Weekly reader’s beef

June 5, 2015 • 12:30 pm

I have several comments—or rather rants—from theists this week, but I’ll put up only one. Reader “heavymetalvomitparty” comments on “Crowdsourcing an answer for a young atheist“, a post in which I asked readers to answer the question of a young woman (13 years old) who asked for a school project, why people still believe in God and the Bible given the recent advances of science. “Heavymetalvomitparty” says I’m unqualified to answer that question because I haven’t studied enough philosophy and theology! My emphasis in his/her attempted comment:

Others likely believe “God exists” for the same reason that you believe “science has proved the fact that we don’t have souls”: namely, someone whom they trust told them so.

In almost all cases and circumstances, belief is adopted on the basis of trust and testimony: we believe whatever the people we think trustworthy tell us about the thing about which they’re trustworthy. This is perfectly rational, so long as we choose good people to trust.

And all that said, I’d encourage you (though I’m sure Mr Coyne won’t actually send my words your way) to not trust Mr Coyne and others like him when it comes to the subject of religion. He has not spent any serious degree of time studying theology, or philosophy, or really anything relevant to your question. If you want to understand what the word “God” means, ask theologians (or monks). If you want to understand why people believe “God” exists, ask philosophers of religions, psychologists, sociologists, and historians — don’t ask a evolutionary biologist who specializes in fruit-fly research.

From the looks of your letter, you’ve already been trusting people like Mr Coyne on these subjects. I’d encourage you to question some of the things you have been told you “know”: that religious people are either purely indoctrinated or purely fear-driven, that brains have been “proven” to create personalities, that scientific theories of origin are in any way relevant to the question of God’s existence, etc. These assumptions are common nowadays, but are promulgated only by people (e.g., Mr Coyne) who don’t know what they’re talking about and haven’t done their theological, philosophical, or even anthropological homework.

Several points. First, I didn’t even try to answer the young woman’s question, but threw it to the readers, knowing that many of them were former believers. Second, there are clearly many diverse answers—as reflected in the readers’ comments—about why people believe. Some are indoctrinated, others find solace in the afterlife, still others a sense of community, and these factors can work together. This is indisputable: all you have to do is ask believers.

Second, why is it only monks and theologians who are qualified to say what the word “God” means? What about what the word means to the regular believers, who make up the vast bulk of religionists? (Note the denigration of my qualifications by saying I do “fruit-fly research.”)

As for the claim that many religious people are purely indoctrinated (does this reader know about madrassas or Catholic schools?), that personalities don’t derive from brains (they do), and that scientific theories of origin are irrelevant to the question of God’s existence (ask the 40% of American who are creationists), the reader hasn’t done his/her own sociological homework. Get out of the seminary and monastery, heavymetalvomitparty, and see what people really believe!

Frankly, I’m tired of people claiming that those of us who have read considerable theology and philosophy, or were believers in our earlier lives, aren’t qualified to say anything about religion because we’re neither priests nor monks. One thing that we do have is evidence—the evidence that supports scientific contentions—and one thing that theists have is NO EVIDENCE: no evidence supporting the existence or nature of any god. That should be the end of the discussion.

I’m continually amazed at how believers are able to be so vehement in their attacks on atheists when, after all, we’re simply pointing out this lack of evidence. The more I see of theists, the more I see them as a group of scared people, clinging to a superstition that they see slipping away: a security blanket that is being removed by atheists and skeptics. And so they grow angry and dismissive, and attack the credentials of anyone who dares comment on God or religion.

Finally, as any fool knows, “trust” in science is not the same thing as “trust” in religious leaders or mentors. Every religious mentor has a different point of view, some completely at odds with those of others. Think of what an imam versus a rabbi or priest might say to someone who “trusts” them, and compare that to the similarity of responses when someone asks several trustworthy biologists what the genetic material is, and how it makes proteins.

116 thoughts on “Weekly reader’s beef

  1. heavymetalvomitparty (omg gnarley name, dude!) writes:

    “If you want to understand what the word “God” means, ask theologians (or monks).”

    Uh, which theologians or monks? They often disagree with each other, so zealously on occasion they kill. Or are all their answers right, no matter how contradictory, because they’re theologians (or monks)?

    Also — logic much?

    1. I’m sure he means the theologians and monks with whom he agrees. Any other theologians and monks aren’t experts because they haven’t studied enough. How do we know they haven’t studied enough? Because they haven’t reached the answer HMVP thinks is correct.

    2. That’s easy. God is “that which when it speaks to you in your heart you just know it is god.” Or some such suitably nebulous definition that can be easily adjusted to fit with any conceivable goal post position.

      1. darrelle wrote: “God is ‘that which when it speaks to you in your heart you just know it is god.'”

        Indeed. And God spoke to me as follows: “Uh, actually, I don’t exist. So, whatever.”

      2. That sounds like my mad friend when he’s slipping into one of his sporadic schizophrenic episodes.

        1. Likely not at all a coincidence. There’s ample evidence suggesting that many holy men, ancient and modern, suffered from all sorts of severe cognitive maladies, with schizophrenia, temporal lobe epilepsy, and obsessive-compulsive disorder all on the short list.


