Misguided journalist argues that science—and wearing of facemasks—are based on a quasi-religious faith

January 12, 2021 • 10:15 am

Despite what I consider my strong refutation of the idea that “faith” is pervasive in both science and religion, that idea persists. I won’t go through the arguments that I made in Faith Versus Fact or, more concisely, in an article in Slate, “No Faith in Science,” but people nevertheless persist in their nescience. The latest attempt to argue that science is faith-based is in the pages of The Post Millennial, a conservative Canadian news magazine. It’s just so tiresome in every way that I get no pleasure from putting fingers to keys. But since that rag is fairly widely read, I’ll say a few words.

The article is really a disguised harangue about how mandates to wear face masks during the coronavirus pandemic are infringements on our liberty. In other words, it’s the right-wing libertarian argument against masks that we see so often in the U.S. And, says Andrew Mahon—identified as “a Canadian-British writer based in London who has written for the Spectator, the Daily Wire, Conservative Woman, New English Review, Brexit Central, Catholic Journal and others”—the notion that masks reduce Covid-19 transmission is based on faith, because there’s supposedly no evidence behind it.

Click on the screenshot to read and weep:

You can read my Slate piece to see that when scientists use the word “faith”, they use it differently from believers. Scientists use it to mean “confidence born of experience.” And when people say “I have faith in my doctor” or “I have faith in Anthony Fauci’s views”, they mean that they trust authority figures who have a good track record. That’s not the same as religious faith, characterized by philosopher Walter Kaufmann as ” “intense, usually confident, belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.”

Read my piece if you want more. The upshot is that the scientific notion of “faith” does not turn science into a religion, as Mahon implies in his headline. If you look up “religion” in the Oxford English Dictionary, you find this definition:

 Action or conduct indicating belief in, obedience to, and reverence for a god, gods, or similar superhuman power; the performance of religious rites or observances.

Even if science were based on a religious-like faith, which it isn’t, it couldn’t be described as a religion. We have no obedience to or reverence for gods or the supernatural. End of story.

Mahon, who I suspect is a believer, has a weird notion of religion, claiming that it is not based on evidence or claims about reality. That’s of course untrue, but it does adhere to the Gouldian “Non-overlapping magisteria” view of science and religion:

The religious impulse cannot be avoided. Alongside faith, everyone participates in ritual and follows prohibitions in one form or another. We do it in every human interaction, and we certainly notice whenever anyone doesn’t follow conventional norms. The question becomes where to direct the religious impulse. And, leaving aside the truth or falsehood of its claims, what Christianity achieved was to direct man’s religious impulse to the ideal place, away from the empirically knowable. Unlike other religions, Christianity directed it wholly towards things unknowable, unprovable and unfalsifiable. This effectively freed up the knowable world, severing it from the realm of faith, and allowed the scientific method to step in and transform human civilization.

Away from the empirically knowable? But if you’re a Christian, don’t you have to have some “knowledge” about the existence of Jesus and God,  and of their powers and their plans? In fact, empiricism is the only way to know about these things, making the term “empirically knowable” a bit of an redundancy. I guess he’s talking about “other ways of knowing,” i.e., revelation, authority, and sacred books, which are non-empirical. Neither are they a way to arrive at the truth, as we know from all the contradictory claims of the world’s diverse religions. As Mike Aus, a pastor who quit the church, said:

When I was working as a pastor I would often gloss over the clash between the scientific world view and the perspective of religion. I would say that the insights of science were no threat to faith because science and religion are “different ways of knowing” and are not in conflict because they are trying to answer different questions. Science focuses on “how” the world came to be and religion addresses the question of “why” we are here. I was dead wrong. There are not different ways of knowing. There is knowing and not knowing, and those are the only two options in this world.

So, although Mahon gives credit for science to religion’s wise decision to step away from empirical claims, I can’t be all that grateful. And I wish that religion would keep its mitts off evolution.  But of course Mahon’s claim bespeaks a profound ignorance of religion, many of whose proponents really do make claims about reality that they believe absolutely, and are constantly trying to buttress with evidence (viz. Biblical archaeology, miracles, and so on).

But the “religious impulse” that “can’t be avoided” is now, argues Mahon, directed towards the pandemic, in particularly those nasty mandates to wear masks. He gets into his anti-mask argument slowly, as he doesn’t want to look like a crazy right-winger at the very beginning.

Step 1: A general assertion:

The rush to accept the claims of scientists with blind faith rather than insisting on proof is a distinct sign of our times, as is the demand for proof of unprovable tenets of Christianity. In thrall to this topsy-turvydom, many scientists expect politicians to trust them in the absence of evidence and many Christians try to construe the book of Genesis as if it were a scientific treatise.

Step 2: Mahon gets more specific:

Surely, given the unprecedented disruption to people’s lives, the suppression of basic liberties and the destruction of the economy, the decision to shut down society ought to have been evidence-based rather than faith-based. But with few exceptions, our politicians didn’t insist upon evidence, choosing instead to defer to (or should we say, hide behind) their scientific advisors, who presented them with predictions, models, worst-case estimates and beliefs.

