Religion's Claim to be Non-Disprovable

by Eliezer Yudkowsky4 min read4th Aug 2007321 comments



The earliest account I know of a scientific experiment is, ironically, the story of Elijah and the priests of Baal.

The people of Israel are wavering between Jehovah and Baal, so Elijah announces that he will conduct an experiment to settle it—quite a novel concept in those days! The priests of Baal will place their bull on an altar, and Elijah will place Jehovah’s bull on an altar, but neither will be allowed to start the fire; whichever God is real will call down fire on His sacrifice. The priests of Baal serve as control group for Elijah—the same wooden fuel, the same bull, and the same priests making invocations, but to a false god. Then Elijah pours water on his altar—ruining the experimental symmetry, but this was back in the early days—to signify deliberate acceptance of the burden of proof, like needing a 0.05 significance level. The fire comes down on Elijah’s altar, which is the experimental observation. The watching people of Israel shout “The Lord is God!”—peer review.

And then the people haul the 450 priests of Baal down to the river Kishon and slit their throats. This is stern, but necessary. You must firmly discard the falsified hypothesis, and do so swiftly, before it can generate excuses to protect itself. If the priests of Baal are allowed to survive, they will start babbling about how religion is a separate magisterium which can be neither proven nor disproven.

Back in the old days, people actually believed their religions instead of just believing in them. The biblical archaeologists who went in search of Noah’s Ark did not think they were wasting their time; they anticipated they might become famous. Only after failing to find confirming evidence—and finding disconfirming evidence in its place—did religionists execute what William Bartley called the retreat to commitment, “I believe because I believe.”

Back in the old days, there was no concept of religion’s being a separate magisterium. The Old Testament is a stream-of-consciousness culture dump: history, law, moral parables, and yes, models of how the universe works—like the universe being created in six days (which is a metaphor for the Big Bang), or rabbits chewing their cud. (Which is a metaphor for . . .)

Back in the old days, saying the local religion “could not be proven” would have gotten you burned at the stake. One of the core beliefs of Orthodox Judaism is that God appeared at Mount Sinai and said in a thundering voice, “Yeah, it’s all true.” From a Bayesian perspective that’s some darned unambiguous evidence of a superhumanly powerful entity. (Although it doesn’t prove that the entity is God per se, or that the entity is benevolent—it could be alien teenagers.) The vast majority of religions in human history—excepting only those invented extremely recently—tell stories of events that would constitute completely unmistakable evidence if they’d actually happened. The orthogonality of religion and factual questions is a recent and strictly Western concept. The people who wrote the original scriptures didn’t even know the difference.

The Roman Empire inherited philosophy from the ancient Greeks; imposed law and order within its provinces; kept bureaucratic records; and enforced religious tolerance. The New Testament, created during the time of the Roman Empire, bears some traces of modernity as a result. You couldn’t invent a story about God completely obliterating the city of Rome (a la Sodom and Gomorrah), because the Roman historians would call you on it, and you couldn’t just stone them.

In contrast, the people who invented the Old Testament stories could make up pretty much anything they liked. Early Egyptologists were genuinely shocked to find no trace whatsoever of Hebrew tribes having ever been in Egypt—they weren’t expecting to find a record of the Ten Plagues, but they expected to find something. As it turned out, they did find something. They found out that, during the supposed time of the Exodus, Egypt ruled much of Canaan. That’s one huge historical error, but if there are no libraries, nobody can call you on it.

The Roman Empire did have libraries. Thus, the New Testament doesn’t claim big, showy, large-scale geopolitical miracles as the Old Testament routinely did. Instead the New Testament claims smaller miracles which nonetheless fit into the same framework of evidence. A boy falls down and froths at the mouth; the cause is an unclean spirit; an unclean spirit could reasonably be expected to flee from a true prophet, but not to flee from a charlatan; Jesus casts out the unclean spirit; therefore Jesus is a true prophet and not a charlatan. This is perfectly ordinary Bayesian reasoning, if you grant the basic premise that epilepsy is caused by demons (and that the end of an epileptic fit proves the demon fled).

Not only did religion used to make claims about factual and scientific matters, religion used to make claims about everything. Religion laid down a code of law—before legislative bodies; religion laid down history—before historians and archaeologists; religion laid down the sexual morals—before Women’s Lib; religion described the forms of government—before constitutions; and religion answered scientific questions from biological taxonomy to the formation of stars.1 The modern concept of religion as purely ethical derives from every other area’s having been taken over by better institutions. Ethics is what’s left.

Or rather, people think ethics is what’s left. Take a culture dump from 2,500 years ago. Over time, humanity will progress immensely, and pieces of the ancient culture dump will become ever more glaringly obsolete. Ethics has not been immune to human progress—for example, we now frown upon such Bible-approved practices as keeping slaves. Why do people think that ethics is still fair game?

Intrinsically, there’s nothing small about the ethical problem with slaughtering thousands of innocent first-born male children to convince an unelected Pharaoh to release slaves who logically could have been teleported out of the country. It should be more glaring than the comparatively trivial scientific error of saying that grasshoppers have four legs. And yet, if you say the Earth is flat, people will look at you like you’re crazy. But if you say the Bible is your source of ethics, women will not slap you. Most people’s concept of rationality is determined by what they think they can get away with; they think they can get away with endorsing Bible ethics; and so it only requires a manageable effort of self-deception for them to overlook the Bible’s moral problems. Everyone has agreed not to notice the elephant in the living room, and this state of affairs can sustain itself for a time.

Maybe someday, humanity will advance further, and anyone who endorses the Bible as a source of ethics will be treated the same way as Trent Lott endorsing Strom Thurmond’s presidential campaign. And then it will be said that religion’s “true core” has always been genealogy or something.

The idea that religion is a separate magisterium that cannot be proven or disproven is a Big Lie—a lie which is repeated over and over again, so that people will say it without thinking; yet which is, on critical examination, simply false. It is a wild distortion of how religion happened historically, of how all scriptures present their beliefs, of what children are told to persuade them, and of what the majority of religious people on Earth still believe. You have to admire its sheer brazenness, on a par with Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia. The prosecutor whips out the bloody axe, and the defendant, momentarily shocked, thinks quickly and says: “But you can’t disprove my innocence by mere evidence—it’s a separate magisterium!”

And if that doesn’t work, grab a piece of paper and scribble yourself a Get Out of Jail Free card.

1 The Old Testament doesnt talk about a sense of wonder at the complexity of the universe, perhaps because it was too busy laying down the death penalty for women who wore mens clothing, which was solid and satisfying religious content of that era.


320 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 9:46 PM
New Comment
Some comments are truncated due to high volume. (⌘F to expand all)Change truncation settings

Very well written, as usual. But many other modern institutions have analogous ancient institutions that look rather silly by modern standards. Consider trial by combat in law, or ancient scholastic obsessions with the "true" meaning of ancient texts. If lawyers and academics can disavow these ancient practices, while still embracing a true essence of law or academia, why can't religious folks disavow ancient religious practice in favor of some true essence that makes sense in modern terms?

4sark9yPerhaps not what most religious folks would call its 'essence' (part of the problem that they won't admit this really) but certain religion-based social norms which are still relevant in today's world.
6[anonymous]9yI once read an article to the effect that, even among non-religious people, people who grew up in traditionally predominantly Catholic areas are more likely to forgive minor rule violations, people who grew up in traditionally predominantly Calvinist areas are more likely to value economic success a lot, etc.
3pnrjulius9yBut we can clearly identify what we mean by the "core" of law (organizing rules for society) and the "core" of academia (collective pursuit of knowledge). No one seems able to agree what the "core" of religion is (not questioning authority?).
-2adjuant_duplicate0.442951500642799533yI think that the core of religion—that is to say, Christianity—consists of all the things that human beings ought to do. Our purpose, both in the particular and universal sense, and our ultimate destination.
0Houshalter7yI feel like there is something deeply wrong with your reasoning. "Law" is general concept, not something based on a single book from thousands of years ago.
0Tim_I6yI think the analogy works only so far. In both law and academics, "true essence" has remained constant through time, even though practices and techniques have changed, they have not altered the true essence which makes sense in modern times but also made sense and is the same exact true essence from ancient times. To claim ethics to be the true essence of religion thus mandates that it remain constant, and taken literally from the texts, where then mass murder of newborns and non believers becomes a problem for someone who claims to take their ethical cue from ancient scripture.
3hairyfigment6yReally? I'm not sure much has remained constant at all. My response would be that we don't actually have a meaningful choice about keeping laws of some kind in existence, and I don't know what "ancient scholastic obsessions" he could mean if not religious ones. E.g, most interpretations of Plato or Aristotle at least had a religious aspect. (And even so, we probably should re-examine academic traditions from time to time.)
4[anonymous]6yBecause when you try that you get New Age cults and faith-healing. The true essence is the toxic and wrong part.
027chaos6yYou might want to reread the original essay, for context. Hanson's reply makes more sense in context.
0[anonymous]6yWell, name a religion that's true. The problem with religion is that the emotions and experiences it evokes, qua emotions and experiences, are invariably tied to some kind of belief and ritual, and since the beliefs are invariably wrong, you always end up with a toxic practice.
0TheAncientGeek6yMaybe the people who are disavowing ancient religious practice in favor of some true essence that makes sense in modern terms are coming up with something you wouldn't categorise as religion.
0[anonymous]6yPossibly. In which case I'd ask that they articulate what they mean.
3Furslid6yBecause religion cites their ancient texts as authority, their historical teachers as guides and examples to be emulated. And this is a necessary part of many religions which would not survive without it. Trial by combat is gone, and no one cites the code duello as a legal text. Law firms don't cite a professional duelist as a respected founding member to be emulated. The theory of the four elements is gone. Scientists no longer cite Aristotle as an authority on physics. "Ipse dixit," isn't used even when Aristotle was right. The theories of colonialism and racial superiority are on the outs. No one publicly asks on a question of government policy "What would Cecil Rhodes do?" Much less assume that that's the right thing to do. Even if they like some writings of Thomas Jefferson, they don't claim they are right because Jefferson wrote them. Christians cite old testament laws to condemn homosexuality or genesis as an actual text. They cite Moses or Paul as authorities on morality. As authorities on anything. They guide themselves by asking "WWJD?" Catholics even hold up the institution of the papacy as giving moral authority, and accept that the Borgias were legitimate moral authorities. If a person doesn't view the bible as giving useful historical or scientific knowledge; If they don't accept the teachings of Moses, Paul or Jesus as being specially relevant; If they don't hold up Jesus as a paragon of virtue to be emulated; In what way are they still a Christian?

1) Because they'll say with their lips, "Oh, well, I just want the true essence" and then go on denying homosexuals the right to marry because it's the word of God.

2) What's left, exactly?

3) Nazism would have been unexceptional if it had been an ancient religion instead of a modern government. Why can't modern Nazis disavow ancient Nazi practice in favor of some true essence that makes sense in modern terms?

4) Why not start your search for the true essence in Lord of the Rings, which dominates the Bible both ethically and aesthetically? Or Harry Potter? Or Oh My Goddess?

And above all,

5) Because it's a fantastically elaborate way of refusing to admit you were wrong.

4) Why not start your search for the true essence in [....] Harry Potter?



Why can't modern Nazis disavow ancient Nazi practice in favor of some true essence that makes sense in modern terms?

One can argue that holocaust denial is an attempt to bring nazism closer to modern ethical values. Real, authentic Nazis were proud of their achievement and would be outraged by thought that their successors would call them a lie.

Why not start your search for the true essence in Lord of the Rings

Some people do :-P

1Document7yIt sounds like you're using the word "Nazi" differently [].
8DanielLC6yReal, authentic Nazis were also Holocaust deniers. It wasn't public knowledge.
-2Mader_Levap5yNot publicly. Holocaust denial exists since it (mass murdering of certain groups of humans) make them look bad. Of course, it is Insane Troll Logic, but I do not think anyone expects sane logic from Nazis.
1TraderJoe9yBecause we have Atlas Shrugged :)
0Odinn8yI think the intended message is we should get nervous about applying an Absolute, Literal lens to any literature, especially if we get this Wonderful, Amazing, Good feeling from doing so.
0Document7yEliezer's intended message or TraderJoe's?
-2Ebthgidr7yFor number 3, I realize the implied point, and I assume that there is more to this argument, but that sentence was one big strawman. Also, I would respond by asking why someone following the 'true essence' but confirming to modern societal/ethical norms is any worse than someone who is following said norms for a different reason. For #4, those novels don't explicitly provide ethical direction-one can use a system of ethical precepts without it being absolute and unchangeable.
0waveman5yJust highlighting this point.
1Jiro5yWhy can't they? Well, see this old post [].
2jkadlubo4yRoom full of first year pedagogy students, lecturer puts a claim "marxism is not the philosophy of Marx." He explains how marxists distorted original Marx' thought and how the original claims are so great and describe the world and how they should be followed. If I was generous, I would say he wanted the students to argue, he wanted them to think critically and disprove his weak argument, but he had experience with students and those were 18-year-olds, who would always try to shut down my questions for explanations "because we want to have this lecture finished". The way it worked, for next two weeks all girls in my group (exept for one other older student) were avid, bona fide marxists. And likely spread this ideology to their families. 3 is happening in real life.

The difference is that ethics are not falsifiable. This leads me to believe there are no ethical truths.

-3DanielLC10yIf there are no ethical truths, there's nothing wrong with assuming that there are, so you might as well assume there are.

I think you're mistakenly equivocating between "wrong with" referring to morality and rational justification. If there are no moral truths, then of course it's not immoral to believe there are moral truths, but it's not epistemically rational, which is the relevant point among people who care about epistemic rationality.

