The Amorphous Enemy

In a previous post, “The Soft Landing“, I wrote about the future and about one potential scenario that I find disturbing: that militant, fundamentalist churches will grow at the expense of moderate and liberal ones, leaving behind a world split between atheism and angry, intolerant religion. In this post, I’ll again look to the future, this time to outline another possibility that I find worrisome in a different way.

In this scenario, both moderate and fundamentalist religion will decline together. But instead of secular humanism and rationalism growing in their place, a different belief system will fill the gap: not any kind of formal or organized religion, but a vague, amorphous, anything-goes kind of credulity. We already see devotees of such a belief system in the modern New Age and pagan movements, in the alternative-medicine and anti-vaccination camps, in the fans of TV psychics, alien abductees, ghost-believers, channelers, and preachers of the “law of attraction”. The members of all these groups may not have any specific beliefs in common, but what unites them is the conviction that personal intuition is a reliable guide to truth, as well as a willingness to form their own beliefs by picking and choosing whatever sounds good to them.

A world such as this, instead of violence, would be more likely to suffer stagnation. Scientific discoveries would not be opposed by a rigid ideology, but diluted and drowned out by a society that cheerfully embraces every superstitious fad that sweeps by. For skeptics and rationalists, facing down such an amorphous enemy would be like cutting the heads off a hydra: for every one defeated, two more sprout in its place. And as more of society’s resources are diverted from genuinely valuable and productive endeavors to serve the cause of credulity, the pace of progress slows, knowledge fades, and people value science and critical thinking less and less. Ultimately, we could squander the legacy of the Enlightenment and end up in a new dark age like the one we so recently struggled up out of.

What can we do to avert this outcome? The most important principle, I feel, is that we need to keep in mind that our mission should be broader than just attacking whichever supernatural beliefs are causing the most harm. Even if we were successful at that, human beings can dream up an unlimited number of new beliefs to replace whichever ones we vanquish. To win the battle against superstition, we need to work towards a broader goal: a renewed allegiance to reason and the principles of critical thinking in society. We need not just to point out the bad ideas, but to give people the tools to tell the difference between good and bad ideas for themselves.

What this means for us is that, to promote a brighter future of reason, and not just more diversity of superstition, atheists should be guardians of good education. We should see it as our role to ensure that public schools are universal, secular, well-supplied, and staffed by qualified teachers with a curriculum based in science and reason. As well, we must support the effort to make higher education accessible and affordable to everyone. Doing anything else – abandoning the poor to underfunded and inadequate schools, trusting that the market will solve the problem, calling for the privatization of education – is to invite every kind of superstition to take root and grow in the fertile soil of uneducated minds. Surveys consistently show that more highly educated adults are more likely to be skeptics and atheists; the converse is true as well. In the long run, investing in an educated public is an effort that will pay genuine dividends to all of us.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Richie

    This post struck a chord with me. I recognised a lot of myself in this before I became an atheist. A few additional points struck me though.

    First, I think the appeal of these wooly ideologies is empowerment rather than genuine knowledge. Being able to harness powers that most people can’t, or knowing secrets most people don’t.

    Secondly, could the best way to defeat these fuzzy ideas be an over-exposure to them? They were for me. I read up on, and believed in (or at least, was open to the possibility of) more and more and more of these silly ideas, until it finally struck me that they can’t ALL be true. Perhaps the best way to dispell a belief in something silly is to expose them to an opposite, but equally appealing belief. So someone who believes in fortune-telling should be introduced to ‘harnessing inner powers to take control of their own destiny’. Or someone who believes in ghosts should be introduced to the idea of reincarnation. Surely it should dawn sooner or later that such beliefs are incompatible…? Or is that too optimistic?

  • http://cannonballjones.wordpress.com Cannonball Jones

    could the best way to defeat these fuzzy ideas be an over-exposure to them?

    I’ve always thought along these lines, that the best way to counter ludicrous ideas is to hold them up to public ridicule. It’s one of the reasons I’ve opposed the anti-holocaust denial laws in Germany. Let’s give all these idiots enough rope to hang themselves.

