Baggini discovers that the faithful really believe that stuff

It’s painful but ultimately rewarding to read Julian Baggini’s continuing series of essays on religion that appear in the Guardian.  For a long time we’ve known him as a fierce critic of New Atheism, but now he seems to be discovering that many contentions of the Gnus are right after all.  If he’s intellectually honest, it’s only a matter of time before he becomes one of us.

His latest piece, “The myth that religion is more about practice than belief,” takes up the anti-Gnu criticism that religious people don’t really believe the official doctrines of their faith—they just go to church to socialize, engage in communal works, or enjoy the potted lilies and stained glass. To suss this out, Baggini did an informal verbal survey of 141 churchgoers in Bristol and combined that with an online survey of 767 more (he’s summarized the results at another site).  He fully realizes that this isn’t a proper random sample, even of churchgoers.

Nevertheless, he found some results that surprised him. The biggest one?

So what is the headline finding? It is that whatever some might say about religion being more about practice than belief, more praxis than dogma, more about the moral insight of mythos than the factual claims of logos, the vast majority of churchgoing Christians appear to believe orthodox doctrine at pretty much face value. They believe that Jesus is divine, not simply an exceptional human being; that his resurrection was a real, bodily one; that he performed miracles no human being ever could; that he needed to die on the cross so that our sins could be forgiven; and that Jesus is the only way to eternal life. On many of these issues, a significant minority are uncertain but in all cases it is only a small minority who actively disagree, or even just tend to disagree. As for the main reason they go to church, it is not for reflection, spiritual guidance or to be part of a community, but overwhelmingly in order to worship God.

To his credit, he uses this finding to defend the Gnus, and defend them strongly:

This is, I think, a firm riposte to those who dismiss atheists, especially the “new” variety, as being fixated on the literal beliefs associated with religion rather than ethos or practice. It suggests that they are not attacking straw men when they criticise religion for promoting superstitious and supernatural beliefs. Yes, I know you can define “supernatural” in such a way that turning water into wine isn’t supernatural after all, but when atheists use this word, their argument is not based on an unjustified linguistic or metaphysical stipulation. They are simply pointing out that religions maintain that things happen which cannot be explained simply in terms of physical laws and human agency, and on this it appears most churchgoers agree. . .

It seems to me that these results, if truly indicative of what people actually believe, are highly significant for the present debate about religion. The challenge to the likes of Karen Armstrong – which I’d love to hear her response to – is to accept that when they claim religion isn’t really about literal belief, they are advocating a view about how religion ought to be in its best form which just doesn’t describe the reality on the ground. They are defending an ideal of religion, a possibility that is not the normal actuality.

I’m surprised that Baggini is surprised.  For at least in America, even the merest acquaintance with the average churchgoer—as opposed to religious intellectuals and academics, who are almost atheists anyway—shows that there are certain bedrock doctrines that are non-negotiable.  Even smart dudes like Andrew Sullivan can’t help but believe in the divinity of Jesus.  But maybe this is more of a surprise in the UK.  Baggini’s results, which have been replicated by more systematic surveys in the US (e.g., here and here) show that “sophisticated” theologians by no means express the beliefs of other adherents to their faith.

Over at Choice in Dying, Eric MacDonald has a deeper take on Baggini’s results. His title is (for Eric), a tad snarky: “I could have told him that”, but the content is enriched by MacDonald’s own years as an Anglican priest.

I have said it often enough already, but this is how, in my experience, most Christians understand faith. My own attempts to move away from this into more liberal, indeed, more radical revisions of faith in order to make sense of faith in the modern world, while to some degree successful, and actually more attractive to some people’s  more radical understandings of faith, the place of the Bible in determining faith, and the obvious marginalisation of some “believers” because of their inability to accept orthodox ways of understanding both Bible and creed, was of central importance to the core membership of the parish in which I worked. One of these put it quite succinctly when she said that I would not be there forever, and she was prepared to tolerate my radical take on faith, but she knew what she believed, and was quite confident that the next Rector would be more on her side than on mine . . .

Atheists like Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, to take only the Four Horsemen, who take religion as centring in belief, not in practice and metaphor, are spot on the money for most religious believers. Academic theology, as I have reason to know, having for years tried to convince people that they didn’t need to believe that the Bible is the unspotted word of God, or that things like the resurrection or the other miracles of Jesus must be taken as supernatural events, simply has no purchase at the level of the ordinary believer.

And he gets in a few licks at those infuriating theologians like John Haught:

The point might be put a bit clearer. Academic theologians, to be at all credible in the academic community, cannot speak or write about their subject as ordinary, simple believers. Theology, as an academic discipline, must at least be intelligible to others in the academy. That it fails even in this is neither here nor there. People like John Haught and Keith Ward are trying very hard to place their “discipline” in the context of other academic disciplines, and so they must adhere to some, at least, of the canons of scholarship.

Academic imperatives, however, have no locus standi at the level of ordinary belief, which is why so many who emerge from theological schools find their own understanding of faith at complete variance with the understanding of the people they go out into the parishes to serve. They either adapt to that circumstance, and learn to temper their academic learning with the faith as the people they serve understand it, or they try to introduce new ways of looking at faith to the people. The latter is often the path not taken, because it requires a deftness and a fairly quick reason that many people simply do not possess, and if you cannot make it seem as though, with all the revisions you are proposing, there is still something recognisable as the faith of old, you will get nowhere, and will end up in conflict with the very people on whose goodwill you depend for your daily bread.

Or daily wafer. That’s a simple statement, but it’s absolutely true.  Theologians will object simply because obfuscation and rationalization is their way of life, but not for a minute should we think that academic theology has any substance.  I’ve read more than my share now, and it’s all just fancy words without content, much like having a meringue when you’re expecting a meal.  Eric ends with a ringing paragraph:

The gnu atheists are right to continue to drive their wedges between belief and practice, for, while moral practice — concern for justice and the relief of suffering — can stand on its own, belief is now, with all the challenges of science and the obvious benefits of secularity, an orphan, with no visible means of support.

Maybe it’s time for us to start really believing those Christians, Jews, and Muslims who tell us what they believe. And we should demand of theologians some evidence that their interpretation of scripture is both correct and representative of their coreligionists.

h/t: Grania Spingies

240 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    (subscribing)

  2. Jer
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    And we should demand of theologians some evidence that their interpretation of scripture is both correct

    That would be an impossible demand. How can anyone “prove” that their interpretation of scripture is correct? It’s impossible – there’s no external standard to hold them to. Anyone can be correct because you can read the damn books and come up with justifications for almost any theology you’d care to propose. The fact that the same book can spawn both the Quakers and the Prosperity Gospel should be enough evidence to show anyone that there are no external standards for correctness.

    and representative of their coreligionists.

    This, on the other hand, is not just a valid request, it’s required if you’re going to criticize the gnu atheists who speak out against religion. At this point anyone who begs off about “sophisticated theology” sounds like someone making a “No True Scotsman” defense to me. I’m surrounded by unsophisticated theology all the time, thank you very much, and it sets policy in my state/country. When I criticize religion THAT’S what I’m criticizing. I could give a Tinker’s Damn about your “Unmoved Mover” – I’m worried about fundamentalists teaching creationism as if it were science, or moving to defund sex education because they think it’s Satanic.

  3. Tulse
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Maybe it’s time for us to start really believing those Christians, Jews, and Muslims who tell us what they believe.

    Maybe it’s time for all those sophisticated theologians to do so as well.

    • Orlando
      Posted December 12, 2011 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

      True. After reading Karen Armstrong I was beginning to think my house was “ontologically haunted” but it turned out to be a loose, squeaky floorboard.

  4. Posted December 12, 2011 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    It’s good at least someone in Britland gets it. Have a long time for US media to be honest about all this.

    Of course, there is a lot more money and political power, etc. at stake.

  5. anonymous
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    You will not be able to convince a great many people. Mitigation is the only way to treat religion. How to protect humanity from superstitious behavior? Rather than advocate for the destruction of religion – re-purpose the belief.

  6. Ray Moscow
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    … the vast majority of churchgoing Christians appear to believe orthodox doctrine at pretty much face value.

    Good for him for finally talking to some actual religious people.

    We former Christians, who know hundreds or thousands of believers and who have sat through hundreds of sermons and Bible classes could have saved him a lot of time, though. People are taught this crap, and they believe it.

    • articulett
      Posted December 12, 2011 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

      Worse– they imagine they are “saved” for believing it! (And damned if they doubt.)

      Religion ennobles belief in the unbelievable.

      I avoided thinking about what exactly I believed as a child for fear that thinking about it too much could lead to loss of faith and thus eternal damnation. I figured it was safest just to keep affirming that I believed.

      I wonder how many theists are in this position?

      I think Baggini was unprepared for just what a powerful and virulent meme this is.

  7. Karmakin
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Well, I do have a bit of a quibble with what they’re saying there. I’m not so sure it’s that the average Joe or Jane wouldn’t be open to the idea of a more metaphorical theology if it were presented it to them, the problem is that by and large it isn’t, or at least it’s not presented at a common level where it becomes a socially and culturally mainstream concept.

    Or in short, if the sophisticated theologists want religion to not be seen as literal they need to change the language that religious leaders use in terms of said religion.

    A good start would be stop using humanistic terms to talk about vague deities. Like “He” or “Him”. Even the term “God” is probably giving people too much of a wrong idea.

    The Armstrongs of the world need to get off the back of the atheists and start getting on the back of nominal allies to clean up their language.

    • Sajanas
      Posted December 12, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

      Sophisticated Theology, in my experience, is something that is only offered after the very basic, more literal theology is offered and refused. They don’t tell you Noah could never have happened, and Abraham through Solomon is completely or very heavily mythological. They don’t even tell you about evolution in any direct way, unless you bring it up. And there is a very good reason for it… you don’t offer these realities first, because they make everything seem less grand. You don’t point out that the two nativity stories don’t match up, because then its obvious that one, or both are wrong.

      People don’t show up to church every week and shell out huge amounts of cash for myths. And that’s the truth… no matter what people get out of church, its ultimately like funding NASA to get tang. If you really wanted tang, or the community, you’d be better off doing that directly, as it is much cheaper and quicker.

      • Doc Bill
        Posted December 12, 2011 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

        I’d fund NASA to get Tang.

        Oh, wait …

    • gr8hands
      Posted December 12, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

      Karmakin, I must disagree.

      I believe the “draw” of churches is the black-and-white binary way it treats life. X is sin, Y is good. No gray. No middle ground.

      People really do flock to that, because the moral ambiguity is uncomfortable for them. They don’t want to read it for themselves, particularly (they do want the freedom of being able to read it for themselves), but are quite content to listen to an expert tell them what it all means.

      • Posted December 12, 2011 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

        +1

      • Ray Moscow
        Posted December 13, 2011 at 4:24 am | Permalink

        I remember John Bradshaw teaching a class in some basic modern biblical scholarship at an Episcopal parish in Houston. He said that people were just terrified to learn that the evidence just doesn’t support the veracity of the Bible.

        He reassured them that ‘the Christ of faith’ was the same as ever, but that didn’t seem to work. (‘The Christ of faith’ being indistinguishable from ‘the Christ of the imagination’.)

        I don’t think there would be a quicker way to clear most members out of even fairly liberal churches than to teach what academics really think about the Bible. Of course a few genuine inquirers (like I was)would like it, but not enough to pay the bills.

        Most churchgoers just want an authoritarian, masculine voice telling them how it is.

    • articulett
      Posted December 12, 2011 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

      I think you underestimate the power of believing one has an eternal soul that can suffer forever if one doesn’t believe the right thing.

      The real undoing of religion will be the dawning realization that there is no such thing as souls– without souls that can suffer forever, religion loses it’s power. They invent the problem (damnation) and proffer themselves as the solution.

      • Posted December 13, 2011 at 6:14 am | Permalink

        Which is why virtually all religions still adopt psychoneural dualism and hence collide with modern neuroscience, psychology and “evo-devo”.

  8. Posted December 12, 2011 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Having been part of the evangelical community in Alabama for 24 years, “I could have told him that,” too. Four years later, I’m still trying to get used to people’s skepticism when I try to tell them that, yes, people actually DO believe all this stuff- and they honestly do believe it absolutely 100% wholeheartedly. I know, because I did too. Perhaps that concept can only be fully grasped by those like me who were completely “one of them” for a very long time.

  9. truthspeaker
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Subscribing

  10. Kevin
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    I live in the Bible Belt. I regularly drive on Billy Graham Freeway. He has an “advice column” in the newspaper every day. (This despite the fact that the advice is precisely and exactly the same every day, no matter the problem: Turn to God.)

    The people who I interact with on a daily basis know their god is real, not metaphorical. They know their god literally created the universe with magic words. They know that mankind became estranged from god (sometimes, this is a metaphorical estrangement — but often due to the real actions of a real woman named Eve spurred on by a real talking snake).

    They know that their god decided to end this estrangement by coming down in human form and offering himself as a blood sacrifice. They know that if they but believe in this stuff, that they’ll live forever with their god in heaven.

    While the rest of us (Muslims, atheists, Hindus, and Catholics included) will roast eternally in the fires of hell. For the crime of not thinking correctly about the existence of the human-god avatar and the nature of the blood sacrifice.

    It’s all palpable nonsense, but these people believe in it fervently. The barber who cuts my dad’s hair preaches it with every snip. It’s infused into who they are. They do not wish to know that they’re basing their entire life on bad snuff fiction. And they make tremendously bad decisions because of this. Bad decisions about who to vote for, who to “hate”, who to give credibility to, who to give 10% of their income to…the entire gamut.

    If it weren’t for the bad decision-making that accompanies the fiction, I wouldn’t care one jot. Believe in aliens from Xbmstns for all I care. It’s the bad decision making that’s the issue. And the “why” of the bad decision making is their belief in religious dogma.

    And that’s why I fight religion — because without religion, their bad decision making vanishes in a puff of logic.

    • gr8hands
      Posted December 12, 2011 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

      Why do you hate Xbmstnsians?

    • Steersman
      Posted December 12, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

      And that’s why I fight religion — because without religion, their bad decision making vanishes in a puff of logic.

      Bad decisions indeed. And more than a little justifiation for being concerned about the related perspectives of the apparent front-runner in the Republican horse race:

      One big factor is Gingrich’s self-described faith awakening since leaving Congress in 1998. A personal turning point was 2002, when a court ruling struck down the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools because of its “Under God” clause.

      “That was the last straw,” Gingrich said in a 2009 interview with U.S. News & World Report. “And I said it’s time to challenge head-on secular domination in the West.”

      If the lot of them don’t have a Christian theocracy as the goal in mind then the difference seems vanishingly small and entirely academic.

    • Posted December 13, 2011 at 1:16 am | Permalink

      Even unbelief is a somewhat religious system. Religion at its core is based on a set of values that people believe in wholeheartedly so to fight religion would also include your very lifestyle. So in reality, everyone believes in something, even if it is only themselves.

      • Posted December 13, 2011 at 4:06 am | Permalink

        There is a confusion here. Sure everybody, at least everybody who I have ever had an intelligent conversation with, believes things. But this everyday sense of the word belief is different to what is meant when someone says they believe in a religious dogma. I believe the chair I’m sitting on won’t collapse under my weight; I wouldn’t sit on it otherwise, but I am quite aware that I could be wrong. If someone believes, wholeheartedly as you say, in the resurrection of Christ, then they don’t have this attitude. If I were to suddenly find myself sprawled over the floor I would pick myself up and say “O.K. I was wrong!” but I have heard “true believers” say that there is no evidence that would convince them their belief in the resurrection was wrong. You are free to say that my belief that the chair will not collapse is not what you would call a genuine belief. But all my beliefs are like that, so I can’t see how my unbelief can be, even somewhat, a religious system.

        • Ray Moscow
          Posted December 13, 2011 at 4:26 am | Permalink

          Healthy belief is held in accordance with the evidence supporting that belief.

