New Scientist: Atheism is a belief system like religion

I’ve about had it with the mushheaded osculation of faith by New Scientist (see some of my previous criticism here), and if I had a subscription, which I don’t, I’d cancel it this week. (I don’t think it’s a very good magazine anyway.)

For this week’s editorial, “Holy faith?”, Graham Lawton (no free link), executive editor of the magazine, takes up the argument that atheism is “just another religion.” And then Lawton, who says he’s an atheist, defends that claim!

You might remember Lawton as the author of the incredibly misguided article, “Darwin was wrong about the tree of life” (no free link”) in New Scientist‘s “Darwin Was Wrong” issue. My critique of Lawton’s sensationalist tripe was one of the first posts I put up on this website.

Here he’s far more wrong than he said Darwin was (all emphasis is by Lawton):

The “just another religion” claim seems to have arisen around a decade ago 
in response to the rise of New Atheism, 
a scientifically motivated critique of religion led by Richard Dawkins and underpinned by his 2006 book The God Delusion. Journalists writing about the movement took to using religious metaphors, calling it “the church 
of the non-believers” and a “crusade against god”. Religious scholars joined the fray to defend their beliefs. Even some scientists 
took up the cause. In 2007, evolutionary biologist (and atheist) David Sloan Wilson of Binghamton University in New York controversially described the new atheism as a “stealth religion”. His point was that, like many religions, it portrayed itself as the only source of truth and righteousness and its enemies as “bad, bad, bad”.

Well, given Sloan Wilson’s track record of atheist-bashing and religion-praising, and his almost unhinged defense of group selection, it’s rarely a good idea to quote him as an authority, but let’s proceed with Lawton:

To atheists, such accusations might seem easily refuted. The defining feature of religion is belief in god(s). Atheism defines itself as 
the absence of belief in god. How can it be a religion? That is like saying that “off” is a TV channel, or not-playing-tennis is a sport.

But atheists arguably have not taken the charge seriously enough. “They’d say, the 
word just means ‘without god’. That is all. 
We can go home now,” says Jon Lanman who works on the scientific study of religion at Queen’s University Belfast, UK. Perhaps because of this rather aloof response, atheists have failed to dispel the sense that the critics were on to something.

The truth is that atheism is not simply 
an absence of belief in god, but also a set of alternative beliefs about the origin and nature of reality. Even though these belief systems diverge in their content and level of fact from religious beliefs, perhaps they originate from the same underlying psychological processes, and fulfil similar psychological needs. Religious ideas, for example, provide stability and reassurance in the face of uncertainty. They help to explain events and provide a moral framework. For these reasons, and others, they are intuitively appealing to human brains. Maybe brains that reject supernatural ideas simply soak up naturalistic ones to take their place. “They may work as replacement beliefs, helping alleviate stress and anxiety as religion does,” says Miguel Farias, leader of the brain, belief and behaviour group at Coventry University, UK.

If atheism is a “set of alternative beliefs about the origin and nature of reality,” those beliefs are disbeliefs: there is no evidence for any gods or supernatural beings. End of story. But Lawton disagrees.

What, then, constitutes the atheist belief system? Lawton argues this:

  • Atheists “believe” in progress. Lawton’s evidence is that secularists forced to read an essay that progress was illusory became more aware of their own deaths, “as if it were pulling their comfort blanket out from under their feet.”  To me this says nothing, particularly because there doesn’t seem to have been a religious control group!
  • Atheists believe in science more strongly when they’re stressed. Lawton says this:

Doing the “progress” experiment with people on board an aeroplane, for example, makes them espouse a stronger belief in progress.

For many atheists, scientific ideas have a similar soothing effect. Stressful situations tend to strengthen their belief in science, especially in theories that emphasise orderliness and predictability over randomness and unpredictability. All of which suggests that religious believers and atheists are more psychologically similar than either would like to think.

So? Where’s the control group? And is a psychological reaction the same thing as a “belief system”? Nope, not in my view.

  • Some atheists have “spiritual beliefs”:

Proponents of the “psychological impossibility of atheism” argue that supernatural beliefs are so hard-wired into our brains that discarding them altogether is not an option. . . And, sure enough, there is evidence that even hardcore atheists tend to entertain quasi-religious or spiritual ideas such as there being a higher power or that everything happens 
for a purpose.

Spirituality is not the same thing as religion: for many atheists, it’s simply wonder and awe before the universe—an emotional reaction. I prefer to not use the word at all. And any atheist who believes in a higher power or some “purpose” isn’t an atheist at all, much less a “hardcore atheist.”

  • Atheists are just as liable to discard scientific facts when they’re inconvenient. To “prove” this, Lawton simply quotes David Sloan Wilson again:

So, despite some similarity between religious and non-religious beliefs systems, they are not equivalent. Surely that buries the claim that atheism is just another religion?

Maybe not. There is another way in which atheist beliefs make them religion-like, according to Sloan Wilson. It is the way they play fast-and-loose with scientific facts. “Atheists will say that religion is bad for humanity, that it’s not an evolutionary adaptation – which happens not to be true,” 
he says. “That is how atheism becomes 
an ideology. It is organised to motivate behaviour. If it uses counterfactual beliefs 
in order to do it then there’s really very little difference between atheism and a religion.”

We don’t know that Sloan Wilson’s claim is true! Religion could in fact have been a spandrel rather than a social behavior directly installed in the human brain by natural selection. It is GOOD to be dubious of Sloan Wilson’s “natural selection” claim because there’s no good evidence for “god genes.” Religion may, for instance, be a spandrel of other beliefs, whether learned or adaptive. (Read Pascal Boyer for an example of how religion might have hitchhiked on other beliefs that might have been adaptive, but perhaps based more in experience than on natural selection.) We are not “playing fast and loose with the facts” to question Sloan Wilson’s claim, which is just a hypothesis.

To be fair, Lawton then quotes Dan Dennett and others who reject the view that atheism is like religion. But Lawton, whose sympathies are evident (and have been from the magazine’s continuing osculation of faith), ends by agreeing with some parallels:

One conclusion is that religion and atheism do have things in common, sometimes. Both feature sacred values, which are beliefs that people would not trade for material goods. Both have rituals – although atheist ones are rare – and distinct social identities. But the content of these features are very different. An atheist’s sacred value might be that religion should have no place in government, whereas a Muslim’s might be the exact opposite.

I’m not sure what the point of all this is. After all, EVERYONE has some beliefs, many of them passionate, but atheist beliefs are, I contend, not only more evidence-based, but don’t involve gods. Further, everyone has a “social identity.” And, as Lawton notes, atheist “rituals” are rare.

His whole point is a pointless exercise in saying, “Look, atheists are ‘believers’ too, and are thus hypocrites to criticize religion.” He doesn’t realize that by criticizing atheism in this way, he’s also criticizing religion: “Look: we atheists are as bad as believers!”

Time to cancel those subscriptions to New Scientist. I prefer the words of Dan Dennett, who is quoted in the piece as saying this:

“When somebody puts it to me that atheism is just another religion, [Dennett] says: “I ask ‘in what way?’ They usually counter with demonstrably false parallels. We have no rituals, no membership rules, no sacred texts and the small percentage of atheists who belong to specifically atheist organisations 
are more like people who belong to interest groups like scuba divers or guitar aficionados. And most atheists don’t feel the need to proselytise.”

In light of that, which is true, Lawton’s piece becomes superfluous.

h/t: AGH

162 Comments

  1. Glenn
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    Where black is a color where none is the number — Dylan

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted April 13, 2017 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

      Now ya got me listening to Hard Rain — hell, to the whole Freewheelin’ album. Thx.

  2. Graham
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    Harry believes the best place to catch the bus is to stand in his bedroom. Jay believes the best place to catch the bus is to stand by the railway tracks. Wendy believes the best place to catch the bus is to stand at the bus stop. Wendy is feeling rather smug because she “knows” she has the truth about how to catch a bus. Let’s take her down a peg or two shall we by reminding her that hers is just a ‘belief’ and thus no more and no less likely to be valid than Harry’s or Jay’s beliefs.

    • Posted April 13, 2017 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

      The strident bussist!

      /@

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted April 13, 2017 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

        Bus-stop chauvinism.

    • Bernardo
      Posted April 13, 2017 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

      Brilliant!

    • Kevin
      Posted April 13, 2017 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

      There’s an app for Wendy that will let her know the GPS location of the bus so she can minimize her time at the bus stop.

      That’s science. Never perfect but always improving.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted April 13, 2017 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

      Excellent response!

      It’s like atheists “belief” in evolutionary theory etc. I refuse to accept that’s something that should be considered on a par with the belief that we all descended from Adam and Eve.

      • Mike
        Posted April 20, 2017 at 8:55 am | Permalink

        The difference is evidence.

    • Posted April 14, 2017 at 5:50 am | Permalink

      The best place not to catch the bus is not to bother at all.

  3. Sastra
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    If you redefine “religion” to mean “life philosophy” — and redefine “atheism” to mean “secular humanism” — then by golly atheism IS a religion!!!

    This could make a fun game. Graham Lawton is a fluffy, fluffy poodle — for certain definitions of “Graham Lawton” and “fluffy” and “poodle.”

    • Posted April 13, 2017 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

      Exactly.

      • Posted April 14, 2017 at 5:56 am | Permalink

        I stopped saying that I am an agnostic when a solicitor at Bow Street Magistrates Court during cross-examination tried to make it sound as if I am a secular humanism by way of religion.

        I now prefer to say that I am a secular primatist.

    • Zach
      Posted April 13, 2017 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

      Yes. Like the word “God,” people tend to use the word “religion” any incoherent way they want to.

      I summarize my nonbelief thusly:

      1. I do not think my life is part of a plan.
      2. I do not think there’s an afterlife.

      That, I think, sums up the primary difference (differences? they’re so often connected) between me and the religious.

      Now, if someone wants to call my lifestyle and social engagement a “religion,” I can’t stop them, but it seems insulting to people who really believe in propositions 1 and 2 above.

      • DiscoveredJoys
        Posted April 14, 2017 at 9:54 am | Permalink

        I have a negative belief too – there is no magic.

        Which unpacks to there being no magical beings, nothing outside the natural world, no Great Purpose.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted April 14, 2017 at 8:15 am | Permalink

      And if there is a psychology that atheists share with believers, ergo atheists must also be believers!!

  4. J. Quinton
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    There are plenty of Buddhists and Hindus who consider themselves atheists.

    If atheism is a religion, I suppose it’s now possible to have a religion within a religion?

    What if we flip this around? If someone claims that theism is a religion, then it must be that Christianity or Islam are religions that have a religion within them as well.

    It’s really the mark of a hobbled intellect when you use the explanation itself as part of the explanation. Someone didn’t think this through.

    • Richard
      Posted April 13, 2017 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

      Actually, in Comp Sci a recursive definition of something is generally the hallmark of academic respectability! 🙂

      Of course, you need a base case in the definition…

      • Posted April 13, 2017 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

        Ultimately, it all pretty much has to be recursive. A dictionary of the English language is written in English, for example. Any symbology can only be operant within its own frame of reference, which it itself defines.

        There can be translation guides, of course — but those are maps of territories, and the maps are most emphatically not the territory.

        I like to use as an example Deepak Chopra’s idiocy of claiming that the Moon only exists when you look at it. There’s a context in which he’s exactly right — but it’s not the context he’d have us believe is applicable.

