Posts Tagged ‘faith’

Why does God get to be the one thing you have to believe in before you’re allowed to see any evidence?

I’m getting bogged down in that thing about “believing is seeing” again. Have faith and the way will be shown to you. Put your trust in the Lord and you’ll feel the truth in your heart. Even atheists can find God if they just open their hearts to him and accept his presence.

In other words, if you start believing now, for no reason whatever, then you’ll be provided with a reason to.

What’s struck me recently is that I can’t think of a single other question, in any other field of study, where this kind of excuse-making is necessary.

If you drop something and watch it fall, it doesn’t matter what you believe about the laws that govern the force of gravity. Your object will act in accordance with those laws, and in so doing will give you hints as to what they are.

Reality’s good like that. It doesn’t care what you think. It just gets on with its own business. It just is. Reality doesn’t wait and hide, until you agree to have blind trust in it, and only then agree to give a demonstration of E = mc2 in action.

And yet God is often claimed to be a special case. Again and again, atheists are advised that if they just believe as hard as they can, by force of will, then in a complete reversal of the rules of cause and effect and basic logic, they will become aware of the reasons to believe as a result of their belief.

Which is kinda weird, isn’t it?

I mean, I suppose it could just be a fact about the character of this all-powerful tyrant demanding our fealty. It may be that God’s personality is such that he deliberately chooses to hide from anyone being rational, and reveals himself only to those who’ve already bought into his claims based on no evidence at all.

That could be the kind of dick your god is, I guess, though that claim itself doesn’t seem to have much supporting evidence. At least, none he’s chosen to share with me.

But the way some Christians make it sound, knowledge of God is in an entirely different category of information than literally any other kind of thought processes humans are capable of having. Despite God’s omnipotence, and despite all the dramatic healing and sea-parting and genocide he used to demonstrate his presence with, the responsibility is apparently on us to set the bar much, much lower for him than any other human endeavour.

If you want to know about reality, you go and test it, and base your beliefs on what the evidence indicates. But with God? You have to believe first, and then you get the evidence. Or not, if you weren’t believing properly. Or something.

(Even Christians who use the above arguments would, I suspect, have problems with applying the same approach to any gods other than their own. But guys, if you could suspend your faith in Yahweh for a sec and just believe in Ganesha real hard and let him into your heart, you’d finally have a chance to see all the evidence that you’ve been blind to all this time. C’mon, what’s stopping you? Is it maybe the same thing stopping me from “just believing” in your god? D’ya think?)

Doubting Thomas is an example of a religion explicitly rejecting the whole notion of basing your beliefs on what really exists. He takes a position antithetical to faith in the Bible, and is denigrated for it, despite his methods basically being that of rigorous science: he’s skeptical of an outlandish proposition, investigates the evidence, and updates his position based on new data. He doesn’t believe that Jesus is really back from the dead after crucifiction, but then has a poke at the guy’s hand-holes, and changes his mind.

But then Jesus completely fucks up the moral, by saithing unto him:

Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

Repent of your common sense, foolish mortals. Accept improbable claims at face value before there’s any evidence for them. That’s how to make Jesus love you.

Of course, there’s one simple way to explain all this, one reason why the evidence for God’s existence might depend on your own expectations and beliefs at the time – besides God being a malevolent ass, I mean.

The observer effect is a real thing, after all. People behave differently in experiments when they know they’re being scrutinised, and researchers’ reports of their observations is demonstrably affected if they’re told what result they’re meant to be looking for. If you’re primed to see a particular result, or to view some aspect of the world through the lens of God’s work, then you’re more likely to encounter evidence that seems to support your idea, than if you didn’t have this pre-existing “belief”. This could explain why the observations might depend on the observer’s state of mind.

But that would imply that God is just a set of psychological conditions inside people’s heads. And he’s got to be more than that if he’s so powerful and worth all this worship, right?

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Here’s something else I’ve not done a great deal of lately: a good old-fashioned dismantling of some bog-standard, classically inane, long-since-refuted-yet-still-infuriatingly-ubiquitous religious piffle.

I suppose it’s important that someone keeps explaining over and over again what a burden of proof is, and why atheists are moral, and all that malarkey, while so many people seem insistent on failing to understand any of it and keep repeating the same tired old shite. Usually, though, I just can’t find the strength.