    Unfortunately it doesn’t always seem to work as we need to equip people with the tools to see through the bad arguments in the first place. In short we need to make sure everyone carries a functioning copy of Carl Sagan’s bullshit detector in their heads from as early an age as possible. In order to do this we need a place on the school curriculum for specifically teaching critical thinking, skepticism and rationality. It should go through valuable tools and processes like the scientific method with clear examples of why they are a reliable guide to the world and intuition is not. This won’t happen without heavy and sustained pressure so we all need to be writing to our MPs/Congress-critters/whatever.

  • Danny

    This won’t happen without heavy and sustained pressure so we all need to be writing to our MPs/Congress-critters/whatever.

    In the US if you want to affect real educational change don’t call Congress, get yourself on a school board and get your fingers in the curriculum! We should also show our commitment with our wallets. How about Fellowships and other awards for teachers that promote critical thinking?

  • David Ellis

    We already live in something like that world.

    Even the conservative christians I know generally also have a mass of amorphous new age thinking attached like a barnacle to their already existing supernaturalism.

    I’m just less alarmist about it. Such thinking is already so pervasive I don’t think are likely to get very much worse. And I don’t think it will lead to some new “dark age” even if it DOES become even more pervasive. Science, especially in the form of technology, too obviously gets results for it to become an either/or matter. People will still go to their doctors…..a lot will just also go to “alternative” forms of healing as well. Again, we already live in that world.

  • David Ellis

    If the court system ever starts calling in psychics to contact the victims at murder trials, though, I’ll have to revise that opinion…..and start digging a bunker for the coming collapse of civilization.

  • Dave

    a society that cheerfully embraces every superstitious fad that sweeps by

    This sounds like the wild and woolly first century CE, where mystery cults abounded, miracles were commonplace, and devils and demons ruled the world.

    Speaking of crazies, PZ Myers posted about a proposed Washington State Ballot proposition to outlaw state support of any atheist institution or individual.

    Of note:

    If you read the definitions, for instance, you discover that one of the targets of the ban, “scientific endeavors”, is defined as “any act, idea, theory, intervention, conference, organization, or individual having to do with science.” Apparently, the state cannot support any atheist who is a scientist. There goes a large percentage of the faculty of the University of Washington!

  • Andrew

    The problem, as I see it, is that as a society people are not taught to really think critically. From a young age children are taught(either implicitly or explicitly) by their parents, and by schools that everybody’s opinion is as valid as everybody elses, that something can be true for you but not for me, and so and so forth with the mantras of the postmodern movement. Colleges and Universities, thankfully still teach critical thinking skills, but by the time people go to college its too late, they’ve already had 20 odd years to absorb the ‘everybodys opinion is equally valid’ line. That’s what needs to change, schools need to start teaching children from a young age how to think critically, how to examine teh facts and check sources. If children can be taught from their earliest years that everyone’s opinion is NOT eqully valid, but that some opinions just dont stand up to the facts then we will see a decrease in these bizzarro beliefs.

    But then theres also the problem that ‘thinking critically’ means ‘presuming naturalism’ but thats whole nother issue

  • Dave K Welch

    a-superstitionist … a-supernaturalist … there’s got to be a better word with more marketing pizazz. How about pro instead of a-something… rational objectivist (that’ll get some shots heh).

    I agree with Andrew. We are not teaching our children to look at the world about them, including things they are taught, things their friends and peers often say, things they see on t.v., etc., objectively. Kids do not seem to grow up with any respect for things anymore, and I believe this is a consequence of not being able to appreciate Life, it’s beautiful moments as well as it’s difficult ones.

    Regards
    Dave

  • Andrew

    But then theres also the problem that ‘thinking critically’ means ‘presuming naturalism’ but thats whole nother issue

    I wanted to correct myself. I ment to say ‘The problem that people are OFTEN TAUGHT that ‘thinking critically’ means ‘presuming naturalism”

    Sorry for any confusion that may have caused.

  • http://www.ooblick.com/weblog/ arensb

    One difference between a world pervaded by religion and a world pervaded by a million different superstitions is that in the latter, those who would teach critical thinking can often get in the first shot.

    I think my first exposure to homeopathy was in a column by Martin Gardner, who thoroughly demolished it. Since I hadn’t heard about homeopathy before, I was open to Gardner’s ideas.

