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Relaunched and Rebranded: Introducing Skeptical Sundays

July 5, 2009

So it’s been a while since I wrote…well, anything here, much less a Secular Sunday post. I’m hoping to get back in the groove of things, but as I do, I wanted to put a new face on it. 

A few commenters have made the point that my focus with Secular Sundays has been a little bit narrow, and having taken some time away, I have to agree. I want to broaden the focus out from religious nonsense, to encompass all manner of weird and unsubstantiated claims and beliefs. Secular Sunday doesn’t encompass UFOs, or homeopathy, or 2012 predictions, or the Zeitgeist movement, and I want to be able to talk about all that and more as it comes up. 

Additionally, I’ve determined — like others before me — that I don’t wish to be defined solely by what I don’t believe. “Atheist” implies that “theist” is a baseline from which one deviates (when in fact the reverse is true, we are all born without god-belief and must have it taught to us), and only expresses one particular claim I do not currently accept. Instead, I prefer to define myself by something I do hold to be true: I am a skeptic. 

Being a skeptic doesn’t mean doubting everything and never holding a solid belief, as seems to be the popular connotation (weirdly, the same connotation is applied to the word “agnostic” and in neither case is it appropriate). What it means is that I have a certain standard of evidence that must be met before I will accept a claim as true — and, more importantly, I apply this standard consistently across all aspects of life. I cannot accept a claim just because I would like it to be true, and I cannot dismiss a claim just because I would not. The claim must stand or fall on its own merits. 

I considered rebranding this to “Scientific Sundays,” as usually an unsupported claim crumbles when confronted with science and so there’d be a lot of that. I also want to be able to post about scientific discoveries that have nothing to do with debunking false claims — other than the fact that every success of science proves the efficacy of the scientific method, and implicitly debunks any claim that the scientific method is empty or unreliable. Not being a scientist, however, I feel that calling it “Scientific Sundays” would be hubris on my part. 

So, the best catch-all name that maintains the alliteration on which I’ve become fixated is “Skeptical Sundays.” 

To kick things off, I wanted to share this video of scientist Richard Feynman, expressing, with elegance, the rational view of the universe.

More to come!

17 Comments
  1. Katie permalink

    “I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things.”

    That line in particular struck me, and is quite interesting indeed. Thanks for giving me something to think about.

  2. Carl permalink

    That man is wise. He speaks the truth. I will follow him unquestioningly.

    • Jake permalink

      I don’t think you understand him, then.

      Unless that is meant to be irony.

  3. If one will not accept anything without proof first, then one would do very little in life as we do many, many things every day without worrying about having proof, regardless if we believe in gods or mystic forces or fate or free will or invisible ink or not.

  4. Spiff permalink

    In science there are no proofs. Anytime someone says something is “scientifically proven” you know they don’t have the slightest clue what science actually is capable of.

    Being comfortable with uncertainties is a huge part of being a scientist. Uncertainties can be reduced, but never eliminated. Such is nature.

    How anyone who claims to be “scientific” can be either an atheist or a theist is incomprehensible to me, since science cannot support absolute view points.

    • dorkmanscott permalink

      There’s nothing about theism or atheism that necessarily makes them “absolute” viewpoints, any more than there’s anything in science that is necessarily absolute.

      An atheist simply rejects the notion that there is a god, the same way that scientists reject — for example — the notion that disease is caused by demons or an imbalance of the four humours. For the reasons that a) we have a better, more consistently verified and corroborated explanation, and b) there is no evidence at all to support the rejected viewpoint. There’s nothing absolutist about it, it’s just a question of how probable it is that a given explanation is the correct one.

      Calling either position “absolute” is as incorrect as stating that “proof” is a scientific goal. You don’t have to have absolute certainty to be “pretty sure based on the evidence (or lack thereof).”

      • So… what are the probabilities that there are any gods and that there are not any gods?

        • … based on the evidence (or lack thereof).

          • dorkmanscott permalink

            The positive evidence that I have seen for the existence of any god is precisely zero, making “gods” identical to any other imagined creature like leprechauns, pixies, and trolls.

            Might they exist somewhere out there? The universe is effectively infinite, so they might, sure. But there is no reason whatsoever to assume that they do, and certainly not as sufficient explanations for observed phenomena.

