The Truth Still Matters

By Sean Carroll | January 19, 2010 12:57 pm

Over at the Intersection, Chris Mooney is concerned that we haven’t had a science/religion tiff in what, days? So he wants to offer a defense of organizations like the National Center for Science Education, who choose to promote science by downplaying any conflicts between science and religion. For example, the NCSE sponsors a Faith Project, where you can be reassured that scientists aren’t nearly as godless as the newspapers would have you believe.

In the real world, scientists have different stances toward religion. Some of us think that science and religion are (for conventional definitions of science and religion) incompatible. Others find them perfectly consistent with each other. (It’s worth pointing out that “X is true” and “People exist who believe X is true” are not actually the same statement, despite what Chad and Chris and others would have you believe. I’ve tried to emphasize that distinction over and over, to little avail.)

In response to this situation, we uncompromising atheists have a typically strident and trouble-making idea: organizations that bill themselves as “centers for science education” and “associations for science” and “academies of science” should not take stances on matters of religion. Outlandish, I know. But we think that organizations dedicated to science should not wander off into theology, even with the best of intentions. Stick with talking about science, and everyone should be happy.

But they’re not happy; Chris and others (Josh Rosenau at Thoughts from Kansas is a thoughtful example) think that the NCSE can be more effective if it proactively tries to convince people that science and religion need not be incompatible. As an argument toward this conclusion, Chris attempts to horrify us by offering the following hypothetical conversation between a religious believer and an NCSE representative:

Religious believer: I know you say that evolution is good science, but I’m afraid of what my pastor says–that accepting it is the road to damnation.

NCSE: As a policy, we only talk about science and to not take any stance on religion. So we couldn’t comment on that.

Religious believer: I do have one friend who accepts evolution, but he stopped going to church too and that worries me.

NCSE: All we can really tell you is that evolution is the bedrock of modern biology, and universally accepted within the scientific community.

Religious believer: And I’m worried about my children. If I let them learn about evolution in school, will they come home one day and tell me that we’re all nothing but matter in motion?

NCSE: ….

To which I can only reply … um, yeah? That doesn’t seem very bad at all to me. Do we seriously want representatives of the NCSE saying “No, the claim that accepting evolution is the road to damnation is based on a misreading of Scripture and is pretty bad theology. If we go back to Saint Augustine, we see that the Church has a long tradition of…” Gag me with a spoon, as I understand the kids say these days.

Of course, we could also imagine something like this:

Religious believer: I know you say that evolution is good science, but I’m afraid of what my pastor says–that accepting it is the road to damnation.

NCSE: Oh, don’t worry. There’s no such thing as “damnation,” your pastor has just been misleading you.

Religious believer: I do have one friend who accepts evolution, but he stopped going to church too and that worries me.

NCSE: Well, that will happen. Prolonged exposure to scientific ways of thinking can lead people to abandon their religious beliefs. But don’t worry, you’ll be happier and have a more accurate view of how the universe works if that’s what happens.

Religious believer: And I’m worried about my children. If I let them learn about evolution in school, will they come home one day and tell me that we’re all nothing but matter in motion?

NCSE: That would be great! Because that’s what we are. But it’s not as depressing as you make it out to be; correctly understanding how the world works is the first step toward making the most out of life.

How awesome would that be? I don’t actually advocate this kind of dialogue in this particular context — as I just said, I think science organizations should simply steer clear. But these answers have a considerable benefit, in that I think they’re “true.”

That’s the major point. Advocacy and educational organizations have the goal of supporting science and education the best way they can, but there are limits. For example, they should stick to the truth. I tried to make this point in my post about politicians and critics — some people have as their primary goal advocating for some sort of cause, whereas others are simply devoted to the truth. But an organization advocating for science needs to take both into consideration.

And there are some scientists — quite a few of us, actually — who straightforwardly believe that science and religion are incompatible. There are absolutely those who disagree, no doubt about that. But establishing the truth is a prior question to performing honest and effective advocacy, not one we can simply brush under the rug when it’s inconvenient or doesn’t make for the best sales pitch. Which is why it’s worth going over these tiresome science/religion debates over and over, even in the face of repeated blatant misrepresentation of one’s views. If science and religion are truly incompatible, then it would be dishonest and irresponsible to pretend otherwise, even if doing so would soothe a few worried souls. And if you want to argue that science and religion are actually compatible (not just that there exist people who think so), by all means make that argument — it’s a worthy discussion to have. But it’s simply wrong to take the stance that it doesn’t matter whether science and religion are compatible, we still need to pretend they are so as not to hurt people’s feelings. That’s not being honest.

I have no problem with the NCSE or any other organization pointing out that there exist scientists who are religious. That’s an uncontroversial statement of fact. But I have a big problem with them making statements about whether religious belief puts you into conflict with science (or vice-versa), or setting up “Faith Projects,” or generally taking politically advantageous sides on issues that aren’t strictly scientific. And explaining to people where their pastors went wrong when talking about damnation? No way.

Right now there is not a strong consensus within the scientific community about what the truth actually is vis-a-vis science and religion; I have my views, but sadly they’re not universally shared. So the strategy for the NCSE and other organizations should be obvious: just stay away. Stick to talking about science. Yes, that’s a strategy that may lose some potential converts (as it were). So be it! The reason why this battle is worth fighting in the first place is that we’re dedicated to promulgating the truth, not just to winning a few political skirmishes for their own sakes. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? (Mt. 16:26.)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion, Science and Society
  • Milton C.

    Of course, we could also imagine something like this:
    Religious believer: I know you say that evolution is good science, but I’m afraid of what my pastor says–that accepting it is the road to damnation.

    NCSE: Oh, don’t worry. There’s no such thing as “damnation,” your pastor has just been misleading you.

    Religious believer: I do have one friend who accepts evolution, but he stopped going to church too and that worries me.

    NCSE: Well, that will happen. Prolonged exposure to scientific ways of thinking can lead people to abandon their religious beliefs. But don’t worry, you’ll be happier and have a more accurate view of how the universe works if that’s what happens.

    Religious believer: And I’m worried about my children. If I let them learn about evolution in school, will they come home one day and tell me that we’re all nothing but matter in motion?

    NCSE: That would be great! Because that’s what we are. But it’s not as depressing as you make it out to be; correctly understanding how the world works is the first step toward making the most out of life.

    How awesome would that be? I don’t actually advocate this kind of dialogue in this particular context — as I just said, I think science organizations should simply steer clear. But these answers have a considerable benefit, in that I think they’re “true.”

    Of course, even though you admit as much, Sean, a scientific organization saying that abandoning religion “makes you happier” is just as boneheaded and egregious as claiming that religion and science are cuddly buddies. If we’re going to say (to quote you with italics preserved) ” organizations that bill themselves as “centers for science education” and “associations for science” and “academies of science” should not take stances on matters of religion,” that should be a two-way street.

    Again, I get your point (and I hope it was not-so-obvious humor), but you’re treading dangerous territory. Let’s stick to pointing out the obvious and staying away from “official” philosophical declarations….like you advocate.

  • Sam Gralla

    Wow, that is pretty amazing that the blogger you linked to says that science and religion are compatible because some people believe they are. (Are they also incompatible because some people believe they are?) Shouldn’t he, like, lose his blogging license for that?

    I’m not sure that’s the type of argument you even want to dignify with a response.

  • mk

    No, Milton… clearly you don’t get his point. Otherwise you would not have had to write all the rest.

  • http://pantheon.yale.edu/~pwm22/ Peter Morgan

    We are nothing but matter in motion? Nothing else? Wow!!! I learn some new metaphysics every day. Is this the new scientific consensus — that there are no charges, that geometry is not dynamical, that matter has trajectories in space-time?

  • Dave

    A little off topic, but there’s a clear parallel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zEP50dxfRAw

  • Paul W.

    Sam (and Milton C)

    If you think that’s bad, check out his previous post on the subject, from a week or so ago, and particularly what he quotes from Chad Orzel. It’s an almost continuous stream of fallacies.

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2010/01/11/orzel-nails-it-on-science-and-religion/

    Here’s my analysis, that I tried to post in the new thread at the Intersection, but it seems to have disappeared… it was originally a response to Milton C over there, but it keeps not showing up there:

    Milton C, do you have any examples of a strawman falsely so-called?

    I’m not sure what you’re talking about.

    It seems to me that there are a few “real” straw men that have actually come up in the previous thread and this one.

    One is a straw man Chad Orzel raised in the post Chris keeps praising so highly—the spectre of science organizations announcing that “science and religion are incompatible”.

    Nobody was advocating that, and in fact everybody thinks that would be a bad idea, and a number of New Atheists have clearly and repeatedly said so. It’s irrelevant at best, and very, very misleading to anybody who hasn’t been following the discussion closely, such that they know what less accommodating folks are actually advocating. Chad also seems to be using it to frame a false-choice fallacy-of-the-excluded-middle to make taking the opposite stance seem reasonable. No matter how you slice it, it fairly drips bogosity.

    The quoted text from Chad starts out with a straw man about philosophers, ridiculing philosophers and their “formal philosophical matters” and how they’re apparently too stupid to get to work in the morning because they never got the Zeno thing, so we should ignore obsessing on such niceties…. sure, he’s being humorous, but he’s also clearly framing the issue of truth, ambiguity, or misleadingness of a pronouncement by a scientific body as a mere “formal philosophical matter.”

    Apparently if scientists are worried whether their pronouncements are false, or technically true but clearly leading to false interpretations, they’re majoring in the minors and can never get to work on time.

    Ergo, whether the ideas we’re actually spreading are true or false is not something we scientists should be particularly concerned with, so long as the trains run on time.

    (Does a Mussolini reference Godwin a thread? :-) )

    Oh gee, I never realized that. I thought truth was kinda important in science. Silly me, I guess I’m in the wrong job.

    A more important and very tired old straw man that Chad trots out, and Chris echoes again here, is the idea that anybody denies that religious people can be scientists. Nobody does. Nobody ever has. The New Atheists have frequently asserted the exact opposite for years, but for years, Chris and Genie and now Chad (and Chris again, above) have asserted things like “you can’t deny that it happens regularly,” as though that was a live issue. They’ve pretty consistently neglected to point out that the people they’re mainly arguing against always acknowledged that.

    If this happened once, it might just be an accident due to pounding on a point without meaning to imply that somebody disagreed… but it’s clearly a habitual framing of the subject. Either it’s an intentional straw man, or one they don’t mind “accidentally” implying, over and over, after it’s been objected to, because they can’t be bothered to disambiguate it.

    Its’ very annoying, because some gulllible people who read accommodationist rhetoric clearly do get the idea that New Atheists actually say such ridiculous things, and that they’re just too dumb or ideologically blinded to see the glaringly obvious fact that some scientists are religious. Hyeesh.

    Chris clearly knows that by now, and if it’s not intentionally misleading framing, it’s just astonishingly bad communication for somebody who pontificates about communication. When it’s obvious he accidentally straw-manned his opponents, he should come right out and say something like “sorry—I didn’t mean to imply that, and won’t do it again.”

    He definitely should not wait a few days or weeks and do it again, over and over, for years.

    Summarizing… if you look at Chad’s text, you get

    1. a “humorous” straw man, used to dismiss basic concerns about truth as irrelevant “philosophy”

    2. patently invalid argument about “doing both things” implying “compatibility,” and that being simply a “statement of fact”

    3. another patently invalid argument about such an alleged “statement of fact” never being unconscionable, irrespective of how predictably it wlll be misunderstood—if you think that’s valid, think about seeing a lit candle and yelling “FIRE!” in a crowded theater—-and

    4. a bonus straw man (about organizations stating that science and religion are not compatible) setting up

    5. a fallacy of the excluded middle, forcing the choice of one extreme over the other.

    And that’s pretty much it. It’s an almost continuous stream of fallacies, which Chris thinks “nails it,” and chooses to link to and praise again, after all of these fallacies have been pointed out.

    One thing that I left out, which is actually not a fallacy, is Chad acknowledging that he himself agrees science and religion are not compatible, in exactly the sense many of us use the word, and think that a general audience is likely to interpret the word. Of course, he carefully chooses other words and claims our usage is just wrong—we must interpret “compatible” in the demonstrably implausible sense of his fallacious argument.

    I honestly don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite so consistently bogus from anybody as smart as Chad. I am truly amazed.

  • eddie

    Your pastor has been lying to you and you will be much happier if you get shot of religion altogether. Of course it’s not the job of the NCSA and other science advocates to say this. Though, there should be advocacy organisations dedicated to saying these things. Because they are true.

  • http://pantheon.yale.edu/~pwm22/ Peter Morgan

    Truth, or “truth”, or empirical adequacy? Amelino-Camelia’s 3rd prize essay at FQXi, http://fqxi.org/data/essay-contest-files/AmelinoCamelia_fairnessShVe.pdf, for example? I particularly like his it’s “not even fun” to know the truth.

  • Paul W.

    Sean,

    Here’s something I tried to post at the Intersection—few posts by me or anybody else seem to be getting through at the moment—elaborating on the same basic themes as your post.

    Thought you might like some of the juicy bits…

    Beyond a certain point, stressing the “compatibility” of science with religion and not mentioning the compatibility of science with atheism just becomes dishonest PR.

    Consider Chris’s hypothetical religious believer’s question:

    I do have one friend who accepts evolution, but he stopped going to church too and that worries me.

    Consider this possible answer, which is 100 percent true, just for reference:

    It’s true that many people who accept science do stop going to church, and that the more scientifically oriented and accomplished they are, the less likely they are to take religion seriously. Most scientists don’t go to church, and very few top scientists do. In fact, 93 to 96 percent of the members of the most prestigious scientific organizations are either outright disbelieving atheists (the large majority) or nonbelieving “agnostics” (a minority). Most scientists do start out religious, but most do end up irreligious.

    Interestingly, few of those atheistic scientist seem unhappy it, even the ones who lose their religion. They certainly do not find that it deprives their lives of meaning and turns them into depraved nihilists, as many religious people would naively expect. They think irreligion works just fine for them. You might consider re-evaluating your attitudes toward religion and/or atheism. Go figure. Seriously, if that surprises or disturbs you, go figure

    Some scientist are religious, though, especially less accomplished scientists. It puzzles many of the atheist scientists, but they seem to make that combination work for them, too, on a personal level. Most scientists don’t care much about other scientists’ religious beliefs, as long as they don’t interfere with the particular science that they do professionally. You might get a little flak for it now and then, but hey, that’s what happens sometimes, and sometimes religious people try to proseletyze the irreligious too. That’s the sort of thing that happens sometimes when people disagree on stuff like sex, politics, or religion. It’s usually no big deal, so how about we focus on the science first, and why we think it’s true. You can worry about the religious implications later, and it’s likely to be a growth experience. (Both religious and irreligious scientist generally agree on that—you shouldn’t shy away from novel ideas that there’s real evidence for, just because they might conflict with your cherished preconceptions.)

    IMHO, that’s what a really honest answer making an empirical argument would look like if it reflected an actual expert consensus within science. The consensus is that the relationship between science and religion is controversial, but the preponderance of scientists don’t combine them, for some doubtless interesting reason.

    Chad’s “empirical” argument that “it’s a fact” that some scientists are religious is clearly a dodge to avoid the more basic and striking empirical truth—scientific knowledge and achievement are very strongly negatively correlated with religiosity, by any reasonable measure.

    Anything that stresses the “compatibility” of science and religion and ignores the irreligious alternatives is clearly slanted away from the reality on the ground, within science.

    It’s systematic lies to children and everybody within science and philosophy of science should know it.

    Sure, it’s often mostly lies by omission, and fallacies of four terms that play on ambiguities to change the subject and lead the audience to false conclusions, but hey, it’s clearly not really honest, is it? It’s a bit of a dodge, at least.

    Taking the above honest answer as a baseline, just how dishonest or shifty and weaselly are are we willing to be, to shield the religious from knowing the truth that scientists generally think their religion is kinda goofy, and that it likely has something systematic to do with the difference between science and religion as purported “ways of knowing,” and the things that scientist know but other people mostly don’t?

    Perhaps what organizations like the NAS say about different “ways of knowing” for “different spheres” or “different aspects” of human activity is just false, at least on the view of the best and the brightest, in both science and philosophy. (Philosophers of science are about 80 percent strong atheist, and another 10 percent weak atheist, IIRC. And as with the religious minority in science, the religious ones are mostly not orthodox to anywhere near the extent that typical mainstream Americans are.)

    If science and religion are so darned “compatible,” what the heck is going on there? Surely we should have a big research program to find out, shouldn’t we?

    There are very, very few correlations in the social sciences stronger than the negative correlation between scientific achievement and religiosity. (It’s considerably stronger than the correlation between scientific achievement and being white and male and middle class, but some people who’ve studied the latter try to sweep the more striking correlation under the rug. (Their Templeton funding might have something to do with that…) It’s the kind of clear and striking pattern that social scientist dream of, and it positively cries out for a scientific explanation.

    But of course, we’re not going to go there, are we? It might reveal an inconvenient truth.

    In fact, it certainly would—no matter how it came out, it would certainly be scientifically interesting.

    After all, the accommodating statements of some science organizations say that science and religion are complementary and stuff like that. If they’re so complementary, but scientists tend to fail to combine them to get the benefits of both “ways of knowing,” what’s up with that? Aren’t those scientists missing out on something that would complement their scientific worldview?

    We might find out that there’s something wrong with religion, in scientific terms, or that there’s something wrong with scientists, in religious or other terms. (Hey, perhaps most of the higher-achieving scientists are kind of autistic, asocial, and a bit sociopathic, able to focus on their research at the expense of spirituality and maintaining interpersonal connections… or something. Yeah, that’s it.)

    That is the kind of no-lose problem that social scientists dream of studying. No matter how it comes out, you get a very interesting result, and likely several.

    Hmmm… are there any social scientists out there willing to study this striking phenomenon head-on? Any foundations willing to fund that kind of politically loaded study? That might help sort out what’s really going on, so that we can use real empirical data to scientifically guide our empirical arguments about the relationship between science and religion.

    Since they like “empirical” arguments about such things, maybe Chris and Sheril could connect such people.

  • Andrew

    I am religious (Catholic, go to mass each Sunday, confession once a year, etc) and a physics graduate student at a prestigious university in the SF Bay area. As such, I obviously find no incompatibility between science and religion. Now, I am intelligent and informed so I know that the history of the science/religion dialogue is far from non-blood stained, but one has to put these issues in context. That is, those who practice religion are not (sadly) necessarily representative of religion as a whole. Just as scientists can be crackpots, there are innumerable religious zealots who are ignorant, uninformed and, frankly, dangerous.

    Those who say that all can be understood with science are just as misguided as those who say that the Earth is 6000 years old, or whatever a “literal interpretation” (I don’t know what that even means anymore) of the bible leads one to believe. Science can only answer those questions that are repeatable and can lead to a consistent interpretation of some natural phenomena. Really, I would say that the study of history isn’t science. That is, one cannot repeat the events of history to really test whether or not Napolean was exiled to Elba. Such a statement does not belittle history as an academic subject; it’s just not science! Our knowledge comes from so many more realms than those of science. To be truly scientific, one must test everything; from the day’s news stories to one’s own ancestry. Such an endeavor is impossible. At the end of the day, we must trust others for information.

    There is a beautiful analogy between science and religion. Looking into your eye, your optometrist sees your pupil, iris, blood vessels or the early signs of a cataract. Such knowledge was determined scientifically. The optometrist has seen many, many eyes and so knows what a pupil looks like. However, when your lover looks into your eyes, he or she sees your soul, your deepest thoughts and desires. Demanding that your lover see “hard science” of your eyes removes any emotion. Are these observations incompatible? No, they are answering different questions. A doctor asks questions that can be answered scientifically, while your lover does not (nor should he or she).

  • Dave

    @Andrew: “The optometrist has seen many, many eyes and so knows what a pupil looks like. However, when your lover looks into your eyes, he or she sees your soul, your deepest thoughts and desires. Demanding that your lover see “hard science” of your eyes removes any emotion. Are these observations incompatible? No, they are answering different questions.”

    A lover doesn’t literally see a soul: he/she sees a metaphor for the soul. And scientific institutions should not offer opinions on those interpretations of metaphor, be them emotional or religious. That’s the whole point, really.

    Religion is literature, it’s a form of art, hence why it’s analyzed and interpreted without any verifiable consensus (just look at all the sects of Christianity, for instance). Science is a method used to attain objective truth, not subjective “truth.”

  • http://www.mikebrotherton.com Mike Brotherton

    Another astronomer who agrees with you 100% with regard to this post, Sean.

    Humans, even very smart ones, have the capacity to believe in two contradictory things simultaneously. Doesn’t mean both things are compatible. I’m rather amazed at Mooney pressing on this losing point, even if he is maintaining it for political reasons.

    As an atheist scientist, I personally prefer to keep my soul uncompromised.

  • Paul

    Humans, even very smart ones, have the capacity to believe in two contradictory things simultaneously. Doesn’t mean both things are compatible. I’m rather amazed at Mooney pressing on this losing point, even if he is maintaining it for political reasons.

    He’s been called on conflating “there are religious scientists” and “science and religion are compatible” at least several months now (probably longer, but that’s as long as I’ve been familiar with him). It’s patently obvious at this point he has no interest in arguing the point honestly, he’s just another guy trying to sell a viewpoint regardless of how well grounded it is in fact. No matter how many strawmen he has to build to win converts to his side.

