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Selected replies to the article "On Believing"

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Thank you | On the other hand ... | It's all Darwin's Fault! | You just don't understand! | Not such a tiny minority | God, Extraterrestrials and Science | God is Real 1 | God is Real 2 | Cain's Wife | Blind Faith | Proselytizing | Religion Works! | Evidence

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Thank you
Your article 'On believing' is simply the best-written, most concise explanation of the difference between intelligent design and scientific pursuit I have ever encountered. Would that more scientists had your power of prose; the debate would be much further advanced than it is.

As you've guessed, I'm part of the non-religious 14%. It is not without a certain amount of internal conflict that I have found myself in this position of being contrary to most if not all of my friends and relatives. As such, it is quite a relief to occasionally stumble across folks such as yourself: reasonable, yet principled.

Thank you for being more than an acerbic atheist with an axe to grind; you renew my confidence in humanity.
You are most welcome. I am honored.
On the other hand ...
[ in reply to an earlier exchange ... ]

I guess you are right. Science says things must be repeatible ..."Repeatable" is only marginally important, compared to "falsifiable." Each and every scientific theory must be potentially falsifiable. It would be nice if you had actually read the article you are replying to, an article that makes this point very clearly, as does every scholarly introduction to science.... and testible by humans. Which is hard to apply to 'design'.In fact, ID is entirely outside the realm of science, located instead in the domain of philosophy. This is why the advocates of ID have recently insisted that science be redefined to let them in.

But this is not how science works. Science cannot simultaneously create lifesaving vaccines and help medieval thinkers become more comfortable in their ignorance. One, or the other, but not both.
But if you open up something like a mechanical wristwatch, and analyse what it does, we would attribute its origin to an intelligent maker.Which "we" would that be? The same "we" who think eight heads in a row while flipping a coin borders on the miraculous?It would be implausible that the individual, highly precise components should have been so arranged by chance."Would be implausible" also applies to eight heads in a row, but as a matter of fact, mathematics and science, if you flip a coin 256 times, the chance of coming up with eight heads in a row becomes a 50% probability at some point in the series.

Another example. Look at this Web page:


The face in the unedited photograph, clearly carved into the rock by natural processes, is as impossible as the human eye. Some will argue it couldn't possibly have happened by chance, any more than the first bacteria could have. You can argue until you are blue in the face, but it is still a rock that happens to have been shaped by random natural forces, just like elementary forms of life.

Religious believers build their fairy castles, then they move right in. For the human eye to have evolved into its present form using natural selection, billions of years (and billions of failed experiments) would be required. But Bishop Ussher tells us we've only been here since 4004 B.C., so there hasn't been enough time for natural processes to create the eye. How convenient — two false theories that reinforce each other.
By analogy, the existence of complex parts working together to perform some useful function should allow us to infer an intelligent maker in other contexts.I have heard this argument so often that I can recite it blindfolded. But it still is not a suitable topic for scientific investigation. Inference is not evidence, especially when the thing to be "discovered" has been chosen in advance.Humans also create works of art and engineering, and so surely are qualified to recognize underlying intelligence in objects humans did not make.I see you are no closer to a scientific perspective than you were the last time you wrote.Personally I feel the human body is a prime example of a brilliant design. If we start to analyze how the eye works, for instance, it is hard to think it has not been designed."It is hard to think it has not ..." You really should learn about the scientific method.I guess the focus here is more on evidence as opposed to science.The ignorance behind these words takes my breath away. In point of fact, evidence is the centerpiece of science, as you would know if you understood it. But saying "Personally I feel ..." is not remotely evidence.It seems that many scientists agree there is a lot of design in nature - you can't miss it. The question is what you make of the evidence rather than the evidence itself.In science, the evidence must stand on its own. You cannot pick and choose from the evidence, and you cannot extrapolate beyond what the evidence says. You have just tried to do both.

According to the "many scientists" you call on for support above, the available evidence overwhelmingly supports the idea that the complexity we see around us represents the fruit of natural selection. How exactly does that negate the possibility of a supreme being? It doesn't. It only negates a narrow, rather stupid, misreading of history, by people who insist on speaking for God.
It's all Darwin's Fault!
On the evolution/creation debate, I always find it interesting that creationists are forced to defend their faith as evolutionists go "scott free" on their biggest icon, Charles Darwin.First, there are no "evolutionists" among scientists. An "evolutionist" would be someone who believes in evolution regardless of the evidence. Scientists decide things based on evidence, regardless of any particular theory. Second, scientists do not go "Scott free" based on anyone, Darwin or otherwise. They rely entirely on evidence. No evidence, no debate.In his own work, "The Origin of Species", Darwin devotes entire chapters to the problems of evolution and his own theory.Yes, that is how scientists evaluate the world — on the basis of evidence, or the lack of it. In Darwin's time there was pretty good evidence, but not excellent, and there were many areas that had to wait for this century to be resolved (like the basic mechanism of evolution, DNA).

