Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Chris Hedges Doesn't Believe in Atheists

I have mentioned author Chris Hedges before.  I love his work--for the most part.  Three years ago, however, he debated Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris about the merits of religion and didn't fare well--primarily because he was on the wrong side of the argument.  But, rather than recognize this fact, he expressed his feelings by writing a book in which he engaged in a combined "straw man" and "ad hominem" counterargument.

The debates, of course, weren't about the actual existence of god.  Chris Hedges knows better than to go there. Like so many intelligent religious people, he bases his convictions on the usefulness of religion.  This was the focus of the debates but, unfortunately, was not the focus of his book.

Instead, Hedges engaged in a mis-characterization of what Harris and Hitchens had to say and then focused his attention on that.  He said that the new atheists externalize evil and don't accept that it comes from within us and that a utopian society can be created through violence. 

First, with regard to the sources of evil, I don't recall any atheist, new or otherwise, ever saying something so simple minded as the idea that people are good and that all evil comes from religion.  Yet, that appears to be what Chris Hedges thought he heard.  I think the reason he heard it was his unwillingness to hear what they were actually saying:  Religion is a bad thing because it makes people behave worse than they would without it.

Hedges believes that all evil comes from within us, apparently.  Unfortunately, he fails to see that this includes religion because it come from within us as well.  And, as I have taken pains to say before, it comes from a dark place within us.

Hedges also thinks that humans will simply find other excuses to do bad things if religion is eliminated from our society.  That may be partly true but it's hardly a good reason for ignoring a source of evil that is currently a favorite of evildoers.  The obvious response to that argument is that we will fight against those new excuses when they do arise.  Let's get rid of the biggest, baddest, and oldest of the excuses for human evil, religion, first.  Hedges' argument is analogous to saying there is no reason to fight a deadly disease because its victims will just die of something else if we save them.

Not only is religion the current problem, its age and entrenchment in society make it uniquely evil--as do the centuries of polish and finesse that the religious have brought to its methods for causing evil.

Newer reasons for doing evil should be easier to fight because they will be less familiar and less well packaged and thus easier to spot and defend against.  Furthermore, establishing the precedent that irrational mind memes can and should be eliminated will make it easier to do so.

Our current attitude toward rationalizations for evil is a large part of the problem itself.  It will certainly be the case that people will find new reasons to do evil so long as we allow the standards for sanity to be based on something other than objective facts and pretend that popular forms of irrationality are not insanity and must be respected.

People already have a natural tendency to see those who aren't members of their group as less than human.  Any philosophy that divides people into groups artificially and encourages them to see others as immoral or evil simply for not being a member of their group is itself an evil philosophy.  How do we know about this natural tendency?  Through scientific observation and analysis--not from some holy book written by scientific illiterates.

People do have a tendency to do such things and to rationalize them and to delude themselves.  They probably always will because the seeds of those negative behaviors were planted by nature's formation of our brains through accretion of increasingly higher functioning layers without jettisoning the earlier ones.

Should we for that reason accept the idea that we are just "bad" and do nothing about it?  Of course not.

Should we not strive to make ourselves better?  Should we not strive to create a society that is more like a utopia, even though we know we can never actually create a utopia?

Of course we should.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Does Everybody Believe in God?

Sometimes one hears theists make the statement that "everyone believes in god".  Those who say this kind of thing will maintain that this is true even if you stand right in front of them and tell them you think god is a fairy tale.  Obviously, the only way they can think this is to believe that everyone somehow "knows" that god exists, but some people perversely deny it for emotional reasons.

Any theist who says this sort of thing has a closed mind and is almost certainly fanatical.  There is little hope of reasoning with such a person at all.  On the other hand, the position is so extreme and intolerant that it lends itself to easy ridicule and attack.  One of your best quick and simple replies is to say:

"You think everyone has to be just like you?"

This response is probably best if you don't want to get into any sort of debate with such a person, which is probably a good idea.  Point out the inherent idiocy at the core of the statement and then drop the subject.

This attitude is a variation of the "no atheists in foxholes" argument--but with a twist.  Both are based on the assumption that a person's emotions completely determine what he or she believes.  The "no atheists in foxholes" argument is an implicit admission that religion is a delusion.  This version is an implicit admission of how theists think:  They "feel" and then rationalize their feelings, therefore they are quite sure that everyone else does the same.

While it is true that everyone's thinking is effected by emotion, the extent of this effect will vary from individual to individual just like any other trait.  Many people, especially non-believers, know this and therefore actively try to prevent their emotions from having primacy in their reasoning.   They know that allowing emotions to determine their reasoning can interfere with the accuracy of their thinking.  For a theist, however, their emotions always have primacy in their reasoning, and they apparently can't imagine that anyone could be different.  (They even think that this is a good thing because they can't distinguish between emotions and values--but that will be the subject of another post.)

One of the things you can say is to first make this explicit:

"You think atheists are just in denial?  Why are they in denial?  They just don't want to admit it for emotional reasons?"

Once you get an explicit admission of the assumption that everyone is controlled by their emotions, you can ask:

"You think everyone's thinking is controlled by their emotions?"

As an argument for the existence of god, this is an appeal to "groupthink"--the idea that truth is determined solely by what everyone believes to be true.  This is very popular with believers.  I have dealt with it elsewhere.  It is also an implicit insult to the intellect, maturity, and integrity of non-believers.  Thus, you can add:

"To say that no one can think objectively is an insult to the intellectual integrity of the entire human race."

Like most of the "groupthink" statements made by believers, it is also an indication of their insecurity and need for reinforcement of their beliefs by others.  They need that reinforcement so much that they will simply imagine that others believe the same as they do if they have to.  Thus, at the appropriate juncture, you can say something like:

"You have told me that your thinking is controlled by your emotions.  Therefore I can only conclude that you have an emotional need to believe that everyone secretly agrees with you."


"I think you have an emotional need to believe that, just like you have an emotional need to believe in god."

Finally, this sort of "thinking" also shows a distinct lack of empathy because one can't think that this is true unless one is unable to see that others have different inherent personalities, characteristics, and formative experiences.  Therefore, like many "groupthink" notions, this "thinking" is a precursor of intolerance--especially in light of the implied rejection of the notion that anyone can actually think differently.  If you want, you can add:

"I guess no one is allowed to even think differently from you."


"So, the way you see it, you are always right and people who don't agree with you are just liars."

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Greta Christina's Recent Article in Alternet

Yesterday, Greta Christina posted an article in Alternet entitled "Why Religious Believers Are So Desperate for the Atheist Seal of Approval".

I really like Greta's writing and this article in particular, but I want to add a couple of thoughts that she may have left out on purpose (because, after all, not every article is meant to be an exhaustive treatment of its topic--those are called "books").

Greta's point, I think, was that the way some believers seek out atheists' approval for "their" religion is tantamount to an admission that, deep down, they know their religion is just as much nonsense as any other and they want an "objective" observer to tell them that this isn't true.

Greta says that this particular type of believer does this because he or she cares about the truth.  I think she is wrong about that.  I think they do this because they think that "groupthink" trumps any objective truth.

In addition, I would like to add that this is related to their way of thinking.  They don't think for themselves--their gold standard is "what everybody else thinks".  In the same vein, this is directly related to their need for group reinforcement (which is why they are so insistent on school prayer and invocations at government events) because they need to maintain the illusion that "everyone" believes this nonsense (and that those who don't are just crazy cranks).  This is necessary for their self-delusion--it quiets that voice of reason whispering to them--and for their egos--it quiets their insecurities and makes them feel like they're part of THE power structure. 

Finally, it is important to understand that this is the first step in the path to intolerance.  Greta came close to this point by describing how upset they get.  When they realize that someone simply will not reinforce their cherished delusion, they will try to force that person to do so using means of ever-increasing severity until they simply lose it and try to "get rid" of that person for being "evil" and "crazy".

I think this point was implicit in her conclusion where she told believers what to expect from us (and why) and that they should accept it, but I like to make the point that the threats are there and they are real.  Many atheists are in denial with regard to this.  It is important for us all to recognize that a monster is lurking:  the Mob.  It is important for us to see this so that we can protect ourselves and so that we can fight against it.

