About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Michael’s Picks

by Michael De Dora
* A new advertisement by the American Atheists declares that religions are a “scam.” What do you think?
* Gary Younge argues in The Nation that in a political culture where facts don’t matter, President Barack Obama should waste less energy trying to win over Republicans and spend more winning back his base.
* I will be introducing and interviewing Christopher Hitchens on March 8 at Stony Brook University. The topic will be his book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Admission is free. Click here for more details.
* A prominent Pakistani governor was killed recently by one of his own bodyguards, apparently for being outspoken about his secular views — especially on the matter of blasphemy laws.
* A hilarious and insightful political cartoon by Adam Zyglis of The Buffalo News.
* A very cool collection of images of alcohol under the microscope. I imagine they would look even cooler if you were drinking alcohol while viewing.
* An enormous photo essay, by The New York Times, documenting month-by-month the year 2010.


  1. The billboard irks me, both by its factual inaccuracy and its neck-bearded grinchiness. Clearly written for teh lulz, rather than for rhetorical effectiveness.

    While we're on the subject of Pakistani secularists, I should note that Pervez Hoodbhoy is often worth reading on a variety of subjects close to this community's hearts.

  2. I think that atheists should never be allowed to deviate from a technically exacting and unrhetorical description of concrete reality. There could never be any legitimate reason to make comparisons or use metaphors that everyone understands.

  3. @Ritchie: Imagine you were a pastor. Would you want your congregation to see this billboard? I would. It would be a great opportunity to convince them that atheists are jerks, and even better, the atheists paid for it themselves!

    Now compare other past slogans, like "You can be good without god" and "There is probably no god, so stop worrying and live your life." A pastor would probably not want their congregation to see those. They involve a friendly human connection and a message that's critical but doesn't put people on the defensive too much.

    Hence my criticism is of inaccuracy AND rhetorical ineffectiveness.

  4. I believe that "scam" is somewhat accurate, though not likely very effective.

    I believe that every religion I've ever encountered (although this is obviously not exhaustive) lies. T.H. Huxely (the original agnostic) is rather dismissive of religion and accuses it of lying. One of his more famous quotable phrases puts it well:

    "The foundation of morality is to have done, once and for all, with lying; to give up pretending to believe that for which there is no evidence, and repeating unintelligible propositions about things beyond the possibilities of knowledge."

    The lies come not in whether or not religious propositions are true, it comes in their unearned authority. I think few skeptics would hesitate to call a fortune teller or a horoscope a scam, even if some small proportion of specific fortunes told by that person actually came true. A prediction that someone will become financially secure by doing X is a scam because the fortune teller has no clue whether that is true and doesn't care. That they claim that they know is the lie, not the claim itself. Hence, "scam" is accurate because I've never seen a religion that doesn't make claims that are within the possibility of knowledge.

    That being said, taking the most cherished aspect of many peoples' lives and calling it a scam is unlikely to endear those people to organizations that do so.

  5. One of the slogans you endorse is not so factually correct after all, since God does not merely "probably" not exist; he absolutely does not exist. Hence, the slogan soft-pedals the truth. This sort of approach is consistently supported by the nicey-nice Chris Mooney-type atheist, who wants to make atheism seem like a warm fireplace that one can snuggle into.

    As for effectiveness--it may be true that sweet statements like "you can be good without god" are more likely to make fundamentalists think well of atheists. But they don't send the message that religion is simply false, end of story, no ifs-ands-or-buts-about-it. I am tired of debates over religion focusing on the value of religion, whether or not it makes people happy, or whether religious people are more or less moral than atheists. These are all very interesting discussion, but it is the actual incorrectness of religion that must be emphasized at every point. I like the given poster because it says, quite forcefully, that religion is bullshit. I would also like to point out that it is meant to rally atheists, and forceful statements tend to do that.

    How many times have I seen debates where, instead of talking about whether or not God exists, the participants start talking about morality or the usefulness of religion? This certainly happened in Harris vs. Wolpe. I've seen it in tons of other debates. If recognizing God's existence psychologically forced one to become a rapist, God would still not exist. I for one would love to see a billboard that says "if God is the only source of meaning in your life; if you could not have done what you've done without God; if indeed you would kill yourself were it not for God; then kill yourself: there is no God."

    But that's just me.

  6. Scam? How do these particular atheists discern intent on such a large scale? It's stupid hyperbolic language borrowed from other people who know The Truth.

    Would The Indefinite Article kill these people? C'mon.

  7. Ritchie: Eh? How can you say god (let's use the Abrahamic one), absolutely does not exist? I agree there's no reason to think god exists, but I don't see such absolute proof that I can say with absolute certainty that god does not exist. Maybe you can enlighten me, because having such an ability would be quite useful.