Scientists are trained to look beyond emotion and passion in our effort to understand what nature is trying to tell us. If there is no evidence to support some part of a theory, we'll simply say so. This is the most efficient way to find out what we don't know.

The antithesis of the scientist is someone who argues from a fixed position, who filters evidence based on what he needs to believe.
It is hard to fathom that an entire debate was originally built over a man who had serious doubts in himself.You clearly would like to paint this issue as though it were about Charles Darwin rather than a scientific theory, but that only reveals your inability to see beyond the surface of things.

Science is not about men, it is about evidence. The largest amount of scientific eminence is trumped by the smallest amount of scientific evidence. The entire evolution debate rests on evidence, not men or their opinions.

Darwin knew his thoughts on the issue mattered little, compared to what observation might uncover, and no one was seriously examining the evidence for or against evolution in those days. One reason was there were too many religious morons throwing fits at each new discovery, as Darwin predicted. Come to think of it, that's still true.
That is why I found this article so alluring, because there has to be additional polls out there asking these reciprocal questions:No serious pollster would ask your obviously biased, tendentious questions. They would generate only heat, not light, and there's too much heat already.— Where did you learn of Darwin's theory? — You saw it on TV? — Your school teacher told you it was right? — You read the evolutionist's works?Those are not questions, those are statements, as I expected.— How much faith do you put in Darwinian evolution?A thinking person's answer is that faith is not an issue, evidence is the only issue.

This is the single biggest source of confusion among the religious. In science, it doesn't matter what one believes, there either is evidence or there isn't. Belief is always a handicap, always something that prevents us from moving forward.
— It is the inspired work of Charles Darwin — That man is messed upThis is called an ad hominem argument. Educated people learn to avoid it early on, so they won't grow up thinking it constitutes anything but cocktail chatter. It is on a long list of logical errors that stand in the way of reasoned debate.

The issue is not Charles Darwin, the issue is whether nature does or does not use evolution to shape the world around us. Your argument is like blaming the weatherman when it rains. It is either raining, or it isn't, and the guy on TV isn't the cause.
— The TV people tell me it must be right — I dunno / no commentThe "TV people"? You do not possess the intellectual tools required to evaluate a scientific idea. Spokespeople don't matter. Scientists don't matter, famous or otherwise. Only evidence matters.

Remember that scientists don't define science, it's the other way around.
The other evolutionist tactic is The Icon. You know, the progressive stages that someone originally painted of a monkey turning into a man.Honest to God. Scientists dug up some bones and determined their age. No one drew a picture without ample evidence to support it.

Do you think it's an accident that chimpanzees have DNA almost identical to ours? (98% of the DNA is a perfect match) People who insist this is a coincidence are hostages of their own ignorance.
Whenever there is a book or TV discussion of evolution, The Icon is there. It is similar to the cross of Christ, but for the evolutionist cause.Evolution is not a cause, it doesn't rely on faith, and if a better theory appeared tomorrow, a theory that better explained the present evidence, scientists would dump evolution in a heartbeat.

It is mildly amusing that, regardless of the matter under discussion, you see the world entirely in terms of True Believers and Infidels.
Both sides need faith and believing as none of the issue is clear cut.Since all you seem able to comprehend are issues of faith and belief, it is not surprising that you do not understand the underpinnings of scientific and technical discussions.

As to evolution, it is the best explanation consistent with the present evidence. If a better theory were to appear tomorrow, scientists would dump evolution without a moment's regret.

What you fail to realize is that religious people are utterly without intellectual flexibility, and will object to any new idea, no matter how well-supported by evidence.

The history of religion is a story of defending idea A against idea B fiercely, killing anyone who disagrees, then, 500 years later, defending idea B against idea C, killing some more progressive thinkers along the way. Over and over, through history.

Religious people are so perfectly brainless that, if someone should come along and say something catchy (and not too complicated), they can be relied on to either stone him to death, or make him a god. Actually, they might stone him to death, then make him a god a while later — that works better overall.

But there is one thing religious people can be trusted never to do — they won't look past a person to evaluate an idea, something you are proving once again.