          1. Oh absolutely. If we’re going to fake-up a religion there is no point what so ever in re-inventing any of the already-existing wheels.
            Old rope will be shamelessly regurgitated and sold repeatedly. Metaphors will be stretched to breaking point, until they groan under the strain.
            I shall resist the temptation to raid an online thesaurus for cable upon cable of marlinspike seamanship phrases to bind into a Monkey’s Fist as a substitute for swinging the lead.

            1. Hold it there for a moment…I know I’ve got Alex’s big knife around here somewhere — should have no trouble cutting through that mess.


    3. I think “theologians or monks” often define God differently depending on who it is they’re talking to. Believers and “seekers” may very well get a different answer than an atheist or skeptic.

      1. It’s also worth noting that those monks and theologians consider that a feature, not a bug, and couch it in terms of suiting the lesson to the student.

        We do something similar in academia…but much more transparently. For example, atomic theory often progresses through the billiard ball to the planetary orbit to the electron cloud to the probability wave to the field theory models…but every step of the way it’s explained first that this isn’t the real model and secondly it gets coupled with the history of discovery that made the same progression. So students get to re-create the discovery process, learn the history, and get good stepping stones to grasp the material in easy-to-digest chunks.

        Theologians…are liable to tell atheists that it’s all some sort of sophisticated metaphor, and then on Sunday step into the pulpit and preach how admirable Thomas was for confronting Jesus face-to-face with his doubts and how important it is for us to learn from that lesson that Thomas’s personal evidence is proof positive of the reality of the Resurrection. (And, in said sermon, somehow manage to miss all the OH MY FUCKING GOD HE’S GROPING ZOMBIE GUTS!)


      2. Monks.

        I grew up in a small town that had a Catholic school where nuns and monks taught. The monks were known as the word Brother followed by their first name. All the Brothers liv d in one large Victorian home in town. I got to know a few when they worked summer camps.

        I have not seen or heard of a monk or Brother in 40 years. Do they still exist?

        1. Yes, they do. One place I know of is Mount St. Joseph’s Abbey, Roscrea, Tipperary, Ireland. There is also a boys boarding school attached.
          Monks can be priests as well as brothers. The monks at Roscrea are Cistercians.

          1. Damn. Here’s to hoping that Belgium’s monks keep their traditions going for some time yet.

            1. Just got back from a holiday in Belgium and I am happy to say that the monks at Maredsous (I think that’S right) still make excellent beer!

              1. Yes, there are still 4 abbeys in Belgium where the trappist monks still make their beer themselves: Maredsous, Chimay, Orval (the one I like best), and of the forth I’m not 100% sure, La Trappe?
                The trappist beers sourced out to other breweries are called ‘Abbey beer’ (Abdij-bier) as opposed to the four ‘Trappist beers’ (Trappisten bier).
                At least the monks from those four abbeys do something useful. Chimay and Maredsous make cheese too.

  2. The goddies are becoming so stale and predictable. I agree with JC that the somewhat intelligent among them are becoming scared and defensive as they realize how foolish their faith in bronze age mythology compares to modern thought and reality.

    I trust that eventually religious people will be seen as outliers, but it won’t happen soon and it won’t be without much resistance; but it will happen.

  3. I think I’m prepared to put money on my belief that “Mr” Coyne has read rather more theology and philosophy than heavymetalvomitparty has.

    1. Very likely true. All of heavymetalvomitparty’s energy seems to have gone into generating his nym.

      1. Well, we still don’t know, is he for them or against ’em. Inquiring minds want to know. No, actually, we don’t.

      2. GBJames wrote: “All of heavymetalvomitparty’s energy seems to have gone into generating his nym.”

        Possibly, but only if “heavymetalvomitparty” refers to things to which the writer is unfamiliar. If this name is an accurate reflection of the writer’s hobbies, interests and daily endeavors, on the other hand, it should have been a snap to arrive at.

      3. The rant was surprisingly well written for a goddist. Clearly a blow-in who has no idea what writings Prof CC has been subjecting himself to in recent years, but in other respects showing evidence of some reading and education (if not logic).

        1. I noticed that. Not what you’d expect from a head-banging wall-pounding beer-hurling rocker, at all.

    2. I should also add that I think that some of the problem that heavymetalvomitparty is having is because believers find it hard to believe (ha) that someone can be raised in a particular religion, attend services regularly, receive all the religious instruction required by that denomination, read all the holy books belonging to that religion and related theology – and still decide to reject that religion.

      1. Yes, the religious are always astonished to discover that I went to Bible study every week for 18 months,(long story) and that I do in fact know my Bible. They are taught that atheists just haven’t read the Bible.

        1. I’ve read the Bible from cover to cover and studied it quite a bit too, and I’m an atheist. I’ve always thought that it would make a good atheist campaign to encourage Christians to read the whole of the Bible. It would be interesting to see the reaction of various church leaders because it would be a bit difficult for them to say that they were against it.