        When you think of the Moon, there’s a symbolic representation of it in your consciousness that comes into existence at that moment. It’s probably a pretty rich bit of symbolism, replete with visual imagery, scientific fats (quarter million miles away, causes tides, etc.), and probably a bunch of folklore (where’s the wolf?). None of that is the actual Moon; all of it is simply your thoughts about it. But that’s all the access your consciousness has to the Moon. Even Armstrong, standing on the Moon, only knew of the Moon through his consciousness, only had access to what he thought of the Moon and what he thought of his sensory input of his experience in close proximity to the Moon; the actual, real, objective Moon was never itself part of his consciousness — nor could it ever be for him or anybody else.

        So, in that context, yes, absolutely, of course, obviously, the Moon only exists when you think about it — even as we have overwhelming reason to be confident that the hunk o’ rock itself happily continues its existence whether or not there even is anybody there to think of it. And, similarly, obviously, in that same context, the Moon is different for everybody, and must be of necessity; we each have our own mental symbols that comprise our understanding of the Moon, we each have our own personalized Moon.

        The great thing about science is that it provides a reliable means of interacting with our sensory input in such a way that we can come to build a consensus picture of reality. We can take the perspectives of the three blind men and construct a picture of an elephant that none can actually see but all agree is reasonably accurate — which is why we can be similarly confident that there actually is an objective shared reality out there, as opposed to your favored conspiracy theory. Sure, we could be brains in vats or subroutines of the Matrix or visions of the Mind of Jesus or what-not…but not only do we not need such to explain our experiences, they make the explanations worse.

        Cheers,

        b&

        >

        • peepuk
          Posted April 14, 2017 at 3:44 am | Permalink

          Excellent.

        • darrelle
          Posted April 14, 2017 at 7:45 am | Permalink

          If you have about a year of free reading time I’ve got just the discussion to recommend to you at a science website called Cosmoquest.

    • Amaltas
      Posted April 14, 2017 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      J Quinton, your initial comparison with Hinduism and Buddhism and then later summarization with Islam and Christianity is flawed. The former that is Hinduism and Buddhism and not organized religion. To say Hinduism is religion means is itself an error. Hinduism is a collection of several religions, castes, and sometimes people from different geography speaking different languages. Hinduism has only one common thread connecting all the people of different religion that is they believe in karma and life after death and a few non violence. Any religion that majority believes in karma, life after death and non violence principles can become part of Hinduism no matter what religion.

      Same argument with Buddhism or Jainism. These religion, infact it would be wrong to say that these are religion but just some meta physics beliefs. Infact Buddha was atheist his teachings. Nowhere in Buddhism you will find mention of God, hell or heaven. So it’s totally acceptable as an argument that these beliefs (for the lack of the term) that is Hinduism and Buddhism can accommodate any other religious belief inside their faith. There is no conflict. That is the reason India and it’s subcontinent could accommodate so many people from different backgrounds and more importantly giving a room to develop different belief systems and concepts of God. Now this also answers why Hindus have 33 million gods. Hinduism is where atheism meets spiritualism.

      However you very cunningly use Hinduism and Buddhism argument to later summarise a comparison of Islam and Christianity which are in true sense a religion albeit an organized religion with an agenda. In Christianity and Islam for instance there is no room to say I don’t believe in Jesus or Allah but I still go to church or mosque and announce my different beliefs. These are monotheism only one God no room for religion inside religion.

      This whole discussion of atheism applies to beliefs who oppose athiems. A society where atheism is not accepted. That’s why Islam and Christian beliefs have problem with atheists. For societies that believe in all kind of beliefs atheism is also welcome and those societies will not even waste time writing or discussing about atheism. And atheist will also not waste time believing that they are atheists. In India very rarely you will find a person declaring himself as atheist. Atheism in non monotheistic religion disappears because there is no central belief there is no scope of diversion, there is no conversion, there is no representative of God, there is no membership, people are not numbers in church or mosque but supreme conscious beings who are here to experience and find truth on their own. And if you cannot find truth in this life no problem, there is always a next life.

      So atheism is primarily a conflict between religions of the West that is Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. It’s like coke vs Pepsi, Adidas vs Nike. All about market share.

      • Posted April 14, 2017 at 11:01 am | Permalink

        J Quinton, your initial comparison with Hinduism and Buddhism and then later summarization with Islam and Christianity is flawed. The former that is Hinduism and Buddhism and not organized religion. To say Hinduism is religion means is itself an error. Hinduism is a collection of several religions, castes, and sometimes people from different geography speaking different languages. Hinduism has only one common thread connecting all the people of different religion that is they believe in karma and life after death and a few non violence. Any religion that majority believes in karma, life after death and non violence principles can become part of Hinduism no matter what religion.

        And, yet, Christianity is every bit as fractured as your description of Hinduism. The only common thread amongst Christians is some sort of fealty to Jesus, typically but not exclusively as the human incarnation of the divine force that Spoke Existence into Being. Usually, Jesus is seen as being the vessel by which one attains eternal salvation after death — and most, even the most violent, pay lip service to Jesus’s pacifism.

        But you’ve got Trinitarians and Unitarians, the Virgin Birth is hotly contested, there’re the Mormons who’d have you believe that Jesus came here by starship…and things get even more bizarre when you look at all the heresies of the first and second centuries. Marcion, for example, wrote a gospel that opened with an adult Jesus appearing on the scene much like Captain Kirk. For the Ophites, Jesus was some sort of a snake god. And, centuries before the Caesars, Jesus was little more than the architect and high priest of YHWH’s celestial temple — as evidenced in Zechariah.

        Indeed, I’d go so far as to suggest that such forms of diversity, especially through schism, are an hallmark if not a defining feature of a religion. In stark contrast, the sciences converge on an ever-narrowing set of agreed-upon elements, whereas the religions fracture at the jot of a tittle.

        Cheers,

        b&

        >

        • Posted April 18, 2017 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

          I remember seeing that there are 20000 *recognized* sects of Christianity, of which most are found within the US, amongst elsewhere. Unified? Hardly.

  5. Posted April 13, 2017 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    “And most atheists don’t feel the need to proselytise.”

    Clearly, this can’t be said of the “New Atheists.” A better name for them, in fact, would be “Evangelical Atheists,” since, like Evangelical Christians, they are not content to simply believe what they believe but must convert others to their beliefs, or non-beliefs. In both cases, the rationale behind this tendency to proselytise is the conviction that religion and atheism respectively are not simply wrong, but cause real harm to others. People must be saved—if not from their own ignorance then from the ignorance of others. Given that conviction, one could argue that the evangelical nature of their positions is understandable and even admirable. Personally, I’d prefer a “live-and-let-live” attitude from both believers and non-believers, but that’s probably not going to happen soon.

    • Sastra
      Posted April 13, 2017 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

      There’s a significant difference I think between persuasion and conversion. The rationale behind the desire to argue rationally for the truth of naturalism isn’t just a concern for the consequences of supernatural beliefs, but a concern for truth itself.

      Does truth matter? What happens if the answer is a broad ‘no?’

      Your own argument in favor of a live-and-let-live approach makes sense if religious beliefs didn’t involve significant and important claims about the world, but were simply preferences or tastes, lifestyles and identities. “No right; no wrong; just different” is wonderful in the right context. I agree.

      But I don’t think this accepting attitude fits in with “the most important factual knowledge possible,” the fact which helps us discover our purpose, our needs, our origins, and the way we ought to live. Whether or not God exists is supposed to be a serious question, a game and life changer. Treating it like a form of personal therapy or a taste for pumpkin pie might make one feel respectful of others, but only by changing the nature of the claim, and denying it — and those who believe it — the respect they deserve.

    • Brujo Feo
      Posted April 13, 2017 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

      I disagree, mirandaga. I think that magical thinking should be countered at every turn. I hold that “Jesus is my saviour” is as destructive–maybe more so–a claim as is “vaccines cause autism.”

      But of course, I could be wrong.

      • Curt Nelson
        Posted April 13, 2017 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

        But of course you’re not wrong. A false view of the world leads to all kinds of harm. How can it not?

        • Posted April 13, 2017 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

          I’d recommend extreme caution with the way you’re phrasing the point I think you’re trying to make.

          For example, Newtonian Mechanics is a false view of the world — and yet it’s the foundation for virtually all of modern technology save for a few notable edge cases.

          Those edge cases are handled by Quantum and Relativistic Mechanics…but those, too, are false views of the world. They are, however, complete and correct for all terrestrial phenomena; you have to go very, very far away, much farther than any human ever has or will, to find where they break down.

          It works the opposite direction, too. It is a false view that the Earth is flat, and yet is an extremely useful view when you spread your map out on the table.

          In short, there are no un-false views, only ones that likely encompass reality within their error bars. The goal of science is to continue to narrow the error bars — but not to the point that reality lies outside them.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • squidmaster
            Posted April 13, 2017 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

            I might phrase this differently. Newtonian mechanics is an incomplete view of the world — an approximation if you will. Nevertheless, it’s good enough for almost all applications. Similarly the Standard Model, though clearly incomplete, explains almost all observable phenomena in the Universe (the ones it doesn’t explain are, of course, more interesting as a result). ‘False’ seems more all-encompassing.

            • Posted April 13, 2017 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

              In court, you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

              As amazingly useful as Newtonian Mechanics is, it fails all three counts.

              Of course, the exact same can be said of any other explanation of anything one might care to offer.

              Newton’s value lies in its utility, not its truth. If you want to build a bridge and the cars to cross it, you want Newton, all of Newton, and nothing but Newton. (Well, maybe these days you might need to lean on Einstein for the GPS and Heisenberg for the microelectronic circuitry — but you get the point.)

              Cheers,

              b&

              >

              • nicky
                Posted April 13, 2017 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

                Newtonian physics is not really false, but should be considered just a ‘special case’, incomplete. So it fails only in the latter two of the three, I would say.

              • Posted April 13, 2017 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

                That’s not so. The predictions of Newtonian mechanics –almost ALL of them— are false even under idealized conditions, and the discrepancy between these predictions and reality could be detected whenever we wanted, if we put enough resources into the test. The same cannot be said of relativity or QM (so far). The basic concepts of Newtonian mechanics are demonstrably incompatible with reality. And most of the things we experience in daily life would not exist if Newtonian mechanics were true (eg atoms would not be stable).

              • Posted April 13, 2017 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

                All models are wrong, but some are useful.

                –George Box

              • Michiel
                Posted April 14, 2017 at 1:10 am | Permalink

                Not sure I’m getting your point really, though I’m not a physicist.

                “Newton’s value lies in its utility, not its truth.”

                The whole reason for it’s utility could surely be said to be it’s truth (despite it’s incompleteness). If it wasn’t true, at least to a large extent, it would have no utility.
                Also the people applying Newtonian physics for their work presumable know when to apply them and when not.

                It’s not comparable to religious truth claims, which are demonstrably false or at least unprovable in most cases, but are still applied to the world as if they were true all the time.

              • nicky
                Posted April 14, 2017 at 2:55 am | Permalink

                Lou, I did not express myself very cearly. I meant that Newtonian mechanics is ‘true’ on our human scale, unlike phlogiston or the aether. Yes, we know that, say, mass is not constant, but on our human, ‘home and garden’ scale Lorenz can be considered negligible.
                The same way that it is ‘true’ that the Earth is a sphere. Of course that is false, but monumentously less false than contending it is a pancake.

              • reasonshark
                Posted April 14, 2017 at 4:02 am | Permalink

                I have to agree with the consensus, based on Isaac Asimov’s point about the relativity of wrong. An absolutist distinction between right and wrong assumes a universe where everything is either/or, which just isn’t the case.

              • peepuk
                Posted April 14, 2017 at 5:44 am | Permalink

                “The truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth”

                Unfortunately if you are that strict there would be no truth. When we generalize we introduce always, almost inevitably, some errors.