Ideas are not responsible for the people who have them. Ideas must be evaluated on their own terms, divorced from all our passions — passions that only prove how much like animals we really are.
You just don't understand!
Found your site accidentally the other day and am slowly hacking through the essays in my limited free time. Fasciniting and thought provoking so far, and only about half way through.

BUT... (bet you knew that was coming)

Imagine you are a believer of a religion. I make no pretence to know much about non-Judeo-Christian religions so lets say you are a follower of a 'western' religion. Doesn't matter which.

Now. Clearly defined in your holy book, record of teachings, oral traditions or one of many media dependant on the religion is a set of rules. Follow these rules = Heaven. Don't = Hell (forgive the names if the religion you chose wasn't christianity.)

It seems to me that if that is what you believe, what you fervently and wholeheartedly believe, then you have a positive duty to proselytize. It is your responsibility to say to me 'Look, James, you're gonna burn for eternity'
The present situation in Iraq [ this was written in October 2006 ] can fairly be described as two religious factions who are enthusiastically taking your advice. The recipients of the sermons aren't changing their beliefs, so ... kill them.

Take this one example, present-day Iraq, and multiply it a million times, and you have ... human history.
And this is my problem with bias.And this is my problem with bias.You dislike proselytizing - marketing for religion.No, I think it's too bad that murder is its primary way to persuade people of the rightness of your beliefs.I think that's only a valid point for someone who is not religious.And you can always solve that problem by killing anyone who doesn't believe what you believe. Yes, I understand this viewpoint. I just don't think murdering everyone who doesn't share your belief in an imaginary super-being makes the world a better place. The proselytizer's actions are not marketing and are not advertising, they're to some extent selfless.Honest to God. It is the ultimate in selfishness.I know you also dislike subjective viewpoints but I assume you recognise that intentions are important.I think intentions are everything. The lesson of human history is that religious people eventually either convert you or kill you. That's the intention, and it is by design, not by accident.Now, critiscing these people for BEING religious is a whole different kettle of fish, and one which I can't sensibly argue against, but I think its unfair to criticise the foot-soldiers.The perfect term for those who kill everyone who doesn't go along. This correspondent failed to type a valid e-mail address into my message board, so he probably never read this reply.
Not such a tiny minority
[ from a professor of linguistics ]

I just stumbled upon your web site searching for material about the age of the universe for my grandchildren's education. I am truly impressed with the volume and quality of your work. I think your piece about religion is among the best I have seen. My only disagreement is a minor quibble — I don't think 14% is such a tiny minority, and we do seem to be growing in numbers.Yes, that's true, nevertheless in the U.S. the majority have their way on most public questions, so in a political sense the 14% figure, granted that it is increasing fairly quickly, is rather ineffectual in influencing the outcome of various public issues.I think it's terrific that people like you are willing to put in so much thoughtful labor in the service of reason and rationality. Thank you — I am happy to be heard, by both sides.
God, Extraterrestrials and Science

Even though this message was made in reply to my article "Interview with an Extraterrestrial," because of its topic I decided it belonged here.

Just a short message to say that I read the article mentioned above, and I both disagree and agree with you. My personal and public take is found at [ ... ] I read your Web page, which in a sense is your CV, after which, over a period of days, I considered what reply I might make.

On your page you describe yourself as a scientist, and you also say you believe in God. I think you will eventually realize these two personal choices are in conflict. You can only be a scientist until your scientific work overlaps with issues having to do with a belief in God (or a belief in anything). In that zone you will not be able to function as a scientist, because beliefs contradict science's required focus on evidence to the exclusion of all else.

Because a scientific outlook must be based entirely on evidence, and not at all on belief, science and religious belief cannot coexist. This doesn't mean they cannot both exist within a particular person, it means only that they cannot both function at the same time. So a person with religious beliefs (or any beliefs) can't be 100% a scientist, because there will always be some unchallenged hidden assumptions, some unconquered territory.

This may explain why, among the approximately 7% of scientists who possess religious belief, none has ever won a Nobel prize, and quite a number are engaged in work that is manifestly unscientific, like the Intelligent Design "researchers" who always seem to "discover" the same things, regardless of contrary evidence.
It would probably be interesting to discuss several topics with you (I've worked for [ ... ] as well as [ ... ]), but the more I send e-mail the more I recognize the limitations of the medium. Yes, plenty of limitations, but one advantage of e-mail is that it is impersonal. That's obviously a mixed blessing in a complex conversation, but if an idea is to be transmitted without any personal or emotional associations, it serves reasonably well.

