Expensive Beliefs

Faith: Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel. – Ambrose Peirce
Posted: December 20th, 2010 | By Bruce Gorton


Pic: Bruce Gorton

Science will probably never give us all the answers we want, but what answers it does give us are fairly consistent and well evidenced.

The less wrong answer

Now an argument was raised that evidence requires interpretation, well, sure it does but the thing is, the interpretation has to be consistent with the evidence.

And as more data is revealed the interpretation should thus become more accurate, “less wrong” as Isaac Asimov explained – to paraphrase in brief: The flat earth theory was perfectly fine, until more evidence showed that the world was a sphere – only to have that overturned once man saw it was an oblate spheroid.

The sphere idea was wrong, but it was less wrong than the flat earth model.

Science thus does not give us what is strictly speaking the right answer – but it does give us progress away from the completely wrong ones, by making sure the explanation follows the evidence, not vice versa.

This means we can more fully rely on the argument presented via the scientific method than we can others. Science has its limits, but when applied to any given question if an answer is to be had, so far it has shown itself to be very good at what it does.

What are these limits?

Outside of mathematics science cannot prove anything, and scientifically established theories are accepted rather than believed, because more data could come along and change things.

To reiterate, science doesn’t prove it disproves, with generally accepted theories being those that fit the data and prove to have good predictive capabilities, with laws being descriptive rather than prescriptive – in other words if observed reality doesn’t behave in a manner consistent with a stated law, the law is revised, not reality.

Further we don’t really live scientifically, we don’t do peer reviewed studies about how good our partner is in bed (Though in South Africa, it wouldn’t surprise me) and we often take things on trust simply because we don’t have the time to check them out fully.

This is why we tend to have trusted authorities – we don’t have the time to check for ourselves, so when someone can demonstrate that they have done it for us, we take their word for it. This is also why religion doesn’t imply stupidity* – often the religious simply have trusted authorities that us atheists don’t trust – such as holy scriptures, priests, prophets etc…

That said…

The scientific method is the current gold standard for testing human knowledge. It is not limited in only examining natural claims – in actual fact part of the whole point to science is to examine the unknown, and it has proven to be extremely good at that.

From the discovery of germs, to the exact same geology we use to hunt down oil, to sending rockets to the moon, to examining the stars – science has shown an incredible ability to deal with false claims and come at something approximating the truth.

Meanwhile, revelation, intuition, and “I just know it is so” haven’t exactly. Do you believe in ghosts, dragons, unicorns, elves, the Midgard Serpent or a flat earth? No, but some people did – and a lot of what is taught as modern religion is no more defensible than any of this.

And when you consider religious source material in light of what science has taught us – it doesn’t exactly hold up. Geology flat out crushes the Noah myth, archeology is no friend of Moses, Mohammed’s flying horse is right out, and the various myths involving transmigration of the soul collapse in the face of drugs and brain damage.

Add to this that at every turn where we have believed something to be supernatural and eventually found the answer, science has revealed not a divine will, but perfectly natural forces that require no such will at all.

Science doesn’t destroy the core concept of a God or many gods  – but it does a number on the baggage that comes with that concept, and once you start hitting the point where it is downright embarrassing to admit you believe in the baggage, how can you trust these sources about the gods?

*Bolded, highlighted and underlined just in case someone comes along saying I think religious=stupid.





December 23, 2010 at 5:33 pm

I thought my skepticism on the chariot wheel story was quite transparent. Perhaps the finer point I was making was too subtle.

It’s very interesting that you quote the Thomas account. But the salient point is in verse 29. Read it again, you’ve misunderstood it. Thomas wanted evidence to believe. But Jesus’s point was about faith.

I’m please to see Islamists get the same treatment. If, of course, your criticism is about religious culture, I’ll probably agree with everything you say.

I’d rather you went after my criticism of circular reasoning. Then you’re on my turf — philosophy.

I’d also you’de rather go after the core of what I have been arguing — about faith and reason (and the self) — rather than constantly tackling the material, representational, and dubiously ‘historical’ peripherals which are truly quite contingent and irrelevant to the claims I am making.


Bruce Gorton

December 23, 2010 at 5:37 pm

But, then, what would faith be if it needed that story? Now we enter the problem of faith and reason; and we enter the domain of theology, which requires as its most basic tool, philosophy.

