Tag Archives: Skepticism

Why America is NOT a Christian nation in logic anyone can follow

The evidence that the constitution of the United States was crafted to keep religion out of politics is fairly straightforward. This fact however does not stop those in power who want to wedge their beliefs and preferences into public discourse and laws.

Religion is a powerful force in human affairs. It not only motivates individuals, it can move entire groups and nations to act in ways both good and bad.

It can also be divisive — subjugating the needs and rights of others for an interpretation of an ancient text which the adherent believes is the divine word of the creator of the universe.

So why am I addressing this issue? The tipping point for me was reading about how Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore is trying to ban same-sex marriage in his state for purely theocratic reasons.

The lengths Conservative Christians and sympathizers will go in order to argue that they and their views deserve special privileges because they are Christians is astounding.

We could go back and look in depth at the history of the US, the founding documents and invoke all kinds of arguments. Ultimately though, the best arguments against such horrendous attempts to overhaul the United States are very simple.

So let’s dive straight into Roy Moore’s flawed reasoning and I’ll demonstrate, in terms everyone can verify and understand, why America is not a Christian nation in the legal sense of the word.

When asked “Are laws themselves superseded by God?” Chief Justice Moore said:

CLAIM ONE: “I think you’re correct in saying that,” he answered. “This is a Christian nation by the fact that 90% of the churches in America are Christian churches and it’s certainly founded upon Christian principles.

I’m sure most churches in America are Christian. That wasn’t the concern of the founding fathers. The establishment clause preventing the government from favoring or discriminating on the basis of religion was largely to prevent one religious group rising up above all the others.

Furthermore, the constitution guarantees equal treatment under the law regardless of religious affiliation. The appeal to a majority is just an attempt by Roy Moore to lend his arguments credibility that they don’t deserve. It’s also a form of bullying.

CLAIM TWO: “The supreme law of the land is the Constitution of the United States which recognizes many of those principles.”

Here’s the kicker — the Constitution is overtly non-religious (secular) and in a fatal way to Christianity.

Compare the very first of the Ten Commandments to the first amendment to the Constitution.

First Commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”
First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The First Amendment (the very first issue the founding fathers felt they needed to address) directly contradicts the First Commandment, presumably the most important commandment to Yahweh.

CLAIM THREE: “Our freedom to believe what we want comes from God. When it comes from God, no man or no court, can take it away. That’s a God-given right under the Declaration of Independence, which is law itself.”

This is ignorance and wishful thinking in its extreme. Again, taking the First Commandment, God has clearly said you have freedom to believe in one god only. That’s not freedom,that’s coercion.

If history is a guide, the human species only attains freedom after fighting off the oppression of autocratic regimes. Multitudes of humans have met their demise bringing this fight. Christianity, as a monotheistic religion, has autocracy as a fundamental principle.

You can’t argue that freedom comes from God and then advance a book he supposedly inspired that is filled with punishments and inducements for disobeying his rules, especially when some of those rules fundamentally oppose basic human rights (such as self determination).

“Why must they continue to flog dead arguments?”

But despite all this obvious evidence, conservatives still try to bring religion to the table. Why? Because it gives them unchallenged power to control the populace. They can justify whatever backwards and regressive laws they like, no matter their real world consequences.

The ambiguity of religious texts means they’re able to pick and choose their interpretations and become righteously indignant to those who stand in their way. In many cases, this feeling of moral superiority and absolute certainty has led to genocide and war — both civil and with other nations.

The religious impulse to absolutism sows the seeds of dictatorship. Just listen to the likes of Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee. They explicitly want to force everyone else to comply with their beliefs. This is not the role of a public official who is in power to represent the people… ALL people.

Constitutional protection was established so that no one could use their own religious interpretations to enforce their own theocratic versions of the law.

The irony is, most conservatives who buy into this “Christian Nation” fallacy are highly critical of nations that employ the same ideology, but in a different religious background.

They must be envious of government officials in Iran and Saudi Arabia, nations where they can enforce theocratic law in ways that contravene most basic human rights.

CONCLUSION

What escapes these fundamentalists is that by saying freedom comes from God (the one they believe in) they’re ignoring their own rule book — the Ten Commandments, which categorically states you are free to believe in only one god — Yahweh.