-2DanielLC10yIt's relevant to what they care about, but what does it matter if their desires are fulfilled?
-1DanielLC10yThe lack of ethics are also not falsifiable. By the same logic, you could say that there must be ethical truths. Why must everything that exists be falsifiable? If there was a particle that didn't react to any of the four forces, its existence would be unfalsifiable. Is that any reason for it to not exist? If you had two non-interacting universe, by your logic each could say that the other doesn't exist. Certainly two universes isn't the same as no universes.
5pnrjulius9yAlthough, each wouldn't know about the other... so maybe they would be justified in inferring that the other doesn't exist. (After all, invisible fairies could be hiding in your attic right now, provided they are invisible, inaudible, massless, permeable to all substances...)
0DanielLC9ySay what you will about them being justified. They're still wrong.
1JohnWittle8yUm... If there's a particle which does not interact with anything in the observable universe, then the state of the universe would be exactly the same if that particle did not exist. While we can go about postulating the existence of a myriad of such particles, the entire idea of Occam's razor is that it is easier to just say that things which cannot possibly affect the universe don't exist.
0DanielLC8yWhy are you suggesting saying it doesn't exist? Because it's easier?
0RomanDavis8yBecause there's no evidence of it.
2DanielLC8yBut there's also no evidence against it. Just don't update your priors. Don't pick the simplest explanation in the set and claim it's the only possible one.
0RomanDavis8yIt's not the only possible one, but I'm going to act as if it doesn't exist because I have no evidence it exists and because there's no reason to expect that to change. Ask yourself, "What's your anticipated experience?" If you don't have one, how can you even say you have a belief?
5wedrifid8yI have a past experience that leads me to predict essentially no direct experiences [] yet that I have nonetheless have not forgotten. For example, if I remember sending the relativistic rocket outside my future light-cone or towards a black hole. I still believe it probably exists.
0RomanDavis8yWell, your memory counts as an experience. As does the hawking radiation that you expect to find emitting out of a black hole. Just as your subjective experience of consciousness counts as evidence of you being conscious. Just as the similarities between your behavior and the behavior of others is exactly what you'd expect if they were as conscious as you are.
0DanielLC8yYour memory only shows that the ship left. It doesn't tell you that the ship continued existing once it crossed the event horizon.
0RomanDavis8yIt probably didn't exist as a rocket, at least for very long near a black hole, but you need magic to turn matter into nothing, and there's no evidence of magic.
-2wedrifid8yIt was a particularly large black hole.
0shminux8yAs far is we know, there is nothing inside a black hole, yet it is not magic.
0RomanDavis8yNot much space. Lots of mass.
0shminux8yThere is no standard way to define blackhole's volume, so your first statement is meaningless. ("Not much time" would make a bit more sense.) Black hole's mass can vary, so "Lots of mass" depends on what you mean by lots.
0RomanDavis8yMy understanding was that blackholes were areas of extremely dense matter that created gravity so strong light couldn't escape their event horizons (without exotic stuff like Hawking radiation). I meant it to be a truism. I'm not pretending my physics knowledge is super deep, but I'm pretty sure that blackhole have mass, and that if an object goes into a blackhole, their mass becomes part of it, the same as if I put the object into a sun. The mass is not magicked away.
0shminux8yThe "extremely dense matter" part is wrong, black holes are vacuum, even though they are formed from collapsing matter. In this sense, matter "is turned into nothing". That much is true, but mass is just a number (properly measured infinitely far from the black hole, to boot), not something you can touch or see.
0RomanDavis8yFirstly, wikipedia, lied to me. Second, not being a smart ass, how do we know? Wouldn't it's gravitational pull become stronger? It's event horizon cover a slightly larger area? I was just saying E=MC squared. That's all. Enegy is conserved. And we base our anticipations on that.
0shminux8yThis is the prediction of General Relativity, a theory which has been experimentally confirmed pretty well so far, so it is safe to trust it, except for maybe Planck-scale phenomena, which require quantum gravity or something similar. Both true, but measured reasonably far outside the black hole, and so is not related to the internal structure of black hole. E=mc^2 does not imply that energy is conserved. For example, the total energy of the universe is not conserved (and not even well defined). It only means that energy and (relativistic) mass are related. We base our anticipations of what would happen to us should we dive into a black hole on the predictions of GR, the model describing black holes. And these predictions tell us the sad story of unavoidable and untimely demise. Note the "would" and "to us" part. It's pointless to argue about "what "really happens" to someone else, given that there is no way to actually know that. For example, that someone else could collide with another ship from the mirror universe connected to the same black hole, and we would not know the difference. Or they could be torn apart by chaotic tidal gravity earlier than they anticipated, because something else was consumed by the black hole just prior to their plunge and disturbed this otherwise sanguine object. Or, if the Cartan modification of GR is correct (not very likely), the ship (or what's left of it) might emerge into another universe through a white hole in a burst of gamma radiation. These are all predictions of GR, but there is no way to tell which one comes to pass without taking the plunge. Thus it is pointless to argue about "what really happened", just like it is pointless to argue whether a particle "which does not interact with anything in the observable universe" exists or not.
6DanielLC8ySuppose someone offers you what's either an experience machine or an omnipotence machine. As much fun as an experience machine is, you know other people need you enough that it's important not to enter it. An omnipotence machine will let you help these people much more efficiently, so it would be very important to enter. Your anticipated experiences are the same either way, yet you do not value each possibility the same. If you use the machine, you clearly believe it's an omnipotence machine. If not, you believe it's an experience machine.
0RomanDavis8yI'm not sure I understand the hypothetical. I enter the omnipotence machine and experience omnipotence with expected experience of saving the human race versus entering the experience machine and... what exactly? Dreaming I saved the human race? I expect to save the human race. Are you saying I should say expected consequences? Or what? If I can't tell the difference, I don't know how this applies. At that point, we're back at solipsism. If my experiences are false, then any attempt to steer my future is doomed.
2DanielLC8yYes. Any attempt to experiment is doomed. You have to make a decision under uncertainty. You'd have to do that anyway. It's just that now "experiment" isn't one of the options.
-3[anonymous]8yHow about a photon not in our light cone? Does that exist? It's completely unmeasurable and can have no measurable effects.
1Luke_A_Somers8yIf there were compelling theoretical reasons, I might suppose that it existed. For example, * if every particle had a charge that was an element of a particular group, which could be factored into the Cartesian product of four groups, one for each force, and * a particle which has its charge being the identity element in any one of those groups doesn't feel that force, and * this theory uses the group structure in some significant way, not just as a glorified table, and * every element of the overall group has exactly one kind of particle with that exact combination of charges, * except we couldn't tell whether there was a particle in the 'no interactions' slot because it didn't interact with anything... I'd hazard that they exist, not that it would matter.
1DanielLC8yIn that case I'd figure that they probably exist. Otherwise, I'd figure that they probably don't. In either case, they might exist.
1LESS8moEach has no grounds to believe in the other's existence, so rationally they ought to both say that the other doesn't exist.
2rkyeun8yMorality is about the thriving of sentient beings. There are in fact truths about that. For example: Stabbing - generally a bad thing if the being is made of flesh and organs.
3BerryPick68yTGGP3 clearly does not share your definition for the word 'moral/ethical' otherwise he would not have made such a comment.
-4rkyeun8yThat would make him wrong, then.
0BerryPick68yHow so?
-1rkyeun7yIn the direct literal sense. It wasn't a trick question. 2 + 2 =/= 7, while we're at it.
1AndHisHorse7yIf you declare that someone is wrong for not sharing your definition of a word, that is a statement about dictionaries, not concepts. And while arguing over which definition you favor might be a fun way to spend an afternoon, it is very inefficient for any other purpose.
1rkyeun7yWhich is, incidentally, why I would not recommend it happen very often. But I can't control when people choose to be more wrong rather than less.
1Document7yI imagine that if you revisited this post today, you'd agree that (1) people use the words "ethics" and "ethical truths" in different ways, and (2) claims should be evaluated based on evidence, not strictly-binary "verification" or "falsification".
0[anonymous]7yI imagine that if you revisited this post today, you'd agree that (1) people use the words "ethics" and "ethical truths" in different ways, and (2) claims should be evaluated based on comparative weights of evidence, not strictly-binary "verification" or "falsification".

To Robin: I think the central problem is that religion makes claims, not arguments, and then changes its claims when they become untenable. But since claims are all religion has got, it doesn't really have an essence to keep constant during this process. Perhaps one could argue that the method of making claims is what the essence is, like the scholarly or lawyerly method/mentality. This is hard for me to swallow, though, since the religious method of claiming is just "because God says so," which doesn't strike me as a permissible essence. Similarly, religious people like to talk about "faith" as the essence, but this is circular.

2thrawnca5yIsn't this over-generalising? "religion makes claims, not arguments, and then changes its claims when they become untenable." "claims are all religion has got" "the religious method of claiming is just 'because God said so'" Which religion(s) are you talking about? I have a hard time accepting that anyone knows enough to talk about all of them.
2Lumifer5yNecroing is fine, but you probably shouldn't expect an answer from someone who posted a single comment on LW eight and a half years ago...

Eliezer, it's a good point, and hopefully writings like these will get the skeptic community (much larger than the reduce existential risk community) buzzing about "bayesian reasoning" as the proper contrast to religion. But it seems to me that religion has already been slayed many, many times by public intellectuals. The cutting edge areas to address, the "hard" areas, are things like universal adult enfranchisement to select policy makers and juries as finders of fact.

3pnrjulius9yWe have slain religion in the minds of intellectuals. But we have not slain it in the minds of ordinary people, and for better or worse ordinary people have a lot of power in modern democratic societies. So it seems to me rather imperative to find ways to improve the rationality of ordinary folk, and one very good start would be getting rid of religion.
0JD198yBy outlawing religion? Or by some other means?
6atomliner8yOutlawing religion outright in a religious society would cause some serious problems and would probably require a very authoritarian government.
6MenosErrado8yI'd say that's just the kind of thing that would define a government as "very authoritarian".
0RichardKennaway8y"Probably"? Are you (and pnrjulius, and JD19) entirely ignorant of the history of the 20th century?
0atomliner8yI say probably because it might not require an authoritarian government to enact such a policy. I can imagine realistic scenarios.
2MugaSofer8yWho are you and why are you a cartoon villain?! Um, seriously though, I think you're confusing cause and effect there.
0Bluehawk8yLack of rationality causes religion causes lack of rationality causes religion causes lack of rationality --
1MugaSofer8yThus, if we destroy religion irrationality will resurrect it, and if we improve rationality religion will drag it down again. Depressing.
2[anonymous]8yI dunno -- I can think of many more important things; focussing on religion of all things sounds somewhat arbitrary to me.
1Osiris8yGetting rid of religion is a bit like getting rid of the economy or government. Yes, the whole business of ritual (and most other cultural stuff religion claims) can be changed, eliminating religion as we know it today, but simply declaring one day that "religion doesn't exist" will lead to other problems, which may actually be WORSE than some people holding a usually non-harmful belief, or belief-in-belief. Cults, of personality and otherwise, come up as a terrifying option... Changing religion is a Long Game. A far more constructive use of one's time, to increase rationality in the population, is to encourage rational thinking among the majority of mankind (who are religious, anyway, so you give them the option of thinking about religion better, thus playing the Long Game).
2PrawnOfFate8yUncomfortable truth warning: Atheists have to concede that religions is widespread because people are in some sense wired up for it. Getting rid of religion, therefore, does not get rid of religious thinking, feeling and behaviour. This can be seen in the prevalence of quaisi-religious rituals, such as going to concerts to worship "rock gods", regarding charismatic politicians as "saviours of the nation", and various other phenomena hiding in plain sight. A further step, and one that is rarely taken, is realising that atheists and ratiinalists aren't immune. People who identify as atheists don't want to concede that they might still have some baggage of religious behaviour because that means they no longer firmly in the Tribe of Good People..but that is itself a religious pattern.
0Osiris8yExactly. As I said, the best we can hope for is to slowly eliminate religion as we know it today. Not to eliminate religion, period.

Eliezer: Those who espouse any separate magisteria seem to me to consistently espouse only two: science and religion. Other scientific questions, even contentious, fervently-believed ones that impact morality and public policy, are subject to the normal rules of science. Yahweh's existence gets a magisterium, but global warming, aptitude equality among races and sexes, and the extent of neural activity in fetuses do not. At least, nobody admits they do. Do you believe any secular beliefs are protected by NOMA, perhaps by another name? Is there a generalized lesson that secular opponents of cognitive bias should learn from this, beyond the universal application of science?

From a practical perspective, it seems to me that we need religion to bolster the arrogance of the non-religious. It seems a-priori impossible that I could be right when my opinions go strongly against social consensus. I am thus tempted towards a weak form of philosophical majoritarianism but then I remember religion and it sets me back on the right track.

4pnrjulius9y\begin{tautology} On average, most people will not be better than average. \end{tautology} If we want to improve the world's knowledge, we need to be willing to deviate from norms. So yes, perhaps having a few atrociously bad but widely-believed ideas (like religion) is helpful in reminding us of this. (Another way would be to look at ancient beliefs that are obviously wrong, like geocentrism and astrology.)
3MTGandP7yThat's only tautological if the distribution of "goodness" is symmetrical. The average is not the same thing as the median. Also, I find it interesting that you're using pseudo-TeX tags instead of pseudo-HTML tags like people usually do. Do you write a lot of TeX?

Eliezer, imagine you knew two people who both did embarrassing stupid things when they were young, and that one person you excused with "boys will be boys" or "the folly of youth", while the other you told to anyone that would listen that you would never trust or associate with a person who did such a terrible thing. This would seem to be playing favorites, unless perhaps the difference is that one person repented of their youthful acts while the other did not.

