Professor J. Anderson Thomson on Why We Believe

October 20, 2010 § 1 Comment

This is a great talk by Professor J. Anderson Thomson from the American Atheist convention in Atlanta, Georgia in 2009, which addresses ideas of human evolution, the mind’s coping mechanisms, and the way religion probably evolved with us as a by-product of social mechanisms which emerged within us.

Watch and enjoy!

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Lovingdoubt Interview – Prominent People Project

October 17, 2010 § Leave a comment

This is the second in a series of interviews with  people who are prominent in the worlds of atheism, science, skepticism and rational thought.

This interview is with one of YouTube’s most prominent atheists and skeptics, Stephanie (AKA Lovingdoubt). Her videos are powerful, moving and poignant, and leaves the viewer thinking about the personal aspects of religion and faith, and how these affect us as individuals. Her YouTube videos have attracted nearly a quarter of a million hits, and as you watch them you are presented with a gradual unfolding of one person’s journey from the insistence of belief in God, to the rational position of disbelief.

Lovingdoubt is very interested in the human brain, and what it is within us all that makes us want to believe, or feel the need to believe, in the supernatural and a higher being.

This interview was conducted via email in October 2010.

 

Stephanie (AKA Lovingdoubt)

Stephanie (AKA Lovingdoubt)

 

AC: I have found my blogging to be one of the greatest learning experiences of my life. For instance, if I don’t know something but think it would be useful for my blogs, I like to search out information and then transfer my new knowledge into my writings. Has the experience of making your YouTube videos increased your knowledge about your life and position on religion and the universe, or has it remained relatively unchanged since you realised that you don’t believe in God or religion?

LD: There is so much I’ve learned from being involved on YouTube. I love hearing other’s opinions and I learn a lot from watching people’s videos. I also learn a great deal about making my own. When I publish a video, I get so much feedback, good and bad. This has really helped me learn a lot. I feel I’ve had some opinions changed and refined overtime, but it’s been very subtle.

AC: You have over 6000 subscribers on your YouTube channel. What do you think makes your channel so popular? What is the main reason that you make these videos?

LD: What makes me popular? Well, I’m very fortunate that atheism is a popular topic on YouTube. I think that is a major contributing factor. I also think being female makes me stand out from the crowd a bit. Other than that, I simply work hard on the videos I make and hope people find them interesting. Since I have an audience, I must be doing something right.

AC: The United States is one of the most outwardly religious countries in the world, and yet we see a growing trend among people to renounce their faiths in favour of more secular or atheistic ideals. Recent articles have emerged which state that of all the people in the USA, atheists are the most knowledgeable about what religion really means. What do you make of this? Can you see a growing trend, or is it simply that people without religious faith are less afraid to make themselves known?

LD: I can’t say I’m surprised about the survey. Most atheists/non-believers I know came to their position from research, although this certainly doesn’t apply to everyone. I do see a growing trend away from religion in the United States. Most religions are losing numbers and non-belief is on the rise. On the other hand, there are fundamentalist Christian religions that have a lot of power and influence in politics right now, so it’s a very strange time in United States politics.

AC: You have spoken before in your YouTube videos about your brain injury. Can you step us through what happened, and the effect this had on your faith if any? Was this a pivotal moment, or do you see it as just a step toward the person you are now?

LD: I sustained a head injury from a car accident in June 2009. I can’t really tell you the details of the accident because I don’t remember it. The injury did have an effect on my faith, but I do think I would have become an atheist even without the accident.

The injury simply sped up the process since I had time off work to do a lot studying. There is one major impact that my brain injury had on my religious ideas. I spent a lot of time reading about brain injuries when I was trying to understand my own. After reading about and experiencing various symptoms of a brain injury, it really changed my idea of a soul. I think humans want to believe their sense of “self” is consistent, but having my brain injured taught me that this is not the case. There isn’t some stable soul within us. Who we are is dependent on our brain. I will be going through this cohesively on my video blog.

AC: I am a firm believer that everything we perceive about our world and our universe is received and interpreted by the brain. Every day we see advances in the understanding of how the brain works, whether it be from ideas around mirror neurons or the “god-centre” in the brain. You’re very interested in psychology and the workings of the brain, right? What do you find most fascinating about the human brain and the human mind?

LD: It’s tough to pick one thing. There are very few subjects regarding the human brain that don’t fascinate me. I really enjoy studying how people thinking and reason using their brain. I also like studying various problems that can occur in the brain and the effect they have. Perhaps that is why I’ve always have been drawn to the mental health field.

