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The Difference Between Scientists And Fundamentalists
Scientists admit when they're wrong. Religious fanatics are completely convinced they have all the answers, and refuse to even consider the prospect that they might not -- all the while entirely lacking in any evidence whatsoever for what they believe. Umberto Eco has their number...and perhaps, yours?

According to these people, all that there is to understand has already been understood by long-vanished ancient civilisations and it is only by humbly returning to that traditional and immutable treasure that we may reconcile ourselves with ourselves and with our destiny.

In the most overtly occultist versions of this school of thought, the truth was cultivated by civilisations we have lost touch with: Atlantis engulfed by the ocean, the Hyperboreans, 100% pure Aryans who lived on an eternally temperate polar icecap, the sages of ancient India and other amusing yarns that, being indemonstrable, allow third-rate philosophers and writers of potboilers to keep on churning out warmed-over versions of the same old hermetic hogwash for the amusement of summer vacationers.

Modern science does not hold that what is new is always right. On the contrary, it is based on the principle of "fallibilism" (enunciated by the American philosopher Charles Peirce, elaborated upon by Popper and many other theorists, and put into practice by scientists themselves) according to which science progresses by continually correcting itself, falsifying its hypotheses by trial and error, admitting its own mistakes - and by considering that an experiment that doesn't work out is not a failure but is worth as much as a successful one because it proves that a certain line of research was mistaken and it is necessary either to change direction or even to start over from scratch.

And this is what was proposed centuries ago in Italy by an institute of learning known as the Accademia del Cimento, whose motto was " provando e riprovando ". This would normally translate into English as "to try and try again", but here there is a subtle distinction. Whereas in Italian " riprovare " normally means to try again, here it means to "reprove" or "reject" that which cannot be maintained in the light of reason and experience.

This way of thinking is opposed, as I said before, to all forms of fundamentalism, to all literal interpretations of holy writ - which are also open to continuous reinterpretation - and to all dogmatic certainty in one's own ideas. This is that good "philosophy," in the everyday and Socratic sense of the term, which ought to be taught in schools.

What does the growth of fundamentalism (and all belief in god) say about our country? That, just as Europeans are becoming less and less religious, Americans are jumping at the opportunity to be intellectual sheep? If you believe in god, come on, show me actual proof that there is one -- and I don't mean "it says so in the bible," or "the man in the long black robe swears god's up there!"

If you, like the rest of the world, have no proof, well, maybe you could just adopt my religion: "Be kind, be ethical, live a rational life, and 'leave the campground better than you found it.'" Unlike standard religions, which make you all sorts of promises (all that salvation hoo-hah, for example) that they are unlikely to deliver on, my religion comes with a (no) money-back guarantee: I solemnly pledge, if you give me your money, I'll have a better life! First class plane tickets, champagne and caviar, and filet mignon, just for starters. Come on, isn't it time you converted to Amyism?!

Posted by aalkon at September 21, 2004 6:58 AM


Hi Amy,
I read your blog about "The Difference Between Scientists and Fundamentalists". There is a PBS show called "The Question of God" that compares the lives of Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis to discuss the issues you raise. I think the second segment airs tomorrow night.

I am a former atheist who now believes in God. I don't know why God chose to prove his existence to me, but I am eternally grateful that He did.

You asked for proof of God's existence, and not "it says so in the bible" or "the man in the long black robe swears god's up there!" Here's one way I can answer:
Miracles are one way God reveals himself to doubting hearts. Unfortunately, if you are closed to even the possibility of miracles existing, then one could happen before your eyes and you would search frantically for a coincidental, lucky, or "natural" rationalization. God reveals himself all the time, especially through the majesty and power of nature. There's a new book out by Lee Strobel called "The Case For a Creator"... I saw it for sale in Walmart yesterday. It's a very intellegent book by another former atheist like me, and I recommend it for reporting on the mounting evidence for an intelligent design. You'll have to weigh the evidence presented and judge for yourself if it constitutes as the "proof" of God's existence you're looking for.

