Category Archives: Science

Ray Comfort’s “The Atheist Delusion”: A review

 

The other night a good friend of mine (who also happens to edit this blog, thanks Paul) came over and we sat down and forced ourselves to sit through all 62 minutes of Ray Comfort’s latest film, The Atheist Delusion.  Comfort is well known in the Christian community for his books, tracts, and films on apologetics.  Previous films include Audacity, Noah & The Last Days, and Evolution vs. God.  I’ve had the displeasure of seeing some of these other films, so I had an idea of what I was getting myself into.

Paul and I started drinking right from the start, as we figured we would need the liquid courage to make it though without throwing something at the TV.  We were right.  I’m not going to go minute by minute on this one, but I am going to hit on several of the main points where Comfort fails miserably.

  • The beginning of the movie starts with Comfort interviewing college students, asking them about nature and evolution.  He hands them a book, and asks them if the book could have put itself together by chance.  That’s right, kids; it’s the watchmaker argument! Comfort has simply repackaged an all too familiar and thoroughly denounced fallacy, and claimed it as his own.  He uses a false analogy to try and claim that since a book can’t create itself, neither can anything in nature.  This is the one scientific question that Comfort claims will “destroy atheism” and sets up the premise for the whole film.
  • He then moves right into talking about DNA, claiming that like the book, some Intelligent Designer (ID) must have created it – it didn’t just come from nothing.  It’s ironic that Comfort uses DNA to try and prove his point, as DNA is unequivocal proof that evolution is true, a point that he conveniently ignores.  He uses a common metaphor that DNA is the “instruction book for life” and then goes on to claim that since the Bible talks about writing the “Book of Life”, then DNA is proof of ID.  Again, using a false analogy, he attempts to claim that “book – book designer, DNA – intelligent designer, i.e. God”.  The problem with this is that the idea of DNA “encoding” information is purely an analogy, since the DNA precedes the information rather than vice versa.
  •  Comfort asks a lady if DNA happened by accident and she rightly replies that it developed over the course of many thousands of years of evolution and development.  Not getting the answer he was hoping for, Comfort moves the goalpost and response with, “The origins don’t matter”.  Yeah, they fucking do, Ray!  Isn’t that what we’re talking about here – evolution vs ID and the origins of all living things?  Like all living matter, DNA also evolved from simpler simpler molecules.
  • Comfort asks one guy if he thinks that the eyes of mammals could have come about by chance.  Again, eyes are a clear example of evolution at work.
  • Comfort spends an inordinate amount of time asking people if “something” can come from “nothing”.  This is what’s commonly know as the Cosmological Argument, a fallacious argument that has been debunked six ways from Sunday.
  • In one of my favorite scenes from the film, Comfort uses an old riddle to try and prove ID.  It goes something like this: “What came first, the chicken or the egg? If the egg came first, what fertilized the egg?  The rooster did.  Therefore – GOD!”  Yes, that is really his argument.  Once again, Comfort’s ignorance and denial of evolution are apparent.  Neither a chicken or an egg just popped into existence, they both evolved over time. 
  • The egg riddle leads into a confusing series of questions regarding eyes, brains, lungs, the heart, blood vessels etc. Comfort falsely assumes that these things couldn’t have simply evolved (hint, hint -they did) and must have been created together just as we see them.  He then asks a strange question, “Do you know of anyone who isn’t fully evolved? Anything on earth?”  His assertion is that everything is created perfectly just the way it is.  There are two problems with this claim.  First, there is no end-point with evolution.  Second, there are species that are continuing to evolve, in fact most species do, including humans.  This has been observed in numerous species, everything from e coli bacteria to elephants.  Oh, and to Comfort’s claim that we don’t see people who have half-evolved legs or other extremities because we are “perfectly evolved”; explain this.
  • Comfort makes the very bold assertion that Richard Dawkins “isn’t really an atheist, he’s an adulterer.”  (Almost threw something at the TV at this point.  Thanks you alcohol)  His reasoning is that Dawkins (like all non-believers) has the wrong idea about God because he cherry-picks the Old Testament and therefore doesn’t understand the true nature of God.  Comfort doesn’t actually address Dawkin’s point, however, regarding God’s character.
  • “The Argument from ID isn’t to convince people of the Christian message, it’s just to just to show them the insanity of atheism”.  Bullshit.  That is exactly why Comfort spends the first half of the film trying to prove ID, so that he can spend the second half of the movie proselytizing to people.
  • Comfort claims that the Bible contains “scientific facts that weren’t discovered tell thousands of years later”.  He first mentions the Earth hangs from nothing, but then goes on to list a number of things which the the writers of the Bible absolutely did not know about, things like germs and the Earth being round.  He then says that the writers of the Bible knew that “life was in the blood”.  This is hardly rocket science.  People long before the Bible had figured out that if the blood leaves your body, you’re going to die.  No mention of all the areas of the Bible which demonstrate how scientifically illiterate its writers were.
  • Two thirds of the way into the film, Comfort changes gears and starts talking about hell.  Because no good Christian witness would be complete without threatening people that their going to burn for all eternity.  Comfort’s “proof” of Hell is that there has to be some sort of retribution for things like the Holocaust.  “When you look at Nazi Germany, instead of saying ‘If God is good, how can He create Hell?  You’ve got to come out saying, ‘If God is good, how can there not be a Hell?'”  No, Ray; I still want an answer to first question, and actual evidence that Hell is real, beyond your assertion that it is.
  • Then comes the “Are you a good person?” part of the film, where Comfort makes people admit what shitty people they really are.  It’s honestly one of the hardest parts of the film to watch because you can see people getting uncomfortable by his questions.  Comfort doesn’t care, of course, because in the Evangelical world, there’s no such things as personal boundaries.  Even to the point where if they give an answer he doesn’t like he’ll keep pushing them tell they admit what he wants them to admit.  More on this later.
  • A couple of times in the film Comfort compares humans to other animals, by wrongfully assuming that they don’t have much of the same emotions and desires that we have.  He implies that animals have no sense of morality or compassion.  This is false.  He also tells one person that they are not like an animal because he has a desire to live.  The will to survive is literally the most foundational force in nature!  Every species of live on this planet carries it.
  • Pascal’s Wager makes an appearance in the film – “The Bible says that Jesus Christa has abolished death. Now, if that isn’t true, we shouldn’t look into it.  But if there’s once chance in a million that it is…  Your good sense should just open your heart and say, ‘I’ll check it out'”.
  • The last bit of the film is Comfort trying to get people to accept his bullshit “Allow Jesus into your hearts” by telling them that they’re going to go to hell for their sins if they don’t.  He makes it very clear that Christianity is all about correct beliefs; our actions are irrelevant.

A few more thoughts about some general themes throughout the film.

Comfort spends the entire film equating evolution with atheism.  He makes the case that if evolution isn’t true, then there has to be a God, and not just any god, but his God.  Comfort is fond of using straw man arguments to make his points, saying things like, “You’re an atheist, so you believe the scientific impossibility that nothing created everything?”  First of all, atheism and evolution are two completely separate topics.  Atheism is the assertion that a God can not be demonstrated.  That’s it.  Whether or not evolution is true has nothing to do with it.  Also, even if evolution was to be proven false, that does no automatically make ID true; it’s a false dichotomy.  Nor would it prove that God exists.  You still need to provide sufficient evidence for both claims.  Comfort also ignores the fact many Christians accept evolution.  Believing in ID is not a prerequisite for believing in God.

All but two of the people Comfort interviews in this film are under-graduate college students; just random kids he’s meeting on the street.  He doesn’t interview any experts in the fields that he is discussing.  If he really wants to know about evolution, why isn’t he interviewing biologists?  If he wants to talk about DNA, why didn’t he interview Francis Collins, a fellow Christians and expert in the field?  Instead, Comfort interviews a bunch of dumb college students, and holds them up as shining examples of what all atheists believe.  This is incredibly dishonest and manipulative.  Ever heard of “bearing false witness”, Ray?  Ray doesn’t include anyone knowledgeable in his fields of inquiry because he knows they would have solid answers for his questions, wouldn’t buy his bullshit, and would make him look like a idiot.  The only expert included in the whole film is a short, edited clip of his interview with Lawrence Krauss, in which Krauss sharply refutes his arguments.  (You can see the full interview here)  Of course he doesn’t pose the “something from nothing” question to Krauss, a man who literally wrote the book on the subject.  The same can be said for atheist in general – why didn’t he interview one of the more well know atheist like Matt Dillahunty or PZ Myers, who he’s spoken with before?  There are a number of atheists and scientists who I’m certain would have been in this film if Comfort had asked them.  Instead he chooses to interview young, ignorant college kids to make his point.  Comfort also has a habit of giving ignorant, but easy answers to complex questions.  Subjects like DNA and evolutionary biology are fields which experts spend decades studying and can’t generally be summed up in a sentence or two.  Comfort chooses to remain ignorant of these topics and instead insists that “God did it!” is a suitable answer to any topic he doesn’t understand.

Or, most likely he did interview some knowledgeable atheists and scientists and simply left those interview out of the video.  As with his interview with Krauss, the entire movie is heavily edited and pieced together.  It’s hard to know for sure what kind of answers the people being interviewed were actually giving.  I’m willing to bet there were interviews which were intentionally left out because they didn’t provide the answers Comfort was looking for, i.e.; they don’t make atheists look stupid enough.

Comfort’s cheery nature and New Zealand accent aren’t enough to masquerader what a self-righteous, judgmental prick he can be.  Around the half-way mark of the film, he accuses pretty much everyone he’s been interviewing that the real reason they’re atheists is because they want to sin, they love their porn, they love their pre-marital sex, etc.  He’s fond of using that the one line that makes every atheist want to punch someone in the face, “You know deep in your heart that God exists; you’re just denying it!”  This comes up several times throughout the film with Comfort insisting people believe in things they just got done telling him that that they didn’t.  This is what’s know as gaslighting – a form of psychological abuse in which a victim is manipulated into doubting their own memory, perception, and sanity.  When talking to people, Comfort attempts to draw out all the bad things they’ve done in their lives to show them how wicked they are and how much they deserve Hell, to the point of actually calling people names.  He does all this “out of love” of course.

