Building your mental immune system

When Mark from Stone Church called again yesterday, he provided a perfect example of something that I’ve been meaning to blog about for a few months. Namely, it is a tempting but extremely bad habit to only associate with people who agree with you all your life.

One issue that most Atheist Experience hosts feel passionately about, apart from religion, is the spate of anti-scientific attacks which have been leveled against vaccinations. When you vaccinate yourself, you deliberately expose your body to small quantities of a disease or virus, in order to train your immune system to recognize and attack that disease. If you don’t get vaccinated, when the disease attacks you in its natural form it will likely be much stronger, and your body still won’t know how to deal with it.

The fact that they may be adorable is only slight consolation.

Worse, by putting yourself at risk for this disease, you also become a carrier, which could increase its presence in the population at large. The more people there are in a given population who haven’t been vaccinated against a disease, the more risk everyone takes of catching it, and the more common the disease comes.

Critical thinking, of course, is your immune system against bad ideas. Even if you have a general background in skepticism and logic, it can be hard to spot the flaws in a claim that you’ve never heard before. The first time anyone encounters a concerted efforts to discredit vaccination, or prove that alien abductions occur based on anecdotes, or claim that evolution is a scientific conspiracy with no more proof than Biblical literalism — it’s not as easy as you might think to see through those arguments.

It’s really not good enough to say “That’s stupid” and ignore them, because if you have a policy of treating ideas you disagree with that way, then you risk becoming so dogmatic that you wind up rejecting things that are actually true. Instead, skepticism is a habit that requires practice. It’s good mental exercise to take such claims seriously, to ask yourself “What are the implications if this claim is true? Can I investigate it? Are there arguments against it already out there in the memesphere? If so, are they convincing, or do the debunking efforts rely on fallacies themselves? If there are none, why not? Is it not high enough profile, or is there something else going on?”

A lot of religious traditions — like those practiced in Austin Stone Church — reject this approach. Followers of such religions not only don’t try to understand competing points of view themselves, they regard any efforts to do so with suspicion and fear. They may actually believe that it’s a sin against God, or a trick by Satan, if you are even humoring a bad idea. Apologists will often seriously question the value of sending kids to college, because they might be exposed to “worldly” ideas. Cults sometimes advise their members not to read newspapers or watch TV, lest their minds be poisoned by outsiders rejecting their beliefs.

This is the intellectual equivalent of avoiding diseases by locking yourself in a hermetically sealed bubble for life. It can work, of course. As long as no germs can get inside the bubble, you can’t catch anything. On the other hand, once you’re committed to this plan, you can never leave the bubble for any reason. If you do, your immune system is likely to be so weak that you are especially vulnerable to any and all diseases you might encounter. Something very much like this is speculated to have happened to the relatively isolated Native American population when they first encountered European settlers who, by virtue of living on a much larger, more diverse, and densely populated continent, were relatively swimming in diseases regularly, and hence had much broader immunities.

Here, take this blanket. No really, I insist. We’re not using it anymore.


So when you’ve been sheltered by fundamentalism your whole life, my feeling is that you have to keep sheltering yourself or become similarly vulnerable to invasion from foreign ideas. Which is essentially what Mark told us he does in our call yesterday.

Many emailers have homed in on the fact that Mark kept telling us what his church believes, as synonymous with what he believes. Tracie and I mentioned that the kind of evidence that we would need for God is not really all that strict, and that you don’t need to pray or “have faith” in order to be convinced that your mom exists. When something is real and testable, it can be perceived independently by many different people in the same way.

Mark responded that everyone at his church believes the same thing about God, and he proved it by reading a “statement of faith” that all church members are required agree to. I said, “It sounds like you have to devote a lot of work to making people believe the same thing.” And of course, there are 30,000 other Christian denominations in the US, many of which have very different perspectives on who this God person is.

I have long loved this interview that American Atheists spokesman David Silverman once did with Douglas Adams.

Above: A face that David Silverman probably did not have to make while talking to Douglas Adams.

In the interview, Adams elaborated on a great many of his atheist beliefs in a way that he has rarely done explicitly in his other work. One of the most striking and memorable arguments presented by Adams was in comparing religious beliefs to other types of scholarship.

Adams points out that if you wish to be taken seriously in the realms of science, history, or math, you should expect to be challenged constantly. Any claim you make, no matter how trivial the matter may look to those outside the discipline, will be subjected to withering criticism and debate, and the ideas that remain standing after this process, round after round, are the ones that can eventually be regarded as credible.