I would welcome more intelligent and respectful dialogue on this subject. I am fallible, and I do not claim to know all the answers. But I do know have a personal relationship with God, and I'm happy to talk about him with you.


Posted by: Tom at September 21, 2004 1:24 PM

Michael Shermer did an excellent job in the LA Times this week, of showing how "miracles" are most like the result of poor reasoning about probabilities. I was on Strobel's show, but it will probably never air, because I was "debating" the most rude boor, Frank Pastore, who shouted over me the entire time. (What would Jesus do? Maybe exhibit some show of manners.) Frank, apparently, feels differently. If you search his name on my site, you'll find the item about it. On deadline, or I'd post the links to this and Shermer's piece. You can believe the tooth fairy talked to you if you want, but "just knowing" isn't proof...except, perhaps that you're gullible and irrational.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at September 21, 2004 1:40 PM

It seems to me that before anyone can argue about the existence or non-existence of something, that the something in question needs a definition, or recognizable defining traits. This is the one thing I have never gotten in a religious discussion. What is GOD, or a god?

Posted by: Eric at September 21, 2004 2:14 PM

The existence or non-existence of miracles is a fine way to debate this issue. I'd really love it if churches could reliably produce miracles (especially if it included turning water into Romane Conti AC '86). It ought to be a regular Sunday event.

Unfortunately, it isn't. Unfortunately, every Pope except the incumbent has died just like any other old geezer, despite the prayers of millions of the faithful.

Shame, ain't it Tom? It would make your position SO MUCH more tenable....

Posted by: Stu "El Ingls" Harris at September 21, 2004 5:31 PM

That an aging transsexual like me can still get laid every once in a while is actually quite miraculous. Thanks you Jesus, thank you Lord!

Posted by: Lena at September 21, 2004 6:46 PM

You have too much fun harshing people for this. Life is dark and hurtful, and people take solace where they can find it. Until something's done to alleviate the burdens of life, you shouldn't expect the analgesia of faith to be surrendered. And it's cruel to belittle the genuine comfort it affords.

Posted by: Crid at September 22, 2004 10:10 AM

"it's cruel to belittle the genuine comfort it affords"

Crid --

You make religious folk sound like they're harmless, apolitical lamby-pies who just want to be loved for who they really are. But it seems to me that they spend a good deal of time belittling non-religious people for seeking their own comforts and pleasures. When the religious big-mouths learn to shut the fuck up, so will we. Until then, we will periodically remind them of how offensive they really are.


Posted by: Lena at September 22, 2004 11:29 AM

> You make religious folk sound like they're harmless...

The vast majority are. In fact, they're better than harmless, they're principled. If you hung out with more of them, you'd know this. I learned it by growing up in Hillbilly Indiana (actually it was a lefty college town, but those fuckers were always crawling out of the forest and turning up at the courthouse for jury duty... And at the volunteer fire brigades when the world turned to hell... Get the picture?)

Building distance between ourselves and others is not just a function of culture: It's an INDULGENCE. You really enjoy imagining that Falwell represents the sincerest core of Christianity... Just as a punked-out middle-class white teenager enjoys rapping along in his blinged-out car, imagining that Tupac is the violent quintessence of American black life.

Lena, it's HOKEY, and it's wrong. Spend some more time with REAL CHRISTIANS in your neighborhood. You'll see two things. 1) Their lives have substantial pain. 2) You can nonetheless count on them when the shit hits the fan.

Posted by: Crid at September 22, 2004 12:26 PM

Hi Amy,

Thanks for the response. I'm sorry to hear that Frank Pastore was rude to you. I do think it's interesting that some Christians feel the need to "defend" God, whom they believe is omnipotent. You're absolutely right wih your poke at the cliche "WWJD" --many Christians don't live up to the standards that they value.

I didn't spend the $2.50 to read Shermer's LA Times article online, but I went to to familiarize myself with what you're referring to.

What I ascertained: Something that is highly improbable happens, and someone with wishful thinking draws a poor conclusion, touting it as proof for God.