When it comes to apologetics, the old saying, “There is nothing new under the sun”, really strikes true.  The Atheist Delusion is nothing put a repackaging of the same tired, fallacious arguments that Christians have been using for decades in an attempt to justifies their baseless claims.  Everything from the Cosmological Argument, the Argument for Design, Pascal’s Wager, to the overall theme that since Evolution is false, then God must be true.  Not once in the 62 minutes of this film did Comfort make a solid, plausible case for either God or ID.

But that really isn’t the point, is it?  Comfort isn’t trying to convert atheist – he’s pandering to his audience of Christians who already buy into his particular brand of religion.  Comfort makes a pretty good living reinforcing stereotypes, pandering to the Evangelical world-view, and remaining willfully ignorant of reality.  It’s not like Comfort’s arguments haven’t been challenged before; he just chooses to ignore any evidence which refutes his position.  Confirmation bias at its finest.

The only redeeming quality of this film is the stock footage that is used as filler between scenes, and to emphasize some points  But it’s not worth watching the movie for, just watch Planet Earth instead.  If you really want to see what the movie is about, just watch the first half to get the gist of Comfort’s fallacious arguments, and skip the sermon at the end.

One final note.  At the end of the film, we get a message from the president of the company that produced the film, Living  Waters, directs you too the movies website, were you can get a four session video course “that will equip you to do what Ray did in the movie, and reach atheists with the love of Christ”.  If there are any Christians who have gone through this course and would like to try it out, contact me and I would be totally game, as would Paul.  I’ll even buy lunch.

If you would like to check out a more in-depth and humorous review of this film, be sure to check out The Bible Reloaded’s great commentary below.  Thanks for reading.

 

Not All Opinions Are Equal

You’ve likely encountered this scenario: You’re in a debate with someone, either on-line or in person.  You are discussing a topic of which you and the other party disagree.  You’ve laid out your case, presenting sound and difficult to refute evidence, yet the other person persists that they are right and you are wrong.  The other person ends the conversation in frustration by boldly proclaiming, “I have a right to my opinion!”

Sound familiar?  Most of us have probably been in this situation and walked away shaking our heads at the seemingly ignorant responses.  Some of us have likely used that very same line as a way of dodging any further discussion.  Because that’s what remarks like “I have a right to my opinion!” are: a close-ended statement meant to shut down the conversation and get the last word in.  More on this later.  First, let’s start with some definitions.

“Opinion” is defined as, “a belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty; a personal view, attitude, or appraisal.”  This is a very different concept than the concept of facts, yet it’s surprising how many people consider their own opinions iron-clad.  Opinions can range from tastes or preferences, to views about  politics, to views grounded in technical expertise, such as legal or scientific opinions.  However, there is a very big difference between subjective claims, such as tastes in music, art, sports teams, etc., and objective claims; those which carry the weight of empirical evidence.

Professor of Philosophy Patrick Stokes tells his students when they enter his class: “I’m sure you’ve heard the expression ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion.’ Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself, maybe to head off an argument or bring one to a close. Well, as soon as you walk into this room, it’s no longer true. You are not entitled to your opinion. You are only entitled to what you can argue for.”  He goes on to explain: “The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.”

The digital revolution has done much to connect the world, yet it has also done much to divide it as well.  No longer are Americans merely holding opinions different from one another; they’re also holding different “facts”.  For example, arguments are no longer about what we should be doing about climate change, but whether or not climate change is actually happening.  People are now fighting over competing versions of reality.  And now more then ever, it is becoming convenient for some people to live in a world built out of their own facts.  Stephen Colbert has coined this alternate reality as “truthiness” – something feeling true without any evidence suggesting it actually is.  

This “feeling” of being right has led to this ingrained idea in much of the populous that their views, beliefs, and opinions should be given equal standing in public discourse.  To be clear, no one is suggesting that people cannot hold differing opinions or even speak them publicly.  What I (and Stokes) am saying is that if “entitled to an opinion” means “entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth”, then it’s clearly false.

“We don’t respect people’s beliefs, we evaluate their reasons.” – Sam Harris

All too often, when one sees a debate, it is between only two individuals on opposite ends of the issue.  This can give the illusion that both sides of the argument carry equal weight.  This, however, is not always the case.  When it comes to many issues, including climate change, vaccines, or Evolution vs Creationism, there isn’t equal weight on both sides.  There is overwhelming consensus, and then there is the fringe science-denier who feels that the evidence conflicts with their own personal views.  This false equivalence was perfectly explained and demonstrated on an episode of Last Week Tonight dealing with the “controversy” surrounding climate change:

Best line of the video:

Who gives a shit? You don’t need people’s opinion on a fact. You might as well have a poll asking: “Which number is bigger, 15 or 5?” or “Do owls exist?” or “Are there hats?”

People’s misconceptions about their own opinions are very often the result of what is known as the Dunning-Kruger effectthe unshakable illusion that you’re much smarter, and more skilled and/or knowledgeable, than you really are.  Far too many people labor under the illusion that their knowledge about things is at least as good as, if not better than, the actual facts. For these people, their knowledge isn’t just superior – it’s superior even to those who have an intimate and detailed knowledge of the subject at hand.  To put it simply – it’s possible to be too dumb to realize you’re dumb.

While everyone is susceptible to having an over-inflated view of their own intelligence, you can see the Dunning-Kruger effect most prevalent in conspiracy theorists, radical political groups, fundamentalist religions, and science-deniers.  Donald Trump supporters are also an excellent example of the Dunning-Kruger effect in action.  David Dunning himself wrote an excellent op-ed about this phenomenon in Trump supporters and even Trump himself:

“Trump has served up numerous illustrative examples of the effect as he continues his confident audition to be leader of the free world, even as he seems to lack crucial information about the job.”  

“In voters, lack of expertise would be lamentable, but perhaps not so worrisome, if people had some sense of how imperfect their civic knowledge is. If they did, they could repair it. But the Dunning-Kruger Effect suggests something different. It suggests that some voters, especially those facing significant distress in their life, might like some of what they hear from Trump, but they do not know enough to hold him accountable for the serious gaffes he makes. They fail to recognize those gaffes as missteps… Again, the key to the Dunning-Kruger Effect is not that unknowledgeable voters are uninformed; it is that they are often misinformed—their heads filled with false data, facts and theories, that can lead to misguided conclusions held with tenacious confidence and extreme partisanship, perhaps some that make them nod in agreement with Trump at his rallies.”  

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So what are we do do about this.  Is it possible to have informed opinions without being an expert on the subject(s)?  Yes it is.  But it takes some careful thought, time doing research, an awareness of our own biases and limitations, and a willingness to consider we could be wrong.

Science blogger Fallacy Man came up with a good rule of thumb that is helpful to remember when discussing empirical claims, particularly those made by science – you don’t need to be an expert to accept a consensus, but you do need to be an expert to reject one. In other words, your default position should always be the one held by the majority of experts in that field, especially if it is a very large majority. To be clear, it is always possible that the consensus is wrong. I’m not advocating that you view a consensus as irrefutable proof of a position. Rather, what I am arguing is that you, as a non-expert, should be very, very cautious about claiming that the majority of experts are wrong. To put this another way, how likely do you actually think it is that you figured out something that the majority of experts missed?”  

You don’t need to be a climatologist to accept climate-change, but you do if you’re going to claim it’s a myth.  You don’t need to have a Ph.D in biology to accept evolution, but if you’re going to claim that it’s not true, you better have some serious credentials and evidence to back it up (you listening Ken Ham?).

This really shouldn’t be a difficult concept for people to grasp.  We rely on experts all the time in our day-to-day life, yet somehow there are those who think they know better than scientists and experts when it comes to topics they don’t agree with.  As Fallacy Man puts it, “If we go to several doctors with a problem and all or most of them tell us the same thing, we usually have no trouble accepting their diagnosis, because they’re experts. We defer to expert lawyers, contractors, mechanics, etc. all the time, but for some strange reason, when it comes to science, people suddenly feel empowered to reject the expert consensus and side with some internet quackery instead. This is a very dangerous thing to do. On topics like global climate change where roughly 97% of expert climatologists agree that we are causing it, it seems rather risky to side with the 3% who disagree with the consensus.”  

It never ceases to amaze me how scientifically illiterate people can honestly believe that their opinions carry more weight than that of educated, experienced, professional scientists.  Case in your point:

A few months ago I posted a link to an interview with Lawrence Krauss talking about how the universe can, in fact, come from “nothing” and that no supernatural agency was necessary.  One persons reply was, “Just another viewpoint”.  The implication being, of course, that this person doesn’t agree with Krauss’s position, and her position is equally valid.

No, it’s not.

Said person has no formal, or even informal, training or education in any scientific field.  Krauss, on the other hand, is a renowned theoretical physicist with over 300 scientific publications under his belt.  Her opinion is not equal to his on this subject; not even close.  Ironically enough, Krauss is asked about science being a matter of opinion in this interview:

Nogueira: Do you think there is a misconception that science is a matter of opinion and that we should hear all sides of the story?

Krauss: Yes. As I often like to say, a great thing about science is that one side is usually wrong. There are open questions where there is uncertainty and debate. However, the resolution of these debates is not rhetoric or volume but rather nature. So, if you have an idea that simply disagrees with observation, then you throw it out; there is no discussion. There is no need to debate the question of whether Earth is round or whether it’s flat. There are still people who claim Earth is flat, but they are just simply wrong. Similarly, there are some people who don’t think evolution happens, but they are wrong. And those people who argue against human-induced climate change are also simply wrong.

None of this is to say that you can’t be skeptical about the general consensus or empirical claims.  You should always make every effort to learn as much about a topic as you can, but after you have carefully reviewed all of the evidence, if you have reached a different conclusion than the vast majority of credentialed experts, you should be very trepid and cautious about that conclusion.

