Category Archives: Atheism

A Spoonful of Superstition

Anyone who follows my blog or has read my book, Belief in Science and the Science of Belief, well knows that I argue passionately against most forms of belief-based thinking. But I do have to admit that sometimes a teeny tiny bit of false belief is helpful.

I rarely ever steal anything. If I realize that I was given too much change at the market, I’ll invariably drive back to return it. I don’t do the right thing because I’m such a noble upstanding person. I do it because of superstition.

You see somewhere I picked up this deeply ingrained notion that if I keep that money, the universe will somehow take revenge on me. I’ll stub my toe, or get a traffic citation, or spill coffee on my term paper. In some way I’ll pay tenfold for my dishonesty.

Of course that’s silly. I know that’s silly. Something bad will happen eventually, and when it does I will falsely ascribe the cause to be my earlier bad behavior. But nevertheless, the feeling of wanting to avoid this bad karma is so powerful that it still compels me to do the right thing.

Perhaps this belief in karma is just something learned from popular culture, but I rather suspect that our species carries the hardwired seed of this idea which gets reinforced by false associations acquired during ones lifetime. It makes evolutionary sense to me that such an assumption is a helpful genetic trait. Within social structures, what goes around does in fact often come back around.

Our innate fear of karmic payback is almost certainly a component of what we perceive as our nagging conscience.

karma

Here’s the danger in this. It leads many people down the rabbit hole into religion-land. If we believe in a little auto-karma, why not an almighty god who personally ensures payback? If a little karmic fear is good, then the fear of eternal damnation is even better. If our sense of personal karma is hardwired, then so is our belief in god!

But one essential principle you learn in toxicology class is that everything that is beneficial at low doses becomes toxic at higher doses. A little superstition may have some positive benefits. But a full-blown belief in god requires a level of superstition and a perversion of logical thinking that is so extreme as to be dangerously toxic. This level of belief is so debilitating to our logical faculties that it can compromise our ability to think rationally about critical issues like climate change.

So feel free to embrace a healthy sense of karma like you do a magic show, with a full and complete understanding that it’s not real. But don’t let that indulgence lead you down the treacherously slippery slope into religion.

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The Multiverse is Bigger than God

MultiverseOur gods used to be gods of specific things; the sky, the sea, war, love. Then God took over and became the god of everything. But our understanding of “everything” keeps expanding, and as it does, our fanciful notion of God has to expand along with it to remain ever beyond the limits of mere science.

The visible horizon of our observable universe is 46.5 billion light years away in any direction. That is an immense distance, and this visible sphere around us contains about 100 billion galaxies, each with perhaps 100 billion stars. Our God of everything created all that too, presumably just for us to look at.

But wait, there’s more, much more. Today we understand that our universe is almost certainly unimaginably larger than that which we can observe. It is perhaps 100 billion trillion times larger than our observable universe. That makes what we can see just the tiniest mote of dust in our greater universe. In our observable universe we can look into the sky and at least see what happened in the distant past. We can not even see out into the darkness beyond that. But since it apparently exists, believers have no choice except to inflate God once more. God presumably created all that inaccessible space beyond the horizon as well, and just for us.

It gets better. Now we are beginning to understand that God apparently created an infinite multiverse just for us as well. I first recall being fascinated by the idea of multiple universes in 1966 when Mr. Spock met Captain Kirk’s evil counterpart from an alternate universe (see here). But just as Star Trek communicators became everyday reality, the science fiction of multiple universes has become legitimate science.

There are many forms that the multiverse may take, but for now let it suffice to think of an infinite number of universes just like ours, maybe isolated in pockets of space, maybe superimposed upon each other, maybe both. Their infinity extends through both time and space. This infinite multiverse is not static. In it (if the word “in” even applies to an infinite space) universes appear, grow old, and die. Each is born with a particular set of fundamental parameters. Only a relatively tiny (but still infinite) fraction have parameters in the “Goldilocks” range that allow organized structures. In a tiny fraction of those, life is possible. The rest are stillborn or survive for a short while as unsustainable regions of chaos.

How can it get more mind-blowing? Well it is an inescapable logical conclusion is that in an infinite multiverse everything that could possibly happen must happen. For example, there must be a universe in which every possible variation of our own exists, in fact there must be an infinite number of each possible variation – infinite numbers of each of us.