But I’m getting back into the swing of it for Mehdi Hasan, who was featured in the Lines of Dissent section of the New Statesman a few months ago (the issue edited by Robin Ince and Brian Cox). The density of painfully simple errors and failures of reasoning packed into a relatively short space just begs to be addressed. Ooh, and I’ve just noticed there’s an online version too, so you can read along here.

The first mildly teeth-grinding moment comes from his defense of “faith”. He criticises Richard Dawkins’s characterisation of faith as “belief in something without evidence” as “sheer nonsense”, and goes on:

Are we seriously expected to believe that the likes of Descartes, Kierkegaard, Hegel, Rousseau, Leibniz and Locke were all unthinking or irrational idiots?

If you can find me an instance of Dawkins, or any atheist, making such a harsh judgment on any of the aforementioned thinkers, feel free to let me know in the comments. The fact is, “unthinking or irrational idiots” are Hasan’s words, which he extrapolated from someone’s definition of faith which doesn’t line up with his own.

And while I would dispute that “belief in something without evidence” is unprecedented as a description of faith that believers positively embrace and hold to, it’s fine if Hasan understands it differently. But his understanding is explained as “without proof, but not without evidence”. And frankly, this distinction is inadequately explained.

I don’t know how to interpret “proof” except as something like “evidence sufficiently convincing and voluminous that to withhold acceptance would be empirically unjustifiable”. That could probably be tighter and more pithy; the point is, evidence and proof are not two disparate things. The convincingness of evidence is on a scale; “proof” is what we call the upper end of that scale.

So he seems to be claiming that faith is believing in the truth of propositions for which there is more than zero evidence… but not enough evidence to actually support those propositions convincingly.

It’s like if you were talking to a stranger on the internet, and they tell you they’re actually Michelle Obama. Do you believe them? Well, if you don’t ask for any evidence at all, then you’re an unthinking or irrational idiot if you buy such a story. But say you ask for proof, and she sends you a picture of Michelle Obama which she says she just took on her phone. It’s not proof, exactly – it could be a picture someone just grabbed off the web – but it’s evidence, however weak. Now you’re having faith!

Hopefully the first (slightly bizarre) example to spring to my mind helps demonstrate that it’s not a meaningful distinction Hasan’s making here. Is belief in God supported by the facts, or not? If so, you don’t need faith. If not, you’re not justified in that belief, and faith isn’t going to help you.

Then he goes onto the “absence of evidence” trope, and comes out with this:

I can’t prove God but you can’t disprove him. The only non-faith-based position is that of the agnostic.


First, I think Mehdi Hasan just confessed to being agnostic on the subject of leprechauns, dragons, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, 9/11 conspiracies, alien abductions, Islamic creationism, Ganesh, crop circles, and the fact that I control the tides with my big toe. It’s the only non-faith-based position, after all. Unless he thinks he can disprove any of the above, which I’d be interested to see.

Secondly, the truism is seriously misleading. Absence of evidence can in fact be evidence of absence – if the particular absent evidence is something you would have expected to be present, if the phenomenon in question was real.

Example: there’s a decisive lack of evidence supporting the claim that there’s an elephant under my bed. This lack of evidence does, in fact, fairly conclusively suggest that no such elephant exists. I would go so far as to say that it “proves” it, to my satisfaction.

It doesn’t always work. Just because we’ve never found convincing evidence of alien life in the universe, for instance, doesn’t mean it’s not out there. This is because some models of reality in which alien life exists are entirely compatible with our continued ignorance of them. Whereas with the elephant under my bed, you’d have to come up with all sorts of excuses and amendments and provisos (it’s a special breed of tiny elephant, which is also a very good hider, and so on) for it to be possibly true, given the lack of evidence.

So if atheists assert that the lack of evidence for God is indicative of his non-existence, this isn’t by definition irrational. Some formulations of the God hypothesis aren’t explicitly contradicted by our observations of the world – but these tend not to be testable, or positively supported by any evidence either, so they’re not very interesting (see: deism). Other times, a particular interventionist God is actively refuted by the evidence. And yes, absence of evidence can itself constitute evidence in this regard, in some cases. (And yes, I do really mean “refuted”. I’m almost positive.)