Thanks for reading.

 

Mythbusters: Intelligently Designed Humans

One of the most common arguments for the existence of God, particularly from Creationist and Intelligent Design advocates, is the human body.  They will often cite Bible verses that claim humans are “fearfully and wonderfully made” and designed in God’s image.  We humans have a very long history of being full of ourselves and unfortunately religion has only reinforced this view.  Since Darwin’s breakthrough discoveries regarding human origins, science has come to understand homo sapiens real place in the natural world.  Despite geneticists proving through DNA that humans are in fact, evolved from other animal species, there are many who still want to believe that we came into existence just as we are and are the greatest of all creation.

Let’s suppose for a second that human were designed by an intelligent creator  and really are the greatest of all creation.  Shouldn’t this intelligent design be evident in our makeup and abilities?  Shouldn’t humans have a long, glorious history of being “king of the jungle”?  You would think so, but that’s not what we find at all.  Let’s look at some examples of design flaws in humans:

  • One of the things that sets apart humans from other mammals is our ability to walk upright, or be bi-pedal.  This frees up our hands to do others things like use tools.  With this advance came the increase in size of our craniums.  But with evolution, everything comes with a cost.  Our skeletons were developed over millions of years of walking on all fours and having relatively small heads.  The price paid for becoming bi-pedal and having larger craniums is having back problems, foot problems, and stiff necks.  Women paid extra.  An upright gait required narrower hips, thus constricting the birth canal.  This not only made childbirth painful, but also dangerous.  Prior to modern medicine, childbirth often lead to the death of the mother and/or child.
  • Speaking of children, human infants are some of the most helpless of the mammalian species.  Colts are able to run only hours after being born, and a kitten can forage for food on its own after only a few weeks.  Humans, on the other hand, are totally helpless and dependent for many years on their elders for sustenance, protection and education.  This poses a problem for the mothers as well, as a lone mother can hardly forage enough food for their offspring and themselves with a needy child in tow.
  • Compared to other creatures, humans are relatively weak and marginal.  Despite having large brains and inventing the use of tools, humans still spent around 2 million years somewhere in the middle of the food chain.  Our sense of smell, eye sight, and hearing are no match to other mammals.  Our overall strength, speed, reflexes, and agility is also outmatched by hundreds of other species.  Humans lived in constant fear of predators, were always in danger of exposure from the elements, and had to forage for food daily just to survive.  This did not change until the Agricultural Revolution, which brought its own set of problems.
  • Of all the things that a human can die from, diseases accounted for more deaths then any other.  Every since the Agricultural Revolution when humans were forced to live in close proximity to animals and other humans, diseases have wiped out untold amounts of the human population.  Why do humans have such weak immune systems?  A wild vulture can eat anthrax and not be affected thanks to their strong stomach acids.  Cockroaches are well known for their survivability, even able to withstand nuclear radiation.  Yet humans can be taken down by a simple cold.
  • Some species of coral and sponges can live thousands of years.  Bowhead whales can live over 200 years. A lobster can live to be over 140 years old, as can a tortoise.  There are in fact, hundred of species of animals that live well past 100.   Yet humans life expectancy is roughly 80 if you live in a developed county, thanks to modern medicine.  At the turn of the 19th century, life expectancy in the US was only 46.  During the Bronze and Iron Age it was 26.
  • One of the unique features of some lizards is their ability to grow back their tails should they lose them.  This is a good escape technique, as a lost tail will continue to wiggle, which might distract the predator and give the lizard a chance to escape.  Most lizards will have regrown their tail within nine months.  Other spices of animals also posses this neat trick, know as regeneration.   The Mexican axolotl can regenerating a missing limb; tail; and parts of their brain, heart, and lower jaw.  If they’re paralyzed in the back they can recover the functions of their legs by making all new neurons and new connections.  Starfish also have the ability to regenerate their arms and sometimes their whole bodies.  Why aren’t humans able to grow back missing limbs?  It’s clearly not outside the realm of nature, yet no amount of medical treatment or prayer has ever brought back a missing limb.

The fact is, the only things that set homo sapiens apart from other animals is our cognitive capacity and our ability to cooperate in large numbers.  

If you want to believe that humans were designed by a God, you have to then explain why he did such a shitty job of it.  I’ve demonstrated just a handful of ways in which humans fail to be the pinnacle of creation despite the prevalence in nature of better designs.  If humans are the greatest of all creation, why not incorporate some of the amazing abilities found in other animals into humans to make a species that would experience far less suffering then humans have?  If humans are designed by a God, he needs to go back to the drawing board.

However, the design flaws in humans make perfect sense when viewed through the lens of evolution.  Natural selection provides a working model to how humans evolved and why.  Evolution is a give-and-take system; if an animal increases in efficiency in one area, it will decrease in another*.  Human’s large craniums gave us a larger brain which lead to our greatest asset – our cognitive abilities.  But powering that brain takes a tremendous amount of energy, which meant compromises had to be made.

The weaknesses found in our species has led to untold numbers of deaths and immeasurable suffering.  It’s time humans accept their place in the natural world.  It’s time we stop fooling ourselves into believing that we are somehow “special” and intelligently designed.  We are simply animals, or as Robert Ardrey wrote, “We were born of risen apes, not fallen angels”.

With this knowledge we can work towards caring for and sustaining nature so that we can preserve the world for future generations.  Humanity has risen to the top of the food chain, but with that comes the responsibility of making sure we don’t screw it all up.

Thanks for reading.

 

* For example, elephants have no natural predators they need to worry about thanks to their large size.  However their large size means they can only have one offspring at a time and they have a two-year gestation period.  In humans, our large craniums meant greater cognitive abilities, but it also meant more difficulty and potentially life-threatening births.

 

 

Is Atheism Foolish? – A Response

I recently came across a post on a conservative, Evangelical website called Inspired Walk, called “5 Reasons Why Atheism is Foolish.”  I saw the link via Twitter, and being the glutton for punishment that I am, I clicked on it.  The post reads like every other apologetic argument I’ve read – presuppositionalism mixed with a healthy dose of logical fallacies.  So, I decided I should write a response to the reasons listed.  Not because the author lays out a good, reasonable argument; just the opposite, in fact.  But because the points that are brought up are ones that atheists hear all… the… time!  

You can read the full post in the link above.  I’ll be using the main bullet points here and quoting the article when needed.

At the very start of the article, the presuppositional theology comes out – “Below are various reasons why the word of God is 100% true and correct according to Psalms 14:1 when it states that atheism is foolish.”   This is a great example of the Begging the Question fallacy –  The author concludes that atheism is foolish by assuming (presupposes) that the Bible is the literal word of God, and therefore “100% true” and universal.  Logical fallacy #1.  You’ll notice that he continues to use verses from the Bible as “evidence” of his claims throughout the article as a means of bolstering his arguments.  Let’s look dig into some of these arguments.

1. Atheist Don’t Appreciate That Every Design Has A Designer

The author spends the first half of this point talking about complex machines, such as jet liners and the Large Hadron Collider, how long they took to build, how many people were involved, etc.  It is then stated that, “if we were to use the same thought process or the same thought pattern that the atheist uses in relation to creation, it would be very easy to understand why atheism is extremely foolish and why atheists are regarded as being fools by God. Somehow, the atheist cannot appreciate the complexity but yet harmonious aspects of nature or the universe and come to the conclusion that there is a vastly superior Being behind creation.”

Let’s start by pointing out logical fallacy #2 – a False Analogy: when someone applies facts from one situation to another situation but the situations are substantially different and the same conclusions cannot logically be drawn.  In this case, the author is comparing man-made machines build over the course of several years, to nature which has evolved over millions of years.  It’s apples and oranges, but let’s address the point.

This is what’s commonly known as the Watchmaker Analogy or Teleological argument.  This argument relies on a complete misunderstanding of evolution and how it works.  First, it fails to understand that seemingly complex systems in nature did not suddenly appear in their natural form, but are the product of millions of years of natural selection from much simpler organisms.  Second, it assumes that nature has an end-goal in mind and that what we currently see is what we get.  In fact, nature is continuing to evolve and most species on earth will continue to change over time.  Lastly, it’s very easy for scientifically-illiterate people to look at certain aspects of nature and gasp in wonder over how “complex” it is, but are either unaware or don’t acknowledge the endless examples in nature of things that aren’t “properly designed”.  For example, sea turtles having to come to shore and dig a hole in the sand for their nest, a long and difficult process with flippers.  The turtle needs to lay 50-200 eggs at a time to assure that some of them, when hatched, actually make it through the gauntlet of predators trying to eat them.  Also, the fact that human babies have heads that are generally too big to fit through the birth canal, not only resulting in a long and painful delivery, but a dangerous one as well.  Prior to modern medicine, childbirth was dangerous business.

The argument from design takes place in another form known as the irreducible complexity argument.  From The Logic of Science blog:  The basic idea is that some systems are too complex to evolve because they aren’t functional until all of the parts are in place. For example, an eye that is missing a single piece no longer sees, and a bacterial flagellum that is missing a single protein can no longer act as a flagellum. So the argument claims that these systems could not have evolved because there would have been steps that served no useful function, and nature could not have selected for those steps. The problem is that this argument ignores the fact that evolution is blind. Traits don’t need to function for some ultimate final product in order to be selected for. Rather, if they provide any useful function at all, nature will select them. Indeed, no one has ever been able to find a truly irreducible system, and we have evolutionary pathways that explain how complex systems evolve. For example, an early precursor of the eye would have simply involved a few light sensitive cells (much like some flatworms have). They don’t function as an eye, but they still function, so nature will select for them. Similarly, the proteins that make up a flagellum all serve other functions in the cell, and we have even figured out a step-wise series of events that would form a flagellum with each step serving a useful function for the cell, even though only the final step actually serves as a flagellum. So there is just no truth to the notion that some systems are too complex to evolve.

