Skepfeeds-The Best Skeptical blogs of the day

Were we born to believe?

Posted in News by Skepdude on April 9, 2010


Rationalists such as Philip Pullman underestimate mankind’s built-in hunger for the sacred, argues Matthew Taylor

Philip Pullman’s new novel The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is opening another chapter in the often acrimonious debate between religious believers and atheists. This is not, of course, a new argument, but it is one that was given new life by the religious justifications offered by the September 11 terrorists, and there is little sign of it abating.

Although Pullman’s attack is more on organised Christianity than faith, the aim of other strident atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens or Daniel Dennett, is to use the hammer of science and rationality to break the chains of religious superstition. Indeed, since the Ancient World, intellectuals have predicted that faith would wither away in the face of expanding human knowledge. But the prediction was wrong. Demographic trends suggest that the proportion of the world’s population who follow a major religion will rise to about 80 per cent over the coming decades. Even in countries with low religious observance – such as Britain – there has been no decline in the number who say they believe in God.

The resilience of religion has been a spur to scientists interested in understanding the evolutionary, developmental and neurological basis of faith. Among evolutionists, the big debate is between those who argue that religious belief has helped human beings prosper as a species, and those who see faith merely as a by-product of other aspects of our development.

The evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson is perhaps the most prominent advocate of the adaptationist view, arguing that religious belief helped make groups of early humans comparatively more cohesive, more co-operative and more fraternal, and thus better able to fight off less organised foes. And as human needs changed, so did the content of religious belief. In close-knit tribal cultures, there are many gods residing in nature, but in modern mass societies, where it is harder to enforce social norms, a single all-seeing God helps keep us on the straight and narrow.

Adaptationist accounts are far from universally accepted. Richard Dawkins describes the group selection theory that underlies Sloan Wilson’s account as “sheer, wanton, head-in-bag perversity”. But whatever is happening at the group level, there is something about the way individual human beings develop that makes us susceptible to religious belief.

Clues to this lie in the study of child development. It appears, for example, that at a particular age – usually around 10 – children become fascinated by big questions about life, death and the origins of the universe. At earlier ages, as children begin to apply language to the world around them, they seem to ask questions for which religion has answers.

We appear, for example, to be natural creationists. A child’s account of nature relies on what developmental psychologists call “immature teleology”. This is the idea that something exists because of the function it provides for the child: the river is there so I can swim in it, the tree so I can climb it. If something has a purpose, it must have been created for that reason.


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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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If Prayer Worked…

Posted in Atheist Revolution by Skepdude on February 20, 2009

The question can be phrased a variety of ways:

  • If you believe in prayer, why do you have insurance?
  • If you believe in prayer, why do you invest?
  • If you believe in prayer, why do you have a burglar alarm?
  • If you believe in prayer, why do you see a doctor?

The crux of the question is simple: If you truly believe that prayer works – works in the sense that your god intervenes in your life – why do you not behave as if you believed it?

If “prayer works” means nothing other than the act of praying makes me feel better, I do not disagree. But if it means anything more than that, then those advocating the wonders of prayer should have no need for the reality-based alternatives to which they cling. And if it does not always work, work completely, or only works on the small matters, then what does this say about your god?


Born believers: How your brain creates God

Posted in News by Rodibidably on February 6, 2009

[Originally posted at: New Scientist]

04 February 2009 by Michael Brooks – Magazine issue 2694.

WHILE many institutions collapsed during the Great Depression that began in 1929, one kind did rather well. During this leanest of times, the strictest, most authoritarian churches saw a surge in attendance.

This anomaly was documented in the early 1970s, but only now is science beginning to tell us why. It turns out that human beings have a natural inclination for religious belief, especially during hard times. Our brains effortlessly conjure up an imaginary world of spirits, gods and monsters, and the more insecure we feel, the harder it is to resist the pull of this supernatural world. It seems that our minds are finely tuned to believe in gods.

Religious ideas are common to all cultures: like language and music, they seem to be part of what it is to be human. Until recently, science has largely shied away from asking why. “It’s not that religion is not important,” says Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University, “it’s that the taboo nature of the topic has meant there has been little progress.”

The origin of religious belief is something of a mystery, but in recent years scientists have started to make suggestions. One leading idea is that religion is an evolutionary adaptation that makes people more likely to survive and pass their genes onto the next generation. In this view, shared religious belief helped our ancestors form tightly knit groups that cooperated in hunting, foraging and childcare, enabling these groups to outcompete others. In this way, the theory goes, religion was selected for by evolution, and eventually permeated every human society (New Scientist, 28 January 2006, p 30)

The religion-as-an-adaptation theory doesn’t wash with everybody, however. As anthropologist Scott Atran of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor points out, the benefits of holding such unfounded beliefs are questionable, in terms of evolutionary fitness. “I don’t think the idea makes much sense, given the kinds of things you find in religion,” he says. A belief in life after death, for example, is hardly compatible with surviving in the here-and-now and propagating your genes. Moreover, if there are adaptive advantages of religion, they do not explain its origin, but simply how it spread.

