The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘believer’

Religious Extremism, the ISIS Attacks on Paris, and the Need for Honest Dialogue About Religion

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 14, 2015

**UPDATE (11-21-15): For those wishing to get informed about the way ISIS thinks (as in “know your enemy”), take a serious look at this article; it provides solid evidence that, yes, they really are an apocalyptic, fundamentalist religious cult. And you might want to pay particular attention to point #3 regarding what ISIS *really* fears (hint: it isn’t death).**

Like many, it was with both great sorrow and frustration that I read this morning about the attacks in Paris, France by members of ISIS. As I’ve argued many times before on this blog and elsewhere, such as on my post about the Charlie Hebdo attacks and Draw Muhammad Day and my numerous posts regarding creationism plus the one about the religiously-motivated attacks on Planned Parenthood, I think it is absolutely critical for us to openly and honestly examine religion and religious belief and their roles in our modern society in a critical manner.

Let me begin by stating that I am not inherently anti-religion, though I openly declare myself to be an atheist. I can and do see how religious belief can serve to give many people a feeling of purpose or hope where they might otherwise have none, and I understand how it can help motivate many others to do works of great good. That said, too often I hear people speak of religion in terms that are only positive, as if things like religious belief and faith can only be good. For example, how many times have we all heard some believers state that one cannot be moral without a belief in God? I view this argument as detrimental for two reasons:

  1. It argues that people who either don’t believe in God (or who believe in the wrong god, whatever that may be) are inherently immoral. The counter to this argument is that there are many forms of useful and functional secular morality, so one can be moral without religion. This is, I think, especially relevant given the fact that secularism and non-religiosity is on the rise here in the United States (up to ~25% by some recent surveys).
  2. It seems to implicitly assume that religion necessarily promotes morality. Given the recent events in Paris, I think this assumption is highly questionable, not to mention the fact that recent studies have shown that the religious are no more moral in their daily behavior than are the non-religious.

I think we should stop placing religion and religious belief on a pedestal, and we should take a reasoned and critical look at religion just as we do with any other human endeavor. We need to understand that there is nothing inherently special or moral about religion, and it can be used for good or ill regardless of the beliefs espoused by the faithful; yes, the reality is that religion doesn’t lead to any kind of objective morality. Some people think this critical analysis of religion is not only not necessary, but they say they are offended by it. To that I respond the same way I did in my post titled “The Dangers of NOT Offending Religious Sensibilities” in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks earlier this year:

First, I think that there has been a fundamental error in how much of this discussion has been framed. Too many people, mostly those who wish to not have their “religious sensibilities” offended and their weak-kneed allies, are asking the question of what are limits to free speech and should “offensive” speech which attacks and/or ridicules religion be allowed? This viewpoint isn’t to be dismissed as trivial in light of the fact that almost 20% of Americans think religion shouldn’t be satirized.

I think this is entirely the wrong question to be asking, for the simple reason that it appears to place the onus for responsibility of religious violence in the wrong place: on people whose only crime is to speak their mind openly and freely. There is an implicit and dangerous naivety behind such framing: it makes the assumption that if only people wouldn’t be critical of religion or poke fun at religious figures then murderous violence such as that on display recently in Paris would be curbed.

Really?! Not mocking religion means that there’s going to be a reduction of religiously-motivated violence? Try telling that to the thousands upon thousands of Muslims (and others) who are, even now, being enslaved, victimized, and barbarically killed by the extremists in ISIS. I’ll wager that the vast majority, if not all, of those being brutally oppressed and killed by ISIS never said or wrote one offensive word about Islam or Muhammad. Yet they are being slaughtered in the name of radical Islam none-the-less.

In my mind, a much more proper question to ask is this: What is it that it can so easily generate such a murderous certainty among the most ardent, fundamentalist believers of religion? The right way to respond to the Charlie Hebdo attacks and atrocities committed by ISIS isn’t to demand less scrutiny of religion but quite the opposite; we must demand more scrutiny of religion, especially radical, fundamentalist variations. …

… if we allow “offensive” speech to be curbed or outlawed, we run the risk of letting these vague notions of what is offensive to be defined by the most extreme members of religion. Take, for example, the case of Saudi Arabian blogger and dissenter Raif Badawi, who is undergoing a brutal punishment involving receiving 50 lashes a week for 20 weeks, followed by years in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. His crime, according to the Saudi Arabian authorities, was “insulting Islam”; Raif had the audacity to run a website called Free Saudi Liberals (now closed down) where he advocated for a secular government in Saudi Arabia. Yes, political dissent is viewed as an insult to religion, justifying – in the minds of the extremists – the most brutal of tortures and disproportionate punishment. Raif Badawi’s torture makes the case that, if anything, religious sensibilities need to be questioned, and if that makes some people uncomfortable or offends them, so much the better!