Whatever form it takes, we become even more insignificant within the time-space grandeur of the multiverse. So our notion of God must once again expand dramatically to exceed even the non-existent bounds of an already infinite multiverse in order to remain the unbounded God of all things. And of course God created that infinite multiverse, so far beyond our ability to grasp let alone interact with, just for we infinitesimal humans.

I talk about god here knowing full well that it is of course completely silly to do so. I might as well talk about the how our notion of Santa Claus must expand to encompass the belief that he has to deliver Christmas presents to all children in the multiverse on one night. Yet, unfortunately we do focus our attention on our fantasy of god whenever these cosmological discussions take place.

Some “religious scholars” try desperately to keep god relevant in the face of our growing awareness by arguing that in a multiverse in which all things are possible, god must exist somewhere. In an otherwise decent article author Mark Vernon (see here), perpetuates this fallacy by repeating that since “everything is possible somewhere … it would have to conclude that God exists in some universes.

This will certainly keep getting repeated but it is simply not a correct interpretation of the science to say that in a multiverse “everything is possible.” This is a perversion of the correct formulation which is “everything possible must happen.” These are completely different ideas. Any particular universe is still governed by its own physics and there is a limit to the possible physics of any given universe. Impossible things, like gods and ghosts, can not happen in any universe.

And even if some universe had some being approaching a god, it would still not be an omnipotent god of everything and it would certainly not be our god. Therefore I am not sure how claiming that a God exists in some other universe does anything but admit that one does not exist in our own.

So what is the most rational of the possible irrational responses for someone clinging to their belief in god in the face of a multiverse? The best would be simply to claim that god created the multiverse and not even try to invoke any pseudo-scientific arguments. As you always have, just keep expanding your definition of god to supersede whatever new boundaries science reveals.

But really, adding God to the multiverse is simply adding fake infinity on top of real infinity. Like infinity plus infinity, the extra infinity is entirely superfluous and unnecessary. And what does it add to place God beyond infinity? It only replaces the insistence that something had to create the multiverse with an acceptance that nothing had to create God. It’s silly, especially given the fact that our limited concept of “before” has little relevance in an infinite multiverse.

Better yet would be to finally give in and acknowledge that the multiverse has rendered your god small and insignificant and kind of pathetic. God is like a quaint old Vaudeville act that can no longer compete with huge 3-D superhero blockbusters, and looks silly trying. Back in the day, it might have been an understandable conceit to believe that God created the Earth just for us… or even maybe the solar system. But the level of conceit required to believe that some God created the entire multiverse just for us is wildly absurd. The idea that such a God would be focused on us is insanely narcissistic.

The multiverse forces God to grow SO large, that it swells him far beyond any relevance to us or us to him.

So abandon your increasingly simplistic idea of god and find comfort, wonder, and inspiration in our incredible multiverse. You do not need to feel increasingly insignificant and worthless in this expanding multiverse. You don’t need God to give you a phony feeling of significance and meaning within it. All it takes is the flip of a mental soft-switch and you can find comfort and wonder and meaning in our amazing multiverse. It’s all just in your head after all.

I do not share the pessimism of some that we can never “see” or understand the multiverse. My working assumption is that even the greater multiverse is our cosmos, that it is knowable. If we survive Climate Change, we may eventually understand it more fully through indirect observations or through the magical lens of mathematics. Until then, if you are intrigued and stimulated by these real possibilities, I highly recommend that you read the excellent overview article by Robert Lawrence Kuhn (see here).

WA State Toying With Theocracy

Adapted from the version originally printed in the News Tribune (see here).

The Washington State legislature is currently considering joint Resolution 8205 to amend the state constitution with language to “protect” religious freedom (see here). While protecting any group of people always seems like a good thing, there is a lot about this amendment that sounds like the ominous drumbeat of theocracy on the march.

It starts out by declaring that the rights of people to worship are “guaranteed” and no one shall be “molested or disturbed” on account of their religious belief. That seems innocuous enough but such protections already exist and there is no reason to codify them further in the state constitution. We don’t need to clutter up our constitution with reassurances for every group that merely wants double extra emphasis of their rights.