                Personally I see no harm in calling Newtonian Mechanics true; except at very high speeds and very small scales.

                In my view we see Newtonian Mechanics as an abstraction of a more fundamental level. We just leave out the non-relevant parts.

                This way we increase our understanding how reality works at a certain level.

                Unfortunately this cannot be done without introducing some errors. But these errors are for a most cases not important.

              • jeremy pereira
                Posted April 14, 2017 at 8:32 am | Permalink

                Unfortunately if you are that strict there would be no truth. When we generalize we introduce always, almost inevitably, some errors

                Welcome to the real world. The findings of science are often described as provisional for this very reason.

                We do not know the truth about the real world, we only have approximate models for how it behaves.

                Newton says that the Earth goes round the Sun because a force exists between two massive bodies. Einstein says the Earth goes round the Sun because space-time is warped by mass and the Earth’s orbit is the equivalent of a straight line. These are completely different conceptual models but the maths of Einstein predicts things better. We still don’t know if space-time being warped is really what is happening.

              • Posted April 14, 2017 at 10:43 am | Permalink

                We do not know the truth about the real world, we only have approximate models for how it behaves.

                Exactly!

                Further, many in this subthread are operating under the mistraken pre-scientific impression that there actually is such a thing as Platonically idealized truth.

                If there’s one thing we can be absolutely certain of, it’s that we can’t be absolutely certain of anything.

                Even if CERN tomorrow announces confirmation of supersymmetry and the day after somebody takes their data and comes up with a slam-dunk Grand Unified Theory of Everything that harmoniously reconciles Quantum and Relativistic Mechanics and all the rest…

                …we still won’t have any way of ruling out the possibility that we’re just a subroutine of a Matrix-style simulation operating in a “real” universe with physics radically different from the one we superficially find ourselves in.

                And, of course, even if we did somehow, incomprehensibly, discover that to be a fact…well, how do we know that the Matrix super-universe isn’t itself but a passing dream of Alice’s Red King?

                Truth can be an useful shorthand in many situations. I wouldn’t hesitate to say that it’s true that the Sun rises in the East, or that that blasted motherfucking orange-haired idiot is the current Resident of the White House.

                But, ultimately, what we can be certain we don’t have is truth — and, instead, what we have are models / maps that are more or less useful. Even, of course, as some of those models are so useful that they are practically indistinguishable to us from Platonic idealized Truth.

                Cheers,

                b&

                >

              • reasonshark
                Posted April 14, 2017 at 11:20 am | Permalink

                Further, many in this subthread are operating under the mistraken pre-scientific impression that there actually is such a thing as Platonically idealized truth.

                No. I’m operating under the simple assumption that a) approximations can be more or less wrong/complete, and b) humans are not infallible.

                Just because we don’t always have our eye on the ball, doesn’t mean the ball never exists. Platonically idealized truth is the idea that abstractions have an independent existence outside of concrete manifestations (i.e. that the number two is not simply the numerical property of, say, a pair of sticks, but actually really exists in some parallel dimension). That is not the same thing as objectivism, which only requires that you don’t believe the mind-created moon bullcrap peddled by Chopra et al.

                Unless, of course, you actually want to be included in that “et al”?

                Besides, the “brain in a jar” thought experiment doesn’t prove we don’t live in an objective universe. It merely suggests that we would be mistaken in identifying the simulation as that objective universe.

                If it were true. Which is frankly conspiracy wingnut levels of speculation.

              • Posted April 14, 2017 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

                Just because we don’t always have our eye on the ball, doesn’t mean the ball never exists.

                But that’s my point exactly. We know that, not only is whatever we’re looking at not the ball, we know that the very concept of a ball is incoherent in the first place.

                That is not the same thing as objectivism, which only requires that you don’t believe the mind-created moon bullcrap peddled by Chopra et al.

                Chopra’s sin is one of hubris. As I’ve explained elsewhere in this thread, there really is a very real and significant and important-to-understant context in which the Moon only exists when you think of it — but that context is your own consciousness. Which happens to be the entirety of your personal universe, all you ever actually have access to, all you can ever actually know anything about.

                Chopra’s hubris lies in thinking that, therefore, either his own consciousness really is all there is, or his consciousness is a subpart of some bigger consciousness, or…or I can’t quite figure out what. It’s nonsense, whatever it is.

                There is reason to be overwhelmingly confident that your consciousness is a product of the neurophysiology of your brain, and that your brain is composed of quarks and electrons interacting via electromagnetism (with some irrelevant footnotes, like gravity and the nuclear forces and associated particles) in a way that Newton and chemistry are more than ample to model.

                But!

                Besides, the “brain in a jar” thought experiment doesn’t prove we don’t live in an objective universe. It merely suggests that we would be mistaken in identifying the simulation as that objective universe.

                If it were true. Which is frankly conspiracy wingnut levels of speculation.

                First of all, there really is no way to rule out the possibility that, underlying all of physics as we currently understand it, there’s Alice’s Red King’s Dream — and would that not be as anti-objective as it gets?

                And, more to the point, though you really would have to be crazy to live your life on the assumption that that or any other wingnut conspiracy is true, it demonstrates that the very concept of ultimate objective reality is itself as incoherent as Plato’s cave, and cut from the exact same cloth.

                Especially in light of our current state of understanding, where we can be certain that our best explanations are fundamentally flawed, and confident that the next explanation we come up with will be at least as radically different as Relativity an Quantum Mechanics are from Newtonian Mechanics — and that that explanation itself will be as incomplete as ever.

                Note: I am most emphatically not suggesting some particular wingnut conspiracy as the “true” objective reality — especially not a Chopra-esque overmind or whatever. What I am doing is categorically rejecting the coherence of the very concept of any sort of “ultimate” “real” “true” reality.

                It’s not a rabbit hole that you can dig to the bottom of; it truly is a bottomless pit with no end — not merely no end in sight. The very concept of a “bottom” is meaningless, no more real than the turtle on whose back the elephant stands.

                Or: your objective reality is as incoherent and ill-defined as the theologian’s god that’s the ground of all being. The theologian’s problem isn’t (only) the placing of a deity at the ground of all being; it’s the presumption that there is such a ground of all being in the first place — and you’re making the exact same presumption.

                Cheers,

                b&

                >

              • reasonshark
                Posted April 14, 2017 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

                Sorry, Ben Goren, but Chopra’s “sin” is yours too. You’ve gotten to the point where you’re ascribing magical powers to consciousness, and considering consciousness is entirely a material, physical process – something which I’m sure you agree is true, based on previous comments – well, turning around and reducing all of reality to consciousness, as Chopra does, is exactly what you’re doing. The “your personal universe” bit is as clear an admission as any that you think subjective experiences are exempt from the rest of the universe; indeed, that you think they work by magic and are the universe. And you say I’m invoking a ground of being? You’re rolling in one.

                That kind of philosophical idealism just ain’t gonna fly. The Moon is not interested in what you think. And even if the Moon responded to your thoughts in that spooky way, well, that would just be another causal mechanism. Because the mind is not magic. It’s material. To claim anything else is like trying to get free will out of the Scylla of determinism and the Charybdis of randomness.

                First of all, there really is no way to rule out the possibility that, underlying all of physics as we currently understand it, there’s Alice’s Red King’s Dream — and would that not be as anti-objective as it gets?

                Er, no. In your hypothetical, you’re not eliminating the objective world. You’re simply hiding it under a thorough illusion. After all, the apparatus needed to set up the illusion to begin with would have to exist in reference to a real world. If there was no real world, there wouldn’t even be a you to have the illusion to begin with, because you are not distinct from the real world. If we were talking about a Microsoft Word program independently of the world, the absurdity of your point would be obvious. No, it would swiftly reveal that it is in fact you who are talking in Platonic ideals.

                And, more to the point, though you really would have to be crazy to live your life on the assumption that that or any other wingnut conspiracy is true, it demonstrates that the very concept of ultimate objective reality is itself as incoherent as Plato’s cave, and cut from the exact same cloth.

                Then why, in your world, would it be “crazy”? If the mere possibility of an illusion is enough to dismiss objective reality, and you clearly do dismiss objective reality, then on what grounds do you get to claim that anything is or isn’t crazy? Why on Earth would you live your life as though you weren’t in a total hallucination, about to be revealed at any moment?

                The short answer, of course, is that there are no real-world reasons – evidence, provenance of the claim, etc. – to believe the reality we perceive is an illusion hiding another reality. But you can’t say that, because you refuse to admit that there is any reality at all. That’s the price you pay for throwing objectivity out of the window: no standards. You can’t even coherently claim there is no ultimate reality, because that claim itself makes a statement, gives a reference, to the nature of reality. In short, you’re contradicting yourself.

                You’re paying a steep price for separating subjectivity from objectivity and then throwing out the latter. One obvious consequence is lumping in approximations – which at least can be verified – with utter falsehoods – which by definition have no verity. That absolutism is what leads you to lump modern scientific cosmological and physical understanding with Chopra-esque woo. Until you realize that’s where your argument has put you, your point is going to be either meaningless or contradictory.

              • Posted April 14, 2017 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

                The Moon is not interested in what you think.

                If you think that’s even remotely related to the point I’m trying to make, then we’ve had a perfect breakdown of communication.

                I’m drawing a distinction between two different concepts, each of which go under the label, “the Moon.” The one is the (presumed, with no reasonable basis to challenge the presumption) objective hunk o’ rock a quarter million miles away. The other is the mental symbolism that you have in your consciousness that is your own internal representation / map / whatever of the hunk o’ rock.

                See any introductory science text for why we should be confident of the objective existence of the hunk o’ rock.

                But what exists in your mind is not the hunk o’ rock — and, indeed, the hunk o’ rock cannot even hypothetically exist in your mind. And your mind is all your consciousness has access to.

                Go ahead and step outside and look at the moon. It’s right there, clearly it exists? No? But all that’s really there is a symbolic representation of the photons (presumably) projected onto your retina. By the time it makes it to your consciousness, even the optic nerve isn’t relevant any more; only the neural pathways in your visual cortex.

                But even those pathways aren’t your consciousness. Your consciousness is the symbolism encoded by those pathways, a private-to-you linguistic / symbolic system that self-referrentially and recursively defines itself, the same way that an English dictionary is written entirely in English. Your mental symbolism contains maps / descriptions of external phenomena…but those maps are not the territory.

                So, when you think of the Moon, what you’re thinking of is your mental model of the Moon. It’s a map of the Moon, but it’s not and never can be the Moon itself. But it’s all you have — and, in that sense, in that context, it is the Moon and as fleeting as Chopra describes, even as it’s not the actual hunk o’ rock.

                This perspective can be difficult to warp your brain ’round, but it becomes inescapable once perceived.

                A good way to make a start at it…think of something, and then examine where the thought comes from. For example, think of the Moon. That thought will almost inevitably come in the form of an internally-audible monologue, such as if you were reading a Wikipedia article to yourself. You’re hearing a similar monologue as you read these very words. But where is that voice coming from? Who’s speaking it?

                If you stick with it, you will inevitably discover that it’s akin to the magic pen from Harry Potter, and all it’s doing is writing that the magic pen is writing about the magic pen. The self as most conceive of it truly is an illusion — albeit a powerful one. Just as powerful, in fact as the illusion that what you see when you look at the Moon actually is the objective Moon itself.

                There’s nothing mystical nor magical nor spiritual or the like about anything I’ve just written. It’s all there fore you to independently verify for yourself.

                As has been said, if you want to understand your mind, sit down and have a look at it — and is that something you’ve ever actually done?

