The Difference Between Religion and Woo

In one of my first couple of years as a physics professor at Vanderbilt, fellow astronomer David Weintraub introduced me to another faculty member we ran into at lunch. He was from one of the humanities departments— I forget which. When David introduced me as somebody who worked on measuring the expansion rate of the Universe, this other fellow's immediate response was that the only reason we astronomers believed in the Big Bang theory was because of our Judeo-Christian cultural bias that there was a moment of beginning.

I was quite taken aback. I tried to talk about the Cosmic Microwave Background, light element ratios, and so forth, but he waved them all off. I mentioned that his assertion wasn't even historically correct: earlier in the 20th century, the steady-state model (the Universe has always been as it is now) was if anything the dominant cosmological model. His response to hearing the postcard description of the Steady State Universe: "I like that one better." Scientific evidence be damned....

It was really quite an eye opener. I had run into a living stereotype of the post-modernist deconstructionist, who believes that absolutely everything is a social construction. He had quickly judged the intellectual output of a field of study he was ignorant about based on his own bias and methodology. While I suspect that scientists have overreacted to post-modern deconstructionism, this fellow showed me that at least some of what we overreact to is real. There are those who have convinced themselves that absolutely everything is a social construction. Thus, the only people who are studying what really matters is those who deconstruct said social constructions; everybody else is ultimately fooling themselves and playing around with their "science" and so forth while ultimately being trapped by their cultural blinders. Of course, this is a load of hogwash, and I am led to understand it's not even really what most post-modern deconstructionist types really believe.

Why do I mention this? Because I see a lot of those who call themselves skeptics making exactly the same mistake— judging another field of intellectual inquiry on what they believe to be the one true way of reason. They dismiss things as trivial or childish based on criteria that fail to be relevant to the field of human intellectual activity they're trivializing. Specifically, there are a lot of people out there who will imply, or state, that the only form of knowledge that really can be called knowledge is scientific knowledge; that if it is not knowledge gained through the scientific method, it's ultimately all crap.

When I was in first or second grade, I wrote a story about a boy named Tom Tosels who found a living dinosaur. It was very exciting. It was also, well, a story written by a 7-year old, and not one who was particularly literarily talented. Now, from a purely scientific basis, it's difficult to distinguish this story from the poetry of Robert Frost. It's words, written on a page, out of the imagination of a person (a person named Robert, even), telling a fictional story. What makes Robert Frost so much more important to human culture than the stories I wrote when I was 7? It's not a scientific question, but it is a question that is trivially obvious to those who study literature, culture, and history. And, yet, using my 7-year-old story to dismiss all of literature as crap makes as much sense as using the notion of believing in a teapot between Earth and Mars as a means of dismissing all of religion.

If you cannot see the difference between Russell's teapot and the great world religions, then you're no more qualified to talk about religion than the fellow who thinks that cultural bias is the only reason any of us believe in the Big Bang is qualified to talk about cosmology.

Phil Plait has written three blog posts on his famous "Don't Be a Dick" speech to TAM, a meeting of skeptics. (The posts are here, including a video of the talk, and here, including links to bloggy reactions to the talk, and here, including personal reactions to the talk.) Some of the comments on the posts— including, ironically, many of those who accuse Phil of being too vague and denying the effect he discusses really exists— are excellent illustrations of what he's talking about. Some of these comments (and even some comments that are supportive of his general message) illustrate the philosophical blinders that you find on many in the skeptic movement. In the third post, there is a picture of Phil hugging Pamela Gay, a prominent pro-science speaker, a leading light of the skeptic movement... and a Christian. There are a number of responses that express the sentiment of commenter Mattias:

When will we see Phil hugging a medium — calling for us to include them in our mutual skepticism about moon-hoaxers, homeopathy or, lets say, dogmatic religion?

There are quite a number of skeptics who openly say that they cannot see the difference between religion and belief in UFOs, Homeopathy, or any of the rest of the laundry list of woo that exists in modern culture. Even those who agree that ridiculing people for their beliefs is not only counter-productive, but just bad behavior, often don't seem to think there's any difference between the brand of religion practiced by Pamela Gay (or by myself, for that matter) and Creationism, or even things like UFOs, mystical powers of crystals, psychic powers, and so forth. The assertion is that being religious is a sign of a deep intellectual flaw, that these people are not thinking rationally, not applying reason.

It's fine to believe this, just as it's fine to believe that the Big Bang theory is a self-delusional social construction of a Judeo-Christian culture. But it's also wrong. Take as a hint the fact that major universities have religious studies and even sometimes theology departments (or associated theology schools, as is the case with Vanderbilt). Now, obviously, just because somebody at a university studies something, it doesn't mean that that thing is intellectually rigorous. After all Cold Fusion was briefly studied at universities, and ultimately it was shown that there was basically nothing to it. But it should at the very least give you pause. The fact that these studies have continued for centuries should suggest to you that indeed there must be something there worth studying.

Creationism is wrong. We know that. But the vast majority of intellectual theologians out there would tell you that creationism is based on a facile reading of Genesis, a reading that theology has left as far behind as physics has left behind the world-view of Aristotle.

Astrology is bunk, because it makes predictions about the world that have been shown to be false. Likewise, Creationism is bunk, because it makes statements about the history of the world and the Universe that have been shown to be false. But religion in general, or a specific instance of one of the great world religions in particular, are not the same thing. It is true that lots of people use religion as a basis for antiscience. But there are also lots of people like Pamela and myself who are religious, and yet fully accept everything modern science has taught us. There are people— theists— who study those religions whose studies are based on reason and intellectual rigor that does not begin with the scientific method. Yes, there is absolutely no scientific reason to believe in a God or in anything spiritual beyond the real world that we can see and measure with science. But that does not mean that those who do believe in some of those things can't be every bit as much a skeptic who wants people to understand solid scientific reasoning as a card-carrying atheist. Pamela Gay is a grand example of this.