Next the authors added language to “not forbid” religious organizations from receiving state public money. This is yet another of the incessant attacks by religious organizations to undermine our American tradition of separation of church and state. There are sound arguments why our separation exists and tremendous care should be taken to protect it against the continual efforts by religious organizations to dismantle it.

The next section provides a constitutional guarantee that religious beliefs cannot be considered in any evaluation of a person’s qualifications and fitness for any job. We have seen too many cases in which public officials have refused to carry out their essential functions in office because it conflicts with their religious belief. Other times, in adherence to their beliefs, they have been seen to interpret their responsibilities and focus their attention in a way that is not in the public good or faithful to their office. Religious people are proud that their beliefs influence their public behavior. To nevertheless exclude those beliefs from consideration in making personnel decisions is reckless and denies the reality of how real people behave.

In similar fashion, the new language guarantees that religious belief shall not be considered in jury selection or in consideration of legal testimonies. Again, this is reckless and denies the glaringly obvious fact that religious belief can impact the impartiality of a juror or the credibility of a witness. The capacity of a person to believe religious nonsense can and should be a part of the picture in evaluating their credibility on other issues.

I know that some might think that these protections are evidence of an enlightened nation that seeks to protect all points of view. I submit that such absolute protections are far more indicative of repressive theocratic regimes that end up with a religious ruling class that can never be questioned, challenged, or held accountable for the beliefs and the resultant public policies that they impose on others. They want their cake and eat it too; to believe whatever crazy thing they want, enact it publicly, and bear no risk of adverse consequences or repercussions.

Many religious advocates have long argued that homosexual individuals are not deserving of status as a protected class because they [falsely] claim that their behavior is a choice. Religious belief certainly is a choice, and by their own logic does not deserve extraordinary constitutional protections. If we allow religious advocates to codify these kind of absolute protections into our constitutions, make no mistake, it is not hyperbole to say that we are not moving toward liberal enlightenment but toward repressive conservative theocracy.

MilosciaState Senator Mark Miloscia (see here) is a primary driving force behind this legislation. I have no doubt that Senator Miloscia would love a constitutional amendment to expand his own Christian mission into the public sphere and to elevate his personal beliefs above public scrutiny. But this attempt to insert his religious beliefs into public policy is the best possible example of why his resolution is so very dangerous and must be resisted with all possible vigor.

Shame on Baumgartner, O’Ban, Becker, Bailey, and Warnick for co-sponsoring this regressive amendment with Senator Miloscia. I urge you to withdraw your support.

 

Atheists Can Be Deluded Too

rollAs webmaster for New York City Atheists (see here), I recently found myself on a mailing list for a man named Michael Roll, pictured right. While he considers himself an atheist, Mr. Roll is also a self-professed spiritualist who has undertaken a personal mission to sell his particular fantasy as a non-religious, science-based idea. Since the 1960’s his “campaign for philosophical freedom” (see here) has tried to promote his spiritualist delusions.

Following are just a few of the ideas that he puts forth with great intellectual soberness and gravitas:

  • There is no god, but there is an afterlife that is part of the natural world. This spirit world exists on a “different frequency” and accounts for the unaccounted 95% of the energy in our universe.
  • While the religious beliefs of others are nonsense, his essentially identical beliefs are based on “experiments and mathematical models.”
  • His evidence is largely based on the “research” conducted by Sir William Crooks between 1871 and 1874. Crooks observed the manifestations produced by several “materialism mediums” which he claimed proved the existence of a vast afterlife (see here).
  • The media is in cahoots with the Vatican in a conspiracy to discredit legitimate science on the paranormal including work linking subatomic physics with the afterlife (see here).
  • According to Roll “famous television scientist Professor Brian Cox […] is let loose on the public because his false model of the universe is no danger to the Vatican and their powerful materialistic agents.
  • Roll also states “2018 could just be the year that a few billion people will find out that the great philosopher Jesus started from the correct scientific base that we all have a soul that separates from the dead physical body. But most important of all, that Einstein started from the incorrect scientific base that the mind dies with the brain.

I am not going to waste any of your time refuting all of Roll’s clearly delusional fantasies, any more than I would waste your time refuting the Narnia-really-exists theory. Here is a video in which you can hear his “logic” directly from him (video here). It particularly saddens me that Roll appears to be a student of Carl Sagan and quotes him extensively, yet manages to do so in a way that is a blasphemy to everything Dr. Sagan stood for (see here).