AC: Many people while growing up find themselves searching for a place in society; some find it in sport, some in art and some through religion. Your religious faith was strong earlier in your life, but you have also mentioned that you found yourself “testing the waters” of other religious faiths. Do you think that maybe this dissatisfaction with different religions was a hint that religion wasn’t actually for you?

Many people don’t realize this, but I rejected religion pretty early in life. I always valued learning and skepticism, even though I was young. I was 14 or so when I decided I thought the concept of god, especially one outlined by a religion, was man made. Even though I had decent reasons, they weren’t very well-developed at that age. I went through a period of my life where I went through a lot of hardship and felt unhappy with my life. I had a need to feel loved, appreciated and special. Religion met that emotional need for a period of time. The problem is I was never able to rid myself of that inner skeptic. Perhaps that is the biggest reason I couldn’t hold on to religion permanently, no matter how badly I wanted to at the time.

AC: Sam Harris once said “I see religion as a sort-of failed science” and then goes on to tell how religion was all humans had to make sense of the world at the time of their inception. I tend to agree with him. We can also see, as time goes on, with ideas and discoveries in science the “God-Gap” seems to get smaller and smaller. I believe this has made the religious leaders very nervous. What do you think about this?

LD: I agree with you. There is a trend away from organized religion, and one major factor in this could be the discoveries in science. I think some religious leaders have handled this better than others. I’m certainly not telepathic, so I can’t say much beyond what various leaders have been quoted to say.

AC: You have spoken in your videos about your husband and you speak very highly of him. Does he share your views about religion?

LD: He and I have very similar views, but it hasn’t always been that way. When I became an atheist, he was still a Christian. I was afraid of driving him away once I told him I was an atheist, but he was very open to my views. He wanted to understand why I now believed differently, so I started explaining myself over a period of time. At the same time, he started doing some research of his own. It was only a few months before he wasn’t a Christian. For six months after this, he considered himself a deist. Then, one day, he told me he was an atheist. I honestly didn’t care that much at that point, as long as we were able to accept and love each other for who we were.

AC: I know that when people leave faiths they can be shunned by the immediate religious communities and families. Did you feel this when you announced you no longer believe? Is your family religious? Did you feel a certain amount of distancing by those around you?

LD: This was one area I was very lucky in. I do have extended family that is disappointed in me, but I was not shunned. My parents are very secular. My mother is a theist, but not religious in any way. My dad used to be an atheist, but is now a deist. As you can imagine, things were actually more awkward when I was religious with them. They’ve always accepted me. I don’t talk to people from church anymore. It’s not that I wouldn’t talk to them, it’s just I wasn’t that close to very many people there.

AC: For many people, the discovery that they don’t believe can be extremely difficult. If you had one message for those who are suffering through the throes of doubt about religion and faith, what would it be?

LD: Well, I would say that I know what it’s like to be terrified of doubt, but for me, facing my doubts was the best thing I’ve ever done. Learning to follow truth rather than my own desires is a difficult lesson to learn, but it was worth it for me. It’s frightening to doubt when one has been taught it’s sinful, but I believe that real truth can stand up to scrutiny. Now I’m not afraid to have any of my beliefs and ideas questioned. I am a much stronger, happier, and balanced person for that.

AC: You’re also very theatrical in your videos, sometimes sinister, sometimes just plain fun-loving. What types of videos do you enjoy making the most? Which bring you the most satisfaction? Are you a theatrical person in your daily life?

I think I’m a very expressive person in real life, so I think I represent myself how I am. I enjoy being silly in my videos, but I really enjoy doing the serious videos best. There aren’t very many people in my real life that enjoy discussing a lot of the issues I discuss in my videos, so it’s a wonderful outlet. Also, I started my YouTube channel to help others, and when I do my serious videos, I hope to accomplish that.

AC: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for interviewing me for your blog!

Stephanie’s YouTube channel can be found here. Make sure you dig through the older videos, it’s well worth the time. Thank you so much Stephanie for taking the time to answer these questions.

Vox Populi 3 – The Realistic Future

October 13, 2010 § 4 Comments

Welcome to the third in the series of “Vox Populi” articles on my blog, where I ask for your feedback and thoughts on a given topic. Hope you enjoy these short topical pieces, and please leave your feedback in the comments.

Topic 3: The Human Future

I tend to see myself as a slightly pessimistic Extropian, but with my pessimism based in realism. However I still think we need to strive forward.