            1. That is a really interesting point. I think that the Church, then as now, wanted to be able to control the plebs by telling them what the Bible says. They didn’t want them reading it and finding out for themselves. I think that in the sixteenth century there were various political firebrands that could have caused real trouble for the Church if they could get translations of the Bible to the general public. Nowadays the Church is just trying to hang on to as many of the flock as possible. On their side is the fact that the Bible challenges the attention span of the most avid book-worm, let alone the average Christian. I managed to wade through the whole thing but, interestingly, I was defeated by the Koran. The Koran is a much smaller book but is tedious and repetitive in the extreme. If the likes of J.K. Rowling, Catherine Cookson and Enid Blyton can write page turners, why the hell can’t God?

  4. The words from this guy, whatever the persuasion, may be silly, ignorant and with no basis in fact, but isn’t it exactly what could be expected from such a lovely name.

    And a name without a face it should stay.

  5. Jerry, I don’t know why you spend any time on the likes of heaveymetalvomitparty who obviously has no idea what your credentials are. S/he didn’t bother to look you up but is attacking you anyway. Anyway- what is wrong with the credential: evolutionary biologist doing fruit-fly research!

    1. Hi Avis,

      I spent almost no time on this. I present these comments just to let readers know how believers are reacting to the increasing prevalance of nonbelief. But writing a post like this takes about 10 min.

      1. It occurs to me that you must be a rather fast typist. Many people would have a difficult time copying that much text in ten minutes, let alone composing it.

        My parents “forced” me to take a typing class one semester in high school, for which I was shortly thereafter so grateful that I signed up for the advanced typing class the next semester. It literally changed my life such that I can’t imagine what my life would be like today otherwise. So much of what is essential to who I am so utterly depends on the typing I’ve done over the years….


        1. RE typing, in my 7th grade it was a required course. It made no sense to me at the time and I was sure it was a waste of time. How wrong I was. From typing papers to programming, that one class in 7th grade turned out to be one of the best tools I’ve got. Outside of that class I didn’t even start using what I learned at all until three years later, and didn’t really use it fully until college. But, as they say about riding bicycles, I hadn’t forgotten.

          Shit, now-a-days I can barely write anymore. In grade school I won prizes and acclaim for my penmanship. Now I am not sure what to do with a pen or pencil in my hand. If I make myself take the time, I can print very neatly using drafting technique, but otherwise medical doctors got nothing on me.

          1. When I have to sign a check, maybe twice a year, I find it difficult now. Most of the “signing” I need to do is when approving a credit card purchase on a screen with a wand. Just touching the wand to the screen enables the “done” button and no one cares what you scribe.

            1. I work in the probate department of my county courthouse and a couple of months ago the descendant of the offspring of a white master and black slave in 1830s Jacksonville, FL, requested, through his attorney, to have the master’s probate record from 1838 released to him. The judge signed the order allowing us to release the file, but first I had to copy and scan those documents into our database system, which meant I also had to read the handwritten script of documents from over 170 years ago — and some of that handwriting was difficult to decipher although it was all in standard English.
              The master, btw, reputedly was in a common law relationship with the slave — apparently he actually loved her and before he died he sent her to Ohio so she and her child could live the rest of their lives in freedom. There were documents in the file chronicling the debate over his sanity. The legal heirs of his estate — his siblings, as he never married a white woman and his only child was by his former slave — were deeply upset that he had set them free, depriving the siblings of the monetary value of the woman and child. I’m sure those white kin were all good Christians, tho’ (meant entirely sarcastically, of course).

              1. That’s a moving story. Really, by today’s standards, his ‘slave’ and her child should have inherited his estate, but I suppose in those days she was probably better off in Ohio than owning anything in Florida.

          2. In grade school I won prizes and acclaim for my penmanship. Now I am not sure what to do with a pen or pencil in my hand.

            I didn’t even have that much going for me. If I’m painfully careful, I can print something reasonably legible. But if I try to write at what I remember being my customary speed when I still wrote, even I won’t be able to read it.

            …and haven’t even attempted cursive since grade school….


            1. Before I started typing everything, I used to write everything down in notebooks. If I had to look back more than five pages I couldn’t read my own writing.

              1. I noticed the same thing a while after I started taking copious notes in class, and quickly realized that I never actually looked back at the notes after I had taken them. And that’s when I stopped taking notes, period.

                Class is the time for comprehension, and comprehension should not require you to jot your insights down. Jotting things down is for trivial details, like the actual values for physical constants or the exact date such-and-such a treaty was signed or the like…and if your textbook or other resources don’t have those details in readily-accessible form, either the details really aren’t that important or you need to go to the library to get a better reference.

                And any teacher that tests your knowledge by expecting you to regurgitate such useless details rather than by demonstrating mastery of the concepts that put the details together is incompetent. As, alas, far too many teachers actually are….


            2. Me too on the writing. In fact my ‘cursive’ writing that I was taught so laboriously in school was so bad that, when I left school, I started ‘printing’ everything. Which, over time, with use and practice, gradually developed into a style of cursive writing that was a lot more legible than my school-based original.

              But if I had to write anything really legible, like on a map, I would always do it in block caps. I could write extremely neatly and tidily and very small in that way.

              But typing is much faster, even though I started with two fingers. These days I bang away as fast as I can then go back after each line and correct the mistakes – ain’t computers wonderful!

