The road to apostasy

It is not easy for a Mormon to publicly renounce his or her faith. This article shares the story of four young Mormons who realized that they did not believe during or soon after they finished their obligatory missionary work. The author of the article Greg Wilcox says that this disenchantment with religion is part of a more general trend.

A 2010 article in Christianity Today, citing various studies, says that the percentage of Americans claiming “no religion” doubled in about two decades, up from 8.1 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008. A substantial 22 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds claimed no religion, up from 11 percent in 1990. Also, 73 percent of these younger people came from religious homes.

The same article makes reference to the research of Robert Putnam and David E. Campbell, authors of a 2010 study called “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us,” which shows that the younger generation is dropping out of religion at five to six times the historic rate. [My emphasis-MS]

This adds to the evidence supporting my (admittedly minority) view that, despite appearances, religion is in serious danger of collapse. It is not that it will completely disappear but that it will become like astrology, largely irrelevant, viewed with amusement by most, but still believed in by an increasingly small minority.

Although the story is about loss of Mormon faith, I suspect that the experiences recounted are more generally applicable. The stories are quite poignant in describing the initial feelings of loss and loneliness before they found that they were not alone and joined with others in their same situation.

(Via Machines Like Us.)

Religion and evidence-7: Uniqueness and the problem of induction

(For the complete series of posts on religion and evidence, see here.)

In the previous post, I argued that under the rules of logic, existence claims placed the burden of proof on the person making the claim to provide evidence in support of it, while universal claims required the person disputing it to provide evidence. In the case of ‘god exists’, which is clearly an existence claim, the burden of proof is on the believer. Similarly the claim ‘there is no god’ is a universal claim and again the burden of proof (or disproof in this case) is on the believer.

It could be argued that the logic argument can be turned around, and that the statement that ‘a natural explanation exists for this phenomenon’ is an existence claim and that ‘no natural explanation exists’ is a universal claim, and so positive evidence has to be provided in support of the claim that an explanation exists. But as I said in the previous post, the symmetry is not exact. An existence claim for an entity (like an electron or god) is qualitatively different from the claim of existence for an explanation or theory.

But suppose for the sake of furthering the discussion that we ignore this difference and ask what evidence we can produce that a natural explanation exists for the alleged miracle. In the absence of producing an actual direct alternative explanation, the only evidence that can be supplied is historical, that it has been the case that event after event that were once thought to be inexplicable and thus miraculous have subsequently been found to have natural explanations. Furthermore, one never sees medical miracles in which (say) an amputated limb has grown back, which would really confound all expectations. All the medical miracle claims are of extremely subtle forms where the cures do not obviously violate any scientific laws and are not obviously incompatible with natural explanations.

Of course, all this historical evidence cannot prove that the current claim of a miracle is false because of the well-known problem of induction. The problem of induction says that there is no logical reason to think that just because some pattern of events has been invariably followed in the past, that the pattern will continue into the future. As an example, whenever I have let go of something in the past, it has always fallen down. Does that mean that the next time I let go of something it will certainly fall down? I may be fully convinced that it will, but there is no logical reason why it should, just as there is no logical reason as to why the Earth will continue to spin on its axis tomorrow.

The Vatican’s chief medical expert was implicitly appealing to this when he said that, “the miracle is in the particular, in the exceptional; statistics cannot prove or disprove that singular cause-and-effect relationship.” (Jacalyn Duffin, Medical Miracles (2009), p. 187). One of the features of scientific investigations is its repeatability and predictability. Miracles, by definition, are one-off events defying our expectations of regularity.

But of course none of us go around in a state of panic wondering if things will suddenly fall upwards or the Earth will stop spinning. The reason for our calm is that we use common-sense logical rules that enable us to arrive at conclusions that we are confident of even in the absence of proof. What we routinely do in such situations is to place the burden of proof on those claiming an exemption to the expected pattern to provide evidence as to why we should believe their claim. The reason we are amused by the iconic cartoon of a man carrying a sign “The world will end tomorrow” is because there is no reason to think that it will. Since the world has not ended so far, we feel safe in going to sleep tonight thinking that the sun will rise again in the morning.