This coercion is intrinsic in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, where many passages point to the death of all who oppose the will of Yahweh.

Freedom makes no sense when it comes with strings attached as it does with monotheistic religion. God quite clearly states that their can only be one true deity. All others are strictly prohibited.

The founders of the US knew this and went on to make the very first amendment to the constitution in direct opposition to what the creator of the universe laid out in the first commandment.

Hence… America is not founded on any religion. The humanistic philosophy that underpins the founding documents strictly prohibits the state from religious  meddling.

Being products of the Enlightenment, they knew full well what religious tyranny look liked and realized the only true way to ensure everyone is equal under the law was to scribe a secular constitution that prevented such abuses.

Rethinking the role of pleasures in life

Many people don’t even consider the role of pleasure in creating a ‘good’ and ‘flourishing’ life.

In fact the word flourishing probably doesn’t factor in to any one person’s philosophy of life.

This is primarily a cultural thing — very few of us are ever presented with the idea of questioning the cultural norms and attitudes we are inculcated in. You’re a consumer, you consume and thereby participate in the great cultural experiment of no-limits capitalism.

It is my contention that life truly worth living requires some critical reflection on the relationship we have with pleasure and the external objects and events that we rely on for fulfillment.

To some, the idea that pleasure isn’t somehow connected to a valuable and worthwhile life is dumbfounding. This was certainly my realisation when I first discovered Stoicism and virtue ethics as a way of developing a personal code for living.

In fact, the pursuit of pleasure, despite being a tremendously self-centred preoccupation, often leads to discontentment or worse, addictions.

“It is self-discipline, above all, that causes pleasure.”
— Socrates

As it turns out, philosophers have been debating ideas around what constitutes a good life for at least 2500 years. Only in the last few centuries has philosophy been preoccupied with areas that are academically interesting, but bare little relevance to practical living.

Epicurus and the “pleasure garden”

Of the Hellenistic schools, the Cyrenaics and the Epicureans held that pleasure is the only intrinsic good. In fact, the Cyrenaic school only lasted a century — their project essentially carried on by the Epicureans.

Like most words pertaining to Greek philosophy that survive in modern English, ‘Epicurean’ distorts the original meaning of the word.

Epicurus did expound a hedonistic philosophy, but his take on pleasure was vastly different to that of the modern standard. His hedonistic ethics were aimed at the attainment of ataraxia — freedom from unnecessary pain while being content with simple pleasures.

Epicureans were not rampant pleasure seekers at all costs. Food, drink and sex were not objects of unusual desire for them. Instead, Epicurus and his ardent followers did all they could do maintain this blissful state including:

  • Withdrawing from politics and, to a large extent, public life
  • Retiring to a plush garden to practice philosophy and live the good life among friends
  • Enjoy pleasures in moderation while abstaining from unhealthy pleasurable pursuits
  • Avoiding superstitious beliefs that cause undue existential harm (e.g. Gods that punish us in an afterlife).

The latter point to me is the most interesting as a modern skeptic. Epicurus’ theory of atomism stemmed from his insistence that beliefs should be proportioned to the empirical evidence. Epicurus thought it unnecessary to worry about the gods and to fear the consequences of judgement from the gods. This was a bold departure from the beliefs of the populous at the time.

So Epicureans pursued a state of tranquility through the taming of desire, because they knew that wantonly fulfilling desires is an unending pursuit that leads to discontentment.

Staunch Stoics

The Stoics went one further than the Epicureans — pleasure is not a good at all, in fact virtue (those actions that perfect one’s character) is the only good. The Stoics were unimpressed with pleasure and craving after desires. They thought these to be the cause of much human unhappiness.

The way to combat perturbations or “unnatural movements of the soul” is to live apatheia (without passions). To achieve this state, one must pursue only those things that are within one’s control. Any ‘passion’ in Stoicism is inappropriate because the presence of such intense emotions can only arise in a person if they mistakenly place value in an external object, sensation or event (which are only indifferents with respect to a flourishing life).

That is Stoicism in a nutshell — quell passions like desire by judging only internal things within our control to be good. Value those things and be indifferent to everything else (in fact we should love whatever befalls us because that is what nature has willed).

Stoic practice is therefore training to hone one’s wisdom about what is truly good and what is truly bad and to act in accordance with nature.