And of course those scientific advisors, who were blindsided like many of us, initially went on the best guesses they could make from evidence derived from previous coronavirus epidemics and from epidemiology. In other words, they went on evidence, scanty as it was at the beginning of 2020. They weren’t always right, but they did not rely on revelation, sacred books, or mere unevidenced pronouncements of authorities. And of course those scientists eventually presented the politicians with a vaccine. That vaccine wasn’t, of course, based on faith.

Step 3: Mahon reveals his real animus:

Take mask mandates. People who believe in wearing masks think that they’re basing those beliefs on science. But if that were true, they’d be able to show evidence. What you get instead is a patronizing cartoon of people peeing on each other, or Paul Rudd trying to be funny and then yelling at you from his celebrity pedestal. “It’s science!” he shouts. But is it?

Wearing masks makes some people feel better. It also satisfies a naive intuition. The mask is clearly a barrier that will at some level prevent fluids travelling through fabric, just like your pants. But that doesn’t constitute scientific proof that masks prevent the spread of a virus. Scientific proof in this case would take the form of randomized controlled trials. There was one five years ago which compared medical masks to cloth masks and found that “Moisture retention, reuse of cloth masks and poor filtration may result in increased risk of infection.” This was the line that most governments were taking at first, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary. But then they altered course without any new evidence, and the vast majority of people now accept it as an article of faith that masks save lives.

There has been a grand total of one randomized controlled trial conducted to determine the efficacy of masks in preventing the spread of SARS-CoV-2. The Danish study that initially struggled to find a publisher conclusively showed that there is a statistically insignificant difference between wearing a mask and not wearing a mask. Add to this the fact that masks are disgusting, unhygienic sneeze receptacles that in practice are rarely washed or replaced, that people touch their masks and faces constantly before feeling up avocados in the supermarket, that because of the false sense of security, people wearing masks are less likely to do other, more effective things, like wash their hands, and finally, that there is little to no evidence of asymptomatic transmission, and we have to wonder why all these healthy people are still walking around with their faces covered. The answer is quite simply that their faith is misplaced.

Now let’s grant that we lack the direct controlled, randomized trials that we need to show with absolute certainty that masks are useful in helping contain the epidemic. (Of course other things are very useful as well: hand-washing, avoiding big social gatherings, quarantining, and so on.) Doing those types of experiments would be unethical.  But we have correlational evidence that show mask wearing by symptomatic and asymptomic people, whether the latter be infected or not, reduces the incidence of transmission; that masks contain respiratory droplets, a source of infection; and so on. All the evidence is summarized in this post on the website of my doctor, Alex Lickerman—a post I’ve mentioned before (click on screenshot to read it):

You won’t find any faith in the post above, just data—data sufficient to buttress the argument that we should all be wearing masks.

At the end, Mahon reprises his claim that mask-wearing is a religious act, and makes what I call “The Argument from the Norm”:

Not wearing masks is the norm, freedom to visit family and friends is the norm, freedom to conduct business is the norm, and evidence should be required to displace by legal compulsion each and every one of these norms. But too many people aren’t interested in that, preferring instead to trust in the government’s claim to be following “the science,” and if challenged, they often react the way a religious person reacts when his beliefs are criticized — offended and scandalized.

Well, read Alex’s post above and see if you think there’s no “science” behind mask mandates.

But the best part of Mahon’s argument is his claim, at the very end, that because the erosion of Christianity in our society has also eroded the distinction between “the knowable and the unknowable”, then perhaps a return of Christianity will actually help revive science! I kid you not:

I’m not sure whether a return to Christianity is necessary to salvage the unknowable/knowable partition and preserve the utility of the scientific method. But whatever direction our society chooses to go in future, one thing’s for sure: we will have a religion. We may not have science.

Can you believe that? Mahon’s not even wrong here. Eventually religion will largely disappear from Western society, but science never will because it cannot. In the modern world, we don’t really need religion that much, but we’ll always need science. How else would we have gotten a vaccine? Science is the only good way to materially improve humanity, whether it be through technology, nutrition, or health. And, of course, it’s the only way to satisfy our insatiable curiosity about the cosmos.

The Post Millennial was in fact irresponsible in printing this piece, implying as it does that mask-wearing has no effect on viral infection rates. Mahon may have the right to endanger Canadians with his pabulum, but the paper should exercise better judgement in allowing columnists to make misleading statements about science, particularly when they affect public health. If this column were on Twitter, it would have gotten one of those “false tweets” warnings.

h/t: Paul

p.s. If you saw a mattress ad, ignore it. I had to turn off adblocker to get the article, and accidentally copied that ad. It should be removed now.

The Friendly Atheist discusses the incompatibility of science and religion

July 13, 2020 • 12:00 pm

Here’s Hemant Mehta, the “Friendly Atheist,” not being very friendly towards accommodationists in his new video, “Can science and religion coexist?” He gives a firm “no”, and I have to hand it to him: he doesn’t pull any punches.

Now if you’ve read Faith Versus Fact (and if you haven’t, why not?), you won’t find much new here: even the debunking of one miracle that helped canonize Mother Teresa (the “curing” of Monica’s Besra’s tumor) is also in my book. But for those who haven’t read it, this is as good a summary of the conflict that you can get in a 16-minute video.  I do worry that it’s so anti-theistic that it will turn off those whose minds are open, but on the other hand I appreciate Hemant’s straightforward anti-theism.