              My signature, now, is an appalling scrawl. In my second job, the firm had about 100 employees, whose timesheets had to be signed (in triplicate) by their managers before they could get paid. Invariably when the deadline arrived the managers would all be out of the office so I was the only person around to sign 300 times, my signature – or even my initials – rapidly deteriorated into an illegible scrawl. Which is how it has remained ever since.

              1. My signature story is similar to yours, only it was all the paperwork I had to go through at the beginning of my college career. The bank remains happy with the squiggle I had lapsed into by the time I opened my account with them, so there’s even less incentive to pretty it up for official documents….


        2. When I worked with an American programmer in the late 80s, he was astonished that anyone was allowed to leave school without having passed a class in typing.
          He had a point – it is a useful skill, as attested by the curriculum setters at my sister’s school, where typing was a required part of the “secretarial studies” course. My school, being designed for reject boys from the educational system, covered topics such as metalwork, woodwork, plumbing, sparky-ing and engineering drawing (I did the latter course, and very useful it has been too. Naturally, the administration of the school fought hard to push me off the course, since they thought it was “below” someone with the potential to go to university).
          Explaining the concept of a boy’s school versus a girl’s school exposed another gulf of incomprehension. It was almost as strange as the look on his face on glugging a pint of milk from the corner shop – I don’t think he’d met full-cream milk previously. Then trying to explain why the school had to pay for telephone calls to dial into the local college’s computer system took us off down a different track.

        3. I took a typing class in high school back in 1965 or maybe ’66. It was a great skill go have. I can’t remember the motive at the time but I suspect it was because my father (a professor) recognized the value of the skill.

          My wife, who is four years younger than I am, refused to take a typing class because she didn’t want to find herself trapped in a secretarial job. So she two-fingers it to this day. She’s pretty fast after all these years, but I suspect she’d make a different decision if she knew then what she knows now.

          1. Typing was a 7th grade requirement in ’75. The worst part is after 30+ years in IT, I still can’t type without looking at the keys.

              1. Well, damn Ben. How dare you give your attention to that . . . thing, instead of your cat, as you should. Our cat has lately developed a new level of demonstrating our lack of attention. It started with my phone. She started trying to eat it if I was using it when I should be paying attention to her. She bites it. Hard. Then she started doing that to our lap top. And the Kindle.

            1. Anyone can type fast without looking at the keyboard; whether anyone can read it fast os amptjer stpru.

          2. Your wife’s reason is pretty much the same as mine – I went to an all girls school, and almost all the girls took typing in the expectation of getting a secretarial job. I was going to university, so didn’t. I now use six fingers, which is never going to be as fast or accurate as ten. By the time my youngest sister started high school five years later, “keyboard skills” was compulsory for all, and she has found it incredibly useful.

            The extent of my exposure to computers at school was Year 12 math. The teacher brought in his own computer, the class (about 8) typed in their names, and it took the computer two minutes to sort them into alphabetical order!

            1. I still find it amazing that the QWERTY keyboard was actually invented to slow-down typing as the manual typewriters of yore couldn’t handle too quick a typist since the typebars would hit each other and jam. But QWERTY is here to stay, especially now that computers use it. It would be interesting to see how fast someone could type using an optimal keyboard. (Just as I typed “optimal” I realized how far my fingers had to move just to type that word.)

              1. You’re thinking of Dvorak. I took the time to learn it many many moons ago and used it exclusively for a while. It was a bit faster for English…and was always a royal pain in the ass for anything to do with programming or a command-line interface or the like. And switching back to QWERTY when I had to use somebody else’s keyboard was nuts, too. Gave it up after a while and haven’t really missed it. QWERTY is fast enough, even if we’d all have been better off had Dvorak been the standard.


              2. I’m patiently waiting for “keyboard” technology to get to the point where when I need to type I turn the computer on and with my hands resting comfortably in my lap, or wherever, a merely slightly move my fingers and tiny sensors distributed over my fingers send data wirelessly to the computer that then models my finger movements and translates them into “key strokes.” Or, for those who find the idea of sensors becoming part of their anatomy, perhaps something like wrist bands with sensors that pick up finger movements by monitoring the tendons from the fingers up into the forearm.

              3. I don’t think we’ll ever see that day, honestly. Just look at how much iPad keyboards suck, how easy it is to get shifted off by a key or three and not even notice until after you’ve already typed an entire sentence. The tactile feedback that the keyboard offers is essential if you’re to type with any sort of accuracy.

                The keyboard on the MacBook Air I’m typing on is probably about as minimalistic as I’d want. There’s almost no throw to the keystroke, and it’s a very light touch. I could go for a bit more solidity and definition to the feel, but I could actually be okay with even less vertical movement and marginally less height to the keys. They’ve still got to be raised and separated, though, and there has to be something resembling a tactile “click” when you press one.

                …it’d also be nice if the bloody paint wouldn’t wear off…not that I ever look at the keyboard (or, indeed, often look at the computer at all save for editing), but it’s still a bit unsightly to see half the keys with half the face obliterated….


              4. I believe QWERTY was developed not to slow down the typing, but to keep common pairs of keystrokes split far apart on the keyboard so that the mechanical parts wouldn’t jam.

