The politics of food-7: The energy equation

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

One of the disturbing things about the industrial food chain system is its extensive use of energy, in the form of fertilizer and for transport. But in addition, the use of agricultural crops as animal feed also results in heavy energy use.

When corn is fed to chicken or a cow, 90 % of its energy is lost to bones, feathers, or to staying alive, so by eating corn-fed animals rather than corn directly, we have a factor of ten loss in energy efficiency. There is a pretty standard rule of thumb that for each rung you go up the food chain, you lose a factor of ten in energy. So if you eat an animal or fish that has itself eaten another animal or fish that ate plant food, you have gone two steps up the chain from the original plant source of energy and thus only 1% of that plant’s energy comes to you. So, all other things being equal, getting one’s calories from plants is the most efficient, which is why environmentalists urge people to eat ‘low on the food chain’.
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Religion as a gateway drug

In the February 2009 issue of Harper’s magazine, Mark Slouka wrote:

One out of every four of us believes we’ve been reincarnated; 44 percent of us believe in ghosts; 71 percent, in angels. Forty percent of us believe God created all things in their present form sometime during the last 10,000 years. Nearly the same number—not coincidentally, perhaps—are functionally illiterate. Twenty percent think the sun might revolve around the earth. When one of us writes a book explaining that our offspring are bored and disruptive in class because they have an indigo “vibrational aura” that means they are a gifted race sent to this planet to change our consciousness with the help of guides from a higher world, half a million of us rush to the bookstores to lay our money down.

Is the fact that so many people believe such rubbish necessarily so bad that we need to actively work against them? What harm do they do?

This kind of argument surfaces all the time from people who recognize that religion and belief in god has no empirical basis whatsoever and is thus irrational but that we should indulge them because they make people feel good and is harmless.

I think we would all agree that what people believe is in all cases a private affair that does not do any harm and thus should be free from harassment. Our society is full of people who believe all manner of bizarre and unsubstantiated things and we leave them alone to live their lives. Our psychiatric wards are only reserved for those who are delusional in ways that make them imminently dangerous to others and perhaps themselves, and a humane society takes such people into its care so that they cannot act on their beliefs.

What people say should also be protected. Words, by themselves, cannot harm anyone and thus there can be no justification for restricting speech by and for adults, except for obviously dangerous things like falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater.

So belief in angels or ghosts or reincarnation or auras or god are, by themselves, harmless. But the fact that something is harmless by itself does not mean that we should passively allow it to exist and even flourish. An open manhole in the middle of a street is harmless by itself. It is not an aggressor. If someone should fall into it, one can still say that it was not the open hole that was at fault but the person for not paying attention to where they were walking. But that does not mean we should not take steps to prevent unsuspecting people from accidentally falling into it.

Religious beliefs are like the open manhole. It is not their existence that is the danger but that they can be the cause of harm. They make it easier for some people to believe the voices in their head that tells them that god is commanding them to do various things, or believe that god is speaking though specially chosen people (like the Pope or Pat Robertson or one of the Ayatollahs) and that thus their words carry extra weight.

The danger with religion is that it is at best like the so-called ‘gateway drugs’ that can lure unsuspecting people into using more harmful and highly addictive drugs. Once people, at a very early age, are made to think that it is perfectly rational that there is an invisible, omnipresent, all-powerful being who can read everyone’s mind simultaneously, talk to them with no on else hearing the voice, and take action in the world while evading all detection, then they have been primed to accept as plausible any and all beliefs, however bizarre, provided it is even vaguely compatible with their childhood indoctrination.

Angels, reincarnation, auras, and the like may be frowned on by Christian clergy and theologians but I suspect that most ordinary Christians think that they are within the broad framework of their beliefs. Notice that the official churches at most indulge in tut-tutting disapproval of these fringe beliefs and never go on a crusade to stamp them all out. How could they? Religious institutions know that there is little that separates them from what are commonly known as fringe beliefs: the spoon-benders, mind readers, psychics, faith healers, crystal-ball gazers, Tarot card readers, snake handlers, and the like. This is why they never aggressively campaign against them. What possible argument could they use that could not be turned against their own beliefs and reveal that their own dogmas are equally baseless?

