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One Voice of the JREF PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Hal Bidlack   

As part 2 to the follow up to the now infamous Denny's article, I asked Hal Bidlack if I could republish a piece he did in 2003. Instead, he sent this, which encompasses a more up-to-date understanding from him. Hal's voice is not the only voice, but he IS representative of the some of the people involved with the JREF. He has served on the Board of Directors, and has spoken, performed, and hosted at every single Amaz!ng Meeting and an Amaz!ng Adventure or two. His Wikipedia entry is here. Please consider what he has to say. You can also listen at this Skepticality link (scroll down to episode 57 from July 2007.) - Jeff Wagg

As a person who has spent quite a bit of time in recent years working on promoting the skeptical movement, I am troubled by the degree to which I now find myself feeling pushed away from that very thing. In a society in which religious belief, particularly in recent years, has intruded significantly on individual choice and freedom, I have ironically chosen to align myself with a segment of society least accepting on issues of faith.

I understand the militancy in some areas of atheism is a ‘blow back' from the strong Christian fundamentalism seeking to limit our choices, tell us what we must believe, and most dangerously of all, to breach the wall of separation between church and state. Few issues concern me more in the political world, for I am a political junkie, than this effort to vanquish this vital protection for all Americans. Thus, it pains me to find myself growing increasingly uncomfortable in the company of skeptics, who seem sometimes intent on bringing an equal and opposite fundamentalist passion to issues of faith.

At TAM5, no less than three well-intended individuals attempted to ‘save' me from my non-atheism, one even had pamphlets, with no less ardor than religious zealots bring to their cause. Some of my dear friends attempt to somehow make it "ok" for me to be a Deist by trying to convince me that it's really just the same as atheism, I just don't quite understand it correctly. They apologize on my behalf, and condone my naiveté, sure that I will come around some day.

My belief in a non-intervening god is, they tell me, just the same as not believing in God at all, and therefore we are on the same side. I sharply differ, in that the key issue for me is God/no-god, not the form therein. I believe I should be able to decide what I believe. I am tired of being told I am stupid, but I can get better.

Thus a great passion in my life, skepticism, is becoming more and more difficult. I find myself more and more drawn to the mission, and more and more estranged from those who walk the path with me. It is not without irony to note that the methods of religious extremists push moderates away from a particular faith. Within the skeptical movement, those who insist that atheism is the only single correct worldview, and that that view must be the lens through which all critical thinking issues are viewed, push me away. Perhaps it is not great loss; it is hubris to suspect one person really matters. But it saddens me, for I do not believe that my Deism renders me unable to be of service.

I am delighted to be here with you. I remain humble and deeply appreciative of the opportunity to speak here today. I count many dear friends in this audience, and frankly, some of the smartest people on the planet are sitting in this room, and that is a tad bit intimidating. Months ago when we first were talking about TAM4, and what I might say, I suggested that it might be interesting for me to offer a few remarks on my non-atheism, and then it might be interesting to have a panel discussion. Mr. Randi said he thought that could be interesting. He said, "ok, Hal, you talk, and then we'll have a panel of nine brilliant atheists, and you."

Given the intellectual gravitas of my fellow speakers, several weeks ago I asked for some advice on how to properly present my views. The insightful Mr. Randi suggested I simply start my own international foundation, endow it with a million dollars, and grow a beard. The very model of the erudite scholar, Mr. Hitchens told me all I needed to do was speak with a flawless British accent, and write brilliantly in a major magazine. Penn kindly offered that juggling fire was usually the way to win an audience over and impress the ladies. The beautiful and brilliant Ms Sweeney said that all it took was to give a great speak was to first have a sold out one-person theater show, win a west coast Tony award, then take it to New York, get rave reviews, and then give the talk while wearing your Tony as a medallion. Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman said I should just blow something up, then shoot it with a frozen chicken.  Finally, the kindly Dr. Shermer told me that I'd just have to hold the audience's attention with the brilliance of my oratory. Then he burst out laughing, not quite sure what that was about.

But in any case, I am pleased to be here. I deeply treasure my relationship with Mr. Randi and his life's work. I remain honored that he calls me friend, and it has been my pleasure to take part in each of the TAMs thus far. And being Linda Shallenberger's friend makes almost every day a good one.  I'm especially pleased my son is here today, as is my older brother.  They are both named Chris, as we Bidlacks are strong believers in recycling.

Let me begin by clearly stating, I'm a bit odd.  I like to think that I'm a skeptic, that for the most part, I practice reasonable critical thinking skills. But there are folks who argue, with a range of intensity, that one can not truly be a skeptic unless one is also an atheist. In my time with you today, I will speak to this issue, and if you will indulge me, I'll offer my thoughts on how I rationalize this seeming contradiction to myself.

I regret that to explain myself, I must discuss this issue in rather personal terms. I don't like that, I've a very private person, and I feel discussing one's own feelings and emotions in public is at best awkward and at worst self-indulgent. I am not comfortable talking about these things. But for this issue, the issue of what are usually called religious beliefs, I find I must delve into the personal, and for that I beg your pardon. To me, matters of such beliefs are intensely personal, intensely private. Plus, this speech is basically unfair. It is unfair because it is, to a large degree, based on emotion and feelings. Such things are not often the stuff of clear critical thinking. But unfortunately, for me, this issue is about emotion, about feelings, and thus I am trapped into such pursuing such a path. As I first typed these words my mind flashed back to the lesson I teach on Dr. Sagan's Demon Haunted World chapter on logical fallacies. If you are keeping score, appeal to emotion will be a recurring one for me today. But as we are all friends here, I shall chance it.

I suspect that only a very few are able to move through life with unwavering belief systems. I am not one of those people. I am, in many things, inconsistent. But I take some comfort in the words of Aldous Huxley, who wrote "Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are dead."  It is almost trite to talk about spiritual journeys. I confess I don't really know what a spiritual journey is. I think most people ebb and flow in their views, their beliefs. The most perfect explanation of this process thus far, I think, is Julia Sweeney's magnificent "letting go of God," a show I've seen five times, and from which I learn more each time.

When I was a little kid, my parents thought it best to expose my brother and me to organized religion, so that we could make up our own minds. We briefly attended the United Methodist Church in Ann Arbor, and I sang in the youth choir as a 10 year old. I don't remember any real spiritual epiphanies during that time. I do remember once literally looking for God. We were sitting in the church during a Sunday service, and I remember clearly thinking that God must be here, because it was a Sunday in church. And I remember looking for some testable and replicable evidence of his presence. I looked up in the light fixtures first, assuming that he would be hovering up there, I guess. I saw nothing, I felt nothing. Not too long after that, we stopped going to church at all.

As I aged, I remember being a bit jealous of classmates with a deep, traditional religious faith. How comforting it must be, I remember thinking, to know absolutely what's true about life, the universe, and everything. In a sad effort to impress a young lady, I went with her to her church's evening revival service, and observed people, including her, talking in tongues and flailing about. There was not a second date.

But I longed, and still long, to know more, to learn more, about, well, everything. But people who know with absolute certainty that they are right, and with the same absolute certainty that everyone else is wrong about such things disquiet me.

And now I must say something that may shock you. When I was in high school, I was a bit of a geek, with a nerdish veneer.  Yes, it's true.  I really and truly was president, at different times, of both the Audio-Visual Club and the Astronomy Club. I'm the guy who ran the planetarium. A shocking revelation, I know. So, as you can imagine, I spent a good deal of time alone, thinking about things, feeling sorry for myself, and pondering the great questions of the universe. That, while wearing Nehru shirts and checkered pants. Ah, the glory that was the 1970s. It was also about this time that I first had a chance to see a bearded magician on the Tonight Show, and to learn a bit about his work.

I suspect that like many people, perhaps even most, I've felt like an outsider much of the time. And I know enough psychology to know that most people, at some level, would like to feel accepted, feel like part of something greater than themselves.  I am nearing the end of over 25 years of service as an officer in the United States Air Force. I spent that entire time as a Democrat and a non-Christian, and that can definitely make you feel like an outsider. I'll have a great deal more to say about that issue on September 2nd, the day after I formally retire.

I started college as an astronomy major, switching over to political science a couple of years later due to my decision to enter the Air Force, as well as my life-long passion for politics. And it was about this time, my junior year that the most amazing thing happened: I met a woman willing to go out with me a second time. So I married her. And we had three wonderful kids, and made a home together. All was reasonably well for the next 20 years or so, up until the Spring of 2001. And it is the events of the past four years or so that brings me to my view of things theological, and causes me to say I'm a deist today.

In April of 2001, my second tour as a faculty member at the Air Force Academy in Colorado was ending, and I needed to find a new assignment. Martha and I talked, and given that the next fall would be our son's senior year of High School, neither of us wanted to move him and our daughters. So it was decided that I would accept a transfer to Washington DC, and she and the kids would stay in Colorado until I could retire at the 20 year point, then some two years hence. So I took a job at the State Department, working as the military advisor to the ambassador charged with helping the former Soviet States. As I was homesick for my wife and kids, I admit I had some trouble sleeping, and was feeling the effects of that problem. So, I called over to the Pentagon medical clinic, which took care of the military folks in town, to see if I could get an appointment. They told me to come over the next day at 8:30 am, September 11th, 2001.  And so I went there that morning.

I will spare you any details or vivid stories. Basically, I was drafted to help with the triage area, dealing with burns, head wounds, ambulances, and such. I don't like talking about that day. It was a very bad day, and now four years later, just thinking about it brings back the images to my mind as if it was yesterday. I'm not proud to confess that I later developed a sleeping problem with nasty nightmares most every night, that continues to plague me to this day. When you have seen something like that, or more viscerally stated, when you have felt, endured, lived through something like that, you want there to be someone, something to which you can appeal.  I close my eyes and it is as real, as immediate, as it was that day. I can still see the smoke, still see the fire, the wounded building and the wounded people.

In discussing the resulting Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with a therapist, something, by the way, that made me very uncomfortable, I came to understand that the dominate emotion I feel regarding 9/11 is guilt. We were ordered to evacuate the building, and I did. But to this day I feel guilt over not running into the fire, rather than away from it. I'm a big guy, I might have been able to help someone. This is not, of course, a rational thought, but I can't think rationally about that day. As I stood my post near the triage area, we were warned a second aircraft was on the way. I stood my ground, of course, as that was my post, but I was very afraid, I'll admit. And to me the most vivid memory of that day is not an image, but the horrible, horrible sound of the metal roof caving in. I should have been in there, in case there was someone I could have pulled out in time. Guilt is a terrible mistress, and I desperately wanted something greater than myself to be in charge, to make things better, to grant absolution. But, nothing does.

Not too many weeks after that day, on a Friday, Martha called me to tell me she had returned from the doctor and they had told her that she had cancer. Never in my life have I felt so helpless, so inadequate, so alone. I longed to hold her, to support her, to be there for her, but I was two time zones away. After a tearful call, I began to make plans for my immediate return home. And I prayed. I prayed harder than I had ever prayed in my life. I begged God to let her beat this illness, to please, PLEASE make it all ok again. Even then, I don't think I ever thought those prayers mattered at all, I never thought they would work, but I prayed anyway. Why? I think it is because I was human, confronted with something far beyond my control. I paced back and forth in my apartment for what seemed like hours, trying to find a way to fix this. I'm an American male, we are conditioned to fix things, to make things better, to be in charge. But I couldn't do anything. I wanted something to help, since I could not.

I think we can bifurcate our brains, to a degree. There was always a rational part of my intellect, a small voice in my head reminding me of the rational, of the scientific, of the real. But as the illness became more advanced, I prayed harder. The Air Force sent me back to Colorado, and for a few months, we thought we had the cancer beaten. But it returned. As Martha endured first radiation and then chemo, I prayed. I felt so helpless. As apparently often happens during terminal illnesses, I prayed first for her recovery, but eventually for her comfort, for her dignity.

I will spare you details, but suffice it to say that despite the hard work of the medical professionals, the illness was very rough. At one point near the end, she said to me through the tears, "if you've ever loved me, you'll make the pain stop." I talked to the doctors, insisting on more pain medications that I knew could not fully work. And I prayed for the pain to stop. I know that that is not rational, but I did pray. I begged a god I did not believe could intervene to do so.  The pain, of course, did not stop.

At the same time, I was fighting other battles. An early hospital roommate was an evangelical Christian, whose preacher came to pray, loudly, on the other side of the curtain. Because they were basically good people, they were pained by Martha's suffering, and started to pray for her and came to me to ask my permission to pray actively over her in her bed.  Such bellowing caused Martha discomfort, so told them no, and asked them to quiet down, please. The nurses were kind enough to move us to a private room that evening. Later, I found one of Martha's best friends, a woman of deep religious passion, holding her hand and praying passionately for a miracle.  I took her aside and forbad any further such efforts. I turned down a well intended but bizarre offer of a blanket filled with magnets. One person, through her own cigarette smoke, urged me to buy a particular type of herb, which, she told me, could cure cancer.

During her illness, Martha once asked me, alone at night in bed, if I believed in Heaven. I had promised her I would never, ever lie to her about her illness, her prognosis, or anything, so I answered honestly. I said I didn't know, but I hoped so. But in any case, I was not worried by death. I asked her how the 4.5 billion years after the Earth formed but before she was born had been for her. She smiled. Later, near the end, I was laying with her in her hospital bed, talking. She had lots of conflicting things being said to her by nice people trying to help. She quietly asked me "am I going to die?" and I held her hand and said "yes." She didn't cry, she didn't fuss. She just said "ok." She was accepting, she was finally at peace. She was an atheist, by the way.

We lost Martha on October 20th, 2003. And that was also the very last day I ever prayed. I am sometimes asked why I say I'm a deist, and not a theist. The answer is very simple: I can not believe in a god that would torture such a lovely woman to death, through the horror that is cancer. I can not believe in a god that would undo such an illness simply because a particular prayer was offered. I believe Martha's cancer came from a biological misfire, not from a divine test of faith.

To paraphrase the well-known quote, I do not believe in a god that alters the laws of physics, chemistry, of science generally in response to the appeals of a single person. Kierkegaard said, "Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays." I suspect that's correct. It made me feel a tiny bit better to pray. It made me feel a tiny bit less helpless to pray. And when I finally did lose her, it didn't work at all any more.

So if I am a deist, what the heck to I believe? I must confess, I really don't know. For whatever reason, be it self-delusion, immaturity, echoes of my youth, or whatever, I have this odd sense of something greater than myself, of being part of a remarkable universe. I still am thrilled by the sights at the end of a telescope lens, by pictures from the Hubble, or Mars. I guess I believe a bit like Jefferson, in the possibility, the possibility of a cosmic clockmaker, winding up the universe untold eons ago, to wind randomly and unplanned down through the laws of science and probability.

I have absolutely no idea where the big bang came from, and I don't for one moment claim that only god could have been behind it. But it gives me a bit of comfort to hope so.

And let me be very, very clear on something. I am NOT talking about the nonsense that is called "intelligent design." ID is, well, crap. I am talking about the merest possibility that there was some force, something at some point back in time that maybe gave physics the slightest little push. And from that moment on, the only laws that controlled where stars formed, where planets coalesced, were amino acids formed were the laws of physics, of chemistry, of science. To me this is the core of deism. A theist, as I understand it, believes in a god that can and does intervene, that designs, that acts in the lives of people. A deist, I think, believes none of that, merely that there is a chance that there is, or was, or might have been something out there. Pretty weak, isn't it. A friend once told me that a deist is just an agnostic without guts. Maybe.  I agree with Albert Einstein who wrote "I do not believe in the God of theology who rewards good and punishes evil." And with  Friedrich Nietzsche who wrote "I cannot believe in a God who wants to be praised all the time."

I joked earlier about the panel that follows my talk being stacked nine to one for atheism. On some level that's true. But I suspect I agree with my learned colleagues on far more things than we disagree. So let me clearly state some things I stipulate to:

  • There is no, absolutely no, empirical, replicable, valid evidence for any god
  • I readily admit that I may be simply deluding myself, for frank psychological gain and comfort
  • As a deist, I do not believe in an active god, one that interacts in any way at all with humans. I do not believe the laws of science or probability are altered in response to the special pleadings of one person
  • I specifically claim that my beliefs, unsettled though they are, are inherently un-testable. Any religious claims involving such god/human interaction are testable, and therefore falsifiable
  • There is no scientifically reliable evidence for life after death. I have no expectation of being reunited with Martha, I do not think she watches over the kids or me. I admit I do hope there is an afterlife, but I doubt it.

And so, I am a convoluted, inconsistent pile of contradictions. I am absolutely certain about nothing at all.

I have been very fortunate in life to have had a remarkable collection of people be willing to be my friend. I have been privileged to be closely involved with two non-profit educational organizations in my adult life: The Windstar Foundation and The JREF.

