My 'New Atheist' Interview

[Note from FVThinker: I was recently interviewed by John of the blog Evolutionary Middleman. John is a long-time atheist interested in the motivations and thinking of individuals that recently self-identified as atheists. You can click here to find out his rationale for the series of interviews. I had provided him with some of my background information prior to the interview. What follows is that interview]

The Atheists Interviews - Mike Burns of Fox Valley Thinker


John: The first thing I'd like you talk about a little is this thing of you having a degree in engineering. One of the interesting statistical facts is that those with engineering degrees are somewhat less likely than those in other sciences such as biology, genetics and physics to be atheists. Indeed, you personally didn't come to a strictly atheistic outlook until your mid-forties. What is it about "engineering"?

Mike: The fields of biology, genetics, and physics place the practitioner directly into the areas that are in conflict with the truth-claims of many religions. This, I would imagine, forces those scientists to either reconcile those conflicts or abandon one of the two explanations. An engineer is not a ‘pure’ scientist like those studying molecular biology or sub-atomic physics. We are rather removed from that level as we contemplate things like the load bearing capacity of a beam or how to store information in a magnetic media. The bible/Koran/torah doesn’t generally come into conflict in matters such as these. Still, I love all the sciences . . . and physics is one of the most valuable things that I have studied. There are probably many similarities between the ‘pure’ scientist’s mode of thinking and the engineer’s mode of thinking; the former just confront the big questions more directly.

An interesting statistic shows that 74% of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences is specifically atheistic. Fully 93% do not believe in a personal god (one who answers prayers or interacts with our world). When one really looks for answers to the big questions (as those in the sciences do), you come to realize that the supernatural explanations for things are unsupported and that there are, almost always, natural explanations.

I cannot say for sure, but I have to imagine that the vast majority of human-kind has no interest in doing the arduous, rigorous research that the scientists do for a living. That does not mean that the human animal does not want answers to the big questions. I contend that we, as a species, will always put an explanation to virtually everything whether we have genuine knowledge about it or not. Prior to an enhanced understanding of our solar system, some used to think that the sun was a flaming chariot being pulled across the sky (we almost always invented an anthropomorphic being for these things). Now that we have real understanding and it was disseminated to the population, most people understand that earth is orbiting a large ball of boiling gas. It is that dissemination of knowledge that needs to occur on other natural explanations of our world.

John: I think I read on your blog about the birth of your son and your mother's horror, when you were still more of an agnostic, at the thought of her unbaptized grandchild. Apparently she actually got you to examine your faith at that time and it actually had kind of the opposite effect she had hoped for. How is she doing with all of it now that she (in part) has actually led to the problem being worse, from her perspective?

Mike: My mother is not yet fully aware of my position. She does know that I have serious problems with Christian dogma and Catholic dogma. With regards to her grandchild, she is doing better, since the Pope decided that the concept of limbo (where the unbaptized go) was a boo-boo and that the unbaptized are eligible to get to heaven. If you are not familiar with the concept of ‘infallibility’ within the Catholic church; it means that *whatever* pope says is absolutely true because he got his information directly from God. One of the recent popes was a little uncomfortable with this and modified it to say he should be treated as if he were infallible. Of course this is no consolation to all the parents of deceased, unbaptized children who thought their babies were languishing in this isolated no-where-land. I just makes me more angry with the church that the pope can say “Ooops! My bad. We just made that shit up.” and that the cult-members will respond with “Thank you your holiness”. Another story made up by the popemeister is the ascension of Mary. There were stories floating around about what happened to Mary when she died. One of them was that she ascended bodily into heaven, but it was just one version of the folklore. The pope sits down and ponders and thinks his thoughts and decides that, yes, Mary did ascend bodily into heaven . . . and hence is born a new Catholic ‘fact’.

John: What do you say to your child about god, the beliefs of others and how you view our life in the universe?

Mike: I tell him everything that I know when I get a chance to get into the incredibly perplexing teenage brain. I took him to the World Trade Center site and talked about the role that religion played. I talk of the role that religion has played throughout history; both good and bad. Many of our good friends and neighbors are devout Christians. I tell him that everyone is our friend unless they prove otherwise. I certainly have my biases, but I certainly don’t tell him that he is an atheist or must be an atheist.

John: You talked about reading Dawkins "The God Delusion" and other books and authors. A frequent criticism of him (as well as Harris, Dennett, Hitchens, etc) is that they are arrogant, overbearing, condescending, dogmatic in their own way. It seems obvious that this is not what you took from it. It's also said that all they do is "preach to the choir". You may have already been fairly certain that you didn't buy into all of the dogma of Catholicism, but you were hardly a Dawkins choir boy. Is this approach to free thinking (espoused by Dawkins, et al) the best way to bring others over to rationality?

Mike: I don’t recall criticism of Dennett putting him in league with Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. I greatly admired Dennett’s book [Breaking the Spell] in that he merely framed and forwarded arguments that, to my mind, had virtually inescapable conclusions. Most certainly, there is a sizable segment of the theistic population that does take great offense to even the most casual questioning of faith. This, I feel, is why many theists consider these authors so rabid. Indeed, there are some very unflattering things said by some of these authors (with regards to religion), but the level of rhetoric in criticizing them often outstrips the authors criticisms.

One common criticism is that these authors don’t appreciate the nuance of the critics brand of religion. But this is a red herring. While these authors are much more scholarly than most (with regards to religion), the criticism of nuance has nothing to do with their arguments. The authors posit that religions are merely mythology. The critics, instead of demonstrating that their religion is NOT mythology, take the tack of (effectively) saying my mythology is better than the other guy’s mythology. The authors (and I) maintain that decisions and public policy are much better when based on real knowledge instead of mythology.

I do think that they are ‘preaching to the choir’, but the choir is much larger than most realize. I would not expect that a Jerry Falwell-type theist would pick up ‘The God Delusion’ and turn into an atheist. Even a less devout theist would not just ‘POOF’ become an atheist. I have a casual understanding of brain physiology and an appreciation for its complexity and malleability. The brain becomes what we need it to be but it can be persistent in holding onto old information. I consider it nearly impossible that someone firmly in the theistic camp could, in the span of one book, become an atheist. When you spend your life surrounded by people who believe in the [regionally prevailing] religious stories, your brain is literally ‘wired’ to accept and these stories. It took me decades to really formally move from my weak theistic position to atheism. But, as a demonstration of brain physiology, even today, my brain tells me that Jesus’ resurrection is more plausible than Mohammed flying to heaven on a winged horse. . . even though I know both are equally improbable! It takes time and great effort to overcome inculcated beliefs.

As far as “the best way to bring others over to rationality” . . . I suppose there are different techniques for different audiences. The authors mentioned speak to the audience of closeted skeptics like me. For me, Dawkins hit a home run and I will remember his book as an epiphany in my life; allowing me to realize that my concerns with regard to religion were well founded. The fact that they sell so well, speaks to the fact that the audience is large. I honestly don’t know how to reach the deeply inculcated. I like to think that the growing visibility of skeptics will force more and more theists to question their position.

John: I think your point about how the mind works, and your personal example of finding the resurrection of Jesus to be less fantastic than Mohammed flying to heaven on a winged horse, to be very interesting. So, let me ask - what if we toss in Jesus' ascension to heaven? I am pushing this a little because, for me, I see absolutely no difference. Maybe it's just that I've been an ardent atheist for so many years that all mythology sounds very much the same to me. The only difference I can appreciate is that there are some mythologies that many people currently believe and others that you don't really need to argue about. Worshippers of Horus are fairly hard to find.

Mike: It is rather hard to describe, and maybe I didn’t do a very good job of it earlier. My point was that the brain wires itself (literally wires itself) based on information that it is exposed to. After years of hearing and accepting the story of Jesus’ resurrection and being told it was truth, my brain seems to have wired a region of the brain so that I don’t recoil from the absurdity of it. Throw a new mythological story at my brain (Mohammed’s horse) and I, like you, recoil at the silliness of it. I know full well they are equivalent impossibilities, but through inculcation, my brain has developed (and maintains) a tolerance for the Christian narrative. In no way am I saying that I give Christianity any more credence than Islam or any other religion. I merely make the point to illustrate the amazing complexity of the human brain.