Don't be like the post-modernist so blinded by how compelling his own mode of thought is, that you come to believe that the only people who are intellectualy rigorous and not fooling themselves are those who use exactly that and only that mode of thought.

43 responses so far

  • Vlad The Impatient says:

    Wouldn't Occam's razor cut out religion for all who truly think scientific method is the correct one to use in understanding our world? Saying you're at the same time religious and fully supportive of science and its method surely you need to think of this?

    • Pseudonym says:

      A few thoughts about that.

      First thought: The scientific method is incomplete by itself. It's the gold standard where it works, but there are plenty of questions which are not testable, either in principle or in practice.

      An example of "in principle" is, contrary to what Sam Harris said, any question of ethics and morality (i.e. questions of what should happen). There is no test that you can perform to determine whether or not murder is wrong. An example of "in practice" is that I can't test in any meaningful way whether or not my wife loves me; any test that would work can't be repeated.

      The second example is frivolous (sorry about that; couldn't think of a better one off the top of my head), but the first is not. Now I'm not saying that we need religion to settle such questions; for reasons that bring me to my second point, we certainly don't. All I'm saying is that the scientific method knows its own limits: Any question for which an answer is not testable cannot be subjected to the scientific method. There are many such questions that are also meaningful; the one about murder being but one example.

      Second thought: The assumption here is that the nature of "religion" is that it's about claims about the world which are scientifically testable. This is true of some religions, and it's true of some parts of some religions. But there are plenty of religions and religious modalities of which this is not true, so in that sense, pitting science versus religion is a category error. It's not true, for example, of religions that are largely philosophical, or largely cultural.

      Final thought: While there may be shame in believing something that is counter to testable reality, there is no shame in believing something on which testable reality has no opinion, if that belief harms nobody else. If the belief has a positive influence on the believer and others, that's even better.

      I recommend reading William James' classic series of lectures, The Varieties of Religious Experience, which may change the way you think about the nature of religion and its role in human psychology.

  • iBrows says:

    Hello there. Even though I'm an atheist I have to admit that you have a very good point. The way I see the situation is that we need all kind of pro-science persons. The hardcore atheists for the hardcore situations, the soft atheist for other situations, the agnostics for certain movements, the skeptics, and so on.
    I think we to show respects for those who believes in any sort of things but when it comes to how to understand and explain reality we cannot relay on personal perceptions, in other words, the best tool we have to understand the universe is science.
    If we, as scientist, the leading people to spread the understanding of the universe, cannot put apart our beliefs/wishes/you-name-it we may be not survive as a species...
    To be honest a world without religions I would like to have but not all the people have the power to deal with reality (so far). Not that make special the ones who can. Don't get me wrong.
    For me it's far better to grasp the Universes as it really is than persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring. And that's the whole point, we have to embrace the part "however satisfying and reassuring" because I don't think it's fair to tell people what to believe, especially when their only purpose in live or happiness falls into "however satisfying and reassuring".
    I do hope someday we embrace science, may be someday with the greatest discoveries we don't have to worry about death, disease, love, etc...
    In the meantime, that continues to be my wish...

    It's a great post to me, keep it going.

  • Chrisj says:

    The fact that these studies have continued for centuries should suggest to you that indeed there must be something there worth studying.

    By which logic, there must also be something worth studying about astrology, acupuncture, and alchemy, never mind the rest of the alphabet. Religion is worth studying (and indeed fascinating, and possibly even useful) as a sociological phenomenon, but that doesn't mean that unverifiable value statements classed as 'religious' must be true. Or even have a high chance of being true; the difference between Russell's Teapot and most current religions is that no-one has ever tried to determine the truth of the Teapot Hypothesis, whereas most significant religions have been examined and found deficient - mostly (though not exclusively) by people who believe in other religions, but who refuse to apply the same techniques by which they reject other religions to their own beliefs.

  • Dave says:

    Thanks for this post, it gives me something to think about.

    I was disappointed in the conclusion. As a previous commentor said, I don't think you really presented compelling evidence that religion is different than astrology. You left out a good example of which parts of religion are useful. You mentioned that Creationism is a testable explanation about how the world works and has been shown to be false. LIkewise religion makes other claims about how the world works that also have been shown to be false, or at least have failed to provide any compelling evidence.

    So I am curious which parts of relgion are left that are interesting and worth studying outside of the sociliogical phenomenon.

    I do believe I don't have enough personal knowledge about religion, but, if its more than just keeping the good parts that say we should be nice to each other, and throwing out the bad parts that say the opposite, I really do want to know.

  • dangerous cliff says:

    Brilliant commentary! I've always believed that science and religion can play nice together and that a thinking person doesn't have to choose or the other exclusively. In fact, choosing one or the other shows a disturbing myopia and lack of imagination. Thanks so much for sharing your insights!

  • Mary says:

    Rob, this sort of post is why I started reading your blog in the first place.

    For the commenters who wonder what's worth studying about theology that doesn't apply equally to astrology and alchemy -- it's not the religion's claims about the material world. It's the religion's claims about human beings, human nature, ethics, justice, duty, and how we can reconcile our ideals with our own behavior. Maybe you don't literally believe in "original sin," but starting from the premise "no one is 'innocent' and self-righteousness is never justified" leads to some interesting logical conclusions. You can't prove that premise, but neither can you disprove it. Likewise the idea of karma, that we cannot injure others without, indirectly, injuring ourselves. Sophisticated religious thinkers understand that this can be true without direct supernatural intervention, can be built into the system of interactions we all have. Again not something you could prove or disprove. But what implication does it have?