But religions don’t accept that burden of proof. Quite the opposite, in fact; when someone promotes a silly belief as a statement of faith, we’re asked to lend that faith some sort of automatic respect. Atheists who argue with the faith-beliefs of others are regularly regarded as being dicks.

Anyway, Douglas Adams concluded:

So, I was already familiar with and (I’m afraid) accepting of, the view that you couldn’t apply the logic of physics to religion, that they were dealing with different types of ‘truth’. … What astonished me, however, was the realization that the arguments in favor of religious ideas were so feeble and silly next to the robust arguments of something as interpretative and opinionated as history. In fact they were embarrassingly childish. They were never subject to the kind of outright challenge which was the normal stock in trade of any other area of intellectual endeavor whatsoever. Why not? Because they wouldn’t stand up to it.

And that, in a nutshell, is why it’s not a good idea to show politeness and “respect” for people’s beliefs. I try as much as I can to show respect for the people themselves, and appreciate the diversity of backgrounds that causes them to think the way they do. Greta Christina wrote a great article a few months back called “No, Atheists Don’t Have to Show ‘Respect’ for Religion,” which observes the same behavior. Greta says:

And, of course, it’s ridiculously hypocritical to engage in fervent political and cultural discourse — as so many progressive ecumenical believers do — and then expect religion to get a free pass. It’s absurd to accept and even welcome vigorous public debate over politics, science, medicine, economics, gender, sexuality, education, the role of government, etc… and then get appalled and insulted when religion is treated as just another hypothesis about the world, one that can be debated and criticized like any other.


It’s not about making fun of religion just for sport. When you tiptoe around someone’s beliefs, you’re not doing them any favors. All you are doing is allowing them to stay in their little bubble for a bit longer, while enabling them to spread the idea that it’s okay to be closed off to competing ideas.

“Atheism is a religion too!”

Doubtless you’ve heard this little nugget of inanity from more than one indignant apologist, and it’s usually the sort of thing they resort to when everything else they’ve thrown your way has been flattened. The glib response is usually something along the lines of, “Yeah, like baldness is a hair color!” Then this is followed by tortuous explanations where you find yourself trying to describe the difference between belief that there are no gods and disbelief in gods, to a mind not exactly skilled in grasping nuance.

But there’s an easier way to deal with this one, a way even Christians might understand, and it’s illustrated by a post today from PZ.

Atheism is not a religion for the same reason theism is not a religion. The terms refer solely to the disbelief or belief in gods. But religion implies a ritualized, or at least organized practice. Indeed, a person can be theistic and yet not the least bit religious. Theism is not a religion, but Christianity, Islam, et al, are.

Similarly, atheism is not a religion, but…there are atheistic religions. And they are just as irrational and lacking in evidence as theistic ones. Buddhism, on the whole, seems generally benign, though its embrace of such fantasies as reincarnation (which is something you’re encouraged to avoid) puts it squarely in the realm of delusion and woo. But then there are the Raelians, a gang of raving nitwits who reject God…only to replace him with aliens. It may be generous even to call Raelianism (if that’s the term) atheistic, since they just put God in a UFO and only reject the traditional notion of a supernatural god. But to some, and to themselves, they are considered atheistic on those grounds alone.

We at The Atheist Experience have all encountered self-proclaimed atheists who go on to voice their eager support for other irrational ideas, like 9/11 Trutherism or “alternative” medicine.

So no, atheism itself is not a religion. But there are atheist religions, and there are individual atheists just as lost to reason and confused as many theists. It isn’t enough to reject gods simply because you don’t like Pat Robertson or the Pope or the Tea Party or what have you. Skepticism and critical thinking must inform everything you do. A person can get to atheism by means other than critical thinking, but it’s possible to adopt even ideas that are right for the wrong reasons. Put critical thinking first, and atheism should not only flow naturally from that, but it will have a much more sound intellectual footing, and you’ll be better inoculated against other slippery falsehoods that sneak through the back door of your confirmation bias too.

What type of Theistic Skeptic are you?

I’ve obviously spent a lot of time on this subject and this will be a much shorter post. I’m simply going to categorize, for clarity, the different types of skeptical theists. I’ve named them after individuals who all self-identify as both skeptic and theist (some as a specific subtype, like Christian) and as skeptics.

The “Lee Strobel”

This individual is convinced that the proper application of skeptical principle actually confirms their theistic beliefs.

