Embrace Your Inner Skeptic 5: Evaluating information in the internet age

This is a partial transcript of the talk I gave at St. Charles Community College on December 2, 2014.

  1. Amazing news!
  2. Nobody loves a critic
  3. Why skepticism is healthy
  4. What about religion?
  5. Evaluating information in the internet age
  6. Is Skepticism Right For YOU?
  7. Some advice on community building
  8. Q&A

To discover a solid truth, you need careful investigation and analysis. Believing something just because of blind trust takes no time at all. Mark Twain once said: “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” Urban legends and rumors appeal to people. Claims that speak to our secret prejudices, that confirm things we want to be true, spread quickly and efficiently through gossip, and at any given time there are thousands of things that “everybody knows” which aren’t actually true.

We live in an interesting time. It’s only since I was a computer science undergraduate that the internet stopped being a weird hobby for mega nerds, and started being used by everyone everywhere, to transmit information as fast as we can think about it. We all carry magic boxes in our pockets that we can use to immediately tap into the largest repository of knowledge in human history.

But a lot of it is lies.

[Read more…]

Trying on atheism

The Huffington Post recently relayed the story of former pastor Ryan J. Bell, who is “trying on atheism” for a while. Bell says,

So, I’m making it official and embarking on a new journey. I will “try on” atheism for a year. For the next 12 months I will live as if there is no God. I will not pray, read the Bible for inspiration, refer to God as the cause of things or hope that God might intervene and change my own or someone else’s circumstances. (I trust that if there really is a God that God will not be too flummoxed by my foolish experiment and allow others to suffer as a result).

Bell has his own blog, which I encourage you to check out at http://www.yearwithoutgod.com/

I’ve seen a few different reactions to this. Many of the commenters at his blog are clearly worried that he’s going to go through with it become atheist, and are trying to talk him out of it. Some atheists, notably Hemant Mehta, are telling Bell that he’s “doing it wrong.” Hemant says,

Make no mistake: Bell is not “trying on atheism.” He’s just a Christian doing what all people should do and exposing himself to an alternative perspective. That’s a very good thing, no doubt, but scrutinizing your own beliefs isn’t a substitute for being godless. Just as celebrating Hanukkah doesn’t make someone Jewish and fasting during Ramadan doesn’t make you a Muslim, not going through typical Christian rituals doesn’t make you an atheist.

Ultimately, Bell still believes in God, at least for now. Until he changes his mind about that, he’s not really living as an atheist. He says, for example, that he won’t read the Bible over the next year… but neither do a lot of Christians and it’s not like they’re giving atheism a try. Bell also says he’ll read books written by atheists and attend atheist gatherings… but let’s be honest: it’s not like a lot of atheists do those things either.

That may well be true, but you know what? I don’t really care.

One of the earliest experiences I had arguing with people on the internet was on a message board system on a private network called Prodigy. There was an active religion and atheism section on the Teens board, where kids of different faiths would mingle and take shots at each other. There was an incident when I suggested that everyone should try some roleplaying — atheists should post as Christians, and vice versa. The atheists threw themselves wholeheartedly, while the Christians shuffled around and made excuses, or flat out said that God wouldn’t approve of saying such things even as a joke.

I’m bringing this up because I think most Christians have a big hurdle to overcome, which is that they can’t even let themselves recognize and experience doubt, even hypothetically or temporarily, for fear that it would make them genuinely evil. As I pointed out in my recent lecture on atheism and the internet, Romans 14:22-23 says,

22 So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.

So if a Christian wants to experiment with atheism, are they an atheist? No, not necessarily. But they are casting aside the fear that they will not be allowed to access the real thoughts in the back of their mind, and that’s a good step that ought to be encouraged.

Would it please me if Ryan Bell finished his experiment and decided he was an atheist? Well, sure. I know there are some atheists who would hear about this and say, “Oh, now that Ryan has opened his mind, he will definitely become and atheist, because that’s the only logical position.” Not true. I know many sincere and intelligent Christians who have spent time investigating alternatives to their faith, and tell me it strengthened their position. I have no reason to doubt them. I think that someone who gets to Bell’s stage (he disagrees with his church on many significant issues, and doesn’t feel the need to reach out to a God in order to get by in his day-to-day life) is likely to come out on our side, but it’s by no means a foregone conclusion.

I do know that atheism is still an extreme minority position in our culture, and this makes it hard for many Christians to honestly evaluate the shortcomings of their faith. Many atheist came to their current position because they started out with sincere but manageable doubts, they investigated the issues as they arose, and found they couldn’t remain true to their integrity without abandoning belief in God entirely. It doesn’t always happen, but it seems to be one of the most popular paths to atheism. So I would much rather encourage that pastor to continue with his exploration rather than ridicule the way he’s chosen to approach it.

In the end though, what matters isn’t what position you take on whether there’s a God or not (“The easiest question in the world,” as Matt Dillahunty says), but whether your efforts to figure out the truth are driven by intellectual honesty, and a sincere desire to explore what other people believe and why. As long as that’s happening, there is no wrong way to try skepticism.

If I could offer one piece of advice to former pastor Bell: There is no need to isolate yourself from your former beliefs. You don’t have to stop praying for a year. You don’t have to stop reading the Bible. You don’t have to avoid asking yourself how a Christian perspective would respond to the difficult questions that you may encounter.

Instead, make an honest evaluation of the things you have been taught, and try your hardest to remain skeptical of the atheist material you hear about. I can’t guarantee it, but I’m betting you don’t have to stack the deck for atheism to stand up on its own.