    Most societies have loyalty to one's own group as a value. This probably has some evolutionary advantage in preserving one's own genes by protecting one's kin. But does that mean that "science tells us it's okay to kill people who aren't related to us?" Of course not. Science doesn't tell us anything is okay or not okay. Religion though -- religions usually teach (even if their members cannot live up to their own ideals) that kinship extends beyond tribes and clans. What does it mean if I owe to a stranger the same kind of loyalty I would normally offer my brother? Do I owe the stranger a place to live when he's homeless? Do I owe him my life? What do I do if I can't live up to those ideals? What do I do if he threatens me? What do I do if he threatens my brother? Is it ever okay to go to war? Science is useless to answer that question.

    It's true that religions reason about these issues by starting from some assumptions you may not buy into: like an eternal judge, so that "justice" is assumed to have some absolute meaning even if we do not know what it is. Or invisible observers who give meaning to otherwise meaningless events -- someone to watch all the trees fall in the forest, so that we don't have to worry about whether they make a sound. These are unprovable and perhaps you see them as unlikely, but others see the atheistic notion of an "accidental" universe as even more unlikely, and there is no "scientific" way to settle that dispute.

    Smart religious people don't hold on to the beliefs that are scientifically disprovable. They are interested in questions of moral absolutes, questions of meaning, that aren't scientifically addressable at all, and they find that a particular notion of god or gods supports reasoning about these questions that they find convincing, based on their experience of human life.

    I am not religious, but I am not arrogant enough to think that all of the people who are, including nearly all of the great scientists and philosophers of past centuries, are just stupider than I am. They're reasoning from different premises than I accept, about questions I couldn't begin to answer, but that does not mean there is anything wrong with their ability to reason.

  • bob says:

    I have never understood how people can compartmentalize their intellectual live like that. You hold science and scientific theory to one standard of proofs but will believe something else for no other reason than their parents believed it or their society or culture believes it, or it is written in a 2000 year old book, but with no other proof at all. I have to chuckle when you try to separate religion form astrology, seems to me they demand the same amount of faith, seems to me there is a double standard. One for science and different one for religion.

  • rknop says:

    Bob -- it's not compartmentalization, it's simply recognition that there is more to life than science. There are questions we need working answers to, questions that science cannot address (or perhaps that science cannot yet address). Why should I bother getting out of bed this morning? What's the point? What's the meaning? Those aren't scientific questions, but we all have our own answers to them, one way or another. And, despite the fact that many will claim "there is no meaning", they're kidding themselves; few people are truly nihilists. They've made a meaning for themselves, if nothing else.

    Religion and astrology can be separated on scientific grounds: astrology has been shown to be bunk, but science hasn't disproven the existence of a God. For that reason, astrology should fall under the kinds of "woo" that skeptics should be working against, but religion (broadly speaking) shouldn't. However, that's not the main point of what I'm saying; what distinguishes religion from astrology isn't just scientific considerations, but also intellectual considerations in the fields of religious studies and theology.

    • Jack says:

      When you say science hasn't, do you mean science can't? Science can and has disproved many gods and countless features of many religions. It's a waste of money and resources, though, and so it's usually an indirect result.

      From Wikipedia: "Modern astrologers define astrology as a symbolic language, an art form, or a form of divination." When did science disprove that, again? That's basically what you have to turn religion into (~deism) to make it untestable. Yet most astrology, like most religions (broadly speaking), make testable claims about the real world. Claims that are disproved, or can be disproved. But it would be a waste of money to go teapot-chasing.

    • David Brandow says:

      Lets say, for the sake of argumenu, that science cannot answer questions such as 'Why should I bother getting out of bed in the morning?'. On what basis do we then assert that religion can? To profess to treat the subject skeptically, you would need some evidence that the answers that religion gives are superior to those given by other fields, such as philosophy.

      To refer to the analogy you referred to yourself, science doesn't need to disprove God any more than it needs to disprove the existence of the teacup or unicorns or leprechauns. One could speculate endlessly about what could exist.

  • I don't think there is any connection with being a "blinded" "post-modernist" and wanting consistency of belief, because, yes, there are consistency issues with accepting much of modern religious ideals and science. If you are religious and *fully* accept science, then you can not believe in an omnipotent/omnipresent god, because that just flies in the face of causality. If you are religious but don't believe in the whole "magical being" part, then that is perfectly fine because it can be quite consistent with science, but then it's really not "religion" in the sense that most people mean, it's just a way of life.

    You say it's not compartmentalization, but I don't see it. You are right that religion, broadly, shouldn't be classified with all woo, because there are many "religious" people who view their beliefs as nothing more than a list of things to do, ways to live, etc., that may have been chosen in some archaic and not totally consistent way, but they don't violate any principles of science (ie. no magical beings, ie. no god). But as soon as you insert any magical elements, that you really only believe because you want them to be true, like astrology, then religion is no different than any other woo. Astrology and homoeopathy work just as well as prayer - all can make people happy and provide a nice placebo effect, but we know that nothing more (good) comes from it. Sure, science hasn't disproved the existence of god, but science also hasn't disproved the existence of unicorns and dragons, and no one is ever pushing to be tolerant of people who believe in them just because they exist in lore too.

    Studying "religion" is fine if you are looking for a way to live and interact for those who can't find that elsewhere (and people certainly can and do), but you can't, in a consistent way, accept the full religion package, that comes with acausal magic, if you accept the full scientific package. It really is a choice.

    • rknop says:

      The important part of God and so forth isn't really the miracles-- the direct intervention. I would note that science at best can place an upper limit on how often that kind of thing happens; as such, it's not inconsistent with science to believe that they have happened, rarely, in the past. But, myself, I'm in the "probably not" camp for the bodily resurrection of Christ-- and there are other Christians who fall into that camp.