Now, lest you think this discussion is exclusively about Islam, think again. It has become clear of late that many more than just some Muslims are jumping aboard the “curb offensive speech” bandwagon. Consider, for example, the reaction from various branches of Christianity to the Charlie Hebdo attacks:

Famous religious right and fundamentalist Christian broadcaster Bryan Fisher suggested that God allowed Islamic terrorists to carry out their attack in Paris as punishment for blasphemy. Further, in his radio broadcast he stated “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain… They [Charlie Hebdo] made a career out of taking the name of God, the God of the Bible, the father of the Lord Jesus [in vain].” So, according to Fisher, it wasn’t the satire of Islam that led to the attacks, it was the satire of Christianity and Jesus that is to blame! It should also be no surprise that Fisher is among those who would impose so-called anti-blasphemy laws in the United States.

Not to be outdone, prominent radical Catholic and head of the Catholic League Bill Donohue stated that the victims of the Paris attacks only had themselves to blame for insulting religion and angering people. “Killing in response to insult, no matter how gross, must be unequivocally condemned. That is why what happened in Paris cannot be tolerated,” he explained in a press release. “But neither should we tolerate the kind of intolerance that provoked this violent reaction.”

Now one would expect such nutty rhetoric from commonly-known Christian fundamentalists such as Fisher and Donohue, but what is more disturbing is that the most widely known religious figure on the planet, Pope Francis, who is regarded by many as a “progressive Pope” appears to agree with these sentiments! “One cannot provoke; one cannot insult other people’s faith; one cannot make fun of faith,” the Pope stated on a recent trip to the Philippines. “If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others,” he continued. Wow, so much for that “turn the other cheek” nonsense that Jesus espoused.

What I see now is an emerging unholy alliance between right-wing extremists and naïve left-wing multiculturalists against secular critics of religion. The former want little more than power and control, and they view silencing criticism of religion and its related power structures as a way of attaining these goals. The latter are often well-meaning but clueless and unrealistic idealists who believe that sitting in a circle and singing “Kumbaya” will result in less religiously-motivated power grabs and violence. Both groups view secular critics of religion as either an enemy of the faith or callous and disrespectful loud-mouths who are somehow a threat to a healthy society. And this is not simply an academic debate; political correctness, introduced by the naïve among the multicultural left, has now been co-opted by right-wing fundamentalists to justify everything from the denial of contraception to women to the inclusion of pseudo-scientific notions of creationism in public schools. Under the guise of “religious liberty”, these fundamentalists insist that not allowing them to impose their religious beliefs upon the rest of society is offensive.

In closing, allow me one more criticism of religion and religious believers; but this criticism is not directed at the fundamentalists, it is directed at the moderate religious believers who, either knowingly or not, provide cover for the fundamentalists and their dangerous ideologies. As author Sam Harris argued so eloquently in his essay “The Problem with Religious Moderates”:

… While moderation in religion may seem a reasonable position to stake out, in light of all that we have (and have not) learned about the universe, it offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence. The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism. We cannot say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; we cannot even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scripture is generally unrivaled. All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don’t like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us. This is not a new form of faith, or even a new species of scriptural exegesis; it is simply a capitulation to a variety of all-too-human interests that have nothing, in principle, to do with God.

