Questionable Motives

October 6, 2012

What’s the harm of a little religious belief exercised in the public domain?

Rep. Paul Broun (R-Georgia) is member of the Science Committee of the House of Representatives and chairs the House Science Committee’s panel on investigations and oversight. He claims to be a scientist because he’s a medical doctor, which reminds me to remember that half of all medical doctors graduated from the bottom portion of their class.

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December 23, 2011

Can religious belief be honest?

The short answer is no.
Let’s revisit some basic information about the kind of religious belief practiced in the United States:
from a 2007 Gallup Poll:
  • 81% of Americans believe in Heaven
  • 75% of Americans believe in angels
  •  70% of Americans believe in Satan
  •  69% of American believe in Hell (presumably 1% think that Hell has no overseer)
Some other stats:

(h/t to WEIT in response to a terrible TIME article)

All of these majority beliefs rest on an acceptance of some supernatural element causing effect here in the natural world. In order to accept a belief that depends on a supernatural element means that by necessity the believer must willingly suspend the laws (we know operate consistently and reliably well) of the natural world we inhabit in order to maintain the belief. This willingness to sacrifice what the person knows is true – the laws of physics and chemistry and biology on which we trust our lives and those we love on a daily basis – can only be described as intentional dishonesty, no matter how temporary or ancient the suspension might be. The motivations for people to allow and excuse and apologize and respect this dishonesty – this willingness to suspend natural laws on behalf of a religious claim to allow for non-natural causation – are many and varied but such beliefs in the reality of the supernatural with no extraordinary evidence to justify it remains dishonest all the same.

Gnu atheists are naturalists. We respect reality to be the arbiter of what is true about it, meaning we remain consistent in our thinking that the natural order is not suspended simply because some people wish it to be so. Reality itself has to provide that evidence (and trust in how we can know about it through methodological naturalism). To date, there is no such evidence when and where there should be. There is no genetic proof for an original couple; no geological proof for a global flood; no astronomical proof for a geocentric solar system; no medical proof in the efficacy of prayer.  There are many claims that the natural order has in fact, in reality, in history been suspended,  that some supernatural causation has revealed itself by effect in the natural world, that this order has been affected by the supernatural according to hearsay, but none of these is informed by the same kind of evidence that informs how and what we know about the natural order.

And this raises an important point: this absence of equivalent evidence reveals the dishonesty by those who pretend there really IS an equivalency, IS another way to know, IS a similar method of inquiry that yields similar results of reliable and consistent knowledge. All of these claims of equivalency are false. They are not true. Perhaps this abject failure of belief to create any practical and reliable knowledge about the natural world is why so many believers go out of their way to try to cast aspersions on the trust cum ‘belief’ we place on knowledge about the natural order through this reliable and consistent method of respecting reality rather than belief to arbitrate what is true about, excusing how theology is presented without any similar evidence on the grounds that it’s of a different but compatible kind when there is no evidence from reality to support this, and the insistence by so many religious apologists that trust cum ‘belief’ we place on assumptions/assertions/attributions about the supernatural order is an equivalent method of inquiry that produces a similar kind of knowledge. This is demonstrably not true. (Gnus call this kind of fibbery Lyin’ fer Jebus)

And gnu atheists dare to point this out… thus earning the disparaging labels commonly found in media and used so often in the personal opinions of believers and accommodationists and apologists about New Atheists, words like militant, arrogant, strident, fundamentalist, angry, immoral, untrustworthy, and nihilistic. Defenders of supernatural beliefs tend to hold gnus to a different and much higher standard of behaviour than those religious folk who warn us of hell and eternal damnation for our refusing to fear and submit to their tyrannical god… and who even feel highly moral when they call for our banishment and even death. Those who support religion promoted in the public domain (as if belief in supernatural causation automatically grants one a voice in matters of public law, governance, and policy) cause a similar problem to those who do not support public vaccination: supporting that which may seem to offer comfort to the few only by forcibly putting everyone else at risk.