  • Paul W.

    Those who say that all can be understood with science

    Like who, for example? Nobody I know or read says that all can be understood with science. Godel’s theorem pretty well rules that out.

    I do know lots of people who think that religion can’t tell you anything reliable that science can’t tell you.

    Science is limited. Religion appears to systematically tends toward falsity by amplifying our instinctive biases with social endorsement.

    IMHO, science is sadly limited, but a lot less limited in interesting ways that most religious people—and most religious scientists—think. (It can, for example, explain minds, morality, and religion naturalistically, and cast serious doubt on very basic religious ideas, like souls, an afterlife, specifically religious concepts of morality, the truth claims of religion very generally, and the legitimacy of religion as an alternative “way of knowing.”

    are just as misguided as those who say that the Earth is 6000 years old, or whatever a “literal interpretation” (I don’t know what that even means anymore) of the bible leads one to believe.

    You know this how?

    Science can only answer those questions that are repeatable and can lead to a consistent interpretation of some natural phenomena.

    I’m not sure what you mean by that, exactly, but I’m guessing that either it’s false or it doesn’t have the consequences you think it does.

    I’m particularly concerned that you might have a fairly limited notion of “natural phenomena.”

    Science can study anything that has observable effects, including the “supernatural.” (“Supernatural” in the theological sense is not the complement of “natural” in the sense of what science studies.) Even if the effects are random, that says something about what’s having those effects.

  • http://www.mikebrotherton.com Mike Brotherton

    Yes, Paul, I’ve been watching, too. A shame, since Mooney’s book Republican War on Science was compelling and cogent. Things he has written since, online and in print, have made me lose respect for his reasoning and a lot less likely to pay attention to him.

  • Pingback: Lying for Darwin: science/faith compatibility again « Why Evolution Is True()

  • Charon

    @10: “your deepest thoughts and desires.” Which are, of course, also subject to scientific inquiry, in the form of neuropsychology, for example. Your lover’s everyday, commonsense understanding of this situation is generally adequate for their life, but so is their everyday, commonsense understanding of physics (if they’re not a physicist themselves). What this clearly doesn’t mean, however, is that they are accurately assessing reality, either with your “soul” or with their Aristotelian physical intuition.

    @11: exactly.

  • LifeonQueen

    “For example, they should stick to the truth.”

    Given your subject, you really ought to stick to a consideration of what is factual not what is true.

    Truth is a matter of opinion. Fact is not.

  • shaun

    @Mike Brotherton
    “As an atheist scientist, I personally prefer to keep my soul uncompromised.”
    1) science cannot prove a ‘soul’ yet here you assert you have one
    2) Christianity clearly states that by this exact stance DOES compromise your soul.

    if we want to talk about whether or not hypocritical systems hold up or are practical- the stance of atheism itself, is in and of itself, completely contradictory to science.
    no matter which theory for creation is presented, there are 2 possible outcomes:
    1) matter has *always* existed, and
    2) matter *magically* appeared
    -BOTH of these are in complete violation of the law of causality, the single principle upon which all science is based, yet nobody here seems to think anything is wrong with putting 100% faith into this hypocritical system…

  • Paul W.

    Really, I would say that the study of history isn’t science. That is, one cannot repeat the events of history to really test whether or not Napolean was exiled to Elba.

    I’d say that’s pretty oversimplified. History can be more or less scientific, depending on the available evidence and how you go about interpreting and looking for other relevant evidence—and a lot of things can be evidence relevant to various hypotheses, in non-obvious ways.

    It sounds like your simplistic characterization of history, and calling that not science, would also apply to evolutionary biology and cosmology.

    Such a statement does not belittle history as an academic subject; it’s just not science!

    Sometimes it is clearly scientific, and often it varies anywhere between more or less unconstrained wanking, iffy but somewhat responsible speculation, and fairly clearly scientific investigation.

    Consider, for example:

    Schliemann’s historical interpretation of the Iliad, and his consequent discovery of the actual city of Troy. That’s history, and it was brilliantly confirmed and led to many more truly scientific discoveries….

    …or the decoding of the Rosetta Stone or the Linear B language, and the resulting refutation of many, many theories of what various ancient writings were about, and the discovery of much of what they actually were about, leading to further refutations and discoveries…

    …or the textual and linguistic analysis that led to the discovery of the J, E, P, D, and R documents embedded in the first few books of the Bible, showing that the Pentateuch was written and redacted in several stages by many hands. Even Bible study can be scientific, up to a point!

    History can be, and often is, scientific. It is also often less clearly scientific because the relevant data are unobtainable, and nobody’s figured out where to look for other relevant data, or how to piece things together in a meaningful way.

    But that is not so fundamentally different as it might seem from other, less historical sciences. We often don’t have the data we want, or the tools to get it, and we often don’t know where to look. But then people start piecing togther various kinds of fragmentary evidence, and sometimes things fall into place and yield clear truths that lead to other truths.

    In cosmology and high-energy physics, consider the realization by high-energy physicists like Weinberg that to see extreme conditions we can’t experimentally reproduce on earth, you can look far away in space and thus very far back in time to conditions shortly after the big bang, and use that as a “natural experiment” to inform particle physics.

    If historical sciences were necessarily “not science,” much of modern physics wouldn’t be science, either, because it’s fundamentally grounded in and constrained by things we learned from fragamentary traces of a single unrepeatable event, billions of years ago.

    Our knowledge comes from so many more realms than those of science.

    I think you have a simplistic concept of what’s science and what’s other stuff we think about, and likely some simplistic distinction between science and philosophy. A lot of stuff can be science, and there’s no clear boundary between scientific and non-scientific thinking and speculation, or between common sense and rigorous science or philosophy.

    To be truly scientific, one must test everything; from the day’s news stories to one’s own ancestry.

    No. Scientists don’t test everything. They can’t. They muddle along, testing the things they can test that seem important enough to test, trying to remember what they haven’t tested, and looking out for nasty surprises. And sometimes they screw that up, because the available data and the practical experiments are generally limited, and it’s an intrinsically error-prone process. Other times things fall into place and new ways of confirming or refuting hypotheses become available, leveraging discoveries that previously seemed unrelated and useless.

    If science were really about testing everything, rather than using much cleverer ways of piecing together partial information, almost nothing would be science—especially any science during an ongoing scientific revolution. By your standard, most great, innovative science wouldn’t count as science at all, because the mop-up work of thoroughly testing everything in sight hasn’t been done yet.

  • Andrew

    @ Paul W.: “Those who say that all can be understood with science

    Like who, for example? Nobody I know or read says that all can be understood with science. Godel’s theorem pretty well rules that out.”

    Most of the atheists I have met in physics specifically think science is the be all and end all of knowledge. Godel’s incompleteness theorem applies to axiomatic systems. No branch of science has successfully isolated relevant axioms. It is not known whether science can be formulated as an axiomatic system or not.

    “I do know lots of people who think that religion can’t tell you anything reliable that science can’t tell you.

    Science is limited. Religion appears to systematically tends toward falsity by amplifying our instinctive biases with social endorsement.”

    Knowing people who think religion can’t tell you anything reliable that science can’t tell you isn’t an argument. I agree, science is terribly limited; as is religion. Please tell me your definition of religion. It seems that your knowledge of religion comes from those who speak most loudly; either religious whackos or staunch athiests and not from sources, e.g., the Bible or religious thinkers like Augustine, Aquinas or Lewis.

    “IMHO, science is sadly limited, but a lot less limited in interesting ways that most religious people—and most religious scientists—think. (It can, for example, explain minds, morality, and religion naturalistically, and cast serious doubt on very basic religious ideas, like souls, an afterlife, specifically religious concepts of morality, the truth claims of religion very generally, and the legitimacy of religion as an alternative “way of knowing.””

    Many, many scientists are working toward understanding the mind, morality or consciousness and I believe whole-heartedly that these are worthwhile efforts. However, I don’t know of any scientific result that has “cast serious doubt on very basic religious ideas, like souls, an afterlife”. If you know of some, please let me know and I will reconsider my beliefs.

    “are just as misguided as those who say that the Earth is 6000 years old, or whatever a “literal interpretation” (I don’t know what that even means anymore) of the bible leads one to believe.

    You know this how?”

    I apologize; this is an opinion of mine.

    ” Science can only answer those questions that are repeatable and can lead to a consistent interpretation of some natural phenomena.

    I’m not sure what you mean by that, exactly, but I’m guessing that either it’s false or it doesn’t have the consequences you think it does.”

    I do know the consequences of such a statement. I mentioned one of them in the next few lines. Please rigorously define “science” and “religion” so that we aren’t arguing over semantics.

    “I’m particularly concerned that you might have a fairly limited notion of “natural phenomena.”

    Science can study anything that has observable effects, including the “supernatural.” (”Supernatural” in the theological sense is not the complement of “natural” in the sense of what science studies.) Even if the effects are random, that says something about what’s having those effects.”

    Again, I apologize for not defining “natural phenomena”. Thank you for your concern. However, I believe that our definitions effectively coincide; that is, anything that has observable consequences is natural. I do not think that supernatural equals the complement of natural. If that was the case, there would be no reason for belief in a God at all. (Of course, modulo your misgivings about such an idea.)

  • Rules For

    Good grief, shaun, couldn’t the current answer to where matter came from be “I don’t know.” How is this inconsistent with atheism?

  • Tom

    Umm… “Gag me with a spoon, as I understand the kids say these days”.
    Hardly! You are only 10-20 years out of date.

    But on topic… of course religion and science are incompatible. Anyone who thinks otherwise has to jump incredible hoops for a basic reconciliation . Or sweep the issues under some rug – pretending they are not there, or relegating them to the realm of what is not known or understood.

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    Can’t we piss everyone off by saying that religion must offer some substantial increase to fitness to have evolved, even if we don’t know what the nature of that benefit is?

  • Jason A.

    shaun #19:
    You cannot just make up something called the ‘Law of Causality’ and pretend it rules out atheism.

    I assume you mean something along the lines of ‘everything that happens has a cause’. This is most certainly NOT something on which ‘all science is based’, as even the most basic examination of modern physics would tell you.

  • Brian

    @21 However, I don’t know of any scientific result that has “cast serious doubt on very basic religious ideas, like souls, an afterlife”.

    1st law of thermodynamics. A soul would need to be energy (something physical) to interact with energy (or matter) of the brain/body or the law would be violated. Where does this energy come from if it doesn’t already exist in the universe before a thought (which obviously is a violation of the 1st law)? If it does already exist, where do these physical souls reside (that move the energy) in the universe and is that heaven (a perfectly natural heaven)? Why isn’t the (extra soul produced) energy measured with each thought or act of will if it does exist or is created (in violation of the 1st law) with each mental act?

    As for the afterlife, evidence please. We don’t measure no afterlife or realm of the afterlife. If there’s nothing to measure, it’s made up as far as any person can tell. It’s not a mathematical or logical thing, but an empirical thing. Something whose existence is contingent, as is all existence (ontological arguments don’t confer existence). Being scientific, you wouldn’t give credence to something that cannot be known or show to exist would you?

  • Jason A.

    Paul W. #14 (replying to Andrew #10):

    I’m particularly concerned that you might have a fairly limited notion of “natural phenomena.”

    As well as a limited notion of what it means to test something, if he thinks history can’t be tested.

  • truth

    The new testament is completely compatible with science
    http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Thessalonians+5%3A21&version=NIV

    1 Thessalonians 5:21 (New International Version)

    Test everything. Hold on to the good.

    Or if you question the translation (http://scripturetext.com/1_thessalonians/5-21.htm)…

    New American Standard Bible (©1995)
    But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good;

    King James Bible
    Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.

    American King James Version
    Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.

    American Standard Version
    prove all things; hold fast that which is good;

    Douay-Rheims Bible
    But prove all things; hold fast that which is good.

    Darby Bible Translation
    but prove all things, hold fast the right;

    English Revised Version
    prove all things; hold fast that which is good;

    Webster’s Bible Translation
    Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.

    World English Bible
    Test all things, and hold firmly that which is good.

    Young’s Literal Translation
    all things prove; that which is good hold fast;

    ΠΡΟΣ ΘΕΣΣΑΛΟΝΙΚΕΙΣ Α΄ 5:21 Greek NT: Tischendorf 8th Ed. with Diacritics
    πᾶς δέ δοκιμάζω ὁ καλός κατέχω

    ΠΡΟΣ ΘΕΣΣΑΛΟΝΙΚΕΙΣ Α΄ 5:21 Greek NT: Greek Orthodox Church
    πάντα δὲ δοκιμάζετε, τὸ καλὸν κατέχετε·

    ΠΡΟΣ ΘΕΣΣΑΛΟΝΙΚΕΙΣ Α΄ 5:21 Greek NT: Stephanus Textus Receptus (1550, with accents)
    πάντα δοκιμάζετε τὸ καλὸν κατέχετε

    ΠΡΟΣ ΘΕΣΣΑΛΟΝΙΚΕΙΣ Α΄ 5:21 Greek NT: Westcott/Hort with Diacritics
    πάντα [δὲ] δοκιμάζετε, τὸ καλὸν κατέχετε,

    ΠΡΟΣ ΘΕΣΣΑΛΟΝΙΚΕΙΣ Α΄ 5:21 Greek NT: Tischendorf 8th Ed.
    παντα δε δοκιμαζετε το καλον κατεχετε

    ΠΡΟΣ ΘΕΣΣΑΛΟΝΙΚΕΙΣ Α΄ 5:21 Greek NT: Byzantine/Majority Text (2000)
    παντα δε δοκιμαζετε το καλον κατεχετε

    ΠΡΟΣ ΘΕΣΣΑΛΟΝΙΚΕΙΣ Α΄ 5:21 Greek NT: Textus Receptus (1550)
    παντα δοκιμαζετε το καλον κατεχετε

    ΠΡΟΣ ΘΕΣΣΑΛΟΝΙΚΕΙΣ Α΄ 5:21 Greek NT: Textus Receptus (1894)
    παντα δοκιμαζετε το καλον κατεχετε

    ΠΡΟΣ ΘΕΣΣΑΛΟΝΙΚΕΙΣ Α΄ 5:21 Greek NT: Westcott/Hort
    παντα [δε] δοκιμαζετε το καλον κατεχετε

    1 Thessalonians 5:21 Hebrew Bible
    בחנו כל דבר ובטוב אחזו׃

    Apocalypsis 22:21 Latin: Biblia Sacra Vulgata
    omnia autem probate quod bonum est tenete

    1 Tesalonicenses 5:21 Spanish: La Biblia de las Américas (©1997)
    Antes bien, examinadlo todo cuidadosamente , retened lo bueno;

    1 Tesalonicenses 5:21 Spanish: La Nueva Biblia de los Hispanos (©2005)
    Antes bien, examínenlo todo cuidadosamente , retengan lo bueno.

    1 Tesalonicenses 5:21 Spanish: Reina Valera (1909)
    Examinadlo todo; retened lo bueno.

    1 Tesalonicenses 5:21 Spanish: Sagradas Escrituras (1569)
    Examinadlo todo; retened lo que fuere bueno.

    1 Tesalonicenses 5:21 Spanish: Modern
    más bien, examinadlo todo, retened lo bueno.

    1 Thessaloniciens 5:21 French: Louis Segond (1910)
    Mais examinez toutes choses; retenez ce qui est bon;

    1 Thessaloniciens 5:21 French: Darby
    mais éprouvez toutes choses, retenez ce qui est bon.

    1 Thessaloniciens 5:21 French: Martin (1744)
    Eprouvez toutes choses; retenez ce qui est bon.

    1 Thessaloniciens 5:21 French: Ostervald (1744)
    Éprouvez toutes choses; retenez ce qui est bon.

    1 Thessalonicher 5:21 German: Luther (1912)
    prüfet aber alles, und das Gute behaltet.

    1 Thessalonicher 5:21 German: Luther (1545)
    prüfet aber alles und das Gute behaltet!

    1 Thessalonicher 5:21 German: Elberfelder (1871)
    prüfet aber alles, das Gute haltet fest.

    帖 撒 羅 尼 迦 前 書 5:21 Chinese Bible: Union (Traditional)
    但 要 凡 事 察 驗 , 善 美 的 要 持 守 ,

    帖 撒 羅 尼 迦 前 書 5:21 Chinese Bible: Union (Simplified)
    但 要 凡 事 察 验 , 善 美 的 要 持 守 ,

    帖 撒 羅 尼 迦 前 書 5:21 Chinese Bible: NCV (Simplified)
    凡事都要察验,好的要持守,

    帖 撒 羅 尼 迦 前 書 5:21 Chinese Bible: NCV (Traditional)
    凡事都要察驗,好的要持守,

  • Brian

    @19 2) matter *magically* appeared
    -BOTH of these are in complete violation of the law of causality, the single principle upon which all science is based, yet nobody here seems to think anything is wrong with putting 100% faith into this hypocritical system…

    And yet you think God who was uncreated (option 1) did option 2. Ironic. By the way, contingent laws of nature (could have been different in the philosophical sense), upon which science relies, are not some logical law which you’ve made up and called the law of causality.

  • Jason A.

    Andrew #21:

    Most of the atheists I have met in physics specifically think science is the be all and end all of knowledge.

    It’s possible that the atheists you know are weird outliers. I think it rather more likely that this is either the common strawman atheist we get from the ‘other ways of knowing’ folks, or you’ve never actually bothered to find out what your atheist colleagues really believe.

  • http://www.osborneink.com Matt Osborne

    Religion has been a social glue of civilization; to deny it is unscientific. Religion is universal — every culture has some form of it; there has never been a society without gods of some kind. There is strong evidence we have evolved with the instinct to create gods. Religious faith is both a universal source of community and a universal source of turmoil. We are increasingly interconnected and hyperlinked to each other in a world of rising seas — and other challenges to act as a single civilization.

    Yet the globe lacks a religion everyone can get behind to provide that “social glue,” which means religions must either cooperate or get out of the way. Thus far, no global religion has emerged — except perhaps atheism, which is not universal but certainly ends any religious arguments between its adherents. Furthermore, atheism lacks a priesthood or missionary class; it has a few leaders like Sam Harris, but no tent revivals.

    Science, on the other hand, has produced college-high school fairs and such.

    The goal is science. A majority of Americans professing faith, any effort to avoid confrontation is important. You do not advance the cause of science by having no dialogue, as you cannot then educate them; you do not advance understanding by confrontation, either.

    Training scientists to talk about faith (and how not to talk about it) allows them to imbue faith in science, and that is as close to missionary work as science can simulate.

  • Brian

    @31 there has never been a society without gods of some kind
    Really, you know this how?

  • MadScientist

    “All we can really tell you is that evolution is the bedrock of modern biology …”

    Ah, Mooney’s lack of understanding of biology really shines through – so obviously we must believe him when he tells us how things should be done? Personally I can’t see how anything can be claimed to be the “bedrock of modern biology”. A large fraction of biological studies does not depend at all on the veracity of evolution, but the fact of evolution does put certain welcome constraints on things – and yet even if we had no Darwin and no Wallace we would still have a vibrant and diverse field of biology. You can hardly call a field of study “bedrock” when the greater field of study is not really dependent on that field having ever been established. In short: you can have biology without having discovered evolution, but you can’t have evolution without biology.

    I happen to be one of those damned scientists who is only concerned with the truth; because of that I’m called “difficult”, “insensitive”, and I’m sure readers can imagine all sorts of other things that I’m called. It’s really pathetic how some people have such egos that the truth must be subjugated to their feelings; I never hesitate to tell them to jump off a cliff, after all gravity is “only a theory” and would certainly be more sensitive to their ego than I am.

  • NewEnglandBob

    Mooney brings up inane straw man arguments and attributes nonsense to others that they didn’t advocate. Mooney is getting more dishonest by the day.

    He and his court of jackals still do not understand that lying that science and religion is compatible makes them look like fools.

  • Charles Evo

    Let’s try these substitutions on for size, and see how absurd this really is:

    Religious believer: I know you say that heliocentrism is good astronomy, but I’m afraid of what my pastor says–that accepting it is the road to damnation.

    NSAE: As a policy, we only talk about astronomical facts and do not take any stance on religion. So we couldn’t comment on that.

    Religious believer: I do have one friend who accepts heliocentrism, but he stopped going to church too and that worries me.

    NCAE: All we can really tell you is that heliocentrism is the bedrock of the modern understanding of our planetary system, and universally accepted within the scientific community.

    Religious believer: And I’m worried about my children. If I let them learn about heliocentrism in school, will they come home one day and tell me that we’re not the center of the universe and of God’s creation?

  • Katharine

    “Wow, that is pretty amazing that the blogger you linked to says that science and religion are compatible because some people believe they are. (Are they also incompatible because some people believe they are?) Shouldn’t he, like, lose his blogging license for that?”

    Totes. He committed some fallacies there.

    “Demanding that your lover see “hard science” of your eyes removes any emotion. Are these observations incompatible? No, they are answering different questions. A doctor asks questions that can be answered scientifically, while your lover does not (nor should he or she).”

    If you had an understanding of neuroscience and psychological study, you would know that this is bullshit.

  • Katharine

    I would like to add that we in the biological sciences have the highest amount of atheists.

    I am a proud atheist neurobiology student.

  • Katharine

    I’ve actually come to regard the vast majority of religious people as total pansies when it comes to actually discussing science or religion in any depth.

  • Theo

    Believe it or not, the advertisement that DiscoverMagazine.com attached to the bottom of the RSS feed version of this post is “Is there a God? a short article gives six reasons why God exists.” and links to this article.

