Mel Seesholtz talks about the christianist war on equality and knowledge

On April 7th of this year, Penn State Abington English professor Mel Seesholtz spoke to the Freethought Society about theopolitics and how the religious right are supressing equality in this country. The video of his talk is now online. During his talk, he showed a few clips from the Bill Maher movie Religulous
, which have been removed for lack of copyright license. I also apologize for misspelling Dr. Seesholtz’s name in the opening slide, but in my defense, I was just copying a typo from the newsletter. 😉

Mel Seesholtz — Theopolitics: The Christianist War on Equality and Knowledge from Freethought Society on Vimeo.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Army chaplains “hunt people for Jesus”

Below is a video from alJazeeraEnglish (say what you will, but they do better reporting than any American news agency) showing how evangelicals in the army stationed in Afganistan are proselytizing. They deny that they’re doing so even as they pass out New Testament bibles translated into local languages and preach to their congregation to “hunt people for Jesus” and “get the hounds hound of heaven after them”. HOUNDS HOUND OF HEAVEN?????

A Science Lesson for Christians

Often times when discussing religion with Christians the conversation turns to science. I am not an expert in the sciences. My field is Philosophy. Just to make sure that I have all my facts straight, I e-mailed this blog to The Science Pundit for peer review. However, having gone to a fairly decent public school program which taught science fairly well, I would say that I have a slightly above average knowledge of the subject. I am beginning to think though that I am a bit more than just slightly above average. It seems that I run into the same problems over and over again. Many of the Christians that I talk to have no idea how the scientific method works.

The thing is that most of these Christians claim to know how science works and they claim to have studied in detail the relevant scientific theories that we are discussing. But then their mouths open (or in case of internet conversations, they write stuff). And based on what they are saying, it becomes painfully obvious that they have not studied the relevant theories and have no idea whatsoever how science works.

There are a few particular misconceptions that keep popping up. The first is that a “scientific theory” is “just a theory.” Here there is as Wittgenstein put it, a “Family Resemblance” between the two uses, but make no mistake that the term “theory” is being used in two very different ways. In the general sense the term “theory” is used to describe an analytic structure designed to explain a set of observations. As used in the scientific sense, a theory is an explanation or model based on observation, experimentation, and reasoning, especially one that has been tested and confirmed as a general principle helping to explain and predict natural phenomena. In other words, “just a theory” is very different than a “scientific theory” which has considerably more weight attached to it.

Another common misconception is that science is “faith based” just as faith based belief is faith based. These particular Christians don’t seem to understand the difference between the scientific process and the religious process. To them, all ideas are the same and deserve equal time. The problem is that all ideas are not the same.

Let’s start with religion. The way religious belief works, they start off with the belief in God and in the Bible. That belief supersedes everything else. Then they specifically look to find anything which might be considered supportive of their conclusion (This is called “confirmation bias.” The scientific method goes to extreme measures to minimize or eliminate this as all people—even scientists—are susceptible to confirmation bias). If evidence comes to light which disproves their belief, that evidence is attacked, ignored, and/or destroyed. Their view is that God exists and that the Bible is true and nothing “science” can say or show will convince them otherwise. Many times, they will even tell you that straight up.

Science doesn’t start with the conclusion. Science starts with observations. From the observations we make a hypothesis, which is an educated guess as to the explanation of an observable phenomenon or phenomena which makes predictions and is therefore testable. We then look for evidence and/or test the hypothesis through experimentation to see if our hypothesis holds up. One thing science tries to be very careful about is to make sure that when we run tests and look for evidence we do so in as non-biased manner as possible. We don’t want to fall prey to confirmation bias. We are not specifically looking to confirm or deny the hypothesis, just go where the evidence leads. If the evidence supports the hypothesis, then we keep looking for more evidence in the same unbiased manner. If the evidence does not support the hypothesis, then we revise the hypothesis and start the process over again. Science never draws a 100% certain conclusion. Science is always willing to change. But the more and more evidence which supports a given hypothesis the more and more certain we are that the hypothesis is correct. But we will never say that we are 100% certain. A theory is a more general model which includes facts, laws and hypotheses and explains a whole family of phenomena.

So as you can see, while science starts with observations and evidence and investigates as non-biased as it can, religion is the exact opposite. Religion starts with the conclusion and looks in a biased manner for anything which could be persuasive and rejects what does not fit with the already stated conclusion (i.e. God exists and the Bible is true).

Please keep in mind that this blog is only giving a basic and quick guide to science and the scientific method. I encourage anyone who lacks sufficient scientific knowledge to go online or pick up a science text book and learn more.

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There’s a storm coming…a gay one…

As usual, it’s time for me to drop in with some light and simple humor to break up the deeper thoughts of my fellow FSGP bloggers.

Be scared, everyone. There is a storm coming. And it’s going to rain gay on everybody.

