Skeptical Coverage of Skeptics Conference

Tue, 2006-06-06 17:15Richard Littlemore
Richard Littlemore's picture

Skeptical Coverage of Skeptics Conference

Blogger Randy Kirk, a self-described fundamentalist Christian, also attented the Skeptic Society Confernce last weekend at CalTech, and came away a little bruised by the experience. He says:

I have been attending fundamentalist churches for the last 20 years, and have gone to countless conferences during that time. I can't remember a single time when positions were taken in those meetings that were so pompous, so biased, or so lacking in humility. Those in the leadership of the Christian “right” never say that the debate is over. In this conference, that was the refrain. I think there is a problem in our scientific community. The consequence of this problem may only result in horrible science, but it could result in tyranny.

There is no apparent irony in the fact that Kirk's blog is called “The Truth About Everything.”

That said, Kirk's reportage is clear and thoughtful, even if he is not conscious of the contradictions. And his analysis is also on the money: the academics at the conference presented their findings in a way that left no scope whatever for arguing, say, the Theory of Evolution.

That's as it should be given the scientific evidence debunking Intelligent Design (an earlier target of the Skeptic Society), but Kirk does a nice job representing the fundamentalist Christian position. And he brings a degree of sincerity to the task that you might miss while watching Fox News or listening to the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Comments

Blogger Randy Kirk suggests that the scientists at the Skeptics Conference lacked open minds and took positions that were far more "pompous," "biased," and "lacking in humility" than anything he's heard from the Christian right and all the fundamentalist churches and conferences he's attended over the past 20 years. He further claims that the leaders of the Christian right -- not to mention all the fundamentalist churches and conferences he's attended -- "never say that the debate is over."

I'd appreciate it if Mr. Kirk could kindly back that up by pointing out when all the leaders of the Christian right and all the fundamentalist churches and conferences he's attended have argued that the existence of God is an open question? When have they expressed their open-mindedness to the conclusion that God might not exist? When have they taken the position that a belief in the divinity -- nay, the very existence -- of Jesus Christ may be totally flawed, and that the Bible may be man-made fiction to be taken no more seriously than any other historically important writing?

What Mr. Kirk might not understand is that it requires hubris to argue that something is a fact based on blind faith, whereas it typically requires open-mindedness to argue that something is a fact based on solid scientific evidence (to the extent that science labels anything a "fact").

 

It's worth noting that even though the eminent scientists who spoke at the conference pointed out that the scientific evidence is now overwhelming and basically uncontested in the scientific community, they were nevertheless happy to debate the issue with naysayers.

In glaring contrast, both of the big-name naysayers who spoke -- novelist Michael Crichton and journalist John Stossel -- refused to go onstage with any of the scientists, even though they were asked to by the conference organizers.  Crichton even refused to speak about the environment in his speech, and both failed to attend any of the scientists' talks and panels all day.  (If they had attended, they would have heard one of them point out that Crichton had grossly misrepresented his work in his novel State of Fear.)

This suggests that, at least at this conference, the scientists are the open-minded ones, and the non-scientist naysayers are the ones driven by bias and hubris.

As for the fundamentalists Mr. Kirk mentions? Revelation 11:18 says God will "destroy those who destroy the earth." Seems redundant to me, but I'm no expert.

It is pretty clear that even the debate about who is open minded could go on for a bit.  However, I rarely run into those who are persuaded there is "no God" reading extensively or attending conferences on the proof of God.  In other words, seeking to enrich their view of the possibilities.

On the other hand, most of the Christian leadership and laity that I come in contact with are very open to hearing what the other side has to say, and many are actively reading and attending confrences that would refute the existance of God.  For God you could insert evolution, embryonic stem cell worship, methods of contracption, timing of life's beginning  in utero, philosophy of science as it relates to sciences impact of social norms, rules, etc.

