification is important because we all believe in all kinds of stuff but claims of knowledge have to go beyond our personal beliefs and be demonstrated to be reasonably justified for anyone. This is where the method of belief used to justify religious claims about reality fail. They’re not ‘knowledge’; they are personal beliefs. And the vast differences of beliefs incompatible with each other in the house of religion reveals exactly this, whereas causal claims linked to effects by means of an demonstrable mechanism used in science does produce a unified belief justified by evidence adduced from reality and available to everyone. As DeGrasse-Tyson says, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

      • tildeb wrote: “And it is the believer who decides by fiat that science has nothing to say about this”

        yes, the University of Cal Berkeley science dept, and the National Science Teachers Association, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have all been secretly infiltrated and taken over by the radical religious right. LOL

        How clever of you to have discerned it! Well I guess the jig is up, you’ve found us all out.

        tildeb wrote: “then you – as a believer – have nothing to work with for justifying your causal claims”

        Do you seriously believe that without the scientific method that no one can know anything? That kind of scientism is not only sad, its comical.

        I’m hoping that the quote you provided from Dr Tyson “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” isn’t accurate. If it is, he’s farther off the deep end than I thought.

        Science is a method of study, it’s not a ‘truth’.

        That’s like saying ‘The good thing about binoculars is that they are true whether or not you believe in them’. Binoculars are not ‘true’, they are simply a tool, an aid to looking at something.

        tildeb wrote: “it is the believer who makes causal claims about the supernatural’s effect in reality with no means available to show us the mechanism that supposedly carries out this linking exchange between supposed cause and real effect exchange who is making a serious methodological error.”

        Again, that would be true only if that believer claimed that science could be used to prove the existence of God, or of the supernatural.

        Science isn’t even necessary to show the existence of the supernatural.

        Simple logic alone shows us that the natural universe we live in had a beginning and a cause. And by definition that cause must be separate, different or apart from the natural universe itself, i.e. it is supernatural.

      • One doesn’t have to belong to the ‘radical religious right’ to be an accommodationist. They populate atheist ranks, too.

        Not that you will particularly care, but a general description of knowledge is justified true beliefs. The argument here is about what constitutes ‘justified’ true belief regarding causal claims about reality, about how it operates and the agencies it contains. So far, you’ve avoided showing how faith-based claims produce justified true beliefs but insist they do. In addition, you have mocked the need for compelling evidence and made snide comments about those who disagree with your line of reasoning here. Believe it or not, Tim, your support for any and all faith-based beliefs contrary to and incompatible with evidence-adduced knowledge is not sufficient to qualify as equivalent justified true beliefs, no matter how much you may wish for them to be. It was in this spirit that I offered the Neil quote. I am perfectly aware that science is a method.. one that you use for every area of your life everyday of your life concerning everything about your life… with the notable exception of your religious accommodationism. This is a clue…

        You continue to refuse to admit that neither you nor I know anything about the supernatural. This is what the various organizations you’ve mentioned state. We are all in agreement. My criticism is that this reasoning forgets that a boundary is crossed when the method of science is precluded from examining effects in reality ATTRIBUTED to the supernatural. This is incorrect. We really can test intercessory prayer, for example, using the method of science. We can test claims of faith healing using the method of science. Declaring these tests out of bounds for science because they address causal claims made by the religious is accommodationism for privilege… whether made by you or the various scientific organizations that go along with this travesty. In addition, what you refuse to acknowledge is that this lack of knowledge about which we are in agreement doesn’t seem to slow you down for even a second from making knowledge claims about it!

        Leave the snarkiness out of any future comments to me, please. It’s counter-productive to both the quality of the site and the issue set out by the OP.

  20. Lets make sure we are crystal clear, Ashley. Are you claiming that you accept nothing without having scientifically verified evidence for it?

    Tell me, does your mom love you? Please provide scientifically verified evidence.for this.

  21. tildeb wrote: “We really can test intercessory prayer, for example, using the method of science.”

