As most of you already know, I’m a religious nonbeliever — in ALL religions, not just yours, if you belong to one — I’m an equal opportunity infidel and atheist, perhaps the worse so since I’m also an apostate of the religion I was born into and for a time, raised in.
From time to time, I’ll post something critical of the arguments for and truth-claims of religion, but my problem with religion is not with believers, nor is it with the sort of authentic religious practice that leads to benign social outcomes and sometimes actually helps people.
What I take issue with are the weakness and intellectual dishonesty, often the vacuity, of so many commonly repeated arguments marshaled by apologists for religion, as many of you have probably noticed with my recent posts on Pascal’s wager and other arguments based on visceral appeals to fear of hell or mercenary self-interest.
I take issue with the doctrinaire truth-claims of religions venturing into the territory of science, doctrines alleged to be absolutely certain in their veracity, and the misleading arguments mustered to propagate uncritical acceptance of these doctrines.
I take issue with how the promotion of these claims distorts the public perception of science as just another unsupported assertion as dependent on faith as religion is.
I take issue with the actions and policies enacted by religions ultimately based on such truth-claims, and with the undue social privilege of religion and its repeated attempts by proponents to evade, punish, or suppress criticism and dissent from its claims, acts, and policies…
…as I write this, Indian skeptic Sanal Edamaruku is facing charges of blasphemy for showing that a supposedly miraculous dripping statue in Mumbai was leaking water for decidedly mundane reasons, which displeased Church officials there.
I take issue, not with believers or belief, but with the unconscionable words, behavior, and actions of zealots, and the deception they use to line their pockets with the money of the Faithful, using them while grooming them to willingly and piously submit to more of the same.
I take issue with religious leaders who scramble to hold onto their wealth, power, and privilege in a world that increasingly no longer needs them, and the unethical and unjust actions of these leaders who despite claiming final authority on both morality and the truth show a shocking lack of concern for both.
I take issue with the distortions, lies, and sometimes death and suffering committed in the name of religion, often by otherwise good people with minds on fire from idiotic, dogmatic ideologies that skew their thinking and poison their metaphorical hearts.
These things make me angry, but though I’m not shy about noting willful deceit where it exists, I generally separate the claims from those who accept them — vilification of believers and contemptuous superiority toward them would put me in the same position of apologists and their uncritical enablers toward nonbelievers like myself…
…and that I don’t need, for then I become as they.
In an earlier post on some of my guidelines for deciding which claims to examine and which to dismiss, I offered a few ideas on things to look out for in possibly specious claims, those least likely to lead to fruitful inquiry.
Here, I’ll offer more I’ve come across, a few tips on criteria with which to note the spuriousness of claims on better grounds still — tight enough to rule out the existence of leprechauns and the boogieman without also blinding oneself to ideas and claims potentially worth looking into, ideas that, though unlikely could lead to something interesting.
Perhaps even more fundamental than the truth of a claim as a requirement for belief is the need for it to actually say something that can be believed — it must carry some content to be accepted or rejected if it is to be a viable truth claim at all — a belief candidate that fails this requirement carries no epistemic weight.
Here are a few sorts of claims, statements, and utterances that do not meet this criterion:
- Plain absurdities — A potential belief must actually mean something. It must be more than just strings of words put together to sound sciencey with no logical relation to each other, such as “the harmonic frequency of August,” or attempting to make claims of “the astrological quantum superposition of the planet Jupiter.” Skeptics refer to such strings of meaningless verbiage as “word salad.” Yum.
- Trivialities — Any belief is an expectation of what we can experience, or an implication we expect to experience, if it is true, if it reflects actual states of affairs, if and when we are in a position to do so. So any belief must have a significant testable outcome — its truth or falsehood must make an actual difference one way or the other — and any belief claim that is compatible with any and all conceivable outcomes, whose outcome makes no difference concerning its truth, is untestable in all but the most trivial ways, and fails utterly as a useful claim.
- Self-Negations — A viable belief claim must offer its content for longer than the time spent saying it. Genuine contradictions both offer and take back their content in the same breath, the claim being both asserted and refuted as soon as the claimant finishes speaking. Such self-refuting claims include pronouncements like “No objective reality exists (implication: except for this one),” or “No absolute universal generalizations are possible (when this is itself an absolute universal generalization).”