The Anti-Intellectualism of Christianity

One of the biggest issues that I have with Christianity is the anti-intellectualism that it perpetuates. It isn’t hard to miss. For starters, the majority of Christians in America are ignorant and proud. The fact that the most idiotic President in our nation’s history was elected mainly because of the support of the Christian Right, speaks volumes. A quick look back at history also shows that the Church and various organized religions have done everything they could to restrict science and knowledge. At every stage of scientific achievement, Christians were always their persecuting those who wish to expand human knowledge and human progress. One of the Humanities biggest loses came pretty early on too. In 415 CE a Christian mob brutally murdered Hypatia of Alexandria (I would go into more details about the brutality of that murder, but it is a bit graphic) who was one the bright lights of Science in her time. Even today, almost half of Christianity stands against the science of evolution and medical stem cell research.

The fact is that the more religious someone is, the less value they tend to place on science and education. According to the National Academy of Sciences, 93% of scientists express disbelief or doubt in the existence of a personal deity. 72% outright disbelieve in a personified deity. These are among the brightest minds on Earth. Both Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking (widely considered the two smartest men who every lived) had issue with the personified deity of Christianity. These men joined the company of many of the most intellectual founding fathers such as Ben Franklin, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and other.

The concept of “faith” is a slap in the face to science and intellectual curiosity. Faith stops questions while science encourages questions. Faith provides dishonest, unsupportable, and unquestioned certainty while science leaves every conclusion open to change with additional evidence and discoveries. With faith, no education is necessary because education is often a determent to faith. This is one of the biggest reasons why Christian fundamentalists are so keen on censorship and control. Even in the Bible, the character of Jesus elevates blind faith above intellectual rigor, reason, and evidence.

“Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed [are] they that have not seen, and [yet] have believed.” – John 20: 29

This is not the only instance in which the Bible attacks the intellect. Corinthians is full of such examples. “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise” – 1 Corinthians 1:27 and 5 “That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.” – 1 Corinthians 2:5, etc.

Science, reason, and intellectualism support the concepts of continued questioning, education, and human curiosity. Through the scientific method, the rules of logic, and the thirst to understand, people of reason are continually pushing the boundaries of human knowledge and helping to make life better and longer for us all. Yet, example after example, the Bible and Christianity stand against the intellect and continue to propagate ignorance, fear, and unreason. Between the Creation Museum and the absolute unquestioning certainty of a divine deity, Christianity remains one of the biggest oppositions to human progress and the greatest threat to intellectualism.

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The Necessity of the New Atheists’ Methods

One of the criticisms of the methods of people like myself–the so-called new atheists–is that we will cause a kind of backlash from believers and others who are sympathetic to the effect of criticism upon the religious and otherwise theistic worldviews. A fair criticism that I hear from appeasers quite often.

But rather than address the arguments of appeasers, I want to address the importance of being willing to accept challenges to personal views. It is this that makes justifiable the reasons for people to be squeamish about the efforts of people like myself. And while I hold no unjustified delusion that I will be able to change this aspect of human psychology in any significant way, I might at least have an affect on a few people. This is all I can hope for.

I believe in perpetual self-challenge. I think that it is important to keep a level of skepticism and lack of resoluteness in my own ideas, in the hope that they will not crystallize into a kind of creed or stubbornness of my own views. It is this idea, and I share it with many atheists, that makes the claim that atheism is a faith absurd.

Let me stop and address that issue for a moment. I will admit that there are some people that I know and who are atheists for whom the nonexistence of god becomes a point of certitude that I find epistemologically irresponsible. They, understandably, laugh at the mythical nature of religious ideologies, but they sometimes go further and conflate these mythologies with the larger question of whether any god might exist. To conflate specific gods with the general question, in my opinion, is a mistake that is made by many an atheist I have known.

And so the claim that atheism is merely another kind of faith, while absurd when fully analyzed, has a kernel of truth to it on the surface. Thus, I understand that many caricatures of religiosity are not fair in the same way that caricatures of the angry, petulant, and intolerant atheist is based upon some unsavory few who make themselves look foolish.

Let me be clear here. I recognize that religious people are not all unthinking, boorish, ignoramuses who are all making the world a bad place. I recognize the importance of religious traditions in people’s lives, and the positive effects it can have on people. I also recognize that the idea of god is one of great inspiration to people, and that in many cases the idea can be beneficial to some. I recognize these things, and still see room for criticism of these ideas.

Why? Because I actually care about the truth. I would prefer to have true beliefs, ones that can be supported by the best methods and evidence that we have available. I think that this value of mine is important, and I would like it to be shared by people, if possible.