Because nearly all of this is good stuff, I have only a few beefs; in fact, they’re such small beefs that they qualify as stew meat.

Re the statement: “Religion and science offer two different ways to get to the bottom of big questions,” which Hemant sees as the heart of the matter. And he’s right—so long as by “the big questions” you mean empirical questions about the nature of the universe. It would have helped had Hemant added that caveat, for religion would claim (falsely, I think), that it can provide “true” answers to “big questions” about meaning, morals, and purpose, while science can’t. Indeed, science cannot deal with those questions, as they don’t bear on the way the universe is, but secular philosophy can, and gives better answers than any religion I know.

Second beef: There’s a bit too much concentration on miracles, which, says Hemant, are those phenomena that violate the laws of science. If miracles were observed (and I discuss this in Faith Versus Fact), one might tentatively conclude that there is something numinous out there. But Hemant declares flatly, “Actual miracles don’t happen. They never have.”  Indeed: I know of none that are so enigmatic and convincing that they make me rethink naturalism.  But I think a better tactic would be to say not only that there are naturalistic explanations for nearly all miracles, but to admit that miracles might happen but have never explained anything to the detriment of science. That is, a true scientific attitude might admit of the possibility of miracles—for science can never prove that something cannot exist—but would add that this is true in the same sense that we admit of the possibility of leprechauns and the Loch Ness Monster: things that, in view of history and empiricism, are so wildly improbable that, as with Hume, you’d put a higher probability on a lie or a mistake than on a true miracle.

At the end, Hemant has a useful discussion on why people still think science and religion are compatible despite his (and my) claim that they’re not. And he even disses the Templeton Foundation! Kudos for him!

h/t: Hugh

“This is the nice thing about science . . . “

May 6, 2020 • 12:30 pm

by Greg Mayer

Mark Mulligan, a vaccine researcher at NYU, was asked by NBC News if he was optimistic about the prospects for the covid-19 vaccine he is working on.  He replied,

This is the nice thing about science. You don’t have to have faith or belief.

(NBC’s transcript, for some reason, edited out “. . . nice thing about . . .”.)

Dan Dennett versus two believers (including Reza Aslan): a discussion of faith at the University of Chicago (tickets free)

January 28, 2019 • 8:30 am

Maybe it’s a bit clickbaity to use the word “versus” in the title, but since Aslan is a faith-coddler, and the other religionist, William Schweiker, is identified as “Leading Theologian and Ordained Minister of the United Methodist Church, Author of Dust that Breathes: Christian Faith and the New Humanisms, and Director of Enhancing Life Project”, this looks to be a discussion in which there will be disagreement. And it looks like big fun.

Click on screenshot to go to the site, where you can register (just give your name and email) to get one or more free online tickets (click on the green “register” button). I’m going, and of course I’ll report on how it went.

Here’s the description of the program.

Tuesday, February 5th at 5:30 PM
The Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts
915 East 60th Street
Chicago, IL 60637

The Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge invites you to a discussion about the past, present, and future of belief. Join award-winning writer and commentator Reza Aslan (author of Beyond Fundamentalism), controversial philosopher of science and culture Daniel Dennett (author of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon), and respected religious ethicist William Schweiker for a conversation that will take the long view on religion as a human enterprise: its history, its power, and its prospects. We hope to bring believers, critics, and everyone in between into a productive—and provocative—dialogue about the place of faith in our changing world.

Religion, Identity and the Construction of Faith will be moderated by David Nirenberg, Interim Dean of the UChicago Divinity School. The discussion will be held at the University of Chicago’s Reva and David Logan Center Performance Hall on February 5, 2019. Doors open to the public at 5:00 p.m.; the event will run from 5:30-7:00 p.m., with a reception to follow.

Award-winning titles by these acclaimed authors will be available for sale by the Seminary Co-op Bookstore in the lobby of the Logan Center Performance Hall from 4:30-7:30.

Given the moderator and discussants, it looks as if Dennett will be playing the role of the Greeks at Thermopylae.

Josh Dehaas on “Indigenous ways of knowing” (aka “faith”)

May 28, 2018 • 12:00 pm

Quillette remains a good source of liberal but critical articles, refreshingly free of clickbait and ever critical of Control-Leftism. One recent article worth reading is by Josh Dehaas, “‘Indigenous Ways of Knowing’: Magical Thinking ahd Spirituality by Any One Name.” Dehaas, described as “a Toronto based freelance journalist”, is critical of a Canadian government initiative to put “indigenous ways of knowing” alongside “Western” ways of knowing as equally valid methods for understanding nature. It turns out that while some of these “indigenous ways of knowing” may have a valid core, in the main they’re based on revelation, guesses, and tradition—forms of faith. In no way are they, taken together, comparable to the empirical approach used by scientists and science-based researchers, engineers, or even car mechanics—a method I called “science construed broadly” in Faith Versus Fact.

First, the issue. There’s no doubt that Canada treated its indigenous people horribly. Many children were ripped from their parents, sent to schools where they were forbidden to speak their own language or practice traditional customs—an attempt to forcibly turn them into European Canadians. The country has rightfully tried to make reparations for this and similar forms of ill-treatment, and that’s to be applauded.

But in one way these reparations have gone too far. By attempting to teach indigenous “ways of knowing” as valid, the Canadian government and its universities are putting truly valid ways of understanding nature alongside ways that are not rigorously tested, and indeed, can be dangerous.