    On the other hand, in today’s world, by the time most people start reading on their own, they’ve already joined a religion. When you argue against religion, you’re usually fighting ideas that have already taken root.

    Let’s say that in the future you describe, you’re teaching a course in critical thinking, and show in detail how palmistry doesn’t work. One of your students might believe in palmistry and dismiss your arguments, but the others will judge your arguments on their merits. Whereas today, if you were to teach that Biblical prophecies don’t require miracles, half of your class or more might dismiss your ideas because they already “know” that the Bible has accurate prophecies.

  • Christopher

    While I think that superstitious beliefs are complete bullshit – regardless of whether they are part of an organized religion or not – if they are kept separated enough from each other that no official dogmas are formed their impact can be minimized: it’s much harder for a social order to control what mores and values dominate in the minds of individuals when no two people share the same belief system – as opposed to everyone being inculcated with the same ideology from birth.

    Besides, if certain people are predisposed towards belief in strange ideas that have no basis in fact, I’d prefer they picked one that empowers them (such as some brand of neo-Paganism) to create their owns mores and values rather than get saddled with some form of absolute, one-size-fits-all “moral” system that stifles their ability to act outside the limits imposed upon them…

  • Dave K Welch

    This is Ebons site, and I don’t wish to hi-jack a post he has made, and perhaps we can do this somewhere else (hopefully with Ebons wonderful insight), but I am curious as to the lack of response to my ‘rational objectivist’ reference. If I had posted such a thing on pharyngula, there would have been an uprising as such that you would have thought yourself a child molester. I grew up with Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. I always thought of Ayn Rands philosophy of rational objectivism as the evolutional consequence of everything we have thought so far. It makes sense to me. Take the ‘rational’ and be ‘objective’ about it. Capitalism in it’s basic form is a farmer who has chickens and wants to trade eggs for milk with the farmer down the road who has cows. Ayn Rand took to the extreme and suggested that in life there are heroes. That there are people of ability who should not be held hostage to the notion of need. That in the end, these people contribute more to the benefit of mankind on a whole that ANY number of needy people ever could.

    We need heroes.

    Regards
    Dave

  • prase

    I think the vision of future outlined in the post is highly improbable. Without the social network of organised religion and in situation when no superstition was shared by majority, the ungrounded beliefs would have not enough power to compete with rationalism successfully. Science is superior to “anything goes credulity” particularly because it has bigger persuasive power and rationalism is a natural way how people think, at least when they have easy access to the relevant information. People who are ready to really accept anything will always be a small minority. In the first half of the 20th century the public opinion probably favoured science more than today, but it was not because people were more educated and better in critical thinking. The reason was that science was perceived in the same way as religion by many, as a sort of very powerful magic. Science was new for most people and it was rare. Today the science is ubiquitous and it has lost much of its irrational appeal. But I don’t think it’s necessarily bad – as a rationalist I don’t see much merit in such “belief in science”, except the possible political advantage of slightly better accessibility of funding for research.

    And, of course, there is a selection pressure towards rationalism still present in our world, since you are still more likely to die when believing in homeopathy and faith healers.

  • Valhar2000

    Dave K Welch:

    rational objectivist (that’ll get some shots heh).

    Pffffss.

    That enough of a reaction for ya?

  • Valhar2000

    I am also worried about the problem Ebonmuse poses. I know several people who like to beleive things that make them feel good. I know one, in fact, who dislikes creationism as much as I do, but he dislikes it on the grounds that you should select the beleifs that you like best, and religious ideologies do not give you that freedom.

    On the other hand, both David Ellis and Christopher make good points. If people cannot be united into a coherent beligerent unit by commonly held beliefs they will not be able to do things like hijack school boards all over the country, and if the idea that your beliefs should make you feel good holds sway, some bad choices that people nowadays make (with the hope that they will be rewarded for their faith) will not be so popular anymore.

  • Alex Weaver

    Prase, have you spoken with anyone not formally trained in critical thinking and the scientific method recently?

  • prase

    Of course I have. Why do you ask?