    I used to hear this claim so often; and it is so far from reality that I am amazed anyone still thinks its true.

    The so called scientific studies of prayer (yes I’ve seen them) are anything but scientific.

    For starters, what is your scientific definition of prayer? What, no scientific definition?

    Well, how was the prayer used in any one of these studies standardized? What, it wasn’t?

    Then, how was it recorded what was actually prayed? Excuse me, I couldn’t quite hear you…..it wasn’t?

    Since nearly every religious tradition teaches that prayer is more than simply mouthing words, how were other aspects necessary to prayer measured (faith, fidelity to God, submission to Gods will) ? No kidding, you mean these weren’t addressed either?

    What you reference is a caricature of prayer and a sham (as far as real science is concerned), tildeb.

  22. tildeb wrote: ” I am perfectly aware that science is a method.. one that you use for every area of your life everyday of your life concerning everything about your life… with the notable exception of your religious accommodationism. This is a clue…”

    No, sorry. There are many things that you accept every day without scientific evidence.

  23. tildeb wrote: “One doesn’t have to belong to the ‘radical religious right’ to be an accommodationist. They populate atheist ranks, too.”

    yes, you are in the tiny minority (even among scientists) who TRULY understands science, right?

    All the rest are just ‘accomodationists’, they are compromisers, tainted with impure understanding, unlike your enlightened self who possesses the TRUE knowledge of science (see True Scotsman fallacy)

  24. You said, “Overall, I think religion is a net source of harm in the world. If religion were wiped from the planet, it would be no loss.”

    Don’t you think you could also say, “Overall, I think people are a net source of harm in the world. If people were wiped from the planet, it would be no loss.”

    How about politicians, or lawyers or advertisers or …..

    Point: I don’t know how we evaluate the “net harm” for something as broad and diverse as religion. And saying such is more of a banner than any scientifically helpful empirical statement.

    So you concede that for many it is a net positive, so the other statement probably is not helpful, and certainly not testable — even though it parades as such.

    Otherwise, I very much agree with all you have said here and your perspective.

  25. Sabio asserts “I don’t know how we evaluate the “net harm” for something as broad and diverse as religion. And saying such is more of a banner than any scientifically helpful empirical statement.”

    Sure we can evaluate in all kinds of ways.

    The most fundamental evaluation we can start with is epistemology, namely, how is religious belief justified?

    Well, it is demonstrable that religious belief is justified by the individual beliefs of those who hold them rather than by its affects when acted upon. And we know this because incompatible and contrary religious beliefs are in operation all the time. The metric being used is one that supposedly meets the aims of some god or gods. This is untestable, so we know any claims of justification are not subject to any independent verification but assumed by fiat. This model explains why there are ongoing incompatible and contrary religious beliefs systems in operation today.

    When we allow this epistemology free reign with our respect then we end up with a schizophrenic metric where religious belief is used to support slavery; religious belief is used against slavery. Religious belief is used for equal rights; religious belief is used against human rights. Religious belief is used for scientific discovery; religious belief is used against scientific discovery, And so on. We have ample empirical evidence that religious belief is used to justify incompatible claims all the time. It is a net harm to empower this approach with confidence because it doesn’t work to produce confidence for a demonstrable and cohesive benefit for all. Quite the opposite.

    Take away religious belief and we are left with having to justify beliefs on their own merits – the merits of effect – rather than the supposed aims imported from some supposed divine critter and imposed on others under the presumption of pious benefit outweighing human benefit.

    Rejecting religious belief as a justified method is a move away from ignorance masquerading as some ‘other kind’ of knowledge that can produce claims of pious benefit versus compelling evidence of real harm done to real people in real life and towards demanding a testable metric based on real world empirical evidence for its justification.