          Religious belief is held even in opposition to the evidence against it. The more evidence against it, the more supposedly virtuous the belief.

      • Posted December 13, 2011 at 6:12 am | Permalink

        No. Religion is not, at its core, a set of values that people believe in wholeheartedly.

        At its core, religion is the belief in a supernatural agent who will reward you if you behave in certain ways – and punish you if misbehave in other ways. A set of values may flow from that belief.

        In fact, as we’ve discussed previously on this website, the set of values that the religious have only partially maps to the set of values that scripture says they should have.

        /@

        • Kharamatha
          Posted December 13, 2011 at 8:41 am | Permalink

          Is it possible that many religions are cargo cults modelled after functional societies and successful habits?

      • articulett
        Posted December 13, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

        No, unbelief is not a religious system– this is why atheists are not considered “people of faith”. Atheism only becomes a “faith” or religion when religionists are playing the obfuscation game.

        My unbelief in invisible beings called gods is identical to your unbelief in invisible beings called fairies. It doesn’t take faith to disbelieve in things which have not been demonstrated to exist.

        A naturalist expects real beings to be distinguishable from imaginary beings or mythological beings when scientifically tested. We also expect a conscious being to have an evolved material brain– (this is how we know rocks and carrots are not conscious.)

        I think it’s time for you to question those who told you that non-belief is akin to religion and the other codswollop you’ve regurgitated here. They are not trustworthy sources of information, and you are coming across as being as daft and disingenuous as they are.

        • Steersman
          Posted December 13, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

          Atheism only becomes a “faith” or religion when religionists are playing the obfuscation game.

          While I’m certainly sympathetic to the general tenor of your argument and with the cause of atheism in general, I’m not sure that that statement is entirely correct. Consider these definitions for “religion” from the American Heritage dictionary:

          1. a. Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe.
          b. A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.
          2. The life or condition of a person in a religious order.
          3. A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.
          4. A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion

          So by #4 it seems that one could quite reasonably argue that atheism – at least insofar as it is a cause or embodies a set of principles – could be construed as a religion, particularly given the zeal that seems to motivate many. And to the extent that the principles are unproven or are accepted on faith – generally all inductive systems seem to require at least a modicum of that – the degree of correspondence becomes that much greater. Seems to me that “obfuscation” is only a valid charge if “they” are suggesting that atheism is based on a “belief in a supernatural power”.

          • Posted December 13, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

            I think you’re stretching things there, Steersman. That’s clearly a metaphorical <ahem/;gt; sense — as you might say, “football’s his religion.”

            /@

            • Posted December 13, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

              * HTML fail! :-/

            • Steersman
              Posted December 13, 2011 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

              Don’t really see it as stretching things to be using an explicit definition from a credible dictionary. I’ll certainly agree that (1.a) is probably the primary or original definition, but I think you would agree – and probably could readily come up with more examples than I could – that that is an entirely typical processs – lots of words acquire a great many definitions after the original one.

              And I’ll agree that it is therefore probably a metaphorical one. But unless “they” are, again, arguing that atheism is based on a belief in a supernatural entity I don’t see that as inconsistent or obfuscation. Although it would probably help if theists understood or acknowledged or clearly stated the basis for their accusations.

              • Posted December 13, 2011 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

                Yes, yes, yes — words’ meanings change over time.

                But do you honestly think religionists mean atheism-as-a-religion on the same footing as football-as-a-religion? That strikes me as disingenuous.

                Having been part of many such conversations, the basis is very clear. The religionists even make statements like, “The God Delusion is your Bible,” for Dawkins’ sake! ;-)

                /@

              • Steersman
                Posted December 14, 2011 at 1:49 am | Permalink

                Ant Allan said:

                But do you honestly think religionists mean atheism-as-a-religion on the same footing as football-as-a-religion? That strikes me as disingenuous.

                Well, let me turn that around a little: do you seriously think that religionists mean atheism-as-a-religion is on the same footing as theirs in being based on a belief in a supernatural entity? Many of them might be rather obtuse but I would think it rather improbable that they would be that bad – seems to me that something similar to “football-as-a-religion” is quite a bit more plausible. In which case one might argue that many in the atheist community make heavy weather out of that particular accusation as it seems easily deflected simply by noting those differences.

                However, there seems to be more than a few additional intricacies and separate cases in that general theme or avenue of attack from the religionists, notably, as mentioned, the degree to which the principles of definition (4) are based on faith, at least in the sense of “Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence”. In addition there also seems to be the related question of to what degree is atheism based on the principle of belief in the non-existence of God. Which seems to raise the somewhat thorny question – in my view anyway – of to what extent is belief in the nonexistence of X the same as non-belief in the existence of X.

                Having been part of many such conversations, the basis is very clear. The religionists even make statements like, “The God Delusion is your Bible,” for Dawkins’ sake!

                True. But that doesn’t look much like arguing that atheism is based on belief in a supernatural entity. Unless I somehow missed the apotheosis of Richard Dawkins. :-)

                But, again, I can’t see that argument of the religionists is all that credible or much to be concerned about. That there might happen to be what I would call, potentially anyway, a few trivial similarities between atheism-as-a-religion and religions-as-religion shouldn’t detract at all from the fact that there are a great many significant differences, notably the mountains of evidence in favour of atheism itself.

              • Posted December 14, 2011 at 4:00 am | Permalink

                A few points:

                1. Football-as-a-religion doesn’t required “faith”, yet religionists frequently make the claim that “it takes faith to be an atheist” (sometimes “it takes more faith to be an atheist”) – so, clearly, sense #4 isn’t what they have in mind.

                2. Dawkins isn’t supernatural, of course; but I think the “weakest” sense of religion that applies would be #3. Religionists would seem to regard the Four Horsemen as atheists’ “spiritual” leaders.

                3. People don’t adhere slavishly to dictionary definitions when they use words.

                4. From a religionist’s pov, is God a “supernatural” entity? Or is God to them as real as Dawkins is? ;-)

                5. Ambiguity about the sense of “belief” makes a definition of atheism as “belief that God does not exist” itself ambiguous; for many, it’s more “a rational conclusion that God [very probably] does not exist”. In any case, for many others it’s only “a lack of belief that God exists” (how can a lack of belief be a belief?), which is a logical distinct position. (I don’t see any thorny question there.)

                6. Religionists are as unlikely to accept the mountains of evidence for atheism as they (some of them) are to accept the mountains of evidence for evolution! Therefore, in their minds, atheism has to be based on “faith”, just as their religion is.

                /@

              • Steersman
                Posted December 14, 2011 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

                Ant Allan said:

                A few points:

                A few rejoinders –“Versicles by Adam, Rejoinders by the Crucified” – so to speak … :-)

                1. Football-as-a-religion doesn’t require “faith”, yet religionists frequently make the claim that “it takes faith to be an atheist” (sometimes “it takes more faith to be an atheist”) – so, clearly, sense #4 isn’t what they have in mind.

                Seems one might ask them what type of yardstick they use for measuring “faith” – what evidence they have for that assertion. But the “principles” of #4 generally or frequently seem to require at least some faith. Consider the principles of various political parties, communism for example that asserts, in the views of some, that “Man” is a blank slate and “infinitely” malleable by society.

                3. People don’t adhere slavishly to dictionary definitions when they use words.

                True. Although when the wicket gets sticky it seems entirely appropriate to pull out the relevant rule books.

                5. Ambiguity about the sense of “belief” makes a definition of atheism as “belief that God does not exist” itself ambiguous; for many, it’s more “a rational conclusion that God [very probably] does not exist”. …

                I quite agree “belief that god does not exist” is ambiguous or inconsistent with atheism, and that asserting that “God [very probably] does not exist” is a more tenable position. Although, while I generally subscribe (all paid up) to the latter view, it still seems that one might reasonably ask how those probabilities could possibly be quantified and measured – seems the only way that one might reasonably state categorically that there is no god is if, for example, the universe has been run from big bang to big crunch a couple of million times with different starting conditions and one has tallied the number of times God was a precursor. Or that, like the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, one has logically proven the solution set – gods – is empty.

                6. Religionists are as unlikely to accept the mountains of evidence for atheism …. Therefore, in their minds, atheism has to be based on “faith”, just as their religion is.

                Definitely an uphill battle, although one might argue that the tide is slowly turning.

              • articulett
                Posted December 15, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

                I don’t think you need any evidence to “prove” atheism… just like you don’t need evidence to prove the nonexistence of immaterial penguins.

                The fact that there is no evidence that something DOES exist is sufficient evidence to dismiss its existence. Real things should be distinguishable from non-existent things.

                I don’t consider my atheism to be a belief anymore than my nonbelief in magic or Superman. I think it’s much more akin to a Christian’s non-belief in Scientology or Islam than it is to any religion. But if a theist wants to consider the things they DON’T believe in (such as the above) to be a religion or something taken on faith, then they are certainly free to do so.

              • Steersman
                Posted December 15, 2011 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

                articulett said:

                The fact that there is no evidence that something DOES exist is sufficient evidence to dismiss its existence.

                Actually, it seems that absence of evidence and its sidekick, evidence of absence, is a somewhat thorny philosophical conundrum and, to my limited understanding, a little obscure:

                Such inductive reasoning is important to empiricism and science, but has well established limitations. The challenge thus becomes to try to identify when a researcher has received a null result (found nothing) because the thing does not exist (evidence of absence), and when one simply lacks proper means of detection (absence of evidence).

                While I will quite readily agree that there seems to be more enough “evidence of absence” for the Judaic-Christian anthropomorphic God and all of its ilk, particularly after considering the literally thousands of other similar deities throughout the millennia who have come a cropper, to justify concluding on the basis of that fairly large statistical sample, that very probably none of them actually exist, the case doesn’t seem quite as clear for the “metaphorical or pantheistic God of the physicists” – which is, as Richard Dawkins argues, “light years away from the miracle-wreaking, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible”.

              • Steersman
                Posted December 15, 2011 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

                articulett also said:

                I don’t think you need any evidence to “prove” atheism… just like you don’t need evidence to prove the nonexistence of immaterial penguins.

                Well, as a premise, “the nonexistence of immaterial penguins” seems to be somewhat of a case of begging the question, at least if by immaterial you mean non-existing. But, one might argue, there seems to be a great many “things” – various abstractions for example – that would appear to be quite immaterial yet seem to have some degree of existence. Or as the authors Nagel and Newman said in their popularization of Gödel’s proof on problems due to the “uncritical use of the apparently pellucid notion of class”:

                Mathematicians came to realize that in developing consistent systems familiarity and intuitive clarity are weak reeds to lean on. [pg 25]

                Similarly, atheism, particularly as a member of the class “religions”, at least as “a cause, principle or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion”, seems to be based on a number of premises, not all of which are self-evidently true – at least to my mind.

                Real things should be distinguishable from non-existent things.

                Quite agree, although that still leaves open the question of how good are our “means of detection”. For instance, string theory postulates some 6 or 7 extra physical dimensions – at least – but those are largely undetectable as, if they exist, the tests required to prove their existence require “inaccessible energy scales”. So one might argue that if those dimensions really are “real existing things” we might never be able to prove that they exist but they might still produce various significant phenomena – possibly even consciousness – that are lost in the noise of imprecise measurements.

                And curiously it seems that more than a few theorists and proponents of that theory happen to believe in it “with a certainty that seems emotional rather than rational” – a rather “religious” perspective, a cause pursued with some zeal:

                “How can you not see the beauty of the theory? How could a theory do all this and not be true?” say the string theorists. [The Trouble with Physics; Lee Smolin]

                Not always an easy thing, methinks, to clearly distinguish the real from the non-existent.

                But if a theist wants to consider the things they DON’T believe in …

                Not what I was saying; it’s the active and dogmatic belief in the truth of various premises and principles absent evidence or proof that tends to qualify as a religion.

              • tomh
                Posted December 15, 2011 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

                Steersman wrote:

                Similarly, atheism, particularly as a member of the class “religions”, at least as “a cause, principle or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion”, seems to be based on a number of premises, not all of which are self-evidently true – at least to my mind.

                What are the “number of premises” that atheism is based on? I can think of one, but that’s it. I know plenty of atheists, and mostly they disagree on just about everything – except one. None beieve in God.

              • Steersman
                Posted December 16, 2011 at 1:29 am | Permalink

                tomh said,

                What are the “number of premises” that atheism is based on? I can think of one, but that’s it.

                Good question. Offhand it seems that there are a number of philosophical underpinnings of atheism that might qualify as those premises. And while I don’t really have all that good a handle on the philosophy those would seem to include, primarily, naturalism, reductionism and materialism. And naturalism, at least as it presented by Tom Clark and the Center for Naturalism, seems to have a misplaced faith in the ability of science and the algorithmic method to generate and explain all truth and all phenomena.

                Which is somewhat unfortunate as I would say that it tends to promote a false dichotomy: either supernaturalism which lets “the divine foot” in the door, or a constrained and limited naturalism which tends to promote scientism and leads to free-will as an illusion and to consciousness as an epiphenomenon – eliminative materialism.. Neither of which are all that palatable or credible in my view; far more useful is to concede those limitations in both science and naturalism, although that tends to be somewhat of a problem for those who demand certainty, a nice neat “Grand Unified Theory of Everything”.

                I know plenty of atheists, and mostly they disagree on just about everything – except one. None believe in God.

                Somewhat similar to theists – though maybe not as bad as there are some 38,000 different Christian denominations in the world, all so much at “swords’ points with each other on matters of creed and technique that even the definition of Christianity crumples to absurdity”.

                But, even apart from the strictly philosophical premises, there still does seem to be quite a number of other different values, principles and perspectives that, as you suggest, are part and parcel of the “movement” known as atheism – for which Sam Harris has helpfully written The Atheist Manifesto – speaking of atheism as religion or political cause; references in this article on the topic which even has one to something that appears neither fish nor fowl – Christian atheism, if you can imagine it.

              • Posted December 16, 2011 at 3:06 am | Permalink

                For instance, string theory postulates some 6 or 7 extra physical dimensions – at least – but those are largely undetectable as, if they exist, the tests required to prove their existence require “inaccessible energy scales”. So one might argue that if those dimensions really are “real existing things” we might never be able to prove that they exist but they might still produce various significant phenomena – possibly even consciousness – that are lost in the noise of imprecise measurements.

                What those extra physical dimensions produce are the forces – electromagnetism, weak and strong nuclear forces, possibly gravity – that exist at accessible energy scales. There are no extra dimensions left to produce consciousness… 

                /@

              • Posted December 16, 2011 at 4:31 am | Permalink

                Steersman, if you are going to reference Sam Harris’ “An Atheist Manifesto” you should at least do him the courtesy of READING IT FIRST. Had you done so you would know that he had his tongue firmly in his cheek when he chose that title. In order to help you rectify this deficiency I will provide you with a link:

                http://www.truthdig.com/dig/item/200512_an_atheist_manifesto/

              • tomh
                Posted December 16, 2011 at 11:32 am | Permalink

                Somewhat similar to theists

                You have a very odd way of looking at this. None of the things my atheist friends disagree on have anything to do with their atheism. They don’t believe in God, therefore they qualify as atheists, at least to most people. Philosophical underpinnings are not needed. Why you find it necessary to bring in so many extraneous ideas to define atheism, ideas that have nothing to do with nonbelief in God, is a mystery.

              • Steersman
                Posted December 16, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

                Ant Allan said,

                There are no extra dimensions left to produce consciousness …

                Wasn’t suggesting that consciousness was produced in dimensions other than the postulated extra ones, only that other phenomena in or consequences of such extra dimensions could be the explanation for and source of consciousness. Seems to me that there wouldn’t be any necessity for string theory if the world could be adequately explained by forces that already “exist at accessible energy scales”.

              • Steersman
                Posted December 16, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

                Bernard Hurley said,

                Steersman, if you are going to reference Sam Harris’ “An Atheist Manifesto” you should at least do him the courtesy of READING IT FIRST.

