Archive for the 'Religion/Miracles' Category

Sep 02 2014

Witch Hunter Sues BHA

Published by under Religion/Miracles

The British Humanist Association has announced that they are being sued by notorious Nigerian “witch hunter”, Helen Ukpabio, for half a billion pounds for alleged libel. The only reasonable response to this situation, in my opinion, is to magnify the criticism of Ukpabio as much as possible.

For those who are not aware, I am also being sued for expressing my critical opinions. You can read the full details here. I have always supported my fellow skeptics in the past when they faced being silenced through legal intimidation, but now I have to disclose that I have a personal connection to this issue as well.

In any case – Ukpabio, in my opinion, represents an extreme version of the harms that result from abject superstition. She considers herself (or at least claims to) a “Lady Apostle” and makes a career out of exorcising children she believes are possessed by spirits.

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May 16 2014

Preaching Against Skepticism

Published by under Religion/Miracles

I strive to have a fairly nuanced approach to religion in this blog and my other skeptical outreach. In brief, I think that faith is a personal choice that needs to be kept outside the realm of science and is not a legitimate basis for public policy in a free and pluralistic society. Further, I think that the real issue is ideology, of which faith and religion are just one type. Political and social ideology are just as pernicious to critical thinking as is religious ideology.

But I see no reason to gratuitously attack faith or religious belief itself, as long as it stays in its corner and doesn’t bother with science or other people’s freedom. At the same time, I am happy to identify as an agnostic atheist, and will strongly defend that choice on both empirical and philosophical grounds.

Not exactly a rallying cry, but that’s the price you pay for having a nuanced position.

I do also think it is important to point out when advocates of faith take an anti-critical thinking position. This is why I personally think that faith is a net negative – very few people can keep a personal choice of faith sufficiently walled off from science and reason that it does not erode the latter. Faith is inherently irrational, and while I respect the freedom of every individual to decide for themselves whether or not to have any particular faith, I think it’s important to point out the inherent intellectual risks in believing anything without evidence or logic.

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Feb 17 2014

New Science and Religion Survey

A new Rice University survey of 10,000 people explores issues of science and religion. Surveys are always fascinating, giving us a “lay of the land” of what people around us believe. However, they are also very tricky. Results can vary wildly based upon how a question is asked, and what questions surround them. This study was presented at the AAAS meeting, and is not published, so I don’t have access to the actual questions.

With those caveats in mind, here are the main results:

50 percent of evangelicals believe that science and religion can work together, compared to 38 percent of Americans.
18 percent of scientists attended weekly religious services, compared with 20 percent of the general U.S. population;
15 percent of scientists consider themselves very religious (versus 19 percent of the general U.S. population);
13.5 percent of scientists read religious texts weekly (compared with 17 percent of the U.S. population)
19 percent of scientists pray several times a day (versus 26 percent of the U.S. population).
Nearly 60 percent of evangelical Protestants and 38 percent of all surveyed believe “scientists should be open to considering miracles in their theories or explanations.”
27 percent of Americans feel that science and religion are in conflict. Of those who feel science and religion are in conflict, 52 percent sided with religion.
48 percent of evangelicals believe that science and religion can work in collaboration.
22 percent of scientists think most religious people are hostile to science.
Nearly 20 percent of the general population think religious people are hostile to science.
Nearly 22 percent of the general population think scientists are hostile to religion.
Nearly 36 percent of scientists have no doubt about God’s existence.

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Jan 17 2014

Mithras and Jesus

Published by under Religion/Miracles

The phrase, “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that,” is a good starting point for many skeptical discussions. I am not sure of the origins of the phrase, but I have heard it used frequently by my colleague, Ben Goldacre. I have used some form of it myself, and as it expresses a fairly basic skeptical concept, it has likely been independently used by many.

It is therefore difficult to say who “originated” use of that specific phrase as a rhetorical device. Most works are derivative to some degree, and the law recognizes that similar works can emerge from the culture without one being plagiarism.

When very specific details overlap, however, then some sort of direct copying (rather than just a common source of inspiration) is more likely.

I have encountered from many skeptical and atheist sources the claim that the Jesus mythology is heavily borrowed from pagan mythologies that predate Christianity; the Roman Mithras cult, for example. If true, this would be a sobering fact for any Christian.

Unfortunately, on close inspection it seems that the Mithras-Jesus claim has evolved into its own mythology. The error seems to be motivated by the desire to claim that the Jesus mythology was directly copied from earlier pagan mythologies. Therefore the claim is made that the mythologies overlap in specific details.

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Jan 04 2013

Responding to Commenters on Created History

“I Woke Up This Morning, And I Realized That Somebody Had Broken Into My Apartment, Stolen All My Things And Replaced Them With Exact Duplicates.”

- Comedian Steven Wright

Yesterday I wrote about the young earth creationist argument that, even though the universe is only 6-10 thousand years old, we can see light from stars billions of light years away because God created the light already on its way to earth. I pointed out that this argument requires that God also created an entire fake history of the universe, including light from supernova that never occurred of stars that never existed. The one-liner above, delivered dead-pan in the style of Steven Wright, is funny because we intuitively realize the absurdity of the statement. How would one know, and even if it were true, what’s the difference?

The post inspired some interesting comments, and sometimes I like to respond to comments in a separate post. One of the things I enjoy about blogging as a literary form is its interactive nature. I always find it more interesting to respond to the arguments of others rather than just give a monologue or lecture. I find it more effective as a teaching tool, because you are confronting specific thought processes and resolving differences of reasoning. For convenience I will include only the section of each comment I will be responding to. You can browse through the comments to the original post if you want to see entire comments, who left them, and to respond directly to them if you wish.