    The issue of slavery of real people in real life is not a banner. The issue of human rights and equality law for real people in real life is not a banner. The issue of respecting reality to arbitrate claims made about it rather than respecting denialism based on incompatible and contrary claims about some agency of Oogity Boogity busy implementing POOF!ism is not a banner when such religious beliefs continue on a daily basis to cause real harm to real people in real life. Waving away the inherent problems of continuing to respect religious beliefs as a legitimate justification is not a benign position of tolerance but one that is actively hostile to implementing real solutions to real problems of real harm done to real people for religious reasons.
    Even if this reality-based metric is subject to disagreement, it is a net benefit to move the discussion out of the supernatural and into the natural where empirical evidence rather than theological musings can actually be used to inform points of disagreement.

  26. @ Jonny,
    To supplement my comment, if you are interested, I must add points to address any atheist who makes huge generalizations about religion, saying they are all bad, or as you said, “Overall, I think religion is a net source of harm in the world.” For as you know, this is a characteristic of certain sorts of atheists.

    Those points are:

    (1) When discussing these sort of apparently empirical claims, one must have an operational definition of religion. And there is no agreement on what that would be. But most generalizers think they know exactly what religion is and are very willing to quickly throw out outliers to make their intuitions work.

    (2) People practice religions or identify with religious or call themselves religious. And they may mean radically different things than their respective religious professionals say. Most religious folks I know, for instance, don’t believe most of the stuff their religious professionals would like to think they believe or practice — yet their Christianity (what ever that is) is still their religion.

    Not sure if these are clear but I think these two point should give sincere pause to anyone trying to generalize about religion — and indeed most anthropologist I know who agree without hesitation. Instead, it is the banner waving pissed-off on-line atheists who tend to be irrational in their claims. Ironically.

    BTW — I will not engage Tildeb — he and I (and his ilk) have a very unfruitful history of “dialogue”. So I shan’t waste my time with him and his buddies. But if you wish to engage, I’d be glad to discuss. But I wager that you understand my points and that you yourself have similar caveats in your head.

    • I wager that Jonny is perfectly capable of making up his own mind whether my contribution is part of an ‘ilk’ of the banner waving pissed off on-line atheist or something a little less angry and strident.

      Your linguistic obfuscations to justify your accommodationism in all things woo-like, Sabio, serve only to privilege and protect from legitimate criticism unjustified beliefs. Isn’t this a characteristic of a certain kind of apologist?

      Faitheists with your characteristic head-in-the-sand apologetics for superstitious nonsense do no service to people like Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, a Sudanese married woman who has just been sentenced to hang for apostasy (still a capital crime in 16 nations, mind you) – meaning her father was identified as a Muslim – a religious identity she magically inherited with no criticism from you and your ilk, but she was raised Christian and dared to marry another Christian. This marriage is not recognized by sharia and getting married outside of the Muslim faith is a no-no under sharia. She’s eight months pregnant and therefore must be a prostitute who will receive 100 lashes after the child is born for this crime of prostitution and then hung after the child reaches two years of age for apostasy. Religious family values in action, doncha know.

      Now take note, Sabio, because this is the important bit: the only cause for this punishment is religious belief.

      Pretend all you want that such belief demonstrated ten thousand different ways with social, legal, and economic privilege is relatively innocuous because most people who claim religious identity wouldn’t dream of promoting and defending this specific kind of legal brutality. But also note the lack of widespread condemnation from this vast majority of religious folk who claim Muslim identity you excuse from being responsible for allowing these harmful actions because, hey, they are diverse. You want them to have it both ways – personal membership to a faith without personal responsibility for how that faith is expressed – because, hey, religious belief is diverse. That’s an excuse, Sabio, and hardly equitable to the harm being done right this minute to real people equivalently justified by all kinds of diverse religious beliefs.

      So when religiously supported and justified harm is done to real people in real life, let’s just pretend religion as a means to justify these harmful ends is less a concern than those nasty, brutish folk who dare imagine a world without respecting and privileging this kind of barbaric, archaic, and ignorant superstitious nonsense and who write about its never-ending pernicious effects in real life. Your character remains unstained from stooping so low.

