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On the difference between religion and woo

Rob Knop has a blog post called “The Difference Between Religion and Woo“. It’s yet another in a long line of passive-aggressive posts, comments and lectures that attempt to disparage skeptical critics of religion by simply claiming that they don’t understand the subject enough to make their criticisms valid.

Bollocks. If anything, it is Knop and his ilk who demonstrate that they don’t understand skepticism.

He begins with a question that, evidently, he feels is a stumper:

What makes Robert Frost so much more important to human culture than the stories I wrote when I was 7?

The answer is: nothing beyond personal preference. Neither his story nor a Frost poem have any intrinsic value. Their value, like all value, is the result of a mind attributing worth to an item. The fact that we, as similar creatures have many shared values and appreciate similar things is sufficient to explain why, on the whole, more people are more likely to value a Frost poem than his story. What makes a Frost poem more important to human culture? Humans.

There is no puzzle here and it’s not analogous to the subject of comparing religion to woo. This question is a bit of well-poisoning designed to imply that there are subjects that we cannot easily assess, quantify, measure or explain because they are matters of personal opinion.

Ironically, he expands on this theme by flatly asserting that skeptics offer trite, unfair analogies when discussing religion and claims that:

If you cannot see the difference between Russell’s teapot and the great world religions, then you’re no more qualified to talk about religion than the fellow who thinks that cultural bias is the only reason any of us believe in the Big Bang is qualified to talk about cosmology.

Unfortunately, it is Knop who demonstrates that he’s unqualified to talk about the skeptical analysis of religion as the point of Russell’s teapot is to demonstrate that untestable claims are, by their very nature, devoid of supporting evidence and acceptance of those claims cannot be rationally justified.

Religious claims fall into two categories: testable and untestable. Knop clearly identifies that testable religious claims (like creationism) can be assessed skeptically and rejected, but he doesn’t seem to note that there are two categories to rejection. The first is demonstration that a claim is false and the second is a demonstration that the claim has not been sufficiently supported by evidence to justify belief.

Untestable claims, by default, fall into that second category.

While it can be difficult to consistently apply skepticism, it’s fairly simple to describe skepticism:

Skepticism is the ideology that belief is proportioned to the evidence and skeptics strive to only accept those things as true which have been sufficiently supported by evidence.

Which means that untestable claims, by default, should not be accepted.

Even those who agree that ridiculing people for their beliefs is not only counter-productive, but just bad behavior, often don’t seem to think there’s any difference between the brand of religion practiced by Pamela Gay (or by myself, for that matter) and Creationism

Actually, I don’t really think that’s true. I can clearly see a difference between different religious claims and I’ve written about it many times (including here). Some claims are testable, and some aren’t.

The problem is that skeptical theists like Pamela Gay (I named a category after her and clearly Knop fits that category) want to claim that their beliefs address untestable claims and that skepticism simply doesn’t apply to those beliefs.

That’s not only nonsense, it’s the entire point behind Russell’s teapot and it’s not surprising that a theistic skeptic like Knop would miss this.

What skepticism has to say about untestable religious claims is very simple:

You cannot possibly meet the burden of proof and, therefore, acceptance of your claim is irrational and unjustified.

Yes, there is absolutely no scientific reason to believe in a God or in anything spiritual beyond the real world that we can see and measure with science. But that does not mean that those who do believe in some of those things can’t be every bit as much a skeptic who wants people to understand solid scientific reasoning as a card-carrying atheist.

Actually, it means EXACTLY that. It means that, of the two of us, I’m the one who is willing to be skeptical about ALL claims, including your untestable claims and by asserting that skepticism doesn’t apply to those claims, you are demonstrating that you are NOT “every bit as much a skeptic”.

It doesn’t mean you’re not a skeptic, or even a good skeptic, on other subjects. It doesn’t mean you’re an idiot and it doesn’t mean that you should be excommunicated from some non-existent skeptical cabal.

What it means is that you are not consistent in applying skepticism and that you’re rationalizing the reason why. In Knop’s case, he’s taken the popular route of trying to make those who disagree with him appear to be rigid thinkers, unable to see the subtleties of the human experience. It’s not only not true, it’s exactly backward: understanding the subtleties of human experience is what allows skeptics to identify the mistakes they make.