Religion Is a Business III

Religion is a business: It sells warm, fuzzy feelings. 

Religion is definitely not a source of morality.  The delusion that it is a source of morality, however, is an essential part of its product line. That delusion is necessary for the creation of the warm, fuzzy cocoon that lets its customers think they are good people, part of a good group, all of whom will never die.

The true nature of religion was revealed once again recently by the Pope's little "trial balloon" regarding condoms.  Clearly, as usual, the Church is being brought forward by public opinion to see true morality.  But, as an authoritarian organization, it has to be very careful about changing its mind or else the flock might catch on that it doesn't actually have a pipeline to god but merely pretends to by reflecting what people (i.e., its "customers") think god would want.  If you are running a long term con game based on convincing the "marks" that you are "the" authority, you can't let them notice that you have no more authority than any other pedophile in a dress.

I am sure that what Mark Twain said about the moral leadership of religion more than 100 years ago will eventually be just as applicable to this topic as it is to the Church's attempt to re-write history about slavery and, more recently, the Nazi holocaust.

    "[N]ow at last, in our immediate day, we hear a Pope saying slave trading is wrong, and we see him sending an expedition to Africa to stop it.
      "The texts remain:  It is the practice that has changed.  Why?  Because the world has corrected the Bible.  The Church never corrects it; and also never fails to drop in at the tail of the procession--and take the credit of the correction.  As she will presently do in this instance."
--Mark Twain

The Moral Insanity of Religion III

For years I have wondered how anyone could possibly think that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, could possibly be a source of morality.  As I stated in another post:

The moral insanity of the Christian religion is apparent even in its central myth.  Apparently, god was so mad at mankind (for being exactly as he made us), that he just had to kill someone.  Rather than kill all of us or almost all of us (as he is alleged to have done once before with a flood), he decided to have a child and kill it just to get his anger out of his system.  (I guess that is a bit of an improvement, maybe.)

A couple of years ago, someone sent me a quotation from one of the letters of Andrew Carnegie regarding this same point:
“The whole scheme of Christian Salvation is diabolical as revealed by the creeds. An angry God, imagine such a creator of the universe. Angry at what he knew was coming and was himself responsible for. Then he sets himself about to beget a son, in order that the child should beg him to forgive the Sinner. This however he cannot or will not do. He must punish somebody--so the son offers himself up & our creator punishes the innocent youth, never heard of before--for the guilty and became reconciled to us. . . . . I decline to accept Salvation from such a fiend.”
— Andrew Carnegie, to Sir James Donaldson, Principal of St. Andrews University, June 1, 1905. Letters (except to Haldane) in Library of Congress collection, cited by Joseph Frazier Wall, Andrew Carnegie, 1970.

I had often wondered why it seemed no one else noticed the twisted sickness at the core of Christianity's central myth.  As usual though it turns out that all the things wrong with religion were noticed and commented on before any of us were born; yet still it persists.

Why does it persist?  Because all religions are founded by a deeply disturbed and manipulative individual or group of individuals, and, with each generation, similarly disturbed individuals recognize religion's potential for controlling others to empower themselves and perpetuate it to that end.  People who are psychopathic tend to get their way because they have no ethical boundaries; those who would oppose them are hampered by the fact that they do have such boundaries.  (With regard to this topic, I recommend "Captive Hearts Captive Minds" by Madeline Landau Tobias and Janja Lalich and "Cults In Our Midst" by Margaret Thaler Singer and Janja Lalich.)

To empower themselves, such people supplant true morality with notions of authoritarianism in the minds of their flock.  When you meet someone with an authoritarian personality, or moral philosophy, then you can rest assured that you are dealing with either one of the sheep or the wolf who controls them.  The end result, as far as you are concerned, will probably be the same; if they feel the need, they will use the flock as a weapon.  With a few simple words, they will turn it into a mob and set it upon you or anyone they perceive as an enemy.

The Carnegie quote above was taken from the Freedom From Religion Foundation website:  www.ffrf.org.  If you aren't familiar with them or their work, please visit and support them.  The page on Carnegie also contains a wonderful example of the moral philosophy of a non-believer:

      "When asked to sell five acres of his land for a 'free' cemetery open to all Protestants, Carnegie wrote he would be delighted to give the land away, 'provided it were open to all who desired to rest there of every sect or of none. . . . We poor mortals while living our short span are far too sharply separated. Surely, we should not refuse to lie down together at last upon the bosom of mother earth.'" (Carnegie to Benjamin M. Gemmill, Jan. 23, 1915).

The religious continuously slander us non-believers and say that we have no morality.  In fact, as the juxtaposition of these two quotations from Andrew Carnegie make clear, the exact opposite is the truth.  The slander of the religious is revealed, once again, to be an example of a "Big Lie", meaning a preposterous lie told over and over until people believe it, and also an example of projection and splitting--two symptoms of the severely emotionally disturbed.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Newton and Einstein

I have already expressed the controversial position that religion is so obviously false that religious belief makes me question the intelligence or sanity of the believer.  (True belief, that is.  Many who say they believe don't really seem to believe at all.)   Often, when this issue comes up, the religious like to point to Einstein and Newton as proof that intelligent people can be believers.  Personally, however, I don't think the examples prove the point.


Einstein was not a believer as a recently discovered letter written a year before his death makes clear.  Here is what he wrote:

      "The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and
   product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honourable,
   but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.

     "No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this..."

      "For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the
   most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly
   belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no
   different quality for me than all other people."

Einstein's words in this letter make clear that Einstein was, at least privately, not a believer.

In other writings, he ridiculed the idea of a personal god who answered prayers in much the same language that Sigmund Freud used.  When he did say he believed in god, he made it clear that he believed in the universe and its laws as god.  This, of course, is identical with atheistic pantheism and was nothing but a dodge.  He knew better than to admit he believed in no god.  He knew how much it would cost him.

He came to the U.S. as a refugee from deadly religious persecution, after all.  Therefore, he was careful to use the g-word on occasion and never speak freely in public about what he thought and believed.  As a Jew, Einstein was a member of reviled minority in Europe.  In America, he was a foreigner seeking a safe refuge.  Whatever his private thoughts might have been, he knew his life would be different if he did not remain popular.

For it's a sad fact, that to become known as an atheist is to find oneself suddenly unpopular and thrust into a position of having to defend yourself or your opinion (indeed, all of your opinions) when you would rather be doing other things.  His description of his de-conversion at the age of 12 shows that he understood the powerful forces behind religion.  He wrote that the "religious paradise of youth", in which he believed what he was told was crushed.  He wrote:

      "The consequence was a positively fanatic freethinking coupled
   with the impression that youth is being deceived by the state
   through lies; it was a crushing impression."

After reading these quotations, one might wonder why Einstein never called himself an atheist, even in private, and why he often criticized atheists and atheism.  If one reads his criticisms of atheism, they make it clear that Einstein thought atheism was limited to "strong atheism", which is the idea that atheists are absolutely sure that there is no god. He took to heart the criticism of strong atheism that such atheists were claiming to know with certainty that god did not exist, which of course neither they nor anyone else can claim--anymore than anyone can claim to know for certain that god does exist.

As I mentioned before, this strong atheist position is, I think, a result of the deliberate misuse of solipsism to separate atheists into two groups:  Strong atheists and weak atheists/agnostics.  The weak atheists/agnostics are those who will admit that they can't possibly know that god doesn't exist for certain.  Solipsism is misused to try to convince them that they are actually agnostic.  The strong atheists are those who can be goaded into making the affirmative assertion that they are absolutely certain that god doesn't exist, which ordinarily would imply they were assuming a burden of proof--if not "the" burden of proof regarding god's existence.


It is no surprise that Newton was a believer, given the age in which he lived.  Newton grew up in the dark ages of science, well before Darwin published "The Origin of Species".  Others, such as Richard Dawkins, have said that a person can be excused for being a believer when there was no other explanation for the complexity of the universe and life.

I am not so sure of that because I think it should have been clear after it was proved that the Earth was round that all "god of the gaps" based arguments were logically invalid, but it is certain that it would have been harder to justify being a non-believer before Darwin.  And, it just so happens, that it was Newton himself who put the final nail in the coffin of the flat earth gods by showing that not only was the Earth round, but there was a describable, predictable force at work that kept things from falling off the Earth.