I, personally, am totally prepared to agree that there is no God should the time come when the argument is convincing.  Until today, the argument has not been made that convinces me that complexity can arise out of chaos.

That's very odd, Randy, because in my experience (as an ex-born again Christian turned atheist), atheists tend to be much better informed about the content of the Bible and the history of Christianity than most Christians are.  It's also my impression that atheists are much more likely to have an understanding of the reasons why they hold the views they do than Christians are.

As former president of the Internet Infidels (http://www.infidels.org/), I've repeatedly seen Christian websites refuse to link to or acknowledge the existence of critical material, while the Infidels' site makes a point of linking to the best critical sites and rebuttals.

I've certainly met a number of open-minded Christians who are willing to listen to opposing views and engage in reasoned debate (and I'd call them skeptics), but they seem to be a much tinier fraction of Christian believers than the open-minded contingent of agnostics and atheists.

I have a houseful of relatives that will keep me from fully responding, but while I admit to painting with a broad brush, I still suspect that the average Baptist is more open to and more likely to read opposing positions than is the average atheist.

Specifically to the proof of God.  Using the same proof methods as other science, I would offer:

Gravity exists.  No idea how it works, but we can see the results and predict them.
God exists.  You get the point

Love exists.  We study all aspects of it.  Hard to define, but we know it exists because almost all people experience it, and most in much the same way.
God exists.  We .......

There are many more such methods of "proof" for God.  There are also contra arguments for them.  But the fact of contary pov does not mean the proof method is not appropriate.

Dear Anonymous - Enjoy your houseful of relatives! Return when you can.

These are old arguments, and unfortunately, their logic is flawed. I say that out of no disrespect, nor as an offhanded dismissal.  I simply state a fact about logical validity.

Gravity is not a thing or entity, it is a natural force that is empirically observable, repeatably testable, and as you point out, predictable.  The concept of "God" shares none of those characteristics.  There are no empirically observable, repeatable, predictable lab tests for God.

Love is also not a thing or entity, it is an emotion.  Emotions do not "exist," they are subjectively felt.  One can certainly feel emotions about God, just as one can feel emotions about friends, imaginary friends, Greek gods or Mother Goose.  Emotions neither prove nor disprove the existence of the thing the emotions are felt about. A character in the film Contact made a similarly flawed argument, in trying to compare the following two questions: "Prove you loved your father" and "Prove God exists" [not direct quotes]. The character believed that if the nonbeliever he was questioning realized she couldn't scientifically prove the emotion she felt, then she'd realize she couldn't logically ask him to prove God exists. The logical flaw here is that he drew a false parallel between an emotion and an entity.  To be rational, the comparisons would have to have been: "Prove you loved your father" and "Prove you love God"; or  "Prove your father existed" and "Prove God exists."  Unfortunately for the character, neither of the nonbeliever's answers about her father would have shed any light on the question of God's existence.  Empirical existence and subjective emotion are not logically comparable.

These are not "contrary points of view" I am offering.  These are simply the reasons why the two specific arguments you posted fail due to logical fallacies.

I think most non-theists are well aware of all the attempts at logically proving the existence of God -- from St. Anselm's on down.  None of these attempts work rationally.  Of course that in no way disproves the existence of God.  Nor does it address the emotional reasons for believing in God.  Nor does it imply that believers and nonbelievers oughtn't respect and listen to each other.  The whole point of faith is that it does not involve logic or rationality.  Any attempt to do so will fail by definition -- faith is "belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence" (The American Heritage Dictionary). The moment something is proven, it is no longer taken on faith. 

As for your suspicion that "the average Baptist is more open to and more likely to read opposing positions than is the average atheist," I am curious what makes you think that.