Windstar is an environmental education and outreach organization founded by the late John Denver. We had annual meetings, much like TAM, in Aspen each August for ten years. John was a wonderful man, and I'm honored to have been his friend. But John to some degree, and quite a few Windstar people to a much larger degree, were religious, but in a very non-traditional way. They usually preferred the term "spiritual."  At Windstar conferences when I was a speaker, I was accused of being too rational, too literal, too limited in vision, too tied to science, logic, and evidence by those who thought of this planet as Mother Earth and did a lot of humming. At JREF, my deist status makes me just the opposite, the irrational fellow who thinks silly fluffy things. All that changed was who I stood next to.  But I find value and friendship in both groups.

So, with all that said, does a person have to be an atheist to be a good skeptic? Frankly, I don't know, but I don't think so. It seems to me that whenever a person makes a testable claim, be it about dowsing, or talking to the dead, or about spiritual matters, we are in the realm of things where the JREF challenge makes sense. Mr. Randi does not attempt to test the untestable.

And, you will note, I have carefully crafted my little deist world in such a way as to have not testable claims therein. If I believed prayer reduced Martha's pain, that would be testable. If I believed a faith healer could cure an illness, such a claim would be testable. If I believe in any theistic view involving divine intervention in daily life, that intervention could well be testable. Water to wine? Testable. Stigmata? Testable. Praying for a hurricane to miss a town, or, more recently, for god to strike down the good citizens of Dover, Pennsylvania, not testable. In short, if the claim is falsifiable, it is likely testable. If not, no dice.

I believe Mr. Randi is very wise to set religious issues aside, for the most part, in the formal work of the JREF. As the core claims of faith are inherently non-falsifiable, there is little to be gained in wading through that minefield. The JREF relies on voluntary contributions to keep going. And the vast majority of the potential donor base does not embrace atheism.  According to a study entitled "American Religious Identification Survey" by The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, in 2001,

81% of American adults identify themselves with a specific religion:

  • 76.5% (159 million) of Americans identify themselves as Christian.
  • 52% of Americans identified themselves as Protestant.
  • 24.5% are Roman Catholic.
  • 1.3% are Jewish.
  • 0.5% are Muslim, followers of Islam.
  • The fastest growing religion (in terms of percentage) is Wicca -- Numbers of adherents went from 8,000 in 1990 to 134,000 in 2001. Their numbers of adherents are doubling about every 30 months.
  • 14.1% do not follow any organized religion.
  • The unaffiliated vary from a low of 3% in North Dakota to 25% in Washington State.

Thus I argue that an organization dedicated to the larger issues of critical thinking and skepticism would be unwise to declare its mandate to include atheism as a core requirement.

I said a little ways back that people who have absolute certainty about matters such at this, in either direction, make my uneasy. I do admit that one of my favorite bumper stickers reads "militant agnostic: I don't know and you don't either." But some atheists, some whom I think of as good friends,  seem to argue that to believe in god in any way at all is to somehow be spoiled, not true to the calling, tainted, impure, and, not a real skeptic.

Some declare with militant certainty that there is no god. Not that there is no evidence of god (I agree with that), but that there is not now, and has never been, god. They sometimes say this with a passion that seems, at least to me, to echo the vehemence of fundamentalists of various faiths around the globe. I do not say that to be insulting, but rather to hope for a willingness to agree to disagree about those things we must, and to work together on those things we can.

And remember, dear friends, I willingly confessed a moment ago that I have carefully constructed my little belief system, or security blanket, or self-delusion, or what ever you like to call it in such a way as to be untestable. As Karl von Clausewitz wrote, "Although our intellect always longs for clarity and certainty, our nature often finds uncertainty fascinating." Perhaps I am fascinated by wondering about something greater than myself. Perhaps I muse on something less meaningful and substantial than the echo of a shadow. I don't know. There is a great deal I don't know.

I guess it kind of comes down to a much misused and misunderstood word, "believe." I don't know what I believe. I do know what I accept. I accept replicable and verifiable scientific results. I accept gravity, I accept evolution, I accept plate tectonics. I stand ready to reject any of those ideas should valid conflicting scientific evidence come forward. I think that is the key to critical thinking, the willingness to discard old theories when a more parsimonious explanation comes along, and then to be willing to discard that one if the weight of new evidence becomes compelling. But, I believe in god. I know it is not scientific, I know it is not testable. I know that. But I still do.

I can't answer the question for this talk, and for the panel that follows, "can a skeptic believe in god?" So you must decide the question, can a person such as me really be a skeptic? In part, the discussion is mere semantics. But at another level it is more. I believe educational efforts like the JREF are best when they are most inclusive, most outgoing and outreaching.

So the question really becomes not "can a skeptic believe in god?" as I think I am such a person.  The question becomes, can we all sit down together?

I think the JREF tent is a large one, and can help us educate, reach out, and motivate critical thinking in so many areas. I do not think that difference on untestable claims need permanently divide us. I think we can disagree on god, but still agree that John Edward is the biggest ________ in the universe.

I'm so pleased to be part of JREF, I'm so honored that he lets me speak to you today. I am reminded of the words of Woody Allen when he said, "To you I'm an atheist; to God, I'm the Loyal Opposition." Maybe I'm just that. My thanks to Mr. Randi, to Linda, to Kramer, and the entire JREF family. Thank you very much.

 

 


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written by GeekGoddess, July 30, 2009
I decry the people who make you feel uncomfortable, or that feel they must 'apologize' for you. I predict there will be nasty comments which will make you feel even more uncomfortable, because on the Internet people can be nasty without looking into your eyes when they do so.
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Nice summary from the "loyal opposition."
written by Mighty_Jim, July 30, 2009
The author's views are fairly close to my own, and this nicely summarizes the feeling I have that the skeptic tent may be getting smaller. (Check out the tone of the comments in "part 1" of these articles if you doubt it.)

It's also striking that the claim that "religion is the greatest evil" has now become central to these debates. Whether every skeptic must be an atheist, or not, it seems to me that honest minds could differ about exactly how to weigh the historical/sociological benefits of religion, and that's not the discussion I see in the comments. (Not to get too far into the merits of these questions, but it seems to me that there are a fair number of social evils in contention for first place, and I'm not sure how you'd weigh someting like general racial/tribal xenophobia or the inequality of wealth distribution when comparing it to the "evil" of religion.)

To be cute, I'm skeptical of the claim that religion is an almost entirely unalloyed evil, and surprised that so many skeptics accept it on faith (or at least without any clear-headed weighing of the facts). I suspect that many athiests view the argument as a useful counterthrust, given how badly atheists are generally treated in the U.S. (and how much traction nonsense like "intelligent design" still gets here).

Anyway, these pieces have been useful. JREF should decide whether it wants to be a big tent that includes those of us that are theistic skeptics or whether that's fundamentally incompatible with its mission.
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written by Phatchick96, July 30, 2009
Thank you for presenting my case far more eloquently than I could. As a theist and professing Christian, I sometimes find it hard to deal with atheists who look down on me because I haven't made that last "intellectual jump". My faith is a source of comfort and strength for me, not a crutch and certainly not a stained glass window through which I view the rest of the planet. I don't believe in Woo and when somebody tells me that religion is the key to health, wealth, and world peace I tend to ask them "how?" smilies/cry.gif
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I'm a deist then...
written by Gib, July 30, 2009
So you're saying that you're a deist because of "the merest possibility that there was some force, something at some point back in time that maybe gave physics the slightest little push."

By that definition, I'm a deist too. But, why use that definition ? If that's really it, then you're an atheist like me. I think it's possible, but unlikely. So, it must be more than that which makes you call yourself a deist. You must think it more likely than that...

Anyway, is there room for a deist/theist with the skeptics ? Sure, just the same as there's room for dowsers. As long as they have a thick skin when discussing the dowsing, and are skeptical about everything else.

I think a big point of skepticism is that everything can be questioned. If anyone has ANY belief which makes them feel uncomfortable discussing, then yeah, there's gonna be problems hanging out with skeptics. But as long as you can laugh off any criticism of your belief, then enjoy it here with us skeptics.

I'm not going to keep quiet about asking questions about homeopathy just because a homeopath is around, and I'm not going to keep quiet about questioning religion just because a believer is around.

I think one of the only things that there's no place for in skepticism is a topic being declared "off limits". What there definitely is a place for is anyone who wants to join in.
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written by remirol, July 30, 2009
@Gib: Dude. Did you actually just read the whole article, and STILL go on to tell him what he believes?

Think it through, man. :/
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written by hal bidlack, July 30, 2009
Just a quick note to say that the above article was written in two parts. The main body was my speech to TAM 5, and the preamble was written in July 2007 at the request of the Skepticality podcast people. Jeff Wagg recently asked me if he could repost my comments, and of course I'm happy to help. But, as has been my personal policy for the past couple of years, I shall decline to enter into any current debate on these questions, as I feel such efforts have little or no value. Minds have been made up, I think.
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written by GeekGoddess, July 30, 2009
@Gib

There is trying to provide information to people to make an informed decision, and then there is trying to beat them over the head and try to force them.

And then there is being a rude jackass to people with whom you disagree.
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written by Gib, July 30, 2009
@remirol: Yeah, good point. It was more a comment on that particular sentence... I just didn't really understand the rest of it, but could at least figure out it wasn't consistent with that sentence...
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written by hal bidlack, July 30, 2009
Opps, I meant TAM 4, not TAM 5, sorry.
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A powerful article
written by dmitrybrant, July 30, 2009
That was a very moving article, and must not have been easy for Hal Bidlack to write. And let me preface this by saying that it's a fundamental right of every person to believe whatever they like regarding the universe. Also, I'm heartbroken to hear that certain atheists would exhibit the same behaviors as religious zealots. I've certainly never met such an atheist.

However, even after reading this piece, I'm still not clear on how this clarifies the JREF's stance on religion. Mr. Bidlack argues that the JREF should only concern itself with that which is testable, and I would agree with this. His own beliefs are (conveniently) untestable, but there are indeed many testable religious claims, even by his own admission. Does this mean that the JREF should shy away from testing claims made on religious grounds (especially if the claim is made by one of its members)?

The existence of a god is certainly not testable, but that's because no one is willing to define what is meant by "god". My theory is that the deist "god" is whatever is left over after all the testable attributes of the Christian god have been stripped away by science. And all that's left over is just some vague, distant, pseudo-spiritual, feel-good "force" that "just has to be out there".

It seems Mr. Bidlack is embarrassed enough by Christianity to reject its mainstream form, but doesn't want to let go of that morsel of comfort that comes from believing that "there just has to be something out there". But therein lies the problem. Believing something that comforts you is your choice, but that doesn't mean that the JREF can't be skeptical of it. Nor should you be offended when the JREF is skeptical of your beliefs, no matter how painful certain events in your life have been.

The JREF is, after all, an educational foundation, and it should strive to educate all people about the fact that the existence of a god (as it's classically defined) is at odds with basic principles of logic. For those who refuse to define their "god", why would you get offended if the JREF is skeptical of a definition of "god" that is not yours?

Did Mr. Bidlack have to use the word "god" to describe what he believes in? He could have used any other combination of letters, because it's that meaningless. But rejecting all the classical notions of god, hiding behind a protective barrier of untestability, and still calling whatever is left "god", I have to say, sounds like having your cake and eating it, too. And that's something that's worthy of skepticism, perhaps even from the JREF.
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@dmitrybrant
written by truth6413@yahoo.com, July 30, 2009
you said:
"...I'm heartbroken to hear that certain atheists would exhibit the same behaviors as religious zealots. I've certainly never met such an atheist. "

You dont get out much, do you?
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written by Mumchup, July 30, 2009
I want to add my support for Hal and all other non-atheists. No one should feel they can't be part of the skeptical movement. The "reality-based community" could use about a hundred more Hal Bidlacks, just for a start.
And I cringe to think that other atheists would make someone feel uncomfortable about their beliefs. I know I don't like being made to feel that my social choices are (1) put up with conversion therapy, or (2) keep my mouth shut.
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Proselytizers
written by Alan3354, July 30, 2009
I've never had an atheist knock on my door and attempt to tell me about religion (or lack of it).
Has anyone ever had that happen? Or heard of it happening to anyone?

I have had people who think there's a god knock on my door and want to tell me about god, or jesus, or ask, "Where will you spend eternity?"
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written by Mumchup, July 30, 2009
I only went to a couple of the monthly dinners held by the local atheist group because they were of the opinion that they needed to... further the atheist agenda, for lack of a better term. A few of them would most certainly knock on doors if they thought it would gather adherents to their side. I found them to be closed minded and rather bigoted.
Hal points out in his remarks that he actually had someone try to hand him an atheist pamphlet. The difference between that and door knocking is only one of location.
He's not asking you to agree with him. He is asking you to give him the same respect that he extends to you. I've met him more than once and he has never - ever - suggested that I should convert to deism.
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written by dominictemple, July 30, 2009
I'm very new to the sceptical community, and I'm an atheist as a well as a critic of organised religion. There is a difference though between asking questions about someone's beliefs in regards to documented parts of their religion, somethings that I've done several times and being a dick.

Hal obviously isn't making any factual claims, he's simply stating that it gives him comfort to think of the possibility of something greater than him and I have no problem with that, more power to him. I also think that we should welcome sceptics and critical thinkers who believe in certain things provided they know that certain members of our organisation are going to question and criticise many things that they hold very dear. Like I said above, I don't believe in sacred cows, but there is a difference between asking questions and being a dick.
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written by Alan3354, July 30, 2009
Should we accept "skeptics and critical thinkers" who believe there's a Tooth Fairy?

I see no difference between the 2, except the Tooth Fairy didn't create malaria or polio, and then try to convince us He loves us. Nor does the Tooth Fairy get into a tizzy if we don't worship Him.
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written by Skeptigirl, July 30, 2009
So if I am a deist, what the heck to I believe? I must confess, I really don't know.

Bottom line: Hal can't let go of the God he was indoctrinated to believe in. As a rational thinker he simply considered the repeating pattern of failure to find evidence of any god but instead of drawing the rational conclusion that the evidence supported the no-god conclusion he simply redefined his definition of god to one that doesn't intervene, aka an untestable god by definition.

There are three problems with this approach, 2 of logic and one of process.

1) Logic: There is no way for any human to be aware of such a god. Making one's presence known is an intervention.

2) Logic: A non-intervening god is irrelevant.

3) Process: Deism is the result of trying to fit the evidence to the conclusion. The best outcomes in scientific or rational inquiry is when we follow the evidence to the conclusion, not the other way around.

Following the evidence leads one to conclude people make god beliefs up. There is no evidence supporting the alternative that god beliefs are the result of interactions with real gods (even ones that just send magical feelings telling you to believe in them). If the latter were true, we'd expect to see more universal beliefs among god believers. Instead, people's god beliefs always reflect indoctrination (or learning if you don't like the more negative description). And those beliefs are easily traceable back to their historical fictional origins, not back to some time when humans encountered real gods.

We have even seen the hypothesis that people make up god beliefs tested. The modern development of the Cargo Cults gave us a natural experiment to observe in modern time.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cargo_cult


So what about keeping the fantasy because you find it comforting? If you can suppress the cognitive dissonance a rational thinker would by necessity experience if maintaining god beliefs, and you can ignore the hypocrisy of saying your irrational belief is justified while you condemn other irrational beliefs, meh. I don't see the big deal.

Personally, I couldn't fool myself like that even if I wanted to.

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written by sailor, July 30, 2009
Thanks Hal, Great post.
Although I am an atheist, I was getting more than a little despondent at the militant tone of the comments in the previous post. Of course where religion makes testable claims it should be tested on the same basis as any other.
However, there is a core to religion that is emotional not rational. To declare either the JREF or science as "atheist" is ridiculous. What matters if you can do good science or be a good skeptic. People's personal feeling about the universe are just that, personal.
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written by mackhitch, July 30, 2009
The upshot is that it is impossible to know for sure. What is easy to know is that all religions, current or past, know exactly as much about the question as I do, which is nothing.
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written by Skeptigirl, July 30, 2009
written by GeekGoddess, July 30, 2009
I decry the people who make you feel uncomfortable, or that feel they must 'apologize' for you. I predict there will be nasty comments which will make you feel even more uncomfortable, because on the Internet people can be nasty without looking into your eyes when they do so.
So should I not present my opinion since it essentially says Hal is being hypocritical to allow himself an irrational guilty pleasure while not affording other irrational people the same benefit?

In reality, both Hal and I can address critical thinking and not worry about the fact we are not perfect critical thinkers ourselves. I am addressing the belief and not the person. But the hypocrisy of maintaining one's personal woo while trying to address all the rest of the woo out there is part of the problem. I see no practical way of addressing that point without the implications.