                Sorry, it was late and I didn’t have time to do more than reference the link in the Wikipedia article; I shall rectify that shortly – thanks for the heads-up.

                However, one might suggest that if he actually felt impelled to write that “manifesto” to begin with he must have felt also that there were more than a few in the community who were guilty of the implied transgressions.

              • Steersman
                Posted December 16, 2011 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

                tomh said,

                Why you find it necessary to bring in so many extraneous ideas to define atheism, ideas that have nothing to do with nonbelief in God, is a mystery.

                Shouldn’t be. For elaboration and clarification you might want to take a look at this post by Massimo Pigliucci on the difference between science and philosophy. While his credibility in this neck of the woods seems unfortunately not terribly high, and while I disagree with a number of his positions – notably on the definition and utility of the concept of supernaturalism which I think is an oxymoron (anything that exists must of necessity be natural even if it is not accessible to science or even reason) – I still think he makes a great many cogent and useful observations. Apropos of which is his salient quote of Dennett in the same post:

                … as Daniel Dennett put it in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, “There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.”

                Given that atheism seems to be crucially dependent on a scientific, if not a scientism, point of view and that science is based on any number of hypothetical premises – “philosophical baggage” – I would argue that atheism, particularly as a belief system, rests on the same, somewhat problematical, foundations.

                Some ancient famous philosopher supposedly said something to the effect that an unexamined life is not worth living; consistent with Dennett’s perspective I would extend that and suggest that unexamined premises are not worth subscribing to, much less believing in – and ones that we don’t even know that we have or that influence our actions are even more problematic.

              • Posted December 16, 2011 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

                Three is no such thing as “science” only studies with specific data and methodologies. This is a straw man.

                Neither is there anything like a “scientific method” — it varies and is evolving all the time.

                What people refer to as “science” is always specific data on narrow and specific topics and predictions — more data.

              • tomh
                Posted December 16, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

                steersman wrote:

                Given that atheism seems to be crucially dependent on a scientific, if not a scientism, point of view

                I guess that’s our difference then, because that just sounds silly to me. My atheism, which is going on sixty years now, is not crucially dependent on science or anything else, except common sense. Nonbelief doesn’t require science, or philosophy, or anything but common sense.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted December 16, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

                Some might argue that your “common sense” represents an unexamined philosophical point of view.

                My atheism comes from the point of view that if there is no compelling evidence that a thing exists, then there is no reason to think that thing exists. I suppose one could call that a philosophical position. I call it “sanity”.

              • Posted December 16, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

                Are we accusing doctors of “scientism?” It’s a silly straw man.

              • Steersman
                Posted December 16, 2011 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

                tomh said,

                Nonbelief doesn’t require science, or philosophy, or anything but common sense.

                I’ll certainly agree that common sense has quite a range of application and can generally be sufficient justification for disbelieving in the existence of anthropomorphic gods. But it also has its limitations – as, for example, things like various visual illusions, such as the spinning dancer, will adequately illustrate – and generally, in my view at least, comes up short when we’re talking of “the metaphorical and pantheistic god of the physicists” that Dawkins refers to.

              • Steersman
                Posted December 16, 2011 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

                sleeprunning said,

                There is no such thing as “science” only studies with specific data and methodologies.

                Yes, I’ll quite agree that “science” is rather a broad classification and its attributes and “methods” cover quite a range and are not easily, if at all, quantified or described to the last decimal.

                But to qualify it as a straw man or deny there is any utility in the term seems a bridge much too far; you might as well argue that all such general terms, labels for classes actually – whether “Christian” or “atheist” or literally thousands of others – are all equally straw men and should be purged from the language. Good luck with that program ….

              • tomh
                Posted December 16, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

                truthspeaker wrote:

                Some might argue that your “common sense” represents an unexamined philosophical point of view.

                I wouldn’t deny it.

                …I call it “sanity”.

                Sounds sane to me.

              • Posted December 16, 2011 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

                Steersman:

                I’ll certainly agree that common sense has quite a range of application and can generally be sufficient justification for disbelieving in the existence of anthropomorphic gods.

                This is crazy. You don’t need a justification for disbelieving in the existence of things for which there is no evidence.

                But it also has its limitations – …. in my view at least, comes up short when we’re talking of “the metaphorical and pantheistic god of the physicists” that Dawkins refers to.

                que?

                Oh I think I get it! You appear to think atheism is a sort of religion consisting in the followers of the Blessed St. Richard. That idea seems to me to be somewhat on the loony side of bat-shit crazy.

              • Steersman
                Posted December 17, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

                Bernard Hurley said,

                You don’t need a justification for disbelieving in the existence of things for which there is no evidence.

                I think that that is generally what is known as a “common sense” view. But it doesn’t take much effort or thought to show that it has its limitations:

                Common-sense ideas tend to relate to events within human experience (such as good will), and thus appear commensurate with human scale. Humans lack any common-sense intuition of, for example, the behavior of the universe at subatomic distances [see Quantum mechanics], or of speeds approaching that of light [see Special relativity]. Often ideas that may be considered to be true by common sense are in fact false.

                In addition, if you really wanted to attenuate your ignorance somewhat, you might want to take a look at the Wikipedia article on absence of evidence and its sidekick, evidence of absence.

                You appear to think atheism is a sort of religion consisting in the followers of the Blessed St. Richard.

                Close but no cigar. In case you hadn’t noticed I discussed the definitions for religion here in this thread and by one of them it seems that one could quite reasonably characterize atheism – at least as practiced by a significant portion of its more dogmatic adherents – as a religion, metaphorically speaking at least. While I have only checked two such definitions – from Merriam-Webster and American Heritage – and while one might argue that they, being American dictionaries, were prejudiced and corrupted by a Christian fundamentalist fifth column, I would think that you might have an uphill battle to convince them, though you’re welcome to try, that they too are “on the loony side of bat-shit crazy”.

              • tomh
                Posted December 17, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

                Steersman quoted:
                Humans lack any common-sense intuition of, for example, the behavior of the universe at subatomic distances [see Quantum mechanics], or of speeds approaching that of light [see Special relativity]. Often ideas that may be considered to be true by common sense are in fact false.

                Who in the world said that common sense was sufficient to deal with quantum mechanics, or relativity. I said common sense was enough to dismiss claims that are made that fairies, or zombies, or some other imaginary beings exist, claims for which there is not a shred of evidence. Why you would extrapolate this to imply that I think that common sense can explain the origin of the universe, or whatever, is a mystery. There is evidence for the speed of light, for subatomic particles, and the other phenomena you’re trying to bring in. There’s not a particle of evidence for invisible beings that create worlds and act outside of natural causes – the idea is ridiculous and common sense is all that’s needed to dismiss such ideas.

              • Steersman
                Posted December 17, 2011 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

                tomh said,

                Steersman quoted: ….. There’s not a particle of evidence for invisible beings that create worlds and act outside of natural causes – the idea is ridiculous and common sense is all that’s needed to dismiss such ideas.

                It would help greatly if you could actually read a little more closely and try comprehending what I’ve said.

                All, and more, of what you stated I quoted was in fact addressed to Bernard Hurley and pertained to what he had said. What you had said earlier – “Nonbelief doesn’t require science, or philosophy, or anything but common sense” – was pretty much of what you said above and for the second time. And my response the first time, as it is the second time, was that “common sense … can generally be sufficient justification for disbelieving in the existence of anthropomorphic gods”, but it falls short for “the metaphorical and pantheistic god of the physicists”.

                Or maybe you’d care to take a stab at trying to “dismiss such ideas”, particularly in light of the fact that:

                Einstein was not religious in the conventional sense, but he liked to use God as a metaphor for expressing deep questions of existence. [The Mind of God; Paul Davies; pg 161]

              • Posted December 18, 2011 at 12:06 am | Permalink

                I said:

                You don’t need a justification for disbelieving in the existence of things for which there is no evidence.

                Steersman replied:

                I think that that is generally what is known as a “common sense” view. But it doesn’t take much effort or thought to show that it has its limitations: …

                It has absolutely nothing to do with common sense. To say that E is evidence for P precisely is to say that E gives some sort of warrant for belief in P. To say there is no evidence for P precisely is to say that there is no warrant for belief in P. To use Hitch’s phrase “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

                Rationality, it seems to me, is a matter of proportioning one’s beliefs to the evidence. It is clearly an ideal but something one can at least try to do.

                Steersman said:

                In addition, if you really wanted to attenuate your ignorance somewhat, you might want to take a look at the Wikipedia article on absence of evidence and its sidekick, evidence of absence.

                What a beautiful phrase “attenuate your ignorance”. If anyone asks me what I am doing at the Philosophy Festival later today I’ll say “I’m attenuating my ignorance!”

                It may surprise you to know that I don’t give a damn what it says in Wikipedia, that fount of all wisdom. However if you have a rational objection to what I have said about evidence and belief, I would very much like to know what it is.

                Steerman said:

                In case you hadn’t noticed I discussed the definitions for religion here in this thread and by one of them it seems that one could quite reasonably characterize atheism – at least as practiced by a significant portion of its more dogmatic adherents – as a religion, metaphorically speaking at least. While I have only checked two such definitions – from Merriam-Webster and American Heritage – and while one might argue that they, being American dictionaries, were prejudiced and corrupted by a Christian fundamentalist fifth column, …

                Now this really is bat-shit crazy! I have been an atheist for most of my life, I have never “practiced” atheism, and I have absolutely no idea what you could possibly mean by a “dogmatic adherent” of atheism could be. As for Christian fundamentalists, they are completely off my radar. I hadn’t even heard of people like southern baptists until about a decade ago.

                I’ll have to finish now as I’m off to discuss philosophy with people who know what they’re talking about. But one piece of advice: If you want to be taken seriously stop looking in dictionaries and cutting and pasting irrelevant stuff about quantum mechanics or relativity theory.

              • Steersman
                Posted December 18, 2011 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

                Bernard Hurley said,

                It has absolutely nothing to do with common sense. …. To say there is no evidence for P precisely is to say that there is no warrant for belief in P.

                “But if you got a warrant, I guess you’re gonna come in”

                And, if you’ll excuse me for looking in the dictionary once again, “warrant” means “justification for an action or a belief” and “justification” means “reasonable grounds for a complaint, defense, etc.” So you’ve said, more or less, “a reason for belief in P”. Which, in being apparently the basis of our legal system, would seem to qualify as an important element of “the basic level of practical knowledge and judgment that we all need to help us live in a reasonable and safe way”. Which in turn happens to be the Cambridge Dictionary’s definition of common-sense.

                Rationality, it seems to me, is a matter of proportioning one’s beliefs to the evidence.

                Yes, I quite agree entirely with that. But my point, again, is there is a great amount of evidence to justify believing, actively even, in the non-existence of anthropomorphic gods, but the case is very much less clear for metaphorical or pantheistic or panentheistic ones.

                I have never “practiced” atheism, and I have absolutely no idea what you could possibly mean by a “dogmatic adherent” of atheism could be.

                Massimo Pigliucci has what I would consider some reasonable examples of both the “normal” practice of atheism and some pathological – i.e., dogmatic – variations of it here, here, and here.

                As for Christian fundamentalists, they are completely off my radar.

                That they are off your radar – whether because it doesn’t work much over the horizon or because you have your head in the sand – doesn’t mean they’re not there nor makes their depredations any less problematic, pernicious or pervasive. Apropos of which you might take a look at this from Jason Rosenhouse on Gingrich and the separation of Church and State.

                If you want to be taken seriously stop looking in dictionaries …

                That looks to me like an attempt to evade the question of whether you think the editors of the Merriam-Webster and American Heritage dictionaries were “bat-shit crazy” or not for including that particular definition in the list, i.e. “4. A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion”, above. And likewise with the question as to whether that definition might reasonably be applied to “atheism”, at least some manifestations or practices of it.

                … and cutting and pasting irrelevant stuff about quantum mechanics or relativity theory.

                Both of those examples were provided by Wikipedia – parenthetically, that you apparently have an aversion to that source looks a little elitist, a little ivory-tower-ish – simply to illustrate their contention – quite a reasonable one, I think – that common-sense has its limitations. A contention that you seem to agree with except when that idea calls into question the scope of what you would apparently consider common-sense.

  11. One of those people
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    “I’m surprised that Baggini is surprised.”

    I’m not.

    This is, after all, the Guardian – a newspaper whose colunmists don’t recognise the existence of anything that doesn’t bark, do 60mpg, come in recycled packaging or save the whales.

    The thoughts and opinions of normal people have long been beyond them and their readership.

    I actually feel sorry for him – it must have been a scary revelation that there is a whole 90% of the population with a different opinion to him, not only that but it is one which they hold with conviction.

    Brrr…

    OOTP

  12. Peter Beattie
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    » Eric MacDonald:
    “I could have told him that”

    But that wouldn’t (and shouldn’t, really) have convinced anybody—nullius in verba, after all. To his enormous credit, Baggini produced some actual data that could adjudicate the question at issue. Well done him!

    • David Leech
      Posted December 12, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

      +1

    • Dan L.
      Posted December 12, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

      1. The quality of the data produced by Baggini is, as Baggini himself admits in the article, very much substandard. As he says, it’s no more than indicative.
      2. Why should we pat him on the back now? Gnus were telling him this exact thing months ago and his response was to demonize gnus and dismiss their views of religion as “naive.” He should apologize for being temperamental about being the slow one in class. No kudos deserved.

      • Darth Dog
        Posted December 12, 2011 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

        I worry a lot less about where people start out in the discussion and a lot more about where they end up. The guy had a position. He went out and got some data (pretty rad thing for a philosopher to do!). The data caused him to reevaluate his position. Now he’s going where the data is leading him. Seems like that is all that you can ask from anyone. So kudos to him.

        • Dan L.
          Posted December 13, 2011 at 9:09 am | Permalink

          Fair enough, though don’t you think it would be even more laudable for Mr. Baggini to apologize those he excoriated for being correct in the first place?

      • Sajanas
        Posted December 13, 2011 at 9:28 am | Permalink

        I personally wonder if this series of articles is merely his way of doing a long, drawn out apology (or capitulation) to Gnu Atheists for his earlier articles, in a way that he thinks will allow the religious people who would otherwise criticize him to see that he has reached this position logically, and taking their views into account.

        Of course, what he doesn’t realize is that I don’t think religious people really care. Dan Dennett is already as nice a person and writer as one could hope for, yet he’s still labeled included in the list with the other ‘strident’ people.

        • Posted December 13, 2011 at 9:58 am | Permalink

          Self flagellation, mortification and a trip to Lourdes would seem more appropriate.

  13. Newish Gnu
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    So, what ARE the church-going habits of sophisticated theologians anyway?

    Seriously. Anyone who has spent more than a few months in most varieties of churches would know what Baggini just learned. That suggests to me that he does not have a passing familiarity with church services and the people who attend them.

    Same for Haught. When he told Dr. Coyne to “get out more” I laughed out loud. Haught came off as a geek trying to fit in at a sports bar by talking about how many home runs the Green Bay Packers scored.

    • Newish Gnu
      Posted December 12, 2011 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

      Not intended as derogatory to geeks, being as I am one.

      I did, however, put some effort into teaching my geek son rudimentary stuff about sports so he wouldn’t embarrass himself with talk of home runs in football. For a long time, he thought Washington Redskins were a baseball team.

      • PeteJohn
        Posted December 12, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

        They should probably take up baseball. They couldn’t do much worse.

        • Newish Gnu
          Posted December 13, 2011 at 6:07 am | Permalink

          You make a good point. And the nearby Baltimore Orioles can’t seem to play baseball. We have the makings of a grand experiment.

    • gr8hands
      Posted December 12, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      When I was affiliated with a theological seminary, there was only 1 member of the entire faculty that actually admitted to attending church.

      Ivory tower indeed.

      • Newish Gnu
        Posted December 12, 2011 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

        Ah, that is interesting.

