Embrace Your Inner Skeptic 6: Is Skepticism Right For YOU?

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

I’ve pitched the value of skepticism for a lot of reasons: Being skeptical keeps you from being conned, it can be a safety issue, it prevents wasting taxpayer money on bad ideas, it protects you from jumping to unwarranted conclusions. But in a time where there are all these people and web sites and fake news sources who are actively trying to lie to you, how do you figure out what’s true and what’s not?

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More on McGrath

I actually found another exchange between Alister McGrath and Richard Dawkins that is set up in debate format. This series, also on Youtube, is in seven parts, unlike the more conversational series I described in my last post about these two men, which is in 15 parts.

McGrath authored a book in response to Dawkins’ book “God Delusion.” But I’m not critiquing his book, just his arguments as he speaks to defend his faith against being declared a “delusion.”

My first objection came in part 2, where McGrath said (emphasis his):

“In the brief time available, what I thought I would do is to try and engage with what seems to me to be the strongest argument in Professor Dawkins’ book. And that is that there is in some way a link between religion, between belief in god, and violence. Because I think that is a very significant issue, and one that really does need to be addressed.”

Note to theists: This is not only not the “strongest argument” to demonstrate belief in god is a delusion, it’s not even an argument that is generally ever used to demonstrate belief in god is a delusion.

There are mainly two situations I observe where atheists appeal to the harm caused by religion:

1. “Why do you care?”
The first is when asked “Why do you care what other people believe?” And in that case, it’s extremely relevant. The reason it is important to “care” what a religious person–let’s say a Muslim extremist–believes, is as easy as 9-11. People act on what they believe. What I believe matters. What you believe matters. What other people believe matters. Not everything a person believes has consequences, but when something they believe can be demonstrated to have consequences for others, it’s justifiably important to others.

Some beliefs seem to have a capacity to motivate people to do terrible things. Religion is in that category. Many religious people are good people. Some are dangerous people. The issue with religion is that it’s often the case that the dangerous people explain their harmful actions by pointing directly and unambiguously to their religious beliefs. They aren’t bad people who “just happen” to be religious.

I’m not talking about the guy who attends church every Sunday, but secretly molests his daughter. Yes, that guy “just happens” to be religious. Nothing within his religion justifies abusing his child. But the activities of Muslim extremists are absolutely driven, at least in part, by religious belief. That familiar shout of “Allahu Akbar!” says it all. They aren’t a group of people doing bad things who “just happen” to be Muslims.

But none of this has anything to do with whether or not their belief in god is a delusion. God may exist and may be the cruel and abusive tyrant they prostrate themselves to regularly. I don’t believe that’s the case, but my doubt has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that extremists do horrible things. The best I can do in response to this single fact is to say that if their god exists, I don’t like Him. I can’t conclude from it that their god is probably not real. There is simply no way I am aware of to make a logical connection that someone doing horrible things, even for their god, means no god exists. And I’m sure Dawkins understands this. And I’m baffled McGrath doesn’t understand that Dawkins quite probably understands this–which is what caught my attention.

2. Morality requires religion
The second reason I see atheists broach the fact that religious people can be driven to do horrible things because of (not in spite of) their religion, is as a portion of a defense to the spurious claim that religion is somehow a bastion, or even the only means, of morality. And this would generally be put forward along with examples of nonreligiously motivated acts of kindness.

So, that’s really it. Those are the two reasons I most often see atheists appeal to religious harm. As a foundational argument for unbelief it’s rarely used, and I’d spit milk through my nose if I ever heard Dawkins use it in that way. Certainly it cannot be among the “strongest arguments” for god as a delusion, for the simple reason it offers nothing whatsoever to undermine the claim “god exists.”

Many atheists criticize religious harm. But there are very few who hang their unbelief in god on it. It is the rare atheist who says, “I just can’t believe there could be a god who could allow such things in His name.” That’s a variation on an informal fallacy, the Argument from Incredulity. I do recall, though, in my religious indoctrination, being taught that this was a common atheist argument against the existence of god. But, based on some other statements McGrath makes, I don’t suspect his use of this particular strawman is due to indoctrination. And I’ll give my reasons for that later. For now I will just say I’ve never personally interacted with such an atheist–although I do recall at least once coming across something similar to that statement online posted by a self-labeled atheist. So, I don’t doubt such atheists exist. I just doubt they are so numerous that this point about religiously motivated harm could be justifiably labeled the “strongest argument” in Dawkins’–or any atheist’s–arsenal against belief in the existence of god. Not many atheists use it, and it’s a glaring fallacy. It would seem reasonable that the “strongest argument” would have to be one that attacks the root–god’s existence–not merely a branch–how believers behave.

If we believe gods can exist–but there are none to examine–we cannot logically rule out the possibility of apathetic or cruel gods. In fact, cruel or uncaring god models would subvert many atheist rebuttals, such as the Problem of Evil and Euthyphro. To assert “my preferred model of a kind god doesn’t appear to exist, therefore no model of god can exist” is egocentric in the extreme–and logical garbage, to boot. There are a variety of decent reasons to support unbelief; however, “religious harm” is not among them.

Note to theists: If you are responding to someone who is saying your belief in god is a delusion, and you think their “strongest argument” is that some religious people are horrible, you are either arguing with that one-in-a-million atheist mentioned above, or you don’t really understand the point you’re being presented with.