The “Pamela Gay”

This individual is convinced that their theistic beliefs are beyond the critical eye of skeptical principles, often asserting that skepticism only applies to testable claims.

The “Martin Gardner”

This individual acknowledges that they’re not being skeptical of their theistic beliefs and that they have some emotional reason for believing. Often they’ll acknowledge that their beliefs most probably would not hold up under the critical evaluation of skepticism.

I’ve covered the difference between the “Pamela Gay” and “Martin Gardner” types in previous posts. In short, neither is applying skepticism to their theistic beliefs and one is claiming that it shouldn’t apply. The assertion that skepticism can say nothing about untestable claims is one that I think is demonstrably absurd.

But what about the “Lee Strobel” type?

I’m pretty sure that if we polled skeptics at a convention like TAM (and I think we should), an extraordinarily high percentage would claim that the “Lee Strobel”-type is simply not a very good skeptic. Some of them, might even flatly claim that the “Lee Strobel”-type simply isn’t a skeptic, despite using the label.

Is Lee Strobel a skeptic? How about Kent Hovind or Duane Gish or Ken Ham or Deepak Chopra or Sylvia Brown? I’d be willing to bet that most of them would self-identify as a skeptic because most of them think that they have evidence (or perhaps pretend that they think they have evidence, if they’re simply dishonest) and that the evidence confirms their beliefs. They, like most people, recognize the value of evidence in understanding reality and I’d bet that most of them (hell, most anyone) would say, “Yes, I’m a skeptic and I value skepticism” once they’ve had it explained to them.

(The explanation, by the way, could simply be: a skeptic is a person who strives to accurately understand reality by accepting only those things that are supported by the evidence.)

But are they really a skeptic, just because they call themselves one? Would you consider them to be a good skeptic? Is their usage of skeptic consistent with your own…is it consistent with the larger skeptical community? If any of those people were invited to speak on behalf of skepticism, would you object?

Let’s not pretend that legitimate, skeptical questions about this subject can be answered by accusations of a “no true Scotsman” fallacy if we’re really trying to determine whether or not someone is conveying accurate information about Scotland.

Let’s not pretend that we’re somehow rude for questioning or correcting misinformation or that there’s no problem with letting some misinformation slip by.

If we wouldn’t pretend that the “Lee Strobel”-type has any more knowledge about Scotland than one might obtain after watching a special on the Loch Ness monster…then let’s not pretend – at all.

Irony meter explosion in 3…2…1…

Okay, so that preposterous, demented d-bag Mike Adams has noticed all the ridicule he’s been getting online, and has, like most deluded narcissists, taken it for validation of his awesomeness. In a new post, he offers the following observation, which deserves an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in Clueless Projection. Now, remember this is the guy who wrote a trillion-word attack on skeptics that led Orac to call him “a pyromaniac in a straw man factory”… Salient hypocrisy boldfaced.

[Skeptics] also tend to jump to false conclusions about what people are really saying. In my previous article, for example, I never stated whether I believed in God, or whether I was an athiest [sic], or whether I followed organized religion and yet people read the article and they leaped to conclusions, assuming I was promoting organized religion, for example, or that I was condemning atheism.

Actually I never stated my position on those matters in the article at all, but the skeptics leaped to the conclusion that I did. This speaks to their tendency to warp all incoming information and restructure it to conform to the beliefs they already carry about the subject at hand.

ROTFL! You silly little bitch.

Beatdown! Fractally-wrong altie pulls a Yomin over losing Twitter “award”

This post wins the internet!

A little context: Recently an alt-med wackaloon called Mike Adams — who runs the antiscience site NaturalNews.com and calls himself the “Health Ranger” — was in the lead for something called the Shorty Award. It’s the sort of thing where people vote for their favorite person in a certain category, by tweeting. It’s not an actual award, just a Twitter popularity contest.

But to Mike, it must have been like the Nobel. Because when he lost the award to DrRachie, an actual cell biologist, he also totally lost his shit!

There are awesome articles by PZ, Orac, and Phil Plait discussing the side-splitting melodrama. (For one thing, it was found that Mike was violating the Shorty rules by getting votes from brand new Twitter accounts created just to tweet a vote for him. However it was done, by Mike himself sockpuppeting or some of his fans doing it too, it was against the rules, and didn’t help him in the end anyway.)

