What happens when journalists don theology hats?

Atheism mormontimes.com Theology

You get arguments like Lane Williams’s in the MormonTimes this morning. Williams begins by lamenting the fact that atheists occasionally receive media attention:

Reporters have provided a great deal of attention to these atheists, stoking the controversy over the existence of God. Even if reporters had no purpose to question religious faith, doubts have become more mainstream, or so it seems to me.

Of course, he then has to claim that the media coverage is actually biased in favor of atheism and against religion:

While I have not undertaken a detailed analysis of the coverage of atheism in the news media, I did once look for a few days in 2007 at the news coverage of Rep. Pete Starks decision to become the first American politician to admit publicly that he was an atheist. My unscientific set of observations suggested that coverage of Starks beliefs was favorable toward his coming out. The decision was framed as a stand for free speech. One typical article in a Bay area started this way: Rep. Pete Stark believes in democracy and free speech but not in God.It seemed a far more favorable framing than I see of most religion coverage, frankly.

At this point, Williams plays his first card – “the victim card.” Poor Mormons are so often “reviled” in the media; the coverage is so unfair. And if you don’t believe them, just ask them – they’ll tell you, using wholly unscientific measures. (Of course, when actual scientists sample the media for bias, they find none.)

He then says that it’s okay for journalists to discuss atheism because, well, they have to, and he almost even suggests that they should do so in a balanced way:

As disappointing as it is to say this, reporters may not be able to do much better than provide a balanced conduit for atheists in the modern world we live in. Journalism is a secular enterprise that reports both sides of a prominent issue. So as atheism becomes more prominent, journalism will write more about it. Journalism will therefore become a conduit for atheistic arguments as well as religious ones, I presume. To be sure, if atheism gains increased public interest, then a news reporter, regardless of his or her religious beliefs, should write about atheism in a fair way and allow its adherents a voice. I expect nothing less in journalisms coverage of religion. I cant have a different standard for the less religious among us.

But if you read closely, what he’s really saying is, “We’re going to have to talk about these atheists occasionally. We don’t want to, and we’ll feign objectivity, but here at MormonTimes.com, you all know we won’t be objective. But we’re going to say we are, which, in the minds of our readers, is sufficient.”

(Note: I’d be remiss to not also mention the “both sides” idea, which is also so much bullsh*t. There aren’t always “two sides” to stories; journalists need to get that through their heads. Sometimes there is the side with all the evidence and then there is the side with no evidence. That does not mean the side with evidence should get to say anything. They should get to say nothing! h/t Skeptics Guide to the Universe and Steven Novella)

He then pulls back the curtain on MormonTimes:

So my point today, really, isnt so much about reporters; my point is to use the opinion format of this blog to take a public stand because so few news reporters can or do so.

You heard it here, folks, MormonTimes is a venue for pro-Mormon bias. Okay, that’s not a surprise. But the fact that he’s admitting it is kind of a surprise. MormonTimes.com is the Mormon Church’s attempt at pseudo-objectivity while simultaneously spewing pro-Mormon propaganda.

But the best is yet to come. Williams now dons his “theologian” hat and tries to claim “evidence” for god, as though this journalism professor from BYU-Idaho has better arguments for the existence of god than the legions of theologians over the millenia. What are his arguments?

1) Call into question the idea that there is a uniform understanding of the scientific enterprise:

I would draw attention to Gervais phrase that there is no scientific evidence for the existence of God. I concede his point that science, as some people understand it, does not, indeed cannot, provide complete evidence for God.

Mr. Williams, how do “other” people understand it?

2) Call into question what qualifies as “evidence”:

But in drawing attention to his adjective, scientific, we miss the noun, evidence. Mormons believe there is evidence for the existence God for those willing to experiment upon the word of God. The beating heart of Mormonism is that evidence.

This is where the article falls apartcompletely. His first claimed evidence – “order” and “diversity” in nature (a.k.a. the teleological argument):

Like Brigham Young, I find the unique combination of order and diversity in nature compelling. While I can immediately tell that an aspen tree is an aspen tree, I also know that no two aspen trees are alike. This order amid uniqueness impels me to think there is a God, but, alas, this sense of order is not Mormonisms last evidence.

Of course, science explains diversity in nature. And science explains the seeming order as well, but does not claim that “nature” is some how “designed,” like objects that are created by man. Ergo, this is not evidence for the existence of god but rather evidence for the existence of nature, which is a tautology – nature exists is an assumption of science. (See more rebuttals here.)

He gives another example of finding beauty in nature as evidence of the existence of god, but then gives his second piece of “evidence” – human creativity:

When I experience great art and great architecture and the creativity of the human spirit, this experience impels me to think there is a God, but, alas, this is not Mormonisms last evidence.

This is also not evidence of god’s existence but of the remarkable feats of evolution. Humans are capable of what they are capable because of evolution. That is awe-inspiring, but does not provide evidence of god’s existence.

His coup de grace, the Holy Ghost a la Moroni’s promise:

Mormonisms last evidence sits in the power of the Holy Ghost that comes to the hearts and minds of those who seek God through earnest, submissive prayer and faithful action. It is an “experiment” successfully repeated millions of times around the world.

Williams goes so far as to label this an “experiment”:

Faith and prayer would be science because scriptures provide a pattern to follow they provide an experiment, if you will. As with science, this pattern has repeated and replicated itself for many people in many circumstances. Indeed, this faith and prayer might qualify as a partial science were we mortals the scientists in charge of the parameters through which answers to prayers come. We are not, so it is absurd to call this experiment a science.