During the last presidential campaign, many people had a lot of fun at the expense of Dennis Kucinich’s admission that he had seen what he thought was a UFO. What a wacky guy! But if they were religious believers, all you had to do was ask them why that was any weirder than believing in a god, and you likely found that they were initially surprised (because the thought had never occurred to them) and then quickly changed the subject as they realized the indefensible position they were in.

All irrational beliefs exist together in a Pandora’s Box. Open it even slightly with the intention of letting out only mainstream religious beliefs, and everything else also comes rushing out.

Since free and open thought and speech is a fundamental right and a good thing, this particular Pandora’s Box should not be shut. Thus we really have only two consistent options: the rational position that while we should not suppress beliefs, we should actively campaign against all unsubstantiated beliefs and superstitions, which would necessarily include those of mainstream religions; or allow any and all beliefs to be unchallenged, and thus allow the evil and harmful ones to have the same level of approval as that of mainstream religions.

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart had a farewell interview with George W. Bush

Religious faith versus scientific commitment to certainty

All religions depend on a particular kind of faith, the belief in something in the absence of, and in fact counter to, credible evidence for its existence. Such an effort necessarily involves the suppression of doubt. When a person of one religion encounters someone from another, it is relatively easy to think that yours is the ‘right’ faith and the other person’s is the ‘wrong’ one. The other person is not challenging the very act of faith, but just the details of your faith, and people in religiously plural societies are used to fending off such challenges.

This is why religious people often try to suggest that since atheists cannot prove that there is no god, believing that there is no god is as much an act of faith as believing in a god. They are trying to make it once again a contest of dueling faiths, comfortable terrain for religious people. Atheists should not fall for that rhetorical gambit.

When atheists use the words ‘believe’ and ‘faith’, they use them in the scientific sense of the word. Scientists realize that almost all knowledge is tentative and that one knows very few things for certain. But based on credible evidence and logical reasoning, one can arrive at firm conclusions about, and hence ‘believe’, many things, such as that the universe is billions of years old. Or one can have ‘faith’ in the laws of science that keep airplanes aloft.

The words faith and belief used in the scientific context merely represent an implicit acknowledgment of our lack of absolute certainty. Even though we cannot be 100% sure that the current laws of science are true, we have sufficient evidence to commit to certainty and thus have ‘faith’ (in the scientific sense) that they will not let us down. Otherwise we would be paralyzed, frozen into inaction, afraid to drive a car or step into a building or go by plane, fearful that everything would collapse around us.

This is in stark contrast to the way the same words are used by religious people. They not only have to have faith in the existence of things for which there is little or no evidence or reason, but even in spite of much evidence to the contrary, and defying reason.

As a consequence, the greatest challenge to faith is not a competing faith, but doubt. When persons of faith encounter an atheist, the calm assurance of the latter that god does not exists brings them face to face with their own suppressed doubts in a way that can be much more disconcerting than meeting an agnostic.

Philosopher David Hume said in his work On Miracles: “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…” Astronomer Carl Sagan put it more succinctly: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

The claim that there exists an all-powerful, all-knowing entity that exists everywhere in space and time, can even read everyone’s mind simultaneously, and yet is undetectable, is about as extraordinary a claim as one can imagine. Yet most people who believe in god do not have any evidence at all for this belief, let alone extraordinary evidence.

Believing in the existence of such a god requires faith in the religious sense, committing to certainty in spite of having no credible evidence or reason in support of that conclusion. Such a commitment is hard which is why religious people are always plagued by doubts. To try and overcome this problem, this deficiency is exalted into a noble virtue: the greater the lack of evidence or even reason for belief, the more the faith is lauded. This enables people suppress their ever-present doubts.

Believing that god does not exist requires faith in the scientific sense, committing to certainty based on overwhelming evidence and reason in support of that conclusion. Such a commitment is easy to make and we make such commitments all the time in our everyday life.

This is why religious people find atheists so disconcerting. Atheists are relaxed and confident about their commitment to disbelief in god in ways that religious people can never be about their own commitment to belief in god.

In Obama’s inaugural speech he said that he wanted to “restore science to its rightful place.” Applying scientific scrutiny and standards to all beliefs, including religious ones, might be a good place to start.

POST SCRIPT: Atheism on the move

The campaign to put ads on buses in London that said “There’s probably no god so stop worrying and enjoy life” generated some publicity and spurred a similar campaign in Washington DC with a more muted message that said “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness sake.” This also has generated some publicity.