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written by Skeptigirl, July 30, 2009
written by Mighty_Jim, July 30, 2009
The author's views are fairly close to my own, and this nicely summarizes the feeling I have that the skeptic tent may be getting smaller. (Check out the tone of the comments in "part 1" of these articles if you doubt it.)
Or you might find the tent narrower but with just as many people in it. Perhaps more and more skeptics are re-evaluating the evidence.

It's also striking that the claim that "religion is the greatest evil" has now become central to these debates. Whether every skeptic must be an atheist, or not, it seems to me that honest minds could differ about exactly how to weigh the historical/sociological benefits of religion, and that's not the discussion I see in the comments. (Not to get too far into the merits of these questions, but it seems to me that there are a fair number of social evils in contention for first place, and I'm not sure how you'd weigh someting like general racial/tribal xenophobia or the inequality of wealth distribution when comparing it to the "evil" of religion.)
Perhaps your own position is coloring which elements of the 'debates' you pay the most attention to. I don't find the 'evil' of religion to be the focus of many discussions I have participated in. An element, sure. How could it not be given all the wars and cruelty religion has been an excuse for, but not the main focus. The main focus for me has been the double standard skeptics apply to some god beliefs and a number of other aspects of god beliefs I argue about ad nauseum on the forum. I find the Biblical God to be quite evil. But that is based on specific Bible passages.

To be cute, I'm skeptical of the claim that religion is an almost entirely unalloyed evil, and surprised that so many skeptics accept it on faith (or at least without any clear-headed weighing of the facts). ...
I'm skeptical that this conclusion is valid.

Anyway, these pieces have been useful. JREF should decide whether it wants to be a big tent that includes those of us that are theistic skeptics or whether that's fundamentally incompatible with its mission.
You demonstrate my point that you are viewing this topic with tunnel vision. Mr Wagg posted these 2 Swift articles specifically stating that decision has been clear all along. Yet you think JREFers "need to decide".
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Gaining perspective... part I
written by Gazcam, July 30, 2009
posted in 2 parts due to word length - part I

I am going to separate out my responses to Hal’s article. His recounting of his terrible vicarious experience of the ravages of cancer is deeply moving, deeply humbling and gives perspective to the trivia that we busy ourselves with in our everyday lives. I say this with the utmost sincerity, and without reservation. His desperation for some form of supernatural intervention to end his horror is entirely understandable, entirely appropriate, and entirely human. I have often thought about how resolute I would be in my dismissal of the afterlife, faced with the prospect of my own death. I stand by it. But the impending death of my wife, my own children? That’s an entirely different matter, that I hadn’t considered, until now, and the only thing I can say with any certainty is that like Hal, I would cling to every possible hope, no matter how forlorn, until the final hour. I would reach to any heights, stoop to any depths, to place my own demise before that of my family. Nothing I will subsequently say detracts from my deepest respect for his having shared his excruciating pain, which I think he conveyed honestly and for nothing but the sincerest of purpose.

However, it would be a disservice to this honesty not to treat his position with the very same honesty. I can only imagine that his crippling experience must define his every waking moment since, and thereby in some way defines his own subjective thoughts about anything and everything. Objectively however, I have to say it has absolutely nothing to do with deism. Hal all but says so himself: his experience surely led him redouble his efforts to reject theism, of that there is clearly no doubt. But the leap to deism, at least in my view, is entirely unrelated at an objective level. Nothing in his story would then cause him to take a particular view on the origin of the universe. Everything in his story would cause him to dismiss theistic intervention after the earth’s inception, but how the universe came into being, I’m afraid, and I say with all respect, is entirely irrelevant to Hal’s story. I will therefore not refer to it again, out of respect, and my remaining comments pertain exclusively to his position on deism, and how this fits with skepticism and the JREF.
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written by Skeptigirl, July 30, 2009
written by truth6413@yahoo.com, July 30, 2009
[dmitrybrant] said:
"...I'm heartbroken to hear that certain atheists would exhibit the same behaviors as religious zealots. I've certainly never met such an atheist. "

You dont get out much, do you?

It's a common misconception by a number of Christians that demanding government and public schools be secular is an attack on Christians. Just as expressing my atheists views here are often seen as an attack while the complaints about attacks on most other woo is not seen in the same way.

I suggest if you feel persecuted you put yourself in the other person's shoes. You'll find most often an atheist wants the same thing you do, not to have other people's beliefs impinge on their own.

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Gaining perspective... part II
written by Gazcam, July 30, 2009
continuation from previous post (part II)

Hal’s deistic worldview is no more/no less useful as Bertrand Russell’s notion of the celestial teapot, or the flying spaghetti monster of Pasta-farianism! It has no basis in reason, it takes cosmology no further (and remember we are talking here exclusively about a cosmological question – how the universe came into being, nothing more) since it provides no basis to progress and build upon this concept, and it comes from someone with no professional background in cosmology to place his notion in the context of the strength of evidence for other theories. On that basis, I feel I reasonably dismiss the concept, since it has no value. To his credit, Hal makes no great claims, and essentially accepts the futility of his deistic faith. With that, we are certainly in agreement. However, and here I treat his position with respect by treating it honestly, I would have to question Hal’s credentials as a skeptic. Accepting that his deistic view has no evidence, and is merely a superstitious faith, how then will he critique the homeopath, the telepathist, or the spiritual medium, whilst avoiding the retort of hypocrisy? Presumably, he will argue that at least his fantasies cannot be taken away from him by empirical testing.

This brings us to the broader question, which motivated this debate. Some have perverted this into whether the faithful have a place within the JREF. Shall we throw out Hal? Of course not! Surely a society of skeptics does not require that you believe in anything specifically. But this is not the question that originated the debate. The question, extending it to Hal, is whether those of faith should expect the JREF to challenge their superstitions in precisely the same way as any other fantasies. I felt, that in specifically reaching out to the religious, in distancing the JREF from atheism, and highlighting the existence of believers amongst its membership, this was an unwarranted pandering to this group, that would not be afforded to any other. Nothing Hal has said has changed my mind on that. In fact, I feel Hal would expect his superstition to be challenged, because he recognizes they are not based on reason. As Randi says, faith is the antithesis of reason.

But Hal puts his finger on a pragmatic point. The JREF seeks to maintain itself via the donations of its membership, and given that the vast majority of the US public are religious, alienating its main source of revenue is not a good strategy for survival. This is a reasonable point, and leads me to offer Jeff this concession. If this is the basis of your disclaimer, then you and I are probably in agreement: you likely also feel that your treatment of religion was unfair, unequal and pandering to the faithful, and also probably wish that you didn’t have to do it; the difference is that as merely an interested reader, I am free to call it what it is, whereas you, as a representative of JREF, are not. I don’t expect you to openly agree with that, since by definition, you’re not in a position to.

My thanks to Hal for his contribution, and to Jeff for soliciting it.
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Theology and semantics
written by DrMatt, July 30, 2009
The gods of deism and pantheism have been described to me as impersonal gods not moved by prayer. This business of "personal vs impersonal god" etc. rather reminds me of calling a dog's eyes "non-limb paws", and thus asserting that a typical dog has six paws. If you live in a society in which belief in immaterial all-floor-scratching undetectable fifth and sixth dog paws is taken for granted against all evidence, and you define dog eyes as paws and thus seem to conform both with the evidence when it's convenient and with the non-evidential belief when it's convenient, then I think you're adding to confusion and misunderstanding, rather than a more subtle and refined clarity and understanding. Of course, I may have good reason to believe in the existence of Dogs...
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written by Skeptigirl, July 30, 2009
written by Mumchup, July 30, 2009
He's not asking you to agree with him. He is asking you to give him the same respect that he extends to you. I've met him more than once and he has never - ever - suggested that I should convert to deism.
Does that include not addressing Deism or simply not mentioning his name in the same post?

I had a long debate with CFLarson in the past about Deism in which Claus referred to Hal over and over. Hal stepped in and asked not to be named in the discussion. That's fair. But the inevitable use of the example of a long term member's position on Deism is hard to avoid.
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written by SophieHirschfeld, July 30, 2009
@skeptigirl

"But the hypocrisy of maintaining one's personal woo while trying to address all the rest of the woo out there is part of the problem. I see no practical way of addressing that point without the implications."

I have a degree in Health Ed that is likely to someday play a role in my future employment after I'm no longer able to get work in what I do now. That being said, I also know that some foods that I occasionally eat, like Ben & Jerry's Coffee Heath Crunch Bar Ice Cream, are really not good for me and have very little nutritional value. This does not mean that I've somehow done something wrong if I have a client that asks me about nutrition and I tell them to avoid fatty foods. Yes, it is irrational for me to indulge in the aforementioned ice cream too much, but it is not irrational to teach others about nutrition and teach them to avoid such things. Yes, this makes me a big F***ing hypocrite. Hypocrisy, though, is not really somehow innately evil like we always seem to pretend. Just as I'm not being irrational if I advise someone regarding their health (even though I'm a gluttonous fatty), it is not irrational for Hal to cling to his belief, especially when he acknowledges the irrationality, while also informing people about how to be critical thinkers. In fact, I think it is a great step for anyone to recognize where they lack the ability to apply their critical thinking skills! At least that gives them the power to understand where others might have valid points in arguments against them.

P. S. Stop using the word 'hypocrite' as an insult. Hypocrisy itself is not evil and is sometimes useful.

P. P. S. I'm always right, I win this internet argument and self-righteous behavior is silly.

P. P. P. S. Neener.
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written by Skeptigirl, July 30, 2009
written by dominictemple, July 30, 2009
I'm very new to the sceptical community, and I'm an atheist as a well as a critic of organised religion. There is a difference though between asking questions about someone's beliefs in regards to documented parts of their religion, somethings that I've done several times and being a dick.

Hal obviously isn't making any factual claims,
I'd like to take the personal reference out of this, now that I recall the discussion with CFLarson. So let's change that to, "Deism doesn't make any factual claims".

Yes, it does. There is a difference in saying no testable claims and saying no factual claims. You have no way to test the claim, I have invisible pink unicorns in my backyard, but it could be a factual claim nonetheless.

I've already mentioned the evidence against the factual claim a non-intervening god exists.

1) Logic: There is no way for any human to be aware of such a god. Making one's presence known is an intervention.

2) Logic: A non-intervening god is irrelevant.

3) Process: Deism is the result of trying to fit the evidence to the conclusion. The best outcomes in scientific or rational inquiry is when we follow the evidence to the conclusion, not the other way around.
Feel free to counter with the evidence for the factual claim a non-intervening god exists.

Oh, that's right, the evidence is an "odd sense of something greater than myself". But not a factual "odd sense of something greater than myself".
Hal: "And, you will note, I have carefully crafted my little deist world in such a way as to have not testable claims therein."

That's the Deist Party line, they've moved the goal post off the playing field in an attempt to avoid the game.

The problem with these mental gymnastics is they are mental gymnastics. Admitting as much does not change that fact. Having a friend of JREF believe in Deism should not prevent us from addressing Deist beliefs. Moving the goal post off the field and proclaiming game over requires the other team to agree.

I have no personal issue with any individual who chooses to believe whatever. But I find the idea of conceding the goal post is out of range to be inconsistent with rational thinking. It's not out of range just because someone declares it so.

I'm sorry anyone feels attacked when the discussion includes their beliefs, but my points are only against the beliefs, not the person. And it's not an attack, it's a debate of the issues. Of course not everyone sees it that way. Oh well.

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written by Skeptigirl, July 30, 2009
written by Alan3354, July 30, 2009
Should we accept "skeptics and critical thinkers" who believe there's a Tooth Fairy?
Yes. But that doesn't mean we have to accept their conclusions or never discuss them.
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written by sailor, July 30, 2009
It seems to me that sometimes in this discussion we have people talking at cross purposes. Let us take Gazcam

"Hal’s deistic worldview is no more/no less useful as Bertrand Russell’s notion of the celestial teapot, or the flying spaghetti monster of Pasta-farianism! It has no basis in reason"

Logically, this is true, Hal quite reasonably points out that his deism is untestable, and I am sure he would agree that it therefore of no use to science or logic. But it is of use to him emotionally. This is personal, to me acceptable, and I see no reason to hound him for it.

I am old enough to have seen a huge advance in our knowledge in my lifetime. I get huge satisfaction at least being able to see the surface of so much understanding. There will probably always by mystery. We shall never know everything, and that vastness of the mystery - the expanse of the universe - what may be out there, how it all began, along with what we have found out along the way, gives me a great sense of wonderment. This is a feeling, it has nothing to with logic, it is not incompatible with reason, but it is probably similar to the feeling of many who would prefer to call it "something else" or even "god."

I think what is happening here is many people are trying to use logic to tell people why their feelings are wrong. That does not work. People may have to justify their ideas, but they do not have to justify their feelings. Hal has made it quite clear his ideas about deism are emotional rather than logical in origin. I am happy he is a fellow skeptic.




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the work is done...
written by Gazcam, July 30, 2009
It seems to me that sometimes in this discussion we have people talking at cross purposes. Let us take Gazcam

"Hal’s deistic worldview is no more/no less useful as Bertrand Russell’s notion of the celestial teapot, or the flying spaghetti monster of Pasta-farianism! It has no basis in reason"

Logically, this is true, Hal quite reasonably points out that his deism is untestable, and I am sure he would agree that it therefore of no use to science or logic. But it is of use to him emotionally. This is personal, to me acceptable, and I see no reason to hound him for it.


Quite how you can call any of the responses (on this thread at least) hounding, I don't know. Is this the easily-offended religious sensibilities coming to the fore again?

But as Skeptigirl has single-handedly demolished the utility of deism, I feel no need to add anything further to that. The line:

That's the Deist Party line, they've moved the goal post off the playing field in an attempt to avoid the game.


was sheer poetry! smilies/cheesy.gif
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written by sailor, July 30, 2009
Gazcam, Methinks you are trying to play a game where there is none. Thus goal posts are irrelevant.
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written by Gazcam, July 30, 2009
Gazcam, Methinks you are trying to play a game where there is none. Thus goal posts are irrelevant.


When all of the ancient superstitions that could be used to frighten our ignorant and gullible ancestors into submission have been explained by science (disease, tsunamis, earthquakes, thunder, lightning, floods, famine, drought), the faithful retreat to the outer reaches of discourse, where reason cannot harm them. "If they can't test it, they can't dispute it; we're safe here for now. Let's rest a while". Personally, I feel I have little to discuss with deists: I know of nothing that they can say of value on any subject that is of interest to me (god did it, then disappeared has precisely zero utility as an explanatory framework, and only begs the question of who created the creator), but they don't seem to want to impact upon my life: they don't want me to pray, they don't want to define my life by their superstition, they don't want to exempt themselves from my taxation, or impose themselves on my legislature; they don't seem to want anything from me, apart to be left alone with their personal delusion. Now this is how religion should be! But it's so different than any religion I'm familiar with, I have a hard time thinking of it as a religion, and more an intellectual capitulation, that 'it just has to be so, it just has to be'.
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Atheists with pamphlets?
written by Ruxias, July 30, 2009
If you choose to believe in a non-intervening "god" figure I suppose that is your choice, and just as much you can't prove it we cannot disprove it. I hate it when Christians try to "save" me or tell me I am going to hell for not believing, so I can see why it annoys you when it is the other way around. I can understand your frustration with the atheist passing out pamphlets. I have never heard of any atheist doing this, and certainly none that I personally know, but I don't know that many in my home town in Indiana, which is generally religious.
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In Defense of Hal - Part Two
written by feldesq, July 30, 2009
Continuing my position:

A debate as to the role of atheism and the role of religion within the skeptical community is healthy – even necessary. And we must take care not to stack the deck in any such debate. We must not lose (or abuse) keen minds and keen wits like Hal. He has been much more than a supporter of the JREF, an emcee and entertainer. He has been an inspirational teacher, government worker, gadfly and muckraker. And he has made a dedicated effort to fight our fight in the political arena – perhaps the toughest place for us to be heard these days (well, at least in those days during the Bush administration, but still a great battleground even under Obama and his fellow Democrats).

So I say let’s debate these issues, respectfully and calmly. Perhaps the JREF will have a TAM workshop on atheism and skepticism. Perhaps we can have another group of skeptics empaneled to debate these issues, including Hal, but with firmer ground rules and some participants who have doubts and feelings akin to Hal’s (and mine), and in such a debate they are willing to consider points of view that reflect a wider base of support and less absolutist.