More important than the lack of Darwin's influence, Newton was raised and educated in a time when an atheist could not hope to be able to obtain an education, get a teaching position and publish his ideas.  I wonder if we would even know Newton's name had this not been true.  How many other brilliant men never achieved their potential because they dared to think for themselves on the subject of religion?  How many Newtons were expelled from Universities, burned at the stake, ostracized, etc.?  We will never know.

“We would be 1,500 years ahead if it hadn't been for the church dragging science back by its coattails and burning our best minds at the stake.”  Catherine Fahringer, Interview, San Antonio Express News, Portrait of an Atheist by Craig Phelon, March 24, 1991).

I think Ms. Fahringer's observation is brilliant.  When the religious point out that Isaac Newton was a devout christian, this is the right response:

"If it hadn't been for the church persecuting all the best minds, running them out of academia or even killing them, we would never have heard of Isaac Newton.  Someone else would have made his discoveries long before he was born.  He would have been the crackpot Sunday school teacher he was meant to be."  

Or, maybe, he would have been raised without superstition and would still have been an intellectual luminary but wouldn't have been a believer.

In closing, I would like to make a more general observation about the way that Newton's fame actually highlights one of the many ways in which religion can be said to constitute an evil influence.

By hindering education, the religious have prevented and continue to prevent humanity from expanding in the one direction which is both limitless and essential for our survival and well being.  Our best economic system, capitalism, is predicated upon expansion.  If any capitalist country's economy stops expanding, it's in trouble--especially if it does not limit the growth of its population (and, even if it does, the Earth's human population will continue to grow, leading to the same result by virtue of immigration).

Such expansion using old methods is necessarily finite and it is arguable that we are starting to reach its limits.  Soon the Earth will reach the limit of its capacity to absorb the effects of our activities.  But, if we could change those activities so that they did not have the same effect on the Earth, we could effectively expand our horizons.  Humanity still faces many problems.  Our only hope of solving them lies in the limitless potential of the human mind.  So long as it remains fettered to the Dark Ages, our prospects will remain dim.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Childhood Brainwashing

Most people simply believe what they were taught as children.  In Muslim countries, virtually 100% of the people are Muslim.  In Christian countries the percentage of people who are Christian is also very high (but tends to be lower now because most of those countries have accepted to some extent the idea of religious freedom).  The same is true for countries where the dominant religion is Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.

What a person believes can be predicted with almost absolute certainty based on what his parents believed and where he grew up.  If people were really thinking for themselves, this would not be true.  Thus it may be deduced that most people believe in their religion because the most important people in their childhoods told them that it was the truth.  If the beliefs themselves are not logical, which they are not, then this is clearly brainwashing.

A recent study showed that young children simply cannot help believing what the adults tell them--even when the objective evidence that the adults are lying is right in front of them.

The clear implication of these facts is that most people are taught what to believe as young children and never even question it.  They were, effectively, brainwashed at a time in their development when their brain development simply gave them no ability to resist.  Yet, in spite of the obvious implications of these facts, many religious people deny vehemently that they were brainwashed.  They assert indignantly that they believe of their own free will because their religion is "obviously" the "truth".

Religious leaders have no doubt about what they are up to.  They are quite open about it.

      "Those who control what young people are taught, and what
   they experience--what they see, hear, think, and believe will
   determine the future course of the nation."
    James Dobson

Jesuit leader Francis Xavier supposedly once said "give me a child til the age of seven, and I will give you a believer for life."

Ordinary believers know this--even though they will deny it if directly challenged.  If you haven't already tried to get them to see that they were brainwashed as children, then they will admit it indirectly by speaking of the need to raise their children as Christians.  They fail to see the implication that if their religion really is "obviously" the "truth", then childhood training would not be necessary--nor would there be much disagreement amongst adults.

Thus, it is best to approach this topic by getting the believer first to admit the importance of childhood training in religion to make sure they believe and believe in the "right" religion.  Only then should you segue into the implication that the person you are speaking to believes because he, too, was brainwashed as a child.

You can use questions like these:

"Do you think it's important to raise children as Christians?  Why?  Are they more likely to not be Christians as adults if you don't?  Were you raised as a Christian?  Don't you think it's significant that people raised and educated by Christian parents in Christian societies almost always become Christians while those raised and educated by Muslim parents in Muslim societies almost always become Muslim?"

Don't expect this tactic to work, however.  It is just another of those little thought barbs you can plant and leave behind.

This is all morally wrong.  It is the job of parents to teach children how to think, not to prevent them from thinking--preventing them from using their greatest single attribute as humans.  Childhood religious indoctrination does just that:  It substantially and, usually, permanently interferes with the child's ability to use his critical faculties regarding that subject (and don't forget that this subject touches upon everything in a believer's life).

Osama bin Laden has offered to help guide Americans in their conversion to Islam at least twice.  The fact that the person who is trying to convert you thinks he means well does not change the insidious nature of his actions.

If all parents taught their children to think for themselves in a rational manner, that would be fine.  But, that is not what they are doing.  They are teaching them to accept, without examination, something that is not logical.  This is the beginning of most evil.  Once an illogical premise is accepted it can affect any or all subsequent conclusions, resulting in bad decisions and very bad actions. 

Examine anything you consider to be an evil act.  Research what the perpetrators were thinking and you will find that they were strongly influenced by an irrational premise.

The Germans and the Japanese convinced themselves that they were better than everyone else, and millions were murdered as a result.  After all, who cares about the deaths of a few million untermenschen?  Dominion theologists are convinced that god gave us the earth's resources to use up as fast as we want to.  Many of them also believe that Christ will return to earth very soon, thus making conservation efforts unnecessary.  The result:  The impending destruction of our beautiful earth, global warming, and the sixth great extinction of species on earth (but the first one perpetrated by one species on the others).

It is bad enough that parents abuse their children by robbing them of their greatest gift, but the side effect of this deliberate poisoning of children's minds is to make the world a much more dangerous and immoral place for all of us.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Religion and Morality: Clergy Sex Scandals

First, I would like to state that this post is most unequivocally not an attempt to equate pedophilia with homosexuality.  Rather, it is based in part on the assumption that pedophiles will prefer either members of the same sex or members of the opposite sex--as do adults who are not attracted to children.

I have mentioned before that I suspect the moral danger many theists fear most is their repressed homosexuality or bisexuality.  Like most people, I have noticed the prevalence of clergy sex scandals involving homosexual conduct.  I began to wonder if these cases might not prove or disprove my suspicions in that regard.  I was unable to find a study analyzing such cases along those lines, so I began to read through the stories myself.

At the website listed below I found a nearly exhaustive list of links to news items reporting on clergy scandals, mostly sexual in nature.  The list was far too long to read them all, so I engaged in a random sampling.  I clicked on 25 links at random in an effort to see how often the allegations involved homosexual conduct.

Some of the random selections gave no details of the misconduct or dealt with misconduct that was not sexual--at least not directly.  (Several were cases of embezzlement from the church.  But one truly outrageous story dealt with comments made by a Catholic Bishop accusing the victims of priestly pedophilia of "asking for it").  So, I chose an equal number to replace those in my sample in an effort to determine the approximate percentage of such scandals that stem from homosexual conduct.

Of course, the majority of such cases dealt with underage victims.  Cases in which clergy have affairs with adults don't tend to make the news unless some other more egregious conduct is involved.  Only one of the 25 involved sex with an adult, but it made the news because that particular priest had sex with not just the 18 year old girl but also her underage sister.  That case was also one of the few involving heterosexual conduct.

Of the 25 cases, only 8 involved heterosexual misconduct.  That means that the other 17, or approximately 70%, involved homosexual conduct.  At least two of those, however, involved multiple abusers.  One involved 10 clergymen, the other 4.  Thus, the total number of abusers in these stories was actually 37, of whom only 8 were not accused of homosexual conduct.  This suggests that the rate of homosexuality or bisexuality in the clergy is as high as 78%.  This is far in excess of the rates of homosexuality previously found in other studies of the general population.