As with much of the Stoic canon, Epictetus is bang on when he says: “It is impossible that happiness and yearning for what is not present, should ever be united.”

The mental disposition of yearning, craving or lusting after something external is the very definition of discontentment. However, this way of thinking, puts us squarely at odds with the frantic, never satisfied life we’ve landed ourselves in.

What that means for us today

Many people from all walks of life are waking up to the fact that there is more to life than just fulfilling every desire that enters their consciousness.

In rich countries, we’re sold on the idea from multiple sources — the media, big business, governments… That the goal in life is to have the house, the car the toys, the holidays and everything in between. We’re supposed to work ourselves into the ground to pay for these things and when we can’t we can just sign on the dotted line and go in to debt.

The above narrative is not only faulty it is the also the cause of a great amount of human unhappiness, environmental degradation and social problems. The lie persists, however, because so much is at stake for those who profit from us buying into it.

Socrates said that “the unexamined life isn’t worth living”. Perhaps the most insightful and life changing aspect of my study in Hellenistic philosophy stems from challenging the role desire plays in my life. For me, preoccupation with pleasure has reduced dramatically and the positive results as well as increased sense of well-being has flowed into all aspects of my life.

Your path might be different to mine — I have principally studied Stoicism, but it really doesn’t matter. Eastern philosophies and religions have also much to say about how desires and aversions rule our lives. The point is: examine your life, don’t just sleepwalk through it. And evaluating the effect of pleasure and desire in your life is about as fundamental an examination as you can get.

Even if you come out of your study of practical philosophy as a full blown consumerist hedonist, at least you’ll know why and be able to recognise the limitations of that philosophy of life and be prepared for any challenges that you may face.

Can we at least learn something from this Mayan apocalypse mumbo jumbo?

The failed Mayan apocalypse ramblings could be a positive awakening for humanity, but it won’t be. Read on for why I’m not optimistic.

Sorry but I can’t not talk about the supposed Mayan apocalypse hubbub. I just think that we can learn some lessons from this whole thing. I mean, we laughed at Harold Camping for his absurd pronouncements about the end of the world last year (twice as the math was slightly off).

For starters, the Mayans never made such a prophecy. Even if they did — so what!? The obsession with what the Mayans may or may not have said/thought seems in part to be due to the romantic (false) notion that ancient societies were in some sort of wonderful place, in harmony with nature and the cosmos.

My basic premise

Claims such as those made about a mysterious Planet X destroying the Earth or any other apocalyptic ramblings fail because those making/believing such claims are arriving at conclusions from a faulty epistemology.

Check this list of failed predictions of apocalyptic events (Wikipedia).

Remember, ancient peoples were ignorant of many basic facts that we take for granted today. In fact, you only have to go back a few hundred years to see how primitive our collective human understanding really was. It wasn’t long ago we had no idea of: the germ theory of disease; sun centered solar system; expanding universe; DNA and heritability; evolution and the origin of species; radio waves; electricity; gravity… We were blind to so much.

Misconceptions galore — A Primer on Knowledge

A claim I was presented with recently went as follows (paraphrasing):

“At one time, the research of the day showed that the Earth was the centre of the universe”.

I hear similar statements from people quite a bit. The idea that science is somehow flawed because our understanding of the world was primitive at one point is really unconvincing.

Claims such as “the Earth is at the centre of the universe” stem from primitive intuitions based on limited data — such claims come before research is done.

Remember, science isn’t a “thing”. The word is a noun for a process of fact checking and observation. At one point knowledge on a subject is minimal. The scientific method helps us grow a body of reliable knowledge and increases our understanding. This is what makes science a reliable and valid epistemology.

Therefore (and this is the key point): Human understanding improves over time.

That means, we cast off that which is shown to be false and accept that which we find to be true.

Science has allowed us to open our eyes, lift the veil of ignorance and reveal a world that rich and wonderful and even more important — science has shown us that it is comprehensible, even to our limited brains.

“But science changes over time”

Wrong. Knowledge changes over time. Science is just the method we use to acquire knowledge/discard hypotheses. This is a good thing.

The Mayans had a primitive understanding of reality

The Mayans, like all ancient cultures were superstitious, attributing all manner of natural phenomena to gods and mystical beings. Human progress has been a long history of superstitions being replaced by real knowledge and understanding.