Unless the core dogmas of faith are called into question-i.e., that we know there is a God, and that we know what he wants from us-religious moderation will do nothing to lead us out of the wilderness. …

… Religious moderates seem to believe that what we need is not radical insight and innovation in these areas but a mere dilution of Iron Age philosophy. Rather than bring the full force of our creativity and rationality to bear on the problems of ethics, social cohesion, and even spiritual experience, moderates merely ask that we relax our standards of adherence to ancient superstitions and taboos, while otherwise maintaining a belief system that was passed down to us from men and women whose lives were simply ravaged by their basic ignorance about the world. In what other sphere of life is such subservience to tradition acceptable? Medicine? Engineering? Not even politics suffers the anachronism that still dominates our thinking about ethical values and spiritual experience. …

… With each passing year, do our religious beliefs conserve more and more of the data of human experience? If religion addresses a genuine sphere of understanding and human necessity, then it should be susceptible to progress; its doctrines should become more useful, rather than less. Progress in religion, as in other fields, would have to be a matter of present inquiry, not the mere reiteration of past doctrine. Whatever is true now should be discoverable now, and describable in terms that are not an outright affront to the rest of what we know about the world. By this measure, the entire project of religion seems perfectly backward. It cannot survive the changes that have come over us-culturally, technologically, and even ethically. Otherwise, there are few reasons to believe that we will survive it.

Moderates do not want to kill anyone in the name of God, but they want us to keep using the word “God” as though we knew what we were talking about. And they do not want anything too critical said about people who really believe in the God of their fathers, because tolerance, perhaps above all else, is sacred. To speak plainly and truthfully about the state of our world-to say, for instance, that the Bible and the Koran both contain mountains of life-destroying gibberish-is antithetical to tolerance as moderates currently conceive it. But we can no longer afford the luxury of such political correctness. We must finally recognize the price we are paying to maintain the iconography of our ignorance.

Posted in free inquiry, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

“Creationism, Evolution, and Our Communication Gap” Video from Skepticamp 2013

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 31, 2014

I posted about a year ago the audio of my talk on how to more effectively communicate with creationists from the 2013 Chicago Skepticamp, and now I’m happy to share with you all the actual video of that talk.  For reference, here is a link to an earlier blog post I made on the topic.  Enjoy! :)

Creationism, Evolution, and Our Communication Gap

Skepticamp 2013 Talk



Posted in creationism, psychology, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Chicago Skepticamp 2013: Creationism, Evolution, and Our Communication Gap

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 4, 2013

This past weekend I had the honor of speaking at the Chicago Skepticamp 2013, and I chose to do my talk on a topic on which I’ve written before here – the communication gap that we skeptics and science-supporters have with creationists and other psuedoscientists.

I recorded the talk (which is only about 16 minutes long), and I include that along with the slide presentation I made below.  Audio is on the first slide.  Mouse over it and you should see the tab for it.  Enjoy! :)

Creationism, Evolution, and Our Communication Gap – WITH AUDIO


Posted in creationism, psychology, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

The Mind of Creationists and Our Communication Gap

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 14, 2013

I have spent many electrons typing on my keyboard and posting online about those who would use the government to impose their religious beliefs upon the rest of us by undercutting science education in our public schools. In fact, the most published category on my blog is in reference to creationism, that bugaboo which never seems to go away, like a bad game of Whack-a-Mole that you can’t ever finish.

Like many who call themselves skeptics of pseudoscience, the paranormal, and religion, I have some friends who are into one of more of the aforementioned areas. Specifically, I have friends who proudly call themselves creationists, in the sense that they adhere to the most common variant called Young-Earth Creationism (where their reading of the Bible says the Earth/universe is roughly 6000-10,000 years old). What I want to do here is to recount a conversation I had with one of these friends and how it opened my eyes into how the creationist mind seems to work.

A couple of years ago, I had posted an article on my blog about an upcoming geocentrism conference, which was titled “Galileo Was Wrong” – in the sense that the participants in this conference were actually arguing the Sun isn’t the center of our solar system and that astronomy and physics for the last 400 years or so is completely wrong. In my post, after presenting a plethora of scientific reasons as to why geocentrism is outright wrong, I took some time to focus upon one of the primary arguments presented by the geocentrists: their reading of the Bible.

On my blog entry, I stated:

Last, but not least, it seems that the motivation for modern geocentrists to hold these loony views, despite all of the evidence & science against them, is based in their particular reading of the Bible. In other words, their particular set of religious beliefs trump all of scientific reality. Or, to put it another way, they are engaging in some really interesting mental gymnastics to come to the conclusion of “the Bible is literally true” and retrofit all evidence (through liberal use of cherry-picking, goalpost moving, and in some cases outright lying) to jibe with their religious views.