Philosophy thrashes the Christian God even more than science does – its why theodicy has never really worked out with an omnibenevolent being.

Omnipotence is wiped out by the big rock argument (Can God create a rock so heavy he can’t lift it), the four proofs are nailed by simply asking “From whence God”, the ontological argument fails quite frankly on the assumption that existance is a property of perfection which Gasking’s parody makes this quite clear.

Pascal’s wager is basically an appeal to consequences, CS Lewis’ Trilemna falls apart in part because it is false (Jesus could alternatively be mistaken), he was a children’s book author and not a psychologist (even if he was the Bible doesn’t give enough information for a diagnosis), and his argument from evil fails for being an argument from incredulity.

In psychology, if a person over-reacts to something (spiders, mothers, father-figures …), this is sufficient evidence for some deep unconscious emotional problem.

If I said “I hate Atheists,” I’d have a problem. But I don’t hate Atheists. Most often they are deeply very angry people, and blame significant others for their pain, which they displace onto an idea of God.


If we are so angry, why are the countries with the highest rate of organic (that is, the non-state-enforced kind) atheism so much less violent than those with low rates of organic atheism?

Up to this point I have disagreed, but not been angry. Now I am. I am quite conscious of when I am angry, and you aren’t a telepath.

In the brief period I was studying psychology and sociology one of the big things I learned was that you should be highly careful with your own observations, because you like the rest of us, suffer from your own biases, and they self-reinforce.

For example if you are a racist you might believe black people can’t drive, and as a consequence you will notice more black people who can’t drive.

It isn’t that black people can’t drive, its the ones you notice.

You have demonstrated a bit of perceptual bias in your claim about atheists only going after Christianity and somehow, not going after Islam.

Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism, I can sort of understand because we don’t normally go after them, they even include atheist schools. But Islam? That isn’t about us not going after Islam.

Thats that you don’t care when atheists are going after Islam, so you don’t notice it.

I would venture the exact same is the case when you say atheists are particularly angry – well that and the fact that you personally give us reason to be angry.


Bruce Gorton

December 23, 2010 at 6:18 pm

It’s very interesting that you quote the Thomas account. But the salient point is in verse 29. Read it again, you’ve misunderstood it. Thomas wanted evidence to believe. But Jesus’s point was about faith.

Yet Jesus supplied Thomas with the evidence when asked. That is what you said Jesus hadn’t done.

It is further quite telling that this God of yours wants belief without evidence – it tells me that this is made up, because I could come up with the exact same thing.

I’d also you’de rather go after the core of what I have been arguing — about faith and reason (and the self) — rather than constantly tackling the material, representational, and dubiously ‘historical’ peripherals which are truly quite contingent and irrelevant to the claims I am making.


You try to argue on philosophical terms, but most of your core argument is special pleading. It isn’t good philosophy.

Please, please do not treat God like other existance claims. Well why not? Really, why should God be treated differently to say, unicorns?

Further, it is well known in any disciplined form of philosophy that it is for the proponent to demonstrate his case. Us atheists? We aren’t proposing anything really, we are just unconvinced by your God claim.

You try to claim there is circularity in the argument, but it isn’t circular.

The use of evidence, and the requirement for evidence breaks the circle quite neatly, particularly given how negative evidence is not ignored in the long term.

Otherwise scientists would never catch error, as can be seen with how scientific consensus changes and is overthrown every now and then.

The evidence for how effective science is can be seen, simply by sitting by your keyboard typing. We couldn’t do that without the scientific method leading to the keyboard and the computer its connected to.

We trust science to give us decent medicines, not because there aren’t crooks selling nostrums under the auspices of science, but because without science, we have no way of catching those crooks and we end up with cures that don’t work.

It is interesting to note the psychology behind things that don’t work that are still supported due to confirmation bias.

In very practical ways we see what science can do for us, and we see the evidence for the theories scientists produce. You demand that we do not apply the same basic skepticism that informs science when it comes to your God claim, you say it is a category error.

I say that is special pleading. There is no reason we shouldn’t apply a scientific view on it.



December 23, 2010 at 6:37 pm

Philosophy, yeah sure. Philosophy is about thought and reason. But then how do you account for philosophers who do believe in God? Consider even Descartes, Augustine, MacIntyre, Taylor to name a few.

