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Faith and Reason

Posted in Rationally Speaking by Skepdude on April 14, 2009


One of the constantly bewildering aspects of living on planet Earth is the assumption that most human beings seem to make that faith (usually, but not necessarily, the religious variety) is a virtue. This bizarre attitude — just to add insult to injury — often comes coupled with the equally strange idea that somehow too much reason is bad for you. Why?

Faith means that one believes something regardless or even in spite of the evidence. This, I should think, is so irrational, and potentially so bad for one’s health, that educators and policy makers would be very worried at the prospect of a nation where faith was praised and encouraged. I mean, suppose I tell you that I have faith in my auto mechanic, but then you discover that the guy knows nothing about cars, can never get one fixed, and on top of that charges me thousands of dollars every time I see him. You would be outraged at him, possibly to the point of calling for legal action against the rascal, and you would pity me for being such a fool. Now substitute any of the words “Preacher,” “Pope,” “Imam,” or even “Guru” for mechanic in the above example, change the care of my car to the care of my soul (whatever that is), and suddenly you get the phenomenon of strong social and legal defense of the concept of organized religion. How nut is that?

But Massimo, people usually ask me whenever the f-word is brought up, don’t you have faith in anything? Nope, I say, a denial that is immediately met with both bewilderment and commiseration. Don’t I have faith in my wife, for example? No, I trust her because I know her and know that she loves me. What about faith in humanity, considering that I profess to be a secular humanist? No, I have hope for the human lot, and even that is seriously tempered by my awareness of its less than stellar record throughout history.

Ah, but I believe in evolution, don’t I? Yes, I do, but notice the switch between “faith” and “belief,” two words that don’t necessarily mean the same thing at all. A belief is something one thinks is true, but beliefs — unlike faith — can be held in proportion to the available evidence and reasons in their favor. I “believe” in evolution because the evidence is overwhelming. I don’t have faith in evolution.

Okay, then, the irrepressible defender of faith might say, what about your acceptance of things you cannot possibly prove, either logically or empirically, such as that there is a physical world out there (instead of the universe being a simulation in someone’s mind)? Isn’t that faith? Nope, it’s a reasonable assumption that I adopt for purely pragmatic reasons, because it seems that if one rejects it apparently bad things will happen to him (like smashing his brains on the ground while believing that he can fly off of a skyscraper).

The exasperated faithful will then conclude that my life must be devoid of emotions, and that I am — once again — deserving of pity and commiseration more than anything else. But of course this is yet another common confusion that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny: my life is as emotionally rich as anyone else’s, I think, in accordance with both philosopher David Hume’s and neurobiologist Antonio Damasio’s conclusion that a healthy human existence requires a balance between reason and emotion. Without reason, we would not have been able to build our complex civilization; but without emotion we wouldn’t have given a damn about accomplishing anything at all. Still, while faith is obviously emotional, it is not a synonym of emotion; the latter is necessary, the former is parasitic on it.

What about this insane idea that somehow we live in a hyper-rational society which is already too burdened by the triumph of reason? If we are, it is hard to distinguish such society from a hyper-irrational one dominated by faith. This conceit that too much reason is bad is a leftover from the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment, the so-called “age of reason” (which lasted much too briefly, and during which time reason was heard, but hardly dominated human affairs). If one wants to have a good measure of how little reason plays into our society, one only has to listen for a day to what most of our politicians say, or to what most of our journalists write, not to mention of course the often surprisingly frightening experience of simply overhearing people’s conversations on the subway or at work.

We are frequently told with a certain degree of smugness that we need to go “beyond reason,” even though that phrase is uttered by people who likely wouldn’t be able to pass logic 101. Now, this isn’t to say that reason is boundless, much less that it is a guarantor of truth. Reason is a tool, fashioned by natural selection to deal with largely mundane problems of survival and reproduction in a specific type of physical and social environment. But it seems to work pretty darn well even when it comes to proving complex mathematical theorems, constructing excellent hypotheses about how the universe got started, and even providing us with decent guidance on how to conduct human affairs while maximizing justice and minimizing killings — at least in theory!