In science, if an experiment is unreliable, meaning it does not turn out the same way every time, we consider it a failure. In the case of “praying to god” for the truthfulness of Mormonism (or for his existence, which, of course, requires a priori faith in that god that he does exist, else why pray to him?), this is a remarkably unreliable “experiment.” Millions have failed to arrive at the same conclusion as Williams. So, Williams is correct when he says “it is absurd to call this experiment a science.” Bingo! It’s not. What’s more, it’s not evidence. But Williams doesn’t seem to get that:

That our Mormon evidence for God doesnt emerge in a laboratory under full human control doesnt make it any less of an evidence. Indeed, it is the most compelling evidence of anything I have ever known.Millions of Mormons, including me, would say that God answers prayers because of their own experiences with the Holy Ghost and prayer. Therein lies our evidence that God lives. I assume other religious believers feel much the same way.

Mr. Williams, that it doesn’t emerge in laboratory conditions does make it “less of an evidence.” In fact, it makes it “no evidence at all.” Yes, you had some emotional experience. But that emotional experience cannot be replicated with other people reliably and there are perfectly reasonable alternative explanations for the experience you had that have to do with brain chemistry and emotional states. So, I don’t deny an experience, but claiming that your experience provides “evidence” for the existence of a completely nonsensical deity is absurd.

Finally, I have to point out that major failure on Mr. Williams’s part to understand his own beliefs. He claims, at the end of the article, to “know” that god exists. He doesn’t. He believes god exists. In fact, he has faith that god exists. And if Mr. Williams really understood what that meant – believing in things that are hoped for but not seen – he would also realize that he has no evidence for this whatsoever. If he did, he wouldn’t have faith. He would have knowledge of god’s existence. But he doesn’t.

Mr. Williams, if I may make a suggestion… Stick to your subjective reporting on all things Mormon and stay away from theology. You don’t have the bona fides to pull this off.

69 thoughts on “What happens when journalists don theology hats?

  1. I don’t mind conceding that people “know” God if they say they do. The idea of “believing” in God came about because of science and the need for a particular type of evidence. You may think experiential evidence is too subjective to mean much, but we live in what Jrgen Habermas calls a “post-secular” society, in which the religious never really went away. What often happens in this shared world is that when people think their communal world is shrinking they start to act crazy (and this includes atheists). Secular people must grapple with the religious in their midst, and vice versa. More scarily is how the religious must grapple with other religions. I see more secular types like myself being in a good position as cultural mediators. So I pretty much stay away from arguments concerning the existence of God, since it seems minor compared to things like actual violence, grief, oppression and misunderstanding. What I’ve found is that if you try to philosophically unravel the idea of “religious experience” (by talking about its existential properties), you end up having a tiny audience ….so what’s the point?

  2. What Ive found is that if you try to philosophically unravel the idea of religious experience (by talking about its existential properties), you end up having a tiny audience .so whats the point?

    Realizing that my “religious experiences” weren’t necessarily what I’d always thought they were enabled me to leave the church. I’m very glad that there were people talking about that kind of thing.

  3. OMG!! I think religion really messes with peoples ability to distinguish the differences between belief, knowledge, hypothesis, theory, facts and laws.

  4. I don’t think the media really has much bias in covering atheism.

    Yes, media coverage of atheism tends to be more favorable than coverage of theism when theism per se or atheism per se is on the menu.

    But that’s not because the journalists are favoring atheism so much as it is because of the fact that atheism is a non-position of no real relevance to anyone or anything.

    It’s a non-position. And as such, could be just as well ignored as given an news spot. What’s to report on a bunch of people refusing to take a position? There is no “there” there.

    So of course the coverage is fluffy. That goes without saying.

  5. Seth, let me just tweak the level of analysis a bit, from ‘gods’ to ‘religion’.

    The philosophical aspect that I think you’re focusing on is, true, not that surprising. A whole bunch of people realising that there’s a lack of evidence for a god is not much of a news story.

    But a whole bunch of people moving away from religion is a seismic social shift, and one that is very interesting. I think it’s this social aspect that the news stories are going for.

  6. I think it says something interesting about both religion and atheism. Really, it says something interesting about humanity (especially about the human mind and adaptability to different conditions).

  7. I think what’s interesting is how easily ostensibly-Mormon bloggers dismiss Mormon Times and Meridian with variations of this sentiment:

    So of course the coverage is fluffy. That goes without saying.

    And so it goes without saying, until someone like ProfXM says it.

    I guess what I don’t understand is why it isn’t the other way around? I mean, it seems like whatever Mormon Times or Meridian is printing/posting/’putting out there for TBM consumption’ ought to elicit slightly more concern from conscientious Mormons than the inevitable “fluff”/*eyeroll* responses indicate. Or is it really just too tiresome for words?

    I think I’m missing something here, because it sure seems like Mormon Times has been on a roll lately (in terms of eyeroll-worthy articles) and yet the only place I’m seeing any reaction is here in the DAMU. What’s up with that?

  8. Well you wouldn’t get much reaction from me because I haven’t thought this article was all that bad really. I don’t recall other recent articles being that bad either. I thought Williams stuff about evidence was just fine. I see the fact that profxm is so put out by the nature of the evidence as merely being due to him not “getting” what religion is about in the first place.

  9. re 8 and re 7

    Daniel,

    I think I get what Seth is saying, so to that extent, I think I would say, it’s not really that interesting that there are more atheists per se. The atheism is null and void. There’s nothing to it.

    Really, it’s all a response to religion. If more atheists looks like big news, it’s because you’re looking at HOW BIG IS and then see people walk away from it.

    The question doesn’t come about what’s compelling about atheism. (Because there is literally nothing to it.) It’s about why this BIG THING CALLED RELIGION is reaching so far as to hurt people. (It’s because it is actually a position. It actually is a thing. It actually has substance. A substance that provides good, but also tramples over plenty of people.) Regardless of whether there is or is not a god, religion is a social fact…and a pretty huge one (if not ones plural.)