Hasan cites multiverse theory as an aspect of science which can’t be proved, and requires faith. But you’ll notice he has to go to an extreme corner of niche physics, which is highly controversial and not uncritically accepted in its own field, to find such an example. When a theory is supported by mountains of evidence, science recognises that and no faith is required. The theory of evolution, for example, has been “proved” to the satisfaction of every credible biologist around. Its truth is asserted confidently, because it’s so firmly supported by data. It may be that multiverse theory isn’t similarly supported, and yet some scientists have some sort of “faith” in it, believing in its truth beyond what’s supported by the currently available evidence. If this is the case, then that’s not a good thing, as Hasan himself strongly implies.

He then seems to think that an argument for the existence of God, such as the cosmological argument (which doesn’t even mention God, incidentally, only concluding that “the universe has a cause”), is supposed to score some sort of points “whether you agree with it or not”. Which is odd, because I don’t see many atheists denying that appeals to reason to support God exist at all. We’re just not convinced by them. Do an immense number of bad arguments sum up to one good one?

Here’s a perfectly valid logical syllogism:

1. If pie is delicious, I am a world darts champion.
2. Pie is delicious.
3. Therefore, I am a world darts champion.

And yet people remain unconvinced. My prowess at throwing a pointy thing at a flat thing just isn’t taken seriously. Odd, that.

He then brings up Anthony Flew, an atheist who prominently converted to some kind of theistic belief a few years ago, and says:

To pretend that Flew, of all people, arrived at such a belief blindly, without thinking it through, “without evidence”, is plain silly.

Which is another rather tedious appeal to authority. The fact that somebody who wrote some learned books on a subject now believes a particular claim doesn’t demonstrate that there’s any evidence for that claim. You know what would demonstrate that there’s some evidence? Demonstrating the evidence. I don’t care how smart and supposedly thoughtful Anthony Flew is; if he hasn’t got a convincing line of reasoning leading to his conclusion, then I’ll call him out for being irrational just as I would anyone else.

Hasan’s closing paragraph brings him back to the title of the piece:

In short, most of us who believe in God do so not because we are irrational, incurious or immature but because He is the best answer to the question posed by Leibniz more than 300 years ago: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

No he’s not. I’ve got a better answer. One that’s more intellectually honest and more conducive to the genuine progress of discovery and rigorous questioning of our understanding of things. Want to hear it?

Ask me the question.

I don’t know.

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My particular sheltered corner of the internet has been abuzz with European Court of Human Rights news lately. And it’s news with a non-trivial reach outside my own narrow echo chamber, for once; the mainstream media has also been covering the recent rulings on religious discrimination in the workplace, to some extent or another.

There are four cases whose judgments have just been published, focusing on four people who felt that their religious rights weren’t given due respect and deference in their place of work. One counsellor and one registrar both refused to work with same-sex couples; the other two weren’t allowed to wear some sort of ornamental cross as part of their uniform.

Lots has already been written about this, from the lucid to the utter bollocks. Andrew Copson has been kept very busy quashing some of the rumours and countering the misinformation which has accompanied these cases, and seems to have been largely alone in the most prominent news outlets as a critic of the popular “Christian persecution” narrative.

But even some of the most reliably insightful and coherent commentators seem to be blithely accepting some premises of the religious argument which don’t merit it. Nelson Jones is as worth reading on this as ever, but his passing mention of practices being “central or mandatory in a faith tradition”, in the context of Article 9 of the European Convention, raises more questions than he asks.

Here’s my concern about having legislation in place to enshrine religious rights:

Religion is an entirely personal thing, which nobody is obliged to share. If you’re a Christian, swell, but I don’t accept any of the truth-claims based upon your “faith”, and I’m not obliged to treat them differently than any other unfounded assertions about the world. I don’t believe in your God, and see no reason to act as if I should. I’m not a Christian.

(This is important, in part, because it also means your religion can be whatever you want, defined by you and you alone. Letting corporations or governments decide the legitimacy of someone’s religion – be they devout Christian or casual Jedi – and thus rule on how far the rest of us should go to “respect their beliefs”, is the kind of precedent that can’t not go horribly wrong.)

So, given that your religion is, to me, on that level, utterly meaningless… why should I care whether or not your religion affects your motivations, when I’m judging your actions?