  5. But what is a sufficient explanation to you? From what I have read here, what you require from religion is more than most people need to just wake up each day.

    I really do not understand the common Atheist passive-aggressive stance: “I will not accept the belief in gods because you have not provided enough evidence.” That just seems to leave a lexical loophole in the case that someone manages to prove that gods do exist and that they should do all those weird things because of it.

    I stand up and say that I choose to not believe in any gods because I have satisfied my criteria for it. If someone proves me wrong, cool. I will adjust what I think I know and go from there. If that condemns me to an afterlife in SoCal, oh well.

    We are going to make mistakes in life, and we are going to pay for them whether or not we know the price beforehand. The only way to avoid that is to do nothing… ever, which is an absolute mistake if you want to do anything at all, of course.

    I get that you want to debunk people who say they have proof and insist that others believe them (or they do not need proof and insist that others still believe them). That’s cool. I still keep seeing trends that just suggest that you either want to fight while knowing that nobody could ever beat your demands or are desperately wanting someone to prove you wrong.

    Until we can prove that no gods exist, they will keep throwing that back at us just as many throw their lack of proof back at them. If we are right (and I believe we are), it is a battle of circular logic. Time wasted.

    Nobody needs any more or less proof than what they require for their own beliefs. If you have what you need to believe what you do, go with it. If you believe you need to make others believe as you do, good luck with that but I hope you like disappointment.

    • dorkmanscott permalink

      But what is a sufficient explanation to you? From what I have read here, what you require from religion is more than most people need to just wake up each day.

      And how is that inappropriate? Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

      You say your name is Eric. I don’t know you and that may not be true, but as it’s not a particularly extraordinary claim (and it’s not terribly important whether or not it’s true, really) I’m willing to take such a claim at face value.

      If you tell me your name is Eric and you’re posting to my blog from Mars, and you’re being serious, that would be a rather extraordinary claim and, if you expect me to accept such a claim, you’re going to have to give me some extraordinary evidence.

      There’s a great deal more to religion than there is to waking up in the morning, therefore it’s only sensible to require more of one than the other.

      And I’ve actually already addressed what could convince me that a god exists.

      I really do not understand the common Atheist passive-aggressive stance: “I will not accept the belief in gods because you have not provided enough evidence.”

      It’s called the burden of proof. The person making a claim must prove it.

      For example, I tell you that my home is visited by the Underpants Gnomes in the night. If your first inclination is to believe me automatically, then there is something wrong with you. More appropriately, you may humor me and go so far as to allow me to present evidence for the claim, in which case you may find that I make a convincing case and you decide you believe me. But I have to convince you that I’m right, not the other way around.

      It’s the same way in a court of law, at least in this country. The prosecution is making the claim “Suspect X did Y.” The presumption of innocence means that it is their job, as the side making the claim, to prove that such a thing is true.

      That just seems to leave a lexical loophole in the case that someone manages to prove that gods do exist and that they should do all those weird things because of it.

      If someone can demonstrate convincingly that gods exist, that still doesn’t mean such “weird things” are justified.

      I can give evidence for a claim that my friend Ryan exists, but even if I did, that wouldn’t mean everything I said about Ryan was true. If I said that Ryan wants you to pour soup on your head, regardless of whether or not you believe that Ryan exists, you would be perfectly justified in wanting evidence of this specific claim, and moreover, needing to be presented with a good argument as to why you should do such a strange thing at his say-so.

      I stand up and say that I choose to not believe in any gods because I have satisfied my criteria for it.

      You have satisfied your criteria for unbelief? What criteria would that be? And are you not in fact doing the exact same thing I do — looking for evidence that gods DO exist, finding it lacking, and rejecting the claim?

      I get that you want to debunk people who say they have proof and insist that others believe them (or they do not need proof and insist that others still believe them). That’s cool.

      Then why are you arguing with me?

      I still keep seeing trends that just suggest that you either want to fight while knowing that nobody could ever beat your demands or are desperately wanting someone to prove you wrong.

      I want to know the truth, regardless of which one it is. If someone is going to assert that gods exist, they need to be able to demonstrate the positive case for their claim, and I, as a skeptic, need to be able to accept their claim if in fact the evidence supports it.

