Healthy Skepticism *Updated*

The famous Canadian science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer recently wrote an article published in the Ottawa Citizen titled 'Unhealthy Skepticism'. I suggest you read his article before reading my post because my post is a response.

Dear Mr. Sawyer,
In your article 'Unhealthy Skepticism' published in today's Ottawa Citizen, you criticize the modern skepticism movement's treatment of religion. A lot of what you criticize, the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Darwin fish for example, are reactions created by the skeptical community to the creationism and intelligent design movement. As Canadians, it is difficult for us to appreciate the struggle that our American friends to the south have to deal with when trying to keep pseudo science out of the classroom. There have been many techniques that have been attempted, and the technique of ridicule (which you obviously distaste) can be valid in many situations. It's fine and dandy for people to have religious beliefs (no matter how silly or wrong) as long as it remains a private affair, but as soon as they try to force it on the public (like in the American science class, or the Pledge of Allegiance), it becomes open to criticism.

Unfortunately, reasonable criticism may not be enough. It is very difficult to reason a person out of a belief when they did not use reason to get into that belief. The best success story that I can think of is described in the book Freakonomics. The Ku Klux Klan was not driven to near extinction by convincing their members that 'racism is wrong' (which any rational person would agree with), but by revealing their secrets on the Adventures of Superman radio show. When the Klan members came home, they saw their kids playing "Superman vs. the Klan", and using their silly secret phrases. Most members were so embarrassed that they stopped attending meetings. Now, thanks to ridicule, the Klan is a joke.

I do not mean to imply that Christians are like the Klan, just that ridicule is sometimes the best method to combat irrational ideas.

I don't blame Skeptics for suddenly viewing religion, in general, as a threat. Books like Sam Harris' 'The End of Faith' make a convincing argument that religion, even moderate religion, is detrimental to modern secular society.

Does religion, in general, jeopardize our ability to conduct scientific research? If so, what is the best method to combat its negative influence? Some choose ridicule, some choose reason, and sometimes a careful combination of the two. Which method is most effective? If ridicule is most effective, is it ethical? Does the end justify the means? It is very difficult to ridicule bad ideas, when those ideas are cherished by many people. I do not think that if an idea is a religious one, it should be protected from ridicule for fear of offending someone. The fear of offence can limit our ability to question reality.

Also, I agree with your distaste for the term 'Brights'. I don't use it personally to describe myself since I think that people view me as arrogant enough already. I can only respond by saying that the 'Bright' movement has lost a lot of steam in the skeptical community. Most skeptics, I find, prefer the term 'Secular Humanism', myself included.

Update: Austin Cline at atheism.about.com gave a great rebuttal to Mr. Sawyer's article, he even quotes me!


I don't know, and that's 'ok'

Is there a god? Did he create this universe? Did he design humankind? Does he answer prayers? When I die, will I continue to 'exist' in an afterlife? If science can trace back the history of life to single celled organisms some 3.7 billion years ago, how did it come about? If science can trace back the history of the universe to a big bang some 13.7 billion years ago, where did this bang come from?

The only honest answer to all of those important questions is: I do not know.

People love a good mystery, but people do not like loose ends. It's rare for a movie to be very popular unless by the end of it, all the questions raised in the movie have been answered, and all the loose ends have been tied. It can be very disconcerting for people to live in a world for which its origins are mysterious. By the end of my personal movie, where I'm the protagonist, will all of these mysteries be solved?

There are three possible solutions to this problem:
  • Make up a solution that is satisfying and fits with the way you view the world
  • Recognize the mystery and spend time and effort in solving it
  • Learn to live with the mystery
You must choose one of those three (if I am mistaken, please comment).

Up until recently, I believed that this world was carefully designed by a superior being commonly referred to as God. This was very satisfying for me since I no longer had to worry about the mysteries that I previously mentioned. Unfortunately, it was only satisfying for me as long as I did not consider its plausibility. At first, this solution was not 'made up' as I now have categorized it. It was told to me by authorities I trusted, such as my parents, grandparents, and teacher. Plus, pretty much every person I had ever met had the same view.
The problem is that people make mistakes.