It’s unfortunate that this argument is still used today, as Darwin addressed it 150 years ago in Origin of the Species.  Yet, theists with little or no understanding of how evolution works continue to regurgitate it.  This is a common theme in apologetics – keep rehashing the same arguments in hopes that they will eventually stick.

2. Atheists Think Accidents Can Create Complex & Harmonious Systems & Life-forms

Again, a simplistic and inaccurate understanding of how evolution works.  Evolution does not rely on chance, but on natural selection.  These are two very different ideas.  Evolution works through a process of non-random selection of random variation.  Dale Thomas writes:

One main criticism of evolution from creationists is that it is based on random chance. That’s kind of true, there is chance involved, but it is important to know where the chance is and how it is used.  When organisms reproduce, the genetic duplication is not perfect, leading to some variation in the genes (mutations). That is where the randomness is. But then that individual grows up and interacts with the world. Those random changes in the genotype may or may lead to a small change in the body or behavior.  If this change helps the individual in its goal of surviving to adulthood and finding a mate, then those genes will be reproduced in the next generation. The point here is that the environment (which encompasses everything, from the laws of physics, the terrain, weather, climate, predators, prey, vegetation, mates, etc) will do the ‘selecting’. If the organism dies or cannot find a mate, those genes have been deemed unworthy of reproduction, but if it can, they are worthy, and will persist in the species.  It is such a beautifully simplistic, and easily understandable process.”

I also want to address a point the author brings up regarding word usage.  The author states: “The atheist thinks he is clever but yet is foolish because he cannot understand that the fact that our solar system is called a system is because there is a methodology & a harmony to how our solar system works and exists.”  This is similar to an argument I often hear regarding the “Laws of Nature”; Creationists will claim that if there is a law then there must be a lawgiver.  This is another logical fallacy – false equivocation.  In this case, misunderstanding the difference between a word that is prescriptive versus one that is descriptive. 

Oh, and contrary to what the author asserts, the universe is not as harmonious as he thinks, but is in fact full of chaos and unpredictability.

3. The Atheist Foolishly Thinks Science Has The Answers To Everything

Here we have your classic Straw Man fallacy – when a person simply ignores a person’s actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position.  In this case making the claim that atheists think science has the answer to everything, when in fact you would be hard pressed to find an atheists (or scientist) that makes such a claim.  Most atheists are scientifically-literate and understand the limitations of science, but also its accomplishments.

The author then claims that since science deals with the physical and natural world, and God resides the supernatural realm, that “science is NOT the best means by which a person can learn or observe the nature of God” nor can it disprove His existence.  This argument presupposes that there is a supernatural realm and that his god is a part of it.  The problem with this argument is that science can test supernatural claims and has been doing so for centuries.  Most all claims of the supernatural involve forces acting upon the natural world, thus we are able to test these claims using scientific means.  As Jerry Cohen puts it: “If you invoke a form of the supernatural that claims to have real-world consequences, then those consequences necessarily fall within the ambit of science.  This means that any type of theistic faith involves hypotheses that are ‘scientific’. Dawkins was right to call the existence of God a ‘scientific hypothesis.'” 

4. Atheists Don’t Know That Atheism is a Belief System

First, let’s address the authors claim that, “Neither evolution nor the big bang can be proved by experimentation or observation.
None of these 2 theories can scientifically explain nor give observable evidence of the origin of life.” Yes they can – and have.  The evidence to support both is immeasurable.  Creationists’ continuing insistence that there is no scientific evidence for evolution, the Big Bang, or the origins of life is willfully ignorant and empirically false.   I’m not even going to waste my time putting links here, because the amount of information out there is overwhelming.  The author’s ignorance of science is not a good argument against it.

The author claims that since there is no evidence to support evolution and the Big Bang theory, atheists have to accept them on faith.  This is another example of false equivocation.  There are two definitions of the word “faith”: (1) confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing; and (2) belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.  Atheists’ “faith” in science fits under definition 1, theists rely on faith as defined by 2.  Atheists don’t have faith in a religious sense of the word – we have evidence-based trust. 

5. The Atheist Cannot Disprove The Existence of God

This is perhaps the best example of an Argument from Ignorance – because something cannot be completely disproved, it must therefore be true.  It’s a ridiculous argument, but it’s surprising how often it’s used.  This same argument could be used for aliens, UFOs, unicorns, fairies, vampires, or a tea pot floating around the sun.  It’s an attempt to shift the burden of proof.  The burden of proof always sits with the person making the claim, not the person refuting it.  It’s not an atheist’s job to disprove God, it’s the theist’s job to provide evidence that he exists.

We also can’t skip past the well-worn anecdote used by theists that, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Therefore just because a person has never seen a physical manifestation of God, it does not mean that God does not exist.”  This is only partly true.  Absence of evidence, when evidence should be presentis evidence of absence.  Going back to the discussion on natural vs supernatural, theism makes claims of God interacting and intervening in this, the natural world, which would leave evidence.  Therefore, such claims can be tested, and thus far no evidence for supernatural intervention in the natural world has been found.  Carl Sagan brilliantly counters the “absence of evidence” argument in his story “The Dragon in My Garage”.  After asking multiple questions regarding evidence for a dragon living in a garage and coming up empty handed, this is his response:

“Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all?  If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists?  Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true.  Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder.  What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.  The only thing you’ve really learned from my insistence that there’s a dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on inside my head.  You’d wonder, if no physical tests apply, what convinced me.  The possibility that it was a dream or a hallucination would certainly enter your mind.  But then, why am I taking it so seriously?  Maybe I need help.  At the least, maybe I’ve seriously underestimated human fallibility.  Imagine that, despite none of the tests being successful, you wish to be scrupulously open-minded.  So you don’t outright reject the notion that there’s a fire-breathing dragon in my garage.  You merely put it on hold.  Present evidence is strongly against it, but if a new body of data emerge you’re prepared to examine it and see if it convinces you.  Surely it’s unfair of me to be offended at not being believed; or to criticize you for being stodgy and unimaginative — merely because you rendered the Scottish verdict of ‘not proved.'” 

I’ve underlined the parts of this paragraph that I find most fitting the current discussion.  Just replace “dragon” with “God” and you can see my point.  The author is right in positing that because we don’t have evidence of theism, it does not prove empirically that god(s) do not exist.  But it does mean that until such evidence is found, it is far from foolish to discount the idea.

 

 

Two things become apparent when reading through this article.  The first is that the author has no idea what atheists actually believe.  The entire article reads like one, big Straw Man argument.  The author projects his own idea of what atheists believe (as opposed to what they actually believe) and then attempts to tear down those beliefs.  His overall view of atheists can be found in the article itself where he states, “I would personally prefer the following definition of atheism that I once saw on one of the social media platforms: Atheism is the belief that there was nothing and nothing happened to nothing and then nothing magically exploded for no reason, creating everything and then a bunch of everything magically rearranged itself for no reason what so ever into self-replicating bits which then turned into dinosaurs, birds, trees, fish and the like.”  

Second, the author shows that he is completely ignorant of the most basic principles of evolution and how it works.  This isn’t surprising as Creationism depends on a willful dismissal of science and all the evidence that it provides, as well as how the scientific method works.  This makes the author unsuited for having any debate in which science is going to be one of the main topics.

It’s also worth noting the condescending nature that the author takes throughout the article.  His contempt for atheists comes through loud and clear throughout the article, and he takes special care to use “fool” and “foolish” as often as he can.  For all his use off scripture, he conveniently left out Matt 5:22 – “…whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”

As I mentioned at the beginning – these are not strong, well-thought-out arguments.  This is what Matt Dillahunty would refer to as “Kindergarten Theology”.   Lest you accuse me of going after low-hanging fruit, it should be noted that these are very common arguments used by apologists, both amateur and professional.  Hopefully this post will prove useful for anyone who comes across these types of arguments in future discussions.  Thanks for reading.

 

Take Aways: The “God” Part of the Brain

In previous posts I’ve discussed the role that studying neuroscience and psychology has in my de-conversion from religion.  From Why We Believe in God(s) by J. Anderson Thompson to The Belief Instinct by Jesse Bering; all offer great insight into the propensity of people to believe in the supernatural, and give rational, scientific, evidence-based reasons why.  I just finished reading what I consider to be the best book on the subject – Matthew Alper’s The “God” Part of the Brain: A Scientific Interpretation of the Human Spirituality and God.

This book chronicles Apler’s own personal journey of seeking God.  First, he was trying to determine if there was a God by studying the various religions and philosophies on the subject.  He then turned to many disciplines of science looking specifically at the origins of the universe.  When these failed to produce sufficient answers, Alper’s turned inward, seeking to understand why people believe in god(s).

The overall premise of the book is that since every culture in recorded history has believed on some sort of god, gods, or spiritual realm, humans are genetically predisposed towards a belief system.  He talks a lot about sociobiology – any trait we universally posses that are unique to a species, must have a genetic component.  That same rule also applies to a species behaviors.  For instance, all cats meow.  Even a cat that is separated at birth from other cats and kept in isolation will meow.  This is because cats have a “meow” part of the brain.  When looking at humans we see examples of these universal traits in such things as language and music.  All cultures, regardless of how isolated, will posses some form of language, because humans posses a “language” area of the brain.  The same principle applies to spiritually and religion.  There are regions in the brain that are generating these behaviors, so therefore there must be genes that create these regions in the brain.  The bulk of the book is spend on answering the central question – why would human have evolved such a behavior of believing in supernatural agents?

Alper leaves no stone upturned on his quest for answers.  He looks into the science behind such things as pain, anxiety, prayer, near-death experiences, drug-induced visions, religious conversions, speaking in tongues, etc.  This is important, as believers will often try and use such personal (and to them, very real) experiences as “proof” that their is a god.  Using science, Alper explains how and why people have these experiences and shows that there are natural, as opposed to supernatural, explanations for them.

 I was a little skeptical at first when I found out that Alper himself is not a scientist or psychologist.  However, those fears were laid to rest once I got into the book and saw the reference notes to credible science journals.  The book has also been widely praised by Pulitzer Prize-winners, scholars and scientists.  However, Alper is considered one of the founders of a new branch of science that deals with the ideas presented in the book – Neurotheology.

