Thoughts On: Textbook Atheism

Apologies again for my prolonged absence. I really need to learn how to budget my time better, especially when I am in the damned weeds at work as I am now. Despite my losing track of time in my endless nights of working, there have been some things that I have been pondering as topics of discussion to put out here.

One of the topics that I have been musing over for the past week is the ever ongoing discussion about what is often referred to as “textbook atheism”. What I mean by that term is when atheists use the textbook, or dictionary definition of atheism to describe themselves. An atheist is a person that does not believe in one or more gods. That’s it, that’s all, and there is nothing else that is associated or implied with the term.

Many people on this network, most famously being probably PZ, have railed against the so-called “textbook atheists”. Generally speaking, the argument (to my understanding) is that a rejection of a deity and/or organized religion brings with it certain implications. For example, not believing that a divine creator made certain humans stronger, smarter or more powerful than certain other humans implies a rejection of racism and sexism. Not believing in a creator without evidence implies not believing in other things without evidence either, whether it be silly evolutionary “explanations” as to the biological superiority of one race over the other, or general woo. Unfortunately, as we all know, there are plenty of atheists out there who reject this principle, simply wailing “look at the dictionary dummy! Atheist just means I don’t believe in god! It doesn’t mean I have to be no stinking feminist!”

Overall I agree that, philosophically speaking, it makes sense that a rejection of religion is the first step along a path that leads you to a humanist and rationalist perspective, and I have also been disgusted and frustrated with the racist sexist atheist faction that invades the internet. However, in my life I have found myself, on more than one occasion, blurting out the “textbook atheist” line in defining myself.

Oh dear. Am I a textbook atheist? Where does this internal discord come from?

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When Do You Just Keep Your Mouth Shut?

My mother is currently renting a small holiday apartment in a nearby town here in Germany, so that she can both escape the Italian summer heat, and do some much needed exercises in the thermal baths in the area. When I was visiting her this weekend, her landlord stopped by for a chat. He almost immediately informed us that he has metastatic cancer, with a tumor in his brain, as well as many small masses in his lungs, lymph nodes, and other places throughout his body. I was, of course, devastated to hear this. I doubt he has much longer to live, and it was really sad to find out that such a nice (albeit quite odd) man was going through something so terrible.

But then the conversation took a turn that made me very uncomfortable indeed. My mother asked him if he was doing any treatments, and he informed us that he was doing Gerson Therapy. “Oh! I’ve heard of that! It’s supposed to be really good!” my mother exclaimed. “There’s a Gerson clinic in Hungary right? And in Mexico! Maybe you should think about staying some time at the clinic!” Uh-oh. A cancer treatment my mother has heard of, is enthusiastic about, and is only done in Hungary and Mexico? Quackery alert. He then proceeded to tell us that the bulk of the therapy consisted of drinking gallons of juice made from nettles, dandelion leaves, apples and carrots. Oh dear.

Well, a quick internet search a few hours later confirmed my suspicions that this is, of course, yet another woo-based “naturalistic” cancer quackery, and my heart sank for the man. However, it got me thinking, at what point do you keep trying to dissuade people from falling into pits of alternative medicine garbage, and at what point do you keep your mouth shut?

I have posted before about the potential harm of perpetuating the placebo effect. If I were a doctor, and a patient of mine asked me about Gerson therapy, I definitely would not encourage them to do it. However, when it comes to casual conversation between acquaintances, or even between friends and family, it can get far harder to draw the line.

This man was clearly not forgoing science-based medicine completely. He had regular visits to the oncologist, and had already had at least three operations to remove some of his lymph nodes. What most likely happened was that his doctors explained that there was little more they could do, and so he decided to buy Gerson’s books and try this diet in parallel with his medical visits. He said he felt better, he has lost a lot of weight and has more energy, so the placebo effect does seem to be working on him, as he is also full of hope that this therapy will at least prolong his life. On the other hand, he told us about all the food he is not allowed to eat which he misses, but that giving up cake and alcohol and such things are a small price to pay if this treatment actually does save his life.

This is the sticky part for me. On the one hand, I don’t want to shit all over this man’s hope. Maybe living the last year or two of his life with hope and promise is the happiest way he could be spending this time. On the other hand, how much are his sacrifices costing him, when they will do nothing to save him from cancer? Would he be happier not denying himself the cakes he loves so much, or the holidays he’s not taking, rather than living his last days within a ten minute radius of a toilet for fear of wetting or soiling himself?