And this raises the point about what it is that gnu atheists actually do support: secular Enlightenment values that uphold equality in human rights, human freedoms, and human dignity first and foremost in human affairs. Belief in the supernatural is not a rational argument against these values and cannot be allowed to undermine them in the name of tolerance and reasonable accommodation; the inherent dishonesty necessary to maintain supernatural belief must be met with very public and sustained criticism whenever and wherever this superstitious nonsense attempts to join the grownups in adult conversation about human affairs in the reality we share.

So next time some silly and naive apologist for supernatural belief attempts to tell you that sophisticated liberal theology that doesn’t involve believing anything about the supernatural but distils wisdom from story and metaphor and myth from scriptural references and interpretations, remember what the majority of believers actually do believe: in the suspension of the natural order without compelling evidence in order to maintain without merit their dishonest belief in some element of supernaturalism.

December 20, 2011

Is the Higgs boson really a particle of faith?

Alister McGrath would have you believe it is.

In this article he writes about equating the Higgs bosun particle (a link here for people unfamiliar with what the Standard Theory is and what carrier particles are) – scientists hunting the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider have revealed the first tantalising glimpses of the mysterious particle –  to a similar kind of belief in the causal agent for the order we find in the universe he calls god. I’ve added some bold type for emphasis:

Lederman (Nobel Laureate Leon) invented the name the “God particle” because it was “so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our understanding of the structure of matter, yet so elusive.” Nobody had seen it back in 1994. And they’re still not sure whether they’ve really seen it today. Yet this isn’t seen as a massive problem. The idea seemed to make so much sense of things that the existence of the “God particle” has come to be taken for granted. It has become, I would say, a “particle of faith”. The observations themselves didn’t prove the existence of the Higgs boson. Rather, the idea of the Higgs boson explained observations so well that those in the know came to believe it really existed. One day, technology might be good enough to allow it to be actually observed. But we don’t need to wait until then before we start believing in it.

McGrath is saying we can start believing that the Higgs boson really does exist as a causal agent because it’s a really good explanation that fits the available evidence even if it’s invisible. And note that he equates an ‘explanation of observations’ with ‘making sense’. In fact, maybe it seems odd to McGrath that there is such an exciting kerfuffle over the same bumps in mass measured by two different research teams at the Collider – a mass between 124 and 126 gigaelectronvolts (GeV) – which shows strong evidence that the same thing is being measured, and that same thing may be a Higgs signal. Why be excited at all if simply believing something is true is adequate and equivalent?

Obviously, belief alone – meaning trust and confidence that something is true – in NOT adequate proof, which is why we call such a belief in scientific terminology an hypothesis… a potential explanation that may or may not be true and in need further empirical inquiry and stronger evidence. McGrath knows this but it it doesn’t suit his purpose here because he has no intention of suggesting god is merely an hypothesis in need of further empirical proof – like the same kind of dedicated search for empirical evidence of the Higgs boson. So we know he is being intentionally dishonest in the sense he wishes to misrepresent trust in the existence of the Higgs boson with the same kind of trust in an invisible, intervening, creative, sky daddy.

So what is his real purpose for this intentional misrepresentation between trust in the existence of the Higgs boson particle and trust in the existence of god?

There’s an obvious and important parallel with the way religious believers think about God. While some demand proof that God exists, most see this as unrealistic.

Is this “parallel” similarly reflected in the search for the Higgs boson? Do most of us think it is unrealistic to demand empirical evidence of the Higgs boson particle? Of course not. In fact, such evidence is exactly what is being sought, and rightly so, to INCREASE the confidence that the particle does in fact exist, for without it the Higgs boson remains only an hypothesis regardless of its explanatory power. That’s why these are not equivalent kinds of faith in action here and McGrath knows this. But it doesn’t even slow him down when he makes his final pitch:

Believers argue that the existence of God gives the best framework for making sense of the world. God is like a lens, which brings things into clearer focus. As the Harvard psychologist William James pointed out years ago, religious faith is about inferring “the existence of an unseen order” in which the “riddles of the natural order” can be explained.