These ads were relatively mild in their skeptical message but made me realize that it is not easy to come up with a simple slogan that expresses full-blown atheism in a pointed way that would also be eye-catching and thought-provoking and yet humorous. Any ideas, readers?

Darwin’s religious legacy: Neutral or anti-god?

Today is the 200th birth anniversary of Charles Darwin, arguably the scientist whose work has had the greatest impact on human thought. This major anniversary comes at a time when religious groups, sensing the very real danger that his theory of evolution by natural selection poses to all religious beliefs, are trying to either discredit him or co-opt him.

We are all aware of the attacks from the groups seeking to discredit Darwin’s theory, which range from the speaking-in-tongues snake-handlers to intelligent designers, all of whom seek to eliminate or at least undermine its teaching in schools. They argue that this theory is wrong in its essential elements and that god has repeatedly intervened in the workings of the world, especially when it comes to the creation of humans.

In order to combat those attempts, there have been attempts by those groups seeking to co-opt Darwin, the so-called ‘moderate’ religionists, to resurrect the ‘peaceful coexistence’ model in the science-religion wars, where religious supporters of evolution join up with scientists to combat the attempts of the anti-Darwinian religious groups to discredit evolution. Advocates of this approach argue for the existence of ‘two worlds’, the material world that is the domain of science, and a non-material spiritual world that is the domain of god and is outside the reach of science. In the peaceful coexistence model, these two worlds are non-overlapping and thus no conflict need arise between science and religion.

I have argued elsewhere (see here and here) that this model makes no sense whatsoever and leads to all manner of logical contradictions unless one defines the spiritual world in such a way that it has no influence whatsoever on the material world, making it totally redundant. In other words, the only way to salvage religion to make it compatible with a scientific worldview is to strip it of every single feature that we normally associate with religion, something that religious moderates are loathe to do.

But supporters of this untenable ‘two worlds’ view keep trying, and they are concerned that atheists like me have been using Darwin’s theory to attack the very foundations of all religious beliefs, especially the idea that human beings have some special quality that can relate to god. We argue that each and every aspect of humanity, including morality, consciousness, and mind, is not immune to being explained by the natural selection process, and thus god is irrelevant in a Darwinian (and scientific) worldview.

But this is not a popular position to take politically, and has caused some concern to the ‘moderate’ religion group, since it rejects their claim to some special preserve for religion. A report by Martin Beckford in the February 9, 2009 issue of the The Telegraph (London) describes the latest appeal for the resurrection of peaceful coexistence, as expressed in a letter to the paper. The letter asserts that Darwin’s theory is neutral with respect to its implications for belief in god and makes the standard appeal to this so-called middle ground, on the one hand asking evolution’s skeptics to accept the validity of the theory, and on the other to atheists to not use the theory to argue against the existence of god.

The influential signatories of the letter include two Church of England bishops, a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain and a member of the Evangelical Alliance, as well as Professor Lord Winston, the fertility pioneer, and Professor Sir Martin Evans, winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

“We respectfully encourage those who reject evolution to weigh the now overwhelming evidence, hugely strengthened by recent advances in genetics, which testifies to the theory’s validity.”

“At the same time, we respectfully ask those contemporary Darwinians who seem intent on using Darwin’s theory as a vehicle for promoting an anti-theistic agenda to desist from doing so as they are, albeit unintentionally, turning people away from the theory.”

The letter writers go on to warn that “militant atheists are turning people away from evolution by using it as a weapon with which to attack religion.”

Ross (one of the readers of this blog who sent me this link) thought that I would find it amusing because they are clearly targeting people like me who see Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection as devastating for religious beliefs and have had no hesitation in saying so.

So should I listen to this appeal and cease and desist in my efforts to use science as a weapon to undermine religion in order to not alienate the moderate religious supporters of evolution? Of course not.

The problem is that the people who take this peaceful coexistence position are mixing means and ends. The people who are signatories to the letter have as their goal to promote greater acceptance of the theory of evolution, and to do that they seek political alliances between ‘moderate’ religious people and scientists to combat the blatantly anti-science religious fundamentalists. So for them, popular acceptance of evolution is the goal, and peaceful coexistence between ‘moderate’ religious beliefs and science is the means to achieving that end. This requires them to downplay the negative implications of evolution for religion.