At what point do you just shut up and smile? At what point do you stop arguing, stop fighting for reason and science?

For me, there is a hard line when it comes to doing harm. If he were not seeking real treatment at all, I would have said something, even if he thought me interfering and arrogant in doing so. I simply can’t have a clean conscience if I don’t at least try to inform someone who is forgoing medicine for nettle juice. However, if there is nothing that person can do, if all possible medical treatment has been exhausted, and there is nothing left but to wait out the inevitable?

In this case, I did not say anything. I do not know this man at all, and it is not up to me to decide how happy he will be living a lie, or not. I think that, if he were a close friend or family member, I would try to convince them not to go for woo, but I wouldn’t insist if they had their mind set on it. When it comes right down to it, everyone has the right to decide how they want to live out their last days. Of course, in an ideal situation, they would make that decision fully informed, rather than based on lies and empty promises. However, there is a great wide world of information on the internet, and I really do think that some people are simply chasing a happy delusion. Some people really do prefer the feeling of hope to the harsh reality of truth. As I have mentioned before, I am not one of those people, but it really is not up to me to judge how other people find comfort.

What about you? Where do you stand on the fight against woo? Would you have spoken up, in this case?

What Is The Harm Of The Placebo Effect?

An article posted by Cara Santa Maria about banning homeopathy for pets got me thinking about a recent conversation I had with my father about the placebo effect, specifically when it came to homeopathy. While it is well known in the scientific and skeptic community that homeopathy is garbage, and takes full advantage of the placebo effect and anti-modern medicine marketing for its success, my father took the stance that there is an inherent benefit of “prescribing” placebos to patients under certain conditions.

His reasoning was this: if you have a patient that is suffering from insomnia, which is not due to a hormonal imbalance but rather due to an unaddressed anxiety or stress, and a sugar pill helps that patient to sleep at night, isn’t that better for their health than taking potent sleeping aids? Similarly, if a sugar pill helps someone with a generalized anxiety disorder feel more relaxed, or relieve a tension headache, or help a hypochondriac wait out a common cold they are convinced is deadly pneumonia, isn’t that better than giving that person the pharmaceutical counterpart to the homeopathic remedy? While he agrees that placebos are harmful in the context of an ulcer, or cancer, or other conditions in which a patient thinking they feel better will only make them wait for proper treatment and worsen their condition, he posited that using placebos in certain contexts could do a patient far more good than going straight for the heavy duty drugs. After all, sugar pills and drops of distilled water, while being useless cures also carry no side effects, so if plain water helps the condition, why expose the patients to the inevitable side effects, however minor, of drugs with real active ingredients?

While this reasoning has some merit on it’s face, it also ignores some serious downsides to this approach, especially when it comes to homeopathy.

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What Happens When You Combine Media Frenzy and Block Research

Stem cell research in the US has been both promising and crippled. The potential outcomes of what could one day be possible with stem cells has been the focus of a media frenzy for the past two decades, leading most lay people to believe that we have already figured it out by now, and that all you need to do is inject some stem cells at the site of an injury and voila! Magic happens!

At the same time, stem cells have been the focus of great ethical controversy, one that stems from religiosity and scientific ignorance, leading to the crippling of the progression of stem cell research in many parts of the country (and the world, for that matter), particularly during the Bush Administration, which means that the scientific research lags far behind the expectations of the public. This is a very dangerous combination.

 

Patients seeking stem cell therapies for achy joints or shoulder injuries no longer need to hop a plane to Mexico or China. More than 550 clinics around the U.S. offer unproved interventions for sports injuries and conditions including autism, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease.

This vast stem cell market has boomed in recent years, particularly for orthopedic applications such as easing joint pain or for facelifts and other cosmetic procedures. In one frequently advertised regimen a patient might have adult stem cells harvested from his own fat tissue and injected at an injury site, purportedly to speed recovery. Professional athletes including football stars Peyton Manning and Chris Johnson have reportedly used stem cell injections to help them get back onto the field.

Yet there is a darker side to the promise of these treatments. There is little systematic data about patients’ long-term outcomes—positive or negative—and in most cases there is no scientific evidence that these costly procedures work. Many of these cellular therapies may not do much of anything but there is also the serious risk that recipients of cell injections could develop serious complications “including blood clots or dangerous immune reactions,” says Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell researcher at the University of California, Davis, School of Medicine

 

These clinics are trying to circumvent the law, by claiming that they are eligible for an FDA approval exemption. That should be a red flag right there, and another one is the fact that they advertise directly to the public, and also profess to be able to treat children with cerebral palsy and autism. Desperate parents have always been a fountain of cash for con artists (Burzynski clinic, anyone?)

