Archive for the 'Religion/Miracles' Category

Apr 03 2015

There is No Problem with Atheism

CNN published an opinion piece yesterday: Deepak Chopra: The problem with atheism. I could not help but to read it, just as you have to slow down to look at the results of a serious car crash. Go ahead, Dr. Chopra, inform me about my own belief system, which you have demonstrated over the years you clearly do not understand.

He starts off reasonable enough. In fact, if I didn’t know the article was written by Chopra it could be confused for a reasonable position:

We all fall somewhere on the sliding scale of belief and unbelief. Secular society has sharpened our demand for truth. To me, this is a positive development. If belief in God can’t stand up to proof, it won’t sustain a person through difficult times.

It’s always good to recognize a false dichotomy. Endorsing a demand for truth – also good. I take issue with his conclusion, however. I think supernatural beliefs can serve their emotional purpose whether or not they stand up to skeptical scrutiny. “Proof” is, by definition, irrelevant to faith, which is belief without proof.

The statement gets to the core of what I think is (at least one of) the problem with Chopra. He wants to be able to prove, or at least logically demonstrate, that his particular faith is truth. This is a common state, but ultimately it is folly. Either you follow logic, reason, and evidence to whatever conclusion it reaches, or you don’t. Faith begins with the conclusion. This is not a false dichotomy but a genuine stark difference in approach.

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69 responses so far

Jan 08 2015

The Science of God

Recently Eric Metaxas wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal in which he argues that, “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God.” (Sorry, it’s behind a paywall, but I will quote the salient parts.) Metaxas is an author and speaker, but not a scientist, and it shows in his writing.

His essay is based on two instances of the anthropic principle, which simply notes that in order for life to exist the universe must possess conditions compatible with life. He applies the anthropic principle to the Earth specifically and to the universe as a whole. Starting with the Earth he writes:

As factors continued to be discovered, the number of possible planets hit zero, and kept going. In other words, the odds turned against any planet in the universe supporting life, including this one. Probability said that even we shouldn’t be here.

Today there are more than 200 known parameters necessary for a planet to support life—every single one of which must be perfectly met, or the whole thing falls apart. Without a massive planet like Jupiter nearby, whose gravity will draw away asteroids, a thousand times as many would hit Earth’s surface. The odds against life in the universe are simply astonishing.

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105 responses so far

Dec 19 2014

Universal Medicine Uses Google To Silence Critics

An Australian based company called Universal Medicine (UM) has been criticized by various skeptical blogs and groups as being a new age alternative medicine cult. Looking through their website, this seems like a reasonable observation. (The term “cult” is fuzzy, but many of the features seem to be present.)

In response to this criticism, UM has apparently issued many complaints to Google, claiming defamation. According to the site Chilling Effect, Google has responded at least in some cases by removing the sites from Google searches, effectively censoring those websites.

Doubtful News was one of the sites censored by Google.

This type of action represents a serious threat to the skeptical mission. Part of that mission is consumer protection, and the primary method of activism is public analysis and criticism of dubious claims, products, services, and organizations. Essentially, we expose charlatans.

Charlatans, it turns out, don’t like to be exposed. They don’t like bad press.

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12 responses so far

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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11 responses so far

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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423 responses so far

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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107 responses so far

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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37 responses so far

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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159 responses so far

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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57 responses so far

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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223 responses so far

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