But for atheists like me, getting rid of religion is the goal and scientific theories (including evolution) are a means of achieving that goal. I think religion is fundamentally a bad thing. Evolution and other scientific arguments have definitely anti-religion, anti-god implications and we should not hesitate to emphasize those strong inferences. If this causes discomfort for religious believers, they will have to deal with it by finding arguments and evidence to refute it, not by asking us to not point it out. What the argument of the ‘two worlds’ advocates reveal is that religious moderates are like religious fundamentalists, willing to accept science only as long as it does not disturb their cherished dogma. They only differ in the dogmas they hold dear.

Does that mean I do not care about the public acceptance theory of evolution? Of course I care and will oppose all efforts to undermine its rightful place in science and science education. But I have confidence in the theory to withstand any and all religious onslaughts because it is a scientific theory, not a propaganda system like religion. Evolution will flourish or die on its scientific merits, because of the evidence and the coherence of its arguments, not because of any political strategy. Whatever the level of antipathy to it, the public and scientific communities cannot ignore it or suppress it, as if it were some system of thought that can be believed or rejected at will. It forms one of the foundations of modern science, an invaluable tool in humanity’s progress.

The public may turn against it in the short run but they will have to concede defeat and accept it in the long run, just as they lost with their initial opposition to the theories of the round earth, the heliocentric system, the theory of relativity, and all the other times when religious people foolishly decided that what their ancient religious texts or priests or theologians said or what they ‘felt in their hearts’ was a more reliable guide to knowledge than data and evidence-based arguments.

Religion, on the other hand, is purely a propaganda system and will only die if its weaknesses and its lack of any empirical basis are relentlessly pointed out. Pretending to act as if ‘moderate’ religion makes sense, as the ‘two worlds’ model does, only strengthens all religion, both moderate and fundamentalist.

The age of peaceful coexistence between ‘moderate’ religion and science is over. No modern scientist can credibly argue for its continuation unless he or she is willfully suppressing the obvious contradictions that exist between science and religion.

POST SCRIPT: Meet Charles Darwin

As part of the Darwin year celebrations, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History is hosting Floyd Sandford, a Darwin impersonator. The performance is on Saturday, February 14, 2009 from 3:30 – 4:45 p.m. followed by 30 minute discussion.

Admission to this performance (but not to the rest of the Museum) is free and open to the public but requires a ticket. Tickets may be reserved by calling (216) 231-1177 or by registering online.

Professor Sandford is an emeritus member of the Biology Department at Coe College. He performs a one-man show entitled “Darwin Remembers” and lectures on Darwin.

The social appeal of agnosticism

In yesterday’s post I tried to understand what makes agnosticism different from atheism from agnosticism in any logical or observable way, and did not have much luck, but there were some very interesting responses in the comments.

I suspect that one reason that some nonbelievers find agnosticism appealing is that it is more socially acceptable in religious societies to say that one is an agnostic than that one is an atheist. Because the common (but erroneous view) view of the difference between an agnostic and an atheist is that the former does not know for sure if there is a god or not (or that it may be an unanswerable question) while the latter is sure that god does not exist, religious people may feel that agnostics are not directly contradicting to their own beliefs. They may even feel that they might be able to ‘win’ over agnostics to god since their minds are not made up.

As a result of this greater acceptance, those non-religious people who do not wish to ruffle feathers with their religion neighbors may prefer to adopt the label of agnostic. For some (like Elizabeth in yesterday’s comments) calling oneself an agnostic may serve as a rest stop on the road to complete disbelief, a place to prepare oneself and one’s religious friends and family for the reality that one has stopped believing.

Charles Darwin is a good example of this. A shy and retiring man, who sought to avoid controversy and personal conflicts, he preferred to call himself an agnostic instead of an atheist, although by the age of forty it was clear that he had lost all belief in god and religion and had very harsh words for both. As he said in his autobiography:

I can hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true: for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother, and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished.