Now you’ve heard this equivalence of knowledge in at least two other areas: religion, which also claims “ways of knowing” based on revelation, dogma, authority, and simple faith, and postmodernism, which in some forms holds that there are many “ways of knowing”, with science just one among many, and not privileged in any way.

But we also have the indigenous ways of knowing held by what Canadians call “First Nation” people. Dehaas outlines how these ways are being validated:

From the University of Calgary to The University of Saskatchewan to Acadia University in New Brunswick, Canadian deans are pledging to infuse their curricula with a doctrine often described as “Indigenous Ways of Knowing” (IWK), which teaches that Indigenous peoples arrive at their understanding of the world in a unique way.

The idea has been around in some form for many years. In a research paper prepared for the Canadian government in 2002, for instance, Indigenous education scholar Marie Battiste argued that Indigenous peoples possess a “cognitive system” that is “alien” to Europeans. But in recent years, the concept has gained critical mass, as education officials seek to incorporate IWK into university coursework. Much of the impetus has come from the publication of the Final Report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2015.

The TRC was created as part of an attempt to formally recognize and heal the damage done by the Indian Residential School System, which for generations served to separate Indigenous children from their parents, thereby stripping them of their culture, often under abusive conditions. One of the TRC’s many recommendations was that Canada’s educational institutions treat “Aboriginal and Euro-Canadian knowledge systems with equal respect.” This prompted the universities’ main lobby group, Universities Canada, to exhort members to ensure “mutual respect for different ways of knowing,” and encourage “the cohabitation of Western science and Indigenous knowledge.”

Formally recognizing the harm done by the residential school system is a laudable goal. But I have yet to see any evidence that scholars create knowledge in fundamentally different ways, based on their ethnicities, as IWK proponents claim.

One example:

In an introductory IWK lecture, Paul Restoule, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), starts off by telling his class that “knowledges” are subjective. He also claims that the mere act of defining IWK is “problematic,” since any definitions would use “Western knowledge” as a frame of reference. This is not unusual. I’ve been writing about higher education for a decade, and have investigated the issue of IWK on different campuses. Invariably, my attempts to determine the exact parameters of IWK always meet with this somewhat gauzy, defensive response. Oddly, the most zealous proponents of IWK also are the ones who are the most reluctant to describe what it is.

Restoule claims that, for Indigenous people, “the senses can know more deeply and concretely than knowledge gained through reading and being told.” He asserts that “knowledge is sometimes revealed through dreams, visions and intuitions.” And he offers a Venn diagram with a circle for “Western science”—“limited to evidence and explanation within [the] physical world” and “skepticism,”—overlapping somewhat with a circle for “Indigenous knowledge,” which is described as “holistic,” involving a “metaphysical world linked to moral code” and “trust for inherited wisdom.”

That’s not knowledge, but faith that’s equivalent to religious faith!

Now I don’t know how pervasive this kind of nonsense is, but we know that First Nations people have been allowed to impose on their dying children “native medicine” rather than Western science-based medicine, with the predictable results: the kids die.(Sometimes the courts support this travesty.) I’ll count on Canadian readers to inform me if Restoule’s attitude is an outlier. I suspect it isn’t.  It is instead, as Dehaas observes, “a combination of magical thinking and spirituality.”

He adds:

Whenever proponents are asked to define IWK, “at some point in the conversation, postmodern relativism begins to enter into it,” she says. When asked to explain the unique “ways of knowing” exhibited by Indigenous peoples, advocates tend to describe either folk knowledge or spiritual beliefs, she adds. These may indeed be described as “alternative” ways of knowing. But their alternative character originates in the fact that they present themselves as exempt from the expectation of rigorous scrutiny that typically is applied to claims made by academics.

And it’s that absence of rigorous scrutiny and empirical testing that makes these “alternative ways of knowing” so dangerous.

Now some of you may be thinking, “But many modern medicines are derived from traditional plant-based remedies.” And indeed, that’s true: quinine as a remedy for malaria is the quintessential example. But the evidence that led to these plants being efficacious was still anecdotal: they seemed  to work. Now in the case of quinine they actually did work, but to find out rigorously if they work, you have to do proper empirical testing, using blind tests and statistics. That’s why all plant-based medicines, whether derived from local cultures or not, must be vetted by proper scientific testing.

After all, there are plenty of “traditional” remedies that don’t work at all: have a look at the Canadian Cancer Society’s page on “Aboriginal traditional healing“, which outlines many First Nations methods for cures that aren’t efficacious, including smudging, healing circles, and herbal medicines (some of which have been used on children with cancer). To its credit, the Society notes that there’s no evidence that any of these methods can be used to treat cancer, but the point is that people have used them—because they’re derived from “indigenous ways of knowing.”

Ditto for spiritual healing. That, like religion, is also an indigenous “way of knowing”, and may have some placebo effects, but if you had an infection, would you opt for smudging (inhaling the smoke from burning sacred herbs)— or antibiotics? By all means, if indigenous “remedies” aren’t harmful, make the patient feel more comfortable, and help him to take scientific medicine, use the other stuff as well. But don’t pretend that it’s a cure based on “other ways of knowing.”