        I wonder if theologians think the practitioners are doing it rong.

        • Ray Moscow
          Posted December 13, 2011 at 4:30 am | Permalink

          My usual reply to those who claim religious extremists don’t understand their own religion is to tell them to get on a plane and go explain it to them.

          Generally speaking, the religious nuts do know what the Bible or Koran says — and even worse, they believe it.

          Context and nuance don’t mean squat when you’ve got Almighty God or Allah telling you to do something.

        • gr8hands
          Posted December 14, 2011 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

          Most theologians in seminaries are functional atheists.

          • Dermot C
            Posted December 14, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

            Really? Evidence? Link?

            How fascinating, if true.

  14. Posted December 12, 2011 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    I can understand why he is surprised. My story: I grew up believing the Bible stuff but as I became older and more educated, I began to see it as metaphorical (while in high school and more so in college).

    So I assumed that all of this stuff was just like the fairy tales and fables that we all know (e. g., most of us know what “cry wolf” and “tortoise and the hare” mean).

    I was astonished to find that many of the adults still believed what I had come to see as “little kid stuff”.

    Then again, I eventually evolved into an atheist so I suppose my trajectory wasn’t the usual one.

    • articulett
      Posted December 12, 2011 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

      I, too, am surprised to see grown adults proud of their magical thinking. I think we need to step up the mockery…

      This overarching respect for faith has lead to adults that feel proud of their irrationality.

      I would prefer an adult population that is as private with their magical beliefs as they are with their fetishes. I’ll be glad to adults are rational until/unless they let the “crazy” slip.

  15. RFW
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Baggini:

    “academic theology.. [is] all just fancy words without content, much like having a meringue when you’re expecting a meal”

    Well, at least a meringue is tasty. What the academic theologians serve up is more like a puffball mushroom that’s ripened and emitting spores: not tasty at all, if it’s even edible, and spewing undesirable “junk” everywhere.

  16. RFW
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    A meatier comment, after my remark about meringues and puffball mushrooms:

    The core puzzles are then (a) why *do* people belief “that stuff” and (b) is there any psychologically proven way to convince them otherwise?

    In reading comments here, on Pharyngula, and occasionally on Joe.My.God, I’m always interested in the path by which a non-believer arrived at that state. There seem to be two, overlapping categories:

    1. those who are pretty intelligent, have inquiring minds, and having inquired, came away convinced of the untruth of religion.

    2. those who as children were given early exposure to classical mythology and quickly realized that the Bible is not much different.

    What I’d like to see now are confessionals from people who reached unbelief as mature adults instead of as growing children, tales of the influences that slowly took them away from convinced belief.

    • Posted December 12, 2011 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

      I can’t resist plugging the fact that Julian Baggini tells his own story of how he came to be a non-believer in his essay in 50 Voices of Disbelief.

      I’m not sure how surprised he really is by what he’s finding out, since he has a sort of evangelical religious background himself. He started out being raised as a Catholic and got involved in evangelical Methodism as a teenager.

      But the last page of his essay is interesting on this – it does sort of segue into this recent stuff that he’s been doing, in that he is worrying there about how literal or coherent the beliefs of Christians might be, and why they do not necessarily give up when confronted with the fact that many of their beliefs can’t be literally true.

  17. Alex SL
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    I’m surprised that Baggini is surprised.

    That is indeed puzzling. But it is always just so nice to see somebody who is willing to accept evidence, and publicly adjust their position. Too many would see that as a loss of face.

  18. Ken Pidcock
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    I’m kind of chastised by this myself. When I was a Christian nonbeliever, I guess I imagined that I was surrounded by people just like me who, just like me, chose to reserve their skepticism in conversation. And I certainly did meet a few, though they tended to be quite elderly. If I had truly been aware of just how rare that perspective is, I wonder if I would have held it for so long.

    • GBJames
      Posted December 12, 2011 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

      “Christian nonbeliever” = “closeted atheist”?

      • Ken Pidcock
        Posted December 12, 2011 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, ‘fraid so. If you’d have asked me at the time, I’d have all kinds of arguments about sustaining tradition and such. But, truth to tell, I’m guessing that I wanted to be thought of as a good person and, in the culture with which I identified, good people are people of faith. Pathetic, eh?

        • GBJames
          Posted December 12, 2011 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

          ‘Tis the escape that counts. Nothing pathetic in that!

        • Posted December 12, 2011 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

          I sometimes wonder how many more of you there are out there. How many are just going through the motions, not wanting to be the one that says, “yes, but we all know it’s just a story, really… right?”

        • Dan L.
          Posted December 13, 2011 at 9:18 am | Permalink

          Naah, I think a lot of atheists underestimate the degree to which human beings are social creatures and automatically seek validation from those around them. The very strength we need to stop worrying about what some people think of us is drawn from what we believe other people think of us, so alienating all one’s friends and family in one go is kind of out of the question for most people. Sometimes we need a gradual path instead of a sharp climb to get to higher ground and it sounds like that’s what you found.

          • InfiniteImprobabilit
            Posted December 17, 2011 at 4:01 am | Permalink

            Well, I’ve been an atheist since I was a teenager. I make no secret of it, though I don’t emphasise it (this is New Zealand by the way, where there’s no stigma against atheism) – BUT I haven’t told my wife, who gives Jesus his orders every morning. She knows I don’t pray and I’m not very religious, but not that I’m a full-blown atheist – and why upset her for no purpose? Of course this means that if I die before her, I’ll get the full religious funeral with prayers and all the works, but so what, I don’t care, I’ll be dead.

            If I were able to snap my fingers and cancel my wife’s religious belief, I’m not sure if I would – it’s part of her world and doesn’t do her any great harm, and what would she replace it with? But this is a very specific and personal circumstance, and is different for every individual.

  19. Posted December 12, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    Given the title and orientation of this blog, I’d be interested in the author’s opinion of the argument here:

    http://strikelawyer.wordpress.com/2010/12/21/evolution-is-as-evolution-does/

    • Posted December 12, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

      Does the phrase, “a load of fetid dingos’ kidneys,” mean anything to you?

      /@

    • H.H.
      Posted December 12, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

      Um, that links to a lawyer offering his uneducated speculation that the Earth must be young because he just can’t figure how scientists could have dated things into the billions of years. What can one say? The post displays both a staggering amount of arrogance and laziness. He criticizes the findings of geology without bothering to educate himself on even the basics. As an argument against evolution, it’s stupid and baseless.

      • Christian
        Posted December 12, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

        Heh, a lawyer who is scientifically illiterate.

        Now I am surprised ;)

      • Posted December 12, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

        Actually, the argument that was being made can be considered quite apart from the “findings of geology”, which is the whole point. It may be that the findings of geology trump more generalized observations, but what I was wondering was whether someone around here with your opinions could even rationally consider the generalized observations in the first place.

        Alas, I no longer wonder.

        • H.H.
          Posted December 12, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

          The only thing on display was an argument from personal incredulity, which is a logical fallacy. Why you think it needs to be considered apart from the actual evidence scientists have used to date the Earth is beyond me. If that lawyer is genuinely curious as to what that evidence entails, all he needs to do is crack a textbook and educate himself. But at this point his musings are so ignorant they don’t really merit a response.

        • Posted December 12, 2011 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

          Here’s the money quote from the linked article, so that others don’t waste their time reading it:

          But based on observable rates of change, there is no such thing as a physical object that will be anything like what it is now in even 65 thousand years, to say nothing of 1 million; and 65 million is just laughable. You can’t even think it. It’s impossible.

          That’s basically it. I don’t know how scientists figure that out, therefore it’s impossible. *facepalm*

    • Posted December 12, 2011 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

      The earth is so dynamic and so prone to convulsive events, like earth quakes and volcanoes and powerful storms and all kinds of other forces that tend to deteriorate it

      That’s pretty much all you need to see of the argument to figure out it’s nonsense. It’s nothing but anthropocentric arguments from incredulity.

      Of course, you’ve demonstrated that were were just here to crap on the carpet and run away, so I’m not sure why I’m bothering.

      • Posted December 12, 2011 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

        Well, without getting too far into the geological basis with radiometric dating and whatnot, the idea is that when you look at very old objects of a known age, like say the pyramids, the rate of decay implies that physical objects can’t remain anything like intact for millions of years. This is an empirical observation, or maybe an extrapolation or inference from an empirical observation.

        What is more, it would be in my view a reasonable extrapolation or inference from empirical observation, which is a long way from saying it is correct, but would also certainly take it out of the category of an “argument from incredulity”, which is more akin to what I have seen coming from the commenters here than anything I said.

        I’d happily concede that the limited and very generalized observation I cited would be inferior data to something scientifically valid and more detailed, which radiometric dating might be. But in the meantime I thought it might be interesting to bounce the idea off of people who have a very strong conviction that evolution is true.

        The reaction from here, though, has been rather uninteresting: the usual internet snark, a lot of insults and contempt. It may be that people here are the real dogmatists who are incapable of entertaining even so much as a fleeting kernel of a thought that might in any way challenge any of their usual suppositions or conclusions.

        By way of contrast, when it is established that, say, lead-206 is solely the product of the radioactive decay of uranium and that the ratio of uranium to lead-206 in a rock therefore provides a basis for concluding that the rock is a certain age, that all seems very reasonable to me. I would never refer to that as “nonsense” or say something like: “Well that impossible; you obviously haven’t read the Bible which says that the entire world is a mere 6000 years old, you ignorant moron.”

        But this is basically the tack taken by the commenters here in reverse.

        Preaching to the choir gets boring after a while. I should think such scientifically astute individuals would know that.

        • Steersman
          Posted December 12, 2011 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

          Well, without getting too far into the geological basis with radiometric dating and whatnot, the idea is that when you look at very old objects of a known age, like say the pyramids, the rate of decay implies that physical objects can’t remain anything like intact for millions of years. This is an empirical observation, or maybe an extrapolation or inference from an empirical observation.

          Seems to me, just shooting from the hip, that you’re not really comparing apples and apples. Pyramids exposed to all sorts of environmental conditions – primarily wide extremes of temperature – is a very different case from some bones that are buried under tons of sand which basically fixes them in location. In addition that removes them from the environmental extremes as well as leads to fossilization which presumably preserves the artifacts – though I’m not very clear on that myself.

          But the point is that there are very different processes in play so that your “empirical observations” would appear to be largely irrelevant. Seems to me that a few minutes with Wikipedia would clarify and confirm that pretty quickly and thoroughly.

        • Posted December 13, 2011 at 12:12 am | Permalink

          It may be that people here are the real dogmatists who are incapable of entertaining even so much as a fleeting kernel of a thought that might in any way challenge any of their usual suppositions or conclusions.

          Or it may be that the argument is so asinine that nobody here feels it necessary to spell out for you why it is wrong. And I’m going to demonstrate why as briefly as I can.

          (1) Where do you get the data to assert that the pyramids’ rate of decay would imply they can’t remain intact for millions of years? Are you talking about the pyramid structure itself, or its contents? How are you defining “intact” anyway? It sounds like you’re pulling that whole idea out of your fecal cavity.

          (2) Whatever the case with the pyramids, what are you comparing them to? Fossils? Those are buried in the earth; obviously they haven’t remained exactly as they were when the animal died, otherwise they’d be corpses, not fossils. Fossils have to be trapped in a relatively non-reactive, anaerobic environment; hence completely dissimilar to the environment the pyramids are in. Not all “physical objects” are the same.

          There. That was a good 15 minutes of my time. I learned nothing. You are clearly trolling (btw. posting a link to your own blog pretending to be linking to an article you found? classy) – so you learned nothing either. And I barely scratched the surface of the fetid pile of dingo’s kindeys you call an argument.

          And that is why no one has responded to your questions. It’s not because we’re arrogant. It’s because you’re arrogant; arrogant enough to think that your 2 minute thought experiment is somehow better than over 150 years of research by cumulatively thousands, maybe millions, of the smartest people on the planet.

          • Posted December 13, 2011 at 2:39 am | Permalink

            +1!

          • Posted December 13, 2011 at 7:19 am | Permalink

            I haven’t disputed that many very bright people over many years have supported the idea of evolution with research and data. But you’ll have to deal with the fact that a lot of very bright people for a long time thought the earth was flat. Facts are facts. It isn’t arrogant to notice.

            I never pretended I wasn’t the author of the post in question. People might not have noticed that right away, but that’s their error, not mine. The people here seem to jump to unwarranted conclusions a lot. Not very scientific.

            “Intact” is a carefully chosen word. The pyramids, or for that matter the acropolis or the coliseum, are ancient objects of a known and undisputed age, not fossilized, and remain intact although substantially decayed from their original condition. In other words, they are still recognizably what they always have been, though obviously decayed versions.

            Their age is in the few thousand year range. Based on the rate of decay, I believe it’s reasonable to project that they might remain intact for another 20,000 years. 50,000 years at the outside. I think 100,000 years would be an unreasonable estimate based on how much they have decayed in about 5,000 years or less.

            Anyway, where I have a good deal of uncertainty regarding facts is, first: are my observations of the rates of decay at least somewhat in line with what they really are, or am I way off? Is there research that anyone is aware of on that point?

            Second, assuming for purposes of discussion that it’s the former and that I’m not way off, does fossilization arrest the process of decay entirely, so that fossilized objects are essentially eternal and do not decay at all? Is anyone here aware of any scientific data regarding the rates of decay, if any, of fossilized objects and how it compares to objects that are not fossilized?

            This, by the way, is how you engage in a possibly fruitful and enlightening discussion, instead of mindless contests to see who can come up with insulting terms like “fetid” to describe someone else or their ideas.

            • Tulse
              Posted December 13, 2011 at 7:31 am | Permalink

              Let’s be clear — what you are proposing is, essentially, a massive conspiracy on the part of scientists across a huge number of disciplines, all designed to fool the public into thinking the world is older than it is, for motivations that are obscure at best. Either that, or you are suggesting that hundreds of thousands of trained and highly educated professionals with enormous experience in very technical fields are and have been unable to recognize basic issues that you have “discovered” by sitting in your armchair and pondering for five minutes.

              Given this, I’m not sure why you are so surprised at the reaction here. Your inability to grasp science, or to trust that there are others who do, is not really our problem. There are a ton of resources out there for someone to learn the basics of how we know how old things are. I’d suggest you start there.

              • Posted December 13, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

                >>Let’s be clear — what you are proposing is, essentially, a massive conspiracy on the part of scientists across a huge number of disciplines, all designed to fool the public into thinking the world is older than it is..<<

                Not at all. But even if I was, if some very bright people all worked really hard and agreed on something that turned out to be wrong, it wouldn't be the first time. And it wouldn't be my fault, or cause to be upset with me.

              • Tulse
                Posted December 13, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

                You’ve dodged the issue, JMRJ — you are either saying that all of science is intentionally wrong, or that scientists are so stupid they don’t recognize the truth of your armchair musings. Which do you propose?

              • Posted December 13, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

                @Tulse: I have to reject that dichotomy. I don’t think either that scientists as a group are stupid or that they are intentionally wrong. I’m not even sure they’re wrong at all.

            • GBJames
              Posted December 13, 2011 at 7:42 am | Permalink

              I will for the moment assume that you are being honest.

              Your confusion stems in part from your notion of “rate of decay” as meaningful when discussing, fossils and human-made artifacts. This is a meaningless idea.

              Do this thought experiment: Take two pieces of plywood. Paint them both with bright blue water color paint. Let them dry. Put one in your basement. Leave the other outdoors in the weather. Look at the pair of them after 3 or four months.

              What is the rate of decay of blue water color paint on plywood?

              “Rate of decay” is meaningful when talking about radioactive atomic decay. Using it as you have is inappropriate.

              OK?

              • Posted December 13, 2011 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

                I agree that rates of decay, or “change” if you prefer, can be greatly affected by burying, fossilization and for all I know other things. The question I have is – how great? 100 fold? 1,000 fold? 10,000 fold?