Michio Kaku has a lot to say on this subject. In one interview by George Noory, the interviewer says something along the lines of “It always seems like a race between self-destruction on the one hand, and Type 1 Status on the other.” I tend to agree. We are racing toward self-destruction, but at the same time are making advances toward the longevity of humanity and the planet at the same time. Which will win? Well it really depends upon a lot of things.

However along with my pessimistic extropian ideals comes a healthy dose of optimism, but only when I see the “ifs” than need to be satisfied. For instance, nuclear fusion, solar power, geothermal and wind-power, if harnessed in the right combination could result in an inexhaustible source of energy for nearly free, and with this would allow us to leap forward on a technological scale without further damaging the atmosphere with carbon based pollutants.

While we make advances in medicine, we also negate common causes of death, which leads to lower mortality rates from given diseases. Humans can now be fertile well into their forties (but not always successfully). If we cure cancer we could stop a certain form of suffering in humans. But by giving people a longer life of  better “standard”, we also allow for more people to be born, thereby increasing the possibility of population growth.

Religion has played a role in the views of the future also, and there are several things I would point at to illustrate this. One of the problems with religion and belief is that the doctrines of religious belief stand in opposition to the very real need humanity has to face about our future. There are even those who believe that The Rapture is a very real thing, that the faithful will be swept up into heaven, and all the heathens and non-believers will be left behind on Earth to fend for themselves, abandoned by God. What sort of incentive does this give one to strive for betterment of humanity? To give up on striving, and to place your future in a god is like having no want for the future at all, except for the false future of the afterlife. “The Rapture is not an exit strategy.”

Catholicism’s ban on abortion and contraception is counter-intuitive to viewing the needs of the future, as well as allowing for the spread among the world’s poorest people of HIV/AIDS. And it is precisely the places where the poorest are denied birth control, that there is a very real need to curb population growth based on very real resource shortages.

Religion is one of the main reasons I tend to err on the side of realism, for religion is irrational and disruptive, and sometimes dangerous, and is not going anywhere any time soon.

The main problem that I see with optimism is this; if we move blindly forward with an optimism that suggests that everything will be ok, we are denying the reality of the situation, and may ignore many of the realistic problem we face.

What do you think about the future? Are you optimistic? Do you think the extropian idea of the exponential betterment of humanity is possible? Is it even feasible?

“Who do you need to forgive?” – Outreach Media

October 6, 2010 § 2 Comments

It’s October, which can only mean one thing; Outreach Media have a new billboard! They seem to have hit a few nails on the head this time.

Who do you need to forgive?

Who do you need to forgive?

Not everything that religion touts is harmful, in fact there are some valuable lessons that can be learned from the stories and parables of the Bible. The idea of forgiveness, for instance, is a useful tool to allow people to move on from conflicts or incidents, and to not allow small problems to become larger ones. It is useful to us for letting go of people’s trespasses upon our own territories, and allowing us to balk around fighting or killing everyone who does us wrong. This is one of the basics of civilization, and it is one of the things that allows us to form societies and cultures, and to live in such close proximity to each other. It allows for tolerance of other people, and rather than us reacting against everyone violently or aggressively, we can allow others to go on with their lives in relative peace.

So I don’t really have a problem with the idea of forgiveness. It can be more difficult to forgive people than to hold a grudge, but holding a grudge can be harmful to the mental health of a person, and can be extremely harmful to a culture or society, especially when one of the Bible’s other tenets “An eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” is acted upon. The Gaza Strip is a perfect example of a culture not forgiving the acts of people from their own histories, and continually lashing back and provoking further conflict.

But the idea of forgiveness for the sake of appeasing a God that forgave me for its bringing me into existence in the first place is ridiculous. Having to forgive those around me for their wrongdoings unto me to please a god makes even less sense.

What I’m saying here, yes forgiveness is very important, and worthy of accolades, but not for the sake of going to Heaven. Forgiveness allows us to get along better on Earth. What use can it possibly be to a God? Forgive people because you are a good person, not because you want to appease your God.

On a side note, Steven Pinker speaks at length about the idea of “determinism” in his book “The Blank Slate“, covering off the fear that people have of either being fully at the mercy of our animal instincts to do wrongs to others (this has been used this as a defence against rape, saying that men can’t control their animal urges), as well as the opposite fear (which is scarier) that we are beings of choice and selfishness and do wrong to others because we feel like it or can see some benefit in it for ourselves (mugging and home-invasions etc.).