And this is a damnable doctrine. (The Reluctant Mr. Darwin by David Quammen, p. 246)

And yet, he shied away from calling himself an atheist. Edward Aveling, a professed atheist aware of Darwin’s reluctance to adopt that label, recounted how at a dinner with Darwin, he tried to convince him “that the terms ‘Agnostic’ and ‘Atheist’ were practically equivalent – that an atheist is one who, without denying the existence of God, is without God, inasmuch as he is unconvinced of the existence of a Deity.” (The autobiography of Charles Darwin and selected letters, edited by Francis Darwin, 1958, p. 60.)

Darwin’s biographers pick up the story:

They lit cigarettes and Darwin, completely our of character, pitched in. ‘Why do you call yourselves atheists?’ In his dotage, forty years since his covert notebook days, he finally dragged the issue into the open. He preferred the word agnostic, he said. ‘”Agnostic” was but “Atheist” writ respectable,’ Aveling replied, searching for common ground, ‘and “Atheist” was only “Agnostic” writ aggressive.’ But Darwin retorted, ‘Why should you be so aggressive?’ Is anything to be gained by forcing new ideas on people? Freethought is ‘all very well’ for the educated, but are ordinary people ‘ripe for it’? Here spoke the comfortable squire, seeking not to disturb the social equilibrium. (Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist Adrian Desmond and James Moore, 1991, p. 657, my italics.)

I think that the italicized passage captures a lot of the truth. There is no question that saying one is an atheist triggers a more negative reaction than saying one is an agnostic. I suspect that many agnostics are like Darwin, effectively atheists but uneasy about the fact that atheism is perceived as being more aggressive in its opposition to religion than agnosticism, though logically and substantively there is little difference. Those, like Darwin, who do not wish to disturb the social equilibrium may find the label of agnostic more appealing.

POST SCRIPT: Oedipus, with vegetables

The story of Oedipus is one of the strangest in classical Greek mythology and literature but the essence of the story is presented nicely in this 8 minute movie, performed entirely by vegetables.

The puzzle of agnosticism

I must admit that I find agnosticism puzzling. For me, agnosticism is harder to understand than atheism or religious belief.

There is no doubt that religious people find agnosticism easier to deal with than atheism. You can see it in the way that those religious people who can get beyond the emotional reactions to atheism that I listed yesterday often argue that since one cannot prove that there is no god, one has to admit that one is unsure and that therefore one is ‘really’ an agnostic. They are right in their argument but wrong in their idea of what atheism and agnosticism involves.

All atheists will readily concede that there can be no proof of the non-existence of god because of the logical impossibility of proving such a negative. But having said that, we do live our lives assuming that there is no god and find that the world makes perfect sense and everything seems to work nicely. We are practically certain that there is no god just as we are certain that we can drive our cars without ever considering the possibility that a unicorn might suddenly run across the street or Santa Claus land in his sleigh right in our path, even though we are not 100% certain that unicorns and Santa Claus and flying reindeer don’t exist either

What constitutes atheism should be easy to understand. What I find hard to understand is how the agnostic position differs from that of the atheist. Merriam-Webster defines an agnostic as “a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable.”

An atheist would have no objection to that statement. As I have said before, there is no possible logical argument and no conceivable evidence that could ever establish the negative conclusion that there is no god. So agnosticism and atheism seem to me to be logically equivalent, at least as far as that particular dictionary definition goes.

Some agnostics may be seeking to create a distance between themselves and atheists because they suffer from the same kind of misunderstanding about atheism as religious people, thinking that atheists are absolutely sure that there is no god, and thus they may wish to separate themselves from those whom they perceive as possessing an unjustifiable and arrogant certainty.

Or perhaps the difference between atheism and agnosticism lies in the secondary definition of an agnostic as “one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god.” (my italics)

It is true that while an atheist is not logically certain there is no god, he or she is functionally certain there is no god, living in a way that is consistent with the assumption of no god. They have no need to introduce the god hypothesis into their lives for any reason. Since atheists live as if there is no god, it is safe to say that atheists are committed to believing in the nonexistence of god.

So is that the difference? Is that why agnostics shun the word atheist and prefer the label of agnostic, because they are uncommitted on this question while atheists are committed? But what does being ‘uncommitted’ really mean? Is there a difference in the probabilities that atheists and agnostics assign to god’s existence? Atheists assign the probability of god’s existence to be infinitesimally close to zero. I doubt that the lack of commitment by agnostics to god’s existence or non-existence means that they assign 50% probability to each option. Agnostics clearly think that god’s non-existence is far more likely than his existence.