      I don't see God as reaching down with his Christian equivalent of a noodly appendage and tweaking things around here and there. Nor do I believe that everything that happens is God's Will. (If I did, I would not like God very much... there's a lot of awful stuff happening out there, in nature as well as at the hands of humans.) However, I do believe that God as a will in everything that happens. "Thy will be done" in the Lord's prayer is an aspiration we aspire to, rather than a statement of what is happening.

  • Defectivebrayne says:

    Excellent post. Although I do disagree some bits of your post , you make some good points.
    Firstly, whilst I am an atheist, I don't believe that is a necessary prerequisite for being skeptical. Let me explain why I think this.
    There is a lot of stuff I don't know, and I fill this "don't know" box with the mental model for the world based on my rational assessments of the world. These come from personal observations, testimonies from trusted sources and the way of thinking that was caused by these. I think that for physical events, this works fine and the atheist viewpoint nails reality square on the head.
    However for moral questions things get fuzzy. I personally think that these can be answered from an atheist perspective.
    But I can see that religious texts can teach some lessons on morals, and that for my "don't know" box for morality, some religious ideas could generate the same answers (e.g. karma vs reciprocity). So since the "Don't know" box for morality produces relatively similar answers for religion and atheism, there isn't at this moment a rational way of weighing the benefits of one over the other.
    So it is entirely possible for someone to be religious and skeptical without internal conflict. Because the difference between religion and the usual woo is that even after you've dissected every part of it that doesnt' square with our observations, there is still something left.

  • DataJack says:

    First, rknop, it's silly, dishonest, and WRONG to say "Religion and astrology can be separated on scientific grounds: astrology has been shown to be bunk, but science hasn’t disproven the existence of a God."

    Science doesn't disprove stuff that has no evidence; that cannot be done. There is no proof gods exist, none. It is not up to "science" to "disprove" the existence of gods, unicorns, faeries, etc. Science can look at evidence, and see where it leads. That's it.

    This is wrong, too; "Creationism is wrong. We know that. But the vast majority of intellectual theologians out there would tell you that creationism is based on a facile reading of Genesis, a reading that theology has left as far behind as physics has left behind the world-view of Aristotle."

    You see, when we "left behind" the world-view of Aristotle, we LEFT IT BEHIND. We did NOT try to reinterpret it to fit our new found evidence. We let it go. It was found to be wrong, so we dropped it.

    T0 say that "creationism is based on a facile reading of Genesis, a reading that theology has left as far behind" is intellectually dishonest. Because for the vast majority of time since it was written, it was considered true history. So, all those theologians were wrong, but modern theologians are correct... why? Because they acknowledge evidence that proves their stories are WRONG. And yet, they don't let the stories go, instead they treat them as allegories.

    Genesis, like the rest of the bible, clearly says stuff that is wrong. It says little that is correct. It, like the rest of the bible, should be dropped from our collective list of sources of meaning and truth.

    I am not attacking your religion. But don't use intellectually dishonest arguments to defend it. Everything that isn't (i.e., has no evidence for support) has EXACTLY the same amount of reason to accept it. None. If you still want to accept it, fine. But don't pretend it has more logical worth than astrology, tarot, or psychics. It doesn't.

    It doesn't matter how many people accept it; it doesn't matter how many years it has been accepted; it doesn't matter what historic figures accepted it; it doesn't matter how it can teach us meaning or morals. None of these indicate something is true. The only thing that indicates something is true is evidence. If there is no evidence, there is no reason to believe something.

  • rknop says:

    I am not attacking your religion. But don’t use intellectually dishonest arguments to defend it.

    This is the problem with you New Atheists. You say aggressive and insulting stuff, and then say that you're not being aggressive and insulting, you're just "telling the truth". You cling to extremely specific semantic interpretations of words in a manner similar to creationists, who insist that evolution and astronomy aren't "real" sciences because you can't do experiments in the lab with them.

    Was Genesis always interpreted as literal history? I don't know that that's the case, actually. But most modern theologians, and many practising Christians, do not interpret it literally today. Why do you insist that it must be interpreted that way? Why do you insist that all of the actual theists who are actually interpreting Genesis are intellectual dishonest?

    There is something else that is "WRONG": Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation. In the early 20th century, observations showed it to be giving the wrong answers in some places, and Einstein gave us a new theory. And, yet, we still teach it! Are we now intellectually dishonest for doing that? We no longer think it's a "Universal" law of Gravitation, we've reinterpreted it as a limiting case of what General Relativity gives us. We didn't drop it. Science, by and large, really doesn't work that way; it's not the perfectly pure and clean process you'd like to say that it is. Is it not intellectually dishonest to reinterpret the "Universal" law of gravitation that way?

    Finally, when you assert that everything that doesn't have scientific evidence for it has "EXACTLY" the same amount of reason to accept it, you're making just the mistake I'm talking about in my blog post. You're insisting on applying scientific reasoning to things that aren't scientific. You're asserting, essentially, that there is just as much truth to be found about the human condition in my dippy 7-year-old story about dinosaurs as there is in King Lear. That's absurd on the face of it, and yet that's what the argument you're making implies.

    There is more to truth than scientific truth. Some will argue that that is BS, but the vast majority of intellectuals would agree with that statement. And, if you look at how people live their lives and how society advances, it's objectively true.

    • DataJack says:

      Wow. I think you must have taken my reply out of context. I did not insult you. Sorry you feel that way.

      Can you demonstrate where I "cling to extremely specific semantic interpretations of words"? I could not find any of that in my reply.