I suspect you have more important things to read, but if you are interested in a deeper discussion of this evidence vs. belief issue, read this if you are inclined and have time:

Social Narcissism

And an article about religious belief, with a discussion of some of the same issues:

On Believing

I hasten to add that none of this is meant to disrespect the choices you have made.

I'm 62, and over the years I have come to realize that, from a scientific standpoint, emotional attachment to an idea is fatal. It doesn't matter which emotional attachment one has, it will stand in the way of evaluating an idea on its merits.

For example, I can make the argument (and I have) that we shouldn't send an interstellar beacon, on the ground that we might alert a predatory species to our whereabouts, but I also think it might be an easy way to speed up any contacts that might wait to be discovered, and that might produce unimaginable advantages for our species. My point is that I am not attached to either viewpoint and I think both arguments deserve to be made.

In any case, this particular issue is out of our hands. Because of our use of microwave transmitters for TV, communications and (especially) radar, we are the brightest object in the centimeter wavelength range for several light-years in any direction, much brighter than the sun at those specific wavelengths. Any species who chooses to listen in on these wavelengths will certainly detect us, because there are no natural sources that can compete with us, especially if signal processing is used to detect narrow-band, nonrandom signals.

A closing note. When you say, as you do on your page, "I am quite certain that extraterrestrial life does exist," you are only revealing your age, nothing else. It doesn't matter what you are quite certain of, it only matters what evidence exists. When you realize this, you will at that moment become a true scientist.

God is Real 1
I would grant to you that the majority of your arguments against religion are correct. However, there are a great many like Mother Teresa that only seek to serve and care. For me, this is a standing "proof" for YHWH. No, that's simply a way for religious believers to hold common human decency hostage to a myth. Any time someone acts out of compassion or in response to the symmetry principle (with an expectation of reciprocal benevolence), the religious believers undermine altruism by declaring it proof of God, rather than proof of everyday decency. All the rest of the crap done in his name is a standing from of the baseness of the animal called man. You just proved my point. People are not base animals, but people, about 90% animal and 10% something new and different. Religion can be looked on as an act of rebellion by the 90% animal against the 10% new and different (most often within the same person).

The "new and different" tries to look at reality as it is. The remaining 90% tries to fit everything into a structure of superstition, magic and absolute certainty, in a world that is not at all certain.

The provisional name for the "new and different" is science. Eventually it will be how everyone thinks, for the simple reason that it works and has adaptive survival value. At the moment, the "new and different" only causes profound fear in the minds of True Believers, who at the moment are struggling to redefine science as just another superstition.
I've used careware since the mid-1990s only to serve others. Careware (in my definition, there are others) is simply a wish that people not complain about how unfairly nature treats them, which is a common narcissistic fantasy that I would love to cure people of. That's all, nothing more (or less). I have never asked nor received a cent for any service. Very nice, and outside the notion of Careware, not to diminish what you do in any way. It is Careware that cannot encompass what you do, not the other way around.

Careware isn't very important, it's just a comment about distorted thinking.
Right now, I'm seeking to serve web pages for non-profits that feed the hungry, clothe the naked, serve those in prison, and heal the broken. Do these non-profits teach birth control methods to the poor? If not, they are giving people fish rather than teaching them how to fish. The people they "help" end up dependent and powerless, requiring much more "help" in the future.

As far as healing the broken, since you believe in a mythical God, maybe you should consider healing yourself first. Because people invented God, we have a ready excuse to kill each other, with the expectation that we'll be forgiven. Nature won't forgive us, but the God we've invented will.

The supreme irony is that religion provides a framework for the basest imaginable behaviors, behaviors we would never consider if we believed we would be held personally responsible.

According to the symmetry principle, anything we visit on others will eventually be visited on us (which happens to be how nature works). According to religion, anyone who doesn't share our beliefs is a heathen whom we have a duty to convert or kill.

In nature, we're all brothers. In religion, we're all brothers, except for "them." Remember 9/11? Remember the Crusades?
Again, I'm doing this without cost to those that are doing this - regardless of their religion or lack of religion. Is this your understanding of real use of "careware?" Nope. But who cares? I can't, and don't want to, judge what you do. I can only say if you feed the poor without also educating and empowering them through practical knowledge (like family planning methods, something religion cannot be trusted to provide), you will have to educate the children 20 years from now, and there will be many more children than parents. Eventually the entire system will collapse.

If we manage to double world food production today, in 60 years [at current population growth rates] that achievement will be wiped out by a doubled world population. Faced with this impending population catastrophe, we need a better understanding of mathematics, not agriculture.