It is difficult to accurately gauge the incidence of homosexuality in the general population.  In exit polls after recent U.S. elections a consistent 4% of respondent's self-identified as homosexual.  I think it safe to say that under the circumstances some respondents would not be willing to tell the truth to a pollster at the polling place in their neighborhood.  Thus, the 4% number is probably too low.  Other studies have suggested that the number could be as high as 20%.  Kinsey and others have suggested that some latent bisexuality may exist in more than 40% of the population.

Now, admittedly, the news stories themselves cannot constitute a purely random sampling of all such cases.  There are undoubtedly many factors that determine whether or not a particular case of clergy sex abuse makes the news, and I have no way of knowing how each of these cases came to light much less the number and type of cases that didn't come to light.

In a society where homosexuals allegedly make up only somewhere between 4 and 20% of the population, a rate of 78% is far out of proportion to what one might expect.  Either the clergy attracts homosexuals or there is a great deal more homosexuality or bisexuality in the general population than previously measured.  Or, maybe, it's a little bit of both.  Maybe there is a closeted cadre of bisexuals and homosexuals in excess of known percentages.  Maybe religion attracts or retains a greater proportion of those who are closeted bisexual or repressed homosexuals and have never sorted out their sexuality.

It's probably very difficult to sort out one's sexuality if you are gay or bisexual and raised in an environment where you are taught that your sexual inclinations are evil.  Knowledge of your repressed desires may lead to feelings of self-loathing and inadequacy.  Such a situation is guaranteed to lead to dishonesty.

If such a person fears he cannot control his repressed desires, then it might occur to him that the safest way to act on them would be to clothe himself with the vestments of an exalted office--an office which makes him the arbiter of truth and morality in his community.  If he cannot do that, then the next best thing would be to pose as a model parishioner.

All of this leads me to conclude that my suspicions probably were correct.  Religion often is a hiding place for those uncomfortable with their sexuality, and the pulpit especially so.  The shame of it all is that the discomfort of these tortured people was caused by religion itself.  (In the case of closeted homosexuals, because religion taught them to hate what they are; in the case of pedophiles, because their religion probably exposed them to molestation by a serial pedophile.)  Thus, once again, religion creates the demand for itself--like a drug dealer who gives free samples until the customer has developed a habit.


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

School Prayer and the Effect of Stress on the Brain

I recently watched a documentary concerning the effects of stress on the human body and brain.  It was one of the more educational documentaries I have ever seen.  It was called "Killer Stress" and is available through PBS or Netflix.  (Anyone without a membership in Netflix would be well served to take advantage of its free trial just for the purpose of perusing its list of documentaries, which generally can be watched instantly through one's home computer.)

The documentary focused on the research of Dr. Robert Sapolsky regarding the effects of stress on baboons and other animals in Africa.  Dr. Sapolsky was the author of "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers", which pointed out that for most animals stress is an infrequent and short lived phenomenon.

Usually, these animals live relatively stress free lives until their group is attacked by a predator.  The majority of the animals in the herd experience this as a short burst of adrenaline.  Only the unlucky individual that is killed and eaten experiences anything more than that and that particular animal doesn't live long enough to have any long term stress or long term effects from the stress.  (See ftnt. 1)

When the focus of the research shifted to primates with their larger brains and their more complex social structure, however, a different result appeared.  In those animals, signs of chronic long term stress appeared and were tied directly to the animal's place in the social hierarchy.  The lower the animal's place in the pecking order, the higher the stress and the greater its negative effects.

Those at the highest levels vent their feelings on individuals at the next level, who, in turn, not only vent their own feelings on those at the third level but also pass on any ill-treatment received from higher ranking individuals to those in the lower ranks.  And so on, with each lower rank receiving more and more ill-treatment from above.  At each level in the hierarchy moving downward, there is a measurable increase in stress hormones and the deleterious effects of stress.

The documentary also included the work of Sir Michael Marmot, professor of epidemiology and public health at University College London (UCL).  Prof. Marmot's work has shown how the effect of long term stress found by Dr. Sapolsky in baboons is also present in humans and is also directly tied to the individual's place in the social hierarchy.

The documentary then shifted back to Dr. Sapolsky's research on the effects of stress.  One of his most critical findings was that it negatively affects the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for memory formation, making it much more difficult to learn.  (See ftnt. 2)  Anyone who has ever suffered from chronic stress knows this is true. 

Chronic stress is often a trap because the individual can become unable to learn how to deal with it.  Furthermore, given the extent to which cognitive function determines one's status amongst humans, the person will also be trapped in the lower rungs of the hierarchy because he or she will not be able to perform cognitive tasks to the full extent of his or her ability.

The reason for this is the effect of stress hormones on the brain and body.  Under acute stress of the type normally felt by Zebras under attack by a predator, all body and brain functions are shifted to the immediate fight or flight response needed to survive the short term problem.  Almost everyone has experienced this phenomenon when, under stress, we found ourselves suddenly unable to remember things we know perfectly well.

(I would surmise that this also has the beneficial side affect for survivors of blunting the memory of the attack to a degree.  Although it is well known that traumatic events leave vivid and lasting memories, one can only suspect that these memories would be even more vivid and lasting were it not for this effect.) 

Stress is directly related to one's place in the social hierarchy and directly interferes with the individual's ability to learn.  Organized prayer sessions will automatically move members of the minority who do not pray to the bottom of the hierarchy.  (In fact, as I pointed out before, there is no other reason to have daily, organized prayer sessions.)  This will make it more difficult for them to learn, which directly undermines the mission of the schools.  Given the extent to which education is a series of steps, each of which builds on the previous, this could have devastating long term effects on the individuals thus hindered.

In my experience, the religious do not care about education except to the extent needed to maintain their social position.  In fact, they are often quite hostile toward it.  Their primary concern is whether children have a "religious education"--meaning appropriate indoctrination.  They recognize that higher education is inimical to religion and will sometimes say that atheism is a result of "too much education".

(ftnt. 1:  Penn and Teller, in their HBO series "Bullshit" covered the topic of stress, claiming that it was "bullshit" to say that stress was bad for people.  As much as I like Penn and Teller, they missed the boat on this topic.  Their show only examined the effects of short term stress, similar to that experienced by Zebras.  Short term, infrequent stress does have the effect of briefly sharpening the brain's ability to focus on the moment.  Long term stress is quite another story--one they did not examine.)

(ftnt. 2: The following paragraph was recently taken from the Wikipedia article on the hippocampus:

      "The hippocampus contains high levels of glucocorticoid
   receptors, which make it more vulnerable to long-term stress
   than most other brain areas.  Stress-related steroids affect the
   hippocampus in at least three ways: first, by reducing the
   excitability of some hippocampal neurons; second, by inhibiting
   the genesis of new neurons in the dentate gyrus; third, by
   causing atrophy of dendrites in pyramidal cells of the CA3
   region. There is evidence that humans who have experienced
   severe, long-lasting traumatic stress, show atrophy of the
   hippocampus, more than of other parts of the brain.  These
   effects show up in post-traumatic stress disorder, and they may
   contribute to the hippocampal atrophy reported in schizophrenia
   and severe depression.  A recent study has also revealed atrophy
   as a result of depression, but this can be stopped with
   anti-depressants, even if they are not effective in relieving other
   symptoms.  Hippocampal atrophy is also frequently seen in
   Cushing's syndrome, a disorder caused by high levels of cortisol
   in the bloodstream.  At least some of these effects appear to be
   reversible if the stress is discontinued. There is, however,
   evidence mainly derived from studies using rats that stress
   shortly after birth can affect hippocampal function in ways that
   persist throughout life."


Monday, November 22, 2010

Religion As Narcissistic Delusion, DSM-IV

Some days ago, in a post on the Insanity of Religion I mentioned a news item  detailing the recent stunning pronouncement by a very prominent Rabbi in Israel that all non-Jews are born to serve Jews--with, scarily enough, biblical support.  A person who sees others as intended merely to serve him is suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder with Psychopathic traits.  This Rabbi and the apparently large number of people who agree with him fit that category.  