What interests me more than debunking this one clearly delusional individual is the more general observation that atheists are not immune to magical thinking. While atheists may not believe in god, they may certainly believe in lots of other equally nonsensical ideas. Just calling oneself an atheist does not immunize one from delusions. Michael Roll’s secular form of rationalizing his magical thinking with “logic” is no different than the “logic” put forth by Ken Ham to rationalize his biblical fantasy (see here).

Atheist delusions can be unique to an individual, but are more often propagated by non-religious movements and fads. Spiritualism and New Age thinking are examples of non-religious structures of fantastical delusions about the world.

Even smart, logical, sophisticated thinkers are not insulated from spiritual delusion. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the brilliant creator of the paragon of rational thought, Sherlock Holmes, was another passionate proponent of spiritualism. He clung to his belief, even after Houdini proved to him that his magic tricks were merely tricks. Even after that irrefutable evidence, Doyle refused to be swayed from his insistence that they proved spiritualism was real (see here).

That these kind of spiritual belief systems can so compromise the thinking of one such as Conan Doyle demonstrates that they are both highly seductive and tenacious. Many of my atheist friends do not share my concern about these non-religious movements because they do not have the institutional power of an organized church behind them. Fair enough. However, they still contribute significantly to a culture in which magical thinking is encouraged and rational thought diminished. They legitimize and normalize public debate on important matters in which “alternative facts” are even entertained.

I argue that while misguided atheists like Michael Roll claim not to believe in god, their belief in essentially the same kind of pseudoscientific thinking supports faith-based thinking in all its forms. To attempt to use phony science fiction to rationalize a delusion does not make it less harmful than a purely religious belief. Indeed, the false invocation of the facade of science may in fact make the delusion far more harmful and damaging.

In my book “The Science of Belief,” (see here), I tried hard to not focus too much on religious thinking specifically, but on all non-fact based thinking in general. My thesis was that we cannot successfully attack religion or other secular forms of magical thinking directly. Rather we must teach real, authentic scientific ways of thinking and approaching the unknown. If we succeed at that, religion and spiritualism will crumble away to dust on their own.

Compartmentalizing Delusion

CompartmentsReligious people hold a lot of beliefs that nonbelievers conclude are delusional (see here). Many of these believers also hold important positions of responsibility in the government, in the media, and business. Some of them even sit on our Congressional Science Committee. Their decisions deeply impact public policy and the very existence of us and of our planet.

Those most fervent in their beliefs proudly tout the fact that their deeply held religious beliefs guide and influence all of their decisions as a lawmaker. But when someone points out that those deeply held religious beliefs are in direct conflict and contradiction to basic reason and accepted public policy, they then typically claim compartmentalization.

Essentially the contradictory claim they make is that while they affirm that they are deeply influenced by nonsensical ideas, those nonsensical ideas do not influence their thinking in rational matters. They insist that they can wail over rapture on Sunday and make prudent, long-term budget decisions on Monday. They can enumerate why evolution is a hoax cooked up by scientists at Wednesday evening Bible study, then properly assess the advise of climate change scientists in their Thursday morning advisory board meeting. They can affirm that the Bible is the only source of truth on Saturday morning, then go home and work on educational text book selections all afternoon. They assert that one is not affected by the other in the least – except when they want to tout the fact that it is.

Their amazingly selective isolation of thinking, they claim, is all thanks to the magic of compartmentalization. It lets them espouse crazy beliefs and claim to be perfectly sane and rational too. This claim is made so often and with such matter-of-fact certainty, that most people just tend to accept it as true.

But let’s examine this claim of compartmentalization more closely.

All of us compartmentalize somewhat. In fact, such compartmentalization is critical to our functioning. We mentally separate work and home, parent and spouse, private and public. When we think of scientific models, we hold two seemingly different views at the same time (see here). Compartmentalization is an essential rational and emotional adaptation. Maybe that’s partly why we accept their claim of exceptional compartmentalization so easily.