              5. You know…come to think of it, though I learned to type on a manual and for a while preferred them over the IBM Selectric…I can’t really imagine going back to one as anything other than an exercise in quaint nostalgia. And I know how to pound the keys and avoid sticking and all that…but that sort of typing is so far removed from how I normally type that it’s basically anathema.

                The times, they are a-changin’….


              1. Thanks Ben…I forgot the name. You are the only person I’ve ever known to have learned Dvorak. Interesting critique, especially switching back and forth…I can see that being a real pain in the ass.

        4. I did one term of typing in high school, only because there was absolutely nothing else on offer that didn’t clash with other classes. I swallowed my pride (this was the 1970s, and did it though it was against my self image. I doubt if any subject I did in high school has been more useful. Even after 2 decades of not using it, it came back easily. The only thing is the term finished before I got to numbers, so I can’t touch type numbers!

        5. Touch typing is a really useful skill that I wish I had learned. Nowadays I can get around the keyboard reasonably quickly but it’s a lot less efficient than it could be and its a nuisance that I have to go back over and correct all the numerous typos. Given the ubiquity of keyboard use in just about every walk of life, I find it incomprehensible that teaching children to type properly is not a standard part of every scholl (I left that typo in just to prove the point!) curriculum.

          1. Fun fact: the kids who learned to type were more likely to go on to become programmers, and it’s the programmers who’re automating all the accountants’s jobs out of existence….


  6. What makes Heavymetalvomitparty qualified to write that letter or even qualified to have an opinion?

    As we all know, only PuffHo pseudo-journalists are allowed to have opinions.

    Only people who are secretary of agriculture are qualified to talk about food and only people who have killed other people qualified to talk about war.

    Oh wait, I’m not qualified to talk about any of those things. Never mind.

  7. There is a small nugget of usefulness that can be pulled from the slop here. Yes, Ms. Linda could probably make her report better if she interviewed lots of different types of people, including atheists, regular “person on the street” theists…and monks and theologians too. Moreover if she finds the monks and theologians disagreeing with the believers on the street about ‘why people believe,’ well, that’s an interesting (though to us, not surprising) result.

    1. Not too many monks readily accessible these days, but every church has at least one pastor / priest / head honcho. Rabbis in particular would be likely to be eager to address this question, and Jesuits amongst the Catholics.

      And there’ll be sophisticated and famous theologians as open to addressing this question as Jerry has been, perhaps even including the odiously obnoxious blowhard William Lane Craig.

      …”Linda,” if you’re still here…the topic you’ve picked is good for a PhD dissertation and then some. The only limit to how much you make of it is your own persistence and intellectual capacity. I’d strongly encourage you to pretend that you really are a doctoral candidate working on a dissertation and go for the brass ring. Have fun digging as deep as you can!


      1. There may not be many Christian monks around, but why stop there? You’ll probably find a few monks at any Buddhist temple.

  8. “The more I see of theists, the more I see them as a group of scared people, clinging to a superstition that they see slipping away.”


  9. There’s one discipline that this sniping
    little writer left out: history of religion.
    If he takes even the most casual investigation he will see that all of the Abrahamic religions, from the beginning, are
    awash in a sea of blood.

    1. No need to look to history for that; the holy texts are, first and foremost, about the mass murder of explicitly-innocent non-believers.

      There’s the Flood, of course, which kicks it all off.

      Then Moses and YHWH conspire in Exodus to kill all the Egyptian boy babies.

      Then Jesus’s whole reason for making a visit to Judea was to prepare people for the time “real soon now” when he’s going to return to Armageddon (Megiddo) at the head of an army that’ll slaughter every last person who doesn’t worship him.

      And Muhammad’s life’s work was to actually lead a massive jihad to establish a global caliphate — the very task that ISIS and their sympathizers are doing their damnedest to complete.


  10. What your critic is presenting of course is the argument from authority. “Dr. Coyne is a “fruir fly” specialist thus he can’t possibly have enough knowledge to know what he is talking about so he should just shut up.” Kind of a demeaning put down, implying that a person with normal intelligence (actually probably better then that) can’t evaluate the literature and reason his/her way to appropriate conclusions. No, only theologians should be trusted to respond with the right answers to doubters quiries. Then there is the whole question of the differences between trust, faith and confidence which Dr. Coyne and others have amply have and are continuing to discuss.

      1. So you claim, but how would you know? I bet you’ve never read any of the Sophisticated Fruit Fly Theology!

    1. If you are the sort of person who accepts argumentum ab auctoritate as is encouraged with religious beliefs, you are going to naturally assume everyone accepts knowledge this way. Sadly, this person is ignorant of how to find out things are true for him/herself.

  11. Mr. heavymetal has given us no reason to trust his assertion that we should only trust credentialed people… by his own argument about whom we should trust.


  12. I’m sure theologians “know” more of the made-up thing they have devoted their lives to studying. That doesn’t make the thing they’re studying any less made-up (as proved by science).

  13. This christian mystic is really a lost ‘soul’, oh wait a minute, there’s no such thing. He/she expresses a warped brand of philosophical relativism. I guess to really understand and comment on islam you must talk to ISIS or you have to talk to a nazi to understand and appreciate nazism? Sheer madness. I think the whole point of science to study a subject or object objectively with total disregard to subjective feelings.