    I have very much enjoyed reading Cosmic Variance, since long before you moved to Discover Magazine. Mostly I ignore the ads, but your blog is the only one that gets them into my RSS feed. I will probably unsubscribe soon.

  • Katharine

    “Mooney brings up inane straw man arguments and attributes nonsense to others that they didn’t advocate. Mooney is getting more dishonest by the day.

    He and his court of jackals still do not understand that lying that science and religion is compatible makes them look like fools.”

    Mooney = faintly-PR-obsessed journalist. Mooney /= scientist who cares, justly, more about the truth than PR.

  • amphiox

    Our knowledge comes from so many more realms than those of science.

    The definition of “knowledge” that I use is “verified belief”. Science is the only methodology humans have ever developed that can reliably verify belief. The only method that is systematically self correcting. So our (human) knowledge most certainly does NOT come from any other realm except for science. Perhaps somewhere else in the universe, some other alien intelligence has discovered a different way of knowing, but humans have not. If the source is human, and it is not subject to science, then it is not knowledge.

    Science can only answer those questions that are repeatable

    If it is not repeatable, then its occurrence by definition cannot be predicted, and by definition, having happened once, it will never happen again. For all practical purposes then, it is not worth answering.

    Science cannot prove a ’soul’ yet here you assert you have one

    Of course the ‘soul’ exists, and science has proven it. It consists of a pattern of electrical potentials across a network of specialized cells in highly evolved organs known as brains. Science has characterized the organ that houses it, recorded its activities, measured the consequences of its actions, and even taken pictures of it working in real-time. It produces personality, possesses memory, is self-aware, has moral conscience, and is capable of free will (or at least appears to be). It has been labeled with several different names in addition to ‘soul’ but it possesses all the characteristics attributed to souls, except for one – it is not immortal, and dies with the brain that houses it. However, immortality is not an attribute universally attributed to souls by all religions, so that’s ok.

    Those who say that all can be understood with science

    Well of course not. But what cannot be understood by science, at this present moment, by these present intelligences (humans), at this present time, cannot be understood at all.

  • http://www.terrazoom.com John Williams

    Holy crap! Have I entered an alternate universe where there’s no way a person who is religious can believe in science and vise versa? There are still so many questions to be answered. In many ways, having faith helps one stretch to believe and be interested in some pretty fantastic things. Having a grounding in science can have a profound effect on faith (both directions). Not all persons of faith shy away from natural selection or an old universe. So to say they are incompatible is to take a stance no where near the center; where I think most scientists ought to stand. Mostly, day to day, there is no conflict. They exist peacefully together. Always have. Always will. There are extremes on both the religious side and scientific side. I believe this blog took an extremist point of view.

    Katherine… are you open-minded enough, versed enough in religion and science to discuss both sides confidently? This is the crux of many discussions. Alot of times people on both sides hear but they aren’t listening.

  • Michael Fugate

    John,
    Please tell us one question that religion can answer…

  • amphiox

    How do you, or me, or anyone, know someone else’s “deepest thoughts and desires”?

    You observe that person.
    You make a hypothesis based on that person’s behavior.
    You test your hypothesis by modifying your own behavior and seeing how that person responds.
    You attempt to develop methods and/or devices to help you in your observations. (One method available to you is a mechanism known as “language” and a structure known as a “question”.)
    You observe some more.
    You evaluate your hypothesis in accordance with your new hypothesis, and adjust it accordingly.
    Once you have sufficiently confident in your knowledge, you reveal your findings through a change in your own behavior.
    Your findings are now subject to peer review. Other people observing your changed behavior are now free to evaluate the veracity of your findings.

    You may do all this instinctively without conscious recognition of the steps, but it is still the scientific method through and through.

    The scientific method is the only way humans have of knowing anything. Formally or informally, explicitly or implicitly, it doesn’t matter.

  • J.J.E.

    @ 42. John Williams (January 19th, 2010 at 9:30 pm)

    “Holy crap! Have I entered an alternate universe where there’s no way a person who is religious can believe in science and vise versa?”

    Go away. Your shallow grokking of this debate wastes other people’s time. Read the relevant posts and come back when you have divested yourself of such a ridiculous caricature. You can start here. (The first link is broken. You can find the new location here.)

  • David

    I was disappointed with both responses. The first was non-speak. The second wandered off into theological areas.

    Another approach:
    —-

    Religious believer: I know you say that evolution is good science, but I’m afraid of what my pastor says–that accepting it is the road to damnation.

    NCSE: I do say the evolution is good science you also have your pastor saying something different. What would probably be best is for you to examine the evidence carefully for each point of view and make up you own mind which truth you want to accept. One plug for science though… if you decide the evolution makes sense to you it’s ok to dispute it, question it, or try to disprove it. That’s good science too!

    Religious believer: I do have one friend who accepts evolution, but he stopped going to church too and that worries me.

    NCSE: Ah…cause and effect. It’s a hotly debated subject in science and I’m glad you’ve joined the debate! Did your friends acceptance of evolution ’cause’ him/her to stop going to church, or was there some other factor? You could start your own science project to try to uncover the evidence to support your hypothesis. Isn’t science fun!

    Religious believer: And I’m worried about my children. If I let them learn about evolution in school, will they come home one day and tell me that we’re all nothing but matter in motion?

    NCSE: The real issue if your children come home from school, their friends, the mall, or from reading a book knowing more about evolution, computers, math, geography, theology, literature…. than you do! Short of moving your family to a cave the best you can do is keep talking openly and honestly with your children about everything they learn and be open to what they have to teach you!

  • J.J.E.

    @David

    I’d like to amplify one point you made, although I like your post in general.

    “if you decide [that]* evolution makes [no]* sense to you it’s ok to dispute it, question it, or try to disprove it. That’s good science too!”

    This should be in the toolkit of every science advocacy organization. It needs to be wielded carefully, so as not to imply ridiculous “fair and balanced” thinking (like putting astrology on the same footing as astronomy). But useful nonetheless.

    * I corrected what I think were typographical errors.

  • Damian

    I read through thirty of these postings and then my head began to throb…

    I guess I can understand all these posts politically: everyone wants to push there own agenda, be they scientifically minded or religious. Got to have a dream… and then force it on everyone else too. Or two dreams. To give is better than to receive.

    Really though, does everyone really care about whether science and religion are compatible or not? I get the feeling groups just like arguing with one another. Everyone wants to be associated with some sort of identity, but it leaves everything inverted… like a pale reflection in a mirror, no one can see anyone face to face. No one is abel to see, see to it that what they want, what they wish, be seen by all. Faded glass.

    Where’s community when you need it? I hate commuting for it, which is probably why I spend too much time online. Listening to Chopin.

    I clicked a link last month that took me to one of those naughty sites. I did it a day later too. I knew I had found a goldmine of sexy speedos, and I clicked on it every chance I could. Then today I clicked the link, and it was disabled. WTF? Someone better fix that…

    Truth and falsity be damned, words stretched into circles dancing on the edge of madness, a sonata of vertigo. Maybe I’m just a hedonist. I could be spending this time staring at the cars pass by on the street or the moon hovering overhead. Hell, when’s the last time I spent some quality time with my hand? Instead I’m here, staring at these posts, completely engulfed by a sense of weary confusion: trapped by word smiths and their hammers. The gulf between knowing and believing stretching before me, larger and larger, encompassing all these people to scream in defiance at one another, loudly and sharply, each sentence a newly forged blade. And for what? Put away your fuckin’ anvils.

    I will pass from this Earth as ignorant as the day I came into it. Truth is not mine to have. Mine are memories: the sun’s sparkle, a supernova spectrum, or a Sunday sermon. Whether the words I hear are true or not, I hear them. Whether the ideas I read are true or not, I read them. I live, I breath, I am. And sometimes I lie to get laid.

    Other times I don’t have to.

    Don’t ask me about you, I haven’t a clue. Don’t ask me about me, sounds too damn weird to be talking in the fifth person.

    Godless or Godmore.

    I don’t give a damn, I was never very good at arithmetic as a child.

    Will I be when I’m a man?

  • Nathan

    I like what Matt Osborne has to say a lot. At least in his post relating to religion. What scientists should be doing really, is understanding why Religion is so important, and why people hang on to it. Also, I notice that here, particularly, religion seems to be a euphemism for Christianity. Clearly ignoring the host of other religions throughout the world. A really bad way to make a point. But that’s debating, not science. Me personally, I’m what an Atheist would really hate. I don’t just believe in one God, I believe in multiple gods. Still, I find it interesting the religious fervor with which people who describe themselves as not having a religion defend science. It has seemed to me for some time, that people doing so have started to confuse actual science, (which is really just a method for looking at things), with a religion that is being built that happens to have the same name. Also, Atheists, as far as I’m concerned have every bit as much of a religion as Christians, Muslims, Wiccans, Hindus, etc. do. I agree that often Science and religion are adversarial, but to say that they are not compatible would be to imply that just because one groupof humans and another human, or group of humans are adversarial they are incompatible. Bad bad logic. Every time I see this argument, I am more convinced, that there is a brave new religion in the world and it has named itself Science. That it is doing everything it can to wipe out all other forms of religion. Kind of reminds me of a virus, or at the very least some kind of organism. Could be bad science on my part, but then according to some, the very fact that I believe in any kind of higher power, let alone making the incredibly bad choice to believe in multiple ones, makes my opinion useless. Which, to me, just sounds like the more close-minded “religious” folk that deny evolution, or condemn to me to burn in hades because I believe in evolution, and multiple gods. Just my two-cents. Also, I really like the blog. always have, even if I don’t always agree with what it says.

  • Dave

    Enjoy, everyone:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MeSSwKffj9o

    Spot on, as usual.

  • J.J.E.

    @ Nathan

    “Also, Atheists, as far as I’m concerned have every bit as much of a religion as Christians, Muslims, Wiccans, Hindus, etc. do.”

    Don’t play word games.

    We aren’t talking about religion in the sense of “a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance : consumerism is the new religion.” (New Oxford American Dictionary) Then we have to start talking about sex being a religion, politics being a religion, sports being a religion, etc. That’s a waste of time.

    Also, don’t confuse passion in supporting a position with religious zeal. If you argue with your math teacher that 0.9999… < 1, he may get very frustrated and may argue passionately about how wrong you are (and you would be). And you may lose credibility because you can't support your side of the argument. But his passion about the topic doesn't make him guilty of possessing "religious fervor".

    "according to some, the very fact that I believe in any kind of higher power, let alone making the incredibly bad choice to believe in multiple ones, makes my opinion useless."

    The same fate is invited by anyone who proposes a belief they can't justify. Any opinion that is provided without support is useless, at least with regard to understanding the natural world. Maybe you are a Yankees fan. Good for you. Is there anything that can make that preference of opinion "right" or "wrong"? That opinion is useless. Maybe you believe in one or more gods. What support do you have for it?

    If you can't justify it any better than you can your preference for the Yankees (or whatever) then yes, your opinion is useless in matters of understanding the natural world. If on the other hand you got out your handy cell phone and made a call: "Hey Zeus, you and Odin, come on over here. I want to introduce you to someone. Z. bring a thunderbolt or two and make sure O. rides Sleipnir over here?", when they showed up on an 8 legged horse bearing lightning, then we might take your opinion more seriously. Of course, your evidence might not be so vulgar and obvious (it might be incredibly subtle to the average layperson like the evidence for quantum theory), but at least you gotta bring something to the table. Otherwise, there is no distinguishing you from Pastafarians and an endless parade of arbitrary competing beliefs without support.

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    Gag me with a spoon, as I understand the kids say these days.

    These days? That is so 80’s, like totally. But even I am not immune to the passage of time. Once, when trying to demonstrate to my stepdaughter that I listen to some modern music, I cited R.E.M. as an example, and then realised that, at the time, they had already been around for more than 20 years.

  • http://eternal-cartesian.blogspot.com/ Cartesian

    Christianity can be understood rationally, and one will be sure of it if this one reads the “Theologico-Political Treatise” by Spinoza. But what is important is the way to understand things, there are some intelligent Christians and some stupid ones, nonetheless that is the same for atheists.

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  • Reginald Selkirk

    Chris attempts to horrify us by offering the following hypothetical conversation between a religious believer and an NCSE representative:…

    It’s always easier to get those hypothetical dialogues to go the way you want when you are writing both sides of them. This is a trick which Plato understood very well.

  • http://Capitalistimperialistpig.blogspot.com capitalistimperialistpig

    Remind me again why science blogs should take stands on matters of religion. And why organizations promoting harmony between science and religion shouldn’t.

    Though I guess I should ask myself why I’m surprised that a guy who has written a book promoting one stupid religion (“the multiverse”) should spend his time bashing the other stupid religions.

  • JJ

    The issue is fairly simple in my opinion. Religion is a vehicle for emotional reflection and behavior, while science is based on observation and hard factual data. They can co-exist if religious people interpret their religion as a metaphor for living life, rather than a literal definition. Religion becomes dangerous when people fail to separate the spiritual aspect from reality (see Jihad, the Crusades, Spanish Inquisition, Hitler [not necessarily religious, but based on the same principle] etc.). As Cartesian said, there are some stupid Christians and Atheists, just as there are intelligent ones. The basis of religion are behavioral and emotional in nature, the teachings are simply a medium. Any teachings that can convince people can be used to manipulate the masses, it’s been the basis of politics and societal structure for centuries.

    I attended Catholic school through 8th grade and went to church regularly during that time as part of the curriculum. During that time, I always questioned religion and never saw the point. The answer to everything was God is good, forgiveness….and so on. I’m now Agnostic. I’m Agnostic for the reason that science cannot prove, nor disprove, the existence of Jesus. I believe this stance is most accurate. I don’t believe that everything in the Bible literally happened, but rather Jesus was a vehicle for change, a philosopher of sorts. The goal of his mission was to create a better society of the poor in his community by changing their mental state, their view of life. It’s that simple. I may not believe in the “magical” aspect of Christianity, but I do believe in the lessons and morals taught through the teachings. However, if you take into account the broad view consisting of all religions in the world, it’s easy to denounce religion as fallacy.

  • Paul W.

    Andrew,

    Many, many scientists are working toward understanding the mind, morality or consciousness and I believe whole-heartedly that these are worthwhile efforts. However, I don’t know of any scientific result that has “cast serious doubt on very basic religious ideas, like souls, an afterlife”. If you know of some, please let me know and I will reconsider my beliefs.

    Modern cognitive science (cognitive psychology, neuroscience, etc.) shows that pretty much everything that the soul was invented to explain is actually done by the brain. The mind is an essentially computational process, that can’t exist without a kind of computer to do the computing.

    For thousands of years, people didn’t know that. Now we do. The brain is what does our thinking, remembering, emoting, valuing, and planning—all the stuff that makes us persons, and makes us the particular ersons we are.

    You don’t need a soul to do that. And given that the brain is doing those things, there’s not much left for a soul to do or to be. Without your brain, you aren’t you, and when your brain dies, you cease to exist.

    Most of the experts on that sort of stuff—cognitive scientists, philosophers of mind—think that religion is just another thing that the brain does. It’s largely a side-effect of biases built into us by evolution. In particular, we have different machinery in our heads for thinking about simple physical stuff (rocks, water, etc.) than for dealing about agents (animals and people, with goals and plans).

    Evolution gave us the useful ability to think about minds in a very different way than we think about non-minds. It didn’t give us the knowledge that the agents are evolved machines, and that minds are made out of non-mind stuff.

    That makes us prone to thinking about things in basically dualistic terms, and to find disembodied souls plausible.

    There are other cognitive biases we’re evolved to have because by and large, they’re good for us, but those biases also make us prone to making certain kinds of mistakes.

    For example, we’re prone to seeing agents and agency where there aren’t any, because the cost of failing to recognize those things is often high, but the cost of falsely recognizing them (where they’re not) is low.

    For example, if you see a lion where there isn’t one, you usually only suffer a momentary scare. But if you don’t see a lion where there is one, you’re likely dead. Likewise, if you think someone’s trying to hurt you, and they’re not, you can often figure that out without too bad a misunderstanding. But if you don’t think someone is trying to hurt you, and they are, you may end up a lot worse off.

    So basically, people are prone to finding souls plausible, and to see souls or intentional actions of souls where they’re not. In situations where you don’t have a reality check to disabuse you of the false positives, you’re likely to end up believing in souls that do a variety of things on purpose, whether those souls actually exist or not, and whether or not those things were done by any agent at all.

    People also have other relevant biases, like a bracketing bias that makes us inclined to think that the opinions of people around us are more or less reasonable, and to take a “moderate” position, all other things being equal. That’s the kind of thing that leads to well-known phenomena of conformity, obedience to authority, and groupthink.

    You can probably see roughly how this fits together to explain religion. People are prone to

    0. believing in souls as different things from physically instantiated minds,
    1. believing in invisible disembodied agents, and attributing random things to them
    2. looking for “meaning” of events in terms of actions of such agents, and finding it where
    it doesn’t actually exist, in the absence of evidence to the contrary and
    3. being inclined to believe the kinds of things others believe, in the absence of (and sometimes in the face of) evidence to the contrary

    These are all well-known psychological phenomena used to explain other things, but when you combine them, it’s a recipe for popular delusions of a strikingly religion-like sort.

    If that’s true, the fact that religion is widespread is not evidence that there’s any truth to it. It’s only evidence that that’s the kind of trap people are prone to falling into, due to cognitive biases that evolved for other reasons.

    It’s also plausible that religion itself has been selected for, because it often plays a useful roles in getting groups to cooperate, and especially to cooperate to exploit other groups. That’s more controversial, though.

  • http://denkeensechtna.blogspot.com Deen

    Heh, I’ve just posted at Mooney’s blog with a similar set of responses an atheist scientist might have to these three questions. But more importantly, I wondered how Mooney himself would suggest these questions to be answered. After all, if he rejects a neutral position of the NCSE on the basis of this hypothetical conversation, can he show that it is plausible that his own strategy of accommodationism fairs any better on these questions? I’m not convinced that he can.

    For instance, what would the answer to the first question be? Probably something like this (except hat it would likely be more mealy-mouthed diplomatically worded):

    Religious believer: I know you say that evolution is good science, but I’m afraid of what my pastor says–that accepting it is the road to damnation.

    NCSE: Don’t worry, your pastor is simply wrong. Our own NCSE-approved pastor says so. So does the Pope. Never mind that they are from completely different churches than yours, with beliefs that are sufficiently different from your church’s that they’ve caused one or more schisms. Remember, there is no conflict between science and religion. You merely have to change some of the core beliefs of your religion until they suit evolution.

  • Paul

    I’m particularly concerned that you might have a fairly limited notion of “natural phenomena.”

    As well as a limited notion of what it means to test something, if he thinks history can’t be tested.

    Exactly! I wrote a reply on this yesterday, but ended up not posting it as I’ve had a very irritating history on Discover with people who deliberately just do not get it when it comes to the religion/science debate (mostly on Mooney’s blog). Going by his notion of what it means to test something, any time an experiment is over and documented it is no longer scientific, since it is impossible to go back to the exact same conditions (e.g. space, time) that existed when the experiment was conducted. If that is not true, then it is just as scientifically valid to look at evidence from isotope based dating and determine that objects on earth are well over 6000 years old, which he says is not a scientific hypothesis.

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  • http://www.7duniverse.com Samuel A. (Sam) Cox

    Religion is a human anthropological institution. Humans have this propensity to worship something, anything, whether it is God or reason.

    The ancient Greeks and Romans (as we) loved philosopy, so when Jesus Christ had the audacity to tell Pilate that “he who seeks truth comes to him”, Pilate derisively remarked: “What IS truth”? Pilate well understood that what is “true” depends on observational frame of reference, and he clearly rejected the notion of absolute “truth”…especially that truth could be embodied in a person.

    I’m about half-way through Sean’s book and have to confess that what he says gives me pause. To Sean’s credit, he is very objective and quite open, presenting the history of science, the principal points of view and then his own take on things.

    When I got half-way through the book, I took a look-see at the ending conclusions and found them to be fully consistent with Sean’s take on the physics of the early 21st century.

    It makes me very nervous to hear anybody speaking about “facts”, “truth” and “right”. The “fact” that Sean presented a number of points of view shows that he of all people understands the counterintuite scientific findings of the last 200 years can be interpereted equally accurately in different ways.

    While we may each have our own reasons for “picking and choosing” a preferred approach, being assertive has its downside.

    The presumed insignificance or significance of life and the importances of the process of observation in the matter of universal existence are major issues.

    The living matter in my body has never known death…it has existed at least (though not unchanged) for 3.2 billion years…25% of the time since the “big bang”. Jurassic Park informs us, I believe correctly, that “life will find a way”. Beyond Hitler, beyond Pol Pot, beyond the Tsunami of 04 and beyond Haiti…beyond time itself, life continues.

    I don’t personally believe that the existence or non-existence of God is a religious issue. There are as many points of view on religion as there are human cultures…in fact people in the world. Each peson’s take on this matter of religion is as unique as his or her finger-print.

    In my opinion, God is as real as life itself…”He finds a way”. If life is not presumed to be significant, neither is God.

    Of all my least favorite religious subjects, “Apologetics” ranks as my personally “most disliked”. Apologetics is “defending the faith”. To my mind, God needs no defending. We can argue until we are blue in the face about his existence or non-existence…it matters not. The Christian Bible tells us that working against the divine is like kicking a brick wall…we only hurt our own foot. If we truly anger the almighty and work against his purposes in any really important way, the force of His anger is like a rock falling on us…it will grind us to powder.