Women who are educated bear fewer children — there is a strong, worldwide positive correlation between a woman's educational attainments and a reduced family size. This is why the Taliban tries to keep women from learning how to read. This is why religious fundamentalists in the U.S. try to keep girls from learning family planning methods. Both the Taliban and the fundamentalists want to keep women barefoot and pregnant.

Years ago I singlehandedly funded a Planned Parenthood clinic in an area that had no family planning services and the local high school had a 15% pregnancy rate. The local religious fundamentalists wanted to kill me. I managed to survive, but many others didn't — in other parts of the country, health clinics were bombed, doctors and others were killed or burned out of their offices.

The problem is ignorance. The cause is religion. It's really as simple as that.
To this, we become real in the matrix. I respectfully suggest that we try to become real in reality.

God is Real 2
I understand your concepts. I just don't find them to be logical to me. "Logical to me" is a dodge. There is one logic, not several. Claiming that logic can be personally defined is the first step toward postmodernism, the idea that all knowledge is subjective and nontransferable. The fault may be in me. Perhaps. Read on. "I make no apology for taking the words of Scripture seriously . . . and marvel at the precision with which the truth is spelled out and hedged against error", he said, and underlined that "the tense is important, the gender does matter, the meaning is crucial, attention to small cues in the Word of God is fundamental to understanding its message". Logical errors at a quick glance include an egregious misuse of the word "truth" and the expression "Word of God," when it is clear the words originated in the minds of men.

The author of this passage obviously believes the Bible to be a guidebook for Planet Earth, when in fact it is a guidebook for continued ignorance.
The words of Scripture are for children, but the thoughts are for men. Like this thought?:

If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which [is] as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers;
[Namely], of the gods of the people which [are] round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the [one] end of the earth even unto the [other] end of the earth;
Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him:
But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people.
And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die; because he hath sought to thrust thee away from the LORD thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.
This "thought" orders True Believers to kill all nonbelievers. Is this passage (Deuteronomy 13, 6-10) meant for children or for men? More to the point, do you actually care which victim it is aimed at?
Being fully persuaded that Scripture has nothing to fear but everything to gain from the closest examination possible, This is a remark typically made by someone who couldn't examine a manhole cover. For example, Cain took a wife at a point in the Biblical story when there are four people on Earth, one of them freshly murdered (Abel), one woman (Eve), and ... no wife for Cain. True Believers don't stop reading at this point because they are congenitally incapable of recognizing fantasy masquerading as revealed truth. Faith is not a conclusion but a starting point! Because faith is predicated on unexamined beliefs, it is a dead end and a dangerous conclusion. Reason without Faith is materialism — and therefore incomplete. A common strategy of propagandists is to define something by what it isn't rather than what it is ("homeless person", "undeveloped land"). An even better strategy is to attach a false choice to the definition. A materialist scientist can create a lifesaving vaccine. A True Believer can only pray for one. Please take no offense in this ... How could I be offended? I also don't take offense when a baby soils his diapers, on the ground that it's inappropriate to apply adult behavioral standards to a child or to a mentally handicapped person.

If you want to avoid offending anyone, try being ignorant in private.
... but, to me, the lack of faith is a religion just as potent and meaningless as the weirdest cult. Yes, as I explain in my article, True Believers are so intellectually shallow that they can't imagine anything but belief systems, therefore not having a belief ... must be a belief. To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

The basis for this exchange of messages is that you are constitutionally incapable of processing reality in its own terms, so you have located a substitute that doesn't require any thinking. You are not only unable to grasp that this represents a profound handicap, but you feel justified in writing me and exhibiting it as though it were anything more than a confession of intellectual bankruptcy.

But I can't be too annoyed. People like you are, in the words of Washington Post reporter Michael Weisskopf, "largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command." You are a hostage to your belief system and you show signs of Stockholm Syndrome (active collusion with your captors). The modern world will just have to get along without your active participation, and on the basis of present evidence, your absence won't be noticed.