Similarly, you seem to be playing favorites in allowing lawyers and academics to disavow their silly ancient practices, while insisting that religious folks today take responsibility for ancient foolish religious claims. Sure your criticism sticks to those who refuse to disavow those ancient claims, but I think we should treat differently those, like Unitarians, who to do so disavow.

My main problem is that I find it hard to understand what such people are in fact claiming. At least I understood the ancient foolish claims, mostly.

1pnrjulius9yYeah, what does it mean to be Unitarian, really? Are they even religious anymore?
3keen8yThere is a peculiarity of religions that causes them to attract this sort of scrutiny. Religions are meant to be treated as package deals, as if claims about the efficacy of eating shrimp have some special correspondence to favoritism toward heterosexuality and premarital abstinence. As if the latter two things have any special correspondence! There's no reason subscribing to some "core" values of a religion should require someone to accept the whole subscription. Seldom are a religion's "core" values enough to reconstruct the rest of the religious system, or even anything vaguely similar. It's such a glaring fallacy, yet oddly it even sucks in religion's detractors. As if we could demolish the entirety of a poorly-connected religion just by overturning a few of its claims. Yet another result of this aspect of religion is the tendency for a shift in beliefs to require the creation of entire new sects, such as the Unitarians. No, the folks who give me the most pause are the Indie-Christians. They take whatever beliefs they like from wherever they like (but usually with a focus on scientific anticipation-constraining beliefs and Christian non-constraining beliefs) and run with them. As far as I can tell, they're doing it right, but winding up with far more intellectual baggage than I'd be willing to carry. Of course, I can't talk them out of anything, because their only falsifiable beliefs are the reasonable non-spiritual ones, and their ability to interact smoothly with less reasonable Christians gives them more utility than would my Occam approach.
1Desrtopa8yBut of course, if you can't test many of a religion's claims, but those you can test have a tendency to be simply wrong, it suggests that the say-so of religious dogma shouldn't be enough to accept the others either.
1keen8yExcellent point. I suppose for some, the many shortcomings of their religion are enough to overthrow any intellectual authority that religion may have held over them. This does grant such individuals more freedom to evaluate the remainder of their beliefs. I do hold such freedom in high regard. "Your religion is demonstrably not a scientific authority. If some of it is wrong, it cannot all be the untarnished word of a supreme being. How then can it justify authority in other areas?" There is, however, a certain temptation among those first realizing their own intellectual freedom from religion. It is a temptation to ardently maintain the language and customs and non-falsifiable beliefs from the religion they have otherwise abandoned. A simple stroll along the path of minimal required change. While there are many sub-optimal paths to optimizing one's own reasoning capacity, I have personal associations which make this path particularly worrisome. I wonder if there are methods to help others avoid this baggage-claim stage entirely, or if the religious baggage really does provide some utility for social interaction. I fear any utility it provides the holder will be at the cost of increased perceived support toward those who use that same religion as a justification for various kinds of oppression. I guess the whole problem comes back to in-group solidarity, pros and cons alike. Pro-baggage: I get to stay in my group. Con-baggage: Some members of that group are against various forms of freedom and reason.

Robin, I would indeed put someone who called themselves a Unitarian in a different class from someone who called themselves a Zoroastrian or Christian. It's still a big blatant mistake, but so long as the person is willing to take strict personal responsibility for their own moral judgments, it's a less urgent matter.

You can call yourself a scientist and disavow association with Newton by standing up and saying, "Newton was wrong, and I know better, because I come from a superior culture." But then you certainly cannot call yourself a Newtonian. Likewise you cannot call yourself a "flat-Earther" and disavow association with the idea that the Earth is flat because you are pursuing the "true essence" of flat-Earthism. You could repudiate all scripture and still call yourself spiritual, but there would still have to be that moment of repudiation, of admitting you were wrong.

Actually, Robin, come to think of it, you may be executing an inappropriate shift between levels of abstraction.

Science is not the same as a particular scientific theory. Any particular scientific theory is subject to the Bayes-law, the rules of evidence, and may be destroyed by contrary evidence; any particular scientific theory is disprovable. This is what people mean when they say "Science is falsifiable." They're referring to every particular instance of science, not the abstract category Science. Red is a color, blood is red, blood is not a color.

When someone says "I am a scientist", they (should) mean that they identify with the rules of evidence, not with any particular theory. You can disavow past specific scientific theories, and still remain a scientist, so long as you avow the rules of evidence. A lawyer can disavow trial by combat, and still avow justice, but then they cannot call themselves a medievalist.

Similarly, when I talk about "religion's claim to be non-disprovable" I mean the claim that specific religions like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Unitarianism are non-disprovable.

What is the category that includes both the Bhagav... (read more)

1smijer9yI am a Unitarian Universalist, and I am confused. I don't make a habit of claiming UUism to be non-disprovable, but now that I think about it... The seven principles affirmed by the UU association are statements of values, not empirical claims. I have a hard time thinking of anything UUs generally hold to in terms of doctrine at all... So, what's to disprove? We don't even have ethics in common. Only values, and the most controversial subject of those values is "the interdependent web of all existence", which we agree to "respect". Even there, I doubt many of us would argue against evidence that there are bits of existence that are not interdependent. I have a lot of other quibbles with the article. Somehow this one slipped past my radar for a long time. On the principle that the rationalist fixes their opponents arguments for them, it doesn't seem to come to a high standard. It almost seems to treat arguments as soldiers. (I mean rabbits chewing cud? It's not just easy to see that this type of language conveys imagery: if you've ever seen a, rabbit, you know exactly what imagery it is conveying)... On other boards, I've seen arguments treated very much like soldiers. It's one reason I don't visit Jerry Coyne's site any longer. Science cannot disprove historical miracles, for instance. Yes, science can prove dead people cannot rise again... but it cannot prove that an agent with the power to suspend or violate the laws of nature could not perform the trick. So, I argue against the claim that acceptance of such a belief, of itself, is a rejection of science. For very narrow cases, there really is a separation between the "magesteria". One of the things I enjoy about less-wrong is that the focus is moved away from whether belief is "scientific" or not and onto the question of whether it is "true" or not. While the resurrection almost certainly isn't true, it is almost as certainly true, on Bayesian grounds, that belief in resurrection as a function of the pow

I have a hard time thinking of anything UUs generally hold to in terms of doctrine at all

Well, UU is definitely on the "accommodationist" side, which means that, when asked "Are there supernatural things?", it answers "Shut up, debate is intolerance". But Unitarians' behavior does reveal a probability estimate - for example, someone praying for a disease to be cured is certainly putting a non-negligible probability mass on "There are things that listen to me pray and can cure disease". There are no Official Unitarian Beliefs, but there are beliefs of individual Unitarians and they can be stupid but protected by "Don't tell me this is stupid or you are evil and intolerant"-type memes. In particular, "Belief in the supernatural is not laughably wrong" is a claim made by many Unitarians.

rabbits chewing cud

Okay, chewing pellets could plausibly be lumped in with chewing one's cud, though I am Not Happy about things becoming "imagery" the second they're literally false.

Yes, science can prove dead people cannot rise again... but it cannot prove that an agent with the power to suspend or violate the laws of natu

... (read more)
3smijer9ySorry - I still haven't figured out why standard html doesn't work here, or how to do blockquotes... * "Well, UU is definitely on the 'accommodationist' side," Generally, yes -"which means that, when asked 'Are there supernatural things?', it answers 'Shut up, debate is intolerance'." I'm pretty sure it doesn't mean that. I fall closer to the accommodationist side, and I gladly answer, "no, probably not" to that question. -"Okay, chewing pellets could plausibly be lumped in with chewing one's cud, though I am Not Happy about things becoming "imagery" the second they're literally false." I'm not a big fan of Christian apologetics - especially of the sort that like to claim that there are no errors in the Bible, but to hold that "rabbits chew their cud" is an example of a falsehood in the Bible requires you assume that the phrase so translated literally means rumination of partially digested material in exactly the way that ruminant species do. This is a terrible assumption, since the language belonged to people who did not understand rumination: why would they have a term term in their vocabulary that literally describes a process they didn't understand? There are many examples of real errors in the Bible... it just looks dumb to cite something as an error based solely on an assumption that ancient languages will somehow embed modern classification systems. -"But science can and does prove that such agents just don't happen." To fix your argument: science proves that such agents don't arise under ordinary physical law. Any number of elements of rational thought make the existence of such an agent improbable, but that doesn't make it specifically anti-scientific to believe in such an agent. -"requires rejecting the claim 'Induction works'," Nonsense - it merely requires asserting that induction can fail outside the boundaries for which it should apply (in the case of science, outside the boundaries of natural law).
3Alejandro19yWhen you write a comment, at the bottom right of the text box there is a "Help" button that tells you how to to blockquotes, italics, bold, links, and bullet points.
1smijer9yThank you.
0Veldurak9yIf you step outside ordinary physical law, you lose your firm objective ground to stand on. What's the point of considering the question when the answer is "You can't disprove me because God is magical and can do anything." ? Unless there's firm evidence towards those events happening (which consistently have been disproven historically), then why waste your time?
0smijer9yPersonally, it isn't something I waste my time on... as I mentioned earlier - it is still a mistake, in terms of strict probability, to believe that there have been miracles from God. It just isn't a specifically anti-scientific mistake. The act of making it is not evidence that a person is unscientific - merely that they are not reasoning well.
6[anonymous]9yNote that P(the effectiveness of prayer is greater than zero | there is no god) > P(the effectiveness of prayer is greater than that of a placebo | there is no god).
2MixedNuts9yI did think of that, but praying for someone else's disease to be cured, without telling them, certainly qualifies.
0Bugmaster9yI believe that it is. Either an incredibly powerful agent such as the one described in the Bible exists and acts upon the world, or he doesn't. If he exists, and if he pops in from time to time to perform miracles, then we should see some evidence of him doing that. If we did, then science as we know it would not work, because we'd have no predictable natural laws against which to run our tests. Science does appear to work, however, which means that either gods do not exist, or they do exist but aren't actually doing anything, which is no better than not existing at all.
0smijer9yNot "time to time" - I was addressing the specific claim of one resurrection event in history. We might not expect to have any evidence of such an event preserved at all, and certainly none better than the type of documentary evidence adduced to it. Agreed - however, there is a correllation between the frequency and mode of such interventions and the amount and quality of evidence we should expect. It doesn't make sense to think this is happening at all, but it isn't anti-scientific to believe that it has and maybe does happen in subtle ways and/or at rare times.
0Strange79yThat sort of argument implies some unpleasant things about the agent in question's willingness to render assistance to those who claim to serve it, and further claim to receive various favors in return for such service.
0smijer9yIndeed it may.
1Bugmaster9ySure, it's possible that the Resurrection did occur; believing in its mere possibility is not, in itself, unscientific. But I would argue that if science works, then you'd be forced to conclude that the Resurrection most likely did not occur, based on the evidence available to you. Similarly, you would be forced to conclude that intelligent aliens most likely never visited the Earth -- not even that one time -- while still acknowledging that it's entirely possible that they did. Once again, it's a matter of probabilities. If these effects are so subtle and/or rare as to be undetectable, then we'd conclude that such effects most probably do not occur. This is different from saying that they definitely do not occur, or that they cannot occur in principle, etc.
1po8crg7yI think it's worth relating the argument about the Resurrection and the argument about rabbits chewing their cud. We now have a reasonably good definition of "dead". We know that classical civilisation in 33AD didn't. Assuming that there was a person called Jesus and that he was crucified, we have no means of knowing whether he was, in fact, dead or not. It's necessarily impossible to apply the modern definition since the ECG hadn't been invented then. There are scientific phenomena that would result in the observations that are reported in the gospels as the Resurrection (most obviously, a coma caused by brain anoxia, and a recovery over a few days). This is, interestingly, the Qu'ran's position on the Resurrection. I'm not especially tied to it, but it does allow one to hold that the gospel writers were not deliberately lying (which raises the value of the gospels as evidence in general) without having to hold that the Resurrection was, in fact, a miracle. I can see that a UU, someone who thinks that there is ethical value in (say) the Sermon on the Mount, being inclined to this position in that it strengthens the Bayesian evidence for the gospels which are our only available reports of the Sermon on the Mount.
2[anonymous]9yWell, unless from time to time means “once every couple of millennia”... (Though Occam's razor says you should assign a very small prior to that.)
0Bugmaster9yRight. As the miracle events become more and more rare, our probability estimate of their existence becomes lower and lower -- in the absence of some direct evidence, that is. This is why we believe in meteorite impacts, but not in resurrections.

I'm going to focus on one word in your comment: "democracy".

So, you would permit "democracy ... to answer various questions formerly answered by scripture"?

It makes me sad to learn that. I am strongly opposed to the idea that counting votes is a good way of arriving at ordinary or moral truth (unless perhaps one is very picky about whose vote counts).

Of course, that pernicious idea --Majority Rule-- is so prevalent in our world that I would not bother to voice my objection except that you are the leader of a project that if successful will impose on the entire future light cone decisions that will have the same unbendable and irreversible character that physical law now has. This property of irreversibility is quite unique to your project. (There are other project that would impose irreversible conditions, namely sterilization of the biosphere, if they fail or go wrong, but yours is the only one I know of that would do so if you succeed.)

What makes my agony and my sadness particularly acute is the knowledge that up to the age 19 or so, you wrote about ultimate ends in ways I found completely benign and lovable. I refer of course to documents like TMOLFAQ, wh... (read more)

Hollerith, read the Old Testament. Scripture used to make the laws. Not just when to bring sacrifices, but the death penalty for kidnapping, how much to pay a man for raping his daughter, that sort of thing. That's the function I was referring to as being taken over by "democracy", which, yes, we all know isn't perfect, but it's a hell of a lot better than scripture. If you assumed I meant that democracy could dictate morality, that just goes to show how unconsciously people accept the Big Lie of the Bible being an ethical philosophy.

