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 doesn't 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.

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    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?

    6sark
    Perhaps 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.
    6A1987dM
    I 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.
    2[comment deleted]
    3pnrjulius
    But 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?).
    3adjuant_duplicate0.44295150064279953
    I 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.
    0Houshalter
    I 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_I
    I 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.
    4hairyfigment
    Really? 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.)
    1[anonymous]
    Because when you try that you get New Age cults and faith-healing. The true essence is the toxic and wrong part.
    027chaos
    You might want to reread the original essay, for context. Hanson's reply makes more sense in context.
    2TheAncientGeek
    Invariably?
    0[anonymous]
    Well, 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.
    0TheAncientGeek
    Maybe 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]
    Possibly. In which case I'd ask that they articulate what they mean.
    8Furslid
    Because 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?
    1dndjjdk
    In my understanding, religion carries on the practices done by ancient people for a superstitious cause, and so I wouldn't expect them to disavow something that is passed down. Not all lawyers and academics understand the reason religious people give. 

    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?

    Hm...

    -7deeb

    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

    0Document
    It sounds like you're using the word "Nazi" differently.
    8DanielLC
    Real, authentic Nazis were also Holocaust deniers. It wasn't public knowledge.
    -2Mader_Levap
    Not 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.
    1TraderJoe
    Because we have Atlas Shrugged :)
    0Odinn
    I 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.
    0Document
    Eliezer's intended message or TraderJoe's?
    -3Ebthgidr
    For 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.
    0waveman
    Just highlighting this point.
    1Jiro
    Why can't they? Well, see this old post.
    5jkadlubo
    Room 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.

    -1DanielLC
    If 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.

    -6PlacidPlatypus
    -3DanielLC
    It's relevant to what they care about, but what does it matter if their desires are fulfilled?
    1Jakub Supeł
    What's wrong with not following epistemic rationality then if there are no moral truths? If there are no moral truths, it doesn't matter whether you are rational or not; no option is better than the other.
    1Monkle
    The point Daniel makes about morality - that your actions if you don’t believe in moral truths should be the same as those if you do - IS relevant to people who care about INSTRUMENTAL epistemic rationality (the irrelevance of this matter is relevant if you get what I mean) “Mistakenly equivocating” is not quite fair. It’s plainly obvious that he meant “wrong” in the moral sense, considering he literally opened with “if there are no ethical truths…”. (Plus, I’m taking “assume” to mean “act as though” rather than “believe”, which also solves your point of disagreement)
    -1DanielLC
    The 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.
    5pnrjulius
    Although, 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...)
    0DanielLC
    Say what you will about them being justified. They're still wrong.
    1JohnWittle
    Um... 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.
    0DanielLC
    Why are you suggesting saying it doesn't exist? Because it's easier?
    0RomanDavis
    Because there's no evidence of it.
    2DanielLC
    But 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.
    0RomanDavis
    It'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?
    5wedrifid
    I 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.
    0RomanDavis
    Well, 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.
    0DanielLC
    Your memory only shows that the ship left. It doesn't tell you that the ship continued existing once it crossed the event horizon.
    0RomanDavis
    It 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.
    -2wedrifid
    It was a particularly large black hole.
    0shminux
    As far is we know, there is nothing inside a black hole, yet it is not magic.
    0RomanDavis
    Not much space. Lots of mass.
    0shminux
    There 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.
    0RomanDavis
    My 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.
    0shminux
    The "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.
    0RomanDavis
    Firstly, 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.
    0shminux
    This 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.
    6DanielLC
    Suppose 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.
    0RomanDavis
    I'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.
    2DanielLC
    Yes. 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]
    How about a photon not in our light cone? Does that exist? It's completely unmeasurable and can have no measurable effects.
    1Luke_A_Somers
    If 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.
    1DanielLC
    In that case I'd figure that they probably exist. Otherwise, I'd figure that they probably don't. In either case, they might exist.
    1LESS
    Each has no grounds to believe in the other's existence, so rationally they ought to both say that the other doesn't exist.
    2Monkle
    Ethics is (infuriatingly) unique in this aspect. Discussion of beliefs that do not make observable predictions is unproductive (Making Beliefs Pay Rent), and discussion of beliefs that do not make ANY predictions about ANYTHING EVER is literally meaningless (the different versions of reality are not meaningfully distinguishable). That said… ethics poses an exception to this rule, because although ethical beliefs don’t make predictions (for anything ever), they still have implications for how you should behave. This is entirely unique to ethical beliefs. As much as I’d love to do away with the infinite rambling debates over predictionless beliefs, ethics stands in the way. They are beliefs that pay rent not in the currency of predictions to be used to achieve your goals, but in the form of the very goals themselves - an offer so irresistible to instrumental rationalists such as myself, that we will trample far past our ordinary epistemic boundaries to grasp at it.
    2rkyeun
    Morality 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.
    3BerryPick6
    TGGP3 clearly does not share your definition for the word 'moral/ethical' otherwise he would not have made such a comment.
    -4rkyeun
    That would make him wrong, then.
    0BerryPick6
    How so?
    -1rkyeun
    In the direct literal sense. It wasn't a trick question. 2 + 2 =/= 7, while we're at it.
    1AndHisHorse
    If 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.
    1rkyeun
    Which 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.
    1Document
    I 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]
    I 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.