      Also, you bringing up the Newton/Einstein thing was False Analogy: Newton's laws of Universal Gravitation are still taught because they are still correct, in many, many circumstances. Einstein's theory modifies Newton's laws in some very specific cases. However, many other scientific theories have been dropped in their entirety (Luminiferous Aether, for one).

      Saying that most theologists no longer take the Genesis account literally seems, to me, to be a bit of a cop out. It raises a lot of questions:
      1) How does one know which sections are to be taken literally, and which are to be taken figuratively?
      2) Was the Resurrection literal? If it was, why would a literal Resurrection be needed to counter a figurative Fall?
      3) Are other parts of Genesis (and, presumably, Exodus) also not literal? Such as Cain and Abel? Lot and his daughters? The ten commandments?

      How is one to know? If it is based on how hard it is to believe, then isn't walking on water, raising Lazurus, and rising from the dead just as far-fetched as talking snakes, fruit-with-knowledge, and Adam riding a dinosaur? If not, why not?

      I honestly do believe that there is no reality beyond the observable universe. So, by that reasoning, I guess I don't accept that there is truth beyond scientific truth. I think there is a lot of interesting stuff going on inside the human mind, but I don't think it's anything beyond electricity and chemicals.

      And, again, in all honesty, I have not seen you demonstrate how religion differs from woo. You claim it, but don't support that claim with evidence. And without evidence, how does religion differ from other things that also have no evidence to support them?

      Finally, you said: "There is more to truth than scientific truth. Some will argue that that is BS, but the vast majority of intellectuals would agree with that statement. And, if you look at how people live their lives and how society advances, it’s objectively true."

      I don't think the first sentence there is true. And the fact that "the vast majority of intellectuals agree with a statement" does not lend credence to a claim. Similarly, "how people live their lives and how society advances" does not validate a claim.

      • rknop says:

        I did not insult you. Sorry you feel that way.

        Just a quick hint: "intellectually dishonest" is not what most people would consider a compliment.

        As to how you decide which parts of the Bible are history and which parts are mythology: I'm going to fall back on the same answer that Phil Plait gives in his talk when challenged about DNA. I'm not a theologian. If you really want to know the methodology for all of that, go read up on religious studies and theology. In any event, it doesn't have to be literally true at all for it to have some truth in it. (Consider literature.) Nor must one accept all of it as history if one accepts some of it as history. (Consider Herodotus.)

        As for there being truth other than scientific truth: there is truth in literature, in culture, in art. Go talk to artists or art historians, to humanists. Their notion of truth is probably much more complicated than a scientist's notion of truth, but it's from purely scientific considerations that they will draw their reasoning.

        • DataJack says:

          You said, "Just a quick hint: “intellectually dishonest” is not what most people would consider a compliment."

          I wasn't attempting to compliment you. I was stating my opinion. I stand by it.

          The point of your post was that religion is not equal to woo. Yet you haven't demonstrated how it is different. That is what it all boils down to.

          You said: "As for there being truth other than scientific truth: there is truth in literature, in culture, in art. Go talk to artists or art historians, to humanists. Their notion of truth is probably much more complicated than a scientist’s notion of truth, but it’s from purely scientific considerations that they will draw their reasoning."

          This is pretty prose, but it doesn't really say anything. "Truth", in this regard, is not a "real" thing, it is a human concept. The truth of art, literature, and culture doesn't exist without people to contemplate them.

          There is nothing to differentiate things that are not supported by evidence. They all have the same level of support: none.

          • Pseudonym says:

            This is pretty prose, but it doesn’t really say anything. “Truth”, in this regard, is not a “real” thing, it is a human concept. The truth of art, literature, and culture doesn’t exist without people to contemplate them.

            Or, of course, to create them. But that's why they're called the "humanities": it's the study of all aspects of humanity.

            The study of religion is also one of the humanities, and for the same reason. Why is that a problem?

        • Rich R says:

          Wait? Are you making a "god is beauty" argument? Is that what just happened? ( please note I have no idea if this was insulting to you as you have lowered the bar for "insults" to such an incredibly low standard as to make conversation almost impossible)

          • rknop says:

            I'm not saying God is beauty, but God is more like beauty than like science, perhaps. (I don't know; I'd have to think about that some more.)

            Also, am I really the only one who thinks that "intellectually dishonest" is ever so slightly unkind? Honestly, I wouldn't have considered calling that an insult lowering the standard for insults!

          • Pseudonym says:

            Wait? Are you making a “god is beauty” argument?

            I don't think he was doing that specifically, but let me make a slightly related point.

            For most of human history, certainly up until around 8000 years ago, humans did not differentiate between concepts such as "art", "storytelling", "music" and "religion". They were all the same thing, which we may as well call "culture", and practised by the same people: the "medicine men/women", "shamans" or whatever they were called in that culture.

            So art and religion really do come from the same place in human history and the same place in human psychology. Of course religious claims which are scientifically testable can and should be investigated. But religion as a whole is more like a liberal art than a science, and so probably should be evaluated on those terms. If only more religious people agreed, we might make some progress.

  • Robert: I am fine to disagree and argue with you, even to swap insults if you wish (such as, for instance, "fundamentalist"). I start to lose my patience, however, when you come to my blog and insult the entire population of my commenters because of a point of disagreement with one of them in particular. If you are going to quote things like "don't be a dick," and insist that the arguments of atheists are disrespectful, it's a piss poor way to make your point to engage in such dickery yourself.

    In the future, should you disagree with a commenter, I would ask that you actually argue with them. Moreover, I would ask that you act in such a way as to not poison my attempts to build a community in which open and honest debate is encouraged and celebrated.

    • rknop says:

      Er, what's the insult? Suggesting that you and some of those who comment on your blog don't see that "Russell's Teapot" is a ridiculous straw man with which to attack religion? That, to me, sounds a little less directly insulting than "...Rob Knop can barely string a logical argument together". How am I supposed to engage that in honest debate?