So he says because a statement is nonfalsifiable it makes it untrue? There are plenty of nonfalsifiable statements that could be true or false. Evolutionists assume there can be no miraculous events, therefore no miraculous events occurred. Circular reasoning if you ask me.

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Feb 28 2012

Religious Freedom vs Consumer Protection

A Christian church in New Zealand has put up a billboard on their property that proclaims: “Jesus Heals Cancer.” This has caused a bit of a stir and prompted a discussion about the limits of religious freedom vs protecting the public from false or misleading claims.

The Pastor, Lyle Penisula, holds that the claim is true. This is actually the easiest aspect of the this issue to deal with – is there evidence that “Jesus heals cancer?” No. The Pastor himself offers, of course, anecdotes – cases of people in his church who survived cancer. He admits that they completed whatever treatment regimen they were being given by their doctors, but seemed to entirely miss the point that therefore we cannot conclude that it was Jesus who healed them. They may have simply responded to standard medical treatment.

There has been a fair bit of research into intercessory prayer. The results are essentially negative. More studies are negative than positive, and the positive ones have critical flaws (although they seem to get more media attention). If there were a clinically significant effect from intercessory prayer the existing studies would have shown a more consistent and clearly positive signal. What we have is most consistent with no effect. The evidence is incompatible with the claim that “Jesus heals cancer.”

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Feb 24 2012

Richard Dawkins – Agnostic

This is actually old news – Richard Dawkins, perhaps the world’s most famous atheist, discusses atheism vs agnosticism at length in his book, The God Delusion (you can listen to the relevant section here.) In a recent debate with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, Dawkins acknowledged that he is not 100% certain of God’s non-existence, and when asked if he is therefore an agnostic, he said that he was.

These statements have to be put into context, however – which Dawkins did in his book and elsewhere. In The God Delusion he outlines 7 stances toward the probability that God exists. He put himself into category 6, a strong atheist but less than 100% certain that God does not exist. He states he is less than 100% certain as a matter of principle – because a mere human cannot be 100% certain of anything. Only fanatical belief results in 100% metaphysical certitude. So he is as strong an atheist as a rational and intellectually honest person can be.

How, then, can we make sense of Dawkins acknowledging that he is also an agnostic. A report of the debate states:

The philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny, who chaired the discussion, interjected: “Why don’t you call yourself an agnostic?” Prof Dawkins answered that he did.

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Oct 18 2011

Camping’s Doomsday Prophesy

Published by under Religion/Miracles

Harold Camping is now, among other things, an IgNobel Laureate. He shares the 2011 IgNobel award for mathematics: “for teaching the world to be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations.”

This Friday, October 21, Camping predicts the world will end – making him just another doomsday crank. He came by this date through a complicated and thoroughly contrived calculations involving the Bible. It’s not the first time. He predicted the world would end in 1994. It took him a while to recover from that lack of the end of the world back then.

He became more widely known for his recent prediction of the rapture on May 21 of this year. This was frequently misrepresented as a prediction for the end of the world, but Camping only predicted that the world would be wracked with earthquakes – that there would be obvious signs of God’s wrath and the faithful would be raptured and spared. The earth would then suffer God’s wrath for five months until the final destruction of the world  – which brings us to this Friday, October 21.

The first phase of his two-phase prediction did not work out very well. May 21 came and went without anything unusual happening. At first Camping and his followers were perplexed – how could the careful mathematical calculations have led them astray (never mind the dubious underlying assumptions).

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Feb 22 2011

Atheism and Morality – Jon Topping Responds

In response to my earlier post today, the target of my post, Jon Topping, wrote a response in the comments. I thank Jon for stopping by and participating in the conversation. One of the reasons I chose to respond to his YouTube video is because he is trying to frame the argument in terms of logic. Here is his response, with my responses:

Great write up, enjoyed it very much.
Atheism requires a naturalistic cause. Evolution is the only natural cause we know of. I would say evolution is not sufficient for atheism, but it is necessary.

To be clear, atheism is simply the absence of belief in a deity. Most (but certainly not all) atheists are also naturalists, meaning that they believe the universe follows natural laws of cause and effect and that it is not valid to introduce supernatural causes as an explanation for what we observe in the natural world. Certainly for a naturalist, evolution is the only game in town in terms of the origin of species. It actually does not deal with the origin of life, or the origin of the universe, although these are often conflated.

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Feb 22 2011

Does Atheism Lead to Immorality?

This is an argument that will just not go away – that atheism leads to the absence of morality. I was recently pointed to this YouTube video once again making this point. Yes – this is just some random guy (Jon Topping) on the internet, but he is trying to put forward a logical argument and he is making the standard argument  – the same one I have heard from many religious sources, so it’s fair game.

His argument is fundamentally a false dichotomy – objective morality comes from belief in God (or some supernatural thingy) and if you are an atheist then morality has no objective basis and your morality must ultimately be subjective, which he argues logically leads to amorality. He dismisses many straw-man alternatives but never addresses the true alternative to his simple dichotomy, something again I find common.

First, let’s address his premises. He equates atheism with belief in evolution. This is not valid, but I will give him that most atheists accept evolution, because they have no reason to dismiss the overwhelming scientific consensus. Where he gets into trouble is in equating evolution with doing everything you can to survive and pass on your genes, even if it means stealing and killing. This is a simplistic and outdated view of evolution – of nature “red in tooth and claw.”

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