Their thoughts on this matter clearly fit all or nearly all of the traits for the disorder as laid out in DSM-IV, which I have laid out below.  After each trait I have listed some of the ways in which the religious exhibit that trait.  See these sites for details:




      "The symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder revolve around 
   a pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and sense of 
   entitlement.  Often individuals feel overly important and will 
   exaggerate achievements and will accept, and often demand, praise
   and admiration despite unworthy achievements.  They may be 
   overwhelmed with fantasies involving unlimited success, power, 
   love, or beauty and feel that they can only be understood by others 
   who are, like them, superior in some aspect of life.

      There is a sense of entitlement, of being more deserving than others 
   based solely on their superiority.  These symptoms, however, are a 
   result of an underlying sense of inferiority and are often seen as 
   overcompensation.  Because of this, they are often envious and even 
   angry of others who have more, receive more respect or attention, or 
   otherwise steal away the spotlight."

First, I would like to point out something important.  Many people think of pride when they hear the term Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  But a certain amount of pride is normal and healthy.  After all, shouldn't a parent be proud of his or her children, especially if they have done well?  Shouldn't a person feel a small amount of pride over his or her talents and accomplishments?  It is only when the person is so narcissistic that he or she has lost touch with reality that narcissism becomes pathological.

People also think of braggarts when they hear the term narcissism.  Those with true Narcissistic Personality Disorder are not necessarily the ones who brag.  They often don't brag because they hate that same behavior in others and because it is highly unlikely that they consider you a peer and thus they will see no reason to brag to you.  With this type of person it will often be the pathological jealousy that will give them away.  And, more often than not, the more overt symptoms will be masked by the fact that they are channeled into a form of expression where they are acceptable and will not be noticed--like religion.

The traits and their application to the religious are:

1. An exaggerated sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).  This grandiosity is the hallmark of narcissism.  They have an exaggerated sense of self-importance--in excess of any actual achievements.

The religious have extremely grandiose fantasies and behaviors. They think they are immortal and that they are close personal friends with the most powerful being in the universe and that this friend does their bidding. They think they are vastly superior to anyone who does not share their particular delusion. How much more grandiose could one's fantasies be?

This is most definitely true of the clergy. In fact, many clergymen say (usually in print) that they joined the clergy precisely for that reason.  It made them automatically important and respectable.  For a personal account of this read Dan Barker’s “Godless”--after Dan recovered, he was able to write honestly about his motivations at the time he became a member of the clergy.  The rank and file church members get this feeling of self-importance from their close personal relationship with “the most powerful being in the universe”.

2. Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.  They are out of touch with reality, especially regarding their feelings of superiority and they resent it when anyone tries to bring them back down to earth.

I feel like this one doesn't even need explanation or comment. It is so true of almost every believer.

  They all obviously spend a great deal of time imagining that the most powerful being in the universe loves them unconditionally and will actually do their bidding if asked, even if it means setting aside the laws of the universe.  Some of them also apparently have fantasies of enslaving the rest of us--or forcing us to join their religion on pain of death, etc.

3. Believes he is "special" and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).  They only want to be around other "special" people, and consider anyone not in that category to be worthless.

This is not always noticeably present in the religious, but can be seen in the insularity and cliquishness of religious groups.  The members frequently feel that they are among an elite who understand the secrets of the universe.  They are the only members of the "one true church"; they are the "chosen people"; they are the only ones who know the "Truth", etc.  Some even believe that their god is only going to allow a limited number of people into his heaven after death—only the crème de la crème, and they are amongst them, of course.

But this characteristic also shows up in another way that ties in with their excessive envy.  They often seem eager to find reasons to believe others are not as good as they are to bolster their fantasies of being better than everyone else.  Religion makes this especially easy.  Christianity, in particular, by making it evil and sinful to be human provides an incredible amount of grist for this mill.  Judaism does too, by teaching its adherents that they are "god's chosen people".

4. Requires excessive admiration.  They want constant praise, regardless of actual performance, truth or sincerity is not important.  They don't really care how well they do, just that you tell them they did well.

The religious show this by the way they are willing to believe things that don't make sense because doing so will garner approval, respect, and admiration.  When they can't get the admiration they need from other humans, they can always turn to their invisible, fantasy friend who will give it to them simply for being his friend.

They also show it by the way they react to criticism, such as laws against blasphemy and heresy, censorship both legal and social (i.e., bullying and intimidation, which is the real purpose of organized state-sponsored prayer, of course), discrimination against non-believers, intellectually dishonest accusations of "intolerance" simply for criticizing religion (which is classic psychological "projection" of their own state of mind onto their intended victims--also a hallmark of N.P.D.), pogroms, auto de fe's, and other acts of violence aimed at those who disagree.  (Most Americans don't realize it, but laws criminalizing criticism of the local religion are extremely commonplace throughout the world.  It is the desire to enact such laws as well as the desire to obtain government subsidies that is driving the theocracy movement in the U.S.)

They can't win the argument, so they resort to bullying of the worst sort.  They don't seem to know the difference (or don't care) between respect and fear, which is a classic sign of N.P.D.  What's worse, in the case of those suffering from Malignant Narcissism:  "These patients experience triumph over inflicting fear and pain in others.  Their self esteem is enhanced when they experience sadistic pleasure" from doing this.

Personally, if someone criticizes me or a group I belong to I respond by examining myself or that group to determine if there is any truth to the allegation.  If there is, I take appropriate measures.  If a person responds to clearly valid criticism by going on the attack, then you know you are dealing with some level of egotism if not narcissism.

5. Has a sense of entitlement.  They expect automatic compliance with their wishes or favorable treatment.  They react with hurt or rage when this doesn't happen.

This one may seem problematic in some cases, but if you think about their belief that they are immortal, you can see how it applies.  They don't have to die, that's for animals.  Their special invisible friend will save them from that fate and worse fates.

They also expect to be treated as if they were good people no matter how badly they behave.  They seem to feel that they can do no wrong, and, even if they do, YOU certainly are not entitled to be the judge of that.  Only their good friend, god, can judge them, and he says that they are great people.  As I mentioned before, one of the primary purposes of religion is to allow bad people to feel good about themselves.

I hate to pick on the Rabbi too much because it is not Judaism itself that I dislike, but his statements provide a good example of how religion often leads to a sense of entitlement with regard to how the religious are entitled to treat those not of their religion.  In another post, I discussed the effects of what is known as "in-group morality".  This is a clear example of how that theory of morality predicts behaviors and attitudes.  If you are not in the religious person's group, then he thinks he owes you absolutely no moral duties whatsoever.  See this story for an extreme example.
I have personally found this one to be true of many religious people.  I think one of the most common expressions of this is their sense that they are entitled to pass judgment on everyone else.  Sometimes this sense of entitlement extends even to passing judgment on members of their own church.  It's no accident that our English idiom for this type of behavior and mindset is:  "Holier than thou."

We are all entitled to pass judgment from time to time, but the crucial question is whether this is done in a reasonable manner or is it done based on the slightest pretext.  For example, a narcissist who is envious of a better qualified colleague at work may greatly exaggerate and publicize minor failures by his colleague, and at the same time ignore or greatly understate his successes.  This is also an expression of a narcissistic level of envy.  See http://www.winning-teams.com/definitions.html

Most telling in this regard is whether or not they think it is within their purview to "do something" about those they consider to be bad.  That is, do they consider themselves not only to be the judge but the executioner as well.

6. Selfishly takes advantage of others to achieve his own ends.  They use other people to get what they want without caring about the cost to the other people.

Not present in all of them but certainly is in many of the clergy.  Many parishioners, however, will be church members because of the ready group of allies their membership brings them.  Many of the worst functioning or compensated psychopaths are churchgoers because they see the congregation as a ready made mob, which can be set upon their enemies with a simple bit of gossip.  In fact, in my experience, such people often do their best to belong to more than one church in order to increase their power and influence in the community.

7. Lacks empathy.

They are unwilling to recognize or sympathize with other people's feelings and needs.  If they accurately discern other people's emotions but don't care, they are more psychopathic than narcissistic.  (If they accurately interpret them and enjoy the distress of others, they are definitely psychopathic.)  If the person can't recognize or accurately interpret other's emotions, they are more narcissistic.