Sam Harris said something that well illustrates the same thing. [I paraphrase] “Which is more ridiculous? 1) God speaks to George Bush and tells him to conduct this war. . . or 2) God speaks to George Bush through his hair dryer and tells him to conduct this war.” Familiarity with the Christian narrative makes the first statement seem more reasonable even when it is not. The introduction of a completely insignificant detail (the hair dryer) in the second statement makes it seem ridiculous . . . probably even to many devout theists. The brain is a wondrous thing but is capable of tremendous bias and warped interpretation. One thing that people should recognize is their minds are not the perfectly reliable, trustworthy things that most would like to believe. The utter certainty that some feel in their faith is merely what the brain has been trained to do.

John: Philosophically, do you now follow in the style of these authors when talking to people or writing in your blog, or do you take a less aggressive posture?

Mike: I have a couple of points on this. I have noticed that Dawkins is more aggressive in his book, but is more pragmatic in interviews and debates. [Christopher] Hitchens is unbelievably caustic in debates and interviews, while his book was more tame. I must give Hitchens credit though. I have never seen anyone so consistently destroy his opponents in debates. He is a freaking razor blade. He is also rude and doesn’t follow rules, but he is a debate machine! I have heard him described as the best justification for two martini lunches (he is apparently a heavy drinker).

I recently read a piece by Michael Shermer from Skeptic Magazine and that, at least in part, fits my position. In it, he said that anti-anything always fails. My feeling is that simply lambasting the theists for their wrong-doings or religious ills will, for the most part, only make people angry. An important part of my position is to demonstrate that there are other naturalistic explanations for our world. I have to imagine that there are a lot of people who don’t realize that there are other plausible explanations for things. This can be difficult as it often requires that some science education be included. In a nutshell, I am more pro-knowledge than anti-theistic.

All that being said; I cannot help but get pretty in-your-face when someone offers patently ridiculous arguments. If you read my essay on the “milk miracle” on my blog, that was one of those cases.

John: Speaking of Michael Shermer, I have a very ambiguous feeling about his style. I really like the guy, and I say to myself that I like his way of discussing issues of skepticism much better than I like Dawkins, yet I find myself more drawn to Dawkins writing. It’s ironic, because I would rather emulate Shermer. Is there perhaps a little arrogance in us that enjoys sticking it to the theist?

Mike: I am not broadly familiar with everything that [Shermer] has said on the topic of religion, but I greatly enjoyed what I have read and seen. For instance his “Skepticism 101” video on is inspired. It clearly demonstrates what the mind is capable of just as I mentioned in your previous question. Things like this video fall into the ‘pro-knowledge’ area that can probably do more good than the anti-theism. He has also written on empirical studies that intercessory prayer has no effect. I often do as he does and offer the facts (knowledge) that shows proto-ethics in other species, prayer having no effect, less religious societies having fewer societal ills, atheists being grossly underrepresented in prisons, etc. I offer this to give others knowledge. Do I emulate him? I don’t know his work well enough to say so.

John: Did you find any particular aspect of atheism to be repugnant or problematic to you as you contemplated "coming out" and declaring yourself to be an atheist?

Mike: Not at all. First of all, atheism (in its strictest sense) defines nothing of a person’s worldview. It merely says that the person is not-theistic. If we were speaking of hair colors it would be like saying that someone’s hair is not brown. It doesn’t say anything as to the person’s actual hair color. Growing up, the Catholic interpretation of an atheist was that they were cloven-hoofed with serpents crawling from their mouths. Very little rigorous, empirical research has been done specifically on atheists and their role in society, but there is some. Unfortunately for the theistic camp, it is all quite flattering to the atheist in virtually every aspect (racism, intelligence, education, tolerance and more). One study I read from a Canadian university only showed ‘charitable giving’ as an area that theists lagged behind . . . but calculating how church monies get divvied up between proselytizing and social services even makes that cloudy. I am proud to be in the company of clear thinkers.

John: I'm certainly proud to have people like you on our side! As to this problem of charitable giving, a couple of things: Isn't it likely that the community function of a religious group would tend to encourage this? We have to be honest and say that this is one positive from religion. But, again, it's a bit superfluous if we can do the same through a secular community. Is it possible that as we create more secular communities (like the on-line one that is growing) that those communities will ask members to do things in the public interest and that, many times, that's all any human being needs - a little direction in an area that's tough to navigate, if you have to figure out on your own where and when to contribute?

Mike: I would tend to agree that the aspect of community is a genuine positive of religion (of course that community is too often intolerant of other communities). I don’t think the on-line community could ever be an analog for this type of interaction though. I have the very great fortune to live in a small, historic residential community . . . an actual community. The neighbors converse, watch out for each other and their children, have barbeques together, have philosophical discussions and more. Having moved here from just 10 blocks away (where very little of this interaction occurred), I am stunned by how enriching and satisfying a real community can be. Just thinking aloud . . . I wonder if the decades-long trend of sprawl (placing homes further apart, homeowners driving into their attached garages and disappearing until the morning commute) has had an inadvertent isolating effect that makes them seek out other ‘community’. It would seem to me that real ‘community’ is a bit of an endangered thing in today’s society. I actually looked into the local Unitarian Universalist church here as they don’t follow any dogma, and accept atheists and theists into their ranks. While I laud the organization, I found that to be too ‘spiritual’ for my liking.

All that being said; there really isn’t an atheist community of the type that religion offers. After all, the religious community is motivated by the worship of [a] god. The atheist is motivated by everything but the worship of a god; hardly a unifying interest. Possibly the single greatest factor uniting atheists would be political activism in support of church-state separation; but that is by no means universal. The likelihood of real atheist communities forming would be helped if so many of our ranks were not closeted.

John: You mentioned to me in an aside that the blogging with the Fox Valley Thinker has been going a little slow lately. Any future plans for the blog, or in other areas, that you'd like to announce?

Mike: It goes in fits and starts. It is quite cathartic to write about these things and it helps me really analyze my position. Even if nobody reads it, it is helpful for me. I have no grand plan for the blog, but I would like to figure out how to conduct an anonymous survey of our lawmakers in Washington asking about their religiosity. I feel that a lot more would admit their non-theism if they knew it was anonymous.

Won't anyone stand up for God? [Response]

[Note: The following is a response to a column on a UK website. I intended to post it there, but didn't realize that I was so limited to size. You can read the original column (and other responses) here and my response is as follows:]

Well the author posits many things to refute as she (I couldn’t find the name) treads down the same worn path that many theists have tread. Her arguments range from inaccurate to unsupported to wishful thinking. Unlike the theistic side, though, we non-theists (aka atheists) actually have to have our facts and evidence lined up.

I do appreciate the author’s dismissal of the holy books as ancient, unreliable and generally questionable. I have hypothesized that, were it not for bronze/iron age morals and ethics codified in unchangeable texts, religion would be a benign force which would offer little more than personal comforts. It is the writing down of these ancient ethical standards that gives us the texts that fundamentalists/literalists pervert to support their cause and worldview. It would not make supernatural beliefs real or true, but we would have removed an important source of societal ills.

I do not have time to refute everything that I would like, but let me address a few from my American perspective.

The author brings out the old Hitler/Stalin argument. This has been refuted by many far more scholarly than myself, but Hitler invoked God on a number of occasions. Stalin used the credulity of the religious in order to accomplish the horrors of his regime. Even if you accept the failed argument that they did what they did BECAUSE of atheism, you neglect something in your comparison to religious killing. If the same 20th century technology of war existed during the Inquisition, can anyone argue that it would not have been used to their ends and many more would have died? Indeed, we now have nuclear and biological weapons that could fall into the hands of twisted fundamentalists; and they are trying to get them. Certainly the disappearance of religion would not be the disappearance of bad behavior; but we would have less reason for good people to bad things.