                Cheers,

                b&

                >

              • Posted April 14, 2017 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

                Reply to Lou Jost:

                As Ben says: Newton – Utility.

                It’s plenty accurate for almost any “middle world” sort of work such that work “works” in the world and is efficient to create and operate (assuming you have good engineers).

                In almost all cases, if you are carrying more than 3 significant figures, you are fooling yourself. (Obviously this is inadequate in some areas of science; but for building things, the huge majority of things, it is. What’s your tolerance?)

                I’m not saying you don’t know this — I assume you do. I just think your statement is a bit too sweeping.

                Cheers,

        • Posted April 18, 2017 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

          A false view with no good way to understand where it goes wrong on its own terms. Ben’s example, Newton’s mechanics, tells you – if you “look” hard enough (and are a genius like Einstein or can make use of one :)).

    • Posted April 13, 2017 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

      “Live and let live” gets you a works in which majority political parties try to legislate against equality for minorities, in which gay people are thrown off roofs, in which atheists are hacked to death with machetes, in which women are forced to live inside cloth bags, and in which established knowledge is brushed aside in the classroom to make way for completely fabricated religious nonsense.

      No, I definitely think the moral high road is to fight against all that.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted April 13, 2017 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

      To a person, the new atheists promote absolute freedom of religion; they seek only to persuade, not to control.

      I don’t believe most religious evangelicals are quite so latitudinarian in their outlook.

      • Kevin
        Posted April 13, 2017 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

        If I recall when asked if it would be better that religion just vanished from the earth only Hitchens (not Harris, Dawkins, or Dennett) thought it would be bad. Of course, he argued that he liked to have people to argue against.

        I tend to side with Harris/Dawkins/Dennett. I’ve always been an atheist but only in the last five or so years have I found myself having to make critical remarks against religion because it has become more pervasive and it’s prevalence sheds so much light on the ignorance it breeds. That needs condemning, but it can be tiresome.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted April 13, 2017 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

          I believe that each of those three wishes to see religion (and other forms of superstition) abandoned voluntarily.

          In the meantime, they advocate complete religious freedom.

          • Posted April 13, 2017 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

            This is the point so many critics of “Gnu Atheists” don’t understand.

            Persuasion =/= legislation.

          • Kevin
            Posted April 14, 2017 at 7:49 am | Permalink

            Voluntarily, of course. I should have said explicitely.

    • Filippo
      Posted April 13, 2017 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

      ” . . . since, like Evangelical Christians, they are not content to simply believe what they believe but must convert others to their beliefs, or non-beliefs.”

      What “Great Commission” to convert the “unsaved” do the New Atheists impose on their brethren? What fire and brimstone punishment do the New Atheists aver will befall non-atheists?

      • Richard
        Posted April 14, 2017 at 2:14 am | Permalink

        The most terrible of all punishments: we will laugh at them! 🙂

    • JohnE
      Posted April 14, 2017 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      I don’t think you’re comment acknowledges the fact that many believers don’t subscribe to the “live and let live” philosophy, and this is exactly reason why many atheists feel the need to evangelize. Many atheists are terrified by the fact that, in the 21st Century, a large swath of humanity makes decisions based upon divine voices in their heads or their particular interpretations of ancient fables written by primitive people who would have thought that a kitchen match was a miracle. These are the voices and fables that have told people to fly planes into buildings, to invade Iraq, to marginalize and discriminate against women, to legitimize slavery, to conceal evidence of child-rape and protect the rapists “for the good of the church,” to pray over their dying children rather than seeking medical help, to murder abortion doctors, to refuse blood transfusions, to play with (and die from) poisonous snakes, to impoverish themselves by contributing to religious con-men (the estimated loss to religious fraud for 2015 is $50 billion dollars), to suppress the progress of science, and to block the dissemination of knowledge in our schools. If you’re an orthodox Jew it might lead you to harass women on the street who don’t comply with your dress code or to refuse to sit next to women on airplanes; if you’re an American christian your religion might lead you to hate gays and even picket the funerals of dead soldiers to publicize that hatred; if you’re an African christian it might lead you to kill “witches”; if you’re a muslim it might lead you to join ISIS and participate in its campaign of ruthless murders, or to mutilate women’s genitals. I actually think those are quite compelling reasons to evangelize against religion and in favor of atheism.

      • JohnE
        Posted April 14, 2017 at 9:55 am | Permalink

        Doh! Mistake in the first line: “you’re” should obviously be “your”.

      • Posted April 14, 2017 at 10:49 am | Permalink

        +m

      • Posted April 14, 2017 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

        “I don’t think you’re comment acknowledges the fact that many believers don’t subscribe to the ‘live and let live’ philosophy, and this is exactly reason why many atheists feel the need to evangelize.”

        I think I acknowledged, and lamented the fact, that neither believers NOR non-believers subscribe to the “live and let live” philosophy, and that I don’t see this changing any time soon.

        Your litany of evils that derive from religion is impressive, but I’m sure a believer could cite an equally impressive list of evils that derive from the premise that there is no reality beyond the material. So what we’re left with, I suppose, is: “Live and let live! You go first!”

        • Posted April 14, 2017 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

          Your litany of evils that derive from religion is impressive, but I’m sure a believer could cite an equally impressive list of evils that derive from the premise that there is no reality beyond the material.

          The distinction is that the “beyond the material” cited by the faithful falls into two categories.

          The first is the supernatural — gods and daemons, heavens and hells, miracles and magic. And that, we know, beyond any hint of doubt, reasonable or otherwise, is pure bullshit. We’ve looked and tested for all those things, far more thoroughly than anybody ever looked and tested for phlogiston or the aether; it’s just not there, and has no more bearing on reality than the four pillars of the Earth upon which the metallic dome of the sky rests.

          And the second is that which falls broadly within that which might be described as the human condition — hopes and fears, loves and losses, awe and wonder and boredom and fascination and attraction and repulsion and all the rest. And for the faithful to accuse us of denying the importance of such — or, worse, and far too common, to claim such is inaccessible to us — is to deny us our very humanity. I’m hard pressed to think of a worse insult or anything more hostile short of physical violence. Indeed, denial of the humanity of your victim is almost always the last mental barrier to overcome before committing (or at least condoning) violence.

          Cheers,

          b&

          >

        • JohnE
          Posted April 14, 2017 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

          First, I wonder if you could cite me to such a list. Second, as Ben pointed out, there is no good evidence for anything beyond the material, such that the material (and things generated by the material, such as the perception of love or beauty) constitute our best approximation of reality. The fact that reality may occasionally generate some unpleasant things is not, in the big picture, a good excuse for refusing to accept it — at least not for grownups.

          • Posted April 15, 2017 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

            “First, I wonder if you could cite me to such a list.”

            The list would look pretty much like the one you supplied, the difference being that the believer would contend that those evils —slavery, objectification of women, rape of the natural world, etc., (to which they would add, of course, abortion)—derive from denying the spiritual and reducing nature and other human beings to a collection of physical, soul-less objects. Not saying they’d be right; determining who’s right is not the point of this thread.

            “Second, as Ben pointed out, there is no good evidence for anything beyond the material, such that the material (and things generated by the material, such as the perception of love or beauty) constitute our best approximation of reality.”

            As you well know, for the person who believes in the spiritual there’s plenty of “good evidence” for something beyond the material, it’s just experiential evidence that is not amenable to the methods of science. Such a person would argue that defining reality by the tools that you have for measuring it is far from the “best approximation.”

            My original point, however, was a modest one: that whatever viewpoint you adopt you might do better to just live by it rather than spend your energy trying persuade others to live by it.

            “I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad.” —Thoreau

            • Posted April 15, 2017 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

              My original point, however, was a modest one: that whatever viewpoint you adopt you might do better to just live by it rather than spend your energy trying persuade others to live by it.

              And, yet, the world is a better place today than yesterday almost entirely because of people who spent their energy trying to persuade others to make it better.

              It’s not either / or, but a balance of both.

              And needs I mention that you, yourself, are here spending your energy trying to persuade us to live by your own viewpoint that we should sit quietly at the back of the bus?

              When you understand why you have no compunction telling us how you want us to live our lives, you will understand why you don’t need to get upset when we tell you how we want you to live your life.

              Cheers,

              b&

              >

              • Posted April 16, 2017 at 10:03 am | Permalink

                “It’s not either / or, but a balance of both.”

                Agreed. No question that some things are worth going to the mat for.

                “. . .you, yourself, are here spending your energy trying to persuade us to live by your own viewpoint.”

                For the record, “Personally, I’d prefer a ‘live-and-let-live’ attitude” hardly amounts to trying to persuade you to live by my viewpoint. Ever aware that my viewpoint might be wrong (I’m often wrong, but never uncertain) I seldom try to persuade anyone of anything; I don’t want that responsibility.

  6. scottoest
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    “Atheists will say that religion is bad for humanity, that it’s not an evolutionary adaptation – which happens not to be true”

    Ignoring the strawman here, of what “atheists will say” – how exactly does he KNOW this is not true? And why would atheism rest on such a statement?

    It could be definitively proven tomorrow that religion was the product of some evolutionary adaptation, and it would have no effect on the proposition of atheism whatsoever.

    In fact it would have the opposite effect, because it would make it clear that religious belief persists due to people “believing in belief”, not because those beliefs make a particularly compelling case.

    • Pete T
      Posted April 14, 2017 at 2:25 am | Permalink

      Also ignoring the false equivalence he tries to slip by with “… religion is bad for humanity, that it’s not an evolutionary adaption …”. Why would an evolutionary adaptation necessarily be good for humanity?

  7. Posted April 13, 2017 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Oh noes, not this stupid argument again. Everyone has a belief system. We couldn’t function without one. But that doesn’t make atheism a religion. The belief system of a naturalist-atheist is built on science, which is based on reason, evidence and experiment. The belief system of the religious is built on scripture and holy books, which are based on make-believe, myth and fantasy. Not the same, obviously.

    • Brujo Feo
      Posted April 13, 2017 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

      darwinwins…while this could devolve rapidly into a question of semantics, I disagree that we need a belief system. I try to NEVER operate on belief, AKA faith, which I define as holding a position without evidence–a synonym for magical thinking.

      Not that I always succeed, but I try to hold opinions based only upon evidence, as incomplete and fragile as it may be.

      I sometimes hear the retort: “well, you ‘believe’ in the scientific method.” OK, guilty as charged. (As if there’s any other kind worth discussing.)

      • Posted April 13, 2017 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

        The goal should generally be to match one’s position to that warranted by a rational analysis of objective observation to a degree indicated by the reliability of the observation.

        So you should be overwhelmingly confident that, if you drop your pen, it’ll accelerate down at about 10 m/s/s until it hits the floor. You should still be confident, but decidedly less so, that the Democrats will gain seats in both the House and Senate in 2018, very likely re-taking the Senate but probably not the House. And you should be nigh-on certain that you’re not going to correctly pick all the winning numbers for the next statewide lottery — but you shouldn’t be surprised if you get one or two of them.

        That’s science in a nutshell.

        Faith amounts to unwarranted evaluation of the evidence, the analysis, the error bars, or some combination thereof. And the real mystery of faith is that anybody considers it a virtue. You wouldn’t buy an used car on faith, so why buy an entire worldview on one?

        Cheers,

        b&

        >

      • Posted April 13, 2017 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

        I will not surrender the perfectly good word “believe” to the faithful. To believe X is simply to accept X as true. The question is why you accept X as true. The religious folk accept things as true on faith, or because they believe it is the word of God. To believe something is true, we more enlightened sorts require evidence, experience and knowledge, and even then X is provisionally true to some degree or other, as Ben says.