    I’ve seen humans ignore the forces of biological, cultural and political reality- and be ground to powder. Whether those things seemed arbitrary or not, mattered not. By ignoring, or even being blissfully nieve about “the facts of social existence”, they found out just how real and personal our relationship with these forces can be.

    I am a biologist. Life and consciousness are important to me, not just because of my academic background, but because I myself am (an extremely complex) living thing.

    The physics of the 20th and 21st centuries strongly implies that biological complexity and consciousness of all kinds is important and integral to the very structure of the universe. I’m very skeptical of any point of view which marginalizes the importance and significance of life in the universe…including its cumulative effect on universal development and evolution.

  • J.J.E.

    In my opinion, God is as real as life itself…
    […]
    To my mind, God needs no defending.
    […]
    The Christian Bible tells us that working against the divine is like kicking a brick wall…we only hurt our own foot. If we truly anger the almighty and work against his purposes in any really important way, the force of His anger is like a rock falling on us…it will grind us to powder.

    What do you know that I don’t? The way you speak of it, this god of yours must be very concrete. Perhaps you could communicate your evidence for this god such that I or any 3rd party could be convinced regardless of our cultural/religious background?

    Because there is no act of greater hubris than someone claiming exclusive knowledge to an earth shattering piece of knowledge without intending to actually subject it to scrutiny.

  • Paul W.

    The physics of the 20th and 21st centuries strongly implies that biological complexity and consciousness of all kinds is important and integral to the very structure of the universe.

    Sorry, but if you say that, it sounds to me like you don’t know much about current physics or consciousness, or the relevant philosophy. (Especially if you think it’s not a controversial, fringe idea in science and philosophy.)

    If physics “strongly implies” that sort of thing, most physicists have somewhow managed to miss it, along with almost all neuroscientists, cognitive pyschologists, and philosophers of mind.

    Where did you get this idea?

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    Prolonged exposure to scientific ways of thinking can lead people to abandon their religious beliefs. But don’t worry, you’ll be happier and have a more accurate view of how the universe works if that’s what happens.

    Where is the scientific evidence for this statement?
    In general, surveys have found that religious people are happier or just as happy as the non-religious.

  • mk

    @ capitalistpig… #56

    Remind me again why science blogs should take stands on matters of religion. And why organizations promoting harmony between science and religion shouldn’t.

    Promoting harmony between science and religion is not the role of NAS and NCSE. They represent scientists and the scientific endeavor. The scientists they represent are like all of us all over the place as far as their take on religion. Individual scientists, like PZ Myers and Francis Collins, can speak for themselves.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    Nathan wrote: “Also, I notice that here, particularly, religion seems to be a euphemism for Christianity. ”

    Yes! and that is what makes this tremendously annoying. Sean Carroll would hardly want some ignoramus in physics to be prattling about quantum mechanics; but he doesn’t see any downside in himself engaging in the same idiocy. He has the arrogance that many physicists have that knowing the Standard Model, they know all about everything.

    If Sean wants everything to be scientific, then the answers the NCSE gives in that hypothetical conversation with a religious believer have to have scientific studies backing them – and they don’t!!! Shows the real (lack of) depth of Sean’s commitment to science. He just wants to bash religion.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    #56, CIP : “Though I guess I should ask myself why I’m surprised that a guy who has written a book promoting one stupid religion (”the multiverse”) should spend his time bashing the other stupid religions.”

    This is typical religious behavior. Sean may have left “religion” behind, but the template still sticks around in his head.

  • http://denkeensechtna.blogspot.com Deen

    Individual scientists, like PZ Myers and Francis Collins, can speak for themselves.

    And so can religious organizations, I might add.

  • Katharine

    John Williams –

    Yes, I think I’m versed enough in both, as a consequence of having to defend my position pretty frequently. Religion’s arguments are empty and pander to natural human faults.

  • Paul W.

    Nathan, Arun,

    Not everybody here assumes religion means Christianity, or something particularly similar to Christianity.

    The arguments I’ve been sketching undermine pretty much all religion with a supernatural or mystical/spiritual component. (E.g., a belief in multiple gods, or Karma, or reincarnation, or just the ability of mystics to get in touch with the Ultimate Nature of Reality.)

    That includes the vast majority of religion on the ground, Eastern and Western, animist, pagan, New Age, you name it. It even includes at least most forms of Buddhism, even (I think) the forms that overtly claim to have no supernatural component; they generally have quasi-supernatural presuppositions about how the mind works that modern science casts grave doubt on.

  • Paul W.

    Holy crap! Have I entered an alternate universe where there’s no way a person who is religious can believe in science and vise versa?

    I suppose you could call it an alternate universe, depending on where you spend most of your time.

    Usually it’s just called reality.

    Sorry. Snark aside, a lot depends on what you mean by “believe in science,” and which and just how broadly you can interpret the term “religion.”

    A lot of people think that science and religion are compatible only because they haven’t analyzed religion enough, and don’t know the relevant science and philosophy.

    But nobody’s claiming that people can’t accept a lot of religious ideas and a lot of scientific ideas, too.
    There are scientists who are religious, including some excellent ones.

  • Jim Bob

    A more accurate dialogue would be –
    Religious believer: Nern ner, ner, ner, ner, ner, ner, ner, ner, ner, ner, ner, ner, ner, ner, ner, ner…

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    Paul W.:

    What you term religion can exist without belief. Therefore knocking belief into the ground doesn’t answer the question.

    E.g., as a person from a non-Christian/on-Islamic culture, I do not know what mental state corresponds to “believing in the electron”. (Since belief seems to be an integral part of Christianity I mention this.) I understand the electron and its properties to some limited extent. If I knew nothing of the electron other than its name, and that physicists talked about it, then I would say, physicists speak of the electron. I would not have any belief or disbelief in the electron, whatever that means. Likewise, I have no belief or disbelief in “braided monoidal categories” – whatever those are (a mathematicatical term picked at random). I am hard pressed to imagine what it means to believe in or not believe in “braided monoidal categories”. Likewise, I do not believe in karma. Nor do I disbelieve in it. I have some limited understanding of what it is supposed to mean (and yes, the knowledge that there is no apparent physical substrate through which the law of karma can operate.) There is no belief or disbelief. I am aware of long causal chains through which human actions have consequences on humans, and therefore – because of my understanding of the karma idea – do try to be honest, truthful, sharing of knowledge and of things. If you ask me whether a child was born blind because of karma, my answer is – that cannot be an explanation. You may say I act because of “belief” – but how you have access to my mental states is something you’ll have to explain.

    Likewise, if I had understanding of “braided monoidal categories” and could do something useful with it, I might be publishing mathematics papers, for instance. Since I do not, I don’t. There is no question of belief or disbelief.

    I don’t know if you can understand – in this culture to understand and to believe have been conflated, when in reality they are very different.

    Let me try one more (weak) analogy. A person is a baseball fan, say of the Yankees, and does things not out of belief or disbelief (and not from any ignorance or knowledge). Can we discard the idea that a person’s actions spring from beliefs? Do so, and then reapproach the whole question of religion.

    -Arun

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  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    Paul W.

    The next thing to understand is that it is possible to have a non-verbal understanding of something. e.g., if you’ve seen videos of those experiments with crows where the bird bends a piece of wire to use to extract food from a tube, you’ll note that there is some form of understanding exhibited and that it is almost certainly non-verbal. I don’t think that there is any theorem that says that all that a human can know must be verbalizable. Of course, any such knowledge remains private, very difficult if impossible to communicate. Even sticking just to physics, a Feynman can spend his entire life putting out words and I may absorb them and yet be unable to recreate the same mental state(s) that lead a Feynman to solve a problem at which I boggle. Some of religion is this ineffable experience. Science does not yet have the ability to enter that realm.

    -Arun

  • JJ

    Science is essentially the same thought process as religion, only based on physical observations for solutions to life’s problems. Scientists use science to guide themselves through life just as religious people use the teachings of their chosen deity. The only difference between scientists and radical religious folks is the ability to separate known reality from the unknown with observed facts. Drawing conclusions from the environment is the same as being taught about religion, a learned behavior. Take some of the most primitive societies that currently exist in the world’s tropical rain forests. They know how to live off the land using general observations and problem solving skills (science), yet still believe in supernatural beings because they cannot explain some aspects otherwise. For example, they may interpret dreams as messages from some deity, while those trained in science would define them as unconscious mental processes. The difference being the emotional response in each situation, as well as prior knowledge of the brain and it’s processes.

    Furthermore, scientists argue against religion because they seek data that can be observed, but some of life’s issues cannot be explained by science and people seek those answers through religion. Seeking answers to the unknown helps calm the mind, even if it’s not scientifically correct (all that matters is the belief that it’s correct). This can help calm anxiety and provide motivation by helping the mind move forward. Simply put, religion fosters mental and emotional processes for those not trained in the thought processes of science, professional skepticism, and logic. Difference being how we interpret things in own our life experiences. This explains why religion dominated, and continues to dominate, the world before science could explain many things around/about us.

  • joel rice

    Hey – where would we be without Psalm 109 ?????

  • Dan L.

    @Andrew:

    Really, I would say that the study of history isn’t science. That is, one cannot repeat the events of history to really test whether or not Napolean was exiled to Elba. Such a statement does not belittle history as an academic subject; it’s just not science! Our knowledge comes from so many more realms than those of science. To be truly scientific, one must test everything; from the day’s news stories to one’s own ancestry. Such an endeavor is impossible. At the end of the day, we must trust others for information.

    This definition of science neatly excludes all of astronomy, geology, evolutionary biology, cosmology, and paleontology. I have no doubt that there’s many other fields that rely on natural experiments and on inferences from incomplete or ambiguous historical data to produce scientific knowledge.

    Think about the issue this way: if you can accept that evolutionary biology is a science (even though it doesn’t meet your definition) then you should be able to accept that physical anthropology is a science (it’s the evolutionary biology of homo sapiens and closely related ancestors). Physical anthropology is actually a synthesis of results from other fields: archaeology, anatomy and physiology, and paleontology. The line between paleontology and archaeology is a little fuzzy; if we find the remains of homo neanderthalensis near a patch of charcoal and a trash pit, we could make a case that we’re performing either.

    Likewise, the line between archaeology and anthropology is fuzzy. By studying cultural artifacts of early humans and human ancestors, we’re studying both subjects simultaneously. But then, the line between archaeology and history is fuzzy. When we try to reconcile the Pentateuch accounts of the Kingdom of David against the archaeological evidence, we are studying both history and archaeology.

    When you try to make your definition of science too rigorous, especially with an eye to excluding particular fields of study, the fuzziness regarding the domain of any particular academic subject makes it very likely that you’ll end up excluding legitimately scientific fields of study as well. This is why the heavy-weights like Kant and Hume were unable to come up with a universally acceptable definition of science, and why there’s a whole branch of philosophy that is still working on it.

    For a couple of great examples of how historical studies can be scientific, see Guns, Germs, and Steel or Collapse, both by Jared Diamond. In these, Diamond uses so-called natural experiments to compare the trajectories of various civilizations; for example, he compares the collapse of Greenland and Vinland Viking settlements to the success of Viking settlements in Iceland and Faero Island. Using very carefully supported inductive arguments that are exactly analogous to the arguments for evolution using Galapagos finches, he makes a case for various geographical and cultural factors that affect the success of civilizations. Whether or not you agree with his conclusions, I think it would be hard to argue that these are not scientific works (specifically syntheses) about human history.

    That is to say, the subject that one is studying does not make the study itself unscientific, nor can the subject make the study scientific automatically. An astrologer studies the stars, but does not do so scientifically. Conversely, I read a study in which mathematicians analyzed the fractal dimensions of Jackson Pollock paintings and revealed that the fractal complexity of his paintings gradually rose through his career. The subject was art, but the study focused on a quantitative measurement of the paintings and plotted them to find a trend; despite the fact that the subject of the study was art, the study was nonetheless scientific. It is the methods employed and not the subject being studied that makes any particular argument scientific or not.

    There is a beautiful analogy between science and religion. Looking into your eye, your optometrist sees your pupil, iris, blood vessels or the early signs of a cataract. Such knowledge was determined scientifically. The optometrist has seen many, many eyes and so knows what a pupil looks like. However, when your lover looks into your eyes, he or she sees your soul, your deepest thoughts and desires. Demanding that your lover see “hard science” of your eyes removes any emotion. Are these observations incompatible? No, they are answering different questions. A doctor asks questions that can be answered scientifically, while your lover does not (nor should he or she).

    Feynman liked to tell the story of an artist friend of his who said that when he or another artist sees a flower, it is a thing of beauty. But when a scientist looks at a flower, he dissects it, analyzes it, and takes it to pieces until there is nothing beautiful left. Feynman responded to say that was a ridiculous notion; that scientists have access to aesthetic beauty as much as the next guy, though arguably less so than the refined senses of an artist. More important, when a scientist looks at the flower, he realizes that the vibrant color arises from a particular energy level transition in a particular pigment molecule in the petals, that this flower is part of the great lineage of flowering plants and perhaps a few particulars about this flower’s cousins; the scientist has a sense of how nearly indistinguishable plant cells can glom together to form such a complex organism.

    In short, scientific narratives do no preempt beauty; scientific narratives more often EXEMPLIFY beauty. In fact, when special relativity was first proposed, the best evidence for it was simply the elegance of the theory rather than any particular empirical finding (!). And it is not my experience that science is detrimental to emotion. The “ah-ha” moment that occurs when two chunks of knowledge suddenly orient themselves correctly and click together is one of the most exhilarating experiences I can think of from my own perspective, and that to me exemplifies science: creating a causal narrative that ties together previously unrelated stores of knowledge. (This is also why I think religion and science are incompatible; being generous to religion and calling revelation “religious knowledge,” it seems unlikely that such knowledge can be reconciled with any of what we might call scientific knowledge in the same way that, say, evolutionary biology and genetics have been reconciled, or in the way that physicists hope to reconcile gravity and quantum mechanics. Since these reconciliations are a fundamental part of the scientific project, an inability to reconcile revelation with empirical knowledge is exactly equivalent to an incompatibility between religion and science.)

    Now, your analogy doesn’t deal with the case where my optometrist IS my lover. In that case, does my optometrist see my soul and deepest desires in addition to all the veins and nerves and gunk? Or is it like quantum mechanics where she can only see one or the other depending on what she is looking for? It also doesn’t deal with cases where I am deceiving my lover. When she looks into my eyes, she believes she sees my soul and my deepest desires. But what if my deepest desires are for another woman? In my experience, a deep look into someone eyes does not disclose that sort of detail. When my lover looks into my eyes, she sees what she BELIEVES is my soul, that is, the general impression she has of what sort of person I am. In my experience, it is the rule rather than the exception that this impression is relatively inaccurate.

  • Dan L.

    @JJ:

    Science is essentially the same thought process as religion, only based on physical observations for solutions to life’s problems. Scientists use science to guide themselves through life just as religious people use the teachings of their chosen deity.

    See my last post for a counterargument. Science does not describe a subject but a methodology, and that methodology is NOT essentially the same as religion’s methodology (or if you think it is, you need to make a better case for it).

    Your argument seems to hinge on some identity of science and religion with Platonic forms such that they’re similar enough in kind to compare the same way you’d compare an apple to an orange, and I also disagree with that.

    For an example, let’s take the assertion “Wind is caused by trees waving their branches.” This could count as religious doctrine (a sort of myth explaining where wind comes from ) or a scientific hypothesis — there’s nothing to exclude the assertion from either class of propositions. However, for it to be a scientific hypothesis, some methodology must be employed to figure out whether or not its true (e.g. build a high wall around a tree; if there is no wind inside the walls, the tree cannot be causing any wind). If you don’t do this experiment but decide to believe the above assertion regardless, then it is religious doctrine or dogma. This is not the same thought process. It is the very difference between justified and unjustified belief.

  • inDistinctMicrostate

    WOW, Kudos to anyone who has waded through all the above sloppy reasoning and misuse of language to reach this point. Nearly every one of the above comments on both sides of this debate has somehow managed to mis-state or misunderstand the deep issues involved. The arrogance on both sides of the debate is frankly breathtaking.

    Religion/Science only seem to be parallel activities when they are both mistakenly described as ” The interpretation of Scripture/Data so as to discern and then disseminate the revealed Objective Truth. ”

    What a pastor has to say about religion is about as authoritative as what a newspaper story has to say about science. In both cases the language of the discourse has been dumbed down and over simplified for public consumption.

    The platitudes of the ‘salvation’ religions are themselves a simplistic dumbing down of deeper principles which were crafted to ‘trick’ the great unwashed masses into cooperative behaviors which, despite themselves, would ostensibly result in their salvation if they will have unquestioning faith in these obvious(even to them) platitudes. However, research theologians ( as opposed to pastors) will tell you that the path to salvation is not to be free of sin but rather, to be free of ignorance.

    Careful interpretation of scriptures in their original languages reveals that the ‘way of science’ is actually the deep message so widely misunderstood by the adherents of these salvation religions. This is why we also have ‘path of enlightenment’ religions which are more on the right track. ” Verily Lord, how may we know the kingdom of god ? Look around you dipshit, everything is an example of the kingdom of god. ” Ok, so i may have paraphrased a bit. Chillax. Buried in all the religious platitudes is the instruction to go forth and investigate, test and arrive at your own understanding variously called Christ or Buddha Consciousness or Satori, Nirvanna, etc, etc.

    Science is Positivistic. It does not uncover Reality as it ‘really is’ and it does not concern itself with explaining things which DON’T happen, only those things which DO measurably happen and can be tested for consistency.
    So for instance, we will never need science to ascribe a probablity to the likelyhood that blades of grass might begin oozing lava or of unicorns spoiling your picnic. NO statement in science is Absolutely Objectively True. Science is a formal system of statements which are self-consistent and verifiable which is, AT BEST, only ‘true’ with a lower case t. These statements are not ‘proven’ beyond the scope of applicability of science but they are derived truth within that scope. They are not proven ‘True’ but are simply proved to be ‘truly’ consistent with the rest of science thus science overall remains self-consistent while it becomes ever more comprehensive. These are all re-presentations of Reality.

    Everything we seek to explain in science is conditioned by our interaction and inseparability from the Universe we seek to explain. This is the same as noting that everything we want to explain and all those explanations we come up with MUST be encoded into language so that we can share it all with each other. The reality we want to explain is a consensus reality and we can no more prove that our consensus description or explanation is Absolutely True than we could prove that english is the one, Absolutely True language. Even before encoding anything into language, our direct individual, participatory sensory re-presentation of the Universe is only a consensus of one and so we must agree to an arbitrary but self consistent convention, called language, to describe those things we want to explain.

    Language, math, science etc. are all formal systems with varying degrees of simplicity, comprehensiveness and self consistency and what Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorem is telling us is that all formal systems are inherently incomplete in the sense that they cannot ever be Absolutely comprehensive(complete) and so cannot bootstrap themselves into statements of Absolute Truth. This is because we can never escape our use of language and our direct participation in that which we seek to explain. Do you see how the problem violates the basic principle of the scientific method namely – do not influence your experiment. We can never be at a meta level with ourselves and our participation in the physical universe.

    Here’s a maybe publishable tidbit: Goedel’s Theorem is really the only true and intrinsic Anthropic Principle (AP) in science thus deserving of the appelation ‘Principle’ while the AP ( and Multi-Universe) you are more familiar with is a mere conjecture which constitutes an abject surrender to the difficulty of the Fine Tuning Problem. Science positivistically explains a consensus reality which is and must be inherently relativistic or relational to US.

    The theorem says that our comprehensive Theory of Everything will be a statement like say: 1+1=2 Well, that seems pretty unassailable until you consider drops of water or clouds. Or, say a statement like: N is the largest number. Well, N+1 obviously illustrates this TOE is incomplete. Goedel’s Theorem is saying that, with respect to Absolute considerations, there is always such an infinite regress of meta level examples of the in-comprehensiveness of our TOE which can be found.

    But, because science is positivistic and only seeks to describe/explain those things which are observable, reliably inferred and confirmable, our long sought TOE can be found but must always be a provisionally comprehensive and open ended and always subject to being undone by a potential counter example, like any other theorem.

    So Science, as an evolving way of speaking about nature, can no more describe/explain Reality as it ‘really is’ than your words can capture the full scope of the dream you had last night.

    So, both sides in this neverending debate would do well to phrase themselves in such a way as to reflect the understanding that neither of them is on any path to Absolute Objective Truth. Of the two however, only science can hope to arrive at a confirmable description and understanding of our joint consensus reality which will be subject to potential refutation at any time and which can, until it’s shown to be inconsitent, be taken to be objectively (for all observers) true (self-consistent and provisionally comprehensive with respect to all known phenomena).

    This is not a case of the moon not being there when we don’t look as Einstein asked Bohr regarding this Positivism vs Realism debate. Remove all life on earth today and it is easily possible and reasonable to imagine the cosmos doing the same stately dance tomorrow as it did yesterday. The issue is not about physical systems which have a meta level relationship with us but rather, the issue is about our ability to make any Absolute statements about the most meta level feature of our existence, the Universe itself.

    As a tiny subsystem of the Universe, we can no more make Absolute statements about the Universe than a clever red blood cell could hope to make about say, your tv watching habits.

    So chillax.