The author ponders the big, fundamental questions of “why is there something, rather than nothing?”. This is a valid, important and ponderous question. The position of science is (barring some hypotheses) that we don’t know. . . and the proper position is that we need to look closer. Let me say that again . . . the proper response is to say “we need to look closer”. Saying that there is a conscious creator does nothing in terms of explaining anything and only extinguishes inquiry. It is our species anthropomorphizing a being to explain the unknown. We (as a species) have done this since time immemorial. It does not mean that there is any truth or even any PROBABILITY of truth to it. More importantly, the position of the creation of the universe says nothing about a personal god much less the specific gods described in the Abrahamic faiths.

Going on, the author seems somewhat tortured by the “why are we here” question. This is rather self-induced. She seems to PRESUME that there MUST BE a ‘why’ even if none exists. I can say from experience, that there is no wonder lost by abandoning the ‘why question’. In fact, I find the universe that much more wondrous now than in my theistic days.

The author then brings up the sheer numbers of believers as something of an argument. I feel rather silly for having to point out the obvious; the ancients believed just as fervently in Zeus and Poseidon and Osiris and the thousands of other dead gods on the scrap heap of mythology. If you are told from birth that you will burn in a lake of fire if you don’t believe; indeed you warrant death by your mother’s hand . . . I think that might influence a few minds.

Another point is on the author’s contention that “Without faith - belief beyond evidence - life would be unlivable.” It would seem that she feels abandoning supernatural beliefs would immediately throw her into a chasm of despair and hopelessness. This is completely and utterly unsupported. Dogmatic teachings tell you clearly that life only has meaning with God, but there is no evidence for this. I, for one, feel invigorated and stand in greater awe of our world and universe. Clearly the author cannot have been on both sides of this argument. It would seem if atheists were all cast into this emotional abyss, they would kill themselves off and we would not be having this conversation.

My final point from the original article is the “believing scientists”. Indeed; some scientists believe in a personal god . . . even the occasional ‘notable’ scientist. But, by way of statistics, the numbers are quite small. Here in the US we have a body called The National Academy of Sciences. This is an assemblage of our country’s preeminent thinkers. In a very recent survey, fully 74% specifically self-identify as atheists. Add to that the scientists identify as agnostic and it brings the total to 93% that have no belief in an active supernatural being. Yes, there are scientists that believe in God, but they are a very small minority. I believe that mathematicians make up a greater portion of the ‘believers”. Those fields that deal with cosmology and biology are almost exclusively atheist. I presume the same holds true across the pond in the UK.

In conclusion, we should all hold this truth to be self-evident . . . As a whole, society is ALWAYS better served if decisions are based on knowledge as opposed to mythology. The obvious implication of that truth is that the church or believer must demonstrate that their position IS something more than mythology. The reason the pope and theologians are not bringing out the big guns is because they do not have big guns. The best arguments HAVE been put forth . . . and they have failed.

Do not fear a loss of faith. Dogma teaches you that loss of faith means loss of meaning in life, but it is just the opposite.

The Milk Miracle

I took place in a debate of sorts recently at an Oregon newspaper’s website. It started, as many of these things do, with someone making some remark about how atheists ignore clear evidence and that the liberal media bias suppresses spectacular evidence of a god. I routinely challenge these claims (Hey . . . you have to do SOMEthing to entertain yourself!) This debate took a little bit of a different turn for me though.

My ‘opponent’ in this debate (I will call him Mark) made frequent accusations of non-theists being bigots (not that unusual) but then he pulled out the Milk Miracle as his trump card (more detail on that in a bit) and claimed, emphatically, that a clear, multi-national, well documented (on video no less) miracle is being suppressed by and dismissed by the liberal media and elite. None of this too uncommon for the well indoctrinated, but he was quite emphatic and gave me a web site with the challenge “explain this!”

The web site he provided was This is an assemblage of TV clips of a 1995 incident where statues of Hindu gods were drinking milk by the spoonful.
This was a real incident and I vaguely remember hearing a bit of it when it occurred. Word spread of the miraculous events across the country and around the world. Milk supplies depleted from many stores as people flocked to local temples to see if the Hindu gods were lactose intolerant. The media was all over it and there was much video footage of the faithful putting spoonfuls of white liquid to noses or mouths of their religious statues and the praises of god were heard as the spoon was drained to empty.

Of course skeptical groups came out describing a combination of effects (absorption through capillary action and surface tension and the like). I am an engineer and I had no problem formulating any number of natural explanations for this, so I quickly dismissed it.

Mark, however, was emphatic and restated his challenge. So I began to do some actual research. One of my first steps was to google ‘debunk milk miracle’. This pulled up surprisingly little information. It was clearly a real incident. It was well documented. If true (as described) it would be a pretty stunning event so I would expect that there would be a good deal of rational debunking going on, but I could find virtually none.

At this point in my research I am starting to contemplate why there might be this dearth of information to refute the miracle. Was it so ludicrous that nobody even bothered? I even contemplated whether there might actually be media suppression. I continued my research. I found testimony from a witness in Bombay who ran across the street from his school to the local temple to watch the crowds. What he saw stunned him. He saw believers put spoonful after spoonful of milk up to the statue and watched the spoons drain of their contents. He also saw the milk collect in a trough below the statue were it was collected and he saw priests take the milk away by the bucketful. And yet he still heard the praises of god and the miracle of the milk!!

OK. One internet post does not a position make, so I mentally set the eyewitness account aside and returned to the videos. Going to YouTube, I found a fair amount of Milk Miracle video, but most of it was the footage from I sat down to take a critical look but, given the universally poor video quality, I didn’t expect to see anything. What I did see astounded me. One of the first scenes clearly showed milk running down the chin of the statue! Keep in mind that this was the video being used as PROOF of the miraculous event . . . AND THE MILK WAS RUNNING DOWN THE CHIN! I saw the same thing happen a couple more times throughout the video. It was rather apparent on the painted (non-white) statues. Many of the religious icons are a shiny, white plaster which, of course, would have made a miniscule stream of milk almost invisible to even an eyewitness. I then went to the kitchen and grabbed a white porcelain coffee cup and was able to ‘feed’ it a spoonful of milk AT LEAST as convincingly as the videos showed.

Sitting here now, I actually feel a little silly that I put this much time into this purported miracle, but the effort got me thinking. I have an ever-increasing awe of the human brain and its manifestation of ‘mind’. We are just at the tip of the iceberg in our understanding of how the whole mess works. It is fascinating to see how we learn; how we think; how we interpret . . . and how we bias. I look at the Milk Miracle and contemplate how the mind can ignore unambiguous visual evidence if it does not reinforce a person’s worldview. We are not talking about abstract debatable theories that are being ignored; we are talking about milk running down the face of a statue. Of course there are other psychosocial factors here like group-think or not wanting to be the one who DOESN’T see the miracle. I am sure that social psychologists have names for all these things.

What it comes down to for me is an angry atheist moment. That’s right, I am angry. I am angry that a supernatural belief system can so impair [what could otherwise be] a sound mind. I am angry that said belief systems are so culturally protected from criticism. I am angry that such belief systems are so heavily represented in our government and our supreme court. I am angry that an individual is LESS trusted if they lack a belief in the supernatural. I know that your pants are in a bunch right now. I know that it is a select, indoctrinated, desperate minority of the faithful that are so impaired. Still; it is the demonstration that these inculcated beliefs have the ability to destroy the mind. It you believers wish to keep these belief systems in general circulation, you had better damned well prove that they are true.

Intelligent Design as Science?!?

OK. I am going to say this very slowly for you I.D. folks or those swayed by the “teach the controversy” argument. I am going to give several examples. Please read them slowly and completely. Read them twice.