  10. My point is that atheism is not just a philosophical stand. It’s also a movement. To say “Atheism doesn’t make any philosophical claims, therefore, it’s of no interest” is missing the point, or perhaps trying not to get the point. The movement (yes, away from religion) is interesting.

    Keep in mind also, that there is a constellation of things that cluster around atheism (humanism, skepticism, rationalism), and so, right or wrong, they tend to get mentioned along with atheism.

  11. Seth,

    I’m trying to understand why you are so dismissive of atheism. I know we’ve had this discussion before, and your position tends to focus on “atheism doesn’t make positive assertions, only negative assertions.” But to go from that to “atheism is irrelevant and unimportant” seems like a non sequitur.

    If religion is important because it asserts something positive, then how can irreligion asserting something negative not be important? This is like saying, “Pro-life views are important, because they assert something positive, but pro-choice views are not, because they are the opposite.” I reject the premise. The negative assertions of atheism are just as important (if not more so) than are the positive assertions of theism. Why? Because people take theism seriously enough to be willing to kill people over it. And people take atheism seriously enough to be willing to kill people over it (I’m saying that in the interest of fairness, since Stalin and Pol Pot and Mao were all atheists and it is inextricably intertwined with Communism). Both belief systems (atheism is a belief system, but not a religion) can motivate terrible acts.

    Additionally, I think your earlier premise is also flawed. Atheism is almost never exclusively assertions of what is not. It almost always includes an alternative “what is.” Even if what is being asserted is simply, “The universe is.” and “The supernatural is not.”

    So, why dismiss atheism? Why claim it is unimportant? It clearly is important. It’s growing. People are embracing it. People are rejecting the gods. And all you can say is, “So what?” “It’s not important.” I don’t buy it.

    ENTER SPECULATION: I’m going to speculate that the reason you are so dismissive is because you know it is the most attractive alternative to belief, your beliefs, in particular, and you find it attractive and flirt with it. But you’re unwilling to embrace the comfort that can be found in simply saying, “Yeah, I don’t believe in god(s) anymore. And even if they exist, it won’t change how I live my life. No more trying to appease unseen, unknowable deities. I’m just going to be a good person because it’s the right thing to do. No more guilt. No more pretending to know stuff I can’t. I’m going to live here and now and be happy because there isn’t much more to life than that.” That is beautiful. That is comforting. And that is appealing to more and more people. And you’re flirting with it but don’t want to admit it. END SPECULATION.

  12. Then people ought to be discussing rationalism, skepticism, or humanism rather than atheism. Always better to be discussing something rather than nothing.

    As a “nothing,” atheism must always derive its meaning from somewhere else – a sort of parasitic existence. It relies on religion to provide its meaning for it. Or it relies on other systems like those mentioned above for its positive claims – all the while pretending that it has no positive claims (as if such a position could even exist in the first place). It’s a movement about nothing, and going nowhere in particular. The only thing it does know is what it’s running away from.

    As such, I do not consider atheism, on the whole, to be a position worthy of responsible adults.

  13. As such, I do not consider atheism, on the whole, to be a position worthy of responsible adults.

    Wait a minute…

    What if — hypothetically speaking — there were to exist a responsible adult who just happened to not believe in god(s)…? What if this hypothetical person happened to identify with Humanism, yet also considers the word “atheist” to be a clear, concise, useful label to go by…? Then what?

  14. With the Williams article it would be nice if he could distinguish between believe/opinion on the one hand, and evidence on the other. Since he is unable to, his piece has all the substance that one expects in faith promoting journalism. While Seth doesn’t make a particularly convincing argument about atheism being a nothing position, I think he could be quite compelling about the “nothingness” of the Williams article should he apply his arguments to it.

  15. The only thing it does know is what its running away from.

    Knowing what you can rule out and need not consider seriously is extremely worthwhile, if not always downright necessary, in discovering any new truth. Knowing, for instance, that a disordered sexual appetite did not, as many believed, cause epilepsy, was a useful thing to know. Similarly, it is extremely useful to acknowledge that the supernatural being venerated by Christianity does not, in fact, exist and is instead a completely invented construction.

    YOU think atheism is running toward nothing, Seth, because YOU dismiss its objects as nothing. That does not mean either that the people who find it a useful way of describing their beliefs feel that they are talking about a “nothing” or that you are right in your assertion.

    Nor does your assertion that theism is superior because it posits a belief in something actually hold up. Believing in something that is erroneous is intellectually, ethically and spiritually inferior to acknowledging the error.

  16. re 13,

    Daniel,

    This has already been addressed, but I have huge problems with people saying things like “atheism is a movement.” Because then I get lumped in with people that I don’t necessarily want to be lumped in with. Then, I have to evaluate whether I am a “member” of “atheism” on some measure OTHER than the simple question, “Do I believe in gods?”

    I have no problem with there being a constellation of things *around* atheism. But as mentioned later, THESE things are not atheists. Maybe “humanism” is interesting and a movement. Maybe “rationalism” is interesting and a movement. Maybe skepticism is an interesting movement. But even if these things are constellations around atheism, they are not atheism. Atheism doesn’t necessitate nor imply any of these things.

    re 14:

    profxm,

    You know the analogy that many people make to say atheism isn’t a religion. “Atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby.”

    Well, atheism is really like “not collecting stamps.” Collecting stamps has content, and substance. You might consider this substance to be weird, and then try to submit your stamp collecting friend to a TV show like Hoarders, but yeah.

    But not collecting stamps really doesn’t have any content. And it’s *because* it is a negative.

    note that in pro-life and pro-choice, the two sides are “pro” something. This may just be political chestbeating, but even when someone tries to SMEAR the other side, they don’t say that Joe is “a-life.” They would say instead that Joe is “anti-life.” Because “anti-life” has content. “a-life” doesn’t.