  • inDistinctMicrostate

    In ref to #81

    Since somebody is bound to point out that science already ascribes a probability of 0% to the likelyhood of lava ooziing from blades of grass or unicorns spoiling your picnic, let me replace those examples of what science need NOT explain with this one:

    Science need not answer the question ” Why is there something rather than nothing ? ” or ” How could the universe be created from nothing ? ” These famous questions have been used to explain/defend the existence of god so what i am saying is that, science need not concern itself with that kind of question because there is no evidence whatsoever that the universe was ever in a state of non-existence.

    Such attention to positivistic rigor is greatly simplifying. We can safely conclude that the Big Bang was NOT the ‘birth’ of the Universe, it was merely the birth (at best) of ‘SpaceTime’ in a pre-existing Universe.

    Now we might ask, how could the Big Bang have been the birth of ‘time’ as it is difficult to imagine SpaceTime going from a timeless state to a timeful one ? Since timelessness is a perfect stasis, the Big Bang also cannot have been the ‘birth’ of time either.

    So, we can safely conclude, from a positivistic standpoint, that the Big Bang was merely a noteworthy phase change of the pre-existing SpaceTime in the pre-existing (single) Universe.

  • http://www.mikebrotherton.com Mike Brotherton

    @19 shaun

    Re: soul. Irony falls on deaf ears, all too often. Instead of soul, which isn’t a term that has any objective meaning but seems to be understood by believers and non-believers both, usually, how about I use a word like integrity?

    You also fail to grasp the fundamentals of science and atheism both, based on your other comments, and comments to a blog post are unlikely to be the place to educate you.

  • JJ

    @Dan, what I meant was using religion to answer the unexplained things in life on an emotional level. For example, what is my purpose in life? Science cannot answer such questions since they’re catered to the individual. I argue that this is the whole point of religion. The thought process is essentially the same in rationalizing through your own emotions or difficult problems as it requires problem solving skills and logic. These are the same means by which scientists conduct experiments and observations. I believe religion is meant to be interpreted not literally, but metaphorically, as a psychological tool of sorts.

    The separation of emotions and personal biases can co-exist with logical problem solving skills, therefore I believe it’s possible for scientists to be both religious and logical, assuming, of course, that they realize religious teachings are not meant to be taken literally. For example, one can believe in creation and evolution in the respect that God created the universe and evolution was a subsequent result from that point, but not that God simply clapped his hands and people appeared on Earth. The correct answer would be we simply don’t know, but that doesn’t necessarily discredit religious theory. In this sense, religious theory is just as credible as the big bang theory.

  • chemicalscum

    @39. Theo

    “Believe it or not, the advertisement that DiscoverMagazine.com attached to the bottom of the RSS feed version of this post is “Is there a God? a short article gives six reasons why God exists.” …

    “I have very much enjoyed reading Cosmic Variance, since long before you moved to Discover Magazine. Mostly I ignore the ads, but your blog is the only one that gets them into my RSS feed. I will probably unsubscribe soon.”

    Theo use Firefox and install the AdBlock Plus plugin and such unsavoury advertising will be a thing of the past. You will also enjoy your general web browsing experience more.

    What ads? The only ad I see is for some book called “From Eternity To Here”, I don’t know how it got passed AdBlock Plus.

  • J.J.E.

    Dunning/Kruger alert at @81 & 82.

  • http://www.mikebrotherton.com Mike Brotherton

    JJ @84

    One problem here is that your interpretation of religion is not one held by many, perhaps the majority, of religious people. There is usually belief in a supernatural element, and rules to follow, without necessarily even telling you what your purpose is (as God is “mysterious” since he’s good and lets evil happen, for instance). So even if your personal view of religion is more compatible with science than most, in the real world that is not sufficient.

    Furthermore, does religion actually do what you say it does? Have your figured out your purpose in life using religion? If you have, why do you believe it’s the right answer?

    I mean, science is limited, but it is the only reliable way of getting right answers. Religion seems like stabbing in the dark, at best. And different religions give different and contradictory answers to the same questions. I’m fine with folks wanting to be spiritual, to be emotional, or who want to adopt healthy philosophies and ethics, but when it comes to specifics and organized religion, they all seem very, very suspect and unjustifiable in any particulars.

  • Hop

    I’m what is commonly called an “Evangelical” Christian, and since I’m not sure any of my stripe have been represented above I thought I’d weigh in. BTW, I’m not too fond of labels, but if they give at least a helpful hint of probable perspective and association I’ll just go w/it.

    Personally (and many will feel my point to be ‘pointless’ here), I think Christians have unwittingly bought into a wrong epistemology when applied to certain spiritual matters. The Scriptures say (I’m trying to quote from memory here) “the natural man receives not the things of the Spirit, for they are spiritually discerned (or appraised).” IOW, many of the type posting to this blog are demanding spiritual understanding on their own terms — as though God were obligated to acquiesce, regardless of the true state of their heart toward Him and whatever he has revealed to that heart. I don’t put much stock in people’s words necessarily, as we all are very easily self-deceived. Most people claim a blameless moral stance toward any true would-be (holy) God, but is that truly the case?

    To try to encapsulate what could fill a book, I am saying that I believe Christians have become intimidated oftentimes by challenges in the name of science and made ashamed to frankly admit that there is more to ‘the whole equation’ than furnishing the answers deemed suitable to every question posed by unbelievers (though at times such means can be / have been used effectively to bring one to Christ, sure enough). In fact I would say that God has intentionally chosen NOT to make the path to Truth one so subservient to the rational faculties of sinful men w/high IQ’s. “The Jews seek for a sign, and the Greeks for wisdom, but we preach Christ and Him crucified.” Again, I know many would charge that such is God’s duty, and that there is nothing inappropriate in their demanding it (regardless), but I disagree. As readers of this blog familiar with the gospels know, Jesus felt no obligation to produce ‘evidence’ to inquirers, when he knew full well what was in their innermost being.

    I don’t want to be misunderstood. I fully believe and expect that when all truth is truly known (including scientific truth), faith in Christ will be seen as the only thoroughly rational response. I believe that right now (already). But the main point here that I think is being missed is the offensively simple one that “the Lord looks on the heart.”

  • J.J.E.

    @ Hop

    I totally agree with the thrust of your comment. Except you have a few details a little bit scrambled according to my understanding. I can’t really demonstrate what I’m about to tell anymore than you can demonstrate what you just witnessed to us. If I could even try, I would be trying to encapsulate what could fill a soda can full of microSD cards. Regardless of “rational faculties” or “evidence”, I believe the following in my heart, and that’s enough for me.

    First, God is clearly transcendent pasta. And His Noodly Goodness doesn’t give a whit for truth, unlike your god who just makes truth really hard to find. However, similar to your god, I would say that His Most Exalted Starchiness has intentionally chosen NOT to make the path to the Beer Volcano and Stripper Factory one so subservient to the whims of sinful men without eye-patches and peg legs.

    I fully believe that if you will don full pirate regalia, you will not only halt global warming, but you will also be touched by His Noodly Appendage. And you get to enjoy strippers and beer for eternity.

    Ramen

  • Katharine

    Hop, your word salad is so scrambled that I’m not sure you have a grasp on reality.

  • http://mogmich.blogspot.com/ mogmich

    So you think, that your own consciousness is “matter in motion”?

    That must be the implication of saying, that humans are “nothing but matter in motion”.

    I certainly don’t believe that, and since I personally find that my own consciousness is an important part of my identity, this is not just a philosophical detail.

    I would like to stress, that I don’t think human consciusness can exist independent of physical reality (the brain). Consciousness is clearly interacting with physical reality, but that doesn’t make consciousness itself physical.

    Of course you might say that this is only a question of the definition of the word “physical”. But then I would say, that our current understanding of physics must be severely flawed.

  • joel rice

    Instead of complaining about religion – why don’t you complain about the
    junk on MTV and VH1 – which easily affects a lot more people. why not complain
    about Politics – as in Max Baucus lying like a rug – which will definitely affect you.
    How can I afford to buy Sean’s book if I have to spend 8 grand on health insurance ?

  • Milton C.

    Right now there is not a strong consensus within the scientific community about what the truth actually is vis-a-vis science and religion; I have my views, but sadly they’re not universally shared.

    Methinks collaborationism (see Mooney’s blog comments) might be the tie that binds, to use a poorly-chosen relgiious allusion.

  • JJ

    @Mike, I’m no longer a practicing Catholic, but I do believe religion has taught me values and morals as a child. Being on both sides of this debate, I believe I have a good perspective on the issue. I feel that many of the New Atheists never experienced religion and are basing their views on the assumption that all religious folk are nut jobs. I grew up in a Catholic family, have many Catholic friends, and was once a practicing Catholic, yet I’ve never met anyone that would fit the stereotype of religious nut job. In this debate, I feel that many of these Atheists base their opinions simply on this stereotype without real world experience of the religion, which is hardly scientific. The people of my former church are very much normal people like anyone else. I’ve had math professors that were more “out there” than the religious people I know.

    When I think of religious nut job, I picture the family recently featured in the news for refusing to treat their diabetic daughter, who subsequently died, believing that God would heal her. This is utterly ridiculous and these people are obviously out of touch with reality. I believe most Christians would believe it’s pure stupidity as well. There’s really not much that separates the majority of Christians from science minded folks, besides education. Scientists are taught how to think critically using the scientific method and skepticism, which most people lack. Being taught “how” to think is more important than being taught “what” to think. “What” you think is based upon your experiences, emotions, and thought processes.

    Most Christians have common sense and understand the nature of reality. The majority of scriptures feature events with real people, not magic, although the occasional miracle is present from time to time. However, “miracles”, or events that defy odds, do happen all the time, we simply choose to label them differently based on school of thought. A scientific minded person may simply refuse to interpret such an event, while religious folks label it a miracle. It’s not magical, we simply can’t explain why it happened, therefore neither interpretation is right or wrong. I think most Christians understand the true purpose of scripture as metaphors applicable to real world events. I’m basing all of this on my experiences with religion and religious people. Most of my religious friends would not argue against the scientific facts I present for everyday events or evolution, etc.

    The actions of New Atheists are simply polarizing to this debate. I find it utterly ridiculous that Atheists protest displays of Christmas trees in public. To an Atheist, it’s simply a tree with lights, but to a Christian, it’s a symbol of Jesus’ birth. This is simply a difference in interpretation, not forcing one to believe in Christianity. There’s nobody going around forcing you to go to church or read the Bible. I bet most people actually don’t even realize the true religious meaning of Christmas, which is sad, even for non-religious folks. It makes no sense to bash something for which you have no knowledge, this goes against science as well. This issue has become political in nature, rather than material. I say this because nothing will come from it except suppressing the expression of religious beliefs and behaviors. There’s nothing wrong with public displays of religion, it’s your belief in them that matters. To an Atheist, these symbols should hold no meaning, but they seem to provoke a sense of disgust. A Christian would never tell a Jew to take down a Menorah display because they believe Jesus was the son of God. Atheist behaviors go against the peaceful teachings of most religions when they try to suppress religious thought. There’s no proof that God did or didn’t exist, therefore it doesn’t make sense to claim it as a truth. We can only offer proof to real world events, which Christians often readily accept.

    Our founding fathers established the country based on the teachings of Christianity, however they also included a clause in the Bill of Rights protecting the rights of others who are not Christian. They were not trying to force Christianity on anyone as these New Atheists try to force their views on Christians. Atheism, like religion, is a school of thought. Just because you don’t agree with others’ world view doesn’t mean you have to force your views on everyone else (the nature of political debate). To me, this seems to be fueled by hatred, not tolerance. Although some would bring up the gay marriage debate, which is equally as ridiculous on religious folks.

    Furthermore, our country is not centered around Christianity and it doesn’t affect our culture (or lack thereof some would argue). Some cultures are entirely based on religion, mostly in the Middle East, such as Islam and Hinduism. We are very much a society of free thinkers. My personal bias on the issue is obvious, but I don’t feel that science should be attacking religion and vice versa. I say let people believe what they want to about the world’s unanswered questions because in the end it’s only personal interpretation. Science and logic will always trump “magic” and most people in our society will accept this, with the exception of radical religious folks that are out of touch with reality.

  • Gordon

    “Most Christians have common sense and understand the nature of reality”.
    Well, that is debatable–the ones that do have cognitive dissonance–ie compartmentalising
    different and incompatible sets of beliefs. The bible is full of magic and miracles, or else of people talking about them, and the notion that these people were actually real is in any case debatable.
    And about atheists not having a religious upbringing—wasn’t Sean raised as a Catholic?
    If your point is valid, it simply confirms brainwashing.

  • Gordon

    Oh and in my view, “New” atheists are not and, in fact, cannot force their views on anyone.
    And the founding fathers attempted to protect the rights of non-Christians because most of them were either atheists or deists ( Adams and Jefferson and Franklin) and not theists who believed in a personal God. Read their letters to each other rather than their public views.

  • JJ

    I would argue that just about everybody on the planet holds views that are incompatible. It’s dependent on how you look at things. Not every issue is black and white, where some people believe it is so. For example, a glass that is 50% full is both half full and half empty. Now, if you see the glass half empty, I would expect you to see the glass 3/4 empty if I was to empty half the liquid. If you were to say the glass is now 1/4 full, that’s inconsistent with your previous view and therefore incompatible, but not necessarily incorrect.

    In the real world we refer to these people hypocrites. It’s like claiming you’re Catholic, but only attend church on Christmas and Easter. In the case of religion, I believe those that take teachings literally are out of touch with reality, but those that understand the purpose of religion can be both religious and scientific. I’m aware of the many contradictions of religion as well, the purpose being to shape behaviors. It may be taught in an inconsistent manner, but the overall goal is create good, peaceful people. Again, open to interpretation, as some may use religion to justify negative or violent behaviors. I may have misused the term “New” to describe Atheists, I’m not sure how to discriminate between Atheistic views. This is why I consider myself Agnostic. I believe overall religious intentions are good and the teachings are metaphors for life and open to interpretation, without the whole magical aspect. I cannot confirm, nor deny the existence of a higher power.

  • JJ

    I was aware of the anti-religious views of some of the founding fathers, but of those, some of them did believe in a higher power as they were members of the Free Masons, which hold a belief in a Supreme Being. Ben Franklin was in fact a Free Mason, a Grand Master. Although, the Declaration of Independence does reference God.

    http://www.britannica.com/blogs/2007/02/the-us-founding-fathers-their-religious-beliefs/

    And 1/3 of those that signed the Constitution were Free Masons.

    http://bessel.org/constmas.htm

    “Freemasonry is the oldest and largest world wide fraternity dedicated to the Brotherhood of Man under the Fatherhood of a Supreme Being. Although of a religious nature, Freemasonry is not a religion. It urges its members, however, to be faithful and devoted to their own religious beliefs.”

    http://freemasonry.org/

  • http://www.mikebrotherton.com Mike Brotherton

    JJ, most of the founding fathers were Deists of some kind and not especially Christian, and held a lot of scorn for organized religion. It really isn’t accurate to say, as you do, that the country was established based on the teachings of Christianity. Not at all. Sounds like from the later posts you understand this, at least in part, so I hope you stop spreading this dangerous myth. It’s dangerous because it makes some Christians feel more entitled to get their religious beliefs into law in the U.S., and plenty of Americans have a problem with that and it causes a lot more strife than anything any New Atheist has ever done.

    And I disagree strongly with your assertion about miracles. I don’t believe in them, as there has never been documentation for any that aren’t explained by science. Faces on bread don’t count. Water into wine, resurrection, things like that, are simply unbelievable. If such things happened more regularly and in clearly demonstrable ways, without David Blaine trickery, and in response to activities like prayer, or only for followers of a particular religion, I think you’d see a lot fewer atheists. Although being a science fiction writer, I’d be suspicious of advanced alien visitors playing at being god as an alternative hypothesis.

  • JJ

    I don’t believe in those examples of miracles either, I find those quite humorous and far fetched. I was referring to medical events or car accidents where the damage was so bad that the probability of life was slim. Those who simply defied the odds or recovered from a once considered fatal condition. I would refer to these as simply lucky to defy the odds, while others may see it as a sign from God, some kind of miracle.

    I also don’t believe Christians will ever pass their view as legislation as it violates the first amendment, freedom of religion. The only area up for debate with a highly Christian following is abortion, but even non-religious people are against it, just as some religious people support it. We know for a fact that a fetus is a living being, just as a tree, although most don’t normally think of a tree as a living being. The abortion debate is purely political in nature, about the rights of the unborn and the definition of when life officially begins, rather than questioning if the fetus is a living being.

  • Dan L.

    @mogmich:

    So you think, that your own consciousness is “matter in motion”?

    That must be the implication of saying, that humans are “nothing but matter in motion”.

    I certainly don’t believe that, and since I personally find that my own consciousness is an important part of my identity, this is not just a philosophical detail.

    I would like to stress, that I don’t think human consciusness can exist independent of physical reality (the brain). Consciousness is clearly interacting with physical reality, but that doesn’t make consciousness itself physical.

    Of course you might say that this is only a question of the definition of the word “physical”. But then I would say, that our current understanding of physics must be severely flawed.

    Is Microsoft Windows “matter in motion”? I ask because Microsoft Windows is man-made — we know exactly where it comes from and how it works, or can at least figure it out in principle. No assumptions about the existence of the spiritual need be made to explain how Microsoft Windows works. Microsoft Windows can be entirely described using materialist (philosophical sense) terminology. But is Windows itself material?

    No, of course not. Microsoft Windows is a PATTERN that can instantiated within moving matter, but which the mind can clearly abstract out of any particular instantiation (otherwise, we could not recognize the same operating system running on two different computers as “the same”). Similarly, an internal combustion engine is a pattern wrought in iron, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and all the rest. Is an internal combustion engine material? Well, any PARTICULAR internal combustion engine is. But we could hypothetically make an internal combustion engine out of, say, diamond instead of the materials usually used. It would still be an internal combustion engine, because it’s not the matter itself that makes it an engine.

    So while minds might not be perfectly identifiable with any particular instance of matter in motion, it may be identifiable with matter in motion in the same way that Microsoft Windows is identifiable with a tangled flow of 1s and 0s through computer memory, or the same way that an internal combustion engine is identifiable with the chunk of steel bolted under the hood of my roommate’s Ford Focus.

    I misinterpreted your post when I started to respond, and I think we’re mostly on the same page. Anyway, it seems obvious to me that the human brain packages together repeated motifs as their own “objects,” in the very way I describe above. For example, the notion of “triangle” is not tied to any particular material instantiation of a triangle; the concept seems to get its own reality within the mind through the frequency with which it is experienced. This pattern persistence is actually important for materialists to come to terms with, since it’s the only way to get around the ship of Theseus paradox in a materialist account of consciousness.

  • JJ

    Makes me wonder how “In God We Trust” got onto our money and all over Washington in the first place. It seems like a rather cut and dry issue under the Constitution.

  • Dan L.

    @JJ:

    @Mike, I’m no longer a practicing Catholic, but I do believe religion has taught me values and morals as a child.

    Religion taught you? Or your parents and community members taught you? I went to Catholic mass and sunday school as a kid, but I’m pretty sure I learned all my morals and values from my parents and community — mainly through example — rather than by watching a celibate man in a dress lecture a hall full of people on sexual propriety.

    I feel that many of the New Atheists never experienced religion and are basing their views on the assumption that all religious folk are nut jobs.

    Uh…does this even seem remotely reasonable? NEVER experienced religion? Why would they be strident atheists if they didn’t have a bone to pick with religion?

    Like I said, it sounds like my religious background is pretty similar to yours — and I’ll be the first to admit, it was relatively benign — but I still can’t get over the fact that most of the world thinks it’s not only acceptable but actually praiseworthy to lie to children. (I consider saying you’re sure of something when you really have no way to be sure to be lying.)

    And it’s not a question of whether a person acts “weird” — when you say you’ve had math teachers more “out there,” I get the feeling that you think atheists’ problem is that there are religious people who are actually acting weird, like, flailing their arms in the air and making awkward comments to minorities. No — they act normally for the post part. They THINK weird — they think that believing exactly what you’re told and not questioning it is a GOOD thing. And again, that lying to children is praiseworthy rather than contemptible. It’s not about being “out there” in the way your math teacher was. It’s about promulgating a belief system that leads systemically to misinformation, and usually exploitation.

    The actions of New Atheists are simply polarizing to this debate. I find it utterly ridiculous that Atheists protest displays of Christmas trees in public. To an Atheist, it’s simply a tree with lights, but to a Christian, it’s a symbol of Jesus’ birth.

    If you’ve seen any atheists protesting Christmas trees, they are a rare exception. PZ Myers puts up a Christmas tree, fer gosh sakes. Give me a citation about the thousands of atheists protesting Christmas trees; otherwise, drop this argument as it is dishonest, ascribing actions and intentions to a class of thousands of people who don’t, in fact, have any problems with Christmas trees.

    Also, how is a fir tree emblematic of the birth of a Palestinian Jew? From what I can tell, the fir tree actually symbolizes the potential for rebirth and renewal even on the darkest, coldest day of the year. That is, it’s a pagan symbol that got picked up by Christianity, not a Christian symbol itself.

    If you’re asking for civility in this debate, maybe you shouldn’t be mischaracterizing the actions or intentions of your opponents. Doing so is almost certainly going to add nothing but acrimony to the discussion.

  • Dan L.