Faith doesn’t bring us beyond reason, as amply shown by the fact that not a single problem — be it scientific, philosophical or socio-political — has ever been solved or even mildly ameliorated by faith. On the contrary, faith has a nasty tendency to make bumbling simpletons of us, to waste our energies, time and resources on pursuit that do not improve the human condition, and at its worst it convinces people to drive planes into skyscrapers, or to mount “holy” crusades to slaughter the “infidel.” Faith is not a virtue, it is a repudiation of one the few good things human beings have going for them: a little bit of reason.


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Taleban ‘kill love affair couple’

Posted in News by Skepdude on April 14, 2009

The Taleban in Afghanistan have publicly killed a young couple who they said had tried to run away to get married, officials say.

The man, 21, and woman, 19, were shot dead on Monday in front of a mosque in the south-western province of Nimroz.

Nimroz is an area where the Taleban have a strong influence.

Governor Ghulam Dastageer Azad told the AFP news agency the killings followed a decree by local religious leaders and were an “insult to Islam”.

Dangerous region

Mr Azad said: “An unmarried young boy and an unmarried girl who loved each other and wanted to get married had eloped because their families would not approve the marriage.”

Officials said the couple were traced by militants after they tried to go to Iran. They were made to return to their village in Khash Rod district.

“Three Taleban mullahs brought them to the local mosque and they passed a fatwa (religious decree) that they must be killed. They were shot and killed in front of the mosque in public,” the governor said.


Michael Egnor tries again

Posted in Freespace by Skepdude on April 14, 2009

“Listen to the fool’s reproach! It is a kingly title!”—William Blake

Dr. Egnor has posted a response to <=”to<“>my comments about his blog posts. He basically makes three points: first, he accuses me of misrepresenting him by calling him a creationist; second, he claims that it is constitutional for creationists to teach religion in government schools; third, he claims I am part of a conspiracy to preach atheism to schoolkids…or something. Let’s see how much of this holds up.

He begins by ensuring us that although he believes in magic and mysticism, he isn’t exactly a young earth creationist. No, he’s an old earth creationist instead. He “respect[s] young earth creationists” and “strongly support[s] their right to participate fully in public discourse, but [he] do[es] not share some of their scientific viewpoints.” I believe that’s exactly what I said to begin with….  But obviously this is irrelevant. The point is, Egnor believes that government-funded, government-operated schools should teach other people’s children that God created life.

My point was that the phrase “participate fully in public discourse” can mean a lot of different things. It can mean the individual right of creationists like Egnor to state their beliefs in public—a right guaranteed to all individuals by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Or it can mean the purported “right” of elected officials to abuse their authority by using the government to endorse their religious views as true and to put that message into government-run schools, funded with taxpayer dollars—something that is absolutely prohibited by the Constitution of the United States. It is the latter that Dr. Egnor endorsed, and endorses again in his most recent post.

The Constitution (which Dr. Egnor can read here for free) forbids the government from anything like an establishment of religion. What that means is, it is illegal for the government to set forth a religious viewpoint as being true. To say that life was created and designed by a divine Designer is a religious belief. It is therefore unconstitutional to teach it in a government run classroom on the taxpayer’s dime to other people’s children.

The Constitution does not bar the government from making other kinds of statements—that is, it does not bar the government from making statements of fact that are supported by science. (It doesn’t even bar the government from teaching untrue facts; Egnor claims that evolution can “only” be taught “in a constitutional manner” if its “weaknesses” are taught—but in fact, the Constitution places very few limits on what government may teach in schools, and that is not one of them.) If those facts turn out to be inconsistent with Dr. Egnor’s religious views—well, that’s just too bad.

As I explained in my article, Reason And Common Ground, the government is perfectly free to teach children that the seasons are caused by the tilt of the earth’s axis, even though that conflicts with the views of Greek polytheists who think the seasons are caused by Persephone’s annual visits to her husband Hades. What the government may not do is say that the myth of Persephone is true or that it is false. It certainly can say that there is no evidence to support it, or that all the evidence points in the direction of the theory of the earth’s tilt on its axis. In exactly the same way, the state may teach students evolution, even though it conflicts with some people’s religious views.