Yes, just like Young Earth Creationists, they call themselves “Biblical literalists” and use their reading of various Bible passages to justify their pseudoscience (btw, it seems that all of these modern geocentrists are YECs, but not all YECs are geocentrists). I must say that it is nice to see that while most YECs may reject modern evolutionary science on the basis of their “literal” interpretation of the Bible, a large number of YECs aren’t quite so far gone as to go down the rabbit hole of geocentrism. Which, interestingly enough, begs a question: how can two different groups of people (geocentric vs. heliocentric YECs) claim two disparate “literal” readings & interpretations of Biblical scripture? How can the two groups claim to be reading & interpreting The Truth from the Bible, yet also disagree on this topic? Hmmm…

In every interaction I have had with geocentrists, whether it be perusing their “Galileo Was Wrong” website or looking through their literature (my favorite one is a book mailed to me at the school where I teach titled “The Geocentricity Primer: The Geocentric Bible #7”), I have found their arguments placing a heavy emphasis upon their reading of the Bible.

Enter my discussion with my YEC friend. After posting my blog article onto my Facebook page, my friend was among the first to comment that these geocentrists were nuts. I agreed, but then I began to engage him in a deeper discussion as to why he thought they were nuts. His initial response was pretty simple, saying that it was pretty much because of the scientific reasons I outlined in my blog post (i.e. geocentrism cannot explain inner planet phases, parallax, retrograde motion, and is inconsistent with basic physics). Upon seeing his response, I asked him another question: “Did you notice that these geocentrists based most of their arguments upon their reading of the Bible?”

He responded quickly: “Well, they’re wrong.” To which I responded: “Yes, but why do you think they’re wrong? You stated just now that it was because of the scientific arguments that I presented. Therefore, you must agree that science can trump someone’s reading of the Bible.”

He saw where I was headed with this line of thought, and he quickly changed his tune. “Well, their reading of the Bible is incorrect. That’s why they’re wrong,” came his reply. Never mind the fact that he never bothered to point out to me any kind of Biblical evidence, such as Scriptural passages, which outlined exactly what was wrong with the geocentrist arguments. When I pointed out to him that he was changing his argument he became increasingly uncomfortable, especially when I followed up with the logical conclusion: if you think that scientific facts can trump a geocentrist reading of the Bible, then why can’t scientific facts trump a YEC reading of the Bible?

At that point, I could see that my friend had cognitive dissonance in full swing within his mind, as he kept insisting that “all you need is the Bible to see the truth” and whatnot. I insisted on pointing out to him that the geocentrists, whom he labeled as nuts, would make exactly the same argument contrary to his personal reading of the Bible. Once again, he squirmed, merely insisting that he was right and they were wrong. Eventually, I let the matter drop, but not until after I had planted that skeptical seed of doubt. Hopefully, one day, it will start to grow.

This entire interaction taught me something which I hadn’t quite internalized until that point, and I think this is something which skeptics and supporters of science often struggle with. We often lament about how many people seem to be almost willfully ignorant of science and its wider implications, as if we simply expect everyone to give science as much credence and importance as we do. Now, don’t get me wrong – YECs and geocentrists alike enjoy the fruits of science’s labors, such as TVs, computers, the Internet, planes, cars, etc. But what they seem to fight, and where the aforementioned cognitive dissonance seems to come in, is when the questions go beyond the mere “toys” of science to larger issues of one’s belief system and/or worldview. Once science starts to encroach upon that territory with its pesky facts and logic, many are willing to either ignore science or even fight against it openly!

So it seems to me that we have a pretty serious communication gap with people like YECs, in that we naively expect them to think like us, when nothing could be further from the truth. In many ways, those of us who embrace the scientific mode of thinking are the exception, and even then you don’t have to look far to find a skeptic who all-too-easily slips back into the more common mode of unscientific thinking. Because of this gap, in many ways when attempting to engage in discussion with them, we are literally speaking different languages: we are coming to the issue from a naturalistic, science-based framework, and they are coming to it from what they consider a Biblically-oriented worldview. And, in many ways, never the twain shall meet, as the saying goes.