                Is there any point at which it becomes extremely implausible and requires a more specific demonstration? I should think so.

                Is there any scientific data on the issue? Has anyone studied it? I don’t know, but I’d like to find out.

              • GBJames
                Posted December 13, 2011 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

                Having given you the benefit of the doubt in my previous response, reading your response I can safely conclude that you are trolling. You put not a whit of thought into that response. You post questions which are not honest questions, not even bothering to define what your terms are.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted December 14, 2011 at 8:20 am | Permalink

                I agree that rates of decay, or “change” if you prefer, can be greatly affected by burying, fossilization and for all I know other things. The question I have is – how great? 100 fold? 1,000 fold? 10,000 fold?

                It depends what the object is made of, what it’s buried in, and what happens to that land.

                The pyramids don’t just “decay” on their own. What you see as “decay” was caused by wind erosion, water erosion, and people walking on them.

              • Tulse
                Posted December 14, 2011 at 8:26 am | Permalink

                The pyramids at Giza also had their original limestone cladding scavenged (it mostly ended up as part of Cairo). The “decay” we currently see is by no means “natural”.

              • GBJames
                Posted December 14, 2011 at 8:33 am | Permalink

                @truthspeaker: It is clear that there is no point in responding to JMRJ’s “questions”, except perhaps with ridicule. They are not honestly asked. They are trolls intended to suggest controversy and confusion where none exists. An honest question results from honest ignorance. What JMRJ repeatedly exhibits is willful ignorance. And willful ignorance is just lying.

            • Peter Beattie
              Posted December 13, 2011 at 7:57 am | Permalink

              » JMRJ
              But you’ll have to deal with the fact that a lot of very bright people for a long time thought the earth was flat. Facts are facts. It isn’t arrogant to notice.

              What is arrogant, though, is to present mere assertions as facts without even bothering to educate yourself about the issue. No appreciable number of very bright people who thought about the problem for any length of time and actually investigated the question have thought that the earth is flat—precisely because you immediately stumble upon contrary evidence, such as things gradually disappearing from the ground up behind the horizon, the always curved shadow of the earth during lunar eclipses, different visible stars depending on your location, etc. The ancient Greeks of more than 2,500 years ago are on record as knowing about the sphericity of the earth, and they seem to be the first ones to have seriously thought about the problem and to have left records for us to read.

              This (i.e. giving supporting evidence and arguments for putative facts), by the way, is how you engage in a possibly fruitful and enlightening discussion. (Which was another rather arrogant thing of you to say.)

              • Dermot C
                Posted December 13, 2011 at 8:32 am | Permalink

                Glad you pointed that out, PB.

                In fact the Flat Earth Society dates from early Victorian times, influenced by the moon-faced loon Samuel Rowbotham, who wrote a screed entitled, surprise, surprise, “The inconsistency of Modern Astronomy and its Opposition to the Scriptures!!”.

                Tells you all you need to know of an author who inserts not one but two exclamation marks into the title of his book.

                By the way, here’s Plato from 360 BCE. “Wherefore he made the world in the form of a globe, round as from a lathe, having its extremes in every direction equidistant from the centre, the most perfect and the most like itself of all figures…”.

                1-0 to the spheroidists, I think.

            • H.H.
              Posted December 13, 2011 at 11:29 am | Permalink

              JMRJ, if you had been honestly curious and asked what the best evidence there is for an old Earth, you would have gotten a very different response. But that isn’t what you did. You wrote a very ignorant post declaring the scientifically determined age of the Earth to be untrue, thereby insinuating almost all working scientists to be either stupid or dishonest for not realizing something that became obvious to you after 5 minutes of daydreaming.

              When you start out as a blowhard know-it-all, you don’t get to whine later that people were mean to you. Try a little humility next time. Assume there are people in the world who might actually know more than you and seek them out. Cite real scientists and not creationist propaganda. Take the time to learn what science knows and how we know it. It’s not secret knowledge. They are more than willing to show you the evidence.

              Because it was the evidence that changed people’s minds. Geologists used to think the Earth was young as well, but eventually the evidence of an Earth billions of years old was too compelling to ignore. Asking whether scientists are capable of “considering the possibility” the Earth is young is viewed as an inane question because they already have. That’s the view that was overturned. Do you know the reasons why? No? Now you see why we say you are ignorant. It’s not meant as an insult, but as a simple statement of fact. You don’t even know enough to know you don’t know.

              • Posted December 13, 2011 at 11:52 am | Permalink

                The Dunning–Kruger effect in action?

                /@

              • Posted December 13, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

                Well, the whole point of posing the question here was to approach things from an alternate point of view and see what people over here came up with. Everyone assumed that I knew nothing about how geologists arrive at their dating estimates, but it isn’t true that I know nothing about it (which is not to say that I have any degree of expertise, either), I just wanted to avoid the well worn issues surrounding all that and try a different angle.

                This is not arrogance, unless you make further assumptions, such as that I don’t care what all those scientists have done, or believe myself to be superior to them, which is also untrue.

                What I do know nothing about and was hoping someone here could help with, is whether there is any body of scientific work on rates of change in physical objects, or measuring the effects of fossilization on rates of change or decay.

              • H.H.
                Posted December 13, 2011 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

                Everyone assumed that I knew nothing about how geologists arrive at their dating estimates, but it isn’t true that I know nothing about it.

                No, it’s worse than that. Considering that you cited Answers in Genesis as a source on dating methods, I have to assume you are worse than uninformed, you are misinformed. Forgetting what you think you already know would probably be a step in the right direction.

              • Posted December 13, 2011 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

                @HH:

                The whole point is to set aside whatever controversies there may be about radiometric dating and consider the problem from another angle. I haven’t offered any opinion on those arguments; I’m exploring a different argument that has nothing to do with them so I can see where it goes with people who are presumably knowledgeable enough to show me a few things that might develop the argument a little better, or on the other hand show that I should abandon the argument because it’s not illuminating or useful.

                I haven’t seen any creationist pose the problem that I posed, that is, that the extreme ages attributed to some rocks and fossils are inconsistent with observable rates of change. I’ve seen many creationist quibbles about the validity of radiometric dating and related methods. It’s well worn territory and I wanted to shift gears, that’s all.

                Now you might argue that all the disputes about radiometric dating and the fossil record and so on are misinformed and that these methods are conclusively demonstrated as valid and so there is no need to consider any other angles that might imply a different result, or on the other hand might confirm the previous result. It’s a waste of time, in other words.

                But this strikes me as being inconsistent with the spirit of inquiry that is at the heart of science, which would hold that an intelligible line of inquiry is worth pursuing even if it yields no new knowledge, because in that case it tests and confirms knowledge we already have.

                I cited “Answers in Genesis” simply for the proposition that there is some sort of controversy there. I did not indicate that I agreed with the contentions there, or with “creationism” generally. In fact I consider creationism and biblical literalism to be quite misguided. But again, my endeavor was to avoid that discussion entirely and consider a different question, which is not being addressed here, somewhat disappointingly.

              • GBJames
                Posted December 13, 2011 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

                I cited “Answers in Genesis” simply for the proposition that there is some sort of controversy there

                There is no controversy there.

              • tomh
                Posted December 13, 2011 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

                JMRJ wrote:

                I cited “Answers in Genesis” simply for the proposition that there is some sort of controversy there.

                The only controversy is in the minds of creationists. There is no controversy among anyone who looks at the evidence. This whole idea that you’ve found some new way of comparing rates of decay, or whatever you’re talkig about, has nothing to do with the evidence for the age of the earth.

              • Posted December 13, 2011 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

                Well, let’s stipulate that once it is established that lead 206 exists only as the by-product of uranium decay, then radiometric dating becomes strong evidence of extreme age.

                Just as it is also strong evidence of extreme age that we can see light from celestial bodies billions of light years away.

                But strong evidence is not conclusive evidence.

                Thus, for example, if someone then claims that lead 206 does not exist solely as the by-product of the radioactive decay of uranium, or that God saying “Let there be light.” implies that the entire universe came into being ready made, like a TV dinner, and was illuminated all at once, where do you go?

                You can say well, only crazy people take such questions seriously, but then you run up against the fact that science often advances by way of people considering questions that only supposedly crazy people would consider.

                So it would be nice to have something else you could point to, that did not depend upon radiometric dating that confirmed radiometric dating’s accuracy independent of such disputes. And to do that, one option is taking very old things whose ages are known independently of such methods, and say here, look at this, these things age and decay consistently with our estimates of these other things that we measure by way of radiometric dating.

                But the problem is that isn’t true. Objects known to have existed for thousands of years appear to be on a schedule to disintegrate after thousands, or maybe tens of thousands of years.

                Yet if anyone wants to provide observational data suggesting that the pyramids or the coliseum will definitely still be standing 250,000 years from now I’d be interested to see it. But I don’t think such data exist.

                Which is far from disproving the extreme age hypothesis, of course. It just means that an objection to it cannot be overcome. And maybe that’s just the way it is, and things rest there.

              • Posted December 13, 2011 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

                @ JMRJ

                Well, we know that the pyramids and the Colosseum deteriorate over the span of human history, and, I dare say, experts in the conservation of ancient monuments will know quite well what the rates of deterioration are. But (as has already been pointed out!), that tells us nothing about the geological timescales. How is such data even relevant to the longevity of fossils that aren’t exposed to the elements and human wear-and-tear?

                /@

                PS. If someone claims that lead-206 does not exist solely as the by-product of the radioactive decay of uranium-238 they would have to explain why the established facts of nuclear physics are wrong. And that is a much stronger claim. Power companies and submarine crews would be very interested then to know how their reactors continue to work.

                PPS. And this is a typical oversight of creationists and other armchair scientists: The interconnectedness of science: Meaning that you can’t challenge established facts in one domain without considering the repercussions in another.

              • Posted December 13, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

                >>PS. If someone claims that lead-206 does not exist solely as the by-product of the radioactive decay of uranium-238 they would have to explain why the established facts of nuclear physics are wrong.<<

                Maybe you could unpack that a bit. To say that lead 206 does not exist SOLELY as the by-product of uranium decay is not to deny that it can be and is the by-product of uranium decay. Right?

                So why wouldn't the reactor still work?

                But those questions aside, this is actually the issue I was trying to avoid. It would be a lot neater, intellectually speaking, if the objections to extreme age could be answered without getting into radiometric dating. But maybe they can't be.

              • Posted December 13, 2011 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

                Sure! Have you got time for an undergraduate course in nuclear physics? Let’s see what I can do in ten minutes.

                Actually, I’m not sure that lead-206 would still be produced by uranium-238 if it were produced in another way.

                How else could it be produced? Either by another decay chain or by nucleosynthesis (which is the way primordial lead-204 is produced). For either of these scenarios to be true the energies associated with radioactive decay or nuclear fusion would have to be different, and in either case that would mean that the energies associated with nuclear fission would also be different, which would affect the working of a nuclear (fission) reactor.

                (In fact, to change the energies associated with radioactive decay or fusion would require a change in the energies associated with up and down quarks and the strong nuclear force mediated by gluons.

                And that would require a change in symmetry breaking at some point in the primordial universe.

                A lot else might stop working besides!!!)

                /@

              • Posted December 13, 2011 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

                Look, I could confuse you with terms like the rule against perpetuities and perfected security interests and manifest necessity and collateral estoppel, too.

                There should be some way to explain your thoughts to a layman, although maybe not. I would appreciate that kind of explanation if it is possible and doesn’t involve too much effort on your part, bearing in mind that the whole idea was that I was trying to leave aside questions surrounding radiometric dating for now.

                But I do understand that it’s an issue that needs to be addressed eventually, so have at it if you’ve got the time. If not I take no offense. I have no right to impose. I understand that.

              • Tulse
                Posted December 13, 2011 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

                Thus, for example, if someone then claims that lead 206 does not exist solely as the by-product of the radioactive decay of uranium, or that God saying “Let there be light.” implies that the entire universe came into being ready made, like a TV dinner, and was illuminated all at once, where do you go?

                And if someone claims that you are actually living in the Matrix, and everything you see is actually an illusion, where do you go? Seriously, if you are going to engage in radical scepticism about basic aspects of science, it seems only reasonable for you to address the other “what if” scenarios that are typically confined to stoned undergrads.

              • Posted December 13, 2011 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

                In many major cities in the US in the first few decades of the 20th century, perfectly healthy children were put into hospitals and had their tonsils removed even though there was nothing wrong with them, so convinced had some people become that “basic aspects of science” had determined that tonsils were “vestigial”, and modern man was better off without them.

                “Basic aspects of science” is a content impoverished term that you employ as if it were meaningful. Sometimes, to communicate with someone outside your narrow field, you have to figure out how to explain an idea to someone with less specialized knowledge than you may have. Many renowned experts can do this. An inability refusal to do it is not a virtue.

                Unlike throwing barbs and insults it takes some effort, though. You’re not obligated to make the effort, but you don’t do science any favors by not explaining yourself while bringing a discussion to a low level at the same time.

              • Posted December 14, 2011 at 3:00 am | Permalink

                @ JMRJ @ 8:20 pm

                Well, you could use those terms, but a couple of minutes with Google would dispel any confusion.

                I was giving you credit for at least a high school level of understanding of physics; you seem to be familiar with radioactive decay, at least.

                So, what terms caused you confusion?

                /@

              • Tulse
                Posted December 14, 2011 at 6:56 am | Permalink

                JMRJ, you’ve once again avoided the issue. How do you know you’re not in the Matrix? That question makes at least as much sense as the Omphalos Hypothesis you’re advocating (aka “Last Thursdayism”).

                And I’d hardly count the role of tonsils as being part of the basic aspects of science. The physics of radioactive decay is well observed and well understood, and ties into a whole host of other phenomena, some of which serve at the foundation of our technological world. It is simply absurd to post your radical science scepticism on the internet, a product of the very science you dismiss.

            • Posted December 13, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

              mindless contests to see who can come up with insulting terms like “fetid” to describe someone else or their ideas

              For the record, there was no contest as no-one here came up with that term. The phrase that theshortearedowl and I used was coined by the late and truly great Douglas Adams.

              /@

            • John Phillips, FCD
              Posted December 15, 2011 at 2:41 am | Permalink

              JMRJsaid ” But you’ll have to deal with the fact that a lot of very bright people for a long time thought the earth was flat. Facts are facts. It isn’t arrogant to notice.”

              Actually, no they didn’t. Educated people have known since around 300BCE that the Earth wasn’t flat. In fact, it was around that time that the diameter of the Earth was calculated to an accuracy of a couple of percent or so by measuring the angles a stick made at different latitudes at noon and then using trigonometry.

              You haven’t got facts, what you have is simply incredulity based on ignorance. However, ignorance can be cured and even wiki is a good enough starting point for you. Especially if you follow the lists of references at the bottom of any half decent article on a subject. That is if you genuinely want to learn rather than simply speculate wildly based on ignorance or expect us to do the work for you.

              • John Phillips, FCD
                Posted December 15, 2011 at 2:59 am | Permalink

                “stick” above should read “…the shadows of vertical sticks…”. I also should have read more as the point about how long we have known about a spherical Earth has been addressed already.

              • Dermot C
                Posted December 15, 2011 at 3:54 am | Permalink

                @ John Phillips, FCD

                “I also should have read more as the point about how long we have known about a spherical Earth has been addressed already.”

                Well, you were 2 days behind; I calculate that JMRJ is approximately 867,415 days behind in his scientific knowledge.

                I make your atavism, behinditude, discurrentosity about a mere 0.0002% of that of JMRJ. Put another way, you are 4,999 times faster at learning than JMRJ.

                Regards.

              • Dermot C
                Posted December 15, 2011 at 5:27 am | Permalink

                Er, 433,707 times faster. Doh, mea calculpa.

            • TK
              Posted December 16, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

              “But you’ll have to deal with the fact that a lot of very bright people for a long time thought the earth was flat.”

