Thoughts On Skepticism And Atheism

In this article, “the skeptic movement” and “skepticism” refer to scientific skepticism. Broadly, this means using science to test claims. It does not mean being skeptical of science, or about its claims or methods. Many people who claim to be “climate change skeptics” are in fact climate change deniers.

Over a year ago, there was an email from a skeptics group that I attended a few times. The leader said she did not want the group to be too identified with atheism. She wanted the group to stay focused on broader, scientific, testable topics. She said atheist groups tend to talk about one topic.


But I have a few things to say from the other side, and I see a few things I don’t quite agree with about the skeptic movement. And I would like to see more cooperation between the two movements.

While the skeptic movements seems to have larger numbers, I think that skeptics tend to talk about topics that are irrelevant to larger society. A lot of skeptics seem to shy away from the topic of religion altogether, and are not willing to combat its influence in society. A lot of skeptics do not like to say they are atheists, which I find kind of odd.

Despite what the Religious Right would have people believe, religion has not always been a major influence in American society. If the Founding Fathers really wanted this to be a Christian nation, oddly it slipped their minds to every state that clearly. In the 1912 election, all four major candidates supported evolution.  Even in the 1960s/1970s, when the skeptic movement started, religion was not the big force it is today.

Skeptic groups tend to talk about less consequential topics: astrology, alternative medicine, homeopathy, big foot, anti-vaxers, card tricks Randi did in the 1970s. It is amazing to me that skeptics go on about logic, evidence and critical thinking, yet they have ignored this huge political and cultural shift in our society. And why not look at issues that affect people?

And religion should be tackled in a meaningful way. As some have pointed out, atheist groups win lawsuits against prayer in schools, the Wall Street/Bible Belt circus is passing legislation that is making life worse for just about everybody. Sometimes even people who claim to be for this stuff.

I honestly think some Dominionists want to line up all skeptics and atheists and have us all shot. Homeopaths don’t seem that aggressive.

Some skeptics think that atheist groups are a bunch of jerks for filing lawsuits about prayer in schools. At least atheist groups are taking some action, and counteracting a negative force in our society. Sure, skeptics got PowerBand taken off the market in Australia. As the Mocking Maori would say, “You rock.”

Religion is used to justify a lot of bad policy, and infects everything: birth control, justification for not paying teachers more, energy and climate change (jesus will come back before the oil runs out). Granted, the anti-vaxers are causing deadly diseases to come back. However, that seems to be all they are doing. Religion affects and infects pretty much everything.

Have you ever heard an argument against gay marriage that was not religious? Are astrologers trying to stop science from being taught in schools? And if they are, I don’t see bills about astrology being brought up in multiple states simultaneously, as you do with creationism. Or creation science. Or intelligent design. Or “academic freedom”. Or whatever they will call it next time. Are Big Foot Truthers taking over school boards? We have Representative Paul Broun saying evolution is a lie from the pit of hell. (How can you be a doctor and not accept evolution?) Alabama state senator Shadrack McGill said that teachers should not get a pay raise since teaching is a “calling”, and paying them a decent salary is unbiblical. Illinois Representative John Shimkus says climate change is real and happening, but we should not do anything about it because god promised not to destroy the world by flood again.

A lot of conservative politicians go on and on about this being a “christian nation”. When a bunch of elected officials say we are a Vedic Nation, get back to me.

Plus, skeptics are pro-science, pro-women’s equality, and generally pro-gay rights. We already like the things religious people hate. Other forms of pseudoscience are not trying to set policy in so many areas. Why pat yourself on the back for using logic, evidence and critical thinking to combat minor forms of pseudoscience, when you are ignoring the major one?

Perhaps advocating science education and promoting scientific literacy will help us make progress on a lot of issues. I just think that the two movements should work together more. And I think the two groups should become more politically active, even if all they do is contribute money to candidates and/or organizations. I think other ways are to fund scholarships and contribute to endowing university chairs/professorships.

Don’t think that pushing science won’t put you on the radar of religious folk. Look at the reaction to Cosmos. When people who see the world in black and white are against you, you have to deal with them whether you want to or not.

One thing throwing a wrench into the works (at least here in Austin) is the status of the Center For Inquiry. I guess a major donor stopped donating money, and a lot of their activities might get scaled back. So some of us in Austin are trying to decide if we should wait for CFI to figure things out, or do something on our own. There is the Texas Theocracy Watch and the Secular Texas group. One guy wants to raise enough to buy a building, and have enough left over to run it off the interest.