    3thrawnca
    Isn'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.
    2Lumifer
    Necroing 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.

    3pnrjulius
    We 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.
    0JD19
    By outlawing religion? Or by some other means?
    6atomliner
    Outlawing religion outright in a religious society would cause some serious problems and would probably require a very authoritarian government.
    7MenosErrado
    I'd say that's just the kind of thing that would define a government as "very authoritarian".
    0Richard_Kennaway
    "Probably"? Are you (and pnrjulius, and JD19) entirely ignorant of the history of the 20th century?
    0atomliner
    I say probably because it might not require an authoritarian government to enact such a policy. I can imagine realistic scenarios.
    2MugaSofer
    Who are you and why are you a cartoon villain?! Um, seriously though, I think you're confusing cause and effect there.
    0Bluehawk
    Lack of rationality causes religion causes lack of rationality causes religion causes lack of rationality --
    1MugaSofer
    Thus, if we destroy religion irrationality will resurrect it, and if we improve rationality religion will drag it down again. Depressing.
    2A1987dM
    I dunno -- I can think of many more important things; focussing on religion of all things sounds somewhat arbitrary to me.
    1Osiris
    Getting 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).
    3PrawnOfFate
    Uncomfortable 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.
    0Osiris
    Exactly. 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 http://www.overcomingbias.com/2007/03/on_majoritarian.html but then I remember religion and it sets me back on the right track.

    4pnrjulius
    \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.)
    2MTGandP
    That'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.

    1pnrjulius
    Yeah, what does it mean to be Unitarian, really? Are they even religious anymore?
    5keen
    There 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.
    2Desrtopa
    But 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.
    2keen
    Excellent 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)

    1smijer
    I 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 power o

    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)
    3smijer
    Sorry - 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).
    3Alejandro1
    When 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.
    1smijer
    Thank you.
    0Veldurak
    If 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?
    0smijer
    Personally, 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.
    6A1987dM
    Note 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).
    2MixedNuts
    I did think of that, but praying for someone else's disease to be cured, without telling them, certainly qualifies.
    0Bugmaster
    I 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.
    0smijer
    Not "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.
    0Strange7
    That 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.
    0smijer
    Indeed it may.
    1Bugmaster
    Sure, 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.
    1po8crg
    I 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.
    2A1987dM
    Well, 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.)
    0Bugmaster
    Right. 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?

    -3bigjeff5
    The 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.
    1ndm25
    Words 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.
    1bigjeff5
    Earliest "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.
    1bigjeff5
    Was 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.
    5gjm
    No 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).
    0bigjeff5
    Which 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.
    2gjm
    You 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.
    7bigjeff5
    The 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?
    1tlhonmey
    The 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)

    4Odinn
    It 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.

    4pnrjulius
    It'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.
    5CuSithBell
    You'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!
    6pnrjulius
    My general MO is to ignore the name and date and skip straight to the content. I suppose it does sometimes have a downside.
    4CuSithBell
    It'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!
    3kodos96
    Personally, 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 Riabtsev
    Yeah, 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.

    David, I've dealt with her before.

    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.

    2autolycus
    I'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)

    3pnrjulius
    Could 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?

    TGGP:

    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.

    Eliezar,

    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: http://www.overcomingbias.com/2007/08/we-are-not-unba.html

    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)

    G,

    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)

    Chris,

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

    DB

    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.

    G,

    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)

    4gwern
    It'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)

    G,

    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.

    Best,

    DB

    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.

    0andyd
    Seeing 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.

    Kellen:

    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?

    Well,

    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).

    -22eli_jones

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

    0HonoreDB
    I 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)

    2Kishin
    as 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.
    6ArisKatsaris
    You 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".
    0ArisKatsaris
    Since 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".
    -1Kishin
    good 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 Yudkowsky
    Click through the "antitheism" tag for more. This is just one post.
    2GabeEisenstein
    Thank 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.
    7lessdazed
    Yvain's parable.
    7TheOtherDave
    You 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?
    3GabeEisenstein
    There 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.
    2TheOtherDave
    I 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.
    0GabeEisenstein
    I 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).
    2TheOtherDave
    Use 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.
    1GabeEisenstein
    The 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.
    0Desrtopa
    This 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.
    1GabeEisenstein
    I did not find that to be the case.
    1deeb
    I 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)

    4lessdazed
    As 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 it applies to the word "religious" as it is used in the crocodilian wallaby sentence and in the quoted sentence.

    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)

    5drethelin
    children 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.
    5MarkusRamikin
    Yeah. 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)

    2Desrtopa
    You didn't want to do that already?
    1tenshiko
    The 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.)