Skeptics need to be wary of these kinds of places, even more so than you odd alternative medicine retreats that claim that meditation and talking to dolphins will clean out your shakras and cure your lower back pain, or whatever such nonsense. These clinics have the facade of genuine science to hide behind, and rely on ignorance of current scientific progress to dupe patients into believing that these treatments are safe, effective and have been around for ages. The stem cell media frenzy has only helped them along in this regard.

Bad scientific reporting bears a large part of the responsibility as well, of course. But we also need to not fear pointing out this quackery just because, in different contexts, we happen to fully support stem cell research. This kind of quackery is far too dangerous to ignore.

 

 

The Meme Has A Point

People often get annoyed with memes because, by their nature, they are prone to oversimplifying complicated issues. However, this one brings up a very important point about the language we choose to use.

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Often I have heard people who, bogged down by conversations with religious people, creationists, conspiracy theorists or the like, exclaim in frustration “No! I don’t believe in your religion! I believe in science! I believe in evolution! I believe in facts! I believe that we landed on the moon!” It is a poor choice of words. One that is set up by people who do hold faith-based beliefs.

By using the word “believe”, you are unconsciously putting evolution and creationism (for example) on an equal footing. You are allowing creationists/religious people/whomever to dismiss the argument as a simple differing of opinion. “Well, I believe X and you believe Y, oh well, it’s OK to just believe different things”. Accepting evolution is not a matter of faith. There are far better reasons for accepting evolution than there are for believing in creationism. It’s not just a matter of opinion.

Just yesterday, I was trying to explain to an Italian colleague of mine what a New Agey/Spiritual person meant. I was giving examples: the kinds of people who meditate, who go to seminars about meditation, who believe in homeopathy…

Another colleague of mine started laughing at how I had phrased that last part: believing in homeopathy. But yea, it is a belief, one that is based on faith rather than facts. There is no scientific evidence to support it, no rational reason to think it works, that makes it a belief. It’s not a matter of believing in homeopathy vs. believing in modern medicine. It is a matter of believing in homeopathy vs. understanding, and accepting, that modern medicine is the best we’ve got right now.

We need to try to distance ourselves from the word “belief”. It is doing us no favors.

A Baby Skeptic Stares At The Stars

Note: post from old blog
Yesterday’s post had me thinking a lot about how I formed my views on reality and the universe as I was growing up. Yesterday I wrote about how my experiences led me in the wrong direction, away from reason. However, there were other aspects of my reasoning that betrayed the skeptic that I would eventually become. One such example was my pondering on how we perceive time and space.
As an only child I often needed to entertain myself, which is probably one of the many reasons I thought about the nature of reality so often to begin with. So when we would go to the countryside I did what countless children had also done before me, and that is lay back and stare up at the stars. Staring into space gave me vertigo the way that looking over the edge of a cliff never did. It was scary, but once I assured myself that there was no danger of falling into the abyss of space it was exciting, and brought on many thoughts about how limited our understanding of space and time must be.
I realized, based on my experience of space and time, that the linear perception of time was just not going to cut it when it came to the vast universe above me. That X comes before Y which comes before Z was all well and good when looking at the timeline of my life, but I realized that this linear perception of time was very limiting. So what came before the Earth? What came before that? And before that? If time is just purely linear, where did it all start? How could something just start? Doesn’t there have to be something there for it to start from? The same went for space. Beyond this field is this country, beyond that is the world, beyond that is the galaxy, beyond that more galaxies and the universe, but what about beyond that? Could there be such a thing as true, limitless space? Doesn’t it have to end somewhere? But if it does, what lies beyond it? Of course, my Catholic upbringing gave me a very easy answer to these concepts: Beyond space is heaven, before time there’s God.
But even that seemed like a cop-out to me. How is pondering the possibility of a timeless God any easier to wrap your mind around than a time which has existed forever? How is conceiving of an infinite heaven any easier to comprehend than an infinite universe? Despite the whole “oh well one is natural and one is supernatural” explanation, it didn’t seem like an answer so much as more of the same question. Because of this I came to my own conclusion: I just don’t get it. And that’s O.K.
I realized that we describe what is going on around us as best we can, but we (or, at least, I) don’t have the capacity to really visualize such huge concepts as the beginning of time or the ends of space. My brain can’t reach that far, and that’s kind of cool. Like not being able to describe colors to someone who was born blind, there could be concepts completely beyond my realm of understanding, and there is nothing wrong with that.
I think the makings of a skeptic is to let go of the fear of the unknown. There are legitimate biological reasons why we are predisposed to fear that which we cannot see or perceive, but when it comes to certain concepts there is no need to invent and answer to fill in the blanks. Not knowing, or really coming to grips with the limits of our understanding doesn’t have to be scary, it can be amazing.