Of course people who have been trod upon need their oppression remedied, and the Canadian government has taken admirable steps in that direction. But validating “indigenous ways of knowing”, at least insofar as they are claimed to produce truth about nature and the cosmos, isn’t one of them. There is only one valid way of knowing: a rigorous empirical method designed to overcome confirmation bias, and undergoes tests and replication. It’s called “science”.

h/t: Steve

NPR goes soft on faith again

November 13, 2017 • 9:00 am

I’ve kvetched before about the religiosity and faitheism flaunted by Scott Simon of National Public Radio (see here and here), and about the soft-on-faith attitude of NPR in general. They rarely seem to give atheists a good hearing, but there’s always plenty of opportunity for the numinous, as in the brief interview below as well as the weekly lachrymose lucubrations of Krista Tippett & Company. This brief NPR interview from Saturday (click on first screenshot to listen and see a transcript) is described like this:

The words “thoughts and prayers” are often criticized after mass shootings. Scott Simon talks to David French of National Review, who argues prayer can be the most rational and effective response.

First of all, I don’t see anything in French’s response that says that prayer is the “most rational and effective” response to mass shootings. If you can find it, show it to me.

UPDATE: Reader Mary, in comment #16 below, shows that the quote comes from French’s article in the National Review. And it’s even worse than you think: here’s one quote from French:

“There’s a bottom line here: Either you believe that God intervenes in the affairs of men or you don’t. And if you do, then you know that no one and nothing is more powerful than the creator of the universe. That means that while prayer is not the only response to evil, it is both the most rational response and, in all likelihood, the most effective response.”

The bit above is simply how NPR wanted to sell the interview. But even a believer can’t possibly think that the most rational and effective response to a mass shooting is to say a prayer. Well, listen for yourself.

While I found this interview weird, what’s more disturbing is the lack of any similar response from nonbelievers, who have plenty to say about “thoughts and prayers” after tragedies. The trope “our thoughts and prayers are with the families” sounds good, for it’s a kind of virtue flaunting, but unless it’s matched with either direct expression of those thoughts to the people affected, or tangible action to comfort them and prevent further tragedy, they are completely useless. The thoughts are of course no more useful than prayers.  But you’ll wait a long time to hear an atheist discuss the issue on NPR. And if you’re like me, hearing the ubiquitous “our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends” is like listening to nails on a blackboard.

To be fair, French does say that T&P are best supplemented with actions, but doesn’t add that they’re useless without actions:

For example, French clearly thinks that prayer by itself has an effect, even if it’s not helping those who died go to Heaven.

Right. Well, you know, I think a lot of people, when they critique thoughts and prayers, don’t really realize what people are praying for. You know, what people are praying for is comfort for those who are grieving, courage for people who are responding. You know, they’re even praying for inspiration in ideas and how to confront this crisis.

So you know, it’s – the prayer life of a Christian is something that’s very, very rich. And prayer saturates their lives. And it’s going to be – not just a – it’s going to be an automatic response to a crisis. And it’s going to be something that is – provides great comfort to a great deal – you know, a great many people. So when you’re targeting prayers, a Christian, for example, would look at that and be, frankly, kind of puzzled by it.

How, exactly, does prayer comfort anyone but the person who prays—unless that person expresses condolences to the grieving?

I won’t belabor the rest of the short interview, which is more emblematic of NPR’s uncritical attitude of religion than of arrant stupidity, but I want to show one more exchange between Simon and French:

SIMON: Jeannie Gaffigan, the comedy writer and producer who has been publicly battling a brain tumor and happens to be a person of faith, this week tweeted, I’m living proof that prayer works. She’s feeling better now. But it also takes enormous effort along with prayer, sometimes a lifetime of struggle and dedication. Do you agree with that?

FRENCH: Oh, absolutely. I believe – you know, there’s a scriptural principle that faith without works is dead. In other words, you should pray and you should act. But I think the main criticism that many of these Twitter activists are offering is that they’re saying, don’t say thoughts and prayers. Say what I want you to say. And in a political environment where there’s sharp polarization and very different ideas about how to respond to a crisis, that’s just never going to happen. And besides, what use is an activist tweet anyway?

First of all, there’s Simon’s uncritical acceptance that prayer becomes more efficacious with practice. Well, it probably becomes easier with practice, but Simon implies that it works better with practice. Does he mean works to reduce tumors, or just to feel better about them? It’s not clear, but I suspect it’s both.

As for French’s Dictum that “faith without works is dead”, yes, faith without works is useless, but there’s an entire set of Christian religions that believe in the principle that faith alone makes a religion live, and brings salvation, and that works aren’t needed for salvation.  This is called justification by faith alone, or sola fide, and is followed by some Protestant sects like the Lutherans. In other words, you can be Hitler, but if at the end of your life you finally accept the salvific power of Jesus, you go to Heaven. (I don’t think I’m exaggerating here.) And sola fide, like French’s own doctrine of “justification by faith and works,” has also been supported by citing Scripture.

Finally, it’s true that, as French notes, an activist tweet is pretty useless—but so are thoughts and prayers.