If either of these cases turned out to be true, in which situation would you find easier to forgive? Why would you forgive someone? Would it be because you can empathise with their situation, and would just like to move on? Or would it be because you were told to forgive so you can reap the reward? Would it make a difference to you if someone stole from you if they had to feed a small baby, or if they stole from you to buy drugs?

Empathising with a situation helps with forgiveness, but even if you can empathise with someone who was stealing to get their next drug fix, would you forgive them? We do use deterrents in society as a way to stop people from causing arbitrary harm to others, such as incarceration and fines, but what we see as acceptable is also up to the societal norms and accepted morality of the culture in which you exist. So when someone goes against what we call societal norms, and mugs, rapes, steals or murders regardless of the outcome, we tend to figure it must be for a reason, whether it is the result of upbringing or genetics or societal pressures.

Having some sort of insight into the reasons behind why someone might cause harm to someone else, regardless of what it might be, makes it easier to forgive. Of course I can see there are some situations where forgiveness is not necessary (someone bumps into int the street on accident), or situations where you don’t want to forgive (murder), and I think this is fine too.

The idea of forgiveness is a good part of human societies, it allows for people to get on with their lives and not dwell on situations they no longer have any control over. As the article from Outreach Media quite correctly says “Letting go of anger and bitterness is a real struggle and you may need to keep working on it all your life,” and counselling may be needed in order to get past certain situations.

Forgiveness was not invented by religion. It was developed by people as a way to get past conflict. It is a useful tool, and it makes for a less stressful society for us all. To be told we have to forgive in order to be forgiven by God is a carrot we don’t need in society today.

Science is irreconcilable with religion

October 4, 2010 § 17 Comments

There are people who claim that science and religion can exist side-by-side, one asking the “how” questions (science) and the other asking the “why” questions (religion). I’d like to say I disagree with this stance, and for a few simple reasons.

Atlas supporting Earth on his back

Atlas supporting Earth on his back

Scientific inquiry is based on measuring interactions and outcomes from observable and repeatable phenomena, based on established empirical principles and existing theories. Outcomes are then observed, tested and compared to create a hypothesis. Scientific method also allows for the falsification of any established hypothesis if information or data arises which is counter to the hypothesis being presented. It is constantly evolving and changing, and if the evidence is great enough, then an agreement is struck among the science community.

Theological inquiry, if it happens at all, is based on interpretations of texts written by men during times when little was understood about the world and the universe. Theological discourse about “what the texts really mean” as opposed to what they say makes up a great deal of the discourse between theologians. Those who go beyond the religious texts tend to talk in vague ways around metaphysical ideas, claiming there must be something more, although ideas like soul have never been observed.

Science does ask the “why” questions, because “why” follows “how” in inquiry, but the “why” of science is actually asking for an answer to the reason something occurs, whereas the “why” from theology is asked without any real intention of arriving at an answer.

Francis Collins, in his video interview at Big Think:

“But faith in its perspective is really asking a different set of questions.  And that’s why I don’t think there needs to be a conflict here.  The kinds of questions that faith can help one address are more in the philosophical realm.  Why are we all here?  Why is there something instead of nothing?  Is there a God?  Isn’t it clear that those aren’t scientific questions and that science doesn’t have much to say about them?  But you either have to say, well those are inappropriate questions and we can’t discuss them or you have to say, we need something besides science to pursue some of the things that humans are curious about.”

I would argue that there is a LOT of philosophy in science, but it lies more in the realm of interpretations for what a scientific outcome might mean for humanity, what the implications for society and cultures are, or what possibilities might arise from a scientific discovery. I say there are no questions that can’t be asked of science, but I would say that in lieu of an answer that mysticism is not a real-world solution to these questions.

I think the irreconcilable nature of religion versus science comes from their origins. Sam Harris makes a good point in this video, where he equates the role of religion historically as the one now filled by science.

When we ask questions of our universe using current methods of inquiry we arrive at answers that can then be compared against other observances and outcomes. When we use the method of inquiry of theology, the answer has already been pre-determined from the outset, and the answer is always “God”. This is not a viable way to find answers, especially if we truly desire to know truths.

I feel that Francis Collins is falling victim to his own cognitive dissonance, where he knows that science has the answers for the big questions, and I think he secretly believes that science will eventually  have the ability to answer the philosophical questions we all ask. At the same time he deeply wishes that there is a creator for the universe, whether it be an Abrahamic god, or an alien creator. If there were a creator then we can stop asking questions safe in the knowledge that the ways of the universe are out of our control and beyond our understanding. And some people find it difficult to imagine a universe without a creator because it leaves us alone and isolated in the universe even more so than we already understand ourselves to be.