      It's real big of you to declare your blog comment thread a "consequence free" zone for people who want to fling direct insults at theists. You're quite the patron for protecting them that way. Pity that you like to call that kind of stuff "open and honest debate."

      • No, it's not a consequence free zone. My issue was that you broadened the scope beyond the person who insulted you. Moreover, you didn't say "some" commenters, but rather implied that something was obvious to everyone by my commenters. If you have an issue with someone commenting on my blog, I would ask that you address them rather than insulting everyone there.

        Oh, and I do call such comments as Samantha's a part of an open and honest debate. She made an argument in her comment, even if she did attach an insult to the end. I would never dream of "protecting" her from receiving similar insults, though. Rather, I take issue with making the kinds of broad statements like:

        "The latter is obvious to everybody; the former seems to be obscure to folks like the writers and commentors on this blog."

        • rknop says:

          Well, in any event, it's real big of you to take me to task for it here, instead of soiling your own blog with this kind of argument. You know, where the thing you are objecting to occurred. If you want to have more back and forth with me on this, let's please take it to e-mail. A spat between you and me about who's more insulting isn't really what I had hoped for in the comments on this blog post.

  • Pabnau says:

    An interesting post though I think it really fails to make much of a point.
    First of all, while some atheists might use Russel's Teapot (or the FSM etc...) as a straw man proof by analogy, the true usefulness of the concept is in making logical analogies. Since many of the "proofs" of God's existence could also apply to the teapot, and since clearly the teapot is (probably) not real, then said proofs are fallacious.
    Secondly, admitting that there are probably things that science does not know or will never discover cannot justify any positive belief.
    Thirdly, it is certainly true that having beliefs that don't contradict science is superior to having beliefs that contradict what we can observe. However, (for example) someones belief that people are abducted by aliens doesn't necessarily contradict science yet it is still unjustified for someone to believe that.
    Fourthly, the existence of a large intellectual community with a specific belief system in no way validates that belief system. Remember, throughout history there have been many intellectual communities who have believed things which we now know to be false, their existence didn't make them right at the time, and similar "evidence" doesn't make them right now.
    Fifthly, the statement that there is nonspecific non-scientific reason to believe in a god isn't the same as providing said evidence.

    Finally, it seems to me that the main attempt here is to shift the burden of proof. Religion is irrational (though I don't doubt that many otherwise rational people believe religion) unless you can give good reasons to justify it, just like any other belief system (if you would like to provide evidence or links to evidence feel free to do so, but otherwise you haven't really sufficiently addressed the topic of your post). Since you, and many religious people before you, have failed to meet the burden of proof, religion shares one of the most important criteria of woo: lack of good verifiable evidence.

    That being said, I am of the opinion that religion can often be a relatively harmless belief that for some, like yourself, doesn't promote harmful misunderstandings about the universe we live in. I have the greatest respect for people like Pamela Gay who spend spend their precious time popularizing science and spreading critical thinking. Therefore I tend to think that discussions of religion are probably more of a distraction from the more important task of promoting public understanding of science and the verifiable facts about our universe. Humans will (hopefully) have plenty of time to debate the more philosophical differences of opinion after we have produced a more scientifically educated and critically thinking society. I only post my disagreements because this topic has already been brought up. If anything I have said, or the tone with which I have said it, is offensive to you please indicate what and where so I can reduce any potential antagonism in the future.
    Thank you.

    • rknop says:

      Yes, the fact that there are things science doesn't know doesn't by itself justify other positive beliefs. Nor, however, does it contradict other positive beliefs. Only if you are a strict philosophical materialist-- we must only believe that which has scientific evidence-- does the fact that some questions science can't answer mean that those questions are off limits for answers altogether.

      I'm not shifting the burden of proof. I'm not saying that it's up to skeptics to disprove God. I'm saying that there doesn't have to be an antagonistic debate; that skeptics can recognize that among their number are theists who believe things not supported by science (but also not contradicted by science). People can disagree about religion but can continue to respect each other's intellectual and moral abilities. Yes, there are lots of people who use their religion to tell them that people of other religions are damned, or what-not. Those aren't the sorts that you're going to find arguing good science, typically. I'm trying to ask that atheists recognize the moral and intellectual abilities, as well as the tendency to be allies in the cause of skeptical thinking, among some who disagree with them about religion.

      As for religion being a distraction from spending time popularizing science: nobody, regardless of religion or lack thereof, spends absolutely all of his or her time popularizing science. Not just eating and sleeping, we have other intellectual (and what I, but not you, would call spiritual) needs as humans. Sure, some people satisfy all their human needs by hyperfocusing on one cause, but that's rare. We all have other things in our lives. Whatever purpose Christianity serves for Pamela Gay, you and others have something else that fills that gap. Saying that religion takes away time from popularizing science is like saying that having friends takes away time from popularizing science. Do you really bemoan that somebody who is doing *so much* for popularizing science as Pamela Gay has other things in her life??

      As for discussions of religion being a distraction: I fully agree. And, I wouldn't be talking about it if it weren't for the legions of skeptics who line up and want to categorize me right along with the homeopathists because of my lack of proper atheism.

      • Pabnau says:

        Well, I don't want to press too much more but I'd just like to state that I am not saying that verifiable, observable evidence is necessarily the only possible way of obtaining true answers, just that I haven't really seen religion give good evidence or methodology of any sort.

        I completely agree that the sort of antagonistic debates I have sometimes seen regarding this subject are counterproductive and harmful for the cause of promoting science. Though I will also say that many religious people I know are probably a bit oversensitive to the subject, and would take any criticism at all as a personal attack.