But all normal and highly functional behaviors can become abnormal and dysfunctional at some point. At the extreme, we see people with multiple personalities that are split so completely that they are not even aware of each other. And although some extremely rare individuals can apparently completely isolate their thinking, most of us cannot. For most of us, any irrational, dysfunctional thinking does spill over and taints our rational thinking.

We humans can do hand-stands too. When I was in high school, there were a couple of guys on my gymnastic team who could literally walk up and down stairs between classes, in a crowd at full speed, on their hands with perfect form. But because those rare individuals could do it doesn’t mean we can all claim it. Just because Jimmy Carter seemed to isolate his religious belief from his rational thinking in a healthy way, doesn’t mean that many of us can do that. Jimmy Carter was more like the gymnast who could walk up and down stairs on his hands. Most others who believe they can isolate belief from rationality will invariably plummet down the stairs, taking innumerable others crashing down with them.

As I point out in my book, Belief in Science and the Science of Belief (see here), religious belief is the pot smoking of rational thought. Every pot smoker or alcoholic is convinced that they can handle it. That their rational thinking is not affected. They think what they are expounding while high is really profound, but it’s really just nonsensical gibberish. Religious people can’t see how ridiculous they sound while they’re high on the Bible and only listening to others who are just as stoned.

We don’t easily accept this same claim of compartmentalization in any area other than religion. We don’t fully accept that ones stressful job as a homicide cop has no affect on their home life. We would not accept the assertion by a racist that while he may attend Klan meetings on Friday nights, this has no impact on his professional behavior as a hiring manager. Most of us would be at least skeptical in accepting any opinion expressed by a Wiccan who claimed to have supernatural powers, despite any claim of compartmentalization.

Even religious people don’t accept any compartmentalization except the one they claim. If I ran for public office as an atheist, I don’t have any illusions that my claim that I can compartmentalize my atheism would be sufficient to convince any religious people to trust that my judgement has not been tainted by my atheism.

Religious thinkers claim compartmentalization to avoid legitimate skepticism regarding their compromised rationality. Sadly, we accept this claim for the most part. We should stop giving them this free pass. Not only can such fervent “deeply held” delusions not be sufficiently compartmentalized, but believers don’t really want or intend to compartmentalize away their beliefs in any case.

Religious people want and need to propagate their beliefs and weave them inextricably into public policy. Our polite acceptance of their dubious claim of compartmentalization only helps enable them to do that.

 

Swarm Stupidity in Humans

swarmI am eternally fascinated by swarm intelligence and emergent behaviors. These terms describe the phenomenon by which individual organisms, following only simple local logic without any wider intent or awareness, contribute to highly complex and far-reaching behaviors that “emerge” or arise out of their collective activity.

The most observable examples include bird flocking, animal herding, fish schooling, bacterial growth, and ant colonies. Ants, as the most dramatic example, collectively create extremely complex bridges and nests, even though no particular individual organizes that activity or is even aware of it.

The amazingly complex creations of ants emerge from very simple individual logic such as “if another ant is on top of me, stop moving.” From this kind of deceptively simple behavior, ants collectively exhibit astounding feats of mass migration, swarming, tactical warfare, nest construction, and engineering. If however, a significant number of ants were to abandon their “belief” that it is their responsibility to hold still while another ant is felt upon their back, then their ability to create bridges and nests could collapse, and perhaps their species would as well.

What intrigues me most about this sort of swarm intelligence is the intriguing certainty that we humans collectively exhibit our own highly complex emergent behaviors. Even though none of us intend it, each of us nevertheless contributes to the emergent behaviors of our collective population, just as if we were merely cells in some greater human super-organism.

Therefore, the basic rules of logic that we live by as individuals likely do contribute rather more directly than we imagine to the large scale behavior of our species. For example, if we base our everyday logic on the assumption that god does or does not exist, we profoundly alter our collective behavior accordingly. Belief is not then merely some personal thing. It has profound consequence. Religious believers intrinsically know this to be true, that their belief fundamentally shapes the world we live in, and that is why it is so important to them to internalize, express, and evangelize it.

While Christians inherently believe that their religion produces what they feel are desirable emergent behaviors, many atheists conclude that they are wrong. We conclude rather that a personal religious worldview results in highly damaging emergent behaviors like bigotry and intolerance, gullibility, susceptibility to manipulation, disregard for the planet, and even warfare. We conclude that a personal belief in god is, in significant part at least, responsible for swarm behaviors like gun violence, terrorism, torture (see here), and jihad.