        IMO, opinion is worse than belief. An opinion is a judgement not necessarily based on fact, so I like to reserve the word opinion for things that cannot be determined by evidence, like political beliefs. The belief that Trump is a dolt is an opinion, but the truth of evolution is not.

        • Posted April 13, 2017 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

          Politics is very much amenable to rational analysis of objective observation.

          For example, it is a matter of politics whether or not a society shall provide universal police and fire protection for its members — just as it’s a similar matter of politics whether or not the society shall provide universal health care as well.

          We have hard empirical evidence that privatized, for-profit police and fire protection is guaranteed to result in very unpleasant consequences, even if it really is quite profitable to the police and firemen themselves. Therefore, basically all industrialized societies provide universal police and fire protection for their members.

          We have similar empirical evidence that health care is no different, that outcomes are disastrous when privatized and generally pretty good (though certainly not perfect!) when socialized — yet, for some incomprehensible-to-me reason, we here in America are still debating how hard the insurance companies should be permitted to screw us over and how much corporate management should be able to get in on the screwing.

          I mean, really. If your boss could cancel your ability to pay to have the police answer your phone call or limit what types of calls the police would take from you, we’d agree that’d be insane — but it’s good capitalism to give your boss that same control over your access to your doctor?

          Sorry for the ranting tangent…I think the point I was originally driving at is that opinions are best left for aesthetics. What’s your opinion of Mozart or banana sundaes? I prefer Stravinsky and 80%+ cacao chocolate, myself.

          Cheers,

          b&

          >

          • Posted April 13, 2017 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

            You can use evidence in formulating your political opinions, and should, but statements like “the government should adopt a single-payer system” or “we should allow charter schools” require normative judgements, as well as weighing judgements of fact, and cannot determined to be objectively true or false. That is why they are opinion. Good opinion is supported by evidence and logic. Bad opinion is supported by pounding the table.

            • reasonshark
              Posted April 14, 2017 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

              If they can’t be determined to be true or false at all, then why are normative claims anything but gobbledegook? Or else just posit a normative claim that dismisses rational thinking. Viola. You’ve just shot your moral subjectivism in the foot, and are now babbling when you talk about “good” and “bad” opinions. Heck, thumping the table might be someone’s idea of a moral norm.

  8. Steve Zeoli
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    By Lawton’s twisted logic, it seems he’d be comfortable calling religion an alternate “science.” Physics would be an alternate magic. Silly.

  9. Helen Pluckrose
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    What complete nonsense. Atheism is a religion because atheists have the same psychological needs as religious people?It’s a set of alternative beliefs about the origin and nature of reality? What am I supposed to believe about these? Nobody told me. Is there some handbook I’m supposed to have a copy of? And why this persistent confusion of ‘atheist’ with ‘scientist?’ I’m no less atheist simply because I don’t find science particularly interesting. I’m very glad other people do & I recognise the importance of it & I’ll defend it against ideologues of all varieties but I’m passionate about history. Sadly, many of my colleagues are not so positive about science but they’re nearly all atheists. I’d even go so far as to suspect that the majority of atheists are not scientists. Neither do we necessarily have an opinion on whether or not religion is an evolutionary adaptation! I get the impression he is arguing with one particular atheist and needs to get out more.

    • Sastra
      Posted April 13, 2017 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

      If Lawton and Wilson are specifically attacking “New Atheism,” then they’re not necessarily wrong to link it to a love for science. One of the things which defines gnu atheism is analyzing the question of God’s existence in light of modern science.

      Accomodationist atheists, on the other hand, tend to insist that science can say nothing about whether or not God exists, at all. A scientific approach to religion is fine if the goal is to understand, but it’s wrong if conclusions are drawn or argued for. A sort of Prime Directive taken towards the Simple Folk and their beliefs, I think.

      • Posted April 14, 2017 at 6:06 am | Permalink

        “..analyzing the question of God’s existence in light of modern science.”

        I see the rationale here, but not the semantics. Does your sentence have any meaning?

        Can science have anything to say about God?

        • darrelle
          Posted April 14, 2017 at 8:16 am | Permalink

          How could science not have “things to say” about god(s)? Science is simply a set of methods that has proven useful for figuring out aspects of the reality we are a part of. God claims are claims about that same reality.

          Science has already disproved myriad god claims, as in demonstrated that the probability of them being accurate is infinitesimal. That certainly says something about the corresponding gods. At least it should.

        • Sastra
          Posted April 14, 2017 at 9:17 am | Permalink

          I’ll rephrase: given all we have learned about physics, cosmology, evolution, psychology,and the brain, what once seemed commonsensical no longer fits. Concepts of God almost invariably involve basic and primitive assumptions regarding essences, magical correspondences, reified abstractions, immaterial minds or mental products, teleology, humancentricism, and/or top down skyhook explanations as the best, most obvious explanations. A scientific approach to those hypotheses could in theory have established them as aspects of the scientific model. Had it done so, the results would have been happily accepted by the religious as confirmation — if not of God itself, then of a supernatural aspect of reality.

          But our discoveries went into a different direction. The religious response tends then to fall into one of two camps: 1.) science does support supernaturalism, the scientific establishment refuse to accept the evidence; or 2.) science couldn’t say anything about God, “by definition” it can deal only with the natural world.

          Gnu atheists argue against both tactics. Most critics want them to stick to arguing against the first one.
          Hope that’s clearer.

  10. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    The defining feature of religion is belief in god(s).

    Ermmm, that’s the definition of theism, not religion. And the rest of his argument is built on top of that.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted April 13, 2017 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

      The truth is that atheism is not simply 
an absence of belief in god, but also a set of alternative beliefs about the origin and nature of reality.

      Atheists will have beliefs about the nature and origin of reality. These beliefs have words to describe them, such as “naturalism.” There is no need to misuse the word “atheism” to label them, since they already have more accurate and specific labels.

      This person is terrible with words.

      • reasonshark
        Posted April 13, 2017 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

        Agreed! It’s faintly amusing to see someone stumble so eagerly over their own words to make a point.

      • Posted April 14, 2017 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

        Exactly what popped into my mind when I read that: “Naturalism!”

  11. Curt Nelson
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    People who try to be provocative through loosened-up word meanings should be given a Ninny Award.

  12. Posted April 13, 2017 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    The purpose of words is to uniquely identify some particular concept in a way that distinguishes it from other concepts. Not all four-legged mammals are cats; some are cows. If you say that a cow is a cat because it has four legs, then the word, “cat,” has lost its meaning.

    So, if atheism is a religion, then what isn’t a religion? Is politics a religion, and political parties factions? How about plumbing — is that a religion?

    But never mind that; the point of this silly man’s silly exercise is that atheists think religion is bad, so he delights in teasing atheists by telling them they’re religious. Good for some cheap yuks if you’re an insecure ten-year-old-bully, maybe, but that’s about it.

    Because, ultimately, he’s reaffirming that religion is something bad…which means he’s pissing off the faithful as much as the rational. And who’s he going to cry to when he discovers he has no friends left?

    Cheers,

    b&

  13. Curt Nelson
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Did you ever wonder what could be accomplished with all the resources that would be freed up in a world without religion? Think of the time alone not spent going to worship services.

  14. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    There might be a link between Wilson’s strong belief in group selection and his defense of the adaptive nature of religion. If your defense of religion is that it aids social bonding and group cohesion, then naturally a strong believer in group selection will consider religion adaptive. (But does he really argue for ‘God gene’s?)

    Where Lawton seems to go off is that not only is the “content of these features” different but so also is the conteXt. And a belief system does not make anything a religion. At the least, political ideologies also qualify. And the problem with at least some religions is their belief system is incapable of self-modification.

  15. Ken Kukec
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    I do not accept that atheism per se is a religion. But I think that secular humanism, of which atheism (or non-belief more generally) may be a component, is sufficiently analogous to a religion to be classified as such.

    Part of the reason I say this is because, to qualify for the protections of the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment, it is probably necessary for it to be so classified. In an ideal world, the free exercise clause would encompass a “right of conscience” on behalf of all individuals. We do not, however, live in such an ideal world; we live a world where the free exercise clause is expressly delimited to “religion.”

    • Posted April 13, 2017 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

      An interesting angle. But since we atheists don’t pray or partake in silly ceremonies, we should be okay with freedom of speech and assembly, and not need free exercise. Perhaps for tax deductible donations to atheist orgs? I don’t think 501(c)s need to be religious.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted April 14, 2017 at 9:31 am | Permalink

        The 501(c)(3) tax exemption applies to charitable, scientific, literary, and educational, as well as religious groups.

        But the Free Exercise clause has additional implications for public employees, and students at state universities, and soldiers, and prisoners, and anyone else subject to governmental authority — which is to say, for all of us potentially.

  16. tubby
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    Some atheists have “spiritual beliefs”

    And some Buddhists don’t believe in gods. But that doesn’t make Buddhism not a religion any more than some atheists with ‘spiritual beliefs’ cause atheism to be one.

  17. Randy schenck
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    The idea that atheist is a religion is just ridiculous and no true atheist would ever say so. We don’t believe in any religion or g*d and it’s free. Where does he stand on this? We do not pray as there is nothing to pray to. Our belief is in people, at least those who choose no belief in religion. The rest have a problem they should try to get rid of.

    • nicky
      Posted April 13, 2017 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

      Of course atheism is not a religion, but it can be religious (e.g. Buddhists).
      The ‘New Atheism’ (what this mainly is about, I think) has many traits that mark it as non-religious: no Gods, no supernatural, no ‘absolute’ morality and no organised group* or group rituals (c.f. the talk about ‘herding cats’).
      On the other hand it does have some religious traits: a world view (materialism, empiricism etc.), cosmogeny and indeed some proselytism (e.g. Boghossian, Dawkins). Does that suffice to call it a religion? I don’think so.

      *Indeed religion, and particularly moralistic religion, is an instrument to enforce and reinforce group cohesion in larger groups (where non-closely related males compete for acces to females) which is an advantage in intertribal warfare. That is a kind of ‘selection’, but I would not call that group selection though, rather ‘extension of kin-selection’.

      • nicky
        Posted April 13, 2017 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

        Sorry Randy, this was meant to be a separate post, not specifically directed at you. Don’t know how that happened.

  18. Sastra
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    And any atheist who believes in a higher power or some “purpose” isn’t an atheist at all, much less a “hardcore atheist.”

    There is a popular misconception that a “hardcore atheist” is anyone who not only doesn’t believe in the Abrahamic God, but really despises that God and the fundamentalist religions which grow out of it. This means that people who believe in non-western, nice, or squishy-fuzzy versions of God can be counted as “atheists” when convenient.

    It also means that any atheist who is “hardcore” obviously doesn’t know about non-western, nice, or squishy-fuzzy versions of God, or they wouldn’t be an atheist.They would be the better, non fundamentalist kind of theist. This, too — sometimes known as the Argument from Well I Don’t Believe in That God Either — can be convenient.

    The softcore atheists and theists are either interchangeable, or the misconception is going off in different directions.

  19. Posted April 13, 2017 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    I was a New Scientist subscriber for about 20 years, but I grew increasingly uneasy about the ‘click-baitiness’ of their cover stories. Their ‘Darwin was Wrong’ cover (a couple of weeks before my hero’s 200th birthday) was the final straw. I did not renew my subscription, and explained why. See: http://friendsofdarwin.com/20110623/

  20. Marilyn
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    All this talk about stronger and weaker beliefs in science drive me nuts!!! I don’t ‘believe’ in science..I accept the facts of it! Science is based on facts that you either accept or reject! There are no ‘levels’ of acceptance. It’s like saying ‘I am almost pregnant’…no such thing! You either are or you aren’t.