  8. @J.J.E.: "Scam" seems to imply not only unjustified & incorrect belief, but also profit by unscrupulous characters from it. This describes some aspects of religions but will basically not resonate with most religious people.

    >One of the slogans you endorse is not so factually correct after all, since God does not merely "probably" not exist; he absolutely does not exist.

    I'm not sure what kind of perpetual motion epistemology allows you to say that, but okay...

    >...nicey-nice Chris Mooney-type atheist...

    I'm not fond of that approach either. I just want us to (1) not lie; (2) be rhetorically effective; (3) refrain from acting like dicks. These things don't always have to be complicated.

    >it is the actual incorrectness of religion that must be emphasized at every point.

    That is absolutely true, and that is exactly what we ought to do if religious people had good epistemology but just happened to be wrong. Unfortunately, their systematically bad epistemology makes them hard to reach by this method.

    I have argued before and still think it's true, that most religious people anticipate as atheists but declare as theists - that is, they are just as sad at funerals as we are, but talk a good game about believing in eternal life (and probably dutifully say phrases about eternal life into their auditory stream-of-consciousness). This implies that the silliness of propositional theistic belief is not entirely lost on them. What keeps them declaring their belief is a complex of ideas to the effect that atheism equals meaninglessness, amorality, nihilism and despair. That is what needs to be attacked before any good epistemology even has a chance of getting through.

    But you can forget all the above and just remember the pastor test I detailed above. I cannot think of a possible reason on Cthulhu's green earth why we would pay good money for a net rhetorical win for theism, as I suspect (p~0.7) this is.

  9. ianpollock: Here's a great argument along the anticipate/declare line: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2FwQsmsQlgE

  10. Does the Problem of Evil not rule out an Abrahamic God completely? I was certainly under the impression that, in philosophical circles, the Problem of Evil is considered solid. I myself have not heard convincing responses to it.

    I should also point out, however, that if we cannot say God absolutely does not exist simply on the basis of a lack of evidence for his existence, we also cannot say anything does or does not exist, absolutely, on the basis of evidence. We cannot say, for example, that "Jupiter is absolutely not a hunk of cheese."

    ian: yes, sure, I see your point.

  11. Ritchie: Most philosophers consider the Problem of Evil to be solved by Plantinga's free will defense. And even ignoring that defense, it would only be a problem for biblical literalists because then Christians could slightly limit god's omnibenevolence or one of his other superpowers so that he remains logically consistent (maybe Satan checks God's power).

    About Jupiter being cheese, unless you can dismiss the possibility of it not being cheese, you can't say with absolute certainty that isn't. For example, if you're holding an apple around a group of friends, and everyone agrees you're holding an apple. Can you dismiss the possibility that an alien in orbit is hijacking everyone's senses, and that the apple is actually an orange? I don't think so. Sure, it's so unlikely it isn't worth much thought, but it shows how difficult absolute certainty is to attain.

  12. @Lefaw: Yes, that is an excellent video and does indeed get the point across.

    @Ritchie: Re: the problem of evil. I believe philosophers distinguish between an evidential and logical problem of evil. The logical version says that it is literally impossible for a good god to create a universe containing evil. The evidential version says the existence of evil (or better, indifference) makes a good god much less likely. I subscribe to the evidential but not the logical version (I can think of reasons why evil might be necessary - rather lame reasons, but they're not obviously false).

    However, even if I bought the logical version, I would still balk at saying p(god)=0, for reasons discussed here:

    >When an argument gives a probability of 999,999,999 in a billion for an event... The majority of the probability is in "That argument is flawed". Even if you have no particular reason to believe the argument is flawed, the background chance of an argument being flawed is still greater than one in a billion.

    ...Not to mention those dastardly Dark Lords of the Matrix, defeaters of all certainty. :P

  13. Lefaw:

    First, regarding Jupiter, cheese, etc. The thing is that there's a sort of linguistic understanding that any statement like "it is a fact that Mars exists" admits of some obscure caveats, like the one you just imagined. We take it as "certain enough," so to speak, that Mars exists. So if we're going to be linguistically consistent here, we have to say "There probably isn't a star that's going to collide with the Earth tomorrow. You can get on and enjoy your life." Or how about, "The Holocaust probably happened." Do you see what I'm getting at here? If the aliens-fucking-with-our-minds hypothesis requires us to never say things with certainty, that's fine; but that means we have to be equal about it, and say only that Massimo Pigliucci "probably" exists. This is not the standard we presently use; we say that Massimo simply DOES exist, and under that standard, we can say God does not exist.