We all make mistakes. We are all unskeptical about something. We are all idiots on some subject or another… the best skeptics are those who strive to eliminate these mistakes, instead of making excuses for them. The best skeptics are those who strive to make their beliefs as consistent as possible with the truth, to the extent that evidence can support it. The best skeptics are those who, having had a gross rationalization exposed, seek to prevent it from happening in the future, instead of trying to shield it from critical examination.

If someone believes that an untestable, deistic god exists, that’s their prerogative and they need not ever defend it…but they don’t get to pretend that they’re being skeptical about this belief or that skepticism shouldn’t apply. And when they do attempt to defend it, they should do so honestly and not by trying to claim that those who challenge their beliefs managed to misunderstand skepticism.

They should do so by presenting evidence to support their beliefs and not by trying to claim that their beliefs should be immune from skeptical inquiry.

If his only point were to claim that religious beliefs are nothing more than personal opinions, he’s already lost because religious beliefs make claims about truth — not opinion. The idea that whether or not a god exists is merely a matter of opinion is as laughable and absurd as the idea that whether or not the Big Bang happened is merely a matter of opinion.

Your opinions have no bearing on truth. You’re entitled to them, but if you pretend that no one can evaluate your opinions about reality with respect to reality — you’re engaged in a sort of self-delusion that beggars credulity.

Comments

  1. says

    I don't want to be a colossal jerk by making an off-topic comment, but I sort of wish there were threads for TAE shows because there are so many things I want to discuss with people about episode #670…

  2. says

    Ok, perhaps they don't understand our critiques of religion enough to criticize them-Yes; I’m going with that as my tongue-in-cheek rebuttal.

  3. says

    I'd just like to add that I'm loving the recent trend of addressing skeptic-avoidance of religion.This wishy-washy, self-grandeurizing and arrogant position of pseudo-sophistication is far more irritating than moronic creationists, so it's great both from a standpoint of there need to be more voices out there rejecting that argument, as well as it's just entertaining.

  4. says

    I think the best thing I can add to this discussion is that I don't particularly like Robert Frost. I think he's horrendously overrated because of the perceived depth of *one* of his most famous poems (which in my opinion is about as deep as a dog bowl). Frankly, if you asked me to choose, I would probably rather read a seven-year-old's story about a living dinosaur. This is not because I suspect the child would have a better grasp on language than Frost, or would be any more competent with theme, narrative or metaphor, but because it might genuinely surprise me. Sometimes children, unburdened by the imposed conventions of societal norms, render interesting, imaginative views of the world. And sometimes they don't. But the point is, as much as we might like to assemble common criteria for assessing art, there isn't a universal rule of thumb for doing so. But there *is* one for assessing truth claims made about the universe. It's generally referred to as the scientific method, and no matter how earnestly you plead otherwise, "the universe was made by an all-knowing, all-powerful deity" is a truth claim about the universe! It is one thing to say that you like the idea; but once you claim that it is true, it falls under the viewing glass of skepticism. Period.

  5. says

    Some comments of Frost make me wonder if he really rejects postmodernism. Like this when he wrote:"Creationism is wrong. We know that. But the vast majority of intellectual theologians out there would tell you that creationism is based on a facile reading of Genesis, a reading that theology has left as far behind as physics has left behind the world-view of Aristotle."Now why did science leave behind the worldviews and scientific concepts of antiquity again? I would suggest thats because we gradually learned more and more about our universe, made testable predictions, experiments, kept what worked and removed or modified what didnt work (aka we did teh science).And why do most intellectual theologians reject a YEC interpretation of Genesis nowadays?Where are the experiments that show that YEC is a "facile reading" of Genesis? What is the consensus of these intellectual theologians on how to interpret Genesis correctly?What happened is that after science found out that YEC can not possibly be true "some" intellectual theologians were forced (either by there own genuine intellectual honesty or becasue of fear of ridicule) to adapt while others simply said "Ok there must be something wrong with science then."Equating these two things (Remember Frost said "theology has left [this interpretation] as far behind as physics has left behind [old theories]") is not only wrong, but deceptive. And also very very postmodern by the way.