I think we can learn some valuable lessons from these facts about our collective understanding of the universe in which we live, and yet another failed end of the world hypothesis:

  • Knowledge improves over time.
  • The process by which we accumulate claims has changed: We now can produce reliable information about reality through validation and testing.
  • Ancient cultures did not validate claims through a stringent process of checking facts.
  • They didn’t have sophisticated tools to investigate reality and therefore couldn’t be expected to ask better questions.
  • Ancient cultures were largely ignorant of basic facts about the natural order.
  • Ancient cultures did not have privileged information that we don’t know now (as much as we would like to romanticise and claim they did).

Ergo… We must ask ourselves, “How does the ancient claim/philosophy square with our understanding of nature today?”

Ignorance and default thinking

People can still choose to believe that lightning is still mandated by higher powers and that cyclones and earthquakes are sent by gods but this thinking is now optional. When people didn’t know better they defaulted to the supernatural claim. That’s just part of being human.

Conclusion — why nothing will change

If human knowledge improves over time then we can’t look back into the deep past and expect to see great understanding of reality. Even if an ancient culture claimed something about today, that isn’t a reason to believe it (again the Mayans didn’t make an apocalyptic claim, people interpret it that way today).

Here is a prediction: Those invested in the Mayan apocalypse nonsense will probably not change their beliefs even after yet another failed attempt to predict the end of the world. That is just human nature, cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias in action

What we will see is more ad hoc justifications on and beyond 22 December 2012.

Then the next craze will hit town and the we will be entertained/bemused at yet another prediction stemming from flawed epistemology and more lame justifications.

Gay rights denial — the untiring bigotry of the pious

In my last post, I commented on how religious moral systems are inadequate in the ways in which they fail to properly account for the real world. Here, we’ll look at the issue of gay marriage as an example of where monotheistic attempts at morality are flawed and ultimately fail us.

In spending too much time and concern with imagined transgressions and harm, religious moral views  steer us away from the actual conditions humans and other animals actually experience. This shift in emphasis from real to imagined often creates more harm than good.

Opposition to gay marriage on religious grounds shows what is wrong with religious conceptions of morality and why secular morality is far superior in practice.

The nature of moral arguments
Whether an argument is moral or not is not determined by who says it, the volume they say it at or the numbers of people who support it. In other words, authority, power and popularity do not make moral arguments valid.

Valid moral arguments must have sound logic and valid reasons.

Pious opposition — Invalid reasons; bad logic

When you strip away the bad logic and invalid arguments, it becomes apparent that homosexuality and same-sex marriage are not moral issues.

Ask an opponent of gay marriage the following: “Can you tell me a valid reason why you as a heterosexual can marry and have all the benefits that come with it, whereas homosexual couples cannot?” What you will hear in return is a bunch of invalid reasons, including:

  • The claim that gay marriage offends God (really? You know that how???)
  • Others will elaborate and say the bible specifically says that the gay lifestyle is immoral and the penalty is going to hell (the Bible does not actually make this explicit claim).
  • Still more assert: “I don’t want to offend the (presumably loving) being that made the rules”.
  • Here is the kicker — a startling claim made by one NZ Herald respondent: that the dictionary definition of marriage doesn’t say anything about same sex couples marrying (as if moral progress is made via lexicography).

Facts
The gay lifestyle is a consequence of being gay. Many believers claim that being gay is a choice, despite the fact that all evidence points to the contrary — that sexual preference is a complex mix of developmental and genetic factors. There is a clear reason for this denial:

Homosexuality is as much as a choice as is heterosexuality. This fact poses a conundrum for the believer — being gay must be a choice or else our God is an asshole — why would God create people with the specific intention of persecuting and condemning some on the basis of a trait that God himself created? This cognitive dissonance explains why believers will deny the reality that homosexuality is not a choice.

Failure by the religious to acknowledge the fact that gay people are born gay amounts to condemnation on the basis of innate identity. This is immoral.

Condemnation on the basis of the sexual orientation a person is born with is morally the same as discrimination on the basis of colour.

