Category Archives: Reason

Does it matter if atheism has a terrible retention rate?

In my last post I examined the question, Was the US founded as a christian nation? The point of the post wasn’t to answer the question, but to examine the implications of the possible answers. If the answer to the question were “yes,” what would this entail? If the answer were “no,” what would this entail? I decided that the question didn’t have great implications for how we should run our government today, even though in political debates it is often assumed to be decisive. The fact is that there are ways of governing that work demonstrably better than others. We should do what works, not do what we did in the past simply because of tradition.

The point I tried to make is that not only do people skew facts to support their argument – they skew facts to support their argument even when doing so doesn’t actually support it. “The United States government was based on christian principles, therefore it should still be based on those today” is a logical fallacy. It is an argument from tradition. Nonetheless, people are swayed by such arguments, and that is why people like David Barton distort the facts about US history (as I linked in my previous post) in order to affect decisions about government today.

Another arena where you can see this logic at play is in statistics about religion. There are all sorts of (reputable) statistics out there, about what percentage of Americans are Protestant, about how many Catholics follow Catholic doctrine, about how the various religions are increasing or decreasing in number of members. These facts, too, can be cause for alarm. “My religious sect is losing adherents! That could mean there is something wrong with my beliefs! I must explain away this data somehow!”

As I noted in my previous post, I have definitely felt this urge to “explain away.” Most recently was when I saw this data showing that atheists have the lowest retention rate of all religions surveyed (and it was accompanied by the obligatory “this proves there’s something wrong with atheism” shtick by religious bloggers.)

US Religious Retention Rates

Here was my initial thought process: “Oh no! Only 30% of Americans raised as atheists remain atheists as adults! I must defend atheism!”

…But do I really need to defend atheism because of some statistics about retention rates? (And I will assume for now that the statistics are accurate, even though they may be somewhat off.) Again, the best way to think about these things is to set aside the facts for a moment, and think in hypothetical terms. Does it matter if a particular religion or non-religion loses child adherents as they become adults? Why do we think this happens? What does it mean?

The first thing to observe is that atheism’s low retention rate has no bearing on the fact that it’s true. There really isn’t any credible evidence for the existence of the supernatural (or as I often say, “the supernatural” isn’t even a coherent concept). So whatever popularity means, it isn’t an indicator of truth.

The next thing to consider is that there must be many factors that influence retention rates – culture (is questioning of authority encouraged?), the presence or absence of competing religious ideas, degree of religiosity (Mormons may be more religious than Methodists), the degree of social pressure to remain in the religion, etc. A low (or high) retention rate could mean a lot of things. We simply don’t know – but that doesn’t mean we should try to explain it away.

Now it just so happens that the proportion of atheists is increasing, both in the United States and in the world. Children “raised as atheists” (read: taught to think) may not always remain atheists, but this is made up for by all the adherents of other religions who convert to atheism (see the graphic at the bottom). This doesn’t mean atheism is true, but it demonstrates that retention rates are not the only thing to look at when you want to know how a religion is “doing.” So sometimes what the data entails is that… you need to look at more data.

One final comment: there may be studies that have been done, or could be done, to find out why so many children “raised as atheists” become religious adults. If we knew the answer to this question, we might be able to do something about it. And considering that atheists are better at acting in accordance with evidence than members of any religious group, this seems like an issue we’re well-suited to addressing.

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August 14, 2012 · 9:00 am

A tribute to Hitch

Here is the tribute to Christopher Hitchens that was shown at the Global Atheist Convention last weekend.

One of the things I loved about Hitch was his ability to pick out the precise facts from science and history that demonstrate why a particular religious belief is so absurd. He gets to the heart of the matter, every time. You’ll see lots of that in this video.

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Something horrible happened… so thank God

When Seth (aka The Thinking Atheist) gave a talk at the Oklahoma Freethought Convention last July, he pointed out that Christians are willing to say that God is “good” no matter what happens in their lives, no matter what terrible misfortunes befall them. Christians will always find a way to rationalize it, leaving God completely unrequired to do anything to earn the title of “good.” The Thinking Atheist used a few hypothetical scenarios to illustrate this, and I blogged about them at the time.

Now, a near-perfect equivalent of one of those scenarios has occured (as Seth himself pointed out on his Facebook page). It’s awful – a man was attacked in his home and stabbed thirty-seven times. He had to carry his intestines in his hand to get to the phone. Fortunately, he survived – no doubt due to heroic medical intervention. Yet this report on the incident by a Christian network doesn’t mention thanks for anyone but Jesus, and those sentiments are echoed by many of the commenters below. First of all, why no thanks for the medical team that saved this man’s life? Second, where was Jesus when the man was being stabbed thirty-seven times?