    @JJ:

    Makes me wonder how “In God We Trust” got onto our money and all over Washington in the first place. It seems like a rather cut and dry issue under the Constitution.

    The Declaration of Independence says that all men are created equal; the man who wrote it owned black slaves. The man who freed those black slaves had said publicly he did not think they were REALLY equal, and that ideally, they would all be sent back to Africa. The United States signed a whole bunch of binding treaties with Native American nations in the 19th century and broke the provisions of almost every single one.

    Why should the capacity of the US government and people for hypocrisy and failing to live up to their own ideals surprise you this late in the game?

  • JJ

    Those are proof that humans can rationalize just about anything, even if it doesn’t make logical sense. In regard to Atheists protesting Christmas trees, it’s based on the fact that they want everyone to refer to them as “Holiday” trees and refer to Christmas time or activities as “holiday” activities. This is ridiculous. You can’t force people to relabel their religious activities simply because you disagree with it. This is why I liken those types of Atheists to hate mongering.

    I would also argue religion has taught me morals and values because both of parents grew up Catholic, as did their parents, etc. Not to say that religion is necessary for moral and ethical behavior, but it does instill good values in my opinion. You can have a religious parent who sets bad examples, just as you could have an Atheist parent that set good ones. Actions define people more than words.

  • http://www.mikebrotherton.com Mike Brotherton

    For better or worse, JJ, religion and personal morality are not closely related.

    I was raised without religion, and think I have a pretty good morality.

    I know some Christians, including some famous religious leaders, who lie, cheat, steal, murder, commit adultery, etc. Their religion obviously didn’t prevent this.

    Some other Christians have asked me, apparently seriously, why I don’t steal and rape if I don’t believe in god. Well, there are laws against it for one thing, but even if there weren’t, I wouldn’t.

    Morality just doesn’t have much to do with religious belief. Really. It seems to have a lot more to do with evolution and the kind of social animals we are.

  • JJ

    I see that, but this is where religious people would actually fit the morality criteria. By this I mean they would follow the commandments, virtues, etc. There’s no doubt much of our behavior has to do with social, environmental, and genetic factors. However, Christianity teaches people not to fall into these bad behaviors. It’s your choice whether you break those rules or not, religion doesn’t force you to abide by them, they simply teach it. I’m just trying to say that religion teaches good things and if you really believe in those virtues, you won’t fall into those categories you mentioned.

    The people you mentioned are simply hypocritical of their own religion/beliefs, not true to themselves you could say. I see it as human conditioning to resist certain urges, if they had thought it through, they could have over came the emotional urges that led to those behaviors. Since emotions dictate behavior, those teachings have to hold meaning to serve any good in your own life. However, I’m like you in that I never think of religion in those instances and still maintain a good moral ground. The things that keep me away from such behaviors would be negative emotions (consequences) guilt, remorse, depression, fear, etc. as a result of laws and other learned behaviors. If society was lawless, I believe we would have people committing atrocities quite often.

  • Sputnik

    JJ wrote: “In regard to Atheists protesting Christmas trees, it’s based on the fact that they want everyone to refer to them as “Holiday” trees and refer to Christmas time or activities as “holiday” activities. This is ridiculous.”

    Where are all these atheists who want everyone to refer to Christmas trees as “holiday” trees and rename Christmas time? Is this a popular opinion among atheists? Can you name some prominent “new” or “old” atheists who support this idea?

    What’s ridiculous is this silly notion of “war on Christmas”.

  • JJ

    I base my opinions on observations. I’ve seen numerous stories on the news about Atheists protesting Christmas displays, including Christmas trees just this year at a school in Massachusetts, they even banned the use of green and red during Christmas time! Furthermore, when I was in high school, the Jewish attendance woman had a Menorah displayed in her office, where no students actually went because she greeted students from a small window that overlooks the hallway. Some parent happened to see the Menorah in her office and protested to have it removed, for which she was forced to do so. This woman wasn’t even an educator and didn’t push her views on students, yet she was forced to take down her personal display of worship. I understand the separation of church and state, but she wasn’t even an educator and had minimal contact with students beyond a “hello, I’m here”. Why should she have to take it down because one person doesn’t agree with it? Does this mean all students and teachers should be banned from wearing crosses around their necks? It’s ridiculous.

    A bit off topic, but similar events happened last year regarding the American flag of all things. One woman had the flag hanging in her office and was forced to take it down after 20+ years because some new manager told her to do so. Apparently it was offensive to display pride in her own country. Another incident involved a 30+ year old American flag sticker on the locker of an employee. Both of these people fought the charges and won the right to hang their flag. PC has gone too far when hanging the American flag is considered offensive.

    These are only a few examples, but they’re a microcosm of the bigger picture that involves political correctness. I see it as “don’t push your views on me and I won’t push my views on you”. From a political standpoint, individual freedom of religion, whether it’s scientifically correct or not. I’m all for Atheists displaying their own holiday displays as well, whether it be a Winter Solstice tree or whatever, as long as it doesn’t take shots at Christianity directly because that’s targeted bigotry toward one religion. It’s like displaying a poster for civil rights that directly refers to white people as racists. That doesn’t help your cause, Dr. King knew that.

  • Dan L.

    @JJ:

    Those are proof that humans can rationalize just about anything, even if it doesn’t make logical sense.

    Which makes it the perfect response to your stupid little “God We Trust” trope. How can we reconcile what it says on our money with what it says in the constitution? Well, humans can rationalize just about anything, even if it doesn’t make logical sense.

    And that’s religion in a nutshell.

    In regard to Atheists protesting Christmas trees, it’s based on the fact that they want everyone to refer to them as “Holiday” trees and refer to Christmas time or activities as “holiday” activities. This is ridiculous. You can’t force people to relabel their religious activities simply because you disagree with it. This is why I liken those types of Atheists to hate mongering.

    Again, find me the citation for the hordes of atheists calling them “holiday trees,” or find a more honest way to argue this. Of all the atheists I know, I don’t know a single one who calls them anything but Christmas trees. Also, how could atheists possibly FORCE anyone to stop calling them Christmas trees? Are they advocating for legislation officially banning the term? If so, it shouldn’t be too hard to find evidence of such advocacy, right?

    Furthermore, justify to me why they SHOULDN’T be called holiday trees. Like I already explained, the tradition behind Christmas trees stems from PAGAN WINTER SOLSTICE HOLIDAYS, not Christmas. “Holiday tree” is actually MORE historically appropriate than Christmas tree.

    Also, hate mongering to me would be something like, “Queers are ruining our country. We shouldn’t be letting these people into our schools or government buildings.” Referring to a statement like “Could you please call them holiday trees?” as hate-mongering seems to me to trivialize the real meaning of the phrase. As does all this Christian persecution nonsense. All the most entitled and wealthy people on the planet are Christian, buddy. Likening yourselves to Jews circa WWII is a) absurd and b) insulting to anyone who believes in the dignity of the human person.

    I would also argue religion has taught me morals and values because both of parents grew up Catholic, as did their parents, etc. Not to say that religion is necessary for moral and ethical behavior, but it does instill good values in my opinion. You can have a religious parent who sets bad examples, just as you could have an Atheist parent that set good ones. Actions define people more than words.

    Which is exactly my point. You gave credit to “religion” when what you really meant was “people who I know who happened to go to the same church as me.” It wasn’t the religion; it was the people. It just so happens that the people who taught you your values were also the ones who introduced you to religion. Even if those values were presented as religious tenets, they were presented by people. And I’m willing to bet you internalized them NOT because it’s what Jesus said, but because it’s what your mother and father said (though I suppose I can never really know).

  • Dan L.

    @JJ:

    Then your complaints are about political correctness and not about new atheism. If you look at a few atheist blogs and troll the archives from December, you’ll find that they pretty much all celebrate Christmas and they all pretty much laugh about the “war on Christmas” lie that’s pushed by Bill O’Reilly and the like. Again, find me citations for this war on Christmas garbage or find something new to complain about atheists.

  • JJ

    I understand that, but then why would Atheists celebrate Christmas? Christmas is a religious holiday acknowledging the birth of Christ. That doesn’t make sense at all. It would at least make some sense if they were Agnostic and acknowledge the teachings are meaningful representations, but Atheists reject all that is religion. The same goes for St. Patty’s Day, and Easter. A true Atheist should be having a Winter Solstice party.

  • Paul

    I understand that, but then why would Atheists celebrate Christmas? Christmas is a religious holiday acknowledging the birth of Christ.

    Laughable. It’s much more a cultural holiday celebrated in the spirit of bringing family together and giving gifts. It’s beyond reason to claim it’s a “religious holiday acknowledging the birth of Christ” when the most obvious items of decor are evergreen trees (pagan), holly/mistletoe (pagan), and Santa Claus (I must have missed his part in the Gospels). When “Christmas Carols” that are listened to are predominantly regarding an oddly nosed reindeer, Jingle Bells, and the like, it just comes off as silly to state it’s only (or even main) meaning is to celebrate Jesus, who is at most mentioned the 4 Sundays in December (and maybe in a quick missive before Christmas dinner). Or did I miss the addendum to the Last Supper where Jesus suggested to his followers that they giveth presents to each other at the Winter Solstice in the guise of a fat, bearded gentleman, in memory of His Holy Birth?

    And before the “then why call it Christmas” retort is trotted out, names are retained even when the culture moves on. I mean, you don’t need to celebrate the Norse pantheon to call today Thursday.

  • Bill

    “no global religion has emerged”

    But several groups are working on the project

  • JJ

    The true history of Christmas indeed has roots in Christianity. The most controversial being mistletoe, but nonetheless it has been associated with Christmas for hundreds of years. Your argument is one sided in justifying Atheist celebration of Christmas, which is indeed hypocritical. Simply calling Christmas a non-religious holiday is a fallacy for which there is no proof. Once again, lacking logic and factual argument. There’s no evidence, not tainted by personal bias, that can conclude Christmas doesn’t have roots in Christianity. In regards to Christmas carols, you left out some of the classics…Holy Night, Come All Ye Faithful, Silent Night, Ave Maria…there’s quite a few.

    Christmas trees:
    http://www.christmasarchives.com/trees.html

    Mistletoe
    http://weuropeanhistory.suite101.com/article.cfm/the_history_of_mistletoe

    Santa (aka St. Nicholas)
    http://www.history.com/content/christmas/history-of-santa/the-legend-of-st.-nicholas

  • http://www.mikebrotherton.com Mike Brotherton

    I like Christmas. Gift-giving, Santa, trees, goodwill toward men and peace on Earth.

    I ignore the religious part as best I can as it would detract from my enjoyment of the holiday. The modern world has developed a very significant secular tradition about Christmas.

    And I always liked Easter egg hunts, too.

    Most modern “religious holidays” have evolved from a combination of one or more religious holidays, modern and pagan, and a secular/commercial element.

    The Christians in Russia celebrate Christmas on Jan.7. They put up their trees for New Year’s and leave them up through the 7th. Know what they call them??? Wait for it….

    New Year’s Trees!!!

    Those Christian-hating Christian Foreigners!!!

    Ha ha ha.

    JJ, believe what you want about anything you want. Just don’t believe it’s necessarily correct without a lot more research and thought, or, if you can’t manage that, you might at least listen to others and learn a few things. Sorry if this sounds dismissive, but rereading the thread it doesn’t look like you’re well informed about things that seem to bother you so much, so it is a shame you’re so bothered.

  • Wilfred Samuels

    I value Truth and efficiency more than honesty. Therefore, it makes sense when lying is a more effective way to lead people to the Truth, I think honesty should take a backseat.

  • Damian

    I suggest that you read the Wikipedia article about Christmas, JJ. Many of the things that are synonymous with Christmas either have pagan roots, or are later secular inventions. Jesus wasn’t born — if he was at all — on the 25th December, for example.

    But even if it was all inspired by Christianity, why should that prevent atheists from celebrating at that time of year? I was brought up celebrating Christmas, but without any reference to religion, whatsoever. Given that less than 5% of people regularly go to church in the UK, Christmas would be celebrated by a very small number of people if it really were a Christian holiday. And there is a very persuasive economic case to be made for secularizing Christmas, which is exactly what has happened.

    You may not like the fact that it has taken on a secular life of its own, but it is hard to argue that it hasn’t. And, of course, nobody is preventing Christians from celebrating the birth of Jesus, if they so wish.

    In point of fact, it isn’t necessarily atheists who complain about the Christian influence on what is supposed to be a secular government in the US. One of the most prominent members of Americans United is actually a Christian, for example, and so too are many of their members. Many Christians realize that the only hope that we have to prevent sectarian squabbles is to support secularism.

    Unfortunately, some Christians haven’t bothered to find out about why secularism is at heart of most western ideals. It protects all faiths and none, equally. And the origin of secularism has nothing to do with non-belief, either. It was first proposed to prevent different religious sects fighting over who should have what influence over government affairs.

    Christians have every reason to support the secular ideal, because most liberal Christians wouldn’t dream of forcing their beliefs on anyone else. It is the more authoritarian religious sects that wish to enshrine their “moral” beliefs in to law, and that is as repugnant to most liberal Christians, as it is to atheists, Jews, Muslims, Hindu’s, etc, etc.

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

  • JJ

    I find it illogical to spin Christmas as a non-religious holiday. The Greek Orthodox celebrates Christmas a week later than us here as well. Just because the Greeks and Russians celebrate it at a later date and refer to the tree with a different name doesn’t deny the reason for the event. This still doesn’t prove Christmas is a secular, non-religious holiday. You can spin it any way you like, fact is that Christmas indeed began as a religious holiday and has been commercialized as secular. Failure to acknowledge those facts are purely ignorant.

    Damian, your argument sounds like circular reasoning to me. The real question is did Christmas exist before Christianity? If it did, then I’m wrong about Christmas having Christian roots. If not, then my argument is confirmed. Christmas may have taken queues from other religions, but they were not referred to as Christmas, therefore Christmas is a Christian holiday. Quite simple. I don’t see why Atheists have to try to spin it to fit their view. I’m not even religious, just arguing facts.

  • spyder

    Can we get this thread unhijacked from this silly religious debate and back to its substantive issues; or are you three going to go on and on and on??

    Another way to look at this whole debate is to recognize that the same scientific method that is used in physics and chemistry is also used in biology, geology, economics, zoology, et al. Science is a descriptive process sharing a methodology among all its practitioners that strives to describe the knowable universe in concrete testable forms.

    That is not the case with religion. Many of the commenters above seem to think that there is only one strand of religious thinking: Christian. That is not true. There are many religions that hold views that are quite diverse and unique: Scientology, Mormonism, Theravada Buddhism, Sihkism, Dogon, PNG, Judaism, and hundreds more. Each has very different constructs and core beliefs; each has its own pathways to the spiritual. Religion is a normative discipline filled with empowering myths, creation stories, and salvation mechanisms. They are incompatible on their face with themselves, yet historians and scientists of religion can study them as representative of human response to the cosmos.

  • MadScientist

    @John Williams: A person does not need to know a thing about religion to have a good conversation about religion. In fact you get the best conversations when a person knows nothing about religion – in such a case the person tends to ask many sensible questions for which the religious have no sensible answer. That is why non-religious people see religion as a very bad joke while the religious are always frustrated about “how little” the non-religious people “understand” (i.e. how little religious trivia masquerading as facts are known to non-religious people). Why even a religious person such as a buddhist can have very interesting conversations with a christian and ask all sorts of questions for which the christian does not have a sensible answer.

  • JJ

    The debate really is exhausting, it doesn’t lead anywhere. I’m with John Williams, it is possible for both sides to co-exist when you take a realistic and objective view from the center. Most of the people on these types of blogs tend to be radical to either side and it’s useless in trying to talk sense to them, even with supporting facts.

  • gregl

    Science demands evidence. Religion demands faith.
    They are clearly incompatible.
    Most scientific thinking folk are atheists, agnostics, or at most deists.
    There are exceptions of course (Francis Collins) but these are rare birds indeed.
    So, to be honest, I would say thinking scientifically will put any religious ideas one has in peril.

  • ianam

    “I feel that many of the New Atheists never experienced religion and are basing their views on the assumption that all religious folk are nut jobs.”

    What you “feel” is of no consequence, especially when it is in conflict with well-established and easily discernible facts.

    But then, that’s the whole point about the religious vs. scientific mode of thinking.

  • ianam

    The debate really is exhausting, it doesn’t lead anywhere. I’m with John Williams, it is possible for both sides to co-exist when you take a realistic and objective view from the center. Most of the people on these types of blogs tend to be radical to either side and it’s useless in trying to talk sense to them, even with supporting facts.

    Translation: I’m rational and right and anyone who disagrees with me is irrational and wrong.

  • ianam

    The real question is did Christmas exist before Christianity? If it did, then I’m wrong about Christmas having Christian roots. If not, then my argument is confirmed. Christmas may have taken queues from other religions, but they were not referred to as Christmas, therefore Christmas is a Christian holiday.

    So if I invent a religion called Cooptianism, with a holiday called Cooptmas that is identical to Christmas, taking place on December 25 with an exchange to gifts, decorating trees, and other traditions that can be traced back to before the time of Christ, that makes December 25 a Cooptian holiday?

  • ianam

    Your argument is one sided in justifying Atheist celebration of Christmas, which is indeed hypocritical. Simply calling Christmas a non-religious holiday is a fallacy for which there is no proof. Once again, lacking logic and factual argument. There’s no evidence, not tainted by personal bias, that can conclude Christmas doesn’t have roots in Christianity.

    This is cargo cult rhetoric. It is apparent that its author has no real understanding of the terms “hypocritical”, “fallacy”, “proof”, “logic”, “factual”, “evidence”, or “conclude”.

  • ianam

    I base my opinions on observations.

    This is one of many lies you’ve told. Atheists here tell you that they put up Christmas trees, even PZ Myers puts up a tree, that they do not ask that they be called “holiday trees”, etc., yet you ignore all of this direct evidence and instead insist that atheists demand that they be called “holiday trees” and want to ban green and red. You do not base your opinions on observations, rather you glom onto anything — like bogus Faux News reports or your own mental fabrications — that you can use to reinforce your unfalsifiable opinions and ignore anything that challenges them.

  • ianam

    Makes me wonder how “In God We Trust” got onto our money and all over Washington in the first place. It seems like a rather cut and dry issue under the Constitution.

    You’ve got the wealth of human knowledge at your fingertips and yet you “wonder” about such things? It’s no wonder that you are so ignorant and have so many false beliefs.

  • ianam

    If you had an understanding of neuroscience and psychological study, you would know that this is bullshit.

    One can be a scientist and be religious, but it helps a lot to be grossly ignorant outside of one’s immediate area of expertise.

  • Bruce Gorton

    “Religion has been a social glue of civilization; to deny it is unscientific.”

    Haiti, Nigeria, the DRC and various other religious hellholes would contest that. As would largely irreligious Scandanavia, Japan and South Korea.

    “Religion is universal — every culture has some form of it; there has never been a society without gods of some kind.”

    The Pirahãs might have something to say about that. Aside from this, that doesn’t actually demonstrate that “Religion has been a social glue of civilization” – it merely demonstrates that religion is widespread.

    At a point, so was feudalism, racism, and sexism.

    In other words, you know what is really unscientific?

    Claiming that XYZ is so, and to deny it is unscientific. To be scientific it must be open to disproof.

  • andyo

    Religion has been a social glue of civilization; to deny it is unscientific.

    Actually, I think the first part of this statement is not unreasonable. If by “social glue” one means tribalism. Now, of course there’s the matter of determining how exactly any kind of tribalism is desirable in the 21st century.

  • andyo
  • 122.   JJ Says:

    January 21st, 2010 at 6:47 pm

    The debate really is exhausting, it doesn’t lead anywhere. I’m with John Williams, it is possible for both sides to co-exist when you take a realistic and objective view from the center. Most of the people on these types of blogs tend to be radical to either side and it’s useless in trying to talk sense to them, even with supporting facts.

  • Which supporting facts would they be? Like “oh, um, there are religious scientists, you know?” Give me a break and work on your reading comprehension. STRAW MAN! Nobody is talking about them not being able to co-exist. OBVIOUSLY THEY DO. The claim the accomodationists make is that they don’t contradict each other. They’re fundamentally opposed. Science rejects faith, religion welcomes and encourages it. It is that simple! Whatever mental masturbation and philosophical hoops one has to jump to argue otherwise is irrelevant. Come on, give us something clear and understandable at the very least.

  • joel rice

    Dear Reader
    Have the Atheists become Evangelical ?
    Will they be leaving Tracts and Pamphlets ?
    Will they become Circuit Riders ?
    Shall I join their Crusade ?
    Or become an Atheist missionary ?
    But they have no Bible.
    Perhaps they have not been out in the sun long enough.

  • JJ

    “…ALTHOUGH A CHRISTIAN HOLIDAY, Christmas is also widely celebrated by many non-Christians,[1][13] and some of its popular celebratory customs have pre-Christian or secular themes and origins. Popular modern customs of the holiday include gift-giving, music, an exchange of greeting cards, church celebrations, a special meal, and the display of various decorations; including Christmas trees, lights, garlands, mistletoe, nativity scenes, and holly. In addition, Father Christmas (known as Santa Claus in some areas, including North America, Australia and Ireland) is a popular folklore figure in many countries, associated with the bringing of gifts for children…”

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

    “Christmas means “Christ’s Mass” and is the celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth and baptism”

    http://www.novareinna.com/festive/xmas.html

    “Christian festival celebrating the birth of Jesus. ”

    http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/115686/Christmas

    I rest my case. Spin all you like, Christmas is a Christan holiday. Therefore, Atheists that celebrate Christmas are illogical hypocrites. Why not also celebrate Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Ramadan? Christmas may have some roots in Pagan traditions, that doesn’t make it a Pagan holiday.

    http://atheism.about.com/od/christmasholidayseason/p/AtheistsIgnore.htm

  • andyo

    Look who’s talking about spin.