I think that by definition, a miracle is something that specifically demonstrates the presence of God to a skeptic. Proof--the cogency of evidence that compels acceptance by the mind of a truth or a fact. You're right, "just knowing" isn't proof. Instead, I objectively weighed the evidence for and against God, and I was compelled to make a verdict. Since that decision, God has reinforced my convictions with supernatural experiences that I would refer to as my "testimony". So I know God exists from personal experience as well as from conclusive evidence. You may draw a different conclusion from the evidence, especially if your lens is skewed by the Christians you encounter who don't live up to their own standards and reinforce a sense of hypocrisy.

If God were only an analgesic to help me feel good, there would be no reason to stake my life and intellectual reputation on him. I would not die for a lie, but I would die for Christ.

Oh, I had no idea that people pray for the pope to live forever. Wouldn't that be a hoot? Idolizing another person is always going to disappoint.

Sorry for the long post.

Posted by: Tom at September 22, 2004 12:39 PM

Crid -- When did we start restricting this discussion to "real Christians"? And how do you know anything about the religious backgrounds of my friends? I actually have quite a few religious friends. I have attended religious services with some of them. I've chanted, I've prayed, and I've snorted heroin. My religious friends are very thoughtful, very special people -- just like my friends who are non-religious. I don't select friendships on the basis of religion, so I don't have to go anywhere to find them. Lena

Posted by: Lena at September 22, 2004 1:43 PM

"I would not die for a lie, but I would die for Christ."

Dear Heathcliff,

That's sounds very beautiful and dramatic, but what does it mean? If we're lucky, we'll die because we'll just be really old and sick. But enough with these foolish questions! Come, fill my arms with heather!


Posted by: Lena at September 22, 2004 8:57 PM

> When did we start restricting this
> discussion to "real Christians"?

It's just that there are more of those in our neighborhoods than Hindus.

> ...and I've snorted heroin.

??? Snark gets in the way.

> ...I don't select friendships on the basis of religion...


> [The religious] spend a good deal
> of time belittling non-religious
> people for seeking their own comforts
> and pleasures.

Your friends do this? It must be very distressing to you.

> When the religious big-mouths
> learn to shut the fuck up...

Do you tell such things to their face? It's all I ask.

This is straw-man argument... OF COURSE you don't speak to truly religious people with such sarcasm and bravado. If you did, they'd ignore you.


Posted by: Crid at September 22, 2004 9:50 PM

Actually, my religious friends think that my sarcasm and bravado are gifts from God.

Posted by: Lena at September 22, 2004 10:26 PM

Hi Lena,

What it means: I would die defending my faith. Let's say, for instance, that I were at Columbine High School and a trenchcoated guy stuck a gun in my face and asked me if I were a Christian, I would not lie even if it meant being killed. If I knew that Jesus were a fraud, I would not be willing to risk my life that way. Some of my closest friends declared me brianwashed when I converted. Nothing could be further from the truth (my decision to follow Jesus was quite cogent and absolutely of my own free will), but thinking that about me was the analgesic they needed at the time.

Nearly all the disciples--those who walked with Jesus on earth--died a "martyr's death". Killed because of their faith in Jesus--some brutally tortured. Why would they be willing to die defending Christ if they knew he was a fraud?

I hope this makes sense. Death is sobering, because I may die tomorrow. I do not fear it, though, because I will only fall asleep, to be reawakened at the resurrection.

Posted by: Tom at September 23, 2004 8:26 AM

Personally, I'd lie.

In an insane situation, such as Columbine, anybody who was not there is totally unrealistic, bombastic, and insincere to say what their reaction would be.

God (or evolution, whatever you choose) gave us a brain that encourages us to survive. Dying to make a point to a pair of psychotics is a waste, and seems to fly in the face of the morals Jesus preached, namely the value of life.

Course, when it comes to Jesus nowdays, I could be wrong.

Posted by: eric on the mountain at September 23, 2004 9:48 AM

Hi Eric,

I used that example because Rachel Joy Scott was murdered at Columbine for being a Christian. You're right, many people are all talk until they're in that situation. But I am sincere when I say I am willing to make the same choice she did. And her martyrdom was not a waste at all--the point she made is clear, but it was not necessarily made to her murderers. She did keep directly in line with Jesus' morals by acting the way she did. Life has value and purpose. As for survival, I'm glad that sacrificial love overrides it raises us above being animals.