It doesn’t make any sense.

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Merry Christmas, and some reflections on belief

I remember being touched by the Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus editorial as a kid. I’m not sure why. Certainly I believed in Santa Claus at the time, and it’s always nice to have one’s beliefs validated. But I think there’s more to it than that.

I read the editorial again about a year ago – it was my first time reading it for many years, as well as my first time reading it since becoming an atheist. I inwardly cringed at the part about the lawn fairies – how many bad arguments for the supernatural begin with “just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there”? But still, I found myself emotionally drawn to the message. The editorial as a whole gave me that warm, fuzzy feeling that, no doubt, is the reason for its popularity.

There is a value we attach to the ability to “just believe” in something. Recall the story, The Polar Express, in which a boy visits the North Pole and receives a bell from Santa Claus’ sleigh. When he returns home, he finds that he and his sister can hear the bell’s ring, but their parents cannot. The story ends with these now-famous lines:

Sleigh bellAt one time, most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.

Do you feel the emotional pull of that closing sentence? I feel it pulling me, and yet I don’t even know what it is about. What are we supposed to believe in?

Similarly, I recall an argument with a Christian friend of mine in which she remonstrated me, as an atheist, for “not believing in anything.” This is silly, because I believe in a great many things, but I think she meant it in more of a “you can no longer hear the bells ringing” sense. The message is that I am supposed to “just believe” in something – something magical, something improbable, something that requires faith rather than reason. Many people have a “belief in belief,”* and there is alleged to be something wrong with those of us who don’t.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus is about belief in belief. I read it again this year, and the coziness of the idea was gone for me. “The bell has gone silent,” as my Christian friend might say.

But it was an imaginary bell to begin with. The wonder and marvel of the actual universe we live in is represented by a million bells, each one ringing just as sweetly as any fiction.I don’t know why we are attached to the idea of believing in things we have no reason to think are true, but we need not be. We do not lose anything.

Greta Christina has done a lovely rewrite of the Yes, Virginia editorial this year which illustrates this point. It’s a message that both my heart and my head can get behind. Do give it a look.

And have a Merry Christmas.

 

*Credit goes to Daniel Dennett for this phrase.

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The Catholic Church wants us to believe in exorcism, but not Harry Potter

The idea of an exorcism is, I think, one that I would have found ridiculous even when I was a believing Catholic. It just smacks too much of the kinds of magical explanations invented by ancient humans who had no idea how the world works. Apollo drives the sun across the sky each day? Sure, why not.

Christianity got its start during these times, and it hasn’t let go of the old mythologies, even though the rest of the world has moved on when it comes to blindly accepting as true magical explanations that cannot be verified. Case in point: exorcism.

The Roman Catholic Church teaches, in all seriousness, that the Devil takes control of people’s bodies. From a 2010 New York Times article on the subject:

Some of the classic signs of possession by a demon, Bishop Paprocki said, include speaking in a language the person has never learned; extraordinary shows of strength; a sudden aversion to spiritual things like holy water or the name of God; and severe sleeplessness, lack of appetite and cutting, scratching and biting the skin.

Now if you could take control of people’s bodies and you wanted to sow evil in the world, would use your power to make people bite themselves? I would think it more effective to take a person in a position of power, say in the government or in a large corporation, and use that power to perpetuate violence or economic collapse. Maybe start a war, maybe enslave the masses. Something like that. But biting yourself? Seems like that’s aiming a little low.

But see, I’m already thinking about this more than those who create such myths. Someone was acting crazy? The Devil made them do it. Mystery solved! It’s best not to bother with all the little details (and the devil is in those too, you see).

These stories are silly. Any person with half a brain can see that. And if you can believe in this nonsense, what else can you believe in?

Harry Potter, apparently. A brand new article in The Telegraph quotes a Catholic priest saying some very silly things about demons and wizards (the least of which being that he thinks one of those is real).

Father Gabriele Amorth, who for years was the Vatican’s chief exorcist and claims to have cleansed hundreds of people of evil spirits, said yoga is Satanic because it leads to a worship of Hinduism and “all eastern religions are based on a false belief in reincarnation”.

Reading JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books is no less dangerous, said the 86-year-old priest…

The Harry Potter books, which have sold millions of copies worldwide, “seem innocuous” but in fact encourage children to believe in black magic and wizardry, Father Amorth said.