As, I mentioned earlier, this is one of the best books I’ve read on the subject of natural explanations for religion and spiritual beliefs.  This is going to be the book that I give to people who are having doubts and are on the fence with religion.  It’s approachable, easy to read and comprehend, and doesn’t focus on any one religion.  He also doesn’t spend any time “bashing religion” which can be a turn-off for some people.  Alper’s approach is methodical, objective, and evidence-based.

Rather than insert excerpts from the book throughout the post like I usually do, I instead want to leave you with part of the last chapter of the book, titled: What, If Anything, is to be Gained From a Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God?   Honestly, the book is worth reading just for this last chapter.  I went back and re-read it myself three times as it was just so packed with great insight.  Unlike some other notable atheists, Alper is not on a quest to rid the world of religion.  Understanding that humans have a genetic predisposition towards faith, Alper understands that religion and beliefs in the supernatural are here to stay for at least the immediate future.  But, Alper has another idea for how to deal with all the tribalism, hatred, and violence that often stems as a direct result of religious beliefs:

So what if it should turn out that human spirituality and religiosity are nothing more than the consequence of an inherited biological impulse?  IF indeed this is the case, shouldn’t we at least inquire into the underlying nature of such an essential part of us?

As stated previously, no trait is perfect,  Though each physical characteristic we posses provides us with some adaptive utility, each comes with its drawbacks.  Consequently, if spirituality and religiosity constitute inherent physical characteristics of our species, what might be some of the drawbacks?  Only once we determine this will we be able to maximize this impulses positive aspects while minimizing its negative.  Once we begin to view spirituality and religious consciousness as evolutionary adaptations, only then will we be able to objectively determine the negative impact they might have on us and, from there, begin working on turning them into strengths.

Generally speaking, humankind’s spiritual propensities are pretty harmless, just a means by which humans can temporarily abate some of the psychoemotional strains that comes as an inherent part of the human condition.  It’s really only when our spiritual sensibilities become bound up by some restrictive and dogmatic religious creed that problems arise.    

For all the advantages of possessing a religious instinct, for all the social cohesion it brings, the sense of community it fosters, and the alleged purpose and meaning it provides, religion has proven itself time and again, to be a potentially hazardous impulse in us… Religion continues to act as a divisive force, promoting discrimination and intolerance, inciting enmity, aggression, and war. […]

Perhaps if we could learn to view religiosity as nothing more than a genetically inherited impulse, we’d be better able to contain its more destructive influences.  If we could come to understand the underlying nature of this instinct, perhaps we could learn to temper the inevitable antagonism that each religion inherently feels for each other. […] Only once the human animal comes to terms with the fact that it has been born into a mental matrix – a neurological web of deceit – will we have a chance of offsetting this potential destructive impulse in us.  Knowledge is power, and it is high time that the science to spirituality and religiosity be made available to the world so that our species might see that there is another way.  It is time the study of spirituality and religiosity be taken out of the hands of philosophers, metaphysicians, and theologians and “biologized”.

Not to suggest we should seek to eradicate religiosity altogether, but rather that we try to put it into a scientific perspective.  In itself, there is nothing wrong with the religious impulse in that it bonds us with our communities and, through faith, helps us reduce stress levels and bolster general health.  It is rather the excess of nearly any impulse – be it food, love, sex, or materials – can be potentially dangerous, if not lethal. […]

As we find ourselves living in what is an increasingly global community, maintaining a diversity of belief systems may no longer represent a viable option for our species.  Instead, we may have to learn to adopt one unified set of religious and spiritual principles through which to achieve global harmony.  Perhaps if we could learn to embrace a single humanistic ideology based on such principles as equality, tolerance, compassion, and forgiveness, we might be able to optimize our potential for happiness, while minimizing our potential for fostering pain and suffering in the world.  […]

Until we stop teaching our young to honor and respect those with whom we share the same religious ideology, we are only encouraging the type of discriminatory values and behaviors that can only lead to our eventual mutual destruction.  What else can come from generation after generation being brainwashed to believe that the lives of those outside their religious fold are less sacred than their own?  The boundaries of respect for others must be extended beyond the narrow margins of any one religious paradigm and applied to the whole of humanity… United, our species may have a chance of standing; divided, however, we are sure to eventually fall.  As stated by Einstein in an impassioned plea to the nations of the world after our last world war, “Only a few short years remain in which to discover some spiritual basis for world brotherhood, or civilization as we now know will certainly destroy itself.”

Thanks for reading.

An Atheist’s “Holy Trinity”

I recently had a conversation with a friend that I hadn’t seen since my de-conversion.  We had gone to the same church for a while and had played together on the worship team several times.  He was genuinely curious about my experience and we had a great discussion.

One of the questions he asked me was this:

“For me, Jesus is the standard; the goal that I strive for – to try my best to live according to his teachings and his example.  As an atheist, what standards do you live by?”

I thought this was a good question, and I’ve decided to expand on the answer I gave him here.

It’s a common misconception that you have to believe in God and/or be religious to have any sort of standards of living.  This is empirically false.  Everyone, no matter what their lifestyle, faith, or background lives by some ethos the disposition, character, or fundamental values particular to a person.  Put another way, it is the spirit which motivates our ideas and customs.  James Fowler used the word “faith” in the same way.  He described faith as a person’s way of leaning into and making sense of life.  More verb than noun, faith is the dynamic system of images, values, and commitments that guide one’s life. 

For myself, and likely many other non-believers, I live according to the following principals:

Naturalism

Greg Graffin in his book Anarchy Evolutiondescribes naturalism in the following way:

“From a philosophical perspective, naturalists believe that the physical universe is the universe.  In other words, there is no supernatural entities or forces acting in nature, because there is no empirical evidence for anything beyond or outside of nature.  Naturalists posit that the universe is made up of only four things: space, time, matter, and energy – that’s it.  Naturalism can provide the foundation for building a coherent and consistent worldview on which we can base decisions.  In fact, I would contend, it is the only perspective that can secure both our happiness as individuals and survival as a species.”

Naturalism leaves supernatural entities and forces where they belong – in folklore, mythology, legends, and tails.  There is no scientific ground for the belief in spirits, angels, demons, vampires, witches, faeries, ghosts, or gods.  Nor is there any evidence for such thing as telepathy, ESP, astrology, miracles, intercessory prayer, faith healing, resurrections, or telekinesis.  Naturalism disregards any beliefs or entities that necessitate defying the laws of the natural universe. 

This isn’t to say that science has it all figured out or that there is no mystery, far from it.  There is plenty of mystery left in the universe and much that science has yet to discover, however we can be reasonably certain that any new discoveries will still fall in line with the natural laws and order of the universe.

Naturalism also hold the position that all life on this planet is connected.  We, as humans, depend on nature for our survival, so it is paramount that we do everything we can to take care of this planet.  This includes sustainable living, promotion of alternative energies, fighting climate change, sustainable agriculture, and the fair and ethical treatment of animals.

For myself, this means growing my own garden, supporting local farmers who raise livestock ethically, a zero-waste lifestyle, and volunteering for a local animal rescue.

Humanism

Humanism is an outlook, or system of thought, attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems.

Those things that make life better for humans, both collectively and individually, should be sought after.  While those things which cause harm to humanity, should be eliminated.  This means standing against such things as sexism, homophobia, racism, classism, bigotry, abuse, and discrimination.

Key to be a good humanists is understanding and having empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.  The video below aptly describes empathy and why it’s so important:

Empathy is a far better standard of morality than any religion –   empathy seeks the good and understanding off all people, not just those who belong to one’s particular tribe.  And unlike sacred texts, empathy is timeless and universal.  To quote Graffin again, “The capacity for empathy enables us to organize our societies in a beneficial way.  Because we can see at least some aspects of our selves in one another, we can derive ways of acting that are good for us and for society as a whole.  But in order for this to occur, we have to be open to accepting other people’s experiences as equally valid to our own.  This is simply impossible if prescriptive codes are too strictly enforced, particularly if these codes are underlain by the unverifiable “truths” of the supernatural realm.  Empathy is the best basis for human ethics that we have.  It provides a solid foundation for strong personal relationships and a productive society.”

Science

“Only those willing to submit to submit themselves to the rigorous constraints of scientific methodology and to the canons of scientific evidence should presume to have a say in the guidance of human affairs. Just as freedom of opinion makes no sense in astronomy or physics, it is similarly inappropriate in a the social sciences.” – Auguste Compte

In this age of information it can often be difficult to determine what is real and what is not; do distinguish fact from fiction.  No longer are people simply forming different opinions, but they are forming different realities as well.  Large amounts of resources are being dumped into perpetuating false ideas, pseudosciences, myths, and unrealistic ideologies.  With all this information floating around, how can anyone come to a solid understanding of the world?

All humans have the unfortunate quality of being able to be deceived.  We have all been wrong about something at sometime.  Just because something feels true to us doesn’t mean that it is.  With this in mind, it is important to think critically about matters and have some sort of “filter” through which we can run information through to verify it’s accuracy.  This filter is science.

Science is the most accurate and reliable source of information any method, system, or paradigm has offered thus far.  The use of the scientific method – the collecting of measurable, empirical evidence in an experiment related to a hypothesis, the results aiming to support or contradict a theory – is the most reliable means of deciphering fact from fiction.  In fact, science is currently the only way that we can understand and learn about the natural world.

It’s worth noting that “science” includes many different disciplines – history, archaeology, linguistics, psychology, sociology, etc.  Yet, all of these, to a greater of lesser degree, still use methods of science: verifiable, tested, and generally agreed-upon results of empirical study.