In the case of medical miracles, what the weight of this historical evidence does is establish a prima facie case that since so many previous miracles have turned out to have had natural explanations, the latest miracle likely has a natural explanation too. To maintain that the latest case is an exception to this trend is to shift the burden of proof back to the people making the miraculous claim.

Science operates on the principle of methodological naturalism as described by George Gaylord Simpson (Tempo and Mode in Evolution (1944), p. 76):

The progress of knowledge rigidly requires that no non-physical postulate ever be admitted in connection with the study of physical phenomena. We do not know what is and what is not explicable in physical terms, and the researcher who is seeking explanations must seek physical explanations only.

Religious people may dislike methodological naturalism because it seems to shut out miracles but there is no denying that it has delivered the goods when it comes to advancing our knowledge. Abandoning it in order to allow us to say that inexplicable events are caused by god’s intervention (which is really what miracles are claimed to be) is to risk losing a lot without gaining anything in return. By all means religious believers can choose to call inexplicable events acts of god. But it is perfectly reasonable and even desirable for scientists to reject such explanations if they are proffered without evidence in support of the existence of an agency that caused the event.

Philosopher David Hume in his essay On Miracles laid out a rule-of-thumb for determining how to judge whether an event is a miracle, saying “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.”

So applying Hume’s rule, if one has a cure from an illness that is inexplicable on the basis of current knowledge, which would one consider to be more miraculous: the belief that god intervened, or its falsehood, that god did not intervene and there was a natural cause?

It seems to me that in the absence of evidence for the existence of some supernatural causation, it is perfectly rational and not at all unscientific to take the position that medical ‘miracles’ of the type described by Duffin are either the product of current deficiencies in knowledge or are improbable (but not impossible) events, and are not miracles in the religious sense in which the word is normally used.

POST SCRIPT: My article in The Chronicle of Higher Education

I was surprised to learn that my article The New War Between Science and Religion was the most viewed, emailed, and commented article. There were 170 (!) comments the last time I checked.

I received a nice little note of approval from Sir Harold Kroto, who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry for his work on Fullerenes, which are molecules that consist of 60 atoms, all of them carbon, that are connected in a manner that in one form (commonly known as ‘Buckyballs’) looks like the geodesic domes constructed by the architect R. Buckminster Fuller. In following up, I found this excellent interview where Kroto talks about what motives we should have for doing something, competitiveness, science and the enlightenment, and the danger we face from irrational religious thinking by people who occupy important decision making positions.

Religion and evidence-6: Is it unscientific to reject miraculous claims?

It is undoubtedly true that what may be considered a miracle at one time may not be thought so later as science advances. In fact the steady replacement of the miraculous and the inexplicable with the natural and scientific has been the recurring pattern of history. This pattern has been so influential in shaping the mindset of the scientific and medical community that the word ‘miracle’ is now seen as simply another label for a current state of ignorance. As Jacalyn Duffin, author of the book Medical Miracles (2009) and who has been involved in the process by which the Catholic Church certifies a medical miracle as part of the process of canonizing a saint, says:
[Read more…]

Religion and evidence-5: Miracles without god?