    You know what, nobody that’s not a fundamentalist gives a damn about what you think “true” christmas is. For most it’s just a tradition, religious or secular.

    I like the family and friends gathering. We’re gonna call it whatever we wanna call it. Where’s the hypocrisy on that? Where’s the lack of logic? It’s just a stupid name, we will call it Super Jesuspalooza if we want, OK? This argument on semantics is just as stupid as saying that all atheists that use “god!” as an interjection are hypocrites too.

    Just as you can say “christmas may have some roots in pagan traditions, that doesn’t make it a pagan holiday”, we can also say that our holidays may have some roots in christmas-y traditions, that doesn’t make it a christian holiday.

    In any case, as others mentioned above, the only nutcases making a big serious (albeit ridiculous to everyone else) fuss about this are some paranoid christians and fundamentalists.

  • JJ

    andyo, you need a lesson in logic. We know for a fact that Christmas is a Christian holiday, that’s concrete and well established. So, by celebrating Christmas, a Christian holiday, without believing in Christianity is hypocritical. This is equivalent to a Buddhist celebrating Hanukkah for example. If you were to celebrate another holiday that shared the exact same traditions as Christmas, but was called Jesuspalooza and had no ties to Christian faith, that would make logical sense. Atheists I’ve heard actually have a winter solstice party with much of the same traditions as Christmas, justifiable because it has nothing to do with Christianity, it’s a celebration of the shortest day of the year or when Earth reaches perihelion about the sun.

    Furthermore, using your logic of semantics and the claim Atheism is based entirely on facts, not feelings, you said “I like the family and friends gathering”. Therefore, the traditions make you feel happy, which is why you celebrate them. So, feeling happy about Christmas is justification for celebrating a Christian holiday. That’s illogical and inconsistent by your own standards. The basis of religion is emotional because much of the stories involving “magic” obviously make no logical sense, which is also an Atheist argument.

    I’m also non-religious, I’m just arguing facts to figure out how Atheists justify celebrating Christmas. Thanks to you, I’ve confirmed the answer….because it feels good. Based on your rhetoric, you’re likely getting frustrated because the facts I present are contradictory to your own logic and you lack any real facts to prove Christmas is not a Christian holiday. No feelings here, only facts.

    If you follow the last 2 links below, it will lead you to a book written by an Atheist author, Tom Flynn. He argues that “it is important for secularists to abstain from Holiday celebrations”.

    http://atheism.about.com/od/christmasholidayseason/p/AtheistsIgnore.htm

    http://atheism.about.com/od/bookreviews/fr/TroubleXmas.htm

    http://atheism.about.com/gi/o.htm?zi=1/XJ&zTi=1&sdn=atheism&cdn=religion&tm=5342&f=21&tt=11&bt=1&bts=1&zu=http%3A//www.pointofinquiry.org/%3Fp%3D89

  • freelunch

    JJ,

    Christmas was a Christian holiday that was used to preempt the pagan holidays related to the solstice. Does that make Christians hypocrites?

    Anyway, the Christmas of the modern era has little to nothing to do with religion, unless shopping and consumerism are a religion. It doesn’t matter at all whether atheists follow cultural convention or not. There is no hypocrisy.

  • JJ

    Trying to downplay the issue and pass fundamentalists off as paranoid nut jobs is only an attempt to dodge the real issue and draw attention away from your lack of credible evidence refuting the facts.

    “Christmas was a Christian holiday” – Exactly.

    “the Christmas of the modern era has little to nothing to do with religion”

    So, that’s why Christians all over the world don’t go to church on Christmas, where they don’t sing religious Christmas carols. Makes perfect sense, thanks for clearing that up. It’s only the biggest Christian holiday next to Easter. Even Christians who don’t go to church every Sunday often attend at least twice a year, for Christmas and Easter. That’s equivalent to saying modern day Hanukkah isn’t the same because they give gifts over a period 8 days, which requires much shopping and consumerism.

  • andyo

    You need a lesson on reading comprehension. Nobody is saying that “Atheism is based entirely on facts”. Certainly not me. Some (including me) would say “the facts revealed by science suggest theism is wrong” which, I’m sure as you so enlightened in “logic” is not nearly the same.

    And I was accusing you on playing the disingenuous semantics game, and you continue to do so. How about we call it Christmas 2.0.

  • JJ

    Say what you will about semantics to spin it, facts are facts. Atheists argue about facts over emotions all the time. I also agree with you that facts suggest theism is far fetched, I’m Agnostic, but that still doesn’t justify why Atheists celebrate Christmas. It’s dodging the real issue. Unless Atheists create their own holiday or celebrate a non-religious event, like Winter Solstice, it will never make sense. Saying Christmas is non-religious because it’s a government recognized holiday and consists of shopping and family gathering doesn’t justify it to be non-religious.

  • JJ

    I liken this debate to trying to explain evolution to creationists. Creationists will deny the facts, even when they’re right in front of them, because they’re so set on believing that God clapped his hands and here we are. It’s the same premise and those who are trying to rebut my claims will likely take this and spin it to something like “that’s exactly what you’re doing, being ignorant, facts are that Christmas is secular now, it shares Pagan traditions”.

    Those are attempts to dodge the real issue, a personal attack to protect your own feelings about the issue. I’m basing my whole argument on the fact that Christmas is a Christian holiday, the only way to disprove it is to prove Christmas is not a Christian holiday.

  • Ewan R

    JJ – Personally I view Christmas as both a religious holiday, and a non-religious holiday (although from your stance I guess it could be argued that any holiday is a religious holiday, just look at where the word comes from – holy day)

    For Christians – christmas is no doubt steeped in religious significance. Regardless of whether or not it was subverted from pagan solstice celebrations centuries ago it has clearly become ingrained in ‘western’ (for want of a better word) cultue because for the past 1000+ years ‘western’ culture and christian culture were essentially the same thing.

    However, this equivalence is now in the process of breaking down. We exist in a multicultural society. Christmas means utterly different things to different people. To me Christmas is simply a traditional time to spend with family, overeating and exchanging gifts – the fact that it derives from Christianity does not make me hypocritical for celebrating despite having no belief in god, it is simply a part of the culture in which I grew up (and any excuse to gorge on christmas pudding, mince pies, and roasted veg is alright by me, regardless of if it is a pagan traditional holiday or christian).

    Likewise I celebrate Thanksgiving every year now. Despite being British and not an American – I would assume that this equally makes no sense (again to me it is a day to spend with family, overeating – sadly without the presents though) as I care not one bit about the pilgrims and their plight, and find the notion of giving thanks to some unspecified whatchamadingle rather odd – I do however enjoy turkey, cranberries, and apple pie.

  • JJ

    Thanks Ewan, that’s the most honest and logical response I’ve heard today. It confirms the point that Atheists celebrate Christmas because it makes them feel good, and it makes perfect sense, who wouldn’t enjoy those festivities? That’s what I was trying to get people to admit. This is why I believe some behaviors are entirely based on our emotions. Whatever makes us feel good, be it logical or not, motivates our behavior and beliefs. In this case, emotions trump logic because non-believers will find ways around the Christmas being a Christian holiday debate to fit their beliefs, just as believers will try to rationalize their claims with things from the Bible. Both sides of the argument contain logical inconsistencies to fit either side, similar to political debate. Therefore, the “correct” answer depends on your perspective.

  • joel rice

    Ewan – what ? you dont give presents on Thanksgiving ! Get with the program.
    Puritans said that Xmas is not in the Bible anyway. Presents are ok, but no dancing
    allowed ! I dont believe in supernatural stuff, but Atheistical literature is drivel, their
    music insipid.
    JJ – holy smokes – Whatever makes us feel good ??? Have a look at “Sinners in the hands
    of an angry God” . I just love all that Hellfire and Brimstone stuff – especially when they
    call the Pope the Anti-christ.

  • Paul W.

    In this case, emotions trump logic because non-believers will find ways around the Christmas being a Christian holiday debate to fit their beliefs, just as believers will try to rationalize their claims with things from the Bible. Both arguments contain logical inconsistencies.

    You seem to think that emotions and logic are at odds here. I don’t think they are. There’s nothing illogical about doing things that are fun, simply because they’re fun. No excuse is needed, and no inconsistencies result. It doesn’t matter that the day is traditionally called “Christmas” in our current culture. What matters is that it’s the traditional winter party, as it has been since thousands of years before Christianity, with the name and details changing now and then.

    I propose that we change the name “Christmas” to “Partyday” to reflect that truth.

    Until Christians agree to the name change, I’m not going to worry about referring to December 25th as “Christmas”—it’s just a proper name for a day, as far as I’m concerned, in much the same way as “Sunday” is. Taking Sunday off doesn’t introduce inconsistencies into my worldview just because it used to mean “Sun Day.” Like a lot of words, the word “Christmas” has multiple senses, and at least one of them is secular.

  • JJ

    No, there’s nothing wrong with doing fun things at all, but you’re missing the point. The point being the logical conflict between not believing in Christianity, but celebrating a Christian holiday. Christmas is factually a Christian holiday, whether you see it that way today or not depends on your own point of view. That is unless you can prove Christmas is not a Christian holiday today, in which the entire argument is bogus.
    Why is it so hard for Atheists to admit that Christmas is a Christian holiday? The only logical reason is because they enjoy the festivities and rationalize their claims with inconsistent logic to support their emotional basis. This is proof that Atheists are capable of inconsistent logic, just as religious folks because both of these views are based on emotions. If logic were to trump emotion in this case, all Atheists would not celebrate Christmas. It’s a conflict of their own beliefs, just as conflicts of belief exist in Christianity. Emotions and logic are indeed at odds here, which is why all people are inclined to irrational or illogical thinking at one point or another. Sometimes it just takes another perspective to point it out, which is why perspective leads to personal bias as well.
    I consider these views objective because I’m not taking sides for or against either party. It’s simply a logical analysis of behaviors and thought processes of both parties, which is where I believe most scientists should sit on such issues.

  • phein

    I think I may have to disagree with some of your detective work there, Sean. I think we very much need to stop pretending that science and religion aren’t compatible.

    There are plenty of places where science and religion are compatible: anthropology, social psychology, abnormal psychology, just to name three. I’d guess there are also fruitful areas of study concerning religion in economics, history and other fields.

    It may be difficult or impossible to get direct measurements of specifically religious objects (say, the preferences of the Almighty for specific types of burnt offerings, since the Almighty is an imaginary being to begin with), but it is possible to test and measure hypotheses concerning religions as social objects in human society, such as:

    Religionists claim that religion is good for society: Are societies that are “more religious” better in some way (happier, healthier, more peaceful) than societies that are less religious? There are measures for these values which can be compared, and the claims tested.

    Religionists claim that prayer is good for something other than personal meditation. There are ways to test this through double-blind studies.

    Wherever religions make any sort of truth-claim about the world that is falsifiable, that is where science and religion intersect, and we should be pushing rigorous testing in those areas for all we’re worth.

    Let the Templeton folks fund some research like this, if they want to show that religion and science are compatible.

  • phein

    To JJ –

    “Why is it so hard for atheists to admit that Christmas is a Christian holiday?”

    Probably because there is nothing inherently Christian about Christmas. Some people think “Jesus is the reason for the season”, dress up their yards with live Nativity scenes, and go to midnight Mass. Many others decorate a tree, bake the holiday cookies, and spend no time whatsoever thanking the Almighty for the gift of His sacrificial lamb Self.

    “Christmas” is a brand name that has passed into the public domain, just like Kleenex and Xerox. No one holds a copyright to it.

  • Dan L.

    @JJ:

    If you can’t be bothered to do the slightest bit of research to find out about Christmas, don’t be surprised if people start dismissing your opinions on this. (Not to mention lying about atheists persecuting poor widdle Christians.)

    Christ was probably not born on Dec 25.

    Dec 25 is quite close to the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, usually Dec 21.

    Pagan celebrations for the winter solstice would often start around dec 21 and go for several weeks (ever hear of the 12 days of Christmas?)

    Before St. Nicholas, a large bearded man with reindeer featured in many pagan winter solstice legends.

    there’s nothing in the Bible about fir trees, but pagan religions in Germany and Scandinavia have incorporated such trees in their winter solstice celebrations since before the time of Christ

    It’s actually fairly well established historically that the Catholic church started the celebration of Christmas so that they could convert northern European pagans without forcing those pagans to give up their winter solstice celebrations. Similarly, Easter was started to replace the vernal equinox celebrations — ever wonder what eggs and rabbits have to do with Jesus? Nothing, they’re fertility symbols associated with pagan vernal equinox celebrations.

    If you call it “Christmas,” then yes, it’s a Christian holiday, but you’re ignoring the fact that someone started the Christian holiday at some point for some reason. And they did so well after the time of Christ, and they did so to correspond to a pagan holiday so that pagans would not have to stop having fun just because they became Christian. None of this is secret or particularly controversial. Just because it’s a Christian holiday doesn’t mean it’s not also OTHER things.

    What would you say to a wiccan who wants to celebrate the winter solstice by putting up a fir tree? That she should stop trying to steal Christmas from the Christians? Christians stole it from the wiccans (well, nothern european druidic cultures) in the first place.

  • Dan L.

    So let’s say it this way: when you celebrate Christmas, JJ, are you also beseeching the sky god to fertilize the earth and bring back the spring? Because if atheists are celebrating the birth of Christ by observing Christmas, then logically you must be engaging in druidic rituals by putting up a Christmas tree.

  • Ewan R

    JJ I think you go a tad too far in asserting that because Christmas is (or at least was) a christian holiday (regardless of the roots of the timing – I’m going to assume here that it purely is a christian holiday) it is illogical to celebrate it.

    It would be illogical(or at least inconsistent), as an atheist, to celebrate the birth of Christ (although perhaps not so much, celebrating the birth of Christ as the son of god would be inconsistent, whereas celebrating the birth of Christ as a monumentally successful moral philosopher not so much) would be illogical, to follow the societal norm and enjoy a festival which just so happens to have at its root a mythological origin not so much.

    It doesnt require any doublethink – atheists don’t (at least given my limited sample size of one as to what atheists do and don’t think) have to buy into the entirety of christian mythology to celebrate Christmas, they don’t for a single day of the year suddenly believe that water was turned to wine, that there was a virgin birth, that angels descended from the heavens to announce the coming of the son of god, or that Mary and Joseph simultaneously lived in Bethlehem and were called there from elsewhere due to a census – whereas religious belief, in general, requires some sort of doublethink in terms of compatibility with science (at least in terms of truth claims as covered by Phein above)

    I guess part of the problem (and I’m not sure if this is what you’re trying to get at or not) is that saying “Christmas is a christian holiday” seems to imply that only christians should celebrate it (I know of at least 2 Hindu’s who celebrate Christmas also – entirely because it is part of the western tradition – are they suffering from the same malfunction in logic?) rather than (and this is what I almost hope you are saying, or at least believe that most atheists would agree with) – christmas being a holiday with Christian roots (at least in the last 1500 years) which is deeply embedded in the traditions of western society – the first definition certainly precludes non-believers from celebration, the second, not at all.

    For an atheist celebrating christmas to be operating on illogical grounds they would have to believe that christmas was a christian holiday in the 1st sense, for an atheist celebrating christmas to be perfectly logical all it requires is that they believe christmas to be a christian holiday (or a pagan, or pre-pagan (I suspect the pagans stole it from someone, quite possibly of a starchy nature)) in the 2nd sense – which, based on my sample size of 1, is what atheists do believe.

  • Aquaria

    JJ, Google SOL INVICTUS. Google HORUS. Google SATURNALIA. And that’s just for starters.

    It will help you understand how wrong you are about Xmas being a Xian holiday. It’s STOLEN from other cultures which had celebrations or or around the Solsitce. IOW, don’t cherry-pick what you want from the objective articles about the matter.

  • Aquaria

    No, Ewan, what they’re trying to say when they talk about Xmas being a Xian holiday is: “Since it’s a Xian holiday, and you atheists celebrate it, you secretly know Xianity is the TRUTH!!11elevetyone!!111!!!”

    Sadly, that’s how logic works in their tiny little minds.

    By the way, Japan celebrates Xmas even though, as a joke goes, the majority religion is called being Japanese.

  • Ewan R

    Aquaria – I don’t know (and I may have missed earlier posts, or a history or something) but JJ doesn’t actually appear to be a christian (claims to be agnostic further up in the thread at least) – just believes that there is an inconsistency between being atheist and celebrating christmas.

    Which does bring up an interesting question – as an agnostic, JJ, do you celebrate christmas? If yes (and I dont think even by your logic this would represent an illogical decision, as agnostics claim not to know…) do you also celebrate Hannuka, Diwali, Ramadan (etc etc) – if not how do you explain this inconsistency? – I would assume as an agnostic you are equally unsure about all religions

  • Paul

    Aquaria – I don’t know (and I may have missed earlier posts, or a history or something) but JJ doesn’t actually appear to be a christian (claims to be agnostic further up in the thread at least) – just believes that there is an inconsistency between being atheist and celebrating christmas.

    That is his claim, but it’s really hard to believe anyone without Christian baggage could argue the case of how “Christmas is a Christian holiday” so badly. Even when I was a Christian I would have found his argument ridiculous. I mean, just on the face of it he blithely ignores the pagan roots of the many important symbols used in Christmas celebration. It’s one thing to claim the synthesis of component parts made it a truly Christian event, but he straight out denied the disparate sources of the elements they drew together to fabricate their “distinctly Christian” holiday.

  • JJ

    Still missing the point, beating around the fact that Christmas is a Christian holiday. It doesn’t matter what traditions you bring up that are associated with it, it was officially denoted as Christmas when it become a Christian observance. You can mimic all the same elements of Christmas at some Winter Solstice party and that would make sense because Winter Solstice is not the same as Christmas, it’s not a Christian holiday.
    Using your argument about Pagan traditions, I use similar logic…the English language was derived from many other languages over time, such as Latin. Therefore, when I’m speaking English, does it also mean I’m speaking Latin? No, they’re entirely different languages, just as Paganism and Christianity are entirely different religions.

    I don’t have any preference for any religion. I believe religion is essentially a psychological handbook that helps people cope with life’s issues. All religions in general share the commonality of engaging human emotion with rituals and stories that are meant to teach lessons in life and shape behavior. It takes on many forms and functions around the world and people have used various ritualistic behaviors as means to promote a sense of community, self esteem, safety, and other human psychological needs. As societies changed, rituals and beliefs changed, new religions were adopted and the cycle continues.

    As for me and Christmas, I don’t believe in any organized religion, but I understand the purpose of religions to be as previously stated, therefore I interpret teachings from various religions as applied to the human psyche to foster emotional and mental health. For example, if I hear a story about Christ or Buddah, etc., I interpret the teachings as applied to reality, a metaphor of sorts. It’s like reading a story or watching a movie, it’s an art form.

  • Ewan R

    So the form of observance matters – what if I were to claim I did not believe in Judaism, yet came from a society which for the past 1800 or so years had been steeped deep in Judaism, such that when Hanukkah rolled around the societal norm was for families to gather, exchange presents, perform various religious rituals, and what not – and that, bar the religious rituals, I participated – I still fail to see any hypocrisy there (the hypocrisy would come with either participating in the rituals, or believing in the original reasons for the celebrations while at the same time not believing in the religion itself.

    You aren’t demonstrating an acutal hypocrisy, just asserting one is there.

    If I were to go all out, celebrate xmas and include a stop off at church along the way (midnight mass or whatever your local brand of christianity does – I’m relatively oblivious to the actual religious traditions), sacrifice a goat, or whatever then yes this may be a tad hypocritical (although arguably not so much as it all fits into what has been a societal norm for generations)

    As to your last point – so you do, or do not celebrate christmas? It’s not clear. You can interpret religious teachings however you will (I can see that some parts of a lot of religions can be taken the way you choose to take them, but only devoid of the other bits, like stoning homosexuals, killing apostates, avoiding your wife for a week every month – etc) however if the interpretation of religion is merely that it is a metaphor for how to live your life (and here only if you can actually figure out which bits to follow, and which bits not to, which suggests to an extent it is an impediment rather than a help – if you pick the right bits, then surely you already know how to do it) then my conclusion, based on all your arguements previously, is that you cannot possibly participate in any religious type holiday, to any extent, without branding yourself an illogical hypocrite – whereas I and most other atheists would not brand in the same manner regardless of which religious type holiday you choose to observe.

  • Paul

    As for me and Christmas, I don’t believe in any organized religion

    That sure sounds like something a religious person would say. Most of us believe in organized religion, we simply don’t believe in their tenets or authority.

  • phein

    you’re missing the point. The point being the logical conflict between not believing in Christianity, but celebrating a Christian holiday. Christmas is factually a Christian holiday, whether you see it that way today or not depends on your own point of view.

    You’re confusing the name with the substance. As previously noted, no one has a copyright on the name “Christmas”, and it has long since passed into the public domain. People are free to make of it what they will. It’s only a Christian holiday for Christians, and from what I’ve observed, very few of them anyway.