              I’m really sick of people repeating this myth uncritically – the ancient Greeks were able to work out that the world was round and anyone educated knew this. If anyone thought it was flat it certainly wasn’t “a lot of very bright people.”

              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myth_of_the_Flat_Earth

        • Posted December 13, 2011 at 2:46 am | Permalink

          And, for the record, I, for one, did “rationally consider the generalized observations”. For, oh, about 30s… more than long enough to come to the conclusion about noisome antipodean canine offal.

          /@

    • Peter Beattie
      Posted December 13, 2011 at 8:09 am | Permalink

      The author’s (i.e. JMRJ’s) argument against deep time in its entire blinding brilliance is:

      You can’t even think it. It’s impossible.

      Do you ever wonder why Stockholm has not called you?

  20. Paul S
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    I think the problems we face with religious lunacy could be solved by studying religion in school as part of social sciences. Children should be introduced to the concept of religion and taught the psychology of religious behavior. They’re already taught about the mythical Greek, Roman, Norse and other gods, so why not add the rest. It should be treated like any other science. Dissect it like you would a frog in biology.

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted December 12, 2011 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

      That makes perfect sense, which is why it will never happen.

      • Steersman
        Posted December 12, 2011 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

        “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”; even showing the flag helps to rally the troops. :-)

        But unless the U.S. winds up with a Republican President next year – at least from the current crop of theocrats – maybe Obama will actually manage to finally ratify the UN Charter on the Rights of the Child which guarantees them also – along with adults – the right to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” – which most religious indoctrination seriously abrogates.

        Though even then I would expect Obama would have an uphill battle and could use all the help he could get, particularly given that the “Christian Right” also attempted to block the similar “court-ordered desegregation” in “evangelical schools”; nice people:

        Gingrich won his next race for Congress in 1978. That year also marked the birth of the modern Christian Right.

        The movement started in opposition to an Internal Revenue Service campaign under then-President Jimmy Carter to crack down on private schools resisting court-ordered desegregation.

        Word of the campaign provoked fear and outrage among evangelical schools. Jerry Falwell joined the successful effort to thwart the IRS initiative and founded the Moral Majority the following year, in 1979. The group’s focus on fighting abortion and gay rights set the Christian Right agenda for decades to come.

        • tomh
          Posted December 12, 2011 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

          Steersman wrote:

          maybe Obama will actually manage to finally ratify the UN Charter on the Rights of the Child

          If only it were up to Obama. The Senate must ratify it and for the past 20 years conservative religious groups and groups like the Heritage Foundation have successfully lobbied against it. The result is that only the US and Somalia have not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In the US children are more like property than people, and parents are pretty much free to do what they will with them, ranging from religious indoctrination to denying medical care for the sake of religion. Conservative religious and political groups are afraid the Convention will change that.

          • Steersman
            Posted December 12, 2011 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

            If only it were up to Obama. The Senate must ratify it and for the past 20 years conservative religious groups and groups like the Heritage Foundation have successfully lobbied against it.

            A travesty of justice methinks and a very serious black mark against those religious groups – which only look to be protecting their source of adherents and income. But I’m not American so I don’t really understand the intricacies of the ratification. And I saw a recent news article on an attempt to block that process in the Senate. Though I’m happy to see that more than a few groups are battling on the other side.

            The result is that only the US and Somalia have not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

            Not something that does America’s credibility on the world stage a lot of good. Though, to be fair, I don’t think any other country has actually made any efforts yet to challenge any religious education of children on the basis of that Convention, but I’ve looked into a few possibilities here in Canada – still a complex and intricate process.

            In the US children are more like property than people, and parents are pretty much free to do what they will with them, ranging from religious indoctrination to denying medical care for the sake of religion.

            Some really horrific cases of that, although the denial of medical care may be the thin edge of the wedge to force some changes. This is a passage from the book When Prayer Fails:

            After noting that ‘‘neither rights of religion nor rights of parenthood are beyond limitation,’’ [Justice] Rutledge delivered a now-famous maxim defining the limits of religious conduct: ‘‘Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children before they have reached the age of full and legal discretion when they can make that choice for themselves.’

            Seems that should apply both to the medical care and the education of the children.

            Conservative religious and political groups are afraid the Convention will change that.

            So they should and so it should.

  21. Linda Grilli Calhoun
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Yawn.

    This is SO old news.

    Sam Harris told us this in The End of Faith.

    How many years ago was that, now? L

  22. Posted December 12, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    If the critique of the “new atheists” is that they don’t go after serious theology, is that an admission by serious theologians that what many mean by God is untenable intellectually? If so, shouldn’t they be joining in the critiques of the “new atheists” instead of getting hostile?

    • Christian
      Posted December 12, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

      But don’t you know, sophisticated theology is only good to fend off skeptics. When they’re out of sight or out of earshot it’s back to regular theology again.
      Preaching sophisticated theology in churches to the sheeple would only antagonize them.

      • Posted December 12, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

        That sure seems to be the way of things; a personal deity until a sceptical voice makes the deity retreat into a neoplatonic abstract.

        or, if you’re Edward Feser, hide the distinction between the extremes in linguistic trickery.

        • Christian
          Posted December 12, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

          or, if you’re Edward Feser, hide the distinction between the extremes in linguistic trickery.

          Which has all the advantages of a shell game over honest toil :D

          Of course, unlike in a shell game, I think they are the first person who gets tricked by their own linguistic shenanigans. It’s as if they follow the advice of some Anti-Feynman.

          (Some linguistic trickery is also language-dependent so trying to say it in a different language may help to catch at least the more obvious instances of these language games)

      • Observer
        Posted December 12, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

        This is what I find as well. I have several friends and in-laws who are liberal Christians, and whenever we discuss religion they tell my I’m being too literal in my conceptions of God. Yet when I try to get them to pin down what they actually believe, it seems to me that their God is metaphorical, except when he isn’t.

        For instance, I asked my sister-in-law whether she believed the resurrection story, and she told me I was taking things to literally. Then I said, “great, so we can agree that it was just a myth.” And she said, “what about the eye-witnesses?” So she seems to want it both ways.

        • Christian
          Posted December 12, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

          Indeed, I’ve also seen a lot of this: on the one hand they accuse us boorish atheists of imagining their god as a big man in the sky and hence arguing against a strawman. But then they anthropomorphize their Tillichian ground-of-being left and right, which of course doesn’t turn it into a big man in the sky. Nope, not at all.

        • PeteJohn
          Posted December 12, 2011 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

          Sounds like evidence of someone who’s not thought about their own thought.

  23. Steersman
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    Apropos of Baggini’s results the anthropologist Pascal Boyer has quite a number of interesting articles on the psychology and science of religion including a paper which has this:

    Do people know what their religious concepts are? This may seem an absurd question, but it is in fact an important question in the psychology of religion, whose true answer is probably in the negative. In most domains of mental activity, only a small part of what goes on in our brains is accessible to conscious inspection. For instance, we constantly produce grammatical sentences in our native tongue with impeccable pronunciation, often without any idea how this is done. ….

    People’s explicitly held, consciously accessible beliefs, as in other domains of cognition, only represent a fragment of the relevant processes. Indeed, experimental tests show that people’s actual religious concepts often diverge from what they believe they believe. This is why theologies, explicit dogmas, scholarly interpretations of religion cannot be taken as a reliable description of either the contents or the causes of people’s beliefs. For instance, psychologist Justin Barrett showed that Christians’ concept of God was much more complex than the believers themselves assumed. Most Christians would describe their notion of God in terms of transcendence and extraordinary physical and mental characteristics. God is everywhere, attends to everything at the same time. However, subtle experimental tasks reveal that, when they are not reflecting upon their own beliefs, these same people use another concept of God, as a human-like agent with a particular viewpoint, a particular position and serial attention. ….

    A systematic investigation of these tacit concepts reveals that notions of religious agency, despite important cultural differences, are very similar the world over. There is a small repertoire of possible types of supernatural characters, many of whom are found in folktales and other minor cultural domains, though some of them belong to the important gods or spirits or ancestors of “religion.” Most of these agents are explicitly defined as having counterintuitive physical or biological properties that violate general expectations about agents. ….

    Dangerous “magical thinking” indeed.

    And even Edward Feser – for all of his attempts to promote “classical theism”, which shows more than a passing resemblance to panentheism, but which attempts are fatally crippled by their reliance on Aristotle’s discredited physics – has recently acknowledged that most Catholics favor the “personal theism” – God as a “human-like agent” – of William Lane Craig.

    • Dermot C
      Posted December 12, 2011 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

      Yes, it occurs to me that Catholicism propounds, simultaneously, a deist and a theist theology.

      As the RC Church accepts evolution, we have the deist god who set the universe in motion and then retired, unconcerned with how it went. In that case there is no possible reason for any Catholic to appeal to his forgiveness or any of his strictures on how to live in solidarity. Their actions and lives only have reference to themselves and not to him; they are not accountable to him and he has neither interest in, nor moral authority over them. The deistic god may as well not be a god at all, for all that occurs is random, chance, Providence, the roll of the die; this is not the God of the Christians.

      But it may very well be the God of the Catholics, for they propose that God did indeed set the laws of evolution in motion and that they work by themselves. What is this, if not deism?

      Unless of course you wish to say that Darwinian theory applies to all living things except Homo sapiens. That would be the only case, in the Catholic doctrine on evolution, where you would expect humans to have a relationship with God; for God then could intervene only in human affairs, but not in the affairs of any other entity, animal, vegetable or mineral.

      The Catholic teaching on God seems to require the laity to think two opposite ideas at the same time; God as the disinterested prime-mover and God who intercedes in our affairs in our favour. I’d like to see a Catholic rebuttal to that.

      • Ken Pidcock
        Posted December 12, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

        What you said.

        Unless of course you wish to say that Darwinian theory applies to all living things except Homo sapiens.

      • Sastra
        Posted December 12, 2011 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

        I think that thinking two opposite ideas at the same time is one of the hallmarks of religion per se.

        I have actually caught some new age-y friends in the very act of doing this: when I pointed out that they were contradicting themselves they seemed to view this as a feature, not a bug. They were “transcending” the normal categories of thought and achieving holism. God is large and contains multitudes.

        I, on the other hand, was sadly stuck in the divisive and reductionist black-and-white habits of logical thinking. Right.

        Psychologist John Schumaker has written a couple interesting books arguing that religion, hypnosis, and psychopathology are all the result of ‘our brain’s capacity to process information among multiple pathways’ — otherwise known as doublethink. Could be.

      • Steersman
        Posted December 12, 2011 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

        The Catholic teaching on God seems to require the laity to think two opposite ideas at the same time; God as the disinterested prime-mover and God who intercedes in our affairs in our favour. I’d like to see a Catholic rebuttal to that.

        Agreed; serious schizophrenia from top to bottom one might argue. And while I too would like to see the Pope put on his “cloak of Papal infallibility” and resolve that paradox – I figure he could also take a stab at the particle-wave duality issue as well if he were so inclined and God had an extra moment or two (I mean, why wouldn’t He?) – that, of course, is probably unlikely – they seem to be too busy playing both sides of the street. Reminds me of the old TV-sitcom Get Smart where Maxwell was always saying, “Would you believe ….?”

        And most if not all Catholic theologicans and philosophers seem similarly conflicted and in the position of speaking out of both sides of their mouths. For example, Edward Feser seems to present Aquinas’ argument apparently for a deist conception:

        Third, as indicated already, Aquinas does not argue from the claim that “everything has a cause”, nor contrary to what Dawkins thinks, does he argue that the universe had a beginning and that God must have been the cause of that beginning. His aim is to [prove] that there are in fact some causes of various sorts; the nature of cause and effect entails that God is necessary as an uncaused cause of the universe even if we assume that the universe has always existed and thus had no beginning. The argument is not that the world wouldn’t have got started if God hadn’t knocked down the first domino at some point in the distant past; it is that it wouldn’t exist here and now, or undergo change or exhibit final causes here and now unless God were here and now, and at every moment, sustaining it in being, change, and goal-directedness. [The Last Superstition pg 86;]

        Yet Feser was also front and center in asserting the literal truth of the story in Genesis about God literally creating the universe and then literally booting a literal Adam and Eve out of a literal Eden – which must have been somewhat metaphorical even in Feser’s view if they were living in amongst some 1200 other hominids when they were squeezed through the bottleneck, which couldn’t have been anything other than rather brutish to say the least – because they commited the literal sin of rejecting Jehovah’s beneficience of remaining as animals. Go figure eh.

        Some seriously twisted psychology in a literalist religion and theology ….

  24. Posted December 12, 2011 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    We had a run in with Eric MacDonald over at Choice in Dying he is snarky and a bully.

    He is pretend sweetness and light until his own ideology is challenged then he and his posse are standard personal insult attackers and censors.

    Of course, with all sorts of self-righteous moralizing. He is a weak ally for free thinkers.

    • Posted December 12, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

      Sorry, but why is this rude (and ungrammatical) comment here? It’s a personal attack and I consider Eric a friend. Go after his ideas by all means, but lay off the invective. I’m serious.

      • Posted December 12, 2011 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

        We tried do that and were censored and sent rude emails.

        • whyevolutionistrue
          Posted December 12, 2011 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

          Don’t take your personal vendettas to this site. That’s enough about this.

    • H.H.
      Posted December 12, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think many people here will endorse that view, but I hope you feel better now that you’ve vented.

    • MosesZD
      Posted December 12, 2011 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

      Were you being a completely stupid ass? I’m kind of curious when I ask that, because Eric has always been unquestionably polite to me and I’m a person with whom it is tough to be polite because I tend to be a ripper.

      And yet Eric manages…

      • sasqwatch
        Posted December 12, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

        I think I figured it our by reading sleepthinker’s blurb. Their thesis is somewhere along the lines of using data to show that logic and reason is an undesireable state of affairs, and that everybody hates science and loves magical thinking. Hooray for magical thinking. You know… the kind of outlook that goes with other forms of blinkered idiocy. Narcissism

    • MosesZD
      Posted December 12, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

      Delilah, I’m perfectly willing to have a civil conversation with you, but you have been aggressive from the very start, an aggressiveness the reason for which is now much clearer, since it seems you were looking for a fight, and so, of course, with your feisty approach, you almost got one.

      Were you ‘Delilah?’ Because if you were, I’d have had a boot up your arse much sooner than this… And that’s pretty much the worst thing he said he to ‘Delilah’ who needs a bit of Internet thrashing to get a bit of humility.

    • David Leech
      Posted December 12, 2011 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

      As an advocate of free speech I would like to get to the bottom of this. Eric MacDonald’s site is bookmarked on my browser but I have never felt the need to comment as I mostly agree with what he says and he doesn’t seem to have a problem with people who’s viewpoint differs from his. So these allegations seem to have come totally out the blue.

      So does anyone have any idea of what ‘sleeprunning’ is on about as it runs contrary to what I know. I’m sorry to use Jerry’s site as a plea for more information on this subject though not being a regular on Eric’s site I would probably come across as a troll. I loved Eric’s reviews of Richard Dawkins ‘fleas’ and if being ferociously loyal to your friends is a crime then I am more than guilty of that than anyone but the ‘grammar attack’ is an ad hominem in anyone’s book. So anyone please, any information you can link me to.

    • Dan L.
      Posted December 13, 2011 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      Of course, with all sorts of self-righteous moralizing. He is a weak ally for free thinkers.

      I was initially going to say ‘Den to ze camp wit him’ but it’s not really a joking matter. This is a really authoritarian sentiment. “He does not agree with me therefore he should be banned from the group.” In fact, that’s a downright Christian attitude.

      Maybe you need to think a little bit about what “free thinker” actually means. It certainly doesn’t mean throwing a temper tantrum when you’re exposed to ideas and arguments you disagree with.

      • Posted December 13, 2011 at 10:35 am | Permalink

        Right, that is how our ideas were treated. They were banished.

        This really wasn’t personal it was banning ideas written in normal posts on a blog.