It will be a lot of work to educate the public. There is a group for women here in Austin called Secular Suzies. I heard that one woman signed up because she thought “secular” meant “religious”. I guess that is the way things are in Texas: If people don’t know what something is, they assume it’s Jesus.

Now to the other point: Are skeptics atheists?

Some do not want to call themselves atheists because the term “atheism” has a bad image. But by avoiding it, aren’t you compounding that problem?

Why do people say that skepticism does not equal atheism? You have to have a double standard: be skeptical of other religions besides your own.

I am okay with equating the two. (Although I have met a few atheists who say they believe in UFOs). So maybe not all atheists are skeptics, but I think that all skeptics are atheists. At least from a functional, pragmatic point of view.

Can I prove that no god exists? I guess not. But the ones I have heard about so far have not been too convincing. So I am okay with saying there are none. Let’s be precise about something else.

I find it odd when some skeptics say there might be some other god out there that we have not encountered, so we really cannot say there are none.

Most skeptics reject all religious/supernatural claims, so why insist that you cannot say there is no god? What god are you holding out for? This god-who-might-exist would have to be different than any conception of god anyone has ever had, or any god any human has ever believed in. A god who is not involved in events, or creation of world, or who interacts with people in any way. Which means you have to change the definition of god. Some people might call that “sophisticated theology”. I do not have a problem rejecting what you cannot define.

First image from LOLtheists, assumed allowed under Fair Use

Second image from My Confined Space, assumed allowed under Fair Use, frequently NSFW

I May Put More Posts On Atheist Nexus

I have accounts on Atheist Nexus and Think Atheist. I have put a few posts on those sites, usually posts dealing with atheism, religion and/or science. I am toying with the idea of putting every post on those sites just to help them get some content. It’s not that I think I am a great writer or deep thinker, but I think that a social network would benefit from more content.

I am not really into Facebook at all. So if I can help any alternative to Facebook survive and thrive, then I am all for it. Although I do find the Ning platform a bit awkward at times.

I don’t know how people will like having posts about other topics on there. But it might help dispel the idea that atheists can only talk about one topic. On the other hand, it is okay for a site to be about one topic.

Image from Atheist Nexus, assumed allowed under Fair Use

Thoughts On Christmas

I have been listening to old episodes of Freethought Radio, and checking my roster of blogs and websites, and this year we have had the usual “War On Christmas” nonsense.

One theme I have heard this year is that a lot of christians think that atheists are hypocrites for “celebrating” Christmas and for taking the day off.

First off, I am not “celebrating” anything today. I am taking the day off, but that is not the same as celebrating. Nor does that imply any sort of worship or devotion. It is really bizarre the way some christians try to insist that on one hand, “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship”, yet anything that atheists do IS a religion.

A lot of christians do not work on Saturdays. Does that make Saturday a holy day for them? If they can take a day off, why can’t the rest of us?

Plus, you kind of have to take the day off on Christmas if you want to or not. A lot of businesses are closed or reduce their hours. When the country shuts down, you take the day off too, regardless of what you believe.

What is really galling is their religion has forced all of us to change our routines, yet somehow they think they are being attacked or persecuted. Then again if you believe in superstition, all logic goes out the window.

Right now I am in Boise, Idaho for work. I am not too familiar with the area. I can go between the airport, the hotel, the client site, WalMart and the Mongolian place downtown. For the past few Christmases, I have either been unemployed, in an unfamiliar city, or both. So for me, having a day when I do not have to do anything is a nice break.

And if I get a day off because a bunch of people believe Bronze Age fairy tales, I am okay with that.

Image from Wikipedia, assumed allowed under Fair Use

Thoughts On The Taxi Cab Fallacy

A while back I came across a post on Wickersham’s Conscience about the taxicab fallacy. He said it is a fallacy for conservatives to question or deny science while using the fruits of science.

I am sure that many atheists and skeptics have found it odd that many fundamentalists say evolution is a lie, yet they continue to see a doctor. Or someone argues against science and technology on the internet. WC gave the example that Florida Senator Marco Rubio thinks the world is only 6,000 years old, yet he probably uses a cel phone with GPS. GPS relies on the concept of radioactive decay. Radioactive decay corroborates and confirms estimates which put the age of the earth at far beyond 6,000 years.

Phil Plait was on Are We Alone a few years ago, and he and the host were commenting on the fact that fundamentalists attack evolution, yet for some reason they do not talk too much about the Big Bang. If you are going to push bad biology, why not push bad chemistry and bad physics as well? If you think that the scientific method is not a good way of acquiring knowledge, then isn’t it hypocritical to enjoy the fruits of the scientific method? Isn’t it logically inconsistent to keep the parts of science you like, and discard the rest?