I have read Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins (in that order). I have been duly impressed and inspired. But I remain unconvinced, as does Hal. We are not stubborn. We are skeptical. Hal, you are not alone and not forsaken....
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written by MadScientist, July 30, 2009
@dmitrybrant: As I wrote in a previous post, I think the decision not to engage in debates over the existence of a god or validity of religions is a purely practical matter. People who say they want such a debate for the most part have already made up their mind so such conversations would be a waste of everyones' time. This is true of any question which cannot be settled by observable and measurable facts. So the JREF sticks to investigating claims which can be tested. There is no reason to exclude religious people from such an endeavor because they too can develop or repeat tests; if that were not the case then we would have no competent religious scientists, but many top scientists were and are religious and though I think that's a bit weird, it's none of my business to try to change those people as long as they don't try to promote any religion through their work (as Francis Collins is known to do).
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written by Skeptigirl, July 30, 2009
written by sailor, July 30, 2009
...it is of use to him emotionally. This is personal, to me acceptable, and I see no reason to hound him for it.
By this line of reasoning no medical provider should be concerned about a patient who is comforted by alternative medicine that evidence indicates is of no use. Let them be, they get an emotional benefit from it.

This is not to say one should hound anyone about their beliefs and I suggest you re-read through these comments as I believe you will see people are for the most part either, supporting their friend, or discussing the double standard applied to god beliefs by some skeptics. Personally, I care more about skeptics with unskeptical political views than I care about skeptics with unskeptical god beliefs. The latter are for the most part, harmless. It's typically only the non-skeptics with god beliefs that cause problems such as attacking science curricula.

But I feel the need to voice my opinion that the double standard some skeptics apply to some god beliefs is a problem for one promoting the principles of critical thinking.

.... - the expanse of the universe - what may be out there, how it all began, along with what we have found out along the way, gives me a great sense of wonderment. This is a feeling, it has nothing to with logic, it is not incompatible with reason, but it is probably similar to the feeling of many who would prefer to call it "something else" or even "god."

I think what is happening here is many people are trying to use logic to tell people why their feelings are wrong. That does not work. People may have to justify their ideas, but they do not have to justify their feelings. Hal has made it quite clear his ideas about deism are emotional rather than logical in origin. I am happy he is a fellow skeptic.
Maybe this is true for some atheists debating theists. It has nothing to do with what I've been saying. I'll let others speak for themselves to this issue.
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written by Mark P, July 30, 2009
written by Alan3354, July 30, 2009
Should we accept "skeptics and critical thinkers" who believe there's a Tooth Fairy?


Belief is not the issue.

It's questioning and doubt and not disputing the undeniable that are essential to skepticism. Not belief as such. Belief with accompanying doubts is a vital part of being a skeptic. The only way round it is, actually, to believe nothing, which is not a very useful position in life.

I have no doubt that you believe things that I consider illogical. So long as you don't assert that you are always right, and that your logic cannot be impuned because of that, we can get along.

.... ooops, but you actually do "know" best, don't you.

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Part 1 of 2
written by Skeptigirl, July 30, 2009
written by MadScientist, July 30, 2009
@dmitrybrant: As I wrote in a previous post, I think the decision not to engage in debates over the existence of a god or validity of religions is a purely practical matter. People who say they want such a debate for the most part have already made up their mind so such conversations would be a waste of everyones' time. This is true of any question which cannot be settled by observable and measurable facts.
As if facts and evidence were the key to convincing anyone in a debate. smilies/cool.gif

I'm convinced the facts support the concerns I have about the double standard some skeptics have dealing with some god beliefs. Your post demonstrates that, as you seem to categorize a god debate differently than you categorize other skeptical debates.

So the JREF sticks to investigating claims which can be tested. There is no reason to exclude religious people from such an endeavor because they too can develop or repeat tests; if that were not the case then we would have no competent religious scientists, but many top scientists were and are religious and though I think that's a bit weird, it's none of my business to try to change those people as long as they don't try to promote any religion through their work (as Francis Collins is known to do).
Here is another example of trying to wall off god woo from other woo.

First, I can only repeat myself again, I can't make you read it. No one has suggested excluding anyone, no one has said one cannot be a skeptic if one is not a perfect skeptic, and in fact, I'm skeptical there is such a being as a perfect skeptic (though I come close of course smilies/wink.gif ).

But getting back to the claim that god evidence is somehow different, it's outside the realm of science, it's emotional and faith based, not scientific, and so on. That is exactly the double standard I am talking about.

I recognize this has been the standard for much of the scientific community for many years. I'm convinced, however, that the standard is in need of a paradigm shift. There is a rational approach to understanding the Universe and there is an irrational approach. We don't need to create special apologetic categories of irrational beliefs and call them something else like faith based beliefs outside the realm of science.

I know it is popular to say science doesn't deal with gods and designers. Why not? It saves one having to address the irrational nature of beliefs one's skeptical friends may hold. It removes a point of serious conflict between theist and those who would promote critical thinking. It's the easy way out.

But skeptics are not opposed to a fight with fanatical believers. Just visit the conspiracy theory forum if you want to see conflict over deeply held irrational beliefs. Should we not debate CTers because the debate is futile? And it usually is futile. No, the answer is we should debate them as the CT believer is adding converts and they are really the target of those debates. (That and it is fun and helps one better refine one's arguments to be challenged by the fanatics.)

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Part 2 of 2
written by Skeptigirl, July 30, 2009
Then what about the claim one cannot disprove gods exist yadda yadda we know the drill. That just is not how one approaches the Universe using the rational thinking of the scientific process. You follow the evidence, you don't fit the evidence to the conclusion, even if it is a conclusion held by the vast majority of humans on the planet.

There is a scientific principle that all 'scientific facts' are subject to revision should future evidence be found. That is not evidence for gods any more than it is evidence for invisible pink unicorns. Does anyone ever seriously discuss the problem that we cannot disprove invisible pink unicorns exist? Most skeptics understand the concept of not being able to disprove the teapot or the invisible unicorn. They pay lip service to the possibility invisible pink unicorns and space teapots exist.

Yet there remains a fundamental difference in the way some skeptics actually apply that concept to god beliefs. No one really considers invisible unicorns but when it comes to gods, one supposedly has to consider them possible because one cannot prove they don't exist. Why? Science by popular vote? Invisible pink unicorn believers are rare and one needn't worry about offending them?

We cannot 'prove' the Earth is a sphere. People scoff at that because it's a fact. It is a fact but the same scientific principle applies to our conclusion about the shape of the Earth as applies to our conclusions about gods existing or not. If there appears to be sufficient evidence we call it a fact. But we know from experience that occasionally known 'facts' are overturned. At one time (probably long before Columbus) it was a fact the Earth was flat.

I bring the Earth example up because I'm convinced there is sufficient evidence to conclude that all gods are fictional characters. I conclude that is a fact.

Not everyone agrees with that. Many skeptics argue that a person's conclusion that a god experience is real is evidence for gods. I think it is evidence of an experience, and the conclusion of what that experience is cannot be said to be the evidence. A conclusion does not change the nature of evidence one observes. So we have to be careful not mixing up which is the evidence and which is the individual's conclusion.

The point I am trying to make here is, there is no reason god beliefs require or fit into any special category of 'not within the realm of science'. Why people believe and people's emotional ties to god beliefs can be studied using the scientific process as well. We certainly study other aspects of the human mind.

That doesn't mean we have to scientifically analyze every aspect of our lives 24/7. That would be absurd. Nor does it mean one has to defend every aspect of one's belief system. Again, I'm skeptical there is such a thing as a perfect skeptic. I put up with attacks against my political positions every day on the JREF forum. I don't choose to defend everything I believe every time I am criticized as being less than skeptical. I have enough self confidence not to need to do that.

My view that the god belief double standard is problematic for skeptics is probably held by as few skeptics as hold Deists views. Though I do believe I am seeing more and more people begin to shift paradigms as well. But there is no reason I should hold it against anyone that they haven't adopted my views anymore than I think they should hold it against me I haven't adopted theirs. Think how boring the world would be if we all thought alike. Who could you ever learn anything from?
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written by MadScientist, July 30, 2009
@Skeptigirl: There are many religious claims that can be tested, but a mystical creature that created the universe and never did anything since is not testable. I have my own reasons for not believing in such a fairy, but if someone believes in a supernatural being that does nothing why should I waste my time trying to convince them otherwise?

Dawkins rates himself as just under 100% atheist because he says he will change his mind if confronted with evidence. My own opinion is that it is a silly stance because there will never be evidence; on a purely philosophical basis Dawkins has taken a position in which he cannot be wrong whereas I take a position which is equally self-consistent but would be wrong if such evidence of a supernatural being were discovered. The reason I take the "risky" position is that humans have numerous defects and I believe that some defects were exploited in the past to create religions and other defects such as mild hallucinations and feelings of despair make humans more susceptible to such beliefs. However, despite such a position being self-consistent and consistent with observed reality, the argument pulls itself up by its bootstraps and I cannot see it as being any more defensible than an idle Prime Mover belief. You would be making a huge contribution to philosophy if you can come up with a defensible position for not believing in the idle prime mover; otherwise your attacks on people with those beliefs is just senseless. You would accomplish much greater good in converting fundamentalists to deists.

You are also conflating a number of issues: so what if people have funny beliefs? If they do harm to society then there is a problem, otherwise why should I believe that my own system of beliefs must be imposed upon them? You seem to be on a crusade to purify skepticism and purge skeptical organizations of anyone who does not conform to your own ideas. Such a crusade is neither necessary nor useful and it is every bit as faulty as religious crusades which have sought to "purify" the masses and to eradicate imperfections such as homosexuality and so on. Humans are not perfect, deal with it.
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written by MadScientist, July 30, 2009
@Skeptigirl: I forgot to say, you're wrong about the earth. Even the ancient Greeks knew the earth was spherical and Eratosthenes made many measurements including the circumference of the earth. The combined hemispherical views of modern meteorological satellites provide additional proof that the earth is spherical; the deviation from a sphere is small enough that you will not even realize the distortions without very careful measurements. We've even made those careful measurements and they improve as measurement technology is improved. Even 15 years ago it was already possible to measure the deformation of a region on the earth's surface to within 0.1mm over the period of a year. So if you say the earth cannot be proved to be spherical and yet it is and therefore there is no god despite lack of proof, you've just given the fanatics a good reason to laugh at you: (1) your analogy does not hold and (2) "proof by analogy" is a logical fallacy.
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written by BjartesF, July 30, 2009
While I can find mr. Bidlack's personal story moving, I fail to see how any of it has any real bearing on the question of whether or not his reasons for believing in a deistic God meet the standards we as skeptics should require before accepting any claim as an accurate description of reality. Quite frankly I think the whole thing reeks of a kind of emotional blackmail: refrain from criticizing my beliefs or appear insensitive and cruel (and make yourself really unpopular). Mr. Bidlack is not the only one who has suffered condescending or outright hostile comments for his views on religion. I suspect that I speak for many outspoken atheists who are getting pretty fed up with being called fundamentalists and extremists for unapologetically applying the same criteria for acceptance or non-acceptance to claims about god(s) as to claims about ghosts. As i wrote yesterday:

I basically agree that the proposition "God exists" is untestable (God himself, if he existed, could of course reveal himself to the world at any moment, but how would we know that the revealed entity was really God and not an alien or, for that matter, the devil?). The same is equally true of the claim that ghosts exist (Ghost are not believed to be physical entities). Now, I am obviously not able to read other people's minds, but if I claimed to believe strongly in ghosts without offering anything even remotely resembling a compelling reason, I am inclined to suspect that most of the people commenting on SWIFT would not se me as a fellow "skeptic" even if my beliefs were 100% untestable, nor should they. Just because some far-fetched claim happens to be untestable doesn't make it any more likely to be true.

[...]

The argument I am trying to make is that there is indeed a real conflict between the scientific approach to reality and the kind of approach you have to resort to in order to believe in a supernatural deity of any kind. To me insisting on good reasons is such a central part of skepticism that you cannot start relaxing this criterion and still call whatever's left "skepticism".


"Atheism" is does not put something else in God's place or otherwise add something to our ontology. To me "atheism" simply means a refusal to do so without sufficient reasons. Occam's razor takes care of the rest. Yet Bidlack tries to make it seem as if we are the ones who are making a claim through retorical devices like "non-atheism". Logically this is little more than a double negation. Arguing "against atheism" is no different than arguing that God does not "not exist", which is just another way of saying that God exists. That is the real claim here and the burden of proof is upon those who make it. The only way in which "atheism" can be wrong is if there is at least one god. The only way to prove "atheism" wrong is by proving the actual existence of a supernatural deity, and any other attempt at framing arguments in defense of religion as criticisms of "belief in atheism" etc. is just word-splitting and shifting the burden of proof.
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Very disappointed
written by TK2009, July 30, 2009
After the promise of yesterday, I had been trying to suspend my own conclusions on the issues raised until I heard both sides. I felt some of the most vocal (like Gazcam and Skeptigirl) presented their views very clearly, but what I had trouble with was understanding Jeff's position in the Denny's article that:

the question of whether there's a "god" is not addressed by the JREF directly


This was particularly true given some of the posts here that do take aim at some types of gods. I was even further confused by Jeff's submission of an article from Randi himself which seemed to directly contradict the view he stated in the Denny's piece. Despite the promise that I would learn more about this from the second post, I am very disappointed.

I read it last night, slept on it, and read it again this morning to minimise the chance of taking a knee-jerk reaction. To me at least, all this article does is provide the views from someone apparently well-respected in the skeptical community who claims to believe in god:

So the question really becomes not "can a skeptic believe in god?" as I think I am such a person.


At least, that's what I think he says, as he also says:

I don't know what I believe.


In other words, it appears that Jeff's attempt to explain his position is simply as follows: some people in the JREF believe in god, and some do not. So therefore the question of god is not addressed by the JREF.

If I am wrong, please let me know, but this seems like a huge weasel out of a difficult issue. I think Gazcam has made a very credible case that this policy is at best inconsistent (and at worst harmful, as Randi also seemed to suggest in the post from yesterday). Would I be treated the same respect for believing in other supernatural powers? If I believed in homeopathy or dowsing, would I be entitled to the same disclaimer as in the Denny's article lest I be offended?

I take MadScientist's point that:

As I wrote in a previous post, I think the decision not to engage in debates over the existence of a god or validity of religions is a purely practical matter. People who say they want such a debate for the most part have already made up their mind so such conversations would be a waste of everyones' time.


But isn't this true of other kinds of supernatural events that are discussed here too? I imagine more people on these boards have made up their minds about homeopathy and dowsing, yet we see these reported and discussed repeatedly! Does anyone really learn from discussions about failed attempts to prove these ridiculous concepts?

If the JREF does not want to enter into the question of whether there is a god, perhaps it should stop its current slide from covering issues of debunking supernatural claims to its increased focus on what seems a blog about personal issues that upset certain authors. The Denny's article (on religious discrimination) and the Scientology article (Wow! John Travlota might leave! How awesome would that be!) are cases in point. At the very least, I will then start to look forward to reading each new entry just as I used to look forward to reading Swift in its previous weekly format.
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written by ianmacm, July 30, 2009
As Forrest Gump says, "Stupid is as stupid does". Militant atheists who heap abuse on anyone who disagrees with them are among the best friends that religion has got. smilies/cry.gif
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written by Skeptigirl, July 31, 2009
written by MadScientist, July 30, 2009
@Skeptigirl: There are many religious claims that can be tested, but a mystical creature that created the universe and never did anything since is not testable. I have my own reasons for not believing in such a fairy, but if someone believes in a supernatural being that does nothing why should I waste my time trying to convince them otherwise?
I answered this already, twice. Here it is a third time:

1) Logic: There is no way for any human to be aware of such a god. Making one's presence known is an intervention.

2) Logic: A non-intervening god is irrelevant.

3) Process: Deism is the result of trying to fit the evidence to the conclusion. The best outcomes in scientific or rational inquiry is when we follow the evidence to the conclusion, not the other way around.
The scientific principles of whether or not an hypothesis is falsifiable, not being able to prove something does not exist, and the concept that facts are never fixed are touted as the reason one can't address the existence of gods with science. You can't falsify the god hypothesis, you cannot disprove gods exist and there is always the chance new evidence of gods could be found so you can never say it is a fact all gods are fictional beings. But that is not the way we approach other problems in science.

My issue is not with these scientific principles. My issue is with the double standard which we use with some god beliefs and not all god beliefs. It's arbitrary and contrived that we can conclude it is a fact that Pele is a fictional character and is not controlling volcanic eruptions, but somehow drawing a broader conclusion that all gods are fictional characters is off limits. I can say it is a fact all volcanic eruptions are the result of plate tectonics or mantle plumes, but if I make a similar statement that all gods are fictional characters I must for some reason add the caveat, but it can't be proved, it can't be tested and so on. Can you prove there are no other explanations for volcanoes except moving plates and mantle plumes? No, because we might find some evidence in the future that changes today's facts. So why don't we hear that incessant caveat "but you can't prove it" when discussing conclusions about volcanoes?

Since when does a rational thinker concern oneself with being unable to test whether or not Harry Potter and Hogwarts exist? Because Rowling created Harry Potter's world in her imagination, are we now obligated to say we can't prove it does not exist? That is absurd. We have evidence Harry Potter is a fictional character in a fictional world.