Richard, I share your concerns, as expressed in past posts to this blog. Great to see someone else (non-anonymously?) expressing them. I have a longer response on my anonymous blog.

I was riffing off of a few words you wrote here to make a point about CEV, about which I have strong feelings. I'll restrict my future comments about CEV and AI to more appropiate forums.

(Are there adults who consider themselves qualified to comment here who have not read the Old Testament as part of their basic education?)

HA slipped in. HA: I will read your blog with great relish.

The earliest account I know of a scientific experiment is, ironically, the story of Elijah and the priests of Baal.

What do you mean by "I know of". Do you mean an account that you have evidence for? If yes, what evidence is that? Or do you mean the earliest recorded? Surely there were early ones recorded. Korach and the 250 men?

-3bigjeff510yThe experiment is recorded in the Bible. Do words written on paper no longer count? Obviously, there are problems with the experiment itself, and a whole lot of reasons not to trust the results, but the fact is it was recorded as history by the Hebrews about 3,000-4,000 years ago.
1ndm259yWords written on paper count very well when we have a decent reason to expect that they are not utterly fabricated. The opposite is true in this case. Unless you claim this particular experiment is somehow distinct from all the other parts of the Bible which never happened.
1bigjeff59yEarliest "account". Since the most popular book in the world contains this account, I'd say questioning its existence is pretty stupid. The test given in the account that Elijah supposedly performed would, with only slight tweaking*, be a completely valid scientific experiment. Now, whether the events in the account actually happened is an entirely different question (and I'd agree with you there). But you'd be foolish to say the account itself doesn't exist, which is what you and ed have thus far said. Words on paper are extremely strong evidence the account exists (it exists on the paper). The fact that I'm talking about the account is pretty strong evidence that the account exists as well (it exists in my mind). *As has been noted by others, he went over-board when setting up his side of the experiment. To get the most relevant results he should have kept both altars exactly the same instead of dousing his lambs with water. Of course, he was doing science accidentally, so he didn't know better.
1bigjeff59yWas the downvote because I used the word stupid, or does someone actually believe the bible does not contain an account of Elijah performing an experiment? If the former, don't be so sensitive, I didn't call anybody stupid, I was just pointing out the absurd notion that the account does not exist. If the latter, well, I really can't help you. The existence of the account is an absurdly easily provable fact. I certainly don't believe the events described in the account ever took place, however.
5gjm9yNo one's claiming that the bible doesn't contain an account of Elijah performing an experiment. I think you've misinterpreted ed (who, by "an account that you have evidence for", surely meant "an account whose truth you have evidence for" rather than "an account whose existence you have evidence for") and ndm25 (I'd try to pinpoint what you've misinterpreted, except that I can't find anything in what he wrote that looks even slightly like a claim that the account in question doesn't exist).
0bigjeff59yWhich is the fundamental misunderstanding I was attempting to point out. The original statement was that the bible contains an account of Elijah performing an experiment. This is absolutely true. The original statement had nothing to do with whether or not Elijah actually performed any such experiment, and in fact the truth of the account itself was absolutely irrelevant to the discussion, but that's what ed and ndm25 jumped on. It's silly. Edit to point out that by "original statement" I mean the statement ed was responding to.
2gjm9yYou accused both ed and ndm25 of "say[ing] the account itself doesn't exist". That is flatly false: neither of them has either said or implied any such thing. ed's original point was not that the truth of the account is important. It was that (in his opinion) the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal isn't a good candidate for "earliest recorded scientific experiment" because depending on your criteria either it's a problem that it probably didn't happen or it's a problem that there are earlier claims, of which ed gave an example that's also from the Bible. I think that's a pretty nitpicky and unhelpful point, as it happens, but your response to it is simply unreasonable. I think ndm25 really did miss the point in the way you're now saying was always your point. But the way you responded to that, again, was to make an entirely baseless accusation: ndm25 didn't say or imply that the account doesn't exist, but that it's probably false; the error was in thinking that that's a big deal. Incidentally, there's absolutely no way that 1 Kings is "3000-4000 years" old. More like 2500 years, which of course is still pretty old.
7bigjeff59yThe OP mentioned the earliest account he knows of, and ed suggests he aught to know of earlier ones. This is, frankly, bizarre. The OP never suggested it was the earliest account in existence, or even that the account was true. The truth of the account was irrelevant to what the OP was talking about, and in fact the reason for pointing it out was almost certainly to show the irony that such a completely unreliable book could contain within one of its most famous stories the blueprint for dismantaling the veracity of the entire thing (or at least, all of its most questionable elements). But ed wanted to take issue with it for some reason. It sounded like an attack on the OP for no reason other than that he mentioned something in the bible, which is lame, so I got snarky. On the age, I was making a rough estimate - more a guess really - that was off by about 20% - not exactly something to get crazy over in my opinion. If you like, 1 Kings is probably between 2550 and 2570 years old. Better?
1tlhonmey3moThe events described in the account would be trivially easy to replicate if somebody managed to slip some calcium phosphide in among the altar stones. Don't get so wrapped up in demonstrating your rational disbelief in the supernatural that you discount simple conjuring tricks. ;-)

. . .I would not bother to voice my objection except that you are the leader of a project that if successful will impose on the entire future light cone decisions that will have the same unbendable and irreversible character that physical law now has.

How exquisite to read something like this in a thread attacking the absurdities of the narratives of religious beliefs. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Matthew, standard reply is at Rapture of the Nerds, Not.

Robin, I've expanded on my objection #5 to your "Why can't they still embrace the true essence?"

I've recently been trying to think of how to explain non-Euclidean geometry (or, what's worse, Cantorian set theory) to ancient Greek mathematicians. Is today's mathematics the same as their mathematics? After all, ancient Greek mathematics made falsifiable claims about actual measurements.

My apology, it's a long post but they are my final thoughts.

Eliezer: "Robin, I would indeed put someone who called themselves a Unitarian in a different class from someone who called themselves a Zoroastrian or Christian. It's still a big blatant mistake, but so long as the person is willing to take strict personal responsibility for their own moral judgments, it's a less urgent matter."

I'm not really clear as to why? Do you not think Unitarian has some affiliation to Zoroastrian or Christianity? Where do you think moral judgements come from? ... (read more)

4Odinn8yIt may not seem fair to respond to something that was meant to be a 'closing', but it also shouldn't be an excuse for making your argument... well, a seperate magisterium. If you had taken the time to read the basics (assuming you ever read this, fully 5 years after claiming to leave, still others may benefit) you would know that Eliezer isn't claiming that all religious people are characteristically insane. That hypothesis would be easily falsifiable by presenting any responsible, educated person who espouses a religious belief (and there are plenty.) The actual point, right in the article's title, is that those beliefs, -Even If- they're shared by really nifty, otherwise good people, are factually falsifiable.

So I take it you don't like Kierkegaard? Humph.

Seriously, though, I wonder to what extent it's really possible to argue people out of religion. And I strongly suspect it's close to zero.

Is the function of a post like this (and Dennett's books on the subject, and everything Dawkins has done in the last N years, etc. etc.) less to persuade and more to -- well -- call it argument as attire? By hammering out yet another strong argument about the overwhelming dumbness of religion, you, and Dennett, and Dawkins (and sometimes I) self-identify as a member of the atheist-intellectual-sciencenerd tribe.

4pnrjulius9yIt's clearly not zero. In fact, you mention Dawkins, who maintains a "Convert's Corner" of people who have become atheists (or at least come out as atheists) as a result of The God Delusion. The persuadability of humans is not as high as it ought to be if we were perfect Bayesians; but it also clearly not zero.
5CuSithBell9yYou've responded to several comments just now that were made years ago by people who no longer post here, probably migrated from the earlier form of the website. You may get responses and conversations, but probably will not get direct replies from the commenters you're addressing!
6pnrjulius9yMy general MO is to ignore the name and date and skip straight to the content. I suppose it does sometimes have a downside.
4CuSithBell9yIt's no big deal, really, most of the time. Actually, under "preferences" on the sidebar there's an "anti-kibitzing" mode that automatically hides karma and names, if you'd like that!
3kodos968yPersonally, I think this should be encouraged. There's no reason to stop discussing a certain topic just because the discussion started a long time ago and many people have forgotten it.
1Viktor Riabtsev2yYeah, you never know if someone in the process of reading the Sequences, won't periodically go back and try to read all the discussions. Like, I am not going to read the twenty posts with 0 karma and 0 replies; but ones with comments? Opposing ideas and discussions spark invigorating thought. Though it does get a bit tedious on the more popularized articles, like this one.

A peripheral correction:

They found out that, during the supposed time of the Exodus from Egypt, Egypt ruled Canaan. The tribes would have fled to find Pharaoh's armies already at the destination.

When Egypt ruled Canaan, it was through vassal kings and not with large garrisons (although there were occasional Egyptian governors and forts). Egyptian rule was weak, partial, and often broke down completely: There were kings opposed to Egypt, the vassals were not always loyal, and all kings were under attack from each other and from nomads. Some of these nomads may even be connected by name to the "Hebrews." It is not clear that Egypt would have truly "ruled" Canaan at certain dates which could be suggested for the Exodus.

None of this says that the precise Biblical story is true, nor damage your argument significantly, but the historical record does not suggest that flight from Egypt to Canaan would be quite so absurd as suggested here.

Paul, since "rationality" for many people is a function of what they think they can get away with, I think there is winnable territory in terms of making belief in a scriptural religion - Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Scientology, etc. - socially less acceptable within the science/engineering community. If people know that saying "I believe in this 2,500-year-old culture dump" will be met by people saying, out loud or silently, "How incredibly stupid", they will be more reluctant to do it. One small step toward waking up out of the long nightmare. If people are not socially expected to think, they will not think.

Joshua, thanks, fixed.

Eliezer, are you intentionaly ignoring my comment posted @ August 04, 2007 at10:58 PM ?

This involves the issue of whether religion, or the claims of religion are an emperical matter. I would certainly say that the claims of religion are. The Tanach is full of references of how there are pillars upholding the Earth and a vault of heaven making the "firmament." Adonia opens portals in this vault to let the waters pour forth and Hoah flood take place. Of course we do understand things better. NASA has no problem of rockets running into some sort of dome.

Cosmology and quantum gravity are pointing to how the occurrence of the unive... (read more)

Robin asked "If lawyers and academics can disavow these ancient practices, while still embracing a true essence of law or academia, why can't religious folks disavow ancient religious practice in favor of some true essence that makes sense in modern terms?"

In "Retreat To Commitment", Bartley described the (at the time) very large and very powerful group of liberal Protestants who did so disavow ancient views, and look what it got them: demographic replacement by the faithful, by the Evangelists. It only looks like religious folks are different. In truth, after a while we no longer see many folks representing those newer, weaker memes. Isn't it just normal evolution?

I suspect that the origin of religion is deep in our evolution. Stories about spirits and totems of a landscape may well have their basis in the evolution of our linguistic ability. These "nature religions" are ways that information about an environment are communicated from generation to generation. This can be argued to have a survival benefit and something that is selected for. It has been with more recent development of complex social structures (towns, agriculture, empires etc) that these nature spirits became compressed into larger gods... (read more)

Nope, this is not my cup of tea! I find far greater intellectual insight in working with modular forms, Jacobi theta-functions and algebraic or projective varieties. Applying these to understanding quantum codes makes them even more interesting.

I find religious services maybe only a bit more interesting than scrubbing the water marks off the bathroom and kitchen sinks and fixtures.

Lawrence B. Crowell

Eliezer, you shouldn't have chased Anna away.

Ed, I mean that no earlier example came to mind off the top of my head. Korach doesn't include a symmetric experiment with an experimental and control group, etc. But I didn't exactly search exhaustively.

I always marvel that religions which were empire-forming ideologies, historically late arrivals, whose common foundations are very much this-worldly, continue to charm otherwise intelligent people.

Zarathustra, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, each presents a silly moralistic cosmic dualism (Good/Evil, God/Devil, religious/secular, permanent/transitory). Ahura Mazda, Yahweh, God, and Allah are ethical equivalents of comic book super-villains.

And this pulp fiction enjoys fanatical cult followings.

2autolycus10yI'm not particularly familiar with the exact tenets of Islam, and I'll stipulate the dualism in Zorastrianism and Christianity, but the only dualism I recall in the Books attributed to Moses is True/False, and even that seems to be more of a More Powerful/Less Powerful discussion.

Eliezer, your overgeneralized claims about religion are untrue. I expect more of a post in a forum dedicated to overcoming bias and seeking truth.

Sure, there are plenty of Biblical literalists in the world. But that's just one variety of religion. It's not what religion IS. Buddhists, Unitarians, Reform Jews, liberal Protestants, and many other self-identified religious people would object strenuously to your characterization of religion. Unitarians, liberal Christians and Jews treat the Bible as God-inspired allegory, to be understood in the historical... (read more)

Well, one aspect of this that I find amusing in a mildly infuriating way is the common sort of understanding of "atheism" that seems to be largely based on a rejection of what someone learned in their fifth grade Sunday School classes. Kathryn above makes exactly this point (although I'd claim that Buddhism makes specifically scientific claims: that following certain practices based on a certain understanding of the Nature of Things, leads to greater peace of mind and less suffering.) But then she nails it by noting that the claim that "re... (read more)

3pnrjulius9yCould God make a universe where there was no evidence of him? Sure. But given such a universe, we have no reason to believe in God---because there's no evidence of him, you just stipulated that. Also, why would he? Doesn't God want us to believe in him? Why then give us brains but not evidence?