  • Valhar2000

    Prase, that thing you said about rationalism being the natural way people think… doesn’t chime very well with the available evidence, does it? If it really were the way people naturally think, why would people who think that way be in the minority nowadays?

  • prase

    Valhar,

    the people who only think rationally are a minority, but most people think rationally most of the time. Nobody (almost) thinks magically about functioning of his/her car or that their neighbour is going to be kidnapped by aliens. Yes, it’s true that many people believe weird things and I would even say that, with little exaggeration, everybody has at least one strange (read irrational, if you wish) belief. But this is far from most people willing to accept anything.

    By the way, this is not a question of training in critical thinking. Incidentally I had a discussion today with my friend who is a professional physicist (and is aware of hypothesis testing, falsifiability and all the stuff) about his belief that one can drill a hole in one’s skull by meditation to let his mind escape out at the moment of death (he happens to be a Buddhist and he converted probably because his girlfriend was a Buddhist). Needless to say, he believes that thing because his friends have told him. Scientists are no better than average, they are only better trained in rationalisation and arguing.

    The reason that people believe absurdities is not because they don’t know how think rationally – they do. The belief in New Age (or any other nonsensical emerging ideology) is largely based on mix of causes including revolt against established society, group identification by similar beliefs, perceived secrecy of such teachings etc. It is possible that such nonsense can become a new dominating religion of the future – although I doubt it at least because the present religions have better starting position and thousands of years of practice – but it is the social structure which scepticism cannot offer that makes these movements powerful. In the amorphous state these ideas are incredibly weak compared to science, which has easily demonstrable results.

    Note also that the readiness to believe anything, which is a perceived characteristic of New Age or postmodernism, is only an illusion created by adherents of those philosophies to make them more appealing for some people. I haven’t seen a postmodernist believing in racism or a New-Ageist arguing in favour of science against magic. They are not willing to accept anything, they have in fact quite restrictive criteria for accepting ideas, albeit not so rigid/formal as rationalism has. A typical New-Ageist is universally open-minded and treats all hypotheses as equally valid in the same way as often as a typical Objectivist is rational and objective – that is rarely. But this is a bit off-topic.

  • andrew

    Note also that the readiness to believe anything, which is a perceived characteristic of New Age or postmodernism, is only an illusion created by adherents of those philosophies to make them more appealing for some people.I haven’t seen a postmodernist believing in racism or a New-Ageist arguing in favour of science against magic.

    Actually I HAVE met a postmodernist who believed the Holocost never happend, that it was a all a Jewish conspiricy and Jews still secretly control our national policy.

    But the real problem isnt that people simply ‘believe anything.’ Its that they wont stand up to people who hold obviously false beliefs, because to do so would be ‘intolorant.’ THe postmodernist line isnt that everything is true, but that something can be ‘true for you, but not for me.’ I dont see too many postmodernists arguing against racism either. My friend above for example recieves very little criticism of his anti-semitic beliefs from anybody outside of the Jewis community.

  • KShep

    Eh, I’m inclined not to worry much about all the New Ageish stuff, even new and improved versions of it, displacing organized religion. I would think that it already would have by now, it’s been around for a long time. Also, the success of so much of it depends on people NOT trusting the established and proven cures for whatever ails people at any given time. The peddlers of this stuff have to rely on convincing people that the medical/psychological “establishment” isn’t really interested in curing anybody—only letting people die of curable illnesses and raking in profits.

    Haven’t I seen infomercials where someone tells a tale of how “doctors were unable to find a cure, but when I tried this ground up root of a weed found only on a peninsula in Guyana, I was immediately cured!!! Order your 1-month supply now for the low, low price of $129.99!!!”

    I know selling this crap is big business, but most people, even religious nuts, don’t fall for it. I guess I’m not inclined to think they’ll start anytime soon.

  • Entomologista

    People who are so open-minded all their brains have fallen out are almost worse than fundies. At least you can predict the behavior and beliefs of a fundy.

  • http://chronos-tachyon.net/ Chronos

    @Dave K Welch: There are really two major problems with Objectivist thought.