So are agnostics distinguished from atheists in that while they think that the probability of god’s existence is very small, they give it a slightly higher value than the almost-but-effectively-zero value that atheists assign?

But that kind of difference is hard to quantify. One way to operationalize that vague notion and test the true beliefs of agnostics is to ask them if their lack of commitment to non-belief results in any observable behavioral differences when compared to that of atheists.

Atheists live as if they are sure that there is no god. Do agnostics behave in some way that is different from atheists as a result of being agnostic? Are agnostics nervous about being wrong about god’s non-existence and only finding out after they are dead? Are they are hoping that their ‘softer’ agnosticism will result in god giving them a reduced punishment? Do they at least occasionally go to church/mosque/temple/synagogue or do other quasi-religious things? Are there some things they will not say or thoughts that they will not allow themselves to think because it is too risky, such as, for example, denying the Holy Spirit? After all, Jesus said: “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Matthew 12:32)?

If the answer is ‘no’ to all these questions, then they are atheists irrespective of what they choose to call themselves because they are living their lives as if they are committed to the non-existence of god. If they say ‘yes’ to any one, then I think we need to define them as believers who have serious doubts. (One wag unkindly described agnostics as cowardly atheists.)

I suspect that there are many agnostics among the readers of this blog. I would be curious to learn what they think on this question.

POST SCRIPT: The Blasphemy Challenge

I am not sure what “speaks against the Holy Spirit” exactly means but whatever it is, I want to be on record as having thus spoken, like all those who have done so as part of the Blasphemy Challenge.

Pat Condell says that he is so busy denying the Holy Spirit that he has hardly any time for anything else.

Atheism going mainstream?

At one point in his inaugural address, Barack Obama started using familiar language in calling for national unity, saying “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus,” but the ears of atheists everywhere perked up when he added at the end “and non-believers.” Could this, along with the most recent Pew survey that indicates that the influence of religion in America is waning, be a sign that atheism is going mainstream?

The fact that neither Obama nor the Chief Justice was perturbed by the absence of a Bible when he repeated his presidential oath privately because of flubs in the original public ceremony (and no one on Obama’s staff seemed bothered enough to go and hunt one down) lends credence to my belief that for many public figures, religion has played largely a ceremonial role, a façade for public consumption, rather than a true belief. It is like standing for the national anthem. How many people stand at home when the anthem is played at some televised event? As philosopher John Stuart Mill said in his 1873 autobiography, “The world would be astonished if it knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments, of those most distinguished even in popular estimation for wisdom and virtue, are complete skeptics in religion.”
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Changing people’s minds

The post dealing with starting the Year of Reason resulted in a very lively discussion, generating nearly forty comments. I took part in the discussion far more actively than I usually do.

While I often respond to comments, especially if there is a request for specific information or a clarification, I tend not to get into repeated exchanges because I do not think they serve much purpose. It is naïve to think that one can change other people’s minds immediately merely because one thinks one has a superior argument. So a commenter superlucky20 was right when he said that “if you come to message boards hoping to change the minds of other posters, prepare to be disappointed. It almost never happens.”

So why did I get so involved in this particular post? One reason was because the discussion neatly exemplified a point I had made in an earlier post about where the burden of proof lies in any argument.
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Good atheist/bad atheist

As regular readers will have noted, I have kept hammering at the idea that the claim that god exists is an existence statement and that to assert the truth of an existence statement without credible evidence in support of it is irrational, and that the rational and scientific approach in the absence of any counter-evidence is to assume the truth of the universal statement that there is no god.

I have also said that if you ask believer why they believe in god (a question that is seldom posed to them) you are likely to get fairly incoherent answers, that basically can be grouped into three categories: Argument From Personal Incredulity, Argument From Wishful Thinking, and Argument From Vague Feelings.
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No more Mr. Nice Physicist

In my recent post on the need to stop giving the ‘benefit of clergy’, I argued that we should not allow the notion of ‘respect for religion’ to be used as a shield to protect religious ideas from the scrutiny that any idea should deserve. For example, I suspect that some atheists, even when the topic of religion comes up, shy away from even saying that they are atheists out of a misplaced sense that this mere statement of fact might ‘offend’ the religious people around them. I know that I used to think this way, but not any longer.
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