Mike has just been “pulling a Yomin” over and over at his site. In addition to threatening to sue people, he’s now posted an absolutely hilarious “exposé” of skeptics. Apparently we’re “agents of death” who don’t even believe we’re alive. I won’t link to the article, because there’s no need. The very first link in this post goes to a magnificent demolition of Mike’s endless rant over at Dubito Ergo Sum. It’s truly epic in every way. Mike Adams is a person so completely divorced from reality it’s a wonder he can tell up from down. He doesn’t build a straw man in his lunatic screed. It’s a whole straw army. Mike Adams makes Ray Comfort sound sensible. Think about that.

“Unknowable” basically means “who cares?”

Occasionally we’ll hear a believer define his god as an “unknowable” being. Bizarrely, these folks tend to think that’s a real gotcha! moment, because obviously, that means we cannot disprove its existence, and so unless we want to be “closed-minded,” then we must admit there is at least the tiniest possibility that it might exist, because we don’t know everything, now do we.

This is pretty much the most desperate form any apologetics can take. For one thing, it reduces “god” to the smallest and most insignificant thing it could possibly be: a thing that cannot be known or comprehended at all by our “feeble” human minds. (Yes, I know, why would a god waste his time creating us at all if he just wanted to give us “feeble” minds?) God could not be any more useless than to be indistinguishable from something that, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t even exist. Moreover, when an apologist starts arguing like this, you’d do well to point out he’s pretty much at variance with Christianity and every other major world religion, as they emphatically are run on the premise that their deities can be comprehended just fine, thank you.

Here’s part of a recent exchange with a theist emailer I’ve been having, which illustrates how wrong this line of thinking is.


The fellow starts:

I am composing this letter in an attempt to prove god exists. I believe god is an electron orbiting the nucleus of a hydrogen atom in the brain you are using to analyze this letter, as well as every other thing in existence or has existed or will exist in this universe or the others if there are others. According to the Heisenberg uncertainty principal, and because we feeble minded humans could not possibly conceive of how everything was created in the first place, I also believe that god is inherently unknowable.

Have I just described something that does not exist? How did I do that? If you could tell me that my god does not exist how could you do that? Better yet how could you even think that? I understand this is an agnostic theist point of view however I cannot see how it is in error.

My first reply went like this:

All you’ve done in this argument is come up with a new name for the electron: God. It’s like new-age people who call “the Universe” God. All they’ve done is come up with a new word for universe.

If someone were a sun worshiper, and told me in all seriousness the sun was his god, then yes, I suppose I’d have to concede his “god” exists, though I would disagree that the sun possesses any sort of divine powers. And if he agreed with me the sun had no supernatural powers, he’s just happy worshiping it as God, then he’s simply come up with another word for “sun.” What you’re demonstrating by your argument is that theists really do create gods as an exercise in trying to understand things they don’t otherwise understand, and making the universe more superficially comprehensible by anthropomorphizing it. Conceptually, “God” is a placeholder for ignorance. (And yes, gods typically are defined in ways that defy direct examination, allowing them to retain their divine mystique because “you can’t prove it DOESN’T exist!”)

He replied today, and here is his letter with my responses in bold.

Hello Martin,

Thank you very much for responding . I am not sure you understand what I have stated in my letter. I have offered an explanation for and thereby proof god exists in that god is the totality of everything. I believe it fits quite nicely the definition of god.

Well, like the new-ager I described in my previous response, it looks to me like you’ve simply come up with a new word for “the totality of everything.” My question would be, how is this helpful? What is the utility of doing this? Does calling “the totality of everything” a “god” increase your understanding of this totality? Does it help you comprehend plasma physics, dark energy, the way in which the expansion of the universe appears to be accelerating rather than slowing down? What does this label “god” contribute to any of this? What do I gain in insight or knowledge by thinking that the atoms in the lettuce in the salad I’m eating right now are somehow “god”? Or is it a label you like for emotional reasons?

At this point I find myself wondering if your only definition of god is “something that simply does not exist”. If this is the case then it seems to me this is a closed minded point of view. Is atheism a closed minded point of view? If so, I find it less likely that it is an intelligent view, thou it still may be the correct point of view.

If you admit it might be a correct view, why would be it be less intelligent? Usually one’s intelligence can be measured by how correct one’s views are. A person who thinks 2+2=4 is more intelligent, in my estimation, than a person who thinks 2+2 might equal 4, but might also equal, for arcane reasons, 728.