This trait is not always present except with regard to those who disagree with them.  But in most cases, I find it is true.  They commit outrageous acts toward others, acts that they would not tolerate if done to them, then have to be told what they did was wrong and, most important, why.  The fact that it has to be explained to them indicates that they have a complete lack of empathy.

And, the person who does dare to explain will probably be in for a dose of narcissistic rage for daring to criticize.

Though they often make a show of embracing empathy, it is usually honored more in the breach than in the observance, i.e., it is usually only lip service. They think nothing of destroying the lives, or even torturing and murdering, those who disagree with them, especially with regard to their narcissistic fantasies about their VIP invisible friend and their own superiority to anyone without the same friend. (This is also an example of classic narcissistic rage.  You can't even disagree with them without making a dangerous enemy.)

And, as the Rabbi demonstrates, they think nothing of enslaving everyone not of their "special" group, which is about as un-empathetic as a person can get.

8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him.

I don't feel much need to elaborate. Anyone who has spent any amount of time amongst believers knows how true this one is.

  But, if anyone is in doubt, simply consider the extent to which religion is a way for people to try to increase their social status.  Those pre-occupied with social status are almost necessarily driven by envy.

9. Shows arrogant, haughty, patronizing, or contemptuous behaviors or attitudes.  They often treat other people with disrespect.

This trait is not always self-evident, though the case of the rabbi seems to support it.  If you look at their behavior toward atheists, however, it seems to be clearly prevalent.

Frequently, the NPD personality has strong overtones of psychopathy—a lack of internal morality or ethics.  This is also true of the religious.  They are in some ways quite open about this lack.  They continually express the conviction that no one has internal morality and that all people need to be threatened by the punishment of a supernatural, ever-vigilant watchdog in order to prevent them from committing the most heinous crimes imaginable.

This lack of morality is also manifest in their intellectual lives.  To a psychopath, the only concern he has about his own guilt is whether or not others can prove it.  When accused, he will deny his guilt or, if he feels hostile to the accuser and confident that he has nothing to fear, simply sneer “prove it”.  Likewise, when nonbelievers point out that believers can’t prove their god exists, the rejoinder will be “well, you can’t prove god doesn’t exist”.  This is an intellectually dishonest, indeed intellectually psychopathic, response.

The believer believes something for which there is no evidence, which cannot be disproved, which is accepted on faith, and which he demands that everyone else treat as reality.  Yet, that same believer would laugh at someone who made the same type of arguments to him about something in which he didn't believe.

One of the most important themes running throughout these diagnostic criteria is that truth is not important to a person with N.P.D.  In fact, it is actively rejected.  The only thing that matters to a person with N.P.D. is doing whatever it takes to make the sufferer feel good about himself.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Do Atheists Have Faith?

One often hears the argument that atheists have just as much faith as believers.  Sometimes the person saying this is referring to his assumption that we have "faith" that the universe "just happened".  When that is the case, the argument is simply a variation of the "Atheism is a religion" argument, which I have already discussed--twice, at least.

Other times, however, the person is simply trying to defend the idea of faith as an intellectual step.  In those cases, what he means is that atheists have faith in science because we are willing to get on airplanes, take vaccines, ride in cars, etc.  This is an old dodge that the religious have been using again with renewed fervor in response to the attacks from Hitchens, Harris, Dennett and Dawkins.

This whole argument is based on semantic confusion, which I think is sometimes deliberate. "Faith" like many words has more than one definition and the definitions don't even necessarily overlap.  They certainly aren't all the same.  If they were, there would be no need to have more than one.

The religious are confusing 1. "faith" defined as confidence based on extensive evidence with 2. "faith" defined as belief without evidence. So what they are saying is that since you have the first type of faith in science you should have (or, at least, respect) the second kind of faith.

The problem with this reasoning, of course, is that confidence based on experience is not the same as religious faith.  In fact, they are nearly diametrically opposed.  Confidence based on experience is an archetypal example of inductive reasoning, which is based on experience, i.e., facts. 

For example:  The first time I rode on a bus, I could have reasoned that since I knew people who had done it and they had been taken to their destination, as well as what I knew of commercial enterprises and their success or failure based on delivering what they promise, that the bus would take me to the promised destination.  Having now ridden on buses many times, I know they are going where they say they are going because that is what always happened. My experiences have induced me to have confidence in an expected outcome.

So, when you hear this one, you can pull the believer up short by saying: 

"No, I don't have faith.  I rely on inductive reasoning."


"That's not faith, that's inductive reasoning."

I have found that this works very well.  Not only is it absolutely true, it sounds true even to someone who, until that moment, has never heard of inductive reasoning.  You can also say something like:

"You are confusing 'faith' in the sense of having confidence with 'faith' in the sense of believing without evidence.  They are very different things.  Everyone has confidence in things on occasion, but not everyone believes without evidence."

You can illustrate with:

"If I met god today, then I might have faith that he would be there tomorrow; but I didn't, so I don't."

Sometimes even atheists want to say that they have faith simply because they have been taught to believe that faith is a positive quality.  Our opponents will try to back us into a corner by accusing us of not believing in anything.  (Deliberately adding another level of confusion by confusing atheism with nihilism--which I dealt with before.)  I think we are letting our opponents define the game and get away with gross intellectual dishonesty when we let them do this. 

That is why I prefer to use words like confidence, experience, and inductive reasoning when referring to scientists' attitudes toward their work and our confidence in it.  I reserve "faith" for those situations where I am referring to belief without proof, which I think is its proper meaning and, for that reason, I find it highly objectionable.  I like to maintain that faith, because it stands for the rejection of reason, is the single most obscene word in the English language. 

Friday, November 19, 2010

Solipsism, Agnosticism, and Contract Law

I have mentioned the way in which the religious try to use the idea of solipsism to introduce uncertainty into the debate over whether the god hypothesis should be taken seriously.  I consider their arguments in this regard to be intellectually dishonest because they accept such arguments only when used to support their position--usually by undermining the opposition.  If the religious really believed that solipsism should be taken seriously, then they would all call themselves agnostics, because by that reasoning no one knows anything.

If the religious try to take you down the solipsism road, simply point this out to them:

"By your own reasoning you must be an agnostic."

My view is that solipsism itself should never be taken seriously and that the point of considering it is to help ourselves understand how best to approach the world.  In other words, the point of solipsism isn't that we can never really know anything, which is what many people seem to think it implies, but that we must take care when defining what we mean by terms such as "knowledge" and "evidence".

There is a second point to be learned from a consideration of solipsism:  Keep an open mind regarding any new evidence that may come along, but that doesn't mean you can't reach any conclusions based on evidence you have before you.  The question is:  "What degree of certainty should you require before reaching a conclusion?"

Should the remote possibility that Harry Potter, Merlin, or some other wizard has bewitched you into thinking that something is real prevent you from concluding that the thing is real?  Of course not.  It is always possible that there is some hidden bit of information that may change your view on something.  If you have sufficient information for your purposes, however, you should go ahead and make up your mind.

To illustrate, in contract law are notions of conditions that apply to a party's duty to fulfill his part of a contract.  One major distinction between types of conditions is that between conditions precedent and conditions subsequent. A condition precedent, as the name implies, must be met before the party has a duty to fulfill his part of the contract.  A condition subsequent will be fulfilled, if at all, after the duty to perform under the contract arises.

If the contract calls for delivery of goods before the buyer has to pay, then delivery is a condition precedent upon the buyer's duty to pay.  If the contract provides that after the purchase is completed the buyer may return the goods within a certain time period if not satisfied, that is a condition subsequent.  The condition subsequent does not relieve the buyer of the duty to pay for the goods, rather it provides for changes to the duties of the parties after that fact.  Depending on the terms of the contract, the seller may be allowed to attempt to remedy any defects in the goods before refunding any money.  The contract could call for a partial refund or total refund, etc.

Likewise the possibility that there is something you don't know about the universe (or maybe couldn't even have guessed), if sufficiently remote, is merely a reminder to keep an open mind.  Should such unforeseen things turn out to be true, then and only then, should you adjust your conclusion.