Science can't test what I define as untestable by simply saying the thing won't be detectable. It's an exercise in semantics, not an argument for gods or an argument one cannot address god beliefs with the scientific process. Science cannot examine what doesn't exist either. So what?
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Straw men
written by Skeptigirl, July 31, 2009
written by MadScientist, July 30, 2009
... However, despite such a position being self-consistent and consistent with observed reality, the argument pulls itself up by its bootstraps and I cannot see it as being any more defensible than an idle Prime Mover belief. You would be making a huge contribution to philosophy if you can come up with a defensible position for not believing in the idle prime mover; otherwise your attacks on people with those beliefs is just senseless. You would accomplish much greater good in converting fundamentalists to deists.
I have not attacked anyone. But because of the nature of the discussion (aka the double standard applied by some skeptics to some god beliefs) you interpreted my discussion of Deism as an attack on the believer or potential believer.

You are also conflating a number of issues: so what if people have funny beliefs? If they do harm to society then there is a problem, otherwise why should I believe that my own system of beliefs must be imposed upon them? You seem to be on a crusade to purify skepticism and purge skeptical organizations of anyone who does not conform to your own ideas. Such a crusade is neither necessary nor useful and it is every bit as faulty as religious crusades which have sought to "purify" the masses and to eradicate imperfections such as homosexuality and so on. Humans are not perfect, deal with it.
And you repeat your false charge. I'm sure I was very clear, the problem is with the inconsistency and double standard. I did not say the problem was with anyone's current conclusions. In fact, I went out of my way to give other examples of the differences skeptics have in their personal conclusions and how those differences were not the issue.
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written by Skeptigirl, July 31, 2009
written by MadScientist, July 30, 2009
@Skeptigirl: I forgot to say, you're wrong about the earth. Even the ancient Greeks knew the earth was spherical and Eratosthenes made many measurements including the circumference of the earth. The combined hemispherical views of modern meteorological satellites provide additional proof that the earth is spherical; the deviation from a sphere is small enough that you will not even realize the distortions without very careful measurements. We've even made those careful measurements and they improve as measurement technology is improved. Even 15 years ago it was already possible to measure the deformation of a region on the earth's surface to within 0.1mm over the period of a year. So if you say the earth cannot be proved to be spherical and yet it is and therefore there is no god despite lack of proof, you've just given the fanatics a good reason to laugh at you: (1) your analogy does not hold and (2) "proof by analogy" is a logical fallacy.
Sigh... must I defend what you didn't read?
At one time (probably long before Columbus) it was a fact the Earth was flat.
You are not telling me anything here I was not previously familiar with.
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Summary?
written by Michael K Gray, July 31, 2009
The conventionally religious are pretending that their specific inherited credulous emotionally-based delusions are immune, by definition from testing and intellectual criticism, (when in fact the claims lay squarely in the testable regime), and the many so-called skeptics here who are aiding & abetting the free-thinking travesty of godly-coddling for the sole reason that it is an historically powerful artifice.
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written by ianmacm, July 31, 2009
Throwing around words like "evil" and "delusion" when discussing religion is a habit that some atheists have acquired. While people are entitled to their views about religion, an effective debate requires at least some tolerance and understanding of an opponent's viewpoint. Simply trashing religious believers is unlikely to win any converts, and may even have the opposite effect. "Sweet reason" is not a phrase that can be applied to some atheists when they behave as though they have just swallowed a pint of vinegar.
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written by MadScientist, July 31, 2009
@Skeptigirl: Your charges of a double-standard are nothing but your own opinion. As I said, leaving out discussions of god can be purely a practical matter; there are far bigger problems to tackle. Why should any thinking person strive for ideological purity? That is neither sensible nor necessarily even possible (religions sure have tried it on in the past).

What good do you intend to accomplish? Prehistoric relics like myself would rather be doing something genuinely useful rather than debating with stones. So I would rather work on other problems and perhaps in a future generation where most people are either godless or deist then people would have the luxury of talking about why there isn't a god. Hal Bidlack has written very eloquently; he says that he finds a need for belief so why would I want to take that away from him? I think it would be arrogant and unproductive to tell such people that there is no need for emotional crutches and that they can do away with their gods; who are we to dictate what people can do without?

Some good friends of mine are very religious, but I just tell them I don't believe in such things. They believe they can't be good without their religion and I tell them I don't believe that's true either. I also tell them why I oppose any government expenditures on religious schools and any moves to bring religion into public schools; they believe it will bring about great good and I tell them I believe it will bring about great evil. Why should I try to take away all their delusions? I think the best I can do is tell them I think they're wrong and tell them why; it is up to them to choose their beliefs. That's the way the world is and the way human nature goes; denying human nature and insisting on some sort of ideological purity is nonsense, it is the very thing that leads religions to persecute other religions, homosexuals, etc. And so, rather than waste much time on god debates some people choose to stick to questions which can be answered by tests, and those tests may include religious claims about the nature of the universe, especially where people make claims of miracles to support the canonization of a saint.
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Deism, Belief and Skeptisism
written by Gaius Cornelius, July 31, 2009
I am an atheist myself.

I frequently feel that many sceptics think that people would be much better off being rational and that somehow the world would be a much better place if human affairs were arranged on rational lines.

Human being, even the sceptical ones, are not rational and while many of the world’s more serious problems could be resolved with a heavy dose of rationality, I don't think that anybody would really want to live in an altogether rational world.

No. As a sceptic I don't ask people to be rational. All I ask is that people know the difference between rational and irrational thoughts and behaviours. There really is nothing wrong with choosing to believe something based on a inner feeling and I don’t think that anybody can have been left in any doubt that Hal Bidlack entirely understands this.

It is only when people are confused about their rational and irrational beliefs that trouble starts and that we get things such as religion, alternative to medicine and so forth.
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It was fun, thanks.
written by Gazcam, July 31, 2009
IMHO, the discussion has run it course, as we've reached the point where we are starting to simply repeat ourselves, so I'm going to respectfully and politely withdraw at this point, and will watch from a distance as Skeptigirl destroys all before her! smilies/smiley.gif

Thanks to Hal and to Jeff for submitting their contribution, and providing the material for debate, which I have enjoyed. I hope, at some level, Jeff has too. In the end, I don't agree with your position Jeff, though that isn't to say I haven't changed my mind.

As a UK citizen, I can enjoy life reasonably free from the influence of religion. Don't get me wrong, we still have an enormous way to go:
- 20 academics have recently written to the Education Minister to decry the fact that evolution and the scientific method are not represented on the recently reviewed primary school (ages 5-11) agenda. It is a sad indictment that one of the UK's greatest contributions to science still is yet to be appreciated in our own country.
- our education system still sees no issue in the separatism that results from faith-based schools
- The church still has unelected representatives in the House of Lords (our 2nd legislative chamber),
- The church is still exempt from our taxation system, despite their enormous wealth and property.
- Religious representatives are still consulted on matters of ethics and morals, even in science.
- Our former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, colluded with Bush in deceiving the public on the evidence-based justification for the war with Iraq, and whilst Blair kept his religion private whilst in office, he has since been much more forthright about his religious views, and the shared religious conviction of Blair and Bush of being divinely right and having their imaginary god on their side, I'm sure has shaped our political landscape for many years to come.
- the publicly-funded broadcaster, the BBC, still has a religious remit, and uses licence-fee payers’ money on religious programming, despite miniscule TV/radio audiences
- our antiquated libel laws allow the likes of Simon Singh to be sued when criticizing unsubstantiated claims, and whilst this was in relation to chiropractic woo, I presume these laws on litigation could equally be applied in criticism of religious woo (hasn’t happened yet thankfully!).

That said, I think it is fair to say, that the public appetite for religion is in rapid decline here in the UK. From Northern Ireland to 9/11, from Iraq to Afghanistan, we have witnessed the depths people will sink to in defending their own particular flavour of religious delusion, and the UK has played a central role, which has not gone unnoticed by the UK public. The public’s attitude to religion is broadly one of apathy. Church attendance is consistently decreasing, and people see the messages of the religious as having less and less relevance to their daily lives and their own views. This decline has been rapid. My parent’s generation were very much god-fearing, and I mean that literally. When the church enjoyed more influence, the terror that priests and nuns would instill in the children in their care, had a long-lasting influence. But they are beginning to shake of these superstitions, and at a day to day level, my family and I enjoy a relatively religion-free society.

However, I understand that this would be far from an accurate picture of the state of religion in the US. The penetration of religion in your government and your society is painfully clear to the rest of the world. As a US organization, the JREF cannot ignore that local context, and at present, for purely pragmatic reasons, is probably not yet in a position to publicly apply the rational scrutiny for which the society is so famous in equal measure, to religious and non-religious superstitions. The most important point I think Hal made is that such an organization cannot afford to alienate such a huge proportion of the population if it wants to survive. Whilst I find that disappointing, I also find it to be pragmatic. Whilst I will continue to treat religion with the respect I feel it deserves (that is, very little), I have a better understanding now of why this is a luxury the JREF can not yet afford, and why Jeff felt compelled to offer his unfair, (but now somewhat understandable) disclaimer and affiliation with the believers.
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written by MadScientist, July 31, 2009
@TK2009: Randi writes honestly about his personal beliefs, but he must have his own reasons for the JREF policy of not testing the existence of god - the chief reason, I suspect, would be that you'll never get anyone to agree on a reasonable test which will convince them their god does not exist. Even on the off chance that an individual did agree to a test and did drop their belief in their god - so what? What a waste of time and effort for one person. It is far better to teach people to think properly because that is the greatest influence on people dropping religion altogether or forming their own belief in a god who doesn't interfere with the universe. This is nothing new; even before christianity was invented, the ancient Greeks already realized that education tends to make people indifferent towards religious observation. Plato even dramatizes this with his stories of Socrates and the accusations of corrupting the youth of Athens. Saint Augustine, undoubtedly one of the most vile humans to disgrace the planet, wrote at length about the evils of education; even the short and patchy description of Augustine on the Wikipedia includes a statement of his about the evil mathematicians.

Unlike claims of a disinterested prime mover who creates the universe then just lets it run, claims of homeopathy, telepathy, spoon-bending, psychic abilities, and so on can be tested. The JREF has already tested many claims including a recent test at TAM. The importance of such tests is to provide people with good information which will hopefully lead to them spurning such nonsense; with some luck those people may actually develop their thinking abilities. In the case of, say, Jenny McCarthy, if that egotistical cow has her way we will see rampant and unnecessary suffering. Most people have absolutely no idea of the horrors prevented by modern vaccines and I wouldn't wish for people to rediscover this. If you want to talk about why there is no god, there are numerous atheist groups out there. Let the JREF concentrate on other problems. Also, it is simply ridiculous to alienate religious people who share the view that there is too much woo out there and that it is doing harm. If you look at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, religious people are among the greatest contributors. Although the blind belief encouraged by superstition is a persistent threat to society, not all religious people are evil nor would they ever be, and it is questionable that you would gain anything by attempting to disprove a deity. Proofs and disproofs abound in the literature throughout the ages.
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My dog died...
written by DrMatt, July 31, 2009
Recently my 17-1/2-year-old dog died. My vet informed me that the dog was now running in Elysium with a previously deceased dog of mine. I looked blankly at her so she queried "what, you don't believe in that?" "No," I replied, "all evidence so far tells me this world and this life is all we've got, so we really must make the best of it and take good care of each other." "Well, I believe that too, but I also believe in an afterlife." I smiled and shrugged. She's an excellent vet, and her afterlife doctrine doesn't prevent her from providing excellent care to living animals, and that's all that matters to me. I wouldn't have broached the topic of the afterlife with her myself--it only came up because she brought it up. She repeated her assertion about the afterlife in a condolence card later that week. As far as I'm concerned, in her case, it's irrelevant to the excellence of my dog's care.
It's an utter non-topic for me, but my silence on the matter apparently causes some people unease, so that's how conversations of this sort get started. I respect people's good works but reserve the right to not respect their beliefs. For this, I have frequently gotten accused of "fundamentalism" and "proselytizing", though I haven't time to engage in either of those stances.
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...
written by PBall, July 31, 2009
It feels like we´ve changed:
You are not pious enough, so... burn!!!
for:
You are not skeptic enough, so... burn!!!
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Don't go anywhere, Hal!
written by mslongjr, July 31, 2009
First, I've only been to two TAMs, and I don't think I've heard enough of your jokes yet.

Second, considering the number of things on which skeptics and atheists disagree -- most people claiming to have purely rational motivations for their points of view (Ha!) -- there should be no beef between atheists and deists who both want to protect society from dangerous and malicious woo.

Third, as an atheist I may disagree with theism and deism. But I'm perfectly aware that there are millions of non-atheists in the world who are better than me at articulating their goals, managing their time and resources, and achieving things that are good for themselves and the world. Their net rationality almost certain exceeds mine, despite our disagreement on the god question. What business do I have throwing stones at such people because of one point of disagreement? Especially if they're not trying to harm me.

Especially times a million if that person is Hal Freakin' Bidlack. Keep being your own bad self.

Cheers,
Marvin
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Back to the beginning for a moment...
written by kdv, July 31, 2009
In Mr. Bidlack's piece which started this debate, he speaks of withdrawing from the skeptical movement because of his experiences such as

>Some of my dear friends attempt to somehow make it "ok" for me to be a Deist by trying to convince me that it's really just the same >as atheism, I just don't quite understand it correctly. They apologize on my behalf, and condone my naiveté, sure that I will come >around some day.....I believe I should be able to decide what I believe. I am tired of being told I am stupid, but I can get better.

It seems to me that the last sentence expresses the way he chose to interpret the rest of the quote, rather than was actually said. (I hope I'm correct in this!). But might there not be another way of looking at it? The people there found that somebody who spoke a great deal of wisdom, most of which sharing their own views, was in sharp contrast to themselves in one area, i.e. deism. So perhaps, to try to resolve the cognitive dissonance, they did their best to reconcile his views with their own. Patronising, perhaps, it may well have been, but hardly abuse or exclusion.

Suppose that just down the road from TAM, there was a philatelic conference. And suppose a couple of cabs became confused, and deposited Mr Bidlack at the philatelic conference, and one of the keen philatelists at TAM. So they both walk in. Mr Bidlack announces to one and all that he is a deist. I suspect that the most he'd get is a polite shrug, a confused look, and people would then go back to their conversations.

Meanwhile, the philatelist walks into TAM and announces to one and all "Denmark's stamps are much nicer than Sweden's!". Most skeptics would, I suspect, give him a similar reaction to that just experienced by Mr. Bidlack.

So, they both realise their errors, and smile at each other as they pass by on the way back to the correct venue. On arriving, each of them makes the same statement as before, but to the other group. And they are suddenly surrounded by animated people arguing passionately that their belief is wrong and unjustified.

Can either one of them seriously claim to be either surprised or insulted? Surely they are both getting exactly the reaction that should have seemed easily foreseeable, even without the incredible abilities of Sylvia Brown! smilies/grin.gif I really don't understand why it should lead to Mr. Bidlack's withdrawal from the skeptical movement to which he seems genuinely committed, and to which he has contributed much. People go to skeptical conventions, I think, not just to hear opinions which agree with them, but to test their views against others who nevertheless share an overall approach. Mr. Bidlack may well be a small minority in that issue, but he is probably with the majority in most others.

@MadScientist:

>You would be making a huge contribution to philosophy if you can come up with a defensible position for not believing in the idle >prime mover

She doesn't need to. William of Occam did that some little while back. smilies/grin.gif
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JREF Mission
written by Todd W., July 31, 2009
Why not look at this issue as it relates to the goals of the JREF:

* Creating a new generation of critical thinkers through lively classroom demonstrations and by reaching out to the next generation in the form of scholarships and awards.
* Demonstrating to the public and the media, through educational seminars, the consequences of accepting paranormal and supernatural claims without questioning.
* Supporting and conducting research into paranormal claims through well-designed experiments utilizing "the scientific method" and by publishing the findings in the JREF official newsletter, Swift, and other periodicals. Also providing reliable information on paranormal and pseudoscientific claims by maintaining a comprehensive library of books, videos, journals, and archival resources open to the public.
* Assisting those who are being attacked as a result of their investigations and criticism of people who make paranormal claims, by maintaining a legal defense fund available to assist these individuals.


I see no reason why someone with a religious belief cannot promote the goals of the foundation, with a caveat. The JREF addresses claims, not beliefs. We might have arguments for why such and such a belief might be silly or irrational, but unless there is a claim to be tested, all we have is an opinion that is no better or worse than any opinion offered by a believer.

I think Hal made a good point regarding the extremes of belief. If someone is actively trying to get people to adhere to a belief, whether it be a belief in a god or a belief in no god, then they are being irrational and open themselves up to justified criticism, if they have no evidence to support their efforts. Those who adamantly maintain that there is no god are just as nonsensical as those who adamantly aver that there is a god. Yet, why is it okay to harp on someone for their belief in a god, but not for adamant belief in no god?