Presumably you think that the statement, "X is a truth only if falsifiable" is true. Is this statement falsifiable?

It isn't falsifiable on empirical grounds. It might be falsiable on a priori grounds, though I bet that's not what you have in mind. If you admit of a priori grounds, though, you've opened the door back up for ethics despite it not being empirically testable.

"X is a truth only if falsifiable" can be a useful rule of thumb rather than a statement that is true or false.

Eliezar, something of a 'rant' ? 'the people who invented the Old Testament stories could make up pretty much anything they liked'.... overlooking that we're talking about oral traditions committed to writing centuries later. Of course the domain covered by the books of the old testament covers law, social customs, and a whole bunch of stuff which is now the domain of other institutions. Of course ideas have moved on in most of those domains. I'd be more interested in reading your ideas about why the fears, insecurities, and identitiy issues so many... (read more)

But then, if A can neither be falsified by experiment, nor can its converse be falsified, it's simply outside of the domain of "scientific" knowledge; it cannot be evaluated in scientific terms. Which is to say, it's a separate magisterium. (Notice that this doesn't say any statement in that separate magisterium is true. It's just part of a different system.)

No, it's entirely unreal. This 'superior being' would have created an entire timeline in which it did not intervene, because it erased any influence it had over events from that timeline, ... (read more)

@ Paul Gowder:

"I wonder to what extent it's really possible to argue people out of religion. And I strongly suspect it's close to zero."

I was argued of religion. An epistemic argument is what did it -- the "God" I "believed in" turned out to be a nearly meaningless concept.

J, I generally treat non-falsifiable statements as basically being meaningless in an objective sense but possibly revealing something about the speaker. Your statement about true statements was somewhat like a definition, and it is pointless to try to falsify a definition, they merely permit people to discuss something using the same term.


Thanks for a thought-provoking post. I do, however, have some criticisms:

1) Not to be snarky, but you obviously aren't talking about "religion." You are discussing Christianity. Clearly you cannot disprove Hindu on the basis of disproving the Old Testament (if you had disproven the Old Testament, which I don't believe you have).

2) You mention Christ once: to call his miracle into question. Other than that, He is a footnote. Everything necessary for salvation, however, from a Christian perspective, is contained in the New Testament. Should... (read more)

Apologies; in point 5 I said you referenced the following link. You did not in this post. However, it does exist on this site:

DB, what makes you think Eliezer is talking only about Christianity and not equally about Orthodox Judaism? (Hint: look at his name, or his past postings here.) In fact, how can it make sense to say (1) he's definitely talking specifically about Christianity even though (2) he says "religion" instead and (3) Jesus is only a footnote?

I think you're clearly right that there's some sense of the wonder of the universe in YHWH's speech to Job, and also in (e.g.) Psalm 19. But I don't think Eliezer's point is much dented by this: he's saying that altho... (read more)


Sure, he could be talking about Orthodox Judaism. But even if that is taken in conjunction with Christianity, it hardly comprises "religion." But if his intention is merely to show a test case, I concede the point.

I can't help feeling that these "awe and wonder" religionists are straw men. Awe and wonder, from a Christian perspective anyway, are only part of what is offered in scripture.

It's a categorical error because it assumes an equivalent relationship between God and people. (It also ignores the context of the occurence, but that... (read more)

I'm left in 'awe and wonder' at the literalism of the debates going on here. The OT is a bunch of mythology and folklore, so, what else is new ? The NT is a heterogenous collection of Roman imperial propaganda, Jewish apocalyptic propaganda, and perhaps, some vague recollections of what a good man once said. So ? What does any of that have to do with logical categories ? Eliezar is guilty, as Anna pointed out, of mixing up the crudest OT literalism with any and every other level of religious experience and expression. I understand that, he was trauma... (read more)


Do I understand, then, that you reject the possibility of revelational knowledge of the divine?


Yeah, perhaps they're straw men. There seems to be a bit of a shortage of non-straw defenders of (serious) religion, though. I mean, there are the fundamentalists and the young-earthers and such -- I'm focusing on Christianity because that's the religion I know best; maybe things are different with other religions -- who are (sometimes) clear and (usually) forceful but also obviously wrong. And there are the woolly liberal types who mostly refrain from saying anything too testable.

Unless a religion is simply going to degenerate into power-worship, you can'... (read more)

Hi DB, no I don't. I 'believe' in its improbability, if you're talking voices out of a burning bush. On the other hand, I would look for some commonality in the revelations to different peoples at different times. I would, for instance, strongly reject the notion of a chosen people, or a chosen time, for such revelation. I would also be very wary of any categorisation of the notion 'divine'. Different levels of consciousness, yes. 'God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth', perhaps a little too simplistic. Final cause ? The 'divine revelation' as understood by Hindu Yogis tempts me more than any other.


I don't propose to defend Exodus 11. It's a difficult passage from within a theological framework (which I'm sure you recall), but even more difficult when taken in isolation from the whole counsel of scripture. I struggle with it myself, and I suspect I'm meant to do so. But I do have to insist that we either differentiate between ethics and theology, or admit up front that there is a commitment to assuming God is made in man's image, and not the other way around.

I fear that in my zeal, I may have drifted into waters I didn't intend to swim in. Eliezer'... (read more)

4gwern12yIt's a staple of higher biblical criticism []; I no longer read much of it, but from what I remember, a number of Gospel features and language are there specifically to endorse the Roman hegemony and try to make early Christianity appear harmless and compatible with it. Off the top of my head: 'render unto Caesar', and the blood-guilt of Jesus's martyrdom being put on the Jews and not the Romans/Pontius Pilate (Pilate as depicted in the Gospels is an absurd farrago of fiction, as a comparison with the narrow-minded blood-thirsty Pilate of Josephus [] will readily demonstrate).

DB, I think you're making a false dichotomy, and I don't see how your position avoids your religion degenerating into power-worship or something equally unpalatable. Why do you worship and serve God? Because he's good? Bzzt, nope, because you've made "good" completely content-free when predicated of God. Because he's big and powerful and created the world? Power-worship. (Would you worship the devil if he were more powerful than God?) Because he's saved you from your sins? Mere self-interest. (If the devil could make an even better offer -- save ... (read more)

DB, all I can or will say about the Bible being folklore is that to the best of my knowledge it occupies a similar position in the literary history of its culture as, say, the Mahabharata or the Mabinogion or the Kalevala do in theirs. Those more expert than I could comment the Babylonian texts prefiguring the Biblical ones, or the implications of the diversity in the Dead Sea scrolls. An alternative approach is simply to consider the diversity of types of text constituting the OT. Rich and various it is, but most of it has nothing much to do with Divini... (read more)


Thanks for challenging me here. In an effort to avoid insisting too much, and leaning too much on the goodwill of all involved, I'll let that be the last word.

Thanks, Chris.



OK. (Interesting discussion. Thanks.)

Well said, G. Ordinarily Overcoming Bias frowns on comments this long but this is worth an exception.

I hope the priests of Baal checked that it was indeed water, and not some sort of accelerant.

0andyd5ySeeing as this was on a mountain top (Mt Carmel) subject to all kinds of electrical weirdness, the water was probably to act as a lightning rod.

If you show me the dead body of Jesus Christ, I will give up being a Christian.


What evidence would convince you that something you were shown (e.g. a pile of bones, some dust on a sidewalk, or anything else) were the dead body of Jesus Christ?


I certianly stumbled into something here. I was actually looking up ojectivity and bias in relation to Accounting. But anyway...

I tend to agree with most of you in that I find it difficult to believe in something I have no proof of. Now, I am not even attempting to say I am an expert in either religion or athiesim, or much of what was discussed here. However, I will relate what I once said in a discussion with someone else.

We fell on the discussion of religion in the abstract. I tend to feel that much of what goes on in the world, i.e. wars, stri... (read more)

"not one single passage of the Old Testament will you find anyone talking about a transcendent wonder at the complexity of the universe"

Eli, Not sure what you'd consider "the Old testament", but just to be fair to tanakh:

Psalm 8:3-9 When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?

On a different note, Bob Aumann explained his religion by "orthogonality" in an interview; not sure if that was in the same sense as you're using it here, but made as much sense as the trinity to me (none).


I quoted Eliezer, along with other experts, on either side of the issue, here:
Can science prove or disprove the existence of God?

0HonoreDB9yI love your site. Pedantry: I don't think Andrew Sullivan's quote belongs on the "Disagree" side.

The vast majority of religions in human history - excepting only those invented extremely recently - tell stories of events that would constitute completely unmistakable evidence if they'd actually happened.

I wish there were a version of this article that discussed religions invented extremely recently.

an atheist argument in support of an almighty god. this is not meant to be a straw argument but rather a (hopefully) rational aspect on the futility of disproving religion and god.
To set out what i currently think i understand about Eliezer's argument, He conceives as god as the programmer. our reality is akin to the matrix and God is they guy who has total control. He can rewind his scenario, review it as a whole, and can basically do anything he wills. With this definition in mind, Eliezer takes roughly two or three methods of disapproval. 1) disappro... (read more)

2Kishin10yas i post this i realize it stinks of a mysterious answer along the lines of lord kelvin. To clarify, i do not glory in this, i don't even like it. But if I am to stay dedicated to rationalism, I must look for ways to disprove my postition and it so far has informed me that to do battle with an almighty creator or the delusions of him, we must first find solid ground to work from, and we have yet to find it. I also recognize that the flying spaghetti monster argument is used to make the exact opposite statement of what i used it for, but thats what makes it good. Its not just a satire, its an observation of what things would look like in the presences of an all powerful god.
6ArisKatsaris10yYou don't need to "do battle with an almighty creator", because you don't have enough evidence to even privilege the hypothesis [] of an almighty creator. The rational thing isn't to try to disprove every damn thing that might cross your mind, but to rather say "I don't have enough evidence to justify wasting my time on such an idea".
0ArisKatsaris10ySince Eliezer doesn't believe God exists, what are you talking about when you're talking about "Eliezer's model of God"? Do you perhaps means how Eliezer models other people modeling their own concept of God? On the whole you seem to me to be confused about what you're attempting to do. Or perhaps I'm the one confused: Is your claim that one can't disprove any religion, or that one can't disprove all religions? Either way, I'm reasonably certain that you have Eliezer's "model" wrong. Eliezer doesn't have a model of God, because he doesn't believe in God, and Eliezer also knows other people have more than one models of what they label "god".
-1Kishin10ygood point, let me go back and refine, the model that I perceive Eliezer talking about. I think you are the one confused but only because i was confusing. my original point was that spending time working on proving or disproving a religion is a waste of time because of what I pointed out above, either we have a regular and consistent universe to discover or we are having the wool pulled over our eyes at every turn and which ever way it is, it's meaningless to worry about it until we find any sort of solid evidence in either direction. I wasn't even referring to a particular religion, just the general religious concept of an all powerful deity or deities of any sort. I was just trying to point out the irrationality of going about disproving something that (if we take a religious source at its word) can exists beyond the bonds of logic. Thanks for the reply and the criticism though, if you haven't caught on, I'm new to here and looking for the help to improve.

I found this site through the posts on decoherence and many-worlds; I haven't yet read them all, and look forward to doing so. Also enjoyed the posts on Bayesian rationality.

But I was disappointed by this one. The main reason is that it implicitly reduces all religious phenomena to matters of belief, which I think is a mistake.

To be clear about where I'm coming from: I don't hold any religious beliefs. Nevertheless, I think that much of what goes on in religion is psychologically or sociologically beneficial. And I think that religious language is often mi... (read more)