I think that if you believe in god and use electricity, you need to think long and hard about your life.

I did a little digging, and the taxicab fallacy was actually coined by fundamentalists. Here is a paragraph from Street Apologetics:
A detractor of the Christian worldview cannot hop into the Christian system of thought by erecting an objection grounded in the Bible and then demand an answer be given without the use of a Bible. – See more at:

For a more in-depth look, see Iron Chariots.

I think fundamentalists came up with it to justify circular reasoning. Something Surprising also came to this realization.

If you are going to try to convert me to your religion and get me to change my life, then I can set whatever rules I want. If I do not believe in the Bible, then demanding proof from outside the biblical worldview is justified. I do have one quibble with their definition: my objections to religion are not “grounded in the Bible.” My objections to religion are grounded in reality. I do not object from the Bible. I object to the Bible.

I think that WC is right to define the taxicab fallacy the way he does. I think the atheists and skeptics are using the taxi cab fallacy more appropriately than religious people. Christians accuse atheists of committing the taxicab fallacy when they are trying to convert us. We accuse them of committing the taxicab fallacy as they go about their daily lives, if not every minute of it.

I think another example of the taxicab fallacy is people in the oil industry who deny climate change. (Side note: most people who are called “climate change skeptics” are not skeptics. They are climate change deniers.) Oil rigs and refineries require a lot of advanced scientific and technological knowledge. Oil exploration uses a lot of seismic data, and also uses advanced software to analyze it. At the same time, the consensus of climate scientists is that climate change is happening, and it is caused by humans. I guess Upton Sinclair was right: A man cannot understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it.

The “Are We Alone” podcast is now called “Big Picture Science“.

Image from Wikimedia, assumed allowed under Fair Use

Separation Of Church And State

One of the myths of the Religious Right-Wing is that there is no such thing in the US as the separation of church and state.

Their main argument seems to be that the actual phrase (as well as the phrase “wall of separation”) does not appear in the Constitution. The phrase “wall of separation” comes from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote while President. Generally conservatives love to go on about what the Founders intended, and Jefferson always seemed to be one of their favorite founding fathers.

This topic comes up a lot on Freethought Radio since church/state issues are the point of the organization. They point out that while the phrase is not in the First Amendment, “separation of church and state” is a pretty good summary of the  Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

I had a Christian friend who used this argument since the actual phrase is not in the Constitution. Then he would turn around and tell me about his debates with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They do not believe in the Trinity, since the word “trinity” is not in the Bible. He would cite Bible verses showing that the concept is. He was pretty proud of himself. And he never saw the contradiction.

The hosts of Freethought Radio point out that the concept of Balance of Powers is in the Constitution, even if the phrase is not. Slavery is also in the Constitution, although the actual S-word is not.  The phrases used are “other persons” and “Person held to Service or Labour”.

There is another concept that is in the Constitution even though the phrase itself is not. And it is a concept that a lot of conservatives love love love: States’ rights.

Either you need the phrase in the Constitution, or you do not.

Image from Wikipedia, assumed allowed under Fair Use

My Comment on a Post at The Immoral Minority

There was yet another post about atheism at The Immoral Minority recently. Someone (presumably a theist) asked Richard Dawkins, “What if you are wrong?”

He points out that anybody could be wrong, and that most people believe in the religion that is dominant in their culture.

My comment was:

Another good answer to a christian asking this is: What if YOU are wrong? It amazes me that they never consider this possibility. I think you have to be really arrogant to devote your time to getting other people to changing their mind about religion and admitting they are wrong, but at the same time to never consider the possibility that you could change your own mind.

There was another good comment pointing out that if some god created the world, he had to know the consequences of his act of creation, yet did it anyway. A great response to that is that god frequently sees killing sinners as the solution.

I presume the “consequences” that commenter referred to is the fact that according to most christians (and muslims and possibly other religions as well), most of the people who have ever lived will be tortured for all eternity. Yet christians like to think they have a positive, life-affirming view of things.

If 99% (or so) of humanity living in pain forever is their idea of a positive worldview, what is their idea of a negative worldview?

Image from Wikipedia, assumed allowed under Fair Use.


Freethought Radio and The Texas Tribune Tribcast

I generally do not listen to podcasts as they are released. I let them pile up for a few months. Sometimes when I find a new one that I like I will go back and download all or some of the older episodes.