    The first is that Objectivism gets weird and irrational when you start talking about copyrights, patents, and other “Intellectual Property” issues. Basically, people who swear up and down that everything would be great if the government just butted out of everyone’s lives are suddenly aghast if you propose that the government should stop artificially propping up the fiction of non-physical, non-scarce property. There are other irrationalities lurking around in Objectivist thought itself, but that’s Numero Uno.

    The second major problem is that Objectivism has Ayn Rand as figurehead and spokesperson. I mean, seriously, she was clearly bats*** insane. Between the cult of personality, the sleeping around in her personal life (but moralizing against any of her followers that did the same), the creepy rape undertones in the Fountainhead (and with her female characters in general), and the general strain of “whatever I do is rational by definition”, there’s very little that’s commendable about her as a promoter of Objectivist thought.

    Seriously, if you want a decent libertarian philosophy, go read some Hayek and Mises.

  • Leum

    Also, property* is arbitrary. There is no way for property to go from possessed to possessed in any objective sense. Society defines property*, government upholds the definition. To be clear: I’m not calling for the abolition of property*, just the recognition that it doesn’t have intrinsic existence, only a conditioned one.

    Who is to say that I own my wonderful book collection? Sure, I bought the books, but was only able to do so because of a long chain of causes, conditions, etc that ultimately lead back to the fact that someone killed someone else to get something. All property stems from some instance of theft or murder, which properly speaking makes us all receivers of stolen goods. But because rectifying this is both impossible and unjust to the current “owners” we’ve defined property in a new manner that is more to our liking.

    *And property rights

  • prase

    Actually I HAVE met a postmodernist who believed the Holocost never happend, that it was a all a Jewish conspiricy and Jews still secretly control our national policy.

    Horrible. I almost tend to fallaciously declare that no true postmodernist could believe that.

    OK, to support Palestinians against Israel is also quite popular among postmodernists, and sometimes antisemitism emerges from that.

    …that something can be ‘true for you, but not for me.’

    That is what they say, but if you disagree with most of them, they will tell you that you are intolerant. This is my experience, but maybe it is different in the US.

  • Alex Weaver

    The first is that Objectivism gets weird and irrational when you start talking about copyrights, patents, and other “Intellectual Property” issues. Basically, people who swear up and down that everything would be great if the government just butted out of everyone’s lives are suddenly aghast if you propose that the government should stop artificially propping up the fiction of non-physical, non-scarce property. There are other irrationalities lurking around in Objectivist thought itself, but that’s Numero Uno.

    The second major problem is that Objectivism has Ayn Rand as figurehead and spokesperson. I mean, seriously, she was clearly bats*** insane. Between the cult of personality, the sleeping around in her personal life (but moralizing against any of her followers that did the same), the creepy rape undertones in the Fountainhead (and with her female characters in general), and the general strain of “whatever I do is rational by definition”, there’s very little that’s commendable about her as a promoter of Objectivist thought.

    The third is thay beyond what Chronos quoted, pretty much everything Ebon has had to say about Libertarianism, such as here and here, applies at least as much to Objectivism as a political philosophy as to more mundane forms of “Big-Ellism.”

    The fourth is that Objectivism as a general worldview has to be tied in knots and be pounded full of otherwise unanchored qualifiers to even accomodate “prisoner’s dilemma” scenarios at all, and real life, unfortunately, is full of them.

  • Alex Weaver

    And to build on what Chronos observed, while Ayn Rand’s character as a person is not really relevant to the soundness or utility of her philosophy, the juxtaposition of Objectivist theory being supposedly a product of Rand’s objectivity, rationality, and insightful understanding of human nature, with her apparent inability to understand that the personal fondness for sexually aggressive men and male sexual aggression which her writing suggests is not typical of human females (granted, there are exceptions), or “normal” human heterosexual relationships (granted, it’s less atypical than it should be, unfortunately) doesn’t exactly inspired confidence.

  • Alex Weaver
    Actually I HAVE met a postmodernist who believed the Holocost never happend, that it was a all a Jewish conspiricy and Jews still secretly control our national policy.

    Horrible. I almost tend to fallaciously declare that no true postmodernist could believe that.

    I’m pretty sure Postmodernism, applied consistently, would obligate them to consider this just as valid as any other view.