2Eliezer Yudkowsky10yClick through the "antitheism" tag for more. This is just one post.
2GabeEisenstein10yThank you, I read all of those. What I find is that you are able to focus on some of the non-propositional uses of religious language--like cheering for one's affinity group--yet your attitude toward such utterances is still to treat them as false propositions. I would suggest that someone who emphasizes the absurdity of her own language (that is, absurdity from a factual, propositional perspective) is trying to shift attention away from the propositional and toward an aesthetic sensibility. If we expect science and get art, we will be disappointed; but if we look at linguistic behavior in its variety, we learn to expect more emotional expression and social interchange, less representation of facts. I also find that you concentrate on fundamentalist or other strange examples, never the work of thinkers like Buber, Merton, Campbell, Watts, etc. I would especially recommend to you Wittgenstein's views on religion, as found in his essay on Frazer's Golden Bough.
7lessdazed9yYvain's parable [].
7TheOtherDave10yYou are, of course, correct that one can approach the Bible (or any scriptural text) the same way one approaches Aesop's fables, or the Grimm brothers' fairy tales, or the Watchman graphic novel -- that is, as a collection of stories that reflect the concerns and ethical and aesthetic sensibilities of a particular culture at a particular time. It's certainly possible. That said, the religious community I grew up in encouraged us to interpret the fossil record in ways that were consistent with the stories in the Bible, even when that required ignoring scientific evidence and in some cases common sense. This either demonstrates (as you say) a deficient view of how stories work, or (I think more likely) that they were not approaching the Bible purely as a collection of stories. Would you disagree? Do you think that specific religious community was atypical?
3GabeEisenstein10yThere is a wide range of ways of interpreting mythic material, both between religious communities and between members of a single community. In two of the three branches of American Judaism, as well as many varieties of Christianity and amalgams such as Unitarianism, not to mention Buddhism, etc., respect for science is encouraged--and thus the stories must be held to be stories, even if they are very special stories for the community. Such communities are radically different from those in which the Bible is treated as a source of scientific knowledge. Nevertheless, there are communities in which the children literally believe in Santa Claus, while the adults know it's a myth. And there are countless other ways of mixing up more and less literal interpretations. The same parent who disbelieves Santa Claus may take the story of Jesus' resurrection literally. And a group of people can recite language together, which some of them treat metaphorically and others literally. So the point isn't what is "typical", nor how a majority might have approached the text at a given point in history, it's that there are examples of religious thinking that are, for those who understand them, orthogonal to questions of fact. Historically this has often been reflected in the difference between exoteric and esoteric subtraditions. Those who know the "inner meaning" of the texts no longer treat them literally. Such esoteric subtraditions are far from a modern phenomenon, as Eliezer's argument would imply.
2TheOtherDave10yI certainly agree that if I use as my reference class for religious communities and individuals only those which readily acknowledge the fictional/mythical/metaphorical nature of the language they recite and its orthogonality to questions of fact, I end up with prior probabilities for assertions about religious communities and individuals that are very very different from those the OP ends up with. You seem to be further implying that there's some good reason to use that reference class, rather than the reference class of all communities and individuals that self-identify as religious, or the reference class of those that approach their texts and traditions non-metaphorically. I'm not really sure how you are justifying that second claim. By way of analogy -- I freely agree that, within the community of people who claim to be Jesus Christ, there exist individuals who are no more delusional than the average person and who are, for example, playing the lead in Jesus Christ: Superstar, or various other things along those lines. But to challenge on that basis the idea that claiming to be Jesus Christ is indicative of being delusional, and to dismiss the question of how typical those examples really are of people claiming to be Jesus Christ as beside the point, is misleading to the point of simply being wrong.
0GabeEisenstein10yI don't understand the claim you take to be unjustified, that there's a "good reason to use that reference class"--use it for what? My point is that there are valuable religious practices, yes. I distinguish them from the affirmation of supernatural beliefs, including the belief that one is Jesus or that the earth was created in 6 days. I am not challenging any assertions about the truth or falsity of any beliefs. Maybe my comments are out of line with the spirit of a website devoted to the rationality of beliefs, but it seems to me that some of you may hold a mistaken belief about the nature of religious language, namely that it primarily functions as a representation of beliefs. If you are asking for me to justify my view that there are valuable religious practices, I don't think this is the place for it, so I'll just say that there are valuable works of philosophy written in the context of religion, and valuable insights about ethics and aesthetics that are sometimes transmitted in religious education (especially when they are only nominally related to the pronouncements of ancient texts).
2TheOtherDave10yUse it for calibrating my expectations about a specific religious community in advance of further specific data... for example, about its likely influence on the cognitive habits of its members. Anyway, I'm not challenging the claim that there exist valuable religious practices. I even agree with it.
1GabeEisenstein10yThe mixing of perspectives within a community (as I noted) makes your example problematic, but I agree that some easy cases exist: for example, a church that preaches "faith healing" for sick children may be expected to run into a specific set of difficulties, not shared by a church that tells everyone to reinterpret texts for themselves in the light of reason. And again, I agree that pronouncements of people claiming to be Jesus may be taken as indicators of delusionality. Both cases involve belief, whereas I claim that in religion, non-propositional linguistic behavior, is more significant than propositional (as regards unusual beliefs). I'm waiting to see if anyone disagrees with my main assertions, that orthogonal-to-facts religion can be valuable, and that it is not a modern phenomenon.
0Desrtopa10yThis isn't really a post to be taken in isolation. I think you'll find some if not all of your objections are addressed throughout the rest of the antitheism posts.
1GabeEisenstein10yI did not find that to be the case.
1deeb10yI must agree with GabeEisenstein 100%. It is annoying to keep reading arguments against fundamentalist religion phrased as arguments "against religion". I must also note that Gabe did not get any meaningful reply to his point "that orthogonal-to-facts religion can be valuable, and that it is not a modern phenomenon". He was told to "read all antitheism posts". Well, how about a link to a specific paragraph in a specific post that addresses the very specific issues he raised? Namely, why do people keep focussing on debunking fundamentalist religion (reinterpret the fossils, believe in talking snakes, etc.) and then pretend they have debunked "religion" or "theism", completely ignoring the deep intellectual history within religious thought dealing with exactly these questions? ("you concentrate on fundamentalist or other strange examples, never the work of thinkers like Buber, Merton, Campbell, Watts, [and].... Wittgenstein's views on religion, as found in his essay on Frazer's Golden Bough.") Where in the "antitheism posts" do I find a treatment of these aspects, and why is everything I come across always tailored to debunking fundamentalism instead of dealing with the questions that will crop up if you ignore the fundamentalists and talk to religionist philosphers who are actually intelligent? And even apart from points that may be covered in other posts which I have not seen, GabeEisenstein has pointed to a number of glaring flaws or mistakes in the current post standing on its own, which would merit some attention in themselves, first of all the implication that religious ethics has not evolved over the centuries, and that it'ts a choice between the Iron Age and atheism. That's a false dichotomy if I have ever seen one.

The point is not that there's a dichotomy between Iron Age beliefs and atheism, but that moderate religious belief has its own issues.

If you allow yourself to identify with particular claims without regard to the actual evidence for them, you're liable to end up accepting ridiculous claims out of affiliation. Modes of thought are habit forming; if you insist on finding some way to interpret biblical passages that will allow you to continue to affiliate as Christian, for example, you're liable to also insist on finding ways to interpret data that will allow you to continue to affiliate as Liberal, Conservative, Libertarian or whatever, regardless of whether that interpretation is a rational response to the data. This can lead to anything from lost lives due to poorly considered legislation to getting yourself injured practicing bad martial arts techniques. Moderate theists rarely manage to sacrifice every factual belief attached to their religion required by actual deference to evidence, leading to positions like rejection of cryonics on the basis that it prevents access to the afterlife, or can't work because it won't preserve the soul. If they rejected every unsupported empirical... (read more)

4lessdazed9yAs it stands, no spot in the wallpaper must have an air bubble under it. But some spot in the wallpaper must have an air bubble under it. It's hard to argue against flat-wallpaperism. Point out the ruin of its tenets, and people push the bubble elsewhere, and still claim the name "flat-wallpaperism" as if it were the same as the old belief. There's nothing wrong with showing the problems in flat-wallpaperism even though some individuals call themselves flat-wallpaperists and make idiosyncratic mistakes about what people believe and believed, starting with how other flat-wallpaperists view and would have viewed (for historical figures and previous generations of believers) their liberal "flat-wallpaperism". If they weren't at all intelligent, they wouldn't be dumber than the fundamentalists. They set their bottom line [], confabulate [] and assault the English language by pretending with labels to a relationship with the past and other religious people they don't have, "(Assuming the Bible is a valuable moral book, which upon reading should enhance our precommitment to liberal ideals), why is the Bible so valuable a moral book, despite its words, and how does reading it provide information that reaffirms liberal ideals?" is a question whose answer is poisoned by its false assumption as "(Assuming the Bible is a communication from a deity,) what is God trying to tell us with these words?" "Many modern religious people explicitly treat the Bible as a corocodilian wallaby to rational reflections taking contemporary attitudes and insights into account." There are some problems with the preceding sentence. One is that "corocodilian wallaby"" is not a good synonym for "literary background". The words [] are a lie []. The other problem is quite similar, but i

Excellent article, I enjoyed it a lot.

One thing bothers me. What the hell are children told to persuade them to belief in a God, anyway? I don't remember what mine told me; I became atheist at the age of like 10 and even that is a very fuzzy memory. Basically I remember that as soon as non-belief became apparent to me as an option, belief has struck me as completely lacking in justification; a big unanswered "why" - all the more annoying because for some reason asking "why" was not considered reasonable among most people I talked to (ot... (read more)

5drethelin10ychildren don't need to persuaded very strongly to believe things adults tell them. It's their default state. So children of religious parents who hear their parents say, god created the world, god punishes sinners, etc. believe that until they are given reason NOT to. Other examples include things even more blatantly fake, like the tooth fairy and santa.
5MarkusRamikin9yYeah. I went to another community I post on and asked the resident theists what they told their children. The answers pretty much boiled down to "we tell them that God exists and Jesus loves them and they lap it up without question". That and getting them involved in the believing community/lifestyle. In restrospect, it shouldn't have been at all surprising.

One of the core beliefs of Orthodox Judaism is that God appeared at Mount Sinai and said in a thundering voice, "Yeah, it's all true." From a Bayesian perspective that's some darned unambiguous evidence of a superhumanly powerful entity. (Albeit it doesn't prove that the entity is God per se, or that the entity is benevolent - it could be alien teenagers.)

I think this phrasing, particularly of the parenthetical portion, is a low-level but still present existential risk, because the temptation it creates for teenagers such as myself to actual... (read more)

2Desrtopa9yYou didn't want to do that already?
1tenshiko9yThe exact idea of "tell aliens that I am their god" would have, if it occurred to me before, been immediately recognized as juvenile and worse than pointless. But this phrasing, especially alien teenagers, plural, spins it again to me as something that would be "totally epic" and "all my friends would totally think it was awesome" and invokes vivid images of negotiating with them about who gets to be this theology's Jesus. (Interestingly, I originally thought this was a reply to this comment [] when it appeared in my inbox, and was slightly disappointed to learn it was not.)

Maintenance: The link in the opening sentence no longer exists.

0gjm9yOne acceptable substitute [ Kings 18] though Eliezer might want to choose a different one of the many translations offered by that site. (The particular one his original link used isn't available there, though.)
1Vladimir_Nesov9yFixed using an internet archive copy [] . (Please PM me directly to notify of similar problems.) Edit: Actually, it works just if we remove "www" [] from the link, but I'll leave the archive version as it's more likely to survive in future years. could be alien teenagers.

+1 for that imagery alone. I'm still chuckling over that one.

Still, I think that there is a difference between ethics and all the other magisteria that the Christian religion was forced to shed: ethics is prescriptive, not descriptive. Thus, someone could claim, f.ex., "I have the right to keep slaves, my holy book says so, end of story", and you couldn't exactly dispute that (though you could stop him by force, hopefully). By contrast, if he said, "the Earth is flat, my holy book says so, end of story"... (read more)

What happens however, if one simply goes at the very core of monotheism and states "God exists, created the Universe (by Big Bang if you like), from which life arose because he built the laws of physics that way. And he will someday end the universe and create a new one with only the souls he judges good." What part of that can one disprove exactly? I'm not saying it is a valid theory, it isn't exactly because it can't be disproven. I don't know you, but the christians I know don't use the bible as their strict code of ethics and don't believe in... (read more)

1Tasky9ySorry for double post. Actually I did think about this again and I think there is a way to almost disprove what I said above. I think what can and will be disproven is the idea of "Soul". Basically we already know about a lot of connections not only between brain and body function (like "which are is correlated to which operations") but we know some things about correlation brain-personality! (If you want a really good introduction on brain-mind correlations that is not overly technical, see "The Brain and the Inner World: An Introduction to the Neuroscience of Subjective Experience" by Marc Solms and Oliver Turnbull) So, first we have to ask us what scope the soul has. I think, that if the soul doesn't comprehend "personality", it is a totally useless concept. But then, on can disprove the existence of a soul distinct from the body: there are various cases of patients (the most notable, although probably not documented precisely enough is the one about Phineas Gage, 1823-1860) that due to damage in the brain (usually the frontal lobes) changed their personality in more or less dramatic ways. So one definitely has (or will have, if more of those kind of findings pop up) to relinquish the idea of a soul-matter duality. And there you have your whole worldview crumbling down. The only thing one could possibly believe in then, would be a god who created the universe. But if he isn't correlated to reality even after one's death or after the supposed apocalypse (what sense would that make if personality/soul was body-dependant?), then what difference does believing or not imply? and one definitely couldn't base morals or ethics on such an independent god...

The Creation Myth defies the dogma of "mysterious ways".

I believe the universe has always and will always exist, with merely allowances for matter approaching either 2 or 3 dimensions.

Creation from infinite power to our finite power is mathematically impossible, by definition. Creation from a finite power to lesser finite power could be understood, using scale - like reading a map or envisioning the planet Jupiter. Thus with some future understanding of the "creation", "mysterious ways" lies fall apart.

Also - the so called G... (read more)

-1misscraven9yI'd enjoy a debate between you and a believer of the creation myth. I'd be interested to hear justification on the believer's part given the facts you have stated. It's too bad we couldn't bring this topic up for debate for the U.S. presidential race.

Very helpful. Although, I think a more accurate "something" would be control of who gets into that fanciful country club in the clouds with a perfect view of their "heathen" friends burning like crispy bacon strips. Ethics is already gone, the true core is fear-mongering, manipulation, and salvation. I hope exceptions to this exist but I've never encountered a western religion that didn't threaten, demand obedience, and promise me salvation in return.

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

In case anyone is confused by the differences between Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism, I'll pass along this amusing comment:

Think of it like a movie. The Torah is the first one, and the New Testament is the sequel. Then the Qu'ran comes out, and it retcons the last one like it never happened. There's still Jesus, but he's not the main character anymore, and the messiah hasn't shown up yet.

Jews like the first movie but ignored the sequels, Christians think you need to watch the first two but the third movie doesn't count, Moslems think the third one was the best, and Mormons liked the second one so much they started writing fanfiction that doesn't fit with ANY of the series canon.

I fail to understand you. I recall a phrase you often use "What can be disproved by science should be," or something along those lines. But, aren't you just fooling yourself? Unlike the Harry Potter of your stories, the odds of you finding immortality in your lifetime is slim to none (and as you pointed out in the problem of fun, even that would ring false eventually). So tell me, why aren't you in abject despair over your fate? There's nothing you can do, and nothing you do makes a difference. On that premise, wouldn't you reason that it's point... (read more)

0TheOtherDave9ySay I'm in a situation that sucks. Say further I have an N1% chance of improving it by some marginal amount A1 by changing my environment, if I try. It will still suck, but it will suck less. And I have a (1-N1)% chance of failing to improve it, even if I try. Say further I similarly have an N2% chance of improving it by A2 by altering my own thinking (for example, deluding myself). If you believed (N2A2) < (N1A1), would you encourage me to (e.g.) delude myself, or to change my environment? Or would this depend on something else? (What?)