If you want to blow other people up, it doesn’t matter to me at all if you’re doing it because you think God wants you to do it or for some other terrible reason. At least, not in terms of evaluating whether you should be allowed to do it. Being religiously motivated neither helps nor hinders your case when you seek to justify harming others.

Similarly, if your deity is a bit more chilled out and just wants you to wear plain black socks all the time, that’s fine, but it’s fine anyway, regardless of whether you consider it a religious obligation or just a personal preference. Your socks are no more or less my business when you claim God’s interested in them than they were before.

Religion is just another motivator, a reason why people feel strongly about certain things, and want to act in certain ways. It’s not a health requirement; a diabetic doesn’t take insulin because they have faith that it’s required of them.

Central point: Claiming the right to a certain behaviour should have no more moral force than claiming the right because you really want to.

And sometimes, that’s a good enough reason. “Because I really want to” is a fine reason for all sorts of things. It’s why I’m eating Toblerone right now. There’s nothing wrong with feeling strongly about taking a particular personal action. But sometimes taking action comes with consequences, and feeling strongly about that action doesn’t let you off the hook for those consequences, even if you’re calling it a religious motivation.

So when judging these “religious discrimination” cases, try imagining that religion doesn’t exist. Imagine that people are just choosing to act a certain way, in the context of doing work they’re getting paid for. Is it reasonable for them to expect to be granted the freedom to act in a way important to them (and nobody else) every time?

In the first two cases, it’s pretty clearly not. The job description for a registrar involves conducting same-sex partnerships, and for a counsellor, to offer counselling (because occasionally the world makes sense). Lillian Ladele and Gary McFarlane both actively declined to do their jobs, which is not usually something you can choose to do and expect to still have a job.

There were no reasonable grounds for them to make such a refusal. They weren’t being asked to do anything with any significant health risk. They weren’t having to go above and beyond their job description. Offering similar services to same-sex couples is a wholly reasonable expectation for people in their roles, and the only reason they had not to do it was “It’s against my religious beliefs”.

Which, remember, means not an iota more than “I really don’t want to”.

The other cases centre on the wearing of jewellery, which is where the notion of “central or mandatory in a faith tradition” becomes a truly powerful irrelevance. Many people like to wear jewellery, and for the most part this is absolutely fine. There are some things, however, with which it is incompatible. These may include medical practice.

My fiancée is going to start training as a midwife soon. She’s currently wearing her engagement ring, which includes a number of pointy shiny rocks. Now, when she gets to the practical part of midwifery, she’s not going to be allowed to keep wearing that ring, and I don’t suspect anyone will even bother to ask whether it’s a religious matter for her. She does have some strong feelings about that ring – I count myself immensely lucky to be so high on the list of things that my love feels strongly about – but in her role as a medical professional, this carries just as much weight as if it were religious, i.e. none. Hospital rules are what they are, and there are good reasons not to let people keep wearing pointy shiny rocks on their fingers when they’re putting their hands up women to take babies out.

Similarly, if there’s a blanket rule against dangling neck jewellery in a hospital, it’s a safe bet that it’s there for health reasons, and has zero correlation to how badly someone really wants to wear something pretty – regardless of which grisly death of a rabbi from two millennia ago that pretty something represents. This rule pays no heed to religion, doesn’t even notice it’s there. It would apply in the same way to the same shaped piece of metal on a chain, if Christianity didn’t exist and it was just a treasured family heirloom.

It’s nothing to do with your rights as a Christian. You have rights as a person, and as an employee, and while they’re important and may often need defending, they only go so far. And you don’t get extra ones just for believing really hard in stuff.

Okay. I wrote this far yesterday evening, realised it was past my bedtime and I still had more to say, so shelved it until this evening, and now I’ve completely lost the rambling, incoherent plot and have no idea what else I was planning to add to this. So… you’re welcome, I guess.

Read this, it’s shorter and smarter and makes more sense. I guess I could’ve opened with that.

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One common point of discussion on the Facebook group for this experiment is just how we’re meant to be doing this prayer thing.

I can’t find the exact comment again now, but I think I read someone asking, essentially: “After saying, hi God, let me know if you’re there… what are we meant to do with the next 2-3 minutes?”