- The Incomprehensible — It is essential that for a claim to be believed one must first understand the claim, or one should remain silent on matters they don’t know about. It’s a basic requirement of intellectual honesty, not expounding on what you don’t really comprehend. This works on two levels:  the claim must be understood by the one making it, and  it must be understood by at least someone somewhere for anyone to honestly say they believe it at all. Unfortunately, this rule is often disregarded, and there are quite a few intellectually dishonest persons loudly propounding on matters they know of not at all, and it shows, thus casting doubt on the validity of their claims on first face.
- Exclamations — This is a common form of utterance, a cognitively empty expression of attitude like, “Boo ya!,” or “You totally rock, dude!” or “Booooo!” said after a performance at a death metal concert as an expression of approval, or not, for example. There is nothing wrong with this sort of thing at all, save that it cannot serve as the basis for a belief claim because it asserts nothing to be believed — it is only a show of emotional expression.
Finally, the late Christopher Hitchens has proposed this little gem now popularly known as Hitchens’ Razor, in a nod of the proverbial head to William of Ockham’s famous dictum. Here it is, and it applies especially well when when a claimant fails to meet the proper burden of proof for her assertions:
“What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”
Reference: Practically Profound: putting philosophy to work in everyday life, by Professor James Hall. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005.
People’s rights generally deserve respect, including that to freedom of belief, and with the occasional exception, people themselves deserve to be respected.
Not so with ideas and claims of a factual nature, and especially deserving of disrespect and even outright ridicule are misleading claims and the typically dishonest means used to promote their acceptance to the unwary, via flawed reasoning, propaganda, and fabricated or misrepresented evidence.
Even when the logic used in arguments promoting such claims is technically valid, the arguments are often supported by false, irrelevant, or at least questionable premises and assumptions.
But even the most absurd ideas have fervent adherents, no matter how silly, and therein lies the problem.
People often identify very closely with their beliefs, considering them to be core to their very being.
What we hold to be true for often poor reasons indeed can be held so close to our metaphorical hearts that it leads to a sort of thin-skinned resentment, defensiveness, anger, and sometimes, rage when those claims are in any way called into question or threatened by contradicting information.
This can cause us to dig our heels in deeper rather than make us change our minds, so aggressively “beating people over the head with logic and evidence” to convince them rarely works, and is often counterproductive.
Much depends on our earliest, most ingrained beliefs and knowledge, and on our value judgments – even the notion of an idea’s truth or falsehood, based on prior understanding or misunderstanding, is a value judgment, of true, false, or somewhere in between, to claims we evaluate and accept or reject using prior information and reasoning, even when that information and our reasoning are incomplete or otherwise faulty.
Over time, though, our beliefs and values are actually rather fluid, and are altered, replaced, and discarded throughout our lives as we gain new information from our environment, information which demands that we accommodate it, account for it, dismiss it, accept it, or ignore it, and sometimes change what we know and believe.
I think we should give our ideas and beliefs less worth than we do, for given time they will change anyway, often without our notice, and what we believe and think we know should always be open to correction and amendment by newer information and better arguments.
Now, you can make any faith-based claim you desire about what is true, or what exists or not, and you can call it a metaphysical claim, not a scientific one, all you want. But whenever you’re making a statement of factual existence, no matter what you call it, you are making a claim that is scientific as long as it’s in principle testable.
This also applies to beliefs deriving from untrained and unvetted personal experience; any testable claim anyone makes about the world is a scientific one, and may potentially be either verifiable or falsifiable depending on how the claim is formulated and the existence or nonexistence of its alleged facts.
Not all beliefs or statements of them are equal in the arena of validity, though any claim should be considered if there is reasonable evidence presented for it when it’s asserted.
The fact that science has built-in mechanisms for a reality-check on ideas, to tell the effective ones from the useless ones, is why it’s so successful in advancing our knowledge of the world.
Faith-based beliefs lack this reality-check, and often are tailor-made to ignore or reject it, while the numerous ways our minds and senses can fool us can make uncontrolled personal experience very problematic as well.
Politics has a bit of a reality-check, though less rigorous than that of science: Policy decisions work well, moderately well, poorly, or fail completely, and a wise politician will abandon failed ideas…
…which raises a few questions about the wisdom of many of my country’s top Congresspersons, though that’s neither here nor there.
To say that science is true or false is a mistake of language, since it is not the sort of thing that can be true or false, but a set of methods for testing ideas against how things really are, not a claim, a belief system nor an ideology of Western hegemony.