But there are barriers between this ideal world and the one we live in. People are largely pragmatic and are not concerned with the truth so much. They are more concerned with, and I understand why, things like where their food is coming from, raising their children, and simply enjoying their lives. No time for silly questions about truth about religion or deities. Oh, but they believe in them whenever an arrogant person comes along and says that they are an atheist. And suddenly this nonchalance disappears from their lives when someone who actually has thought about this issue comes along and calls it mythology. Then they become defensive.

What? unfair caricature? Sure, but in some cases this is precisely what does happen. And while there are many other caricatures I could have brought out, the bottom line is that there are many people in the world that simply do not think about these things and yet still believe them quite strongly. And to ask them why is apparently some great crime.


The reasons are many, and I simply cannot address this whole issue here. Much of it has to do with the fact that these ideas are generally inculcated during childhood, and therefore they are associated with emotions and relationships of supreme meaning to people. We have to remember that religion is tied to many people’s personalities in ways taht will not be parsed easily. And ultimately it may not be possible to divorce the religion from the person, but we can at least provide a template for keeping their minds sharpened in order to loosen the particular beliefs in the hope of them not blindly passing on the associations to their own children. This is, ultimately, a plan for the future more than the present.

The first thing that we need to realize is that our minds will tend to reject information that does not fit into our worldview. It is actually difficult to understand the idea expressed from a worldview that differs from our own because the idea just does not seem to fit into the model of reality we have created. A few days ago I quoted Soren Kierkegaard as saying the following:

One must not let oneself be deceived by the word ‘deception.’ One can deceive a person for the truth’s sake, and (to recall old Socrates) one can deceive a person into the truth. Indeed, it is only by this means, i.e. by deceiving him, that it is possible to bring into the truth one who is in an illusion.

I think that this notion contains a fair amount of merit. What this means to me is that we need to prepare ourselves to be deceived, at least in the sense Kierkegaard means here, in order to allow ourselves the possibility that we are ourselves subject to some illusion. We need to keep a tentative level of certainty concerning our beliefs and accepted ideas, as they may be shown to be incomplete (if not completely wrong) in the future.

(At this point I’ll link to a very good video)

And this is one reason I respect the scientific method so much. It is a method that encourages people to disprove the hypotheses we generate. It is a method that has incorporated this perpetual self-challenge and has allowed us to accept theories as provisionally true because no better explanation has been presented.

And so one strategy should be to make sure that people understand what the scientific method is and how it works. One pervasive idea I run into is that the opinions of science and religion are on equal epistemological grounding. They believe that there really is a controversy between evolution and intelligent design. They don’t understand that these two ideas arose via opposing methods, and exactly what this implies.

How will you know what you believe is true is justifiable if you do not submit them to the criticism they may deserve? How strong is your ‘faith” if it goes unchallenged? And what kind of challenge is it if you only pursue the argument from the side which you already accept? I just love how, when challenged, creationists will appeal to Answers in Genesis( or, ICR or some other similar source), but almost never have even heard of TalkOrigins or can even define evolution correctly .

And as the understanding of this method, it will give a new tool in understanding how we understand, and it will allow people not just to use the resulting technologies of science, but to understand how it works. We should, in terms of our own beliefs, become so inspired by this method. We should become the “new philosophers” (as Nietzsche called them) that are willing to experiment and test our views against the world and to allow ourselves to transcend humanity so that we may one day become better, the ubermenschen.

We cannot simply crawl along in the hope that progress with just happen. The change begins with our own willingness to challenge ourselves. For if everyone is challenging themselves, then nobody has to do it for you, right. Actually, I’m not even sure of that. I still think that there will always be a need for others to challenge us as we do have blind-spots where others can see. Even the most ardent and honest attempt to be self-challenging can be supplemented with help from others.

And since I want active challenging of my own views, I feel comfortable in challenging others myself. And the first thing I will try to challenge is the defensiveness that arises in being challenged. The question, of course, is how. I don’t know completely. I only know that it must be attempted if we actually care about the people and the world around us. And along the way, make sure to pay attention to what others say, as the challenging process is two-way. Any good teacher will tell you that they learn from their students

There are people out there that will always resist criticism. Perhaps nothing can be done for them. But for those that may be willing to hear, but who are not being challenged, we must press on. I will continue to encourage people to challenge their beliefs, their worldviews, and their culture. If you have a better way–a better hypothesis–for how to deal with rampant irrational and ignorant beliefs, then by all means get to work.

So, that being said, bring on the challenges.

How to win at “What if?”

This is brilliant stuff. And it sounds even more brilliant because it is juxtaposed with such idiocy.

There are many things that I disagree with Christopher Hitchens about. And I don’t think all of his arguments are the best, or even the correct ones. But when he is on point (and not drunk) there’s no question that he can go toe to toe with anyone in intellectual debate.

Needless to say, evangelist radio host Todd Friel never had a chance…

(Thanks to Pharyngula for pointing me to this.)