        I apologize if my third paragraph was a bit vaguer than I intended, but I was referring to discussions of religion within the scientific/skeptics community. I wouldn't presume to tell people how they should be spending their time, and I definitely understand the importance of personal time not spent working. What I was talking about were discussions like this and the emails that prompted it. These take time away that would probably otherwise be spent addressing more relevant topics. My personal opinion on sending emails is that unless someone is actively proselytizing, sending aggressive unsolicited emails doesn't really have any useful purpose.

  • skeptic123 says:

    As a skeptic, I'd be willing to ignore religion, as you propose is proper, and just let everybody go their own way, but for the fact that so many religious folks are not willing to do the same. When they attempt to make me behave as though their religious beliefs have any validity, by attempts to insert them into law and school instruction (to name a couple of the most prominent examples), that is the point at which their religion needs to come under skeptical scrutiny. And we've long since passed that point.

    Your final paragraph notwithstanding, I assert that people who believe in the existence of anything that cannot be objectively tested are NOT being intellectually rigorous about that thing. You can study religion as a "thing", but to accept religion's claims without testable evidence is simply not rigorous. Secondarily, how do you choose which religion's claims to accept while choosing to discount the claims of a myriad of others? And how could you defend the intellectual rigor of that choice?

    • rknop says:

      Those people are not being **scientifically rigorous**. But there is more to intellectual thought than science.

      • skeptic123 says:

        They're not "scientifically rigorous", but your phrase was "intellectually rigorous", and I assert that they are not *intellectually* rigorous, either. They hold beliefs, but they do not care whether those beliefs are true; they simply accept them. They do not question why it is that other equally sincere people hold different and even contradictory views, and do not wonder that there is no objective way to decide among those views -- and what that implies about the validity of *any* of them.

  • skeptic123 says:

    You wrote:

    "The fact that these studies have continued for centuries should suggest to you that indeed there must be something there worth studying."

    You're right; there is something there worth studying. But it's nothing more than the propensity of mankind to believe in some "higher power"; it's not by any means evidence that such a higher power exists. You seem to feel that the very fact that "God" is the predominant world religion is in some way evidence of its existence, but it appears to me to be no more than historical accident that the predominant religion isn't that of Zeus or Jupiter or Thor. Had you grown up in ancient Greece, your religious beliefs would be very different than they are now, and just as closely held.

    Your blog post asserts that there is some difference between religion and woo, but does not demonstrate the validity of that assertion.

  • csrster says:

    Your analogy between the radical deconstructionist and the New Atheist is on shaky ground. Your response to the deconstructionist was to present him with the evidence in favour of the Big Bang, which he then chose to ignore. Your response to your New Atheist strawman (not that Bertrand Russell is terribly new) is just an appeal to authority "Theology has been studied for centuries in the best universities in the world so there must be something in it".

    Well amazingly enough some of us have actually heard what modern non-fundamentalist theologians have to say about God and quite frankly I find trying to understand their arguments about as satisfying as trying to nail fog. Now there are two possible explanations for this: 1) they're a bunch of obscurantists fooling themselves with waffly talk about "God as a process, not a person" in a desperate attempt to save the ashes of their faith, or 2) I'm an idiot. I know which of these two you're betting on but you'll have to forgive me (if you people still do that) for choosing 1.

  • Talisker says:

    First of all, no one is seriously arguing that we should not study religion, as a social, literary, and philosophical phenomenon. So your analogy with the story written by your seven-year-old self is something of a straw man.

    If religion really was like literature, it wouldn't be nearly so bad. The Emily Dickinsonites and Robert Frostians do not kill and torture each other over who is the Greatest Poet Ever.

    Some believers do approach religion like poetry. They might say, "I think [Catholicism/Judaism/Hinduism/Shinto] has great beauty and important lessons to teach, and I find it deeply satisfying; but this is in part because of my personal feelings and cultural background; other religions may have important contributions of their own; and I am a flawed human being in a very big universe, my beliefs may contain errors and misunderstandings, and I have no special authority to impose them on others."

    I am guessing this is close to what you believe. If so, fine and good.

    The great problem is that many believers do not act this way. They act as if they possess the One Great Truth, and it justifies all sorts of acts which would otherwise be immoral. For example, the Catholic Church has a long tradition of "sophisticated theology", interpreting holy texts as metaphor, and so on; but at the same time says very clearly that God Hates Condoms. Some "sophisticated" Catholics clearly feel free to ignore that particular teaching, but if you're an African woman whose partner is not so sophisticated, and you contract AIDS as a result? Tough luck.

    I agree it is an injustice to lump the reasonable, poetic believers in with the absolutists. But all too often, a "reasonable" facade is just camouflage for absolutism. A scholar of Shakespeare knows the plays are fictional and were written by a human being with no supernatural assistance; but many theologians will get very upset if you suggest the same of the Bible (even though they themselves dismiss the "reality" of Egyptian or Hindu deities with equally long traditions of scholarship).

    This is the great utility of Russell's teapot -- to remind all theologians that religion has no more and no less authority than literature.

  • David Brandow says:

    "Yes, there is absolutely no scientific reason to believe in a God or in anything spiritual beyond the real world that we can see and measure with science. But that does not mean that those who do believe in some of those things can’t be every bit as much a skeptic who wants people to understand solid scientific reasoning as a card-carrying atheist."

    Um...yes, it does, at least according to how I would interpret what a skeptic is. If you accept something as being factual while simultaneously admitting you have no good reason for doing so, that is the very opposite of being a skeptic. You could be a skeptic in other areas, but by very definition you are not in this area.

  • Jeremiah says:

    "And, yet, using my 7-year-old story to dismiss all of literature as crap makes as much sense as using the notion of believing in a teapot between Earth and Mars as a means of dismissing all of religion."