Personally, I tend to make my prayer requests waffle on a bit. For instance, today I’m going with:

God, if you’re there, please give me some kind of sign that I should believe in you. If a personal divine revelation is all I can expect, please note that the usual warm fuzzy feelings aren’t quite going to cut it. If the greatest power you’re capable of exerting over my world is less than what I can achieve by stroking the cat or giving Kirsty a hug – or, as some people on Facebook suggest, if you’re going to continue being petty and hiding from me unless I pray in just the right way – then God, God, I don’t even wanna know you.

Some may consider it a little crass to ask whether you take requests, but arguably not as crass as letting thousands of children starve to death every day all over the planet. So, if you’re open to suggestions, but you don’t want to appear in person or do anything too flashy, providing a proof of Goldbach’s conjecture via divine inspiration would do very nicely.

I sometimes go on like this for a while, and end up in something of a back-and-forth in my own head, debating the relative merits of certain suggestions, considering possible religious responses or excuses as to why such-and-such doesn’t undermine their faith…

I can have some good conversations with myself. But it’s worth remembering that they are just with myself. I’m a long way from seeing any reason to believe that this semi-voluntary internal dialogue is a product of anything more than my own imagination.

Things are definitely going on in my head as a result of all this praying. Interesting things, which give me some idea why some people might get ideas about God speaking to them. But there are so many more unambiguous ways that any deity could make me aware of its existence. Goldbach’s conjecture is just the first example off the top of my head. If God can’t come up with something at least that good, and is sticking with vague sensations and slightly odd coincidences here and there, then he’s not really trying.

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I can’t help but make some observations about the curious phenomenon of S.E. Cupp:

For one thing, if she’s an atheist, she’s a very odd one.

I don’t want to be too contrarian or cynical with that “if” there. She claims to be an atheist, and at times she’s been pretty clear and succinct on why she describes herself as such. “I don’t believe in God”. Questioning whether she’s “really” an atheist is likely to end up being no more constructive than asking whether atheism is “really” a religion.

But even though she describes it as one of the most important questions a person can ask themselves, and even though it’s a big part of her media identity – whenever she’s appearing on Fox News or any other talk show promoting a book or some such, she’s billed as that rare thing, a “conservative atheist” – she doesn’t seem to have much interest in the things other atheists are interested in.

For one thing, that book of hers is called Losing Our Religion: The Liberal Media’s Attack On Christianity, and it’s about what a hard time the Christians who make up 80% of her country are having, thanks to the anti-Christian bias of the left-wing media and the Obama administration.

Now, while it’s not justified to entirely sweep aside and ignore someone’s claims of unfair treatment simply because they’re part of the demographic majority, I think most atheists would be less concerned about Christianity’s prominence being slightly diminished than by the persistent and real prejudice against non-believers. As one of many collections of examples, Greta Christina has listed the 10 scariest states to be an atheist. Here’s a story from Pennsylvania:

In small town America, veterans – veterans, on Memorial Day, marching in a Memorial Day parade – were jeered, booed, insulted, cursed at, yelled at to leave, and told they were going to burn in hell.

Because they were atheists.

Americans love their troops. It takes a lot of hatred to make a crowd hurl that kind of abuse at soldiers who’ve been defending their freedoms from foreign devils.

And that’s from a state which barely made it into the top ten.

The extract from her book on its Amazon page also makes it clear how far out of step she is with the general tide of atheist thought. Here’s a quote that shows what I mean:

Obama delivered another slight to religious America when he became the first president in the history of the United States to mention atheists, calling America a nation of, among other things, nonbelievers. He would, over the course of his first year, go on to regularly put nonbelievers on the same plane as the religious faithful. This isn’t just an insult to believers. It should also be an insult to nonbelievers, who so militantly insist they are separate from those kooky God lovers, and intellectually superior to them.

The “slight” she’s referring to is when Obama said, in his inaugural address: “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers.” Now, a sane person might think that ending that sentence without those two final words would be a rather typical slight to the non-believers who never seem to get a look-in, by implying that a nation of various religious believers is all we are. Acknowledging the existence of several million atheists is, one might think, the least they’re entitled to.

For S.E. Cupp, though, putting atheists on the “same plane” as religious believers is an outrage – and it’s the religious on whose behalf she takes primary offense.

But this leads me to observation the next: while S.E. Cupp uses the term “atheist” to describe herself, it’s clear she also thinks of “atheists” as other people. Not part of her in-group at all.