I would think that any misconceptions a child had about the existence of magic would be allayed upon realizing that it isn’t really possible to fly on brooms or turn people into frogs. But even if some young Harry Potter fans have been deluded into thinking that their fantasy books are, um, not fantasy, is there really much harm in it? Eventually they’ll realize that all events, even the most magical-seeming ones, have natural explanations, and that’s what makes reality different from fantasy. The truth is right there for you to see.

Ah, that’s the problem then. Religious people such as Father Amorth actually want children, and adults, to believe in magic – as long as it’s their kind of magic. Amorth doesn’t want us to reject “truths” that can’t be verified, because then we’d reject the mythology that is his religion, as well. This is why it’s common for religious people to act as if they’re threatened by mere fiction – because if you’re already amenable to believing one set of myths about reality, what’s to stop you from believing another? A rational person would say the idea of making objects float using magical words is silly. But you can’t think Harry Potter is silly without thinking that demon possession and zombie messiahs are silly as well. And that’s the problem for the Catholic Church – they want you to buy their stories, but not anyone else’s.

(via Pharyngula)

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William Lane Craig explains how he gave up on reason to become a Christian

William Lane Craig is a well-known theologian, author, and Christian apologist. People I associate with tend not to like him very much, because he ignores the substance of his opponents’ arguments during debates, he’s a pompous windbag, and he thinks genocide and infanticide are a-okay if God says so. (This article explains the last two.)

But I’ve just come across the story of how Craig became a Christian (it’s part of a Q&A on his website), and it’s quite amazing. In his answer to a Christian asking him how he deals with doubt, Craig admits: he didn’t accept Christianity because of the evidence, he wanted very badly for Christianity to be true, and ignoring reason played a large part in his conversion. This is fascinating, because in debates Craig always attempts to give a strong rational argument for why his religion must be true, and yet in this letter he admits that his beliefs do not rest on reason at all – but on the intricate machinery of self-deception. Craig tells us all this without seeming to understand how damning an admission it is!

The Q&A begins with a question from a 21-year-old Christian, named Steven, who asks Craig how he deals with doubt. Steven is very honest:

Right now it feels like I believe in God on a good day but doubt His existence on another day. But even on those good days it only really feels like I take comfort in the prospect of God’s existence and it’s not that I actually believe in Him. I want to believe in God more than anything. I understand what happens if God doesn’t exist and I can’t live with thinking that. But the thing is I can’t force myself into belief. There will be days when I have to tell myself there’s meaning just so I can take joy in being with my family and friends, that it isn’t all pointless. It’s as if I’m in a balance of belief and non-belief, tipping back and forth as the days go by.

Bravo to Steven for his intellectual honesty! He desperately wants to believe in God, but he just doesn’t find the idea convincing. It’s a shame he thinks “it’s all pointless” without God, because as millions of affirmed atheists around the world can tell him – it isn’t. But if I were to give Steven advice, I would say it’s important to recognize that the only reason he’s still searching for evidence for God is because doesn’t like the alternative. He’s not searching for evidence because he thinks there’s anything to find – but because he wants to escape a conclusion that he finds unappealing. It’s a bad idea to let your emotions influence you in this way if what you’re interested in is truth.

Enter Craig, with an account of how he dealt with doubt on his own road to evangelical Christianity.

Craig starts off by admitting that he became a Christian not because it made sense, but because it made him feel good.

…I became a Christian my third year of high school, not through any careful consideration of the evidence, but because the Christian students who shared the Gospel with me seemed to be living on a different plane of reality than I was. Their faith in Christ imparted meaning to their lives along with a joyous peace, which I craved.

After high school, Craig went off to study theology at Wheaton College, where the prevailing atmosphere was that one’s beliefs should be based on argument and evidence. One of Craig’s theology professors commented that if he thought Christianity were unreasonable, he would renounce it. Sounds like a good idea to me, especially if you’re interested in whether or not Christianity is true.

This commitment to reason scared Craig, however, and he did the thing that many religious people do when they find the evidence for their beliefs lacking: he gave up on reason.

Now that frightened and troubled me. For me, Christ was so real and had invested my life with such significance that I could not make the confession of my professor. If somehow through my studies my reason were to turn against my faith, then so much the worse for my reason! It would only mean that I had made some mistake in my reasoning.