McGrath then goes on to say: “The point I’d like to try and make is this: Religious belief is ambivalent. It can be destructive. I think we need to be very, very clear about that…That is a significant danger in any religious belief system. And indeed one of the reasons why I, myself, was an atheist for some time was that it seemed to me logically inevitable that if there were no religion in Northern Ireland, there would be no conflict. Likewise, at the time I was studying the sciences, and it seemed to me obvious, again, that if the sciences were right, then there was no need for god at all. This could be safely disposed of with the greatest of ease.” (Emphasis mine.)

Let’s hold right there for a moment. I can grasp his second reason–the bit about science. You can legitimately cut out parts of models that aren’t necessary–as we all learned from the old children’s tale, “Stone Soup.” Howeve
r, how does that first reason figure? Let’s say it’s true that if you could eliminate religion from a region it would result in the end of conflict. How do you get from there to “I don’t believe god exists”? There is no rational path between that statement and atheism.

McGrath actually says this is one of the reasons he was an atheist. To demonstrate the absurdity of what he just said, let me restate it almost verbatim and put in something else that can sometimes cause harm, besides belief in god. Let’s see how it translates: “One of the reasons why I, myself, was an unbeliever in the sun for some time, was that it seemed to me logically inevitable that if we didn’t have sunbathers, there would be a lot less skin cancer in the world.”

To deny the existence of something because you dislike its effects is not rational. Someone asked in the other post about McGrath, why he had been an atheist. I’m wondering, if his reasons for unbelief really did include “religious harm,” does he then assume other atheists are atheists because they are similarly impaired when it comes to understanding where the implications of religious harm are or are not logically employed? Could he be reasoning that because he held to an unreasonable connection between religious harm and the nonexistence of god, that’s why the rest of us keep bring up religious harm in atheist-theist debates? If that’s what is happening, then his own experience has put a bias in place that interferes with his ability to understand what the atheist is actually saying. Even Dawkins admits he could be wrong that god is a delusion; but if he is wrong, it won’t be for reasons that stupid.

In my prior post, McGrath seemed to be thinking Dawkins didn’t know you can draw conclusions without iron-clad evidence, even while the real question was: Why do you feel compelled to take that leap of unjustified faith at the end, when you could stay rational and stop where the evidence ends, with an honest statement that there is insufficient evidence to justify that last leap? In trying to analyze these exchanges, I see twice now where the problem is that McGrath is misunderstanding Dawkins’ points in ways that presume points only an idiot would make. If theists generally think this way–and I certainly recall thinking this way–it’s no wonder they see atheism as the irrational position. They have no idea, really, how the position is supported. I am beginning to see more clearly the dire need to get information out to the public to dispel misconceptions about atheism. Is this really how people think we reason? Even though I thought this way myself, as a fundamentalist Christian, I suppose it never dawned on me how powerful these misconceptions–these strawmen–can be.

He goes on to point out religion is powerful and transformative. Agreed. That is precisely why it’s so dangerous when it goes bad. He says we need to be aware that religion going bad is a possibility, but there are other possibilities. Agreed. Not all religious people are oppressive or murderous. Did someone say they were? While I could imagine an atheist who might make such a wild accusation–that atheist wouldn’t be Dawkins, or anyone at AETV, or any atheist who contacts us generally. So, who is McGrath talking to?

In support, he quotes Shermer saying that religion causes horrible atrocities, but that many believers do good things. Is he assuming atheists don’t know this? The question from critical atheists is whether those people could be motivated to goodness without religion–which McGrath agrees comes with some powerfully harmful baggage. McGrath criticizes Dawkins for not giving credit to religion in “God Delusion” for the good associated with it; but Dawkins wasn’t making a case for religion. He was explaining his reasons for being against it. Touting positive attributes–that religion, itself, shouts nonstop from every rooftop–would seem unnecessary and out of context. Is there anyone in this debate who isn’t already well acquainted with Christian charitable efforts?

The question is actually, “Does a motivated Baptist do more good than a motivated Humanist? Is belief in god required to motivate people to do good?” And the answer is, “Clearly not.” Is it required to motivate people to do bad? Also, absolutely not. It motivates both good and bad in people. But without it, we could still motivate people to do good through Humanist endeavors that work toward the good of mankind and the planet–but don’t demonstrably result in people blowing themselves up. Also without it, the threat of the “bad” it generates would be eliminated. Surely there would be other ideologies out there to motivate horrors, just as we have others to motivate goodness. But without religion, there would be one less to motivate horrors. And the positive force it represents–the motive to do good–could be shouldered just as well by secular outlets for humanity which would remain available.

Here, in clear terms, is what I mean: Let’s say we find a treatment for all terminal varieties of cancer that permanently paralyzes 20% of the people who use it, but positively cures the other 80%. If we later discover a similar cure that paralyzes 10% of the patients, and cures 90%–would anyone argue we should continue using the first treatment for the “good” that it does, if it offered no added benefit over the new drug? Who could reasonably, in good conscience, suggest such a thing?

I may do more on McGrath. I’m not sure. I see a benefit to examining the communication divide: what atheists “say,” versus what theists “hear.” Understanding not only what sorts of misconceptions theists hold, but also why they hold them, could assist in moving dialogs along at a quicker pace. It would be, I suppose, “increased understanding,” not to increase respect, but rather to increase communication efficiency.

That would be my goal. Whether or not I achieve it is another matter.