Is McGrath being honest here? Does he hold his faith in god to be an equivalent hypothesis of inference in need of better evidence to INCREASE his confidence that it may be true? (I see no evidence for this.) Or is he, like religious apologists everywhere, merely cherry picking bits and pieces of scientific endeavors to misrepresent his faith – his certainty that his god is an active and causal agent in the universe and exists in reality – to be equivalent to honest scientific inquiry? (I see nothing but strong evidence for this cherry picking.)

When religious apologists stoop to misrepresenting the method of scientific inquiry to be equivalent to how they inform their religious faith, they show their intellectual dishonesty. They have no desire, no willingness, to search for explanations to the riddles of the natural order from the natural order itself but that if we order now, we can have this answer called god. But wait! There’s more! If we call right now, we can also get – absolutely free – an answer that can safely and without compromise be our final answer to whatever questions we have of this natural order! It’s so easy, anyone can do it, but don’t delay; call today! As a bonus, we’ll throw in the old canard that this one-answer-fits-all and call the ‘results’ equivalent to honest scientific inquiry… merely a different and compatible way of knowing.

It’s an absurd and obscene pitch McGrath is making, knowing full well that such snake oil trust he’s peddling in faith-based rather than reality based claims offers us nothing but turtles all the way down and answers nothing with reliable and consistent knowledge. All we have to do to gain access to this one answer for all questions about the natural order is to exchange our intellectual honesty and curiosity and demand for empirical evidence for the kind of empty confidence we can have in the final answer of godidit. That’s why it’s a toll free call. And McGrath would have us think that this is a legitimate and valuable exchange. I think it’s clear that his argument is, metaphorically speaking, no different than a crock of shit.

December 18, 2011

Is religious revelation trustworthy?

Filed under: Neuroscience,Religion,revelation,Science,Supernatural — tildeb @ 11:34 am

Absolutely not.

I have written quite a bit about how holding faith-based beliefs can and usually does adversely affect one’s ability to perceive reality as it is, confusing attribution with causation. This problem of perception – of what comes from where – is nothing new, nor are faith-based beliefs the only guilty party. The tremendous success of consumer marketing, for example, relies on exactly this confusion: convincing consumers that values they themselves already hold come from, or can be enhanced by, owning the objects or ideas being offered for sale, values which are not inherent in these objects or ideas – in the thing itself – but can be experienced as if they were… by a process of attributing what we believe to the object.  For example,

We want to believe that pleasure is simple, that our delight in a fine painting or bottle of wine is due entirely to the thing itself. But that’s not the way reality works. Whenever we experience anything, that experience is shaped by factors and beliefs that are not visible on the canvas or present in the glass. (From the article, How Does the Brain Perceive Art? Wired)

These factors reside in the person doing the attributing and can be rather complex:

Our findings support the idea that when people make aesthetic judgements, they are subject to a variety of influences. Not all of these are immediately articulated. Indeed, some may be inaccessible to direct introspection but their presence might be revealed by brain imaging. It suggests that different regions of the brain interact together when a complex judgment is formed, rather than there being a single area of the brain that deals with aesthetic judgements.

In other words, we may not be aware of what it is within us that is influencing our value judgements and associated beliefs about the source from where that assigned value actually resides.

With this in mind, let us visit the central tenet of religious faith relied upon by so many christian writers on the web: revelation… a transforming personal experience that connects the person to the ‘reality’ of god, what the Encyclopaedia Britannica describes as the disclosure of divine or sacred reality or purpose to humanity. My question returns, as always, to the central point made by those who use revelation as evidence for god: Is it true and how can we know?