Pick your flavour — biblical moral relativism

The Bible is a deeply flawed book filled with contradictions. This in part explains part of its success as a guide for believers. You can pick and choose those parts that confirm what you wish to be true while ignoring the other, contradictory and less convenient passages.

For instance, the books of the Bible gay marriage opponents point to as evidence for their position (one man one woman) also advocate polygamy among numerous other marriage arrangements, including a gem from Exodus which says a slave owner can assign male slaves to female slaves (how moral of those slave owners!) This cool infographic shows marriage according to the Bible.

Vile, evil and immoral commands in the Bible
Perhaps the most quoted biblical warning against homosexuality comes from Leviticus 20:13 (following an earlier warning from Leviticus 18:22): — “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them”. What a loving God! Interestingly, in this same book we find passages that prohibit men from shaving their heads or trimming their beards (Leviticus 21:5); and if a priest’s daughter “plays the whore,” we are instructed in God’s infinite loving wisdom to burn her to death.

Upon reading the Bible it is clear that if we are to live our lives based on bronze-age edicts in Leviticus (Deuteronomy, Numbers, Genesis…) we are advocating for a regression back to primitive, morally repugnant times.

Conclusion

Progress in human rights has always had its challenges. Staunch defenders of the status quo is to be expected, but in the areas of human rights, moral and scientific progress, religious opposition has always been an impediment.

From slavery, the oppression of women to barbaric acts such as stoning people for working on the sabbath — we no longer accept these biblical definitions of roles and justice. We (at least in my country) have simply moved on — and a good thing too. These ideas do not deserve respect and for the most part are positively immoral.

When the issue of “should we grant homosexual couples the same status we enjoy as heterosexuals” is finally put to rest, let us look back in 20-30 years to celebrate the victory of compassion over the scornful who tried in vain to convince us that they acted morally.

For more on the science of sexual orientation:

Bible in Kiwi schools? For what reason?

The Bible does have a place in New Zealand schools but it must be in a context of criticism and ethical philosophy — not for the indoctrination of minds into a narrow, dogmatic and exclusive viewpoint.

A handful of correspondents to the NZ Herald on this issue have pointed out that religious instruction should cover a range of world religions — what they believe and how their faith is practiced. This is a good platform, and one that flushes the religious fundamentalists out from behind the bushes.

Under the guise of “values education”, Christians seeking to teach the Bible in schools are primarily concerned with bringing ‘sheep’ to Jesus. This is not values education and unnecessary to lead a good moral life. This does, however fall under the category of indoctrination and does not belong in public schools.

Ethical teaching — a good idea

The teaching of ethics is an absolutely fantastic idea. In fact, I would say philosophy generally is under taught in schools and reflection on the ideas of some of the greatest thinkers throughout the ages can only enrich the lives of students who study them.

Philosophy begins where religion ends, just as by analogy chemistry begins where alchemy runs out, and astronomy takes the place of astrology.
Christopher Hitchens, “God is Not Great”

Moral thought existed before the Bible and was even more important after because then it was possible to reflect on whether its ideas had moral weight. This basic requirement of any ideas — that they be critically analysed — was met with resistance when applied to the Bible. Those daring to question religious ideas persecuted and outright murdered by those privileged by Christian beliefs (notably the Catholic Church).

morality is Not the unique domain of religion

…religion gives people bad reasons for acting morally, where good reasons are actually available. We don’t have to believe that a deity wrote one of our books, or that Jesus was born of a virgin, to be moved to help people in need. – Sam Harris, http://www.samharris.org/

Morality is not dictated from on high. Moral progress is possible because of critical reflection on behaviour and the consequences of our actions.

Secular morality is concerned with the suffering of sentient beings out of basic empathy and compassion, not because we are commanded to. This includes the experiences of non-human animals as well. This necessarily requires the understanding of the experiences of others (the basis of empathy) and therefore the acceptance of differences.

The Bible is not a reliable manual on morality because it does not teach understanding; instead it inspires the believer to be incredibly judgemental and conceited (hey, I’m only speaking on behalf of the creator of the universe here). The Bible contains many immoral acts — some by God, others commanded by him. The Bible doesn’t mind slavery, glorifies rape and incest in places and stresses ‘obedience or else’ threats from a supposedly ‘loving’ God.