For skeptics like myself, the need for empirical evidence is paramount.  That which can’t be demonstrated through tested, demonstrable, and falsifiable means should be either disregarded, or put aside for later review when more information becomes available.  Notice that I said “put aside” – not outright dismissed.  This is an important difference that comes up a lot in conversations with believers.  As an example, I can’t say with absolute certainty that there isn’t a God – there simply isn’t any evidence to demonstrate that there is one.  Until such evidence is presented, I will put this idea “on the shelf”, but will remain open to the possibility.  The same principle would apply to extraterrestrial life, Bigfoot, conspiracy theories, etc.

Finally, any good skeptic, critical thinker, or scientists must always be open and willing to accept; the possibility that they could be wrong.  This can be difficult, as most of us avoid thinking that we are wrong.  Most people feel that if they are wrong about something then their is something wrong with them.  Kathryn Schulz does a great TED talk on this subject that is well worth the watch.  She points out that it is important for people to be open and OK with the idea that we can be wrong and probably are wrong about a great many things.  But, trusting too much on the feeling of being right can actually be a harmful and dangerous thing.  This is what leads to fundamentalism, nationalism, wars, genocides, toxic religions, and many other atrocities.  If you can be comfortable with the idea that you might be wrong, you are able to think more critically and are more open to new information and ideas.

I often hear creationists criticize science by saying that science has been wrong in the past.  They’re right, but the critical difference between science and religion is that science changes as new information is obtained.  To quote comedian Tim Minchin, “Science adjusts its views based on what’s observed.  Faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved.”  In fact, being wrong is one of the fundamental elements of the scientific method, and the methodology of science is equally important in every-day life.  In his excellent article in Scientific America titled, “The Key to Science (and Life) Is Being Wrong”, Steven Ross Pomeroy writes,

A good scientist must be willing to be wrong. Such an inclination is liberating, for it allows him or her to investigate potential answers — however unlikely they may be — to the difficult questions inspired by this vast, wondrous universe. Not only that, a willingness to be wrong frees a scientist to pursue any avenue opened by evidence, even if that evidence doesn’t support his or her original hunch.

This principle is one that I live by in my own life, as do many other skeptics and freethinkers.  It’s amazing; once who’ve gone through a major transition of realizing that you’ve been wrong about a great many things, such as a de-conversion experience, it becomes very easy to accept the possibility that you can be wrong about other things.  Having faced the cognitive dissonance head on and struggled through it for years, admitting to yourself and others that you were wrong seems rather simple.


 

I hope this has been informative and helpful.  Thanks to my friend, Joel, for inspiring me to think about this more deeply.  I would like to hear from other “nones” what principles they live by.  What other ethos’ do you hold?  Please leave your comments below.  Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

Climate Change Deniers, Religious Freedom, and the Smokers’ Rights Army

In the early 90’s, the public was becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of smoking.  The cigarette industry had long known about the dangers of smoking, yet had gone to great lengths to suppress this information.  Companies like R.J. Renolds (RJR), the largest cigarette company in America at the time, maintained large lobbying and public affairs team and had succeeded for decades in pushing back most anti-smoking efforts.  But with more information coming out about the health risks associated of cigarettes, the public was quickly turning on them.  Local, state, and even national politicians were proposing a number of restrictions – raising cigarette taxes, banning smoking in public places, recognizing tobacco as a dangerous drug.

With public pressure mounting, and RJR standing to lose considerable revenue, they went on the defense.  The first scheme they came up with was to appeal to the smokers themselves, and create a “smokers’ rights” army.  About a fifth of Americans smoked at the time and many had contacted RJR complaining about being hassled at the work place, prices of cigarettes going up in their towns, and being kicked out of restaurants and bowling alleys.   Following the led of Philip Morris, they launched a magazine catering to American smokers – Choice.  The main topic: smoking was a fundamental freedom, and it was under attack.

Choice depicted the world as a place of woe for the smokers and urged them to act.  Smokers needed to stand up, organize, write letters, call legislators, circulate petitions, and fight for what was theirs.  RJR even started organizing “smokers’ rights” chapters across the country, for citizens to come together and battle the growing legions of anti-smokers.  They even went as far as to equate their struggle to women’s suffrage and the civil rights movement.

One of RJR’s strategies was to plead with non-smokers to consider their feelings.  They would complain about being singled out, about how they were often segregated, discriminated against, and even legislated against.  All for doing something perfectly legal.  The solution to the impasse, the company said, was obvious: “Common courtesy”.  If smokers and nonsmokers could only be civil to each other – the smoker ask whether others wouldn’t mind if he lit up, the non-smoker doesn’t try to get cigarettes banned in public places – tobacco would become a nonissue.

RJR’s strategy didn’t work.  They were unable to get the support they needed from smoking community as many of them hated their addiction and wanted to quit.  Also, RJR direct appeals met with tremendous opposition.  The company was demonized every time a new ad would come out, and received far more feedback from critics than from supporters.  In 1994, with the FDA and OCHA looking into regulating tobacco, RJR needed a new strategy.

RJR hired an outside PR firm, Mongoven, Biscoe, and Duchin (MBD) to run a new campaign – instead of smokers’ rights, they would aim at a larger, more universal scourge: the government was getting too damn powerful, too damn nagging, and two damn invasive.  The campaign was called Get Government Off Our Backs, or GGOOB.  The campaign urged smokers to stand up what they considered the first step in a long line of actions to take away people’s rights in America.

The campaign attracted a diverse cross section of supporters, most of whom didn’t care one way or another about tobacco, but who all expressed anti-government sentiments.  While RJR sponsored GGOOB and contributed donations to many of the groups that joined the cause, they were careful  to keep their name out of the campaign.  RJR’s direct approach hadn’t worked, so they had decided to take their propaganda underground.  By turning the battle onto one about big government rather than big tobacco and by hiding its own association with the plan, RJR could ride towards its goal upon a wave of anti-regulatory activism.  And the plan worked, at least for a while.

In 1995, GGOOB won many victories in Washington.  Other then prohibiting tobacco advertisements aimed at teens, no strict rules – including an outright ban on cigarettes – were imposed.

In hindsight, it’s easy to see that while RJR may have won the battle they would eventually lose the war; many restrictions have been placed on the tobacco industries since the 90’s.  Yet it is precisely the tobacco industry’s failures that proved the importance  – and lasting appeal, to propagandists – of a deception PR plan like GGOOB.

And this sort of propagandist deception machine is alive and well today.  I want to talk about two such examples that closely parallel RJR’s strategy  – climate change denialism and religious freedom activists.


Since the 90’s the general consensus amongst scientists has been that greenhouse gases were deeply involved in most climate changes and human caused emissions were bringing serious global warming.  Since that time, multiple disciplines of scientific research have increased our understanding of climate change and its causes.  Presently, there is a 97% consensus position amongst scientists that humans are causing global warming.  Recent studies have led some scientist to conclude with 99.9% certainty that global warming since 1880 has been mostly caused by man-made emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and long-term temperature variations not caused by nature.

Faced with the threat of legislation aimed at curbing green house emissions, large coal and oil companies started their own propaganda campaigns aimed at not only the general public, but Washington as well.

A recent scientific study has revealed the role corporate money plays in the divide over the issue of climate change.  “The report, a systematic review of 20 years’ worth of data, highlights the connection between corporate funding and messages that raise doubts about the science of climate change and whether humans are responsible for the warming of the planet. The analysis suggests that corporations have used their wealth to amplify contrarian views and create an impression of greater scientific uncertainty than actually exists.”  Where’s the money coming from?

Exxon Mobile, the country’s largest oil and gas company, is under investigation for reportedly lying to investors about how global warming could hurt its balance sheets and also hid the risks posed by climate change from the public.  As early as 1977 a senior company scientist warned executives that “there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels,” InsideClimate News reported.  But, between 2005 and 2008, Exxon spent $8.9 million dollars spreading climate change propaganda.

Koch Industries, one of the largest private owned corporations in America, has become a financial kingpin of climate science denial and clean energy opposition.  A company that makes a point of staying out of the public eye,  Koch Ind. along with the foundations they sponsor have contributed $24.9 million in funding to organizations of the “climate denial machine”.

Since the general public doesn’t trust what oil companies have to say about climate change, companies like Koch and Exxon spend millions on think tanks, front-groups, business groups, and so-called “scientists” who lie and distort the facts to spread seeds of doubt amongst the public.  They also spend millions on lobbying and political donations to thwart laws aimed at reducing carbon emissions.

An their efforts have worked to some degree.  While climate change doubters are becoming fewer, roughly 1 in 4 Americans still don’t believe in man-made climate change.  Every likely 2016 Republican presidential contender expresses uncertainty, at best, about climate science.  Time and time again, Congressional Republicans have made it clear that reducing fossil fuel consumption through efficiency or expansion of renewable energies is of no interest to them. They recently killed a bill that would have helped the private sector with voluntary efficiency improvements because it did not include approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.  They are also turning against the wind energy production tax credit, even as fossil fuels drain billions of dollars from the Federal Treasury in tax subsidies.

Thankfully, climate change denialism seems to be largely an American problem.  Of all the major conservative parties in the democratic world, the Republican Party stands alone in its denial of the legitimacy of climate science.  Last December, delegates from 196 countries convened in Paris and agreed to make efforts to reduce carbon emissions to a relatively safe level.  It seems Koch and Exxon’s influence only extends so far.


Since Nov. 16, 1993 when President Clinton signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, religious organizations have been attempting to use the bill to be exempt from state and federal laws, namely anti-discrimination laws.  In 2015, seventeen states introduced legislation regarding the creation of, or alteration to, a state religious freedom law.

Despite living in a country that is a majority Christian, and invokes the Christian God on its currency and in its national pledge, many people of faith still feel like they are being oppressed in America.  Much of this stems from the growing acceptance of LGBT’s and same-sex marriage.  Over the last decade, religious leaders and political leaders have been fanning the flames of fear and paranoia amongst conservative Christians and pushed for concerned people of faith to stand up for their “religious freedom” as American citizens. 