    • nicky
      Posted April 13, 2017 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

      What about a ‘mole’? You are pregnant and yet you are not 😆😆

    • Posted April 18, 2017 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      People who are in favour of partial restrictions on abortion based on time since conception seem to have something like a belief in “degrees of pregnancy”.

  21. squidmaster
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    Some atheists could conceivably be branded ideologues. This is, I think, the basis of the criticism of New Atheists and the accusation of proselytizing. I certainly think that, for example, ‘The god Delusion’ was pretty clearly persuasion and not an attempt at religious conversion. But, if one is religious, then any act of persuasion that relates either positively or negatively to religious belief appears like proselytizing.

    • Posted April 13, 2017 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

      I can name plenty of atheists who are idealogues – but most of those are idealogues about something other than atheism.

      What replaced religion in CJ Werleman, PZ Myers and Adam Lee isn’t atheism, it’s a secular ideology as regressive as any religion.

  22. Posted April 13, 2017 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    Well, there’s always this.

  23. Posted April 13, 2017 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    An atheist’s sacred value might be that religion should have no place in government

    That’s not even an atheist value, sacred or otherwise: that’s a secular value shared by many religious people.

  24. Posted April 13, 2017 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    You might enjoy David Voas’s TED talk from the University of Sussex about the decline of religion in the Western world at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtAR_OGzlcg&t=2s

    Fascinating.

  25. Luke Vogel
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    I still hold that certain atheist are indeed believing in ways that are faulty enough that reason is secondary.

    The most clear is a view of science which entertains “supernationalism” as within its scope, while providing only wooly metaphor to support the claim. Second, the tendacy to support claims such as the happiest person has been living in a cave for twenty years, without anything close to evidence. This of couse used in vigorous defence of otherwordly language. Third, the tendency to forward claims with certitude while still narrowly focused, such as memetic virus to explain more than is possible within its framework. Fourth, forwarding a scientic belief not only in reasonable opposition to religious belief, but to claim they will lead to the establishment of moral progress. This is done without full explanatory or evidential power (a backward facing humanism). Lastly, a general intolerance removed from reasonable anger or justified counter evidemce to dangerous dogma, more a irrational defenciveness.

    As a side note, when it comes to such ideas, there is something that still angers me. Let me say first, I find Lawton’s piece as provided here, drivel and a misappropriation of Wilson’s work. He simply was cherry picking for a belief of his own. However, when I was reading PZ Myers many, many years ago, he would goad his followers to essentially harass people online. He appears to stopped, but he was a large contributing factor for my concern atheist were becoming religion like. I will never forget his post at science blogs spouting the idea of openly mocking in public sports players kneeling as to show some kind of observance. As shameful as I view such displays, Myers was summing up daily a religion of atheism and gleefully rewarded for doing so.

    • Luke Vogel
      Posted April 13, 2017 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

      I sincerely apologize for my above typos in that longish rant. Honestly, I post from an LG Android cell where I hunt and peck in the worse way. No excuse, I know. Delete my post if overly unreadable, or keep as a document to foolish need to vent.

  26. Posted April 13, 2017 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    I find most amazing how seemingly difficult it is, to simple go about one’s life without believing in a supernatural person that must be impressed. You can sleep in on a Sunday and enjoy a long breakfast; perhaps read something. Maybe you enjoy a stroll in the park and feed the squirrels, if that’s your thing. But reading some authors, it appears as if this was utmost difficult exercize. It must be a “religion” of sorts.

    Most religious people in Europe (at least) don’t worry too much about some Great Overseer judging their every step, either. They happily violate holy rules as if it was unimportant that the Creator of the Universe himself — no less — set them up. It seems they spend their Sundays, too, as if He doesn’t exist.

    Sometimes Atheists are described as special, or psychological different in some way, or the opposite is attempted, and we’re just like believers. These authors expose only what kind of narrative they want to peddle. They invent “reasoning” whatever suits them momentarily. We’re either moral monsters with a crush for Hitler-Mao-Stalin, or we’re just like fundamental Evangelicals. Depending on the point they want to make.

    What about a third category: normal people who just don’t care on a given day about the supernatural? Not believing something is not exaclty difficult. You just sit there and feed the squirrels.

    The confusion about religion is due to its many meanings, and some are complicated. Yes, we humans want to see order in the world. We like to see stories where cause and effect nicely give rise to the situation at hand. We love to impose structure onto everything, otherwise we could not make sense of anything. We’re not good with gradients, shifts, continuity, and have a hard time with events occuring simultaneously. Uncertainty makes us afraid. We are also social creatures, and want to synchronize our efforts, assure each other about a shared reality, and for practical purposes alone want to have some shared structure.

    Atheists, too, like celebrations, dates and seasons that divide the passage of time. Some things can be holy to us, too. Like all humans, we believe silly things, engage in silly customs and often don’t think too hard about them. It’s also much more fun to party with others.

    But at the end of the day, none of this should make the concept of atheism difficult, old or new.

  27. Christopher Bonds
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    Taking a cue from a book I’m currently reading (Sapiens, by Harari), I would say that one thing unique about the human species is its ability to hypostatize–to treat imaginary entities as real. This would include gods, so hypostatization is at the root of all religion. However, atheism does not fall under hypostatization, because there is no imaginary entity to think of as being real. (Harari cites Google as something we think of as real but isn’t there in the way that rocks and trees are.)

  28. reasonshark
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    If most otherwise rational people really, deeply, faithfully believed in fairies, then the “a-fairyists” would be the ones accused of wishful thinking. We’re just lucky we don’t live in a world where an insane number of people devote an insane amount of their lives to the insane idea that fairies exist.

    Replace “fairies” with “deities”, and this is the exact same situation. Minus the luck.

  29. Filippo
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    Whatever chinks there may be in the armor of New Atheism, I look forward to Graham Lawton enlightening readers about which of the multitude of religions is the one true religion.

  30. Posted April 13, 2017 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  31. Historian
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

    Every time a supposed atheist attacks New Atheists as acting like a religion, the latter immediately go on the defensive with a list of reasons why the charge is false. I say they should go on the offensive. What is the agenda of these people who say the New Atheists should shut up? What psychological needs are met by these attacks? What are they afraid of? Perhaps they fear that if atheists do not remain in the closet, they will be the victims of a Christian pogrom. Their attitude is as absurd as a member of one political party urging the party not to counter the claims of the opposing party.

    I can’t accept the argument that these critics are saying what they say for the sake of some abstract intellectual debate. Clearly they are disturbed by the fact that New Atheists forcefully present their case. I just don’t know their motive. What gives with them? New Atheists should not just defend themselves. They need to demand of these atheist critics just what the hell is bothering them.

    • reasonshark
      Posted April 14, 2017 at 3:56 am | Permalink

      Good point, though I don’t think it’s fear of a pogrom that’s likely to be motivating them. I suspect it’s fear of the “believe in belief” doctrine being upended that’s far more likely. In a multicultural climate where religious tolerance is held as a virtue, the criticisms and putdowns of atheists sound like an offensive attack.

      It’s more or less how Douglas Adams and Richard Dawkins describe it: they’re so used to handling religion with unearned respect that they get uncomfortable when someone else refuses to do so.

  32. Posted April 13, 2017 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

    I’ve picked up the New Scientist on occasion at the newsstand, usually because of its clickbait cover stories. Invariably, its content is shallow and sketchy.

  33. poltiser
    Posted April 14, 2017 at 12:58 am | Permalink

    Good morning!
    I admire you tactful and patient explanations…
    We need more of them as the irrationality is in attack and gaining ground…
    It is a bit like in old Bruegel’s picture “Blind leading the blind”
    Peer pressure and dishonesty of crusaders makes matter more problematic, as physiological denialism does not improve situation either.
    I was lucky to be born sceptic and do not have a need for religion of any sort, but I live all my live in a sea of believes, as anybody else…
    Our common consciousness and civilisation depends very much on honesty and understanding, that why your work and the time sacrificed by others, to keep the naturalist tradition alive, can spare us from faith of Giordano or Spinoza, all the time expressing everything in riddles because of bullying and censorship.
    There is a big difference in world view between naturalistic and religious take on life: science is a method of discovery and avoiding bias, when religion is the muzzle preventing member of the flock to go astray…
    It seems both tradition were born in the time of the mental revolution sometime between 200 and 100 thousand years ago in Africa…
    Fascinating story!

    Happy Ester as Spinoza and Einstein would say, in the name of The Nature God! 😉

  34. Posted April 14, 2017 at 2:05 am | Permalink

    “He doesn’t realize that by criticizing atheism in this way, he’s also criticizing religion”

    — Yes. It’s purely rhetorical move, and one which is not only weak but also reveals the basic insincerity of his position. If he was being honest, I suspect his argument would be more along the lines of “I don’t like seeing people undermine the status of religion. It makes me uneasy for reasons I don’t want to explore and want instead to defend religious people who I fear are too simpleminded to defend themselves and likely to collapse in a heap if they ever encounter any conflicting argument.”

  35. Tom
    Posted April 14, 2017 at 3:12 am | Permalink

    Since no theology without evidence can compete with the scientific method and science cannot and will not by its nature exclude the POSSIBILITY of any and all supernatural intervention, the believer (and others) use this paradox to validate their fantasies by imagining that theology and science are equally fruitful methods to discover evidence.
    Mr Lawton now seems to be down playing the role of evidence when discussing what is and isn’t atheism. A lack of the full understanding of natures evidence by atheists is not the same as a blind faith in theologies contrary to that evidence.

  36. Richard Bond
    Posted April 14, 2017 at 3:49 am | Permalink

    At least for this atheist, Lawton has things the wrong way round. I am an atheist because of the way that I think; I do not think the way that I do because I am an atheist.

  37. Gabriel
    Posted April 14, 2017 at 3:57 am | Permalink

    You are a saint! I cannot understand how you can still put up with this continuous stream of vacuous idiocy…

  38. Posted April 14, 2017 at 6:28 am | Permalink

    Have we fallen so low that simply not believing in something without evidence is a religion?

  39. Claudia Baker
    Posted April 14, 2017 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Shocking ‘believers’ with a casual “Oh, fuck god”, is one of the prime pleasures of my life. I figure it’s the least I can do for myself after 1/3 of a lifetime being indoctrinated as a catholic. Even seemingly level-headed people, who are not particularly religious, react with a look that is priceless. Which shows how far we still have to go to eliminate religion. Which also shows the need for ‘militant atheism’. I say, bring it on!

  40. Posted April 14, 2017 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    As Bill Maher said: “Atheism is a religion like abstinence is a sex position.”

  41. Posted April 23, 2017 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    This sort of farcical reasoning serves the purposes of some, but is a large part of the reason why I try to avoid describing myself as ‘atheist’. Atheism can only be understood in contradistinction to ‘theism’ and, hence, it presupposes that ‘theism’ is, itself, basically coherent and intelligible when, to my mind, it’s neither. The same logic applies to the naturalist/supernaturalist distinction – it’s one more arbitrary way to try to slice & dice reality, which enables some (inevitably) to try to draw a ‘false equivalence’.

  42. Ullrich Fischer
    Posted May 13, 2017 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    Yep, I read NS avidly as a student in the mid 1960s and early 70s, then subscribed when I got a job, but ever since they stopped running regular columns by Lawrence Krauss and A.C. Grayling, they’ve steadily gone down hill. The most recent debacle which finally got me to drop them was when they turned off comments on their online articles.

