This is a partial transcript of the talk I gave at St. Charles Community College on December 2, 2014.
- Amazing news!
- Nobody loves a critic
- Why skepticism is healthy
- What about religion?
- Evaluating information in the internet age
- Is Skepticism Right For YOU?
- Some advice on community building
That reminds me… I’m already halfway through this talk for the Secular Student Alliance and I haven’t really mentioned religion yet. Now, I understand that there are probably a number of Christians here today — in fact I hope there are. Let me be clear that when I say I’m skeptical of religious explanations and stories, I don’t mean they’re definitely not true. Just like it’s possible that there could be $15 million sitting in a bank account for me to claim, and it’s possible that Sylvia Browne might have had secret information about missing children, I would never say that I’ve ruled out religious explanations completely. But the explanations they offer do often seem just a little bit too neat and convenient, and not adaptable to new information that comes up.
Let me tell you a little story. Just like us, ancient Egyptians had questions they didn’t understand, like: Why does the sun rise in the east every morning, travel across the sky all day, and set in the west, only to repeat the cycle again? So they came up with some answers to those questions.
Ra rides across the sky in his barge, carrying the sun along with him. Then at night, he goes through an underground channel from west to east so that he can get back to where he started. There you go, problem solved.
Of course almost nobody believes in Ra today. We don’t need that explanation anymore, because now we know the sun doesn’t really move across our sky; the appearance of relative motion is caused by the rotation of the earth. Not only is “Ra” the wrong answer, but the Egyptians weren’t even asking the right questions.
Using a god to answer a complicated question is really seductive, because it doesn’t require a lot of thought. This book says what happened, and I believe it. One problem is that such an answer can’t be tested. Another problem is that it isn’t a specific answer to the given problem; you can plug in almost any god with any motivation to answer any question, and it works just as well. Aztecs believed that the sun were created when the god Nanahuatzin jumped in a bonfire, caught fire, and rose into the sky. But they also thought the sun couldn’t keep moving by itself, so they made sacrifices to Huitzilopochtli so the other gods would keep it moving. And of course, ancient Jews believed that their god created the sun by speaking, two days after creating the Earth and one day after creating plants. They also believed that one time God stopped the sun in the sky because Joshua asked him to.
Learning the actual truth about how the sun moves required a lot more detail that wasn’t available until much later, and when the evidence finally came along, it was based on models that could only fit the very specific set of data that had been discovered by means of advances such as Galileo’s telescope and Newton’s invention of calculus.
When new information comes along to overturn old beliefs, many religions have built-in defense mechanisms to protect their followers against that change. Here’s a great quote from the Bible: Romans chapter 14, verses 22 and 23.
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. 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.
You notice that this particular verse doesn’t directly address any of your doubts, or convince you that the religion is true. This passage says that doubt itself is bad. It’s a brilliant scheme, if the goal is to preserve unquestioning belief in a claim which is not very well supported. Not only are you supposed to believe that God could stop the sun in the sky, but also you have to work really hard to keep believing that. Because if you doubt it, then you’re sinning. My friends who went to Catholic school assure me that this warning is taken very seriously.
Another place this shows up in the Bible is in the story of Doubting Thomas.
In the book of John, Thomas is a disciple of Jesus Christ who happens to call in sick on the day that Jesus is resurrected. Thomas knows that Jesus was just executed, so he’s reluctant to believe that Jesus is somehow walking around again. Thomas says: “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25)
The reborn Jesus shows up in the story and waves his various wounds in Thomas’s face, as requested. Thomas is convinced by this clear physical evidence. Then Jesus takes the opportunity to scold Thomas a bit, saying, “Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)
The character in the story gets evidence, but you are supposed to believe the story, and all the characters, without getting any of that evidence yourself. Isn’t that interesting? Remember when Deepak Chopra and James van Praagh denounced skeptics as angry losers? The same principle is at work here. Skepticism is dangerous to ideas that rely on faith. If you start asking too many questions, the story might not stand up to them.