How Lucid Dreaming Contributed to My Woo Thinking

Note: old post, edited for clarity
Yesterday,  I told you about how I have been a lucid dreamer for as long as I remember. I want to revisit the subject to discuss how lucid dreaming may have slowed my progress out of woo thinking and into rational thought.
Most of you won’t know this, but I have been an avid reader of FtB for a long time, and even submitted a “Why I am an atheist” post to PZ’s open call for submissions. In it I briefly touched on my fascination with forgotten religions and all things magical and woo. I was raised by a mother who is still very much attached to her new age-y beliefs, I don’t think she has stopped believing in anything from aromatherapy to crystal healing, and I know for a fact she still believes in fairies, so of course I had little hope of rejecting these ideas as a child. Plus, let’s face it, believing in magic is fun! At least for a while. The fact that she encouraged this fantastical thinking definitely hindered the development of my skeptical muscles, although the tendency to do so was always in my personality. Despite the fact that it is in my nature to be a skeptic, however, I later noticed that my lucid dreaming was, in a small way, responsible for keeping me back, at least with regards to some views of the world.
I mentioned in my previous post on the subject that it is difficult for one to escape one’s own context, as it was for me with lucid dreaming. So when I was introduced (by my mother, of course) to the concept of “mind over matter”, everything just made sense to me. She showed me programs like What the Bleep! (which at the time I of course had no idea was pseudo-scientific drivel) and convinced me that there were many gurus who had achieved things like levitation and walking on water. Not to place all the blame on her shoulders, I took little convincing. While I was skeptical about many things in my childhood (for example, I never bought the existence of the Easter bunny or the tooth fairy for a second, no matter how hard my mother tried), the idea that matter, which was made up of mostly empty space, was only solid to the touch because your conscience expected it to be, made perfect sense to me. The reason this made sense in my mind was directly because of my lucid dreaming.
Those of you who are capable of lucid dreaming know that honing your skills at it requires a lot of concentration. It requires you to shut out that little doubting voice in the back of your mind. Let’s say, for example, you are dreaming you have the power of telekinesis, which you are using to defeat the monster in your nightmare. The second there is a little doubt in the back of your mind that says “oh no! What if this power stops working?” POOF! you don’t have the power any more (I also blame movies and TV shows which always put the hero of the story in a bit of jeopardy with a twist like that for those doubts…. dumb movies). Perfecting your abilities in lucid dreaming is all about mind over (albeit perceived) matter. That is why I needed to get better at flying: at first I could only jump off of buildings and soar, and if I carried anything it would weigh me down. I then managed to pump my arms like a bird and take off from the ground. It took me years to be able to soar into the sky carrying any burden at will, because I had to concentrate, convince myself it was possible, and completely eliminate any doubt or fear. It is the same reason why making things disappear in your dreams is easier than changing their appearance, unless you close your eyes or place your hand in front of them while doing so.
Because I was so well versed in the art of this kind of concentration, the reason the “mind over matter” concept made so much sense to me was because I figured that modifying your reality was like modifying your dreams, only infinitely harder.
Although lucid dreams are incredibly vivid and, at times, freakishly realistic, they still have that “taint” of a dream. You can still tell, once you wake up, that reality just feels much more “real” than dreams do, despite how real the dreams felt at the time. Because of this, it made sense to me that “mind over matter” would be much easier in dreams than reality. It made sense to me that it would take years of the kind of concentration I had been practicing in my sleep to be able to erase every last trace of doubt from your mind that your hand will not pass through that table, or that your body will not hover a few inches off the ground. It also made sense to me that it would require an even longer time concentrating to be able to pull off such a feat in front of others, with their disbelieving huffs tainting the back of your mind.
It was because of the fact that I could dream this way, and that I had no idea that I was in the minority, that I clung on to this particular brand of woo for the longest of all of my woo thinking. It made so much sense to my context, to my life, that it made me wonder: are the inventors, or the major proponents of “mind over matter”, also lucid dreamers?