Why is it such a horrible fate than man is the result of natural processes and not the result of some divine creature’s tinkering with subatomic particles? We do think ourselves so special that there must be some preordained reason for our existences rather than simply existing, and to be special means to be created.

Furthermore, rather than falling into the downwardly spiraling argument “if there is a creator then who created it?” I think it is enough to say this. Just because we don’t understand something fully does not mean we should attribute it to a universal creator. Just because emotions and other non-physical interactions occur between people does not make it magic. One day, as scientific inquiry advances forward we shall see where the “unaccountable” stuff comes from, and we’ll look back at our immaturity and laugh, much as we do about ancient mythologies of a flat earth, elephants and turtles. People once believed that Atlas held the earth aloft on his back, but does anyone believe that now?

Bertrand Russell said this in 1927:

“If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu’s view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, “How about the tortoise?” the Indian said, “Suppose we change the subject.”

Science remains unafraid to ask the difficult questions, while theology will skirt around the subject matter, posing questions with circular reasoning and asking for disproof of something science has never claimed to exist in the first place. It’s not the job of science to disprove the existence of god, nor is it the desire outcome. Science is here to help us understand the universe, and one day, given enough time, we may discover why we keep asking for there to be a god.

Further Reading:
Science and religion aren’t friends

Vox Populi 2 – Education is key

October 2, 2010 § 7 Comments

Welcome to the second of what I hope will be a long series of “Vox Populi” articles on my blog, where I ask for your feedback and thoughts on a given topic. I really do depend heavily on your ideas to help formulate my own, so I decided it was time to give you, the reader, a real chance to say what you think. Hope you enjoy these short topical pieces, and please leave your feedback in the comments.

Topic 2: Education

I’ve talked about education as the key to our continued success on Earth before, and I firmly believe that to be the case. With strong education comes an ability to think critically about the present and the future, and to make decisions based on the wisdom and failures of the past.

Leonardo Da Vinci's Vetruvian Man

Leonardo Da Vinci's Vetruvian Man

However I see a trend in education coming from special interest groups, who feel that their “viewpoint” may be under threat in the education system, and they are demanding that children be taught their viewpoint, regardless of how ludicrous it may be. For example, there is a strong push in the USA in some areas of Australia for young-earth creationism and “Intelligent Design” to be taught as a science alternative to a slow universe evolution. While this holds no water as a viable alternative to the scientifically agreed ideas surrounding the origin of the earth and the universe, schools and the curriculum are under increasing pressure to accept this into the teaching curriculum amid the threats and the berating coming from these groups.

There is also a growing trend from people like the Anti-Vaxxers, who are telling us that vaccination is bad for the children, and yet we are seeing an increase in deaths related to pertussis and the like in areas where vaccination levels are low.

That said, my commitment to education is because of this understanding; with bad education comes bad decisions, and we can ill afford bad decisions in this day and age.  Major problems in our world can be avoided by better education such as population and agriculture, energy efficiency and food distribution, disease management and eradication.

We need to be stronger in our teachings. I see the viewpoint of the creationists as valid in only that it highlights that some variance in cultural upbringing and ignorance can cause people to believe the most unusual things. I’m not saying that the education we have now is by any means un-faslifyable or perfect, but that we can’t fall back on the misunderstandings of human past as a viable alternative is ludicrous.

There are those who deny all the teachings of our modern era as “conspiracy”, but don’t you think someone would notice? I mean someone with a large breadth of learning?

I’d like to hear your opinions on education. I know some of you home school your children because you fear the education system is overly influenced by the minority interests. I know some of you live in areas where vaccination is on the decrease. I know some of you live in areas where overpopulation is a problem. I know some of you have chosen alternative teaching methods such as Steiner, or have been part of it yourself growing up. I want to hear your opinions on the topic of education, the good versus the bad.

James Randi speaks about Carl Sagan

September 28, 2010 § 5 Comments

James Randi’s talk about Carl Sagan’s influence is an eloquent and stirring call-to-arms for reason,  rationality and knowledge. It’s great to see one great thinker speak of another great speaker. In it he says:

“Our greatest enemy by far is ignorance. We have the weapons to defeat it, and we a re increasingly able to do so.”

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