  14. If heavymetalvomitlevellogic intends to attack someone he (and I’m going to say he because I’m going to assume, like he has), should check out that person properly first.

    He has assumed that Jerry’s knowledge of theology is lacking because he’s a biologist. As most of us here are aware, especially those of us who have at least started reading ‘Fact vs Faith’, he has considerable knowledge of theology. Moreover, I consider him far better able to evaluate that theology than someone who read it in a religious college, for he does it without the unproven assumption that a deity/deities exist, and the constant influence of those seeking to guide him towards a particular “truth”. As a top scientist, he will evaluate the evidence on its merits, and change his mind if his assumptions are proven wrong.

    In the unlikely event heavymetalvomitlevellogic is reading this, he will now be pointing out that some scientists are religious. I suggest he clicks the link above to ‘Faith vs Fact’ and buys and reads the book. It deals with that question, and any others he might have.

  15. Others likely believe “God exists” for the same reason that you believe “science has proved the fact that we don’t have souls”: namely, someone whom they trust told them so.

    WTF? How many people stopped believing in a soul because a scientist they trusted told them it was proven? I don’t even know any scientists personally (I trust Jerry, but he has never said such a thing). Dawkins hasn’t either. A scientist would say there is no evidence that souls exist, but it still can be proven. Unfortunately for the theists, even after countless attempts and millions of dollars spent (I’m looking at you Tempelton) there is still no evidence.

    Can we at least get a sound premise?

    1. I’ve often argued that science is what you use if you DON’T trust scientists. It’s a system of checks and balances and vicious criticism which entails that we never have to rely on an individual’s word about their experience, believing them because we know them to be honest, kind, and true. Great theorists and humble researchers can be (and sometimes are) unreliable little snots in their daily life. It doesn’t matter. What’s the data, is it replicable, and what might it then suggest or rule out? Now ask the opposition.

      Religious believers are a bit like little children sitting obediently on the floor listening to their big smiling grownup teacher tell them things — a scenario in which atheists are presumably running around the room while perversely and obstinately denying everything wise leader tries to teach them. The religious are the good little learners, they sit still.

    2. @Mark R: Yeah, initial thought reading that rant was “well, he starts off wrong and gets worse as he goes along”. Science isn’t concerned with whether or not we have souls. And no one, scientist or otherwise, ever told me “science has proved the fact that we don’t have souls”. It’s the overwhelming lack of any evidence that there are souls that makes me think the probability that there are any is < 10^-75, or some similar number. In other words, I think the probability that there are souls is of a similar order of magnitude to the probability there are leprechauns. Oh, and I'd much prefer that there were leprechauns; they sound kind of fun.

      1. And no one, scientist or otherwise, ever told me “science has proved the fact that we don’t have souls”.

        Though I’m not aware of anybody who explicitly set out to demonstrate the existence or nonexistence of souls, we can safely conclude their nonexistence with as much certainty as we conclude the nonexistence of the luminiferous aether…or, more to the point, the nonexistence of any as-yet-unaccounted-for fundamental particle with a mass less than that of the Higgs Boson.

        Souls, by their very nature, are, at some level, going to have to interact physically with the human body. Presumably, it is souls that compel Christians to accept baptism and step forward into the font and speak the magic words, or that similarly causes a couple to say their wedding vows, or that become corrupted and cause people to commit hideous deeds. Whatever the ultimate nature of the connection between soul and body, we would have to conclude that it eventually encompasses physical action.

        And the physics angle we’ve got covered six ways from Sunday. To any degree of rounding you might care about, the only ways to make an human body do the things it does requires application of either the electromagnetic force or gravity (nearly entirely the former), and it’s got to act on electrons or maybe quarks. We’ve accounted for all the ways that sort of thing can happen, and we’ve done observations of the human body such that we can be overwhelmingly certain that there’s nothing funky going on that’s not explainable through the Standard Model of Particle Physics.

        But that also rules out the possibility of the soul, for there’s nothing external to the body causing humans to do what they do (aside from the obvious forms of sensory input), and there most emphatically isn’t anything that can possibly exist distinct from the body (again, aside from other people’s memories and the like).

        So…if you’re confident that the path that started with Rutherford’s experiments with bombarding gold foil with electrons and Millikan’s oil drop experiment that has reached its present-day hopefully-soon-to-be-surpassed apex with the discovery of the Higgs at the LHC…if you’re confident that that path has been a fruitful and trustworthy one, then you should be equally confident that the soul is fiction.



        1. Well actually, a Dr Duncan MacDougall weighed 6 patients as they died to measure the weight of the soul as it departed the body. As usual for religious types, he cherry picked his results using the only one of the 6 which gave the result he was looking for, which indicated that the soul weighed 3/4 of an ounce. His methodology was not sound and his results are not given any credibility, but he tried.


          1. The soul may not weigh anything but your heartbeat has ‘weight’. A couple of decades ago, I stood on the baggage-weighing scales at Rarotonga airport (place was deserted since there were no planes due), a big Avery scale with a two-foot-diameter dial, and noticed the pointer was twitching at sub-one-second intervals. I didn’t note the magnitude of the twitch, too bad. But the only explanation I have is that each time my heart beats there’s a Newton’s-third-law effect.