Back in the old days, there was no concept of religion being a separate magisterium. The Old Testament is a stream-of-consciousness culture dump: history, law, moral parables, and yes, models of how the universe works. In not one single passage of the Old Testament will you find anyone talking about a transcendent wonder at the complexity of the universe. But you will find plenty of scientific claims, like the universe being created in six days (which is a metaphor for the Big Bang), or rabbits chewing their cud. (Which is a metaphor for...)

As far a... (read more)

The Old Testament [...] was busy laying down the death penalty for women who wore men's clothing

But Deuteronomy 22:5/Deuteronomy#22) says nothing about the death penalty. It's just an abomination, which presumably means, "You're going to hell, but we won't necessarily stone you."

A better argument would be, "The Old Testament [...] was busy laying down the death penalty for victims of rape."

"If there be a damsel that is a virgin betrothed unto a husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her; then ye shall bring t

... (read more)

The Roman Empire did have libraries. Thus, the New Testament doesn't claim big, showy, large-scale geopolitical miracles as the Old Testament routinely did. Instead the New Testament claims smaller miracles…

Here you are making the claim that Old Testament miracles were bolder and more daring than New Testament ones because the Old Testament writers felt they could get away with a lot more because they knew that their contemporaries lacked the means to verify or discredit their claims. You imply that if not for the fact the Romans were better record k... (read more)

2drethelin8yIf an islamic martyr today can be convinced that he gets x virgins in paradise (something your evident christianity would claim is untrue) in a world full of science as well as the true faith (from your point of view), why can't some writer 1800 years ago be convinced that what he writes is the true word of god?
0vtiola8yIt's possible that someone can be convinced that what they are writing is from God (which a few people have done). The difference that I see with other religious texts and the Bible is that the Bible does not shy away from naming real people, dates, and places. If I were to fabricate a lie I will steer away from mentioning identifiable people, places, and dates in fear of emboldening my audience to call out my BS. The more specific I am the easier it becomes to discredit my claims. Look, ancient people were just as skeptical as people are today. They also had a BS meter like we do today. The people back then would not have easily believed that God wiped out Sodom and Gomorrah or that 2 million people walked out of Egypt. They would not have easily accepted such claims if there was not truth to it, the same way people today would not easily accept a claim that Israel's modern enemies got wiped out by a miraculous fire from heaven unless there was some level of truth to it. Ancient man had the same advanced faculty to reason and question claims like we do today. To think otherwise is an act of historical chauvinism.
2RomanDavis8ySure. And people had crazy apocalyptic cults and mass hysteria just like we do today. What's your point?
1drethelin8yAncient people were just as skeptical with the key difference of having virtually no information, relative to what we do today. If I hear about something happening in Africa, I can go to the internet, or go to any of a dozen news sources to try and find out how true what I heard was. If someone 2000 years ago in europe heard about something happening in africa, they would have none of these options. People made things up, misinterpreted things heard from other languages and cultures, and just plain didn't understand all sorts of things. Consider Herodotus, to all accounts a man who intended to write true stories of different countries and events, and yet whose accounts are littered with what we now know to be untruths and misrepresentations. We know that there were apocryphal gospels that never made it into today's bible, so at some point historically things were selected by people in power, presumably because they furthered their agenda. You're trying to argue that it's implausible that the bible is one giant lie, and I agree, but it's very likely to be a hundred different lies or distortions from a hundred different eras piled on top of each other. If everyone believes some simple claim, then then next censorship or invention is not the giant lie you make it out to be.
1TGM8yWhy do you (and the author of the grandparent) think ancient people were just as skeptical as us? I'm not even sure that different cultures today are equally skeptical. Perhaps if you do the radiator experiment [] where you have turned the metal plate round, you will find that in different cultures (or even situations) people will be more or less likely to be skeptical of the situation in front of them.
0drethelin8yI'm agnostic as to whether or not they were, but I was granting the claim for the purposes of the debate. Whether or not your base level of "skepticism" is the same, the amount of knowledge you have influences what you are skeptical of. Ie, a child may be innately as skeptical as an adult, but has less information.
0TGM8yI agree. Perhaps I should have put this as a reply to the grandparent instead?
9Xachariah8yNo, it's not. Nowhere even close. You seem unable to distinguish between 'claims that are bold and daring' with 'claims that are important to my faith'. Claiming some guy came back from the dead for a couple of days, then disappeared again, but we totally have witnesses is not a bold claim. The entire population of Earth being wiped out in a flood is a bold claim. Two entire cities getting destroyed by supernatural means is a bold claim. An entire world power getting torn asunder by a series of supernatural plagues is a bold claim. Jesus' resurrection isn't a bold claim. The other claims require unfathomable property damage and loss of life on the multiple-world-war scale. Jesus' claim requires about as many people who went to my High School Prom all agreeing to tell a lie. That's what Eliezer means about the difference between large and small miracles.
-4vtiola8yTo claim Jesus resurrected is a bold claim, especially since Jesus was a public figure who received a public execution within a very hostile and skeptical environment. Let me illustrate with two scenarios. For the purposes of this example, let's say I'm from a small town and both scenarios involve me making a claim to a miraculous event. Scenario 1: I tell the people in my town that all of Israel's modern day enemies (Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc.) just miraculously got wiped out by hail stones and fire from heaven. Yes, that is a bold claim. Scenario 2: I tell the people in my small town that the Sheriff they all know and all recently witnessed getting gunned down in public and whose funeral they all attended and saw his dead body in the casket, is still alive because he rose from the dead with 500 town folk (who I mention by name; Jess, Billy, Tom, Sarah May) who witnessed him ascend into heaven. Without such a thing as the internet, which one of these claims is easier for the town people to verify or discredit? Which claim is really bolder? Now, imagine if the town people were the ones who murdered the Sheriff and are eager to tie up any loose ends. Anyways, one thing I'm sure you haven't done is actually read the Bible without the presupposition that it's lying. Innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. I have yet to see any skeptic really do that.
6Randaly8yAlternately, suppose I'm from Rome and I hear of the two scenarios: Scenario 1: I tell the people in Rome that all of Israel's modern day enemies (Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc.) just miraculously got wiped out by hail stones and fire from heaven. This can be easily checked- just dispatch somebody to go look at them. Scenario 2: The people in a small town somewhere claim that their Sheriff died, then rose from the dead, then vanished. This isn't nearly as easy to check. You could look for the body- but, canonically, the body was given to one of Jesus's followers (Joseph of Arimathea; see Matthew 27:57 and John 19:38 for descriptions of him as a disciple of Jesus), so we have no idea where the body is, besides his claim to have put it in a tomb. Even if he's being honest, there are certainly other ways for the body to have vanished- for example, the Jewish Toledot Yeshu claims that a gardener named Juda stole the body. We also don't have solid evidence that he ever died- again, according to the Bible, Herod was astonished at how quickly Jesus died, and had a centurion check. That one man's check is the reason it was believed he was dead; it's certainly within the realm of possibility that he was wrong. (Or, for that matter, that the Roman officer didn't feel actually giving a proper medical check, which would involve walking up to and feeling, closely and repeatedly, Jesus's bloody, sweating, dirty body.) (And your prior should possibly favor that- after all, there have been many more verified cases of mistaken death pronouncements than there have been resurrections.) There were witnesses, of course. Almost all of them were Jesus's disciples, a small band of fanatical followers, some of whom would later demonstrate their willingness to lay down their lives for their faith. (Your claim that he was seen by 500 is flat out non-biblical.) Also, most gospels present the resurrection as having been seen by some Roman soldiers, who were then supposedly bribed to claim
-2vtiola8yAll alternative explanations to what happened to Jesus' body really point to the fact that his enemies were unsuccessfully scattering to explain the resurrection away, since they couldn't legitimately counter the claim. Just because there are alternative explanations doesn't mean the original claim of resurrection is false. Of course there would be alternative explanations, since the Jewish leaders had to formulate some type of response. Those explanations didn't work back then and they still fall short today. The Romans were not inexperienced executors. They had it down to a science. It would be strange that these experienced executors would suddenly not be able to tell a dead man from a living one. Maybe it was Billy's first day on the job? Also, I should think that Joseph Arimathea, who you mentioned earlier, would have noticed that Jesus was still alive before placing him into a tomb, which was guarded by 2 combat hardened soldiers may I add. The Jewish leaders were not stupid, they were quite meticulous. They knew Jesus had made claims to a resurrection and safe guarded against anything that might mislead the public into believing that he actually resurrected. One of the very things they safe guarded against was those sneaky disciples somehow stealing his body and claiming he resurrected. This explains the guarded tomb with two soldiers. It is not an un-biblical claim because I got it straight out of a passage in the Bible; 1 Corinthian 15:6 - After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep. Wild speculations. There is no reason to not trust the eye witness accounts of the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.
2RomanDavis8ySure. But, y'know, Occam's Razor. Because...? Unless they were bribed. Or overworked. Or corrupt. Or a hundred other things. Maybe it wasn't typical to fuck up an execution, but I bet it happened sometimes. It also explains why the Israeli Resistance Front would know the soldiers out, roll away the stone, and steal the body. Now, I'm not sure Jesus ever existed. There's some evidence, but the strongest evidence is probably forged. But if I knew Jesus existed, then I'd believe that over the Resurrection story for the same reason: Occam's Razor. Dude. You said yourself that a human rising from the dead is impossible. There's your reason, right there. Now, you might believe on faith, but as far as I can see, you don't have much better evidence than the Mormons, the Scientologists, the Muslims or the followers of Charles Manson. Once you realize why you disbelieve in all other Gods, etc.
3Randaly8yIt's their word against that of the disciples; you have no reason to believe one side or the other, side from the fact that resurrections are so improbable. Furthermore, I'm now starting to be confused: again, what kind of evidence would you possibly consider a disproof of the resurrection, either today or if you lived in contemporary Rome? After all, the only available evidence, objective non-cult witnesses, all claimed that Jesus did not in fact resurrect. If you don't consider the resurrection disproved after that, then what available evidence would you consider a disproof? (This question is, after all, your original claim- that had the resurrection not occurred, there would evidence to convince you that it had not occurred.) These kind of screwups happen....not all the time, but there are a fair number of recorded and verified instances. (As opposed, again, to zero recorded resurrections. 5 seconds googling found Maggie Dickson, Anne Green, Zoleykhah Kadkhoda, and William Duell as execution survivors.) Also, the Jews were not in charge at the time, the Romans were- and the Roman leader, Pontius Pilate, didn't want to kill Jesus, according to all of the Gospels. Fair enough; I'd been only looking at the accounts in the Gospels. (Again, though, there are plenty of easy, non-supernatural explanations. This undoubtedly sounds like hedging to you, but that's because you do believe, and your belief is high status. Your explanations of why UFO sightings are wrong would sound the same to somebody who had actually seen the alien ships.) Ah. So, you do trust the soldiers who reported that the body was stolen, then? ;) More broadly, we simply don't have much solid evidence; it's a he-said she-said kind of situation- only it's also one where one side was entirely made up of fanatical cultists (or, equivalently, extremely faithful believers) who were claiming something impossible by natural means.
-4vtiola8yThere are ways to test oral testimonies and eye witness accounts for truthfulness and our courts do it all the time. There are lots of reasons to believe the Gospel writers over the other side. The late Simon Greenleaf, a skeptic at one point and also one of the founding members of Harvard Law School, wrote an essay on why the Gospel writers should be taken as innocent of deception if given a fair trial. Here's the essay if you wish to read it: [] Here are a few quotes from the essay: Simon Greenleaf proceeds in the essay to expand on each one of the five tests of the Gospel testimonies. It's an interesting read. Okay, so let's go back to another one of your statements, Randaly. It seems that most of the examples you give are cases of execution by hanging or stoning. None of them are cases of people surviving execution by Roman crucifixion. You also seem to speculate that maybe Pontius Pilate was somehow going soft on Jesus because he really didn't want to kill him. There's no need for me to rebuttal that, is there? Yes, that's the definition of a real miracle; something that occurs but is impossible by natural means. You will have to absolutely prove that miracles never occur in order for you to be able to completely write-off the claims of the eye witnesses of the resurrection based on the argument that such claims cannot be true because resurrections are impossible due to natural law. If there is a God, it's not unreasonable to believe that He can bend or supersede His own natural laws whenever He wants to. The claims of the Bible, upon scrutiny by unprejudiced men and women, are often found to be consistent with sound reason.

Greenleaf also makes a number of claims, like this one:

That the books of the Old Testament, as we now have them, are genuine; that they existed in the time of our Savior, and were commonly received and referred to among the Jews, as the sacred books of their religion; and that the text of the Four Evangelists has been handed down to us in the state in which it was originally written, that is, without having been materially corrupted or falsified, either by heretics or Christians; are facts which we are entitled to assume as true, until the contrary is shown.