Jacalyn Duffin, author of the book Medical Miracles (2009), has an interesting professional history. A hematologist by training, she was asked in 1986 to analyze blood samples taken eight years previously from someone whose name and medical history were kept from her. Under her microscope she found all the signs of a kind of leukemia that usually results in death in at most a couple of years and so she was surprised to be later told that the patient was still alive and well. She was further surprised to discover that her analysis had been part of the process for the canonization of a would-be saint, Mere Marie-Marguerite d’Youville, founder of the order of Grey Nuns in Canada. The recovery of the leukemia patient was being credited to that potential saint as a miracle. Eventually, Duffin’s expert testimony that the recovery was scientifically inexplicable formed a crucial part of the successful canonization effort, and she was invited to Rome for the actual ceremony conducted by Pope John Paul II in 1990.
[Read more…]

Religion and evidence-4: Incorruptibility of the bodies of saints

The existence of bodies which allegedly do not undergo decay after death (i.e. ‘incorruptible bodies‘) was something I was made aware of only a few months ago but is apparently fairly well known in the religious community, especially among Catholics, and is taken as a miraculous sign from god. The Catholic Church used to make incorruptibility one of the possible criteria in support of claims for sainthood, and so exhumation of the bodies was once a regular part of the canonization process. But never having been a Catholic, I had been totally unaware of this until my friend drew my attention to it.
[Read more…]

Religion and evidence-3: Evidence-based belief

One of the interesting things about letting people know that you are an atheist is that you learn quite a lot of new stuff from religious people who try to persuade you that there is more to this life than a material world that runs according to scientific laws that are either known or yet to be discovered. The arguments that you hear run from one extreme of highly sophisticated theology (consisting of mostly esoteric words seemingly designed to avoid saying anything concrete) to the middle ground of believing in a supernatural power because of miracles (events that seemingly defy scientific laws and explanations) to the other extreme of people claiming to hear voices in their heads, that god actually speaks to them.
[Read more…]

Religion and evidence-2: Belief in belief

In their study of people’s religious beliefs, Michael Shermer and Frank Sulloway identified the seven strongest predictors in favor of belief in god:

  1. being raised in a religious manner
  2. parents’ religiosity
  3. lower levels of education
  4. being female
  5. a large family
  6. lack of conflict with parents
  7. being younger

Four of the factors that favor being religious applied in my own case. I was raised in a conventionally religious manner. My parents were religious but not overly so. We went regularly to church but not every Sunday. We never said grace before meals or had family prayers or were otherwise openly devout. Religion was seen as a private thing and we did say individual prayers. Also in favor was that I was a younger (middle) child and had no conflicts with my easy-going parents.

The three factors that should have pushed me away from religion were that I was male, we were a small family (three children), and I had a higher than average education. So in my case, it seems to have been basically a toss-up as to whether I would end up religious or not.

I think that for a lot of people, whether they believe or not is based on whether they feel the need to believe in a god-like entity and whether they want to believe for whatever reason, perhaps even just to blend in with family and society. If the answer to either question is yes, then they will look for reasons to believe and will make up something that serves their needs.

Harold Kushner, for example, is a rabbi and writer who is perhaps best known for his book Why bad things happen to good people. In this recent NPR interview he discusses the problem of suffering, the major difficulty that religious believers have to confront.

If I, walking through the wards of a hospital, have to face the fact that either god is all-powerful but not kind or thoroughly kind and loving but not totally powerful, I would rather compromise god’s power and affirm his love. So the conclusion, the theological conclusion, I came to is that god could have been all-powerful at the beginning but he chose to designate two areas of life off-limits to his power. He would not arbitrarily interfere with laws of nature. And secondly, god would not take away our freedom to choose between good and evil.

Note that after laying out what he see as the two possible options for god that explain the existence of suffering, Kushner declares that he gets to decide which kind of god he wants to believe in and thus can bring that god into existence. God seems to have no say in what kind of qualities he can have. Kushner emphasizes that he has arrived at what he calls a theological conclusion, as if that added weight to it, though what he has done seems to be purely self-indulgent wishful thinking. Is it any wonder that theology is such a useless discipline, capable of accommodating any and all wishes of those who want to believe? Kushner, for whatever reason, only wants to believe in a certain type of god and, presto, that is the god that exists. The interviewer does not ask the obvious question of the basis for that particular choice because when one is confronted with a ‘person of faith’, especially someone who seems as nice and humane as Kushner seems to be, it is impolite to ask exactly what that faith is based on.