On the anger thing, I hope I didn’t say all Atheists are angry. I’m sure that wouldn’t be true. But the anger I’m referring to is not conscious anger at all. It’s the deeply unconscious anger that comes from the powerlessness of being violated, among other things.

Let me clarify.

For instance, and at the risk of stereotyping, trusting alter boys that have been molested usually develop deep anger against the Church, and even develop personality disorders that require lengthy clinical counselling. Atheism is often an articulation of that anger.

Overly-harsh parenting can have a similar effect, particularly when those parents demand religious obedience on pain of punishment.

A victim of violent abuse by a family member (such as a brother or uncle) can result in deep-seated unconscious anger. Atheisim can, though not necessarily, be articulated as Atheism.

You can’t blame these victims for their anger. They are truly victims.

Many other factors can result in the same articulation. Affluence is one. Thanks for the article.

Ironically, it was Jesus himself who said he did not come to bring peace, but a sword. (matthew 10: 34).

“You will be hated continuously by everyone because of my name. But the person who endures to the end will be saved.” (Mark 13: 13)


Bruce Gorton

December 23, 2010 at 7:16 pm


Nice try.

The anger claim is your way of avoiding having to deal with atheists not agreeing with you. Claim anger – and then you can dismiss anything we say accordingly.

It is a dishonest tactic and you know it.



December 23, 2010 at 7:34 pm

I suppose Jesus could give Thomas evidence. He had not yet ascended into heaven. And I forgot, when Peter and the apostles lost heart and went back to fishing, and caught nothing all night, he appeared on the bank and told them to cast their nets on the other side, and …. Then to Mary Magdala. The Road to Emmaus? Jesus appeared there too.

But since the ascension, God sent his Holy Spirit.

Yeah. I was wrong there.
But he only appeared to his Apostles, and a few others who were part of his mission. Not to the crowds or others who did not believe in him.

And so we come to the end of this blog.

You and others have asked me (of all people in need of salvation) to prove God exists. Humbly I admit that I cannot. I have only (too) little faith, belief that gets easily shaken by my failings, and religious practices that are just about non-existent, partly due to those failings. I pray for mercy, knowing that we cannot save ourselves.

You confidently declare before all who read this blog that God is a lie.
The father of all lies should be deeply pleased with you, his faithful servant. You shall surely meet him one day.

But, as you say. This is all a lie. Science is all truth. So, let science save you.

An on you deathbed, motor car crash, street mugging, and which ever way you shall die, you will at last be able to truly test your null hypothesis.
If there’s nothing; well, that’s it. Nothing to worry about.
But if not, you’re in deep, very deep.
We are what we think and say. We are our testimony.
I’ve given mine; you’ve given yours. Let’s wait and see.


Bruce Gorton

December 23, 2010 at 7:43 pm

As to philosophers:

In the case of Descartes and Augustine, in 1766 Jean-François de la Barre was executed quite nastily for being an atheist.

So lets not include philosophers who died before then okay?

Now for modern philosophers, – pretty much the same as scientists.

Scientists and philosophers can be wrong, they live in the same society as everyone else which colours their perceptions (much as it colours mine).

Quite frankly I think expecting all philosophers, even those dealing with religion, to turn atheist within three hundered years of it being legalised after thousands of years of atheism being illegal is unrealistic – though I expect it to pick up over time.

If you want to know the specifics of how they remain religious – ask them.

But that they do does not mean I agree with their philosophy and I think that the main religious arguments are in fact riddled with fallacies.


Bruce Gorton

December 23, 2010 at 7:59 pm


The father of all lies should be deeply pleased with you, his faithful servant. You shall surely meet him one day.

Yeah, you don’t hate us you just think we worship Satan, a figure we don’t believe in either.

As to a car crash, or a mugging, or however my life may be threatened – science has given modern medicine.

Which will advance over time, possibly saving my life – and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I will die one day.

But you see, I will die knowing that while I lived, I had enough moral fortitude to not accept claims because I am afraid of eternal punishment.

If I am wrong – always possible – and I see your God when I die, I will see a being I am infinitely morally superior to. So are you, when you get right down to it.

Because you see, we don’t sentence people to eternal torment over minor disagreements.


Serena Dante

January 9, 2011 at 5:00 pm

Well said!

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