Even when it comes to some of the typical matters that the JREF deals with (dowsing, ESP, speaking with the dead, etc.), the stance is that such phenomena are possible, however improbable. The foundation does not say "It absolutely does not exist", but rather, simply, "No evidence has shown it to exist, yet".

Ultimately, when it comes to belief, let the person believe what they will. We can point out errors in logic, remain civil in our discussion, but if the person openly admits "I know it's irrational and I'm fine with that", let it be. Certainly, speak out when the beliefs turn into actions which can then be tested or which pose the potential for harm to others (e.g., actively teaching one's beliefs as if they were fact).

I'm an atheist, myself. I get very annoyed at the militant types who shout someone down simply because they mention they believe in a god, just as it grates me to have someone trying to convert people to their religion. If it's merely a personal belief, let them have it. They can be valued members of the JREF and active skeptics. When some evidence arises that explains what is going on, re: belief in a god, akin to the ideomotor effect for dowsing or cold reading for "psychics", then we can reevaluate our stance on belief in a god.
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@Todd
written by PBall, July 31, 2009
I couln´t agree more with you. That´s exactly my point, but the two times a tried to post a somewhat long text, it never arrived.
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Atheist Meetup and Faith and Reason
written by StarTrekLivz, July 31, 2009
I want to commend Todd W's comment: not everyone who professes faith is a young-earth-creationist-fundamentalist, nor an ultra-montane-misogynist-Roman-Catholic. I personally know medical professionals, science teachers, etc. who regularly attend main-line churches and reform Synagogues but are as rigorous about facts and evidence in their professional lives as any atheist could wish for.

Similarly, I know pastors and rabbis who insist on evidence when dealing with medical care, science, etc., and are as rigorous an opponent to fundamentalist thinking and as strong a defender of the separation of church and state as any atheist would dream (in fact the head of a national organization promoting the separation of church and state is a protestant pastor).

I have also run into the sort of intolerance among the atheist community that several commentators refer to: I quit the local atheist meetup since, as I wrote to the coordinator and several members, "if I wish to be exposed to binary thinking, rigorous fundamentalism, intolerance of dissenting viewpoints, and incredible arrogance, I could just go to church (which would make my family happier) ......"
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Fundamentalism
written by DrMatt, July 31, 2009
When skepticism gets attached to Libertarianism, that's where I see Fundamentalism in action. Frankly, I'm skeptical of the powers of government, liberty, capitalism, communism, socialism, etc. to maximize happiness. I think we're still barely scratching the surface of discovering how to improve our lots, and we're all subjects in our own poorly controlled political experiments.

Other than that, I have really not encountered atheist fundamentalism, though I've seen all sorts of kindness by atheists labeled fundamentalism by folks who apparently just wish atheists would disappear. I'm not claiming my experiences are comprehensive nor even representative, but I think they must be taken into account in any would-be-comprehensive explanation of the phrase "atheist fundamentalism".
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...
written by DrMatt, July 31, 2009
@ Alan3354:
An Australian comedian went door to door somewhere in the USA selling atheism while cameras rolled. He was routinely physically attacked, chewed out, and doorslammed. Do people do the same to door-to-door Jehova's Witnesses? As far as I know, that's the only time that's ever happened, and it was done as a stunt. I saw it on Youtube years ago. Perhaps somebody will remember the chap's name so we can find it again...
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...
written by Gib, July 31, 2009
@DrMatt.
His name is John Safran, and his tv show was "John Safran vs God". He was in Utah, harassing the Mormons.
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...
written by Walk, July 31, 2009
While Hal's story brings great feelings of empathy and respect, it's hard for me to understand the comfort his deism provides. If there's an unknowable, undefinable, something-or-other that started the universe and has no effect on anything in our lives - - how is this comforting? He still believes there is no afterlife, and that this something-or-other does nothing for him.

He's certainly entitled to this harmless belief, and I don't see how it would interfere with his application of skepticism in other areas, but are there any deists here who could inform me as to what difference this belief makes in their lives?

I'm not being critical - - I just don't quite understand.
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@walk
written by truth6413@yahoo.com, July 31, 2009
It makes all the difference in the world.
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...
written by Walk, July 31, 2009
Could you explain?

Thank you.
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...
written by Skeptigirl, July 31, 2009
written by MadScientist, July 31, 2009
@Skeptigirl: Your charges of a double-standard are nothing but your own opinion.
As are all of our conclusions from the shape of the planet to the existence or not of gods. But one needn't look far for examples of that double standard. I've noted several specific examples in this thread.

As I said, leaving out discussions of god can be purely a practical matter; there are far bigger problems to tackle. Why should any thinking person strive for ideological purity? That is neither sensible nor necessarily even possible (religions sure have tried it on in the past).

What good do you intend to accomplish? Prehistoric relics like myself would rather be doing something genuinely useful rather than debating with stones. So I would rather work on other problems and perhaps in a future generation where most people are either godless or deist then people would have the luxury of talking about why there isn't a god. Hal Bidlack has written very eloquently; he says that he finds a need for belief so why would I want to take that away from him? I think it would be arrogant and unproductive to tell such people that there is no need for emotional crutches and that they can do away with their gods; who are we to dictate what people can do without?
Teach a person knowledge and you empower them for a day. Teach a person to think critically for him or herself and you empower them for a lifetime. My interest is in the hypocrisy of creating special categories one wishes to hide things from one's critical analysis.

Avoiding critical analysis of some of our beliefs is just fine for individuals. It's fine if the scientific community identifies specific times or cases when avoiding any subject, politics or god beliefs, is in the best interest of communicating or keeping the peace. It only becomes problematic when special categories are embraced by the scientific community as a matter of scientific fact, rather than being addressed as political fact.

In other words, science can address god beliefs in a number of ways. Science can draw conclusions about the existence of gods just as we draw conclusions about anything else we've collected overwhelming evidence of. If we can conclude Pele is a fictional character nothing prevents us from concluding all gods are fictional characters. So excluding god beliefs from scientific inquiry by creating special categories of faith based evidence, defining gods as not detectable or outside the realm of science is a political choice, not a mandate within the scientific process.

I think it is important to challenge the scientific status quo in this respect.

Some good friends of mine are very religious, but I just tell them I don't believe in such things. They believe they can't be good without their religion and I tell them I don't believe that's true either. I also tell them why I oppose any government expenditures on religious schools and any moves to bring religion into public schools; they believe it will bring about great good and I tell them I believe it will bring about great evil. Why should I try to take away all their delusions? I think the best I can do is tell them I think they're wrong and tell them why; it is up to them to choose their beliefs. That's the way the world is and the way human nature goes; denying human nature and insisting on some sort of ideological purity is nonsense, it is the very thing that leads religions to persecute other religions, homosexuals, etc. And so, rather than waste much time on god debates some people choose to stick to questions which can be answered by tests, and those tests may include religious claims about the nature of the universe, especially where people make claims of miracles to support the canonization of a saint.
I'll have to get back to this and the rest of the posts as I am currently out of time and this needs some time to address.
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@walk
written by truth6413@yahoo.com, July 31, 2009
As you stated about Hal, this does not interfere with my application of skepticism in other areas. For example- homepathy, ghosts, ufos, etc etc are mere myths at best, deadly scams at worst. But to answer your question: To believe you were created for a purpose and not just as some random result from an explosion eons ago gives life meaning. I know the atheist would say life has meaning anyway, but not on the same level. Atheism provides no answers to the most important questions out there. Ask an atheist where the universe came from and you will get one of two answers everytime (1) I dont know and it doesnt matter (2) we're getting closer to finding the answer. Both of these are cop-outs, in my opinion. I will take creationism's unanswered questions above the atheist's beliefs any day.
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...
written by Walk, July 31, 2009
truth6413, Thanks for the reply.

As I understand the deist position, an entity created the universe and then had no further interaction with his/hers/its creation. After the creation there would be no guarantee that life, especially human life would evolve. So how does this belief lead to your conclusion "you were created for a purpose". This "god" started the universe, it didn't create humans on purpose.
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@walk
written by truth6413@yahoo.com, July 31, 2009
There are numerous "versions", if you will. However, most would agree that we were given the ability to make right/wrong choices- along with the consequences. Also, the belief that we were created and then "abandoned" is not one that is very logical to me. Also, if evolution were actually a sceintific fact, you would be correct in saying that "there would be no guarantee of human life." It would be impossible.
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@truth6413
written by redwench, July 31, 2009
Atheism provides no answers to the most important questions out there. Ask an atheist where the universe came from and you will get one of two answers everytime (1) I dont know and it doesnt matter (2) we're getting closer to finding the answer. Both of these are cop-outs, in my opinion. I will take creationism's unanswered questions above the atheist's beliefs any day.


Interesting contradiction there. Creationism's unanswered questions are good, atheism's are bad? And since when is, to paraphrase, "I don't know, but we are getting closer to the answer" a cop-out? That particular answer has been what made modern medicine, space exploration, and virtually any other current science what it is today.

Back to the main topic. I fully support Hal in his belief. Note that is support and not agree. As long as his belief doesn't influence other people in a concrete manner, I do not see how it is relevant beyond someone's curiosity.
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written by Walk, July 31, 2009
Truth6413,

I believe you're talking about the Christian god. I'm referring to Hal's deism. He says "As a deist, I do not believe in an active god, one that interacts in any way at all with humans. " To me that would mean he didn't create us, and therefore has not given us "purpose". I still don't see how this comforts Hal.

You say, "the belief that we were created and then "abandoned" is not one that is very logical to me," although this is the very definition Hal gives to his deism. He doesn't say god created us, he says "I believe in . . . the possibility of a cosmic clockmaker, winding up the universe untold eons ago, to wind randomly and unplanned down through the laws of science and probability.

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@walk
written by truth6413@yahoo.com, July 31, 2009
I never said I agreed with Hal (or anyone else) on every issue. But the most important one, at least as I see it, is that diesm promotes one creator. And I agree completely with that. I do not agree with every "main stream" Christian either but I do on issues that, to me anyway, are the most viable. After all, doesnt everyone look at the same evidence and form an opnion they believe is most logical?
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written by Walk, July 31, 2009
Truth,

Maybe I'm being dense here, but I don't see that my original question has been addressed.

I was asking specifically about the deism that Hal describes. If there is no connection whatsoever between this "creator of the universe" billions of years ago and us, how is this comforting?
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@walk
written by truth6413@yahoo.com, July 31, 2009
Only Hal could answer that, which he will not do I'm sure. But I think this is why deism has splintered so many times.
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written by Walk, July 31, 2009
Truth,

Yes, I agree. Oh, well - - - perhaps there's no real answer to my question. If he finds it comforting, I guess that's all that matters.

Thanks for the discussion, and all the best to you.
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@redwrench
written by truth6413@yahoo.com, July 31, 2009
I never said atheism's unanswered questions are bad. If you are more comfortable with a belief system that violates known laws of science, then knock yourself out.
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written by MadScientist, July 31, 2009
@kdv: Ockham has given no defensible position for ruling out the idle prime mover; science rejects such a prime mover because what can neither be proved nor disproved is meaningless to science. What Ockham essentially wrote was that if you're given two (or more) explanations for a phenomenon, it is sensible to take the simplest explanation which accounts for all the observable facts, but that is by no means a method of establishing which idea (if any) is true.

The question of the existence of a god is absolutely meaningless to science, but we're talking about human beings here, not perfectly rational animals. For whatever reason, some humans still have a psychological urge to believe in something out there and some people have written books hypothesizing about how people can be scientists during the day and still cling to their superstitions. It is not a simple matter of trying to tell people "this is why your god doesn't exist", as anyone who has spoken to religious people knows. There are already organizations which address such issues and the myriad difficulties people encounter in leaving a religion, so why should anyone believe that the JREF must be directly involved in that battle? Do cancer research centers have double standards for not having a great interest in other diseases? Absolutely not; to suggest so is merely to set up a false dichotomy, and *that* is an act against clear thinking.
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written by MadScientist, July 31, 2009
@redwench: Yes, science answers = bad, god answers = good. You'll also note the "science saying they're getting there is a cop out", and yet over 10 years have passed and the Discovery Institute has still not released the "overwhelming evidence" which they have promised to many scientists - yet another case of religion superficially mimicking science in vain hopes of legitimizing itself.
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@truth meaning of life
written by StarTrekLivz, July 31, 2009
"I know the atheist would say life has meaning anyway, but not on the same level."

I am not certain what you mean by this. For the atheist, particularly one who does not believe in a post mortem existence, this life is the only one we have, and therefore full of meaning, a meaning which we must find and create for ourselves: no imaginary being will convey meaning upon our existence. We have an appreciation for life which someone who expects an eternal bliss could never approach. Bluntly, I found your comment ignorant and arrogant.
(for the record, my extended family includes pastors and 2 bishops of the United Methodist Church, several rabbis of the Reform and Conservative Synagogues, and my own history includes 5 years as a Benedictine monk: I am not a casual nor remote observer of religion, and came to atheism late and after much consideration)
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To Hal
written by Hipstermama, July 31, 2009
Thanks for allowing your speech to be reprinted. It has helped ME clarify things. WE all want to belong somewhere, and be a part of something, when in fact, a lot of us think or feel the same. You just gave me more to think about and I thank you!
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@stratreklivz
written by truth6413@yahoo.com, July 31, 2009
Atheists and believers do not enjoy life on the same level. Granted, there are exceptions but generally, active believers score higher on overall happiness polls. Of course, the average "skeptic" would say its the ol' placebo effect. But we aint talking about homeopathy. Authentic believers, again generally, do not do "good" because they think they'll get the eternal good-guy reward, thats a stereotype spread by the atheist. They do "good" BECAUSE of all thats been given and promised to them. Thats a big difference. I know its been asked before, but what motive does the atheist have for doing good? If we're mere animals, why should anyone tell me what I can and cant do? Tim Mcvey was an atheist and did what he felt was right in his eyes. Why was he wrong? He satisfied his desires, knew (in his mind) that this life was all there is, and went for it.
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@startreklivz
written by truth6413@yahoo.com, July 31, 2009
I meant to ask, but when did you "lose your faith", and why?
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@ truth Meaning of life vs Enjoyment of Life
written by StarTrekLivz, July 31, 2009
at this point I'm guilty of "feeding the troll" -- as has been noted by other people during the time I've read the JREF comments and your recurrent postings, you once again demonstrate an inability to sustain an argument. Your original post said "meaning of life" and I responded to that -- so you of course changed to "enjoyment" of life and mentioned anecdotal evidence of your imagined superiority.

And although you mention one person purposted to be an atheist (I had not seen him so referenced before), do we really want to go down the list of ALL the intensely religious people who did horrible things, from mere selfishness & sexual self-indulgence like TV evangelists and Republican elected officials (note that Democrats are not immune but do not pretend to be paragons of "family values") to the acts of genocide and war done in the name of various deities? I think you will find that historically speaking, the religious, particularly monotheists with a vested interested in doctrinal purity, are capable of the most abominable atrocities.
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@startreklivz
written by truth6413@yahoo.com, July 31, 2009
You say I cant sustain an argument? You did not address ANY of the points that were pertinent. Of course there are zillions of people (hypocrites) who claim to be true believers yet do the very opposite of what they should. My point in mentioning McVeigh is that he did what he thought was right, believing that when his life ended, it did not really matter. Also, its interesting that you did not know this about him (his atheism). I guess he wouldnt be the poster child for atheism, yet he took it to the limit. Instead of worrying about "feeding the troll" (which is getting quite old), try addressing the issue.
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I always liked that Monkees song...
written by Michieux, July 31, 2009
Hal, pardon my uninvited familiarity. My opinion is that what people believe is their business and no one else's. The only qualification I would make is when someone attempts to convince others of the verity of their belief, whatever that belief may be.

I've had the good fortune to have met folks whose beliefs informed every atom of their being, making of them wonderful and marvelous humans who anyone would be fortunate and grateful to know.

Of course, like almost everyone else, I've met folks whose beliefs, or professed disbeliefs, made of them persons whom one wouldn't want to spend a lot of time with.

Hold fast to your beliefs, but also continue to look for the evidence.

Best wishes,

M.
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Taking up where I left off
written by Skeptigirl, July 31, 2009
written by MadScientist, July 31, 2009
...denying human nature and insisting on some sort of ideological purity is nonsense, it is the very thing that leads religions to persecute other religions, homosexuals, etc.
I have not done this nor do I advocate insisting on any individual changing their beliefs. Why should I?

But there is a thing called the scientific process. It is a process the scientific community, for the most part, agrees on the rules of. If we didn't, then we wouldn't be able to establish what was good science and what wasn't.