  6. says

    There is so much wrong in Knops thread and the one about the same post on cgranade's site that I don't know where to begin. Whenever I read stuff like "art and religion have just as much to say about truth as science" it makes me just want to go and punch a Smurf. The part that irritates me most though was:This is the problem with you New Atheists. You say aggressive and insulting stuff, and then say that you’re not being aggressive and insulting, you’re just “telling the truth”. And that was in regard to someone saying they didn't agree, apparently the words 'intellectually dishonest' was the aggressive and insulting part. If that is aggressive and insulting then what Rob is basically saying is the only way to not be a mean new atheist is to agree with him. And to be entirely aggressive and insulting, that notion is simply retarded. Oh my, you disagree? How very militant of you!

  7. says

    Excellent post, Matt.By the way, even creationists can make their beliefs unfalsifiable by claiming their magical god can make a young earth look old… or that a demon planted fossils and such to trick us. But just because something can't be proven false, doesn't make it a good candidate for being true though theists like to think it puts their god in the 50-50 category. We can't prove that Zeus never existed nor that talking tortoises don't exist. Heck, we can't prove that Rob Knop is not a penguin molester. But I would like evidence that any form of consciousness COULD exist absent a material brain before I would care what anyone had to say about such beings. It's not that I don't WANT to believe in such things– it's just that I want evidence that warrants such a belief before I believe such a thing. I'm tired of fooling myself. If there was evidence for such a thing, I'm sure scientists would be testing, refining, and honing that evidence just like we have with DNA and everything else that we've come to understand about our universe.I cannot think of a rational reason why a theist would believe in some invisible beings (say, a god and souls) but not others (say, demons, Thetans, sprites, and angels). There is certainly no more evidence for one than any other, and it seems that consciousness without a material brain is as unlikely as sound in a vacuum. If there is not enough evidence for scientists to know such things exist, why would we think anyone could know? Faith and feelings are not methods for finding out the truth. As much as theists get butthurt ( http://i679.photobucket.com/albums/vv159/ralphwiggum_album/butthurt-form.jpg ) when skeptics treat religious woo like other woo, there really is no good reason not to. Gods are cut from the same cloth as the "Emperor's New Clothes" as far as I can see. And I prefer those who are willing to say, "the emperor is naked" rather than those who say the equivalent of "you can't prove there is no such things as invisible clothing that only the chosen can see!" http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2006/12/the_courtiers_reply.php

  8. says

    I agree with Zurahn, this is an important task that you are doing. It's very annoying when somebody is so close to the solution, knows what the evidence is showing, but instead of admitting that their beliefs are unjustified, they just hide behind silly reasoning and pretend to be deaf.I know it's hard for a Christian to renounce to faith (as I had to do), but why is it the same with people who know so much, and their god is just some deist model…I know I'm a dick for saying such things about them :)

  9. says

    I think he just made the standard "god is beauty" argument and anyone who disagrees is insulting him. But it's hard to tell because it seems pretty woo-heavy.

  10. says

    Try this on for size. How about the psychics who say that people who doubt them or try to put them to the test block their energy. How about those claims, does skepticism not deal with those claims? After all, the psychics don't claim to be able to perform when they are being tested. They exclude themselves from tests, their claims are untestable. Not subjecting religion to the same standards of these other claims is simply special pleading.

  11. says

    I have to admit that I don't get it yet. My reading comprehension must be poor.I'm not getting why they think theistic beliefs are magically exempt from skepticism.It's like you're recruiting for a position in your company, and you're trying to evaluate each person to see if they'll be a good fit in the role. Then, one day, you're interviewing this guy who's representing the recruitee, who isn't presently there. He cannot present a resume, or a background, or a ID – nothing. You can't even demonstrate that the recruitee he's representing should exist as a person. Apparently, you can't evaluate the situation, and you have to give him the job because you can't investigate his background?No, in the real world, you don't hire him. He may be the best employee in the world, but I don't know – however, to say he gets a free pass through the recruitment process, for some bizarre reason, is inane.