Over the past few weeks, I listened to episodes of Freethought Radio from 2012. Freethought Radio is produced by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. One of the things that they do is file lawsuits against various state and local governments (and sometimes the federal government) over church/state separation.

They have members all over the country, and their members are informing them of First Amendment issues all the time. Many times the communities the FFRF is contacting complain about “outside groups telling us what to do.”

First off, it’s an outside group with local members. Secondly, it is amazing that so many people claim to be all for the Constitution yet do not understand it. Many people complain about the FFRF trying to “take away our religion”, or something like that. The case law is pretty clear that government cannot endorse religion. The FFRF is not trying to shut down churches. Opening a city council meeting with a prayer does violate the First Amendment. There is nothing stopping people from praying on their own time.

Recently they had a case down here in Texas in a town called Kountze near Houston. They talked about it quite a bit on Freethought Radio.

It was also mentioned on another podcast that I listen to: The Tribcast produced by The Texas Tribune , “a nonprofit, nonpartisan public media organization covering Texas politics and policy with verve.” I started going through the 2012 episodes right after I got done with the 2012 episodes of Freethought Radio.

The governor and the attorney general played the whole “outside groups coming in and trying to tell us what to do” angle. It’s still a load of BS. (Are they that stupid, or do they think the voters are that stupid?) What really shocked me was that when the Tribcast talked about it, nobody on the show seemed to know how a group in Wisconsin found out about this. (They usually have four people on each episode; they rotate amongst their writers and editors.) That really surprised me. I generally like The Tribcast, but I think they fell down on this one.

I found a couple of links on the Texas Tribune site about this case: here  and here. There may be a few more that I did not look at, and maybe I skimmed these two a bit too quickly, but neither of them mentioned that the FFRF acts on complaints from local members throughout the country. There are some quotes from some locals, the AG and the governor, and there is a lawyer for the students who is mentioned by name. There is a link to a PDF of the original letter from the FFRF to the school, but no link to the FFRF home page, no quotes from the FFRF, why they would have standing to file a lawsuit if they were to do so, or mentions of any attempt to contact them.

If I am wrong, send me a link or point out a paragraph that I missed.

As I see it, it just seems like really bad journalism. Maybe the hosts of Freethought Radio were too busy to talk on the phone, or the FFRF lawyers were swamped, but I honestly think that if the Texas Tribune called the FFRF that they would have gotten some answers.

There are pictures of the staff members on the website. Reeve Hamilton sounded like a young guy, but he looks like he is still in high school. I guess the rarified air of Vanderbilt will do that to you. And that is a really WASP-y name. Jay Root and Ross Ramsey kind of look like what I thought they would. Sometimes when I see a picture of someone whose voice I have listened to, I realize I had formed a picture of them in my mind that I was not always aware that I was forming. But Evan Smith definitely looks like what I thought he would look like.

Image from Freedom From Religion Foundation website, assumed allowed under Fair Use. It is from a page called “Logos and Photos”. 1. I think it is kind of funny they of all organizations have a page called “Logos and Photos” considering that Logos has a theological meaning. 2. If they have a page with a few different pictures of their logo, I guess that means it is okay to use elsewhere.

Thoughts On Abortion and Religion

As you may have gathered, abortion has been in the news a lot here in Texas lately. Juanita Jean has been keeping me informed on what is going on. Many people at Secular Texas were at the rallies and the hearings. I was not able to go since I work full-time. A big chunk of the people in Secular Texas are either retirees, freelancers, or work much closer to the capitol than I do.

As with many abortion debates, many people on the pro-birth side are men, who try to use religion to justify their positions. I wrote “pro-birth” on purpose. We need to stop letting them get away with saying they are pro-life. If you fight tooth and nail for an unborn child, but then refuse to lift a finger once the child is born, you are not pro-life.

Over the past few weeks, the Talibaptists in three states used underhanded tactics for pro-birth bills: Texas, Ohio and North Carolina. Either they stacked the deck for scheduling testimony, or they introduced bills or amendments at the last minute.

If you have to lie or obfuscate to do the right thing, are you really doing the right thing?

On the pro-choice side are a lot of women. There are a lot of old women. Grandmothers who are too old to get pregnant. Yet they fight pro-birth bills tooth and nail.

Religious people like to think they are better than us atheists since they believe in something greater than themselves.

Which leads to a couple of questions. If they can see the big picture, why can’t they see this issue from the perspective of the women on the other side? Shouldn’t the fact that women who are too old to get pregnant are so vehemently against abortion restrictions make the big thinkers stop and think why these women fight tooth and nail for something they themselves will never need?