Cain's Wife
This quote from your page On Believing "For example (an example most people have heard), Adam and Eve are the only people on the planet, they are expelled from the primeval garden, they bear two sons, Cain slays Abel, then Cain takes a wife. Say what? Where did this woman come from?" indicates that you are taking the section of Genesis chapter 4 around verse 17 as a strictly chronological history for Cain and all of the descendants of Adam. At that point I am describing the view of a Biblical literalist, whose beliefs I am discussing. You are now in the position of arguing, not with me, but with your fellow Christians, those who take the Bible as a literal account of history. I read it as detailing the life of Cain and his descendants. The history of Seth and the other sons and daughters of Adam is covered from the end of chapter 4 through chapter 5. Yes — but too late for them to play a part in the events under discussion. The direct answer to "Where did this woman come from?" is she was a close relative, most likely a sister or a niece, which follows directly from a literal belief that all people are descendants of Adam and Eve. Except that those people didn't exist at that point. The only way you can argue that Cain could marry a descendant of Adam and Eve is by allowing him to travel through time, a device I doubt Biblical literalists will accept. What I did not understand was why you made such an issue of it. Then you didn't read the article, or if you did read it, you didn't understand it. So I read more of your web page "On Believing". Seems you have encountered many people and extensive writings where some passages from the Bible are taken literally and other passages are ignored or glossed over. Hard to take the message seriously when the presentation is inconsistent. The presentation is consistent with the beliefs of Biblical literalists, which is the issue under discussion. My point in the section under discussion is that some people take the Bible word for word as an account of reality.

It is the literalists who insist that the Bible's account of history disproves the age of the Earth, through the simple device of counting the generations and declaring that there are no facts left out of the Biblical account, which, according to Bishop James Ussher, gives us a starting date of Sunday, 23 October, 4004 B.C., no earlier.

The issue is very simple. Either the Bible really is a literal history of the world, in which case Cain could not possibly find a wife, or the Bible is not a literal history of the world, in which case the Earth may be much, much older than the literalists are willing to accept.

The point is that Biblical literalists are people so devoid of intellectual gifts that they will twist reality every which way in order to insist that:
  • The earth began on Sunday, 23 October, 4004 B.C., because the Bible is an exact, word for word, complete account of reality, but
  • Cain was able to find a wife by way of what is conveniently left out of the complete account of reality.
Perhaps the information available at www.answersingenesis.org is presented more clearly. Only to people unable to think, who are the intended audience.
Blind Faith
This continues an earlier exchange.
The only "pre-placed barrier" I have stands against accepting an idea with no supporting evidence. This is also the basis on which I reject people's accounts of alien abductions, Bigfoot, and the Loch Ness Monster. In the absence of evidence, belief in these things is unreasonable.

An idea doesn't need any supporting evidence, it just is.
And witches should be burned at the stake, because a witch is a witch — as you put it, "it just is." What's the point of discussing evidence? And if some misguided infidel demands evidence, we can apply the standard test: throw the witch into a pond — If she drowns, she was innocent. A theory is just an idea, proven by processes routed in fundamental beliefs that cannot be supported by absolute knowledge. Scientific theories are based, not on beliefs, but evidence. An idea can only become a scientific theory by way of evidence. Until there is evidence, it's merely a hypothesis, which is what you're describing. And there is no such thing as absolute knowledge. If there were, religion would be the last to hear about it. Faith is the connection to absolute knowledge that by-passes the proving process. May I quote you on this? You just provided a perfect statement of religion's primary defect. The 9/11 terrorists rationalized killing thousands of people, and clinic bombers rationalize murdering doctors, on the basis that "faith is the connection to absolute knowledge that bypasses the proving process." I couldn't have said it better myself.

I hope you don't ever meet anyone willing to take your advice and act on your ideas. He might hear a small voice in his head — the voice of "absolute knowledge" — that tells him you're his enemy. How will you persuade him otherwise? Will you present evidence? What good will that do — in your belief system, "an idea doesn't need any supporting evidence, it just is."

Imagine trying to reason with the 9/11 hijackers, the ultimate True Believers, as they flew toward their religious destiny at just below the speed of sound. How do you talk such a True Believer out of his sincere religious mission — flying an airplane full of infidels into a building full of infidels? And what's the virgin score on that?

From a psychological perspective, the religious belief you describe is indistinguishable from clinical narcissism, the infantile idea that a person has no need for reason and evidence and can rely entirely on mysterious inner voices instead of reality testing. Narcissists are well-known for seeking a connection with absolute authority, in order to place their self-serving choices beyond challenge. Modern religion meets this need perfectly, and this is by design, not by accident.
Faith is taking the risk that something is when we fully well know we do not or can not understand it. And reason argues that, without evidence, there is no basis for adopting beliefs that may do harm.
As I see it, life is too short to waste time and energy on things that have no evidence or plausibility — but this is a choice people must make for themselves.

Yes, we see things for ourselves after making our own choices about things outside of ourselves.
That is what distinguishes a True Believer from a responsible adult. A responsible adult is willing to listen to reason and evidence. There is one more thing you need to understand — the entire modern world is built on the notion that we must pay attention to evidence rather than those inner narcissistic voices that only tell us what we want to hear, and that told the 9/11 hijackers what they wanted to hear.