As an atheist, I do not define god. All I can do is respond to the definitions (and there are many) of god that are presented to me by believers. I examine those to see if 1) there is evidence to support them and 2) if they provide anything in the way of practical understanding of the world, that could not be achieved through the time tested means of the scientific method. I have to confess that I’ve not yet heard a definition of god that passes those tests.

But that hardly means I’m ‘closed-minded’. Terms like ‘closed-minded’ and ‘open-minded’ are thrown about very loosely by believers who want to rebut skeptics, but I don’t think they understand the terms. It is not ‘open-minded’ to believe claims that lack evidence simply because those claims are emotionally appealing; it is simply gullible. It is not ‘closed-minded’ to demand strong evidence for claims before choosing to believe them; it is simply rational. Skeptics are indeed open-minded, but note that it’s the ‘mind’ in that term that counts. What we are open to is evidence.

Now, looking at your definition of god, it’s problematic for a few reasons, and hardly the “proof” you think. First, you simply slap the label “god” on everything that exists, down to the subatomic level, rendering the word basically meaningless. If every molecule, every atom, every gluon, every cigarette butt on the pavement is “god,” then it means nothing to be god, and every religion in the world might as well pack it in.

Then you make your big mistake: after offering that definition, you promptly do an about face and declare god “inherently unknowable,” something “we feeble minded humans could not possibly conceive of.” Setting aside my disagreement with your low opinion of human intellect, if god were really “inherently unknowable,” then nothing whatsoever can be said about god. You haven’t even got any justification to say god is “an electron orbiting the nucleus of a hydrogen atom in the brain you are using to analyze this letter, as well as every other thing in existence or has existed or will exist in this universe or the others if there are others.” Because to say that means you’re claiming to know something about god, which you could NOT do if god were unknowable. “Inherently unknowable” means exactly that. There is nothing at all that can be said about an inherently unknowable concept, because it is inherently unknowable.

And this brings us to yet another problem: what exactly is the difference between an “inherently unknowable” thing, and something that does not exist at all? Practically there is none. Now, that isn’t proof that something unknowable couldn’t ever exist. But as we could not study it, evaluate it, observe it, or say anything about it whatsoever, then for all intents and purposes, it’s as good as nonexistent anyway. So why care?

“God” is either something, or it is nothing. If it is something, either it is something we can know (and all the world’s religions pretty much run on that premise) or cannot know. If the latter, its existence is of no relevance, as it cannot be distinguished from a nonexistent thing in the first place.

You state that “god is a
placeholder for ignorance”. Is there something wrong with that? We have finite minds and therefore could not possibly understand completely this concept that humans have called god.

Read what you wrote here again and see if you cannot answer your own question. What exactly is the sense in embracing a concept that you admit “we cannot possibly understand” as if it were some kind of valid explanation for things? (I think you’ve seen, to a small degree, the problem with your position, which is why you’ve slipped the qualifier “completely” into the sentence above.)

You’re basically saying this: “There are things about the universe I am ignorant of, and so to explain them, I will conceive of a thing called ‘god’ that itself cannot be explained, let alone understood.”

How is that a better way of grasping reality than A) finding out the real answers to those questions, and B) if there are no answers yet, simply accepting that. If you don’t know the answer to a question, the honest thing to say is “I don’t know,” and then making that a springboard for continuing to study. It is not honest simply to place your ignorance on an altar and call it “god.”

I believe that we can however take some comfort in the fact that so long as our mind are open that we can live better lives through the small amount of understanding that we have of god.

We’re still talking about this “god” you say is “inherently unknowable,” right? Sorry, but you’ve singly failed to explain how we can “live better lives” by choosing belief in some “unknowable” concept in lieu of increasing our actual store of knowledge. I think history will show that we humans are much better off with the greater knowledge of the world we have today through science than otherwise. People in medieval Europe didn’t exactly take much “comfort” in their unknowable god while they were dying in their millions from plague and famine. How does ignorance and reliance on belief in the “unknowable” offer a “better” life than one where your worldview actually conforms to reality?

Basava Premanand (1930-2009)

On October 4 of this year Basava Premanand died.

You may never have heard of Premanand, but in addition to physically reminding me a bit of James Randi, Premanand also had his own paranormal challenge and dedicated his life to debunking “godmen” of India. Just days before he died, according to a special release of the e-zine Bangalore Skeptic, he drafted and signed a statement attesting he was of sound mind and still as skeptical as ever. He didn’t want any tales of death-bed confessions to haunt his reputation, after his death.