I find it really interesting that no one I’ve come across claims to have had a revelation of divine reality from Nergal. Why is that? Well, I’ve had theists explain to me that Nergal is a false god, you see, so it’s perfectly understandable that no one would have such a revelation; there is no Nergal. Well, duh. That no one has ever heard of such a god, aka Erra aka Meslamta-ea, doesn’t even merit any consideration when one is already sure that such a god is false. But is the god false because it doesn’t exist or is it false because I don’t believe it exists? This is not a trivial question and bears an important consideration for gods that people do believe exist, believed to be the very source of their revelation. Can one still have a revelation from a god that one does not believe exists?

The god that is revealed to christians just so happens to be the very same one inculcated throughout their culture. What are the chances that this god – and not an obscure Sumerian one like Nergal – just so happens to be the very one revealed? Might there be a better understanding of what it is that is actually being revealed than to assume a personal disclosure by an cosmic agency hiding in the supernatural? By golly, maybe there is! Maybe – just like is revealed in marketing – the source of this divine disclosure is in fact ourselves, which may explain with – with no need for supernatural personal visitations – why the best predictor of which particular religious belief an individual identifies with is geography. And history. And familiarity.

Whodathunk?

April 24, 2010

Is belief innocuous?

A common criticism of atheism is that it promotes a militant version of liberal conventional wisdom as the all-purpose solution for human ills, another kind of belief (like religious belief) that the solution to the world’s problems can be found by the withering away of religion through the continuing advancement of science and knowledge. The old and flawed canard to argue against this wisdom relies on pulling in Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot to represent this other-kind of belief identified as atheism in action, as if religious belief is not only a reasonable alternative to this cold and barbaric totalitarianism diametrically opposed to liberalism but one that is necessary to protect us from the inevitable ravages of atheism in action.

I have already explained why atheism is by definition is not another kind of belief (hence the importance of precursor word ‘non’) but simply a label that refutes the acceptance of any kind of supernatural mechanism to explain cause with effect. When any kind of supernatural mechanism is suggested as this link between cause and effect, I think we have a duty (at least to intellectual honesty) to dismiss the claim as unjustified. No matter what the claim may be – be it about homeopathy and the claim that water retain a ‘memory’ to demonic possession, from a tripartite god who cures leprosy to one who causes geological vengeance because of the attire of women – we need to reject that belief on the merit that it is an unjustified belief. Belief in a specific yet unknown supernatural mechanism between cause and effect simply is not justified because it is an incoherent assumption masquerading as something real and knowable. But under consideration is the question whether or not holding such beliefs is innocuous?

Consider this excerpt from this article Akwa-Ibom Child Witches:

From Nigeria to Congo, Kenya to Tanzania, The Gambia to Cameroon, there are reported cases of teens been hacked to death, toddlers being drowned in rivers, adolescent being macheted by frustrated men and women all because someone CONFIRMED spiritually that THEY ARE WITCHES! As an African, belief in witchcraft is not alien to me neither is the news of stoning to death of many confirmed by native spiritualists to be a witch.

If we move away from the specific and horrific actions justified by this specific belief – in this case the veracity of witchcraft – and look at any kind of belief as a stand-alone means to legitimately know anything whatsoever about linking cause with effect, then it becomes apparent that belief is an ending point to any gaining of knowledge. Believing something to be true and being satisfied with this assumption cannot be the beginning of an honest inquiry but its ending. It is a substitute answer – and one empty of knowledge. Belief is not an equivalent kind of knowledge whatsoever for any truth claim, as is suggested by those who wish to protect us from the ravages of atheistic belief that leads to totalitarianism and who support and apologize for the absurdity of non-overlapping magisteria for knowledge (those who support the notion that science answers one kind of question – the ‘how’ questions – while religion answers another kind of question – the ‘why’ questions) . Belief is a shortcut that attempts to persuade us to accept ignorance as another kind of knowledge, a different way to know, pretending to answer ‘why’ questions with anything other that pure speculation and assumption. This is false because at its root, belief in a supernatural intervention between cause and effect is simply a hypothesis – a truth claim unsubstantiated and unverified presented as some kind of informed answer when it clearly is not. It remains an assumption that is held to be true. Non belief, then,  is the opposite of this assertion – an insistence that any truth claims about the natural universe and anything within it must be substantiated and verified by some natural means other than more assumption to count as knowledge, to be considered informed.