I think the scientific community needs a paradigm shift over the concept of not being able to address the supernatural, and not being able to disprove gods exist. I'm confident enough in my position to believe this is an inevitable paradigm shift, not one that is merely some rogue opinion. The logic is just that obvious to me, and to a growing number of other rational thinkers. The claim there is some box you can use to put some god beliefs making them beyond the reach of scientific inquiry was never a rational concept and it needs to be re-evaluated.

I am not saying there is nothing science can put in an exclusionary box. I have no issue with the current scientific concept that things which occurred before the Big Bang as well as things which exist (if they exist) outside the Universe cannot be addressed by science as we know it.

But I am saying "faith based beliefs" are no different qualitatively from any other woo beliefs. Concluding that humans created god beliefs from imagination, not from any contact with real gods is by no means beyond the realm of science. To say god beliefs are not addressed by science is based on a purely political basis and not on a true scientific principle. The proof is in all the god beliefs science happily does address and labels as myths (as if some god beliefs were not myths).

And so, rather than waste much time on god debates some people choose to stick to questions which can be answered by tests, and those tests may include religious claims about the nature of the universe, especially where people make claims of miracles to support the canonization of a saint.
We all have our own interests. I have little interest debating the 911 truthers. So what?

But I take issue with your view that the god hypothesis cannot be addressed with "tests". Yes it can. If you stop asking the wrong question, it can. You are asking to have the pre-drawn conclusion tested that gods could exist.

The question you should be asking is, what best explains the evidence of where/when/how god beliefs originated? Once you answer that question with the obvious, "the evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion, humans made up god beliefs to explain the Universe, to deal with the losses from death, to deal with fear of death or a desire to not die, to attempt to exert control over natural processes like disease and disasters, and whichever other explanations for god beliefs are determined or will be determined in the future, you are then left with nothing else to address. The potential for gods to actually exist in the Universe is no greater than the potential for the fictional characters in, and world of, Harry Potter to exist.
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@MadScientist
written by TK2009, July 31, 2009
Randi writes honestly about his personal beliefs, but he must have his own reasons for the JREF policy of not testing the existence of god - the chief reason, I suspect, would be that you'll never get anyone to agree on a reasonable test which will convince them their god does not exist.


I certainly agree that Randi must have some reasons for the JREF policy of not testing the existence of god. The funny thing to me is that everyone but the JREF is talking about the JREF's policy on religion in a discussion meant to expressly address this issue! I thought Gazcam raised a very good question a few days ago about the disclaimer that Jeff used in the Denny's article, and there actually was a bit of a back-and-forth between them which I hoped was going to lead to a more or less clear statement about the JREF policy. To me, though, Jeff didn't do a very good job of explaining the policy in a consistent way. So all we are left with is hypothetical possibilities of the policy... I repeat them in the hopes it will make it easier for Jeff to re-enter the discussion.

One possibility is that Jeff meant to say something like this in his disclaimer: "Before posting this article, I want to make it clear that the purpose of the JREF is limited to testing specific claims of the supernatural; it does not take a position on whether a given concept (such as god) exists or does not exist." If he said that, however, I suspect there would have been a very lively debate about whether this was true, as I do believe that the JREF questions the existence of other concepts in the absence of specific claims (e.g., ghosts, psychic powers, anything Uri Gellar claims...). This also would seem inconsistent with some of the mission goals, which are broader than just testing specific claims. For example, the Website says (as Todd W also helpfully pointed out) that the Foundation's goals include: "Demonstrating to the public and the media, through educational seminars, the consequences of accepting paranormal and supernatural claims without questioning", and "Its [i.e., the JREF's] aim is to promote critical thinking by reaching out to the public and media with reliable information about paranormal and supernatural ideas so widespread in our society today." In fact, I think this claim gets it backwards--I had assumed that the testing of specific claims by the JREF was actually the means to the more important end of trying to debunk belief in supernatural and paranormal concepts.

Another possibility is that Jeff meant to say something like: "Before posting this article, I want to make it clear that the purpose of the JREF is limited to criticising the supernatural with the exception of god. This is because our foundation appreciates the large number of people who believe in god, and we do not want to deny ourselves the benefits these believers will provide our institution in challenging other supernatural claims." Again, I suspect there would have been a lively debate if he said this, and one may wonder why believers of god are given special respect over believers of other kinds of supernatural claims.

Maybe Jeff meant to say something like: "Before posting this article, I want to make it clear that the purpose of the JREF is limited to criticising the supernatural with the exception of god. This is because we cannot come up with a proper definition of god." To me, though, this raises the same problems as the first possibility--one can continually change the definition of ghosts and other things, too.

Your message raises a fourth possibility. Perhaps Jeff meant to say something like: "Before posting this article, I want to make it clear that the purpose of the JREF is limited to testing specific claims of the supernatural. It does not, however, take a position on the existence of god because there could never be agreement on a reasonable test." Again, though, this seems to raise the same problems as with the first possibility.

I, for one, would really like to have a better understanding of what Jeff meant about the JREF's position (and to have seen a debate about this position once it was clarified), and, like I said earlier, I am disappointed that he seems to have gone silent on this after raising the issue. I can imagine that the JREF members will not really appreciate debates about these issues with every post, which is why this is perhaps one of the few times these issues will be addressed.

(As a personal aside, and with apologies for abusing any contrary forum policies (of which I an unaware), Mslongjr, are you the Marvin I meant in Alaska earlier this year? This is Tim from Belgium if you want to put a face to my annoying posts!)
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written by ianmacm, August 01, 2009
At the risk of setting it all off again, there is no such thing as a "testable supernatural claim". Claims are either testable in accordance with generally accepted rules of science (eg spoonbending, dowsing, free energy machines) or they are not. Arguments over whether God exists, or whether religion is responsible for evils such as wars and famine are more in the realms of philosophical, political and theological debate. This is what Jeff may have been trying to say, but I am not going to put words into his mouth.
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Good writing, Hal
written by Diverted Chrome, August 01, 2009
Sure, Hal. Now back up your deist claims with evidence so we can all be happy.

I'm not trying to save you, Hal. I feel I would like you were we to meet. You write well and describe things succinctly.

But Big Religion's big push against skepticism, permeating all social fabric, should not be simply ignored. It's at the heart of too many issues.
----------------
"The fastest growing religion (in terms of percentage) is Wicca -- Numbers of adherents went from 8,000 in 1990 to 134,000 in 2001. Their numbers of adherents are doubling about every 30 months."

A statistically pointless fact. If I create a new religion and convince my wife to join I can say "hey, my religion is growing by 100% annually!". Meanwhile the Mormons are increasing their population by 100k at a time and now have 127 temples (not ward houses or stakes, but actual temples) in 19 countries (the country of Tonga is 32% Mormon, for example) and another 17 currently in construction around the world. At the current rate (with Mormon families trying for at least 6 kids each, regardless of the unsustainability), in my grandkids lifetime the world will be Muslim vs. Mormon, particularly with the the decline in European Catholicism and the shrinking Judaic diaspora.
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written by RichVR, August 01, 2009
Mr. Bidlack,

What you wrote moved me greatly. I am sorry for your loss. I haven't read any of the replies here. I just want to say that I'm pretty sure that I understand why you feel and believe what you do. It is not my place to agree or disagree with you, simply to understand what you have clearly written.

I will say one thing though, anyone that tries to sway your beliefs now is a moron.
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written by Skeptigirl, August 01, 2009
written by PBall, July 31, 2009
It feels like we´ve changed:
You are not pious enough, so... burn!!!
for:
You are not skeptic enough, so... burn!!!
Even though nothing of the kind has been said, this remains the theme in what people think they have heard.
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written by Skeptigirl, August 01, 2009
written by kdv, July 31, 2009
@MadScientist:
You would be making a huge contribution to philosophy if you can come up with a defensible position for not believing in the idle >prime mover


She doesn't need to. William of Occam did that some little while back.
Just to remind folks, I did answer this. Though I appreciate the support and agree with kdv's point as well.

The biggest reason to challenge the claim, we could have a non-intervening god is the definition. It was devised purely to get around the fact gods have been shown to be fictional beings every time any claims about gods have been tested. So Deists have conveniently changed the definition to a god which does nothing therefore there is nothing to test.

But by that definition, humans would have no way to be aware of such a god since making one's presence known is an intervention.
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written by Skeptigirl, August 01, 2009
written by Todd W., July 31, 2009
Why not look at this issue as it relates to the goals of the JREF:
* Creating a new generation of critical thinkers through lively classroom demonstrations and by reaching out to the next generation in the form of scholarships and awards...

I see no reason why someone with a religious belief cannot promote the goals of the foundation, with a caveat. The JREF addresses claims, not beliefs. We might have arguments for why such and such a belief might be silly or irrational, but unless there is a claim to be tested, all we have is an opinion that is no better or worse than any opinion offered by a believer.
That first goal is about promoting critical thinking, not just about testing claims.

Of course someone can have unsupportable beliefs and still promote skeptical causes. I repeat what I said earlier, I'm skeptical there are any skeptics with a perfect rational belief score. I'm certain I don't have one despite trying.
I think Hal made a good point regarding the extremes of belief. If someone is actively trying to get people to adhere to a belief ... then they are being irrational and open themselves up to justified criticism, if they have no evidence to support their efforts. Those who adamantly maintain that there is no god are just as nonsensical as those who adamantly aver that there is a god. Yet, why is it okay to harp on someone for their belief in a god, but not for adamant belief in no god?
So we shouldn't be adamant that homeopathy doesn't work and we should keep an open mind that Sylvia Browne might be telling the truth when she claims she witnesses poltergeist activity on a regular basis and has frank conversations with ghosts and spirits?

See the problem of creating a double standard for some god beliefs?

The proper language (or framing, if you will), of certainty in scientific conclusions is the key here. 'There is overwhelming evidence for or against something' replaces any claim 'something is proven' (unless you are talking about math proofs). There is overwhelming evidence gods are fictional beings. I can support that claim with evidence. When to call something a fact depends on the circumstances. Within the scientific community, most people know facts are always subject to change in light of future evidence. It need not be pointed out. In the lay community using the terminology something is a fact is important in some situations. I have no problem stating evolution theory is a fact. Technically it is a fact and a theory but nothing is ever considered proven in science including the 'fact' the Earth is a sphere. But I digress.

Even when it comes to some of the typical matters that the JREF deals with (dowsing, ESP, speaking with the dead, etc.), the stance is that such phenomena are possible, however improbable. The foundation does not say "It absolutely does not exist", but rather, simply, "No evidence has shown it to exist, yet".
You've chosen some framing here I personally would not choose to use for the reason it leaves the door open to what Rick Piltz said in Congressional testimony about global warming deniers. He said certain people, "have a predatory relationship with the uncertainty language of science".

We must frame scientific conclusions using language that is correct, but at the same time does not allow the predators to easily chew it to bits. We are up against some of the best marketers around promoting the anti-science message. The science of manipulating beliefs is their specialty and the scientific community is new at the science of communication.

...I'm an atheist, myself. I get very annoyed at the militant types who shout someone down simply because they mention they believe in a god, just as it grates me to have someone trying to convert people to their religion. ...
No one is advocating shouting anyone down. The fact that is what you think is being said goes to the thing I have been talking about. I say, "god beliefs are irrational", and people hear, "you are condemning individual god believers". Do those same people hear the same message, "we are too harsh on homeopathy believers"?
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written by Skeptigirl, August 01, 2009
written by truth6413@yahoo.com, July 31, 2009
...To believe you were created for a purpose and not just as some random result from an explosion eons ago gives life meaning. I know the atheist would say life has meaning anyway, but not on the same level.
To the question of purpose, I have not seen a religion yet that I care to adopt their mission statement. I like my individually determined purpose: enjoy life, raise my son, satisfy my insatiable curiosity, and do what I can to improve the human condition for future generations of which my offspring will be a part of.

Atheism provides no answers to the most important questions out there. Ask an atheist where the universe came from and you will get one of two answers everytime (1) I dont know and it doesnt matter (2) we're getting closer to finding the answer. Both of these are cop-outs, in my opinion. I will take creationism's unanswered questions above the atheist's beliefs any day.
Atheism doesn't answer any questions, the scientific process does. Atheism is the result of looking at the Universe using the scientific process.

But as for the answers we've gotten using the scientific process vs the answers people have gotten through theist beliefs passed down from generation to generation, science has given us all the successes of modern technology. Science produces cures for diseases and solutions for natural disaster hazards. There's no evidence gods have ever accomplished such feats.

It's funny that people believe gods cause and cure disease and create and alleviate natural disasters. Do you suppose the gods might be acting through science? smilies/wink.gif
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written by Skeptigirl, August 01, 2009
written by MadScientist, July 31, 2009
@kdv: Ockham has given no defensible position for ruling out the idle prime mover; science rejects such a prime mover because what can neither be proved nor disproved is meaningless to science. What Ockham essentially wrote was that if you're given two (or more) explanations for a phenomenon, it is sensible to take the simplest explanation which accounts for all the observable facts, but that is by no means a method of establishing which idea (if any) is true.
You are correct that Ockham's razor is merely a guide, not a scientific law and it is often misused as a law.

However, while one can word a problem so as to be meaningless to science, there is more than one way to ask the question, "do real gods exist?" Simply asking that question using wording which defines it as meaningless to science is dishonest.

Science can most certainly address the hypothesis, 'all gods are fictional characters'. I may not be able to 'prove' this since I cannot look for gods in every corner of the Universe. But I can gather sufficient evidence to conclude, making up fictional gods is a common human behavior seen historically in every culture. I can conclude there is no evidence any of these fictional gods were the result of real interactions between people and actual gods. I can conclude this sufficiently explains god beliefs and there is no further reason to pursue any question of real gods existing just as there is no reason to pursue looking for the Hogwarts Express in London's train station.

The question of the existence of a god is absolutely meaningless to science, but we're talking about human beings here, not perfectly rational animals. For whatever reason, some humans still have a psychological urge to believe in something out there and some people have written books hypothesizing about how people can be scientists during the day and still cling to their superstitions. It is not a simple matter of trying to tell people "this is why your god doesn't exist", as anyone who has spoken to religious people knows. There are already organizations which address such issues and the myriad difficulties people encounter in leaving a religion, so why should anyone believe that the JREF must be directly involved in that battle?
You could apply this rationale to anything the JREF is involved in. People need their homeopathy, who are we to question that?

Do cancer research centers have double standards for not having a great interest in other diseases? Absolutely not; to suggest so is merely to set up a false dichotomy, and *that* is an act against clear thinking.
This is a false analogy.

I agree there is no reason for the JREF to be specifically pursuing any particular issue under the skeptical tent. There seem to be a few more popular targets such as Uri Geller and Sylvia Brown. Homeopathy gets a lot more attention than Chiropractors. But you wouldn't say, hands off John Edwards because he helps grieving people.

There's no reason to specifically target theism. But there's likewise no reason to be afraid to address it.
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What makes a critical thinker?
written by Metatron, August 01, 2009
By my reckoning, critical thinking is a skill that requires honing. As it is a mental process, it must be done internally in one's own mind. To develop this skill, one is forced to evaluate their beliefs against what can be shown to be testable, or in other words, real. Those beliefs that don't meet the criteria are then rejected in favor of those that do. It is a constant exercise in evaluating one's own thoughts and ideas.

Here's what puzzles me, then: How can one profess to be a critical thinker while at the same time declaring belief in anything supernatural and therefore, untestable? If such a person is willing to accept such a major idea as fact, is it not possible (or even likely) that they would be perfectly willing to accept other woo?

I am guessing such a person could simply tell us they are evaluating each thing on it's own merit.

From the point of view of someone else though, we would be curious what criteria they are using to judge what woo they will believe or not.

In practical terms, in focused discussions, it would probably mean little if a deist or theist joins the discussion. For example, if we are discussing dowsing and it's failures, their contributions to the discussion would be considered on their own merit.
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written by MadScientist, August 01, 2009
@Skeptigirl: I don't know any science that would care to discuss the existence or absence of a god (unless someone tries to introduce some god to science - then they get torn to shreds). If anything philosophy or psychology should take that up. The thesis that god is merely a fantasy would be absolutely in agreement with all observed evidence and despite no definitive proof it would not be sensible to believe otherwise. It's almost like the case of evolution - the theory of evolution is consistent with all that is observed and we can even observe ongoing evolution. It's not quite the same case as continuing to see no evidence for a god but it's close. But if JREF refuses to address deities I wouldn't worry about it; there are plenty other groups that do.
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written by MadScientist, August 01, 2009
@Skeptigirl: The reason people go after John Edward (not Edwards) is that he doesn't help people - he harms them (and fleeces them). Try telling Penn Jilette that John Edward helps people.