Look at the way non-believers are characterised and disparaged in the above quote. They all like to “militantly” insist upon their intellectual superiority, and think religious folk are “kooky”. Not like S.E. Cupp. She’s not like those angry atheists, not at all. I mean, they’re crazy. Not like her.

And of course, she’d never vote for an atheist. It’s only religious people that can be trusted not to get drunk on power, thanks to their belief in something bigger than themselves. Atheists don’t have that; they think 98% of the world is crazy. Oh, but she’s an atheist and she doesn’t think that religious people are crazy. She’s very clear on that. Yep.

See, she’s been described as a “self-hating atheist”, but I’m not so sure self-hatred is really the issue with her.

Right here, she says that she “really aspires to be a person of faith some day”. In the Friendly Atheist article above, she’s quoted as saying: “I would like to be a person of faith, but I’m not there yet”.

This is not how intellectually honest and coherent atheists think.

Faith is an irrational and unreliable foundation for knowledge, and God does not exist. Why the hell would I want to be a “person of faith”?

But for S.E. Cupp, the phrase “aspiring religious believer” seems to much better articulate her stance on belief and non-belief than the term “atheist”.

In this clip, Penn Jillette is as decisive and unambiguous as ever about his beliefs. There is no God. He argues the case for why the existence of God is not only baseless, but also abhorrent. This is something I’ve never seen S.E. Cupp do (though, to be fair, I’ve spent a lot less time experiencing her creative output than that of Penn Jillette). She barely has a word to say to defend her atheism, and when someone brings up stories about atheists “seeing the light” and becoming religious believers, she says: “I love those stories, those are great stories”.

This is where I get a bit speculative about what’s going on inside another person’s head, and take things beyond what I can be certain about:

Maybe S.E. Cupp thinks those stories are great stories because she wants to live one herself someday – and maybe she already suspects that she will.

Again, I don’t mean that altogether cynically. In the above clip, Penn brought up the suggestion that she’s “faking” being an atheist, in order to cash in on a major book deal and speaking tour once she “converts” to Christianity some time down the line. She obviously denies this, and I strongly doubt she’s being actively duplicitous like that.

But the way she talks about religion is enough to make it clear that she’s not an atheist in the same way I am. In a lot of ways, she seems like a religious believer who just hasn’t found a religion she can really believe in yet.

Perhaps she’s not a Christian, and with her MA in Religious Studies she’s probably read a lot more than I have about a bunch of other gods she doesn’t believe in… but she still “aspires” to believe in something. She’s awaiting some divine inspiration, a revelation as to the true path, some magical intervention which will grant her the faith she’s searching for. She might not believe in any god she’s met so far, but she believes in belief.

The fact that some atheists are actually happy that way, and aren’t still desperately searching for some kind of spiritual fulfilment the way she is, is what seems to most upset her.

Which, come to think of it, makes me think that maybe self-hatred really is at the root of all this, after all.

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The differences between extreme and moderate religiosity are a popular subject for discussion. One recurring question concerns whether the latter tends to allay, or only to tacitly condone and vindicate, the former.

Many Christians cite the Bible as a motivating factor for their generosity, kindness, charity, and general love for their fellow homo sapienseses. Many others are compelled by the same book to hound gay people to suicide or bomb medical clinics that perform abortions. Do the nice lot encourage other believers to take a similar approach, or do they only serve to make the destructive, vicious “faith” of the extremists socially acceptable?

I seem to be making a habit lately of asking deep and interesting questions that I have no intention of answering.

But I may have another perspective on the liberal, moderate believers. In a conversation about someone peripherally connected to me the other day, it came up that this person holds to a vague, well-meaning, wishy-washy, not-really-thought-through belief in some sort of god. This person doesn’t think about philosophy a whole lot, hasn’t done much introspection to arrive at this set of beliefs, wasn’t raised very religiously, and isn’t deeply committed to any of these ideas in a way that would cloud their judgment.

Not unrelatedly, they’re a much nicer person than many people who are passionately invested in the whole God business. Not just sincere believers, but the kind of people who can’t even consider that they might be wrong about any of it, because of how wrenchingly painful it would be if they were ever that honest with themselves.