An alternative being put forward by Atran and others is that religion emerges as a natural by-product of the way the human mind works.

[Read the rest of this post at: New Scientist]

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Is belief in God illogical?

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on January 16, 2009

I was reading on of my regularly subscribed blogs when the writer posed a seemingly simple question: Is belief in God illogical? My initial, automatic response was hell yeah, but then after that initial outburst of self righteous overconfidence I got to thinking. My initial answer just did not sound right for whatever reason. After  a little bit of thought and reflection I have changed my answer. My answer now is no.

Belief is a funny thing. Every day, in our lives, we do and say things based on certain unsubstantiated beliefs. Have you ever told an acquaintance that you’ll see them later? How do you know you will? How do you know you will be alive long enough to see them later? You don’t! But you still in a sense believe you will, even though you have no evidence upon which to base that belief. That’s not to advocate starting to qualify every statement we make with words like “probably” , “hopefully” and such, no sir!  That’s just to point out that we all have beliefs that we do not question. We cannot question every belief we hold, lest we spend every waking minute checking and double checking every thing. I believe my spouse is faithful but the only way to be sure is for me to be with them, ahem follow them, every minute.

What I have tried to describe in this short paragraph is the fundamental difference between belief and knowledge. They’re two different things, even though in common parlance sometimes they are used interchangeably. Many times people will say “I know X to be true” when in fact they simply mean they believe X to be true, such as in my previous fidelity example. Many people will say that they know their spouse is faithful when in fact they really mean they believe their spouse is faithful.

Now let’s get back to the God issue. Here we need to be careful with the distinction between the two words. Knowledge is based on evidence, belief need not be. You cannot claim to know if the evidence is not on your side, but you can claim to believe. And the believer will commonly fall on the above trap of confusing the word believe with the word know, unbeknown to them. I truly believe (haha) that when a believer goes around saying how they know there is a God, they really mean they deeply believe said God exists. And that is not illogical.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. This is one of my favorite quotes. I don’t remember who said it, but I like to use it all the time to remind myself that saying “X is not backed up by the evidence” is not the same as saying that “X will never turn out to be true”. I feel we are in the same position with God. I think there is no evidence to support the hypothesis of the monotheistic God. But I also think that there is no damning evidence against him, especially given how the religious keep moving the goal post and keep redefining God in order to explain away every new argument against his existence, but that’s a topic for another post.

The idea of God as a supernatural being with all sorts of magical powers is not ridiculous in my eyes. It is not impossible either. We cannot say that in this Universe God is an impossibility. There are many impossibilities that we have claimed in our history which have later turned out to be true, so I think we must learn that history lesson and be very careful with the word impossible. But that’s not to say anything in favor of God though. Even though he’s not impossible, given what we’ve seen so far, given the evidence presented to us so far, he seems very very very improbable.

Nevertheless, there is nothing illogical in believing in something which is highly unlikely. Furthermore, there are varying standards of evidence. We skeptics, I like to believe, have higher standards when it comes to evidence than the religious. But that does not change the fact that the religious are quite convinced that there is plenty of evidence in support of the God Hypothesis. Take a look at the latest debate you had about God and you will see that in most cases it’s a debate about the quality of the evidence presented. IDers say that the Intelligent Designer must exist because of irreducible complexity. They present irreducible complexity as evidence of design. Real scientists argue that irreducible complecity is not evidence, but a philosophical argument at best (also a logical fallacy known as argument from ignorance). At heart this is an issue about the evidence itself. Assuming sound logic, with the same set of facts similar conclusions should follow. But if we don’t agree on the facts to begin with we are destined to disagree.

So to sum up, believing something for which you think there is enough evidence obviously is not illogical. Believing something for which there is a mountain of contradictory evidence is. I think religious people think they belong to the first group, thus in their eyes belief in God is more than justified. I also think that many atheists think that religious people belong to the second group, thus making them question the logic of such belief. I further think that this difference is mostly due to the varying standards of acceptable evidence that the two groups are employing. As such I don’t find belief in God illogical. I think it is the wrong conclusion to reach, based on the evidence so far, but being wrong does not necessarily imply being illogical. After this short reflection I’m still a proud atheist. I still don’t believe in God, but I don’t think I would be a moron if I did.

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But I don’t WANT to worship the Constitution.

Posted in Left Coast Librul by Skepdude on August 14, 2008

Today is Giggle-at-the-absurdities-inherent-in-your-philosophy Day. Apparently. I’m not sure how else to interpret the argument I had earlier with a question begging troll. And yet, I kept going back. Entirely my fault for feeding the blasted thing. Assertion: The Constitution is my god, because atheists have to worship something whether they acknowledge it or not and if I follow the law then I worship the Constitution and it’s my god.

Yes, I see your eyebrow raise in much the same way mine did. But he was serious. I think. It was difficult to tell exactly, as his grammar and sentence structure were so horrid

Read the rest of this entry at the Left Coast Librul’s Weblog.