Actually, the alternative that Kushner rejected, that god is all-powerful but not kind, makes a lot more sense logically. If you postulate a ‘thoroughly kind and loving’ god as Kushner wants, you then have to tie yourself up in all kinds of knots to explain the existence of suffering and evil and injustice. But if you postulate the existence of an omnipotent but evil god who enjoys toying with people’s lives and making them suffer, everything makes a lot more sense and the otherwise intractable problem of why there is suffering goes away. An evil god is much more plausible than a loving god.

Kushner seems to be a fideist, a useful label that I came across while reading Michael Shermer’s book How We Believe (2000). On page 9 Shermer describes what a fideist is by recounting an interview with someone who labels himself that way:

Martin Gardner, mathematician, former columnist for Scientific American, and one of the founders of the modern skeptical movement, is a believer who admits that the existence of God cannot be proved. He calls himself a fideist, or someone who believes in God for personal or pragmatic reasons, and defended his position to me in an interview: “As a fideist, I don’t think there are any arguments that prove the existence of God or the immortality of the soul. Even more than that, I agree with Unamuno that the atheists have the better arguments. So it is a case of quixotic emotional belief that is really against the evidence and against the odds.” Credo consolans, says Gardner – I believe because it is consoling.

The phenomenon of fideism seems similar to what Daniel Dennett describes as ‘belief in belief’ (Breaking the Spell, 2006), that while people deep down don’t really believe in the existence of god, they somehow see belief in god as a good thing that they want to be a part of. So they find some reasons for believing. It seems to me that Kushner, like many religious believers, is a fideist, someone who believes because he needs to, and thus searches for something that he feels comfortable believing in. Such people seize upon a “quixotic emotional belief that is really against the evidence and against the odds.”

POST SCRIPT: Richard Dawkins on The Enemies of Reason

Part 1:

(Part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5.)

Religion and evidence-1: Why people believe

The main reason that atheists deny that god exists is because there is no credible evidence for him/her/it. In trying to meet this challenge, religious people tend to split two ways, those who accept the need for evidence and those who think evidence is unnecessary for belief.

Ordinary religious believers tend to say that yes, they do so have evidence. When asked to specify what this evidence consists of, they tend to talk of personal experience of the presence of god, miracles, and things they consider to be deep and insoluble mysteries (like the origin of life or the universe). The problem is that what they mean by evidence is not anything that meets the normal standard of evidence in science or a court of law. It is not hard to show that these types of evidence are really weak. After all, personal ‘experiences’ of god’s presence are indistinguishable from hallucinations, delusions, or plain wishful thinking. Close scrutiny of miraculous events usually result in them turning out to have plausible material explanations. And the origins of life and the universe are no longer deep mysteries but merely scientific puzzles that are being systematically investigated.

Deep down, religious people must know that these kinds of evidence are not convincing and this is why there are desperate attempts to find evidence that is more concrete, such as conducting studies on the efficacy of prayer or the claim that the Shroud of Turin is genuine, or the search for the remnants of Noah’s Ark (the latest claim of success occurring on April 27, 2010), and other attempts to find things that corroborate claims in their religious texts.

Hovering over all these attempts is an unspoken paradox. If god did want to reveal his existence to us, why does he choose such oblique and unconvincing ways to do so? Why not simply show himself openly? And if he does not want to reveal himself, why leave any clues around at all, like an inept criminal?

The more sophisticated theologians and philosophers realize that the kinds of evidence that are produced in favor of god can be easily shot down by skeptics and so now they don’t even try. They tend to make the best of a bad situation by finding ways to pooh-pooh the whole notion of evidence, saying that we atheists are wrong to be tied to such mundane matters as material evidence or even raise the question of the actual existence of a god, and must open our eyes to appreciate the deep and sublime truths about the nature of god that evidence cannot touch.