          2. 3/4 oz is about as much as four teaspoons of water. Well within the margin of error for nineteenth century amateur science…but a honkin’ big flashing neon sign today — spotting it would be about like shooting an elephant in your pajamas.


  16. Page 1 of my 16 page compilation of “Definitions of God” which have been gathered over the years:

    God is that mysterious force – and you can give it many names as many religions do – that works upon us and through us to seek and achieve truth, beauty, and goodness. (Chris Hedges)

    God is a being absolutely infinite, that is a substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essentiality.(Spinoza)

    God is a field of consciousness that is set up for maximum diversity — and that includes the divine and diabolical, the sacred and the profane. (Deepak Chopra)

    God is a symbol of the mystery that lies between the poles of our clearest rational dichotomy. (Jim Rigby)

    God: the sphere of pure potentials as they are ordered to the realization of value … the source of purpose, of life, of mind, of novelty, and of love.. (Whitehead)

    God: “creative transformation” (Wieman)

    “God” is a mythic name for “reality in all its sublime fullness.” (Rev. Michael Dowd)

    God is pure actuality. (Aquinas)

    “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth (Westminster Catechism)

    God is the one act of being, consciousness, and bliss in whom everything lives and moves and has its being; and so the only way to know the truth of things is, necessarily, the way of bliss.(Hart)

    “God is the story of human dreams and fears. God is the shape we try to make of our lives. God is the name of the respect we owe the planet. God is the poetry of our lives.”(Giles Fraser)

    The term ‘God’,” says Haught, means “the transcendent future horizon that draws an unfathomable fulfillment yet to be realized.”

    Yeah. And that’s just the first page. It goes on and on.

    At one point someone nymed ‘tsg’ defined “God” as “a goalpost with wheels on it.” I like that. It seems appropriate. A lot of believers seem to work the definition of God around their own difficult struggle to come up with a way to make the concept of God relevant, mysterious, and believable. They can solve that problem in part by making sure whatever the hell they’re blathering about sounds very much like something a really wise person would believe in — and don’t you want to be like that?

    1. That’s a pretty good sampling right there — especially the repeated pattern of sheer incoherence that runs throughout. That scene from Python’s Meaning of Life with the schoolmaster leading the boys in dreadful toadying springs instantly to mind:

      I don’t know if I belong in such august company, but here’s my own definition:

      The gods are stock characters in a certain genre of fiction. Their purpose is to give unquestionable authority to the authors and later interpreters of the fiction, and the gods establish their authority by performing truly impossible miracles. It is essential that the miracles really be impossible, even in principle, else any random schmuck could come along and usurp the authority of the gods and thereby supplant the authors and the priests who come after them. The real trick lies in convincing people that the fiction is fact — and this, of course, is accomplished through reliance on the same human foible at the heard of all confidence scams: faith.



    2. That’s most impressive. May I suggest that the full list deserves its own web page, possibly on Wikipedia or Iron Chariots Wiki?

      1. Thanks. The full list contains a lot of definitions given over the years by people I’ve known on the internet. These are often very useful and insightful, but details are missing and I suspect the range of readers who want to learn how LionIRC or Zygon once defined “God” in a chatroom is limited.

  17. Prof. CC:

    Frankly, I’m tired of people claiming that those of us who have read considerable theology and philosophy . . . aren’t qualified to say anything about religion because we’re neither priests nor monks. One thing that we do have is . . . the evidence that supports scientific contentions—and one thing that theists have is NO EVIDENCE . . . supporting the existence or nature of any god.

    In reality we [infidels] are just as qualified (or unqualified) as priests or monks or nuns to talk about the nature of God.

    What we aren’t always as qualified to do is bang on about what theologians have said about God’s nature, but that’s OK, because none of it bears any relation to reality.

  18. This “you just haven’t heaped up enough theologians and philosophers” version of the “sophisticated Christian” meme is starting to look more than a little frayed around the edges. The whole gambit is pretty well demolished in FvF. I trust what aeronautical engineers tell me about flight because I see airplanes flying overhead every day. I trust what the scientists at NASA tell me about the orbits of the planets because I’ve seen the images and other data our rovers and orbiters have sent back. What evidence have all these theologians ever produced that the contradictory versions of imaginary beings they’ve been telling us about all these years actually exist? None. Of any kind. The most parsimonious conclusion is that none of them knew what they were talking about.

  19. As I believe Jerry has pointed out similarly before: has this fellow read Tractatus Theologico Politicus by Spinoza?

    Probably not.

    So he’s not qualified to comment on the nature of non belief.

    1. Never mind anything so sophisticated. Has he read Faith v Fact by a certain J. Coyne, PhD? I rather doubt it! Probably hasn’t even read the open letter to the Kansas School Board in which the Flying Spaghetti Monster chose to reveal its existence to humanity, for that matter, and that’s about as unsophisticated and easy-to-read as these things get.