So although this particular person doesn’t have any of those emotional connections twisting their rationality, didn’t have any self-perpetuating belief system inculcated into them as a child, and isn’t so committed that cognitive dissonance is stopping them from thinking freely… they still believe this crap.

The thought that struck me was: Is that somehow worse, in some ways, than the fundamentalists? I mean, they’ve got an excuse for convincing themselves of all sorts of patently untrue and unfounded things: they’re desperately rationalising to preserve their self-image as someone who couldn’t possibly be so stupid as to be fooled by something obviously false for so long.

This person I’m talking about isn’t doing that. Their capacity for logic isn’t being noticeably impinged upon by any of the usual and obvious cognitive biases. So what are they doing, reckoning there’s some sort of god out there and that there’s probably something to auras and homeopathy as well? Should this be more worrying, or more worthy of censure, than in the case of people so far down the rabbit-hole they can’t even hear reasoned criticism of their beliefs any more?

(They still seem to be a superlatively kind and generous person, which is probably more important than any of this.)

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Holy shit America, how much defending do you need?

– You know, men can (and should) be something other than knights or beasts.

– If you’re going to insist that people earn at least slightly less than a living wage, why not give everyone a hundred bucks an hour? Huh? Satirez!!

– Sometimes skeptics just ought to knock it off when someone has faith. It can be a beautiful thing in their lives. Who are we to say it’s wrong, with our “facts” and “reason”? Follow what you know to be true in your heart, Ezra.

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Mark Vernon takes issue with the way skeptics insist on applying a reasonable critical analysis to subjective experience:

They fixate on the many ways in which individuals can be self-deluded, and forget that they can also be wonderfully discerning. They miss truths that can only be known by acquaintance, which is to say, by letting them in.

For which he gets seven points for originality of phrasing, and loses them all again for waffling the same old tosh.

Yes, individuals can often be self-deluded, and they can often be wonderfully discerning. The whole point of skepticism is in trying to determine which of those a person is doing at any given moment.

Which are the truths that should simply be “let in” – which seems to mean accepted and believed, without any criticism, doubt, or regard for reality? All too often, it seems to be only those “facts” which fit the preconceptions of whoever is arguing that rationalism should sometimes be abandoned, because it doesn’t let them believe what they want to believe.

That which can be destroyed by the truth should be, after all, and any truth worth “letting in” can only be bolstered by a rational examination of it.

As for the usefulness of subjective experience, and truth “known by acquaintance”, have a look at this checkerboard with a shadow cast over it:



Think the square marked A is darker than the one marked B? Well, that’s where blithely trusting your subjective experiences will get you.

Here’s another popular one:



See the brown centre square on the top face, and the yellow centre square on the bottom-left face of the cube? They’re the same colour. Save the image and go test it out in MS Paint if you don’t believe me.

That second one still melts my brain. I had to go check it again myself just now. They just look like completely different colours – and nobody else knows what’s going on in my brain when I see it. Nobody else can directly share what I’m experiencing. I have this pure subjective knowledge, which strongly suggests a truth based on my own experiences of the world.

And you can prove me wrong in a matter of seconds.

Rationalists are interested in being right. Knowing how and when we’re most in danger of being wrong is a crucial part of that, and it never stops applying. Things don’t get a free pass just because they’re a “subjective truth” or you have “faith”. We’re never obliged to just assume that this is one of those times you’re being instinctively discerning, rather than self-deluded.

Whatever your claim might be, religious or not, faith-based or not: If it can be destroyed by the truth, it should be.

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As a corollary to this recent business with Jessica Ahlquist, let’s take a moment to remind ourselves of the exact nature of the direct correlation between religiosity and morality.

Namely, there fucking isn’t one.

It’s certainly not the case that all religious people are immoral, or that there aren’t plenty of people around who believe in God but still do good things for sincere, humanist reasons. But the hatred and pettiness that resulted, when some Christians had a little of their monopolistic privilege taken away, should serve as an important reminder that how often someone goes to church, or who they pray to, provide no substantiation for how decently they behave to other people.

So an idea recently proposed by three state senators in Indiana, to have schools require the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer every day, is both illegal and ridiculous.

If “establishing character and becoming a good citizen” are things you want young people to achieve in schools, then give them things that’ll actually help them do that. The most that unthinkingly reciting a few rote lines of Christian dogma will do is make them more likely to turn into devout Christians, and we’ve already clearly seen how that’s no grounds at all for expecting someone to be a “good” anything.