I don't believe JREF has any fear of going after theism; I think it far more likely that there is enough to do without engaging in something which will have no great benefit in the short term. It's a matter of resources and perceived benefits.
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written by Skeptigirl, August 01, 2009
written by MadScientist, August 01, 2009
... if JREF refuses to address deities I wouldn't worry about it; there are plenty other groups that do.
I don't expect the JREF to pay any more or less attention to debunking deities than it pays attention to debunking any other kind of irrational beliefs. There is no reason to put any extra focus on theism by declaring the JREF to be an atheist organization. It isn't an anti-Big Foot organization, it isn't even an anti-Sylvia Browne organization, IMO. The JREF is a pro-rational thinking organization. That is where the focus is in my opinion.

It would seem, however, that some skeptics would prefer the JREF steer clear of certain toipics. I don't agree with that one bit.
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written by Skeptigirl, August 02, 2009
written by MadScientist, August 01, 2009
@Skeptigirl: The reason people go after John Edward (not Edwards) is that he doesn't help people - he harms them (and fleeces them). Try telling Penn Jilette that John Edward helps people.
I made up that example, I didn't mean it was my opinion.

I don't believe JREF has any fear of going after theism; I think it far more likely that there is enough to do without engaging in something which will have no great benefit in the short term. It's a matter of resources and perceived benefits.
There is a wide variety of interests among the JREF community. I don't spend a lot of time in the conspiracy threads, others are rarely seen in the politics threads, some stick solely to the medical threads and so on. I'm not sure there is any one person who is interested in every area of irrational thinking.

You don't care about addressing theists? Fine. Don't. There are plenty of folks here that are interested. But trying to leave god beliefs off the list is futile since god beliefs are tied to a number of other very important issues. Withholding medical treatment for your kids while praying God will cure them, fighting for ID classes in high school science curricula, installing Evangelical judges on school boards and using the Evangelicals as a voting block, all these problems overlap the very topic you think we should avoid.
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errata
written by Skeptigirl, August 02, 2009
The above should read, "installing Evangelical judges in the appeals courts and electing Evangelicals to sit on school boards and using the Evangelicals as a voting block"....
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www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/...pray-death
written by Gazcam, August 02, 2009
I'd hoped to withdraw from the discussion, as I saw it as having run its course, but on seeing this, I just had to introduce the link (see title line - this blog doesn't seem to like embedded links).

If anyone thinks we can adopt a hands-off approach to religious fantasies because they are 'personal beliefs', then this should be just the latest reminder, that people act upon these personal deluded beliefs; that is, if any were reminder needed (September 11th, 2001 isn't that long ago, yet people seem to have short memories, and are now once again happy to passively allow these religious fantasies to persist and thrive). The man in this article you might think is insane: but surely he is following the logical conclusion of his deeply held personal beliefs. Why attempt to use science to intervene on his daughter's fatal illness, if your solipsism permits the wholehearted belief that you have a man in the sky, looking down upon you, who will intervene if only you ask nicely and often enough. The 9/11 bombers were similarly just following their beliefs to the natural end: if you have convinced yourself that your particular man in the sky really doesn't want those infidels of other religions to live, then doing his bidding, whilst simultaneously granting yourself eternal life, is perfectly reasonable (and let's not patronize them by suggesting these are extremists: the god of the bible told Moses and many others to do precisely the same thing, or did the work of genocide himself on many, many occasions in the old testament).

I've no further desire to debate the point on the position of the JREF. None of the points that have been raised in objection to separating out religion from any other supernatural claim has been answered satisfactorily, in my view, and we've reached a point of repetition of entrenched views. But whilst I have said that I understand the difficult position the JREF is in, in challenging the views of the religious in a country which is so dominated by religion, I want to emphasise that there is a price to this strategy of passivism and accommodationism: people die. Of course, that isn't the consequence of specifically the JREF's strategy, but a result of the passivism of all those who refuse to challenge religious dogma. Standing by, allowing the religious to build up their sphere of influence unabated, or admonishing or distancing oneself from those who challenge these beliefs, indirectly contributes to these consequences. Not perhaps on an individual level, but collectively. There is a reason that so few US politicians will openly admit to having no religious faith, yet statistically, we know this is highly unlikely to be a true reflection of their position, since there is a strong inverse correlation between level of education and religious belief. Compare that with the National Institute of Health for example, where I believe the figure is around 90% of non-believers. The lack of numbers in the US government prepared to stand up and challenge religion is the ultimate demonstration of how religion is allowed an easy ride, and this is purely based on how they think popular opinion would react to their unbelief. That means you, US citizens! You have a duty to make your atheism known, and to apply your critical thinking to religion, not just as well as, but perhaps above all other supernatural claims, since these are the fantasies that have the capacity to cause the most harm.

I really think the time is long overdue to rethink the passive strategy advocated my here, and that those who like to sit idly by and label others, militant or fundamentalist or any other such nonsense, should start to realise the consequence of their actions.
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A plea for nuance
written by stevekelner, August 02, 2009
The discussion seems to have become rather more black-and-white than I can accept, being a social scientist. Skeptigirl has quite passionately made the case that it is a "fact" that all gods are fictional. But that assertion is inherently unprovable. If you believe in a deity existing outside the universe, using the tools of the universe to find it is pointless. You can make the case that all specifically described, universe-intervening gods are fictional, or at least their described actions are disprovable, which is not the same thing.
Saying that deists have "moved the goalposts" to make their assertions unprovable does not make them wrong, nor does it necessarily undermine their skeptic's credentials. You are merely complaining that you can't prove a deist's god fictional -- though you are certain it is anyway. Based on what? You can argue that deists don't want to confront the issue of proving whether a god exists, and that may be true, but again, so? That's your problem, not theirs. At least they've found a way to remove god-discussions from the physical universe, and therefore they keep their beliefs internal, where they belong, instead of trying to impose them on the physical (or political) universe, which is the complaint of most skeptics today, including myself.
I doubt atheism is a requirement for skepticism, and saying so puts all "believers" in the same, quite narrow, box, which I resent just as much as an atheist might if I claimed all atheists were amoral, Communist, traitors to democratic principles, yada yada yada.
You may disagree with their religious beliefs, but it remains a fact that a great deal of excellent science has been carried out by religious people -- and I'm not talking about the middle ages here. I'm talking about Jesuit priests, who see exploring God's creation as a way of praising Him. Indeed, many Jesuits have advanced evolutionary science. From their perspective, God gave us (through evolution) the brains and capabilities to appreciate and understand the universe, and merely taking it on faith is an unacceptable waste of God-given gifts. You may hate every word of that, but it doesn't make them inferior scientists. If anything, they have harnessed their faith to discovering the truth of how things work in this world. To tar all religions with the same brush is simply a poor description of the facts.
The ability to believe, to trust, and to be part of something larger than yourself is not fictional; it is the basis for civilization. And that ability has been shown categorically to add value in areas as diverse as team performance and immune system responsiveness. I suggest a bit more nuance in any discussion of "religion," "faith," "belief," and indeed "atheism" than I have seen in this thread.

So back to one of the central questions: Should JREF challenge religious issues? I've seen several answers proposed here:
1. Yes, because they are contradicting scientific reality
2. No, because lots of people are religious and at least mostly skeptical, and we don't want JREF to lose support
3. Maybe, depending on how loony the claims are.
4. (Implicitly) Yes, because those deluded believers need to be smartened up.

Putting aside the issue that JREF has plenty to do even if all religious issues are ignored, I think the answer is relatively simple:

Yes, when the issue is of great importance, aligns with the JREF's mission, and there is a clear and disprovable conflict between a given religious belief and scientific findings.

By this criterion, there's no point in trying to disprove deism, even were such a thing possible. It's not important, and has little impact on the "real world." But attacking Intelligent Design is absolutely appropriate. Creationism is a threat to all science, and the attempts of the Intelligent Design people to rewrite the definition of science even more so. People who make that the centerpiece of their religious beliefs will not appreciate the challenge, but the world is bigger than they are. We must trust -- there's that word again -- that in the long run, the defense of science will be accepted for what it is.

I fully respect the atheists' perspective, and accept that we might never agree on that one issue, but I urge a slightly more nuanced view here -- the defense of rationalism is not necessarily the same as attacking belief. And atheists are absolutely not entitled to judge someone who believes in the possibility of a larger reality as deluded or irrational any more than those people are entitled to judge atheists the same. But when those beliefs are clearly and self-evidently in conflict with reality as we know it, it is entirely appropriate go after them, with big sticks.
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That's a hell of a post, Steve.
written by Metatron, August 03, 2009
You put this into clearer focus for me, at least. I relate it to Hal's position as a deist. It seems to me at no point are his deist beliefs in conflict with reality as we know it. They are, therefore, private and irrelevant to anyone except Hal.

As for the JREF's actions, I don't see how taking on a belief system that is untestable either way can be productive. The JREF couldn't win, as there's no winning in that game. I agree, it is better to choose our fights, as it is, to those that are winnable with fact and reason against woo that is indeed in clear and disprovable conflict with scientific findings.
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Difference is in testability
written by Todd W., August 03, 2009
@Skeptigirl

So we shouldn't be adamant that homeopathy doesn't work...See the problem of creating a double standard for some god beliefs?


One thing I should have been more explicit about in my post is the difference in quality of the claims. Homeopathy can be tested. Speaking with the dead can be tested (depending on how the "psychic" states their claim, of course). Photos of "ghosts" can be tested. Dowsing can be tested. All of those other claims have some element of it that can be subjected to observation and experimentation.

However, the belief that a god exists cannot be tested (at least not yet). We can, in some cases, test claims about said deity's interaction with the world, but the existence of that deity cannot be tested. If anyone states that we should hold belief in a god or gods to the same level of scrutiny that we hold homeopathy or dowsing, then how? We can point out the fact that there is no evidence to support such a belief, true, and say that it is irrational. There seem to be those individuals, albeit rare, however, who persist and become rather vehement even after the believer has acknowledged that their belief is irrational, stooping to some of the same tactics as the fundamentalist Christian, for example.

To be clear, when I talk about the militant atheist-types, I am not calling out people who, during civil discourse, say that belief in a deity is irrational. Rather, as I stated earlier, it's the ones who resort to name-calling, belligerent comments and shouting down the believer, rather than sticking to the substance of their arguments.

The primary point of my earlier post was simply that there is a difference. I'm not creating a separate standard for one belief versus another, but rather pointing out that we can really only have solid, science-based arguments when the belief in question can actually be tested.
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Debating deism is irrelevant
written by jcwept, August 03, 2009
Hal, bless him, is plainly dealing with emotional pain and deep guilt in an irrational way, which is his privilege as a human being. But someone's admitted inadequacy in the face of severe, prolonged and compounded trauma should not allow them a platform on which to propound irrationality from within a sceptical organisation, which is what Hal is doing. As should anyone experiencing grief and despair, he should address his own irrationality in private, and not attempt to validate it with the rest of us.
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@jcwept
written by stevekelner, August 04, 2009
Jeff asked Hal to post this - he's not attempting to validate "his own irrationality" with the rest of us at this time, though his added introductory note has an important point about how he is more dedicated to skepticism but getting alienated by fellow skeptics. One expresses feelings to ones friends, and he counts many of the JREF as friends. In 2003 he offered an idea to James Randi, who agreed to have him speak, which allowed him to express something which had clear emotional value to him, and might to other people. One may disagree and still respond in an empathic manner.
And I think my previous comment stands. He's expressing a means by which one may believe in a deity that has no impact on the daily world, and therefore he keeps it safely away from the real world. If this is a means by which he can manage his own emotion, who's to say this is irrational? I think it is rather well thought out, actually. Better than pretending emotions don't exist and watching them bubble up in truly irrational ways.
He's also made another point, which I don't see being discussed, which is that he feels increasingly estranged from people he sees as colleagues in a common cause. The reaction from some appears to be "he's irrational - he's deluded" and therefore "he's not one of us," which rather makes his point understandable. If that's the best people can do for someone who's been a strong advocate and shares friends and feelings with the skeptical movement, then I am a bit skeptical of the community!
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@stevekelner
written by Walk, August 04, 2009
Hi Steve,

Thanks for the well thought out posts. I asked this before and only got a response from someone who didn't actually answer the question. (Maybe there is no good answer). But, perhaps you could shed some light - -

He's expressing a means by which one may believe in a deity that has no impact on the daily world, and therefore he keeps it safely away from the real world. If this is a means by which he can manage his own emotion, who's to say this is irrational?


While I agree with your most of your statement, I can't fathom how Hal can derive any actual benefit from such a belief. He says it's irrational, he has no evidence, this deity has no effect on his life or our world in any way. So what good does it do him? How does it bring comfort? All his belief seems to do is negatively affect his life with regard to alienating some of his acquaintances, and causing confusion with respect to his relationship with the JREF.
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Erratum
written by Walk, August 04, 2009
I just realized he didn't say his belief was "irrational" as I stated above, he said:

I am a convoluted, inconsistent pile of contradictions. I am absolutely certain about nothing at all.


My question still stands - - how is it a comfort to believe there was an unknown, undefinable, unreachable something-or-other that MAY have created the universe, supposedly with no idea the the earth would eventually come into existence, that life would begin, and eventually lead to humans?
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I can't speak for Hal, but...
written by stevekelner, August 04, 2009
I can think of a number of ways that having an ineffable deity could be of use:
1. Someone to direct our emotions to, when it is not appropriate anywhere else.
2. A place to put concerns in order to safely ignore them or defuse them.
3. Feeling that there is something beyond the universe we know, especially when it appears dismal and dying or you are feeling particularly angsty, because at the end of the day believing that there is something outside the universe suggests that we could transcend the universe as well

Cursing God has a long tradition -- Job didn't do it, but he's probably the only one. Most people would prefer to direct their anger at some kind of person, rather than at the second law of thermodynamics. ("Curse you, entropy!") Giving a focus to your anger helps get it out of your system. Perhaps this is a punching bag approach to religion, but if it works, it works.
Similarly, it may not appear to be "rational," but you can take something you are obsessing about, write it down, and shove it in a box (Barry Longyear refers to this a "God Box"), and push it out of your mind. Assigning your worries to a deity -- even an unreachable one -- can act as a device to reorder your mental priorities.
As for the last, I have found it comforting to imagine talking about things with various deceased people -- my grandmother or my mentor, say, which I find helps me sort out my thinking. Imagining a nice posthumous discussion to sort things out with people can be useful for me. As they say, funerals are for the living.

I don't know that Hal would consider any of these things himself, I'm just proposing some possibilities. Now for those who say "this is all irrational," all I can say is that it isn't irrational if it works. Science, at its core, is about what works. If you like, you can consider points one and two, for example, to be attention-focusing devices to channel thoughts in a more productive path and give yourself a "thalamic pause," if anyone gets that reference. There is some neurological basis for this -- moving from the limbic system into the neocortex for processing is a way of attenuating emotion. For some people it might be more satisfying to address a person -- even an imaginary person. Where it gets people into trouble is when they mistake the imaginary for the real.

It's also worth noting that we organize our thoughts in story form, and have massive amounts of neurological "programming" around engaging with people, being a fundamentally interpersonal species -- think of language, reading faces, reading body language, the ability to recognize even sketchy faces and subtle emotion, etc. You naturally remember and think in story-based terms, and we are programmed to interact with human beings so strongly that we attribute human reasoning, traits, and feelings to animals even when we have no solid reason to do so, and can get emotional reactions to simple cartoons that happen to resonate with our "programming." (Just look at LOLcats!) There's a reason why people keep coming up with a personified deity -- that's just the logical extension of the way we naturally engage with the world around us -- you talk to people. Taking advantage of that is merely using the "software" and "hardware" you have already -- it's a programming convenience.
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Good Stuff
written by Walk, August 04, 2009
Steve,

Thank you!

I learned a lot from your post. Admittedly, I hadn't thought of any of the reasons you put forth. I would now imagine that Hal perhaps gets comfort from his belief in one or more of the ways you stated. Also, I now realize that even though I have no god belief, I still occasionally address my inner thoughts to "something" outside of myself. Go figure.

And as you said:

it isn't irrational if it works


Your excellent post has helped me with something else I've been working on - - trying to be less critical and more understanding.

Thanks again.
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No-one's saying he can't believe what he likes AND be a skeptic
written by jcwept, August 06, 2009
...but the man's expressing a midlife crisis - and I don't begrudge him that after what he's been through. But please let's not entertain the thought that Hal's account of his inner turmoil has anything to teach us about science, beyond that of of psychology. There is no god, remember?
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@jcwept
written by stevekelner, August 06, 2009
In fact, people are saying that he cannot believe what he likes and be a skeptic, jc; people seem to think that his views are compromised by any belief in a nonmaterial deity, including you implicitly by your Parthian shot at the end of your post.
And for the record, I am a psychologist, and a researcher rather than a clinician, hence my posts. So, yes, I rather think Hal's turmoil does indeed have something to teach us about psychological science -- which is a science. Agreed?
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