    As you go so far as to entangle atheism into communism to prove a point that I REALLY don’t think ought to be shown, once again, you allow for the possibility for someone to go, “Wait a minute. Then I’m not an atheist.” They can then say, “Yeah, I don’t believe in gods…but I’m not a communist. I’m not like Stalin. I don’t believe in killing people for their theism. If atheism implies any of these things, then I’m just not an atheist.”

    You say atheism is a belief system. But what beliefs are part of atheism? Really, I can only think of ONE potential belief (and all atheists don’t even have that belief). That belief might be, “I believe there aren’t any gods.” (And the atheists that don’t have that belief would say, “Well, I just don’t believe there are any gods. So as soon as you want to make atheism about even ONE belief, then you’ll start to have people who don’t believe in gods jumping out of the “movement”) But then…from that one belief that you’ve kinda sorta found, you do not have a belief SYSTEM.

    When you say there is a “what is” to atheism, you then do not point to atheism. You point to “naturalism.” Ah, so naturalism IS a belief system. But naturalism is not implied nor necessitated by atheism. (We may think of superstitious ghost-believing atheists as being irrational or whatever [P.S. rationalism is also a belief framework that can fit into our system — and to which an atheist could conceivably not subscribe]…but we don’t think of them as being an impossibility in terms. Someone can say, “I don’t believe in GODS” and then say, “I do believe in x supernatural concept.”)

  17. Andrew,

    I think we agree more than we don’t. In saying that atheism is a “belief system” I’m really just trying to address Seth’s claim that it is “nothing.” It is a belief, or lack thereof, in the non-existence of something. And, frankly, that qualifies it as a belief. It is not knowledge. It’s saying, “I do not believe in a god.” Which, from a logic standpoint is the equivalent of saying, “I believe in no god.” If I can reword them such that I can state the proposition as a belief, then atheism is, technically, a belief.

    Is it a “system of beliefs”? Well, that’s more tenuous. And, you’re probably correct on this point. But what I’m trying to suggest is that very few people (hell, I don’t know any) would say, “I’m an atheist. And, well, that’s it. That’s all I am. I have no “positive” beliefs. The only belief I have is that there is no god.” What I’m suggesting is that, with virtually no exceptions, atheists also assert something. Your right that it’s folly to try to then “group” atheists together into some coherent movement. What atheists have in common is their one shared belief – the non-existence of some supernatural entity. Beyond that, their beliefs are likely all over the place. But virtually no atheists stop at “I’m an atheist.” So, technically not by definition, but implicitly, almost all atheists also hold some other set of beliefs.

    I agree that atheism is not a religion, like “not collecting stamps” is not a hobby. But that requires a technical definition of religion. The one we use in sociology is, “Collective beliefs regarding supernature.” This puts atheism close to religion as the one shared belief is regarding the supernatural, but it is not held “collectively” in the sense that it works as a requirement toward membership in some group. But that could be argued.

    I’m also not trying to “entangle atheism into communism” so much as recognize that, almost universally (at least as delineated by Marx and Engels), Communism includes atheism as one of it’s principal beliefs. Of course you can be an atheist and not a communist. But if you adhere strictly to Marxist Communism, you can’t be a communist and not be an atheist. Atheists who try to claim otherwise are, IMO, being disingenuous. Now, did Stalin, Pol Pot, and others who killed in the name of communism do it in the name of atheism? No. But their atheism did not prevent them from committing mass murder. Ergo, atheism is no defense against horrible acts. Atheists need to admit that. Just because someone is an atheist doesn’t mean they will not commit atrocious crimes. Yes, it seems like they are less likely to do so, but it is not a given.

    Keep in mind, I’m an atheist. I no more want to be grouped with Stalin or Mao then the next person, but I’m not going to deny that their atheism did not prevent them from committing horrible acts. It may not have inspired it directly, but it didn’t prevent it, either.

  18. Quick addendum: I am, of course, referring to “positive atheism” when I call it a belief. Negative atheism is not a belief as it is specifically worded as such, i.e., “I lack a belief in god(s).” Just wanted to be clear about that.

  19. profxm, I’m going to address your comments in full after class, but I’d note that if you are aware of a meaningful distinction between negative and positive atheism, I don’ see how you can collapse “not believing there is a god” into “believing there are no gods.”

  20. The skepticism that underlies the atheist “movement” is what is interesting. While atheism may not necessarily be a “pro” position, I think the critical thinking that happens to be associated with atheism (but may also be applied to numerous superstitious claims) is a “pro” position. Requiring good reason, good evidence, good logic is a pro position.

  21. Chris,

    I guess the point is that rationalism, skepticism, and humanism are closely associated with atheism, and with “gnu atheism” in particular, but they are not in themselves atheism. Since the gnu atheism movement is really about rational, skeptical, humanistic atheism rather than “mere” atheism, the point is accurate. Trite, but accurate.

  22. Only problem Chris, is that religious people are just as rational as atheists are.

    The question is what we are being rational about, and what rationalism can properly be applied to in the first place.

  23. I think that saying that the atheist shift doesn’t say anything interesting about atheism doesn’t really say much. I think that the atheist shift does say something interesting, not just about religion, but also about the rise in rational thinking/skepticism that happens to pertain to theism.

  24. From the position of agnosticism (which is what I point to for myself @1), atheism does makes a claim beyond the “nothing” that Seth seems to categorize it. This claim is just as subjective as theism, and often will go nowhere if brought to a debate with theists.

    As a belated response to Kuri @ 2, your leaving the Church, I doubt, was related only to a discussion of “the existence of God” as such, but rather all the other things often tied to theism: i.e., “religious experience.” Ultimately, all the things often tied to atheism, too (humanism, Marxism, environmentalism), are what matter in the long run.