Sorry to get bombastic--it's a topic close to my heart.

Posted by: Tom at September 23, 2004 10:20 AM

here's a blast from the past going out to all you misguided heathens who thought the guns were part of the problem:

Your laws ignore our deepest needs,
Your words are empty air.
You've stripped away our heritage,
You've outlawed simple prayer.

Now gunshots fill our classrooms,
And precious children die.
You seek for answers everywhere,
And ask the question "Why?"

You regulate restrictive laws,
Through legislative creed.
And yet you fail to understand,
That God is what we need!

Darrell Scott, father of Rachel Scott
27 May 1999 in D.C. before the House Judiciary Committee subcomittee on crime.

Tom- best of luck to you.

It is interesting that you bring up an example that clearly defines the void between science and religion.

I would say that human causes such as access to weapons, a faulty legal and mental health system, and a culture that presents resolution through violence in video game format were to blame.

This young lady who was gunned down is posthumously represented by those who argue that restricting prayer in public schools "opened the doors of hatred and violence".

Posted by: eric at September 23, 2004 11:49 AM

> I do not fear [death], though, because I will only > fall asleep, to be reawakened at the resurrection.

Really? It's a brass-bound, copper-bottomed, stone cold cert that you'll have no brain, no sense organs, no mind, no body. Under the circumstances, will "reawakened" have any useful meaning?

Posted by: Stu "El Ingls" Harris at September 23, 2004 5:35 PM

Hi Stu,

The "asleep" metaphor is used in several places, most notably 1st Corinthians 15. Paul uses a seed to teach the concept of how the resurrected body is different. The body of the plant that grows is not similar to the seed. "The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body." I don't know how God will create our new bodies to house our souls, but they will be substantively different from our mortal flesh. I love this line: "When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: 'Death has been swallowed up in victory.'" I look forward to that day.

Stu I hope this helps answer a little bit. We're only given a glimpse of it in the bible.

Posted by: Tom at September 23, 2004 11:46 PM

How convenient, for small human fears, to believe that something nice happens when you die. Of course, there is ZERO evidence of that. It's equivalent to believing that I was run over by a giant purple elephant yesterday. Nobody saw the elephant, I don't have a scratch on me. But you'd LIKE to believe it, and it's written in a big book of equally unbelieavable stories. More than likely, it's what physicist Tom Morse says: "When you die, your body goes from a highly organized state to a highly mushy one." A good reason to live life instead of sitting on a bench in church on Sunday, excercising your fear-based, primitive superstitions, no? Quite frankly, I'd be EMBARRASSED to "believe" in god, or in big purple elephants, and yet have the audacity to call myself sane and intelligent.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at September 24, 2004 3:25 AM

Hi Amy,

I can see your point of view. Seems rational on a superficial level that all there is to life is the physical, the material, the concrete. But whether you believe there's more or not is up to you. God doesn't force you to believe in him (good thing too). A relationship built on force isn't a love relationship. Yes, the stories in the bible are fantastic, and I'm glad there's overwhelming evidence for the historical accuracy of the documents (more so than any other ancient document). Spending Sunday in church is a very fulfilling use of time for me, BTW.

Well, gotta go. It's been fun.
Sane and intelligently yours,

Posted by: Tom at September 24, 2004 6:23 AM

Tom, there's zero evidence that there's a god. "Overwhelming evidence for the historical accuracy"? Please. You actually believe "god" parted the Red Sea and the Jews walked between the waves? Do you believe everything you read in Harry Potter, too? It's frightening that you so blithely defend your primitive thinking. The frightening thing is, if people can be told there's a god and believe it based on no proof, what happens when they're told to murder people "because god said so." You're tragically irrational. Clarence Darrow said it best.