Hence, the Bible is a ‘pick and choose’ book — the choosing done on the basis of personal opinion using an obvious external; standard of morality. This makes biblical morality a perfect example of the moral relativism that is often claimed of non-religious morality (also evidenced by the fact that different denominations cannot agree on basic doctrines and interpretations).

literature and philosophy are superior to holy books

We have had to ignore the Bible on so many fronts in order to progress passed our innate petty, fearful and xenophobic traits. The following is a short list of areas where we have sought moral and human rights progress only to be confronted by religious opposition:

  • The abolition of slavery
  • Women’s rights and equality
  • Women’s health and sexuality (and therefore the alleviation of poverty and emancipation of women from being male property)
  • Progress away from racism
  • Gay and lesbian rights
  • Environmental concerns and conservation
  • The ethical treatment of animals
  • Treatment of non-believers and rival religions…

Progress in these areas requires ignoring the pronouncements of holy books. Indeed, in the case of the Bible, the above items are either not addressed or it advocates diminishing the rights of others — thereby causing more harm in the process.

In religion there is no mechanism for internal improvement of moral codes. After all, how can you improve on God? The emphasis is on inflexible rule dictation with the presumption of truth not requiring external validation. These have shown to be impediments to scientific and positive social change.

Literature is far better at approaching moral conundrums and dilemmas while philosophy enriches our moral intuitions by questioning beliefs and assessing how actions impact individuals and societies in the real world.

Religion is optional and not necessary to teach people to be virtuous and so belongs in NZ public schools without privilege; requiring the same criticism we apply to all philosophical ideas.

Next post – the finer points of morality and why religions have utterly failed us in that respect.

Further resources

Church makes outrageous healthcare claims, highlights need for clear thinking

Church billboards can say a variety of things, good and bad, but “Jesus heals cancer” is ridiculous. So what can we learn from this outrageous pronouncement by a Napier Church?

File this one under the ‘very odd’ category but the billboard put up by Napier’s Equippers Church has attracted a lot of attention, which I suspect is the main reason it was erected.

First I’ll say what the media should say about this issue, but lacks the balls: We know the reasons the church offers for such incredible claims are false.

The NZ Herald reported that at least one family was appalled by the billboard’s cancer claim and that the matter has been submitted to the Advertising Standards Authority.

Even Steve Novella, prominent skeptic and author of the Neurologica blog has added his weight behind the issue, essentially saying religious freedom is one thing but protecting the public from misleading health claims is another.

The trouble with outrageous claims on billboards, websites etc… is that you never know how an individual will respond to them. If one person in a hundred buys the message and forgoes proper medical treatment then we have a problem. Misinformation about medicine and health is always a bad idea for this reason.

Beware! Magical thinking lurks

Appeals to magic, and prayer is such an appeal, can be treated with extreme skepticism from the outset just as sacrificing goats should be.

It raises some important points about how we know something is true and also prompts one to ask: “Does prayer actually work?” and “Why do people make claims like this?”

The church billboard is irresponsible, as Steven Novella points out. Even if people sincerely believe they are doing the right thing by advertising such messages, the truth of the matter is their efforts can only subvert truth and cause harm.

Good questions expose pseudoscience

Belief-based ideas about what constitutes a medical treatment are simply worthless. Human cultures operated on ignorance of the facts for millennia before some bright spark said, “I wonder if any of this is true”.

Using scientific thinking, we can get to the heart of medical claims. We can ask questions like:

  • What exactly was healed?
  • How do you know X cured this ailment?
  • How would you know if X didn’t cure it? (exposes criteria)
  • What about Y? How do you know whether Y had no effect on the cure?

The Pastor admits the people who were claimed to be healed of cancer completed their medical treatments. So I ask, how does he then claim that it was Jesus that cured them? What criteria did he use to eliminate other influences, like medical scientific interventions?

Someone’s self report of what cured them of ailment X is riddled with problems and is worthless in terms of determining fact for the following reasons:

  • Motivated reasoning
    Given a set of data, a person will concoct an interpretation based purely on their beliefs and worldview. Other people will construct different interpretations.
  • Confirmation bias
    Given a set of data, a person will unconsciously filter out evidence that falsifies their conclusion while endorsing only that which confirms their prior beliefs (this is the default setting of the brain).