If you give up on reason, then how do you know whether what you believe is true? What else can “faith” mean here other than “what I want to believe, because it feels safe and comfortable”? Craig seems to think it is convincing proof of Christianity that the idea of Christ invested his life with such significance – as if no person has ever made themselves feel better with a lie. Surely this must be what Craig thinks every member of every other religion is doing – deluding themselves, deriving meaning and comfort from mistaken beliefs about reality. How does Craig know he isn’t doing the same? Reason and evidence are the tools he would have needed to distinguish between truth and self-delusion. But Craig threw those tools away so that he wouldn’t have to question the beliefs that were so important to him.

Then Craig denigrates the very concept of evidence:

God has provided a more secure foundation for our faith than the shifting sands of evidence and argument.

Ah, yes – the troublesome “shifting sands” of evidence. Never mind that these shifting sands have given us knowledge that is rock-solid enough to eradicate smallpox, put humans on the moon, and calculate how old the universe is. It is the sands of evidence for Christianity and other superstitions in particular that seem to keep shifting. Has Craig ever considered that this might be because there is no evidence?

So what are Craig’s beliefs based on if not evidence? The answer is: feelings.

I hold that argument and evidence play an essential role in our showing Christianity to be true, but a contingent and secondary role in our personally knowing Christianity to be true. The proper ground of our knowing Christianity to be true is the inner work of the Holy Spirit…

Also:

[God] has given us the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit as the proper foundation for our knowledge of the great truths of the Gospel.

Basically, you just feel it in your heart that two thousand years ago the son of God was born of a human virgin, performed miracles, absolved us of our sins when he died, and then rose bodily into an ethereal other realm. That’s some pretty specific information to derive from a feeling! But no matter, Craig says it can happen. It’s fine with me if people claim to have such feelings, but again, how do we know these feelings tell us something that’s true? How can we differentiate between the people who feel Krishna or Allah in their hearts (who are clearly mistaken), and the people who feel Jesus? The “testimony of the holy spirit” is hardly a foundation for knowledge if you have no reason to believe it exists.

Nonetheless, Craig advises fledgling Christians to assume that the holy spirit exists, to invite God into their hearts, read the Bible, pray, confess their sins, and go to church – basically to be Christian – and then the holy spirit will make itself known to them.

Of course, people have done this. People have earnestly and honestly asked God to come into their hearts, and still been left out in the cold (I really urge you to read this short, yet powerful story of such by Langston Hughes.)

Craig would blame these people for their failure to believe. Their mind wasn’t truly open to the holy spirit!

But why does the holy spirit need such assistance? Having an open mind means not ruling out possibilities before you’ve started your investigation. Craig, however, wants us to rule out the possibility of Christianity being false! He advises us to assume that God is real, to have conversations with him, and to socialize with other humans having the same delusion… and then we will come to believe!

Is it any wonder?

Yes, human psychology is such that if you bias the mind in this way, especially if you have people act as if something is true, their thoughts will come to coincide with their actions. You hardly need a magical spirit for this to occur – wishful thinking, socialization, and dissonance reduction will do it for you.

Keep in mind that every non-religious truth that humans have discovered did not require a mind biased in favor of that truth to accept. One does not have to assume the existence of atoms or continental plates to be convinced they are real – the evidence is convincing enough, and it has convinced even those who did not want to be (aka those who were biased against the hypothesis.) One wonders why God cannot be more convincing than plate tectonics.

In the end, Craig not only eschews the need for evidence of God, but he makes belief in God completely unfalsifiable!

Be on guard for Satan’s deceptions. Never lose sight of the fact that you are involved in a spiritual warfare and that there is an enemy of your soul who hates you intensely, whose goal is your destruction, and who will stop at nothing to destroy you. Which leads me to ask: why are you reading those infidel websites anyway, when you know how destructive they are to your faith? These sites are literally pornographic (evil writing) and so ought in general to be shunned. Sure, somebody has to read them and refute them; but why does it have to be you? Let somebody else, who can handle it, do it. Remember: Doubt is not just a matter of academic debate or disinterested intellectual discussion; it involves a battle for your very soul, and if Satan can use doubt to immobilize you or destroy you, then he will.

Yes! Once you become convinced that Christianity is true, you must be sure to never think too hard again, because what looks like reasonable doubt might actually be Satan!

And thus is Craig’s abrogation of reason complete. In his account, Craig made it clear that he accepted belief in Christianity because it gave him comfort, and he looked for ways to sustain that belief in spite of what his intelligent mind was telling him. Now, he is so committed to maintaining that delusion that he has come up with ways to justify never questioning his beliefs again.

If you see Craig in a debate, or read one of his books in which he lays out arguments for God’s existence, keep in mind that his belief does not actually rest on evidence or reason. He merely uses arguments to win people over to his side.

(h/t Dia Pente)

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