So, what to do? How can we bridge this gap? I think my interaction with my YEC friend on the question of geocentrism might provide a lesson in how to address this question. Rather than argue with him about how YEC was scientifically unsound, which I had futilely attempted to do before, I went right to the core of his arguments: I used his own language of “truth in the Bible” against him by providing him with an example of a worldview (geocentrism) which he considered incorrect, even though that worldview made exactly the same kinds of appeals to Biblical literalism which he himself had so often made!

Now, will such argument be effective? I don’t know, only time will tell. But I think it will accomplish two things: 1) it will give my friend some pause to think, in a manner in which he is able to think, and 2) it can keep the conversation going because now we are, in some way, at least sharing the same language.

Posted in creationism, psychology, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Ironically, Non-Believers Know More About Religion Than Believers

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 28, 2010

**Update: Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, has an excellent analysis over at the Chicago Tribune religion blog – check it out!


In a widely reported poll today (here is the link to the actual Pew survey), it seems there are some rather counter-intuitive results regarding religious affiliation & level of factual religious knowledge in the United States.  Namely, from the survey, the non-religious (atheists & agnostics) are among the most religiously literate when it comes to knowing facts & details about various religions…

Survey: Americans don’t know much about religion

A new survey of Americans’ knowledge of religion found that atheists, agnostics, Jews and Mormons outperformed Protestants and Roman Catholics in answering questions about major religions, while many respondents could not correctly give the most basic tenets of their own faiths.

Forty-five percent of Roman Catholics who participated in the study didn’t know that, according to church teaching, the bread and wine used in Holy Communion is not just a symbol, but becomes the body and blood of Christ.

More than half of Protestants could not identify Martin Luther as the person who inspired the Protestant Reformation. And about four in 10 Jews did not know that Maimonides, one of the greatest rabbis and intellectuals in history, was Jewish. …

Now, while I am not a religious believer myself – I identify as an “Epicurean freethinker”, basically a modern-day atheist – I am a pretty serious student of religion and religious history.  I also include among my circle of friends & acquaintances people from all religious and non-religious backgrounds: Christians (including Catholics & Mormons), Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and so on.  However, I have to say that while I don’t believe any of the supernatural aspects of religion, I do understand how a knowledge of religion & religious history is advantageous in knowing more about who we are as a society.

This is why I am a bit amazed and upset by the results of this survey.  I would think that people who are sincere religious believers would want to be educated about the facts & history behind their faith.  If people don’t learn for themselves the factual information about the origins, history, and basic tenets of their own religion, then that opens them up to all manner of hucksterism in the name of God, etc.

For example, I know someone who is what I would call an ardent fundamentalist Christian; however, they are also terribly ignorant of the origins & history of their own religion.  When I try to have a discussion with them about where the Bible came from, who wrote it, when it was written, the formation of the early Christian Church, and so on, they just want to ignore me or change the subject.  It is almost as if they are uncomfortable with the very thought of learning about their religion, as if they have a fear that if they learn too much their faith might be shaken (perhaps it might be).  As a result, they are heavily influenced by those who would use Christianity for political and other nefarious purposes.

Perhaps that is what is going on with some religious believers: they want to remain willfully ignorant, because – as the saying goes – ignorance is bliss.  Or maybe they just want to be told what to believe by their religious leaders, either because they are a bit intellectually lazy (thinking about this stuff is hard work), they don’t have the time to look into it (if you’re working three jobs, it’s tough to study during what little free time you have), or they believe that if they question things they could be cast out of their religious community.  I’m sure it could be a combination of all of the above.

In any case, I think it is a sad state of affairs.  Knowledge, even the knowledge about religion, should be something that we aspire to collect & nurture.  Cultivating an environment of intellectual curiosity & critical thinking should be encouraged among the religious, partly because people can then arm themselves against those who would use their beliefs to manipulate them (such as politicians making bogus “Christian nation” claims or crusading faith-healers).

To sum up: we need skeptics & critical thinkers in all areas of human endeavor, including religious believers within their religious communities.  Since the majority of the U.S. population is religious, the more ignorant they become about their own beliefs, the more susceptible they become to erroneous claims & extremism – and that can affect all of us.  If you know someone who is religious, or are religious yourself, take some time to actually learn more about their (or your) faith.

Posted in philosophy, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »


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