And it only takes a fairly simple rhetorical question to reveal that, when these people talk about the moral value of “prayer”, they’re really talking about their own Christian brand of faith. What if the “spiritual development” in question wasn’t deliberately geared toward Christianity?

What are the odds a bill would be proposed in which a Muslim prayer was read out in all schools at the beginning of each day, without screams of outrage that the socialist Kenyan president was brainwashing terrorism down our children’s throats?

In the case of the banner at Cranston High, it was suggested that the school simply remove the specifically religious language, but leave the rest of it in place. They refused. So do they actually care about the values the writing described, such as compassion and generosity, or do those things no longer matter when they can’t use it to push Christianity?

None of this is about the free expression of Christian faith being suppressed. It’s about Christians being part of such an established faith that it’s come to be considered the default mode, and it’s not even recognised as a privilege any more. This is why Americans are basically split on whether God helps Tim Tebow score touchdowns (way to prioritise, Big Man), but their sympathies would probably be directly inverted if “Tebowing” had instead involved pulling out a prayer rug and facing Mecca.

Incidentally, the latest story from Jessica’s ongoing saga is that multiple florists refused to deliver her flowers.

But remember: God is love.

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One thing that’s important to remember is that I’m a total wuss.

Okay, so in the spirit of combating the stigma surrounding mental health problems, maybe I should use less accusatory language, and not sound like I’m browbeating myself for my sporadic psychic troubles. But you know what I’m getting at. I often get myself into a needless fret over very minor woes, and become acutely and disproportionately distressed over seemingly small-scale problems. Things that shouldn’t really upset me sometimes do, and my intense awareness of how irrational my emotions are being just makes it worse.

I ought to grow a pair and stop being such a girl, in plain terms that a complete dickhead might use.

Anyway, this was relevant on one particular occasion recently, on the holiday I’m just back from. Kirsty was feeling a little under the weather, and after worrying over her and trying to make her feel better and generally making a nuisance of myself, I left her alone to sleep. And I went off and kept fretting.

She was just having a bit of an off-day, and felt kinda bleh. She wasn’t dying. She wasn’t being eaten from the inside by cancer or alien nanites. But I’d got myself all afluster over it, and now I was making myself feel nearly as bad, to no purpose whatever.

This isn’t really about me and my neuroses, though. What it’s about is that, while I was worrying and unable to turn my brain off, it occurred to me to pray for her.

I know, right?

I didn’t actually pray for my slightly ailing girlfriend, because, come on. But it’s something that I’m aware is a real, prominent option for a lot of people in similar situations, and it’s something they often find a lot of comfort in. And it’s an option that’s really not available to me.

I could have gone through the rigmarole anyway, of course, and maybe given myself a quick placebo hit of reassurance. It’s not dissimilar to what Alan Moore does with his religion, I guess, and it’s not like I’d be betraying any sacrosanct principles. But even if I could go some way toward hijacking my brain’s inner workings and trick it into feeling better in such a way, my capacity for self-delusion can only stretch so far. People who really believe in their god are always going to have something I don’t.

Now, of course, the fact that a belief has the capacity to provide comfort has no bearing on whether that belief is true. It’s certainly not worth any kind of intellectual trade-off, to let ourselves feel better at the expense of our critical faculties. And I’m well aware that the notion of an all-powerful god who allows such suffering as can be ascribed to him is far more terrifying than reassuring if you give it any measure of actual thought.

But, as is evident from a brief glance at many religious people, giving your beliefs a measure of actual thought is by no means obligatory. They’re comforted by their beliefs, millions of them, every day. As much as I find God’s non-existence immensely reassuring when I consider some of the alternatives, there are times when faith offers something, however superficial, which atheism and reason can’t quite match.

It’s worth remembering this, I think, because it’s worth remembering how much you’re asking someone to give up when you suggest that they abandon their faith. Although a lot of people report feeling liberation on leaving their religion, for others it can be a big, scary step which doesn’t seem to have much in it for them. Going without even the flimsy comforts of Christianity can be a big deal when somebody’s accustomed to being able to rely on them. Even a dedicated unbeliever can sort of miss it, now and again.

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