Greenleaf has basically no idea what he's talking about. He appears to be using theory and the bible as his main sources. But most of his claims (eg that the Gospels were written almost immediately after Jesus' death, or that they didn't change thereafter) are wrong. (Note: I only skimmed the essay, since it's long. He may quibble later on.) See Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus, or for that matter, Wikipedia. More generally, every single ancient religion produced numerous claims similar to those of the bible, with countless eyewitnesses; many events that weren't religious also produced similar claims. For example, Herodotus, a... (read more)

6Xachariah8yScenario 1 is still the bolder claim. Egypt wasn't that far away from Isreal and any member of the village could have actually gone to Egypt. Jerusalem Isreal to Giza Egypt would be about a 2 week travel on foot. Tel-Aviv Isreal to Alexandria Egypt would be about a 3 day boat ride with biblical technology. Yeah, it's kind of annoying to travel that far, but ancient traders did that all the time to trade goods. As it turns out, those stories in Exodus were complete lies and fabrications. There is little evidence any significant number of Jews were ever in Egypt during that time period, and zero evidence the plagues ever occurred. The Bible was willing to lie about something so massive it would have made all the history books, and been carved on every monument. That's really, really bold. Additionally, we don't have hundreds of reports of Jesus' resurrection. We have one report saying that hundreds of people saw it, and that one report was written down a hundred years after Jesus' death. If I claim that my great-grandfather rose from the grave in 1912, it doesn't make it any more credible if I claim that 1,000 people also saw it. It would be silly to say that since 1000 is twice as much as 500, so my great-grandfather's resurrection is twice as likely as Jesus'. The authorities didn't bother discrediting it at the time any more than the CIA bothers with discrediting Elvis sightings. There was nothing there for them to discredit.
5Vaniver8yUm... I read the Bible as a child, as I would expect most skeptics who were raised by Christian parents did. I actually turned against Christianity because I did not like the God depicted in the Bible, which happened because I took the Bible at face value. It wasn't until later that I built up the materialistic worldview which sees the Bible as a piece of literature rather than a collection of historical claims. If I had just treated the Bible as clothing [] that my family and friends chose to wear, it would have been easy to continue wearing that clothing, while not actually holding the implied belief system. (I like my family and the friends I grew up with!) Instead, I treated it as actually constraining my expectations of God and the universe, and the resulting beliefs clashed against each other until they were destroyed. (My materialistic beliefs work together much more nicely.)
-2vtiola8yJust because you find the God of the Bible unpalatable to your personal tastes of what God should or should not be, doesn't make it any more true or false, does it?
8Vaniver8yYour claim was that you had not met a skeptic who read the Bible while expecting it to be true. I provided evidence that I am a skeptic, and that I had read the Bible while expecting it to be true. You are, of course, free to take the No True Scotsman route [] and declare that I didn't really presuppose that the Bible was telling the truth, but I might as well declare now that doing that would end this conversation.
0Mitchell_Porter8yAlong with the Bible, I suggest that you study the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Lotus Sutra, as exemplifying the mind-state of the epoch of religion. And then contemplate yourself as a Homo sapiens living in the next epoch, that of science.

What is the rational response to something like this? Because I still don't know what to think.

I met Ms. Digan in person, and there's a bit more to the story than is told on the site; the two most important things are that 1) the doctors who examined her were not, as the site implies, Catholic stooges, just normal doctors, most of them atheist; and 2) her son, a very young child at the time, came with her to Poland and stayed behind in the room, and also experienced a healing--he had some sort of dege... (read more)

6Desrtopa8yThe first account claims that lymphedema does not go into remission. A simple google search refutes this; spontaneous remission of lymphedema is well documented. The second one doesn't even state what the man's heart recovered from. Accounts of miracles tend to systematically overrate their significance, when they're not made up entirely. I'd say the rational response is to assume one or the other is going on when you hear such an account. Knowing nothing about lymphedema as a medical condition, I was able to predict in advance that the claim that it does not go into remission would turn out to be false, on the basis of my experience with other miracle claims.
6Mitchell_Porter8yLong-term physical conditions can be caused or aggravated by factors which religious people call spiritual, and which secular people call psychological. See the longer account of this story []. The mother spent years of her life depressed, medicated, and in hospital. Perhaps the son's muscles were atrophying because he had a similar malaise. It was the healthy father who in a moment of despair had a religious experience and took his family across the world. The body is capable of amazing transformations and they can be prompted by a new set and setting. The heart will beat faster, posture will change, and that alone might relieve the pressure on the lymph nodes responsible for leg lymphedema. And then the son can respond to the new psychological mood in the family and show signs of life.
3Nectanebo8yJust realise that the overwhelming majority of people who go to gods or saints with diseases like this don't get cured in this manner; what about them? What does that say about the effectiveness of miracles? There are plenty of situations that could have resulted in her getting better. Something to do with the travel, or perhaps the treatments started working, or perhaps for reasons current medicine doesn't know. Apparently, according to wikipedia we don't even know what the cause of lymphadema is. It could have been something she ate, who cares? People seemingly inexplicably get better from diseases all the time, and this one is no exception. These people wanting to attribute it to a saint or whatever doesn't mean anything much to me, and it seems much more likely that they are delusional or liars with regards to the events at the site and hearing the saint's voice and whatnot.

If any God or Gods with relevance to the human condition and actual power exist, probably the very first thing we can tell about them is that they don't want to make themselves known or believed in -- or they could easily make themselves known.

So, conditional to said existence, the majority of the remaining weight of probability is that they prefer to be disbelieved in. So why contradict them? It sounds dangerous to believe in powerful beings when they don't want you to believe in them-- much like trying to uncover a powerful conspiracy that doesn't want you to discover it.

3TheOtherDave8yWe can tell (granting your hypothetical for the sake of discussion) that they don't want to make themselves known; agreed. We can't tell that they don't want to make themselves believed in... after all, many people do believe in them, and presumably if they really didn't want that, nobody would.
2MixedNuts8yAll religions could believe correctly that a deity exists, but be wrong enough about the properties of the deity to merit no intervention.
1ArisKatsaris8yThe prior for a being that wants to be believed in but not definitively known seems very small in comparison to the prior for beings that want to hide as much as possible or the prior of beings that want to be known with certainty. Many people believe in some type of superbeings, but not necessarily anything close enough to what they are to qualify as "them" in their view. The real Sasquatch conspiracy perhaps needn't concern itself about believers in the fake Illuminati conspiracy. No, that doesn't follow. I referred to actual power and relevance, but in my conditional I didn't necessitate the ability or desire to mess individually with people's minds, or to affect specifically how each of them deals with the evidence presented to them. But if we use that as an additional criterion (that they can and do want to mess individually with each person's mind) it would imply that they prefer believers to be believers, nonbelievers to be nonbelievers, and people to convert from one to another as they do actually happen to convert --- which in turn would probably mean that in this scenario there's no reason to be "religious" either, and we can safely ignore them, as our minds are pretty much their puppets already.
3Will_Newsome8yNever learn anything about them, and die in obscurity as they take advantage of your ignorance? Pass.

I happen to read this article just now, while this quote from the Dalai Lama is still fresh in my mind:

All the world’s major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.

(originally published on facebook, so no source but you can look it up... (read more)

Thank you for writing this. The points you made here help make all of the jumbled thoughts I've had about religion cohere better. A pity that the members of my family who are still religious aren't willing to accept any alternatives to their worldview — I'd enjoy sharing this essay with them. I'll discuss it with those who are more like me, instead.

I recommend that the title is changed to Judaism´s Claim to be Non-Disprovable or something like that. Eliezer can´t just talk and talk about Judaism (I bet he was raised as a jew since he almost always refer to judaism) and then call this article RELIGION´s claim. I know that he is well aware of all kinds of uncommon religions, so I se no reason to be this arrogant.

EDIT: I deserved a downvote here, since EZ also refers to christianity in some respect, even though that is of course not a big thing, since christianity from a historic perspective is a contin... (read more)

0[anonymous]6yThe phenomenon (viz., religions proclaiming themselves to be absolute authorities) occurs in almost every religion I can think of. Muhammad is considered to be Messenger of God [], as is Bahá'u'lláh []. A history of Mormon beliefs regarding Joseph Smith shows the same decline from worldly authority to ethical authority. Perhaps the only religion I can think of that almost doesn't do this is Buddhism. One has to take refuge in the three treasures [] together because one can be mistaken about what any one of them actually means.
0Persol6yAs far as dis-provability is concerned, all major religions seem to consist of two pieces: * a claim regarding 'the ultimate truth' regarding reality (usually focused on the afterlife) which is by definition inaccessible and non-disprovable * a set of guidelines for life, usually claimed as originating from 'the ultimate truth', but still testable in reality If you extract the ideas of karma and rebirth from Buddhism, I'd still consider those two topics a religion which is non-disprovable... while what is left of Buddhism looks more like a testable philosophy on life. I'm not saying that testing a religion's philosophy is easy but, as it should have an impact on reality, it is in theory testable. At the very least it is open to comparison to other philosophies and consideration regarding the consequences. As Christianity and Judaism shows, the religion itself survives when some of the non-religious content is disproven.
1[anonymous]6yRegarding the edit: I'd like to think we're to the point in our lives where we understand that unquantified claims like "dogs have fur" and "religions claim to be non-disprovable" are colloquialisms for "(all but an exceptional set of) dogs have fur" and "(all but an exceptional set of) religions claim to be non-disprovable", and that life would become incredibly tedious if people were only permitted to make logically correct claims. I'll settle for claims which merely provide good evidence. As many, many people have pointed out over the years, the Sequences were never intended to be published as a scientific article. Also, his initials are EY. It's an essay, not a Wikipedia page. The article you're calling for is five times as long and dramatically more boring to read.

Unless you are familiar with every religion in the world, you can´t logically make this claim. I don´t know every religion so I don´t know if it is false or true that all religions claim to be non-disprovable. I think that it would surely help to provide examples that can be proved to apply to all religions. It would give the article more of the credibility it deserves.

Even if it is true that all religions claim to be non-disprovable, and all the points in the article are valid, it is still a mistake to present this hypothesis using only one or two religio... (read more)

3Wes_W6yDoes any non-Abrahamic religious believer need to be convinced that religious claims are still subject to ordinary principles of reasoning? The claim that religion is nondisprovable is not usually used to defend, say, Buddhism. But when e.g. Catholics talk about it, they don't usually say "Catholicism cannot be proven or disproven", they say that religions in general, or spiritual matters, or the existence of god(s), or etc cannot be proven or disproven. We could respond by pointing out reasons that their faith specifically ought to be falsifiable, but this makes it seem like that one faith is an exception to the general rule of religious unprovability, that it fails to qualify for the religious immunity by some technicality. Really, the whole rule is wrong to begin with. So on the one hand, I agree that it's kind of dishonest to present this as a mistake of religions in general. But on the other hand, the claim being argued against is a claim about religions in general, even though most proponents of the claim belong to a specific handful of religions.
4Persol6yMaybe my thought of 'religion' is different than yours, but I think of 'religion' as being a set of beliefs that claims to know some fact that is outside observable reality. By definition, this seems non-disprovable. If a belief system doesn't have claim to some 'extra-normal' normal, I wouldn't consider it a religion. This may be the christian god's rules on who goes to heaven, or Buddhism's rules on what you come back as.

I've heard the story of Elijah and the Priests of Baal being told as one of the first experimental swindles, rather than the first experiment. It goes something like this: Elijah: Pours 'water' on his pyre. Pyre: Catches on fire Priest of Baal: "Wait was that water or oil? If I pour some of your 'water' on my pyre maybe it will light too..." Elijah: "Put them to death before they can invent repeatability testing."

The water being oil part is so obvious that it reads less like a 'God turned water into fire' story and more like a 'look how dumb those Baal worshipers were, we totally tricked them' story. I've heard it told both ways though.

I really appreciate your argument about the differences between claims made in the old and new testament.

Unfortunately, I generally expect to read rational and thought provoking facts here and was slightly disappointed. There are some facts which simple google searches seem to refute (such as rather large Jewish populations were ever enslaved in Egypt) and arguments that lean on sentiment against practices supposedly endorsed in the Bible which are either not actually endorsed in the Bible (such as slavery which while being a Hebrew practice, is never endo... (read more)

6Raemon2yHey FiveMaru, welcome to the forum! There's a bit of background context here that might not be obvious if you're coming from other internet communities focusing on rationality or science (especially ones focused on debunking myths). The way the LessWrong zeitgeist relates to religion/supernatural claims is something like "okay, we agree that supernatural claims are bogus... now what?". The goal is to build our rationality skills such that they can help solve harder or more novel problems, rather than rehashing most debates about religion. So the context of this post is less about religion itself, and more about an overall cluster of ways that rationalists/skeptics/etc could still use to improve their own thinking.
9Said Achmiz2yWhile not wishing to contradict Raemon’s comment [] in any way, I do want to say that the question of which factual claims in the Sequences hold up [] , and which do not, is an interesting one, separately from the matter of whether any one of those claims is particularly critical to the post in which it appears. FiveMuru (or anyone else), if this is a subject that interests you, I’d love to hear more about which of Eliezer’s claims about the Bible, etc., you think are inaccurate. Over at [], you’ll find that each of the essays of the Sequences has a Talk page (here’s the talk page [] for “Religion’s Claim to be Non-Disprovable”, for instance); you’re welcome to post your comments on this subject there!

Incidentally something like the defence at the end has actually been used. In 2006, a Northern Irish terrorist called Michael Stone, only just out of prison, was charged with attempted murder after trying to force his way into the Stormont parliament building while armed with a gun and home-made explosives.

It seemed an open and shut case, but in court his defence was that, despite having all the ingredients of an act of terrorism, this wasn’t one at all, but a work of performance art - a mere simulation of an act of terrorism for aesthetic purposes.

As it h... (read more)

One thing I see is that people take the fact that some pieces of their religion are of a nature that can be neither proven nor disproven and assume that that absolves them from having to justify any of it.

Believing in a supernatural master of our universe isn't any more unreasonable than believing we live in a simulation instead of the top-level reality.  Neither supposition can be definitively shown to be true or false without access to an outside view of the universe itself.  That's not something we're likely to accomplish any time soon.

But doe... (read more)