  43. Posted June 1, 2017 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    The problem is that it’s rare to have people discuss Atheism in and of itself. I suspect this has to do with a deep vacuousness of meaning or purpose in the philosophy. It’s been my experience that what’s being presented is usually Scientific Materialism, which very much operates like other religions. It has unprovable tenets, such as the assumption that all phenomena have material explanations. It has rituals, such as peer review, that its adherents practice regularly. It has temples and priests, also known as schools and teachers. It would be easier if most of the people with whom I have these conversations could more clearly make the distinction between these two viewpoints.

    • Posted June 1, 2017 at 11:24 am | Permalink

      The problem is that it’s rare to have people discuss Atheism in and of itself.

      Perhaps in the circles you run in.

      Scientific Materialism, which very much operates like other religions

      Ah, I see. Religions are bad; “Scientific Materialism” is like a religion; ergo “Scientific Materialism is bad…which is why we should all bow down before your own favored pantheon, right?

      It has unprovable tenets, such as the assumption that all phenomena have material explanations.

      Nothing is provable, when it comes right down to it. Even 1 + 1 = 2 — it could be that the only reason you think so is because the CIA is controlling your thoughts through your dental implants with alien mind ray technology to make you think so.

      But, leaving aside the paranoid conspiracy theories, naturalism is the overwhelming conclusion of a rational analysis of empirical observation.

      If I proposed to you that there’s an angry adult male rhinoceros in the room with you — the real thing, not a toy or a picture or what-not — about to stomp you to death, how open would you be to the possibility that that proposition is true? How much more thorough a search do you need other than a casual glance about to conclude that the proposition is without reasonable merit?

      Moving to the marginally less absurd, how seriously do you take the “intelligent falling” parody “theory” of gravity? That objects only fall down because Jesus pushes them — and, should Jesus forget to push on something (or decide for a moment to not push on it) they’d just hang in midair?

      If you can appreciate the absurdity in either of those proposals…then you can at least understand the nature of all other supernatural proposals.

      You might not be aware of the state of the evidence, but we’re at the point where exactly as much confidence is warranted that the complete physics of the everyday world is every bit as well understood as Newtonian-scale gravity. Yes, there’s still some very exciting stuff we don’t understand — like black holes and dark energy…but we know that the stuff we don’t understand is nowhere to be found on Earth, or for dozens of lightyears (at least) in any direction. And, just as nothing we learn about a black hole will open the possibility that your keys will levitate if you say the right prayer to Jesus, nothing we learn about any new physics will open the possibility of any form of supernaturalism you might care to propose.

      It has rituals, such as peer review, that its adherents practice regularly.

      I have rituals, too. I woke up this morning next to the most beautiful woman in the world; I exercised; I ate breakfast; and I’m now finishing a cup of coffee as I (pretend to) work. Hallelujah! Praise Jesus! It’s a religion!

      It would be easier if most of the people with whom I have these conversations could more clearly make the distinction between these two viewpoints.

      …or, perhaps, just maybe, you could be the one who’s confused, as opposed to everybody else in the world?

      Never forget the joke about the old woman who calls her husband to warn him about the idiot driving the worng way on the freeway. “It’s not just one idiot, honey — it’s all of them!”

      Cheers,

      b&

      >

      • Posted June 1, 2017 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

        No need to bow down at all. I believe that my faith offers opportunities that cannot be found in any other, but I’m not suggesting you be required to follow that path. Go where you want, but I’d recommend trying to gauge where you’re going. And Science is particularly myopic when it comes to worldviews. And that’s because of, not in spite of, its refusal to accept any information other than the crudely empirical.

        It’s interesting that you claim to have a nearly comprehensive understanding of earthly phenomenon. Care to explain consciousness. After all, any of your other explanations involve the use of consciousness, and you can’t claim to truly grasp anything if you don’t understand how it is you understand it.

        And there’s a difference between personal habits and collective rituals. What you described is your morning habit. It would be a religious ritual if, say, a couple thousand woke at precisely the same time as you; next to the same woman; completed your same exercise routine; and drank coffee out of a replica of your cup; all in the belief that it would accomplish some communal goal.

        It’s worth noting, too, that I’m not a lone idiot when it comes to belief in the supernatural. In fact, I’m in a vast majority. In your metaphor, it’s actually you and a small caravan screaming that everyone else is driving the wrong way.

        • Posted June 1, 2017 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

          It’s interesting that you claim to have a nearly comprehensive understanding of earthly phenomenon.

          That is most emphatically not what I wrote.

          We have a complete no-room-for-addition understanding of the physics of the everyday world (and quite a bit beyond). But physics just sets the ground rules by which the game is played.

          Even a very young child can have a complete understanding of the rules of chess, en passant and all, and yet be completely bewildered by the game of play of low-ranked amateurs — amateurs who, themselves, haven’t the foggiest idea of what grandmasters are doing, with said grandmasters gobsmacked by the moves of supercomputers like Deep Blue.

          But that same very young child knows that rooks don’t move diagonally.

          It’s the same with physics. We don’t need to understand consciousness to know that it most emphatically does not involve diagonally-moving rooks. We do know, as surely as we know that the Sun rises in the East, that consciousness is an emergent high-level symbolically computational phenomenon of cognitive neurophysiology. At the bottom, it’s entirely composed of quarks and electrons interacting overwhelmingly via electromagnetism with an insignificant nod to gravity and irrelevant footnotes pointing to strong and week nuclear forces and the like. But the same can be said of the “wetness” of water — an individual electron isn’t “wet,” and there’s no wetness to be found in elementary physics, but your glass of very wet water is still “merely” quarks and electrons.

          Your suggestions that some inexplicable magic is required to account for consciousness are every bit as absurd as an insistence on a magical wetness as an intrinsic property of water.

          It’s worth noting, too, that I’m not a lone idiot when it comes to belief in the supernatural.

          When it comes to your particular flavor of the supernatural…you have few peers.

          Do you believe in the faeries at the foot of the garden? Krishna? Dowsing? Demonic possession? Healing crystals? Quetzalcoatl? Astral projection?

          There are many superstitions with violently contradictory theories of the supernatural. In stark contrast, all the sciences converge on a consistent picture of the natural world.

          That’s something that the superstitious don’t tend to grasp. It’s easy to show with Young Earth Creationists, which you might or might not be an example of — but they make a good example regardless. They miss the fact that it’s not just biology which demonstrates an old Earth, and not just geology…but physics, astronomy, chemistry, and more — and at every scale. Even when the science is fuzzy, the edges overlap in ways consistent only with a baker’s dozen billion years since the Big Bang.

          And, honestly…if, at this point, you still don’t understand that there’s no more room in science for the supernatural than there is for your keys to spontaneously levitate…then that’s a clear demonstration that you’re waaaaaay out of date on the science. You’re drawing conclusions based on a knowledge of the state of the art that’s well over a century out of date, and perfectly ignorant of the most significant findings of the last couple decades.

          Might as well have a debate with somebody about the superpowers of the priests of Atlantis with somebody who’s ignorant of NASA’s meter-scale maps of the ocean subsurface….

          Cheers,

          b&

          >

          • Posted June 1, 2017 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

            I’m not suggesting there’s room in Science for the supernatural. I’m pointing out that there is an infinite area that falls outside its grasp. What you seem to be claiming is that nothing exists outside the empirical grasp of Science. Am I mistaken in that regard?

          • Posted June 1, 2017 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

            I don’t think Mr. Rhinehart is denying that the sciences present a consistent picture of the natural world, but only that they fail to present an exhaustive one. The flashlight of scientific materialism allows us to see the natural world more clearly than any other tool we have, but only that part of it that falls within its beam. Reality is more than a chess game. (Nice to be back disagreeing with you, Ben!)

            • Posted June 1, 2017 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

              The flashlight of scientific materialism allows us to see the natural world more clearly than any other tool we have, but only that part of it that falls within its beam.

              But that’s just it.

              We’ve shined that beam literally everywhere the supernatural could possibly be lurking. Yes, even under the couch — and behind the ‘fridge, too.

              How good a flashlight do you need to know that there’s no angry rhinoceros in the room with you about to trample you to death? No, we don’t know what happened to the toy the cat chased into the back corner of the closet — but we can be damned sure that it hasn’t magically transmogrified into that rhino.

              The claims of the supernatural really are that spectacular, and the search of science really is that exhausting. And, again again, if you don’t realize that that’s the case, your knowledge of science is more out of date than an 8-track cassette — far more!

              Anybody who’s convinced otherwise has a trivial path to a Nobel Prize and to fame that would make Einstein look like a schlub. Just provide independently-verifiable evidence! That there’re no takers…well, that right there is all the proof a rational person needs that the supernatural is all hat and no…rhino.

              Cheers,

              b&

              >

              • Posted June 1, 2017 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

                Ben,

                You might be surprised at what you could see if you went back and looked under the couch and behind the fridge with a UV light. But you’re not likely to do this, since you’re clearly convinced that “If I can’t see it with my flashlight, it’s not there.” Your prerogative, of course, but also your loss.

                Cheers,

                Gary

              • Posted June 1, 2017 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

                You might be surprised at what you could see if you went back and looked under the couch and behind the fridge with a UV light.

                I’m overwhelmingly confident that the answer to dark energy, quantum gravity, and so on, will be at least fascinating and likely mind-blowing.

                I’m also overwhelmingly confident that it will not reveal any angry rhinoceroses about to trample me.

                But never mind that. You’re claiming that you have used your own blacklight to look behind the ‘fridge, and you do see the angry rhino there. And you’ve no doubt it’s not simply a dust bunny that sorta looks like one if you squint at it just right.

                And that’s what I’m calling “Bullshit!” on.

                Enough metaphors.

                What, exactly, is the phenomenon you’re so convinced is real that science has yet to illuminate, and what, exactly, is the means by which I can independently verify your claim?

                Convince me, if you can.

                Cheers,

                b&

                >

              • Posted June 1, 2017 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

                “what, exactly, is the means by which I can independently verify your claim?”

                There is no means by which you can independently verify my claim. The very question just reinforces that you’re not willing to step outside the boundaries of scientific materialism long enough to consider that it might have limitations. You’re asking me to use the tools of scientific materialism, of which independent verification is one of the most important, to do something they’re not designed to do. Not everything that is important is verifiable—nor, for that matter, is everything that is verifiable important. Subjective experience is important, independently verifiable or not, and it’s not about to go away just because we don’t happen to like it.

                Cheers,

                Gary

              • Posted June 1, 2017 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

                There is no means by which you can independently verify my claim.

                Then you’ve garbed yourself in the cloth of the conman, and only a fool would buy whatever it is you’re selling.

                Would you buy an used car or real estate or securities without some form of due diligence? Maybe you don’t do an FBI background check on the mechanic you’ve been doing business with for a quarter century before buying a car from him — but that’s because your relationship is itself sufficient verification for the claim.

                But to brag that you can’t offer any verification, that we must have faith in you, and your inability even in principle to verify your claims somehow lends them strength?

                Sure, go ahead. Pull the other finger.

                Subjective experience is important, independently verifiable or not, and it’s not about to go away just because we don’t happen to like it.

                Subjective experience is typically independently verifiable to a great degree. And it’s also known to be unreliable in certain very predictable ways.

                If all this comes down to you having had some powerful emotional experience that convinced you that Jesus loves you…well, grow up, honestly, already.

                We all have powerful emotional experiences — and, to be sure, they’re to be treasured, one of the cornerstone foundations of life, one of the things that makes life worth living.

                But part of what it means to be an adult is to recognize how to separate the emotion from the fact, and to appreciate each for what it is, and not to let yourself be fooled into conflating the two.

                Cheers,

                b&

                >

              • Posted June 1, 2017 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

                “But to brag that you can’t offer any verification, that we must have faith in you, and your inability even in principle to verify your claims somehow lends them strength?”