The fact that science is a social construct, though true, as is every human endeavor including religion and politics, is irrelevant to the validity of it’s statements or the usefulness of its methods, no matter how hot Thomas Kuhn was in academic circles for decades.
We lay our ideas up against the world and see if they match, and if they do, if experiment agrees with them, so much the better. But ideas are cheap, potentially without number, and unfortunately all but a very few are worthless.
Social construct or not, science works, bastitches.
- Don’t Call Religious Believers Stupid (Tip 1 of 10 For Reaching Out To Religious Believers) (freethoughtblogs.com)
I’m going to try something a little different this morning, and this post is intended in my own clumsy way to address the broader masses of those who adhere to religious, supernatural, paranormal, and fringe-scientific claims, no matter the degree or variety of adherence.
This is an open letter to those who still believe, from a former believer turned modern rational empiricist and religious nonbeliever, in as non-inflammatory a way of expressing myself as I may in my halting fashion.
My intent is not to compel, convince, convert, brainwash, or deconvert anyone, or any other of the various straw persons of skepticism or nontheism often promoted by media personalities with more money and air-time than integrity.
Those to whom this letter is addressed are free to continue believing what they wish, what they want, and whatever it is that they feel a need to believe.
I am quite opposed to imposing on the ideological freedoms of others, since the same experience of the way the world appears to work that led to my skepticism and unbeliefs also shows me the utter futility of trying to force belief or nonbelief on anyone.
It doesn’t, can’t, won’t, and never has worked. Carry on believing as you wish. Or not. Your choice. I’m not concerned by what you believe, as long as no wrongdoing nor harm results from the consequences of the claims you hold to be true.
To paraphrase some awesome Wiccans I know and greatly respect, Do as thou wilt, but wrong none.
I do not feel that I’m in any real way exceptional in this as a skeptic, and if you can convince me otherwise, show me proof and I’ll credit you for it, and use your proof in future posts.
For those new to the site, I do not believe in any sort of supernatural component of reality, no claims purporting to be scientific but which ignore the values, findings, purpose, or methods of science, and I don’t mean just orthodox science, but all of it that truly abides by its criteria, standards of evidence, and rules of sound academic conduct, in and out of a physical academy.
I refer to anything that really is science, not just any sort of doctrine or belief system with pretensions to it.
By this I mean any area of research that gains us a real understanding of the natural and human worlds, that truly does add to our store of knowledge, not what merely makes us feel good, but what’s actually true as far as we have any genuine reasons to say we know.
Not those claims that ride science’s coattails without truly doing its work, and which thus disqualify themselves from playing the game.
This is not an ‘oops, I made a mistake,’ or an ‘I’m sorry’ post…Those are lame, pathetic, and it would be dishonest to apologize for statements I’ve made before on this site, even those I no longer agree with, and there are a few of those, I know.
Any statements I’ve made on this site of a derogatory nature toward certain parties are not aimed at the vast bulk of mentally sound, sincere, and sober believers, nor to the genuinely mentally ill with whom I empathize, but to the extremists, the trolls, the willfully ignorant and bigoted, the propagandists, the cynical, ironically closed-minded and sanctimonious people who promote for personal gain the sorts of claims criticized by we skeptics, on this site and others.
My view is that ideological and moral diversity is a good thing — we need it to have a functioning free society — so as I respect the rights of others to believe as they will, so too do I claim the right of unbelief, the right to doubt, to question, to inquire, most importantly, to find out and not just blindly accept what sounds good or what I need to be so, for myself.
As you freely promote your views via the right to free speech, I claim that same right of free speech to criticize those views by any legally permissible means available to me.
I allow you your right to believe. Kindly allow me my right not to, and the right to inform you as to why.
After all, how uncomfortable is it really to allow people to disagree, and to express that disagreement as you do your beliefs? Though I know well the annoyance people often have with being told their cherished beliefs are wrong. You don’t have to like being wrong, but you should be grown enough to accept it when it happens.
It’s part of the price of living in an imperfect real world were not everyone thinks the same way and not everything is true.
It keeps life interesting.
You don’t have to like it, but if you just can’t accept it, go live in a storybook place and time where and when everybody agrees with you, and have fun living a boring, empty, colorless life.
So as long as no one gets hurt, believe what you like, permit me the same rights you claim for yourself, and have a nice day and a terrific life.
Sincerely – Troythulu