The religious like to take solipsism seriously because it not only allows them to argue for the respectability of their delusion, it also reflects their own mind set--their lack of self-confidence in their own intellect.  (I know I compare religion to narcissism and this self-doubt may seem to contradict that, but in actuality, pathological narcissism is rooted in an extreme lack of confidence that the sufferer is trying to mask.)  This lack of self-confidence helps explain why the religious think it is convincing to argue that "a lot of people believe".  That is the way they think:  They don't trust their own judgment and they are too insecure to live with criticism for not conforming.

But, that is all a tangent to help us understand what the religious mind is like.  What is more important to the main question is the realization that the god hypothesis IS solipsism.  Solipsism taken completely seriously,  taken as a world view--indeed a universal view.  Religion is the belief that our reality is not reality but some sort of temporary, temporal trial to be followed by an eternity in a place that is real in some absolute sense.

This is another reason agnostics should not let themselves be bullied into taking solipsism seriously (and thus should not be agnostic):  Because it is logically almost indistinguishable from being a believer.  Both viewpoints take the possibility of a "greater" reality seriously without any evidence to support it.

Burdens of Proof II

In yesterday's post I wrote of the ways in which burdens of proof can vary and the importance of the burden of production.  In summary my point was that not only is the burden of proof on the one asserting a proposition, that party also must meet a minimal burden of production before his assertion should even be considered.

This is similar to Christopher Hitchens' now famous dictum:  "That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence."  My point was that Mr. Hitchens was correct but not assertive enough.  I think his maxim should be:  "That which can be asserted without evidence SHOULD be dismissed without evidence."

I also mentioned that a burden of proof can shift from one party to the other.  Depending on the circumstances, there can be evidence that gives rise to a presumption that an asserted fact is true, even if it doesn't prove that fact conclusively.  In such cases, the burden of proof will shift to the party asserting that the proposition isn't true.

For instance, if repeated, rigorous scientific studies showed that the adherents of one particular religion had their prayers answered significantly more often than those of other religions (and more often than explicable by random chance--which, of course, is the same thing), then one could argue that a presumption had arisen that this particular religion just might have a line on the truth.  Members of that religion could plausibly argue that such evidence gave rise to a presumption that their religion was true.  See ftnt.

In such a case, the burden of proof would shift to atheists to prove that this evidence was not evidence of god but of some other explanation.  The burden of proof would shift to atheists ONLY with regard to explaining away this evidence, however.  It would not shift to atheists with regard to disproving god's existence.  For that to happen, there would have to be nearly overwhelming evidence of god's existence.

I've tried to think of an example of the amount of proof for god's existence would be necessary for the burden of proof to shift to atheists on the central question and I haven't been able to do so.

For instance, if that religion's ancient holy writings were completely accurate and had information that humans could not possibly have known at the time and place they were written, there were regular, observable miracles being performed either directly by an apparent god or by members of the favored religion, if god showed himself periodically to fix things and give good advice, etc.  Maybe then it could be argued that atheists would have the burden of proof with regard to god's existence.

Even in such extreme circumstances, however, it would still only be the actual evidence that atheists would have to explain because once the evidence is explained we would be back to where we are now:  No evidence at all for a very extraordinary proposition.

Why would atheists never have the burden of proof?  Because, as I explained before, the god hypothesis is literally impossible to disprove--as is any hypothesis with sentient magical beings at its core.

Yet this shifting of the burden is precisely what theists try to do almost any time one debates them.  They do this because, to them, god's existence is "obvious".  In their minds "there is no other explanation for the existence of the universe" and "everybody believes" in god.  I have refuted these points before:  here and here with a further explanation of why the argument from existence fails here.

I mention these points because you should be ready in any debate where the burden of proof is said to be on the atheist to give quick refutations of those two underlying fallacies when they come up because they will if the debate lasts long enough.

Ftnt.:  Recently bloggers P.Z. Myers and Jerry Coyne--with Greta Christina on his side--debated whether there was any amount of proof that would convince them to believe in god.  I confess, I would be seriously tempted to believe again if there were any remotely plausible evidence such as a series of valid studies showing the efficacy of prayer--even if just for one religion.  My re-conversion, however, would be subject to revision or retraction should better atheists than I ever explain away such studies.  Interestingly, Myers' take on the issue is similar to mine in this post in that he says the religious haven't even framed a coherent hypothesis to consider.  Thus, he sees the notion of god as even further removed from serious consideration than I do.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Burdens of Proof

There is often debate between believers and nonbelievers concerning the burden of proof on various issues (but particularly that of god's existence).  I am not sure that everyone understands how the notion of burden of proof works logically.  Most, especially believers, seem to think that it is a single standard that always rests upon one party or the other.

In fact, the logical burden of proof will both vary in the amount of proof required and shift from one party to the other depending on the circumstances.

Generally, however, both in logic and in law, we all recognize that the burden of proof with regard to a proposition is on the person advocating the proposition.

In the law, burdens of proof are usually defined by statute.  As most people are aware, the standard for a criminal conviction (at least in the U.S.) is proof beyond a reasonable doubt, but in the case of a civil suit, the standard is merely proof by a preponderance of the evidence.  While it is true that the interpretation of these standards can be a bit more subjective than we might like to admit, they do provide distinct standards that differ significantly.

A preponderance of the evidence simply means that one party's evidence is greater than the other party's.  The "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard is clearly a much higher standard when compared to the preponderance standard.  It skates close to the line separating practical certainty in the real world from solipsistic uncertainty.

Burdens of proof are also affected by presumptions.  One of the reasons the criminal standard is so much more difficult to meet is because of the presumption of innocence.  Our society has made a value judgment concerning the relative harm done by wrongfully convicting an innocent person.  This harm has been judged to outweigh the harm done by failing to obtain a conviction in other cases.

Likewise, logically, the harm that could be caused by believing in things that have no factual basis should lead any logical person to demand a greater level of evidence when deciding whether to accept a proposition that shows distinct signs of having no factual basis.  Or, as Carl Sagan phrased it:  "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

Furthermore, burdens of proof are divided into burdens of production and burdens of persuasion.  The minimal burden a party can bear with regard to a proposition he advocates is the burden of production.  That burden requires that the party produce some evidence that the proposition he advocates is true.  The amount of evidence in that case doesn't necessarily have to be enough to persuade others, merely enough to justify a presumption that the proposition could be true.

When sufficient evidence has been produced to meet the burden of production, then and only then does the question of burden of persuasion arise.  If a party with the burden of production has no evidence, then there is nothing to examine and the case, or contention, is dismissed out of hand because it is not worth wasting time over it.  In such cases, it is conclusively presumed, and logically so, that for purposes of that particular inquiry the proposition is false.  The opposing party in such cases has no burden of proof at all.

This, of course, is precisely the case with religion.  Religion has never even met its burden of production much less its burden of persuasion.

The religious argue that the existence of the universe meets both the burden of production and the burden of persuasion, but, as I pointed out before, this is circular reasoning.  The mere existence of a mystery tells us nothing about the answer to it.  Unless, that is, one implicitly assumes that only one answer is possible.  But such an assumption by itself needs to be proven as well.  So far the religious haven't even proven that their "invisible magic man in the sky" theory deserves to be considered a possible explanation--much less the only possible explanation.

So, one of the things you can say to believers in this regard is:

"You haven't produced any evidence at all that your invisible magic man in the sky theory deserves even to be taken seriously as a possible explanation for existence--much less the only explanation.  Until you do, let's just agree that no one even knows what the possible explanations for existence are."

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Creationism is yet another indicator of the pathological narcissism inherent in religion.  Much of the driving force behind creationism is the need to believe that mankind is not just another animal--that we are, in fact, godlike ("made in his image").  The rest comes from a deep seated inability to admit error, which is also a sign of pathological narcissism.

Creationists want to believe that they and their "group" (parents, family, church members) simply can't be wrong and that simply being human makes them extremely special--you can't get much more special than "godlike".

If a person reveals to you that he or she is a creationist, especially a young earth creationist, then it is probably pointless to discuss anything relating to religion with that person.  Only religious fanaticism can explain creationism--a fanatical determination to keep up the pretense of believing that the bible is literally true.  The science behind evolution is overwhelming, and any objective examination of life on this Earth confirms it.