    The problem with Seth’s analysis is that he’s comparing atheism to “religion,” and the two are not opposites. The opposite pairs are atheism/theism, and religion/secularism.

    Another thing to consider here is that the person whose parents were atheists would not necessarily go around with a “positive” assertion of atheism: it would just be a quiet belief they hold only in relation to a theist. The same is true for theists. They only “believe” in God in relation to the possibility of doubt. Otherwise, they function as if they “know” God.

  25. Mr. Williams, that it doesnt emerge in laboratory conditions does make it less of an evidence. In fact, it makes it no evidence at all. Yes, you had some emotional experience. But that emotional experience cannot be replicated with other people reliably and there are perfectly reasonable alternative explanations for the experience you had that have to do with brain chemistry and emotional states. So, I dont deny an experience, but claiming that your experience provides evidence for the existence of a completely nonsensical deity is absurd.

    Nonsense. You’ve set an arbitrarily narrow standard for evidence. I will agree that emotional evidence certainly doesn’t prove the existence of God deductively, or even come remotely close. Flimsy, scant evidence with a clear alternative explanation is still evidence. It’s just flimsy and scant, and has a clear alternative explanation.

    Mr. Williams’s mistake is not in calling this “evidence,” but in lending drastically unreasonable weight to it.

    If I walk into a crowded restaurant at 7 p.m. on Saturday and leave a penny on the counter, that penny on the counter is evidence that I was there. By itself, it’s not conclusive evidence. Not even close. It definitely does not follow deductively from the fact that the penny is there that I was in the restaurant at a given time, or at all. It’s scant. It’s flimsy. If you are trying to prove I was in the restaurant at 7 p.m. on Saturday and all the evidence you’ve got to offer in support is that later on you saw the penny I left, it would be manifestly unreasonable to be persuaded that you are right. The penny is evidence, but it’s not enough evidence, by a long shot.

    On the other hand, if you have consistent statements from 43 total strangers who were in the restaurtant at 7 p.m. on Saturday that they saw me walk in and put a penny on the counter, then you have a whole lot more evidence. You still do not have enough evidence to deductively prove, as a statement of logical reasoning, that I was in the restaurtant at 7 p.m. on Saturday. But you do have a lot of evidence, and it would be reasonable to believe your assertion. In fact, even though you would not have deductively proven my location in space and time, without some sort of counter-evidence it would be unreasonable to disbelieve that I was there.

  26. @Kullervo,

    But we don’t have a frame of reference for how an authentic God-induced spiritual experience should be like or feel like. So it doesn’t exactly relate to your analogy. People can objectively identify a penny, a person, etc. Personal revelations lack any kind of standard or frame of reference.

  27. Kullervo,

    I’ll grant you your analogy only if you add these stipulations: Sometimes you put a penny on the counter to indicate your presence, sometimes you don’t, sometimes you attempt to put a penny on the counter and it appears on a counter at a different restaurant, and sometimes someone else puts a penny on the counter. That’s more akin to the “evidence” Mr. Williams is claiming. It’s not reliable at all – sometimes the “witness” is there, sometimes it’s not, sometimes it “witnesses” of things that are completely untrue, and sometimes the witness feelings result from non-supernatural external stimuli.

    Given the modifications to your analogy, what do you really have? You have a method for arriving at “evidence” of, well, what? That maybe Kullervo was at the restaurant that night, or maybe he wasn’t, or maybe someone else was there and put a penny on the counter or maybe he was at a different restaurant and the penny magically moved to the crowded restaurant. So, based on this remarkable “evidence,” I can conclusively conclude what, precisely? As a scientist I’d say that I can conclude there is a restaurant (the person), but not any pattern to the appearance of a penny. And that means there is no evidence of your presence at all.

    I get that you’re saying the evidence is “scant” and “flimsy.” I’d grant you something more along the lines of “as close to not being evidence as possible shy of not being evidence.” But I won’t even grant “scant” or “flimsy” given how unreliable it is.

    A measure that unreliable would, BTW, be mocked senselessly by peer-reviewers if submitted to an academic journal. It doesn’t pass muster as a scientific measure.

  28. Chris, but that just goes to how significantly we should weigh emotional evidence.

    And keep in mind, the penny and the person are not the evidence in my analogy; the recollected perception of the penny and the recollected perception of the individual are the evidence. Epistemologically, there’s not a qualitative difference in how reliable these kinds of evidence are.

  29. re 22 and 23:

    profxm,

    so my longer thoughts. I also completely think that we agree a lot more than we disagree. But I like to quibble over very inconsequential technical details. It’s my character flaw.

    I don’t disagree that people who are atheists have beliefs. I don’t disagree that people who are atheists have worldviews and belief systems. But as posters after me have addressed, these belief systems are NOT atheism. They are things like “rationalism” and “humanism” and “secularism” and “naturalism.” You’re right that atheists don’t stop at “I’m atheist” — because atheism say so little. They also have to elaborate on their actual belief system with other labels.

    Even using your sociological definition of religion, I don’t think that atheism fits. “Collective beliefs about supernature.” Well…atheism doesn’t have collective beliefs about supernature. You might have an atheist who is a naturalist who collectively rejects all aspects of supernature, but atheism only tells you about *one* aspect of supernature (deities). So you could have an atheist who believes in ghosts and an atheist who doesn’t believe in ghosts.

    This is why “theism” also isn’t a religion (and I’m glad Alan pointed out the false dichotomy. It’s not atheism/religion, but atheism/theism.) Theism too is just ONE belief regarding supernature. But when you move from “theism” to say “Mormon Christianity,” you have a lot more beliefs that are required or necessitated or implied. We can quibble about what those beliefs are (what is “orthodoxy,”) but it’s definitely more than ONE thing (which is AT MOST the only common ground you can necessitate for atheism via atheism).