Reader “Airbag Moments”, however, had a stronger dislike of this program, and not only sent me the link but the following message, and two tweets he sent:

Scott Simon’s choice to cover the story from this angle, to defend prayer in general, and the awful use of prayer by pro-gun politicians in particular, says everything you need to know. I like to call Simon out on Twitter because I know he reads it – and often engages with me. So I Tweeted this example of the original and my fantasy improved version of the story:
Yes, it would be nice to have Simon do a second show with Dawkins.  The thing is, however, that Simon interviewed Dawkins back in May, and took an aggressive and confrontational approach completely unlike his bum-licking of Mr. French. So it goes.

Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ faith

September 14, 2016 • 8:15 am

Today’s Jesus and Mo, “wind2,” is an 8-year-old strip with new artwork. Despite the fervent attempts of Sophisticated Theologians™ to define faith otherwise, it always comes down to the definition given by philosopher Walter Kaufmann: “intense, usually confident, belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.” This is why, if you have evidence, you don’t speak of faith, and why scientists don’t say they “have faith in evolution”. Faith is not a virtue, but a character flaw.


NBC news touts the afterlife

March 11, 2016 • 5:38 pm

As correspondent Andrea Mitchell was reporting the funeral of Nancy Reagan for NBC News, her commentary toward the end was this: “a love story for all time. . . Ron and Nancy, now together again, for eternity.”

I may be wrong, I don’t think she was talking about “for eternity as corpses that are decaying next to each other underground.”

Peter Boghossian accused of hate speech for correctly defining “faith”

February 2, 2016 • 10:15 am

I’m not quite sure who “James Bishop” is, as I hadn’t heard of him previously, but he writes at the website Historical Jesus Studies, and the header of his public Facebook page is strange. Has anyone else described their official position as “apologist”?

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 9.24.38 AM


What brought Bishop to my attention was his bizarre article called “Answering Peter Boghosssian—atheist hate & the definition of faith.” And I want to say a few words about it because, although the piece is abysmally written, it appears to support a criticism leveled at many atheists, and at me in particular: namely, our conception of the nature of “faith” is completely off the rails. Moreover, Bishop goes farther, saying that those who use the classical conception of faith are promoting hate speech.

I’ve been told by some believers, especially after Faith versus Fact came out, that religious “faith” does not mean “belief in the absence of evidence”, or “pretending to believe something”, but is much more than that. What the “much more” constitutes is often unspecified, but Bishop appears to tout something called “evidence-based faith”. That apparently means “religious belief based on evidence”. In other words, it’s like science. In fact, Bishop argues that there’s no substantive difference between the nature of scientific “belief” (I don’t like to use that term for science) and religious belief.

The good thing about Bishop’s admission is that, since he claims there’s evidence supporting his Christianity, we can now engage him in a debate about the nature and strength of that evidence—in other words, a scientific debate. He also clarifies, as have some other Christians, that belief really is about evidence—that religion is more than just communality, fellowship, values, and morality, but, to be meaningful, must at bottom rest on verifiable epistemic claims.

I’ve taken my own definitions of “faith” from the Bible itself as well as statements by philosophers and some believers. Here are two ways it’s construed in The True Book:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1)

Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed. (John 20:29)

There and elsewhere in the Bible, demands for reason and evidence are seen as inimical to religious belief. But if, like Bishop, you construe “faith” as “belief based on evidence”, then you don’t even ned the word “faith”. We can just use “belief” and argue about evidence.

As a sidenote, the “belief” section of the Oxford English Dictionary‘s definition of “faith” starts like this (with some of its early uses), while the notion of “evidence” as a part of faith is much lower down on the definitional list:

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But there’s no denying that many—perhaps most—religionists do see faith in the way Boghossian and the OED do, even though they would welcome evidence that buttresses their beliefs. But at bottom, if you ask them why they’re Christians rather than Jews or Muslims or Buddhists, most will cite not evidence, but feelings, i.e., revelation or preference or “what makes sense”.  We can argue about this, and of course different believers will have different definitions of “faith.”

But Bishop goes further, claiming that Boghossian’s definition constitutes HATE SPEECH. Yes, it’s true (my emphasis in Bishop’s quote below):

The atheist Peter Boghossian authored a book called A Manual for Creating Atheiststhat attempts to assist his fellow atheists in conversing with religious believers. The goal is to hopefully end up converting them to atheism – in other words this is atheistic evangelism 101.

However, at one part in his book he redefines faith to be “pretending to know things that you don’t know” and “belief without evidence” (1). He even goes beyond this to actually define faith as being a “virus” and thus he makes it his goal to “ultimately eradicate faith.”

I consider Boghossian’s view to be bordering on hate speech. It’s not simply Boghossian’s redefinition of a word that appears hateful but it is the implications it has when it comes to human people – since many religious people do in fact match Boghossian’s  definition of faith. In other words, history well tells us that it is an incredibly dangerous thing to single out a people or a group in such a way as to ostracize and demonize them. That is what it would appear Boghossian is doing here. It’s indeed a tactic somewhat dangerously similar to the method utilized by some of humanity’s worst despots, and of a similar view Schumaker believes that “Boghossian’s incendiary language is very dangerous and can easily be classified as hate speech. History is replete with examples of various atheist regimes “eradicating” faith by eradicating the people who held that faith” (2).