        We free thinker need to self-police ourselves and hold ourselves to the same standards we berate the opponents for.

        They summarily block our ideas and new, evidence-based ideas and comments, claiming they are “impolite,” like Haught’s dismissal of our Jerry.

        We need to call out the same behavior in our camp.

        Or maybe folks feel otherwise. Maybe political correctness and only allowing polite ideas is the trend among freethinkers now.

        • Dan L.
          Posted December 13, 2011 at 10:43 am | Permalink

          As I say below, “free speech” does not extend to other people’s property. MacDonald is under no obligation to give you a soapbox on his blog; you are perfectly free to write whatever you like on your own blog. MacDonald’s behavior doesn’t worry me in the least. It’s your behavior and especially your language that worries me. Like here:

          We free thinker need to self-police ourselves and hold ourselves to the same standards we berate the opponents for.

          We don’t need “free thinker police.” “Free thinker police” can mean nothing but “thought police” and the notion of policing other people’s thoughts is antithetical to MY core values as a free thinker. You seem to have this need to impose your will and beliefs on others — such as needing MacDonald to agree with you, or at the least uncritically display your rants on his blog.

          If you want to legitimately call yourself a free thinker you need to allow MacDonald to believe what he believes and to write what he cares to write and, perhaps, pay a little more attention to your own words and actions. These are far more antagonistic to the values of free thinking than anything I’ve seen from Eric MacDonald.

        • truthspeaker
          Posted December 13, 2011 at 11:26 am | Permalink

          Were they ideas, or were they lies and insults?

  25. Dermot C
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    Dennett et al. have done some interesting research on atheist American pastors and the issues they have in exiting their Churches. The paper is somewhere on the web; worth a half-hour read.

    It makes a priori sense to me that the priesthood would be less orthodox than their flock; experience of other world-views in seminaries would account for it.

    There’s an associated project over at Richard Dawkins dot net for ex-vicars to breathe clean air; to be encouraged.

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted December 12, 2011 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

      That would be here among other places. And it really is fascinating. I mean, what would you do if the only way you knew to make a living was to lie to people? (And I can imagine that most people who pursue theological study are people to whom lying is not exactly a trivial matter.) Examining myself, I’m afraid that I might continue lying. There’s a kind of tragedy in that.

      • Ken Pidcock
        Posted December 12, 2011 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

        I seem to have blown the link. Just search on Preachers who are not Believers.

        • Dermot C
          Posted December 12, 2011 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

          These vicars are saying that after half a lifetime of pastoral care, of building and maintaining a church, of interpreting the Bible, tending to their parishioners, sharing their joys, their births, their disappointments, their happiness, consoling them for the deaths of loved ones, celebrating and sanctifying their marriages, officiating their rites of passage, seeing their communion grow, change, that after all this they can not honestly say that they believe. This is a terrible position to be in, they are trapped. From their own point of view, tragic, indeed.

          Over and out from England.

      • GBJames
        Posted December 12, 2011 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

        Here:

        http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/Non-Believing-Clergy.pdf

    • GBJames
      Posted December 12, 2011 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

      “It makes a priori sense to me that the priesthood would be less orthodox than their flock”

      Behind closed doors.

      • Dermot C
        Posted December 12, 2011 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

        True.

  26. PeteJohn
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    Here’s what theology is:

    Some theists are fairly intelligent, and like to think and read and gain some knowledge of the world. They want to hang onto their belief but know full well that the True Believer version is a load of crap. They make up some crap that sits okay with them and then write fancy books/articles that defend this essentially made-up deity. Then they get offended when others don’t take their inane ramblings seriously.

    • MosesZD
      Posted December 12, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

      I completely agree.

  27. MosesZD
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    I read what he writes and wonder, did he ever go to church? And if he did, did he bother to pay attention to what others said?

    Because this is OBVIOUS. They BELIEVE THIS STUFF. That it is LITERAL.

    And they’re NOT SHY about it, either.

  28. Neil
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    I am still of the view that what people say they believe and what they actually believe are two different things.

    Heaven is this wonderful place. I see very few people trying to get there early.

  29. Posted December 13, 2011 at 12:11 am | Permalink

    It’s quite easy in the UK to spend your whole life among non-believers or, at worst, “sophisticated” believers. The odd “true” believer you come across at social events tends to feel outnumbered and somewhat reticent about ‘fessing up it. Even is you have some vague memory of belief as a child, it is hard to credit that sane educated adults would actually believe this crap, partly because there is a tradition here of poking fun at the more idiotic religious excrescences. I also suspect that what a lot of people believe in public is quite different to what they believe in the privacy of their own churches. So it can come as a surprise to realize that some people take this stuff seriously.

    • David Leech
      Posted December 13, 2011 at 2:19 am | Permalink

      This is my experience also, when I lived in America in the 1990′s I felt like I had stepped in ‘Alice in Wonderland territory’ and it appears to have gotten worst since then.

  30. IW
    Posted December 13, 2011 at 4:14 am | Permalink

    Baggini was on the BBC’s World Update this morning talking about our place in the universe. You may be able to catch it on the BBC’s podcast here:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p007dhp8
    when it becomes available.

    The piece was introduced by Eric Idle’s “The Galaxy Song” from “Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life”

    • Newish Gnu
      Posted December 13, 2011 at 6:08 am | Permalink

      I have that song on my iPod!

  31. Posted December 13, 2011 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    Our positions are very simple and few:
    - All of these matters are data-based biological matters.
    - We see no information value in any other propositions, eg theology, philosophy, etc.

    This is deeply threatening to, apparently, many folks. It appears that free thinker folks have the same default responses to ideas they don’t like as people who oppose free thinking:
    - Personal insults/abusive adhomimen – “blame the messenger”
    - Censorship — shut down the comments that are threatening.

    We understand. That’s just human nature. But free thinkers play false in the claim of being more tolerant or reasonable than the opponents.

    When new and different ideas are actively proposed, many free thinkers are just as reactionary and vicious as other fundamentalists.

    PS – Save the insults, we won’t respond.

    • Sajanas
      Posted December 13, 2011 at 9:45 am | Permalink

      There is a difference between censorship and moderation. Being banned does not mean that you are being censored, it just means that you are not meeting the forum owners standards for reasonable discussion.

      If you were to say, come on here and only discuss various types of tea, you could get banned, just because it would be considered cross purposes with the reason the blog exists, and someone else’s blog isn’t there to turn into your own blog on tea in the comments section. It would not be censorship. Likewise, if you were being unusually aggressive, consistently arguing without seeing the points of others, you aren’t having a discussion, you’re basically just taking over someone elses blog to speak from your own soap box. Coming here and complaining, without posting any evidence, is just petty, particularly since most of us have only had good experiences talking with Eric MacDonald, and he seems a man of deep personal experience and convictions.

      • Posted December 13, 2011 at 10:03 am | Permalink

        This is a similar argument as accommodation. We see no reason to censor and block any comments unless they name individuals and are personally insulting.

        However, event the argument for “politeness” can be used to shut down new ideas. We all know that new and different ideas are usually “impolite.”

        The group, and it included more than the site owner, objected to ideas with personal comments and attacks and then a private email. Surprising.

        The core principal of free thinking and principled arguments and fact finding is that we discuss ideas not people.

        Violation of this core tenet is to be called out and objected to regardless of what side folks are on.

        • Sajanas
          Posted December 13, 2011 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

          No, I really don’t think that this situation has anything to do with accommodationism. The internet is full of people that can spam your blog with whatever they want, that doesn’t mean that you treat all ideas with equal respect. If someone is a crank, or aggressive, or just off topic, I don’t see why it is inappropriate to ban them. Prof Coyne bans people all the time I’m sure, as he gets plenty of Christian trolls that aren’t amenable to discussion or reason.

          And there is also a difference between what we’re talking about here, and where you were banned, and all you’re doing is offering accusations, without proof. I don’t care if you’ve printed out emails. You could just as easily have ‘printed out’ any number of things… but I cannot judge without evidence. When you look at what accommodationist blogs like Biologos (if we can even call it that anymore), they are banning anyone who disagrees with them, even actual scientists, who were presenting actual scientific results that countered their assertions, because they want to give the appearance of a unified front of supporting comments. I doubt that Eric McDonald banned you at the first post, or even the third or fourth, and I doubt he banned you because he liked your science. But again, without evidence, its all conjecture. Surely though, you must admit that given some random person vs someone I’ve actually interacted with, it is more logical just to presume you’re a troll.

      • Posted December 13, 2011 at 10:07 am | Permalink

        BTW, we did print the emails exchanged in support of full transparency.

        We further suggest we in the free thinking community need to carefully and continuously look to ourselves for intolerance and censorship. If for no other reason than the opponents of logic and reason and evidence will use that against us wherever it can be found.

        After all, freedom of speech and total transparency are part of our core values. Aren’t they?

        • Dan L.
          Posted December 13, 2011 at 10:38 am | Permalink

          After all, freedom of speech and total transparency are part of our core values. Aren’t they?

          When you comment on someone else’s blog they have a prerogative to post, edit, delete, or ignore anything you say there. “Freedom of speech” does not extend to going into someone else’s house and screaming in that person’s face. It also suggests a “freedom to not speak” — if someone gets sick of talking to you because you are being difficult or simply obtuse they are not under any obligation to listen to your bullshit any further, let alone publish your bullshit in their own personal forum (such as a blog).

          You’re on really dangerous ground. You keep talking about “us,” “the free thinker community,” “our core values” in reference to what is, at core, a defense of individuality and independent thought. You seem to be trying to create an in-group, out-group effect for a community of “free thinkers” — and you seem to be trying to establish a normative party line for anyone who wishes to be “part of the community,” going so far as to “tattle” on MacDonald, apparently hoping that others would join you in shunning him.

          My core values tell me that this attitude and behavior displays a deep-seated authoritarian tendency. You’re trying to decide on behalf of others what it’s OK for “free thinkers” to believe and argue. I think you should be worried about taking yourself and your opinions too seriously and as a result being unnecessarily and counterproductively antagonistic to the beliefs of other free thinkers. Try humility instead — you don’t have to win every argument and you’re allowed to be wrong sometimes. And I bet you’ll feel better when you realize this.

          • Posted December 13, 2011 at 10:45 am | Permalink

            Let’s make this real simple. If we have a free thinking blog that censors claiming “impolitness” but actually because of ideas that upset other commentaors and the blog owner — is that a good thing for free thinking as a cause?

            This is the matter we suggest deserves full discussion. It may effect our cause, overall. Maybe not.

            • Dan L.
              Posted December 13, 2011 at 11:02 am | Permalink

              I’ll make things real simple as well. “Free thinking” to me is not a cause. It is simultaneously a way of life and a choice. Your problem is that you’re trying to make it a “cause” — you’re trying to define what “free thought” is and then to classify people as “free thinker” or not according to your own petty, idiosyncratic standards. In other words, you’re trying to make the choice for other people which necessarily takes the choice away from them.

              To me, that is not free thought. It is rather closer to the opposite. I am suggesting you rethink what free thought means to you because as you describe it, it sounds more and more like a scary, exclusionary, authoritarian religion like Islam or LDS.

              Finally, you’re ignoring the fact that MacDonald might have “banned” you because you were being an obnoxious brat. Which is, in fact, what you’re doing on this thread as well. No one is under any obligation to listen to you or reprint your words if you’re simply being obnoxious. If you want a soapbox, well, we live in the internet age, buddy: go get a wordpress account. No one is obligated to provide a venue for your histrionics.

              This thread however, shows that individuals calling themselves free thinkers can be viscous abusive ad hominem attackers — just like the bad guys.

              Rather like you, in fact. You’re trying to demonize MacDonald and now others merely for disagreeing with you. This betrays that your enthusiasm for “free thought” is fetishistic or symbolic rather than genuine. You believe in “free thought” — as long as you’re the one thinking it.

            • Posted December 13, 2011 at 11:13 am | Permalink

              Well, I don’t think that that is a good thing.

              But, you haven’t yet shown that this was the case.

              I note that your tumblr page says, “hopefully very unpopular and uncomfortable ideas….all backed up with data however” [sic] — so, please, back up this assertion with data!

              /@

          • Dermot C
            Posted December 13, 2011 at 11:53 am | Permalink

            Hear, hear, Dan L.

            Is this, below, a case where sleeprunning didn’t win an argument? From a couple of weeks back:

            “No, the Nazis drove pretty much all intellectuals out of the country, at least those who mattered.” sleeprunning

            I objected to the statement and after some toing and froing, I found this citation:

            “By 1934, approximately 1,600 out of 5,000 university teachers had been dismissed. Many German academics emigrated. The sciences were particularly hard hit…Still, most university professors remained in their posts and many of them were supportive of the National Socialist government.”

            I accept that I indicated that I wanted to terminate the thread there, but a polite acknowledgement from sleeprunning might have been appropriate.

            It’s alright to be wrong, as you say.

        • Posted December 13, 2011 at 10:55 am | Permalink

          BTW, we did print the emails exchanged in support of full transparency.

          Link?

          I think the young people’s phrase is, “pics, or it didn’t happen.” (A cultural meme advocating evidence-based claims!)

          Or are you reluctant to post them because you think folks here are likely to say, “Dude, you were totally out of line! You deserved to be blocked.”?

          Just as Jerry would be entirely justified in blocking you if you’d made unsupported defamatory claims about another poster here…

          /@

          • Posted December 13, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

            “Rejection is protection.” We don’t care. There is no point in us adding our time to any site that is punitive and narrow minded. There are lots of outlets.

            Our comments are a public record.

            The real discussion is around censorship on free thinking blogs and double-standards. We have had Tea Party folks cyber-stalk us and close down twitter, email and blogs.

            Free thinkers criticize opponents for censorship but then tolerate it ourselves?

            • truthspeaker
              Posted December 13, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

              You still haven’t provided any evidence that such censorship took place.

              • Posted December 13, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

                Can’t do that w/out our Jerry getting pissed off. We posted the exchange of emails awhile back. Search.

                We stay off of the …On Dying site and assume our comments were removed.

                Why would we make it up if it’s public record?

              • tomh
                Posted December 13, 2011 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

                sleeprunnings wrote:
                We posted the exchange of emails awhile back. Search.

                I have to wonder why you’re so reluctant to post a link to them. Maybe they don’t show what you claim they do.

                Personally, if you came to my blog, I would ban you for the stupidity of constantly using “we” instead of “I”.

              • Tulse
                Posted December 13, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

                if you came to my blog, I would ban you for the stupidity of constantly using “we” instead of “I”.

                Maybe “they” have a tapeworm? Or Dissociative Identity Disorder?

              • Posted December 13, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

                Is this the discussion on Eric’s site that’s in question?

                It seems you were displaying the same belligerence as you are here and similarly failing to provide a coherent argument or evidence.

                Although there’s no indication that you were censored or blocked, just asked to leave. (Quite politely, under the circumstances.)

                As several of us have asked for the evidence, I doubt that Jerry would get pissed off. But you clearly are pissing off a lot of us by not providing a link!

                And why simply assume your comments were deleted? We not actually look? You can do that quite anonymously.

                /@

              • Posted December 13, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

                We posted the email from the site owner banning us from the site for impoliteness. Have stayed away since.

                Don’t think we saved it.

                “Rejection is protection.”

              • Posted December 13, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

                Well then…

                If that was that post, Eric asked you to “clean up your act, and argue sensibly, or leave.”

                Judging by your behaviour here, it wouldn’t surprise me if you did continue in the same vein, in which case Eric was quite justified in blocking you.

                But it’s disingenuous to characterise this as censorship. Eric invite you to “argue sensibly,” so it seems you had a fair opportunity to present your ideas and engage in a possibly fruitful and enlightening discussion. If you chose not to, it seems you brought things on yourself.

                /@

              • Dermot C
                Posted December 13, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

                That’s it, sleeprunning, I’ve cracked, my Job-like patience is no more.