    Your point about atheism and communism is important because of the direction of things. Your original statement was, “people take atheism seriously enough to be willing to kill for it” (pinning things on the atheism.) But the real issue is communism (and more often, a kind of authoritarian personality cult) is a bundle of constituent parts, not that atheism is a bundle of constituent parts.

    The reason why atheism is no defense against horrible acts is because atheism is *nothing*. Atheism is not believing in gods. Well, duh, that has no defense against horrible acts. But it has no defense against horrible acts not because there’s something about atheism that makes people want to kill for it, but because atheism is so mere, so slight, and so nonsubstantial that it can’t push back at anything any of the other things that people believe that they might want to kill for. (I’d say the same thing about theism. The belief in god can’t push back against a belief that you should kill *for* your god. Only a belief that counters that you shouldn’t kill for your god will do that.)

    So, I don’t have problem with admitting with that. But I also have no problem with admitting that just because someone is atheist doesn’t mean they are logical, or rational, or naturalist, or humanist, or a good guy, or a critical thinker. Being a naturalist might lead them to be an atheist (in the same way being a marxist communist might lead to being an atheist), but being an atheist doesn’t imply their being a naturalist.

    If I had to sum it up, it would be your final line: “It may not have inspired it directly, but it didnt prevent it, either.” Because atheism cannot and does not inspire or prevent *anything*. And that’s Seth’s point.

  30. I understand that it is the recollected perception that is considered as evidence. However, perception of a person leaving a penny has frame of reference. If you want to create an analogy to personal revelation, you’ll have to create one where the person (who is doing the recollecting) does not have a frame of reference. In addition, the penny and the person are objective things (if we assume reality is not unreal), whereas feelings are not objecitve. So your analogy doesn’t really work.

  31. On the other hand, if you have consistent statements from 43 total strangers who were in the restaurtant at 7 p.m. on Saturday that they saw me walk in and put a penny on the counter, then you have a whole lot more evidence.

    To make this more like religious evidence, we should add another 43 people who testify they saw a woman put a penny on the counter, another 43 who testify that they didn’t see who put it there but they saw variously a nickel, a dime, a quarter, a $100 bill, or Japanese, British, or Mexican money, another 43 who testify that the money was put there on various other days of the week, and another 43 who testify that they were there and saw nobody put anything on the counter.

  32. @Kullervo

    I’d also be interested in what you would say to this: let’s say for a proposition we have the same amount and same quality of evidence to argue for or against it, how much personal revelation would it take to tip the scale? Could personal revelation tip the scale?

  33. the recollected perception of the penny and the recollected perception of the individual are the evidence. Epistemologically, theres not a qualitative difference in how reliable these kinds of evidence are.

    If you break down the concept of “evidence” so that the perception of things (like pennies, people, God) is evidence of their actuality, then you’re left without any way of determining things for which there is no evidence, like unicorns or dragons. You would literally have to grant schizophrenic hallucinations as “real.” Now, they might be real for that person, but there are very good reasons that we don’t conflate subjective evidence with objective evidence. I don’t quite see how you can conclude that “epistemologically, theres not a qualitative difference” in their reliability.

  34. Could personal revelation tip the scale?

    It used to tip the scale for me. Until I decided my “personal revelations” were probably based in coincidence, placebo effect, confirmation bias, brain chemistry, etc.

  35. Apropos of defining atheism, P. Z. Meyers posted this today:

    Gnu atheism is not simply about what isn’t. Our views do find expression in specific criticisms of specific faiths, but those are just the epiphenomena of a deeper set of positive values…. I have one simple question you can ask of any religion, whether it’s animism or Catholicism, that will allow you to determine the Gnu Atheist position on it.

    Is it true?

    I’ve told people this many times. The Gnu Atheism is a positive movement that emphasizes the truth of a claim as paramount; it is our number one value. This is why you’re finding so many scientists who consider themselves in this movement it’s because that’s how we’re trained to think about hypotheses. Also, because there are many scientists and philosophers behind this idea, I should also emphasize that we’re also well aware that “truth” is not some magic absolute, but something we can only approach by trial and error, and that truth is something you have to work towards, not simply accept dogmatically as given by some unquestionable sourcewhich is another difference between us and religion. A scientific truth is more complex than a colloquial truth, it’s requirements being that it is free of contradiction with logic and reality and supported by reason and evidence.

  36. I understand that it is the recollected perception that is considered as evidence. However, perception of a person leaving a penny has frame of reference. If you want to create an analogy to personal revelation, youll have to create one where the person (who is doing the recollecting) does not have a frame of reference. In addition, the penny and the person are objective things (if we assume reality is not unreal), whereas feelings are not objecitve. So your analogy doesnt really work.

    You are still mixing up the evidence with the thing being evidenced. The penny, the person, and the deity are all allegedly objective. But the perception of the penny, person, and deity are all subjective.

    In any case, you misunderstand: I was not attempting to say that the penny is like subjective mystical experience, except inasmuch as both are examples of flimsy evidence that not only do not deductively prove the assertion, but that do not even weigh significantly in establishing the assertion. Nevertheless, both are some kind of evidence.

    You’re attempting to draw a line between evidence and non-evidence based on frame of reference, but that’s just not a dispositive distinction. The question is whether or not the evidence is relevant, i.e. whether or not it has anything to do with the thing being asserted. And subjective spiritual experiences are relevant. The “lack of frame of reference” just makes us weigh them as relatively unreliable evidence.