I also feel that Boghossian is slandering & damaging the reputation of the many good religious people in the world. It is quite one thing to disagree with fellow people who hold beliefs that are contrary to one’s own, however, Boghossian has gone far beyond simply claiming religious people to be delusional & irrational. Claiming that religious people possess faith that ultimately needs to be eradicated comes over as extremely militant, dangerous and hateful. It’s such a view espoused here that has so fueled the bloody machine of atheistic despotism within the 20th century.

I’m not sure if this is muddled thinking or muddled writing, but saying that “many religious people do in fact match Boghossian’s definition of faith” is giving away the game at the outset. But even if we ignore that admission, criticizing the epistemic (or nonepistemic) basis of religious belief hardly “ostracizes or demonizes” believers. Such a claim is that of of a Special Christian Snowflake who is offended when we question the underpinnings of his religion.  And I can’t be troubled to sympathize with Bishop’s argument that it’s hateful to call faith a “virus that needs to be eradicated.” I happen to agree with Boghossian, but we’re talking about a worldview, not people. Nobody argues that the believers themselves should be eradicated! If I said “racism is a virus that needs to be eradicated,” would Bishop argue with me that I’m unfairly demonizing and ostracizing racists?

I see that I’m spending too much time on this apologist, so I’ll just provide a couple of quotes about Bishop’s notion of “evidence-based faith” and then, as you’re undoubtedly wondering, show the kind of evidence he gives for his own Christian faith (my emphasis):

The problem with atheists like Boghossian is that they seem to willfully misunderstand the nature of faith. Indeed, there is something known as blind faith of which many religious people (as well as many atheists) possess. This is what Boghossian, and other atheists, mean by the word “faith.” Which is ultimately to believe based off of insufficient evidence or in the face of powerful contradicting evidence.

However, there is also evidence based faith. This is faith that, although goes beyond what one can prove, is reasonable to hold based on what we already do know. When I board a flight to a holiday destination a level of faith is immediately involved. I have faith that the plane is durable enough to withstand the elements, I have faith that the pilot is well trained enough to fly a 500 seater airliner, I have faith that I will arrive at my destination based off of the latest statistics on airliner accidents. In other words, I cannot prove for absolute certainty that I will arrive at my destination alive, but I can be extremely confident that I will. If I knew that the probabilities were not in my favour and that my certainties were outweighed by the uncertainties (in other words, if I thought I’d have a 40% chance to arrive safely at my destination) then I would not take the flight. However, if I know that I have a 99.99% chance at arriving safely at my destination then I can fly confidently.

What Bishop is talking about here is in fact scientific belief: what I call “confidence based on evidence and experience”. But surely Bishop can’t see Christian truth claims as being supported by as much evidence as that of a safe plane landing, can he? Well, yes he does—because the Bible tells him so:

This clearly applies to Christianity. For example, I cannot “prove” that Jesus rose from the dead. Yet I can believe that he did is a rational position based off of historical data. I believe that making sense of data such as Jesus’ empty tomb, his post-mortem appearances, the radical transformations of Paul, James & the disciples etc. can be used to support the case of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. In other words I believe that my faith in the truth of Christianity is evidence based & not wishful thinking. But the faith element remains since no-one can prove with absolute certainty that Jesus was really resurrected – but I believe that I am rational in concluding that he did. So faith is not necessarily a dirty word as atheists would have us believe.

This is a classic case of “begging the question” in the genuine sense, for it assumes what it wants to prove: that stuff in the Bible is true. But if you go that route for Jesus’s resurrection, then how can you rule out any scriptural claim, for all are supported by “historical data”? The Exodus? Didn’t happen, but it’s historical data? The Flood? Historical data! Adam and Eve, still thought by the Vatican to be real people and the ancestors of us all? True, because it’s historical data. And how is Bishop going to argue with a Muslim who cites the Qur’an and hadith as showing completely contrary “historical data”? If faith is based on evidence, let believers decide among themselves what the true faith is, just like we scientists argued about the true structure of DNA and settled the issue. At least we can usually come to a consensus!

In the end, Apologist Bishop levels the usual criticisms of atheism: our “belief” is also based on faith. Since I dispel these arguments in Faith versus Fact (and in an article in Slate), I won’t reprise my analysis here, but you might amuse yourself by mentally critiquing Bishop’s conclusion:

Contrary to popular atheistic belief, atheists also have faith. Naturalism, the worldview that most atheists hold to, contains many faith based assumptions. The naturalist can’t prove that the natural world is all that exists since to assume such goes beyond the available evidence. The same naturalist has to have faith that his cognitive faculties are reliable in interpreting data from the natural world so that he can make sense of it. The same naturalist has to assume that biological life originated from inorganic material, that in the universe order can come from chaos, and that consciousness and rationality can come from unconscious and non-rational forces of nature. He also has to hold that no supernatural reality exists & that all religions are man made thus false. These, and many more, are all faith based positions that the atheist naturalist has to maintain in order to believe in his naturalism. As fellow apologist Tyler Vela informs us:

“Even though “atheism” may technically amount to simply a lack of belief in a deity, the fact that atheists commonly label themselves “atheists”, (and ascribe attributes to such a label, such as rationalism, empirical validity, etc.) reveals that functionally speaking “atheism” may in fact actually be what people say that it isn’t – a belief; a system of thought”.