  12. says

    I know I'm one of many folks who appreciates your clarity on these issues, Matt (and everyone at TAE).What bugs me is the rationalization, the backward-somersaulting Knop and others do in order to show how their beliefs are in accord with skepticism. I wouldn't be annoyed at all (and I bet Matt wouldn't either) if they just told the truth: "I have an attachment to this whole God notion. This attachment is profoundly emotional, and damn it, it makes me feel nice. I admit that my holding this belief flies in the face of skepticism, but I'm cool with that because I like believing in a God."I'd have no problem with that. It doesn't insult my intelligence, at least.

  13. says

    I'm starting to get really annoyed at the whole skeptic softening approach to religion. I even got an email response from Stephen Novella to say that only when religion makes testable claims is when skeptics should step in.I replied saying pretty much the same thing you did Matt, in that science isn't the only tool availible in sussing out what is true and what is bullshit. You don't need science to know that Jesus didn't come back to life after being dead long enough to smell and then fly off to heaven.

  14. says

    I'm not getting why they think theistic beliefs are magically exempt from skepticism.As nearly as I can tell, there are a lot of theistic and theist-friendly skeptics who either don't understand or don't accept the principle of the Null Hypothesis. I've seen some people explicitly claim that, since "God exists" is not a scientifically testable claim, it is therefore in a separate category (usually "metaphysics") about which science cannot comment. I've actually had a prominent skeptic tell me that the point of Sagan's dragon is that we can't accept or reject the dragon, because it's outside the realm of investigation (I'd offer the quote, but said skeptic has since protected their tweets). That, and they don't seem to understand the Tracie Harris classic, that distinction between "something which does not exist" and "something which exists but does not manifest" is meaningless.

  15. says

    "I've actually had a prominent skeptic tell me that the point of Sagan's dragon is that we can't accept or reject the dragon, because it's outside the realm of investigation"And I'm sure he'll show us the burn wounds he has when he failed his REF save from its breath attack…

  16. says

    ""If you cannot see the difference between Russell’s teapot and the great world religions, then you’re no more qualified to talk about religion than the fellow who thinks that cultural bias is the only reason any of us believe in the Big Bang is qualified to talk about cosmology.""Maybe because it's the straw men and special pleading bullshit that is dumb beyond measure yet hailed as great intellectual works, that is the reason why atheist see theists as twits. I have a much easier time with my theist friends who'll go the faith rout than this fluff. Grow up, Rob.

  17. Skeptico says

    Ha – Rob just closed the comments to his post, with this:“Nice job with the ad hominem and cherry-picking, guys.“I’m closing down this thread because it’s turned into yet another place for skeptics to gather and show that “skepticism” is as much about being a dick about religion as it is about critical thinking. You guys have plenty of places for that already.”Methinks he needs to look up the meaning of “ad hominem.”  He obviously thinks it means “telling me I’m wrong.”

  18. says

    "“I’m closing down this thread because it’s turned into yet another place for skeptics to gather and show that “skepticism” is as much about being a dick about religion as it is about critical thinking. You guys have plenty of places for that already.”"See Now, I think, that forcing others to follow your religion, proselytizing, indoctrinating people, making life and death decisions based on prayer, going to war for god etc etc is being a dick about religion. Pat Robertson is a dick about religion. Oral Roberts was a dick about religion. Osama Bin Ladin is a dick about religion. Fred Phelp is a dick about religion. Calling magic underpants stupid is not the 'being a dick' part…the guys who are telling people that their Joseph Smith Action Underoos are magic are the ones being dicks about religion.

  19. says

    I read through every comment there and saw virtually nothing that would qualify as an ad hominem.People were simply challenging Rob, presenting arguments that exposed the problems in his claims and Rob had no good responses so he cried "foul" and closed it down.As far as I can tell, this is one of the finest demonstrations of the problems we're actually discussing. Rob's defense mechanisms kicked in to shield his beliefs.Saying someone is being "intellectually dishonest" is not an ad hominem if you actually point out where they're being intellectually dishonest. The fact that Rob's best defense to this charge was to claim that it wasn't a compliment and that this demonstrates a problem with the "New Atheists" is very telling.