    To make this more like religious evidence, we should add another 43 people who testify they saw a woman put a penny on the counter, another 43 who testify that they didnt see who put it there but they saw variously a nickel, a dime, a quarter, a $100 bill, or Japanese, British, or Mexican money, another 43 who testify that the money was put there on various other days of the week, and another 43 who testify that they were there and saw nobody put anything on the counter.

    Sure. That would be the counter-evidence I was talking about.

    Id also be interested in what you would say to this: lets say for a proposition we have the same amount and same quality of evidence to argue for or against it, how much personal revelation would it take to tip the scale? Could personal revelation tip the scale?

    Well, we’re not talking about deductively proving something as a statement of formal logic (in which case, no amount of relevant but non-dispositive data will ever prove it to be true). We’re talking about critically evaluating a mass of relevant but not dispositive evidence and counter-evidence, and that always means there’s a measure of subjective evaluation going on. There’s no way to escape that. That’s why we have to fall back on fuzzy, fluid concepts like “reasonableness.”

    In the end, we have no choice but to weigh evidence subjectively and compare it to an equally subjective standard of proof, i.e. the extent of evidence that is enough to convince us, to enough to convince a reasonable person. “Subjective” is not a dirty word here, and it doesn’t mean anything goes. For the most part, there’s a lot of broad consensus about what is reasonable and what is not. And although “broad consensus about what is reasonable” does not prove anything deductively, it’s pretty much all we really have to go on.

  37. re 40:

    kuri,

    interestingly enough, even in that part, you find a lot of assumptions that P.Z. has that may not be true of all atheists (which is why “gnu” atheism is different).

    First is the emphasis of truth, but not just any emphasis on truth, but a particular kind of truth. (Think about those people who say, “Yeah, Mormonism is truth.” And even if some religions/philosophies don’t say “our religion is wherever truth is found,” they will sincerely believe that their religion/philosophy has true content.) And I mean, religious or nonreligious, you can get people who *aren’t* driven by truth. (e.g., driven by goodness, driven by subjectivity, driven to keep their family and friends, etc., etc.,) His emphasis on truth is not given or implied or necessitated by atheism at all…but by some other thing…but he continues.

    PZ actually really reveals what his truth is all about:

    I should also emphasize that were also well aware that truth is not some magic absolute, but something we can only approach by trial and error, and that truth is something you have to work towards, not simply accept dogmatically as given by some unquestionable sourcewhich is another difference between us and religion. A scientific truth is more complex than a colloquial truth, its requirements being that it is free of contradiction with logic and reality and supported by reason and evidence.

    Something we approach through trial and error…free of contradiction with “logic” and “reality” and supported by “reason” and “evidence.” Already, there’s a lot of bias here…but I’d go further and say that, BECAUSE PZ is a scientist, he is further biased in what “logic” and “reality” and “reason” and “evidence” mean for him. Atheism doesn’t tell him that “reality” is “nature.” But his naturalism (whether methodological or ontological) does. And so, he insists that he is seeking “reality” and theists aren’t, when a theist could literally turn all of his statements around. The two just start with different premises as to what comprises evidence, reality, reason, etc.,

  38. I dont quite see how you can conclude that epistemologically, theres not a qualitative difference in their reliability.

    Because at the end of the day, you can’t really know that everything you perceive is not an illusion.

    Keep in mind I said qualitiative. All perception is a cognitive process that happens in the brain as a result of some kind of stimulus. none of it has any frame of reference at all that is not also part of your cognitive process of perception. And as such, on a fundamental level it’s all suspect. On a practical level, in order to function, I have to assume that my senses are feeding my brain reliable data and that my brain is accurately making sense of it. I can’t really know for sure, but in order to function, i have to assume.

    And when I operate on that assumption, I continue to perceive consistent results. Although that perception of consistent results is just as suspect, I have no alternative. The world that I perceive is consistent, so it makes more sense to continue to operate as if it is accurate than to act as if it is not (because acting as if it is not is just acting in complete blindness). If you have to act, it’s more reasonable to act based on unreliable data than to act on no data, especially if, as is the case with our perception, you don’t have any kind of measure to gauge or even estimate how unreliable your data is. Your unreliable data might be accurate, but your no-data almost certainly is not.

    Since your basis for operation is the consistent perception of the world, that’s your measuring stick for things like subjective feelings. To the extent that feeling-evidence, as reported, is inconsistent with your perceptive framework, you can reasonably discount it. In other words, you weigh it less.

    There’s no qualitiative reliability difference, because all perception is happening in your head anyway. There is a quantitative reliability difference though, because we use the consistency of things perceived as our measuring stick. Evidence that is more consistent with the rest of my perceptive framework is therefore more reliable, and evidence that is less consistent with the rest of my perceptive framework is therefore less reliable. At least to the extent that my perceptive framework is accurate, but my perceptive framework is all I’ve got.

    That’s how I can conclude that a halucination is a hallucination: it is inconsistent with my pereptive framework. It does not fit reality as I understand it. But my point is, it’s all a matter of degree, and not somehow a categorical distinction.

    There may very well be an objective truth out there, but there’s no objective way to experience it. All the “experience” you perceive happens in your brain.

  39. What you seem to be saying is that an actual existence of God/person/penny is ultimately untouchable, because all we have are subjective consensuses (where some people are part of in-crowds of shared perception and categorization, while others — like schizophrenics — are not).

    Yet my understanding of the modern atheist argument is that the deduction of there being no God is precisely in this spirit of “reasonableness” and does not concern “objective evidence,” per se. Any physicist would readily admit that “gravity” is a human categorization of a phenomenon, because the presence of any “phenomenon” implies its observation. But they still work with the idea of gravity because it fits. God, on the other hand, doesn’t seemingly need to fit.