The following is an example of science:

What Person ‘A’ does: Looks around at the complexity and diversity of life in our world in wonder and contemplates how that diversity came to be.

Person ‘A’ says: “I have been thinking that maybe life as we know it evolved from a common ancestor through small changes over long periods of time. If this were true, I would PREDICT that many species would have similar features.”

What Person ‘A’ does: They go out and analyze evidence as best they can with the tools available to them

Person ‘A’ says: “I have OBSERVED that, indeed, many features are shared amongst species (i.e. bats, whales, dogs and humans (and more) all have appendages with five slender, articulated sets of bones [fingers]). I have further observed that nearly identical species have subtle variations that seem to be advantageous to their specific environment. I do not have the tools to determine that age of my fossils but, because my observations seemed to match my predictions, I have a certain level of confidence that my original idea is accurate and I offer this as a THEORY. I offer this theory for the scientific community to analyze and criticize in the hopes that some new insights might be gained or that my errors may be identified.”

[Much time passes and new technologies are developed]

What Person ‘B’ does: Through archeology and efforts not available to Person ‘A’, many, many more fossils are exposed from deeper and deeper layers of earth. These are analyzed and compared to the predictions originally made.

Person ‘B’ says: “I (and others) have found many more fossils that match the predictions originally made by Person ‘A’. The ability of a theory to predict results or future findings is a good indication that the original theory is, at least, reasonably close to the way things really are. I have a greater level of confidence that the theory is accurate.”

[Much more time passes and more new technologies are developed]

What Person ‘C’ does: Uses several new techniques that can accurately determine the age of ancient relics and fossils using radioactive decay.

Person ‘C’ says: “I have determined with this new, proven technology (which has already gone through scientific vetting as we are discussing) has determined that the age of some of these deeper fossils are indeed millions of years old. This gives an accurate time frame previously unknown to Persons ‘A’ and ‘B’ and is consistent with Person ‘A’s idea that changes occurred over vast periods of time. I have a yet greater level of confidence that the original theory is close to reality.”

[More time passes and new technologies arise]

What Person ‘D’ does: Uses the newfound tool of DNA analysis to compare differences amongst species.

Person ‘D’ says: “I have used the stunningly accurate new tool of DNA analysis to compare variations amongst species. This tool was unimagined by Person ‘A’. If the original theory was correct, then we should see nearly identical DNA in closely related species (i.e. higher primates and humans) and much greater differences in more primitive life forms (i.e. starfish and humans). This tool has demonstrated that very clearly and has even allowed us to correct some errors we have made to date. I have an extremely high level of confidence that the theory of Evolution Through Natural Selection is a stunningly accurate description of how the DIVERSITY of life (including human-kind) as we know it came to be. The likelihood that all the predictions that naturally stemmed from the original theory could erroneously be made is virtually impossible. We have used many different, unrelated technologies to arrive at this conclusion. We have few other theories in science that can be considered (as Evolution is now), virtually undeniable fact.”

The following is NOT an example of science:

What Person ‘X’ does: Looks around at the complexity and diversity of life in our world in wonder and contemplates how that diversity came to be.

Person ‘X’ says: “I do not understand the complexity and diversity of life in our world. Therefore some intelligent designer outside of our ability to understand and test was probably involved.”

Now that you have read (and re-read) the examples of science and ‘non-science’, can you honestly say that ID should be in the science classroom? . . . not the philosophy classroom, but the SCIENCE classroom? There is NOTHING about ID that that has ANY relation to the scientific method. If there is a controversy to be taught, it is the motives of the Intelligent Design proponents and their vigor in trying to get it taught as science.

The world’s best defense of religion

OK . . . the title is a little over-reaching, I will admit, but I had a bit of an epiphany the other day. I have always felt a little guilty that I found no theistic arguments for belief at all compelling. Many, in fact, I find laughable and deluded. By never seeing the other side’s argument as having validity, I worried that I might be too closed off intellectually on this matter. I finally heard the best argument yet for the purpose of dogmatic faith . . . and it came from me!

Several days ago, after yet more contemplation of the positive and negative aspects of religion, I provided myself with a new (to me anyway) defense of religion. In the way of background; I am the father of a high school freshman. I have always considered the imparting a moral and ethical framework to a child to be one of the highest purposes of parenting. In my relatively recent self-identification as a non-theist, I have analyzed child-rearing from a new perspective. There are groups of theists that will, quite assuredly, say that non-belief is synonymous with amorality . . . that a moral framework cannot exist in the absence of belief. I know this to be wrong. I know this from personal experience and I know this through empirical evidence; but trying to convince some believers of this is tantamount to convincing them that up is down. There is much evidence showing non-theists to be at least as moral as theists. This should allow us to dismiss the amorality claim as naïve; still it pours forth from the pulpit that atheists have no moral center.

I hope it is obvious to all readers that the single most effective way to communicate morals and ethics to a child is through personal example, irrespective of faith. If the people that the child knows, loves, and respects practice charity, show empathy toward others and generally puts other’s need before their own, that is what the child will emulate. Hands down; a parent’s example is what defines the child.

Still . . . If parents had some sort software they could install into their child’s brain, a “Morality v1.0” if you will, that would be convenient, wouldn’t it? It is not going out on a limb to say children do not posses the intellectual acuity to interpret the nuance of a proper philosophical discussion of right and wrong. Heck, many adults appear to lack that ability! But let us leverage the innate credulity of a child and posit a story that is accessible and comprehensible to a child. To that end; tell them that there is a god that watches everything. If you do bad things (he has provided a list), you will go to hell and spend eternity in a lake of burning sulfur. Your child believes you because the immature human animal is wired to do so. Just like they believe you when you tell them about the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus or the tooth fairy, they believe that God is prepared to strike them down and condemn them to hell. There it is . . . simple, concise and oh-so-time-saving for the on-the-go Bronze Age parent.

And, right there, that’s the first major rub. The list was created in the Bronze Age. At the time, it was probably a nice dovetail into contemporary Bronze Age morals. Granted, most of what was laid down as commandments generally fits much of today’s generally accepted framework of ethical conduct . . . but it does show some age. For instance; rule number 10 states:

“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house; thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.”

I don’t know about you, but it makes me uncomfortable that God decided to list the wife as a piece of property . . . and not even the first in the list! The ‘progressive’ Catholics at least broke this inventory list into two statements, ostensibly giving the wife some special status over a man’s ox and slaves . . . regular Susan B. Anthonys they are!! At least the Catholics had the good sense to apply some editing to the word of God. Wh . . Wh . . What was that?!? One of the very few times God himself hand delivers a communiqué to humanity and some feel the need to tweak it a bit?!?!? Wow!! Talk about brass ones!! Still; for the time, this was probably a no-brainer list of do’s and don’ts with no controversy to be found.

Of course the first half of the list of rules had nothing to do with “do unto others” kind of thinking. It was all about the self-protection of the story; the more that God was deserving of respect and the scarier he was, the less likely that kids would wander. To my mind, the whole thing it is the perfect parental shortcut. After all, the busy parents of the day had their day full . . . er . . . herding and . . . er . . . other stuff. I have little doubt that the biblical story, used this way, was quite effective.

The whole thing might be perfectly useful if 1) there was some universally agreed upon list of moral codes that would evolve as we gained new, real understanding of the human species and condition and 2) we let the kids in on the story once it was no longer useful (like we do with Santa Claus and other fables). Now some of you already have your pants in a bunch because of item ‘1’. “That is wishy-washy moral relativism” you might say. Relative to what? . . . our growing understanding of the human species and our growing body of empirical knowledge and philosophical understanding? Maybe you would prefer that we stick with moral absolutes that value the female spouse somewhere between your condo and your cat. Hmmmmm. Relativism doesn’t sound all that bad to me. In fact, the enlightened believers have always practiced moral relativism . . . that is why they are enlightened.

In honesty, though, I would give less than even odds that some universal list of do’s and don’ts could be created, but it would be an interesting experiment. I know the United Nations has a “universal” document but it is a) probably not universal for primitive theocracies and dictatorships and b) limited to human rights. Still . . . the effort would be interesting and actually give us important new insights into fundamental human ethics and morals.

The failure of the whole premise was that point ‘2’ (letting the kids in on the story) was not incorporated into the program. As an individual (hopefully) matures intellectually, they are able to better understand and reflect on the nuances of what is right and wrong. This nuanced understanding is far better than some terse list written down by moral leaders of ancient times.

So there you have it . . . the best defense of religious fables that I have yet to hear (or concoct). To my mind, this could even put an aspect of religion into the ‘defensible’ category . . . wrong and false, but defensible. Sometimes I impress myself . . but I am easily impressed.

I Hold This Truth to be Self-Evident

Some of my essays have elicited comments that would characterize me as ‘militant’, ‘evangelical’, ‘religious’, or ‘intolerant’. It does not surprise me. Given religion’s historic immunity from criticism; it is not unusual that even casual questioning of religious doctrine is often interpreted as being aggressive. Still . . . I wish to make clear my position on how I feel about belief and believers. The bigger, subtler points of most of my missives are often never stated directly . . . so I will state them here.

On the tolerance side:

  • I feel religion is a natural phenomenon and will always exist.
  • There are people of high intelligence (and less so) on both sides of the theistic fence.
  • I am ultimately tolerant of an individual’s right to believe whatever they care to believe.
  • I will vigorously defend an individual’s right to believe whatever they want.
  • It is not my intent to deny no one the emotional comfort of their faith.

On the intolerant side:
  • I am NOT tolerant of public policy being driven by religious doctrine.
  • I am NOT tolerant of statements that give religion credit where none is due (i.e. religion is the sole source of morality)
  • I am NOT tolerant of social divides created by religious differences
  • I am NOT tolerant of societal ills promoted and enforced by religion
  • I am NOT tolerant of the denigration of non-theists (as a whole) when it can be shown that non-theists are every bit as (or more) tolerant and ethical than theists.
  • I am NOT tolerant of public funds (taxes) going to religious organizations that proselytize.

Most of my writings stem from my vocalizing the points from the ‘intolerant’ list. I feel that ALL decisions, big and small, should be based on facts and the best knowledge available. The truth of the following statement should be self-evident to believers and non-believers alike:

    It is ALWAYS better to make decisions based on real knowledge rather than mythology or superstition.

Often, the unstated message of my writings challenges the faithful to demonstrate that religion is, indeed, something more than mythology. I have yet to see anyone do that in a rigorous or intellectually sound way. In my research, I have not found one scintilla of compelling evidence to support the validity of any supernatural belief. I have, however, found vast amounts of empirical evidence that conflicts with much religious dogmatic teaching. I have had the faithful throw this, that, and the other ‘fact’ at me in support of their faith, but they were trivially easy to refute. You can get a taste of some of this in one of my other essays [here].

As soon as it clearly demonstrated that their religion is more than mythology, I (along with many vocal non-theists) will likely become a believer.

    Who Can Properly Defend Faith - Feedback

    Below are several published letters in response to my essay "Who Shall Properly Defend Faith". My response follows, but but has yet to be published. You can read the original essay [here].

    Misuses of religion does not render faith invalid
    I would like to share my thoughts on the recent letter to the editor titled “Who can properly defend faith?”The author asks whether extremists (many of whom are said to be the cause
    of major world conflicts) and moderates in a given religion are not distinguishable from each other since their sources are the same. I think this question raises another: Are faith, religion and the actions some people take in the name of their religion one and the same? I would answer no.

    Faith, by one definition is individual and personal. By another definition, “a faith” is similar to “a religion” which is more widely scoped and organized. What people do in the name of their religion is up to the individual’s free will. Sadly, as the author mentioned, much evil has been done in the world in the name of religion, including the unrest in the Middle East, the long-standing conflict in Northern Ireland between Protestants and Catholics, and even the crucifixion of Jesus.

    The next question: Do these misuses of religions render religion invalid and evil for society? My
    answer is no — it only points out more emphatically how vitally significant religion is to humans and how important it is to understand its concepts. The Islamic religion is based on submission to God’s will, and a cohesive existence. The Judeo-Christian religion (to over-simplify it) is based on love and service to God and fellow humans. In the Gospels, Jesus used the Pharasees and Scribes (who were authorities of the Jewish religion at the time) as examples of misuse and hypocrisy. His regard for them was an example of honoring your faith, but not letting those who misuse it define it for you.

    The author challenges readers to defend their holy books in an intellectually sound way. Here’s one defense of the Holy Bible: Jesus referred to scriptures repeatedly during his ministry, thereby validating them. How do we know Jesus was the son of God? Because, besides his teachings, which were profound and radical for his time, he left us a legacy of his actual flesh and blood, miracles, apparitions by his mother, and the saints as modern day witnesses, among other things. A saint is only declared so upon proof of a miracle performed in his name or having been party to one himself while alive. The miracle has to be proven as an occurrence which defies natural law.

    Also many saints’ bodies have been found to be pure; not subject to decay after death (another miracle). So we are given many validations of this religion, if we want to find them. Another
    proof is the effect prayer and truly living according to one’s faith has on their lives, and that of their loved ones. An organization called Prison Fellowship Ministries can give numerous examples of this.

    What about the hundreds of societies in the world who use their religion as their code of living and they have peaceful, harmonious, and productive lives? We don’t see them in the news, but they make up a big part of our world.

    Rita S******

    Send letter-writer to Iraq for peace

    After reading Mike Burns’ letter “Who can properly defend faith?” it is obvious that his wisdom can be used for the cause of peace. Since there are very few car bombings of Methodists by Episcopalians in the U.S., his talents are wasted in this country.

    I am asking [this newspaper] to send him to Iraq, where he can show the Sunnis and Shiites the error of their ways. He can supply the paper with a series of articles about his efforts. While we American Christians may not appreciate him, I’m sure he would be recognized as a great teacher by the factions in Iraq. If he succeeds, I’d be the first to nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize.

    Thomas Z******
    St. Charles

    What follows is my response to the letter writers above, but it has yet to be published.

    Ms. S******, Mr. Z****** and Faith

    While I do not feel this “letters” forum is the place to conduct an ongoing debate, I feel compelled to respond to critiques of my letter “Who can properly defend faith?”. Ms. Scobey maintains the validity of scripture because Jesus himself referred to them repeatedly. Were it established as fact that, indeed, Jesus was the divine son of God, her argument might carry some weight. If it is not obvious, my position is that there is no compelling evidence for divinity anywhere in history.

    As far as her proofs of his divinity (miracles, apparitions, and saints corpses) . . . I must say I am profoundly under-whelmed. In fact I am surprised that these can be tendered as arguments not thinking that they could be challenged. I have been doing research on the documentation and validation of miracles and, to be honest, I find rigor and independence to be laughably absent. I can honestly say that, should I see real, verifiable evidence of something that defies the laws of nature (restoring a lost limb, parting a sea), I would be among the first to acknowledge a failure of my hypothesis. Unfortunately, it would seem that many believers are not so open-minded to evidence.

    Apparitions are similarly unconvincing. Seeing vaguely feminine human features in an office window or in a cheese sandwich is hardly evidence. We see random craters and geological lunar features as the man in the moon. It does not take much to make the human animal see faces . . . we are hard-wired to do just that. When a weeping statue or some other such phenomena is subjected to real scrutiny; none hold up. Even a small group of like-minded people seeing the same thing has plausible psychosocial explanations.

    In regards to the “pure” bodies of deceased saints not decomposing; please let me know where they are. I would like to see them. If I can, I will bring a couple universities in tow. Assuming that these bodies did not have some other form of preservation, this would be very important. Unfortunately, the only examples that I am aware of have been found to have preservation techniques applied to them.

    Finally, Ms. Scobey offers the proven healing power of prayer. Indeed, it has been demonstrated that prayer has been shown to be effective in a number of regards. It has also been shown that placebos are similarly effective. A very large, rigorous, double-blind university study on the effectiveness of prayer demonstrates clearly that prayer is only as effective as placebo. I do not wish to deny anyone the comfort of prayer, but facts are facts.

    I was amused at Mr. Zeiser’s letter lauding me as a great teacher of peace to be sent off to Iraq to be beheaded. He says that “we American Christians” may not appreciate my commentary. He is absolutely right; many believers do not appreciate criticism . . . ever. He further (and accurately) assessed that there are not warring factions of Christian faiths here in the states. We can thank our secular government for that stability. Unfortunately, as comparatively tame as things are here, we still have faith demonizing segments of the population, subjugating women, stifling medical research, trying to drive public policy and change the secular “holy grail” that we Americans have in our U.S. Constitution. All this because of an (arguably) indefensible holy book.

    I do not challenge Christianity. I challenge mythology, superstition, and the supernatural. In the end, I do not care what anyone believes as long as it doesn’t affect me or my neighbors.

    Mike Burns

    “Theory”, “fact”, “truth” and “Truth”

    In discussions on religion, the term “Truth” (with a capital ‘T’) is often used by the theist side as in “Let the Lord open your eyes to reveal the Truth to you.”. I must say, though, that I am a bit flummoxed by the theists use of the term, as I seen no relation to my understanding of the expression. Merriam-Webster lists the following for “truth”:

    2 a (1) : the state of being the case : FACT
    (2) : the body of real things, events, and facts : ACTUALITY
    (3) often capitalized : a transcendent fundamental or spiritual reality
    b : a judgment, proposition, or idea that is true or accepted as true
    c : the body of true statements and propositions3 a : the property (as of a statement) of being in
    accord with fact or reality
    b chiefly British : TRUE 2
    c : fidelity to an original or to a standard

    If you took the test “which one of these is not like the other”, 2a-3 should jump out at you. I am of a rather scientific or rational bent and sometimes use the word “truth” synonymously with “fact”. Saying that the water molecule is comprised of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom I would consider to be true or factual. Now taking the argument to its (possibly very boring) philosophical end, I realize that we have not actually and literally seen those atoms per se, but we have staggering amounts of supporting and empirical knowledge on the subject of water that allows us to consider this true or factual in virtually any context that humans might ponder.

    In fact our understanding of elements (those of periodic table fame) is really quite staggering considering that we cannot see them and some may have a vanishingly brief lifespan. We know these things because of science and testing. When, in 1913, Niels Bohr published his theoretical model of the atom, with its cluster of protons and neutrons surrounded by electrons orbiting in discrete energy layers, it was, by necessity, completely abstract . . . impossible to verify visually and existing only in the minds of those that could grasp it. When the concept was introduced to this chemistry student around 25 years ago, I was initially hesitant to accept all of the model’s functional aspects. After all, how can we “know” so much of the architecture of something that we may never actually see? But Niels Bohr was a brilliant man and arguably one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century and his theoretical model would demonstrate that.

    The hallmark of a good theory is its ability to hold up to testing and (more importantly) that predictions based on the theory prove accurate. Indeed this chemistry student was very impressed to find that the Bohr model of the atom was so robust, that every elemental and chemical prediction (that I know of) based on that model was dead-on. From 1913 to today, this model has held up time after time after time.

    Where this leads me is one interpretation of “truth”. We have a working model of an atom that has not failed in any significant way for over 90 years. Within the scientific community, we consider this description of the atom to be “true” or factual within the framework of what we know; though it is always a possibility that new knowledge may eventually replace that time-tested model (at which point scientists will giddily and happily embrace their newfound knowledge). What started as an abstract theory gains more and more credibility with testing. Each time the theory is affirmed through experimentation and the model performing as expected, the theory eventually gains more and more credibility and approaches the [arguably unreachable] status as undeniable fact. Yet, even after all this time and testing, the Bohr model of the atom is still a theory and will likely never be anything more.

    Let us now take Mr. Bohr’s atoms and make something familiar. Most of us would not dispute the claim that water is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. Again, we know this because back in 1800, water was split to produce hydrogen and oxygen gases. Experimentation since then has always confirmed this and we consider this a fact. It may surprise some to know that Darwin’s theory of evolution is every bit as robust as the theory of the model of the atom and the composition of water. What many vocal theists claim is that, by simple presence of the term “theory”, that there are vast chasms of doubt and uncertainty in Darwin’s revolutionary postulation. In the time since Darwin put forth his radical idea, it has held up empirically untold thousands of times. Even through simple observation of living and extinct species, the theory held up nicely. With our relatively recent understanding of DNA, we gained yet another completely independent tool to substantiate the theory and bring the evolutionary tree into much clearer focus. Evolution is in a small and respected set of scientific precepts that are effectively considered facts. There is no scientific body of repute that disputes evolution . . . none.

    To the extent that we can say so; the Bohr model of the Atom is true. The H20 is true. Gravity is true. Evolution is true.

    Let us now capitalize the ‘T’ and discuss “Truth” as it is used by vocal theists. I have no doubts that many that bandy “Truth” about in their theistic discussions genuinely believe that they are discussing “truth”. Unfortunately, attaining “truth” takes far more rigor than attaining “Truth”.

    I feel I have to wade into some of the things that we know about the brain and neurobiology. All the tremendous advances in our understanding of human physiology are wonderful, but they underscore how little we really know (“potatoes are good for you . . . oh wait . . . now they are bad for you”) At or near the top of the heap of things we DON’T know about the human body is the brain and how it does the amazing things that it does. How do visually indistinguishable, clay-like globs of neurons allow you to comprehend what you are reading now and allow you contemplate what you might eat for your next meal? We, basically, have no idea. Of course we have recently developed tools that allow us to just start the journey to answering those questions. We now know, for instance, that a certain glob of neurons gets busy when we are reading. Similarly, we know that another glob of neurons gets busy when we are contemplating lunch. This knowledge is, of course, light-years away from a level of understanding that might approach our understanding of, let’s say, the functioning of the heart. (by the way, the term “light-years” is a measure of distance . . . not time. It is the distance traveled by light in one earth year.)

    Still; we have gained some tremendous insights into the brain’s workings in the human animal. It is quite malleable (in an abstract sense) in its ability to rewire itself based on input. At the risk of using an example that some cannot relate to . . . think about driving a car with a manual transmission. The driver has to coordinate two feet, three pedals, engine speed and gear shift based on road grade, road condition, engine noise, speed, and traffic (along with many less obvious sensory inputs and thoughts). All of these inputs and resulting actions must be executed properly in real-time. Failure to do so can result in property damage or injury to yourself or others . . . or at the very least, personal embarrassment. Anyone who has mastered the skill of using a manual transmission has gone through the same process; combining the many disparate actions into one, single, fluid, motion. What started as a seemingly impossibly list of tasks soon becomes a single, simple unconscious act. During this learning process the driver has, quite literally, rewired their brain with new connections and effectively created a “manual transmission” region of the brain. At this point, your conscious self need not worry about that aspect of your drive; your brain simply offloads that task to your newly created brain region. OK. Neurobiologists would probably have a little constructive criticism of my analogy, but the point holds true; your brain becomes what it needs to be.

    These learned behaviors can be incredibly persistent too. Once I learned to drive a “stick”, I had no problem getting into other manual transmission cars and driving safely. Years and years can pass without driving a “stick” and I could still drive one when the need arose . . . and this after just some short hours behind the wheel. It would seem that once your brain is wired, unless there is some information that supplants it, it can hold onto information for a lifetime.

    Now let us return to “Truth”. Imagine instead of a few hours learning some aspect of driving a car, you spent years, your entire lifetime actually, being told that a couple millennia back, a fellow was born to a woman who had never had sex. This fellow was actually sent by an all powerful fellow in the sky. He was generally a good guy (he had his moods, though). He got some people mad at him, they nailed him to a cross . . .etc, etc, etc. You get the idea. Much of this religious narrative is unverifiable and implausible, but you spend your whole life being told these stories as fact by people you know, love and trust. You grow up in a country where the story is virtually institutionalized and almost inescapable. You are pretty sure that your neighbors felt the same way too. No one told you otherwise. After all; if something didn’t hold up in this story, wouldn’t someone say something? [Unfortunately, no!]

    Now imagine your brain awash in these precepts; from the time before you even have memories, when your brain was still forming physically. Imagine the wiring in your head. Imagine how those stories became a part of you . . . literally became a part of you in the arrangements of neurons. As you have grown, you have successfully dismissed the doubts regarding things that didn’t add up. Your faith’s dogma has taught you that not questioning is a virtue. Your faith’s dogma has taught you that . . . well . . . “faith” is a virtue. Your faith’s dogma has taught you that, with devotion to God, you will know the “Truth”. Your brain becomes, in effect, a belief organ. Just as your liver is adapted to filter blood and your lungs are adapted to extract oxygen, all the higher functions of the brain are influenced by inculcated religious tales to rewire into an entity that is supremely well adapted to accept and interpret dogma.

    I have no doubt that those that know “Truth” feel that they know “truth”, but dispassionate analysis (and hopefully this humble missive) demonstrates that, in reality, there is a vast ocean of difference between the two; and that may be a conservative assessment. Mock-pundit Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” which can be aptly applied to “Truth”. Wikipedia defines “truthiness” as:

    “things that a person claims to know intuitively, instinctively, or "from the gut" without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or actual facts.”

    “Truth” (capital T) can be experienced through many avenues; reading scripture, spiritual music, eloquent sermons, and meditation to name a few. “Truth” (capital T) seems to ring true to the religious brain just as my analytical brain would be similarly stimulated by contemplating an apple falling to earth under the (theoretical) force of gravity. I have to imagine that the sensations are the same when the religious and non-religious brains see or hear things that fit or reinforce what that brain has wired itself to be. It should not be surprising that the religious-brained are flummoxed when information that does not fit their theistic worldview is presented. On matters where science and religion overlap, I imagine scientific, analytical reasoning feels, to the religious-brained, like the wacky fun houses where a house is built on a slope making it appear that water pours at an angle and people stand when they should be toppling over.

    In my estimation, the owner of one brain would find the other brain’s interpretation of what is plausible to be oddly non-intuitive and, well, just wouldn’t feel right. I would think it natural that this brain would like to help the other brain to a more sensible, comfortable worldview . . . their worldview. The believer wants to show the non-believer the “Truth”. The non-believer wants to show the believer the “truth”. Neither is well prepared to make such a change.

    I have come to revere “truth”, being based on genuine, verifiable, testable knowledge. I have come to regard “Truth” as merely the sensory interpretation of religious tales passed down through the ages. To their respective brains they feel fundamentally the same, but “Truth” is, at best, flawed and, at worst, delusional and dangerous.

    Can we unwire the religious brain? For several reasons, it is very difficult. It would seem that we, as a species, have some fundamental need to understand and explain our world. We want to understand how to stay warm. We want to understand how to find food. We want to understand how the sun moves across the sky. We want to understand the change of seasons. Primitive man clearly could figure out much that was needed for survival better than any creature previously existing. That ability and curiosity does not turn off once an individual has achieved a certain level of security or comfort. Indeed, that innate intellect is put toward questions that were clearly beyond the ability of primitive man to answer; questions like “Where does the Sun go at night?”, “Why do the stars and moon move across the sky?”, “Why do they seem no closer even from the highest hill?”, “Where did we come from?”, and “Why am I good to my neighbor?”. When evidence, logic and reason cannot provide an answer, mythology fills the void as something of a place-holder until empirical knowledge (hopefully) replaces it. In the end, the human species seems to require an answer (or at least an avenue of thought) to attach to virtually all of life’s questions.

    Religion cannot simply be debunked; it must be replaced with another set of answers. The scientific community certainly has debunked a great many gods throughout history. Science has similarly discredited great swaths of today’s popular religious teachings. What has not occurred, though, is that these scientific insights have not been stated loudly, clearly, and repeatedly for the masses. This is, in part, because religion has been beyond criticism. That has to change and there are indications that religion is becoming more and more the target of dispassionate analysis.

    Growing up Catholic, it took me many years to fully realize my atheistic outlook. I did not do this by unlearning Catholicism, but by seeking “truth”. That empirical truth, amassed over YEARS, eventually created its own brain region which competed with religion. I asked the big questions and I researched what we really know about those questions. Many of those questions can be answered quite satisfactorily with empirical evidence. Some, though not answered, do at least seem to have plausible, non-supernatural explanations. There are, of course, unanswered questions such as the origin of the universe. To me, though, religion had failed so many times on much more pedestrian questions, it seemed intellectually irresponsible to credit a god simply because I didn’t (yet) know the answer.

    So let all of us Freethinkers take up the torch and get the naturalistic explanations out where people can hear them repeatedly. When you hear someone give religion credit where none is due, be gracious, but don’t let it go unchallenged. After all, decisions are ALWAYS better if they are based on true knowledge . . . with a little “t”.

    Documentary to Debunk Resurrection Story?

    I cannot help but be excited about and upcoming James Cameron documentary (or Titanic fame). The documentary supposedly used rigorous scientific methods to determine that a burial chamber, found almost 30 years ago, is indeed the final resting place of Jesus (yeah, that one!) along with his family. This includes Maria (the virgin Mary), Mariamne (Mary Magdalene), two brothers and (potentially) his son (The bloodline of Da Vinci Code fame!!). You can see the Discovery channel's on-line promo of the documentary here. The Discovery channel will be running it a number of times, but it is to premier on March 4th at 8:00pm (central time).

    Of course the controversy has already started and criticisms are being proffered by those who have not seen the film or the book. Even if this showed irrefutable proof that Jesus is just another dead guy, the religious apologists would be able to spin it. The resurrection story that I grew up with was 1) he died, 2) they put him in a tomb, 3) they sealed the tomb, 4) they came back and he was gone!!! There was no ambiguity in the story I heard untold times . . . he was gone . . . poof. I understand that not all sects of Christianity fully endorse the physical ascension, but rather a spiritual ascension. BORING!! That is not NEARLY as interesting a story as what I grew up with.

    I really expect little or nothing to come out of this film. Even if convincing, what should be a fatal blow to a central tenet of the faith will simply get spun and reinterpreted for the followers. Give them about two years for the religious 'scholars' to create the least disruptive explanation and to build a framework of other supporting 'facts' that can be easily fed to the flock.

    My PVR is already programmed.


    Faith: Lost and Found

    This is a brief essay that I published in a Canadian publication (National Post) in a series related to individuals stories about gaining or losing faith.

    Faith Lost . . . But I didn’t notice.

    I have been an atheist for much longer than I actually realized. I grew up Roman Catholic near Chicago, Illinois, USA. It never really “stuck” though. I never thought the communion wafer or the wine were anything more than (something like) a rice cake and bad wine. I always felt that the body and blood of Christ was a poor metaphor. I now understand that some really really buy into the transubstantiation thing but, back in the day, I would have been incredulous if someone told me they really believed it. Anyway . . . I grew up a good kid, but only went to church because I was told to. Once I was into my teens, I basically stopped going and haven’t been back for the last 30 years (except for weddings and funerals). The Roman Catholic dogma very much stigmatized atheism and likened non-believers to have serpents crawling out of their mouths. I knew that I was just as moral as everyone around me, but church just didn’t work for me. I figured that I would live my life as though it was immaterial whether God existed or not. If I was a good person but didn’t go to church, I figured God wouldn’t get too ticked off when I met him.

    This lasted about 20 years. Then I had a child. My mother, who had become more faithful over the years, was mortified that her grandson was not going to be baptized. She then started delivering bibles for me to read. I took the cue and decided to analyze my faith . . . after all; I wouldn’t want to deprive my son of valid spiritual background. It didn’t turn out like she had hoped. Understand that I am an engineer and very analytical. I couldn’t just read one biased document to make a judgment on faith. I had to look at all sides and weight all the facts. Religion didn’t stand a chance.

    Still . . . it was a private matter. If faith helped some people, gives meaning to their lives, provides comfort then that is fine for them. Just because I wasn’t religious, doesn’t mean other people shouldn’t be religious if that worked for them. This started to change over the years as I saw dramatic Christian right influence shaping public policy. Another transformative period was 9/11. I soon realized that it wasn’t radical Islam, it wasn’t Islam, it was religion that changed our world that day. It was the perversions of the (purportedly) holy texts that created so much hatred and intolerance. We are fortunate to have a secular government so religious zeal is reigned in. If we became a Christian theocracy, I feel we would be indistinguishable from the Islamic theocracies. I got more and more uneasy with so many people making decisions based on mythology. But still, it was a private matter. I never challenged anyone . . . but I wanted to.

    After reading a magazine article that referenced Richard Dawkins “The GOD Delusion”, I picked up a copy and it changed my life. I don’t necessarily agree with everything that Dr. Dawkins says or the tactics he suggests, but his basic premises are dead-on. Those premises are 1) Religion should not be immune from criticism, 2) Religion, while there are positive aspects, is a source of intolerance, subjugation, and worse, 3) Religion does not hold up to even cursory intellectual analysis, and 4) the failings of religion needs to be communicated loudly and clearly and publicly and repeatedly. Upon completion, I formally self-identified myself as an atheist . . . and it was liberating. No serpents slithered out of my mouth. No demons erupted from beneath my flesh. I still loved my neighbors and was still the same caring person that I have always tried to be.

    I have since consumed a good deal of scholarly research on the matters such as the origin of ethics, the origins of religion, and separation of church and state. In addition, I have read more personal, impassioned writings both in support and opposition of religion. At present, I am a struggling activist trying to find the best way to use my energies to serve humanity by trying to communicate the failings of religion. Do I want religion to disappear? Well . . . that would work for me, but probably not for a lot of people. I just want enough doubt about God so that, before someone chops the head off someone else in the name of religion, they might think twice.


    A literate theist/atheist debate

    I have participated in a number of debates on the subject of theism/atheism. Today I read what I feel in the most literate, and compelling debate in my memory. This debate pits Sam Harris (author of "The End of Faith" and "Letter to a Christian Nation") and Andrew Sullivan (journalist, blogger , and gay Catholic).

    It is not short, but you can read the debate here. It is worth it.


    Who Shall Properly Defend Faith?

    Below is one of my essays to be published in some regional papers.

    Who Shall Properly Defend Faith?

    I have entered into a number of debates recently on a subject of crushing importance to world society. Few would argue that the role of religion in current and historical world conflicts is not significant. Indeed, many conflicts have faith as their central engine. I would argue that, were it not for the warring Sunni and Shiite Islamic sects, most of our troops would be home from Iraq. The Iraqi people might even have a fighting chance at creating a government based on human rights and the rule of law.

    The debates that I have entered into generally revolved around the discussion of whether religion is good or bad for society. After much deliberation on those discussions, I see two points that never seem to get addressed adequately; neither in my debates nor in those that I have read from others far more scholarly than myself.

    Point 1: Distinguishing extremists from moderates. Every thinking person (as near as I can tell) recognizes the extremists of any faith as being the “problem child” of that faith. It is the extremists that fly planes into buildings. It is the extremists that relegate women, minorities, and other segments of society to second-class stature. It is the extremist that kills in the name of their deity. (I speak of ALL Judeo-Christian faiths) Every thinking person would like to stop those perversions of logic. As a result of my debates, though, it is becoming clearer to me that believers consider the extremists to be a separate entity which should be addressed separately while leaving their moderate faiths untouched and unchallenged. Many non-believers, on the other hand, see moderates and extremists merely as points on a continuum. Both moderates and extremists interpret the same holy texts to get the message and the justification that best suits their stance and actions in the world. Hence, the non-believer feels that only through challenging the ENTIRE faith, can extremism be addressed; this, at the cost of moderate faith also.

    Point 2: The provenance of the holy books. All the Judeo-Christian faiths officially purport their holy books to be the inerrant word of God. During debates, this is invariably thrown down as a challenge to the believers. I have YET, to see anyone adequately defend this attack on scripture.

    It is here where I throw down the gauntlet. Believers need to defend their holy books in an intellectually sound way. Hint: Do not ask non-believers to read your holy book and “see the truth”. I would ask you to read “To Kill a Mockingbird”. There is truth in that book too, but no one claims it to be of anything but of human origin. Non-believers (and believers) need to understand why you think your book comes from a divine pen while no others have such origin.

    Believers need to demonstrate that extremists are clearly distinct from moderates . . . and identifiable as such. I have to say, that this will be a supremely difficult challenge. After all, moderates and extremists are working from the same owner’s manual. It takes very little effort to cite clearly unambiguous passages on genocide, treatment of women, slavery, homosexuality, and more. Moderates simply choose to exclude them from their discourse and, hence, become moderate. The extremists simply do less editing.

    Belief is the target of every increasing scrutiny and belief is no longer immune from criticism. In my humble opinion, addressing the points above is crucial to the defense of faith. Take on the challenge for yourself. You may find a new truth yourself.


    Welcome to my first blog site. I have created the FVThinker blog to support my growing interest and communications in the areas of :

    • Atheism
    • Separation of Church and State
    • The role and place of religion in society
    • Any ills related to religion
    • Extremism
    • Secular society
    • Science
    • Rational Thought
    • and anything else that tickles my fancy.

    I am a recently self-identified myself as an atheist. Raised as a roman catholic, it never 'took'. I always knew that the communion wafer was . . . well . . . just a piece of unleavened bread. Once I left home I, effectively, never went to church again. Still I held no contempt for the church (Catholicism specifically, nor church in general). As I grew older, I saw how religious dogma insinuated itself into public policy and became more and more uncomfortable with that aspect of religion.

    Then two pivotal moment in my life came to pass.

    1)I became a father and my faithful Catholic mother was terribly distraught that her grandchild was not going to be baptised. It was bad enough that I was not a church-goer, but now the salvation of her grandchild was in the balance. She delivered various bibles to the house on the hope that I would read them and suddenly see the truth of the Lord. Until then, I was happy to be a tacit agnostic but she forced my hand.

    Indeed, I elected to analyze my faith to decide just where I stood. It didn't work out for my mother. I came to the conclusion there there was no way, short of willfully abandoning reason and suffocating my own intellect, that I could find any reason to believe in a supreme being the likes that the Judeo-Christian faiths sketch out. Most of life's big questions could be answered by very satisfactorily through our current, mortal understanding of the sciences. When it came to THE big question of the origin of the universe, I make no claims to know, but I find it intellectually irresponsible to credit a deity simply because we don't know. History is replete with fallen gods that were at one time credited with various aspects of our universe (i.e. the movement of the sun, thunder, storms).

    2) 9/11. It wasn't long after 9/11 that I saw "the elephant in the room". It was religion that took down the World Trade Center, and took down two other airplanes and part of the Pentagon. It was absolute belief in a theology that created that horror. It was the absolute belief in a demonstrably flawed premise that shook the world that day. While Islam is the most visible right now (and, arguably, subscribing to the most violent holy book [and that is saying something]), I don't distinguish amongst the faiths. The absolute reliance on myth to form one's view of the world is what represents one of the greatest threats to our world.

    I am an atheist and I am proud of my journey. I am invigorated and feel moved to action to dispel myths surrounding theism and atheism. I hope you will find this blog useful and enlightening.