                I’m not bragging that I can’t offer any verification, I’m simply acknowledging it as a fact while at the same time denying that verification is either possible nor relevant in this instance. Nor am I “selling” anything or asserting that you “must have faith” in me.

                What am I doing? I’m bearing witness to something that I experience—perhaps, but not necessarily, in the hope that those who share my experience or something similar might say “Yes, that’s true.” It’s much as if I were to say, “Robert Frost’s ‘Birches’ is a much better poem that Joyce Kilmer’s ‘Trees.'” This isn’t independently verifiable, but that doesn’t mean I’m asking you to have faith in me and take my word for it. I’m asking you, if you’re so inclined, to look at the two poems and see if your experience corresponds to mine. If it does, wonderful; it doesn’t, fine.

                Cheers,

                Gary

              • Posted June 1, 2017 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

                What am I doing? I’m bearing witness to something that I experience—perhaps, but not necessarily, in the hope that those who share my experience or something similar might say “Yes, that’s true.”

                Unh-huh.

                Sure.

                Pull the other one.

                Pro tip: we’ve all heard that line before — along with the one about how great the laundry detergent is, or that you can cancel the magazine subscription at any time.

                I’m asking you, if you’re so inclined, to look at the two poems and see if your experience corresponds to mine.

                This isn’t poetry. It’s not a matter of simple aesthetics.

                You’re making some rather boldfaced and absurd claims about reality. Your claims about consciousness being inconsistent with the Standard Model are as trivially refuted these days as an equal claim that Newton can’t explain why your keys fall when you drop them. Your consciousness is what causes you to press the keys on your keyboard, right? Your keyboard is made of electrons and quarks. We know all the ways you can move around electrons and quarks. You’re claiming there’s some other way that doesn’t involve (mostly) electromagnetism. But we already know that there isn’t.

                Now, you may find it aesthetically unpleasant that there isn’t anything other than electromagnetism (with a nod to gravity, etc.) that can move the keys on your keyboard.

                But reality is that which persists even when you wish it wouldn’t — and the reality of the Universe is that your fantasies are baseless.

                Cheers,

                b&

                >

              • Posted June 1, 2017 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

                “But reality is that which persists even when you wish it wouldn’t.”

                Finally–we agree about something!

              • Posted June 1, 2017 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

                If the flashlight is science, what’s your UV light?

                /@

              • Posted June 2, 2017 at 11:41 am | Permalink

                “If the flashlight is science, what’s your UV light?”

                A good question, and I’m going to assume that, unlike Ben, you genuinely want to know. If the flashlight is detached observation, the UV light is empathic participation–entering into and becoming one with nature, as opposed to observing and measuring it. The latter process has nothing to do with religion per se, nor is there anything “supernatural” about it. In fact, science, by placing itself outside of and above the thing observed (as per a microscope) is the more properly super-natural. Each process, however, is valuable and has its place. Does that answer your question?

              • Posted June 2, 2017 at 11:49 am | Permalink

                Thanks, mirandaga, but not really … what do you mean by “entering into and becoming one with nature’?

                I already consider myself “one with nature” inasmuch as I’m wholly as much part of the natural world as a fruit fly or a banana or a slime mould or a piece of mica.

                What are you getting at here? And what can it illuminate that science’s flashlight can’t?

                /@

              • Posted June 2, 2017 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

                “what do you mean by ‘entering into and becoming one with nature’?”

                Another good question, but you might as well ask “What do you mean by love.” The process, in fact, is the same. I have no doubt that you and others here already know how to do this; Jerry, for example, clearly loves the squirrels, birds, and cats he shares with us. But your questions suggests that you’ve compartmentalized this from your scientific world view. And to the degree one is acting in the role of a scientist, it’s inevitable and proper that one should do this. The scientific method presupposes objectivity and detachment; that’s both its greatest strength and its greatest limitation in accounting for what’s out there. But no one is only a scientist.

                Bottom line: we never really know a thing until we love it, and science’s flashlight doesn’t allow for this.

                Hope this helps.

                Gary

              • Posted June 5, 2017 at 11:50 am | Permalink

                Have you any idea how offensive your arrogant insults are? That scientists are blind, heartless golems who haven’t the slightest ounce of passion for that to which they dedicate their entire professional lives? What — Jerry loves cute cats and squirrels but has zero passion for the fruit flies that were the foundation of his research, isn’t at all moved by what he’s learned from them?

                And what on Earth makes you think your own interpretation of a faery tale gives you greater insight into the reality to which scientists devote their studies?

                Sorry, but it’s really galling, these haughty demands from dilettantes for humility from masters. Especially considering how most of the masters are themselves far too humble to call people like you on your boorishness.

                No, we’re not asking you to accept scientific conclusions on faith — indeed, such would be the one-and-only unforgivable sin in science.

                But is it too much to ask that you give us the benefit of the doubt that we’re passionate human beings doing all we can to live life to the fullest? And did it never occur to you to see if, maybe, just possibly perhaps, naturalists might not actually be more passionately engaged with the natural world than armchair theologians locked up in their ivory cathedrals surrounded by faery tale books?

                I mean, what the hell else do you think could compel people to dive as deeply into that ocean as they possibly can? It sure ain’t the money nor the fame….

                Cheers,

                b&

                >

              • Posted June 5, 2017 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

                “But is it too much to ask that you give us the benefit of the doubt that we’re passionate human beings doing all we can to live life to the fullest?”

                If you take off your high hat long enough to re-read my post, you’ll see that this is exactly what I was doing. My point, however, was that even when “passionate human beings” such as Jerry turn to science, they need to trade in their passion for objectivity and detachment. (Hey, even “concerned” scientists concern me.) You seem to think you’re defending Jerry here, but I’m betting that he’s too good a scientist to disagree with me on this.

                Gary

              • Brujo Feo
                Posted June 5, 2017 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

                I’m intrigued, mirandaga…so now the definition of “not a good scientist” is the same as for “disagrees with Gary”? Did I read that correctly?

              • Posted June 5, 2017 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

                they need to trade in their passion for objectivity and detachment

                Still not getting the point — though you are perfectly demonstrating the arrogant folly at the heart of faith.

                You are absolutely convinced that one cannot both be passionate and objective. Yet any objective analysis of scientists will demonstrate that their passion for their subjects greatly exceeds the passion of others for their subjects.

                Who do you think is more passionate about evolutionary biology: Jerry or the Pope? Who do you think is more passionate about cosmology and physics: Sean Carroll, this site’s Official Physicist™ or the Rabbi of Jerusalem? Who do you think is more passionate about cognitive neuroscience: V.S. Ramachandran or the Dalai Lama?

                And yet, here you are, with the nerve to insist that it’s the shamans who have more passion about reality.

                If all y’all faithful really cared so damned much about the world we all live in, you’d stop wasting your time with your faery tales and actually — you know? — go out and look at the world. Not merely ooh and aah at the pretty patterns washing over your senses, but try to make sense of it all, to understand it, to figure out what’s going on and how it all works and fits together.

                That’s what true passion looks like — not this fake nonsense of writing on the floor incomprehensibly because it feels good.

                Cheers,

                b&

                >

              • Posted June 5, 2017 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

                For starters, Ben, you seem overly fond of the word “arrogant.” I’ll readily admit that I can come across as arrogant, often unintentionally, but I’ve re-read my reply to Ant and find nothing beyond an honest attempt to clarify my position.

                I’ll try again. You’re confusing passion for a scientific field with passion while engaging in the scientific process. What we’re talking about here is the scientific method, what I metaphorically referred to as the “flashlight” of science. Science is the product of good method, not of what you refer to as “masters.” Aldous Huxley went so far as to say that ““One of the great achievements of science is to have developed a method which works almost independently of the people by whom it is operated.”

                The very style of scientific writing is designed to convey that the investigator has added nothing to the facts but has conducted the study dis-passionately and without being influenced by his personal views or enthusiasms. Even in the “Conclusion” section, scientists will say “It is recommended that. . . .” rather than “We recommend. . . ,” underscoring that the agent is not important, almost non-existent.

                A scientist, like anyone else, may be in tune with the spiritual in nature, but in the role of scientist his “flashlight” can shed no light on this. It’s one thing to say, “Using our flashlight, we find no evidence.” What’s arrogant is to assert that if science’s flashlight can’t find something, it’s not out there to find. If the shoe fits. . . .

              • Posted June 5, 2017 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

                A scientist, like anyone else, may be in tune with the spiritual in nature, but in the role of scientist his “flashlight” can shed no light on this. It’s one thing to say, “Using our flashlight, we find no evidence.” What’s arrogant is to assert that if science’s flashlight can’t find something, it’s not out there to find. If the shoe fits. . . .

                So you would have us believe that scientists devote their entire lives to developing the deepest possible understanding of the nature of reality, but are so blinded by scientism that, even though they might be “in tune with the spiritual in nature,” they’re unable to recognize that the’ve missed the most important part — the part that you insist is real but can’t tell us how we’re supposed to verify your claim. Oh — and that part also, incidentally, appears exactly like every other scam every other flim-flam man has ever tried to charm unsuspecting dupes with.

                Yet, despite that you’re the one telling us that your makebelieve is the real makebelieve, and we should trust you rather than the tools we developed so hard to protect us from scammers like you…we’re the arrogant ones?

                Again: pull the other finger.

                Cheers,

                b&

                >

              • Posted June 5, 2017 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

                Ben,

                I think you may be running out of fingers–but who’s counting? Always fun sparring with you.

                Cheers,

                Gary

            • Posted June 1, 2017 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

              Which parts of the natural world don’t fall within its beam?

              /@

              • Posted June 1, 2017 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

                That which animates matter.

              • Posted June 1, 2017 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

                Seriously?

                I’m sorry, but élan vital was a joke a century ago when Bergson proposed it, and is since even deader than phlogiston.

                What next? Are you going to propose the demonic possession theory of disease? The calorific theory of thermodynamics? Aristotelian metaphysics?

                I mean…seriously?

                You could propose animal sacrifice for haruspex and I’d be every bit as incredulous.

                How on Earth do you expect to be taken seriously with such superstitious idiocy — and in this day and age, to boot!?

                Cheers,

                b&

                >

              • Posted June 1, 2017 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

                That wasn’t addressed to you, Ben, and I was merely trying to give a succinct reply to Ant’s succinct question–as opposed to, say, your reply that “consciousness is an emergent high-level symbolically computational phenomenon of cognitive neurophysiology.” Can you even hear yourself? If I have to talk like that to be “taken seriously,” I’ll pass.

                Cheers,

                Gary

              • Posted June 1, 2017 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

                Nah, that just chemistry and the second law of thermodynamics. See Alex Rosenberg, Brian Cox, Addy Pross, et al.

                /@

            • Posted June 1, 2017 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

              Thanks for the support, but I think Ben’s mind is closed and locked. Think I’ll move along. Pearls before swine and all. Hope we cross paths again.

              • Posted June 1, 2017 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

                How “closed and locked” is your mind to a proposition that the Sun hides in a cave overnight? You do know, do you not, that, for the overwhelming majority of human history, that was the leading explanation for solar motion, right?

                We now know better, and our minds are rightfully “closed and locked” to such ancient primitive superstition.

                Our minds are similarly “closed and locked” to non-Newtonian roughly-human-scale physics (with nods to lasers and diffraction gratings and GPS and the like).

                And, for anybody who’s up on more modern developments — the last few decades, at least — the Standard Model has similarly “closed and locked” the door to the supernatural.

                …and the LHC at CERN kinda buried that door under several mountains worth of evidence….

                Cheers,

                b&

                >


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