Believers in God are the vast majority in the U.S. (over 90% by all polls I've seen).  It is rather easy for most believers to go through life not studying arguments against belief in God.  Many do, but many do not.  Statistically and culturally speaking, it is also rather easy for many believers to go through life never getting into a conversation with a non-believer.  On the other hand, it is nearly impossible for a non-believer to go through life avoiding arguments for belief.  As noted earlier, most non-believers arrive at their conclusion after intense questioning, study and weighing the evidence on both sides.  Such questioning is unnecessary (and often discouraged) for a believer.  Exceptions abound, but just looking at the numbers, don't you find it far more likely that the opposite of your suspicion is true?

Most non-theists go from faith to lack thereof after extensive thought, research, discussion and debate (with themselves and others). Most keep thinking about such matters throughout their lives. I don't think one can logically compare conferences on scientific matters to conferences on "the proof of God." There is always new science to keep up with, but there are no new rational "proofs" of God. That's because belief in God is a matter of faith, not of science and research. Many non-theists do keep up with research on why people believe, and nearly all listen to what believers have to say (it's nearly impossible not to). If there were any scientifically compelling rational proofs of God, old or new, non-theists would be studying and discussing them at length.

Nevertheless, non-theists and theists continue to discuss and debate related issues such as creationism/evolution. Glance at any forum on such topics and you'll see lively ongoing discussion and debate, much of it intelligent, rational and even respectful. (There are exceptions on all sides; everyone is human.)  Debate continues even when skeptics say the debate is over.  What they mean by that is that the scientific evidence has met the Stephen Jay Gould threshold* of accepting something as a "fact" -- e.g., the evidence that the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around -- and thus debate seems perverse. Yet of course, it continues.

I admire your open-minded ongoing quest for truth. I presume we share mutual respect for our similar quests, regardless of the different conclusions we've thus far drawn.  However, your original claim was not about your own open-mindedness.  Nor was it about individuals being "open to hearing what the other side has to say."

Your claim was specifically about Fundamentalist churches and the leaders of the Christian right, whom you claimed never take "pompous" positions of certainty and never say the debate is over.  Yet we constantly hear leaders of the Christian (I prefer "religious") right claim that the existence of God is an undeniable fact, and moreover that they personally know what this God wants of us.  It's nearly impossible to follow the news any given week without hearing such pompous, closed-minded proclamations from the leaders of the religious right. One listen to Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson disproves your claim. That's all I was getting at.

Most skeptics I know are perfectly willing to listen to what believers have to say. If it's the same unscientific points being repeated, it feels pointless... yet still we listen and think.

BTW: I don't know of anyone who believes there is no debate over the "timing of life's beginning in utero" -- except for certain religious people who feel certain that it's at the point of conception.  Most everyone else feels that there is no way to define it with certainty, and thus accept that there will always be a gray area and that honest debate will continue forever.

*As you probably know, Gould famously stated: "In science, 'fact' can only mean 'confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.' I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms."

Thanks and Touche'

I could use a new publicist, and I would have to look far and wide to find a nicer review. 

I think it is legitimate to believe that you know the truth, and still seek the truth.  Does that make sense.  I believe that the world and everything in it was created.  I sure don't know how, and I'm constantily reading a debating those who might have alternate pov.  My mind is open to change.  In fact, I was a staunch Darwinist for most of my adult life.

"In fact, I was a staunch Darwinist for most of my adult life."

In the United States, most people who use the term "Darwinist" are creationists, which means there pretty much aren't any "Darwinists" here, just ex-Darwinists. A notable exception is Niles Eldredge (http://www.vqronline.org/articles/2006/spring/eldredge-confessions-darwinist), who I suspect is himself reacting to creationist use of the term.  The situation appears to be a bit different outside the United States, at least according to Wikipedia's entry on Darwinism, but a Google search on "Darwinist" yields mostly creationist writings.

I've never met an ex-Darwinist who was familiar with the evidence for common ancestry (http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/) and fossil hominids (http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/homs/) on the talkorigins.org website.  In my experience, they all seem to be only familiar with a cartoon caricature of evolution, and little of the supporting evidence.