    (Of course, they would also have to consider the view that Postmodernism, if adopted, should be applied consistently to be no more valid than any other view…)

  • prase

    (Of course, they would also have to consider the view that Postmodernism, if adopted, should be applied consistently to be no more valid than any other view…)

    Majority of philosophies sooner or later crash when trying to be applied consistently while postmodernism does it pretty soon. (Or maybe consistency shouldn’t be demanded on postmodernism because it is inconsistent with its premises, if there are any…)

  • http://chronos-tachyon.net/ Chronos

    Leum:

    Also, property* is arbitrary. There is no way for property to go from possessed to possessed in any objective sense. Society defines property*, government upholds the definition. To be clear: I’m not calling for the abolition of property*, just the recognition that it doesn’t have intrinsic existence, only a conditioned one.

    Property is a social construct, but not really arbitrary. It’s necessary to allocate scarce resources and make people understand the costs and consequences of their actions. In the absence of property, you get both the Tragedy of the Commons and further tragedy due to not knowing the costs.

    If you’re not familiar, the classic Tragedy of the Commons imagines a group of herders who live near each other and share a common grazing field for their cows. Each herder is inclined to think to himself, “If I add one more cow to the common field, the field won’t be hurt very much but I’ll gain an entire cow”. And if only one of the herders did that, that one individual would be correct. But the cumulative cost of all the herders adding one more cow is too much for the field to bear: the field is consumed faster than it is renewed, destroying its value to all the herders.

    The classic fix for the tragedy is private property: if the herder adds one more cow, it’s his own land that will suffer, so he bears both the full benefit and the full cost of the added cow.

    The additional tragedy in the absence of property is: not only is each herder biased to believe that he can get away with adding one more cow, but he also lacks the information of how much damage is actually caused to the field by adding one more cow. If he privately owned a field that could comfortably graze three cows, and he added a fourth, the grass would quickly and visibly disappear from the field faster than it could regrow. If he noticed in time, he could sell the fourth cow to someone else or butcher it for himself, saving the other three cows from starving; if he failed to notice, the field would collapse to the point that it wouldn’t even support one cow, all four cows would starve, and he would be forced out of the herding business due to incompetence. But in the case of communally owned property, he never sees the direct link between the one added cow and the increased cost to the field, because his actions are muddled up with the actions of all the other herders that also use the field. Therefore, he assumes that adding one more cow is cheap or free, even when the field is actually perched on the knife-edge of sustainable herding.

    You see this second tragedy all the time in real life public parks, where the cost of leaving one article of litter is tiny, but the cumulative cost is the destruction of the park’s aesthetic and environmental value. The usual solution with public parks is the imposition of a littering fine: the cost of the fine, times the probability of getting caught, must be greater than or equal to the convenience gained by leaving behind one piece of litter instead of finding a trash can and throwing it away. If the fine is high enough and enforcement is frequent enough, people won’t litter and the park stays clean. If the fine is too low or enforcement too lax, the park will become filthy because people are willing to risk the fine.

    This tragedy also comes in less obvious forms, where people engage in wasteful, inefficient practices because they don’t realize how much they cost. For instance, companies like Wal-mart ship massive amounts of goods across the US in big 18-wheeler trucks. They do this because the costs they bear (diesel plus truck maintenance plus driver payroll) are cheaper than, say, rail shipping or focusing more on locally-produced goods. But the amount of road wear done to the highway system follows the fourth power with respect to weight per axle, and if you do the math a fully-loaded 18-wheeler does as much damage as ~4,000 fully-loaded passenger cars.

    Unlike the overgrazed field, Wal-mart’s actions are indefinitely sustainable because the taxpayers are subsidizing the highway repair costs. But their actions are wasteful nonetheless. And that’s not even getting into CO2 emissions. If Wal-mart were forced to bear the full costs of their actions (diesel plus truck maintenance plus driver payroll plus highway repair plus CO2 sequestration) they would switch to more efficient shipping practices practically overnight.

    Alex Weaver:

    The fourth is that Objectivism as a general worldview has to be tied in knots and be pounded full of otherwise unanchored qualifiers to even accomodate “prisoner’s dilemma” scenarios at all, and real life, unfortunately, is full of them.