    There really is no logical conundrum involved here. People can say “Merry Christmas”, and mean what most people mean — I wish you well, this is a time of year when I can wish people well without seeming sappy, please relax and enjoy yourself because you are usually too uptight to be around, etc — without believing in the divinity or existence of Christ. They aren’t even remotely connected.

    What it would take to make even a little sense of what you’re saying is to have a case where someone went to confession, Mass, partook of Communion, and fervently prayed to Jesus, all without believing in the existence of Jesus. That would at least appear to be illogical, although it could just be someone not taking it too seriously, which seems common enough.

  • JJ

    If I was to admit I was a hypocrite that celebrated Christmas and continued to push this question, you would immediately turn it into a personal issue of me defying my own logic, away from the real issue at hand. I can’t talk sense to those who won’t acknowledge Christmas as a Christian holiday when it’s obvious and factually true. Is Hanukkah not a Jewish holiday? Is Ramadan not a Muslim holiday? The circular reasoning here is beating around the bush to preserve your position. It’s a very simple issue, with simple logic that you’re making extremely complex in an attempt to dodge the issue.

  • Dan L.

    @JJ:

    Or maybe we just disagree with you because you’re oversimplifying what Christmas is and why people celebrate it. As someone said about, you’re asserting a logical contradiction without demonstrating one. And you’re asserting things about atheists (that they hate Christmas; that they persecute Christians) without offering any evidence.

    Is Channukah a Jewish holiday? Is “Jewish” a religion? I know a few atheist Jews, some of them go to synagogue. They all celebrate Channukah. Channukah is actually a rather unimportant Jewish holiday, and its rise to fame only occurred when it came to America and had to deal with (the garish, grotesque secularized version of) Christmas. My stepmother was Jewish, so despite the fact that my mother raised me vaguely Catholic, I celebrated both Christmas and Channukah with my father and stepmother, both of whom are essentially deists.

    See how that’s more complex than just “Channukah is a Jewish holiday”? And how it’s not necessarily hypocritical for me, an atheist former Catholic, to celebrate Channukah with my Jewish-but-not-particularly-religious stepmother? If you could acknowledge that observing holidays that have their roots in religious traditions does not make atheists hypocrites, I think we could move past the whole discussion of Christmas.

  • andyo
  • 157.   JJ Says:

    January 22nd, 2010 at 1:07 pm

    it was officially denoted as Christmas when it become a Christian observance.

  • “Officially.” HA HA HA HA

  • Dan L.

    @JJ:

    Actually, you’d also have to acknowledge that most atheists are fine with Christmas and you were lying about the atheist campaign to destroy it.

  • JJ

    I never said they were campaigning to destroy it or hate Christians, that was Bill O’Reilly. I asked a simple question that requires a simple answer that you all refuse to answer, complete denial of the facts. Obviously Jewish isn’t a religion, once again a personal attack on my intelligence. An Atheist Jew is contradictory by definition, you can’t be both anti-religious and practice an organized religion.
    I think the answer you’re looking for is it’s perfectly ok to not believe in any religion, yet participate in their festivities. I’m not saying it’s not ok, I’m only saying it’s a logical paradox. To refute all religion, yet participate in their practices lacks logic, it’s that simple. Would you buy a set of golf clubs if you didn’t play golf? Would you label yourself a Conservative when your political views are overwhelmingly Liberal?

  • JJ

    I can’t believe this debate is still going strong, yet achieving absolutely nothing. It’s like the climate conference in Copenhagen. Thanks for the insights, but I’m done with this thread. It’s been good, take care.

  • Dan L.

    @JJ:

    You said:

    The actions of New Atheists are simply polarizing to this debate. I find it utterly ridiculous that Atheists protest displays of Christmas trees in public. To an Atheist, it’s simply a tree with lights, but to a Christian, it’s a symbol of Jesus’ birth.

    When it is the exceptional “New Atheist” that does this, not the average New Atheist. You seemed to think that:

    They were not trying to force Christianity on anyone as these New Atheists try to force their views on Christians.

    How did the New Atheists force their views on Christians? Are you going to back up any of these wild assertions?

    Obviously Jewish isn’t a religion, once again a personal attack on my intelligence. An Atheist Jew is contradictory by definition, you can’t be both anti-religious and practice an organized religion.

    You contradict yourself here. Being Jewish is not a religion, but being an atheist Jew IS a contradiction because…well…here you seem to say being Jewish IS a religion. That’s an impressively adroit mental handspring. By the way, since you contradict yourself on whether being Jewish constitutes religion within the space of two sentences, I think it’s unfair to say asking the question is a personal attack on your intelligence. The answer clearly isn’t all too obvious, or you wouldn’t have contradicted yourself trying to find the answer. I think it’s a fair question: if you don’t believe in God or the prophets or the historical veracity of the Pentateuch but you stay kosher and go to synagogue, are you Jewish? Does that constitute religion?

    Like I said, I know atheists who go to synagogue. None of their Jewish friends or families think they’re hypocrites. That’s because Judaism is more complex than simply being a “religion” in your view of what that means. The fact that we’re unwilling to buy into your over-simplified view of what most atheists are willing to admit is an amazingly complex cultural phenomenon does not mean we’re denying the facts. In fact, it means we’re taking account of MORE facts than you are.

    I think the answer you’re looking for is it’s perfectly ok to not believe in any religion, yet participate in their festivities. I’m not saying it’s not ok, I’m only saying it’s a logical paradox.

    Yes, you’re SAYING it, but you’re not making a case for it. You’re not demonstrating it. You’re giving us no reason to believe that you’re correct on this. Is Christmas a Christian holiday? Yes! Is it JUST a Christian holiday? No. It’s a more complex cultural phenomenon than a simple religious observance, and the fact that we can acknowledge that and you apparently can’t does not make US the idiots or hypocrites or whatever else you’d like to call us.

    To refute all religion, yet participate in their practices lacks logic, it’s that simple. Would you buy a set of golf clubs if you didn’t play golf? Would you label yourself a Conservative when your political views are overwhelmingly Liberal?

    When I put up a Christmas tree, I am not affirming the truth of any part of Christian dogma, am I? When you put up a Christmas tree, you are not asserting the existence of the sky god who impregnates the earth goddess to bring us next year’s crops, are you?

    If putting up a Christmas tree is hypocritical for an atheist, then it is equally hypocritical for all Christians, derived as it is from pagan traditions predating Christianity.

    This is the same argument everyone has been making for the same 50 posts. What is so hard about this? In Germany, parents tell their children to be good or Santa’s helper Krampus will come get them. That’s another pagan tradition that got mixed in with Christmas, though only regionally. Does that mean that Germans celebrate a different holiday from Christmas, because some of the traditions are a little different? You know why Santa Claus wears red clothes? Because in the 30’s or 40’s, Coca Cola wanted to make a Christmas-time ad associating Santa Claus with their logo’s predominant color. Is putting up a Santa statue the same as vouching support for the Coca Cola corporation?

    Again, just because you want to MAKE it simple doesn’t mean that it IS simple, and it certainly doesn’t make us hypocrites for pointing out that, golly gee, it’s actually a little more complicated than JJ would like to think.

  • Paul W.

    Atheist Jew is contradictory by definition, you can’t be both anti-religious and practice an organized religion.

    You don’t know many Jews I’m guessing, especially Israeli “secular Jews.”

    The term “Jew” is very ambiguous. It can denote a person with a certain set of beliefs that are vaguely defined, a person who observes some of the traditional practices related to those beliefs without believing the traditional beliefs (e.g., in God), or a person of a certain ethnic heritage traditionally associated with those things, who doesn’t believe or do any of it, but may or may not do certain stereotypically jewish things like eating blintzes and borscht, because they grew up with those things and still like some of them.

    You seem to have a black-and-white mentality that requires you to think words only have one sense each.

    That’s just silly.

    Even in the most precise sciences, with the most rigorous technical terminology, that’s not true.

    For example, in physics, “wave” has several related but distinct meanings. A water wave is a very different thing from the kind of wave an electromagnetic wave is, although there are certain similarities.

    Are you saying physicists are hypocrites for calling electromagnetic waves “waves”?

    Are you saying that biologists are hypocrites for refusing to call squid “fish”? (There’s an ancient tradition of using “fish” to mean just about any animal that lives in water “fish”, especially if you catch it an eat it—e.g., shellfish, crayfish, cuttlefish, etc.)

    I think you need to seriously re-think how words work. They demonstrably do not work the way you insist that they do. You are just wrong, scientifically wrong, and need to read about cognitive linguistics.

  • JJ

    Just have to clarify one more thing for Dan L. Jewish was a reference to anyone that observes Judaism. Bad analogy, but you get the point by now, or maybe not.

  • http://www.mikebrotherton.com Mike Brotherton

    Can we talk about Halloween now, please?!

    Or the a related question to the what is Christmas thing…if Pluto is a dog, then what is Goofy?

  • JJ

    and this debate has nothing to do with laws of science, just logic and psychology. How about which came first, the chicken or the egg?

  • Dan L.

    @JJ:

    The egg. Insects lay eggs, mollusks lay eggs. Fish lay eggs, and fish evolved before chickens. Chickens evolved from egg-laying reptiles. Definitely the egg first.

    You’re assuming logic and psychology have nothing to do with the laws of science? Why would you make an assumption like that? It seems to me that psychology and logic MUST be related to natural law somehow.

    Just have to clarify one more thing for Dan L. Jewish was a reference to anyone that observes Judaism. Bad analogy, but you get the point by now, or maybe not.

    Yes, if you continually redefine terms in the middle of a discussion, you can make it so you’re never technically wrong. Way to figure that out. Let me guess, you’re going to go get a philosophy degree now?

  • Hop

    Some good points made, and questions posed, but at the same time I see the limitations of the e-forum format, for one thing. It’s basically trying to carry on a discussion/debate (of in-depth issues) in cyber sound bites. Clumsy in many ways, and increases one’s appreciation for the ‘greatness’ of face-to-face communication. But beyond even this I think a proper ‘posture’ of mind is a prerequisite for a fruitful exchange. I feel like my post, for example, got only 7th grade cafeteria sarcasm and then a flowerpot chucked from behind a row of bushes. Great. The combo of these two counterproductive elements (the micro-shots & perhaps an predetermined unwillingness) make me wonder about the worthwhileness of such columns. Maybe it’s just not the way to explore deeper matters — at least in many instances.

  • Siderial

    About two hundred years ago a fellow named Charles Francois Dupuis wrote a book called Origine de tous les cultes, ou Religion universelle in which he pointed out with exhautive detail that religion arose from the perception of astronomical phenomena which gave rise to concepts like transcendence, immortality, etc. Chanukah, the festival of lights, is a reflection of the winter soltice as much as Christmas. This fact does not make such festivals fraudulent but just reflects the elemental connection between religious beliefs and the rhythms of nature. Over the eons, evolution has predisposed the human brain to prefer such connections in the same way the human brain is structured to find beauty and pattern in the world. Why this is so is debatable, but it remains unassailable that science is based on these curious archaic artefacts of the human brain.

  • joel rice

    Lets see – millions of people LIED to get mortgages for houses they can’t afford
    and you clowns are blabbering about inanities, while the economy collapses.
    You are affected, but you do not make the connection. Mencken was right:
    “The American people constitute the most timorous, sniveling, poltroonish,
    ignominious mob of serfs and goose-steppers ever gathered under one flag
    in Christendom …”
    And he wrote that when the worst thing in high school was chewing gum
    and running in the halls. That was when the Ten Commandments were
    posted on the wall. Now look at the mess that YOU have created.
    It is coming down the pike – and you are responsible.

  • George V

    I am just tuning in to this thread and am not about to make a big deal of anything except I completely disagree with Sean on several things even though he is an excellent instructor in his Teaching Company Course. Religion and Science are not at odds if each is honest. There is one truth and each is an attempt to describe parts of this truth. Hence they should never be at odds with each other. That is, religion cannot say one thing is true and science can not say it is not true. It is obviously very difficult to find out what is true and Sean seems to think that science can find the only truth there is but while science has a good track record on many things, it is quite lacking in many other areas. As a simple illustration, religion obviously says there is a God and creator but I doubt science could prove there is no God so while it can give reasonable explanations for many things it could never say that is true.

    I am a practicing Catholic and have watched the science/religion debate play out on several subjects but do not really see a conflict. There shouldn’t be if there is one truth.

    As an aside the Church in the 4th and 5th centuries made a point of trying to accommodate local culture into its practices. So as opposed to doing away with local traditions, they tried to incorporate them as best as possible into liturgy while still maintaining the basic doctrine. They got away from it in some later centuries in some areas of Latin America and Asia but have gone back to it in areas such as Africa and also as they proselytize again in Asia. Hence the statement

    “Christmas may have some roots in Pagan traditions, that doesn’t make it a Pagan holiday.”

    was just a reflection of Church policy during the period after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Apparently the sign of the cross came about from German traditions after they were converted. The Church often incorporated other local traditions into its practices and some have become universal within the Church.

  • Gordon

    This thread is getting silly. Of course science and religion are in conflict. This has to be when science is curiosity and search for truth based on congruence of evidence with reality, and religion is `revealed` truth based on miracles and anecdote, and is considered infallible and unmodifiable by evidence. The atheists I know either do or dont celebrate Christmas with trees. I do. No one really cares, and I certainly dont know or care to know anyone who calls them `Holiday trees`.

  • anonymous

    Jew: a person descended from Jews who cares about this fact.

  • George V

    “Of course science and religion are in conflict.”

    Not from my understanding. If there is one truth, and Sean seems to believe there is and I do too, then if there is a creator then religion and science should not conflict. In Sean’s understanding there is no creator. In my understanding of the truth, there is a creator of the universe. And thus, the intentions of this creator and His nature is part of the truth. Trying to understand these intentions and His nature is probably not in the realm of science but does not mean seeking this understanding is not part of seeking truth or would be in conflict with science.

    People may not agree with such an assessment or like it or have any understanding of it. But none of those make it silly and it has driven men for thousands of years to seek this truth. In Sean’s understanding this is wasted effort but in my mind and others it is not. Sean has no certainty that it is wasted and there is nothing in science that can say it is wasted. Sean has a faith in something he cannot prove. So do I and in my understanding religion and science do not conflict. No one has ever shown me why or where they should or do conflict.

    To say they are in conflict is to make an a priori assumption for which there is no proof.

  • gordon Wilson

    It is so easy to show they conflict. Just because in your understanding, they do not conflict
    just says something about your understanding. Religion is about faith and myth and magic and miracles and anecdotes and about revelation. Science is about theories of reality based
    on evidence and about congruence with actual events and Reality. Science modifies its beliefs when the evidence does not support a theory. Religion never modifies its beliefs because it is the revealed word of God. They are incompatible, and believing they are not is simply a false belief.

  • George V

    “Religion is about faith ”

    True, but so is the belief that science will reveal everything or can reveal all the truth that there is or can show that there is no creator. So what every you believe, it is based on faith too. You may also believe in some myths and magic, you just don’t know what they are. Some of the myths maybe what has supposedly been established by science.

    I am a big believer in science, read about it all the time. It is sort of a hobby. I am about to download Sean’s book to read it on my computer. Hope I can understand it. Loved his course on Dark Matter and Dark Energy. I have never seen any science that conflicts with my religious beliefs. Let me know what some would be. Maybe I will find it in Sean’s book but I doubt it.

    Actually the Catholic Church modified some of its interpretations of the world and scripture based on changes in science. It did not modify any of its essential dogma due to scientific findings. Several other religions have done the same. Some religions and science are definitely in conflict. Young earth creationists is one such set of beliefs. That does not mean all are.

  • andyo
  • 179.   George V Says:

    January 23rd, 2010 at 11:32 am

    “Of course science and religion are in conflict.”

    Not from my understanding. If there is one truth, and Sean seems to believe there is and I do too, then if there is a creator then religion and science should not conflict. In Sean’s understanding there is no creator. In my understanding of the truth, there is a creator of the universe. And thus, the intentions of this creator and His nature is part of the truth. Trying to understand these intentions and His nature is probably not in the realm of science but does not mean seeking this understanding is not part of seeking truth or would be in conflict with science.

  • How do you know your creator “truth” is part of the truth? Even some other religions don’t think that.

    People may not agree with such an assessment or like it or have any understanding of it.

    I propose that even you don’t understand it. Or else you would be able to explain it for others to understand it. Or do you claim to understand your god? You need to just accept it regardless, and that is “faith”.

    But none of those make it silly and it has driven men for thousands of years to seek this truth.

    Not anymore, and it’s been like that since at least Darwin. “Men” who are “in the know” about the most fundamental truths of the universe like cosmologists, physicists and biologists overwhelmingly reject the notion of your “god”, who cares about personal feelings and actions and intervenes if you pray for him. (And no, invoking the names of those in the VERY small minority who are theists is not an argument.)

    In Sean’s understanding this is wasted effort but in my mind and others it is not.

    Depending on your goals, both can be right. If your goal is to be blindly happy, then you’re right.

    Sean has no certainty that it is wasted and there is nothing in science that can say it is wasted.

    It may not be wasted for your purpose of blind happiness, but science can say that the religious way of thinking is a waste of resources, cause it never works for real-world universal truth.

    Sean has a faith in something he cannot prove.

    No. There’s a lot of evidence that religion doesn’t work for finding out things about the universe. That you don’t know it or deny it is not anyone else’s problem than yours. Researchers have even gone as far as to extend an astoundingly long olive branch to test if prayer works. In the 21st century. Surprise surprise, it’s not better than chance.

    So do I and in my understanding religion and science do not conflict.

    And who’s to say your “understanding” dictates what’s true or not? Please make arguments, not shallow assertions.

    No one has ever shown me why or where they should or do conflict.

    To say they are in conflict is to make an a priori assumption for which there is no proof.

    No, it isn’t. They are pretty much opposite methods of finding the truth. One has OVERWHELMINGLY been shown to WORK, and the other overwhelmingly has shown to either not work at all, or is so diluted as to not make any clear statements (i.e. “god is ineffable”) and thus the religious can get away with it, by saying “there’s no conflict” to a disingenuous audience.

  • andyo
  • 181.   George V Says:

    January 23rd, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    “Religion is about faith ”

    True, but so is the belief that science will reveal everything or can reveal all the truth that there is or can show that there is no creator.

  • It can’t show that there was no “creator” but that’s not all what most religious folk believe, is it? Most believe that “creator” intervenes and answers prayers and makes miracles and even some think he hates gays. Can’t those be disproven? They already have been pretty much. That people refuse to accept it or don’t know about it doesn’t change things.

    So what every you believe, it is based on faith too. You may also believe in some myths and magic, you just don’t know what they are. Some of the myths maybe what has supposedly been established by science.

    Umm. Science WORKS?! It doesn’t work, gets thrown out the window. It’s that simple. Your projection is not working.

    (BTW why is it that when religious are confronted with the fact that faith is not a virtue, instead of defending it and arguing it, they just go, “uh, but atheists are also religious”?)

    I am a big believer in science, read about it all the time.

    That’s one of your problems. Science doesn’t need belief. It’s either shown to work or it doesn’t and get discarded eventually. Whether you believe something or 6 billion people believe something doesn’t make it true.

    Actually the Catholic Church modified some of its interpretations of the world and scripture based on changes in science. It did not modify any of its essential dogma due to scientific findings. Several other religions have done the same. Some religions and science are definitely in conflict. Young earth creationists is one such set of beliefs. That does not mean all are.

    So, what you’re saying is that religion (the CC for you) saw science showing them wrong, and it modified itself, just barely so as to not conflict anymore at least PR-wise. There was no conflict there? How about now? Their stances on gays conflict with science? Gays are not “natural” is a theological assertion and “truth”?

    It’s not specific religious claims we’re talking about here, it’s the whole way of knowing the religious invoke. It’s fundamentally opposed to scientific processes. Even the most fundamentalist religions may have some claims that don’t conflict with science, but so what.

  • joel rice

    ” … and they grow more timorous, more sniveling, more poltroonish every day.”

  • Mathlete

    Mencken was right:
    “The American people constitute the most timorous, sniveling, poltroonish,
    ignominious mob of serfs and goose-steppers ever gathered under one flag
    in Christendom …”

    That’s rather cynical, but there’s certainly a lot of stupid Americans, most of which work in Washington DC. However, this debate is absolutely useless because there’s no right answer. The entire debate is based on point of view and defended using whatever suits your own views. Unlike science, it’s pure politics.

    http://www.corrupt.org/news/why_science_vs_religion_debate_is_an_illusion

  • Mathlete

    Perhaps the most balanced view is from `Abdu’l-Bahá, son of the founder of the Baha’i faith:
    “Religion without science is superstition and science without religion is materialism.”

    http://www.experiment-resources.com/religion-vs-science.html

  • gordon Wilson

    Well religion is superstition and science is materialism. Religion is always without science.

  • Katharine

    There’s a problem with materialism?

    One can be materialist and moral. Secular humanism, for example, is perfectly moral without being based on anything but scientific fact.

  • Katharine

    “Mencken was right:
    “The American people constitute the most timorous, sniveling, poltroonish,
    ignominious mob of serfs and goose-steppers ever gathered under one flag
    in Christendom …””

    Spot the redundancy!

  • gordon Wilson

    You beat me to that quote :) Bill Maher has been saying much the same thing recently.

  • joel rice

    Bill Maher ain’t no H.L. Mencken – who was quite a tory
    he does have a way with words, doesn’t he.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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