This strikes me as total hogwash, the kind of pseudo-reasoning that only an intellectual can come up with. At least ordinary religious people realize the need for evidence, even if they cannot produce any credible evidence.

In Michael Shermer’s book How We Believe (2000, p. 249) he quotes the results of a 1998 survey that he collaborated on with Frank Sulloway which explored the reasons that religious people give for belief. When people were asked why they themselves personally believed in god, the responses broke down as follows:

  1. Good design/natural beauty/perfection/complexity of the world or universe (28.6%)
  2. Experience of God in everyday life/a feeling that God is in us (20.6%)
  3. It is comforting, relieving, consoling, and gives meaning and purpose to life (10.3%)
  4. The Bible says so (9.8%)
  5. Just because/faith/or the need to believe in something (8.2%)
  6. Raised to believe in God (7.2%)
  7. God answers prayers (6.4%)
  8. Without God there would be no morality (4.0%)
  9. God has a plan for the world, history, destiny, and us (3.8%)
  10. To account for good and avenge evil in the world (1.0%)

Responses 1, 2, and 7 can be grouped together as evidence-based reasons (at least they are considered to be evidence in the eyes of believers) and make up 55.8% of the responses. Responses 3, 5, 8, 9, and 10 can be grouped as emotional and wishful thinking reasons and make up 27.3%, while the remaining two reasons 4 and 6 (about 17%) are based on habit or deference to authority figures.

But when the same people are asked why they think other people believe in god, the results are as follows:

  1. It is comforting, relieving, consoling, and gives meaning and purpose to life. (26.3%)
  2. Raised to believe in God. (22.4%)
  3. Experience of God in everyday life/a feeling that God is in us. (16.2%)
  4. Just because/faith/or the need to believe in something. (13.0%)
  5. People believe because they fear death and the unknown. (9.1%)
  6. Good design/natural beauty/perfection/complexity of the world or universe. (6.0%)
  7. The Bible says so (5.0%)
  8. Without God there would be no morality (3.5%)
  9. To account for good and avenge evil in the world (1.5%)
  10. God answers prayers (1.0%)

Emotions and wishful thinking (1, 4, 5, 8, 9) now rise to the top (53.4%), habit and authority (2, 7) comes second at 27.4%, while evidence (3, 6, 10) comes in last at 23.2%.

What is interesting about these results is that believers tend to think that while they themselves have rational reasons to believe in god, they think other people do so for emotional or irrational reasons. What that indicates to me is that even though religious believers value evidence, they either don’t think that their evidence for god is convincing and/or they do not have much respect for the rationality of fellow-believers.

I recently received an email from someone who wanted to know the numbers in ‘Einstein’s constant’. Apart from the fact that there is no such thing as ‘Einstein’s constant’ other than his cosmological constant term in general relativity which is not a numerical constant in the way that (say) pi is, the wording was a little strange. She was not asking for the constant but the numbers in it. When I queried her what she wanted it became clear that she wanted to explore the work of Ivan Panin, who converted to Christianity and spent his life looking for hidden messages in the Bible using numerical patterns. While one might wonder what kind of god would put secret coded messages in the Bible, the point is that my correspondent (and Panin) were looking for evidence in support of their beliefs. The very fact that they try so hard and have to look in such obscure places is a measure of how weak they themselves think the evidence for god is.

This also explains why there is so much pushback to the arguments of the new atheists that there is no reason or evidence to believe in god. Although religious believers say that faith in spite of contradictory evidence is central to belief, they really like to think that that only applies to other people, and that they themselves are rational people who do use evidence. It also explains why so many religious people and accommodationists keep telling us that we should not cast doubt on beliefs that other people find consoling.

I must say that I found the result that people tend to value reason and evidence as important bases for beliefs to be a good sign, a measure of success for the widespread adoption of Enlightenment values, even if the evidence they produce is so unconvincing.

POST SCRIPT: God’s plan