  27. I essentially agree with labreurer who said:

    “It seems like it would be much more effective to single out the very specific type of religion (which may show up in only some sects or even only some people in some sects) which most definitely causes damage. An example: the desire to have an authority to trust and blame, instead of learning to think for oneself. Another: using power to control people instead of enhance them. Note that these aren’t actually religion-specific.”

    Being specific about what sort of religious behavior or religious thinking one is criticizing rather into buying into anti-religion atheist slogans like “religion is a net source of harm in the world.” would be far more accurate and certainly more constructive, insightful, productive and scientific. Less rhetoric and more thought would be nice.

    All kinds of horrible things are done by people for religious reasons, and when they don’t have religious reasons, they site politics, language differences, race differences, sexual differences and more.

    But I think Jonny agrees with me because he said, “And, obviously, a world with no religion in it could easily be a terrible place.” I am for identifying exactly what it is in a religion (a specific, given religion) that needs to be change to improve their religion to be a net good for the world — which I think is possible. (if indeed, such a think could be objectively measured).

    All this makes me a different sort of atheist from the “All Religion is Bad” cheering gallery. But just as religionists differ, so do atheists.

    [please note, I intentionally ignore unproductive red herrings]

  28. Sabio innocently states ” I am for identifying exactly what it is in a religion (a specific, given religion) that needs to be change to improve their religion to be a net good for the world — which I think is possible. (if indeed, such a think could be objectively measured).”

    That presumes there is a net good. But the problem is that religion requires a methodological approach – a method common to all religions that proscribe belief in a supernatural divine agency – that doesn’t work to accurately describe the reality we share. That problem undermines and contradicts the presumption you make.

    The root problem of religiously inspired behaviour is common to all religions and woo: the believer empowers faith-based beliefs with undeserved confidence and then imposes the belief on reality as if it describes it accurately rather than allow reality to arbitrate and adjudicate the beliefs we hold about it. Any net benefit from these kinds of beliefs is coincidental not because of but in spite of the failed methodology. And we know it fails because it never, ever produces knowledge accessible to all and demonstrable by application, therapy or technology. Your request to objectively measure a subjective and dependent religious belief has been measured by net effect and it’s correlated to greater social dysfunction. We still don’t know if religion is a response to social dysfunction or a cause; all we know so far it is that it is a strong correlate.

  29. The “religion” of many of my friends requires no methodology — they half-assedly believe what they profess to believe. Their “religion” is a culture, it is tradition of rituals. They are not believists — they are not doctrinal. Like many self-identifying Christians, they are a jumble of convenient beliefs, most used as a signal of belonging and not truth propositions. “Religion” is not an easy word to capture — except to those committed to irrationally attacking a word instead of carefully understanding how human minds and human language interact.

    I have Western Buddhist friends, who don’t make any huge epistemological errors when practicing their religion. But an anti-religion atheist will say, “Well, then that is not religion.” OK, that is fine, but now we are exposing the question begging. You see, they set up a syllogism like this:
    (1) Religion is stupid beliefs.
    (2) All religion is stupid.

    Wow, wasn’t that clever !! 🙂

    • The “Naziism” of many of my friends requires no methodology — they half-assedly believe what they profess to believe. Their “Naziism” is a culture, it is tradition of rituals. They are not believists — they are not doctrinal. Like many self-identifying Nazis, they are a jumble of convenient beliefs, most used as a signal of belonging and not truth propositions. “Naziism” is not an easy word to capture — except to those committed to irrationally attacking a word instead of carefully understanding how human minds and human language interact.

      *shrug*

  30. The contradictory ideas that religion is a positive thing for most individuals, yet somehow causes ‘net harm’ when viewed in a *group* of those very same individuals is one of those unproved and unprovable statements that supposedly scientific-minded people shouldn’t make.

  1. Pingback: Jonny S. on Atheism | The Heretical Philosopher

  2. Pingback: Parting Ways with God: On ‘Liberal’ Religions | Cooley?

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