Any time anyone acts on the conclusion that some belief is justified by merit of it being based on a belief, then that action  is unjustified. When we allow belief to be any kind of legitimate engine that drives actions rather than knowledge, then we are arguing that acting out of ignorance is synonymous to acting out of knowledge and both as legitimate as the other. This is patently false and people – believers and non believers – do not act this way: we don’t rush a injured or sick loved one to a brick layer because we honestly think that medical ignorance is the equivalent of medical expertise; we recognize that having knowledge is opposite to not having knowledge. Yet when it comes to belief and non belief, many seem to struggle with the notion of opposites.

Belief removed from any action in its name may seem to be innocuous but when ignorant beliefs informs ignorant actions, then belief is not innocuous. The children accused of witchcraft and treated accordingly by believers of witchcraft stand in testimony of the very real cost of belief in action.

April 22, 2010

Are scientific and supernatural claims compatible?

Over at ButterfliesandWheels, Ophelia Benson has posted her argument why the supposed wall of separation between science and the supernatural that allows them to be compatible is a “crock of shit.” She writes:

(T)here’s no such thing as “the supernatural.” Nobody cares about some general thing called “the supernatural.” People care about particular things that could be put under the heading “supernatural” but are not “the supernatural” themselves. And many or most of the things that people care about and that can be put under the heading “supernatural” are not really supernatural in a sense that would make science unable to say anything about them. And that includes “God” – except when the deist god is meant, which in fact it almost never is.

“The supernatural” is just the name of a category, but what’s really in dispute is not a category, but a person, an agent. The supernatural is one thing, and “God” is another, and it’s a distraction to pretend that by walling off “the supernatural” from science it is possible to get science to agree that God is beyond dispute.

Now consider astronomer Dave Chernoff’s response on “Ask an astronomer” about whether or not astronomers believe in astrology:

“No, astronomers do not believe in astrology. It is considered to be a ludicrous scam. There is no evidence that it works, and plenty of evidence to the contrary.” He ended his dismissal with the assertion that in science, “one does not need a reason not to believe in something. Skepticism is the default position and one requires proof if one is to be convinced of something’s existence.”

Clear, concise, and definitive: The burden of proof for people who claim that astrology is true lies on those who make that claim. Yet when it comes to claims that the supernatural is true under the heading of religious belief, let’s watch the wheels fall of this skeptical bus. Chernoff tells us that modern science leaves plenty of room for the existence of god and that people who believe in god can fit their beliefs in the scientific framework without creating contradictions. After giving a couple of examples of how this might be possible – the Big Bang does not contradict a Genesis equivalent (whatever that means) – Chernoff concludes that, ultimately, science can never prove or disprove the existence of god and religious belief doesn’t, and shouldn’t have anything to do with scientific reasoning. (Tip to commentator #4 Kenneth.Pidcock)

So what happened to skepticism as the default position – a very useful and beneficial guideline for examining any and all truth claims – when the truth claim fell under the category of religion? How can reasonable people like Chernoff suddenly have their reasoning faculties shut down and allow themselves to pile up banal excuses on behalf of favouring religious claims to be exempt from legitimate skepticism? Some may claim that god works in mysterious ways, but so too does the mind of religious apologists… very mysterious indeed.

I agree with Benson that this skeptical exemption for religious claims about the supernatural, which is necessary for the claim of compatibility with science to remain true, is a crock of shit. And it’s full of shit because the skeptical constraints are changed. That’s not compatibility: that’s an abdication of fair play, a failure to keep the rules of inquiry the same for both categories, resulting in an intellectual capitulation by those who merely want to believe that science and the supernatural are compatible when an honest investigation is subverted right from the start.

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