  20. says

    Is there a name for the logical fallacy where you accuse the other person of committing a logical fallacy, without explaining how they've engaged in said fallacy or addressing the argument? I see it so often. I've actually had a prominent skeptic tell me that the point of Sagan's dragon is that we can't accept or reject the dragon, because it's outside the realm of investigationIs there a term for this as well? Taking an analogy and claiming it's meant to demonstrate entirely the opposite of what it's mean to demonstrate? Analogy-mining?It's like a creationist claiming the Flying Spaghetti Monster is an argument for religion in the classroom.

  21. says

    Wow, that is pretty amazing. He is saying that religious skeptics should be welcome because they accept good science in other areas but then he shuts down the discussion when the religious part gets subjected to debate. As for the ad hominem, that seems like a cop out. My comment there was probably one of the ones considered by Rob as ad hominem since I was a little sarcastic and smarmy at times but eh, he still chose not to address many of the questions various people brought up.

  22. says

    @DorkmanIs there a name for the logical fallacy where you accuse the other person of committing a logical fallacy, without explaining how they've engaged in said fallacy or addressing the argument?Not that I am aware of. I guess technically it would be a Bare Assertion fallacy although that is not specific to claims of presenting a fallacy which I think is what you were getting at. No idea about the analogy one.

  23. says

    He apparently thinks that "cherry picking" means "attacking an argument at its weak points" and "being a dick" means "disagreeing with me. I just wish he'd tell us what he thinks God is and why he thinks so. But he won't do that because he's not willing to defend his actual beliefs or even hold them up to be questioned.

  24. says

    "You cannot possibly meet the burden of proof and, therefore, acceptance of your claim is irrational and unjustified."At a debate I attended last November, "Atheism is the New Fundamentalism" the moderator asked Richard Dawkins if he would concede the possibility that that there may be a god. Dawkins replied that there may be a leprechaun. Bishop Richard Harries (arguing for the motion) took enormous offence at this. "That is a ridiculous remark. You cannot confuse the god of classical theism, which has animated the whole of western philosophy, with a leprechaun."In the matter of evidence for their existence, however, there's not much to distinguish them.

  25. says

    @DorkmanYes, at least I know what my friends and I call it. It's called Hammersteining. Dubbed from the phenomena from the movie The Wall, where real skin heads latched onto the fascist rally scene as an endorsement of their beliefs.

  26. says

    Love how he accuses us of using ad hominems, then essentially calls us all dicks. 'Cherry picking'? There were nothing *but* cherries to pick! As hard as I looked I couldn't find a blueberry!Um…yeah. Awesome.

  27. says

    Dorkman asks: "Is there a name for the logical fallacy where you accuse the other person of committing a logical fallacy, without explaining how they've engaged in said fallacy or addressing the argument? I see it so often."There is something called the Dunning-Kruger effect. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effectIt shows that the more incompetent someone is in a given area, the less likely they are to realize they are incompetent– due to their incompetence!As Darwin said: "Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge."So, the people who are the most confident that they reason well and understand logical fallacies are the least likely to actually do so. As people become more skilled in these areas, so does their assessment as to where they fall on the curve when it comes to those abilities. The people with the most expertise tend to be the people most likely to underestimate their ability.The more incompetent a person is, the more the discrepancy in where they imagine they fall on the competency scale. This video is excellent, and explains it better than I can.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XyOHJa5Vj5YTheists tend to be particularly good examples of the Dunning Kruger effect.The Dunning-Kruger effect is why the people who should least be giving advice are the ones who seem to always be advising others to be more like them.The dicks are the least likely to recognize themselves as the dicks in Phil's (dickish) speech while less dickish people will wonder if he was talking about them. He told everyone to think about their goals, but clearly he didn't think about his own goals in giving that speech.

  28. says

    "So, the people who are the most confident that they reason well and understand logical fallacies are the least likely to actually do so. As people become more skilled in these areas, so does their assessment as to where they fall on the curve when it comes to those abilities."Sort of like how quite often, the most intelligent people are the ones who hold unsupportable beliefs, as they are adept at rationalizing said beliefs.

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