Presidential candidate Ted Cruz has warned that the Supreme Court is on the verge of crushing all freedom in America and putting people in prison for expressing their faith.  Ben Carson has stated that anti-discrimination laws are authored by communists and that gay rights are part of a larger conspiracy to destroy America.  Religious leader Franklin Graham praised Kim Davis for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses, claiming that, “Our religious rights and freedoms are being trampled on.”  He encouraged more people to “stand for religious freedoms and biblical values” to preserve America.  Focus on Family’s founder James Dobson warned that gay rights activists real goals are to shut down churches, destroy Christian businesses and organizations, and ultimately take control of your children… just like Hitler did.

Like the climate change denial machine, the religious freedom crusade also has it’s billionaire investors.  The Wilks brothers, who made their fortune in fracking, have invested tens of millions of dollars into right-wing groups, as well as anti-LGBT and anti-choice groups.  Groups such as Liberty Counsel, which has gained attention in recent years for its “religious liberty” litigation, has a long history of spreading anti-LGBT propaganda.  The Family Research Council, designated an anti-gay hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, has since the the early ’90’s championed for “traditional family values” and in recent years been active in lobbying for religious freedom causes.  The Franklin Center; a non-profit news organization that claims to publish “news and commentary from a free market, limited government perspective on state and local politics”, but in reality is a front-group for conservative political advocacy.  (It’s worth noting that the Franklin Center is also part of the Koch brothers’ right-wing political network)

Religious Freedom has now become synonymous with discrimination, with advocacy groups working tirelessly to keep LGBTs from having equal rights in this country.  Like RJR’s attempt to appeal to citizens’ anti-government sentiments to advance it’s own company, far-right political groups have been pushing their anti-LGBT agenda under the guise of “religious freedom”.  Thanks to media outlets funded by these groups, many people of faith are under the impression that they are being persecuted, despite the fact that not a single person has every been jailed or prosecuted for simply practicing their religion.  These fears lead them to support religious freedom policies, often without understanding the repercussions of such measures or what their real intent is.


These stories all relate to a topic I’ve discussed beforehow digital media and social media can have a profound effect on people’s ability to think critical and make informed opinions.

The digital revolution has done much to connect the world, yet it has also done much to divide it as well.  No longer are Americans merely holding opinions different from one another; they’re also holding different facts.  Arguments are no longer about what we should be doing about climate change, but whether or not climate change is actually happening.  People are now fighting over competing versions of reality.  And now more then ever, it is becoming convenient for some people to live in a world built out of their own facts.

Stephen Colbert has coined this alternate reality as “truthiness” – something feeling true without any evidence suggesting it actually is. 

The internet has made it easier then ever to choose what you read, what you watch, and what you listen to – while blocking out everything else.  This has led to what Farhad Manjoo calls selective exposure – not only can you choose the information that suits you, but you can choose people that suit you.  And it’s people that matter.  Whether it’s climate change, cigarettes, or religious freedom, it’s through our connections with others that we choose our social reality.

Stay informed.  Check your sources.  Always demand evidence.  When conspiracy theories pop up, follow the money.  In this day of information at our fingertips, ignorance is a choice.  Thanks for reading.

 

NOTE: The story of RJR and some of the content for this post was taken from Farhad Manjoo’s book, True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

 

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

 A team of physicists announced on Thursday that they had heard and recorded the sound of two black holes colliding a billion light-years away, a fleeting chirp that fulfilled the last prophecy of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

The faint rising tone, physicists say, is the first direct evidence of gravitational waves, the ripples in the fabric of space-time that Einstein predicted a century ago.  And it is confirmation of the nature of black holes, the bottomless gravitational pits from which not even light can escape, which were the most foreboding (and unwelcome) part of his theory.  More generally, it means that scientists have finally tapped into the deepest register of physical reality, where the weirdest and wildest implications of Einstein’s universe become manifest.  The observation signals the opening of a new window on to the universe.

“This is transformational,” said Prof Alberto Vecchio, of the University of Birmingham, and one of the researchers at Ligo. “We have observed the universe through light so far. But we can only see part of what happens in the universe. Gravitational waves carry completely different information about phenomena in the universe. So we have opened a new way of listening to a broadcasting channel which will allow us to discover phenomena we have never seen before,” he said.

Prof Neil Turok, director the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics at Waterloo in Canada, and a former research colleague of Prof Stephen Hawking, called the discovery “the real deal, one of those breakthrough moments in science”.

“For me the most exciting thing is we will literally be able to see the big bang. Using electromagnetic waves we cannot see further back than 400,000 years after the big bang. The early universe was opaque to light. It is not opaque to gravitational waves. It is completely transparent.  So literally, by gathering gravitational waves we will be able to see exactly what happened at the initial singularity. The most weird and wonderful prediction of Einstein’s theory was that everything came out of a single event: the big bang singularity. And we will be able to see what happened.”

This is truly a remarkable discovery and a real win for humanity.  Science has once again made a huge advance in out understanding of the world and universe that we live in.   With the possibility of  being able to learn more about the beginning of the universe itself, or even the possible existence of other universes, Feb 11, 2016 may very well go down in history as a day to remember.

Meanwhile, in my home state of South Dakota…

House of Representatives advanced a measure that would allow people or organizations to discriminate against same-sex couples, unmarried pregnant women, or transgender people without jeopardizing state contracts or employment.

The measure would prohibit the state from retaliating against people who voice beliefs that marriage should be exclusively between one man and one woman, that sexual intercourse should only occur between married couples and that gender is determined by biological sex at birth.  People who express such beliefs would be protected from termination of employment or enrollment, loss of funding, accreditation or tax exemption in some cases, or termination of state contracts.

The bill’s sponsor is Rep. Scott Craig, a fundamentalist pastor,”The real victims of intolerance and discrimination in our day are those who conduct their lives according to a belief regarding marriage and human sexuality,” Craig said.  “Our founding fathers never intended erotic freedom to trump religious freedom.”


 

While science was busy attempting to detect a signal that required them to be able to measure a periodic difference in the length between two 2.5 mile long tunnels by a distance of less than one ten-thousandth the size of a single proton (The equivalent to measuring the distance between the earth and the nearest star with an accuracy of the width of a human hair), radical Christians were busy obtaining the legal right to discriminate against other people.

Unbelievable…

Toxic religion continues to be the anchor that slows down the ship of social progress.  This past week was an apt demonstration of just how far apart (and incompatible) science and fundamentalist religions are.

What would happen if people spend as much effort and money on science as they do trying to legislate bigotry?

Can you image the breakthroughs we could achieve?

Thanks for reading.

 

Critical Thinking 101

Critical thinking is a topic I speak often about on this blog, and one that you will come across on most skeptics’ writings.  I thought it would be useful to go into what critical thinking is, common characteristics and philosophies, and how to apply it.  I will also be starting a series looking at one of the cornerstones of critical thinking  – identifying logical fallacies.

Put simply, critical thinking can be described as “the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.”  A more detailed definition, provided by the The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking, defines critical thinking as the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.

So, what are some of the characteristics of critical thinking?

  1. Critical thinking is reasonable and rational. Critical thinkers do not jump to conclusions.  Collect data, weigh the facts, and think the matter through.
  2. Critical thinking is reflective. Thinking the matter through, weighing the facts and evidence.
  3. Critical thinking inspires an attitude of inquiry.  Be inquisitive but also skeptical.
  4. Critical thinking is autonomous thinking.  Critical thinkers are not easily manipulated or swayed by popular opinion.
  5. Critical thinking includes creative thinking.
  6. Critical thinking is fair thinking. It is not biased or one-sided.
  7. Critical thinking focuses on deciding what to believe or do. Critical thinking is used to decide on a course of action; make reliable observations; draw sound conclusions, solve problems; and evaluate claims, and actions.

The National League of Nursing came up with this list (you can view the full version here) and considered critical thinking so important, they added it as a mandatory criterion for accreditation of schools of nursing 20 years ago.  I wanted to add to this list by pointing out what I consider to be the foundations of critical thinking and the common stumbling blocks that get can get in way.

Bias

Everyone posses the ability to think critically, and most of us do in our day-to-day lives.  But very often, when a person holds a core belief very strongly, it can be easy to put on blinders and only seek out information that agrees with one’s own beliefs or pre-conceived ideas, while dismissing any evidence that works against their core beliefs.  This is known as confirmation biasthe tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities.  Everyone has the disposition of being bias, which why it is so important to have an open mind, be willing to admit that you could be wrong, and have a system in place to filter through information to determine it’s validity.   

Evidence

If anyone has ever served on jury duty or watched a lot of courtroom drama, then they know how important evidence is.   Evidence is defined as the available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid.  In the scientific world, evidence is defined as evidence which serves to either support or counter a scientific theory or hypothesis. Such evidence is expected to be empirical evidence and interpretation in accordance with scientific method.   A few important points about evidence:

First, some things that are not considered evidence: Opinions are not evidence.  Arguments are not evidence.  Conspiracy Theories are not evidence.  Hearsay is not evidence.  “Strongly held beliefs” are not evidence.  Emotions are not evidence.

Second, the judicial system has mandated that the burden of proof lies with the prosecution.  In other words, the burden of proof, or evidence is always with the one making the claim.  If I tell my neighbor that aliens have been visiting me at night in my back yard, it is up to me to provide him with evidence to back up this claim.  It is not his responsibility to prove me wrong.  You will often see people trying to deflect their responsibility to provide evidence onto the person demanding said evidence.  This is what’s known as an Appeal to Ignorance fallacy.  A common example can be found when a skeptics asks for evidence for God, the response will often be, “Prove to me that there isn’t a God!”

And lastly, using a phrase first said by Marcello Truzzi, but made famous by Carl Sagan: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  The more a claim differentiates from what we consider to be a “normal” occurrence, the more evidence is required for validating the claim.  If I told my neighbor that I saw a hawk in my backyard, he would most likely take my word for it, as hawks are often seen in our neighborhood and strong evidence is not needed.  If I was to say that I saw a Sasquatch in my back yard, a great deal of evidence (footprints, hair samples, photographs, etc) is going to be needed before he could be convinced.