Alternatively, shouldn’t these people who believe in something greater than themselves be able to persuade people who disagree with them?

I am starting to realize that religion and libertarianism are just a way to put fancy words and catchphrases around selfishness and control.

Image from Wikimedia, assumed allowed under Fair Use.

Thoughts on Language and Woo

So I went to a meetup tonight. Another Celtic meetup.

It was hosted by a guy who is learning to speak Welsh. There was a woman there from Scotland who is learning Gaelic.

They talked about the myths and what historical knowledge was preserved in them. They also talked about how languages contain ways of thinking within them. In Gaelic, you are not hungry, nor do you have feelings. They are upon you. You are not simply from somewhere. You are of somewhere. The place is not a part of you. You are a part of the place.

In some languages. many words sound like other words. These homophones give clues to worldviews. I think they mentioned that many words, including the words for “knowledge” in Gaelic and Welsh, sound very close to the word for tree. For centuries trees was where communities gathered to make important decisions, and many druids, bards and keepers of knowledge lived near trees. Sometimes a line of poetry can have many layers of meaning.

When a land is conquered, the conquerors ban the language to remove people’s identity. Many times the place names remain, but people forget what they mean. It is a dark pool of knowledge. But I do not live in the land of my ancestors. I do not even live where I was born. All I can do is speak of these things clearly and plainly.

He also seemed to believe in reincarnation. And homeopathy. There seemed to be some woo.

But I realized that in a way a lot of the New Age stuff can be somewhat compatible with skepticism. The myths contain the views of people from previous times. Sometimes the words and stories are all that is left of entire worldviews. Perhaps the people preserving some of this knowledge are misinterpreting it, or taking viewpoints literally that have been superceded by scientific knowledge. But I do think there is knowledge there. And it is historical knowledge that should be preserved.

Perhaps if you don’t have a non-mechanistic worldview it can be hard to study some of this stuff. I don’t know how to resolve that contradiction.


Image from Wikimedia


Thoughts on the new pope and miracles

Here are a few thoughts inspired by the selection of a new pope. Who is probably not all that different than the last one.

Why is he elected by cardinals? This is another example of a thought that has occurred to me a few times lately: Why does god need people to do his work? Why can’t god put the name of the new pope into peoples’s heads? Why can’t every Catholic (or even every human being) just all simultaneously think, “I think the new pope should be so-and-so.” That would be pretty miraculous. I am guessing that most Catholics had never heard of this guy a week ago.

I saw an image on twitter recently of a woman holding a handwritten sign: “If I could I would end suffering. That’s the difference between me and god. I’m proud to be an atheist and ex-Muslim”. (If you are the woman who held this sign, you see this post and need a green card, contact me.)

To a certain degree, my idea and the sign are expressing the same idea as the question “Why Won’t God Heal Amputees?”  Why aren’t there more true miracles? Why doesn’t god do something that can’t be explained any other way? (Sunrises and smiling babies aren’t miracles. They are natural phenomena that happen all the time.) Billions of people thinking that someone they have never heard of before should be pope. I am sure a lot of people would become believers then.

One objection to this is that we would be “forced” to believe in god, that god wants us to have free will.

Let me trot out the usual objections: That this “free will” is extortion. It’s Mafia free will: If you make the choice god does not want you to make, then you are punished.

Another problem I have with the “free will” objection is that a lot of christians think the ideal state for them is to do whatever god wants them to, to do his will and not their own. To be a slave. To be an automaton. I have not heard (or read) them using those exact words, but that’s the general idea. It sounds Orwellian: “Freedom is obedience.”

If it is good for people to choose to be mindless robots, why is it bad for god to make people as robots from the beginning? Why didn’t god just create a small number of people to be true believers, and spare everybody else a lot of suffering?

If we had this worldwide telepathic event, I don’t think that we would be “forced” to believe. I hope that I would at least reconsider things if it happened. But I think a lot of people would still come up with alternative explanations or just deny any evidence. We have people who still deny evolution (even though they use medicine) and climate change (even though over 99% of the articles say it is happening). I bet that a lot of people would think that papal telepathy would just be satan trying to deceive people. There are a lot of evangelicals who think that the catholic church is an arm of satan.

According to the bibles I have read, Jesus did a lot of miracles. But not everyone was convinced that he was the son of god. If people were not “forced” to believe while the son of man supposedly walked amongst the living, why wouldn’t people choose to accept or deny god in the face of miracles today?