Sloppy thinking and the inadequacy of prayer

A great illustration of motivated reasoning and confirmation bias can be seen in the way that people interpret experiences, first as spiritual, then as solely in terms of their spiritual/religious beliefs.

Buddhists have experiences they interpret in Buddhist terms, Mormons in Mormon terms and so forth. Research shows conclusively that people experiencing the same stimuli inside the brain will self-report those experiences purely terms of their spiritual worldview.

Furthermore, every controlled test of prayer has been negative (shows prayer doesn’t work) and it does not matter which deity one prays to. The practice of prayer shows how motivated reasoning and confirmation bias/ad hoc reasoning work to produce and reinforce beliefs.

Scenario: Heads I win, tails I win!
For instance, if we pray to a deity with a vague request (help with our finances), this leaves the door wide open for interpretations and therefore we can never know if the prayer worked at all. If we pray for a specific goal, (say $1000 by March 3) then we run the risk of falsifying our prayer.

Confirmation bias will come to our rescue. If we find $50 on the street, hey presto – God/Jesus answered our prayer, not completely but who are we to question God? If our finances do not improve, we can reason that God heard our prayer, but God chose not to grant it because he has a plan.

Ergo – If God has a plan, and he’s going to stick to it regardless, what is the point of asking? It is this kind of not making sense that leaves us non-believers scratching our heads

Conclusion – not just a religious problem

Rightly, many people are outraged by the sheer audacity of the false claim that ‘Jesus heals cancer’. However, I suspect some of those people also believe equally ridiculous ideas about what can cure cancer.

Selective skepticism such as this is a constant reminder of why we need objective studies to confirm the reality of any treatment/modality.

Skepticism and scientific reasoning has to be applied across all healthcare claims if we truly care about doing no harm.

The fact is, cancer is not one disease but a class of diseases that emerge and behave in a wide variety of ways. For this reason, one “cure all” panacea for cancer simply holds no basis in reality.

The church has the right to make whatever claims they want on their billboards, but we too can point out that it is ridiculous and irresponsible and hopefully limit any damage such magical thinking can inspire.

Debunking – how to do it and why many of us get it wrong

Debunking is a necessary part of skepticism and intellectually rigorous discourse. Unfortunately, many of us writers (me included), instead of destroying myths in a puff of facts and logic, we may actually be reinforcing said myths in the minds of others. Time for a change of approach…

I’ve been going about this all wrong. By “this” I mean the approach to blogging and as someone who claims to change one’s mind when the evidence suggests so, I must embrace the research that has been neatly compiled in this superb (free) document – The Debunking Handbook. Do yourself a favour and read this short ebook.

In the book, you will learn what the psychological research says about how to communicate in order to update and correct the information inside a person’s head. Specifically, you’ll learn about the various backfire effects that often hinder writers attempting to dispel myths, including:

  • The Familiarity Backfire Effect
  • The Overkill Backfire Effect
  • The Worldview Bsckfire Effect.

The book describes approaches to presenting information that increases the probability of successfully changing minds (reducing the likelihood of backfire).

**For background on The Debunking Handbook and why it was created, listen to the Point of Inquiry interview with one of the authors, John Cook, Climate Communication Fellow for the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland in Australia.**

Don’t use a nuclear weapon where a simple pistol would do

I had been conscious of the fact that in writing 1000 word-plus blog posts may not be doing the reader any favours. In attempting to thoroughly obliterate ridiculous arguments and myths, I may have inadvertently reinforced the scandalous memes I was aiming my skeptical rocket launcher at.

Any good writer, especially the web content kind, knows the rule is that brevity is king. This is certainly true in the sense that people just don’t have the time or patience to read something that threatens to overturn the schedule for more than 5 minutes.

For a science writer and skeptic, this appeal to brevity takes on new meaning when the research quite clearly shows that excessive verbose corrections of myths will often lead to strengthening a myth’s hold on a person’s mind.

Besides, the cognitive appeal of a short snappy myth only increases when weighed up against a giant 20 point debunking.

So, I must be humble before the evidence and thank the authors of The Debunking Handbook for tying together what many of us intuitively knew about science writing but failed to really understand.


The Debunking Handbook is written by John Cook and Professor Lewandowsky – Australian scientists and founders of www.skepticalscience.com –  a great climate change resource for the public.