"Just think of the tragedy of teaching children not to doubt."
-- Clarence Darrow

Of course, in an appropriately primitive manner, most religious people think they're "chosen" or "right" and everybody else will meet some heinous fate. Join the modern world and become a global, rational human being with ethics that don't originate in magical thought. The way you think is akin to going to a witch doctor to get your cancer removed. Plainly, simply, you're proud to be an idiot.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at September 24, 2004 7:04 AM

Hmmm- I bet Tom doesn't buy your book now.

Posted by: eric at September 24, 2004 3:43 PM

Gee, I thought the great thing about living in "the modern world" as we do is that we are free to believe what we want without the fear of being persecuted. I think the real "idiots" out there are those who browbeat others for their beliefs, instead of congratulating them and celebrating the fact that they have the conviction to hold fast to a belief. Tom, there are many days I doubt whether there is a God. That said, I applaud your strength of conviction and your willingness to be lambasted.

Posted by: Anne-Laure at September 25, 2004 3:36 PM

Was someone being persecuted? I thought that people came to forums like this because the argumentation and head-butting stimulated them in some way. A good thrashing builds character, strong teeth, and healthy bones. You don't need to protect Tom from the hostile heathens.

Posted by: Lena (in full fang) at September 25, 2004 3:56 PM

Hi Amy,

Thought I'd come back and read any follow-up postings. I agree with Lena that receiving insults does build character if you respond to that hatred with love. Jesus had a lot to teach on that subject.

Now, about historical accuracy: How do we know anything historically?
There is no "scientific" proof that Lincoln was the president. We cannot recreate him, bring him back to life or reproduce the experiment. We cannot calculate an equation that tells us that he was. But we can assert with a high degree of probability that Lincoln was indeed president and was assassinated in 1865. We do this by appealing to historical evidence. Many people saw Lincoln. We have some of his writings and even his picture, not to mention his face on our pennies. But none of this "proves", scientifically that Lincoln ever lived or was the president.

The kind of evidence used in historical research is the same used in a court of law. In a courtroom case certain kinds of evidences are appealed to in order to determine what exactly happened, eyewitnesses are questioned, motives are examined, and physical evidence is scrutinized such as fingerprints or journal writings.

The evidence we have for Christ's life, death, and resurrection is not as great as that for Lincoln, nor as recent, but it is better than we have that Plato ever lived, or Homer, or many historical figures that we take for granted.

The Bible is a reliable historical document. Its accuracy has been proved numerous times. Its historical inaccuracy has never been demonstrated. Unlike Harry Potter, a deliberate work of fiction, I approach the Bible with confidence that it was intended to be a historical document, and that it records what actually happened, incredible as the events might seem. Yes, I do believe that God parted the Red Sea because that's what the Bible records as happening. One thing I find interesting is that for many years afterward, God talked about that event to remind them not to doubt Him. Years had faded the memory, especially for the next generation who crossed on dry land at a very young age, or perhaps were born afterward. They had no more physical evidence than I do. But it was not just a very low probability of happening...there was no chance the Red Sea would part on its own at that moment. That truly is absurd.

Anyway, I'm sorry that my thinking frightens you, Amy. It is possible to be wrong, and I am willing to admit that. That's why people talk about "faith" when they talk about their beliefs. There is no faith without the existence of doubt. Charles Darrow's statement has good insight, but healthy doubt is based on something more substantial than fear or a hatred toward religion. Do you ever doubt your own beliefs? You do have beliefs, by the way, and your faith statement is "there's zero evidence that there's a god." I guess we'll find out who's right when we die. In the meantime, feel free to attack my character and my ability to reason instead of the points I make. You will only perpetuate the logical fallacy of Ad Hominem.

P.S. Anne-Laure, thanks for the compliments. I pray that if you seek God, you find and are found by Him.

Posted by: Tom at October 4, 2004 12:45 PM

I'm new to this discussion, but I'm curious about your statement "The Bible is a reliable historical document." Which version is the reliable one? There seem to be quite a few differing ones.

I can't say I believe in God either, but absence any "reliable" proof I'll just have to remain skeptical. It is comforting to know, though, that if God actually does exist, he made me this way. So I guess I please him, right? Or is he actually "her"?

Posted by: Steve at November 10, 2004 11:31 AM