Therefore, we atheists should trust that there are no “benign” religious beliefs. We should never doubt that our simple rule of logic, that we believe in facts and reason not in gods, serves our species far better moving forward. We must trust that our personal atheist thinking, when expressed through a sufficiently large number of individuals, will indeed result in emergent behaviors that are more ethical than dogmatic, more fact than fantasy based, and more focused on our lives and our planet right now rather than life ever after. We must trust that atheism will better give rise to the more enlightened swarm intelligence that we so desperately need if we are to survive as a species.

Religion is a prime example of “swarm stupidity” in humans.

 

 

 

 

 

Data, Data Everywhere…

In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge lamented “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” There seems to be no better way to describe our situation today with regard to information. We sail upon a vast ocean of data and yet we die of thirst. Indeed, we are too often deluged by great waves of facts that batter us relentlessly to and fro upon treacherous seas of data.

It feels particularly disconcerting for me to write this article. In my book, Belief in Science and the Science of Belief (see here), I promote the importance of elevating facts above beliefs. After all, facts should reflect reality. They should be the basis upon which truth is known. Today however, data seems to be used far more effectively to support beliefs, fantasies, and lies than it is used to reveal truths. Indeed, those who wish to sell us nonsense don’t often bother to invoke the bible or faith anymore – they invoke their own “facts” instead.

One reason that facts have become the new champions of beliefs and cons is the sheer amount of it. We now have so much data that one can mine anything they want from the endless mountains of the stuff that we have produced. Misrepresented facts can now be dredged up to fabricate lies far easier than spinning magical stories of gods and devils.

Nowhere is this new perversion of facts more true than in politics. Today politicians like Donald Trump incessantly cite completely misleading facts to support their beliefs and positions and to outright lie. Even if the majority of people do not believe their “trumped up” facts, they nevertheless conclude that all facts are suspect and that no facts can be trusted. This tangibly undermines the level of rational thinking of our entire culture and leaves us without any sound basis for making good decisions as a society.

In his excellent Op-Ed (see here), William Davies points out that “they [facts] seem to be losing their ability to support consensus.” According to Davies, there is clear agreement that “We have entered an age of post-truth politics.” This new age of bullshit is fueled not by assertions of faith, but by assertions of facts. As Davies further points out, “Rather than sit coolly outside the fray of political argument, facts are now one of the main rhetorical weapons within it.

So facts have become the new bullshit. We claim to care about facts, but only because, as with the bible, we can always find something in them to support our beliefs and prejudices and self-interest. Our abundance of data seems to be only serving to diminish and undervalue it; to make it increasingly vulnerable to manipulation, misrepresentation, and lies by half-truth. The sheer volume of it makes it far more difficult to say anything with certainty without some other bit of data seeming to contradict it.

And this perversion and misuse of facts is not just true in politics but has become the new normal in all walks of life. All too often journalists and pundits do not pursue facts to reveal truth, but rather invoke them to advocate for opposing sides of an issue. This makes great theatre, but does little to advance the important questions that we face. It instigates and perpetuates conflict rather than help reach a sound fact-based consensus.

Even scientists, our gatekeepers and guardians of fact, all too often emphasize only those facts that advocate for their positions rather than serving the far greater goal of advancing science as a quest for truth.

Abandoning facts is simply not an option. Allowing the manipulators to turn all fact-based thinking into rationalization games and data manipulation exercises is not an option because without sound facts good decisions simply cannot be made. If we allow facts to be coopted by magical thinkers, by self-serving politicians, or even by well-meaning advocates, we might as well put the psychic hotline staff in charge of our fates.

What is the answer? We must reclaim facts. We must become smarter consumers of facts who are no more likely to be fooled by the bogus facts cited by manipulative politicians or corporations any more than we are by laughably ambiguous bible citations and interpretations. We must learn to recognize valid data and sound conclusions amidst all the cherry-picking and false claims. We must learn to treasure and respect fairly presented facts as diamonds amongst all the heaps of rubble and fool’s gold that we have to sift through every day.

Our overabundance of data should make us value – and demand – sound analysis and conclusions based on that data all that much more.