  20. Dear “heavymetalvomitparty,”

    I am a credentialed theologian! At least, that is what I was told after graduating with my BA in theology from St. Gregory University, a Benedictine school in Shawnee, Oklahoma. Perhaps you will not accept me as an authority on theology on the basis of an undergraduate degree, given that I lack an M.Div. or the hilariously named STD (sacrae theologiae doctor, or doctor of sacred theology), though I do have two MAs and a Ph.D. in other fields. However, I can tell you that my few years at the undergraduate level was enough to divest me rather completely of the notion that theology was the study of anything solid, that there was an object to this subject. I went in a fairly faithful Catholic eager to uncover the workings of the divine and came out, on my graduation day, with an awareness that I had wasted my time completely. I enjoyed some classes. Studying scripture entailed the heady analysis of texts, while our classes on ethics and morality were headed by a knowledgable and passionate professor who was capable of taking us into some controversial territory. However, any truly challenging discussion always ended with “God said so” or “the Church said so” (both of which are simply restatements of “the Church said that God said so”). How can there be such a thing as a just war but not a just abortion? The Church said so.

    What I ended up discovering is that there are no actual standards in theology. If there were, then there would be unity in the field, rather than division. Look at biology, chemistry, and physics. We consider them separate fields for the purposes of organizing a university, but they are mutually informative–in fact, we can’t really understand biology in its modern manifestation without tackling chemistry and physics. All are subject to the same universal laws because they are studying the same thing, if with different emphases–the universe itself, material reality. Contrast this with theology. Your progressive folk will claim that all religions are expressions of the same universal truth, but if so, why do they come to such different answers about the nature of that universal truth? Why, if theologians are approaching the same phenomenon, are there Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, etc.? These are not overlapping disciplines–these are mutually exclusive worldviews. Even in the “field” of Christianity, there are exclusive subsets. Your Catholic theologian believes that the bread and wine of the Eucharist become the literal (not figurative) body and blood of Christ, while the Protestant finds symbolism there. If both have open access to the same God, then that God is lying to one group or the other–or both. (And if you want my view on the Eucharist, check out this post on my own poorly maintained blog: http://treeoftalking.wordpress.com/2013/11/01/the-real-miracle-of-the-eucharist/)

    My study of theology made me aware of the fact that there was no objective, empirical underpinning to the field. Nothing on which you could hang your hat. Just the promise of some hint at the divine through the contemplation of “mysteries”–or absurdities lent an air of sanctity by dint of tradition. Philosophy, on the other hand, I find very useful. My own academic work explores issues of racial violence, and I regularly reference several philosophers, such as racial theorist Charles W. Mills, or Claudia Card and Arne Johan Vetlesen, who have both done amazing work in fashioning secular theories of evil. But such philosophical work is based upon empirically derived evidence. These philosophers reference historians, scientists, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, etc. Theology has no such grounding in the real world. Sure, some theologians have a concern for society, such as liberation theologians like James H. Cone, who provide genuine critiques of racism and inequality. But insofar as those critiques are based upon reference to some view of the divine, they are refutable by those outside that theological tradition, and thus such debates eventually devolve into arguments over some bit of scripture’s relevance to a modern issue rather than the nature of the issue itself, its real-world components. We can only solve problems we experience in this world by reference to the world, not to otherworldly spirits whose existence has never been verified.

    1. Such a clear description of theology. I hope the young man reads this and can understand it’s depth. Love your ‘Tree of Talking’, and that Prof Coyne’s blog is one of the richest roots and branches of knowledge available.

    2. I agree with you on every point–and, since this appears to be a debate heavily focused on credentials, I *do* have an M.Div, along with 15 years experience as a missionary.

  21. “In almost all cases and circumstances, belief is adopted on the basis of trust and testimony: we believe whatever the people we think trustworthy tell us about the thing about which they’re trustworthy. This is perfectly rational, so long as we choose good people to trust.”

    I disagree with this, on several levels:
    (1) the definition of “rational” is, “Based on, or agreeable, to reason”- are you basing your belief on reason to accept as true that a talking snake set up Eve to eat the apple? That God created everything in six days? That a “flood-story” proven to have been plagiarized from an even more ancient text is true?
    (2) Is it “rational” to deem one’s self to be reliable in deciding who is “trustworthy”, and who is not, when the information being given was previously unknown to you? How can a person be sure they’re putting their faith in a “good” person?
    (3) My personal theory on belief is that the adoption of a belief has more to do with a “perceived gain” associated with that belief; hence the individual is going to be more likely to believe something, no matter whether it’s proven to be true, or not, that appeals to their personal desires. This “bias” will tend to make anyone whose information “resonates” with you appear to be “trustworthy”.

  22. I am a former believer, raised by Protestant Christians, homeschooled and taught young earth creationism. And I can say that Jerry Coyne does understand religion and theology very well, probably better than most religious laypeople, because he has spent so much time studying the subject. It always frustrates me when believers try to dismiss what atheists say, because most atheists seem to be former believers(in my experience). We are not ignorant of theology, we are atheists precisely because we have studied theology and philosophy.

    1. Not to mention that polls show that, on the average, atheists know the contents of the bible better than do religionists.

  23. This one doesn’t even make it to the “read X” – just “read”. Well, read what? What did we miss?

    Our “heavymetalvomitparty” does not say, it seems.

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