    Except nobody claims Russel's teapot disproves religion. Religion is dismissed because of its complete lack of supporting evidence. The teapot is simply used to illustrate a specific type of logical fallacy that is often used to defend religion. Namely that gaps in knowledge adds truth value to an unsupported claim.

    "astrology has been shown to be bunk, but science hasn’t disproven the existence of a God. "

    Science doesn't need to disprove the existence of god any more than it needs to disprove the existence of Smurfs on Mars. Evidence needs to proceed any truth claim. You can't just make a claim and then say the onus is on everyone else to disprove it.

    "You’re insisting on applying scientific reasoning to things that aren’t scientific. You’re asserting, essentially, that there is just as much truth to be found about the human condition in my dippy 7-year-old story about dinosaurs as there is in King Lear."

    Yes, I would say that. Because there isn't really truth to be found in either one. If there is any 'truth' to be found in King Lear we would recognize it as truth because of observable (dare I say scientific) evidence in the real world about how human beings act, that happen to correspond to the claims in the book, and not due to the fact that it was simply written in King Lear.

    "Nor must one accept all of it as history if one accepts some of it as history."

    Correct, but if we do accept part of it as history or as true we would do so because we have found confirming EVIDENCE. When you have evidence for the god part (or whatever part you want to claim is true) then we can talk. You are arguing from analogy, but the reason that we would accept some parts of literature as true is because we can CONFIRM it, not simply because we arbitrarily decide that some parts of a book must be true.

    "I’m saying that there doesn’t have to be an antagonistic debate; "

    The problem is you are defining any debate on religion as an antagonistic one.

    "that among their number are theists who believe things not supported by science (but also not contradicted by science)"

    Ah, but here is where you are wrong. Religion for thousands of years has been contradicted by science. And once that bit of science has enough evidence that it simply can't be ignored any more then religion simply redefines itself to be in accordance with science again so that it doesn't sound too foolish and gets dismissed. Religion always conforms to current culture in order to survive. Religion claimed that the world was a few thousand years old. This is contradicted by science. Religion claimed that light came before the stars. This is contradicted by science. Religion claimed that thunderbolts came from the gods. This is contradicted by science. On and on you could go but you blithely wave all these away by saying, "well of course nobody REALLY believes those things anymore" but that totally unsupported god claim? Now that is truth!

    "I’m trying to ask that atheists recognize the moral and intellectual abilities, as well as the tendency to be allies in the cause of skeptical thinking, among some who disagree with them about religion."

    Nobody is saying that you can't. I'm sure you have plenty of good you can offer on the subject of astronomy (or whatever), but that doesn't change the fact that you aren't applying a skeptical mindset toward religion. That is all we are saying.

    Finally, I just want to say that you present a picture where your and Pamela's beliefs are in accordance with good science and of course you don't believe in Genesis or creationism, well then my question is simply this. What is it that you do believe? Then we can examine it and see if it has any better footing than the creationist claims that you dismiss.

  • Mike McCants says:

    "You’re insisting on applying scientific reasoning to things that aren’t scientific."

    I'm insisting on applying rational reasoning to something that does not appear to be rational. In other words, I'm skeptical about any "truth" that comes only from religion. So the challenge is: name a "truth" that comes only from religion.

    "But there is more to intellectual thought than science."

    "Science" is the stand in for "evidence". So, no, the skeptic says there's no more to rational thought that what can be supported by evidence.

    "I’m trying to ask that atheists recognize the moral and intellectual abilities, as well as the tendency to be allies in the cause of skeptical thinking, among some who disagree with them about religion."

    Fine. But if you blog about your opinion of religion, you can hardly expect not to be called on it.

    "As for discussions of religion being a distraction: I fully agree. And, I wouldn’t be talking about it if it weren’t for the legions of skeptics who line up and want to categorize me right along with the homeopaths because of my lack of proper atheism."

    Now you know (again?) what you will get from a handful of skeptics when you try to discuss religion. You'll be accused of not being "intellectually rigorous".

    "In any event, it [the Bible] doesn’t have to be literally true at all for it to have some truth in it."

    I think you dodged the question. How do you know what there is in the Bible that has "some truth" to it? Who decides? How do they decide?

    Stolen from above: "What is it that you do believe?"

  • Skeptico says:

    Oh dear, what basic errors in reasoning.  The view on whether your 7 year old self’s story is as good as that of Frost is an opinion.  The claims that religions make (most of them anyway) are truth claims.  You can’t compare the two.

    Russell’s teapot is not a way to “dismiss religion” and no one is saying there is no “difference between Russell’s teapot and the great world religions.”  That’s really weak. Russell’s teapot is just a way to make people realize that just because we can’t prove something doesn’t exist, that doesn’t mean it’s reasonable to conclude that it does exist.

    The fact that major universities have religious studies and even sometimes theology departments (or associated theology schools, should not “give you pause” – except in the sense that you should pause and wonder what the hell they are thinking.

    Nothing in this post gives us any reason to think that you should get to a belief in god or in any of the specific religions, using the tools of skepticism or critical thinking. The fact that this list of fallacious arguments is presumably the best you’ve got, suggests the opposite.

  • Jason Jarred says:

    This post read along the lines of:
    Special pleading
    False analogy
    Appeal to authority/Popularity (as in, it's being researched at Uni's, so it *must* have some creidbility)
    Special pleading.

  • Skeptico says:

    That's a really good summary Jason. I would only add Straw Man.

  • Rob Knop says:

    Nice job with the ad hominem and cherry-picking, guys.

    I'm closing down this thread because it's turned into yet another place for skeptics to gather and show that "skepticism" is as much about being a dick about religion as it is about critical thinking. You guys have plenty of places for that already.