My remark above about making personal choices is self-evident — we all must choose. But this discussion is about how we choose — on what basis, using what evidence.
So you won't allow yourself exposure to ideas from people whose values differ from your own? Isn't that the problem with religion and the religious outlook? Isn't that why True Believers prefer flying airplanes into buildings over having a dialogue and coming to understand perspectives other than their own?

Ok, you've got me. I have to admit to giving in to some emotionalism when I wrote to you last night - I possibly may read the rest of confessions [my book Confessions of a Long-Distance Sailor]. The issue is that I want hope for you, your destiny and your outcome.
But you have no idea how my life is constructed, what my possibilities are. You have no basis for either judging or understanding me. My "outcome" is in the hands of nature, not your belief system. It would have been nice if I could have just got to you sailing off into the sunset but my curiosity got the better of me. I have debated with many people before and have no problem with debate, reasoning, or arguments. Yes, and having read your message, I can see why — as you clearly say above, you dismiss evidence out of hand, on the ground that (quote) "an idea doesn't need any supporting evidence, it just is." That makes debate very simple — just ignore the other person's position. I don't believe that fear should be used to control, manipulate or even merely influence anyone to a specific end. So flying airliners into the Twin Towers shouldn't be understood as a way to make people justly afraid of religion? If you believe that, you need to find out what motivated the True Believers who were in control of those airplanes and who are in control of religion. Love must be our motivation - wanting the best for others. Yes, love — the same "love" that made the idea of hellfire and eternal damnation seem a loving idea to the designers of modern religion. The same "love" that produced this gem (Deuteronomy 13, 6-10):

If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which [is] as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers;

[Namely], of the gods of the people which [are] round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the [one] end of the earth even unto the [other] end of the earth; Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him:

But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die; because he hath sought to thrust thee away from the LORD thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.
That's love defined — how can anyone doubt it?
I can obviously only accept your understanding or interpretation of things from within my own reference frame and similarly for you, with my understanding. Yes. But how can you possibly understand someone who relies entirely on evidence, who has no use for blind faith? How do you rationalize your support for the belief system that produced 9/11?
Now, let me take issue, or plead a lack of understanding with one section in your essay, Religion's Agenda. I don't disagree because of any offense I've taken, rather what you say just seems to be wrong. Consider Christians desire to "save" others; it's laid out in the great commission. This seems to me just to be an honest desire to reveal their belief that our souls are hanging in the balance, and to tell others how they can "save" their soul. Their desire to "save" others doesn't seem at all to be a desire to increase their numbers to give Christianity more legitimacy, does it? Of course it does. Look at it this way — if you were God, why would you care how many people believed in you? What kind of insecure God would that be?

If Christians argue that introducing people to God is essential, this implies that God would die along with the last believer. So if a big asteroid wiped out all human life on earth, God would die too. If the sun expands outward (as it eventually will) and erases all human life, God expires along with his flock.

There are precisely two possibilities:
  1. The size of the flock doesn't matter, therefore Christians should stop harassing people to join up.
  2. The size of the flock does matter, therefore God is a myth whose existence depends on statistics and popularity.
This is why marketing is central to Christianity, just as it is with automobile tires, soda pop and Spandex.

But at a deeper level, proselytizing is a manifestation of religious narcissism. Secular clinical narcissists are social parasites, famous for using phony/supernatural authority to meddle in the lives of others. Proselytizing is to religion as narcissism is to the secular world.
I guess the issue I take with this section of your article is rather minor and technical, because I agree with the section's conclusion that modern religion is divorced from it purported higher goals and only succeeds in making God seem like a used car salesman. Still, the section seems to have a flawed or in complete logical flow. But the issue is central. Proselytizing is the religious version of Internet spam. In both cases, it represents a critical defect in an otherwise harmless human occupation.

It's not possible to overstate the problem presented by proselytizing — it represents the end of open spiritual exploration and the beginning of a campaign to make everybody accept one absurd idea.
Consider Christians desire to "save" others; it's laid out in the great commission. Imagine cornering a notorious spammer, guilty of harassing thousands of people for years, only to hear him say, "but it's my 'Great Commission'!".

If there really was a God, and if he could see what we're doing in his name, he would pick up and change universes.

There is one thing that religious people absolutely cannot stand, and that is other people's freedom of choice. It is that horrible, intolerable thought that caused the 9/11 religious terrorists to fly airplanes full of infidels, into buildings full of infidels.