My parents were not lying to me when they said that god created me, they believed it to be true. Where did they get this creation delusion from? Their parents, and so on. So, where did this myth ultimately come from? Some distant ancestor made it up. Why assume that it was made up? I assume it was made up because there would be no way for an ancestor, without the benefits of modern science, to have been able to determine this conclusion on their own. I admit it could have been possible that the creator spoke to an ancestor, in a dream (Abraham), as a burning bush (Moses), or as human incarnate (Jesus Christ). This is a huge problem if you just give it a moment's thought. While this one person can be convinced that God spoke to them, why should anyone believe them? Even today people still claim that God still speaks to them, but thanks to modern science, we can diagnose these people with mental disorders (victims of a malfunctioning brain), or discount them as attention seekers (liars). Where did all the prophets go? Isn't it convenient that Jews, Christians, and Muslims do not expect any prophets to appear? It seems too convenient that all the prophets, and their miracles, all exist in the past, where they cannot be tested with modern science. Why were the Hebrews skeptical of God, just after he split the Red Sea, and performed the 10 plagues? They were so skeptical that they decided to worship a golden calf. These people supposedly witnessed huge miracles with their own eyes. If that was not enough for them, why should we have faith, when we are merely told that these miracles happened? For these reasons, I could not continue to hold a belief in a supernatural creator, especially the creator of the Bible.

So therefore I must be actively searching for the true answers to these mysteries, right? Some have tried this, and still do it. The best example that comes to my mind is Carl Sagan, the famous American astronomer. He wrote and narrated the fantastic documentary called Cosmos. His film explores the origins of the universe, our galaxy, our solar system, Earth, and life. He spent a large part of his exploring these mysteries and educating the public. Carl Sagan definitely falls into this second category. I don't.

Do I not care about the answer? If that were true, I wouldn't be writing this. Do I not have the talent or skill? Maybe, I wouldn't know since I never tried. When I applied to university, I didn't sign up for astronomy or molecular biology. I could have though, and I think I would have done 'ok'.

The reason I'm not an astronomer nor a molecular biologist is a combination of the above reasons. I don't have enough motivation and skill to tackle this problem, there are hundreds of people infinitely more qualified to tackle this problem, and these grand questions don't excite me as much as computer technology or my other areas of interest.

So I guess, by process of elimination, I'm in the third category. I'm 'ok' with that! The world is complex and mysterious, I don't have the answers, but other, more talented people, are searching. I thank them for that. I will eagerly pay attention to any developments that comes from their research. In the mean time, I'll enjoy what this world has to offer, I'll watch movies with friends, and read interesting books, such as A Brief History of Time.


Faith is not a lost or found

The National Post has recently been asking its readers to send in personal stories of the finding or losing of one's faith. I sent in my story/view but I doubt it will be printed, for 2 reasons, it's not so much a story, and they just printed an atheist's story in today's paper. Therefore, I'll post it here. Who needs their letter printed in a national paper when it can be posted on a blog for the whole world to read?

Have I recently 'lost' or 'found' my faith? I would say neither, I have carefully taken my faith and discarded it, since I no longer need nor desire it. Why is it assumed that faith is a positive thing? Usually when a term is described as 'lost' and 'found' it is assumed to be something of value, such as a wedding ring, or one's ability to see. I would argue that faith is not always positive. It is faith alone that can give a suicide bomber strength to give his or her life in the murder of fellow humans. It is faith that fuels conflict in regions such as Ireland, the Middle East, and elsewhere. It is faith that fuels hatred of homosexuals. It was faith that justified slavery for thousands of years. Richard Dawkins has described faith as "a process of non-thinking." I am very much in favour of reason and rationality. I now have the view that one should only believe something for which there is real physical evidence.

This letter is not exactly what your paper asked for. You asked for a specific event that caused me to either find or lose faith. I guess you could say that I lost 'faith' when I discovered reason 4 months ago.

Sure, major events in one's life might cause someone to have a change of faith, but for me, all it took was honest internal reflection and some research. Some people might see the existence of a supernatural being, such as God, as a result of a traumatic event, such as a motorcycle crash. I see the results of a motorcycle crash differently. If the person in the crash survives, it is thanks to the helmet they were wearing, or a last second maneuver. Keep in mind that only survivors of a crash can contemplate faith due to a positive result, the victim cannot come to the conclusion that there is no God due to the negative result.

After a traumatic event, people can be very emotional and confused. Turning to faith can be very tempting since it provides answers. Those answers to me are hollow. If you try to question them, they fall apart. That's why in our society we give faith and religion special protection. It is taboo to question another person's religion, but it is okay to question their political beliefs. I prefer science to provide me with answers. Scientific claims cannot afford to be hollow, they are constantly under attack, and if not properly defended with evidence, they are discarded. Science can be wrong, but errors in scientific understanding are eventually discovered and corrected. This does not happen with faith, since it is not needed nor desired. As an example, if one has faith that the Earth is only 6000 years old, then you will not explore concepts like evolution or cosmology.

I do not have faith in the Jewish God I was raised to believe in, just as you do not have faith in Zeus or Thor. If there is a God, I won't believe in him merely because my parents do, the burden of proof is on him. There are so many alternative belief systems available, and the only viable filter that I have found so far is science.

Please allow me to finish with another quote from Professor Dawkins: "Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence."