What Believers and Atheists Can Learn From Each Other

What Believers and Atheists Can Learn From Each Other



via The Lake Shore Singer

Book Review: “50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True”

For Natasha, Jared, and Marissa

Always think before you believe

Paranormal belief

Paranormal belief (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With a dedication like that, how could I not give this book a whirl? As a father of two now, the desire to impart the values of free inquiry and critical thinking to our children resonates deeply with me. There is an epidemic shortage of rationality in our world today despite the incredible advances of science and reason over the last couple hundred years. Alien abductions, astrology, ESP, prayer, prophecy, Holocaust-denial, global warming, the anti-vaccination movement, near-death experiences…these are just a sampling of the topics Guy P. Harrison tackles in this book about the phenomenon of human credulity.

While I thought his individual treatment of each “popular belief” was well done (if not impressively concise), I actually felt the introduction and the first section about “Magical Thinking” were the highlights of the book as there Harrison explains the prevalence of faulty beliefs and makes the general case for skepticism. From the introduction:

Skepticism is the skill and the attitude that helps us navigate our way through an often-crazy world…[it is] really nothing more than a fancy name for trying to think clearly and thoroughly before making a decision about believing, buying, or joining something. It’s about sorting out reality from lies and misperceptions…Being a skeptic means being honest and mature enough to seek answers that are based on evidence and logic rather than hopes and dreams. It also means being wise enough to accept that sometimes no satisfying answers are available…Living a life as free from illusions and delusions as possible is to value that life and to understand that not one precious moment of it should be willingly sacrificed to a lie or an unproven belief.

So how do faulty beliefs originate and why do they persist? This is a question about which entire books in the field of cognitive science and psychology have been written, but one of the primary reasons is this: humans are naturally pattern-seeking, agency-detecting creatures–often exceedingly so. Harrison writes:

Without even trying, we naturally attempt to “connect the dots” in almost everything we see and hear. This is a great ability if you are trying to catch a camouflaged bird in a tree for your dinner, trying to hear a potential mate’s call amid a cacophony of distractions, or trying to spot your enemy hiding in the forest, hoping to ambush you. But pattern seeking also lead us to see things that are not there, which might waste our time and maybe get us into trouble. Furthermore, our obsession with patterns doesn’t stop at vision and hearing. We also have a tendency to automatically make connections and find patterns in our thinking. This is one reason that unlikely conspiracy theories are able to take root and blossom in the minds of so many people.

Harrison also touches on some of the other well-known reasons for faulty thinking such as confirmation bias and the brain’s role in processing perceptions and memories. Says Harrison:

Like it or not, the fact is we can’t be sure about everything we see, hear, think, feel, and remember. This has obvious implications for popular beliefs that so intrigue and entrance billions of people around the world.

Given the challenges before us, is there any hope at all at arriving at truth–at distinguishing fact from fiction? Yes, thanks to a wonderful thing called science. Science, while imperfect, is the best (if not only) way to combat faulty thinking. As Scottish philosopher Adam Smith wrote,

Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition

It provides a framework–a methodology–for objectively evaluating truth claims, and its effectiveness has been proven time and time again. Everything that has improved the quality and quantity of our existence is the result of scientific inquiry. This is not to say that science is perfect or can’t be used for harmful purposes; like anything else it can be misused, but when it comes to weeding out fantasy from reality, it’s the only game in town.

Harrison’s book proceeds to look at the 50 popular beliefs under this lens, pointing out the misperceptions and biases that have perpetuated them as well as the scientific evidence that refutes them. It’s a great reference guide–a CliffsNotes of sorts for debunking myths of assorted and sundry shapes and sizes, and for each topic he provides a list of references for additional study. The next time your brother-in-law starts talking nonsense about bigfoot or the paranormal it will pay to have this baby handy.

Excerpts from The Devil’s Dictionary

Ambrose Bierce, American author

Image via Wikipedia

Today’s Our Periodic Pasta consists of a few select entries from The Devil’s Dictionary, by Ambrose Bierce:

Evangelist: A bearer of good tidings, particularly such as assure us of our own salvation and the damnation of our neighbours.

Infidel: In New York, one who does not believe in the Christian religion; in Constantinople, one who does.

Pray: To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.

Religion: A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.

Scriptures: The sacred books of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based.

Evidence and Indoctrination

Today’s Our Periodic Pasta:

“The vast majority of personal religious beliefs can be accurately predicted based solely on the beliefs of one’s parents or the culture one is raised in…Religionists should ask themselves, ‘Are my religious beliefs based on rationality and evidence or indoctrination?”‘

   – John Bice

Matt Berry: Faith as Fatigue

Today’s Our Periodic Pasta:

“Faith is the fatigue resulting from the attempt to preserve God’s integrity instead of one’s own.”

    –Matt Berry

Dan Barker on Salvation

Photo of Dan Barker, by Brent Nicastro. © Bren...

Image via Wikipedia

Today’s Our Periodic Pasta:

“You believe in a book that has talking animals, wizards, witches, demons, sticks turning into snakes, food falling from the sky, people walking on water, and all sorts of magical, absurd and primitive stories, and you say that we [non-theists] are the ones that need help?”

   –Dan Barker

Robert A. Baker on Being ‘Pre-prayered’

Mary Magdalene, in a dramatic 19th-century pop...

Image via Wikipedia

Today’s Our Periodic Pasta:
“What happens when the same number of people pray for something as pray against it? How does God decide whose prayer to answer?…This spring when a small Kentucky town won the State High School Girl’s Basketball crown, the town’s newspaper, as well as the largest newspaper in Kentucky, gave credit for the victory to God’s answering their prayers. Why their prayers were answered and the prayers of the losers were not remains unknown. One possibility is that the Hazard team had a better ‘pray-er’-in the form of their principal, who was also a minister. If it turns out that the higher one stands in the religious hierarchy the better the chances that one’s prayers will be heeded, then it certainly behooves every athlete and every athletic team to employ the most religious ‘pray-ers’ possible. Certainly no one should ever enter any contest unpre-prayered!
Robert A. Baker

God’s Omniscience: Religion’s Ultimate Cop-Out

“It doesn’t matter what the particular problem is for a person’s faith. Having an omniscient God concept solves it. It could be the intractable and unanswerable problem of ubiquitous suffering; or how a man could be 100% God and 100% man without anything leftover, or left out; or how the death of a man on a cross saves us from sins; or why God’s failure to better communicate led to massive bloodshed between Christians themselves. It just doesn’t matter. God is omniscient. He knows why. He knows best. Therefore punting to God’s omniscience makes faith pretty much unfalsifiable, which allows believers to disregard what reason tells them by ignoring the probabilities.” (link)

Kurt Baier on Life’s Purpose

Happy human Humanist logo, white and golden ve...

Image via Wikipedia

Today’s Our Periodic Pasta:
“I suspect that many who reject the scientific outlook…confusedly think that if the scientific world picture is true, then their lives must be futile because…man has no purpose given him from without. These people mistakenly conclude that there can be no purpose in life because there is no purpose of life; that men cannot themselves adopt and achieve purposes…”
     –Kurt Baier