Here is the religious intolerance game plan: Phase 1 is characterized by proselytizing. Phase 2 is characterized by burning buildings — starting with health clinics, then moving up to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Modern religion is an undiagnosed mental illness in which the sufferer tries to get everyone to accept his delusion. Those who refuse, who insist on their right to choose, do so at their peril.
Religion Works!
I hope you will reply to the following hypothesis; that the human mind has evolved in the context of religion. I agree without reservation — we evolved from creatures that were entirely dependent on fixed belief systems, or, if you prefer, instincts. As a result, the survival and natural selection of humans has favored and continues to favor, on average, those human individuals that sufficiently embrace a common religion. This is where you go wrong. Your argument is that, because we evolved from creatures who couldn't think, therefore we should always be creatures who cannot think, on the ground that brainless strategies have worked until now.

But nature is always trying new things, putting different strategies in competition, but without any design or intention, through the simple process of natural selection. And it must be obvious that thinking people outcompete those who can't think. Nature clearly prefers thinkers to believers.
Further, some religions are actually better for human survival than others. For example religions that allow science to flourish to a greater degree may be superior to religions that suppress science. It is a wild misreading of history to suggest that reason and science exist at religion's convenience. In fact, reason has permanently replaced religion. Events like 9/11 are symptomatic of religion's struggle to accept this fact. I wonder if the human capacity for religion is actually a survival strategy and inseparable from our very existence. Let's put it this way — creatures that cannot adapt, expire. The reason so much religion exists in the modern world is because reasonable people dislike murder, preferring to reason with the believers. But the opposite isn't so, and most modern wars have roots in religion's instinct for violence. I imagine in time before history that human hunting parties did better as a result of some common religious belief. Perhaps tribes having a deeply held religion survived (nature and human aggressions) better than those that did not. Yes, of course — by killing anything unfamiliar or threatening. But I respectfully suggest that reason is a better adaptation strategy than murder. Recent human history supports this view.
I must say that after reading your articles on this site I agree with many of your views. However, I find your perspective on religion to be a bit peculiar. Excuse me? How peculiar is it to require evidence in favor of a proposition in advance of accepting it as true? Isn't that how science works, the science that created the computers that make this conversation possible? Isn't that how the law works — isn't the state required to offer evidence that a crime was committed before prosecuting someone for that crime? Isn't a requirement for positive evidence the cornerstone on which the modern world is built? I remember you saying that there has never been any evidence for the existence of God, but that the possibly for such evidence extends into perpetuity. Yes, and the possibility for evidence that Bigfoot is real exists in perpetuity. But that isn't remotely the same thing as saying that Bigfoot actually exists. When I wrote what you quoted, I had educated readers in mind. Some people who are very well studied in religion have inferred that God exists based on historical events. Yes, and by the same token, on the basis of many colorful historical accounts, TV specials and overheated magazine articles, Bigfoot exists. But to a scientist, the only thing that would constitute evidence for Bigfoot is direct, positive evidence for Bigfoot, not rumors that Bigfoot was spotted at some time in the past, but without leaving any physical evidence. What, to you, would constitute valid evidence for the existence of God? Just curious. To an uneducated person or a religious believer, a thing exists unless and until it can be proven not to exist. To a scientist, it's the opposite — something is assumed not to exist unless and until evidence is presented that it does (this is called the null hypothesis — it's a cornerstone of scientific reasoning).

The problem with an uneducated person's belief is that it's not possible to prove the nonexistence of something. If I say that Bigfoot exists until evidence proves he doesn't, I'm safe in my belief (as well as extraordinarily stupid), because proving that something doesn't exist isn't possible (as well as being a logical fallacy) — Bigfoot might be hiding under some rock on a faraway planet in an infinite universe of faraway planets.

Now I ask you to try to understand how your mental processes conflict with the modern world, a world guided by healthy scientific skepticism toward ideas unaccompanied by evidence. To a religious believer, God exists because he hasn't been proven not to exist — God and Bigfoot are out there somewhere, hiding under some rock. To a scientist, all religions are the same — none have the evidence that would be required to place their particular picture of God over others. But because religious believers assume things to be true without evidence, they haven't the slightest hesitation about hunting down the infidels, putting them in cages, and burning them to death. After all, they're in the right — their actions have been ordered by God, that same God for which there is no evidence.

So it's time for you to decide which side you're on — the side that waits for positive evidence of Bigfoot before believing in Bigfoot, or the side that burns people to death for not having the same stupid, medieval beliefs that they do.

I won't hold my breath for you to see the intellectual bankruptcy of your world view.
Thanks. You're welcome.

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