                You are the unholy trinity: a third of what you say is random invective tilted, à la Don Quixote, at any imaginary windmill; I don’t understand a third of what you say, and the other third is semi-literate psychobabble. And yes, if you can’t write clearly, then you have little chance of thinking coherently.

                I think you’re a satirist like David Berlinski and that you’re gathering material for a 2012 Yule annual, rather in the style of Henry Root. Best of luck with that.

                You see yourself as mining the comic seam cut by Larry David and Ricky Gervais, offensive, passive-aggressive and self-pitying, but nowhere near as funny.

                How Ant Allan, Tulse, tomh et al. have the serenity to ask serious questions of you about the reality with which you have a more than tangential relationship, I do not know.

                Thank you, nurse; I’ve got that off my chest.

              • Posted December 13, 2011 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

                *invited

              • Posted December 13, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

                @ Dermot C

                Serenity? Me? Sometime I surprise myself!

                /@

              • Dermot C
                Posted December 13, 2011 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

                @ Ant Allan

                It was a toss-up between ‘serenity’ and ‘toleration’; the latter’s over-used.

                I rather like the counter-intuitive idea of a serene atheist.

              • Posted December 13, 2011 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

                “Defensiveness is always a sign of something indefensible.”

                Look, if people want to micro analyze anyone’s posting style — have a ball. To us it’s irrelevant.

                We’re interested in new and different ideas. We don’t care if they come wrapped in polite style.

                “The truth will set you free but first it will piss you off.” G Steinem

                We’ll say it a last time — we received a private email from the blog owner telling us to stay away and that we were blocked. We posted that email verbatim.

                We are active and forward in our style. We defend our views and ideas with vigor. We respond when attacked and stand up to bullying of ourselves and others. We think every free thinker should.

                Usually, our opponents do the opposite which is why this episode bears mention and study.

                We oppose censorship and fussy notions of “politeness” because it cripples problem solving.

                Who cares about style? Well, except the emotionally fragile and we respect that.

                Bottom line: Do the ideas posted help or not?

                Free thinker censorship is playing into our opponent’s stereotypes.

                Meanwhile how about back to biology? Here is a way kool video on will power/consciousness/decision making in humans from NIH: “Metabolic and hedonic drives in the neural control of appetite: who is the boss?”
                http://videocast.nih.gov/launch.asp?16969

                Science anyone or do folks want to continue to indulge in insults. Ho hum. We’re patient.

              • Dermot C
                Posted December 13, 2011 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

                @ sleeprunning

                “We are active and forward in our style. We defend our views and ideas with vigor. We respond when attacked and stand up to bullying of ourselves and others. We think every free thinker should.

                Usually, our opponents do the opposite…”

                What are you talking about?

                So presumably your opponents are, “passive and backward in their style. They defend their views and ideas in a lassitudinous fashion. They disregard us when attacked and cave in to bullying of themselves and others…”

                Furthermore, sleeprunning, you,

                “…oppose censorship and fussy notions of ‘politeness’ because it cripples problem solving.

                Who cares about style? Well, except the emotionally fragile and we respect that.”

                How inspiringly iconoclastic of you to declare your inability to recognise the common decencies of human discourse; I teach adolescent kids who have precisely this idea of the ‘fussy notion of politeness’.

                Wrong pronoun; ‘they’, not ‘it’. ‘Cripples’? What sort of a verb is that?

                Who cares about style? I do, and so do a lot of people; and your tone requires attention.

                When you so condescendingly respect the emotionally fragile, you esteem ‘them’, not ‘that’.

                Have you considered re-reading, parsing, or, at a minimum, spellchecking your posts before sending them?

              • Posted December 13, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

                Oh, that’s rich given that this whole thread started at #24 with you spontaneously insulting Eric!

                Whatever salient ideas you posted have been overwhelmed by your effluvium about Eric’s supposed slight. (And this is precisely why politeness matters!)

                Sorry: You’re nothing more than a mountebank.

                /@

              • Posted December 13, 2011 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

                ( Is it just me, or is WordPress displaying comments out of time order? )

    • tomh
      Posted December 13, 2011 at 10:47 am | Permalink

      Sleeprunning wrote:

      Save the insults, we won’t respond.

      Is this the royal “we” you keep using, or are you a group? It’s quite confusing.

      • Posted December 13, 2011 at 10:52 am | Permalink

        If others want to put aside the abusive ad hominem/personal insults and engage in a principaled, non-personal, discussion of free thinking principals and policies regarding ideas they don’t like and online censorship — we’re ready.

        When and how can people call themselves free thinkers but also censor ideas they dislike and find “impolite?” Let’s hear a full rang of opinions.

        This thread however, shows that individuals calling themselves free thinkers can be viscous abusive ad hominem attackers — just like the bad guys.

        Very human.

        • tomh
          Posted December 13, 2011 at 10:58 am | Permalink

          You didn’t answer. Why do you keep saying “we” when you mean “I”?

        • Sajanas
          Posted December 13, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

          I kinda wanted to ask the same thing. You must admit that this is not a standard way of writing, and to be honest, reading your posts here I find it both confusing and irritating. I presume ‘sleeprunning’ is not a group of people writing, but rather one person. And when you use ‘we’ it makes it hard to tell the difference when you are representing just yourself, and when you are representing yourself as part of a larger community, say, as skeptics as a whole.

          I suppose everyone wants their own way of distinguishing their work on the internet, but it is a very inexact way of speaking, and it highly conflated with British monarchs on their little thrones. What purpose does it serve to write like this? Do you speak like this in person? Sajanas doesn’t think that it would work for Sajanas to refer to himself in the third person, and likewise, we find it confusing when we use ‘we’ instead of I.

      • Posted December 13, 2011 at 11:07 am | Permalink

        I think it’s only an affectation. “They” did kind of explain the reasons when “they” first posted here, but I don’t remember them [a genuine them: “the reasons”] being that convincing… On tumblr “they” do mention “our little team”, but it links to an individual Twitter account (@funzeek).

        A pity “they” didn’t avail “themselves” of the opportunity for discourse on this point, but just took another opportunity to vent.

        /@

      • Peter Beattie
        Posted December 13, 2011 at 11:19 am | Permalink

        And here’s another thought: just stop feeding them.

  32. Posted December 13, 2011 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    lol We are glad to provide amusement and something to do for a few folks but, really, it’s time to get out a bit and down to the pub wid you.

    Hell hath no fury like free thinker pretenses punctured. You guys are as bad as the Tea Party crowd.

    • Kharamatha
      Posted December 14, 2011 at 8:52 am | Permalink

      To what is this a reply? It’s been posted un-nested, I’m afraid.

      • Dermot C
        Posted December 14, 2011 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

        I think it’s in reply to nest 31, involving sleeprunning, Sajanas, Dan L., truthspeaker, tomh, Tulse, Ant Allan and me.

        The posts aren’t necessarily chronological, as Ant Allan points out.

  33. Posted December 16, 2011 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    The wiki page says lead 206 is “probably” the result of the radioactive decay of uranium.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lead

    This is a big problem for that kind of radiometric dating then, isn’t it?

    • truthspeaker
      Posted December 16, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      No.

      • Posted December 16, 2011 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

        Because?

        • truthspeaker
          Posted December 16, 2011 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

          Why would it?

          • Posted December 16, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

            You don’t know?

            • truthspeaker
              Posted December 16, 2011 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

              Enlighten me.

              • Posted December 16, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

                You replied ‘no’ to my #33 without explanation. Are you saying you didn’t know what you were talking about?

                I can’t explain what you were thinking and why you said no. You have to do that, or admit you don’t know how.

    • Posted December 16, 2011 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

      No.

      • Posted December 16, 2011 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

        Deja vu. Care to explain the “no” answer?

        • Posted December 17, 2011 at 2:00 am | Permalink

          Why do you regard Wikipedia as authoritative here?

          AFAIK, there is no other known mechanism for the origin of lead-206 and the known mechanism is consistent with the evidence. Part of the evidence is that radiometric dating based on lead-206 can be consistently calibrated against that based on other elements. All radiometric dating has margins of error. And that’s where the “probably” can creep in. But it’s not a big problem as its already accounted for within those margins of error.

          In terms that are less likely to confuse you, the reliability of radiometric dating (within known margins of error) is beyond reasonable doubt.

          /@

        • Posted December 17, 2011 at 2:14 am | Permalink

          Oh, and this goes back to a point I was trying to made earlier, but likely failed as the terms confused you… 

          If you try to alter a model to allow one putative change, you have to consider the ramifications across all phenomena that the model explains. If you tweak the model to allow significant amounts of non-radiogenic lead-206, that would have an impact on other decay chains across the periodic table: Can you then explain the consistency of the all radiometric dating techniques? (Let alone the impact of those changes on subatomic phenomena.)

          /@

          • Posted December 17, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

            Thank you for the thoughtful responses.

            With the caveat that I would have some work to do to go much further here, I feel fairly confident in a couple of observations.

            First, I’ll assume that the decay chain showing that u-238 eventually decays into lead 206 is true. It would take quite a bit of study on my part to verify or dispute it, so I’m not going to argue with it.

            From there it is a reasonable assumption that when one finds a rock containing both u-238 and lead 206, that the latter is the product of the decay of the former.

            But a reasonable assumption is well short of any kind of certainty. The assumption would appear to be undercut – not defeated, it’s still reasonable, but undercut – by at least two things: a) that lead 206 exists in “naturally occurring lead” that is made up of all four lead isotopes:

            http://www.onlineminerals.com/article4.htm

            which leads to b) the proportion of lead 206 in the rock that you started with is unknown.

            Given that, while there would appear to be a solid rationale for u-238 to lead 206 radiometric dating, it is also reasonable to question the validity of the methodology by questioning that particular assumption. There may be other bases to question it as well.

            As far as the collateral impact on other applications of the same principles, that’s another subject that would require considerable additional study on my part. As a general observation though, there are many things that work out fine although the rationales behind them may be wrong.

            For example, I alluded earlier to the practice of removing tonsils on the ground that they are vestigial. You can still, generally speaking, safely remove tonsils with little practical consequence even if they are not vestigial. So really, the question of whether they are vestigial is superfluous; but in any case the fact that they can be safely removed is not by any means a demonstration that they are vestigial.

            But I also agree that there are other situations in which an otherwise questionable assertion or theory can be significantly enhanced by showing that it underlies multiple processes, all of which are known to be valid and “work”.

            At this point I am not sure which of these categories your counterpoints fall into, though.

            As far as standards of proof, in practice “beyond a reasonable doubt” is a ridiculously easy standard to meet. In theory it isn’t: all that is required to fall short of that standard is a reasonable possibility that something isn’t true.

            Since at least one assumption underlying the u-238 to lead 206 radiometric dating method is questionable, it is reasonable to question the validity of the method. I hasten to add that it is also reasonable to maintain its validity, because a questionable assumption is not necessarily an unreasonable one.

            We may be left with what Donald Rumsfeld would term a “known unknown”

            • Posted December 17, 2011 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

              Yes, a “known unknown”. Douglas Adams might have said it was within “well-defined limits of doubt and uncertainty”. As I said, its already accounted for within those margins of error. Thus, it’s not a big problem.

              /@

    • Posted December 17, 2011 at 2:23 am | Permalink

      Do I detect an Argumentum ad Wikipediam followed by a non sequitur?

  34. Posted December 16, 2011 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    @ Steersman

    Seems to me that there wouldn’t be any necessity for string theory if the world could be adequately explained by forces that already “exist at accessible energy scales”.

    Well, that depends on what you mean by “adequately”. For a telecommunications engineer, an understanding of electromagnetism at a classical level is possibly good enough.

    But… Fucking magnets; how do they work?

    What is electromagnetism and why does it behave in the way it behaves? That line of questioning leads you to gauge theories, symmetry breaking, string theory, &c.

    And those theories are also required to explain the history of the universe, which started at now-inaccessible energy scales, and, as it cooled, symmetries broke and dimensions curled up in Calabi-Yau manifolds (or, alternatively, stayed curled up as three spatial dimensions spontaneously expanded), giving rise to the different forces that we now see.

    /@

    • Steersman
      Posted December 17, 2011 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for the links, particularly to Feynman’s talks as he is always interesting to read and listen to – another one of our “patron saints”, although I should probably qualify that even further with “figuratively speaking” for the literalists in the crowd. But I notice that he talked of the explanatory chain as well – as you suggest, “adequately” is dependent on the objective, the goal, one is attempting to reach with any particular explanation. However, as Feynman also suggested, one still comes up against a wall after having only added one more turtle in a rather long sequence of them – and I’m not sure that string theory isn’t only another one – when what seems to be desired – and is pursued with some tenacity if not dogmatism – is a “closed and complete system of explanation, in which everything is accounted for and no mystery remains”. [The Mind of God; Paul Davies; pg 162]

      Though that process, that search, at least after one has stepped back a little and viewed it as a phenomenon in its own right, is both rather intriguing and somewhat amusing – reminds me somewhat of a dog chasing its tail. And by that token one might argue, as more than a few have done, that such a goal is somewhat illusory or at least based on flawed premises of one sort or another. For example, consider this, also from The Mind of God:

      Is a Theory of Everything feasible? Many scientists think so. …. There is a long history of attempts to construct completely unifying accounts of the world. In his book Theories of Everything: The Quest for Ultimate Explanations, John Barrow attributes the lure of such a theory to the passionate belief in a rational cosmos: that there is a graspable logic behind physical existence that can be compressed into a compelling and succinct form. [pg 165]

      But there seems to be some fairly recent arguments that prove, through the use of logic related to Gödel’s theorem, that “no theory of everything is possible”, as discussed by Massimo Pigliucci here. But, while I think his summary addresses the challenge that it supposedly betokens “the end of science” and is quite relevant to the questions that seem to follow – e.g., “where do we go from here?”, and “what will be the impact of that argument?” – I think that it still doesn’t go quite far enough: it addresses the objective process but fails to note or consider the subjective – the phenomenon of consciousness which is the heart and soul, if not the mystery, of that objective process to begin with. Apropos of which, there is this analogy from Edward Feser who, though he seems to be “not even wrong” to the extent he relies on Catholic dogma, still manages, I think, to summarize the problem rather well:

      Far from being a desperate attempt to avoid the implications of modern science, then, dualism appears to follow necessarily from modern scientific method itself. For the reason science has “explained” almost everything other than the mind is precisely because everything that doesn’t fit the mechanistic model has been swept under the rug of the mind, treated as a mere projection. …. Materialist rhetoric of the sort described above is thus a shell game. It is like confidently asserting, after one has cleaned an entire house only by sweeping all the dirt in it under a certain rug, that the gigantic dirt pile that now exists under that rug can easily be dealt with using the same method. Obviously that is the one method that cannot possibly be used to deal with the dirt; analogously, mechanistic-cum-materialistic reduction is the one method that cannot possibly be used to explain qualia. [The Last Superstition; pgs 192-193]

  35. Peter
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 2:42 am | Permalink

    So CHRISTians believe in Christ? So not everyone is an atheist, even though Baggini is? And up until lately, I thought Christians were the close-minded ones, incapable of considering the idea that not everyone has the exact same values and beliefs as they do.


6 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] Baggini discovers that the faithful really believe that stuff [...]

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  3. [...] play well with atheists who are looking for any reason, any at all, that church-going is eo ipso irrational, but it is embarrassing for those of us who pore over serious literature and surveys of the [...]

  4. [...] the weirdest thing: Julian Baggini discovers that believers believe“) and Jerry Coyne (“I’m surprised that Baggini is surprised“), both of whom appear to think that everything about religion is completely obvious. Which [...]

  5. [...] funny thing is, though, Julian was once “one of them” too. Russell Blackford reminds us – I can’t resist plugging the fact that Julian Baggini tells his own story of how he came to be a [...]

  6. […] play well with atheists who are looking for any reason, any at all, that church-going is eo ipso irrational, but it is embarrassing for those of us who pore over serious literature and surveys of the […]

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