Think what it would mean if the opposite were true: if every person claiming a mystical revelation or an insight into magical processes could wield a heckler’s veto over every expressive act by government. Government could not set up a fire department, because people would complain that fires are caused by Thor’s lightning. Government could not promote sanitation, because it might offend those who believe diseases are God’s punishment for sin. Government could not try to educate the public about violence against women, because it might offend fundamentalist Muslims. There is good reason that the Constitution allows—indeed, expects—the government to teach non-religious concepts and even concepts that are contrary to some people’s religious views, while forbidding it from making religious statements.


And Then There Are These Claims…

Posted in JREF by Skepdude on April 14, 2009

So, as skeptics, we evaluate evidence and come to a provisional conclusion. Sometimes, we’re told a story and we simply don’t have the evidence to come to a conclusion. This is often the case with ghost stories and alien sightings, though to date, most skeptics agree that there is a lack of sufficient evidence to support a belief in either.

What do we do if such a story is on the news? Mosnews from Russia reports that a man was taken to the emergency room complaining of severe chest pain and coughing up blood. Suspecting cancer, surgeons performed a biopsy and found not a tumor but a tree. Or a least a sapling… a young fir 5cm long was growing in the man’s lung.

That’s the story. The evidence… needs some discussion.

Is this a believable story? Can a tree grow in a man’s lung?

There’s a photo on the site of some bloody tissue with what looks like a tree in it. Now, how do we know whether to believe this story or not?

We have:

A photo of tissue (lung tissue? scar tissue?) with a branch in it (grown? placed?)

A report from a source I’d never heard of before. (Discover got the story from the same source)

Alternate explanations (hoax)

We don’t have:

Motivation for a hoax

An explanation for how a tree could grow in a lung


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Is giving hope a good thing?

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on April 14, 2009

One of the arguments that believers use to support their faith is that their religion gives hope. What hope, they ask, does atheism give people? This question carries a major unstated premise, which is the idea that giving hope is good, admirable, and of course the other unstated premise that if it is good it must be true. Nevertheless, I will concentrate on the first  unstated premise here.

Religion does give hope to people, I don’t think that can be denied. It comes with lots of other baggage to be sure, but hope is one thing many religious people derive, and this is used as an argument by some religious people in an effort to either prove that there is a God, or to show that faith is superior to atheism.

Nevertheless, there is one major issue that the religious people overlook when advancing the Hope Argument, and that is the distinction between False Hope and Real Hope. Say for example that your father is going in surgery and the doctor tells you that there are great chances for a successful operation and that everything will be ok. The doctor is giving you hope. However, we must ask ourselves, is it true? What if the doctor is solely saying that to make you feel better? What if the odds of your father coming out alive are only at about 20%? Would you think that what the doctor is doing is to be considered good? No, providing false hope cannot be considered good.

Are there situations in which you must lie and provide false hope and it would be justifiable? Yes, of course. If a person is in his/her dying moments I grant that we are allowed to say whatever would make them feel better in those last moments, provide whatever hope we possibly can. I am sure readers can come up with other similar cases, but those scenarios are the exceptions to the rule, and they are done with the understanding that we are misleading the other person.

In order to make the Hope Argument, one must be able to show that the hope they are providing is true and not false, that the hope of the eternal afterlife and the rewards of heaven are true, and not figments of one’s imagination. And just how can a religious person even start about doing that? How can they assert that the story they are using is not a myth? That they are not propagating a lie? That they are not providing people with false hope? Even more importantly how can they deny the Hope Argument to the other religions, which they must, lest they are willing to accept the other religions also to be valid, because they too offer hope!

So, what hope does atheism provide people with? It doesn’t have to. Something does not have to provide hope in order to be true. In fact, anytime you as a non-believer are asked the Hope Questio you should turn it around on the believers and ask them, how do they know that they are not providing false hope?  Do they even care?