    That’s one of the reasons I’m sympathetic to the Austrian School of economics, actually: the Austrians (at least the scholars, if not the Johnny-come-latelies) seriously acknowledge the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the Tragedy of the Commons, and externalities in general (i.e. situations where the person paying the cost is not the person making the decision). They don’t always have a good answer ready, but at least they’re willing to acknowledge and discuss the problem.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    Let’s not derail this thread into another debate about Objectivism, please. Those arguments tend to go on forever and accomplish very little.

    I can certainly share David Ellis’ concern about irrationalism in the courts. So far, it’s mainly a distraction and an annoyance, diverting society’s resources away from researches that could genuinely improve the human condition, and causing people to put less value on scientific knowledge and empiricism. That is bad enough. But if we’re not vigilant, I could see it getting even worse. Imagine if chi and distance healing became mandatory courses in medical school, or if it became difficult to find doctors who didn’t subscribe to homeopathy, or if vaccination was banned because of pseudoscientist lawsuits, or if “evidence” acquired by psychics and fortunetellers was used to guide our decisions in law and politics. (Come to think of it, in Ronald Reagan’s case, that may already have happened.)

    If the court system ever starts calling in psychics to contact the victims at murder trials, though, I’ll have to revise that opinion…..and start digging a bunker for the coming collapse of civilization.

    This brings to my mind the medieval witch trials where a husband could protest that his wife had been asleep in his bed the whole time she was accused of attending a Black Mass, only to be told that she had obviously been replaced by a demonic replica.

    Also, I strongly second Danny’s suggestion that freethinkers should take a more active role in local government, especially in schools. Secular public schools are the first line of defense against all kinds of superstition and irrationalism, and imperfect as they may be, things would be far worse if we didn’t have them.

  • LindaJoy

    I’m not sure that I would have come to my present day atheism without having gone through a Native American/New Age bridging phase between being a christian and an atheist. It was all that exploring that opened up my mind to other possibilities and gave me the sense that it was OK to leave christianity. So, I have to admit a certain fondness for the remnents of that era of my life. I still keep a pair of crystals that I like to hold when I just want to calm down. I love watching Ghost Hunters (we will have a scientific explanation for all that stuff one day), and I still take homeopathic arnica and hypericum sometimes because they seem to have worked for me, even if it is the placebo effect. At least I was able to figure out for myself in the process that Deepak Chopra is, as Julia Sweeney says, full of shit! :)

  • andrew

    I love watching Ghost Hunters (we will have a scientific explanation for all that stuff one day),

    I do love the way a ‘freethinkers’ mind works: ‘Well, we dont know why this happens, but there MUST be a scientific explanation.’ its almost as bad as the ‘well I dont know why God made the universe to look billions of years old but he MUST have.’

    (Note: I dont actually believe in ghosts, but am making an observation of the mindset of athiests).

  • Snoof

    The difference is, historically speaking, whenever anyone’s said “We don’t know how/why X works/happens, but there’s probably a scientific explanation”, once an explanation is found, they’re generally right. Conversely, whenever anyone’s said “We don’t know how/why X works/happens, so it must be God”, once an explanation is found, they’re generally wrong.

    Questions such as:

    Why do planets move in elliptical orbits?
    How are traits inherited?
    Where’s the energy in the sun coming from?
    What causes disease?
    Why does oil burn but water not?
    Why are these bugs biting me?
    What are clouds made from?

    And so on and so forth.

  • andrew

    The difference is, historically speaking, whenever anyone’s said “We don’t know how/why X works/happens, but there’s probably a scientific explanation”,

    Theres a BIG difference between saying ‘theres probably a scientific explanation’ and ‘we will have a scientific explanation.’

    I’d agree that science can explain a lot of things, but I dont agree that science HAS TO explain everything. It’s possible, but given how much we dont know, its a little arrogent(in my mind anyway) to simply assume thats the case.

  • Alex Weaver

    I do love the way a ‘freethinkers’[sic] mind works: ‘Well, we dont know why this happens, but there MUST be a scientific explanation.’ its[sic] almost as bad as the ‘well I dont know why God made the universe to look billions of years old but he MUST have.’.

    its[sic] a little arrogent[sic]

    Irony. It just happens.