  40. Mr. Williams in his article said: “When I walk to Terraced Falls in Yellowstone, I feel a profound sense of beauty and peace, that I am not alone in the universe, and this sense impels me to think there is a God . . .” He and many people offer that experience as evidence there is a God. If millions of people have that experience is that then confirming evidence that there is a God? Of course not. It simply confirms that people can interpret that experience to conclude the source of the sense of beauty and peace must come from God. There are also millions of people who see a waterfall, have a profound sense of beauty and peace, who may consider it a spiritual experience, but stop at that point, without having to attribute the experience to anything but their personal interaction with the natural beauty of the waterfall. In many scientific studies where controversies arise, it isn’t over the data, its over the interpretation of the data. Data doesn’t interpret itself.

  41. What you seem to be saying is that an actual existence of God/person/penny is ultimately untouchable, because all we have are subjective consensuses (where some people are part of in-crowds of shared perception and categorization, while others like schizophrenics are not).

    Well, there’s only an apparent consensus and an apparent in-crowd. At the end of the day all I have to go on is the internal consistency of my perceptions, including my perceptions of other people telling me what their perceptions are. But essentially yes, that is what I am saying. Things might objectively exist but we can’t objectively experience them because our ability to experience is filtered through the subjective process of perception.

    Yet my understanding of the modern atheist argument is that the deduction of there being no God is precisely in this spirit of reasonableness and does not concern objective evidence, per se. Any physicist would readily admit that gravity is a human categorization of a phenomenon, because the presence of any phenomenon implies its observation. But they still work with the idea of gravity because it fits. God, on the other hand, doesnt seemingly need to fit.

    Sure, no argument there. My point is that the evidence for God’s existence may be hilariously unreliable and woefully insufficient to meet a reasonable standard of proof, but that does not mean it is non-evidence.

    Profxm says it is non-evidence, but he has offered an unreasonably and arbitrarily narrow definition for “evidence”: “Mr. Williams, that it doesnt emerge in laboratory conditions does make it less of an evidence. In fact, it makes it no evidence at all.”

    Thus my illustration of the penny in the restaurant. It’s evidence. It’s not conclusive, and it does not meet a reasonable standard of proof, but it is still evidence.

    And thus my illustration of the 43 strangers. That’s also evidence. It definitely does not “emerge in laboratory conditions,” but a reasonable person would certainly find that it meets a practical standard of proof.

    A lot of people on the internet are really quick to assert fallacy when there is none: not every assertion is a statement of deductive reasoning. And scientific evidence is not the only kind of evidence. It might be a particularly reliable kind of evidence. Maybe even the most reliable. But there’s plenty of things that we believe, assume, and accept all day long that have nothing to do with things being tested in laboratory conditions.

  42. Mr. Williams in his article said: When I walk to Terraced Falls in Yellowstone, I feel a profound sense of beauty and peace, that I am not alone in the universe, and this sense impels me to think there is a God . . . He and many people offer that experience as evidence there is a God. If millions of people have that experience is that then confirming evidence that there is a God? Of course not. It simply confirms that people can interpret that experience to conclude the source of the sense of beauty and peace must come from God. There are also millions of people who see a waterfall, have a profound sense of beauty and peace, who may consider it a spiritual experience, but stop at that point, without having to attribute the experience to anything but their personal interaction with the natural beauty of the waterfall. In many scientific studies where controversies arise, it isnt over the data, its over the interpretation of the data. Data doesnt interpret itself.

    You are conflating “evidence” with “conclusive evidence.” Mr. Williams’s experience of God at a waterfall, and the similar experiences of bajillions of other people, is most definitely evidence. The question is whether it is reliable evidence, and whether it is sufficient evidence to establish an extrordinary claim.

  43. Andrew,

    I agree that Gnu Atheism is a subset of atheism. This is obvious enough to be trivial, it seems to me.

    I’d also say that it’s obvious that Gnu Atheists — assuming that Meyers speaks for the entire movement — are biased towards a particular epistemology. It’s a well-founded bias, but it’s still a bias.

    And… so what? I think a rise in the number of people who don’t subscribe to one of the country’s prevailing ideologies (whether we call it Christianity or theism) is interesting in itself. I think a related movement that may be contributing to it is also interesting. So I see this whole “atheism is ‘nothing'” argument as so much pilpul. There is a “there” there.

  44. It’s like you can’t even sleep anymore.

    We’ve all heard that there are no a-leprechaun-ists and no a-unicorn-ists (actually, amonokerists). We don’t need them, because leprechaunists and monokerists aren’t exerting significant influence over society. If there were no theists, there wouldn’t be ‘atheism’, except that everyone would be a default atheist, just like everyone is a default amonokerist.

    So I get what Seth is saying — atheism only exists in opposition to theism.

    But then Seth makes two other very strange claims —

    1. that this implies somehow that religion ‘matters’. Nonsense. Monokerism doesn’t matter. Superstition doesn’t imbue something with importance. Taking a positive stand isn’t inherently worthwhile if your stand is wrong.

    2. that taking a position opposite something else is not ‘a position worthy of responsible adults’. What a strange thing to say. Why not? If the evidence for unicorns is lacking, then refraining from believing in them is an eminently responsible thing to do. It’s belief in things with no evidence whatsoever that is irresponsible.

  45. kuri,

    but the thing that is “there” still isn’t atheism. It is “a particular epistemology.” So, talk about “the particular epistemology.”

    Daniel,

    I can anticipate the reaction…a god is not like a unicorn. A god is not like a flying spaghetti monster. Deities have become widespread, popular, whereas these straw…animal…food…thingies haven’t.

    Why religion matters and unicorns don’t is because, even if both are wrong, one has literaly changed the face of the planet and its inhabitants. The principals are doing jack crap (and may not even exist), but the agents are doing huge stuff under their implied authority they feel they’ve gotten from their principals.

    This is why something can be literally or physical unreal or untrue yet be a social fact.

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