If you haven’t ever heard of Premanand, I urge you to look him up and read about him and the sorts of problems Indian skeptics are addressing.

Atheist factions

Yesterday on the Non-Prophets episode 8.16, Matt posed the question: do people perceive a schism forming in the skeptical community? Is there a concerted effort to distance the general skeptical movement from atheists?

You can listen to this discussion somewhere around the last fifteen minutes of the show. After you do, we’d like your feedback.

When Does Ignorance Become an “Answer”?

As you likely know, Texas recently has become the new Kansas as unabashed YEC and school board member Don McElroy pushes for new education standards in Texas science classrooms. The Austin American-Statesman editorial section has become a really interesting read for any interested atheist. An idea was expressed this morning in the letters to the editor by one citizen, and I wanted to add some input. Unfortunately, my response would be longer than the letters section would allow, so, I am adding my input here:

Claim 1: Each spring supernatural garden fairies make my garden grow using magical techniques that are a mystery to my limited human mind. I know this is true, because I have seen my garden grow each spring. And I can demonstrate to others that my garden grows each spring; so, my garden fairy belief is not based on ignorant faith, because I have demonstrable evidence to support it.

Claim 2: In the beginning, a supernatural being made the whole universe exist using magical techniques that are a mystery to limited human minds. A letter-writer knows this is true, I am guessing, because he/she can see the universe exists. And he/she can demonstrate to others that the universe exists; so, his/her god belief is not based on ignorant faith, since he/she has evidence to support it.

In a letter to the editor in this morning’s Austin American-Statesman, Pat H. noted that science has no answers, but “God does.”

The difference between my fairy claim and Pat’s god claim is that more people believe Pat’s claim, and Pat’s claim (assuming Pat is basing this claim on the Bible—and statically speaking, here in Austin—there are pretty good odds of that) comes with a few thousand pages of pretty much irrelevant window dressing to distract adherents from the fact that the claim is nothing more than a promotion of willful human ignorance.

I’m thinking Pat would likely reject my fairy claim.

So, my question is this: How many distracting details and adherents do I need to add to my fairy story before it stops being a promotion of willful human ignorance and becomes an “answer”?

Copy and Paste Dialogue

I don’t mind a theist being inspired by another person’s arguments or ideas. I don’t mind a theist referencing someone else’s ideas and arguments in his own arguments. There’s nothing wrong with including a link or a quoted passage, in a correspondence, to someone else’s data or views. But if a person comes to me announcing that he wants to talk to me about his beliefs, he should at least do me the courtesy of presenting his beliefs—whether or not they are supplemented by the ideas of those who have influenced his thinking.

The author of Article X, from which the theist quotes, is not the person who contacted me to discuss her beliefs. If that author wants to hear my views about her beliefs, she is able to write to me and request my feedback. But I see no value in pretending that a long strand of copied and pasted material from her article is the view of the theist who wrote to me to dialogue about his beliefs.

If a theist writes and wants to know my response to a particular article or view that is not his own, that’s fine. But he should refrain from calling it his belief, if all he can do is parrot the argument of someone else. If he lacks sufficient understanding of the concept to be able to so much as restate it in his own terms or respond to questions without running back to the source, then he shouldn’t put it forward as his belief.

Forming our own beliefs in life is not the same as memorizing and internalizing someone else’s arguments and ideas. To label such things as our own beliefs is plagiaristic and shows a woeful lack of understanding about what constitutes forming beliefs of our own. In order to dialogue about what I believe requires I have a firm enough grasp on the belief to express it clearly, in my own terms, to others, and also to respond to questions without seeking input from any source beyond my own mind. Anything that can honestly be labeled as my belief can exist nowhere but inside my own mind. A prerequisite to holding a belief is understanding the belief. It is not possible for a person to both assert a proposition is true, and to fail to understand the proposition. When questioned about what we believe—why should we need to go and look it up? If I find myself looking up my response to a question that concerns what I claim I believe, clearly, I have a dilemma.

If someone were to ask me, for example, what I believe regarding UFO activity on our planet, I can’t imagine it would make sense to that person if I said, “give me a second to go and look up what Carl Sagan has to say about that, because I believe whatever he says.” How can I call it my belief if it (a) is not contained within my own mind, and (b) I don’t even know what it is I’m claiming I believe while I am asserting I accept it as true?

I seem to see more often than is comfortable long-winded e-mails that ultimately say, “I don’t understand it myself, but I absolutely believe it.”