The people Bishop should be engaging, however, aren’t atheists, who, after all, don’t find his evidence for Jesus convincing. He should be going after Muslims, Jews, and Orthodox Christians—at least the ones who agree that faith rests on evidence.  Since they all share a quasi-scientific basis for religious belief, let them have a big conclave and decide what the TRUE RELIGION is. And because there are far more believers than atheists on our planet, isn’t it more pressing to settle issues about God and His/Her/Its dictates among believers, and simply leave the tiny titer of atheists alone?

Brother Tayler’s secular Sunday sermon: a riff on a hoax

July 27, 2015 • 11:30 am

An article in The NewsNerd notes that the American Psychological Association is about to classify extreme religiosity as a mental illness. A true God Delusion!:

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), a strong and passionate belief in a deity or higher power, to the point where it impairs one’s ability to make conscientious decisions about common sense matters, will now be classified as a mental illness.

The controversial ruling comes after a 5-year study by the APA showed devoutly religious people often suffered from anxiety, emotional distress, hallucinations, and paranoia. The study stated that those who perceived God as punitive was directly related to their poorer health, while those who viewed God as benevolent did not suffer as many mental problems. The religious views of both groups often resulted in them being disconnected from reality.

Dr. Lillian Andrews, professor of psychology, stated, “Every year thousands of people die after refusing life-saving treatment on religious grounds. Even when being told ‘you will die without this treatment’ patients reject the idea and believe that their God will still save them. Those lives could be saved simply by classifying those people as mentally unfit for decision making.”

. . . With the new classification, the APA will lobby to introduce legislation which would allow doctors the right to force life-saving treatment on those who refuse it for spiritual reasons on the grounds that they are mentally incapable of making decisions about their health.

I’ve written at length about this very problem (in Slate, for example), especially the the United States’s shameful coddling of parents who withhold medical care from their children on religious grounds. Those parents are given a legal break in 43 of the 50 U.S. states, and it’s reprehensible and unconscionable.(47 of the 50 states also permit religious exemptions from vaccination for children attending public school.) The last chapter of Faith versus Fact, for example, discusses this issue in detail, for it’s a palpable example of severe harm caused by faith—and the onus to fix it is on all of us.

Sadly, as Jeffrey Tayler notes in his latest Sunday Secular Sermon in Salon, “The religious have gone insane: the separation of church and state—and Scalia from his mind,” this story in NewsNerd, like all others on the site, is a fake. It sounds realistic, and is what many of us would like to be true, but it isn’t.

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So the largely free license that religious parents have to hurt their children via faith-healing remains untrammeled. (Tayler even pays me a nice parenthetical compliment for my discussion of the issue: “For a shocking, even heartbreaking exploration of this issue and much more, check out Jerry Coyne’s ‘Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible’, which could be a primer for all rationalists wishing to argue the case for nonbelief.”)

Tayler goes on to insist, as he has before, that extreme religiosity is a form of mental illness. Some readers may disagree, but let those who do remember that if people behaved the same way about Bigfoot as they did about Jesus, they’d be seen as delusional. Tayler:

 . . . the satire in the News Nerd’s piece derives its efficacy from an obvious truth: belief in a deity motivates people to behave in all sorts of ways — some childish and pathetic, others harmful, a few outright criminal — most of which, to the nonbeliever at least, mimic symptoms of an all-encompassing mental illness, if of widely varying severity.

Why childish?  A majority of adults in one of the most developed countries on Earth believe, in all seriousness, that an invisible, inaudible, undetectable “father” exercises parental supervision over them, protecting them from evil (except when he doesn’t), and, for the mere price of surrendering their faculty of reason and behaving in ways spelled out in various magic books, will ensure their postmortem survival.  Wishful thinking characterizes childhood, yes, but, where the religious are concerned, not only.  That is childish.

Tayler goes on to recount the palpable harms of faith: not only the death of innocent and brainwashed children, but the oppression of women, the “scarred psyches” of many of those brainwashed kids, Jesus Camp, ISIS, and so on. The list is familiar, but Tayler’s remedy is pure New Atheist:

Yet all is not lost!  If the News Nerd’s APA story was a hoax, professionals are, nonetheless, taking note of the danger it was parodying.  A San-Franciscan human development consultant named Dr. Marlene Winell, herself a survivor of a Pentecostal upbringing, has bruited the idea of “religious trauma syndrome” and established its symptoms as “anxiety . . . depression, cognitive difficulties, and problems with social functioning.”  Kathleen Taylor, an Oxford neuroscientist, has proposed treating religious fundamentalism itself as a “mental disturbance.”

The cure, in my view?  Talk therapy, otherwise known as free speech, focusing relentlessly on religion and its multitudinous, multiplying ills, to be administered by us to the faith-deranged.  Treatment might begin in language they can readily understand.  The best, most succinct notion to be transmitted to the patients: “The deepest sin against the human mind is to believe things without evidence.”  The nineteenth-century British biologist Thomas H. Huxley, “Darwin’s Bulldog,” said that.

It’s up to us.  For the sake of humanity’s future, for the sake of our children, rationalists need to be unabashedly “bull-doggish.”

The time has arrived to bark, and even to bite.

I’ll bite! What say you: should we treat this extreme form of religiosity as a mental illness, when we know it really is one, albeit one that’s widespread? Should we even call it a mental illness, knowing that it will alienate many of the faithful?