      As the evidence does NOT support it, at least none that I have ever encountered, I reject the claim, and I do so for the same reasons that people who accept the claim of gods reject the claims of leprechauns, trolls, and gods other than the one they’ve decided they worship.

      Until we can prove that no gods exist

      We can’t.

      Prove to me that no leprechauns exist. At all. Anywhere in the universe. You can’t. You can say that there is no evidence for leprechauns, but that’s as far as you can go, and you have to be ready to change your position if the evidence arrives.

      I don’t believe in leprechauns and I don’t believe that we will ever find evidence that they exist. But I am aware that there’s a chance, however slim, that I might be wrong, and I’m prepared to accept it if I am.

      If we are right (and I believe we are), it is a battle of circular logic. Time wasted.

      I believe you’re wrong about this. For one thing, it isn’t a battle of circular logic. It’s a battle of logic vs. illogic. For another, it’s not a waste of time if it can get people thinking rationally about what they believe and why they believe it. Some people may be too far gone, but I don’t believe that number is nearly as high as you seem to. As evidence for my claim, I submit myself — previously a believer, now a skeptic. You want to assert that no believer would ever listen? The fact that I did proves you wrong.

      Nobody needs any more or less proof than what they require for their own beliefs.

      Ah, but my point is that people who accept the claims of religion DO, generally speaking, accept less evidence (proof and evidence are not the same word and shouldn’t be used so interchangably, BTW) than they do of other extraordinary claims. Their gauge of what they ought to question and what they ought to take on faith is broken, and it frequently results in bad fact-checking skills in other aspects of life.

      If you believe you need to make others believe as you do, good luck with that but I hope you like disappointment.

      Do me a favor and take the time to go back to earlier posts here and actually read about what I believe and don’t, instead of telling me what I believe and don’t.

      Or, if you don’t like/aren’t interested in what I have to say, simply stop reading the blog. No one is forcing it upon you, as far as I know.

      • emptyscarecrow permalink

        “…I stand up and say that I choose to not believe…”

        “…and you decide you believe me…”

        I have a slight problem with the manner in which the two of you have identified the process of coming around to a certain viewpoint. Belief is not a decision one can make. After all, I didn’t choose to be an atheist any more than I chose to be gay or chose to believe in gravity.

        Percy Bysshe Shelley forwarded this view rather eloquently in his “The Necessity of Atheism.” It may seem a minor transgression, but it is fairly important to recognize it. I first recognized this fact when I watched a video on the KKK that showed children, toddlers even, in sheets around a burning cross. I lost a lot of my preconceptions about bigotry that day.

        You can, however, choose to examine the available evidence more carefully, and without prejudice. That alone will bring the theists around.

        Also, interesting video, though I’d rather Feynman were a little more eloquent.

        • dorkmanscott permalink

          You make a good point, actually. I’m trying to train myself out of the habit of using the word “believe” — would you agree that the preferable word is “accept”?

  6. emptyscarecrow permalink

    “…would you agree that the preferable word is ‘accept’?”

    Yes, I think that might partially eliminate the problem.

    For reference, here is Shelley’s essay, for which he was expelled from Oxford.

    http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/percy_shelley/necessity_of_atheism.html

  7. I am going to clarify a few of my statements by restating them:
    I really do not understand the common Atheist passive-aggressive stance: “I will not accept the belief in gods because you have not provided enough evidence.”

    It’s called the burden of proof. The person making a claim must prove it.

    It is still passive-aggressive regardless what you wish to call it.

    That just seems to leave a lexical loophole in the case that someone manages to prove that gods do exist and that they should do all those weird things because of it.

    If someone can demonstrate convincingly that gods exist, that still doesn’t mean such “weird things” are justified.

    I did not say that one implied the other. The statement requires the resolution of both conditions and not just one or the other. Let me demonstrate:
    … someone manages to prove [that gods do exist] and [that they should do all those weird things because of it].
    resolves into:
    … someone manages to prove that gods do exist and someone manages to prove that they should do all those weird things because of it.

    Until we can prove that no gods exist

    We can’t.

    Well. Duh. That is the point. We cannot prove it. I never stated that we could prove it.

    If you believe you need to make others believe as you do, good luck with that but I hope you like disappointment.