    Regarding the Problem of Evil: thanks for pointing out Plantinga's argument. I can see, in the Wikipedia article, a citation that it is accepted by most philosophers; however, the same article (with citations) says that some have argued it requires an incompatibilist view of free will. I think such a view of free will is untenable.

    Regarding Christians "slightly limiting god's omnibenevolence": well, Christians can always amend their theories when they are argued against. This is called retreating. Softening your position in the face of refutation is one of the prime forms of intellectual dishonesty in modern life. As Sam Harris pointed out quite rightly, liberal religionists are only liberal because conservative religion has been proven insane via rationality. If I proved that no creator-beings can exist, and then Christians amended their conception of God so that God was just the feeling of meaning in life, would you think I hadn't proven the nonexistence of God?

  14. In informal conservation we relax technical linguistic requirements. E.g., we don't ridicule someone for referring to the Earth as sphere outside an Astronomy convention. Language is contextual. If you assert that you know god exists among a group of theists, I doubt any of them would question you're usage of "know." They have a contextual understanding; however, if you assert you know god does not exist among a group of theists, then they most likely share no contextual understanding with you. This will result in them immediately bringing the assertion onto a technical level in an attempt to remove the assumed, but not shared, context. A simple question like, "what do you mean by 'know'?," would show they don't share the context for "know" in this particular assertion.

    Answer to your question: Yes and no. Yes in the sense that I think the weakest form of a god is a deistic one, and anything less can't be a god. No in the sense that people are free to use their own conceptual definitions (however, they're assholes if they don't explicitly define their personal conceptual definition prior to discussion).

    Also, Plantinga's argument can be modified by replacing "free will" with some "unknowable reason." I.e., god allows evil because there's some issue having to do with his meta-reality that prevents him from acting in our reality in the case of evil. So if this were the case, god could be tri-omni in our reality, but limited in a meta-reality for some greater and unknowable reason. It's even more crap philosophy and very handwavy, but I think it works.

  15. Sorry if I'm getting strident about this, but I just want to see whether it really is so unreasonable for atheists to assert that God does not exist in most contexts.

    The linguistic convention in question is obeyed in virtually all areas of life, formal or informal. The only exceptions are technical philosophical discussions, though such requirements are still often relaxed in such discussions. For example, in an academic journal of history, it is fully proper to say that such-and-such event occurred, not that such-and-such event occurred unless-you-consider-that-aliens-could-be-screwing-with-our-brains. When you say

    "They have a contextual understanding; however, if you assert you know god does not exist among a group of theists, then they most likely share no contextual understanding with you."

    I must ask what "contextual understanding" they must have that I lack in order to get my comment straight. Is it the contextual understanding that statements of fact are to be understand as having the maybe-aliens-etc caveat? If so, then indeed a clarification is needed on my part, but it's not like my usage is somehow less fair than their usage. Acknowledging that, in theory, our ideas could somehow be wrong is not an abnormal stance that one should have to give lip service to at the beginning of a claim. To illustrate:

    Suppose I were at a table with a group of scientists, and they all think that String Theory is valid. Should I say:

    "String Theory is not possible, if you look at the data right."

    or must I, in order to establish "contextual understanding" with the other scientists, say

    "Unless some sort of weird force is manipulating my mind, String Theory is not possible."


    I find it annoying when people act like our inability to literally know that God does not exist is some special fact about God. I may not know that God cannot exist, but I also cannot know, for a fact, that you exist, or even that I actually typed a question mark a few lines ago.

    But I do know that God does not exist in the sense that I know that the world is not flat. I know it in the sense that I know anything. So there's nothing worse about a sign saying "God does not exist" than there is with a sign that says...well, anything.

  16. I would say you have as much reason to believe god exists as you have to believe leprechauns exist. Personally, I avoid the whole "probably" and "know" problem with theists entirely. I take a justificationist approach, and start with "I don't see any reason to think god exists," or "How you know god exists?" For one thing, it makes arguing with a theist child's play because I don't have to justify my position, but I can force the theist to justify their position all day. This is actually the approach Hitchens takes in most of his debates. In fact, most outspoken atheists I've seen argue like agnostic atheists.

    Really, it makes perfect sense. If a friend claims they saw an alien spaceship, I imagine your first response would be something like, "how the fuck do you know it was an alien spaceship?" instead of "I know it wasn't an alien spaceship." You could also start with "it probably wasn't an alien spaceship."

    You're also missing the point of context. E.g., string theorists don't care about epistemic skepticism--it's not a contextual concern. Theists don't care how another theists know another theists know god exists, because they likely know all the ways in which someone else can know god exists--they share the context. However, they probably don't know all the ways in which god almost certainly doesn't exist, so you have to build that context.

    Really, you should look into natural language processing to get a glimpse of how pervasive context is in language.


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