Probability Spectrum

Sometimes known as Bayes’ theorem, the probability spectrum describes the probability of an event, based on conditions that might be related to the event.  In debates regarding far-fetched claims, often a last-ditch effort is made by appealing to the idea of possibility.  Speaking of possibility gives the illusion of leaving the door open that such a claim may be true, despite the evidence pointing out the improbability of the claim.  As the old saying goes, there are very few certainties in life, but we all make decisions based on the probability of what’s going to happen.  I know that when I leave my home in the morning, there is the possibility that I may get in an accident, but that doesn’t stop me from going to work, because I know that the probability is relatively low.  This same principle applies to critical thinking – in cases where a definitive conclusion cannot be made, the most probable answer or scenario should be the taken.  Another way to think of it is to draw a line, and have “very unlikely” at one end and “very likely” at the other and postulate where a claim or explanation falls on that line.  In his book, The God Argument, A.C. Grayling explains the possibility spectrum like this:

One line of thinking in the theory of knowledge has it that belief is not an all-or-nothing affair, but a matter of degree.  The degree in question can be represented as a probability value.  A virtue of this approach is said to be that it explains how people adjust the weighting they give to their various beliefs as the evidence in support of them changes when more and better information becomes available.  People might not talk of probabilities unless challenged to say just how strongly the believe something, but their beliefs are nevertheless measurable in terms of how subjectively probable they appear to their holder.  

Along these same principles is the idea of Occam’s Razor.  Occam’s Razor is a problem-solving principle attributed to William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347), who was an English Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher and theologian.  The principle can be be interpreted as, “Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.”  In other words, the simplest explanation is generally the right one.

Another important aspect of probability is natural vs. supernatural explanations.  Supernatural is anything that goes against or beyond the natural world.  When debating religious claims, the supernatural is often invoked as “evidence”.  This is a cop-out of sorts, as supernatural claims, by their very nature, cannot be tested by normal means.  This is why in any discussion; a natural explanation is always favorable to a supernatural one.  Put another way: the supernatural is the least likely explanation explanation for events.  Divine intervention, miracles, the paranormal, psychic powers, angles/demons, spirits, etc are all considered supernatural and should send off warning bells whenever they are used in a debate.  Supernatural explanations are unacceptable in the courtroom and in the science lab, and they should be equally unacceptable in critical thought.

Falsifiability

Last, but certainly not least, we must talk about falsifiability.  Falsifiability (or reputability) of a statement, hypothesis, or theory is the inherent possibility that it can be proven false. A statement is called falsifiable if it is possible to conceive of an observation or an argument that negates the statement in question.  For any hypothesis to have credence, it must be inherently disprovable before it can become accepted as a scientific hypothesis or theory.

Falsifiability is a cornerstone of the scientific method and should be equally applied to critical thinking.  For a statement to be questioned using observation, it needs to be at least theoretically possible that it can come in conflict with observation.

For example, I can make the claim that “All polar bears are white”, and it is logically possible to falsify this statement by observing just a single black polar bear.  In the same way, Newton’s Theory of Gravity has been accepted as truth for centuries because objects do not randomly float away.  If they were to start floating away, then scientists would need to go back to the drawing board and come up with a different hypothesis.

Example of falsifiable vs non-falsifiable

With all of that out of the way, we’ll next be looking at some of the most common logical fallacies.  They are easy to spot once you recognize them and will help you in navigating the endless sea of nonsense that permeates our social media and literature.  Hopefully this has been helpful.  If you have any questions or need clarification, please leave a comment below.  I’m no expert, but I’ll do my best to answer or at least point you in the direction of someone who can.  Thanks for reading.

Take Aways: Anarchy Evolution

(Because of my love for books and the insight they give me, I thought it would be nice to share some of this wisdom with the rest of you.  Not your typical book review, this series focuses more on the things I “take away” from a book, and the insights I gained from it.)

I just finished up reading Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science, and Bad Religion in a World Without God by Greg Graffin and Steve Olson.  Those familiar with the punk rock scene of the 80’s and 90’s will recognize Greg Graffin as the lead singer of Bad Religion, arguably one the most influential bands of that era.  What most probably don’t know is that Graffin also holds a PhD in zoology and teaches science at UCLA.  One of the better books I’ve read in a while, Anarchy Evolution weaves the story of Graffin’s life with his thoughts on science, religion, and music.  I always tell people – you know I’m reading a good book when the corners are turned-down on pages that I want to come back to and read again.  This book was full of turned-down corners.

Greg Graffin

Graffin describes himself as a naturalist, a term he prefers to “atheist” because it describes what he is for, rather than what he is against.  He opens the book by talking about this philosophy and why he chose it:

I think of naturalism as a philosophy rather than a lifestyle.  From a philosophical perspective, naturalists believe that the physical universe is the universe.  In other words, there is no supernatural entities or forces acting in nature, because there is no empirical evidence for anything beyond or outside of nature.  Naturalists posit that the universe is made up of only four things: space, time, matter, and energy – that’s it.  The matter and energy in the universe can come together in an essentially infinite number of configurations over time, and these configurations cannot be predicted with any certainty for complex systems over extended periods.  But matter and energy do not influence and are not influenced by supernatural forces. […] For me, evolution provided the context for our lives.  Yes, evolution has implications that can make us deeply uneasy.  But on important questions we must seek truth, even if the truth is difficult to accept.  Naturalism can provide the foundation for building a coherent and consistent worldview on which we can base decisions.  In fact, I would contend, it is the only perspective that can secure both our happiness as individuals and survival as a species.

In the chapter, “Creativity, Not Creation”, Graffin talks about creativity and how it effects all things, from music, to science, to faith.  He says that creativity is often misunderstood as being something that has been designed or intended, but in fact “truly novel and lasting innovations are often surprises.”  He talks about creativity and how it applies to life and institutions:

Some people have no desire to be creative.  They believe that if someone follows the rules and routines, they will be able to claim that they have lived a successful life.  Maybe they think that, by doing so, they will have achieved some utilitarian goal and useful end.  But I believe they have achieved only a fleeting taste of success.  Lasting success requires creativity, even if more creative feats are ultimately accidental and unpredictable.  Rules and routines may be tolerable or even comfortable in the short term.  But eventually they need to be scrutinized and in many cases rejected to make intellectual and emotional  progress.  Rebellion has to be part of the response to rigid social institutions, or stagnation is assured.  If evolution has taught us anything, it’s that life is in a state of constant change.  There is anarchy in the variation that serve as one driver of evolution, and there is anarchy in the inability of life to remain static.  Eventually, radical changes beset every living thing. […] Institutions that enforce rigid adherence to their own tenets must be scrutinized with particular skepticism.  Religion, political parties, corporations… can all fall into the trap of demanding loyal and unwavering devotion.  They can require that followers adopt not just a specific way of acting but a specific way of thinking.  Institutions, by and large, strive for permanence, and they almost always see life through a formulaic lens and strongly disfavor individuality and change.  

Like most non-religious people, Graffin has encountered the often sighted claim that there “can be no good without God”; that people who have no religious faith have no moral compass.  He addresses this by talking about what truly drives morality in humans – empathy.  He explains that all healthy humans have empathy, thought they may feel it in a verity of ways and the expression of it can change over time.  He states (rightly, IMO) that western religions largely ignore empathy:

[Western religions] are prescriptive.  They impose codes of behavior based on injunctions from supreme authority, not based on the give-and-take of human interactions.  Western religions define proper behavior by analogizing human nature with the behavior of mythological figures who have supernatural powers…  Codes of conduct, therefore, emerge from the supernatural realm and are not to be questioned by mere mortals.   

One of the main reasons I gave up on religions was precisely for that reason – Christians claiming to be morally superior while displaying some of the most immoral behavior imaginable – because their god/Bible told them to.  I agree wholeheartedly with Graffin that empathy, not religion, is a far better compass for moral behavior:

The capacity for empathy enable us to organize our societies in a beneficial way.  Because we can see at least some aspects of our selves in one another, we can derive ways of acting that are good for us and for society as a whole.  But in order for this to occur, we have to be open to accepting other people’s experiences as equally valid to our own.  This is simply impossible if prescriptive codes are too strictly enforced, particularly if these codes are underlain by the unverifiable “truths” of the supernatural realm.  Empathy is the best basis for human ethics that we have.  It provides a solid foundation for strong personal relationships and a productive society.

Another argument that Graffin address is the notion that non-religious people have no meaning or “faith” in their lives:

Everyone must believe in something – it’s part of human nature…  Naturalists must believe, first of all, that the world is understandable and that knowledge of the world can be obtained through observation, experimentation, and verification. […] Humans impart meaning and purpose to almost all aspects of life.  This sense of meaning and purpose gives us a road map to how to live a good life.  This guidance emerges spontaneously from human interactions of human beings in societies and thinking together about how best to get along.  It doesn’t require a god or sacred text.

While most atheists do not believe in heaven, hell, or any other sort of afterlife, Graffin emphasizes that this fact does not mean that naturalists like himself are not concerned about what happens after he dies.  He is concerned about his family, and making sure they are happy, successful, and taken care of after he passes.  He is also concerned about making the world a better place for future generations.  He goes on to say:

A strong case can be made that naturalists tend to care more about these thing than do religious people, since naturalists are committed to an ethic that emphasizes the casual effects of our actions in the here and now, as opposed to a mythological hope for a better life in a supernatural realm. 

Anarchy Evolution is great read, that I would recommend to anyone who is interested in science and music.  You don’t have to be a fan of Bad Religion or punk to enjoy this book.  This would be a good book for someone who is on the edge of religion and looking for an alternative.  Naturalism is an ethos that I intent to look into more, and I think others would find it equally attractive.  In closing, I’d like to offer one last great quote from the book:

The word “nature” doesn’t really mean anything.  In a manner of speaking, everything is natural…  I have a similar beef with the word “God”.  If God is everything and everywhere, then what purpose does the word serve?  if it explains everything, it explains nothing.  but if it describes something important, then it should be observable by everyone, explained, and shared with other people.