    Do me a favor and take the time to go back to earlier posts here and actually read about what I believe and don’t, instead of telling me what I believe and don’t.

    That was a conditional statement. It did not say what you believed.

    It would be a shame if I am unable to use standard grammatical conventions of American English to communicate here.

    If I were to make a personal assessment given your statements and responses, it would be this:
    You are on the slacker’s crusade. You have set up the rules to a fight that you cannot lose, that will never end and that requires nothing from you.

    I ask you to go over your rules in your 8/27/08 post and apply them to the communities whose hypotheses you accept.

    I have only a slim interest in what you say regarding religion. I have heard it all before. I have said the same words myself in the past. The reasons you say them interest me much more.

    The only glimmer into that happened when you stated that religion has done more harm than good. The burden of proof is on you for that statement. Your examples hardly came close to surviving the same scrutiny you place on religious claims.

    If you really are on a crusade against religion that requires you do to nothing except point at a set of criteria that even the general scientific community fails to abide, I would like to know why.

    • emptyscarecrow permalink

      “You are on the slacker’s crusade. You have set up the rules to a fight that you cannot lose, that will never end and that requires nothing from you.”

      No one set up these rules, they exist inherently in the debate. As one does not, and cannot, choose whether or not to be convinced, one cannot establish the point at which that event occurs. As Shelley points out (link above), and as Bertrand Russell substantiates with his wonderful orbital teapot, it is a passive process, and our mind’s inclination, lacking evidence to the contrary, is to assume that something does not exist if there is no sensory or viable secondary evidence for it.

      “It is still passive-aggressive regardless what you wish to call it.”

      Is this how you dismiss the onus probandi, the burden of proof? Is it passive-aggressive for a defense attorney to recognize that the burden is on the accuser? If you accuse me of murdering your mother, is it passive-aggressive for me to deny that claim, to be considered innocent until proven guilty? Is it passive-aggressive for the jury to demand evidence before voting to convict? Of course it isn’t.

      Now let us consider whether it is the atheist who is the ‘slacker’. The atheist admits his own ignorance; he does not claim certitude. He also optimistically points to a future intelligence that will rectify that ignorance in some measure. When the atheist discovers darkness, he probes for light. He seeks the knowledge and the evidence that will either affirm his position or correct it. The atheist accepts the difficult answers, and the unanswered questions that remain. He accepts that his life may be entirely without meaning, and that his death will be his ultimate termination; he does not comfort himself with an afterlife, but recognizes the probability of his total mortality-he is mortal in both body and consciousness. The atheist allows the edges of the map to remain blank; he does not conceal his ignorance with bedtime stories- he does not assume that “here there be monsters!”. The atheist employs the the total scope of human vision to search for answers. He does not resign himself to the cop-outs of an era twenty centuries before his birth.

      But the faithful? He discovers his ignorance, and there places his god, an invention that answers all the unanswered questions for him. When he discovers his own transience, he installs a heaven; he creates his own imagined immortality to avoid the pain of death. When his children misbehave, he threatens them with eternal damnation. ‘God’, his invention, is everything he cannot be. He languishes. He accepts his Bible as an object that can field all queries, which robs him of the necessity to search for truth. He makes a virtue of accepting slothful ignorance under the facade of bold and righteous faith.

      “If you really are on a crusade against religion that requires you do to nothing except point at a set of criteria that even the general scientific community fails to abide, I would like to know why.”

      It is foolish to assume that the atheist is on the easy side of this debate. He stands against an established way of thinking that has pervaded essentially all societies from the dawn of man. He looks to the dying, and tells them there is no hope. He looks to the grieving, and tells them there is no larger plan.

      As for the general scientific community, they abide by these rules precisely. While they did not create them, they did disseminate them, and show that they existed. Your claim is absurd.

      Now, to answer your question, the impetus for a ‘crusade’ against religion lies in the knowledge that all the most important decisions society can make for its members are being made by people who believe in things which very likely are not there. The men and women who control the nuclear arms around the world overwhelming believe in the prospect of judgment day. It is reasonable to fear that these religious people will fulfill the role the have invented for themselves; they will fight for their ‘god’, and those of us who are sensible enough to object will be caught in that crossfire.

      Why the crusade? Because religion, taken to its natural conclusion, is the most frightening thing man has yet contrived.

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