  • Alex Weaver

    Seriously, andrew, do you ever worry that one day you’ll step outside your residence and just float up into the sky? I mean, there’s a big difference between saying “that probably isn’t going to happen [since there's no known mechanism by which it could plausibly occur and no experience to suggest it ever has in the past]” and “that will not happen.”

  • andrew

    Seriously, andrew, do you ever worry that one day you’ll step outside your residence and just float up into the sky? I mean, there’s a big difference between saying “that probably isn’t going to happen [since there's no known mechanism by which it could plausibly occur and no experience to suggest it ever has in the past]” and “that will not happen.”

    Do I worry it will happen? No. But I also dont state that it WILL NOT EVER happen. Why does this have to be an either/or? Certainly I can belive that something is unlikely(at best) and thus not worth worrying about, and believe that it will not ever ever happen.

  • Leum

    And we, likewise, don’t worry that there will be something science cannot, ultimately, explain and don’t waste our time wondering if this one thing will be something that, unlike every phenomenon before it, will have a supernatural cause.

  • andrew

    And we, likewise, don’t worry that there will be something science cannot, ultimately, explain and don’t waste our time wondering if this one thing will be something that, unlike every phenomenon before it, will have a supernatural cause.

    Thats fine, but dont assert we WILL find a supernatural explanation, unless you happen to have one ready.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    Andrew: When there is even one verified, empirically supported supernatural explanation for any phenomenon whatsoever, you can be assured that we will give that possibility its due consideration from that point onward. Until then, do not plead for credibility you have not earned.

  • andrew

    But how can one ‘verify’ a supernatural event when you assume that every event MUST have a natural explanation? That if we cant find a naturalist explanation NOW, we will at some unspecified future time.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    You are inventing positions to attribute to me, Andrew. I never said every event must have a natural explanation; I’ve explained quite clearly what it would take to convince me that a supernatural event had occurred. For that matter, I don’t recall any person on this site taking the position that you claim atheists hold.

  • andrew

    How about the post I quoted above?

    I love watching Ghost Hunters (we will have a scientific explanation for all that stuff one day

    I realize she was talking about ghosts(and having never watched Ghost Hunters, I cant comment specificly on it). But the underlying assumption is that if we cant explain something scientificly NOW we will at some unspecified future time.

    If you disagree thats great, but I she’s hardly the first person I’v met to argue from that assumption.

  • Alex Weaver

    andrew:

    Don’t be so literal-minded.

  • Alex Weaver

    Okay, rereading your comments, you apparently either don’t understand the concept or utility of inductive reasoning, or you’re trolling. Which is it?

  • LindaJoy

    OK guys, you can all calm down about the ghosts. My major point was that the new age stuff helped me move from christianity to atheism, so I am less impatient with it all than other atheists. I think that we will find that supernatural events, poltergeists etc. are generated by our own brains. I base this on the studies done on esp, and studies on consciousness, which reminds one of the physics principal of spooky action at a distance. If our brains are in tune in some way to the quantum level, then it is possible that we are the causes of the “supernatural”. I read an article on bees that postulated that they perceive the world at the quantum level which allows them to find pollen sources and communicate that to other bees in the dance. What I’m saying is that so far, science has been the only tool we have, and a very successful one, to answer mysteries. So if you follow the principle that the simplest answer is ususally the right one, my answer to the supernatural is science. As Robert Price said, “There is at least as much spirituality in questions as in answers. And that is good, since we find we have a lot more questions than answers.”

  • LindaJoy

    And just in case you want to get hyper about the use of the word “spirituality”, I had better be specific. When I worked at the Fermilab facility (high energy particle physics) as a docent, I decided that what the scientists were doing every day was one of the most spiritual exercises that I had ever seen- trying to find out how the universe works, and having a sense of awe at every little twist and turn as nature presents itself.

  • Christopher

    I love watching Ghost Hunters (we will have a scientific explanation for all that stuff one day),

    I saw that show once or twice – and I saw nothing that I couldn’t replicate with camera tricks, stage gimmicks or video editing programs. I’m pretty certain that it’s all fake.