If you debate with creationists, it quickly becomes obvious that they know nothing about science at all--not even the rudiments that should be learned by any modern citizen of the Earth with a high school education and a television or computer.  Again, only fanatical determination can explain this level of ignorance.  How else could someone fail to learn anything at all about a subject that permeates even our popular culture?

Every time any information about it comes up, these people turn their brains off.  I can draw no other conclusion that fits the facts and there is research supporting it.  But, in spite of the fact that they know nothing about science, they feel perfectly confident to expound on the subject.  This can only be a symptom of pathological hubris.

I say that they know nothing about science, in part, because it is clear that they really don't know what evolution is.  All they know is that it stands for the proposition that the bible is wrong and that their invisible magic friend didn't "magic" all the animals into existence for our use in one day.

If you do choose to debate with creationists, don't expect any success.  The advice I gave before about simply planting your little "thought barbs" and walking away applies with special emphasis in this situation.

You can break down any discussion with a creationist into three parts:  1. Correcting their erroneous notions about evolution.  2. Correcting the false statements they make about the evidence.  3.  Presenting the actual evidence.  I suggest trying to do just a little of each, perhaps adding a suggestion that they do research somewhere other than a creationist website, such as the National Center for Science Education's website or the Why Evolution Is True site.

The first part is usually the best place to start because creationists generally have no clue what evolution means, and it is easy to pull the rug out from under them on that most basic point.  They don't know that the word "theory" when used in regard to science does not mean the same thing when used by laymen.  To a scientist, a theory is the currently accepted formulation of a scientific idea that has been established by suitable evidence resulting in its acceptance by the scientific community.  It is not a mere hypothesis.  When a layman uses the word "theory", he means what a scientist means by the word hypothesis.

You can drive this point home by saying:

"Gravity and electricity are just theories, too.  You don't know that scientists mean something different from the rest of us when they use the word 'theory'?"

You can then add,

"You do know that words have different meanings depending on how and where they are used, don't you?"

(One of the believers' favorite tactics is this seeming deliberate obtuseness where they confuse and conflate the different definitions applicable to a word so that it means what they want it to mean in order to support their argument.  You will see it often.  Always pull them up short and correct them when you do.)

It's a good idea to be prepared for the arguments they will make, which means doing a bit of research on creationist arguments yourself.  One of the best places to start is to search for such arguments on Wikipedia.  Although Wikipedia is not authoritative, because so many can edit it, it is often a good place to find abbreviated information with references for further research.  This will relieve you of having to go through the painful process of actually reading creationist websites or watching some of their horrid videos.

The creationists would have us believe that all the species on the Earth were deposited here magically a few thousand years ago.
The evidence to the contrary, however, is overwhelming.  All around us are species that are clearly related but which have evolved  to have different characteristics and fit into different ecological niches, where they were able to carve out a living with less competition than they might have had before and all because they discovered a "fit" between some characteristic they had and the environment of that niche.

One of the best questions to ask is:

"Why is Australia home to so many widely varied marsupial species while other continents have virtually none?"

The almost unavoidable answer is that Australia has been separated from the other continents for so long that evolution has taken paths that are quite different from those taken elsewhere.  The creationist will probably duck the question in some fashion, however, because he knows he can't answer it.

One of the creationists' current favorite arguments is that there is no evidence of any transitional species.  This one is ludicrous because everywhere you look today you can see examples of transitional species.  (But, just in case you are interested, here is a link to list of transitional fossils.)

Just look at sea birds.  There is  a clear sequence of changes between birds that survive almost solely on land and those that spend more time in the water.  From shore birds to those that fish more exclusively to cormorants and anhingas, which can barely fly, and finally penguins, which can't fly, can barely walk, and hardly resemble birds at all anymore.

When a creationist tells you that there have never been any transitional species discovered, you can say:

"Scientists have discovered a transitional species; they decided to call it the 'penguin'."

You can also use the ostrich, the emu, or the kiwi.  A bird that has lost the ability to fly is obviously an example of a species in the middle of an evolutionary transition.

One of the ways to work into their thinking is to work with things they accept such as selective breeding, which is a fact that not even creationists deny.  Because another thing they don't understand about evolution is its relationship with selective breeding

You can also ask:

"How is it that different breeds of dogs exist?"

If they respond by pointing out that dog breeding isn't an example of evolution, you can say they are correct but that it does show what can happen when certain traits are used to determine which animals reproduce.

In just a few thousand years humans have bred varieties of dogs that are nearly different species.  Compare the Great Dane with the Dachshund.  One crucial measure of speciation is whether the two related species can interbreed.  In the case of a Great Dane and a Dachshund it is clear that successful interbreeding would be impossible without massive human help.  The two species could not mate normally, and if the female were the Dachshund, then it is doubtful whether she could successfully carry such large puppies to term.

At the appropriate point, you can add:

"Evolution is just selective breeding done by nature in a radically brutal manner over a long time."

Whether you use that last suggested argument or not, at some point in this discussion, you will want to make the point that over millions of years the accretion of such changes can result in animals that are completely different species.  At this point, the creationist will usually drag out the young Earth nonsense.  Their usual gambit is to point out that carbon dating can't date items more than 60,000 or 70,000 years old.

This is an example of their gross dishonesty.  First, even 60,000 year old objects belie their holy writings, which allege that only 6,000 years have elapsed since the dawn of time.  Second, they probably know, or should know, that there are several other methods of radiometric dating that are not limited by the decay of carbon.  They will argue that those aren't known to be accurate because they can only be gauged by comparing them to each other.  This, too, is another example of a half-truth pointing to complete dishonesty.

The reason these other methods were ever hypothesized and attempted was because of our knowledge of chemistry and physics and the known rates of radioactive decay in certain materials.  And, if our knowledge of these rates is correct, then one would expect these other methods of radiometric dating to agree with each other.  If they didn't, then there would be cause for alarm because that would indicate that our understanding of the underlying principles was wrong.

Another bit of clear evidence for evolution that creationists will have a hard time denying is the mule, or the Liger, or any other nonviable offspring of two related species.  Members of the same species can and do have healthy offspring that can reproduce.  Related species can sometimes interbreed but the offspring are not viable--cannot live normally or cannot reproduce themselves.

Such non-viable hybrid offspring would simply not be possible if the two species were not related.  To be closely related enough to have offspring at all, the two species had to have a common ancestor.  Yet, because they have different traits and cannot successfully reproduce, they are clearly different species.  This means that different populations of those common ancestors diverged and evolved into two new species.  All those farmers who were at the Scopes trial spent most of their days staring at the back end of proof of evolution as they plowed their fields behind a mule.

The human animal is one of the best arguments for evolution.  We are very badly designed.  We have only two legs, when everyone should know that a minimum of three legs is needed to keep anything, a stool or an animal, stable.  For an animal, which needs to move, four legs is best because then the animal can move one leg at a time without sacrificing stability.  Having only two legs makes us inherently unstable, even when standing still.  Worse yet, having only two legs means we are in the shape of a tower with our most valuable asset, our brains, at the very top.  As a result, we are just about the only animal that can die simply from falling down.

This is clearly a horrible design.  Why don't humans have four legs like the other animals?  The obvious answer is that we do, but we have converted two of them to other uses.

Here are a few other tidbits you can use:

"Did you know that there are fish that are capable of surviving on land, even moving purposefully from one point to another on land?" 

"Why are some sea creatures mammals and others are not?" 

"Why do some sea mammals and snakes have vestigal leg bones?"

"In fact, if evolution isn't true, then why would any animal have vestigal traits?"

"Why do bats, humans and seals all have similar structures in their wings, hands and flippers?"

"Why do different continents have different species filling the same environmental niche (or position on the food chain)?"

"Why are humans and chimps almost identical genetically?

"Why does the human fetus take the shape of different types of creatures during its early development?" 

They like to play up the Piltdown hoax, but actually the revelation of that hoax proves that science is not like faith.  Scientific conclusions are always subject to revision.  Scientists are constantly checking each other and rethinking each other's conclusions.

"The story of the Piltdown hoax is a good example of why science is reliable because science tries to discover when it's wrong and admits when it is."